Thursday, 13 July 2017

Good Morning America (1928)

Frontispiece art by W.A. Dwiggins for Carl Sandburg’s Good Morning America (Crosby Gaige, 1928). From the Dwiggins Twitter feed. 

The Story of Books (2017)

HERE is the website of a new working museum of books, with a physical base in Hay on Wye. The founder Emma Balch says: "My vision was for a working museum with a college-like space, where experts could pass on their skills, working cross-generationally."


Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Pentagon Tiling Proof (2017)

A great piece HERE in Quanta magazine on how the French mathematician Michaël Rao has used a computer aided approach to complete the classification of convex polygons that tile the plane by solving the problem for pentagons. 

Le Conte Pear (1901)

A watercolour image of a specimen of the Le Conte variety of pears (Pyrus communis). Painted by Bertha Heiges in 1901. For more beautiful images like this see the vast collection at the USDA Pomological Watercolors collection HERE.

IMAGE: U.S. Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection. Rare and Special Collections, National Agricultural Library, Beltsville, MD 20705

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Old House at Home (1940)

The American journalist Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was one of the outstanding non-fiction prose writers of the USA. Between 1938 and 1964 he worked at the New Yorker creating brilliantly observed profiles of people he met in New York. Between 1964 and 1996 he continued to work at the New Yorker but never wrote another piece again.

One of his most famous pieces is The Old House at Home, first published in the New Yorker in 1940 (HERE). It is a long, brilliantly detailed, and affectionate profile of McSorley's Old Ale House, which opened at 15 East 7th Street, New York city in 1854.

HERE is a recently published, unfinished piece by Mitchell. 

In 2015, a biography of Mitchell called Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of  The New Yorker written by Thomas Kunkel was published. A review of the book in the NYRB is HERE.

Image: McSorley's Bar (1912) by John French Sloan.


Clockwright (2017)

Rick Hale is a clockmaking artist who lives in Kalamazoo Michigan. He makes fantastic large clocks from wood. His site is HERE.

Artist's Statement
I've learned most of what I know through reading old books on mechanical engineering, clockmaking, physics, & art.

Each of my timepieces is crafted from Michigan hardwoods, brass, & stone over the course of about 400 hours. I make a special effort to pay homage to the best work of the best clockmakers of the 18th century—Especially that of my favorite clockmaker, the legendary John Harrison.

In combining two ancient traditions—clockmaking & woodwrighting—I'm trying to change the way feel & process the flow of time. Time is hard on living things as it passes, surging endlessly out of the future & into the past. We've all felt it. Gentle, silent, ceaseless destruction, the slow, entropic loss of information & physical form. It's why many of us create. It's why we learn, teach, cultivate, persist. It's why we work through the night, rage quietly, methodically, against oblivion. It's why this wood sways again in the light of day, speaks again in the soft, creaking language of trees—alive, despite the wreckage.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Nothing Lasts Forever (1997)

HERE is a great piece in the Guardian on ten of the best songs by Echo and the Bunnymen (aka The Greatest Rock Band of All Time). I first saw Echo & the Bunnymen in 1979, supporting The Teardrop Explodes at Chester Arts Centre. They had just released their first single The Pictures on my Wall. The band had yet to recruit a drummer and were still using a rudimentary drum machine for backing (legend has it that this was Echo).

The list includes Nothing Lasts Forever, my own favourite Bunnymen track (released in 1997 when they got back together after a split, which they called the greatest comeback ever).

I want it now
I want it now
Not the promises of what tomorrow brings
I need to live in dreams today
I'm tired of the song that sorrow sings
And I want more than I can get
Just trying to, trying to, trying to forget
I'd walk to you through rings of fire
And never let you know the way I feel
Under skin is where I hide
The love that always gets me on my knees
And I want more than I can get
Just trying to, trying to, trying to forget
Nothing ever lasts forever
Nothing ever lasts forever
Nothing ever lasts forever
Nothing ever lasts forever

Will Sergeant/ Les Pattinson / Ian McCulloch
Lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Pulchritude (2008)


A paradoxical noun because it means beauty but is itself one of the ugliest words in the language. Same goes for the adjectival form pulchritudinous. They’re part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the very opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adjective), colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others; there are at least a dozen more. Inviting your school-age kids to list as many paradoxical words as they can is a neat way to deepen their relationship to English and help them see that words are both symbols for things and very real things themselves.

By David Foster Wallace.
The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus  2nd Edition

Image from The Book of Spice by Wallace Irwin (1875- 1959) published in 1906 (HERE).

On Revision (2012)

The American writer and literary critic Michael Dirda (b 1948), writes for the Washington Post amongst others. In 1993 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book reviews. HERE is Browsings, his collection of short pieces for the American Scholar that have subsequently been collected into a volume. There is also a very entertaining piece about his book collecting habits HERE

Below is a small exerpt from a Browsings piece called Books on Books:

These days, The Paris Review has repackaged its long-running series of conversations with authors, and even made them available online. I’m glad for this, and yet the original Writers at Work volumes, especially the first three, possessed a magic all their own. As a teenager, I virtually memorized my paperback editions, greedy for insider tips about the literary life. Pound, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Colette, Waugh—they were all there. What has stuck with me the most over the years is their almost universal insistence on the importance of revision, of revising and revising again.  

Image of Thomas Burke from The Glory That Was Grub Street (HERE)

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The One Law of Robotics: Humans Must Flourish (2017)

A good piece HERE in the BBC news on the report published today by the Royal Society and British Academy on Data Management and Governance.

Above a two page spread describing the Coelition approach - full report HERE.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Madly singing in the mountains (1970).

Arthur Waley (1889-1966) was a fascinating English scholar who made a living from translating classical Chinese and Japanese poetry and literature into English, though he couldn't speak modern Chinese or Japanese and never visited the countries (Bio HERE). 

In 1970 Ivan Morris pubished Madly singing in the mountains; an appreciation and anthology of Arthur Waley. From Intent of Courtesy, a piece by Carmen Blacker in the book:

The feeling that Arthur’s death had taken us into a world where there moved forces and concatenations bigger than those we encounter in our ordinary existence continued when, a fortnight later, I called at the house in Highgate to see Alison. She took me up to the room where he had died. A great peace filled it and I marveled at such serenity in the place where such pain had been suffered. ‘I have changed nothing,’ she said. ‘But that chair by the window wasn’t green, was it?’ I asked. ‘Oh, that,” she replied. ‘Yes, funny how the creeper has come in.’ I looked again. Through the window left open since he died the creeper had burst in like a lion. It had entirely covered the armchair with a thick coat of green leaves. It had flung tendrils across an entire wall. It had seized the long curtain and twined itself tightly round it in a spiral grip from floor to ceiling. It was as though the world of nature had flung itself into the room, and I thought of the swarms of bees which sometimes alight on the graves of saints or the birds which descend at the funerals of great men. That Arthur should have received this oblation seemed entirely fitting.


Data Deluge Stamp Collection (2017)

Monday, 26 June 2017

All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975)

I am everyman and no man, and will be so to the end. This is why I must tell the story as I may. Not for the nameless name upon the page, not for the trails behind me that faded or led nowhere, ... not for the confusion of where I was to go, or if I had a destiny recognisable by any start. No, in retrospect it was the loneliness of not knowing, not knowing at all.
Loren Eiseley in All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975).

The above piece is cited in a book on Loren Eiseley's "concealed essay" genre of science based writings in Toward a Dialogue of Understandings: Loren Eiseley and the Critique of Science by Mary Ellen Pitts.

More on Eiseley HERE.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Haboku-Sansui (1495)

The masterpiece of the Japanese monochrome brush and ink artist Sesshū Tōyō.

Artificial Mondrian (1966)

Hiroshi Kawano (1925-1961) was a Chinese born Japanese philosopher who was a pioneer in digital art. There is a selection of his work HERE, and a good piece on him HERE.

Cassini's Lunar Map (1679)


Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Architecture without Architects (1964)

The commune of Anticoli Corrado in the Sabine mountains near Rome. From Architecture without Architects, A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, by Bernard Rudofsky, Academy Editions London, 1964.

Architectual Space As a Network (2012)

A spatial map of Tokyo, from a 2012 presentation given by Dr Kerstin Sailer of UCL (HERE). Caption: Tokyo with its fairly strong centre, strong radials and strong laterals, generating the strong sub-city structure characteristic of Tokyo.

Image Copyright Bill Hillier et al. 

The Trouble With Macroeconomics (2016)

Full paper available HERE.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Data Analysis for Politics and Policy (1974)

Below, from the under-used, but excellent, textbook by Edward Tufte:  Data Analysis for Politics and Policy (Prentice Hall: 1974)

One final point about the relationship between causal inference and statistical analysis. Statistical techniques do not solve any of the common-sense difficulties about making causal inferences. Such techniques may help organize or arrange the data so that the numbers speak more clearly to the question of ausality - but that is all statistical techniques can do. All the logical, theoretical, and empirical difficulties attendnant to establishing a causal relationship persist no matter what type of statistical analysis is applied. "There is," as Thurber moralized, "no safety in numbers, or in anything else."


Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (1940)


A large spider in an old house built a beautiful web in which to catch flies. Every time a fly landed on the web and was entangled in it the spider devoured him, so that when another fly came along he would think the web was a safe and quiet place to rest. One day a fairly intelligent fly buzzed around above the web so long without lighting that the spider appeared and said, "Come on down." But the fly was too clever for him and said, "I never light where I don't see other flies and I don't see other flies in your house." So he flew away until he came to a place where there were a great many other flies. He was about to settle down among them when a bee buzzed up and said, "Hold it, stupid, that's flypaper. All those flies are trapped." "Don't be silly," said the fly, "they're dancing." So he settled down and became stuck to the flypaper with all the other flies.

Moral: There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else.
By James Thurber.  
Originally in The New Yorker 4th February 1939 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens (2017)

An excellent and significant paper in Nature on the latest findings on the early history of Homo sapiens (HERE).

Monday, 5 June 2017

The Grinder (2017)

A short film HERE, about Brian Alcock, the last self employed grinder in Sheffield.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Adventures of Jack Engle (1852 / 2017)

HERE is a great piece in the Paris Review on the digital literary scholarship that led to the discovery of a previously unknown Walt Whitman novel by Zachary Turpin. The article includes a fantastic three part categorisation of literary researchers into three types: the archive rats (These chain-smoking, type-A cranks entered an archival collection, knew precisely the evidence they needed, and did everything but ransack the place to find it); the curious browsers (laid-back dreamers with a loosely generalized notion about what they sought.) and the surgical strikers (Soulless but engineered for accuracy.)


Friday, 26 May 2017

The Book of Dust (2017)

The Guardian has an extract from Phillip Pullman's new trilogy The Book of Dust (HERE). A treat in store for later this year.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Tuning into the god frequency (2017)

An interview in the Guardian with DJ Shadow on his sources of musical inspiration (HERE).

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Drums are One Instrument. Drumset = You.

A great piece on drum handbooks in The Paris Review HERE.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Python: An Ecosystem for Scientific Computing (2011)

This paper (HERE), makes a fairly compelling argument that the Python programming language, and the ecosytem that has developed over the past ten years around it, is now an excellent choice for general purpose professional scientific computing for real world applications.

After spending a few days trying to teach myself Python from scratch, and succeeding, I would agree.

Below. My Coding Life

* I originally learned to write computer code on a Sinclair ZX81 in BASIC.

From 1989 to 1999:

* I learnt how to write macros in Lotus-123.
* I began doing serious data analysis in FORTRAN 77.
* Then graduated to ANSI C.
* I wrote thousands of lines of C for my PhD.
* I learnt IDL in 1998.

Then I had a nearly 15 year hiatus of next to no code writing (but dabbled with R).

* Now I have begun to understand Python. 

Here is a pretty good introduction to scientific computing in Python by Robert Johansson.

Monday, 8 May 2017

The United States: A Graphic History (1937)

The United States: A Graphic History (1937). Text by Louis M. Hacker. Pictorial statistics by Rudolf Modley. Statistical research by George R. Taylor. 

The United States: A Graphic History is a work in the economic history of the United States; but it is not written for the specialist or specifically for the class room. It has been prepared for the literate adult American in a vocabulary which, it is expected, will not be the despair of those who have not had university educations. Its text is brief - it is not more than 60, 000 worde in length. The visual aids employed, pictorial statistics in this case, are an intergral part of the book rather than simply as illustrative material. Mechanically, the book is everything one might wish; its type-faces are clear and easy to read; the book's bulk is not excessive; and its price is low.

From HERE.

The mechanism and graphic registration of the heart beat (1920)

Figure 22: Photograph of a subject as connected for observation. The two arms and the left leg are used, and curves are taken from the three leads which are represented by the arrows drawn upon the figure. The zinc sulphate is placed in the outer vessels of the electrodes shown in this figure. 

The Mechanism and Graphic Registration of the Heart Beat (1920) by Sir Lewis Thomas. 


Figures and Descriptions of the Fishes of Japan (1911)

Figures and descriptions of the fishes of Japan : including Riukiu Islands, Bonin Islands, Formosa, Kurile Islands, Korea, and southern Sakhalin. By Shigeo Tanaka.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Makura Bridge over the Sumida River

By Hokusai. From HERE.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

King of Infinite Space (2000)

A great short piece by Pico Iyer HERE on his stay at Tawaraya, a 300 year old traditional Japanese Inn (Ryokan) in central Kyoto.

British sea-weeds (1872)

Drawn by Margaret Gatty. Full book HERE.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

On the Production, Properties, and some suggested Uses of the Finest Threads. (1887)

Image copyright M.G. Reed 2017. Original description of the method of forming very fine quartz fibres from HERE and from Boys' paper in 1887 HERE.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Shell (Conus Marmoreus) - (1650)

Rembrandt -  The Shell (Conus Marmoreus), 1650

Modern Dog Breed Development (2017)

A great paper HERE that uses genomic analysis to understand the large phenotypic variability observed in 160 breeds of modern dogs. 

The abstract:

There are nearly 400 modern domestic dog breeds with a unique histories and genetic profiles. To track the genetic signatures of breed development, we have assembled the most diverse dataset of dog. breeds, reflecting their extensive phenotypic variation and heritage. Combining genetic distance, migration, and genome-wide haplotype sharing analyses, we uncover geographic patterns of development and independent origins of common traits.  Our analyses reveal the hybrid history of breeds and elucidate the effects of immigration, revealing for the first time a suggestion of New World dog within some modern breeds. Finally, we used cladistics and haplotype sharing to show that some common traits have arisen more than once in the history of the dog. These analyses characterize the complexities of breed development, resolving longstanding questions regarding individual breed origination, the effect of migration on geographically distinct breeds, and, by inference, transfer of trait and disease alleles among dog breeds.

Abandoned Dust Bowl Home (1935-1940)

By Dorothea Lange. From the J. Paul Getty Museum collection of Open Content Collection (HERE)

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Image of a spherical black hole with thin accretion disk (1979)

A great article on imaging black-holes HERE.

On Growth and Form (1917)

D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's master work On Growth and Form is 100 years old. A tribute HERE from Nature Physics and a website on planned celebrations HERE

Fixational Eye Movements and Perception (2017)

Normal human vision is an unbelievably complex and sophisticated thing. Here is a special issue of Vision Research on one tiny component of vision - fixational eye movements and perception:

During viewing of a stationary scene, rapid gaze shifts, known as saccades, occur every few hundreds of milliseconds. Saccades separate fixations, the periods of apparent eye immobility in which visual information is acquired and processed. Close inspection of oculomotor activity in these periods reveals, however, that the very world “fixation” is misleading: small eye movements incessantly occur in the inter-saccadic intervals, suggesting an even deeper coupling between visual functions and oculomotor activity. These gaze shifts come in different varieties and are collectively known as fixational eye movements. Although humans are normally not aware of making them, they displace the retinal image at speeds that would be clearly visible had the motion originated from the visual scene rather than the observer.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Calculus Made Easy (1914)

 The first two pages of Calculus Made Easy - second editon 1914, by Silvanus Thompson FRS (1851-1916).  The full book is HERE.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Earth Between the Rings of Saturn (April 2017)

This is an image captured by the Cassini mission to Saturn. The spacecraft captured the image on April 12, 2017, when it was 1.4 billion kilometres away from the Earth. 

Original image and further details HERE.  

Natural Science (1973)

Natural Science. Lewis Thomas
From New England Journal Medicine 288 pp 307-308 February 8, 1973.
I don't know of any other human occupation, even including what I have seen of art, in which the people engaged in it are so caught up, so totally preoccupied, so driven beyond their strength and resources. 

Scientists at work have the look of creatures following genetic instructions; they seem to be under the influence of a deeply placed human instinct. They are, despite their efforts at dignity, rather like young animals engaged in savage play. When they are near to an answer their hair stands on end, they sweat, they are awash in their own adrenalin. To grab the answer, and grab it first, is for them a more powerful drive than feeding or breeding or protecting themselves against the elements.

It sometimes looks like a lonely activity, but it is as much the opposite of lonely as human behavior can be. There is nothing so social, so communal, and so interdependent. An active field of science is like an immense intellectual anthill; the individual almost vanishes into the mass of minds tumbling over each other, carrying information from place to place, passing it around at the speed of light.

There are special kinds of information that seem to be chemotactic. As soon as a trace is released, receptors at the back of the neck are caused to tremble, there is a massive convergence of motile minds flying upwind on a gradient of surprise, crowding around the source. It is an infiltration of intellects, an inflammation.

There is nothing to touch the spectacle. In the midst of what seems a collective derangement of minds in total disorder, with bits of information being scattered about, torn to shreds, disintegrated, deconstituted, engulfed, in a kind of activity that seems as random and agitated as that of bees in a disturbed part of the hive, there suddenly emerges, with the purity of a slow phrase of music, a single new piece of truth about nature.

In short, it works. It is the most powerful and productive of the things human beings have learned to do together in many centuries, more effective than farming, or hunting and fishing, or building cathedrals, or making money. It is instinctive behavior, in my view, and I do not understand how it works.

It cannot be prearranged in any precise way; the minds cannot be lined up in tidy rows and given directions from printed sheets. You cannot get it done by instructing each mind to make this or that piece, for central committees to fit with the pieces made by the other instructed minds. It does not work this way.

What it needs is for the air to be made right. If you want a bee to make honey, you do not issue protocols on solar navigation or carbohydrate chemistry, you put him together with other bees (and you'd better do this quickly, for solitary bees do not stay alive) and you do what you can to arrange the general environment around the hive. If the air is right, the science will come in its own season, like pure honey.

Image from HERE.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Science has taken a turn towards Darkness (2015)

Many members of the British public will be under the impression that the billions of pounds of their taxes that are spent every year by UK Government agencies on biomedical science, is money well spent. Apparently, the reality is in fact quite the opposite.

HERE is a frankly shocking editorial by Dr Richard Horton Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, the 55 year old Editor of The Lancet, one of the world's top medical journals.

In this piece, Horton describes a cosy meeting held under the Chatham House rule at the Wellcome Trust in April 2015 with some of the UK's top funders of biomedical science; the BBSRC, the MRC and the Wellcome Trust. 

Two of these agencies are handsomely paid for by the UK Government, with the aim of funding the highest quality basic biomedical science. In 2015/2016 the BBSRC spent £473 Million and the MRC £927.8 Million. Every penny of which was derived from UK tax payers.  

Here is what Horton has to say:

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”. The Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Research Council, and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council have now put their reputational weight behind an investigation into these questionable research practices. The apparent endemicity of bad research behaviour is alarming. In their quest for telling a compelling story, scientists too often sculpt data to fit their preferred theory of the world. Or they retrofit hypotheses to fit their data. Journal editors deserve their fair share of criticism too. We aid and abet the worst behaviours. Our acquiescence to the impact factor fuels an unhealthy competition to win a place in a select few journals. Our love of “significance” pollutes the literature with many a statistical fairy-tale. We reject important confirmations. Journals are not the only miscreants. Universities are in a perpetual struggle for money and talent, endpoints that foster reductive metrics, such as high-impact publication. National assessment procedures,such as the Research Excellence Framework, incentivise bad practices. And individual scientists, including their most senior leaders, do little to alter a research culture that occasionally veers close to misconduct. 

Dr Horton then goes on to say:

Can bad scientific practices be fixed? Part of the problem is that no-one is incentivised to be right. Instead, scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative. 

This is shameful. No scientist should need to be incentivised to be right. Science, if it is anything at all, is all about being right. Meaning in this case: seeking to understand the truth about nature and natural phenomena.

The sponsors of the symposium that Horton attended in April 2015 have published the outcomes of the symposium, an action plan and an update on progress HERE. Perhaps, in years to come, the next editor of The Lancet may be able to write an opinion piece which describes a situation in bio medical science that is very different than today's: A turn away from darkness.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Green Lane (2017)

Image Copyright M.G. Reed 2017

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Art of Teaching Science (1982)

The Art of Teaching Science by Lewis Thomas HERE.

The conclusions reached in science are always, when looked at closely, far more provisional and tentative than are most of the assumptions arrived at by our colleagues in the humanities. But we do not talk much in public about this, nor do we teach this side of science. We tend to say instead: These are the facts of the matter, and this is what the facts signify. Go and learn them, for they will be the same forever. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Case of the Floppy-Eared Rabbits (1958)

Here is a superb paper from 1958 by Bernard Barber and Renée C. Fox; The Case of the Floppy-Eared Rabbits: An Instance of Serendipity Gained and Serendipity Lost.


Two distinguished medical scientists independently observed the same phenomenon in the course of their research: reversible collapse of rabbits' ears after injection of the enzyme papain. One went on to make a discovery based on this serendipitous or chance occurrence; the other did not. Intensive tandem interviews were conducted with each of these scientists in order to discover similarities and differences in their experiences with the floppy-eared rabbits. These interview materials are analyzed for the light they shed on the process of scientific discovery in general and on the serendipity pattern in particular.

More on Lewis Thomas and his observations HERE.

Cornish, New Hampshire (1961)

Here is a brilliant essay in the Paris Review about an incident in 1961 when an unemployed actor tracked down J.D. Salinger.


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