Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Blueprint reading (1919)


From Blueprint reading; a practical manual of instruction in blueprint reading through the analysis of typical plates with reference to mechanical drawing conventions and methods, the laws of projection, etc (HERE)

Chinese Sage Reading While Riding on a Buffalo (c1820)


Chinese Sage Reading While Riding on a Buffalo (c1820)

By Totoya Hokkei (1780–1850)

From HERE.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Excavations at Roman Corbridge: the Hoard (1988)



The diagram above is taken from a document written by L Allason-Jones and MC Bishop, and published in 1988 by English Heritage. The Roman site of Corbridge was excavated in annual seasons, partly as a training school run by the University of Durham, from 1947 to 1973. These investigations were mainly devoted to the examination of the remains of a series of forts which occupied the central portion of the later Roman town of Corbridge from about AD 80 to 163. The most remarkable single find, uncovered in July 1964, was the Corbridge 'hoard', pictured above. The armour discovered in the Corbridge Hoard was described in a book by H Russell Robinson The Armour of Imperial Rome (1975). Interest in the armour overshadowed the fact that the chest contained other objects of great interest. This volume is a definitive publication of all known objects from the Corbridge Hoard.   (HERE)

Thursday, 2 July 2020

You can’t understand (1977)



In 1977, the expat British writer Alan Booth (1946 - 1993) walked the length of Japan from North to South, from Cape Soya to Cape Sata. Booth wrote a wonderful memoir of his long (128 days and 3,000 kilometres) and insightful journey called The Roads to Sata. At the end of the book, Booth recounts an encounter he had with an old man in Hokkaido during the early part of his walk. 

The old man tells Booth that, not only could he not understand Japan by living in Tokyo, ‘You can’t understand Japan just by looking at it’. Booth goes on to explain that he is not looking like a tourist would, but also walking, and talking to people, whilst he was walking. The old man explains that Booth can’t understand Japan by walking or talking. In the end, Booth asks the old man; 
‘How do you suggest I try to understand Japan, then?’
He seemed surprised by the question, and a little hurt, and a little angry. ‘You can’t understand Japan’, he said.


Forget any false sense of security


HERE is an excellent opinion piece in The Guardian on the COVID pandemic by Jeremy Farrar - the Director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest non-governmental funder of scientific research.

It ends:
In the past six months we have learned a huge amount about Covid-19. We are getting better at treating this disease, and mortality rates have come down, but there is no avoiding the enormity of the task ahead of us. The longer we wait, the worse the damage will be. We are still at the start of this pandemic and there is only one exit strategy – interventions that change the fundamentals of infection, transmission and illness. We must learn from the first six months of the pandemic, redouble our efforts and continue to act together.



Ashes to Ashes, Eel to Eel (2020)


As a teenager, I spent many sunday afternoons happily fishing on the Shropshire Union canal. My favourite fish were crucian carp. My least favourite were eels (Anguilla anguilla). At the time I never knew how strange their full life-cycle was, or how they had been a mainstay of uncanny (unheimlich) literature. HERE is an extract from The Book of Eels, by Patrik Svensson - translated by Agnes Broomé. The extract describes a number of stories involving eels - this is what Svensson says about Waterland by Graham Swift:
Toward the end, Tom Crick tells his students about the eel itself. About the eel question and its scientific history, with all its guesswork and mysteries and misunderstandings. About Aristotle and the theory of the eel springing from mud. About Linnaeus, who thought the eel was self-propagating. About the famous Comacchio eel, about Mondini’s discovery and Spallanzani’s questioning of it. About Johannes Schmidt and his dogged search for the eel’s birthplace. About the curiosity that drove them all. This is what the eel can teach us, Tom Crick argues. It tells us something about the curiosity of humankind, about our unquenchable need to seek the truth and understand where everything comes from and what it means. But also about our need for mystery. “Now there is much the eel can tell us about curiosity—rather more indeed than curiosity can inform us of the eel.”

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Dread Beat an' Blood (1978)


Dread Beat an' Blood is the first album by the brilliant Linton Kwesi Johnson. I bought it when it came out in 1978. It remains one of my favourite reggae albums, a perfect mix of Johnson's poetry and words, and Dennis Bovell's dub vision.

One of the poems that Johnson wishes he had written is Poem of Shape and Motion #1 by the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, which begins:

I was wondering if I could shape this passion
just as I wanted in solid fire.
I was wondering if the strange combustion
of my days
the tension of the world inside of me
and the strength of my heart were enough.

Computers and Society (1985)




Below from an interview with Prof Joseph Weizenbaum from the MIT The Tech paper in 1985 (HERE). 

It is true that a computer, for example, can be used for good or evil. It is true that a helicopter can be used as a gunship and it can also be used to rescue people from a mountain pass. And if the question arises of how a specific device is going to be used, in what I call an abstract ideal society, then one might very well say one cannot know.

But we live in a concrete society, [and] with concrete social and historical circumstances and political realities in this society, it is perfectly obvious that when something like a computer is invented, then if it is going to be adopted it will be for military purposes. It follows from the concrete realities in which we live, it does not follow from pure logic. But we’re not living in an abstract society, we’re living in the society in which we in fact live.

If you look at the enormous fruits of human genius that mankind has developed in the last 50 years, atomic energy and rocketry and flying to the moon and coherent light, and it goes on and on and on – and then it turns out that every one of these triumphs is used primarily in military terms. So it is not reasonable for a scientist or technologist to insist that he or she does not know – or cannot know – how it is going to be used.

 

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication


Basecamp are a software company. HERE is their philosophy and approach to communication within their company.

Communication often interrupts, so good communication is often about saying the right thing at the right time in the right way with the fewest side effects.


Saturday, 27 June 2020

The Moon at Sodegaura in Shinagawa from the series Six Views of Tokyo



By the artist Nakamura Fusetsu, 中村 不折 (1866–1943). From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (HERE).

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Paris Experiment (2012)



HERE is an excellent documentary about The Paris Experiment. In September of 2012, a historic test took place in Paris, which involved some of the worlds finest violins and violinists. It was a proper double blind comparison of very old and fine violins versus new high-quality violins, in concert hall settings. 


On Translationese (2020)


HERE is a short essay in The Paris Review by the writer Masatsugo Ono, about his early reading of two Japanese authors - Murakami and Oe, both of whom had styles that Japanese critics had called 'translationese'. It recounts how Murakami wrote his first novel in English, and then translated it into Japanese. In passing it tells of the wider influences that French, German, and English language writing (mainly American) has had on modern Japanese literature. 

"The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). I was already familiar with him as a master of short essays. My landlady had the bad (or good?) habit of reading books in the bathroom, and Murakami’s essays were among her favorites. One day, she handed me a collection she had finished. In these essays, he writes about literature and music and even cooking in such a natural way that it feels as though he’s addressing the reader personally. Something delightful and friendly in his style fascinated me (it’s a shame that those early essays of his haven’t been published in English). I couldn’t say how exactly, but I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all". 

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Principles of Graphical Excellence (1983)


Prof. Edward Tufte has been busy for more than 50 years on the development of evidence based methods for policy and science - primarily through honing the use of graphical methods. From 1983's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is this set of principles - expanded, developed, and elaborated over another four books ever since.

Image Copyright E.R. Tufte.
 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey (2020)



A wonderful short story (HERE) by Haruki Murakami in The New Yorker, of the authors experience of meeting a well educated and polite monkey at a hot-spring. Here is what the Shinagawa monkey thinks about love:
'I believe that love is the indispensable fuel for us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source, a person’s heart—and a monkey’s heart, too—would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland. A place where not a ray of sunlight falls, where the wildflowers of peace, the trees of hope, have no chance to grow. Here in my heart, I treasure the names of those seven beautiful women I loved.' The monkey laid a palm on his hairy chest. 'I plan to use these memories as my own little fuel source to burn on cold nights, to keep me warm as I live out what’s left of my own personal life'.

The monkey in the story is a Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) - an Old world monkey that is native to Japan. For comprehensive information on this species, including its rare ability to talk, see this 'Systematic review of Japanese macaques, Macaca fuscata', HERE.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (1976)



One of the wonderful things about the physical sciences is that with a small number of compact ‘laws’, plus some basic commitments to logical thinking, we can understand how the physical universe works. This is well illustrated with Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which states that: ‘every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres’. 

This law is sufficient to explain why the coffee you spilt this morning will drop to the floor, and also why our solar system (‘…the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it’), has remained turning for the past 4.6 billion years. Note that the ‘laws of physics’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.

In the social sciences, the state of affairs is generally not so clear-cut. However, after many years of looking, I believe that there are a few ‘laws of social science’ that have a near universal domain. The first, is of course the Law of the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action, first promulgated as such by Robert K Merton in 1936. The second is a set of linked ‘laws’, called The basic laws of human stupidity, which were developed by the Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922 - 2000), and first published in 1976. Both of these laws bring to my mind the same kind of universality as Newton’s law of gravity - and also act both for tiny individual ‘purposive social actions’, and also for human follies which unfold on a monumental and disastrous scale. 

Cipolla defines two factors which need to be evaluated when considering a pattern of human behaviour, (i) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself, and (ii) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to others.  These factors are in principle orthogonal, objective, and quantitative, and Cipolla enumerates and names the four possibilities. Using a simple notation, of + to indicate benefits and - to indicate losses, and S for self, O for others, Cipolla’s four behavioural patterns are: Helpless (S-/O+), Bandit (S+/O-), Intelligent (S+/O+), and Stupid (S-/O-). (As an aside, we can now also see that the famous 'win-win scenario' often talked about by management school professors and negotiators, is nothing other than the intelligent pattern of behaviour described by Cipolla i.e.
S+/O+).
 
This leads us nicely to Cipolla’s definition of stupidity (it is actually his 3rd law): ‘A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses’. This definition makes it clear that ‘stupidity’ is not here used as an insult, but rather as a well-defined behavioural pattern in terms of the economic and social effects of a ‘purposive social action’. In my opinion, this definition and the laws that follow from it, are best seen as a way to extend Merton’s Law - the ‘purposive social actions’ which we all make, have one of these four consequences.  Note that these ‘laws of social science’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.

Now we can consider Cipolla’s five fundamental laws of stupidity:

1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.


2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.


3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.


4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.


5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

A nice edition of Cipolla's very short book was recently published by W.H. Allen (Here). 


I believe that it would be a real help for the world if this slim book, and the well-defined and understandable laws which it contains, was a foundational text for high-school students. How much better I would have dealt with life as a young man, if I had been in command of such a clear and objective framework to evaluate not only the behaviour of other people, but more importantly my own behaviour. With these laws in mind, we can adhere to a perfectly rational moral code which is unencumbered by religious trimmings. Simply put, not only should we avoid stupidity in others, we should endeavour to live a life in which we try at all times to minimise our own stupidity.