Tuesday, 13 March 2018

The Long Game (2018)

For more than 200 years, geologists have been trying to build a clear understanding of the processes that have built the physical geography of the Earth since it formed about 4,500 million years ago. Some of these processes are very gradual, such as the deposition of sedimentary rock, and others such as volcanic eruptions are catastrophic. The timescale over which these geological processes happen are long. Really long. Our common language is not good at describing things that are much bigger, smaller, longer or shorter lived than we can directly experience as humans. We have no adequate language for the inordinately long time scales of the Earth's history. 

To deal with this, geologists have developed the concept of deep time: an extended time scale in which the smallest unit of time is a million years. One of the most memorable metaphors that relates deep time to the full extent of human existence was provided by the American writer John McPhee (b. 1931) in an essay in The New Yorker magazine, later published in book form as Basin and Range:

Consider the Earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.

Within the minuscule portion of time that humans have been alive on Earth, how can we orient ourselves? 

One way is suggested by an American not-for-profit organisation called the Long Now Foundation, which seeks `...to provide a counterpoint to today's accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common'. As part of this mission, they define three time scales. Now; yesterday, today, tomorrow, Nowadays; last decade, this decade, next decade and, The Long Now, which is twenty thousand years long, from 8,000 BC to 12,000 CE (HERE).  

Unfortunately, The Long Now is much too long to relate to the important processes of human social life such as innovation (and births, marriages and deaths).  It is useful to have a more natural unit of time for human processes that are longer than a year, yet shorter than a century. A decade is almost useful, but ten years has no particular resonance with human lives, Nowadays is good, but is unfamiliar. A better, more human centred, and well understood unit of time for human social activities like innovation, is a generation. A simple way to define a generation is the average age of a woman at the birth of their first offspring. This varies, but the traditional figure of 25 years is not far off. Deep time for human social activity is not measured in millions of years, but in tens, hundreds or thousands of generations. Writing was first developed 200 generations ago. Modern humans first developed objects with symbolic meaning nearly 4,000 generations ago. 

The span of modern human existence. The largest square is the 4,000 generations since humans invented personal ornaments. The next square down is the 240 generations of the long lasting myths that are still known today. The next down is the 16 generations of the scientific revolution. The smallest square is a single generation of 25 years.}

Text & Image Copyright M.G. Reed 2018.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Google Map's Moat (2017)

HERE is an incredibly detailed comparison between the latest Google Maps and Apple Maps offerings - by Justin O’Beirne. 

Tulip Mania? (1637)

Here is a great article on the Conversation website about the realities of the often mentioned, but little understood, tulip mania seen in Holland in the 1630s. In fact, the author argues, there was little in the way of mania, but nonetheless a fascinating story. (HERE)

Friday, 9 March 2018

Emily's Numbers (2018)

Joss Langford is a friend of mine, he is a great inventor and innovator, and a long term collaborator. He has just published a wonderful book for children called Emily's Numbers. The creation of the book become part of his treatment for throat cancer after being diagnosed in 2017. 30% of the publisher’s proceeds will be donated to a cancer treatment charity.  

One of the reasons that Joss wrote the book is his belief that:
Maths is highly creative, but the full wonder of numbers can be difficult to convey in a formal syllabus. This simple and engaging narrative shows how, using just our imagination, we can discover endless possibilities in maths.
Available to buy HERE, and more on the background and code HERE.  

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Robert Bringhurst Interview (2017)

An interview with the Canadian writer Robert Bringhurst by Evan Jones (HERE) in The Manchester Review. 

Good carpenters get interested in wood. They stop thinking of it as board feet of lumber and start to see it as tissue – living tissue whose life has been arrested and whose form has been, for a while at least, preserved. They start to collaborate with the wood instead of simply sawing it up and nailing it back together. That’s how I try to work with wood myself, and that’s the way I like to work with language. Few things interest me less than regular picket fences or purely formalist verse, but sensual and intellectual pleasure both interest me a lot. A good piece of carpentry makes you want to reach out and touch it. A good piece of writing makes you want to say the words aloud, to feel them in your mouth and in your mind. That’s not everything in life, but it’s a part of what I’m after.

Image shows Left: A Haida wooden comb representing the bear. Top Right: A Tlingit wooden pipe in the form of a Killer whale. Bottom Right: A Haida `soul-case' carved from bone and inlaid with abalone shell. From HERE.

Manchester’s Irish Connection (2012)

Courtesy of The Manchester Review, the transcript of a brilliant speech by the Irish President Michael Higgins at Manchester University in 2012 - on connections, both historic and personal, between Ireland and Manchester (HERE). 

IMAGEManchester Ship Canal: The Making of Eastham Dock by Benjamin Williams Leader. 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Classification of Everyday Living (2018)

For the past 3 years or so I have been actively involved in developing the Classification of Everyday Living Open Standard with the OASIS organisation. The Committee Specification for this standard has just been published (HERE).  

The Objective of the standard is as follows:

The COEL Specification provides a clear and robust framework for implementing a distributed system capable of capturing data relating to an individual as discrete events. It facilitates a privacy-by-design approach for personalised digital services, IoT applications where devices are collecting information
about identifiable individuals and the coding of behavioural attributes in identity solutions. The COEL Specification contains an extensive and detailed taxonomy of human behaviour. The taxonomy allows data from different systems to be encoded in a common format, preserving the meaning of the data across different applications. This ability to integrate universally at the data level, rather than just the technology level, is known as semantic harmonisation and provides full data portability. The communication protocols needed to support system interoperability across a wide range of implementations are also included. Central to the specification is the separation of static and dynamic personal data. Static data are those pieces of information about an individual that do not change or change very slowly or infrequently which are often used as direct identifiers. Dynamic data are those that describe the sequence of behaviours of an individual over time. This separation of data types provides many advantages for both privacy and security; it is known as pseudonymisation. The COEL Specification provides the means to achieve this separation of data as it is collected rather than as a later operation (pseudonymisation at source).

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Vector Control (1997)

From a well written and freely available handbook on how to control the vectors of insect borne disease such as malaria. (HERE). 

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Little Science, Big Science ...and Beyond ( 1986)

Above is a typical quantitative analysis by the physicist and social historian of science Derek J. de Solla Price (1922-1983). This is from Little Science, Big Science ... and Beyond published by Columbia University Press in 1986. The complete PDF is HERE.  

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Gears from the Greeks. The Antikythera Mechanism: A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 BC (1974)

A long and detailed description of the reconstruction of an antique mechanical calculator by the science writer Derek de Solla Price. (HERE

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920–1970

A collection of illustrated book jackets selected by Martin Salisbury (HERE). Above an illustrated jacket by Rockwell Kent for a John Buchan novel.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Gary Lichtenstein Editions (2018)

Silk screen printing is a fine art technique that is widely used to make limited editions of artworks - derived from paintings, graphic art or photography. HERE is a wonderful short video on the work of the Gary Lichtenstein Editions studio in Jersey City. The studio is open to the public. 

Sunday, 18 February 2018

True Blue (2015)

A great, short essay, on the blue pigment ultramarine by Ravi Mangla - in The Paris Review (HERE). 

On a transcendental `law of logistic growth’ (1971)

The quote above from William Feller, called out recently by Edward Tufte, on the Law of Logistic Growth reminds me of what is sometimes called Kaplan's Law of the Instrument, which he formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. (Here).

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Mount Joyce, USGS Map

Above a detail from a high resolution topographic reconnaissance map of Mount Joyce Antarctica. More HERE.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Hans Rosling (1948-2017)

Hans Rosling (1948-2017), a Swedish medic and statistician, and most recently a professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, died a year ago. Rosling made superb presentations that combined animated data visualisations with humour and deep humanitarian compassion. With his son and daughter in law he built Gapminder - a software and institute with a focus on tools for showing development data.  

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The background colours of On Kawara’s Date paintings (1987)

More HERE.

Snail Pyramid – Study for Self-Contained, Self-Supporting City Dwelling (1988)

Snail Pyramid – Study for Self-Contained, Self-Supporting City Dwelling – A Future Habitat. 
Agnes Denes. 

Pascal's Perfect Probability Pyramid & The People Paradox (1980)

Pascal's Perfect probability Pyramid & The People Paradox a lithograph from 1980 by the artist Agnes Denes. From HERE

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Don’t You Weep (2018)

A superb piece in The Paris Review (here), on the first person experience of Tom Piazza hearing Bruce Springsteen at a concert in New Orleans in 2006.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Preparation of Chlorine, Potassium Chlorate and Sodium Hypochlorite (1948)

Illustration by Roger Hayward for General Chemistry by Linus Pauling. More HERE.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Toy Building Block invention (1945)

A great piece about Lego in the Guardian (HERE)

The diagram at top is from a patent filed by Harry Fisher Page in 1945. The diagram to the bottom was filed by G.K. Christiansen in 1958. 

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Coastal Geometries (2016)

Coastal Geometries is a superb series of photographs by Tugo Cheng of traditional Chinese aquaculture structures off the coast of Fujian (HERE).

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Pendant Droplet (1991)

Shown above is an experimental apparatus that I built for my BSc Chemistry degree project in 1991.  It shows a droplet of n-decane oil that is hanging "upwards" in water. The front of the lens and video camera that is being used to image the droplet is shown, and on the monitor at the back is the live video image of the droplet. The project involved building this apparatus, implementing an image analysis method to capture the co-ordinates of the shape of the drop, and writing a non-linear least squares fitting code in C to take the shape of the drop and estimate the interfacial tension between oil and water using the method of Jennings & Pallas (1988).

Jennings, J.W. & Pallas, N.R. (1998). `An efficient method for the determination of interfacial tensions from drop profiles.' Langmuir, 1988, 4 (4), pp 959–967

Below is a visual summary of some of the data from the project. 

Monday, 1 January 2018

Every Crafter has an Obligation (2017)

By Mr Gray Parrot (Here).

Happy New Year (2018)

Fishing the Shropshire Union Canal (1974)

LEFT: A basic rig for still water fishing using a light peacock quill float. Re-drawn from  World Class Match Fishing by Kevin Ashurst (1977). RIGHT: Three different styles of float that can easily be made from peacock quill, bamboo, brass rods, and balsa wood.  The floats are shown submerged to the level required for use. 

Between 1974 and 1979, I spent many of my Sunday afternoons trying to catch fish from the Shropshire Union Canal near Chester. This stretch of canal was completed in 1797. It forms part of an extensive network of canals in the North-West of the UK that were built at the start of the Industrial Revolution. By 1974 the Shropshire Union Canal was no longer used for trade - it was a quiet waterway used by a handful of canal boat enthusiasts, and those local fishermen who couldn't afford to fish anywhere better.  

Canals are static. Unlike a river, a canal does not flow anywhere. For that reason, they don't usually contain river loving fish such as barbel, dace, chub, trout, grayling, or salmon. The still waters of a typical canal are home to small coarse fish such as roach, rudd, perch, tench, bream, and carp. It takes dedication and skill to successfully catch fish from these canals. The match fisherman Kevin Ashurst (b. 1939) has been fishing these waterways all of his life:
A whole lot of good anglers are, figuratively speaking, at each other's throats every week of the season, trying to sift a little gold from the clapped-out canals which criss-cross the entire region. It is hard fishing. Only the good and dedicated survive to perfect skills requiring very little adaptation to work successfully elsewhere. [1]
I was never a match fisherman. I was not fishing to win anything, for me a good day of canal fishing would involve me in four or five hours of intense, quiet concentration, during which I would be happy to catch five or ten small fish. I once caught a tench from the Shropshire Union canal that weighed just over a kilogram. It was by some way the largest fish that I ever caught. 

My favourite fish were  crucian  carp (Carassius carassius).  These beautiful fish are closely related to goldfish (Carassius auratus), and range in colour from silver to greeny - bronze. Crucian carp are native to the UK, and are also found widely across northern Europe and into the arctic circle.  They cross-breed and hybridise readily with goldfish and both species have evolved the ability to survive for extended periods of time in severely oxygen depleted water, such as that found in ponds and lakes that have been frozen over for months. [2]

Crucian carp are not only beautiful to look at, but also relatively easy to catch.  They take a baited hook in a gentle but determined manner that causes the float to dip slowly and purposefully beneath the surface of the canal in a distinctive bobbing manner. When crucian carp are released back into the murky waters of a canal, their coloured flanks leave a metallic gold after-image that lingers long after they have disappeared. [3]             

Many of the specialised float fishing techniques that are used on rivers, such as trotting and waggler fishing, have been designed to make use of the river's flow to present bait in an attractive way to the target fish. These techniques are not applicable on lakes, ponds, slow moving rivers, and canals. Here, the need is for a float set-up that can signal to the fisherman that the hook has moved, while minimising the resistance the fish feels as it takes the stationary baited hook. 

A basic still water float fishing rig is shown in the Figure above.  The fishing line is usually attached to the base of the float using a small rubber band. This is a flexible arrangement that allows the fisherman to easily adjust the length of line between the float and the hook. The float is weighed down using small round split lead shot of standard sizes; No. 10 (0.04 gram), No. 8 (0.06 gram), No. 6 (0.1 gram) and No. 4 (0.2 gram) are typical for canal fishing. A number of different float designs are shown also in the Figure . In each case the float is designed to support a certain amount of shot and to provide the most stable flotation, unperturbed by wind or surface ripples, but requiring the minimum amount of force to register a bite.      

Although professionally made floats were widely available when I was fishing the Shropshire Union canal, I taught myself how to design and make a wide range of my own floats. I had no interest in match fishing, but from Kevin Ashurst's book, World Class Match Fishing, I learnt how to make my own floats.  The raw materials required to make fishing floats were widely available - and could be bought cheaply; bamboo cane, sarkanda reed, balsa wood, crow quills, copper wire, porquepine quills, whipping thread, plastic tubes, cork, fine tying wire, and peacock quills. 

My favourite material for float making was peacock quill.  These could be bought cheaply from most fishing tackle shops - complete with their iridescent plumage. Peacock quill is light weight, highly buoyant and naturally water resistant. Before using as a float, the feather's barbs were stripped off with a craft knife and the remaining shaft was lightly sanded. Small inserts of brass or copper wire were added to the base of the float to provide ballast and lower the centre of gravity of the float, and small lengths of bamboo cane or sarkanda reed were inserted into the top.  My floats were finished in dark brown or black paint, finely sanded to remove gloss finish, and the tips painted in white and fluorescent yellow, orange or green. I implemented a simple a coding scheme of small coloured dots painted on the floats to indicate the amount of lead shot that they each one needed, to be perfectly set in the water. 

I  no longer make floats, or fish in canals, but I do still invent and innovate. I can no longer remember what drove me to begin making my own floats. It certainly wasn't so that I could win fishing matches, and whether my own floats gave me any real advantage in catching fish from the Shropshire Union canal is hard to tell. What float-making did do, was to provide me with my first real experience of the pleasure that can be found in tinkering for a purpose.  This wasn't based on an artistic creative urge to express myself without constraint, to create artistic originality. I had simply set myself the target of catching fish from the canal using my own floats. Guided by Kevin Ashurst's words and diagrams, I learnt how to experiment and play with a range of simple raw materials to make the artefacts that I needed, to my own design.

Image & Text Copyright M.G. Reed 2018


1. Ashurst, K. (1977). World Class Match Fishing. Cassell, London. 

2. Fagernes, C.E., Stensløkken, K., Røhr, Å.K., Berenbrink, M., Ellefsen, S. & Nilsson, G.E. (2017). `Extreme anoxia tolerance in crucian carp and goldfish through neofunctionalization of duplicated genes creating a new ethanol-producing pyruvate decarboxylase pathway'.  Scientific Reports.  7, Article number: 7884.  

3. Rolfe, P. (2012).  Crock of Gold: Seeking the Crucian Carp.  MPress, Essex.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

On the Art of Non-Fiction (2009)

From a piece by David Shenk in The Atlantic (HERE):
What is the quest of a nonfiction writer? In preparation for this talk, I re-read an interview that I did with Tom Wolfe in 1987, a few weeks before he came to speak at Brown (in a slightly larger room than this one). Wolfe said, "To me the great task is to discover things that people haven't noticed, and to bring them to life. To make people see them and understand them for the first time. The great goal is discovery." 

Image from Openclipart.com.

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Forge (1969)

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur (1774)

From HERE.

Mazes and labyrinths - a general account of their history and developments (1922)

Mazes and labyrinths - a general account of their history and developments - by William Henry Matthews. Above an illustration of a labyrinth from the floor of the Abbey of St Bertin, St Omer, France. More HERE.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Literary Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes (2017)

A great piece (HERE) by Ursula Le Guin in The Paris Review on the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm (2017)

The latest from the DeepMind team (HERE).


The game of chess is the most widely-studied domain in the history of artificial intelligence. The strongest programs are based on a combination of sophisticated search techniques, domain-specific adaptations, and handcrafted evaluation functions that have been refined by human experts over several decades. In contrast, the AlphaGo Zero program recently achieved superhuman performance in the game of Go, by tabula rasa reinforcement learning from games of self-play. In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.

How Humanists use a Library (1965)

From the doctoral dissertation of Christine Madsen (HERE) the following on the 1965 work of J.E. Burchard:

Starting with a conference paper given in 1965 by John E. Burchard, an historian tasked with explaining the working style of humanists to the computer scientists at MIT, there have been periodic attempts to uncover the information seeking needs and behaviours of humanists ... Most of these works support Burchard’s original characterization of humanists as particularly dependent upon primary resources; favouring monographs over journal articles for secondary resources; working alone and preferring not to delegate their literature searching (as is often the case in the sciences); finding historical materials as relevant as contemporary ones; and using browsing and serendipitous discovery as a vital part of the research process.

Burchard, J.E., (1965). How humanists use a library. In: C.F.J. Overhage and J.R. Harman, eds. Intrex: report
on a planning conference and information transfer experiments. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 41-87.

Image from Here.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Detectorists (2016)

HERE is a great piece in The Guardian on the record number of finds across the UK in 2016 by amateur metal detectorists. What is perhaps remarkable is that the rules around what to do when you find a piece of treasure have become simplified, and that there is a voluntary code of conduct. The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, was quoted as saying: “You let people follow their passion with a couple of rules you should abide by. Everyone does best.”      

Thursday, 30 November 2017

November Afternoon (2017)

West Kirby

Copyright M.G. Reed 2017

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Workshop (2017)

A fantastic 6 minute long video of some of the stages involved in making a violin at the Chicago School of Violin Making HERE.

Operating An Engine Lathe (1944)

An illustration of several different ways of using internal and external calipers for measuring in the engineering workshop. From an illustrated handbook on how to use a lathe for a wide range of engineering work. By Ray S. Lindenmeyer, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering at Northwestern Technological Institute,  Evanston, Illinois. 

Full handbook is HERE.  

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Travels in the air (1871)

By Camille Flammarion, Wilfrid de Fonvielle, Gaston Tissandier and James Glaisher.  Full book of delights HERE.

Histoire de mes ascensions (1880)

By Gaston Tissandier - book HERE.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Astronomicum Caesarium (1540)

The Astronomicum Caesarium (1540) by Petrus Apianus is a beautiful book of mathematical tables and working paper mathematical devices. It is one of the most beautiful and complex hand printed books ever produced. A full high resolution scan and historical notes are HERE.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Information ... consumes the attention of its recipients (1971)

"...in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it"

Simon, H. A. (1971) "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World" in: Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore. MD: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 40–41.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield with Engravings of each Article designed for the Utility of Merchants, Wholesale Ironmongers and Travellers (1816)

Cézanne’s Objects (2017)

A piece HERE in The Paris Review by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz on the grey-green walls of Cézanne’s studio, the effect this had on how he saw the objects in the studio, and his photographs of items from the studio.

The dismal science remains dismal

A good article HERE in Wired on the replication crisis and quality of science in economics. 

Image from HERE.

Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics (1983)

A great paper, with a fantastic title, by the economist Edward Leamer (HERE).

Meta-assessment of bias in science (2017)

An attempt to understand the magnitude of bias in scientific studies by Daniele Fanelli, Rodrigo Costas, and John P. A. Ioannidis (HERE). 

The Abstract reads:

Numerous biases are believed to affect the scientific literature, but their actual prevalence across disciplines is unknown. To gain a comprehensive picture of the potential imprint of bias in science, we probed for the most commonly postulated bias-related patterns and risk factors, in a large random sample of meta-analyses taken from all disciplines. The magnitude of these biases varied widely across fields and was overall relatively small. However, we consistently observed a significant risk of small, early, and highly cited studies to overestimate effects and of studies not published in peer-reviewed journals to underestimate them. We also found at least partial confirmation of previous evidence suggesting that US studies and early studies might report more extreme effects, although these effects were smaller and more heterogeneously distributed across meta-analyses and disciplines. Authors publishing at high rates and receiving many citations were, overall, not at greater risk of bias. However, effect sizes were likely to be overestimated by early-career researchers, those working in small or long-distance collaborations, and those responsible for scientific misconduct, supporting hypotheses that connect bias to situational factors, lack of mutual control, and individual integrity. Some of these patterns and risk factors might have modestly increased in intensity over time, particularly in the social sciences. Our findings suggest that, besides one being routinely cautious that published small, highly-cited, and earlier studies may yield inflated results, the feasibility and costs of interventions to attenuate biases in the literature might need to be discussed on a discipline-specific and topic-specific basis.


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