Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958)

Here is a brilliant piece by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, on the life and work of Michael Young, a British politician and sociologist. Young wrote a satirical novel in 1958 called The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book looks at life in the UK in 2033, a dystopian society in which intelligence and merit have replaced social class. Young did not intend that the idea of Meritocracy would be seen as a good thing. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

The Master of Measurement (1864 – 1943)

HERE is a fantastic paper on the Swedish engineer C.E. Johansson who invented a way of machining steel Gages that were able to offer flexible standardisation to about 1 millionth of an inch. They were known a Jo Blocks in honour of their inventor. He commentated that: “My sets of gauge blocks have become for the engineering industry what types are for the printing industry.”

One of the most remarkable features of Jo Blocks is that when two of them are placed together they stick (this is known as wringing) and cannot be pulled apart easily - they need to be twisted off each other.  

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Rora Head, Hoy (1997)

A wonderful episode of Only Artists this morning on Radio 4 - with the landscape painter and print-maker Norman Ackroyd in conversation with the writer Robert Macfarlane. The Podcast is HERE.

Monday, 15 October 2018

On Accuracy, Tolerance and Precision (2018)

A very good review HERE by James Gleick of The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World by Simon Winchester.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Daniel Radcliffe and the Art of the Fact-Check (2018)

The actor Daniel Radcliffe recently did a days work as a fact-checker for the New Yorker - as part of his research for a role in a Broadway play. (HERE).

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Imagination in Science (1878)

The Dutch chemist Jacobus van’t Hoff was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1901. He is credited with two original ideas. Firstly, that molecules are really three-dimensional and secondly that the rate of a chemical reaction is related to temperature and the concentration of active species in the reaction. 

In 1878 van ’t Hoff was appointed as a full Professor of Chemistry, Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Amsterdam. His inaugural lecture, ‘Imagination in Science’, is even today a profound and inspiring read. 

Here are extracts from the English translation of his lecture published in 1967 by Springer-Verlag New York.

One of the things that van't Hoff did was to explain how great scientists use their imagination - and often this is reflected in them also being artists or poets. He gave numerous case studies of this e.g.

"I consider artistic inclinations a healthy expression of imagination. I give here a few quotes so that everyone may judge the reasons upon which I have based my conclusion that this aptitude was present. The quotes are taken from the biographies in question:

1.NEWTON(ARAGO.Oeuvres. III. 324) : “It was towards the end of his stay at Grantham that, besides a marked success in painting, he developed a remarkable poetic talent. Several
productions from that time are carefully preserved by connoisseurs.”

2. HAÜY (BUCKLE. Miscellaneous Works. I. 10): “He was essentially a poet, and his great delight was to wander in the Jardin du Roi, observing nature, not as a physical philosopher, but as a poet. Though his understanding was strong, his imagination was stronger.”

3. MALUS (ARAGO. Oeuvres. III. 114): “I found, among his papers, two stanzas of an epic poem entitled The Creation of France or la Thémelie and two completed tragedies, one concerns the capture of Utica and the death of Caton, the other,which is entitled, ‘Elektra’, recounts the horrible vicissitudes of the house of Atreus. Beautiful verse and interesting situations, etc.”

5. GALILEI (ARAGO. Oeuvres. III. 260 and 286): “In his youth he was a great admirer of Ariosio; he knew the entire Orlando furioso by heart. During his time a dispute arose in Italy over the comparative merits of Arioso and Tasso, a dispute in which he took part vehemently. Age did not weaken his art of expression nor the fluency of his poetry which distinguished the productions of his youth.”

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

View of Houses in Delft (1658)

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a wonderful website (HERE) that includes very high resolution images of their artwork - including the painting View of Houses in Delft, which is often known as ‘The Little Street’, by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1658

A Brutal Intelligence (2017)

A fine review of Garry Kasparov's book Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins in the LA Review of Books.


Sunday, 30 September 2018

Equatorie of the Planetis (1393)

The Equatorie of the Planetis  describes an instrument for calculating the positions of the planets. It was probably composed in 1393, and is remarkable for being written in English, not in Latin. It was found accidentally by the historian of science by Derek J. de solla Price in 1951.  The writer was John Westwyk, a Benedictine monk of Tynemouth Priory and St Albans Abbey.

It is  HERE in its entirety as a high resolution digital scan.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Reconsidering the West Kirby Hogback (2016)

I live within 250 metres of an ancient stone, known locally as a Hogback Stone, that dates from 900 or 1,000 years ago. The stone is kept in St Bridgets church in West Kirby, on the Wirral peninsula. 

Here is a fascinating paper by Prof Howard Williams that re-considers what this stone is and what it was used for. It exhumes the stone from hundreds of years of previous archaeological consideration and "...reconsiders the commemorative significance of this recumbent stone monument for the locality, region and understanding of Viking Age sculpture across the British Isles. As a result, West Kirby’s importance as an ecclesiastical locale in the Viking Age is reappraised".

Why scatter plots suggest causality, and what we can do about it (2018)

Carl T. Bergstrom, Jevin D. West


Scatter plots carry an implicit if subtle message about causality. Whether we look at functions of one variable in pure mathematics, plots of experimental measurements as a function of the experimental conditions, or scatter plots of predictor and response variables, the value plotted on the vertical axis is by convention assumed to be determined or influenced by the value on the horizontal axis. This is a problem for the public understanding of scientific results and perhaps also for professional scientists’ interpretations of scatter plots. To avoid suggesting a causal relationship between the x and y values in a scatter plot, we propose a new type of data visualization, the diamond plot. Diamond plots are essentially 45◦rotations of ordinary scatter plots; by visually jarring the viewer they clearly indicate that she should not draw the usual distinction between independent/predictor variable and dependent/response variable. Instead, she should see the relationship as purely correlative.


Thursday, 27 September 2018

The life and letters of Charles Darwin : including an autobiographical chapter (1896)

From HERE.

How Nature Defies Math in Keeping Ecosystems Stable (2018)

I have quite enjoyed reading Quanta Magazine, it is generally well written and illustrated, and it has interesting science topics. However, one of the things that I consistently don't like about the magazine and similar brands of science journalism is epitomised by one of their latest articles How Nature Defies Math in Keeping Ecosystems Stable (HERE).

It is all wrong. And what is wrong with it is obvious in the title. Nature is a lot of things, but it is definitely not a conscious being that defies anything. It just is. But worse than the  anthropomorphism, is to consider what Nature is defying? It is defying the conclusions of flimsy human made mathematical models. If this title was re-written in a non-Quanta Magazine way, it might best be phrased: How profoundly poor our current mathematical models of real ecosystems still are. This is not so news worthy. 


Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle (1973)

I was never a mad keen Bruce Springsteen fan. But his second album -  The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, released in 1973, was always my favourite and still to my ears is his masterpiece. I first heard it in 1975 or 1976 - I was 14 or 15. This album, played repeatedly on a cassette was my introduction to what rock and roll songs could be, with complex poetic storytelling and his ever best band.

The opening 30 seconds of E Street Shuffle are his best writing ever.

HERE is a review of the album from Rolling Stone magazine in 1974.  

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The portfolio of Villard de Honnecourt (c. 1225)

From the sketch-book of Villard de Honnecourt (HERE).

Google (1998)

This is what the Google home page looked like when I first used it in 1998. From (HERE).

Why Love Generative Art? (2018)

Above Schotter (Gravel) by George Nees (1968). From a guide to generative art by Jason Bailey (HERE).

Curve fitting methods (2018)

Above a re-done Python version of this XKCD comic on curve fitting (HERE) by Douglas Higinbotham (HERE).

Saturday, 22 September 2018

The Sentence is a Lonely Place (2009)

Here is a superb piece in the Guardian on how to write the perfect sentence. It references a piece by Gary Lutz - The Sentence is a Lonely Place - part of which is below. 

The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language. So many of the sentences we confront in books and magazines look unfinished and provisional, and start to go to pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. They don’t hold up. Their diction is often not just spare and stark but bare and miserly.

More HERE.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The Shed Project (2018)

Lee John Phillips is cataloguing the entire contents of his late grandfather's tool shed. He estimates that the project will take around 5 years and will involve him hand drawing in excess of 100,000 separate items (HERE).

Image Copyright Lee John Phillips.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Study for the Marriage of the Virgin (1566)

By Luca Cambiaso (1527-1585). Pen and brown ink, with brown wash, over black chalk, on paper. From the Morgan Library (HERE). 

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Look at your Fish (1999)

From an interview in The Paris Review HERE.


Would you tell us about the motto tacked over your desk? 


It says, “Look at your fish.” It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Cybernetic Serendipity (1968)

From the press release for the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition, ICA London, 1968. 

Cybernetics - derives from the Greek «kybernetes» meaning «steersman»; our word «governor» comes from the Latin version of the same word. The term cybernetics was first used by Norbert Wiener around 1948. In 1948 his book «Cybernetics» was subtitled «communication and control in animal and machine.» The term today refers to systems of communication and control in complex electronic devices like computers, which have very definite similarities with the processes of communication and control in the human nervous system. A cybernetic device responds to stimulus from outside and in turn affects external environment, like a thermostat which responds to the coldness of a room by switching on the heating and thereby altering the temperature. This process is called feedback. 

Exhibits in the show are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement. 

Serendipity – was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. There was a legend about three princes of Serendipity (old name for Ceylon) who used to travel throughout the world and whatever was their aim or whatever they looked for, they always found something very much better. Walpole used the term serendipity to describe the faculty of making happy chance discoveries. Through the use of cybernetic devices to make graphics, film and poems, as well as other randomising machines which interact with the spectator, many happy discoveries were made. Hence the title of this show.

More HERE and HERE.

The New York Times reviewer in 1968 noted that Cybernetic Serendipity, “... is an interim report on investigations in progress”, and that, “The computer is a tool to extend our intelligence.” 

Monday, 10 September 2018

Basic Ideas of Scientific Sampling (1976)

This is a short book by Alan Stuart that describes very simply the concepts of random sampling needed for statistical analysis with unbiased estimators (such as the sample mean).

It defines the Central Paradox of Sampling:

Once a sample has been obtained it is impossible to tell by inspection of the sample whether it has been obtained by a simple random sampling mechanism or not.

Design for an Audience (2018)

Here is a masterclass in designing visual information displays for the results of serious scientific studies - by Jonathan Corum of the New York Times. Above a set of the headings that Corum talks about. 

The Rougeux - Syme - Werner Nomenclature of Colours (2018)

Here is a superb re-animation of the Werner/Syme colour classification classic from 1821 - by Nicolas Rougeux (who calls himself a Designer, Data Geek and Fractal Nut). 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Data! Data! Data! (1892)

An entertaining piece by D.L. Dusenbury in the Times Literary Supplement on the data obsessed (but sadly fictional) detective Sherlock Holmes (HERE).

Friday, 31 August 2018

Werner's nomenclature of colours : with additions, arranged so as to render it highly useful to the arts and sciences, particularly zoology, botany, chemistry, mineralogy, and morbid anatomy (1821)

This wonderful volume, Werner's Nomenclature of Colours, was first published in 1814. It is a taxonomic guide to the colours of the natural world based on the mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner's standardised colour scheme,  adapted and illustrated by the Scottish painter Patrick Syme.

The volume (HERE) has just been re-published in a facsimile. 

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Maps of the Earth (1901)

From the excellent site of The History of Chinese Science and Culture Foundation, (HERE) is a series of images from a late Qing dynasty Atlas - MAPS OF THE EARTH by Wu Run-De, Ding Wei Year. Above is a map of Jiangsu province. 

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Time for science to be about truth rather than careers (2013)

Oh Dear. 

I have been a scientist of sorts for thirty years. I believe that the American engineer Henry Petroski had it right when he said: Science is about understanding the origins, nature, and behaviour of the universe and all it contains. This of course is a quest for truth - for a deep understanding of objectively what is what. But the prosaic reality is that the basis of this grand endeavour is nothing more than a scrupulous attention to detail and keeping oneself honest - what non-fiction writers call fact-checking.  

As this superb editorial by Richard Smith in the British Medical Journal - describing a talk by John Ioanaddis - points out, the empirical evidence is that "science" in many fields of bio-medical research is not about truth:  

Why, asked Ioannidis, at the end of his talk are we doing science? Contentment with a system that encourages the publication of studies that are mostly misleading suggests that it’s about careers, grants, publications, and salaries. If it’s about a search for “truth” then we need more collaboration, less publishing of small and biased studies, and a heavy emphasis on reproducibility.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Eliminative Induction (2012)

From a textbook by Arial Caticha, Entropic Inference and the Foundations of Physics (HERE).

The framework for inference will be constructed by a process of eliminative induction. The objective is to design the appropriate tools, which in our case, means designing the theory of probability and entropy. The different ways in which probabilities and entropies are defined and handled will lead to different inference schemes and one can imagine a vast variety of possibilities. To select one we must first have a clear idea of the function that those tools are supposed to perform, that is, we must specify design criteria or design specifications that the desired inference framework must obey. Finally, in the eliminative part of the process one proceeds to systematically rule out all those inference schemes that fail to comply with the design criteria — that is, that fail to perform as

There is no implication that an inference framework designed in this way is in any way “true”, or that it succeeds because it achieves some special intimate agreement with reality. Instead, the claim is pragmatic: the method succeeds to the extent that the inference framework works as designed and its performance will be deemed satisfactory as long as it leads to scientific models that are empirically adequate. Whatever design criteria are chosen, they are meant to be only provisional — just like everything else in science, there is no reason to consider them immune from further change and improvement.

The pros and cons of eliminative induction have been the subject of considerable philosophical research. On the negative side, eliminative induction, like any other form of induction, is not guaranteed to work. On the positive side, eliminative induction adds an interesting twist to Popper’s scientific methodology. According to Popper scientific theories can never be proved right, they can only be proved false; a theory is corroborated only to the extent that all attempts at falsifying it have failed. Eliminative induction is fully compatible with Popper’s notions but the point of view is just the opposite. Instead of focusing on failure to falsify one focuses on success: it is the successful falsification of all rival theories that corroborates the surviving one. The advantage is that one acquires a more explicit understanding of why competing theories are eliminated.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Les Poissons (1876)

A Crucian carp (Carassius carassius) from Les Poissons : synonymie - description - mœurs - frai - pêche -iconographie, des espèces composant plus particulièrement la faune française

By H. Gervais, and R. Boulart. 

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Keswick Codlin (1876)

A Keswick Codlin, from The Herefordshire pomona, containing coloured figures and descriptions of the most esteemed kinds of apples and pears.

Bull, Edith G. 
Bull, Henry Graves, 1828--188 
Ellis, Alice B. 
Hogg, Robert, 1818-1897 
Jakeman and Carver. 

Woolhope Naturalists' Field Club. 


Coloured figures of English fungi or mushrooms (1797)

Coloured figures of English fungi or mushrooms. 
James Sowerby (1757-1822)

Publication info London,Printed by J. Davis,1797-[1809]
BHL Collections:
New York Botanical Garden


Saturday, 21 July 2018

W. G. Sebald, Humorist (2017)

A great piece about the work of W.G. Sebald in the New Yorker by James Wood (HERE).

Friday, 20 July 2018

Your whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily (1994)

Below is a wonderful description by the poet Ted Hughes, of the meditative state that you can slip into when float fishing.

Settling the mind is a valuable thing to be able to do – but something you are never taught in school and not many people do it naturally. I am not very good at it, but I did acquire some skill in it. Not in school, but while I was fishing. I fished in still water, in those days, with a float. As you know, all such a fisherman does is stare at his float for hours on end. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours staring at a float – a dot of red or yellow the size of a lentil, ten yards away. Those of you who have never done it, might think it a very drowsy past time. It is anything but that.

All the little nagging impulses, that are normally distracting to your mind dissolve. They have to dissolve if you are to go on fishing. If they do not, then you cannot settle down: you get bored and pack up in a bad temper. But once they have dissolved, you enter one of the orders of bliss.

Your whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily: very alert, so that the least twitch of the float arrives like an electric shock. And you are not only watching the float. You are aware in a horizonless and slightly mesmerized way, like listening to the double bass in orchestral music, of the fish below there in the dark. At every moment your imagination is alarming itself with the size of the rings slowly leaving the weeds and approaching your bait. Or with the world of beauties down there, suspended in total ignorance of you. And the whole purpose of this concentrated excitement, in this arena of apprehension and unforeseeable events, is to bring up some lovely solid thing, like living metal, from a world were nothing exists but those inevitable facts which raise life out of nothing and return it to nothing.

Winter Pollen, Occasional Prose. Faber (1994). 

Image from the oldest surviving fishing manual in English, Dame Juliana Berners Treatyse of Fysshynge with an Angle, published by Wynkyn de Worde in Westminster in 1496

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Patience (After Sebald) - (2012)

Here is the full version of Grant Gee's wonderfully haunting documentary film Patience (After Sebald), built around the ideas and places which run through W.G. Sebald's book The Rings of Saturn. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Experimental Wood Type Prints of Jack Stauffacher

From the excellent Letterform Archive (HERE). Wood Type Prints by Jack Stauffacher.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

A Life in Design

W.A. Dwiggins, A Life in Design. From HERE.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Rings of Saturn

Below an amazing thematic map of W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn - from HERE.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

The symmetrical foundation of Measure, Probability and Quantum theories (2017)

A short, but foundational paper by John Skilling and Kevin Knuth (HERE). The abstract reads:

Quantification starts with sum and product rules that express combination and partition. These rules rest on elementary symmetries that have wide applicability, which explains why arithmetical adding up and splitting into proportions are ubiquitous. Specifically, measure theory formalises addition, and probability theory formalises inference in terms of proportions. 

Quantum theory rests on the same simple symmetries, but is formalised in two dimensions, not just one, in order to track an object through its binary interactions with other objects. The symmetries still require sum and product rules (here known as the Feynman rules), but they apply to complex numbers instead of real scalars, with observable probabilitiesbeing modulus-squared (known as the Born rule). The standard quantum formalism follows. There is no mystery or weirdness, just ordinary probabilistic inference.

Thomas Bayes and the crisis in science (2018)

It is improbable, but nonetheless true, that one of the most entertaining and informed articles I have yet read about how the avoidance of Bayesian methods has contributed to the much discussed "crisis in science", has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. The article is by David Papineau and it is HERE.  

Saturday, 23 June 2018

The Ends of the World (2017)

Above, an incredible descriptive re-imagining of the enormous asteroid that ended the dominance of  the dinosaurs, from Peter Brannen's book The Ends of the World (HERE).

Friday, 22 June 2018

Letters to A Young Poet (1903)

Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Coloring Sudokus (2018)

From the great Fronkonstin blog of experiments in the R language. By Antonio Sánchez Chinchón (HERE)

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions (2017)

I hear a lot about Artificial Intelligence (AI) these days. Much of it is ill informed nonsense. This superb piece by Rodney Brooks (HERE) is required reading for anyone who really wants to get a realistic grasp on what AI may or may not do, anytime soon.

Are We All Joyceans Here, Then? (2018)

James Joyce's vast, and almost impossible to imagine reading, epic Ulysses, has been read by some people. This short piece (HERE) in the Paris Review by Frankie Thomas is her story of how she read it in a seminar group at City College, New York.    

Ulysses itself begins:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei.

Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:

—Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Whole Art of Storytelling (2014)

Michael Dirda is a Pultizer prize winningAmerican critic. His writing is superb - he describes it as often achieving a Shaker like simplicity - which is about right. On Conan Doyle Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling is a slim, very well written and made, book by Dirda on his love of the books of Conan Doyle. (HERE).  

How to spot a perfect fake (2018)

A very interesting piece in the Guardian by Samanth Subramanian about the current state-of-the-art in Old Master forgery and forensics. (HERE)   

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Great Tidepool: the story of Ed Ricketts' scientific system (2014)

The Great Tidepool: the story of Ed Ricketts' scientific systemFrom a film of the same name by Steven and Mary Albert, here are a series of annotated diagrams that the filmmakers brought together from an analysis of Ed Ricketts' approach to ecological science. (HERE)


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