Thursday 31 December 2020

The Liminality of Craig Mod (2020)


HERE is a good piece in the Chicago Review of Books on Craig Mod's book Kissa by Kissa, which was published this year.

Last day of the Year (2020)

 Image Copyright M.G. Reed 2020

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Landscapes of Detectorists (2020)



From Uniform books, (HERE), is a scholarly exigesis of the TV programme Detectorists. It includes a Foreword by the programme's writer and lead actor, Mackenzie Crook:

I was detecting on my own… and dug down four inches to find an exquisite bronze hawking whistle. I took a few minutes to unclog the mud with a piece of straw, then held it to my lips and blew. The note that issued from the whistle was a ghost, a sound unheard for centuries, and the last person to hear that sound, that exact sound, was the person who dropped it just yards from where I was standing. And it wasn’t a faint, feeble ghost either: it was an urgent, piercing shrill that echoed across the field and back through time.

Charts from a year like no other (2020)


The Financial Times has (justifiably) celebrated its own use of data visualisation this year (HERE).  Their COVID tracker was exceptional - an exemplar of high quality data journalism.  

Monday 28 December 2020

The Bit Player (2020)


HERE is the web site of a new documentary, The Bit Player, on Claude Shannon. The film was  commissioned by the IEEE Information Theory Society - and celebrates Shannon's ground breaking 1948 paper in the Bell System Technical Journal, and the impact that this work on communication theory has had on modern life. 


Sunday 27 December 2020

Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3rd Edition)


One of my first posts on Data Deluge in 2009 was on 'evidence' as a general concept. I noted that lawyers are pretty hung up about evidence, and that the way that evidence in a scientific, engineering and statistical sense, interacts with the law was the subject of a very large and authorative US Federal government Handbook on how to use scientific evidence in law courts. This manual is now in its 3rd edition (HERE).

The manual has extensive chapters on science, statistics and engineering, and how evidence from these different fields of endeavour should be considered by lawyers and judges.

The chapter on How science works is by David Goodstein - it is excellent. It includes a well informed and irreverent description of what actually happens in science rather than what theoretically happens.

Thursday 24 December 2020

A soap bubble exhibiting interference colours (1883).


Optics: a soap bubble exhibiting interference colours.

Coloured mezzotint [?] by M. Rapine, c. 1883, after B. Desgoffe. (HERE). 

A progressive wave of concentric circles (1986)


Image above derived from an original image by S. Taneda of a progressive wave of concentric circles created by surface flow around a vibrating cylinder immersed halfway under a water surface. Original by S. Taneda, published in Fluid Dynamics Research, Vol.1, No.1 (1986) 1.

Monday 21 December 2020

Homes at Night (2001)


Todd Hido (b. 1968) is a San Francisco Bay Area-based artist. Above from his site is a selection of his photos which were included in a monograph called House Hunting published in 2001 (HERE). 

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Beer Can Photography (2020)


A wonderful story HERE about a record breaking image that was accidentally created by someone doing a Fine Art degree at the University of Hertfordshire.  Regina Valkenborgh was interested in capturing images without modern technology, so she created a pinhole camera from a beer can lined with photographic paper. She left the camera in one of the University's telescopes in 2012. Eight years later it was removed and the image was developed. The image is a superposition of 2,953 arcs, each of which is a record of the Sun's path in the sky. The University claims it is "...the longest exposure image ever taken".


Saturday 12 December 2020

Erik Spiekermann's Experiments in Digital Letterpress (2017)


For printing and typography nerds, a piece on how the German designer Erik Spiekermann has been able to create a hybrid digital -  letterpress printing process (HERE).

Thursday 10 December 2020

Pachinko Road (2020)


One of the two or three people I follow on Twitter is the American author Craig Mod. 

Craig is based in Japan, and over the past 5 years he has developed an interesting set of email newsletters, and a distinctive approach to long-distance walks across Japan. 

His most recent long walk has just finished (HERE): it was nearly 700 kilometers over five weeks. Most of that distance was along the Tokaido, the historic highway that connects Tokyo and Kyoto.  During the walk he sent a daily email and photo (which were great), and invited readers to respond to his walk. HERE is his immediate post-walk summary, but he will no doubt write and publish a book on his experiences. 


Yawny Yawn (2019)


Bill Ryder-Jones is a musician who lives and works in my home town of West-Kirby. As a teenager he played in The Coral, leaving it to go solo in 2008. His latest album Yawny Yawn was released in 2019, it's a solo piano re-working of an earlier album called Yawn. He has a small studio in the town, also called Yawn, which is located in a quiet back street close to the sea front (he has his coffee breaks at the Aubergine - the cafe my son works at). His lyrics have some of the tenderness and strangeness of other bands from this part of the world - such as Echo and the Bunnymen.  Examples include: 'There’s a fortune to be had from telling people you’re sad' and the following couplet: 'I remember what we did and when / and the smell of your breath / and even all the names of your dickhead friends'.

From a piece in The Quietus on him (HERE) the following:

Ryder-Jones holds great affection for West Kirby, a picturesque town near the coast, seven miles from Birkenhead. “If you turn left out of my mother’s house you can see the river Dee and North Wales,” he describes. “I love being at the water, I walk the long way to my studio every day so I can be by it. I walk from my house to the studio through a lovely park, then on to the beach and back around, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. It’s funny how I tried to escape it for all of my 20s before I gave in and said ‘this is where I’m meant to be’. I still live in my West Kirby bubble, and I live there mainly because no one cares what I do. If I go to Liverpool, people say ‘oh I like your music,’ whereas in West Kirby they just remember me from school. Or they wanna ask how The Coral are doing,” he laughs.

Monday 7 December 2020

The Significance Filter, the Winner's Curse and the Need to Shrink (2020)


The Significance Filter, the Winner's Curse and the Need to Shrink.

E.W. van Zwet & E.A. Cator
September 22, 2020



The ‘significance filter’ refers to focusing exclusively on statistically significant results. Since frequentist properties such as unbiasedness and coverage are valid only before the data have been observed, there are no guarantees if we condition on significance. In fact, the significance filter leads to overestimation of the magnitude of the parameter, which has been called the ‘winner's curse’. It can also lead to undercoverage of the confidence interval. Moreover, these problems become more severe if the power is low. While these issues clearly deserve our attention, they have been studied only informally and mathematical results are lacking. Here we study them from the frequentist and the Bayesian perspective. We prove that the relative bias of the magnitude is a decreasing function of the power and that the usual confidence interval undercovers when the power is less than 50%. We conclude that failure to apply the appropriate amount of shrinkage can lead to misleading inferences.


From HERE.

Sunday 6 December 2020

Charity of interpretation (2019)

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) is a Swiss-born British philosopher and author. He has a knack of being able to write in a philosophical way about things that people face in their lives today. His prose is clear and readable, and the insights accessible and sometimes amusing. His books are examples of 'Popular Philosophy' (if such a thing can be said to exist).  In 2008 he co-founded The School of Life, which is '...dedicated to helping people lead more resilient and fulfilled lives'. From one of their latest books - The School of Life: An Emotional Education (HERE) - is the following reflection on the charity of interpretation.

At its most basic, charity means offering someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. This is normally and logically understood to mean something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money. But, in its widest sense, charity stretches far beyond financial donations. Charity involves offering someone something that they may not entirely deserve and that it is a long way beyond the call of duty for us to provide: sympathy.


Saturday 5 December 2020

Reasons to be cheerful (Parts 1,2 and 3)

A permanent part of my own musical landscape since about 1978 has been occupied by the band Talking Heads. They were a brilliant blend of art school edge, punk energy, and funk. 

HERE is a great profile of Talking Heads' lead singer David Byrne from 2018. At the time Byrne was touring with a Powerpoint presentation called Reasons to be Cheerful

One of his global reasons to be cheerful is the Knock-on effects of culture

We in the arts and humanities often complain that our work is undervalued, at least in terms of being beneficial to society compared to the Stem disciplines. Finally we have some proof, and the effects are somewhat unexpected. A recent study by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when libraries and other cultural institutions are placed in the boroughs around New York, there are surprising knock-on effects:

a. The kids’ test scores go up
b. Spousal abuse goes down
c. Obesity goes down
d. The crime rate goes down

Things that might seem to be unrelated are actually connected. To lower crime, maybe we don’t need more prisons or stiffer sentencing; part of the solution might be to build a library.

Sunday 29 November 2020

Impossible Swedish Stamps

Swedish stamps with impossible figures made by the Swedish artist and art historian Oscar Reutersvärd (1915 – 2002),

Small Multiples (2020)


A small multiple is a series of similar graphs, charts, or images, which have the same scale, shape, and axes. They are postage stamp like graphical elements arranged in such a way as to allow easy comparison.

According to Edward Tufte (Envisioning Information, 1990):

At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what? Small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful, answer directly by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, of the scope of alternatives. For a wide range of problems in data presentation, small multiples are the best design solution.

Above is a small multiple of some of the most recent images I have used on Data Deluge.  More than half of the images (~65%) are derived from copyright free images I have found on the Internet Archive using a Flickr search interface (HERE). This search interface does not deliver what you ask for - it creates wildly creative indirections. Typing in a given word may result in no hits at all, or it may create a wonderfully random selection of images.  

As to the connection between the subject of the post and the image content - that is purely down to the way my mind works. Sometimes I want a literal connection - at other times I try and create an oblique visual metaphor. Almost always, I will edit the image for clarity, contrast, colour balance, and symmetry (this collection has examples of each of these). Sometimes I will make a image from a quote that I like - and here I will mix  some small graphical elements with a typographic treatment of font and layout. More rarely, I will create an image from scratch - and these are almost always completely abstract.   

Saturday 28 November 2020

Beauty above all (2020)

A wonderful essay in the Times Literary Supplement (HERE) by Graham Farmelo, about the 2020 Nobel prize winner Roger Penrose (b. 1931). Penrose won 1/2 of this years Physics prize, "for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity." 

Farmelo's essay brings to life the human dimensions of Penrose's work and his style of thinking. It manages to convey to a lay reader like me, some sense of the wonderful intellectual challenges that theoretical physicists engage with every day.

Farmelo explains that, "As do all mathematically-minded researchers in physics, Penrose values above all beauty in a new theory, whether or not it appears at first to account for observations and measurements". In reference to String theory, a fashionable field in modern theoretical physics, Farmelo notes that, "..Penrose thought it was so horrible, and so ugly, that it made him feel ill". 

Image: The Planetary Systems. A wood engraving attributed to Holbein in the German translation of the "Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius, Augsburg edition, 1537. From  Science and literature in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1878). By Paul Lacroix Jacob. Bickers & Son, London.


Thursday 19 November 2020

A Sad Victory (2019)


After having seen the AlphaGo movie last week, I found that I agreed with much of this piece (HERE). 

What astounded me about watching the documentary is the deep sadness that permeated Lee Sedol’s defeat and AlphaGo’s victory. With every defeat Lee Sedol looked devastated. But it wasn’t only him. Almost everyone looked sad, or somewhat troubled. A member of the DeepMind team said: ‘I couldn’t celebrate. It was fantastic that we had won. But there was such a big part of me that saw this man trying so hard and being so disappointed…’. Even Demis Hassabis, founder and CEO of DeepMind, confessed feeling ‘ambivalent’.

What is most surprising about the match is that the outcome did not feel like a win for humanity. It did not feel similar to when we conquer a disease, or when the first human being landed on the moon. It felt like we might be losing more than what we might be gaining.

You might think that such sadness simply comes out of sympathy for Lee Sedol. Or perhaps out of nostalgia for the old times; something that we should and will get over. Maybe. But maybe it is a kind of warning. A reminder that not all technological developments lead to a better life. A caution to remember to put human beings first. Let us never forget that technology is a tool, a means, and never an end in itself. Technology is valuable only insofar as it enhances our wellbeing. And AlphaGo and other AI programs still have to prove themselves in that regard.

Factum Arte (2020)

HERE is a great article in The Guardian about the work of Adam Lowe and his company Factum Arte. It includes an appreciation of the wonderful Cast Court galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum:

The grandest spaces in the whole of the mighty Victoria and Albert Museum are the Cast Courts, built high enough to hold a full-scale replica of Trajan’s Column in Rome, which is colossal even in two pieces. No less imposing are the London museum’s 19th-century copies of Michelangelo’s David, not to mention its duplicates of Viking carvings and even the entire front of a Spanish cathedral. All these casts, which were recently cleaned, are a curious spectacle. Why did the Victorians create such a comprehensive “virtual art” collection? To make a clever point about a copy being just as good as the real thing – or simply to bring great work to the people?

Sunday 15 November 2020

Ode to Desolation (2020)

Desolation Peak is a mountain located in the North Cascade mountains in Washington state in the US. At the top of the peak is a fire lookout. Its most famous lookout was Jack Kerouac - who spent 63 days in the lookout in 1956 - and used the experience as material for Dharma Bums (1958) and Desolation Angels (1960).  Kerouac had been inspired to spend time as a lookout after meeting the poet Gary Snyder in San Francisco. Here is Kerouac's description of how he got there.  

Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northeast horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp. The road ran right through the dreamy fertile valleys of the Stilaquamish [Stillaguamish] and the Skagit, rich butterfat valleys with farms and cows browsing under that tremendous background of snow-pure heaps. The further north I hitched the bigger the mountains got till I finally began to feel afraid. I got a ride from a fellow who looked like a bespectacled careful lawyer in a conservative car, but turned out that he was the famous Bat Lindstrom the hardtop racing champion and his conservative automobile had in it a souped-up motor that could make it go a hundred and seventy miles an hour ...

The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Woolley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we'd crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides, was now a pure torrent of melted snow pouring narrow and fast between muddy snag shores. Cliffs began to appear on both sides. The snow-covered mountains themselves had disappeared, receded from my view, I couldn't see them any more but now I was beginning to feel them more.

HERE is a wonderful short film by Lindsay Hagen about Desolation Peak, and Jim Henterley, one of the fire watchmen who remains in service on the Desolation Peak lookout. 

Saturday 14 November 2020

Notes on the Diagram (2020)

Diagrams are great because you can put anything in them. No wonder they have been so useful for generations of kooks, mystics, Cubists, ecstatic poetics, Dadaists, Futurists, and weird scientists. A diagram is a perfect visual schema for posing impossible things, invisible forces, enigmas like the future—all posed as perfectly plausible vectors. The diagram even outdid the camera as the early twentieth century’s best new thing because it could depict things in the universe that exceed the eye, like particles, waves, and quarks. A diagram’s scale is endless. It can indicate how dwarfed we are by the universe, or how busy the microscopic world is, all mapped out on the back of some envelope. Tides, black holes, white dwarfs, red rings around Saturn, crazy particles, the waves of the Big Bang, all teleporting around in unstable ways, all this stuff and how it interacts can appear equally on the diagram, democratically, like the pedestrians in Times Square or the people in a Saul Steinberg cartoon all walking around together. The diagram’s arms, its vectors, embrace everything at once. Parts are not distinct from wholes, and divisions between aesthetic formats don’t have to exist. Diagrams aren’t medium-specific: everything is a continuum; everything is relational. In this sense a diagram is utopic, showing how things should or might go, reenvisioning things expansively, not merely describing them categorically. It can include contradictory grammars, fragments, part-objects, nouns and verbs, acts and objects.

From an essay on diagrams in The Paris Review, by the artist Amy Sillman (HERE).

Thursday 12 November 2020

November Sun (2020)


A beautiful November day - bright, mild, and with just enough of a breeze to taste the sea. 

Image Copyright M.G. Reed 2020

Sunday 1 November 2020

Working Works of Art (1999)


On page 282 of A Story as Sharp as a Knife Robert Bringhurst says: "The dugout and the paddle and the spear, the stone knife, shell knife, bow and arrow, deadfall, snare, and the fishhook, fishclub, fishing line and bone harpoon are working works of art, not the products of assembly lines and factories. No two such tools are the same. None, as a result, is just a tool, and none works by purely material means. In such a world, there are no dumb animals and no inert materials. Everything that is has ears and voices, and every word a human speaks is overheard".

Saturday 31 October 2020

The Book of Delightful and Strange Designs (1893)


HERE is a copy of The book of delightful and strange designs; being one hundred facsimile illustrations of the art of the Japanese stencil-cutter, to which the gentle reader is introduced by Andrew White Tuer (1838-1900). 

For details of the Kata-game stencil printing technique see Kata-game; Japanese Stencils in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum by Elaine Evans Dee (HERE)

Friday 30 October 2020

The Mullaghmore monster wave (2020)

Some years ago, whilst en route from Coleraine to Galway, I had a small scale car crash on the outskirts of Bundoran in County Donegal in Ulster. The damage wasn't extensive, but the car wasn't fit to be driven any further. I had to get to Galway that day, which meant I had two long (and expensive) taxi rides to get there. 

I left the hire car at the side of the road, and three days later it still hadn't been picked up. This didn't really surprise me, as I assumed that Bundoran was a typically quiet west coast town. 

Little did I know that Bundoran is a world-renowned surfing area. This week a few kilometres down the road, in Mullaghmore County Sligo, a local surfer Conor Maguire has surfed an enormous wave - and has claimed that it is the biggest Irish wave ever surfed.

More in The Guardian HERE.

Photo copyright Conor Flanagan.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Tokaidochu hizakurige (1802 - 1822)


The image above is from an edition of Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige (東海道中膝栗毛) published in 1907 (the title is usually translated into English as Shank's Mare). The Hizakurige is a picaresque novel that was written by Jippensha Ikku (十返舎一九, 1765–1831), and published in 12 parts between 1802 and 1822.  It describes the comic (mis)adventures of two travelers, Yaji and Kita, as they make their way between Kyoto and Edo on the Tōkaidō, the main road joining the two cities. More HERE.

Friday 23 October 2020

The selflessness of quotation (2020)


HERE is a long interview with James Wood by Becca Rothfeld on how book reviewing and literary criticism work. Wood is a US resident British critic who is Professor of Literary Practice at Harvard, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and the author of two novels and six books of criticism. 

Q: You’re known for being an enthusiastic quoter. What role do you think quotation plays or should play in good criticism?

I like what Stanley Cavell says is the critic’s job – to point at the thing and say, 'do you see/hear/feel that?' The quoting is the pointing. Of course, it’s an essential element of the re-imagining or re-telling that brings the work alive: you plunge the reader into the text via quotation. But it’s also an essential part of making a rational argument. Indeed, I’d say that precisely because the critic’s task isn’t quite propositional – because we don’t deal in proofs – our rhetorical or persuasive argumentation has to be as scrupulously quote-heavy as the reader can bear. Just because there is wide latitude in what can be plausibly said about a text, doesn’t mean that the forms of rationality are suspended: on the contrary, we make arguments, and we adduce evidence (i.e., quotes) to support those arguments. That’s a rational procedure, if not the movement of a scientific argument beyond doubt.

There’s something more, perhaps, something almost ethical: I like the selflessness of quotation, the modesty, the absurdly beautiful, almost-tautological ideal that the work of criticism (as Walter Benjamin apparently dreamed) might be made up only of quotation and would thus just be the entire original text, written out word for word, or rather re-written word for word. We have that quasi-tautological experience sometimes, don’t we, when we are copying out a long quotation, and following the syntax of someone else’s prose like a car following a road. I suppose memorization is the same gesture: the move away from self toward someone else, the 'humanism of the other.'



Thursday 22 October 2020

Monday 5 October 2020

Lectures on Ventilation (1869)

Some illustrations from - Lectures on ventilation: being a course delivered in the Franklin Institute, of Philadelphia, during the winter of 1866-67. By Lewis W Leeds, special agent of the Quartermaster-General for the Ventilation of Government Hospitals during the war; and Consulting Engineer of Ventilation and Heating for the US Treasury Department.

The sub-title tells you something about the author's view on the issue: Man's own breath is his greatest enemy.

Published in New York John Wiley & Son  1869.

The full book is available HERE.


Friday 2 October 2020

Inspiration Information


Inspiration Information is an album by Shuggie Otis (b. 1953). It was released in 1974 on Epic Records, and it featured a single with the same title as the album. For a long time I thought it would be difficult, or impossible, to create a cover version that did justice to this original. But the version of Inspiration Information by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, recorded in 2011, is superb. In its own way, it is every bit as magnificent as the original. 

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Poems Without an ‘I’ (2020)


An excellent set of reviews of recent translations of chinese poetry by Madeleine Thien HERE in the New York Review of Book.

It includes the following explanation.

The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.” Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:

木 末 芙 蓉 花

branch end magnolia flowers

The character for “branch”
begins to transform at its tips and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.




Tuesday 22 September 2020

The Writer–Translator Equation (2020)

In the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks writes about a translation he is doing, and compares it in detail with how he is writing his latest novel. 

The translator is a writer. The writer is a translator. How many times have I run up against these assertions?—in a chat between translators protesting because they are not listed in a publisher’s index of authors; or in the work of literary theorists, even poets (“Each text is unique, yet at the same time it is the translation of another text,” observed Octavio Paz). Others claim that because language is referential, any written text is a translation of the world referred to.

In recent months, I have been dividing my working day between writing in the morning and translating in the afternoon. Maybe comparing the two activities would be a good way to test this writer–translator equation.



Monday 21 September 2020

It All Connects (2016)

Adam Curtis is a fascinating British film maker. He works for the BBC. HERE is a brilliant interview of Curtis from 2016, by the novelist Jonathan Lethem. 

In the interview they dicuss the idea of a hyperobject.

Curtis and I briefly discussed a word coined by the critic Timothy Morton to describe a problem so vast in space and time that you are unable to apprehend it: a “hyperobject.” Global warming is a classic example of a hyperobject: it’s everywhere and nowhere, too encompassing to think about. Global markets, too. But naming a hyperobject alone is of limited use; human cognition knows all too well how to file such imminent imponderables away, on a “to-do” list that’s never consulted again. 

For an example of his work, see his three part documentary for the BBC, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. In the series, Curtis suggests that instead of liberating humanity in any way, computers have "distorted and simplified our view of the world around us."


Tuesday 15 September 2020

Seeing with Fresh Eyes: Meaning, Space, Data, Truth. (2020)

Edward Tufte's latest book is in press, and will be shipped in October. One of the two-page spreads above (more HERE).

Saturday 12 September 2020

The Writing Life (1989)

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard is a short (111 pages), but wonderful book,  about what she had learned about being a writer. It is beautifully written, and almost every page has something deep to say about living, thinking, loving, and writing. 
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Thursday 10 September 2020

A Second Chance (2020)

HERE in the New York Review of Books is a wonderful story told by Janet Malcolm about how she learnt how to respond to cross-examination in a famous US libel case. 


I recently wrote about Gregory Batesons definition of information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  I refered to this as not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). I was right, it isn't a tautology. 

The phrase 'a difference which makes a difference' is a diacope. This is a literary device formed by the repetition of a word or phrase before and after an intervening word or phrase.

The canonical example of a diacope is in Hamlet: ' be, or not to be!'

The OED describes it as ‘A figure by which two words that naturally stand together, especially two parts of a compound word, are separated by the intervention of another word’ (Webster 1864).  Another famous example is the first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: 'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'.

Still, my favourite is Bateson's.

Saturday 5 September 2020

A difference, which makes a difference.

At a deep level, translation deals with the rendering of ideas or information from one form of expression into another. Into different dialects, languages, scripts, or media. It is the concept of difference which also helps us to define an idea, or a unit of information. The celebrated scientist and philosopher Gregory Bateson (1904 - 1980) addressed this issue in the Nineteenth Annual Korzybski Memorial Lecture, which he delivered on January 9, 1970, for the Institute of General Semantics. His lecture, titled Form, Substance and Difference is a rich broth of ideas about cybernetics, information theory and mind. In the essay Bateson defines information: ‘...what we mean by information—the elementary unit of information—is a difference which makes a difference...’.  This wonderful phrase of Bateson’s, a difference which makes a difference, was later used by Robert Bringhurst to also define an idea. On face value it is meaningless, it is not even a tautology (the saying of the same thing twice over using different words). But Bateson’s phrase tells us something about both language, and about experiments in the physical sciences.

It is universally the case, that if we make repeated measurements of a physical quantity, such as the mass of a potato or othermacroscopic object, with a sufficiently sensitive balance or measurement device, we see small differences between the measurements. If the time period between the repeated measurements is small, and the difference in the measured quantities is small, we call this variation ‘measurement error’, or ‘noise’, and we often ignore it. Our belief is that the true quantity is unchanging and that the differences in our measurements are not meaningful. Numerically we take the average of the varying measurements to smooth out these differences. But not all small differences are noise. Some are meaningful differences - in other words they are differences which make a difference. A number of Nobel prizes in science have been won by investigators who chose to find the cause of small differences that others had either not noticed, or had noticed and ignored.

Bateson’s not- even tautology, also tells us something specific about the nature of the English language. The historically contingent development of English means that we should be completely unsurprised that a single word, such as difference, would be overloaded with a number of different meanings, which depend on the immediate context of its use. In Bateson’s example, he uses a single word to describe two types of difference. The first is a perceptible difference, the second a meaningful difference. In concordance with the example of experimental measurement, we can sometimes perceive a difference, but it has no meaning. It does not ‘make a difference’. In other languages, which have developed and evolved through a different sequence of steps, and from different roots, these subtly distinct meanings of the word ‘difference’, might well be more usefully rendered with completely distinct words.