Wednesday, 28 April 2021

FRONTAL ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER (2017)



I have read quite a bit about information over the years (and entropy and noise and inference, all of which are related). It's a tricky thing to understand and there are not so many plain English descriptions of what information, bits and Claude Shannon are about.  James Gleick's book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is very good. But also pretty long. 

HERE is a very well written and readable shorter piece by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni that explains the early work of Claude Shannon and his 'invention' of information theory.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

My father was famous as John le Carré (2021)

A wonderful piece HERE by David Cornwell, on the deeply affectionate collaboration between his parents Jane and David - who wrote as John le Carré.

Very few, very wise people saw through them both, of whom the most recent and the most absolute is Richard Ovenden, who examined the papers my father loaned to the Bodleian library in Oxford and observed a “deep process of collaboration”. His analysis is a perfect match for my recollection: “A rhythm of working together that was incredibly efficient … a kind of cadence from manuscript, to typescript, to annotated and amended typescripts … with scissors and staplers being brought to bear … getting closer and closer to the final published version.”

 

 

 

 

Friday, 2 April 2021

The 3.5% Rule (2019)


 

Berelson & Steiner (1964) Human behavior: An inventory of scientific findings, is a classic of social science research. It offered a threefold grand summary of all of the social science research they had analysed: (1) Some do, some don't. (2) The differences aren't very great. (3) It's more complicated than that.

HERE is a summary article about a wonderful piece of social science research which stretches the third of the classes of study in this 3 fold summary. In short it shows that nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those which have engaged more than 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change.  

Thursday, 1 April 2021

The Lab-Leak Hypothesis (2021)

  


A thought provoking and non-hysterical article by Nicholson Baker in the New York Magazine about how the Covid-19 virus came to be. The introductory paragraph summarises his story:

What happened was fairly simple, I’ve come to believe. It was an accident. A virus spent some time in a laboratory, and eventually it got out. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began its existence inside a bat, then it learned how to infect people in a claustrophobic mine shaft, and then it was made more infectious in one or more laboratories, perhaps as part of a scientist’s well-intentioned but risky effort to create a broad-spectrum vaccine. SARS-2 was not designed as a biological weapon. But it was, I think, designed. Many thoughtful people dismiss this notion, and they may be right. They sincerely believe that the coronavirus arose naturally, “zoonotically,” from animals, without having been previously studied, or hybridized, or sluiced through cell cultures, or otherwise worked on by trained professionals. They hold that a bat, carrying a coronavirus, infected some other creature, perhaps a pangolin, and that the pangolin may have already been sick with a different coronavirus disease, and out of the conjunction and commingling of those two diseases within the pangolin, a new disease, highly infectious to humans, evolved. Or they hypothesize that two coronaviruses recombined in a bat, and this new virus spread to other bats, and then the bats infected a person directly — in a rural setting, perhaps — and that this person caused a simmering undetected outbreak of respiratory disease, which over a period of months or years evolved to become virulent and highly transmissible but was not noticed until it appeared in Wuhan.


Tuesday, 23 March 2021

To Speak of the Sea in Irish

 

Here is a wonderful piece on a dictionary of coastal irish words and expressions which have been collected by Manchán Magan.

A coastal Irish speaker, walking the beach at night, might have equally expected to hear stranach (the murmuring of water rushing from shore), or the whisper of caibleadh (distant spirit voices drifting in over the waves). They knew the ceist an taibhse (the question for the ghost)—a riddle used to determine if someone they met along the way was human or supernatural. Many words describe ways of predicting the weather, or fishing fortunes, by paying attention to birds or wind direction; to the sea’s sounds; or to the colors in a fire.

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Green Caterpillar (1975)

 

This is an excellent album: particularly the first track. 

Bass – Isoo Fukui
Congas, Percussion – Yuji Imamura
Drums – Tetsujiro Obara
Guitar – Kazumi Watanabe
Piano – Masaru Imada

Easy to find on YouTube. 

 

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Is This Home? (2020)

 

A great piece HERE in the Oxford American magazine on an extended series of gigs that the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk played in his home state of North Carolina in 1970.

Monday, 1 February 2021

A Poet's Glossary (2014)

 

The poet and advocate for poetry, Edward Hirsch, published a best-selling book in 1999 called How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. That book had an addendum of poetic terms, which he later expanded to be a book of its own - A Poet's Glossary, published in 2014.  Here is Hirsch's entry for  Filídh.

The filídh were a professional caste of poets in early Ireland who were often credited with the supernatural power of prophecy. The words fili and filídh are etymologically connected to “seer.” These poets, who were the successors of the druids and could practice divination, were magicians and lawgivers. They were the highest-ranking members of a group called the áes dána  (literally, “the people of skill, craft”). In English, the word bard usually denotes a Celtic poet, but the filídh were in fact more aristocratic and enjoyed greater privileges than the bards. Their poetry is nonetheless called bardic, since they were entrusted with an oral tradition, the full knowledge of the tribe, which predated Christianity. Their education was daunting and they spent years at a dedicated school where poetry was studied as a craft. There were seven orders of filídh; the highest grade, the ollamh, studied for twelve years. The filídh practiced an elaborate form of syllabic poetry and mastered complex metrical forms, which employed both internal and end-rhymes, consonance, alliteration, and other devices of sound. They learned by heart at least 300 poetic meters, 250 primary stories, and 100 secondary stories. They recited traditional tales and topographical lore. They also served as crucial advisors and historical chroniclers, who remembered the genealogies of their patrons. They were so bound by tradition that there is little change in their work for the four centuries from 1250 to 1650. The poet Giolla Bríghde Mac Con Midhe explained in the thirteenth century:


     If poetry were to be suppressed, my people,

     if we were without history, without ancient lays,

     forever, but the father of each man,

     everyone will pass unheralded.


Ted Hughes said that the fili “was the curator and re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.”

More HERE

 

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Breaking through (1940)


 

In an unpublished manuscript essay of 1940, called The Philosophy of Breaking Through, the American ecologist Ed Ricketts (1897 - 1948) tried to address the experience that humans occasionally have of moments of transcendental insight, many of which lead to the creation of new things. Ricketts gave many different examples, but he considered the pattern he had identified as a human universal, which was often only missed due to obstacles we have in our own perceptions: obstacles created by the way we create routines to deal with life.  The explicit articulation of this theme by the Californian poet Robinson Jeffers (1887 –1962), was of particular significance to Ricketts:    

No doubt some few wise people know this merely through living. But many of us can achieve at least a clearer and more easily conveyed conscious expression of it through the spiritual motifs underlying literature, especially in poetry. . .

But in some of Jeffers’ poems, the thing is stated clearly, with full conscious recognition, and with that exact economy of words which we associate with scientific statements: ‘Humanity is the mold to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire, . . . The atom to be split.’

It was this phrase ‘…the crust to break through’, taken from Jeffers’ allegorical narrative in free verse, Roan Stallion, that Ricketts’ used to describe an experience that he found otherwise difficult to put into words. 

Ricketts’ essay describes a common pattern for these moments of breaking through. Often, there is a tension between what is, and what might be so, or between two opposing views: ‘The struggle is between opposing forces, each honest in its own right and without evasion but limited in scope and vision’. It was, Ricketts argued, through the resolution of these tensions, that a statistically rare break through, or epiphany happens. And at that point in time there is clarity of insight that may lead to artistic creation, a discovery, or an invention.

Little wonder, then, that at the very moment that an individual tries out something really new, they go beyond what their social group already knows. They break through. And when an individual reaches beyond what is already known, they do not ignore or negate what they have inherited and learned, they build on it.

In response to questions in 2016 about the awarding of a Nobel prize to Bob Dylan, the American music critic Greil Marcus has the following to say about Dylan's song “Like a Rolling Stone”:

I can’t listen to that song without feeling as if I’m hearing it for the first time. Every note in that song, every word, every inflection is a breakthrough. There is an energy that has come to bear on all the people in that room, all the people playing that song in that moment, that is taking them past themselves, taking them somewhere they’ve never been, somewhere they’ve never played, they’ve never sung with that kind of synchronicity. Every person playing off every other, and every person stepping into a realm where he’s never been before in terms of passion, expressiveness, intensity. Taking a form and pushing it to its absolute limit and pushing yourself past your limits. That’s what you hear over those six minutes.

Let’s put it this way: a song like that, a work of art like that, comes to no artist more than once. But it doesn’t necessarily come in anyone’s lifetime. We are lucky we are alive when that song can be played.

From HERE.


Thursday, 14 January 2021

A Prodigy Who Cracked Open the Cosmos (2021)

 


A great interview (HERE) with the Nobel prize winner Frank Wilczek - on his work in theoretical physics over the past 50 years.

Have you had to put these projects on hold because of the pandemic?

 

Oh, no. No! They’ve been fostered because of it. I’m not schlepping around and going to conferences and traveling. I mean, I’m eating better. I’ve lost 15 pounds, taken up juggling, doing exercise. It’s given me time to do creative thinking. In a way I’ve been going back to school, as if I were a graduate student. I want to learn more about machine learning. I’m going to be 70 in May, but I feel younger now than I’ve felt for many years.

 

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

... that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice... (1981)

 


At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of the river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

One Hundred Years of Solitude.

HERE is a wonderful interview with Gabriel García Márquez in The Paris Review from 1981.


 

 

Monday, 11 January 2021

The car, the radio, the night (2007)

 


I had forgotten just how good this was. HERE is an article from 2007 by Laura Barton, about her  rock'n'roll pilgrimage to Boston's Route 128 - the site and subject of Jonathan Richman's legendary song Roadrunner

Roadrunner is one of the most magical songs in existence. It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets. As Greil Marcus put it in his book Lipstick Traces: "Roadrunner was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest."


Saturday, 9 January 2021

Now It Can Be Told (2021)

 


A superb piece in the New York Times (HERE) on how Neil Sheehan got hold of US Government papers on the Vietnam war, and published them as a front page story in 1971. 

He also revealed that he had defied the explicit instructions of his confidential source, whom others later identified as Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department analyst who had been a contributor to the secret history while working for the Rand Corporation. In 1969, Mr. Ellsberg had illicitly copied the entire report, hoping that making it public would hasten an end to a war he had come passionately to oppose.

Contrary to what is generally believed, Mr. Ellsberg never “gave” the papers to The Times, Mr. Sheehan emphatically said. Mr. Ellsberg told Mr. Sheehan that he could read them but not make copies. So Mr. Sheehan smuggled the papers out of the apartment in Cambridge, Mass., where Mr. Ellsberg had stashed them; then he copied them illicitly, just as Mr. Ellsberg had done, and took them to The Times.

Over the next two months, he strung Mr. Ellsberg along. He told him that his editors were deliberating about how best to present the material, and he professed to have been sidetracked by other assignments. In fact, he was holed up in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan with the documents and a rapidly expanding team of Times editors and reporters working feverishly toward publication.

This reads like a spy story. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Nōgaku zue (1897)

 


By the Japanese artist Kōgyo Tsukioka (1869 – 1927) from HERE.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Algorithms come with serious side effects (2020)

 


A good essay HERE by John Naughton in The Observer on the rise of unregulated machine learning algorithms. It ends with a thought experiment:

Imagine what it would be like if we gave the pharmaceutical industry the leeway that we currently grant to tech companies. Any smart biochemist working for, say, AstraZeneca, could come up with a strikingly interesting new molecule for, say, curing Alzheimer’s. She would then run it past her boss, present the dramatic results of preliminary experiments to a lab seminar after which the company would put it on the market. You only have to think of the Thalidomide scandal to realise why we don’t allow that kind of thing. Yet it is exactly what the tech companies are able to do with algorithms that turn out to have serious downsides for society.

Dynamicland (2018)

 

Here is a very cool project called Dynamicland, that is trying to change the way that humans collaborate with computers, physical artefacts and each other. Their mission is to, "...incubate a humane dynamic medium whose full power is accessible to all people". 

  • We are a non-profit long-term research group in the spirit of Doug Engelbart and Xerox PARC. 
  • We are inventing a new computational medium where people work together with real objects in the real world, not alone with virtual objects on screens. 
  • We are building a community workspace in the heart of Oakland, CA. The entire building is the computer. 

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Will you be Seated? (1935)

 


From Paul Klee Notebooks Vol. 1 - The Thinking Eye. 

Beyond the Narrative Arc (2019)

 

A superb essay by Jane Alison in The Paris Review (HERE), on the range of different structures that are inspired by natural forms, and are useful for both fiction and non-fiction:  meander, spiral, radial, fractal, cell.

 

 

Friday, 1 January 2021

A Grammar of Typography: Classical Design in the Digital Age (2020)

 

I just got a copy of A Grammar of Typography: Classical Design in the Digital Age by Mark Argetsinger. It is a big book: 8 1/2 x 12 inches, 530 pages. Lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed and made.    

What a way to start another year of lockdowns. 

On the Power of Sharing (2021)



This Editorial in The Guardian (HERE) is about the scientific generosity of Prof. Zhang Yongzhen, who works for the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre. Prof Zhang was the first person to obtain a whole genome sequence of Sars-CoV-2 on 5th January 2020. He immediately began sharing his work and within days the Jenner Institute, Moderna, and BioNTech had all designed vaccines.

I believe we have a moral obligation to share good ideas. It is how we have learnt ourselves - all human culture is built on sharing. We just need to pass things on.

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life has this to say about open and enthusiastic sharing. 

"... 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, 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

Abstract

 

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.