Sunday 29 January 2012

The Logo Man Cometh


Saturday 28 January 2012

To add clarity remove ink.

Here is a watch designed by Steven Götz - Watch3 is produced in Switzerland in a limited edition of 100 pieces. 

The premise of the design is really clever and follows many of the design principles developed by Edward Tufte. To add readability to the watch the hour numerals are printed on the underside of the sapphire crystal in the same colour as the dial. They are therefore only visible when the broad hour hand passes underneath them, adding the exact information needed at the time it is needed without adding any clutter.

At 8 o'clock you only see an 8; at 3 o'clock only a 3.

It also cleverly uses luminescent paint for the night-time view.

Quality, is a probabilistic function of quantity.

Here is a really good Malcolm Gladwell article on the myths of the early history of Apple, the invention of the Apple mouse, Xerox PARC, laser printing and other truths about innovation.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Go cry parp thy quantum.

Oh Dear. It appears that the famous dictum of T.H. Huxley is appropriate for describing the state of play in quantum cryptography;

The great tragedy of Science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Here is the full paper that describes a few of the issues that arise when the theoretically lauded approach to cryptography is implemented.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Work hard. Tell everyone everything you know. Close a deal with a handshake. Have fun!

Harold Edgerton was a remarkable MIT professor. He used stroboscopes to make incredible high speed photographs, which even today are breathtaking.

His motto was brilliant;

Work hard. Tell everyone everything you know. Close a deal with a handshake. Have fun!

HERE is a complete digital collection of images, stories and biographical material about Edgerton. 

Queen of Hearts playing card hit by a .30 calibre bullet, 1970 © Harold & Esther Edgerton Foundation, 2002, courtesy of Palm Press, Inc. Example from Victoria & Albert Museum.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Sunday 8 January 2012

Edge & John Brockman

A good piece in today's Observer about and John Brockman. HERE

Scanner Art by Katinka Matson

Here is a small portion of an untitled work, of the seedheads of a clematis, by the Flatbed Scanner artist Katinka Matson.

Her artist statement reads;

New technologies equal new perceptions. We create tools and then mould ourselves through our use of them.

In 1975, when the inventor Ray Kurzweil created the CCD (or “Charge Coupled Device”) flatbed scanner, no one imagined that this device, with a pixel-sensor that moved slowly back and forth across the page, would bring into question our established notions about seeing, vision, and perspective.

For the past several years I have experimented with a non-photographic technique for creating images by utilizing input through the flatbed CCD scanner. No camera or lenses are used. The process involves scanning flowers and other natural objects on an open-top scanner from underneath the objects with a slo-moving sensor. This technique allows for unusual opportunities to explore new ideas involving light, time, and rhythm.

It is a radically new digital aesthetic involving both new hardware (the scanner and the inkjet printer), and software (Adobe Photoshop), that allows for a new naturalism fusing nature and technology.

Without the distortion of the lens, highly detailed resolution is uniform throughout the image, regardless of the size of the printable media. The lighting effects from the sliding sensor beneath the object, coupled with overhead effects involving lighting and movement, result in a 3-D-like imaging of intense sharpness and detail. Images created by scanning direct-to-CCD cut away layers, and go to a deeper place in us than our ordinary seeing and vision.

 Katinka Matson
New York City

More stuff by other scanners here =

Saturday 7 January 2012

A Horse Splashes

On Being the Right Size

by J. B. S. Haldane (1928 - text from HERE)

The most obvious differences between different animals are differences of size, but for some reason the zoologists have paid singularly little attention to them. In a large textbook of zoology before me I find no indication that the eagle is larger than the sparrow, or the hippopotamus bigger than the hare, though some grudging admissions are made in the case of the mouse and the whale. But yet it is easy to show that a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus or a whale as small as a herring. For every type of animal there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form.
Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high - about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim's progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step. This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens ones respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.

To turn to zoology, suppose that a gazelle, a graceful little creature with long thin legs, is to become large, it will break its bones unless it does one of two things. It may make its legs short and thick, like the rhinoceros, so that every pound of weight has still about the same area of bone to support it. Or it can compress its body and stretch out its legs obliquely to gain stability, like the giraffe. I mention these two beasts because they happen to belong to the same order as the gazelle, and both are quite successful mechanically, being remarkably fast runners.

Gravity, a mere nuisance to Christian, was a terror to Pope, Pagan, and Despair. To the mouse and any smaller animal it presents practically no dangers. You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes. For the resistance presented to movement by the air is proportional to the surface of the moving object. Divide an animal's length, breadth, and height each by ten; its weight is reduced to a thousandth, but its surface only a hundredth. So the resistance to falling in the case of the small animal is relatively ten times greater than the driving force.

An insect, therefore, is not afraid of gravity; it can fall without danger, and can cling to the ceiling with remarkably little trouble. It can go in for elegant and fantastic forms of support like that of the daddy-longlegs. But there is a force which is as formidable to an insect as gravitation to a mammal. This is surface tension. A man coming out of a bath carries with him a film of water about one-fiftieth of an inch in thickness. This weighs roughly a pound. A wet mouse has to carry about its own weight of water. A wet fly has to lift many times its own weight and, as everyone knows, a fly once wetted by water or any other liquid is in a very serious position indeed. An insect going for a drink is in a great danger as man leaning out over a precipice in search of food. If it once falls into the grip of the surface tension of the water -that is to say, gets wet - it is likely to remain so until it downs. A few insects, such as water-beetles, contrive to be unwettable; the majority keep well away from their drink by means of a long proboscis.

Of course tall land animals have other difficulties. They have to pump their blood to greater heights than a man, and, therefore, require a larger blood pressure and tougher blood-vessels. A great many men die from burst arteries, greater for an elephant or a giraffe. But animals of all kinds find difficulties in size for the following reason. A typical small animal, say a microscopic worm of rotifer, has a smooth skin through which all the oxygen it requires can soak in, a straight gut with sufficient surface to absorb its food, and a single kidney. Increase its dimensions tenfold in every direction, and its weight is increased a thousand times, so that if it to use its muscles as efficiently as its miniature counterpart, it will need a thousand times as much food and oxygen per day and will excrete a thousand times as much of waste products.

Now if its shape is unaltered its surface will be increased only a hundredfold, and ten times as much oxygen must enter per minute through each square millimeter of skin, ten time as much food through each square millimeter of intestine. When a limit is reached to their absorptive powers their surface has to be increased by some special device. For example, a part of the skin may be drawn out into tufts to make gills or pushed in to mke lungs, thus increasing the oxygen-absorbing surface in proportion to the animal's bulk. Aman, for example, has a hundred square yards of lung. Similarly, the gut, instead of being smooth and straight, becomes coiled and develops a velvety surface, and other organs increase in complication. The higher animals are not larger than the lower because they are more complicated. They are more complicated because they are larger. Just the same is true of plants. The simplest plants, such as the green algae growing in stagnant water or on the bark of trees, are mere round cells. The higher plants increase their surface by putting out leaves and roots. Comparative anatomy is largely the story of the struggle to example, while vertebrates carry the oxygen from the gills or lungs all over the body in the blood, insects take air directly to every part of their body by tiny blind tubes called tracheae which open to the surface at many different points. Now, although their breathing movements they can renew the air in the outer part of the tracheal system, the oxygen has to penetrate the finer branches by means of diffusion. Gases can diffuse easily through very small distances, not many times larger than the average length traveled by a gas molecule between collisions with other molecules. But when such vast journeys-from the point of view of a molecule-as a quarter of an inch have to be made, the process becomes slow. So the portions of an insect's body more than a quarter of an inch from the air would always be short of oxygen. In consequence hardly any insects are much more than half an inch thick. Land crabs are built on the same general plan as insects, but are much clumsier. Yet like ourselves they carry oxygen around in their blood, and are therefore able to grow far larger than any insects. If the insects had hit on a plan for driving air through their tissues instead of letting it soak in, they might well have become as large as lobsters, though other considerations would have prevented them from becoming as large as man.

Exactly the same difficulties attach to flying. It is an elementary principle of aeronautics that the minimum speed needed to keep an aeroplane of a given shape in the air varies as the square root of its length. If its linear dimensions are increased four times, it must fly twice as fast. Now the power needed for the minimum speed increases more rapidly than the weight of the machine. So the larger aeroplane, which weighs sixty-four times as much as the smaller, needs one hundred and twenty-eight times its horsepower to keep up. Applying the same principle to the birds, we find that the limit to their size is soon reached. An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts. Actually a large bird such as an eagle or kite does not keep in the air mainly by moving its wings. It is generally to be seen soaring, that is to say balanced on a rising column of air. And even soaring becomes more and more difficult with increasing size. Were this not the case eagles might be as large as tigers and as formidable to man as hostile aeroplanes.

But it is time that we pass to some of the advantages of size. One of the most obvious is that it enables one to keep warm. All warm-blooded animals at rest lose the same amount of heat from a unit area of skin, for which purpose they need a food-supply proportional to their surface and not to their weight. Five thousand mice weigh as much as a man. Their combined surface and food or oxygen consumption are about seventeen times a man's. In fact a mouse eats about one quarter its own weight of food every day, which is mainly used in keeping it warm. For the same reason small animals cannot live in cold countries. In the arctic regions there are no reptiles or amphibians, and no small mammals. The smallest mammal in Spitzbergen is the fox. The small birds fly away in winter, while the insects die, though their eggs can survive six months or more of frost. The most successful mammals are bears, seals, and walruses.

Similarly, the eye is a rather inefficient organ until it reaches a large size. The back of the human eye on which an image of the outside world is thrown, and which corresponds to the film of a camera, is composed of a mosaic of "rods and cones" whose diameter is little more than a length of an average light wave. Each eye has about a half a million, and for two objects to be distinguishable their images must fall on separate rods or cones. It is obvious that with fewer but larger rods and cones we should see less distinctly. If they were twice as broad two points would have to be twice as far apart before we could distinguish them at a given distance. But if their size were diminished and their number increased we should see no better. For it is impossible to form a definite image smaller than a wave-length of light. Hence a mouse's eye is not a small-scale model of a human eye. Its rods and cones are not much smaller than ours, and therefore there are far fewer of them. A mouse could not distinguish one human face from another six feet away. In order that they should be of any use at all the eyes of small animals have to be much larger in proportion to their bodies than our own. Large animals on the other hand only require relatively small eyes, and those of the whale and elephant are little larger than our own. For rather more recondite reasons the same general principle holds true of the brain. If we compare the brain-weights of a set of very similar animals such as the cat, cheetah, leopard, and tiger, we find that as we quadruple the body-weight the brain-weight is only doubled. The larger animal with proportionately larger bones can economize on brain, eyes, and certain other organs.

Such are a very few of the considerations which show that for every type of animal there is an optimum size. Yet although Galileo demonstrated the contrary more than three hundred years ago, people still believe that if a flea were as large as a man it could jump a thousand feet into the air. As a matter of fact the height to which an animal can jump is more nearly independent of its size than proportional to it. A flea can jump about two feet, a man about five. To jump a given height, if we neglect the resistance of air, requires an expenditure of energy proportional to the jumper's weight. But if the jumping muscles form a constant fraction of the animal's body, the energy developed per ounce of muscle is independent of the size, provided it can be developed quickly enough in the small animal. As a matter of fact an insect's muscles, although they can contract more quickly than our own, appear to be less efficient; as otherwise a flea or grasshopper could rise six feet into the air.

And just as there is a best size for every animal, so the same is true for every human institution. In the Greek type of democracy all the citizens could listen to a series of orators and vote directly on questions of legislation. Hence their philosophers held that a small city was the largest possible democratic state. The English invention of representative government made a democratic nation possible, and the possibility was first realized in the United States, and later elsewhere. With the development of broadcasting it has once more become possible for every citizen to listen to the political views of representative orators, and the future may perhaps see the return of the national state to the Greek form of democracy. Even the referendum has been made possible only by the institution of daily newspapers.

To the biologist the problem of socialism appears largely as a problem of size. The extreme socialists desire to run every nation as a single business concern. I do not suppose that Henry Ford would find much difficulty in running Andorra or Luxembourg on a socialistic basis. He has already more men on his pay-roll than their population. It is conceivable that a syndicate of Fords, if we could find them, would make Belgium Ltd or Denmark Inc. pay their way. But while nationalization of certain industries is an obvious possibility in the largest of states, I find it no easier to picture a completely socialized British Empire or United States than an elephant turning somersaults or a hippopotamus jumping a hedge.

The Cast Court of the V&A

The Victoria & Albert museum in London is full of curiosities. One of the most curious, of all of these curiosities, is the pair of Cast Courts; two really vast rooms that are chock full of plaster cast or electrotype reproductions of some of the worlds most fantastic sculptures and other 3D works of art. 

From the V&A website;

These faithful copies were mainly taken from works of art or architectural details throughout Europe during the nineteenth century, when the collecting of such casts was at its most popular. The Museum commissioned or bought these reproductions from some of the leading cast manufacturers of the day. The collection that was assembled allowed people who could not travel abroad to admire some of the major European monuments and works of art.
They are still fantastic and an hour in the Cast Courts is a real education and one of the best things in London to do for free. 

For example, the Cast Court holds an electrotype of the gilt bronze plaque, Sacrifice of Isaac, the original by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) made in 1401-2. The plaque is 38.5 cm W x 41 cm H. This electrotype was made in about 1871 by Giovanni Ferdinando Franchi

However, the masterpiece of the cast rooms collection is a two part cast of the entire height of Trajans Column (113AD) - which is about 35 metres high including the famous square pedastal. In some respects this cast has higher levels of detail then the slowly eroding original in Rome. 

The Swiss Watch Industry

The Swiss watch industry is in an interesting condition. It is now dominated by the Swatch group, who not only manufacture the eponymous plastic watches, but also own many distinctive high end luxury watch brands; Rado, Blancpain, Hamilton, Longines, Omega, Tiffany & Co, Tissot and  Breguet. In addition Swatch owns ETA (ETA SA Manufacture Horlogère Suisse) who make watches, watch movements and ébauches. Through a series of mergers of previously independent mechanism manufacturers (e.g. Unitas, Valjoux, Peseux and Lemania), ETA has become the largest manufacturer of Swiss watch movements and controls a virtual monopoly over their production and supply.

Here is an interesting article in the New York Times that describes a move being made by Swatch to STOP supplying movements to the many, many watch manufacturers, Swiss and otherwise, who are using ETA (i.e. Swatch) movements.   

More background on the history of the Swiss watch industry and Swatch HERE.

Perhaps less well known than the Swiss watch industry is a very high quality tradition of mechanical watchmaking in Germany, this includes brands such as A. Lange & Söhne,  Glashütte Original and Wempe and lesser know brands Nomos, Sinn, Stowa and Mühle. Many of these companies have had an interesting recent history after the re-unification of East and West Germany. Some of them are owned by Swatch (Glashütte Original, Union Glashütte) or have watches based on either plain or modified ETA movements e.g. Stowa.    

One interesting development from the Swatch/ETA story is the Sellita company, who publish very detailed technical diagrams and specifications of their movements which are very similar to the ETA movements, to the extent that Sellita spare parts will fit in the ETA mechanisms.  There is a history of pretty good quality mechanical watch mechanism manufacture in China - in particular the Sea Gull brand (who make about 25% of worlds mechanical watch movements). 

Wednesday 4 January 2012

The First & Second Laws of Biology

"The study of living things at the molecular level established what may fairly be called the First Law of Biology, that all the entities and processes of life are obedient to the laws of physics and chemistry... the Second Law of Biology, that all entities and processes of life were created by evolution through natural selection."


From the Foreword 
Field Notes on Science & Nature
Michale R Canfield et al.
Harvard University Press
ISBN 978-0674057579

Monday 2 January 2012

Micro-Morts and Micro-lives

HERE is a post on the Understanding Uncertainty blog that tries to define a suitable unit for communicating risk. They compare a micro-mort and a micro-life.

A Micro-Mort is; a 1-in-a-million chance of sudden death, for some defined activity.

A Micro-Life is; 30 minutes off your life expectancy.

Notwithstanding the assumptions that are of necessity involved in this kind of thing I reckon that this isn't a bad effort.

The Quincunx

The Quincunx was designed by Sir Francis Galton (1911-1911)  as a physical simulation device to show how a Gaussian distribution can arise from the repeated application of a random choice of 50/50 probabilities. This is the central limit theorem of statistics. The board starts with 1 pin on the first row, 2 pins on the second row, 3 pins on the third row, and so on. Multiple balls are then dropped onto the top pin. The ball must fall to the left or right, with roughly 50/50 chance. As the balls fall through the multiple layers of pins to the bottom, they will land into bins which are placed below the last row of pins.

If there are a large number of balls used then when a count is made of the number of balls in each bin, one notices that there are more balls in the center bins than there are in the outer bins. Mathematically, we get an approximation to a normal, or Gaussian,  distribution.

The word Quincunx itself is fantastic (see definition here at Collins Dictionary Online). A quincunx was originally a coin issued by the Roman Republic c. 211–200 BC, whose value was five twelfths (quinque + uncia) of an As, the Roman standard bronze coin.  On the Roman quincunx coins, the value was sometimes indicated by a pattern of five dots or pellets. Wikipedia has a good list of where the Quincunx pattern has been used.  

Galtons original Quincunx is housed in the Galton Institute in London - HERE.

There is a Java simulation of the Quincunx HERE. Below is an example of a simulation from it.

Below is an image of Galtons original Quincunx from the book HERE.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Physics envy is the curse of biology

Scientists can be susceptible to the temptation to use complicated mathematical and statistical procedures to lend an air of scientific objectivity to conclusions. But the key task of data analysis is not to apply a fancy technique but rather to use a number of analytical approaches in an integrated manner to elucidate scientifically what is happening. Evidence pertaining to important questions in science must be balanced and integrated collections of words, numbers, images and graphics.

In some ways the heavy use of statistical hypothesis testing in biological and medical sciences could be seen as a symptom of `physics envy'  (the earliest citation to physics envy I have located is in a book review by Joel E. Cohen in the May 14, 1971 issue of Science (vol. 172), in which he wrote, `Physics-envy is the curse of biology.'). The approach that typifies the work of physicists and other researchers in the physical sciences is to test hypotheses that are based on sophisticated mathematical theories such as Newton's laws of gravitation or Maxwell's equations. These physical theories generate very specific quantitative predictions which can be treated as discrete scientific hypotheses. Experiments are conducted to try to falsify these hypotheses. If the results of the experiment refute the hypothesis it implies that the theory is not fully correct and it should either be scrapped or modified. If the results do not refute the hypothesis, the theory stands and may gain support if the experiment was a particularly critical one. 

In contrast, the hypotheses tested by many experimental biologists often do not derive from general mathematical theories about how the complexity of real world biology operates. More typically they are statistical hypotheses about the properties of a population of individuals subjected to a particular intervention.

Physics envy is also known in general, in linguistics,  and in financial modelling

Here is a paper that discusses physics envy in economics.

One related aspect of physics envy is quantitation envy. Non-physicists are impressed by the incredible ability of physicists to get tax payers to spend gargantuan sums of money on experiments (the $3BN spent on the Large Hadron Collider is a news worthy example) that only a few hundred people understand. This has the unfortunate effect of tempting biologists to spend too much on complex and expensive measurement when often simpler and more elegant means are scientifically more effective (the Danish stereologist Hans Jorgen Gundersen has an aphorism that is relevant; Do more, Less Well).


Cohen, Joel E. (1971). “Mathematics as Metaphor: a review of Dynamical System Theory in Biology. Vol. 1, Stability Theory and Its Applications by Robert Rosen.” Science, New Series, Vol. 172, No. 3984.

Science Envy

The good Doctor Ben Goldacre, writer of the Bad Science column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper and a blog and book of the same name, is a staunch critic of pseudo science. He also has hundreds of documented examples of how the media distorts science.
Ben proposes that media types are subject to a form of what I like to call “Science Envy” (it is related to Physics Envy), here is a quote from his book;
“My basic hypothesis is this: the people who run the media are humanities graduates with little understanding of science, who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour. Secretly, deep down, perhaps they resent the fact that they have denied themselves access to the most significant developments in the history of Western thought from the past two hundred years…”
At one level I understand why Ben thinks this. However, it’s a rather bleak view of the world and doesn’t give us a way forward.
Perhaps we as scientists need to do more, not to engage with media types with science envy, but to engage with honest and intelligent non-scientists by making the best multi-dimensional and honest evidence presentations that we can.  We are not without sin. Presenting complex arguments in a dumded down manner is not good enough. But neither is presenting a complex argument in a manner that has poorly though out analytical design and sloppy thinking. We need to develop skills in honest and high-integrity communication with the honest non-scientists who want to understand and act on the best quantitative and scientific evidence available.

Grays Anatomy 1918

This is a fantastic piece of prose describing the complexity of the Nervous System in the Human;
“The Nervous System is the most complicated and highly organized of the various systems which make up the human body. It is the mechanism concerned with the correlation and integration of various bodily processes and the reactions and adjustments of the organism to its environment. In addition the cerebral cortex is concerned with conscious life. It may be divided into two parts, central and peripheral.
This is from the 1918 Edition which is available, complete with illustrations, on Bartleby HERE.
More on Henry Gray on Wikipedia HERE.
The illustration from Grays 1918 edition is of of a Purkinje cell from the cerebellum.

Scott Fitzgerald's Test of Intelligence.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." 

F. Scott Fitzgerald
"The Crack Up" (1936)

Happy New Year