Thursday 27 February 2014

The Workman Keyboard

We all know that QWERTY keyboards don't help. Here are some alternatives.

Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight

At the British Library. Beautiful Science: Picturing Data, Inspiring Insight

20 February - 26 May 2014

The Folio Society Gallery; admission free


Tuesday 25 February 2014

West Kirby Olives

Image taken 25th February 2014. 
Copyright M.G. Reed. 
All rights reserved.

Sunday 23 February 2014

London Tube Vs Shanghai Metro

HERE is a detailed comparison of London Tube and Shanghai's metro, which is now longer than the London Underground system.

Below is a geographically accurate comparison of the two systems on the same scale.

On Bricolage

I first came across the word bricolage about 20 years ago from a French student who was working with me. He used it in an affectionate way to describe a piece of scientific equipment that he and I had put together from pieces of kit we had lying around the lab. It was his description of the process of tinkering around that we had used to make the thing work. 

The key characteristic of bricolage as a way of working is the use and re-use of materials that already exist to create something new. It is the recruiting of already available bits and pieces to solve the new and immediate problem. It is the opposite of top down, rational design, it is evolutionary and open-ended. It is also great fun. 

I was first taught how to do bricolage by my Dad who was by training a motor mechanic. He had learnt in the 1940's that in order to have a chance of mending a car, for which parts and spares may be non-existent or rare, one had better have a good odds & sods box of screws, springs, bushes, bolts, angle brackets and other assorted pieces of material that may be useful at some indeterminate point in the future. People with a more tidy cast of mind would describe the contents of a good odds & sods box as junk.

The French molecular biologist and Nobel laureate François Jacob (1920 - 2013) famously described evolution as bricolage. At the level of genes, evolution is surprisingly conservative and once a useful piece of biology has been obtained through natural selection it is used and re-used again and again. In The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998) Ursula Goodenough defines bricolage in this context as; the construction of things using what is at hand, the patchwork quilt.
The trader turned philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb also uses the idea of bricolage to describe his approach to optionality in research and investment.
Bricolage comes from the French word bricoleur. As far as I know there is no single english word that translates this word well. Candidates would include bodger and tinker, but both have a negative connotation or imply a low level of skill. Nevertheless, I think bodger is the best we have. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the earliest use of the word as:

1552   R. Huloet Abcedarium Anglico Latinum,   Bodger, botcher, mender, or patcher of olde garmentes.

This is close perhaps to the idea of patchwork, which is appropriate.

Once you have bricolage in mind, you can find examples everywhere. 

The public open space of the City of London as it is today, the result of nearly five hundred years of building, re-building, tinkering and bricolage. Original image from Space Is The Machine by Bill Hillier, cleaned up and re-coloured.

Wednesday 19 February 2014


The uARM is a fun robotic arm kit that is currently being funded on Kickstarter. 

The designs and software will be open-sourced after May 2014.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains 1901

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers has a chapter called Harlan, Kentucky, that describes the culture of honour that is found in the American South and Kentucky. 

In 1901 the American geographer Ellen Churchill Semple wrote a pioneering study called The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains: A study in Anthropogeography. It is a report of Semple's fieldwork and describes the cultural impact of the specific geography of Kentucky. 

It begins as follows:
In one of the most progressive and productive countries of the world, and in that section of the country which has had its civilization and its wealth longest, we find a large area where the people are still living the frontier life of the backwoods, where civilization is that of the eighteenth century, where the people speak the English of Shakespeare's time, where the majority of the inhabitants have never seen a steamboat or railroad, where money is as scarce as in colonial days, and all trade is barter. It is the great upheaved mass of the Southern Appalachians which, with the conserving power of the mountains, has caused these conditions to survive, carrying a bit of the eighteenth century intact over into this strongly contrasted twentieth century, and presenting an anachronism all the more marked because found in the heart of the bustling, money-making, novelty-loving United States. These conditions are to be found throughout the broad belt of the Southern Appalachians, but nowhere in such purity or covering so large an area as in the mountain region of Kentucky.
Originally published in the Geographical Journal (London) June, 1901.

Kentucky still has pockets of poverty. The per capita income of Harlan County is $18,665 and Kentucky as a state has 16 of the poorest counties in the US. One third of households in Harlan County have no indoor plumbing.

 For more on Semple see HERE.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Time Geography

The Swedish geographer Torsten Hägerstrand (1916-2004) was a pioneer in the study of Time Geography. A key part of his work was the development of methods for visualising worldlines. Most commonly he used three dimensional diagrams, with a 2D plane showing position on the ground, and the vertical axis time. 

He called these visualisations spacetime aquariums.

Both images from HERE

Saturday 15 February 2014

Light Painting Worldlines

Whilst going about our daily lives we all leave behind worldlines in spacetime: the four dimensional blend of space and time within which events unfold. 

Worldlines are ghostly, insubstantial filaments, silken yarns that follow us through our lives forever. They cannot be seen or felt. If worldlines could be visualised then I imagine they would look like incredibly complex  versions of light paintings.

Below is a light painting by the american photographer and visual artist Barbara Morgan (1900-1992):  Pure Energy and Neurotic Man (1940).

And how the One of Time, of Space the Three, Might in the Chain of Symbols girdled be.

Perhaps the most notable of all the Royal Astronomers of Ireland, and Irelands greatest mathematician, was Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865).  In addition to his work on optics, mechanics and mathematics he invented quaternions in 1843, a key step in the development of modern ideas of four dimensional spacetime and quantum mechanics (a fundamental element in quantum mechanical calculations is known as the Hamiltonian). 

Hamilton was a child prodigy and he was appointed to the Andrews Professorship of Astronomy in the University of Dublin when he was just 22 (before he had even graduated). He moved to the Dunsink Observatory near Dublin  and lived there for the rest of his life. 

Dunsink Observatory is about four miles north-west of Dublin castle on a low limestone hill with a view south to the Wicklow hills; ...It is a handsome building, presenting in front a facade of two wings, and a projecting centre, crowned by a dome.  

Hamilton did not have the happiest of private lives and died in 1865 after a severe attack of gout.

Image from HERE

Friday 14 February 2014

The Return of Pelican Books

Pelican Books is returning as an imprint (HERE).

Below from 1974. Five Hundred Years of Printing by S.H. Steinberg.

Image from HERE.

New edition by Oak Knoll Press HERE.
Oak Knoll Press & The British Library

Wednesday 12 February 2014

The Process of Observation

From Abraham Kaplan's book  The Conduct of Inquiry (1964).
An observation in science is first of all something done, an act performed by the scientist; only thereby is it something seen, a product of the process in which the scientist is engaged. As process, observation is a part of what Nagel calls "controlled investigation". Scientific observation is deliberate search, carried out with care and forethought, as contrasted with the casual and largely passive perceptions of everyday life. It is this deliberateness and control of the process of observation that is distinctive of science, not merely the use of special instruments (important as they are) – save as this use is itself indicative of forethought and care. Tycho Brahe was one of the greatest of astronomical observers though he had no telescope; Darwin also relied heavily on the naked eye; De Tocqueville was a superb observer without any of the data-gathering devices of contemporary social research. 
Observation is purposive behavior, directed towards ends that lie beyond the act of observation itself: the aim is to secure materials that will play a part in other phases of inquiry, like the formation and validation of hypotheses. When observation is thought as passive exposure to perception, its instrumentality is left out of account. The scientist becomes a voyeur, finding satisfaction in the unproductive experience of just looking at nature. No doubt there is always some gratification in uncovering secrets, exposing what is hidden; but the scientific motivation is more mature in its demands. In science, observation is a search for what is hidden, not just because it is hidden, but because its exposure will facilitate an intimate, sustained, and productive relationship with the world.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Agnes Arber: The Mind and the Eye

Agnes Arber was an outstanding botanist, artist and biologist. Here is one of her microscopic drawings from her book on water plants (HERE).

Saturday 1 February 2014

X-Ray Art