Saturday 30 December 2017

On the Art of Non-Fiction (2009)

From a piece by David Shenk in The Atlantic (HERE):
What is the quest of a nonfiction writer? In preparation for this talk, I re-read an interview that I did with Tom Wolfe in 1987, a few weeks before he came to speak at Brown (in a slightly larger room than this one). Wolfe said, "To me the great task is to discover things that people haven't noticed, and to bring them to life. To make people see them and understand them for the first time. The great goal is discovery." 

Image from

Friday 29 December 2017

The Forge (1969)

Thursday 21 December 2017

Die Säugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur (1774)

From HERE.

Mazes and labyrinths - a general account of their history and developments (1922)

Mazes and labyrinths - a general account of their history and developments - by William Henry Matthews. Above an illustration of a labyrinth from the floor of the Abbey of St Bertin, St Omer, France. More HERE.

Thursday 7 December 2017

The Literary Prize for the Refusal of Literary Prizes (2017)

A great piece (HERE) by Ursula Le Guin in The Paris Review on the Jean-Paul Sartre Prize for Prize Refusal. 

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm (2017)

The latest from the DeepMind team (HERE).


The game of chess is the most widely-studied domain in the history of artificial intelligence. The strongest programs are based on a combination of sophisticated search techniques, domain-specific adaptations, and handcrafted evaluation functions that have been refined by human experts over several decades. In contrast, the AlphaGo Zero program recently achieved superhuman performance in the game of Go, by tabula rasa reinforcement learning from games of self-play. In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.

How Humanists use a Library (1965)

From the doctoral dissertation of Christine Madsen (HERE) the following on the 1965 work of J.E. Burchard:

Starting with a conference paper given in 1965 by John E. Burchard, an historian tasked with explaining the working style of humanists to the computer scientists at MIT, there have been periodic attempts to uncover the information seeking needs and behaviours of humanists ... Most of these works support Burchard’s original characterization of humanists as particularly dependent upon primary resources; favouring monographs over journal articles for secondary resources; working alone and preferring not to delegate their literature searching (as is often the case in the sciences); finding historical materials as relevant as contemporary ones; and using browsing and serendipitous discovery as a vital part of the research process.

Burchard, J.E., (1965). How humanists use a library. In: C.F.J. Overhage and J.R. Harman, eds. Intrex: report
on a planning conference and information transfer experiments. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 41-87.

Image from Here.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

The Detectorists (2016)

HERE is a great piece in The Guardian on the record number of finds across the UK in 2016 by amateur metal detectorists. What is perhaps remarkable is that the rules around what to do when you find a piece of treasure have become simplified, and that there is a voluntary code of conduct. The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, was quoted as saying: “You let people follow their passion with a couple of rules you should abide by. Everyone does best.”      

Thursday 30 November 2017

November Afternoon (2017)

West Kirby

Copyright M.G. Reed 2017

Saturday 25 November 2017

The Workshop (2017)

A fantastic 6 minute long video of some of the stages involved in making a violin at the Chicago School of Violin Making HERE.

Operating An Engine Lathe (1944)

An illustration of several different ways of using internal and external calipers for measuring in the engineering workshop. From an illustrated handbook on how to use a lathe for a wide range of engineering work. By Ray S. Lindenmeyer, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering at Northwestern Technological Institute,  Evanston, Illinois. 

Full handbook is HERE.  

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Travels in the air (1871)

By Camille Flammarion, Wilfrid de Fonvielle, Gaston Tissandier and James Glaisher.  Full book of delights HERE.

Histoire de mes ascensions (1880)

By Gaston Tissandier - book HERE.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Astronomicum Caesarium (1540)

The Astronomicum Caesarium (1540) by Petrus Apianus is a beautiful book of mathematical tables and working paper mathematical devices. It is one of the most beautiful and complex hand printed books ever produced. A full high resolution scan and historical notes are HERE.

Friday 17 November 2017

Information ... consumes the attention of its recipients (1971)

" an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it"

Simon, H. A. (1971) "Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World" in: Martin Greenberger, Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest, Baltimore. MD: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 40–41.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Explanation or Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield with Engravings of each Article designed for the Utility of Merchants, Wholesale Ironmongers and Travellers (1816)

Cézanne’s Objects (2017)

A piece HERE in The Paris Review by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz on the grey-green walls of Cézanne’s studio, the effect this had on how he saw the objects in the studio, and his photographs of items from the studio.

The dismal science remains dismal

A good article HERE in Wired on the replication crisis and quality of science in economics. 

Image from HERE.

Let’s Take the Con Out of Econometrics (1983)

A great paper, with a fantastic title, by the economist Edward Leamer (HERE).

Meta-assessment of bias in science (2017)

An attempt to understand the magnitude of bias in scientific studies by Daniele Fanelli, Rodrigo Costas, and John P. A. Ioannidis (HERE). 

The Abstract reads:

Numerous biases are believed to affect the scientific literature, but their actual prevalence across disciplines is unknown. To gain a comprehensive picture of the potential imprint of bias in science, we probed for the most commonly postulated bias-related patterns and risk factors, in a large random sample of meta-analyses taken from all disciplines. The magnitude of these biases varied widely across fields and was overall relatively small. However, we consistently observed a significant risk of small, early, and highly cited studies to overestimate effects and of studies not published in peer-reviewed journals to underestimate them. We also found at least partial confirmation of previous evidence suggesting that US studies and early studies might report more extreme effects, although these effects were smaller and more heterogeneously distributed across meta-analyses and disciplines. Authors publishing at high rates and receiving many citations were, overall, not at greater risk of bias. However, effect sizes were likely to be overestimated by early-career researchers, those working in small or long-distance collaborations, and those responsible for scientific misconduct, supporting hypotheses that connect bias to situational factors, lack of mutual control, and individual integrity. Some of these patterns and risk factors might have modestly increased in intensity over time, particularly in the social sciences. Our findings suggest that, besides one being routinely cautious that published small, highly-cited, and earlier studies may yield inflated results, the feasibility and costs of interventions to attenuate biases in the literature might need to be discussed on a discipline-specific and topic-specific basis.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Anvil (1898)

An illustration of an anvil patented by David Buel of Columbus Ohio in 1898 (HERE).

Friday 10 November 2017

Thursday 9 November 2017

Equation of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines (1953)

The graph above shows the historical increase in academic citations to a single paper, published in 1953: Metropolis, N.; Rosenbluth, A.W.; Rosenbluth, M.N.; Teller, A.H.; Teller, E. (1953). "Equations of State Calculations by Fast Computing Machines". Journal of Chemical Physics. 21 (6): 1087–1092. 

The graph comes from a recent review paper: Markov Chain Monte Carlo Methods for Bayesian Data Analysis in Astronomy by Sanjib Sharma (HERE).

Wednesday 8 November 2017

The Odyssey - A new translation by Emily Wilson (2017)

To be published November 2017

The Blurb:

A lean, fleet-footed translation that recaptures Homer’s “nimble gallop” and brings an ancient epic to new life.

The first great adventure story in the Western canon, The Odyssey is a poem about violence and the aftermath of war; about wealth, poverty, and power; about marriage and family; about travelers, hospitality, and the yearning for home.

In this fresh, authoritative version—the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman—this stirring tale of shipwrecks, monsters, and magic comes alive in an entirely new way. Written in iambic pentameter verse and a vivid, contemporary idiom, this engrossing translation matches the number of lines in the Greek original, thus striding at Homer’s sprightly pace and singing with a voice that echoes Homer’s music.

Wilson’s Odyssey captures the beauty and enchantment of this ancient poem as well as the suspense and drama of its narrative. Its characters are unforgettable, from the cunning goddess Athena, whose interventions guide and protect the hero, to the awkward teenage son, Telemachus, who struggles to achieve adulthood and find his father; from the cautious, clever, and miserable Penelope, who somehow keeps clamoring suitors at bay during her husband’s long absence, to the “complicated” hero himself, a man of many disguises, many tricks, and many moods, who emerges in this translation as a more fully rounded human being than ever before.

A fascinating introduction provides an informative overview of the Bronze Age milieu that produced the epic, the major themes of the poem, the controversies about its origins, and the unparalleled scope of its impact and influence. Maps drawn especially for this volume, a pronunciation glossary, and extensive notes and summaries of each book make this an Odyssey that will be treasured by a new generation of scholars, students, and general readers alike.

More HERE.

Divergent leaf shapes among Passiflora species arise from a shared juvenile morphology (2017)


Not only does leaf shape vary between Passiflora species, but between sequential nodes of the vine. The profound changes in leaf shape within Passiflora vines reflect the temporal development of the shoot apical meristem from which leaves are derived and patterned, a phenomenon known as heteroblasty. We perform a morphometric analysis of more than 3,300 leaves from 40 different Passiflora species using two different methods: homologous landmarks and Elliptical Fourier Descriptors (EFDs). Changes in leaf shape across the vine are first quantified in allometric terms; that is, changes in the relative area of leaf subregions expressed in terms of overall leaf area. Shape is constrained to strict linear relationships as a function of size that vary between species. Statistical analysis of leaf shape, using landmarks and EFDs, reveals that species effects (regardless of node) are the strongest, followed by interaction effects between species and heteroblasty (i.e., species-specific patterns in leaf shape across nodes) and that heteroblasty effects across nodes (regardless of species) are negligible. The ability of different nodes to predictively discriminate species and the variability of landmark and EFD traits at each node is then analyzed. Heteroblastic trajectories, the changes in leaf shape between the first and last measured leaves in a vine, are then compared between species in a multivariate space. Leaf shape diversity among Passiflora species is expressed in a heteroblastic-dependent manner, unique to each species. Leaf shape is constrained by linear, allometric relationships related to leaf size that vary between species. There is a strong species × heteroblasty interaction effect for leaf shape, suggesting that different leaf shapes between species arise through changes in shape across nodes specific to each species. The first leaves in the series are not only more like each other, but are also less variable across species. From this similar, shared leaf shape, subsequent leaves in the heteroblastic series follow divergent morphological trajectories. The disparate leaf shapes characteristic of Passiflora species arise from a shared, juvenile morphology.

Full paper HERE.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Data Looks Better Naked (2013)

The Value is in the Data (Wrangling) - 2017

Far too often, in the current headlong rush to apply machine learning and predictive modelling to data, people are wont to forget the Central paradox of Data: It is impossible to assess whether a given piece of data is any good or not, simply by inspection of the data alone.

This paradox is as true for a Gigabyte of electronic data records in a fancy database, as an individual measurement of the weight of a bag of sweets in grams. It is true for the simplest application of the fundamental statistical question: Compared to What?, as well as the most complex multi-layered questioning of a predictive model (weighing a bag of sweets is a comparison: what is it's mass compared to a standardised unit of mass - the gram). 

How to proceed?

Here is a superb, modestly written explanation by Daniel Haight of the reality of what is involved in real data analysis. 

He describes 7 steps: 
  1. Gather data from inside and outside the firewall
  2. Understand (and document) your sources and their limitations
  3. Clean up the duplicates, blanks, and other simple errors
  4. Join all your data into a single table
  5. Create new data by calculating new fields and recategorizing
  6. Visualize the data to remove outliers and illogical results
  7. Share your findings continuously

I recognise these steps, because this is what I learned by a process of tinkering and making mistakes nearly 30 years ago when I was a Data Wrangler; using image analysis kit, cameras and lenses, Lotus 1-2-3 macros, FORTRAN and C programming languages and hand made data visualisations.

Clear Off the Table (2014)

Friday 3 November 2017

The trees wave, the clouds pass.(1931)

HERE is the second in a series of eight pieces in The Paris Review by Jeff Dolven, in which he, "will take apart and put back together one beloved or bedeviling sentence every week". This week it is a sentence from Virginia Woolf’s book The Waves (1931): The trees wave, the clouds pass.

Which is not to say that there is any law against reversing them. “The clouds pass, the trees wave.” This is a different sentence, but not an illegal one, not the way the intransitive “wave the trees” would be. We have come to the limits of what grammar will dictate, and other laws, less scrutable and less fair, take over. In Louis’s sentence there is a bare appeal to grammar-as-nature, compliance with the rules of construction at their minimum. But his sighing comma is not grammatical, really, since it puts two clauses together that could just as well be parsed by two periods, and whatever relation obtains between two sentences is beyond grammar’s reach. Enter logic, rhetoric, poetics. With that comma, Woolf releases the sentence into the hazards of choice, of constructions that might be otherwise. The shimmer of alternatives is a basic property of a literary sentence, and all the pathos, and beauty, of this one—in its poignant minimalism—lies in the possibility that it might have run the other way and the fact that it does not. All our soliloquies share grammar, but from there they must diverge.  

Thursday 26 October 2017

Stände und Handwerker (1568)

Two woodcuts from Stände und Handwerker by Jost Amman with Verses by Han Sachs - from HERE. This is an 1884 facsimile of the 1568 edition published in Frankfurt by Feyerabend. Left is an illustration of type founding and right printing. 

Sunday 22 October 2017

The Music of Proof (2017)

HERE is a brilliant collaboration between Dr Emily Howard, a composer, computer scientist and director of the PRISM team at Royal Northern College of Music, and the Oxford mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy.

Image: The front, back and side of the Dumas Viola by Giovanni Paolo Maggini.  From Gio: Paolo Maggini: His Life and Work, Margaret L.Huggins (1892). The authors assert that: "As a specimen of Maggini's violas the Dumas instrument may confidently be pronounced unsurpassable. It will bear comparison with the finest violas of the other great makers."

From HERE.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Mastering the game of Go without human knowledge (2017)

An incredible paper in Nature on a DeepMind AI breakthrough.


A long-standing goal of artificial intelligence is an algorithm that learns, tabula rasa, superhuman proficiency in challenging domains. Recently, AlphaGo became the first program to defeat a world champion in the game of Go. The tree search in AlphaGo evaluated positions and selected moves using deep neural networks. These neural networks were trained by supervised learning from human expert moves, and by reinforcement learning from self-play. Here we introduce an algorithm based solely on reinforcement learning, without human data, guidance or domain knowledge beyond game rules. AlphaGo becomes its own teacher: a neural network is trained to predict AlphaGo’s own move selections and also the winner of AlphaGo’s games. This neural network improves the strength of the tree search, resulting in higher quality move selection and stronger self-play in the next iteration. Starting tabula rasa, our new program AlphaGo Zero achieved superhuman performance, winning 100–0 against the previously published, champion-defeating AlphaGo.

Original paper HERE.
Great write up in The Guardian HERE

The Deeper Roles of Mathematics in Physical Laws (2015)

HERE is a really thought provoking essay by the physicist Kevin H. Knuth on the mystery of why mathematics is seemingly universal in the physical sciences. This has some technical content, but not so much, given how profound an argument Knuth is making. 


Many have wondered how mathematics, which appears to be the result of both human creativity and human discovery, can possibly exhibit the degree of success and seemingly-universal applicability to quantifying the physical world as exemplified by the laws of physics. In this essay, I claim that much of the utility of mathematics arises from our choice of description of the physical world coupled with our desire to quantify it. This will be demonstrated in a practical sense by considering one of the most fundamental concepts of mathematics: additivity. This example will be used to show how many physical laws can be derived as constraint equations enforcing relevant symmetries in a sense that is far more fundamental than commonly appreciated.

Below, from his conclusion:

The results here shed light on the long-standing questions surrounding the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. We have seen interplay between two different aspects of mathematics. The first aspect is related to ordering and symmetries, and the second aspect is related to quantification and the equations that enable one to quantify things. Our choices in the phenomena that we focus on,the descriptions we adopt and the comparisons that we find important often amount to selecting a particular concept of ordering, which can possesses symmetries. The ordering relation and its symmetries in turn constrain consistent attempts at quantification resulting in constraint equations, which in many cases are related to what are considered to be physical laws. Much of the wonderment surrounding the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics is not associated with the first aspect of ordering and symmetries since these more clearly depend on a choice of description and comparison, which in turn results in symmetries that can be easily observed and verified. Instead such wonderment is associated with the fact that we have equations that consistently allow us to quantify the physical world, and that these equations not only work very well, but in many cases exhibit some degree of universality. If we consider the equations themselves to be fundamental then the success of mathematics is somewhat of a mystery. But if we step back and release ourselves from familiarity and consider order and symmetry to be fundamental, then we see these equations as rules to constrain our artificial quantifications in accordance with the underlying order and symmetries of our chosen descriptions. 

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Quantifying is a Committing Task

A slide from a talk I gave in Manchester 2014: `Quantifying is a committing task.' (HERE).

The phrase `Quantifying is a committing task' is taken from Cruz-Orive, L.M. (1994). `Toward a more objective biology'. Neurobiology of Aging, Vol. 15, Iss. 3, pp 377-378

Image Copyright M.Reed 2014.

The Best Way to Make Sense of the World

Here is an entertaining profile of the American mathematician Rebecca Goldin - who has "... made it her life’s work to improve quantitative literacy". 

Image from Components of adaptive variation in pinus contorta from the inland northwest by G.E. Rehfeldt (1987) Intermountain Research Station, Ogden, Utah. HERE.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe's Winds from the Pennines to Provence (2017)

And then one day I saw a map with paths I hadn’t seen before. It was a map of Europe transfigured by coloured lines, marauding arrows like troop advances that ploughed across borders, over land and sea, connecting regions and cultures that seemed quite separate in my mind: Latin with Slavic, continental with coastal, North African with southern European. These mysterious corridors had names every bit as tantalising as the Silk Road or the Camino de Santiago: the Mistral, the Tramontana, the Foehn, the Sirocco, the Bora. There was even one in the north of England, more brusquely named the Helm. The map showed the routes of local winds, which blow with tremendous force at specific times of year – normally at the transitions between seasons, such as when winter turns to spring – and, I was intrigued to discover, they were said to influence everything from architecture to psychology. The fact that these invisible powers had names, rather than simply compass directions that described where they were from, gave them a sense of majesty, even of personality. They sounded like characters I could meet. Those swooping, plunging arrows suggested routes I might follow, trails that had not been walked before. As soon as I saw that map I knew: I would follow the winds.

Map of Europe’s named winds by Rodney Paull, 2017


The Psychology of Good Judgement (1996)

Another of Gerd Gigerenzer's papers on both frequency formats and fast and frugal decision making (HERE). 

The Psychology of Good Judgement
Frequency Formats and Simple Algorithms

Gerd Gigerenzer, PhD


Mind and environment evolve in tandem—almost a platitude. Much of judgement and decision making research, however, has compared cognition to standard statistical models, rather than to how well it is adapted to its environment. The author argues two points. First, cognitive algorithms are tuned to certain information formats, most likely to those that humans have encountered during their evolutionary history. In particular, Bayesian computations are simpler when the information is in a frequency format than when it is in a probability format. The author investigates whether frequency formats can make physicians reason more often the Bayesian way. Second, cognitive algorithms need to operate under constraints of limited time, knowledge, and computational power, and they need to exploit the structures of their environments. The author describes a fast and frugal algorithm, Take The Best, that violates standard principles of rational inference but can be as accurate as sophisticated "optimal" models for diagnostic inference. 

Key words: Bayes' theorem; bounded rationality; information format; probabilistic reasoning; satisficing; training; medical education. 

How to Improve Bayesian Reasoning Without Instruction: Frequency Formats (1995)

A paper HERE by Gerd Gigerenzer and Ulrich Hoffrage that argues that natural frequencies are a much better way of presenting, examining and discussing arguments based on Bayes Theorem than other approaches. In the paper, Gigerenzer cites Laplace's assertion that “the theory of probability is at bottom nothing more than good sense reduced to a calculus which evaluates that which good minds know by a sort of instinct, without being able to explain how with precision.” 

The Prosecutor's fallacy (1987)

Interpretation of statistical evidence in criminal trials: The prosecutor's fallacy and the defense attorney's fallacy.

Thompson, William C.,Schumann, Edward L.
Law and Human Behavior, Vol 11(3), Sep 1987, pp 167-187

Two experiments tested 217 undergraduates' ability to use statistical evidence on the incidence rate of a "matching" characteristic when judging the probable guilt of a criminal suspect, based on written descriptions of evidence. Exp I varied whether incidence rate statistics were presented as conditional probabilities or as percentages and found the former promoted inferential errors favoring the prosecution, while the latter produced more errors favoring the defense. Exp II exposed Ss to 2 fallacious arguments on how to interpret the statistical evidence. The majority of Ss failed to detect the error in one or both of the arguments. In both experiments, a comparison of Ss' judgments to Bayesian norms revealed a general tendency to underutilize statistical evidence. 

Image from HERE.

Doing Cartography as Professional Amateurs (2017)

An example map from an excellent talk, Doing Cartography as Professional Amateurs, by Alan McConchie of Stamen Design, San Francisco (HERE).

Saturday 14 October 2017

The Spirit of Voltaire and Rousseau (1794)

The “Spirit” of Voltaire and Rousseau leading these two celebrated writers to the temple of glory and immortality Anonymous etching, ca. 1794

Image from HERE.

Thursday 12 October 2017

A Few Remarks on the Helm Wind (1836)

A few remarks on the Helm Wind. By the Rev. William Walton, of Allenheads, near Hexham. Communicated by P. M. Roget, M.D., Sec. U.S. 

On the western declivity of a range of mountains, extending from Brampton, in Cumberland, to Brough, in Westmoreland, a distance of 40 miles, a remarkably violent wind occasionally prevails, blowing with tremendous violence down the western slope of the mountain, extending two or three miles over the plain at the base, often overturning horses with carriages, and producing much damage, especially during the period when ripe corn is standing. It is accompanied by a loud noise, like the roaring of distant thunder: and is carefully avoided by travellers in that district, as being fraught with considerable danger. It is termed the helm wind; and its presence is indicated by a belt of clouds, denominated the helm bar, which rests in front of the mountain, three or four miles west of its summit, and apparently at an equal elevation, remaining immoveable during twenty-four or even thirty-six hours, and collecting or attracting to itself all the light clouds which approach it. As long as this bar continues unbroken, the wind blows with unceasing fury, not in gusts, like other storms, but with continued pressure. This wind extends only as far as the spot where the bar is vertical, or immediately over head; while at the distance of a mile farther west, as well as to the east of the summit of the mountain, it is not unfrequently almost a perfect calm. The author details the particulars of an expedition which lie made with a view to investigate the circumstances of this remarkable meteorological phenomenon, and proposes a theory for its explanation. 

A Meteorological Journal kept at Allenheads, 1400 feet above the level of the Sea, from the 1st of May to the 1st of November, 1836. By the Rev. William Walton. Communicated by P. M. Roget, M.D., Sec. R.S. 

Monday 9 October 2017

The Mind of John McPhee (2017)

Recently, the New York Times magazine published this superb profile of John McPhee (HERE). 

Sunday 1 October 2017


The Super-Kamiokande apparatus!

Grand Unification Dream Kept at Bay (2017)

Great piece HERE on how careful high quality observation (not experiment) by Japanese physicists at the Super Kamiokande over a 20 year period have not seen proton decay - and not supported some of the most cherished Grand Unified Theories of theoretical physicists. 

Oh dear.

Q: How could it be that nature isn't as mathematically beautiful as thousands of mathematical physicists willed that it must be so? 
A: The Mind Projection Fallacy strikes again.  


Another story to file under the heading of Thomas Henry Huxley's assertion: 

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