Sunday 28 June 2020

Dread Beat an' Blood (1978)

Dread Beat an' Blood is the first album by the brilliant Linton Kwesi Johnson. I bought it when it came out in 1978. It remains one of my favourite reggae albums, a perfect mix of Johnson's poetry and words, and Dennis Bovell's dub vision.

One of the poems that Johnson wishes he had written is Poem of Shape and Motion #1 by the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, which begins:

I was wondering if I could shape this passion
just as I wanted in solid fire.
I was wondering if the strange combustion
of my days
the tension of the world inside of me
and the strength of my heart were enough.

Computers and Society (1985)

Below from an interview with Prof Joseph Weizenbaum from the MIT The Tech paper in 1985 (HERE). 

It is true that a computer, for example, can be used for good or evil. It is true that a helicopter can be used as a gunship and it can also be used to rescue people from a mountain pass. And if the question arises of how a specific device is going to be used, in what I call an abstract ideal society, then one might very well say one cannot know.

But we live in a concrete society, [and] with concrete social and historical circumstances and political realities in this society, it is perfectly obvious that when something like a computer is invented, then if it is going to be adopted it will be for military purposes. It follows from the concrete realities in which we live, it does not follow from pure logic. But we’re not living in an abstract society, we’re living in the society in which we in fact live.

If you look at the enormous fruits of human genius that mankind has developed in the last 50 years, atomic energy and rocketry and flying to the moon and coherent light, and it goes on and on and on – and then it turns out that every one of these triumphs is used primarily in military terms. So it is not reasonable for a scientist or technologist to insist that he or she does not know – or cannot know – how it is going to be used.


The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication

Basecamp are a software company. HERE is their philosophy and approach to communication within their company.

Communication often interrupts, so good communication is often about saying the right thing at the right time in the right way with the fewest side effects.

Saturday 27 June 2020

The Moon at Sodegaura in Shinagawa from the series Six Views of Tokyo

By the artist Nakamura Fusetsu, 中村 不折 (1866–1943). From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (HERE).

Wednesday 24 June 2020

The Paris Experiment (2012)

HERE is an excellent documentary about The Paris Experiment. In September of 2012, a historic test took place in Paris, which involved some of the worlds finest violins and violinists. It was a proper double blind comparison of very old and fine violins versus new high-quality violins, in concert hall settings. 

On Translationese (2020)

HERE is a short essay in The Paris Review by the writer Masatsugo Ono, about his early reading of two Japanese authors - Murakami and Oe, both of whom had styles that Japanese critics had called 'translationese'. It recounts how Murakami wrote his first novel in English, and then translated it into Japanese. In passing it tells of the wider influences that French, German, and English language writing (mainly American) has had on modern Japanese literature. 

"The next time I encountered those books was after I moved to Tokyo for university. I came across a large stack of them right by the entrance of one of the city’s largest bookstores. They were the two parts of Haruki Murakami’s novel Noruwei no mori (Norwegian Wood). I was already familiar with him as a master of short essays. My landlady had the bad (or good?) habit of reading books in the bathroom, and Murakami’s essays were among her favorites. One day, she handed me a collection she had finished. In these essays, he writes about literature and music and even cooking in such a natural way that it feels as though he’s addressing the reader personally. Something delightful and friendly in his style fascinated me (it’s a shame that those early essays of his haven’t been published in English). I couldn’t say how exactly, but I immediately felt that his style was different from other contemporary Japanese writers I had read. Probably because one of my professors (who was from Belgium) had translated it into French, A Wild Sheep Chase was the first of Murakami’s novels I read. And I soon found myself reading through them all". 

Sunday 21 June 2020

Principles of Graphical Excellence (1983)

Prof. Edward Tufte has been busy for more than 50 years on the development of evidence based methods for policy and science - primarily through honing the use of graphical methods. From 1983's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is this set of principles - expanded, developed, and elaborated over another four books ever since.

Image Copyright E.R. Tufte.

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey (2020)

A wonderful short story (HERE) by Haruki Murakami in The New Yorker, of the authors experience of meeting a well educated and polite monkey at a hot-spring. Here is what the Shinagawa monkey thinks about love:
'I believe that love is the indispensable fuel for us to go on living. Someday that love may end. Or it may never amount to anything. But even if love fades away, even if it’s unrequited, you can still hold on to the memory of having loved someone, of having fallen in love with someone. And that’s a valuable source of warmth. Without that heat source, a person’s heart—and a monkey’s heart, too—would turn into a bitterly cold, barren wasteland. A place where not a ray of sunlight falls, where the wildflowers of peace, the trees of hope, have no chance to grow. Here in my heart, I treasure the names of those seven beautiful women I loved.' The monkey laid a palm on his hairy chest. 'I plan to use these memories as my own little fuel source to burn on cold nights, to keep me warm as I live out what’s left of my own personal life'.

The monkey in the story is a Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata) - an Old world monkey that is native to Japan. For comprehensive information on this species, including its rare ability to talk, see this 'Systematic review of Japanese macaques, Macaca fuscata', HERE.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity (1976)

One of the wonderful things about the physical sciences is that with a small number of compact ‘laws’, plus some basic commitments to logical thinking, we can understand how the physical universe works. This is well illustrated with Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which states that: ‘every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres’. 

This law is sufficient to explain why the coffee you spilt this morning will drop to the floor, and also why our solar system (‘…the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it’), has remained turning for the past 4.6 billion years. Note that the ‘laws of physics’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.

In the social sciences, the state of affairs is generally not so clear-cut. However, after many years of looking, I believe that there are a few ‘laws of social science’ that have a near universal domain. The first, is of course the Law of the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action, first promulgated as such by Robert K Merton in 1936. The second is a set of linked ‘laws’, called The basic laws of human stupidity, which were developed by the Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922 - 2000), and first published in 1976. Both of these laws bring to my mind the same kind of universality as Newton’s law of gravity - and also act both for tiny individual ‘purposive social actions’, and also for human follies which unfold on a monumental and disastrous scale. 

Cipolla defines two factors which need to be evaluated when considering a pattern of human behaviour, (i) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself, and (ii) the benefits and losses that an individual causes to others.  These factors are in principle orthogonal, objective, and quantitative, and Cipolla enumerates and names the four possibilities. Using a simple notation, of + to indicate benefits and - to indicate losses, and S for self, O for others, Cipolla’s four behavioural patterns are: Helpless (S-/O+), Bandit (S+/O-), Intelligent (S+/O+), and Stupid (S-/O-). (As an aside, we can now also see that the famous 'win-win scenario' often talked about by management school professors and negotiators, is nothing other than the intelligent pattern of behaviour described by Cipolla i.e.
This leads us nicely to Cipolla’s definition of stupidity (it is actually his 3rd law): ‘A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses’. This definition makes it clear that ‘stupidity’ is not here used as an insult, but rather as a well-defined behavioural pattern in terms of the economic and social effects of a ‘purposive social action’. In my opinion, this definition and the laws that follow from it, are best seen as a way to extend Merton’s Law - the ‘purposive social actions’ which we all make, have one of these four consequences.  Note that these ‘laws of social science’ act independently of whether human beings either understand these laws, or have a way of using them.

Now we can consider Cipolla’s five fundamental laws of stupidity:

1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2. The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

A nice edition of Cipolla's very short book was recently published by W.H. Allen (Here). 

I believe that it would be a real help for the world if this slim book, and the well-defined and understandable laws which it contains, was a foundational text for high-school students. How much better I would have dealt with life as a young man, if I had been in command of such a clear and objective framework to evaluate not only the behaviour of other people, but more importantly my own behaviour. With these laws in mind, we can adhere to a perfectly rational moral code which is unencumbered by religious trimmings. Simply put, not only should we avoid stupidity in others, we should endeavour to live a life in which we try at all times to minimise our own stupidity.     

Monday 8 June 2020

The Shallowness of Google Translate (2018)

A superb piece in The Atlantic by the excellent Douglas Hofstader on translation by humans and by Google (HERE):
To me, the word translation exudes a mysterious and evocative aura. It denotes a profoundly human art form that graciously carries clear ideas in Language A into clear ideas in Language B, and the bridging act should not only maintain clarity but also give a sense for the flavor, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of the writing style of the original author.

Saturday 6 June 2020

Planned Obsolescence (2014)

A superb and very entertaining story in The Paris Review, HERE, about a real-life cartel of ligh-bulb manufacturers called Phoebus, but introduced via its mention in Thomas Pynchon's book Gravity's Rainbow
On December 23, 1924, a group of leading international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would alter the world for decades to come. Present were top representatives from all the major lightbulb manufacturers, including Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, and the United States’ General Electric. As revelers hung Christmas lights elsewhere in the city, the group founded the Phoebus cartel, a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.

Friday 5 June 2020

Natural history of the animal kingdom for the use of young people (1889)

Some common coarse fish.

a) Bream (Abramis brama)
b) Orfe (Leuciscus orfus)
c) Crucian Carp (Carassius carassius)
d) Rudd (Leuciscus erythrophthalmus)
e) Roach (Leuciscus rutilis)
f) Chub (Leuciscus cephalus)
g) Ide (Leuciscus idus)
h) Dace (Leuciscus vulgaris)

From HERE.

Studies of Brain Activity Aren’t as Useful as Scientists Thought (2020)

Oh dear. From a press release on Duke University website HERE:
Hundreds of published studies over the last decade have claimed it's possible to predict an individual’s patterns of thoughts and feelings by scanning their brain in an MRI machine as they perform some mental tasks.

But a new analysis by some of the researchers who have done the most work in this area finds that those measurements are highly suspect when it comes to drawing conclusions about any individual person’s brain.
Which brings to mind the winners of the 2012 Ig Nobel prize in neuroscience, Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford, for "demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon".

REFERENCE: “Neural Correlates of Interspecies Perspective Taking in the Post-Mortem Atlantic Salmon: An Argument For Multiple Comparisons Correction,” Craig M. Bennett, Abigail A. Baird, Michael B. Miller, and George L. Wolford, Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, vol. 1, no. 1, 2010, pp. 1-5.

Thursday 4 June 2020

Scelta di disegni del Caracci (1660)

Here is an illustrated book of engravings by Francesco Curti (Italian, 1603–1670), after Carracci, Parmigianino, Reni, Ciamberlano, and Brizio.

How You Should Read Coronavirus Studies, or Any Science Paper (2020)

A great piece in the New York Times by Carl Zimmer on how a lay person might begin to make sense of scientific papers (HERE).
When you read through a scientific paper, it’s important to maintain a healthy skepticism. The ongoing flood of papers that have yet to be peer-reviewed — known as preprints — includes a lot of weak research and misleading claims. Some are withdrawn by the authors. Many will never make it into a journal. But some of them are earning sensational headlines before burning out in obscurity.

Industry, Ingenuity, and Fracture: On John McPhee (2015)

John McPhee is a wonderful writer of extended non-fiction prose that has the narrative power of a great novel. His work requires storytelling craft, real imagination, and strong structure, but in addition it is built on facts (which have been checked, and re-checked, by the legendary New Yorker fact checking department). 

Here is an appreciation in the LA Review of Books by Daniel Solomon of McPhee's work :
But McPhee’s writing, taken as a whole, possesses a substance and coherence beyond its impressive craft. While posing as a gatherer of factual curiosities, he is in fact that most literary of things: a writer preoccupied with a grand theme. McPhee’s work can, in fact, be read as a moral history of American society and its institutions. Throughout his books, it appears in dramas both microscopic and macroscopic, in the refined process of canoe construction and in the passage of geological time alike. Behind his apparent neutrality, McPhee demonstrates concern not only for the industry and ingenuity of his subjects, but also for their consequences, and the future society such ingenuity might create.
The image is from New England; a human interest geographical reader by Clifton Johnson (1917). The photo brings to mind The Survival of the Bark Canoe - a book by McPhee on Henri Vaillancourt, who makes birch-bark canoes, and a trip they took to the Maine woods that Thoreau had visited. (Image from HERE)

Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953)

Here is a wonderful long interview with James Baldwin in The Paris Review from 1984, about his formative experiences in New York and how he was able to write after fleeing the US for Paris in 1948.
Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers—take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

Tuesday 2 June 2020

Suburban Herbarium (2020)

From the always fascinating Uniform Books, HERE is Suburban Harbarium, a collection of photographs by William Arnold of the plants he has found on his lunch-time walks near where he works in Truro. They are camera-less silver-gelatin prints, and the originals are 12" x 16".

William Arnold's web page, with high-resolution versions of these images, is HERE

Images copyright William Arnold.