Sometimes one stumbles across a piece of ostensibly academic research that glows with sense, vitality and fresh insight. It may be because I’m relatively speaking an outsider to the history of science that I often find that it’s in this field one gets the most delightful surprises.
Thomas Hankins’ lecture entitled ‘Blood, Dirt, and Nomograms’ gives the history of graphs, culminating in L.J. Henderson’s ‘nomogram’ representing the complex systems of the blood in a single graph.
It’s a story that starts around the end of the eighteenth century, with the likes of William Playfair’s graph of the British national debt from 1699 to 1800. Playfair, we are told, ‘went to Paris as agent to the Scioto Ohio Land Company; there he assisted in defrauding large numbers of French citizens and, according to tradition, helped storm the Bastille.‘
Graphs were already being considered in France as a means of providing easy conversion tables for the new metric system. These met with limited success, and real progress was made only when graphs suggested a descriptive geometry suitable for engineering drawing, initially to solve the military engineering problem of defilade. (In brief, defilade presents the problem of moving the minimum amount of earth the shortest distance such that no point of the fortification is overlooked by neighbouring ground.)
Defilade problems naturally led to the calculations required for laying out the new railways across France. Here we learn why the French railway is so fundamentally efficient: it was laid out with enormous concern for earthworks, so that curves were as gentle as possible, and gradients never exceeded five millimetres per metre.
From here we move rapidly through the first topographical map, isotherms, isobars, iso-everything, ‘the best statistical graphic ever drawn’ (representing Napoleon’s march on Moscow), the much feared log tables, and eventually to nomograms.
The beauty of nomograms is that one can lay a straight line (or, as is suggested, a piece of string) from a value on one side to a value on the other, and read off the result from the graph. Henderson clearly found this beauty suggestive, as he ended up speculating teleologically; that just as creatures displayed ‘fitness’ to their environment, so the environment displayed an elegant fitness to its creatures. This - further evidence why it is dangerous to let scientists make philosophical speculations - is the sort of thing that Charles Sanders Peirce used to propose even though he ought to have known better. It’s no surprise that Peirce manages to get a mention in the essay, albeit for other matters.
And so, finally, back to Henderson’s nomogram of the blood, which was hailed for integrating no fewer than 105 different relationships into one unifying picture.
If I’ve engaged in an enthusiastically extended description, it’s because every paragraph of Hankins’ lecture offers something to distract and entrance. Good on him, and good on all the other academics who still believe that the best way to communicate their learning is through communicating their delight.
Eric Cantona is back (in a film called L’Outremanger), and making as much sense as ever. This, from an interview appearing in The Guardian is amply the line of the week:
I’ve read a lot of Socrates on page 3 of the Sun
Top drawer. Even knowing about Cantona, Socrates and The Sun newspaper is not sufficient to drag some meaning out of this. I had a suspicion that there was something about divine ignorance going on here, but it really doesn’t hold water.
What we’re left with is the possibility that Cantona has created a genuinely private language. The later Wittgenstein would be mortified.
I don’t think I’ve been properly angry for a while, certainly not since ranting about the middlebrow press, which, let’s face it, is evidence of a perfectly calm and sane outlook.
I got very angry indeed listening to an American official on the Today programme. He was attempting to explain away the upcoming Iraq survey report that will, it is believed, verify that there is no evidence of weapons of mass destruction present in Iraq.
His response was that Saddam Hussein was himself a weapon of mass destruction.
My initial response was ‘this guy is an idiot’. But that is far from fair. He may be a fool, but actual gurning simpletons generally don’t make it far in his profession.
The truth is that he thinks I’m an idiot. He thinks I’m the sort of idiot who mistakes a put-down for an answer. That I’m the sort of idiot who can’t tell when the story is being constantly changed in a feeble attempt to rewrite history on the fly. I was reminded of Jeremy Paxman’s mantra when interviewing politician; he asks himself ‘Why is this ****ing liar is ****ing lying to me?’
Part of me wanted the interviewer to call him on it. To say something to the effect that it’s probably a good idea if the reasons why you say your going to do something bear some factual relationship with the effects of what you do. The whole Iraq expedition reeks of Victorian imperial bravoism; armed only with guns, cash and a vague sense of needing to do something, the great white hunter sets out for the badlands in the belief that whatever he turns up will be hailed, be it a new lake, diamonds, or a lost tribe.
I wanted the interviewer to point out that most of us no longer look at the world simply as a testing ground of our own moral fortitude, whatever the cost to the natives. But in the end, I appreciated the fact that he didn’t need to. He relied implicitly on the audience being able to judge for themselves.
On a deeply depressing morning, that provided some small candle flame of consolation.
Update: The reaction of others who heard this interview tends to confirm that listeners didn’t need to have the interviewer wade in on their behalf.
Inspired by Kevan’s throwaway comments about street chess, I thought urban chess would work better if it were based not on finding, but on setting out chess pieces.
So, take eight pawns of one colour. Set them out on paving slabs along your route to work, each one eight slabs away from some fixed point worth marking (your home, the bakery, a pillar box). Each time you pass them, you may move them one slab further. If any reach their destinations, you win.
1. To save needless frustration, play in one direction only.
2. If you know that you walk the same route as someone else, but in the opposite direction, get them to play with the other colour of pawn.
From the department of things you never knew you needed, and were probably right:
I don’t think you need me to explain what you do with them, nor that it probably doesn’t matter that you wouldn’t be able to see them under a blouse or a shirt.
I’m just afraid that when I see someone with a flashing red belly button, I’ll thoughtlessly mistake them for a walking answerphone.
I think the manufacturers have missed a trick. If you could switch the belly lights on and off by pressing them, it could provide an endlessly interesting way of making new friends.
The legend of Prester John produced some wonderful maps of his kingdom. Hondius’ map is fine; but not as fine as Ortelius’.
The legend has inspired written fantasies all the way from Mandeville’s notorious account of his travels to Boy’s Own adventures.
To my knowledge, though, not a single film has covered the story of Prester John. I can think of some reasons for this, but it’s still a sorry absence.
For one reason and another (including the fact that I was waiting for a phone call that eventually came at 3am), I was notably sluggish and bleary this morning.
Even so, I was sure I wasn’t hallucinating when I heard a correspondent on the BBC casually mention that ‘things might be bumpy today’ as it was triple witching day.
Some previously overlooked pagan festival, perhaps? Some numerical superstition based on 19/09? Something like ‘Nelsons’ in cricket? Some particularly substantial readjustment of the atomic clock resulting in a thirteen-hour day?
No, it’s a term from the financial markets.
Could this be the first evidence that merchant bankers have some mythopoeic spark in their flinty souls?
It’s harvest time in the Deep North.
This seems to consist in the main of digging potatoes and deciphering Ravilious.
I’m not sure which is harder.
In one of those pseudo-random acts of reading selection, I picked Richard ‘Digger’ Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene off the shelf to reread.
So I’ve been thinking again about replicators, about memes, about the world of differential rates of survival that Dawkins so effectively portrays.
One day I’ll get around to explaining how this suggests a powerful tool for explaining the human tendency to paranoid thought and susceptability to ‘conspiracy’. For the time being, however, it helps to explain why I was so set back on my heels when I saw the ever-suggestive things weblog referrring to the SuPerVillainizer.
SuPerVillainizer is about creating profiles of villains, rogues, bad guys, and scapegoats, equipping them with real email accounts at a Swiss provider, uniting them into conspiracies, and then watching as the villains start to automatically communicate with each other using SuPerVillainizer-generated conspiracy content, infiltrating the carefully planned surveillance system with more and more disinfoming mails every day.
Blimey. This is a conscious attempt to baffle the increasing surveillance of email by flooding the system with suspicious looking garbage. It’s the new-wave equivalent of deliberately peppering your telephone conversations with trigger words like ‘bomb, ‘kill’ and ‘Queen Mother’.
The Ecovian part of me assumes that, first, it will be taken seriously by someone, and, second, it spontaneously becomes real in a Borgesian flash of cryptological parthenogenesis.
Alternatively, it will earn someone a night in chokey explaining the joke to pedants in the Swiss constabulary.
In the meantime, having allowed “Borgesian flash of cryptological parthenogenesis” through the filter, I’m off to rethink my writing style…
Talking of cultural gaps (which I suppose we were), the Houston TV station in question has a marvellous tagline:
Houston…as it happens.
To a Texan this will, I can only hope, sound urgent, pacey, up to the minute.
I hear it in the British idiom, where “as it happens” is still used in the sense of “as it goes”, “perchance”. To me, “Houston…as it happens” sounds about as casual as is possible.
I like that very, very much.
There’s a pitcher, but he runs at the batter, or batsman, bouncing the ball only once in front of the hitter, who strikes at the ball. If he hits it in play, he runs straight ahead to the opposite batting box, where a teammate then runs back and scores.
They can run back and forth several times, scoring more than once before the ball is thrown back. The fielders are spread out, waiting to toss the ball back to hit the wicket to knock down the wooden pegs, or stamps, which produces an out.
That, in case you don’t quite recognise it, is cricket as described by Carlos Aguilar of News 24 Houston.
It would be too easy to adopt some aggrieved stance involving Americans, cricket, and the word “tsk”. Bear in mind, however, that the last time I posted on cricket the single, knowledgeable comment was from an American (including, for your money, an elegantly oblique reference to Martin Bicknell’s finest hour).
The lesson I get from this is what happens when you have to describe something you barely understand to people who don’t understand it at all. For a Texan journalist, this may mean trying to encapsulate some dodgy foreign sport. For someone else, it may be a philosophical, cultural, religious, technological or any other form of idea.
The entire piece could be seen as an extended warning on the dangers of the metaphor. Cricket is like baseball, except of course for the innumerable differences.
Sometimes, as in the joke about asking directions from a country bumpkin, the easiest way to get from A to B is not to start at A at all.
There is sometimes a darkling pleasure in conforming to malign stereotypes.
This morning, like a good urban Guardianista, I filled the cats’ water dish with French mineral water.
Granted, we are currently without mains water*. The bottles of mineral water came, o joy, from the back of a lorry. After Sunday afternoon football on the common, I wandered over to the car park in the middle of the green and took my quota of 12 litres from the man on the flatbed.
As I remarked to Dr Biswell while phoning from the queue by the standpipe, it was one of those moments when the spirit of the Blitz came through; queues for everything; planes blazing low overhead; a burgeoning black market; everyone gasping for hot, sweet tea.
Thinking about it, that’s what London’s always like.
* For some reason, Thames Water’s news page is titled “We”. We what? We apologise? We will fix it? We are legion? Whichever it really is, it comes across as a nicely judged piece of corporate self-aggrandisement — we are that we are.
He not only recorded albums in jails, he spent three days locked up himself. His wild days involved amphetamines, alcohol, destroyed hotel rooms and setting fire to a forest (for which he was fined $85,000).
For many people he was the only country singer it was acceptable to listen to, especially after his astonishingly brutal comeback album, American Recordings.
Bye bye Johnny Cash.
One, there is research and literature on the problem of what to do if you lose track of someone while in a supermarket.
Second, seminal 80s rock group Pixies are to reform.
Some links on how people search for information, or how they want to search for information.
Matt Jones on breadcrumb trails
Thoughtwander, bouncing balls and cycles
Mark Bernstein on The Cycle
Links on information foraging
(all via Matt Jones in the first place)
Readers of this rant last Friday will appreciate why the Daily Mail piece I reproduce here caught my eye.
ASYLUM SEEKERS WILL COVER LONDON BY 2005
The Government suffered a further blow last night as shocking new evidence emerged of previously unsuspected bogus asylum seekers hiding out in London. The sheer number of illegal immigrants is such that it could leave the capital literally swamped within eighteen months.
Mail reporters yesterday were able to visit one previously unknown location in central London where an asylum seeker, known as “David”, has set up an extraordinary rent-free home. There, in full view of thousands of commuters crossing the Thames, this “conman” (© Daily Mail 2003) has built his very own glass penthouse with stunning panoramic views of the river.
Serious questions will be asked in Parliament as to just how this immigrant from the USA - a country not acknowledged by the Foreign Office’s as one where its citizens may suffer persecution - managed to bend our lax benefits system so as to gain a prime piece of docklands location. Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare was said to be shocked, adding “I think I can see him from my window”.
Even worse, the riverside squatter is being allowed to live in the centre of Europe’s largest city without even the most basic form of sanitation. His drinking water comes from a nearby water tower by means of a simple pipe, and his foul waste drops into the Thames itself. Only centuries ago the city was decimated by cholera and typhoid. Now the unmanageable asylum problem threatens an epidemic of similar proportions. And should the worst happen, it would threaten every man, woman and child living in a mortgaged property in the Greater London area not only with death, but with a resulting catastrophic drop in property prices.
Questions have been asked as to what “David” is doing here. His response to being challenged illustrates just what the overburdened and powerless immigration authorities are faced with. “David” has gone on hunger strike - he claims that he will not eat for 44 days and 44 nights, if that’s what it takes. Faced with such do-or-die tactics, Ken Livingstone, David Blunkett and Tony Blair have chosen simply to sit on their hands. If they hope that the problem will go away, they are mistaken.
The raw statistics raise a prospect so chilling that it seems, on the face of it, incredible. Two weeks ago, the number of foreigners living in glass boxes by the Thames was estimated at zero. Today there is one, making for what mathematicians call an “infinite” percentage increase in numbers. If this rate is sustained, by Christmas the whole of the length of the Thames from Greenwich to Richmond will be blocked off by a wall of glass boxes containing beardy strangers, reaching up to a mile high. By the end of next year, London would be completely buried under the boxes, each containing a sleepy-eyed hoaxer, with just a hole in the floor for a toilet.
And yet the Home Office refuses to acknowledge the extent of the problem, claiming (continued on p.2; David Blaine ‘not really able to levitate’ claim, p.7; Picture, p. 9)
Sports writing is, to borrow a phrase, a funny old game.
It isn’t news, and it isn’t really comment. It reports stories where the reader is often already aware of the outcome.
Perhaps this is why sports writing has a long and peculiar history of being personal, elliptical, even obscure. Hunter S. Thompson is, of course, a sports journalist. His tales of fear and loathing are a product of the fact that his exact turn of phrase would not cause, for instance, the whole machinery of government to turn on him.
Elsewhere, B.S. Johnson’s experimental novel The Unfortunates was provoked by one of Johnson’s forays into the midlands to cover a football match in a strange town, only to find it wasn’t a strange town at all.
Note that I’m not talking here about writers who are sportsmen: though there have been a fair number, from Arthur Conan Doyle (cricket, football), through Camus (football), Nabokov (tennis, football), to Tony Adams (football, drinking). Near the top of that list would be Samuel Beckett, the only Nobel laureate to have played first class cricket. Fascinating, but a subject for another day.
What I’m interested in today is the tradition of sports writers, and in particular, why the greatest of all are the cricket writers.
Anybody’s list of cricket writers would include the formidable Marxist critic CLR James and the immortal Neville Cardus (here he is on the famous bodyline series).
There are many more in the canon, but with the exception of the likes of Frank Keating, it seems ever fewer than there used to be.
In fact, as is usual with this sort of tradition, one of the indications that the tradition is still strong is, ironically, the number of complaints that all the greats have gone. Unlike football, which with small exceptions, continually pretends that the current generation are the greatest we have ever seen, cricket constantly harks to a golden past, where Cardus endlessly reported in glistening prose the sublime performances of Don Bradman, the feats of both remaining ever out of reach.
Well, of course, they’re not. The sprats of the present soon become the whoppers of the past. Dour old Michael Atherton is rehabilitating his reputation nicely, and Devon Malcolm, a frustrating scattergun of a fast bowler in his day, is perfected in the memory as the fellow who was hit on the head while batting agaist South Africa, murmured “You guys are history” to himself, and returned to take nine wickets in the next innings.
It happens to the players, and it happens to the writers. In a decade cricket writers will be harking back to Keating, in thirty years tyros like Lawrence Booth will be regarded with a sort of puzzled fondness.
Maybe it’s just the relief of England squaring the series against South Africa, and perhaps it’s a soft view of the Boy’s Own performance put in by England’s cart-pulling all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, but this appreciation by The Guardian’s David Hopps tickled me no end.
“Quick, get the beers, Freddie’s in.” A similar cry sounded for Ian Botham 25 years ago. Now it rings for Flintoff. Gary Kirsten might best be admired with your back to the television screen but not to watch Flintoff is like going to Blackpool Pleasure Park and not riding the Big One.
Like all the best sports writing, it captures something you saw, and felt, and wished to share. The art of the cricket writer is knowing not only how to share it with you, but how to fit it into the sense of cricket as a whole entity, a cultural enterprise.
Incidentally, this sense of cricket having a cultural - maybe even a political - resonance, as CLR James would have it, can help to explain many deep-seated feelings. What better metaphor for the meandering curlicues of aggression
between India and Pakistan than a Test series? What better illustration of the different mental universes of the British and the American than the fact that cricket remains a mystery to them? If the typical American could be brought to understand a game that necessarily involved whole mornings in which nothing much happens, perhaps we would be subject to less precipitous handbagging of perceived enemies.
Very well. I may not be entirely serious here, and the Old Cricketer’s writing style can boom and parp after a while, but one thing is heartfelt:
roll on the winter tours, where nobody in their right mind and gainful employment can watch the overnight coverage, and the writers will take to the centre for another long session.
Lessons learned in nearly a year of blogging, number one:
Never write anything about barking worldwide conspiracies unless you really, really want people to leave frankly disturbing comments for months afterwards.
Example Comment 1: “…You’ll also find a superb archive of articles on the N*w W*rld *rd*r [which is impacting and changing us all increasingly]…”
Example Comment 2: “…We have been subjected to invasion of our privacy, from unlawful entry into our apartment or any place we have tried to live at in the past 10 years. And monitored to the point where one of us is always at home, mostly my wife because I have to work…”
Don’t say I haven’t been warned.
The epic foolishness of the Daily Mail is so reliable that I only need to pick up a copy every three months or so, and I will be sure to find something that so incenses me that it will sustain righteous indignation for another season.
Yesterday, I skipped the front page (in any case I can no longer distinguish it from the Private Eye “Asylum seekers cause house price fears” spoofs), and chanced upon a full page article worrying about magician David Blaine’s new stunt, due to begin today. As you probably know, he is going to be sealed up in box above the Thames for 44 days.
The article was unmatchable Mail writing, segueing uncontrollably between mutually contradictory complaints without demonstrating any self-awareness.
First and last, it worried that the stunt was ’sick’, Blaine going without food when there are so many starving people in the world. Thank heavens there’s at least one newspaper, then, that will hold out against a modern world obsessing with fad acts of starvation, like diets. What’s that? Oh.
Second, it pointed out that Blaine will be supplied water by tube (or “fed by tube” according to some sources), but there is nothing to stop nutrients being slipped into the supply. Gosh. Do you think?
Third, the hack had contacted a nutritional expert (hooray!) to ask just how impossible the stunt is. His answer was essentially that it was “very survivable”. Now, given that one of the magician’s stocks in trade is playing off the audience’s mistaken assumptions as to what can and cannot be safely achieved, this is a fair point, if not exactly what Blaine would wish to be publicised.
Fortunately for Mail watchers everywhere, this led not to the sensible conclusion that Blaine is an efficient (if tiresomely one-noted) showman, but to the scandalous idea that he might not be telling the truth.
This, let’s not forget, is the man who only this week pretended to cut off part of his ear in a press conference. Hands up those who think he really did that? Exactly.
Blaine is what they used to call a stage magician (except he works on TV, not in theatres); a conjuror. Beginning, and, were sanity to prevail, end of story. By worrying that the mystery man might not be all above board, the Mail is playing up to his self-publicity perfectly. At least they get an article out of it, even if it leaves the readership no better informed than when they began.
Finally, and most specially, the article was headlined “David Blaine: Houdini or Hoaxer”, encapsulating perfectly the sense that the Mail simply has no idea what it’s talking about. My Houdini-was-a-stage-magician-you-oafs rant will have to wait for another day. Suffice to say that no doubt the great performer would have found the idea of being contrasted with ‘hoaxers’ amusing and satisfying.
Then again, if the rather obvious Blaine can send the Mail into a tailspin, maybe it’s not so much of a compliment after all.
The owner of the car with the personalised numberplate “99P” is evidently a master ironist with a wicked sense of the absurd.
Or a vain, humourless mug. Your call.
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