Currently reading: The Meaning of Science

An intro­duc­to­ry book can be a tricky cus­tomer: either too light on con­tent to do any­thing more than whet the appetite, or weighed down with so much con­tent that it becomes an unread­able fact sheet. Time Lewens has steered the nar­row mid­dle way through the two, part­ly by split­ting The Mean­ing of Sci­ence into two parts. The first intro­duces the read­er to the key facts, his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and back­ground of the phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence and the sec­ond part takes them out for a walk, to show how the knowl­edge he’s explain­ing effects some inter­est­ing area of sci­ence.

Lewens argues per­sua­sive­ly why you’d want to under­stand the phi­los­o­phy behind sci­ence and arms the read­er with enough knowl­edge to head off and find out more — espe­cial­ly helped by the Fur­ther Read­ing lists at the end of each sec­tion. The facts are wrapped into inter­est­ing nar­ra­tives and argu­ments, which left me feel­ing enthu­si­as­tic about find­ing out more rather than worn out by try­ing to get a grasp of new facts, ter­mi­nol­o­gy and con­cepts. And my copy is now bristling with post-its, dog-eared pages and pen­ciled notes. Nor­mal­ly I’m not one to deface a book, but some­thing about the Pelican’s calls for a more hands on read­ing expe­ri­ence. Cer­tain­ly after being car­ried around in a hand­bag for a few weeks it gets rather worn look­ing — the love­ly uncoat­ed cov­er picks up scuff and smudges and the cor­ners are quick­ly worn down. But it’s a tac­tile pock­et sized book that seems meant to be read thor­ough­ly and used, not just admired. The scuffs prove that it’s no just on the shelf for show.

Now that I’m in the final chap­ter of the book, I’m hop­ing that Lewens is work­ing on anoth­er acces­si­ble sci­ence book that con­tin­ues on from The Mean­ing of Sci­ence. Either to go into more depth of the phi­los­o­phy — for it did feel like quite a con­cise intro­duc­tion to a large top­ic — or to bring his very lucid and bal­anced approach to oth­er con­tentious areas of mod­ern sci­ence. How­ev­er first I’m going to be off to find my next Pel­i­can.

Pantone Minion Yellow

Pan­tone have seized upon an excel­lent pro­mo­tion­al idea and named a shade of yel­low after the min­ions from Despi­ca­ble Me and their upcom­ing movie, Min­ions (out July 10th, 2015). 
Hope­ful­ly min­ion yel­low fills you with hap­pi­ness and not the urge to take over the world!

Uni­ver­sal pro­mot­ed Despi­ca­ble Me 2 with the Phar­rell Williams song Hap­py, writ­ten for the movie sound­track and a more stan­dard col­lab­o­ra­tion. The pan­tone colour won’t have the same audi­ence but helps to estab­lish a wider brand recog­ni­tion for both the movie and the colour com­pa­ny, plus it’s real­ly quite fun.

Colours define some brands very clear­ly: Coca-cola red or Face­Book blue for exam­ple (there’s a great list with the colours here). Pen­guin Books for exam­ple have a fan­tas­ti­cal­ly recog­nis­able colour selec­tion, with green for crime fic­tion, blue for non-fiction Pel­i­can titles, and of course the famous Pen­guin Orange, Pan­tone 1505. Sor­ry, had to men­tion some books, couldn’t resist! Only time will tell whether Min­ion Yel­low catch­es on to become that recog­nis­able.

Embroidered Books

Chloe Gior­dano has done a beau­ti­ful cov­er con­cept for Penguin’s Lit­tle Black Clas­sics.

It’s for a selec­tion of Ger­ard Man­ley Hopkins’s poems, col­lect­ed under the title of one poem: As king­fish­ers catch fire. It’s an intri­cate design that Gior­dano has done and full of crafts­man­ship and small details, which fit the poem per­fect­ly. You can even see some love­ly work in pro­gress pho­tos here on her Tum­blr

As king­fish­ers catch fire, drag­on­flies dráw fláme;
As tum­bled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mor­tal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Cry­ing Whát I do is me: for that I came.Í say móre: the just man jus­tices;
Kéeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thou­sand places,
Love­ly in limbs, and love­ly in eyes not his
To the Father through the fea­tures of men’s faces.

- from the Guten­berg edi­tion.

Gior­dano has done sev­er­al oth­er book cov­er designs using embroi­dery — her one for Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea is sim­ple yet bril­liant, the tex­tures some­thing you rarely see on a book. She’s had an Etsy shop (on hia­tus as of 10th March 2015) so per­haps some of the­se pieces, or some­thing like them, will be on sale there, but until then she’s also got items on sale on Society6.

Her cov­er con­cept remind­ed me of the enor­mous and stun­ning (lit­er­al­ly you could use it to stun some­one it’s that heavy) embroi­dered cov­er for Maggie’s Har­vest that Pen­guin Aus­tralia did in 2008.

 I actu­al­ly have a copy from when I worked at Pen­guin, which is why I know how heavy it is as I car­ried it home after find­ing it under my desk and no one else claim­ing it. Mine’s a bit dusty, but the feel of the fab­ric and embroi­dery is lus­cious — that real­ly is thread, not just the illu­sion in an image. As book cov­ers a so very flat and smooth in gen­er­al, it is real­ly some­thing else to have a book that feels so very dif­fer­ent and that tac­til­i­ty makes it stand out and puts it in anoth­er league from eBooks.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: Queen of Code

Pio­neer­ing and rather wit­ty pro­gram­mer, and Rear Admi­ral in the US Navy, Grace Hop­per has been called the Queen of Code — that’s a pret­ty good list of titles there. Here’s her bril­liant expla­na­tion of the dif­fer­ent between a nanosec­ond and a microsec­ond:

She is also cred­it­ed with pop­u­lar­is­ing the word “debug­ging” in com­put­ing after hav­ing to remove a moth from a Mark II Com­put­er in 1947. Frankly I’m sur­prised the moth mucked around with her com­put­er, she didn’t sound like a per­son to take on (though her com­ments show she was sup­port­ive of peo­ple around her too). She also encour­aged risk tak­ing:

“It’s eas­ier to ask for­give­ness than it is to get per­mis­sion.” 

This comes from a 1986 inter­view with a com­put­ing mag­a­zine called Chips Ahoy (love the name). The inter­view, Only the Lim­its of Our Imag­i­na­tion, is real­ly inter­est­ing and she was so per­cip­i­ent of where com­put­ing would go. When asked what new and excit­ing things com­put­ers would do next, she point­ed out that dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple were already carv­ing the­se out but no one was notic­ing:

“Here’s anoth­er one. If you do count­ed cross stitch, there is a pro­gram that lets you put your pat­tern on the screen. … I don’t think peo­ple are pay­ing atten­tion to oth­er peo­ple who are han­dling unique types of infor­ma­tion.”

It’s an inter­est­ing focus to pick as the ori­gins of pro­gram­ming are, at their roots, in the tex­tiles indus­try with the looms weav­ing com­plex pat­terns. I won­der if she had this in mind, or even if it was a dig point­ing out that com­put­er peo­ple weren’t see­ing what a tra­di­tion­al women’s craft could have to do with pro­gram­ming? She also com­ments on net­work­ing com­put­ers with modems as being the way to go and that water short­ages will become a big issue in the future — some­thing I think will prob­a­bly become more and more true in this cen­tu­ry. Her unof­fi­cial title, Queen of Code, made me think of the por­tray­al of Ada Lovelace in the book The Dif­fer­ence Engine.

For a quick intro­duc­tion to her extra­or­di­nary life, here’s anoth­er YouTube viedo:

And to wrap up, an inter­view with Let­ter­man where she just nails it:

Gorgeous stationary: Wooden notebook

Sni­jlab, a dig­i­tal print­ing com­pa­ny from the Nether­lands, pro­duce this beau­ti­ful laser cut wood­en note­book. It’s some­thing that could of course be done by hand, but laser cut­ting allows this to become a more mass pro­duct­in item.

And come on, isn’t there some­thing very fit­ting about hav­ing a paper note­book bound in a wood­en cov­er, a return to the mate­ri­al of orig­in?

Buzzfeed title generator

You’ve prob­a­bly noticed that titles of arti­cles on many web­sites are becom­ing more like Buz­zfeed, who have a very dis­tinc­tive (and annoy­ing­ly linkbait­ing) style. Ravi Parikh noticed this and cre­at­ed a Buz­zfeed title gen­er­a­tor, that works pret­ty well. Bet­ter still, he’s adapt­ed it to do Buz­zfeed arti­cles from ancient Rome. 
37 Grapes That Every Legionary Needs? 
The 10 Worst Glad­i­to­ri­al Games Of The Ear­ly Repub­lic?
The 16 Biggest Glad­i­to­ri­al Games Of The Reign of Augus­tus?

I’d quite like to see an adap­ta­tion of this where you could add your own vocab lists to gen­er­ate the­se for any the­me you can think up. Cat meme based ones may­be? Or Shake­speare?

Handwritten Fonts

Jesse Eng­land has made sev­er­al quirky videos show­ing you how hand­write dif­fer­ent fonts. So far he’s done Hel­veti­ca Light, Futu­ra, Micro­gram­ma, Mur­ray Hill, Papyrus, Comic Sans, Jok­er­man, Sten­cil and Tintin. It works a bit like learn­ing cal­lig­ra­phy, where you copy let­ters out sev­er­al times with grad­u­al­ly less guid­ance — Jesse pro­vides a prac­tice sheet and print­outs that you place behind it to trace. But it’s far more for­mu­laic and that’s a pret­ty good way of real­ly think­ing about fonts and see­ing how they are put togeth­er. Though judg­ing from the choice of fonts and Jesse’s pro­file pic, some of it is just pok­ing fun at how seri­ous­ly peo­ple take fonts and the cul­tur­al val­ues we asso­ciate with cer­tain ones.
Here’s Learn to Write Tin­in, with some digs at the comic for it’s racist con­go “adven­ture”, though I retain a fond­ness for Tintin based on read­ing it so much as a child and nev­er hav­ing seen the guilty edi­tion.
And here’s Learn to Write Futu­ra, a more stan­dard font:
And if you want to leave a com­ment on the video? You can — by writ­ing to Jesse (hope­ful­ly in a font from the lessons) and post­ing it to him, old school style. I won­der if he would accept telegrams or may­be fax­es?

Language Change

The Guardian has a won­der­ful arti­cle about how “errors” have got­ten Eng­lish to where it is now. I knew, like many peo­ple I expect, that adders were once nad­dres. It’s inter­est­ing and help­ful of the Guardian to include the links to Wikipedia, although a bit sur­pris­ing as you would think that a major news­pa­per would know a more offi­cial web­site to link to, but may­be Wikipedia real­ly does have the best and most reli­able arti­cle on this (or the jour­nal­ist is as lazy as the rest of us about going beyond the first place that comes to mind). Great to know some of the ways that lan­guage changes in use — I won­der if some researchers have tried pre­dict­ing where it will go next? Would be good to get them to pre­dict and then reveal their the­o­ries in fifty years time to see how close they were.

Review: Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Mon­th of Mad­ness by Susan­nah Caha­lanMy rat­ing: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book in one go, unable to resist the urge to find out where the next chap­ter went. Frankly, I would not rec­om­mend read­ing it in one go (if you can resist) as the sub­ject is quite unset­tling and Caha­lan has such a strong voice that she draws you in far too deep in a very emo­tion­al sto­ry. This is a true sto­ry of a shock­ing descent into mad­ness which is reversed with the dis­cov­ery that the ill­ness is pure­ly phys­i­cal, not men­tal. It is the kind of sus­pense filled plot that is more often the stuff of thrillers than true life med­ical sto­ries. Caha­lan has such an easy to read and ele­gant style that is at times even poet­ic when describ­ing her mad­ness.

Caha­lan man­ages to avoid sound­ing like a plot from a hos­pi­tal dra­ma through bru­tal hon­esty and through self aware­ness of how lucky she was to afford her treat­ment. There’s a clear pas­sion in the writ­ing for get­ting the word out about this ill­ness and help­ing to rethink what men­tal ill­ness is. This book has made me ask more ques­tions about what our real self actu­al­ly is than any psy­chol­o­gy book I’ve read and is full of inter­est­ing facts and plen­ty of detail on many dif­fer­ent men­tal con­di­tions. A must read book if you are inter­est­ed at all in the nature of the mind or want to keep an eye out for rare dis­eases in your friends. For more about encephali­tis go here.

Unlike fic­tion, Caha­lan is lim­it­ed to the facts; how­ev­er, she does not remem­ber most of the peri­od of mad­ness so there is a cer­tain amount of inter­po­la­tion and I expect that, like any­one, she has cho­sen to fit them togeth­er into a suit­able nar­ra­tive. Given how hon­est she is in reveal­ing the details of her hor­ri­fy­ing dis­ease, I don’t have any prob­lem with this, though I feel like some peo­ple may dis­like how much she has inter­po­lat­ed about what was going on.I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed Cahalan’s brisk style, und­outably influ­enced by her jour­nal­is­tic career. It was clear and read­able and I liked that she kept neu­tral rather than drama­tis­ing her expe­ri­ence — it steered it away from more mind, spir­it and body biog­ra­phy and kept it seri­ous.

Inter­est­ing, but unre­lat­ed to the con­tents: the US ver­sion has a red cov­er while the UK one went for yel­low, which is an intrigu­ing change. You don’t see so many yel­low book cov­ers around so it cer­tain­ly made it strik­ing and I won­der if per­haps it is some­thing like the whole yel­low poster for indie films thing?

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