Measurement A Very Short Introduction – David J. Hand

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Measurement may not sound like the most exciting topic to sink your teeth into as it takes a certain type of person to become excited by a ruler. Yet this book has much more to offer than just a history of centimetres (cm) and inches. Rather, it serves as a brief, but comprehensive glimpse into a social construct that boasts a history that is inextricably bound with the many great leaps forward of civilisation. In Measurement A very Short Introduction, author David Hand traces the origins of measurement back to the beginning of civilised human society, with the birth of agricultural production.

Original units – which relied largely on basic physical objects to quantify length and weight – were of course hugely variable, depending as they did on physical objects. Of course, if there is nothing fundamental leading to the choice of object, other systems of measurement can be adopted. It’s hardly surprising then that a huge number of different systems have been adopted – today we have grams and kilos, pounds and ounces and the dreaded American ‘cup’.

When you take into account the history of units of measurements, measurement itself seems like a fairly vague thing – but this couldn’t be further from the truth. What is a cm? You could say that it is 10mm, or 1/100th of a metre, but how can it be defined on its own? The history is complicated and points toward the need for a unified method of measurement. This became especially important with the rise of scientific experimentation in the 20th century. It’s been a long time coming, but with the birth of the metric system we are getting close, although there are a few stubborn nations who insist on holding on to their outdated ways.

Of course, measurement is not a purely scientific thing, but can also be used to understand social aspects of society. Far from a scientific concept, it spans the entire range of human society, from the purely physical to the wholly abstract. Economic progress can be measured, but it requires a much different system measuring milk or grain – it is something that cannot be conceived with a basic unit of inflation. This, Hand says, is the difference between representative measurement and pragmatic measurement, a wholly different and complex school of thought which is becoming more important to our understanding of society.

Measurement A Very Short Introduction offers the reader a wonderfully accessible route into a hugely complex subject that spans the fields of science, sociology, history and anthropology. From the simple grains and fathoms of old, to GDP, GNI and the modern-day World Happiness Index – the history of measurement has a lot to say about the development of society. Hand has taken a topic that spans almost the whole of human existence and condensed it into a book which the avid reader could easily conquer in an afternoon.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

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When they first met at an arts festival, Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec realised that they had been living oddly parallel lives:. Both were residing in a foreign country – Giorgia had moved from her native Italy to New York and Stefanie, originally from Colorado, was living in London.  They were the same age were both only children and, most importantly, they were both obsessed by data.

Stefanie and Giorgia have spent their lives collecting and organising information from the world around them. As a child, Stefanie delighted in filling in scorecards with her father at baseball games, while Giorgia collected and organised anything she could get her hands on, from buttons to small stones. As they got older, they both realised that they were collecting data and went on into careers as visual designers, creating data illustrations.

From a chance visit at an arts festival, Stefanie and Giorgia decided to try and get to know each other by sharing data. Having only met once, Stefanie and Giorgia began exchanging postcard-sized letters that described what had happened to them each week, but instead of writing what had happened, they drew it. The resulting project spanned a year, 52 weeks and covered 52 themes, from smiling at strangers to smells and sensations. Each week, Stefanie and Giorgia would collect, collate and share data with one another, often containing information about the most private aspects of their lives such as touch,  envy and desire.

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Dear Data is an amalgamation of the project that unfolded from the chance meeting of two strangers who went on to become intimate friends, revealing oddly personal pictures of each woman’s life. Often, aspects of life that would not necessarily be revealed through the simple act of writing can be seen through data. By looking at each other’s infographics each week, Stefanie and Giorgia got to know each other, noticing themes and patterns in each other’s drawings. The resulting works tell a story about the person behind the data. We learn that Giorgia is a control freak, and Stefanie enjoys more than the occasional drink and apologises far too often.

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Dear Data will make you pause and think about what data can reveal about a person. It makes you realise that you don’t need an app to tell you anything new about yourself. Every one of us is a walking data collection, from the money in our bank account to the calories we consume in any given day. Each time we glance at the clock on our office wall, apologise, or take a walk, we are inadvertently adding to a huge data collection that is our lives. This book is a wonderful illustration of just how data-heavy the average person is. As a project, an exhibition and a book, Dear Data is fascinating, beautiful and a treat for the eyes and mind.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots – Beatrix Potter

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I was unbelievably excited to wake up this morning to an email informing me that The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots would be waiting for me when I returned from work. Obviously I would have preferred to wait by the front door for the postman, but somehow I managed to get through the day at work. I then tore home, dived into the book and had it finished before supper time.

I’ve always been a huge Beatrix Potter fan. My childhood box set was always a prized possession of mine and was subject to more than one show-and-tell session back in primary school. The Tailor of Gloucester was always my favourite and I still love to pull the book out and watch the BBC adaption around Christmas time. If there is anything more magical than animals behaving like humans it is animals behaving like humans in the snow. Simpkins in his snow boots is one of my favourite images of all time.

When I heard there was a new book by Beatrix Potter being published I was over the moon. To think that the manuscript remained hidden for over 100 years, only to emerge to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s death – it is almost as though she had planned it. I couldn’t wait to see what this story, written ten years after all her other much-loved tales, had in store for me.

The newest addition to the collection tells the tale of a very serious, well-behaved black cat by the name Catherine St. Quintin who likes nothing more than to sneak out at night and poach animals with her air gun. Like all of Beatrix Potter’s tales it is filled with funny escapades with the characters falling into one or two unfortunate scrapes, before ultimately learning a rather valuable lesson. Diehard fans of Beatrix Potter will be delighted to encounter a ‘stout buck rabbit in a blue coat’, who bares more than a striking resemblance to a mischievous young bunny once seen stealing radishes from Mr Macgregor’s garden – it looks like Mrs McGregor never did get her winter coat – as well as one or two other familiar faces and more than a few news ones.

Of course, half of the delight in a children’s book is in the illustrations and while I will admit I was slightly surprised when I saw that Quentin Blake was illustrating the book,  I think the result is absolutely stunning. Who better to illustrate a book by one of Britain’s most-loved children’s authors than one of Britain’s most loved children’s book illustrators? His drawings are nothing like Beatrix Potter’s, but I wouldn’t have liked to read a book where Beatrix Potter’s style was mimicked. Blake doesn’t attempt to fill Beatrix Potter’s shoes, he merely pays homage to her work, and does a remarkable job of it. The illustrations are perfect, wonderfully encapsulating the action and humour in Beatrix Potter’s latest tale.

What’s more Blake’s illustrator’s note, where he hopes that Beatrix potter would have approved of his work and speaks of his pride at being given the opportunity to illustrate such a book, is so sweet and endearing. I truly think he has done wonders with the text and brought the book to life in a way that none other than Beatrix Potter herself could have. My one slight disappointment is that the few drawings that Beatrix Potter did create to accompany the story could not be included in the publication.

Overall, however, I think this book is a real delight to read, filled with Beatrix Potter’s classical charm, but with slightly more adult escapades than the previous publications. There is also a subtle, perhaps satirical ribbon running through it which suggests that what is natural does not always come naturally.

There is no doubt that it was written by the Beatrix potter we all know and love, but the style is  different to her earlier works. Not worse, just different. Of course, we can’t know whether there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to change her writing style, or if the book was left in a somewhat unfinished state. Whatever the case may be, it is a truly charming read and I will happily place it alongside my other Beatrix Potter books, and no doubt look on it time and time again.

I know the publication is a couple of months too late, but happy birthday Beatrix, may you continue to delight us, and future generations for many, many years to come.

 

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture – Benjamin Peters

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In 1976, Raymond Williams published his world-renowned reference book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a text that would go on to change the way society approaches language, and make its way onto the reference shelf of political theorists, linguists, university students and academics alike. The text revealed how the meanings of 131 words were formed, altered and redefined within the changing society in which they were used.

Now, 40 years after Williams began the journey into the politics and culture behind language, his work has been continued – and readapted for the 21st century – in a book that seeks to carry on where he left off, by digging out the roots of digital language and discovering how it has shaped the newfound society we live in today.

Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society & Culture takes 25 of the most important ‘digital’ words in the English language and assesses how their meanings have shifted over time, analysing the forces behind them, their meanings and their development. With essays from contributors across the fields of politics, communication, media and digital activism, the book seeks to discover how the digital has reconfigured culture, and how the development of keywords reflects cultural change, hinting at development and marking even the subtlest of societal revolutions.

In his introduction, Peters points to the words of technological historian Leo Marx: “The emergence of a keyword in public discourse – whether newly coined or an old word invested with new meaning – may prove to be an illuminating historical event. Such keywords often serve as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.” These are the keywords that Peters attempts to uncover in this new and revolutionary publication – the words which, once studied, reveal a deeper meaning about society than the actual definition alludes to.

What a keyword does, says Peters, is both more relevant and more interesting than what it is. In this way, it is important to understand that Digital Keywords is much more than a concise dictionary or glossary of digital terms. The very meaning of the keyword itself takes second place to the history and development of the word, the society that gave way to its development, and its continually changing definition. In addressing ‘activism’ for example, in the first essay in this collection, contributing author Guobin Yang must take into account, not just activism in its original sense, but the rise of digital activism, and the words and movements that this form of activism gave way to by delving into online activism, cyber activism and hacktivism alike.

The one annoying thing about this text is that you cannot say it runs from A-Z as books of this nature often do, as Peters’ digital list is somewhat limited, assessing only select keywords from Activism to Surrogate. ‘A to S’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? But, as the absence of Z suggests, the book itself is only the beginning. Each chapter is cross-referenced to linking keywords, both within the book and within William’s original selection, and there is also an extended appendix of further digital keywords for the reader to consult research themselves. It seems that, with the release of this book, the digital language journey is just getting started.

Digital Keywords serves as an in-depth interrogation of the meaning and development of digitised language, and strives to reveal the way in which the digital has reshaped society and rewritten culture. You can learn a lot about society from language, and those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of the modern, digital world we all inhabit would be well advised to begin by taking a look at this book. Just as Keywords made its way firmly onto reference shelves in the 1970s, so too will Digital Keywords today.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine.

The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global impact – Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton

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There’s a well-known saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and in Cambridge, you could say ‘it takes a cluster to raise a company.’

For nearly 40 years, a technological powerhouse has been growing in the English countryside. Nestled on the southern tip of East Anglia, Silicon Fen, also known as the Cambridge Cluster, may pale in popularity to its older, wiser sibling – Silicon Valley in California – but is of no less importance locally and indeed, globally. Widely acclaimed as a centre of excellence for knowledge and education, Cambridge is ranked as the No.1 University in the world, but its contribution to technological development is less known.

It is remarkable to consider just how many life-changing technologies originated in a small city in the heart of the English fenland. From the discovery of the DNA double helix by Watson and Crick – the findings were announced in the Eagle pub, Benet Street on a cold lunchtime in February 1953 – to the first Acorn computer, the beige and black, blocky creatures loved by school children of the 80s and 90s. At the heart of the cluster you find the university, a place that nourished revolutionary academics including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Lord Byron, whose fascination with the arts and science helped shape the romantic period. Still an academic centre of excellence, the university has transformed through the years into the advanced hub that it is today.

In their new book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact, authors Kate Kirk and Charles Cotton attempt to highlight the influence that Cambridge has as a powerhouse for innovation and excellence – an influence that, according to the authors, has been largely underestimated. They argue that developments in Cambridge today and in the past have not only had a hugely positive impact on UK economy, but around the world in everything from computer chips to gene therapy.

Much of the technology we use is available thanks to Cambridge innovations, from the chips within a smart phone – the majority of which owe their existence to ARM – to anything equipped with Bluetooth technology. To date, some 4,300 knowledge intensive companies are located within a 20 mile radius of Cambridge, 15 of which are valued at over $1billion, two at over $10billion. 25 are the largest corporations in the world (such as Amazon, AstraZeneca and Microsoft) which have opened operations in the heart of the city.

In the forward to their first book, The Cambridge Phenomenon: 50 Years of Innovation and Enterprise, Microsoft founder Bill Gates wrote that the impact of Cambridge ‘reaches every corner of the globe’. In this year’s follow up publication, Kirk and Cotton advance on this point, highlighting the growth of the Cambridge cluster and the people and businesses behind this technological revolution. Cambridge is no longer just the birthplace of great technological advances, but a place to transfer knowledge and grow multinational business.

At the launch of the book, Kate Kirk commented in a similar vein that “the Cambridge phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain. Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

To this end, the book explores not just particular products and services that have emerged from Cambridge, but also the research institutes and technology sectors that are behind some of the city’s biggest successes. From life science and healthcare to inkjet printing, a wealth of technological innovation encourages competition and attracts talent to discover the potential of the Cambridge Cluster.

This book is important, not just in what it says, but in the work that it represents and the great minds that it credits. Much of the work within Cambridge gives birth to bigger and greater products and services. The effect that this small fenland city has in the wider world should not be underestimated.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

The Age of Em – Robin Hanson

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Ever wondered what a world inhabited almost entirely by intelligent machines might look like? Or even, what smart robots might look like and what their uses, design, attitudes, strengths and weaknesses could be? If any or all of these questions are in the back of your mind, then The Age of Em could be just the book you are looking for. In this revolutionary new publication, economist Robin Hanson combines existing theories in physics, computer science and economics to create a realistic vision of a world dominated by robots.

Each day, advanced reports emerge of experiments in how artificial intelligence and robotics is revolutionising the way we live our lives, but the realisation of a truly intelligent machine still seems far over the horizon. What kind of robots could equal the actions of a human being? Hanson looks to the robotic brain emulation, or ‘em’ as a solution for a truly intelligent machine. The premise is simple enough; take a detailed scan of a human brain and then build a computer model that processes signals in accordance with the same characteristics as the brain. The result is a robotic brain, which can be trained to carry out tasks in the same way as a human baby.

A single brain emulation can be copied thousands of times, creating a literal army of robotic workers with human-like intelligence. The Age of Em serves as an in-depth portrayal of a future where this has become a reality –  ems are the norm and cities, streets, transport and leisure are all designed around these new inhabitants. The era of the em is as different from our own today, as we are from the lives of the farmers and foragers who came before us. Progress has changed once again, with further steps towards efficiency, rendering previous assumptions about life more or less redundant. Moral progress no longer holds such an important position at the forefront of society, with ems, the new master race, rejecting many of the values we hold dear.

It’s a strange world and one which many of you may find unsettling, but is no different than our present lives are from the eras that came before us. To most of us, our lives today may feel preferable to the work-intensive existence of our ancestors, we may even enjoy living as we do today. The em era is no different; it feels good to be an em.

Hanson’s work is revolutionary, not in what it says, but how it attempts to say it. While the majority of previous literary presentations of a world ruled by machines are firmly rooted in the realms of fiction, this text is hard-core theory, attempting to create a realistic image of what a world inhabited by future technology would look like.

Let’s not attempt to flatter the author or reassure the reader by saying that The Age of Em is an easy book to read. It most certainly is not. Those with little experience of economics, physics or computer science may well feel as though they are traversing a figurative Everest of text, but once over the peak, the expedition feels more than worthwhile.

This review was first published on WordPress for E&T magazine

 

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley, with an introduction by Francine Prose

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In June 1816 on a rainy evening by Lake Geneva a young girl created a story about an enthusiastic young science student who developed a technique to bring life to non-living matter, with devastating consequences. The resulting novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, went on to become one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

This year, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s fateful trip to Geneva, Restless Books has released a brand new edition of the acclaimed novel, with a new introduction by Francine Prose and stunning original artwork by acclaimed Mexican artist Eko.