‘Infinity: A Very Short Introduction’ by Ian Stewart

Infinity is all around us. It helped to send man to the moon and underlines the very basic principles of mathematics, but remains a hugely misunderstood concept.

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Picture this: I have a hotel and infinite number of rooms, all of which are occupied. If a new guest were to turn up wanting a room for the night, how could I accommodate them? If you don’t already know the answer to this, then the latest release Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introduction series is sure to be of interest. ‘Infinity: A Very Short Introduction’, by Ian Stewart is, somewhat paradoxically, a quick and simple introduction to what is, quite literally, the biggest subject ever. Intrigued? Read on to find out more.

Let’s get back to my hotel and the matter of how I might accommodate this new and troubling guest. If I had a hotel with a finite number of rooms, the poor chap would be out on his ear, but a hotel with an infinite number of rooms is much more flexible. Instead, I simply need to move the guest in room one to room two, and the guest in room two to room three, and so on, so that each guest has been moved from his current room n, to n+1. Once each guest has been moved, room one will be empty and free to accommodate the new guest.

Confused yet? The hotel’s skills don’t stop here. If in an infinite number of new guests turned up I would also be able to accommodate them. To do this, I would simple need to move the person in room one to room two, and the person in room two to room four, and three to room six, and so on, until each odd numbered room (of which there are an infinite amount) is empty, and ready to be filled by the new guests. I could go on and try to explain how an infinite number of coaches each filled with an infinite number of guests could be accommodated, but my head is starting to hurt.

This hotel, hypothesised by German mathematician David Hilbert in 1924, goes to illustrate the counter-intuitive nature of infinity, by showing that infinity plus one, and infinity plus infinity, are both equal to infinity. More than this, though, Hilbert’s infinite hotel paradox highlights that infinity is paradoxical, so don’t be put off by the paradox of a ‘short’ introduction to a huge subject because when you think about it, illogically it starts to make sense.

Unlike infinity itself, infinity as a concept does have a beginning: it was first hypothesised by Anaximander, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher from around 580BC. He used ideas of infinity, what he called ‘apeiron’, in the search for the origin of life. Since this time, countless philosophers, theologians, psychologists and mathematicians have delved into the black depths of infinity in search of meaning and explanation.

It might seem strange to think so deeply about a concept that we never physically encounter, but infinity actually comes into play in far more situations than you might imagine. Stewart highlights the example of 1/3 expressed as a decimal – 0.33333 recurring. The recurring number of the decimal goes on forever – it is infinite. In the same way, ideas of space and time are often thought of in terms of infinity, as, of course, are numbers. In fact, infinity has an intrinsic role in all manner of subjects – it underlines the very basis of calculus, has taken man to the moon and is used by mathematicians every day.

Infinity is not a thing, it is a concept, a way of understanding tangible things, and, as Stewart goes to highlight, has a very important role to play. The pattern-seeking nature of the human mind dictates that is preferable, or perhaps easier, to think of certain things as infinite than in attempting to think of a boundary. The mere mention of time having a ‘beginning’ will bring up the question of ‘what came before?’. ‘Nothing’ is an incomprehensible answer.

With ‘Infinity: a Very Short introduction’, Stewart has taken an interminably complex subject, and condensed and contracted it to something reasonably manageable – just reasonably, mind, not entirely, as this is infinity we are talking about. The book introduces puzzles and paradoxes, debunks common misconceptions and explores infinity as a concept in both the natural and theoretical world. The sheer wealth of information is at once fascinating and a little terrifying.

If you’ve ever been struck by the question of what lies at the end of infinity, are baffled by the idea of never ending time or space, or just want to read something that is bound to twist your mind in crazy directions, then this is the book for you.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The Trainable Cat’ by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis

There is such a thing as cat whispering and it’s really not that difficult. This new book by self-proclaimed cat enthusiasts John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis outlines simple ways that owners can make life happier for themselves and their furry four-legged friends.

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There are two kinds of people in this world, those who love cats, and those who are wrong. Or, if you want me to be a little less biased, cat people and dog people – no prizes for guessing which category yours truly falls into. One of the biggest gripes dog people seem to have with cats is their brazen ‘up yours’ attitude to anything and everything. A cat will do as it pleases, when it pleases, and there is little if anything you can do to stop them. Dogs are trainable, dogs are reliable, cats, on the other hand, are a law unto themselves.

While the idea of a trained cat might seem contradictory, in ‘The Trainable Cat’, authors John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis show that stress-induced behaviour in cats, such as shredding furniture and fighting against vet visits, can be prevented, making life happier and healthier for cats and owners alike. Your cat is just as intelligent as the dog next door, and far from being untrainable and ignorant, is continually learning and adjusting its behaviour to outside stimuli. You may assume that when your cat jumps up onto the work surface for the fourth time while you are baking, it is deliberately ignoring your pleas for peace, but have you ever stopped to consider that your response to the cat is actually encouraging it?

Starting from the basics, Bradshaw and Ellis delve into the inner workings of the feline mind, to uncover how and why cats learn the way they do, and what cat owners can do to make training easy for the cat and themselves. Cats have excellent memories, they say, and are therefore perfectly suited to training, but are rather different to dogs and thus have their own specific requirements. Through multiple enlightening and often humorous scenarios, Bradshaw and Ellis lay out different training approaches and programmes that can be used to teach cats by rewarding good behaviour while limiting the less appealing sides of a cat’s psyche – including those that result claw-marked furniture and bloody corpses.

Think you can’t train a cat? Think again! The video below shows one of my own beloved moggies playing fetch cat-sized stick (aka hairpin). A bit of positive reinforcement in the form of delicious cat snacks goes a long way.

This book isn’t just a training manual, though. As well as offering advice for the cat lover who wants to ensure they are getting the most out of their relationship with their humble friend, it’s also packed full of awesome cat-related general knowledge titbits. The geek within me revelled in the discovery that the reason one of my cats sometimes sits with her mouth gormlessly hanging open is because she has smelled something interesting and is literally ‘tasting’ the air. The fact that cats like to seek out tiny spaces to hide is because, as retractably clawed animals, they are unable to dig and so, in the wild, would have had to seek out natural crevices to protect themselves from predators.

This book delivers on random information, psychological insight, scientific analysis and all-round cuteness, securing it a high position on my list of favourite books reviewed for E&T so far. I can’t confirm as yet whether Bradshaw and Ellis’s advice has in fact made life happier for me and my cats, but it has certainly given me a better understanding of crazy and endearing things they do. Whether you want to train your cat, are interested in the inner workings of the feline mind, or are a hard-core ‘dog person’ in need of a ‘reality check’, this book is guaranteed to make you think, smile and truly appreciate the unique personalities of these complex creatures.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss

 

‘Visions of Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss takes the reader on a mystical journey through the mysteries and of mathematics in a fun twist on the bewildering adult colouring book market. Who said colouring needs to be relaxing?

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The adult colouring book market is a strange one. Early last year, five of the top ten books listed on retail giant Amazon’s bestseller list were adult colouring books. This poses the question: what on earth are people doing with their lives? When you’ve spent a long hard day at the office it can be all too easy to take feelings of stress home with you, but does the answer really lie in resorting to simpler, more childish times?

Some behaviourists and more than a few adult-colouring book fanatics seem to think so, but I am unconvinced. I’ve tried out a few of these books, and they can be quite fun, but are hardly the perfect solution to an overworked millennial. Firstly, you need to try and actually find the time to sit down and colour. I don’t know about you, but between the all important glass of red and my commitment to vegetating in front of The Walking Dead with my significant other, my evening schedule is pretty tight…

Still, I took some time out this week to try out a new adult colouring book that has graced Amazon’s ever-growing bookshelves. ‘Visions In Numberland’ by Alex Bellos and Edmund Harriss promises the would-be colourer a “colouring journey through the mysteries of maths”, but is it really any different from the bewildering array of adult colouring books already on offer?

Short answer: yes, if not we wouldn’t really be featuring it in and engineering and technology publication, would we?

This book is different from the rest. It is so very, very different. Where traditional adult colouring books offer freedom and relaxation to work through inner stress, this book serves as a tour of some of the most fundamental discoveries in the field of mathematics, in which the reader is invited to explore them through colour and imagery.

Ultimately though, there is no freedom, and there is certainly no relaxation.

On my first visit to Numberland I visited the ‘Curve of Pursuit’ – that is, a path taken by a point that is always moving towards another point. The authors create the image of four dogs standing in each corner of a square room, if each dog races towards the dog that is anticlockwise from it, so that each dog is running at the same speed and at all times running towards its quarry along a straight line, the dogs will follow a logarithmic spiral.

The image seen below is my attempt to colour in a collage of several of the so-called ‘canine chases’. Beautiful isn’t it? I’d have loved to have finished it, I’m sure the result would have been quite spectacular, but this was as much as I could possibly complete in one go without passing out. By the time I put my pencil down to take a, quite well-deserved, break I was seeing spots.

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Perhaps it was the perfectionist in me, but there was no way I could colour in the image in anything other than logical steps and colours, which sort of blew the ‘relaxing’ aspect of colouring right out of the water. It felt more like a mission I needed to complete. Seeing the image emerge was pretty satisfying though, once I got past the stress of falling into a mathematical borehole.

I enlisted some help from one of the other editorial members of E&T, who also found the whole experience a little stressful. They did actually manage to finish theirs though, and so we have below an elegantly coloured pattern of 14 pointed stars placed on a grid made up from two varieties of rhombus and entitled ‘Diamonds in the Sky’.

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Travelling though the book reveals firm mathematical darlings like arithmetic and geometry, as well as more abstract modern examples including graph theory and dynamical systems, and gives the reader the opportunity to colour in existing patterns, as well as create their own using relatively easy-to-follow guidelines. My personal favourite is a task in which a series of concentric pentagons are arranged in a convex spiral serving to create a hall-of-mirrors-esque illustrated algorithm – a strikingly simple step-by-step guide to one of the most complex mathematical systems.

I would include a picture, but as I said, the guidelines are only ‘relatively’ easy to follow.

Stress and wonderment aside, there was one thing I found slightly troubling but ultimately endearing about this book. A mistake. How humbling that a colouring book which shows the universe through the eyes of the world’s greatest mathematicians falls prey to one of the most human characteristics. I do hope this wasn’t put there as a test, but if it was I spotted it. The rogue number 12882 highlighted in the image below has no place in that rectangle on Pascal’s triangle, and should of course be 8326 like its partner in the seventh hexagon across – and yes, ladies and gents, I did discover this by colouring in all the numbers with a ‘6’  using the same colour and noticing a discrepancy.

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My personal feelings towards ‘Visions of Numberland’ are mixed. It’s a fun approach to some really fascinating theories which can be approached without any prior knowledge to mathematical systems and the images are nothing short of spectacular, but some of the tasks take a lot of commitment to complete and could well leave your mind buzzing. I’m inclined to want to read the book, and learn more about the mathematical patterns, but without actually doing any more colouring in.

This could be one for the maths-lover in your life, or someone who has outgrown standard adult colouring books, and wants to take on something a little more challenging. Whatever you do, though, don’t buy this book thinking it will help you to unwind; if you do you could set yourself on track for a full-on nervous breakdown.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ by Siva Vaidhyanathan

From over-the-counter medicines to the corrugated cardboard sleeve on a Starbucks coffee cup, intellectual property law hides in plain sight behind a surprising array of everyday objects, and it doesn’t always have the best of intentions.

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Back in December I reviewed ‘The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy’, a book that looks at licensing agreements which come attached to any digital download, and dictate any use, or pleasure, you can take from digital property. If, like me, you love to get into the nitty gritty of what you can and can’t do with information, you no doubt read the review, and bought and consumed the book too.

Where ‘The End of Ownership’ looked at the changing relationship with how we own intellectual property of others, this latest book explores how the very nature of intellectual property has changed over time. ‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ one of the latest great additions to OUP’s mini introduction series, considers  how copyright and patenting laws have changed over from avenues designed to protect and nurture creativity, to tools used for economic gain. That’s right, guys, the reason Amazon want to retain total control over your digital library is because it is in its economic interests to do so.

Author Siva Vaidhyanathan recounts how he first became interested in rules and regulations of intellectual property while working for a large media company that claimed his creative work as its own. As a content producer, Vaidhyanathan saw his work used, reworked and quoted completely outside of the realms of his control. This set the ball rolling for a complex journey into the confusing, and often contradictory, matrix of ownership and creativity.

The story begins with the American music scene, tracing changing dynamics of hip-hop in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time rife with sampling lawsuits inevitably leading to dumbing down of some of the defining characteristics of the music genre. It becomes all the more complex at the turn of the century, with the rise and fall of the first widespread file sharing service – Napster – and the resulting global ‘free culture’ movement of the early 21st century.

This book, though, looks at more than just the relationship between intellectual property and creativity, and how copyright and patent legislation has evolved over time. Rather, it is an approach to understanding your rights as a copyright holder. As Vaidhyanathan says, if you send or receive emails, texts and use social media, you are a copyright holder and more than likely an infringer too. What’s more, if you own a smartphone, tablet or e-reader, and consume digital media therewith, then a substantial portion of the price you pay will go to cover license patents.

You might take for granted that you can buy over-the-counter allergy medicine at a cheap price from your local pharmacy – this wouldn’t have been the case many years ago, when medicine was still covered by patents dictating who could sell it. Patents and copyright licensing are everywhere, from medication on your prescription and CDs in your local HMV, to the unassuming corrugated cardboard sleeve designed to stop you burning your hand on your morning Starbucks flat white. In fact, as Vaidhyanathan points out, Starbucks is just as much an intellectual property company as it is a food and beverage supplier. The coffee company has its own entertainment arm, and produces and sells music it feels will appeal to its clientele. This is just one of the reasons for the eye watering price tag on the aforementioned flat white; all those lawyers don’t come cheap.

Intellectual property is a hugely complicated and confusing theme to try and get your head around, but one thing is clear, it’s all about the money. Intellectual property as it is today is present because there are people who want it to exist. There are companies and individuals with huge economic interests invested in restraining the global movement for standardisation of intellectual property. Copyrights, patents and other laws dictating how property can be used say as much, if not more, about the world in which we live – they do creative content they are designed to protect. Where once intellectual property protection existed to protect and foster creativity, today it has taken on a whole new political, economic and cultural identity.

‘Intellectual Property: A Very Short Introduction’ serves as a wonderfully accessible avenue into a wholly confusing topic, making it another truly spectacular addition to the QUP ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. This is a book for law buffs, experts on rules and regulations, and anyone looking to widen their economic and political understanding of the world – or make a splash at an incredibly specific pub quiz.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’ by Klaus Schwab

 

By definition, revolution means covering new and unknown territory and the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is no different. What can we expect and how can we best utilise the new technology at our disposal?

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The ‘fourth industrial revolution’: everyone is talking about it, but no one seems to really know what it is. Hindsight is 20:20, of course, and maybe things will only really become clear once we’re hurled full force into the fifth industrial revolution, which I can only hope will in some way involve alien technology. If you’d asked the textile workers of the 19th century to define the industrial revolution they’d probably have struggled, too.

While previous industrial revolutions brought about mechanisation, mass production, computer control and automation, the fourth industrial revolution is thought to be fundamentally different. Rather than focusing on a specific development or technology, the fourth industrial revolution encompasses a range of new and existing technologies that bring together the physical, digital and biological worlds and will be felt across all industries and economies.

It is thought that this dramatic leap forward in industrialisation will be felt across industries and will change the way that we live, work and relate to one another. In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Schwab introduces us to the key technologies driving this revolution and discusses the effect that these will have on governments, businesses and citizens as a whole.

The book serves as more than just an introduction to a conflated term, though, as Schwab seeks to address the many societal concerns over developments within industry, as well as outlining what can be done to ensure that we make the most of this exciting, but largely unknown, new phenomenon.

Intelligent machines play a big role in any conversation about the fourth industrial revolution. For many, this is one of the most concerning aspects of this new wave of industry, aggravating societal fears surrounding the role of the human workers in the workplace of the future. Schwab discusses this area in great detail, striving to dispel rumours that factory workers will inevitably be displaced by robotics, and instead looks into how industries are developing practical applications to work alongside traditional workers. The rise of intelligent machines does not mean that we face a man-versus-machine dilemma, he says. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the fourth industrial revolution will serve to enhance human labour and cognition, meaning that leaders need to prepare workforce and develop education models to work with, and alongside, robotics.

The main concern that seems to arise from Schwab’s analysis is that of societal control of the new wave of industry. The fourth industrial revolution has the potential to transform the way we live and work, but success rests in the combined hands of organisations, citizens and governments. If organisations fail to adapt and governments fail to adequately employ and regulate new technologies, we see ourselves headed down a very different path. With this is mind, Schwab calls on leaders and citizens to “shape a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”

Schwab’s message is one of collaborative growth and how to best utilise the new technology at our disposal, while simultaneously addressing the challenges that go alongside – a sentiment echoed in the billing of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2016, which was held under the theme “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is a fascinating, comprehensive and enlightening dialogue highlighting the many different benefits and challenges that humankind can expect as we move further forward into a new and unfamiliar wave of industrial development. Those with an interest in where we are headed as a society, but who find themselves overwhelmed by the synonymous talk of ‘Industry 4.0’, ‘smart factories’ and ‘factories of the future’ can hope to find their questions answered and concerns addressed by this illustrative and informative new publication.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America’ by Michael Z Newman

A fascinating historical analysis of the emergence and development of video games in America.

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Retro video games have developed a real cult following over the years. In a time when on-screen graphics are frighteningly real, the simple, blocky pictures and monotonic themes speak of an era when consoles, and times, were simpler. Or were they?

Each time a Space Invaders remake is announced, there are more than a few people who insist on focusing on the negative side of our digital friends. In Atari Age, author Michael Z Newman looks at the impact of early video games on the American culture they grew from, as well as their effects, both positive and negative, on society. The history unveiled by Newman is remarkably complex – an evolution in content, design and public opinion.

The story begins in penny arcades, where leather-capped youths lined up for the likes of the fortune teller and peep show, before progressing swiftly along to the days of pinball’s reign. The emergence of video games and their eventual move into the American home, Newman says, was a process of evolution which began within the arcade.

While penny arcades and pinball soon fell by the wayside, video arcades gained popularity, evolving from a media seen as unreliable, due to their liability to break down and difficulty to fix, to one which inspired, excited and enthused American youths. Indeed, arcade games became such an important aspect of popular culture that, during the height of the game’s popularity, a single establishment in Piccadilly Circus is said to have had 10 Space Invaders machines all in a row and no doubt constantly in use.

To explain their popularity, Neman points to the adaptive nature of the video game. Unlike pinball, a video game gets harder as a player gets better, and thereby encourages greater investment. Indeed, the medium itself continued to adapt to the point where it soon outgrew arcades, a feat that pinball and penny slots never achieved, and made its home right in the heart of the American family. With the release of the Magnavox Odyssey and Pong and 1972, the family television became the new arcade.

As video games evolved, so too did public opinion. Whereas games seem to have developed almost naturally, changes in societal understanding have been far more complicated. The Magnavox Odyssey was originally seen as a device for turning the TV in a participatory experience, but this idea was quickly joined by fears that spending too much time playing games could be harmful. This is a swing we have continued to experience today, as games have evolved to be more ‘active’, but still bear the yoke of technological fear.

Using original marketing and advertising materials, Newman weaves an image of a two-way development of video games and public opinion. The book highlights the ever-changing face of media in the eyes of the American public, as it moved from an enjoyable medium, to something to fear, and back again. Newman’s technological timeline says as much about the society that video games emerged in as it does about power of the medium itself.

There is something nostalgic – or is it regretful – about this book, as though you are viewing the past through sepia-tinted glasses. The pages conjure up images of American families huddled round the comforting glow of the TV, or, perhaps the dusty grey screens editorialised in George Orwell’s 1984.

This is a book for those fascinated by sociological viewpoints of American society, but will likely sit well with fans of retro video games, if only for the novelty of 1970s gaming advertorial.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

‘The Essential Digital Detox Plan’ by Orianna Fielding

Being constantly connected to digital devices can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help, as Orianna Fielding discusses in this elegant new publication from Carlton Books.

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I once met a man who would send framed photos of himself to all his friends and family every year as Christmas presents. Weird isn’t it? Why would anybody want that as a gift? Not so strange, though, is the idea of sharing photos of yourself on social media for, presumably, the benefit of your many friends and followers. Remove the computer, though, and the whole thing gets really quite peculiar. Could you imagine yourself having just got back from holiday, picking up reams of glossy 4 by 7 prints from the pharmacy, slipping them into individually addressed envelopes and sending them out for all your friends to see? I’m willing to bet not, because that would make you seem more than a little overbearing, and possibly lead to a few restraining orders. So why is it ok, encouraged even, to do this online?

In The Essential Digital Detox Plan: How to achieve balance in a digital world, Orianna Fielding explores this concept, and many more, as she delves into the strange world of new social media, and offers advice for those who want to have more control over their digital consumption habits.

We have reached a stage, Fielding says, where connectivity permeates every aspect of our lives. Texting and reading on smartphones rather than conversing with those around us is now considered the norm, and we are constantly connected to our work and personal emails at the expense of missing out what is happening around us. It is important to realise, she says, that having access to the world in the palm of your hand also means the world has access to you. Eurphoria at the ability to be connected at all times can quickly be replaced with a debilitating dependence on being connected at all times.

The Essential Digital Detox Plan provides advice for how people can take control of their digital consumption habits, rather than allowing their digital devices to have control of them. The suggestions included in the text range from introducing phone-free meal times and tech-free zones in the house to taking unplugged time out at work to engage in a five-minute meditation ‘snack’. For the most committed out there, the back of the book serves as a step by step guide to full digital detox, from one hour to the full seven days.

The overarching theme of the book is not just about disconnecting from digital devices, but about adopting a slower, more conscious approach to life. Fielding stresses the important of taking the time to observe your surroundings and really ‘be’ in the present moment to indulge in experiences that, often, access to a smartphone or tablet can negate.

The steps, suggestions and advice included in the text stem from Fielding’s own journey to achieving a balance in her digital consumption habits. This gives a very personal feel to the text, but also means that at times Fielding’s style can see a bit self righteous, perhaps even presumptuous. But I think you are more likely to pick up on this or find it a little grating if you haven’t brought this book for advice.

It’s never fun to pick up on mistakes in reviews, but, for all the good I have to say about this book, I would not be a very good editor if I didn’t make mention of the glaring error in the preface. Fielding refers to the book by the wrong name (Unplugged), not once but twice. I assume, as this book was once serialised in a magazine, that it has been given one or two new lifelines along the way to full publication. No doubt at some point it was called Unplugged, but it isn’t now, and this really is something that should have been picked up prior to publication.

On the whole, though, I think The Essential Digital Detox Plan is a pretty good companion for those wishing to spend a little less time surrounded by technology, or take a more relaxed approach to their digital consumption. Even if you don’t want to go all out and commit to a full seven-day digital detox, the book contains a lot in the way of yoga and meditation exercises and other tips and tricks to help you take time out during your day.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine

Book review: ‘The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future’ by Fiona Reynolds

An enlightening journey through history’s many attempts to secure and protect what is beautiful in the world.

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Beauty is a complicated subject. We all know what it is, but as time goes by we become less comfortable with speaking about it, or so says author Fiona Reynolds in this stunning new publication from Oneworld.

Describing beauty of the natural world has become something sacred and very personal, where once it ran free within government documentation and legal literature, it is now replaced by more clinical attempts of ‘protecting biodiversity’ and ‘conserving habitats’. So much is the case that today, even while striving to protect natural beauty with climate change legislation and environmental protection orders, we do more than ever to ignore it.

Heeding the words of John Ruskin in the 19th century, Reynolds highlights the ever increasing drive for economic growth and desire for material possession in modern times. “Wherever I look of travel in England or abroad,” wrote Ruskin. “I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty. They seem to have no other desire or hope but to have large house and to be able to move fast.” How much has changed since this time?

It reminds me of a recent news story about a real estate tycoon in the US who built the most expensive house to ever go on the market. The house is available for $250 million and comes complete with its own private cinema, massage parlour and luxury cars. What was the aim of this dwelling? To tap into the niche, super wealthy market of people willing to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a yacht, but who barely surpass $10 million when it comes to housing. A fantastic business venture if ever there was one – build a man a dream house and his friends will surely want one too – but it doesn’t do much to inspire hope in a future where consumerism isn’t everything.

Reynolds believes this state of economic affairs – where people strive for bigger and better possessions, and only things of monetary value have any real worth – makes it more difficult than ever to protect what matters, including the environment and our future.

In The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future Reynolds collects words and aspirations of figures past and present who all endeavoured to achieve one thing: protection of the Earth and conservation of its natural beauty. The book examines ideas about nature, farming and urbanisation, explores mountain sides, secluded woodlands and protected heather-rich moorland, and delves into romantic thoughts and war poetry. Beginning with the impassioned minds of friends behind the Kyrle Society of the 19th century, whose calls for environmental protection gave way to the modern National Trust, Reynolds shows how definitions of beauty have been rearranged and reconsidered throughout history, before becoming somewhat lost within the fast-paced consumerist lifestyles of modern day.

The Fight for Beauty is at once intriguing, fascinating and incredibly moving. What could serve as an interesting account of the importance of the countryside throughout history is, on a much deeper level, a fervent call-to-arms to protect what, once gone, is gone forever. For Reynolds at least, inspiration from the past and from nature itself could provide an alternative path forward from human development, one where beauty is not forgotten.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

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