Dear Data – Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec

Dear Data UK jacket.jpeg

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

It’s today! It’s today!

917XNylWC9L

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

Digital Keywords_2322014794239559427

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

3-d_CPGITRANS_1024x1024.png

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

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley, with an introduction by Francine Prose

Frankenstein,+by+Mary+Shelley+-+9781632060785

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.

The Constant Nymph – Margaret Kennedy

5127hb9d+0L

The first thing that attracted me to this book was the cover; I saw it on a vintage book website and fell completely and utterly into love with the artwork. There is something so natural and beautiful about the image, it is the essence of innocence, of fun, and beauty.

So, what’s the background of the image? Who are these young, carefree people swimming so leisurely in an alpine lake? They are the Sanger children, the brood of avant-garde composer Albert Sanger, and this is exactly the situation that their uncle finds them in when he comes to rescue them following the untimely death of their father. Swimming naked, like heathens, in the crystal clear water.

The Sanger children live in a quaint yet somewhat disorderly life in a small chalet in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by an ever moving stream of their father’s admirers, who come and go with ease. The family and their life are chaotic, full of arguments, quests for attention, childish follies and trips of pleasure, but each visitor to the strange dwelling falls under a kind of spell. Step foot inside the Sanger chalet, and all claims of respectable life or upbringing are sure to fall away, swept away by the beauty of free spiritedness, the alpine breeze, and the musical tolling of cow bells.

When I think of the Alps there are many things that come to mind – alpine milk, pine trees, lush green grass, snow capped mountains and the sound of birdsong to name but a few – but with individual characteristics set aside, I am left with an overall feeling that I find rather difficult to describe. Imagine trying to describe how it feels to fill your lungs with cool, crisp air, or to listen to the wind blow through the trees. It’s not just a sound, or a physical feeling, but something more. With The Constant Nymph, Margaret Kennedy somehow captures the emotion of a secluded Alpine dwelling, bottling the pure essence of the Sanger family’s existence and transporting the reader straight into mountains, to experience the sights and smells for themselves.

“They paused for a moment to look over the valley and saw empty air in front of them, and, far below, the tops of tree and little cows and their carriage crawling back along the valley road. Cow bells rose very faintly like single drop of music distilled into this upper silence.”

Within the chalet, life is less typically idyllic. Sanger is not what you would necessarily call a good role model – if fact, he’s a pretty terrible father. He neglects the children, leaving them to be brought up by their eldest sister, and to live more or less by their own devices. But with neglect comes an incredible amount of freedom, an experience unlike no other, the ability to do exactly as they like, and to live with almost no restrictions. The freedom and prosperity of the children is refreshing – they live a life of new age hippiedome, long before the swinging sixties.

“A large barn of a place with very little furniture… the entire wardrobe of the young ladies lay about the permanently in heaps on the floor amid books, music, guitars, cigarette ends, cherry stones and dust.”

The life of Sanger’s circus in the Alps is certainly unconventional, but it is the unconventionality of the situation that makes it so enchanting. It is untreated, natural, and unashamedly beautiful – I am almost sad to say that the book does not continue in this vain, but all things must end.

Sanger’s death, though a shock to the inner workings of the alpine household is not wholly unexpected on the part of the reader, as it is subtly foreshadowed by a sudden change in one of Sanger’s many children, Tessa.

“Teresa said nothing but crouched at the top of the stairs, brooding disconsolately, her thin arms round her knees. Suddenly she had become intensely miserable. She stared down into the darkness of the hall, cut in two by the moonlight which streamed in through the door. She could not bear it. She jumped up with a little cry of exasperation.”

Tessa’s sudden and intense misery is like a predomination of her life to come. After the death of their father, the children are thrown into disarray. With no money, no education, and no parents to support them, the circus is forced to split up and each, once carefree, affiliate to attempt a more conventional way of life. A once perfect existence stripped away, leaving nothing more than the bitter aftertaste of a life once lived.

As much as I loved the picture of the Sanger family up in the hills, it is the time that follows which really makes the novel – the characters are stolen from their isolationist existence in the mountains and plunged face first into a bitter, cold, hard reality.  It’s difficult for everyone, but none more so than the delicate Tessa, the constant, once-carefree, nymph, for whom the bells tolls the sound of tragedy.

It’s difficult to put into words how I feel about this book. I could say that I liked it, or even loved it, but I don’t feel that adequately encapsulates the emotion behind reading a book like this. It is both tragically beautiful, and beautifully tragic, beginning as a carefree skip through a lush green valley, and culminating with a scene so gut wrenchingly tragic that it will give you a book hangover to end all book hangovers. Once nothing more than a captivating image on a computer screen, The Constant Nymph has made it firmly onto my shelf of books to recommend.

 

 

Hollyweird Science: From quantum quirks to the multiverse – Kevin R Grazier and Stephen Cass,

Hollyweird_Science

There was a time when being called a ‘nerd’ could have been considered an insult, but today what was once considered nerd culture – think thick glasses, spaceships and battlebots – has become not only accepted, but celebrated and embraced. We have this to thank, in part, for the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster, which, while perhaps never reserved for nerds alone, has never been more popular than it is today. But popularity, of course, brings the inevitable risk of critique.

While the general public might not bat an eyelid at most scientific inaccuracies in sci-fi flicks, the boffins and nerds among us often have a love-hate relationship with these big blockbusters – thrilled by the ride, but incensed when the science is obviously wrong.

In response Kevin Grazier and Stephen Cass, two self-proclaimed science fiction nerds, have set out to celebrate the wonderful world of science fiction by examining the scientific success and failures behind the scenes in a fun and quirky bookshelf edition, sure to delight dedicated sci-fi fans and quantum physicists alike.

“Our primary goal,” the pair explain, “is not to excoriate the creators of movies and shows for errors but to celebrate when they get it right.” That said, the book does not avoid criticising where Hollywood has got it wrong, and significant space is given to examining some of the most extreme sci-fi cock-ups. Hardcore fans of Jon Amiel’s ‘The Core’ – revered as one of Hollywood’s most spectacular scientific failures – might want to give this a miss.

Science fiction is a difficult genre to get right – too much fact and the film becomes a lecture, but focus too much on entertainment and you risk the viewer becoming disconnected. People do not look to sci-fi for information or facts – that’s left to news and documentaries. They want to be entertained, but it has to be believable.

In ‘Hollyweird Science’, Grazier and Cass attempt to analyse the delicate balancing act that is sci-fi, and isolate what makes a great sci-fi flick. How do directors and writers ensure that the viewers emit a delighted “Oh, wow!” at an incredible on-screen adaption of scientific mastery, rather than an exasperated “Oh, please!” at a storyline that is incorrect, far-fetched, and ultimately unbelievable?

It’s harder than it seems. For example, it’s widely known that sound doesn’t travel in space, but who would want to watch ‘Star Wars’ without the sound effects? Battle scenes would have been far less audience-pleasing if the TIE fighters were silent – and Ben Burtt would have had no use for his elephant-call-cum-car-driving-on-a-wet-pavement mashup. So sound travelling in space, while scientifically inaccurate is generally considered acceptable in the commercial world of Hollywood.

But other errors, such as the gravity-defying train journey through the Earth’s core featured in the 2012 remake of ‘Total Recall’, or the huge nuclear explosions that pushed the Moon out of orbit in the pilot episode of British television series ‘Space’, are less acceptable. Directors who commit such science crime should prepare for a veritable cataclysm of criticism from angry movie-goers.

Over the years there has been a lot of trial and error when it comes to science fiction, and of course, directors and writers alike call on the assistance of scientists to try and make their films believable. Despite years of practice, some films do miss the mark and get it oh-so-wrong, but on the whole, Grazier and Cass suggest, Hollywood isn’t doing such a bad job.

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