Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Art of Photography

Joel Meyerowitz (born March, 1938) is a New York street, portrait and landscape photographer. He began his career in 1962 and was an early advocate of the use of color photography at a time when there was significant resistance to it acceptance as serious art.
Here he talks about photography as an art form:


Friday, January 18, 2013

New Words in the English Language

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is published on-line ( every quarter, and is usually considered to be the definitive guide to the English language. In general the OED publishes around 2,000 new and revised entries (those where new or updated definitions are given for pre-existing words) each quarter.

English has never procured an official Academy to regulate its use, as have other languages including French and Spanish, so you could argue it is much freer to evolve and reflect the cultures in which it is spoken. However, the choice of which words should be included in each new edition of the dictionary is taken by a few individuals. Their aim is to highlight words that have entered the language naturally over a period of a few years, rather than to artificially invent new ones. The OED explains the selection process as follows:
Finding new words 
Oxford University Press has one of the largest and most wide-ranging language research programmes in the world. Our most important resources are the Oxford English Corpus and the Oxford Reading Programme. The Corpus consists of entire documents sourced largely from the World Wide Web, while the Reading Programme is an electronic collection of sentences or short extracts drawn from a huge variety of writing, from song lyrics and popular fiction to scientific journals. It's based on the contributions of an international network of readers who are on the lookout for instances of new words and meanings or other language changes.
Keeping track and making choices 
We continually monitor the Corpus and the Reading Programme to track new words coming into the language: when we have evidence of a new term being used in a variety of different sources (not just by one writer) it becomes a candidate for inclusion in one of our dictionaries. For every new dictionary or online update we assess all the most recent terms that have emerged and select those which we judge to be the most significant or important and those which we think are likely to stand the test of time. 
In previous centuries dictionaries tended to contain lists of words that their writers thought might be useful, even if there was no evidence that anyone had ever actually used these words. This is not the case today. New terms have to be recorded in a print or online source before they can be considered: it's not enough just to hear them in conversation or on television, although we do analyse material from Internet message boards and TV scripts.
It used to be the case that a new term had to be used over a period of two or three years before we could consider adding it to a print dictionary. In today's digital age, the situation has changed. New terms can achieve enormous currency with a wide audience in a much shorter space of time, and people expect to find these new 'high-profile' words in their dictionaries. This presents an additional challenge to lexicographers trying to assess whether a term is ephemeral or whether it will become a permanent feature of the language.
Personal inventions
People often send us words they have made up and ask if we will add their invented terms to one of our dictionaries. Unfortunately, the answer is usually no, because we only add words that we consider to have genuinely entered the language: we assess this by looking at all the evidence we have in our databases. Of course, some invented words do catch on and become an established part of English, either because they fill a gap or because they are describing something new. Examples of this type of invented word include wiki, quark, spoof, and hobbit. (last accessed 17/01/2013)
The complete list of words recently added to the OED can be found here. looking at many of the new additions, it does seem to me that (despite the OED's attempts to chose words which are likely to stand the test of time) many of them may become redundant as times change and cultural references become obscure. Below are some examples, together with their definitions:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A History of the Universe in 200 Words

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Strong nuclear interaction. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Density perturbations. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Cluster formation. Reionization? Violent relaxation. Virialization. Biased galaxy formation? Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Compression. Opaque hydrogen. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Condensation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Water dissociation. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms. Oxidation. Mutation. Natural selection and evolution. Respiration. Cell differentiation. Sexual reproduction. Fossilization. Land exploration. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Glaciation. Homo sapiens manifestation. Animal domestication. Food surplus production. Civilization! Innovation. Exploration. Religion. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Exploration. Colonization. Taxation without representation. Revolution. Constitution. Election. Expansion. Industrialization. Rebellion. Emancipation Proclamation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Immigration. World conflagration. League of Nations. Suffrage extension. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. United Nations. Space exploration. Assassinations. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Computerization. World Trade Organization. Terrorism. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?

Copyright 1996-1997 by Eric Schulman.

This piece was the inspiration for the book A Briefer History of Time and led to the Annals of Improbable Research Universal History Translation Project. Reprinted from the AIR, Volume III, Number 1, January/February 1997.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nonsense Mathematics

Here's a nice article tweeted by Richard van de Lagemaat this week. It appears that most of us are much more likely to accept the authority of an article if it includes some mathematics (regardless of whether or not these actually make any sense). Its indicative of the awe in which we generally hold professional mathematicians, but perhaps also shows a lack of understanding of maths by the general public. It also makes an interesting companion to the article I posted previously about 'why we mistrust science'.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Mobius Strips

A Mobius Strip is a surface obtained by sticking the ends of a band together, giving it a single twist in the process. It was discovered by German mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius and immortalised by some of the work of Dutch artist Maurits Cornelis Escher. Today, it is probably best known as the basis of the ubiquitous recycling symbol.

The shape itself and those obtained by cutting it are somewhat counter-intuitive. For example it appears only to have one surface and one side. If you trace a pencil line across the centre or edge of a Mobius Strip, you find yourself back at the position you started from.

The study of Mobius Strips and shapes like them gave rise to a new branch of mathematics called 'topology', which is concerned with the basic properties of space and connectedness. This developed from discussing questions about simple geometry to the structure of the Universe itself. The shape is also often used in religious analogies when discussing the multifacetedness of God.

Incidentally, I often wondered why those Heath Robinson-style contraptions (which usually seem to be attached to tractors on farms) use a belt twisted into a Mobius shape. Its obvious to me now that by doing so you double the surface area of the belt in contact with the machinery and therefore prolong its life.

The youtube clip below shows some nice bamboozling tricks you can play by creating Mobius Strips in paper and then cutting them up: