(Roughly) Daily

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“This potential possibility need only play a role as a counterfactual, according to quantum theory, for it to have an actual effect!”*…

Contemplate counterfactuals: things that have not happened — but could happen — a neglected area of scientific theory…

If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics — yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explana­tions. They are facts not about what is — the ‘actual’ — but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the ac­tual, they are called counterfactuals.

Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake’s poems. That the poetry book is subsequently sit­ting somewhere on that planet is a factual property of it. That the words in it could be read is a counterfactual property, which is true regardless of whether those words will ever be read by anyone. The box may be never found; and yet that those words could be read would still be true — and laden with significance. It would signify, for instance, that a civilization visited the planet, and much about its degree of sophistication.

To further grasp the importance of counterfactual properties, and their difference from actual properties, imagine a computer programmed to produce on its display a string of zeroes. That is a factual property of the computer, to do with its actual state — with what is. The fact that it could be reprogrammed to output other strings is a counterfactual property of the computer. The computer may never be so programmed; but the fact that it could is an essential fact about it, without which it would not qualify as a computer.

The counterfactuals that matter to science and physics, and that have so far been neglected, are facts about what could or could not be made to happen to physical systems; about what is possible or impossible. They are fundamental because they express essential features of the laws of physics — the rules that govern every system in the universe. For instance, a counterfactual property imposed by the laws of physics is that it is impossible to build a perpetual motion machine. A perpetual motion machine is not simply an object that moves forever once set into motion: it must also gener­ate some useful sort of motion. If this device could exist, it would produce energy out of no energy. It could be harnessed to make your car run forever without using fuel of any sort. Any sequence of transformations turning something without energy into some thing with energy, without depleting any energy supply, is impos­sible in our universe: it could not be made to happen, because of a fundamental law that physicists call the principle of conservation of energy.

Another significant counterfactual property of physical sys­tems, central to thermodynamics, is that a steam engine is possible. A steam engine is a device that transforms energy of one sort into energy of a different sort, and it can perform useful tasks, such as moving a piston, without ever violating that principle of conserva­tion of energy. Actual steam engines (those that have been built so far) are factual properties of our universe. The possibility of build­ing a steam engine, which existed long before the first one was actually built, is a counterfactual.

So the fundamental types of counterfactuals that occur in physics are of two kinds: one is the impossibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a perpetual motion machine); the other is the possibility of performing a transformation (e.g., building a steam engine). Both are cardinal properties of the laws of phys­ics; and, among other things, they have crucial implications for our endeavours: no matter how hard we try, or how ingeniously we think, we cannot bring about transformations that the laws of physics declare to be impossible — for example, creating a per­petual motion machine. However, by thinking hard enough, we can come up with more and better ways of performing a pos­sible transformation — for instance, that of constructing a steam engine — which can then improve over time.

In the prevailing scientific worldview, counterfactual proper­ties of physical systems are unfairly regarded as second-class citi­zens, or even excluded altogether. Why? It is because of a deep misconception, which, paradoxically, originated within my own field, theoretical physics. The misconception is that once you have specified everything that exists in the physical world and what happens to it — all the actual stuff — then you have explained every­thing that can be explained. Does that sound indisputable? It may well. For it is easy to get drawn into this way of thinking with­out ever realising that one has swallowed a number of substantive assumptions that are unwarranted. For you can’t explain what a computer is solely by specifying the computation it is actually per­forming at a given time; you need to explain what the possible com­putations it could perform are, if it were programmed in possible ways. More generally, you can’t explain the presence of a lifeboat aboard a pirate ship only in terms of an actual shipwreck. Everyone knows that the lifeboat is there because of a shipwreck that could happen (a counterfactual explanation). And that would still be the reason even if the ship never did sink!

Despite regarding counterfactuals as not fundamental, science has been making rapid, relentless progress, for example, by devel­oping new powerful theories of fundamental physics, such as quantum theory and Einstein’s general relativity; and novel expla­nations in biology — with genetics and molecular biology — and in neuroscience. But in certain areas, it is no longer the case. The assumption that all fundamental explanations in science must be expressed only in terms of what happens, with little or no refer­ence to counterfactuals, is now getting in the way of progress. For counterfactuals are essential to a number of things that are cur­rently explained only vaguely in science, or not explained at all. Counterfactuals are central to an exact, unified theory of heat, work, and information (both classical and quantum); to explain mat­ters such as the appearance of design in living things; and to a sci­entific explanation of knowledge…

An excerpt from Chiara Marletto‘s The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals, via the invaluable @delanceyplace.

[Image above: source]

* Roger Penrose, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness


As we ponder the plausible, we might send superlatively speculative birthday greetings to an accomplished counterfactualist, H.G. Wells; he was born on this date in 1866.  A prolific writer of novels, history, political and social commentary, textbooks, and rules for war games, Wells is best remembered (with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback) as “the father of science fiction” for his “scientific romances”– The War of the WorldsThe Time MachineThe Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, et al.


“As long as art lives never shall I accept that men are truly dead”*…

From a self-portrait by Giorgio Vasari [source]

An appreciation of Giorgio Vasari’s seminal The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the beginning of art history as we know it

I found Giorgio Vasari through Burckhardt and Barzun. The latter writes: “Vasari, impelled by the unexampled artistic outburst of his time, divided his energies between his profession of painter and builder in Florence and biographer of the modern masters in the three great arts of design. His huge collection of Lives, which is a delight to read as well as a unique source of cultural history, was an amazing performance in an age that lacked organized means of research. […] Throughout, Vasari makes sure that his reader will appreciate the enhanced human powers shown in the works that he calls ‘good painting’ in parallel with ‘good letters’.”

Vasari was mainly a painter, but also worked as an architect. He was not the greatest artist in the world, but he had a knack for ingratiating himself with the rich and powerful, so his career was quite successful. Besides painting, he also cared a lot about conservation: both the physical preservation of works and the conceptual preservation of the fame and biographies of artists. He gave a kind of immortality to many lost paintings and sculptures by describing them to us in his book.

His Lives are a collection of more than 180 biographies of Italian artists, starting with Cimabue (1240-1302) and reaching a climax with Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). They’re an invaluable resource, as there is very little information available about these people other than his book; his biography of Botticelli is 8 pages long, yet on Botticelli’s wikipedia page, Vasari is mentioned 36 times…

Giorgio Vasari was one of the earliest philosophers of progress. Petrarch (1304-1374) invented the idea of the dark ages in order to explain the deficiencies of his own time relative to the ancients, and dreamt of a better future:

My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance.

To this scheme of ancient glory and medieval darkness, Vasari added a third—modern—age and gave it a name: rinascita. And within his rinascita, Vasari described an upward trajectory starting with Cimabue, and ending in a golden age beginning with eccentric Leonardo and crazed sex maniac Raphael, only to give way to the perfect Michelangelo in the end. It is a trajectory driven by the modern conception of the artist as an individual auteur, rather than a faceless craftsman.

The most benign Ruler of Heaven in His clemency turned His eyes to the earth, and, having perceived the infinite vanity of all those labours, the ardent studies without any fruit, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men, which is even further removed from truth than is darkness from light, and desiring to deliver us from such great errors, became minded to send down to earth a spirit with universal ability in every art and every profession.

This golden age was certainly no utopia, as 16th century Italy was ravaged by political turbulence, frequent plague, and incessant war. Many of the artists mentioned were at some point taken hostage by invading armies; Vasari himself had to rescue a part of Michelangelo’s David when it was broken off in the battle to expel the Medici from Florence.

And yet Vasari saw greatness in his time, and the entire book is structured around a narrative of artistic progress. He documented the spread of new technologies and techniques (such as the spread of oil painting, imported from the Low Countries), which—as an artist—he had an intimate understanding of.

This story of progress is paralleled with the rediscovery (and, ultimately, surpassing) of the ancients. It would take until the 17th century for the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes to really take off in France, but in Florence Vasari had already seen enough to decide the question in favor of his contemporaries—the essence of the Enlightenment is already present in 1550…

Art history, cultural history, tech history, the history of ideas– a review of Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by @AlvaroDeMenard.

* Giorgio Vasari


As we frame it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that the first Cannes Film Festival opened.  It had originally been scheduled for September, 1939 as an “answer” to the Venice Film Fest, which had become a propaganda vehicle for Mussolini and Hitler; but the outbreak of World War II occasioned a delay.


“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth”*…

Preserving precious publications…

It all started in 1994. The flooding of the Po river and its tributaries had just swept away entire villages in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, leaving behind only death and debris. The whole of Italy was shocked. Of all the damage broadcast on television, one caused a particular sensation: In the village Santo Stefano Belbo, the historical archive of Cesare Pavese, one of the most famous and beloved Italian writers, was buried in mud.

The debacle particularly impressed a man named Pietro Livi, president of Frati & Livi in Bologna, a company that had been restoring and conserving ancient texts for nearly 20 years. At that time, however, no one in Italy was equipped for this kind of rescue. In the past, flooded and muddy documents were entrusted to companies that used basic restoration methods that proved both invasive and ineffective: The books were simply placed in ovens or air-dried in large rooms, which often left the texts unusable and made mold only proliferate.

So Livi decided to find out if anyone in Europe had found a more effective way to save these invaluable records of human achievement. Finally, in Austria, Livi found a freeze dryer that held some promise, but it was too big and costly for a small artisanal company like his. Then, in 2000, the Po river overflowed again. In the city of Turin, entire archives belonging to distinguished institutes and libraries ended up underwater.

At a loss for what to do, Italy’s Archival Superintendency of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage summoned Livi. By this time, Livi had established a solid reputation as a master restorer, having studied the art of book restoration with Benedictine friars. But he realized that for a project of this scope, his expertise was no longer enough; he needed a kind of Renaissance workshop, where he could collaborate with professionals from a variety of disciplines. Livi believed that the time had come where the world of artisan knowledge and the world of technology, too often considered as opposites, had to talk to each other—for the benefit of one another…

Then, on November 12, 2019, the city of Venice, one of the world’s most mythical and most admired locales, suffered its worst flood in 53 years. The swollen lagoon soaked roughly 25,000 valuable texts, including the last surviving original of one of Vivaldi’s musical scores. Frati & Livi was quickly called to the scene…

In the city of Bologna, home to the western world’s oldest university, Pietro Livi developed an unusual machine shop—part artisanal and part high-tech—built to restore damaged ancient texts to their former glory. And then came Venice’s historic floods of 2019: “Italy’s Book Doctor,” from @CraftsmanshipQ.

* “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” – Anne Lamott


As we celebrate craft, we might we spare a thought for publishing pioneer Condé Montrose Nast; he died on this date in 1942.  After serving as Advertising Director at Colliers, then a brief stint in book publishing, Nast bought a small New York society magazine called Vogue— which he proceeded to turn into the nation’s, then the world’s leading fashion magazine.  While other periodical publishers simply sought higher and higher circulation, Nast introduced the “lifestyle” title, targeted to a group of readers by income level or common interest.  By the time of his death, his stable of monthlies also included House & Garden, British, French, and Argentine editions of Vogue, Jardins des Modes, (the original) Vanity Fair, and Glamour; subsequently, the group added such resonant lifestyle books as Gourmet, New Yorker, and Wired.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 19, 2021 at 1:00 am

“I cannot well repeat how there I entered”*…

Domenico di Michelino, La Divina Commedia di Dante, 1465 — Source

A collection– and consideration– of the illustrations inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy…

A man wakes deep in the woods, halfway through life. Far from home, unpermitted to return, his heart pierced by grief. He has strayed from the path. It’s a dark night of the soul, his crisis so great that death becomes a tempting end. And then, as wild beasts advance upon this easy prey, his prayers are answered. A guide appears, promising to show him the way toward paradise…

[This month] marks the seventh centenary of Dante Alighieri’s death, the Florentine poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, arguably our most ambitious Western epic. Eschewing Latin, the medieval currency of literature and scholarship, Dante wrote in his vernacular tongue, establishing the foundations for a standardized Italian language, and, by doing so, may have laid cultural groundwork for the unification of Italy.

The poet’s impact on literature cannot be overstated. “Dante’s influence was massive”, writes Erich Auerbach, “he singlehandedly established the expressive possibilities and the landscape of all poetry to come, and he did so virtually out of thin air”. And just as the classical Virgil served as Dante’s guide through the Inferno, Dante became a kind of Virgil for later writers. Chaucer cribbed his rhythm and images, while Milton’s Paradise Lost may have been actually lost, were it not for Dante as a shepherd. The Divina Commedia is a touchstone for works as diverse as fifteenth-century Castilian and Catalan verse; Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842); and Mary Shelley’s Italian Rambles (1844), which finds the poet at every turn:

There is scarcely a spot in Tuscany, and those parts of the North of Italy, which he visited, that Dante has not described in poetry that brings the very spot before your eyes, adorned with graces missed by the prosaic eye, and which are exact and in perfect harmony with the scene.

If Dante’s poetry summons landscapes before its reader’s eyes, artists have tried, for the last seven hundred years, to achieve another kind of evocation: rendering the Commedia in precise images, evocative patterns, and dazzling color. By Jean-Pierre Barricelli’s estimate, a complete catalogue of Commedia-inspired artworks would exceed 1,100 names. The earliest dated image comes from Florence in 1337, beginning the tradition soon after the poet’s death in 1321. Before long, there were scores of other illustrations…

A thoughtful consideration and a glorious collection: “700 Years of Dante’s Divine Comedy in Art,” from @PublicDomainRev.

* Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy


As we visualize, we might send well-worded birthday greetings to Samuel Johnson; he was born on this date in 1709.  A poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer, Johnson’s best-known work was surely  A Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755, after nine years work– and which served as the standard for 150 years (until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary).  But Dr. Johnson, as he was known, is probably best remembered as the subject of what Walter Jackson Bate noted is “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.  A famous aphorist, Johnson was the very opposite of a man he described to Boswell in 1784: “He is not only dull himself, but the cause of dullness in others.”

Apropos Dante, Johnson observed “if what happens does not make us richer, we must welcome it if it makes us wiser.”

Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Dr. Johnson


“Fortune sides with him who dares”*…

Timing is everything: risk and the rhythm of the week…

The seven-day week originated in Mesopotamia among the Babylonians, and it has stuck around for millennia. However, it’s not inherently special. Egyptians once used a ten-day week, and Romans used an eight-day week before officially adopting a seven-day week in AD 321.

Still, the seven-day week is so ingrained that we may notice how days “feel.” I was recently caught off guard by a productive “Tuesday”, realizing halfway through the day that it was actually Monday. Recent research shows that a big player in the psychology of weeks is a tendency to take risks.

“Across a range of studies, we have found that response to risk changes systematically through the week. Specifically, willingness to take risks decreases from Monday to Thursday and rebounds on Friday. The surprising implication is that the outcome of a decision can depend on the day of the week on which it is taken.”…

Feels like a Tuesday: research explains why days ‘feel’ certain ways,” from Annie Rauwerda @BoingBoing. The underlying research, by Dr. Rob Jenkins, is here.

* Virgil


As we take a chance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 (a Thursday) that Thomas Etholen Selfridge became the first American to die in an airplane crash. An Army lieutenant and pilot, he was a passenger on Orville Wright’s demonstration flight of the 1908 Wright Military Flyer for the US Army Signal Corps division at Ft. Meade, Maryland. With the two men aboard, e Flyer was carrying more weight than it had ever done before…

The Flyer circled Fort Myer 4½ times at a height of 150 feet. Halfway through the fifth circuit, at 5:14 in the afternoon, the right-hand propeller broke, losing thrust. This set up a vibration, causing the split propeller to hit a guy-wire bracing the rear vertical rudder. The wire tore out of its fastening and shattered the propeller; the rudder swivelled to the horizontal and sent the Flyer into a nose-dive. Wright shut off the engine and managed to glide to about 75 feet, but the craft hit the ground nose-first. Both men were thrown forward against the remaining wires and Selfridge struck one of the wooden uprights of the framework, fracturing the base of his skull. He underwent neurosurgery but died three hours later without regaining consciousness. Wright suffered severe injuries, including a broken left thigh, several broken ribs, and a damaged hip, and was hospitalized for seven weeks…


Two photographs taken of the Flyer just prior to the flight, show that Selfridge was not wearing any headgear, while Wright was only wearing a cap. Given speculation that Selfridge would have survived had he worn headgear, early pilots in the US Army were instructed to wear large heavy headgear reminiscent of early football helmets.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 17, 2021 at 1:00 am

%d bloggers like this: