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Posts Tagged ‘Mesopotamia

“Visualization gives you answers to questions you didn’t know you had”*…

Reckoning before writing: Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

Physical representations of data have existed for thousands of years. The List of Physical Visualizations (and the accompanying Gallery) collect illustrative examples, e.g…

5500 BC – Mesopotamian Clay Tokens

The earliest data visualizations were likely physical: built by arranging stones or pebbles, and later, clay tokens. According to an eminent archaeologist (Schmandt-Besserat, 1999):

“Whereas words consist of immaterial sounds, the tokens were concrete, solid, tangible artifacts, which could be handled, arranged and rearranged at will. For instance, the tokens could be ordered in special columns according to types of merchandise, entries and expenditures; donors or recipients. The token system thus encouraged manipulating data by abstracting all possible variables. (Harth 1983. 19) […] No doubt patterning, the presentation of data in a particular configuration, was developed to highlight special items (Luria 1976. 20).”

Clay tokens suggest that physical objects were used to externalize information, support visual thinking and enhance cognition way before paper and writing were invented…

There are 370 entries (so far). Browse them at List of Physical Visualizations (@dataphys)

Ben Schneiderman


As we celebrate the concrete, we might carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Rolf Landauer; he was born on this date in 1927. A physicist, he made a number important contributions in a range of areas: the thermodynamics of information processing, condensed matter physics, and the conductivity of disordered media.

He is probably best remembered for “Landauer’s Principle,” which described the energy used during a computer’s operation. Whenever the machine is resetting for another computation, bits are flushed from the computer’s memory, and in that electronic operation, a certain amount of energy is lost (a simple logical consequence of the second law of thermodynamics). Thus, when information is erased, there is an inevitable “thermodynamic cost of forgetting,” which governs the development of more energy-efficient computers. The maximum entropy of a bounded physical system is finite– so while most engineers dealt with practical limitations of compacting ever more circuitry onto tiny chips, Landauer considered the theoretical limit: if technology improved indefinitely, how soon will it run into the insuperable barriers set by nature?

A so-called logically reversible computation, in which no information is erased, may in principle be carried out without releasing any heat. This has led to considerable interest in the study of reversible computing. Indeed, without reversible computing, increases in the number of computations per joule of energy dissipated must eventually come to a halt. If Koomey‘s law continues to hold, the limit implied by Landauer’s principle would be reached around the year 2050.


“Peer review as practiced today is a form of hazing”*…



Cuneiform Letter from the astrologer Marduk-šapik-zeri to the Neo-Assyrian king Esarhaddon

The advance of science depends on the communications of research and experimental findings so that they can be, first, replicated and verified or refuted; then broadly understood by the scientific community.  Historically, that communication has depended largely on scientific journals, the primary vehicles of that dissemination.  The integrity of the system has depended on the peer-review process:  the examination of scientific papers submitted for journal publication by a jury of “peers” (in practice, usually very senior practitioners of the discipline in question) who evaluate the methodology and findings being reported and pass on whether or not they are “publishable.”

With the advent of the web, this system is loosening.  Scientists are sharing “pre-prints” in sites like arXiv, reaching around the journals’ referees to reach their communities at large.  Still, the feedback that they get is a form of peer review…

While we tend to date the birth of the scientific method, and this approach, to the early 17th century and the thinking of Bacon and Descartes, archaeologists suggest that the approach might have have much deeper roots…

In some respects, the life of a Mesopotamian scholar in the seventh century B.C. was not so very different from that of a modern academic. While the former might be responsible for reporting on celestial phenomena and whether they augur well for the king’s reign, and the latter might be searching for evidence of a new subatomic particle to better understand the origins of the universe, in either case, one’s reputation among colleagues is paramount.

Let’s take, for example, the lot of an unnamed astrologer who was subjected to a vicious onslaught of peer review from some of the Neo-Assyrian Empire’s top minds after claiming to have sighted Venus around 669 B.C. In a letter to the king Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.), a fellow stargazer named Nabû-ahhe-eriba, who was part of the inner circle of royal scholars, inveighed, “(He who) wrote to the king, my lord, ‘The planet Venus is visible, it is visible (in the month Ad)ar,’ is a vile man, an ignoramus, a cheat!” Slightly more charitable, though still cutting, was a scholar named Balasî, who tutored the crown prince Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.). “(T)he man who wrote (thus) to the king, (my lord), is in ignorance,” Balasî informed Esarhaddon. “The ig(noramus)—who is he?…I repeat: He does not understand (the difference) between Mercury and Venus.”

These quotations are excerpts from just two of around 1,000 letters and reports written by scholars to Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal in cuneiform on clay tablets that were discovered during nineteenth-century excavations of the archives of the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, near Mosul in Iraq, including Ashurbanipal’s library…

The perils of peer review– what was old is new again: “Ancient academia.”

* John Hawks


As we contemplate constructive criticism, we might send repetitious birthday greetings to Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie; he was born on this date in 1857.  A pharmacist who began practicing as a psychologist, Coué opened a clinic in Nancy, and introduced a method of psychotherapy characterized by frequent repetition of the formula, je vais de mieux en mieux, “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better”; he counseled his patients to repeat this 15 to 20 times, morning and evening. This method of autosuggestion came to be called Couéism, and was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s. (Norman Vincent Peale’s brand of positive thinking was rooted in part in Coué’s work.)  The popular press raved about his approach, even as the medical and psychological establishment dismissed it.  And as the seemingly positive results he achieved with his patients faded– as they seemed for the most part to do– so did enthusiasm for the Coué method.  Still, one can hear its echo in approaches alive today, for instance neuro-linguistic programming.

A contemporary, Rev. Charles Inge, captured Coué’s simplistic method in a limerick (1928): “This very remarkable man / Commends a most practical plan: / You can do what you want / If you don’t think you can’t, / So don’t think you can’t think you can.”

220px-Émile_Coué_3 source


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