Why read?

Why do we read? Many people seem to assume that the only reason for reading is to obtain information about the world. With this view, reading fiction is perhaps hard to justify. But if one only reads to learn new facts, then one’s life is impoverished and Gradgrindian. Indeed, this reason strikes me as like learning to play the trumpet in order to have a means to practice circular breathing.
In fact, we read for many other reasons than just this one. One could say we primarily read novels for the pleasure that reading them provides:

  • the pleasure of reading poetic text (as in the novels of Hardy, Joyce or Faulkner, for instance)
  • the pleasure of reading elegant, finely-crafted prose (eg, Fanny Burney, Doris Lessing, Perec, Brautigan, the English translations of the books by Zhores and Roy Medvedev)
  • the pleasure of engaging in deductive reasoning (any detective or espionage novel)
  • the pleasure of imagining alternative societal futures (scifi), presents (political thrillers, espionage novels), or pasts (historical fiction)
  • the pleasure of being scared (crime thrillers, horror stories)
  • or the pleasure of parsing an intricate narrative structure (eg, Calvino, Fowles, Murnane, Pynchon).

These various pleasures are very distinct, and are orthogonal to the desire to gain information about the world. And some of these pleasures may also be gained from reading non-fiction, for example the finely-honed journalism of Lafcadio Hearn or AJ Liebling or Christopher Hitchens, or the writing of Oliver Sacks, who passed on today.

Romani ite domum!

Rory Stewart, with his personal experience of foreign military adventures, writes an insightful post about the Roman occupation of Britain, after visiting Hadrian’s Wall:

But for me the walk along the wall was an unsettling revelation. It is easy in Cumbria to feel a connection to our Norse and Anglo-Saxon past: we can worship in a Saxon church in Morland; my cottage follows a Viking floor-plan; our dialect can be understood by a Dane; Norse words like fell and beck are part of our modern vocabulary; and there is, I imagine, Scandinavian blood in all of us. But, the wall is the most dramatic reminder of our Celtic-roman history. And it suggests things far more alien, extravagant and brutal than I had ever imagined.
I have heard historians describe the wall – as ‘a permeable trading post’ – and emphasize how much melding there was between the British and Roman populations. But at Wallsend, the excavations have revealed a line of fortification, hundreds of yards wide – a ten foot turf wall, followed by a twelve foot ditch, followed by a berm set with spikes and thorns, then a fifteen foot stone wall, then another ten foot mound, another fifteen foot vallum ditch and a ten foot mound. These fortifications run almost unbroken for eighty miles and they do not suggest to me gentle inter-cultural communication.
I once lived in a fortified camp in Al Amara in provincial Iraq, with five hundred British soldiers, surrounded by a line of giant sand-bags. The nearest neighbouring camp was in Basra, sixty miles away. But in the Roman wall, there was a manned tower every three hundred yards, a castle every mile, a fort – with a garrison the size of ours in Al Amara – every seven miles, and an additional line of large forts, two miles South (as at Vindolanda and Corbridge), and other smaller outposts, just North (as at Bewcastle). These were auxiliary positions. There were also three full legions in Britain – more than in any other comparable province of the Roman Empire. And the Romans held these positions not like us in Amara, for three years, but for three hundred years.
There are some British details but overwhelmingly the inscriptions, the clothes, the buildings, even the shoes, found along the wall, are relentlessly Roman. In the North-West, the British continued to live a life in round-houses, similar to those that existed long before the Roman arrival. A Libyan could become an Emperor but very few ethnic Britons were given jobs in the Roman Empire. Even the auxiliaries may not have been as integrated into British life as we imagine. The Syrian archers beyond Housesteads worshipped a Syrian God; the Batavians in Vindolanda were like Gurkhas – a separate ethnic military elite – and they have left notes, referring contemptuously to the ‘britunculli’ – the pathetic little Britons.
Why did Rome maintain this cripplingly expensive occupation? The smaller walls on the German, Saharan and Iraqi frontiers protected Rome from millions of people in Africa, Europe and Asia. But in this case, there was only a sparsely populated Scotland beyond. Britain never posed a serious threat to the Roman empire; and it never brought in enough revenue to justify the expense of holding it. 
. . .
If Britain had really had the comfortable relationship with Rome which some imagine, more would have survived (as it did in France for example).  But when the legions left in 410 AD, almost four hundred years of Roman civilization collapsed overnight. Within a decade, from Cumbria to Kent, there was no coinage, the potteries and aqueducts had stopped, the villas had been abandoned, writing had largely been forgotten. And for us no trace remained except for some ditches to inconvenience the plough, and this great symbol of the brutality, the stubbornness and pride of Empire, reduced to a stone quarry, eighty miles long, which could be robbed, for fifteen hundred years, for house, and barn, and dry-stone wall.”


Patrick Leigh Fermor RIP

The Grauniad reports on the death of adventurer  and writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, aged 96.  I recount a story about him and an ode by Horace, here.

Fermor attended Kit Marlowe’s old school, King’s School Canterbury, together with Alan Watts, who apparently wrote his first book about Zen Buddhism while still at school.   Fermor famously was expelled from this school.


An orrery is a machine for predicting the movements of heavenly bodies.   The oldest known orrery is the Antikythera Mechanism, created in Greece around 2100 years ago, and rediscovered in 1901 in a shipwreck near the island of  Antikythera (hence its name).   The high-quality and precision nature of its components would indicate that this device was not unique, since the making of high-quality mechanical components is not trivial, and is not usually achieved with just one attempt (something Charles Babbage found, and which delayed his development of computing machinery immensely).
It took until 2006 and the development of x-ray tomography for a plausible theory of the purpose and operations of the Antikythera Mechanism to be proposed (Freeth et al. 2006).   The machine was said to be a physical examplification of  late Greek theories of cosmology, in particular the idea that the motion of a heavenly body could  be modeled by an epicycle – ie, a body traveling around a circle, which is itself moving around some second circle.  This model provided an explanation for the fact that many heavenly bodies appear to move at different speeds at different times of the year, and sometimes even (appear to) move backwards.
There have been two recent developments:  One is the re-creation of the machine (or, rather, an interpretation of it)  using lego components.
The second has arisen from a more careful examination of the details of the mechanism.  According to Marchant (2010), some people now believe that the mechanism examplifies Babylonian, rather than Greek, cosmology.   Babylonian astronomers modeled the movements of heavenly bodies by assuming each body traveled along just one circle, but at two different speeds:  movement in one period of the year being faster than during the other part of the year.
If this second interpretation of the Antikythera Mechanism is correct, then perhaps it was the mechanism itself (or others like it) which gave late Greek astronomers the idea for an epicycle model.   In support of this view is the fact that, apparently, gearing mechanisms and the epicycle model both appeared around the same time, with gears perhaps a little earlier.   So late Greek cosmology (and perhaps late geometry) may have arisen in response to, or at least alongside, practical developments and physical models.   New ideas in computing typically follow the same trajectory – first they exist in real, human-engineered, systems; then, we develop a formal, mathematical theory of them.   Programmable machines, for instance, were invented in the textile industry in the first decade of the 19th century (eg, the Jacquard Loom), but a mathematical theory of programming did not appear until the 1960s.   Likewise, we have had a fully-functioning, scalable, global network enabling multiple, asynchronous, parallel, sequential and interleaved interactions since Arpanet four decades ago, but we still lack a thorough mathematical theory of interaction.
And what have the Babylonians ever done for us?   Apart from giving us our units for measuring of time (divided into 60) and of angles (into 360 degrees)?
T Freeth, Y Bitsakis, X Moussas, JH Seiradaki, A Tselikas, H Mangou, M Zafeiropoulou, R Hadland, D Bate, A Ramsey, M Allen, A Crawley, P Hockley, T Malzbender, D Gelb,W Ambrisco and MG Edmunds [2006]:  Decoding the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism.  Nature444 (30):   587-591.  30 November 2006.
J. Marchant [2010]:  Mechanical inspiration.  Nature, 468:  496-498.  25 November 2010.

A computer pioneer

I have posted before about how the history of commercial computing is intimately linked with the British tea-shop, via LEO, a successful line of commercial computers developed by the Lyons tea-shop chain.  The first business application run on a Lyons computer was almost 60 years ago, in 1951.  Today’s Grauniad carries an obituary for John Aris (1934-2010), who had worked for LEO on the first stage of an illustrious career in commercial IT.  His career included a period as Chief Systems Engineer with British computer firm ICL (later part of Fujitsu).  Aris’ university education was in Classics, and he provides another example to show that the matherati represent a cast of mind, and not merely a collection of people educated in mathematics.

John’s career in computing began in 1958 when he was recruited to the Leo (Lyons Electronic Office) computer team by J Lyons, then the major food business in the UK, and initiators of the notion that the future of computers lay in their use as a business tool. At the time, the prevailing view was that work with computers required a trained mathematician. The Leo management thought otherwise and recruited using an aptitude test. John, an Oxford classics graduate, passed with flying colours, noting that “the great advantage of studying classics is that it does not fit you for anything specific”. “

Of course, LEO was not the first time that cafes had led to new information industries, as we noted here in a post about the intellectual and commercial consequences of the rise of coffee houses in Europe from the mid-17th century.  The new industries the first time round were newspapers, insurance, and fine art auctions (and through them, painting as a commercial activity aimed at non-aristocrat collectors); the new intellectual discipline was the formal modeling of uncertainty (then aka probability theory).

UPDATE (2012-05-22):  The Telegraph of 2011-11-10 ran an article about the Lyons Tea Shop computer business, here, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the LEO (1951-11-17).