A particular flavour of social physics

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This review of Alex Pentland’s Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science was published in the December 2014 issue of Physics World –  which can be accessed here if you sign up for free!

Alex “Sandy” Pentland is a computer scientist with an impressive academic record and an even more impressive history of translating academic outputs into business and consultancy. To say he has entrepreneurial flair would seem to be an understatement; his previous book was a bestseller, and his career is sprinkled liberally with consultancies and spin-outs from his research group. His career defies easy categorization, but he calls the work that he does on network analysis and computational social science “social physics”. In his latest book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread – the Lessons from a New Science he outlines his vision of a discipline that has a history of infighting and intellectual land-grabbing.

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Persecuted by a number

67“My problem is that I’ve been persecuted by an integer”

With this, George Miller, like a Franz Kafka of cognitive psychology, launched one of the most influential papers in the field. Miller’s persecutor was the number seven – which, in test after test of absolute judgement, appeared as approximately the number of categories people could tell apart.

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Even more fishing about architecture

GPS bike tracks visualisation in Madrid (work in progress) - Martin Zaltz Austwick and Gustavo Romanillous

GPS bike tracks visualisation in Madrid (work in progress) – Martin Zaltz Austwick and Gustavo Romanillos (c) 2014

I’ve written in the past (and here) about how difficult I’ve found it to get my hands on a book about visualisation that’s a real page turner – this must be a problem that greater minds than I have struggled with for at least a century or two, but I find the writing about design I see curiously unsatisfying. Like travel writing, I’d rather be doing the thing than reading about it. Which is as fine a way as any to learn, but a bit solipsistic.

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