Embodied Materiality

This is another list, probably even a listicle, of objects with eccentric properties. In this case objects that are, or were originally, named for the materials they are made of.


Richard Wentworth was the curator of the highly influencial 1999 Hayward Gallery travelling exhibition Richard Wentworth’s Thinking Aloud (Wentworth 1998)  but this is from Marina Warner’s monogram Richard Wentworth. (Warner 1993)

“Wentworth likes objects that are called after the stuff they are made of: a rubber, a glass, a straw, a tin, a cork, a cane. But this aesthetic should be seen in the context of a broader rejection of representation itself and representation’s traditional connections with anthropomorphism and the pastoral — with dream conjurings of ideal bodies and other places.

Richard Wentworth’s List

a rubber: This still seems to hold true even though the material may not now always be natural rubber.

a glass: Certainly holds true even though the concept might be expanded to include plastic glasses, for instance you can usually take your (plastic) glass into the cinema. 

a straw: A stale metaphor, today drinking straws are nearly always made of plastic rather than straw. I prefer stale metaphor rather than dead metaphor because I think the latter should be reserved for when the reference has become so weak that it can only be traced or understood with the help of an etymological dictionary. For most people however, I think the straw metaphor is  quite near to being dead.

a tin: Fairly straightforward, but see https://grahamshawcross.com/2012/07/11/the-container-for-the-thing-contained/ for a discussion of the Container for The Thing Contained a special type of metonymy  much loved by James Thurber as in his story Here Lies Miss Groby (Thurber 1942, 1954)

a cork: Probably fairly secure, though there are now an increasing number of ‘plastic corks’. 

a cane: For most people I think quite arcane, perhaps only remembered, if at all, through song lyrics such as “Hand me down my walking cane”.

Possible Additions

a quill: Accurate but a fairly archaic and uninteresting object.

an iron: For pressing clothes; these were historically made of iron,  often designed to be filled with hot coals, otherwise a very stale or dead metaphor.

an iron: A type of golf club, a metonym with the whole being named after a part, the head of the club.

a wood: Another type of golf club, also a metonym, but modern woods are now more often made of metal, a stale metonym?

a slate: Another archaic object but I do have a picture of me sat in Junior School, aged 5, with a slate in front of me, learning to write (extreme left)


This object is also capable of being a metaphor, as in a political “slate of candidates”.

a chalk: Useful for writing on slates and literally or metaphorically “chalking things up”. Note also the cloths on the desks for “wiping the slate clean”.

coppers: True for coins but not for policemen. I think this cannot be singular, “give me a copper” does not really work.

silver: True for coins, for instance the biblical “pieces of silver”. Again I think cannot be singular if referring to a coin.

a nickel: True for a coin or coins, that is, can be plural.

ivories:  True when referring to the actual piano keys, including the black ones? More usually a metonym as in “tinkling the ivories” meaning playing the piano, a part giving its name to the whole.

a bronze: A sculpture, bas-relief etc.

a canvas: For painting on, but also used metaphorically in  computer graphic programs such as Photoshop and many others

cotton: Thread: including, cotton, polyester and cotton covered polyester threads?


strings: For puppets etc

a paper:  A newspaper in colloquial usage, a metonym. An academic paper sometimes written directly onto paper, a metonym, but now more often produced electronically and that may never even be printed onto paper, a stale metonym?

a fur: Now being worn again on models’ backs.

a fleece: Clever marketing-speak use of metaphor, but have always been made from polypropylene or other artificial materials.

leathers: As worn by Hells Angels and other motorcyclists.


I appeciate that I am, tongue in cheek, not using embodiment in the usual way, but rather to represent a certain type of self coding or self reference.

Generally there seems to be a tendency for the materiality and  self coding embodiment present in these objects to be fading fairly rapidly as new materials are substituted for those  that the objects were originally named for. Leaving these objects to become stale and eventually dead metaphors.

However there is also the interesting case of objects that are just self coding such as plastic lemon juice bottles made to look like fairly realistic lemons. I particularly like the leaves.


And finally visual puns, for example this money box in the form of a loaf of bread.



Wentworth, R.(1998)
                    Richard Wentworth’s Thinking Aloud
                    Hayward Gallery Publishing
Warner, M. (1993)
Richard Wentworth, page 12
Thames and Hudson in association with The Serpentine Gallery
Thurber, J. (1942)
                    Here Lies Miss Groby
                    The New Yorker
                    March 21 1942 p 14
Thurber, J. (1954)
                    Here Lies Miss Groby
                    The Thurber Carnival p 75
                    Penguin Books
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Archetypes and Visual Pangrams

This follows an earlier post on Visual Pangrams here


To recap, ordinary pangrams use every letter of the alphabet at least once to form a more or less meaningful sentence, for instance: –

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz

This English pangram includes all 26 letters of the alphabet with only 5 reuses of letters; with a used three times and with s, i and o each used twice and it therefore has a letter count of 31 (26 + 5).

There do not seem to be any adequate English pangrams that use all 26 letters exactly once; that is having a letter count of 26. [Augarde, 1984]

Pangrams  exist in most alphabetic languages. For instance, this is the shortest French one with a letter count of 29. [OuLiPo, 1981]

Whisky vert: jugez cinq fox d’aplomb

By slight extensions the concept also makes sense in some ideographic languages.

For instance the Iroha (いろは?) is a Japanese poem, that is a perfect pangram containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once. It is used as an ordering method for the syllabary in much the same way as A, B, C, D, ….. is accepted as the ordering of the Latin alphabet.

One of Japan’s ‘National Living Treasures’, Serizawa Keisuke, has produced a stencil printed, fabric design that uses every character of this syllabary.


Somewhat similarly the Chinese character 永 (yǒng), meaning permanence, incorporates every basic stroke needed to define Chinese characters as described in The Eight Principles of Yǒng.


The numbers on the right indicate the order in which the strokes are to be  made.

This can be thought of as a template, stencil or series of stencils that can used to generate the other characters.

Visual Pangrams

The earlier post included this example of a visual pangram, from the front endpaper and frontispiece of A Field Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe. [Peterson, Mountford and Hollom, 1974]

Flyleaf of Collins Birds og Great Britain and Europe

The suggested formulation for a visual pangram is that the individual features of a complete field of interest correspond to the letters of the alphabet; and that the overall pictorial representation of the complete field of interest corresponds to a more or less meaningful sentence made up using all the letters of the alphabet at least once.

In the image above the complete field of interest is commonly found birds, the individual bird silhouettes correspond to the letters of the alphabet and the arrangement of the silhouettes into an overall pictorial representation corresponds to all the letters being used at least once to create a meaningful sentence.


The introduction to the Field Guide also includes a Typography of a Bird diagram, in which a more or less realistic bird is overloaded with all the named parts a bird might have, but that no single bird could possibly have.

bird_parts_1Highlighting these differentiating features with attention lines, as shown below, aids identification in the field; so that, with distribution maps and species specific notes, you do not usually need to know or learn the names of the features.


For instance within the Finch family, the Hawfinch has a large heavy beak that uniquely identifies it (marked with an attention line); the male Chaffinch similarly uniquely has a grey head whilst male Bramblings have white rumps and rusty carpels in summer and winter.


I want to argue here that whilst the frontispiece to A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and The Typography of A Bird diagram are superficially similar, they are in fact quite different.

It is clear from the stencil like nature of the individual strokes of the Chinese character 永 that it can be seen as a generative mechanism for producing all the other characters.

Similarly in The Typography of A Bird diagram the individual named features can be seen as a generative mechanism, in which individual features can be selected and combined to create particular instances or separate species of bird.

In contradistinction the visual pangram shows representative bird types in pictorially related locations where they might be seen; on telephone wires, in trees, on fence posts or on the ground.

That is the visual pangram is relational whilst the Typography of a Bird diagram is generative; an archetype or prototype from which particular species are patterned. In this sense, an archetype is a morphological ideal that exhibits all the general characteristics of a group of organisms, here The Birds of Britain and Europe.

Both diagrams are similar in that they have lists of visual features combined into an overall image, but the arrangement of these features in the archetype is definitive, functional and generative whilst the arrangement in the visual pangram is purely pictorial and at best just indicates where certain types of bird may be found.


A perhaps more familiar example of an archetype is Goethe’s Urpflanze or Original Plant. [Goethe, 1790 trans 2009]

‘Seeing so much new and burgeoning growth, I came back to my old notion and wondered whether I might not chance upon my archetypal plant. There must be such a plant, after all. If all plants were not moulded on one pattern, how could I recognize that they are plants?’


Later the notion became more abstract as a theoretical model of plant structure with the stems acting as axes of growth, along which a generic leaf was transformed into different shaped leaves, petals, seeds etc.[Steadman 1979].


Augarde, T, (1984) The Oxford Guide to Word Games Oxford University Press

Goethe, J. W. (1790) Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erkläre Gotha: Ettinger

Goethe, J. W., trans Miller, G. L. (2009) The Metamorphosis of Plants  MIT Press

OuliPo (Association) (1981) Atlas de Littérature Potentielle Gallimard, Paris

Peterson, R., Mountford, G and Hollom, P.A.D. (1974) A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe. Third Edition; Collins

Steadman, P (1979) The Evolution of Designs Cambridge University Press

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Audio Illusion


The following diagrams illustrate the way, until recently, our television was setup. The television and speakers were connected to a Media Centre, with both Speakers markedly offset to the left of the Screen.

With this setup, when the television program is speech based the sound “appears” to come from the Screen. That is, there is a strong illusion that the words being spoken are coming directly from the Screen, and in fact the speaker’s mouth, and not from their physical source.

This is an automatic response, that is even if you ‘know’ the sound is coming from the Speakers you cannot, by effort of will, make the sound appear to come from anywhere other than the Screen.


The situation is much the same with music, when the sound being heard is synchronised with the moving image, the music “appears” to come from the Screen.

However if the sound source is changed, to something that does not correspond to the image, then the sound “appears” to come from the Speakers and not the Screen.



Firstly on a trivial level it is difficult to avoid using the word “appears” when it comes to talking about the location of sound, but this does somehow also suggest the primacy of the visual. This is probably just a personal bias; in this context, “sounds as if it comes” probably does just as well as “appears to come”, even if a little more verbose.

The automatic nature of this phenomena however means that it is similar to optical illusions such as the Müller-Lyer illusion where knowing the answer does not overcome the effect. So it does not seems inappropriate to call the observed phenomena an audio illusion.


This seems to have some resemblance to the McGurk-MacDonald effect where seeing someone’s lip movements effects the sound that one hears, again this is an automatic response.



  1. How far away and in what configuration can the Speakers be placed and the illusion continue to work?
  2. Is the illusion learnt or instinctive? If learnt at what age?
  3. What, if anything, does the illusion indicate about the internal representations of sound and moving images?
  4. How do transition states work, for instance a transition from someone speaking to hearing background music that has no obvious source? In this respect does the illusion have a sort of after image?
  5. What is the effect of increasingly poor synchronisation of speech and music on the illusion? cf Gillian Wearing’s 1997, 10–16 where adults lip synch the voices and act out the physical tics of seven children.
  6. Many more.


McGurk H., MacDonald J. (1976). “Hearing lips and seeing voices.”. Nature 264 (5588): 746–8

Deutsch, D.(2003) Phantom Words, and Other Curiosities. La Jolla: Philomel Records

Wearing, G. (1997) 10-16 Whitechapel Gallery 28 March-17 June 2012

Chion, M. (1999) The Voice in Cinema. Trans. C. Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press. First published in French in 1982.

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Merely Conventional Signs

During a recent seminar on Vilém Flusser, organised by Ella Chmielewska and Fiona Hanley the discussion got round to the Borges story of Cartographers producing maps of larger and larger scales. I thought that Lewis Carroll had produced something similar in  the Hunting of the Snark (Carroll 1896) which I looked up later

Fit the Second – The Bellman’s Speech

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best–
A perfect and absolute blank!”

bellmans_speech_mapThe full Hunting of the Snark text is here. http://www.literature.org/authors/carroll-lewis/the-hunting-of-the-snark/chapter-02.html

Unfortunately  this is the wrong Lewis Carroll map, a better one is described in Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (Carroll 1893).

“And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”

“Have you used it much?” I enquired.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr. “The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

This chimes well with my rather acerbic response to being asked by the Scottish Special Housing Association in the 1970s to produce a detailed  database of their 100,000 properties https://grahamshawcross.com/2012/02/03/a-dream-world/

The following link has lots of other examples http://3stages.org/c/gq.cgi?first=QAMAP including the Borges one On Exactitude in Science which adds a little versimilitude by adding that

 “In the deserts of the west, there are tattered ruins of that map, inhabited by animals and beggars, in all the land there is no other relic of the disciplines of geography.”


Flusser, V. (1965) On Doubt trans Noveas, R. M. (2012)

Flusser, V. (2012) To Photograph is to Define in The Journal of Philosophy of Photography (in English, issue 2.2)

Carroll, L. (1896) The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits The Macmillan Company

Gardner, M. (1967) The Annotated Snark Penguin Books

Carroll, L. (1893) Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

Borges, J. L. (1954?) “On Exactitude in Science.” in Collected Fictions (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), p. 325

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Haptic Interfaces: Extending Object Capabilities

Whilst looking for more up-to-date scanning devices I came across this nice haptic interface that extends the capabilities of everyday objects. It comes from the Fluid Interfaces Group of the MIT Media Lab and uses my favourite definition of a haptic device as a device you can use in the dark (or with your eyes closed).

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 12.13.52

I think they were more interested in identifying objects that were ubiquitous, simple and obvious to use rather than in their specifically haptic nature.

But what is interesting about this proposal is that it allows such simple devices to be given extra powers, to for instance to allow the light switch to change the colour of the light.


Heun, V., Kasahara, S., Maes, P.
“Smarter Objects: Using AR technology to Program Physical Objects and their Interactions”
ACM Intl. Conf. Human Factors in Computing (CHI 2013), Work-In-Progress
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Smartgeometry 2013

The tenth annual smartgeometry event has just finished in London, and was held at the Bartlett School of Architecture. Previous years’ events have been held at Troy, Copenhagen, Barcelona, New York and San Francisco with institutions bidding for the privilege of hosting the event. This year’s sticking point was wether UCL had a conference auditorium that could hold 900 people.

The event is organised loosely round a theme, this year constructing for uncertainty, and round a series of 10 clusters or workshops which organisations also bid to host. This year there were 40 bids of which the following 10 were accepted.

Scanned Image

Starting on Monday the event consists of 4 days of workshops culminating in an exhibition on Thursday evening followed by a Talk-shop day on Friday and a full-blown Conference on Saturday.

Clusters champions largely come from university research groups such as ETH Zurich and Singapore, RMIT, The Bartlett etc. Workshop participants mainly come from the large London architectural practices that have computational design groups, Fosters + Partners, PLP Architects, AECOM, Grimshaw Architects etc. The Bartlett also provided access to their really excellent workshop and two graduate assistants for each cluster.

Projections of Reality

I took part in the Projections of Reality cluster which was championed by ETH Singapore. The concept sketch prepared before the workshop was as follows.


The idea was to have a physical block-world model on a 1m x 1m table. The position and size of the boxes to be sampled by 2No Kinects and processed into a CAD model which could have a variety of analyses applied to it; the results of which would be displayed back onto the physical block-world in real time. The idea being that the physical block-world could act as a very natural and intuitive interface to computer based applications. That is you could rearrange the blocks and immediately see how the new arrangement affected the application.

PR-1It was decided to limit the world to rectangular blocks but to allow non orthogonal placement. After a lot of discussion an interesting decision was made about what to do when blocks touched and joined together. In the style of Processing, which was driving the scanning, it was decided to make joined blocks into new entities with no knowledge of their  past.

This was particularly useful for a simple application which coloured the blocks according to their size.

The method of calibration of the 4No Projectors had been largely resolved in Singapore so the group was able to get the scanning, building the CAD model and projecting the analysis results to work in a pretty satisfactory manner and were able to get a number of applications up and running.

This included a very nice shadow application were the Kinect scanned the position of your hand representing the position of the sun; one visiting partner of a large practice delightedly said that he had always wanted to play God in this way.


A number of attempts were made to provide a pointer device for some of the applications that required a start or end point to be indicated particularly for an agent route finding application. Laser pointers and LED pucks were tried but the relative shallowness (128 levels) of the colour space of the Kinect RGB  camera meant that the brightest point search always found something that was as bright as possible before it found something that was accually physically brighter.

Since the end of smartgeometry 2013 it appears that simple physical interaction with a virtual model is something of a hot topic with a short article in this weeks New Scientist and this neat way of calibrating projection display surfaces being published.


Seems strange that the car has to be instrumented, when it would do just as  well to instrument the surface it sits on.

The other clusters that I found particularly interesting or just plain peculiar were.

Computer Vision and Freeform Construction

This used a simple webcam and fixed QR Codes to guide the construction of complicated freeform shapes from common building materials.

In one example a master bricklayer was guided in the construction of a freeform vault using hollow flooring tiles and in another un-trained students built a flower shaped form from glasscrete blocks. In both cases the delight was in a simple application of technology being applied to an essentially craft process in order to facilitate the production of a complex form.

DSC_7897 (Kopiowanie)

Robotic Foaming

This had 3 expensive looking robots manipulating a ball of polyurethane and I think plaster that was mixed in a dirty bucket and stirred by hand with a stick.

DSC_7854 (Kopiowanie)

This cluster was hosted by  the Institut for Experimental Architecture, Innsbruck and produced objects like this:-

DSC_8152 (Kopiowanie)

Adaptive Structural Skins

This workshop was hosted by the Bartlett and produced a number of full scale enclosures. This example, although it did not use actuators, showed how the use of different length connectors and standard shaped panels could be used to change the shape of an enclosure.

DSC_8164 (Kopiowanie)

General Observations

  • Computational Design is well established in large Architectural Practices.
  • There is a loose, craft type, approach to programming and scripting that is very democratic.
  • Grasshopper, a plugin for Rhino, is ubiquitous and seriously attractive to users even though it is maintained by a single individual and only available on a Windows platform and uses VB.net and C# for scripting.
  • There are a number of individually produced plugins for Rhino/Grashopper such as the acoustic plugin Pachyderm the author of which, Arthur van der Harten,  was at the conference and has recently become Fosters in-house acoustic expert, an interesting career path.
  • Kinect devices are popular, usually driven by Processing and the SimpleNI library, but sometimes through Eclipse and the NI library but less often through the Microsoft Kinect SDK.
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Woodland and Silver


The co-inventor of the bar code N. J0seph Woodland died recently; his other co-inventor, Bernard Silver, having already died in 1963 aged just 38. They had been inspired by Silver overhearing the president of a food chain pleading with one of the deans of Drexel Institute of Technology to undertake research on capturing product information automatically at the checkout and the dean turning the request down.


Their patent was filed in 1949 and accepted in 1951, it included a means of optically reading the codes  by moving the target and the reading device relative to each other.

Creation Myth

In 2004 Woodlands remembered how the idea came to him having learnt Morse Code as a Boy Scout: “I was sitting in a beach chair. I stuck my fingers in the sand, and I drew my hand to me. I left three or four furrows in the sand. I said, ‘Wow. I could have wide lines and narrow lines [instead of dots and dashes].’ That was the invention. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it?”.


FIG 1 above shows a pattern of white lines numbered 1-4 on a black background 5. Line 1 is a datum line and lines 2, 3 and 4 are in fixed positions with respect to it. There are then fixed places for lines 2, 3 and 4 in the pattern and these are termed information  lines. While lines 2, 3 and 4 have fixed places, these places do not need to be filled; for instance, in FIG 3 line 4 is missing. A zero (0) is associated with missing lines and the number 1 (1) with occupied lines. The information pattern in FIG 3 could therefore be replaced by the code number 110 and the pattern of FIG 4 by 101. These codes can be interpreted as binary codes as follows line where line 4 -> 2= 1, line 3 -> 21  = 2 and line 2 -> 2= 4.

FIG 3 -> 110 = 2+ 2= 4 + 2 = 6

FIG 4 -> 101 = 2+ 2= 4 + 1 = 5

The circular, target style, bar code illustrated in the patent application shows how Woodlands and Silver were concerned about how the code would needed to be read from any direction.

Classifying or Labelling?

It is strange that the system is described as a classification system rather than a labelling or coding system. This might best be illustrated by imaginging using the system to label two dissimilar items with the same code, or alternatively labelling two similar items with different codes. Classification is to do with identifying similarity and difference and labelling to do with marking or coding that similarity or difference.

In 1962 Woodlands and Silver sold their patents rights to Philco who sold the rights onto RCA and Woodlands went to work for IBM where he hoped to promote the idea.

KarTrak System

The railroad industry had a pressing need to track freight wagons. The KarTrak system developed by David J. Collins and the Sylvania Corporation used 2 part bands, each part of which was orange, blue or checkerboard, to represent the numbers 0 to 10 which were identified by shining coloured light onto the bands using a trackside reader. Collins wanted to produce a black and white version but was balked and left Sylvania to found Computer Identics Corporation.


The KarTrak two bar coding system; the parity bit is either 10 as shown or 0.


These early systems all suffered from the difficulty of producing efficient, compact and cost effective readers. Woodland and Silver’s first reader used a 500w incandescent bulb  and a photo-multiplier tube, designed for movie sound systems. It was the size of a desk and needed to be shaded from ambient light. The expensive computers needed for the KarTrak system eventually saw its discontinuation after a successful initial introduction.

Eventual Success

RCA continued the development of the target shaped system for retail use and the crowds  it attracted at a trade fair, running a competition, rekindled IBM’s interest; who then realised that Woodland was one of their employees. But the advent of cheap lasers and computers would be necessary for the triumph of the now ubiquitous barcode; with many different applications being championed by David J. Collins.

Architectural “Applications”

Bar coding eventually seeped through to architecture in sometimes charming ways.


Bar code building by Jan Timm.

QR Codes

The cherry on the cake was the ability of smart phones to act as readers with orientation being ensured by 3 large corner symbols (4.1 below) with a deliberately smaller 4th corner symbol (4.2 below)


The N building in Tokyo, Japan is an apparently Augmented Reality project by Terradesign and Qosomo. Passersby can  point their mobile devices at the building and find out what is going on inside. The building frame supplies the necessary quiet zone (5. above)



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Visual Pangrams

How Space Begins: Georges Perec

This is an extract from The Page the first essay in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Perec (1974, 1997).

 “This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours, the names of capes, the names of inlets, until in the end the land was only separated from the sea by a continuous ribbon of text. Is the aleph, that place in Borges from which the entire world is visible simultaneously, anything other than an alphabet? Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustré, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq. cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. Here is the desert, with its oasis, its wadi and its salt lake, here are the spring and the stream, the mountain torrent, the canal, the confluence, the river,……”

This is the illustration Perec is referring to.


The original is really small, only 6 x 10 cm, yet within this tiny area a complete field of interest (Géographie) is enumerated with labels and graphical representations tightly bound together. For instance the label Isthme is right next to its graphical representation and in a wholly natural relation to a Péninsule. In addition all the graphical representations are connected and arranged so as to form a plausible map.

As such it is a member of a very limited class of object, one that as far as I know does not have a name. Following Perec’s alphabetic suggestions, it seems appropriate to call this class of object a visual pangram.

Pangrams use every letter of the alphabet at least once in a more or less meaningful sentence, for instance: –

Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz

This includes all 26 letters of the alphabet and has 5 reuses of letters (a twice, s, i and o).

 The suggested formulation is;-

that alphabet corresponds to an enumeration of a field of interest

and sentence to a pictorial representation of that field.

A Portolano Map

As noted in the Perec extract above, in a portolano map the text threatens to overrun the graphical image (the coastline) as in this 14th century portolano style map of the Mediteranean.

Mediterranean_chart_fourteenth_century2Anonymous nautical chart in portolan style probably drawn in Genoa
c. 1320-1350.Library of Congress 

The Aleph and the Successive Nature of Language


Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Hebrew word for infinity. Aleph numbers are therefore used to indicate the cardinality (the size) of infinite sets starting with the smallest Aleph-null. Hence the title of the Borges story is The Aleph.

“How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.)

Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal.

In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.”

Text and Image

In the portolano map the text overpowers the graphical image (the coastline).

In the Aleph story, an infinite and all pervading moving image – a premonition of multi-channel television or the internet perhaps, seriously distracts the author and prevents him from writing; a state of affairs that is only resolved by the writer demolishing his house and filling the basement, where the Aleph resides, with concrete.

But in the Petit Larousse Illustré map, and in visual pangrams in general, image and text are simultaneous and reinforce each other, without either threatening to dominate the other.

Aiding Memory

There is some evidence that sequential and visual information are processed in different ways, and that recall is better with a combination of text and image. Mental Representations A Dual Coding Approach. Paivio (1990).

Indeed in Species of Spaces Perec is remembering, in a piece he wrote in the 1970s, something he must have read and seen as a child in the 1940s.

Making a Visual Argument


This visual pangram attempts to show how John Soane’s architecture is related to (and is distinct from) all other architectural styles.

It represents the styles of architecture as a park one can walk round; inspecting buildings of MAHOMEDAN POINTED, CHRISTIAN POINTED, GOTHIC etc. styles. Each style is enclosed in its own fenced off area and labelled in an uppercase sans-serif typeface then a new re-invention, described in The Nymph and the Grot, Mosley (1969).

There is a straight path from the park gate to the Palace of Architecture. The Soanean building is nearest to the Palace of Architecture in the Greco-Roman section, with its own path to the Palace but carefully screened and separated from the Gothic. The Egyptian section also has its own path but all the other styles are accessed from meandering paths that branch off from the main route to the Palace of Architecture.

A visual pangram is being used to help make a visual argument.

An Indexed Visual Pangram

Flyleaf of Collins Birds og Great Britain and Europe

This image forms the front endpaper and frontispiece of the Third Edition of A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and shows the birds one is most likely to see in the places where they are most likely to be seen (from top to bottom) on telephone wires, in trees, on fence posts or on the ground. Peterson, Mountford, and Hollom (1974).

The indexing tidies up the overall pictorial image but gives prominence to the individual graphical representations at the expense of the labels. This is emphasised somewhat by the skylark silhouette being allowed to overlap the text panel. It also imposes an arbitrary, if accidental, linear order on the overall image; top-left to bottom-right, 1 to 20, BEE-EATER to ROOK.

Visual List or Confection: Pugin’s Churches


Edward Tufte used this image as an example of what he called a visual list or confection. It is the frontispiece of Pugin’s An Apology for The Revival of Christian Architecture in England. Pugin (1843).

It shows St Giles Cheadle in the centre surrounded by other Pugin projects (some of them never completed).

Many other examples of visual lists or confections are also frontispieces that act as visual indexes and otherwise advertise a book’s contents.

The image above does in fact contain minute unreadable index numbers.

These refer to a list of the illustrated churches but the list is conveniently located some six pages into the book.

Advertisement: John Soane’s Models


This 1818 rendering by Joseph Michael Gandy is over modestly titled Perspective of various designs for public and private buildings executed by John Soane between 1780 and 1815, shown as if they were models in a gallery.

The image was used as the front and back endpapers of Gillian Darley’s John Soane: An Accidental Romantic. Darley (1990)

There is no attempt to label or index any of the models and as with the Pugin etching, this wonderful rendering is more advertisement than useful reference or thinking tool.

Interactive Visual Pangram

This is an example of a visual pangram being used as an interface to the planning regulations.


It can be tried out here http://www.planningportal.gov.uk/permission/house

Interesting to think how this might be done with a ‘modern’ house; would it, could it, mean as much?


Perec, G. (1974 / 1997). Espèces d’espaces (Species of Spaces and Other Pieces).
                    (Sturrock, J., Trans.) Paris: Galilée / Penguin.
Borges, J.L. (1947). El Aleph (Di Giovanni, N. T., Trans with author)
Larousse. (1912). Petit Larousse Illustré; Librairie. Paris: Larousse.
Paivio, A. (1990) Mental Representations A Dual Coding Approach. Oxford
Peterson, R., Mountford, G and P. A. D. Hollom, P. A. D. (1974)
A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe Third Edition; Collins
Wightwick, G. (1840) The Palace of Architecture (‘a romance of art and history’) The Gentleman’s Magazine
Mosley, J. (1965). The Nymph and the Grot St Bride Library.
Gandy J. M. (1818) Perspective of various designs for public and private buildings executed by John Soane
between 1780 and 1815, shown as if they were models in a gallery
Darley, G. (1999) JOHN SOANE: an accidental romantic Yale University Press
Pugin A.W.N. (1843) An Apology for The Revival of Christian Architecture in England. London
Tufte, E. R. (1997) Visual Explanations Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative Graphics Press, Cheshire Conn.
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Doing Things The Hard Way

Andre Cassagnes the inventor of Etch A Sketch died at the weekend. Etch A Sketch is an ingenious analogue  device, that paradoxically makes sketching more difficult  yet has sold over 100 million copies since 1960.

Some of its charm must come from the pleasure to be had from acquiring the skills necessary to do something difficult; of mastering a device.

Etch A Sketch self consciously imitates a TV screen and in some ways was a precursor to the Visual Display units that were beginning to be used with early CAD systems.


These were specialist devices, used Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) and had a separate processor that continuously drove a  beam round the screen to create an image. One of the ones I first used in Edinburgh even had a round radar like monitor and a lightpen. The screen image could be easily changed, have parts added or removed, but would begin to flicker when the image became at all complicated.

This was initially overcome by the use of  Storage Tube devices. In these a steerable beam left a trace on the screen very like an Etch A Sketch. Adding to an image was straight forward but deleting was more difficult. The whole screen had to be erased, like shaking the Etch A Sketch, and the image recreated from scratch, often from a separately maintained display list.

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The Long and the Short

A year-out student Tom Kirby emailed an office of 200 people asking what the convention was for beyond and behind dotted line styles.  No one knew. On-line searches didn’t prove very helpful so in one of those mad delightful collective moments it was decided to use Morse Code line styles. We would then be able to put any message we liked as a line, including beyond and behind or the scatological, and no one would be any the wiser.


Note that there are really 3 symbols here, a dot, a dash and a space. The definition of the space between characters and the space between words are also important in defining what is in some ways a modular system.


In AutoCAD line type definitions like this should work (followed by 7 spaces).


*BEYOND,Beyond _… . _.__ ___ _.__ _..

A,12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -19.0, 0, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 12.7, -6.35, 12.7, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 12.7, -6.35, 12.7, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 12.7, -6.35, 12.7, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -44.5


*BEHIND,Behind _… . … .. _.__ _..

A,12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -19.0, 0, -19.0, 0, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -19.0, 0, -6.35, 0, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 12.7, -6.35, 12.7, -19.0, 12.7, -6.35, 0, -6.35, 0, -44.5

But unfortunately AutoCAD only allows a maximum of 12 dots or dashes, too bad.

Yin and Yang

The I Ching consists essentially of 64 chapters with each chapter symbolised by a hexagram formed of six lines each of which is either – – (yin) or – (yang) giving 26 = 64 alternatives. These can be arranged in a number of ways. (Knuth 2005)

The first arrangement is the King Wen Arrangement (c 1100 B.C.). King Wen is apparently a fairly loose period just meaning a very long time ago.

4 symmetric half hexagram symbols are recognised: Heaven, Earth, Fire and Water.

In this arrangement top-to-bottom mirror images (yin yang) are adjacent (odd and even numbers) and other important (same symbol and symmetrical) combinations are in prominent positions (boxed below), otherwise mathematically unsophisticated.


In the Shao Yung Arrangement (A.D. 1060)

4 extra asymmetric half hexagrams are recognised: Mountain, Wind, Thunder and Lake.

Each of 8 half hexagram symbols index both columns (above) and rows (below). Giving 8×8 = 64 combinations again.


For instance Mountain (column 2) above Lake (row 7) gives chapter 2 + (7 – 1) * 8 = 50

This makes a much more practical index for a book and facilitates divination of various sorts. This calculation method was known at the time.

Inversely chapter 50 gives 50 mod 8 (columns) = column 2 (Mountain)

and chapter 50 integer divide 8 (columns) + 1 = row 7 (Lake).

This method, which is less useful, was not known at the time.

So one might pick 2 sets of 3 long or short sticks and get the following result. 1 long and 2 short (Mountain) followed by 1 short and 2 long (Lake) and then go straight to chapter 50 for a reading.

Chapter 50 Extract


Sanskrit Poetics (c 2nd Century BCE)


A mnemonic for remembering all sequences developed in the Middle Ages:


Pingala‘s Chandahsutra (c. 200 BCE)

Syllables are short or long in length

1 long = 2 short

Pingala classified all the 16 different meters of four syllables like this:

1 meter of four short syllables SSSS

4 meters of three shorts SSSL, SSLS, SLSS, LSSS

6 meters of two shorts LLSS, LSSL, SSLL, SLLS, LSLS, SLSL

4 meters of one short SLLL, LSLL, LLSL, LLLS

1 meter of no shorts LLLL

Musical Sequences and Aperiodic Tiling

Taking a Penrose P2 (Kite and Dart) aperiodic tiling marked with Ammann bars leads to a set of 5 grids at 2PI/5 rotations.

The Long and the Short of It

Spacing between adjacent Ammann lines, short and long intervals, is in the golden ratio. Further short cannot be followed by short and two longs cannot be followed by another long as summarised in the following decision diagram.


Composing or decomposing a musical sequence gives rise to another musical sequence and an inflated or deflated tiling.

Aperiodic Tiling

The substitution S’=L” and L’=S+L automatically give rise to the golden ratio



Knuth, D. E., 2005,
The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4, Fascicle 2: Generationg All Tuples and Permutations
Knuth, D. E., 2006,
The Art of Computer Programming Volume 4, Fascicle 4 Generating All Trees, History of Combinatorial Generation.
Grünbaum, B. & Shephard, G.C., 1987. Tilings and patterns
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