The Value of Transparency

Once you start looking for it, it can be quite staggering to realise just how much of our modern world is, quite literally, built on glass. The stuff is manufactured in vast quantities, coating our windows, lights, screens, skyscrapers and countless other uses. Some argue that it is even responsible for the entire development of the world, particularly in the west, as we know it; it’s almost a wonder we take it for granted so.

Technically, out commonplace use of the word ‘glass’ rather oversimplifies the term; glasses are in fact a family of materials that all exhibit the same amorphous structure and behaviour under heating whilst not actually all being made from the same stuff. The member of this family that we are most familiar with and will commonly refer to as simply ‘glass’ is soda-lime glass, made predominantly from silica dioxide with a few other additives to make it easier to produce. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me tell the story from the beginning.

Like all the best human inventions, glass was probably discovered by accident. Archaeological evidence suggests glassworking was probably an Egyptian invention in around the third millennia BC, Egypt (or somewhere nearby) being just about the only place on earth at the time where the three key ingredients needed for glass production occured naturally and in the same place: silica dioxide (aka sand), sodium carbonate (aka soda, frequently found as a mineral or from plant ashes) and a relatively civilised group of people capable of building a massive great fire. When Egyptian metalworkers got sand and soda in their furnaces by accident, when removed they discovered the two had fused to form a hard, semi-transparent, almost alien substance; the first time glass had been produced anywhere on earth.

This type of glass was far from perfect; for one thing, adding soda has the unfortunate side-effect of making silica glass water-soluble, and for another they couldn’t yet work out how to make the glass clear. Then there were the problems that came with trying to actually make anything from the stuff. The only glass forming technique at the time was called core forming, a moderately effective but rather labour-intensive process illustrated well in this video. Whilst good for small, decorative pieces, it became exponentially more difficult to produce an item by this method the larger it needed to be, not to mention the fact that it couldn’t produce flat sheets of glass for use as windows or whatever.

Still, onwards and upwards and all that, and developments were soon being made in the field of glass technology. Experimentation with various additives soon yielded the discovery that adding lime (calcium oxide) plus a little aluminium and magnesium oxide made soda glass insoluble, and thus modern soda-lime glass was discovered. In the first century BC, an even more significant development came along with the discovery of glass blowing as a production method. Glass blowing was infinitely more flexible than core forming, opening up an entirely new avenue for glass as a material, but crucially it allowed glass products to be produced faster and thus be cheaper than pottery equivalents . By this time, the Eastern Mediterranean coast where these discoveries took place was part of the Roman Empire, and the Romans took to glass like a dieter to chocolate; glass containers and drinking vessels spread across the Empire from the glassworks of Alexandria, and that was before they discovered manganese dioxide could produce clear glass and that it was suddenly suitable for architectural work.

Exactly why glass took off on quite such a massive scale in Europe yet remained little more than a crude afterthought in the east and China (the other great superpower of the age) is somewhat unclear. Pottery remained the material of choice throughout the far east, and they got very skilled at making it too; there’s a reason we in the west today call exceptionally fine, high-quality pottery ‘china’. I’ve only heard one explanation for why this should be so, and it centres around alcohol.

Both the Chinese and Roman empires loved wine, but did so in different ways. To the Chinese, alcohol was a deeply spiritual thing, and played an important role in their religious procedures. This attitude was not unheard of in the west (the Egyptians, for example, believed the god Osiris invented beer, and both Greeks and Romans worshipped a god of wine), but the Roman Empire thought of wine in a secular as well as religious sense; in an age where water was often unsafe to drink, wine became the drink of choice for high society in all situations. One of the key features of wine to the Roman’s was its appearance, hence why the introduction of clear vessels allowing them to admire this colour was so attractive to them. By contrast, the Chinese day-to-day drink of choice was tea. whose appearance was of far less importance than the ability of its container to dissipate heat (as fine china is very good at). The introduction of clear drinking vessels would, therefore, have met with only a limited market in the east, and hence it never really took off. I’m not entirely sure that this argument holds up under scrutiny, but it’s quite a nice idea.

Whatever the reason, the result was unequivocal; only in Europe was glassmaking technology used and advanced over the years. Stained glass was one major discovery, and crown glass (a method for producing large, flat sheets) another. However, the crucial developments would be made in the early 14th century, not long after the Republic of Venice (already a centre for glassmaking) ordered all its glassmakers to move out to the island of Murano to reduce the risk of fire (which does seem ever so slightly strange for a city founded, quite literally, on water).  On Murano, the local quartz pebbles offered glassmakers silica of hitherto unprecedented purity which, combined with exclusive access to a source of soda ash, allowed for the production of exceptionally high-quality glassware. The Murano glassmakers became masters of the art, producing glass products of astounding quality, and from here onwards the technological revolution of glass could begin. The Venetians worked out how to make lenses, in turn allowing for the discovery of the telescope (forming the basis of the work of both Copernicus and Galileo) and spectacles (extending the working lifespan of scribes and monks across the western world). The widespread introduction of windows (as opposed to fabric-covered holes in the wall) to many houses, particularly in the big cities, dramatically improved the health of their occupants by both keeping the house warmer and helping keep out disease. Perhaps most crucially, the production of high-quality glass vessels was not only to revolutionise biology, and in turn medicine, as a discipline, but to almost single-handedly create the modern science of chemistry, itself the foundation stone upon which most of modern physics is based. These discoveries would all, given enough time and quite a lot of social upheaval, pave the way for the massive technological advancements that would characterise the western world in the centuries to come, and which would finally allow the west to take over from the Chinese and Arabs and become the world’s leading technological superpowers.* Nowadays, of course, glass has been taken even further, being widely used as a building material (its strength-to-weight ratio far exceeds that of concrete, particularly when it is made to ‘building grade’ standard), in televisions, and fibre optic cables (which may yet revolutionise our communications infrastructure).

Glass is, of course, not the only thing to have catalysed the technological breakthroughs that were to come; similar arguments have been made regarding gunpowder and the great social and political changes that were to grip Europe between roughly 1500 and 1750. History is never something that one can place a single cause on (the Big Bang excepted), but glass was undoubtedly significant in the western world’s rise to prominence during the second half of the last millennia, and the Venetians probably deserve a lot more credit than they get for creating our modern world.

*It is probably worth mentioning that China is nowadays the world’s largest producer of glass.

Art vs. Science

All intellectual human activity can be divided into one of three categories; the arts, humanities, and sciences (although these terms are not exactly fully inclusive). Art here covers everything from the painted medium to music, everything that we humans do that is intended to be creative and make our world as a whole a more beautiful place to live in. The precise definition of ‘art’ is a major bone of contention among creative types and it’s not exactly clear where the boundary lies in some cases, but here we can categorise everything intended to be artistic as an art form. Science here covers every one of the STEM disciplines; science (physics, biology, chemistry and all the rest in its vast multitude of forms and subgenres), technology, engineering (strictly speaking those two come under the same branch, but technology is too satisfying a word to leave out of any self-respecting acronym) and mathematics. Certain portions of these fields too could be argued to be entirely self-fulfilling, and others are considered by some beautiful, but since the two rarely overlap the title of art is never truly appropriate. The humanities are an altogether trickier bunch to consider; on one hand they are, collectively, a set of sciences, since they purport to study how the world we live in behaves and functions. However, this particular set of sciences are deemed separate because they deal less with fundamental principles of nature but of human systems, and human interactions with the world around them; hence the title ‘humanities’. Fields as diverse as economics and geography are all blanketed under this title, and are in some ways the most interesting of sciences as they are the most subjective and accessible; the principles of the humanities can be and usually are encountered on a daily basis, so anyone with a keen mind and an eye for noticing the right things can usually form an opinion on them. And a good thing too, otherwise I would be frequently short of blogging ideas.

Each field has its own proponents, supporters and detractors, and all are quite prepared to defend their chosen field to the hilt. The scientists point to the huge advancements in our understanding of the universe and world around us that have been made in the last century, and link these to the immense breakthroughs in healthcare, infrastructure, technology, manufacturing and general innovation and awesomeness that have so increased our quality of life (and life expectancy) in recent years. And it’s not hard to see why; such advances have permanently changed the face of our earth (both for better and worse), and there is a truly vast body of evidence supporting the idea that these innovations have provided the greatest force for making our world a better place in recent times. The artists provide the counterpoint to this by saying that living longer, healthier lives with more stuff in it is all well and good, but without art and creativity there is no advantage to this better life, for there is no way for us to enjoy it. They can point to the developments in film, television, music and design, all the ideas of scientists and engineers tuned to perfection by artists of each field, and even the development in more classical artistic mediums such as poetry or dance, as key features of the 20th century that enabled us to enjoy our lives more than ever before. The humanities have advanced too during recent history, but their effects are far more subtle; innovative strategies in economics, new historical discoveries and perspectives and new analyses of the way we interact with our world have all come, and many have made news, but their effects tend to only be felt in the spheres of influence they directly concern- nobody remembers how a new use of critical path analysis made J. Bloggs Ltd. use materials 29% more efficiently (yes, I know CPA is technically mathematics; deal with it). As such, proponents of humanities tend to be less vocal than those in other fields, although this may have something to do with the fact that the people who go into humanities have a tendency to be more… normal than the kind of introverted nerd/suicidally artistic/stereotypical-in-some-other-way characters who would go into the other two fields.

This bickering between arts & sciences as to the worthiness/beauty/parentage of the other field has lead to something of a divide between them; some commentators have spoken of the ‘two cultures’ of arts and sciences, leaving us with a sect of sciences who find it impossible to appreciate the value of art and beauty, thinking it almost irrelevant compared what their field aims to achieve (to their loss, in my opinion). I’m not entirely sure that this picture is entirely true; what may be more so, however, is the other end of the stick, those artistic figures who dominate our media who simply cannot understand science beyond GCSE level, if that. It is true that quite a lot of modern science is very, very complex in the details, but Albert Einstein was famous for saying that if a scientific principle cannot be explained to a ten-year old then it is almost certainly wrong, and I tend to agree with him. Even the theory behind the existence of the Higgs Boson, right at the cutting edge of modern physics, can be explained by an analogy of a room full of fans and celebrities. Oh look it up, I don’t want to wander off topic here.

The truth is, of course, that no field can sustain a world without the other; a world devoid of STEM would die out in a matter of months, a world devoid of humanities would be hideously inefficient and appear monumentally stupid, and a world devoid of art would be the most incomprehensibly dull place imaginable. Not only that, but all three working in harmony will invariably produce the best results, as master engineer, inventor, craftsman and creator of some of the most famous paintings of all time Leonardo da Vinci so ably demonstrated. As such, any argument between fields as to which is ‘the best’ or ‘the most worthy’ will simply never be won, and will just end up a futile task. The world is an amazing place, but the real source of that awesomeness is the diversity it contains, both in terms of nature and in terms of people. The arts and sciences are not at war, nor should they ever be; for in tandem they can achieve so much more.

Pineapples (TM)

If the last few decades of consumerism have taught us anything, it is just how much faith people are able of setting store in a brand. In everything from motorbikes to washing powder, we do not simply test and judge effectiveness of competing products objectively (although, especially when considering expensive items such as cars, this is sometimes impractical); we must compare them to what we think of the brand and the label, what reputation this product has and what it is particularly good at, which we think most suits our social standing and how others will judge our use of it. And good thing too, from many companies’ perspective, otherwise the amount of business they do would be slashed. There are many companies whose success can be almost entirely put down to the effect of their branding and the impact their marketing has had on the psyche of western culture, but perhaps the most spectacular example concerns Apple.

In some ways, to typecast Apple as a brand-built company is a harsh one; their products are doubtless good ones, and they have shown a staggering gift for bringing existed ideas together into forms that, if not quite new, are always the first to be a practical, genuine market presence. It is also true that Apple products are often better than their competitors in very specific fields; in computing, for example, OS X is better at dealing with media than other operating systems, whilst Windows has traditionally been far stronger when it comes to word processing, gaming and absolutely everything else (although Windows 8 looks very likely to change all of that- I am not looking forward to it). However, it is almost universally agreed (among non-Apple whores anyway) that once the rest of the market gets hold of it Apple’s version of a product is almost never the definitive best, from a purely analytical perspective (the iPod is a possible exception, solely due to the existence of iTunes redefining the music industry before everyone else and remaining competitive to this day) and that every Apple product is ridiculously overpriced for what it is. Seriously, who genuinely thinks that top-end Macs are a good investment?

Still, Apple make high-end, high-quality products with a few things they do really, really well that are basically capable of doing everything else. They should have a small market share, perhaps among the creative or the indie, and a somewhat larger one in the MP3 player sector. They should be a status symbol for those who can afford them, a nice company with a good history but that nowadays has to face up to a lot of competitors. As it is, the Apple way of doing business has proven successful enough to make them the biggest private company in the world. Bigger than every other technology company, bigger than every hedge fund or finance company, bigger than any oil company, worth more than every single one (excluding state owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, which is estimated to be worth around 3 trillion dollars by dealing in Saudi oil exports). How has a technology company come to be worth $400 billion? How?

One undoubted feature is Apple’s uncanny knack of getting there first- the Apple II was the first real personal computer and provided the genes for Windows-powered PC’s to take the world, whilst the iPod was the first MP3 player that was genuinely enjoyable to use, the iPhone the first smartphone (after just four years, somewhere in the region of 30% of the world’s phones are now smartphones) and the iPad the first tablet computer. Being in the technology business has made this kind of innovation especially rewarding for them; every company is constantly terrified of being left behind, so whenever a new innovation comes along they will knock something together as soon as possible just to jump on the bandwagon. However, technology is a difficult business to get right, meaning that these products are usually rubbish and make the Apple version shine by comparison. This also means that if Apple comes up with the idea first, they have had a couple of years of working time to make sure they get it right, whilst everyone else’s first efforts have had only a few scance months; it takes a while for any serious competitors to develop, by which time Apple have already made a few hundred million off it and have moved on to something else; innovation matters in this business.

But the real reason for Apple’s success can be put down to the aura the company have built around themselves and their products. From their earliest infancy Apple fans have been self-dubbed as the independent, the free thinkers, the creative, those who love to be different and stand out from the crowd of grey, calculating Windows-users (which sounds disturbingly like a conspiracy theory or a dystopian vision of the future when it is articulated like that). Whilst Windows has its problems, Apple has decided on what is important and has made something perfect in this regard (their view, not mine), and being willing to pay for it is just part of the induction into the wonderful world of being an Apple customer (still their view). It’s a compelling world view, and one that thousands of people have subscribed to, simply because it is so comforting; it sells us the idea that we are special, individual, and not just one of the millions of customers responsible for Apple’s phenomenal size and success as a company. But the secret to the success of this vision is not just the view itself; it is the method and the longevity of its delivery. This is an image that has been present in their advertising campaign from its earliest infancy, and is now so ingrained that it doesn’t have to be articulated any more; it’s just present in the subtle hints, the colour scheme, the way the Apple store is structured and the very existence of Apple-dedicated shops generally. Apple have delivered the masterclass in successful branding; and that’s all the conclusion you’re going to get for today.

NUMBERS

One of the most endlessly charming parts of the human experience is our capacity to see something we can’t describe and just make something up in order to do so, never mind whether it makes any sense in the long run or not. Countless examples have been demonstrated over the years, but the mother lode of such situations has to be humanity’s invention of counting.

Numbers do not, in and of themselves, exist- they are simply a construct designed by our brains to help us get around the awe-inspiring concept of the relative amounts of things. However, this hasn’t prevented this ‘neat little tool’ spiralling out of control to form the vast field that is mathematics. Once merely a diverting pastime designed to help us get more use out of our counting tools, maths (I’m British, live with the spelling) first tentatively applied itself to shapes and geometry before experimenting with trigonometry, storming onwards to algebra, turning calculus into a total mess about four nanoseconds after its discovery of something useful, before just throwing it all together into a melting point of cross-genre mayhem that eventually ended up as a field that it as close as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) gets to art, in that it has no discernible purpose other than for the sake of its own existence.

This is not to say that mathematics is not a useful field, far from it. The study of different ways of counting lead to the discovery of binary arithmetic and enabled the birth of modern computing, huge chunks of astronomy and classical scientific experiments were and are reliant on the application of geometric and trigonometric principles, mathematical modelling has allowed us to predict behaviour ranging from economics & statistics to the weather (albeit with varying degrees of accuracy) and just about every aspect of modern science and engineering is grounded in the brute logic that is core mathematics. But… well, perhaps the best way to explain where the modern science of maths has lead over the last century is to study the story of i.

One of the most basic functions we are able to perform to a number is to multiply it by something- a special case, when we multiply it by itself, is ‘squaring’ it (since a number ‘squared’ is equal to the area of a square with side lengths of that number). Naturally, there is a way of reversing this function, known as finding the square root of a number (ie square rooting the square of a number will yield the original number). However, convention dictates that a negative number squared makes a positive one, and hence there is no number squared that makes a negative and there is no such thing as the square root of a negative number, such as -1. So far, all I have done is use a very basic application of logic, something a five-year old could understand, to explain a fact about ‘real’ numbers, but maths decided that it didn’t want to not be able to square root a negative number, so had to find a way round that problem. The solution? Invent an entirely new type of number, based on the quantity i (which equals the square root of -1), with its own totally arbitrary and made up way of fitting  on a number line, and which can in no way exist in real life.

Admittedly, i has turned out to be useful. When considering electromagnetic forces, quantum physicists generally assign the electrical and magnetic components real and imaginary quantities in order to identify said different components, but its main purpose was only ever to satisfy the OCD nature of mathematicians by filling a hole in their theorems. Since then, it has just become another toy in the mathematician’s arsenal, something for them to play with, slip into inappropriate situations to try and solve abstract and largely irrelevant problems, and with which they can push the field of maths in ever more ridiculous directions.

A good example of the way mathematics has started to lose any semblance of its grip on reality concerns the most famous problem in the whole of the mathematical world- Fermat’s last theorem. Pythagoras famously used the fact that, in certain cases, a squared plus b squared equals c squared as a way of solving some basic problems of geometry, but it was never known as to whether a cubed plus b cubed could ever equal c cubed if a, b and c were whole numbers. This was also true for all other powers of a, b and c greater than 2, but in 1637 the brilliant French mathematician Pierre de Fermat claimed, in a scrawled note inside his copy of Diohantus’ Arithmetica, to have a proof for this fact ‘that is too large for this margin to contain’. This statement ensured the immortality of the puzzle, but its eventual solution (not found until 1995, leading most independent observers to conclude that Fermat must have made a mistake somewhere in his ‘marvellous proof’) took one man, Andrew Wiles, around a decade to complete. His proof involved showing that the terms involved in the theorem could be expressed in the form of an incredibly weird equation that doesn’t exist in the real world, and that all equations of this type had a counterpart equation of an equally irrelevant type. However, since the ‘Fermat equation’ was too weird to exist in the other format, it could not logically be true.

To a mathematician, this was the holy grail; not only did it finally lay to rest an ages-old riddle, but it linked two hitherto unrelated branches of algebraic mathematics by way of proving what is (now it’s been solved) known as the Taniyama-Shimura theorem. To anyone interested in the real world, this exercise made no contribution to it whatsoever- apart from satisfying a few nerds, nobody’s life was made easier by the solution, it didn’t solve any real-world problem, and it did not make the world a tangibly better place. In this respect then, it was a total waste of time.

However, despite everything I’ve just said, I’m not going to decide that all modern day mathematics is a waste of time; very few human activities ever are. Mathematics is many things; among them ridiculous, confusing, full of contradictions and potential slip-ups and, in a field whose age of winning a major prize is younger than in any other STEM field, apparently full of those likely to belittle you out of future success should you enter the world of serious academia. But, for some people, maths is just what makes the world makes sense, and at its heart that was all it was ever created to do. And if some people want their life to be all about the little symbols that make the world make sense, then well done to the world for making a place for them.

Oh, and there’s a theory doing the rounds of cosmology nowadays that reality is nothing more than a mathematical construct. Who knows in what obscure branch of reverse logarithmic integrals we’ll find answers about that one…

The Land of the Red

Nowadays, the country to talk about if you want to be seen as being politically forward-looking is, of course, China. The most populous nation on Earth (containing 1.3 billion souls) with an economy and defence budget second only to the USA in terms of size, it also features a gigantic manufacturing and raw materials extraction industry, the world’s largest standing army and one of only five remaining communist governments. In many ways, this is China’s second boom as a superpower, after its early forays into civilisation and technological innovation around the time of Christ made it the world’s largest economy for most of the intervening time. However, the technological revolution that swept the Western world in the two or three hundred years during and preceding the Industrial Revolution (which, according to QI, was entirely due to the development and use of high-quality glass in Europe, a material almost totally unheard of in China having been invented in Egypt and popularised by the Romans) rather passed China by, leaving it a severely underdeveloped nation by the nineteenth century. After around 100 years of bitter political infighting, during which time the 2000 year old Imperial China was replaced by a republic whose control was fiercely contested between nationalists and communists, the chaos of the Second World War destroyed most of what was left of the system. The Second Sino-Japanese War (as that particular branch of WWII was called) killed around 20 million Chinese civilians, the second biggest loss to a country after the Soviet Union, as a Japanese army fresh from an earlier revolution from Imperial to modern systems went on a rampage of rape, murder and destruction throughout the underdeveloped northern China, where some war leaders still fought with swords. The war also annihilated the nationalists, leaving the communists free to sweep to power after the Japanese surrender and establish the now 63-year old People’s Republic, then lead by former librarian Mao Zedong.

Since then, China has changed almost beyond recognition. During the idolised Mao’s reign, the Chinese population near-doubled in an effort to increase the available worker population, an idea tried far less successfully in other countries around the world with significantly less space to fill. This population was then put to work during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, in which he tried to move his country away from its previously agricultural economy and into a more manufacturing-centric system. However, whilst the Chinese government insists to this day that three subsequent years of famine were entirely due to natural disasters such as drought and poor weather, and only killed 15 million people, most external commentators agree that the sudden change in the availability of food thanks to the Great Leap certainly contributed to the death toll estimated to actually be in the region of 20-40 million. Oh, and the whole business was an economic failure, as farmers uneducated in modern manufacturing techniques attempted to produce steel at home, resulting in a net replacement of useful food for useless, low-quality pig iron.

This event in many ways typifies the Chinese way- that if millions of people must suffer in order for things to work out better in the long run and on the numbers sheet, then so be it, partially reflecting the disregard for the value of life historically also common in Japan. China is a country that has said it would, in the event of a nuclear war, consider the death of 90% of their population acceptable losses so long as they won, a country whose main justification for this “Great Leap Forward” was to try and bring about a state of social structure & culture that the government could effectively impose socialism upon, as it tried to do during its “Cultural Revolution” during the mid-sixties. All this served to do was get a lot of people killed, resulted in a decade of absolute chaos, literally destroyed China’s education system and, despite reaffirming Mao’s godlike status (partially thanks to an intensification in the formation of his personality cult), some of his actions rather shamed the governmental high-ups, forcing the party to take the angle that, whilst his guiding thought was of course still the foundation of the People’s Republic and entirely correct in every regard, his actions were somehow separate from that and got rather brushed under the carpet. It did help that, by this point, Mao was now dead and was unlikely to have them all hung for daring to question his actions.

But, despite all this chaos, all the destruction and all the political upheaval (nowadays the government is still liable to arrest anyone who suggests that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea), these things shaped China into the powerhouse it is today. It may have slaughtered millions of people and resolutely not worked for 20 years, but Mao’s focus on a manufacturing economy has now started to bear fruit and give the Chinese economy a stable footing that many countries would dearly love in these days of economic instability. It may have an appalling human rights record and have presided over the large-scale destruction of the Chinese environment, but Chinese communism has allowed for the government to control its labour force and industry effectively, allowing it to escape the worst ravages of the last few economic downturns and preventing internal instability. And the extent to which it has forced itself upon the people of China for decades, forcing them into the party line with an iron fist, has allowed its controls to be gently relaxed in the modern era whilst ensuring the government’s position is secure, to an extent satisfying the criticisms of western commentators. Now, China is rich enough and positioned solidly enough to placate its people, to keep up its education system and build cheap housing for the proletariat. To an accountant, therefore,  this has all worked out in the long run.

But we are not all accountants or economists- we are members of the human race, and there is more for us to consider than just some numbers on a spreadsheet. The Chinese government employs thousands of internet security agents to ensure that ‘dangerous’ ideas are not making their way into the country via the web, performs more executions annually than the rest of the world combined, and still viciously represses every critic of the government and any advocate of a new, more democratic system. China has paid an enormously heavy price for the success it enjoys today. Is that price worth it? Well, the government thinks so… but do you?