What’s the use of variables?

Trumpian-style relativism and denialism assumes the right to make up some numbers and refuse others: votes, profits, employment rates, infections and crowd sizes. That’s to mistake variable for uncertain, unreliable and arbitrary as if “up for grabs.” Variables 101 In maths and logic a variable is a symbol standing for something unspecified, though you might…More

Less is more: Signatures, cities and hash codes

In 1997, the Hubble Space Telescope’s Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) picked up the signature of a black hole. Instead of a vertical straight scan line, the STIS showed an S shape. Signatures point to the presence of something (a referent). But you see the thing only indirectly, i.e. you get to know that the referent exists,…More

Beware of this message

Generals and soldiers must pass messages up and down the chain of command in secret to avoid interception by the enemy. The same applies to cities. Writing in the 1600s, the English natural philosopher (and proto-semiotician) John Wilkins (1614-1672) affirmed that “there are certain ways to discourse with a friend, though he were in a…More

COVID couture

Why cover your nose and mouth with fabric during an epidemic? Apart from any practical advantages, and disadvantages, a face mask is a sign. Whether or not they are effective in blocking viruses, (non-surgical) face masks transmit messages. Before the current crisis I wrote a book on the founder of semiotics Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).…More

Recursion again

In mathematics and computer programming, a recursive definition is one that defines a process in terms of itself: a branch of a tree is a branch that ends in smaller branches. That’s recursive as the definition of a branch in this case refers to a definition of a branch. A program that draws a branching…More

Architecture’s pragmatic turn

There was once a linguistic turn. The philosopher Richard Bernstein describes the ascent after WWII of analytical philosophy with its focus on plain language and clear argumentation, as it pushed aside other philosophy deemed imprecise and speculative. But now we have entered the pragmatic turn. Bernstein published a book in 2010 entitled just that: The…More

The immoveable typist

Johannes Gutenberg’s (1400-1468) printing press allowed knowledge to accumulate — and contributed to the idea that knowledge accumulates. But there were other benefits as it released energies from the laborious task of copying and transcribing texts by hand and other cumbersome and unreliable processes for reproduction, such as woodblock printing. According to social geographer and…More

This man has a sign

The semiotic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce said enigmatically that “man is a sign” (54). I’ve referred to this in a previous post. This statement hints at something significant about the use of language. We humans are capable of profound transformation under the operations of the sign. But I find it easier to think in terms…More

Hustle, twitter, bells and banter

Free beer! C.S. Peirce and semioticians make much of the meaningful call out of someone like a street vendor. A cry or call out from someone giving away, selling or hustling goods at a market fits one of Peirce’s sign categories. To be precise, it is a kind of dicent indexical legisign. The sign is complete…More

Rhematic architecture

For the non-linguist, the rheme is one of the most difficult concepts in semiotics. It is not in architecture’s lexicon, and it’s hard to think of its relevance outside of language study. In fact, in material culture (e.g. architecture) we are more comfortable with the structure of metaphor than with the theme-rheme structure, as I…More