Tuesday, May 12, 2020

For Want of a Nail

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

For Want of a Nail

Minor changes in initial conditions can cause dramatically different future outcomes in complex systems.

I know that sounds boring as heck but bear with me a moment...

What is a complex system?

Complex systems contain too many interrelated variables to allow  formation of precise (or sometimes even imprecise) rules describing expected behavior.

One complex system you may be familiar with is your self - other complex systems include; weather, ecosystems, pandemics and traffic flow.

Complex and complicated systems are not the same. A complicated system may contain many interrelated variables but the interaction of those variables is understandable and predictable. This is why we can build complicated systems ranging from automobiles to global positioning systems.

Trying to stay out of the weeds here - but there's a distinction between complexity theory and chaos theory. Chaos theory may be thought of as a subset of complexity theory, but we'll leave that aside for this essay because it's not particularly important in making what I think may be my point ;-)

If these sorts of things interest you BBC Radio 4 has a podcast on Complexity and one on Chaos Theory with some experts.


You may have heard of the so-called butterfly effect where a butterfly flapping it's wings at some distant place and time sets off a series of events that has effects on a tornado at some future time. This idea comes from the work of the American mathematician, meteorologist and founder of chaos theoryEdward Norton Lorenz.

That ecosystems and pandemics are complex would seem to be self-evident if we consider all the unintended consequences of humankind's actions on our planet and our health. If you are not aware of those unintended consequences - congratulations on making it to Earth-2. Also make sure you actually are living on another planet and not just watching too much Fox news or counting on the Wall Street Journal for the straight skinny...cause otherwise you may be in for some unpleasant surprises when old Ma Nature opens up a can of whoop ass to show you how much she doesn't care.


Where was I? Where am I?

The final example of a complex system is traffic flow. If you live in an area where there are a lot of traffic jams on the highway you may have asked yourself - why is traffic slowed down for no apparent reason? There may have been some initial condition - an accident or breakdown, that is long gone - but traffic flow is still stop and go.


Because many drivers are alternately applying their brake pedal and then gas pedal to try to maintain the closest distance possible to the car in front of them, apparently thinking that this will get them to their destination faster. Because they are following so closely they have to use the illumination of the brake-lights on the car in front of them as a signal to apply their car's brakes. After braking, they then accelerate to retain the minimum separation and the process repeats over and over - which contributes to the turbulent (as opposed to smooth) flow of traffic. You can experiment with eliminating the herky-jerky by maintaining multiple car lengths between you and the car in front of you. This smooths out traffic and allows everyone to get where they are going faster, but may also cause varying degrees of road rage...so be careful.

Finally -

Perhaps the most important example of varying initial conditions, in a complex system, causing dramatically different future effects is in the area of raising and educating the complex systems we call children.

People who have had a teacher, coach, friend or parent who did some small thing(s) in their early life that made a huge positive difference in their later life are living examples.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

Monarch Magic

If you are moved by the beauty and strangeness of this world - the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez has some impressive writing about butterflies and magic. It's been years since I read that book, but here's what one reviewer had to say about it -
"One Hundred Years of Solitude is the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race. Mr. García Márquez has done nothing less than to create in the reader a sense of all that is profound, meaningful, and meaningless in life."  — William Kennedy, New York Times Book Review

B took some beautiful photos of a Monarch chrysalis in northern Minnesota but I can't locate them right now. I'll go look for my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude and see what pictures that brings to mind as I read it.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

In Praise of Curiousity

One of the best things any parent could do for a child's future is to foster the  child's inborn sense of wonder and unknowing...their curiosity about themselves, the world around them, the people, machines, plants, flowers, trees, rivers, mountains, animals, insects, the moon and stars...the whole shebang.

On the other hand (I have many hands ;-)

  • We live in an age where everyone knows everything about everything thanks to the ever present Google machine.

  • We live in an age where the life-preservers of nature, love, meaning and wisdom are in short supply while we drown in a sea of inanity, commercial or political propaganda, and fantasy.

I'd subscribe to the latter. It's not that you can't learn from the web, radio or television but rather that they are filled with noise.

I am using the word noise both in a signal processing sense and in the interior human sense of a mind filled with noise. The noise described by the Buddhist concept of monkey mind which can be quieted by meditation and paying attention to our breathing. We can also use the Christian concept of contemplative prayer to quiet one's mind to hear that still small voice inside us. Not to get too far afield, but the little old ladies that prayed the rosary when I was an altar boy had this figured out but I was too immature to understand that at the time.


Individuals need a good filter (analytic ability and some sort of mind-quieting techniques) to separate out the signal from the noise, and convert that signal into useful knowledge.

What I mean by analytic ability is the process of isolating parts of some thing for inspection. It's a process that vending machine repairmen, analytic philosophers, motorcycle mechanics, software programmers and scientists use regularly.

For all of us but particularly for those of us who like me, may be a tad to sure of what we know, or those who don't have the time, inclination or ability to hone our analytic or meditative skills it would be good to practice some humility when it comes to our certainty of knowing anything other than what we experience directly in the world (and maybe be a bit skeptical about that too because we are experts at fooling ourselves into believing what we want to believe).

In summary - if adults could realize they know less than children do about the important stuff we might find many of our human-caused problems would be much easier to solve. This is not a new idea and is in some ways an invitation to joy..or at least a lot of fun.

"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."
 Matthew 18 NIV


Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Virtual Road Less Traveled

Bob Doyle the information philosopher has, as one might expect, a lot of information on his website and YouTube channel.

He's a technologist and a philosopher which makes him somewhat unique in our age of STEM obsession.

I think what he's writing and talking about sounds important, interesting and challenging (based on watching this video and noodling  around his web pages for an hour or so). I stumbled upon his work while I was trying to learn something about Gottlob Frege's ideas on the limits of language.

The title of this blog post refers to the fact that Bob Doyle's YouTube channel has about 1,500 subscribers and the video I watched has about the same number of views. In contrast this is the top trending YouTube video as I write this, with over 7,000,000 views (as I edit this) on a channel with over 18,000,000 subscribers.

I don't know what that popular video is about but I think it's trying to sell something, maybe makeup or a life - so caveat emptor.


The future is calling.

It needs some people capable and willing to carry the flame of wisdom before it's extinguished in a sea of idiocy, hate, sensationalism, and self glorification.

Some people need to keep the wisdom and beauty of humanity alive as we enter a new and unfamiliar world due to the climate crisis. There is always hope because no matter how much the world changes there is always space for individual courage, love, and acts of kindness.

I started thinking about this when Bob Doyle says in this video that Tim Berners-Lee's biggest concern about storing important information on the web was the lack of a persistent archive. We all see how changing technology makes persistent storage of things important to us (home videos, photos, essays, stories, letters) very difficult.

You could put all your important stuff on a digital storage device but there is no guarantee that you or anyone else could retrieve it in a few years or decades.

I think the best solution may be a Socratic one. Socrates distrusted the written word and believed that the way to communicate meaning is through speech. If not for his student Plato writing things down we would only have many different (or perhaps no) stories of what Socrates had to teach us.


Who cares?

We all should. Human nature changes little over thousands of years. Great thinkers have invented the wheel so to speak and unless we want to reinvent the wheel over and over it would behoove us as a species to save and review what wise people before us had to say about being in the world.

Perhaps instead of trying to create and save a digital archive of our individual existences it makes more sense to share stories with those we care about.

One can make a case for speech being the preferred means of communication for what is truly important to us as humans - love, companionship, hope, wisdom...one could also make a case that music, dance or painting are better than language - but I digress.

Meaning is highly dependent on body language, eye contact, tone - all lacking in the written word. This lack of face to face contact is one reason why people writing about imprecise things like religion or politics fail to communicate meaning and often end up with misunderstanding and hurt feelings.

In our analysis of "failure to communicate" we could also consider those of us who repeat something we heard on television, radio or the internet without having much, if any, understanding of what the words we are repeating signify in the real world considering context, completeness and individual levels of knowledge or ignorance.

Another reason people fail to communicate either in writing or verbally, which I find fascinating, is that words have no meaning.

To be more precise words have no meaning, other than what we as individuals assign. Parrots can say words without having any consciousness of their meaning. It might be more precise to say parrots make sounds signifying nothing. Humans share this ability with the exception that we can think we know what we are saying and assume others do as well.

For words to have meaning they must signify something to the recipient. What words signify to any individual recipient we cannot know with any accuracy.

A good example of this is our use of words like conservative or Christian - absolutely meaningless - without context (and a lot of it).

Thinkers like Frege, Husserl, Russell, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein explored the limits of language and either attempted to create a precise language based on mathematics and logic, or gave up on language for communicating what is truly important and turned to faith. This is a gloss but my words are limited.

The promoters of formalized language, as opposed to everyday language, believed that humankind's ills could be cured if we truly understood what other people are communicating. Utopian no doubt but also empirically evident when we consider the ability of humans across cultures, nations and times to collaborate using scientific/mathematical terms.

Maybe this quote helps. It's from the chapter, Ordinary Language and Formalized Language, in the book A History of Western Philosophy Volume V by W.T. Jones

A weakness of ordinary language is that it is multifunctional; it does much more than merely make assertations that are true or false; it commands, pleads, requests, suggests, attempts to deceive, entertains, bores, and so on. As a cognitivist, Frege was interested in language that is capable of conveying information about the world, not in language that implements some social aim of the speaker such as "setting the hearer on the right track."  

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Sweet Dreams From 1995

Dreamers can assume that their dreams will be fulfilled because humans share a common body of knowledge and values. Although possibly a worthy goal, this assumption is by necessity - nonsense.

From the talk "Hypertext and Our Collective Destiny" given by Tim Berners-Lee, on 12 October 1995 -
"Perhaps I should explain where I'm coming from. I had (and still have) a dream that the web could be less of a television channel and more of an interactive sea of shared knowledge. I imagine it immersing us as a warm, friendly environment made of the things we and our friends have seen, heard, believe or have figured out. I would like it to bring our friends and colleagues closer, in that by working on this knowledge together we can come to better understandings. If misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world's woes, then can we not work them out in cyberspace. And, having worked them out, we leave for those who follow a trail of our reasoning and assumptions for them to adopt, or correct."

The abstract of the talk states -
"Bush considered the plight of a researcher deluged with inaccessible information. He proposed the MEMEX, a machine to rapidly access, and allow random links between, pieces of information. Networks and computers have since allowed us to exceed even that far-sighted vision in terms of speed and convenience. However, we have not seen dramatic advances in our ability to solve political problems, to manage large organizations, or to magnify our group intuition. We must do more than empower the individual. We must allow people and machines interacting together to behave in new ways as a mass. Now that we can make trails though our information, we must create a substrate in which these trails will grow into an increasingly meaningful whole, rather than a tangled mass. We and our documents are capable of operating together as a large machine but not as a large mind. Groups of all sizes must acquire gifts of intuition, correlation and invention which we associate normally with people rather than machines, before we can rise to Bush's challenge to mankind to "grow in the wisdom of race experience", rather than "perish in conflict"."
I've been interested in machines since I was a little boy and like most little boys I love machines. As I grew up I came to understand that machines are made useful or harmful by the humans who design and use them.


Humans are not genetically programmed to consider future effects of current actions. We know this to be true considering the current pandemic, the climate crisis, and a myriad of other examples both individually and as a society.

The good news is that no matter how dire current events may be, any person becomes the person they want to be.

This is not to say that you can become a great athlete, businessman, painter, inventor, musician or scholar. What you can choose to "be" is happy, sad, mad, curious, helpful, selfish, honorable, dishonorable, honest, dishonest...etc. etc. etc.

In other words you have complete control over how you will respond to the external world. You can choose to be happy, friendly, helpful or you can choose to be angry, mean and selfish. We all have set-points for these characteristics but humans are extremely malleable and you can train yourself to be whatever you want to be.

Some events in the external world call for anger, fear, sadness or grief but if we live with those feelings for too long we end up hurting ourselves physically through increased stress hormones and mentally by giving up our ability for quiet reflection and increasing wisdom. 

To be is to exist as a human on this rock. It is who you are irrespective of your job, how much money you have, how much education you have, where you live, how you dress, what you eat...and so on.

You can choose to exist as a happy, helpful, honest, and kind person in this world. Like all good things this is hard and takes work every day. I fail at this every day but taking a clue from Sisyphus start over and over while enjoying the effort of trying. None of us have time on this earth to complete this project but it's a worthwhile endeavor for a life well lived.