Archive for the ‘Empires of the Mind’ Category

Featured Find: Lake Vostok!

In Empires of the Mind on February 9, 2012 at 2:25 am

Russian scientists have acheived what’s being called the moon landing of our generation:

MOSCOW — In the coldest spot on the earth’s coldest continent, Russian scientists have reached a freshwater lake the size of Lake Ontario after spending a decade drilling through more than two miles of solid ice, the scientists said Wednesday.

A statement by the chief of the Vostok Research Station, A. M. Yelagin, released by the director of the Russian Antarctic Expedition, Valery Lukin, said the drill made contact with the lake water at a depth of 12,366 feet. As planned, lake water under pressure rushed up the bore hole 100 to 130 feet pushing drilling fluid up and away from the pristine water, Mr. Yelagin said, and forming a frozen plug that will prevent contamination. Next Antarctic season, the scientists will return to take samples of the water.

The first hint of contact with the lake was on Saturday, but it was not until Sunday that pressure sensors showed that the drill had fully entered the lake. Lake Vostok, named after the Russian research station above it, is the largest of more than 280 lakes under the miles-thick ice that covers most of the Antarctic continent, and the first one to have a drill bit break through to liquid water from the ice that has kept it sealed off from light and air for somewhere between 15 million and 34 million years.

O Seasteaders!

In Empires of the Mind on November 20, 2011 at 10:43 pm


The tetrahedral floating city of Triton, designed by Buckminster Fuller for Tokyo BayAdmittedly, I subscribe to the Seasteading Institute newsletter. Patri Friedman is an interesting dude, to say the least, and I am a futurist. The Seasteading Institute has some of the brightest minds in the world behind its cause. Today’s newsletter read thusly: 

Greetings Friends of The Seasteading Institute,

As protests spread across the USA, Congress approval ratings hit all-time lows, and the European Union contemplates dissolution, interest in seasteading is higher than ever. There’s never been a greater need for an alternative to today’s inadequate governments.

It’s unfortunate that such gloomy news fuels our project, but the future is bright. The whole world will benefit when seasteading societies pioneer new forms of government, new policies, and new institutions. It is finally time for humanity to discover what government always should have been – innovative, effective, responsive, diverse, and benevolent.

With your support, The Seasteading Institute is enabling the next generation of government technology. We thank you, and thank the entrepreneurs, investors, volunteers and others who work on this cause all over the world.


Michael Keenan

President of The Seasteading Institute

They’ve kind of got a point, don’t they? Has government ever been less effective? And less reviled? And has an effective alternative ever been less quioxotic than it is now, in the age of information technologies and mass cooperation?


And In Disappointing Tech Nerd News…

In Empires of the Mind on November 12, 2011 at 5:52 am

That’s not a misplaced modifier.

If you’re like I am, you often look up words you don’t know right after you read them on a web page. The fastest way most of us (Chrome users at least) know how to look up words is to highlight the word in question, click “Ctrl c”, “Ctrl t”, “Ctrl v”, “Enter”. A Google search comes up with the word’s definition at the top. That’s five steps in case you haven’t been counting. 

However, on the Inductive, you can look up a word in ONE FUCKING STEP. Highlight the word. Go ahead. Highlight it: 


(Moving your mouse over to “learn more” counts as less than half a step with one significant figure.) Despite this five-fold increase in productivity, Apture remains a fairly unpopular service. (I know because I get metrics sent to my email every week. Very few of you are using it. Idiots.) And so, whether due to its unpopularity or due to its potential popularity once idiots figure out it exists – if you’re pickin’ up what I’m puttin down – Apture has been acquired by Google.

This is perhaps, one of those rare instances of consumer preferences resulting in inferior products, that is, unless Google doesn’t change anything at all about Apture, which, seeing as Apture eliminates the need for a search engine in the first place, seems highly unlikely. 

National Novel Writing Month

In Empires of the Mind on November 7, 2011 at 4:33 am

I’ve decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. I’m way behind, and participating to begin with was stupid considering how busy and uncompensated I am, but I figure it’s time to try being sloppy. Anyways, here’s a randomly-and-hastily-assembled excerpt from the 5,000 or so totally unpolished and vomitous words I have so far:

It was always thought that time travel would be a quantitative thing; whether or not scientists thought of it that way, certainly the culture did. I guess in retrospect, it became clear around the early 2000s that time travel would take on a qualitatively different character than dude gets in machine and goes somewhere, and it was obvious even before that if you were one of those rare people who sits around all day thinking about the future of personal electronic devices or fab labs or harvesting trillion-dollar asteroids.  

I remember my own childhood when a family friend who worked for the air force came by to talk physics: we would spend hours discussing the potential pitfalls of travel through time or at the speed of light – radicals in space hitting the ship hull at super-high effective speeds and gradually poking little holes in the hulls until one day all of a sudden you’re very far from home with a very serious air leak, whether time travel would involve actually going back (or forward) and screwing up things or creating alternate realities, and would these alternate realities by super-focused, i.e. holding everything but properties relevant to some particular goal as constant. Anyways, we’d have these conversations, imagining these wildly different possibilities for future technologies that none of the science fiction writers or Time journalists had been anywhere near.

Well it turns out that out of the ashes of the first genomic revolution back just after the human genome was decoded came the phoenix of realizing that all of that genetic noise as it was called then – or the stuff that they didn’t really understand – was actually a very, very detailed record of the past for that particular individual’s genome; and it was this, combined with increasingly larger processing power and the new emergent engineering that started coming out of Stanford around 2030 or so, plus the entrepreneurial vigor of the Bay Area’s young residents, plus the new propensity for the public to voluntarily upload all sorts of intimate personal details onto the Internet, plus neuroscience shit, plus some other stuff which I’m probably leaving out and advanced mathematical techniques, and social forces pushing towards cooperation – am I getting too preachy?


Good. Anyways, all these forces came together to give us chemical time travel, what is essentially a genetic reagent that realigns synapses to allow us to experience what were likely the experiences of our past ancestors and what will likely be the experiences of our future descendants.

Now, there are all sorts of issues raised by this, as I’m sure you’re just racing though. So, I’m gonna tell you, as amazing at this chemical time travel sounds, most of it, at first, was marketing. At first, only really primitive areas of the brain could be affected, so whatever vague euphoria or pain of death of whatever I felt was probably very similar to that felt by a lizard, BUT, it was, empirically, the experience of my father when he once felt vague euphoria or pain of death. And this in itself is fucking mind-blowing. For the curious, chemical time travel was highly coveted and we all tried it, and we all found it quite boring and infinitely exciting at the same time.

The next generation of the stuff came a few years later, and by this point you saw it starting to be marketed, and the government starting to get its slow tentacles moving towards either making it illegal outright or trying to take some money from it. This time around the obtrusive effect was the sudden realization of epiphany of something, like, how to make silver from scratch in people named Silversmith or the proper procedures for planting sorghum in people who’ve lived their entire lives in cities; and it was random like that because who knows what one’s ancestors were doing. Complications started to crop up at this second generation too, due to the statistical errors compounded by removal of each successive generation. Like, it was easy enough to learn about my mother without taking drugs, so why go through the effort when I might wind up experiencing childbirth or your dad having an affair or something. Let me also add here, that at this time too experiences were still totally random. They hadn’t figured out how to chemically code qualitative differences in what kind of experiences the user is looking for.

At this point too they discovered the viscosity of time, which it turns out is not really an issue locally; i.e. parents and even grandparents; but can fuck *psycho*chrono*nauts who venture too deeply. Still, once in a while you’ll get lucky and wind up at the dawn of civilization or the age of exploration or somewhere and the experience will seem to drag on for days or even years and really it’s just been thirty seconds. Your brain’s time regulators go into crazy overdrive or something and you invent an entire world, like the best most realistic dream you’ve ever had, except that it’s real, or, it was real, for someone who is no longer on this earth and whose only remains are encoded in your DNA.



I know what you’re saying. And the philosophical implications of this are the elephant(s) in the room. Fate – still doesn’t exist. There’s been a lot of argument on this topic since chemical time travel first came out. The reason the times where the pill puts you in the brain-states of your own future descendants suck so much is not because everyone’s future sucks and is mundane and emotionless and the same for everyone. It’s because it’s more difficult to predict what will happen than to know what has happened. Especially if it’s recent, you get a pretty accurate representation, at least compared with the accounts of actual living older relatives of users in double-blind, controlled experiments.

The stuff has only been around for so long and it still hasn’t really made it mainstream or at least as mainstream as I seem to think it could get, which is like whole world, brain-in-a-vat mainstream; so there hasn’t been much empirical data on what kind of predictive power there is. But can you imagine, if like we know who the President is and we can give some chemical time travel to his relative and find out what the Russians are up to in 2063, how awesome we’d be able to diplomate?

So what’s this stuff that we’re about to take?

This is pretty heavy sensory material. Controlled hallucination type-stuff, third generation, post-intuitive stuff. I guess we never really covered this in my introductory talk on what we’re doing this weekend. So they found ways to program sensory experiences into chemical time travel combined with the intuitive grasp of random facts and experiences that the second generation stuff had the effect of doing, which is really what any good drug does, right?

But are we even taking drugs? This seems different.

No, I agree. I mean Harvard professors do this shit, and it doesn’t make you eat off your own arm or rot your brain or anything. There’s definitely some stuff that you’ll lose in the process, like one guy I know suddenly forgot how to tie his shoes right after he came back from it, but he lucked out and had an awesome experience playing in the NBA Championship – I guess it turned out one of his ancestors was a basketball player or something – so that was worth having to relearn how to tie his shoes. But, this other guy I know is a translator from Portuguese to English, and he completely forgot Portuguese.

Promoting Local Craftspersons

In Empires of the Mind on November 4, 2011 at 4:24 am

I have some super miscellaneous links that have just been hanging out in Google tabs that I’ve been wondering what to do with. 

I support local craftspersons and respect people who make actual things rather than find clever ways to get more from the things other people make. (These people of course have their place in society as well, but, in a sense, I sympathize with the feudal Japanese class system’s putting miscellaneous businesspeople last.) Anyways, I met the proprietors of the following brands and others at a local crafts fair a few months ago…

On the Cusp Pottery – Very bright and cheery!

Fumihiko Mochizuki – There’s definitely an element of wabisabi in there. I wish there were a bit more online presence. Perhaps some miscellaneous businessperson should come along…

Finally, Walter Perlman – This guy is an artist. I had a ten or fifteen-minute conversation with him, and he kept going into detail about how he hates photoshopping and how there is no photoshopping in his pictures. Like a lot of photographers, it seems he suports himself via weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc., but his articstic images are just wonderful. I’ve refrained from posting any here out of respect for the artist, Follow the link above. 

Do any readers know any other local craftspersons who deliver over the Internet?

The Continual Reinvention of the Wheel

In Empires of the Mind on October 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I haven’t really been watching TV for some time now. The few things I actually desire to watch have become quite available on a computer. But, today I was put in front of the “boob tube” because it was the only venue where I could observe my beloved St. Louis Cardinals in a playoff game, and this got me thinking. I was glad to be able to watch without having to go to a sports bar or buy the game on my satellite service and pay a veritable fortune; given the current state of my pocketbook, this just wouldn’t be acceptable.

So I surrendered to the inevitable exposure to the device that for so long has given us only something to be told and see but not an ability to inquire. I watched my ball game, and – besides the loss I observed – I was glad for what I witnessed. But what kept hitting me was the continual advertisements for the release of old DVDs in new “Blue Ray” technology. What got in my head was how information – TV-wise – is being made “better” for our consumption through continuing advancements in visual technology. Now, I’m very cool with that, as long as it’s on a device that lets you ask a question in response to the tripe of the light-lit screen that comes into your house every night.

I’ve been here for the advancement of this technology, and it is pretty awesome; but I’m thinking that it is advancing to some point that many folks might consider close to Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in his famous work Sleeper: having an advanced piece of technology – no matter how advanced – such as a high-definition television will never replace actual, physical experience of any event it may be designed to mimic, especially if there is no way to “talk back”. Yet, sales must continue, money must be made.

When is it that we will come to the realization that the flat screen in front of us, and whatever color content is being played on it, will never be three-dimensional no matter what name that technology has hung on it? Maybe it’s just me: I welcome the advent of technology when it enhances learning or makes learning easier, but I’m not sure I come away any different after experiencing the History Channel on a “Liquid Crystal” screen than I do after watching it on my nine-year-old RCA, cathode ray tube-powered television.

What I’m trying to get at with this whole High-Definition, Blue Ray, end-of-the-rainbow musing is that we are constantly being resold the same ideas in “New and Improved” packaging. This trend includes how we get our information, how this information is poured out to the multitudes, and how it often manipulates our thought to the point where we honestly believe we are in the possession of some newer, more-improved truth! This is called propaganda.

Granted, we’re just talking about TVs, but the mechanism is universal. Were we to apply our TV analogy to some more important things like foreign affairs or our country’s very intricate politics and economy, we’d expect that we citizens would be comfortable with whatever we are being told without questioning the truth-value of what we are hearing. On the contrary, and as the last ten years has decidedly demonstrated, it is vital that we remain skeptical. If we combine such vital skepticism with the development of new, advanced technologies, then we have tools that allow us to artfully get to the truth instead of just barfing out the dogma we’ve been force-fed. We can engage politically with pride and debate at a much higher intellectual capacity than currently prevails.

Daily, we are confronted with “High Def” political “knowledge” that masks a contrived, monochrome polity. More-and-more, day-by-day this style-over-substance mentality sickens me; and this is the pudding proof of what’s wrong with our country and the elected officials we put in office based on the golden faux-knowledge spewed at us from that beautiful high def, blue ray television that almost seems real. It’s no wonder a great deal of folks vote for something so important with so much crap jammed into their refused-to-open minds. It’s disheartening to say the least. Here’s an idea: stop watching and listening to Fox News and CNN in some feeble attempt to become aware of what actually is going on around you. If you really want to learn, use that device in your lap or on your desk and do some real research, ask questions, find answers, and quit squawking about how your version of the Truth™ is the real one just because you heard it from the most physically-attractive person on your favorite news station. You’re capable of so much more. In case you don’t have new, knowledge-fostering technology, go to a library. I’m quite sure there’s one near you.

Cool Story, Wyss

In Empires of the Mind on September 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm

This is pretty cool:

BOSTON — The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced today that it has been awarded a $12.3 million, four-year grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a treatment for sepsis, a commonly fatal bloodstream infection. Sepsis is a major cause of injury and death among combat-injured soldiers in the field, as well as patients in hospital intensive care units.

The proposed treatment would involve a miniaturized, dialysis-like device that could rapidly clear the blood of a wide range of pathogens, much as a living human spleen does, without removing normal blood cells, proteins, fluids, or electrolytes. This novel “Spleen-on-a-Chip” would be portable, self-contained, and easily inserted into the peripheral blood vessels of a septic patient or soldier.

The award is part of DARPA’s Dialysis Like Therapeutics program, which seeks to develop ways to dramatically decrease the morbidity and mortality of sepsis, thereby saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in the United States each year. Worldwide, more than 18 million cases of sepsis are reported every year, with more than six million resulting in death.


The Banality of Good: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

In Empires of the Mind on July 10, 2011 at 3:20 am

David Foster Wallace’s last work, the unfinished novel The Pale King, is fractured, disjointed, and incomplete; and so too will this review be fractured, disjointed, and incomplete.  As with many incomplete works, roughness adds to the novel’s mystique, and unfinished plot lines stimulate the reader’s imaginative faculties in ways polished and completed works of fiction cannot.  It is a rare chance that we readers get to invade the mind of a master so fully as to behold his thoughts frozen in progress.  [NOTE: For totally anal readers, the passages below may contain spoilers, but I don’t think knowing some of this stuff really takes anything away.]

David Foster Wallace is a relatively new discovery for me.  When Infinite Jest was published in 1997, I was thirteen years old.  When Wallace’s groundbreaking essay on television, e unibus pluram, was published in 1993, I was nine.  Wallace’s work was beyond me and still remains beyond me more often than sometimes.  Since becoming an adult and a writer, I had been vaguely following Wallace’s work throughout the years, often stumbling across a piece in the New Yorker or Harpers, always making mental notes that I’d have to get around to checking out his catalogue someday.  

Since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, I have paid much closer attention to his posthumous publications.  The Pale King is the first full-length work of Wallace’s that I have read.  He is, for me, the first writer since Victor Hugo whose works I have immediately wanted to consume in their entirety after reading just one.  (The others are Jorge Luis Borges from my adult life; nothing from college since reading for pleasure is anathema to university curricula; Philip K. Dick and Franz Kafka from high school; and from my childhood: the writers of wild fantasy C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques, Dr. Seuss, and Michael Crichton.) 

The premise of The Pale King as unfinished novel (or what may have been the intended premise – Wallace’s last work reads like 500 pages of exposition.) is that it’s 1985 and there is a WAR going on within the IRS.  On one side are idealists who believe in enforcement of the tax code as patriotic duty: the IRS is a moral entity, and IRS examiners are the modern equivalent of heroes.  (There is something about the 1980s in particular that elevates the banal to heroic.)  On the other side are pragmatists who believe the IRS should be run like a business: its sole job is to generate revenue as efficiently as possible.  The pragmatists want to replace human examiners with a computer, and they are preparing for a demonstration – a la Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue or Ken Jennings vs. Watson – where they pit the most productive human tax examiners (some of whom possess superpowers, such as the ability to maintain total concentration in the face of pure boredom or the ability to keep one’s eyes open and unblinking for several minutes) against the computer A/NADA.  (From my reading, I interpret the idealists as protagonists – or, the team we are supposed to root for, but this may just be projection; the pragmatists are, of course, “correct” in the sense that they win and necessarily so, which would make The Pale King a tragedy in the classical sense, albeit without a catharsis.  Although I can perceive the irony of having tax-payers forfeit a percentage of their earnings to a machine vis-a-vis the pragmatist position.)

As I mentioned before in parenthesis, The Pale King reads like 500 pages of exposition (I was reminded of Winesburg, Ohio at several points.), so this theme of humans vs. machines is not the only one – and perhaps not even the main theme – that Wallace develops.  Notes from the appendix and elsewhere suggest paying attention, boredom, loneliness, being an individual vs. being part of larger things, and the nature of altruism and selfishness were to have been explored in depth.  To this I would add the tension between complete concentration and complete self-awareness.  Appropriately, the text contains sections of utterly boring, jargon-laden, and ambiguous prose puntuated by passages of manic and penetrative staccato.  From §9, the (fictional) author’s forward (chapters are signified by the signum sectionis of legalese):

…(C)onsider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantages of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numbingly complex.  The IRS was one of the first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy.  For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it is interesting.  People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it…  (M)uch of the high-level policy debate played out for two years in full public view, e.g., in open hearings of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Senate Treasury Procedures and Statutes Subcommittee, and the IRS’s Deputy and Assistant Commissioner’s Council.  These hearings were collections of anaerobic men in drab suits who spoke a verbless bureaucratese – terms like ‘strategic utilization template’ and ‘revenue vector’ in place of ‘plan’ and ‘tax’ – and took days just to reach consensus on the order of items for discussion.  Even in the financial press, there was hardly any coverage; can you guess why?  If not, consider the fact that just about every last transcript, record, study, white paper, code amendment, revenue-ruling, and procedural memo has been available for public perusal since date of issue.  No FOIA filing even required.  But not one journalist seems ever to have checked them out, and with good reason.  This stuff is solid rock.  The eyes roll up white by the third or fourth ¶.  You just have no idea. [to footnote] I’m reasonably sure that I’m the only living American who’s actually read all these archives all the way through.  I’m not sure I can express how I did it.  Mr. Chris Acquistipace, one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exams group, and a man of no small intuition or sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddhas that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer.  These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value – they were too huge and heavy to move.  Something about this sustained me…  

The Pale King is driven by these themes, but it is also character-driven, as some of the greatest works in the canon are.  Particularly interesting are descriptions of certain characters couched within a variety of creative and unpredictable narrative devices – these segments sort of come upon the reader, and suddenly we are confronted with profiles of characters like Leonard Stecyk, Chris Fogle, Shane Drinion, and Meredith Rand.  Stecyk is a character who is generous for selfish reasons: we meet him as a young child who wants to please everybody and is universally hated for it, again as a high school nerd and recipient of “Stecyk specials”, where all the hard boys who regularly partake of hard drugs and take beatings from hard step-fathers urinate on Stecyk’s person; we find him again as a senior-level administrator at the IRS REC in Peoria, Illinois, where he shows compasison towards a fictionalized David Foster Wallace ravaged by unsightly facial lesions.  

Chris Fogle narrates his transformation from nihilist to mystic in the hundred-page §22, one of what I would say are four character-driven highlights in the whole text (I assume §36, published in the New Yorker as “Backbone“, is about Shane Drinion’s childhood).  Here is Chris Fogle’s road-to-Damascus moment:

Admittedly, though, however alert and aware I felt, I was probably more aware of the effects the lecture seemed to be having on me than of the lecture itself, much of which was over my head – understandably, as I hadn’t even finished Intro Accounting yet – and yet was almost impossible to look away from or not feel stirred by. This was partly due to the substitute’s presentation, which was rapid, organized, undramatic, and dry in the way of people who know that what they are saying is too valuable in its own right to cheapen with concern about delivery or ‘connecting’ with the students.  In other words, the presentation had a kind of zealous integrity that manifested not as style but as the lack of it.  I felt that I suddenly, for the first time, understood the meaning of my father’s term ‘no-nonsense’, and why it was a term of approval.

Chris Fogle is apparently one of the “savants” being groomed by pragmatist Big Man Merrill Errol Lehrl to lose to A/NADA.  Wallace reveals in the notes published in the appendix that he intended Chris Fogle to be in possession of a magic number that when recited gives the reciter the power of perfect concentration.  

Another obvious savant is Shane Drinion, who levitates when he acheives perfect concentration (but of course doesn’t know this because it would necessitate diverting concentration towards self-awareness); Drinion’s character is revealed along with that of Meredith Rand, who is remarkably self-aware and empathetic because of her excessive prettiness.  These two characters engage in a sixty-five page tête-à-tête in §49, which is interesting throughout since the two characters are binary opposites in many senses but somehow have a fairly natural dialogue.  (I kept imagining the same dialogue taking place between Data and Counselor Troi).  I read §49 in one sitting at the beach and got a terrible sunburn.  Regarding Meredith Rand’s teenage propensity for “cutting”:

‘Does it hurt?’ Shane Drinion asks.

Meredith Rand exhales sharply and looks right at him.  ‘What do you mean does it?  I don’t do it anymore.  I never have, since I met him.  Because he more or less told me all this and told me the truth, that it doesn’t ultimately matter why I do it or what it, like, represents or what it’s about.’  Her gaze is very level and matter-of-fact.  ‘All that matters is that I was doing it and to stop doing it.  That was it.  Unlike the doctors and small groups that were all about your feelings and why, as though if you knew why you did it you’d magically be able to stop.  Which he said was the big lie they all bought that made doctors and standard therapy such a waste of time for people like us – they thought that diagnosis was the same as cure.  That if you knew why, it would stop.  Which is bullshit,’ Meredith Rand says.  ‘You only stop if you stop.  Not if you wait for somebody to explain it in some magic way that will presto change-o make you stop.’  She makes a sardonic flourish with her cigarette hand as she says presto change-o…

…Rand shakes her head as she extinguishes the Benson and Hedges cigarette. ‘They weren’t therapy sessions.  He hated that term, all that terminology.  They were just  tête-à-têtes, talking.’  Again she uses the same number of stabs and partial rolls to extinguish it, although with less force than when she’s appeared impatient or angry with Shane Drinion.  She says: “That was all he said it seemed like I needed, just to talk to somebody with no bullshit, which is what the Zeller Center doctors didn’t realize, or like they couldn’t realize it because then the whole structure would come down, that here the doctors had spent four million years in medical school and residency and the insurance companies were paying all this money for diagnosis and OT and therapy protocols, and it was all an institutionalized structure, and once things became institutionalized then it all became this artificial, like, organism and started trying to survive and serve its own needs just like a person, because there was nothing inside it except the will to survive and grow as an institution – he said just look at Christianity and the whole Christian Church.

§19 remains the most compelling simple description of our polity’s fundamental battle of ideas that I’ve ever read (maybe with the exception of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; Tocqueville gets extra credit because he wrote about it before it happened.)  Wallace’s version is a dialogue between several characters holding wildly divergent opinions and an attempt to sublimate what we’ll call Porcherism with existentialism:

…Here’s something worth throwing out there.  It was in the 1830s and ’40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies.  And it was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having no real fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his.  This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.

De Toqueville is also talking about capitalism and markets, which pretty much go hand in hand with democracy.

I just don’t think this is what I was trying to talk about.  It’s easy to blame corporations.  DeWitt’s saying if you think the corporations are evil and it’s the government’s job to make them moral, you’re deflecting your own responsibility to civics.  You’re making the government your big brother and the corporation the evil bully your big brother’s supposed to keep off you at recess.

De Toqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like the leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of… 

Emergent properties of institutions and the symbolism thereof is one of the text’s more cerebral motifs (although I’ll admit that my assertion here treads dangerously close to bullshit).  For instance, ghosts appear to more than one character and one of Wallace’s notes suggests that Stecyk eventually makes the discovery that human examiners’s efficiency increases when the ghost called Blumquist visits and sits beside them while they work.  Around page 400, I began feeling angry at Wallace for taking his own life.  Here is where the reader feels like exposition is just finishing up and we’re about to get on to the big showdown between man and machine and the rest of what will inevitably be the War and Peace of our generation; but that showdown never comes, there is none of the intrigue that Wallace suggests there will be, none of the political manuevering, and so the reader must stretch his withered and atrophied imagination.

In short, The Pale King is more an experience than a simple book.  In true existentialist fashion, Wallace’s soul lives on in the text.  The book has its dull parts, appropriately; and editor Michael Pietsch manages to space out the particularly riveting episodes, flooding the reader with oceans of sensuousness just when the detailed descriptions of IRS intra-institutional structure become too much.  In one of the very last notes on the text, the author mentions that the character Shane Drinion has found a way to sheer bliss:

Drinion is happy…  It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.  Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you.  Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color.  Like water after days in the desert.  Constant bliss in every atom.  

Modern Visionaries Part III – Benoit Mandelbrot

In Empires of the Mind on June 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm

“Think not of what you see, but what it took to produce what you see.” – Benoit Mandelbrot

“Nebulabrot” by Paul Nylander

In keeping with the mathematics theme established in the previous installment of this series (on Buckminster Fuller), Part III is about Benoit Mandelbrot.  It is impossible to ignore the “geodesic”, forward-looking genius of Benoit Mandelbrot.  Like Fuller before him, Mandelbrot used geometry to identify and educate us about the nature of infinity.  Mandelbrot’s elucidation of “fractals” may have given the human race a much closer look at nature’s grand design.  

Benoit B. Mandelbrot was born November 1924 and died on the 14th of October, 2010.  A mathematician born in Poland but raised in France, Mandelbrot spent much of his life living and working in the United States.  Starting in 1951, Mandelbrot worked on problems and published papers in mathematics and applied math, information theory, economics, and fluid dynamics.  He became convinced that two key themes – fat tails and self-similar structures – ran through a multitude of common problems in those fields.

the Mandelbrot setPerhaps Mandelbrot’s most famous contribution is the M-set.  Mandelbrot discovered the M-set in 1980; this discovery has been widely discussed in books such as The Fractal Geometry of Nature by Mandelbrot and Chaos by James Gleick and in scientific magazines (for example see the beautiful pictures and excellent summary in the July 1985 issue of Scientific American).

I am by no means a mathematician.  I’ve always been humbled by the complexities of higher mathematics, more of a right brained guy I guess.  Mandelbrot’s discovery of the “M-set” may well be a look in to the true fabric of Mother Nature, and sure enough, Mom speaks math.  

 For those who are mathematically inclined, here is a brief outline of how the M-set is created: start with the expression z -> z^2 + c; choose two complex numbers z and c; solve the expression z^2 + c to get a new value of z; put the new z into the z^2 + c term and compute another z value; continue this process on a computer for much iteration.  Color coding the rate at which different values of c cause z to either (1) shoot off to infinity, (2) stabilize in the realm of finite numbers, or (3) go to zero creates the visual embodiment of the “m-world”.  One of the many wonders of this infinitely complex “world” is that it can be created by just a few simple lines of computer code that are repeated recursively.  From these little algorithmic loops comes the most rococo universe that anyone has ever seen.  No matter how many times you magnify the M-set to infinity, it continues to expand.  And you can see the M-set everywhere in nature.  Mandelbrot found a mathematical formula to describe a “fractal” (a term he invented to describe the M-set) – in which each part mimics the pattern of the whole.

“Fractal geometry is not just beautiful, but useful – for modeling turbulence, financial systems, the distribution of galaxies. It underpins the physics of disorder and chaos theory.  My whole career became one long, ardent pursuit of the concept of roughness,” Mandelbrot wrote in an essay on receiving the 1993 Wolf prize for physics.  “Fractal geometry plays two roles.  It is the geometry of deterministic chaos, and it can also describe the geometry of mountains, clouds, and galaxies.”

Science and geometry have always been partners and have progressed in lockstep throughout history.  In the 17th century, Johannes Kepler found that he could represent the orbits of the planets around the Sun by ellipses. This inspired Isaac Newton to explain these elliptical orbits by devising the law of gravity. Similarly, the back-and-forth motion of a perfect pendulum is represented by a sine wave. Simple dynamics used to be associated with simple geometrical shapes.  This kind of mathematical picture implies a smooth relationship between an object’s form and the forces acting on it.  

Indeed, Galileo put forth the notion that “the great book of nature is written in mathematical language”, adding that “its characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.”  Mandelbrot added: “(Certain) phenomena need geometries that are very far from triangles and circles.  They require non-Euclidean structures and a new geometry called “Fractal” geometry.”

3-D fractal modelA lot of math stuff I know, but I found that just learning a little of this math through researching Mandelbrot’s discovery is well, for lack of better term, simply mind blowing.  For most of us this kind of mathematical language is often cosmically abstruse and uninteresting; but here with the M-set it is deeply compelling, and it has a certain universal appeal.  Mandelbrot’s discovery of fractals shows that an otherwise drab mathematical formula can produce an apparently self-replicating, infinite design that is everywhere around us.  When asked whether fractals point to a single rule underlying reality, Mandelbrot simply stated:

“There is no single rule that governs the use of geometry. I don’t think one exists.”  In addition, according to Mandelbrot, “The beauty of geometry is that it is a language of extraordinary subtlety that serves many purposes.”

Perhaps if we take away the symbolic, mathematical aspect of the M-set and fractal geometry, it becomes a little simpler to understand.  First, get a microscope that kicks ass.  My point here and the core amazing trait of the M-set is that no matter how many times you magnify it, it just keeps going on to infinity.  This is where we can learn lessons for nature and art (for those of us who don’t want to go the math route).  In a PBS Nova documentary called “Hunting the Hidden Dimension” one prominent Ph.D. made a comment that summed up this art-math notion of the M-set quite nicely:

“Math is really quite close to art…They just speak different languages….”

“How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension” is a paper first published in Science in 1967.  In this paper Mandelbrot discusses self-similar curves that have Hausdorff dimension between 1 and 2. These curves are examples of fractals, although Mandelbrot does not use this term in the paper, as he did not invent it until 1975.  In late 1982, Mandelbrot published his visionary work The Fractal Geometry of Nature.  This work explains how fractals can explain a variety of natural forms and structures ranging from trees to coastlines.

ferns have self-similar structureWhat Mandelbrot’s brilliant discovery gives us is a new appreciation of the natural world and the beautiful art we see within it. Many things previously called chaotic are now known to follow subtle fractal laws of behavior.  This reflects what we observe in both small details and macroscopic patterns of life in all their physical and mental varieties as well.  It all centers around what’s called in Mandelbrot’s math world “iteration”.

Here is Webster’s definition of “iteration”.  It is short and sweet, and this article just won’t allow the space to go into it more:

the action or a process of repeating; as a : a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result b : the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met – compare recursion.

halved Nautilus shellIn other words, it continually repeats itself… A formula continues to repeat itself in both math and nature.  Fun to get your head around…. Just take a close look at the fern hanging inside or outside of your home.  You’ll start to see.  Look up a picture of a Nautilus (the sea mollusk, not Nemo’s awesome ship) or a simple snail; the M-set is truly everywhere.  For us old hippies, it’s everywhere in our tie-dyes and art.  It’s quite hard for anyone paying attention to miss.  The beautiful tapestries and rugs of Persia and India have the M-set in them as well.  The M-set is in winter snow.  Before catching that snowflake on your tongue, take a close look at it.

The M-set gives us poetry as well.  I felt that closing with this thought was comfortable and soothing and wouldn’t leave most of us dizzied like we’d just received an intensive crash course in advanced geometry.  The great poet William Blake penned in 1803 these beautiful lines in his great work “Auguries of Innocence”:


To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.


Next time you’re stopping to smell the roses, take a close look at them as well.

Science is the Bee’s Knees

In Empires of the Mind on June 14, 2011 at 10:00 am

I have a short post today.  Here are my thoughts on science recently crystallized on a LinkedIn science writers thread:

“Most highly educated adults understand evolution as Lamarckian evolution, and even if they do understand Darwinian evolution, it’s usually in some crude and offensive form like survival of the fittest. Highly educated adults who can actually intuitively grasp the intricacies and layers of information, the tension between cooperative behavior, competitive behavior, sexual selection, disease adaptation, somatic vs. germ-line mutation, polymorphisms, social behavior, and all the other complexities that are necessary to understand in order to even be having the conversation are few and far between. It might make more sense to focus on basic things like how cool an elephant’s trunk is or other concrete phenomena from the natural world which can serve as metaphorical templates on which to graft more intuitive understandings of science and engineering in the years ahead.”

“But, Don, science is a fixed method. Adhering to that method is not ideological bias, since ideology is not a factor. As of right now science necessarily entails naturalism. I agree that questions of the origin of life may have non-naturalistic components, but these components should not be grouped with scientific explanations. This is a really basic for me, yet most people tend to feel personally insulted when they encounter unfamiliar frameworks.”

“I only accept naturalism if it is a methodological naturalism that pertains specifically to science. Scientific theories are models, and models by definition are abstractions of only portions of reality; every model is good for some purposes and not for others. So, philosophical naturalism is unfounded in my opinion. Science entails naturalism because science is by definition the study of nature. Studying nature scientifically does not rule out studying nature as an artist or as a theologian, nor is it possible to conjure up any value judgments regarding the results of various modes of study without resorting to further abstraction. So I agree with you completely that using “science” to make an unfalsfiable claim such as “religion is a defense against the fear of death” is no more than the expression of genuinely held belief.”

“Elmer, it seems like you have a naively positivistic view of science, which I don’t share: science postulates the most parsimonious explanation of the behavior of materialist (and very often deterministic) systems. It is a special case which has been extremely useful in assisting humans at meeting certain goals.

Your reference to peer review seems like an appeal to authority as well. And your examples represent an egregious category error. Also, generalizations based on interviews and sociological experiments are neither predictive nor falsifiable (and therefore not even science). 

Don’t get me wrong: I think science is the bee’s knees and aspire to its upper echelons and whatnot; my general critique of your argument is that I think it understates the role of assumptions and uncertainties in producing scientific consensus.

As for your contention regarding solipsism, I do believe other people exist, but I also believe that the human’s attempt to understand the universe is somewhat like the cell’s attempt to contemplate the human.