Unreal Nature

September 22, 2008

Bees and Butterflies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:34 am

There are parallel questions to ask about a poet’s use of ideas, and about how our critical judgment functions and malfunctions when those ideas fail or fail to match our own. … Can good poetry be written with bad ideas? Yes, obviously. But to what extent are fine qualities of the verse redemptive of the ideas? In ignoring the ideas and appreciating the rest, is one being discriminating or irresponsible? We let some poets get away with being shits—do we let others get away with being wrong?

That’s from an article called Bad Ideas   by D.H. Tracy in the November 2006 issue of Poetry  magazine. As usual, when I quote from articles about poetry, I hope that you will apply them to photography.

Tracy goes on to use a Yvor Winters 1947 essay about Hart Crane “to find some terms for talking about poets’ relationships to ideas in general” and to look at questions about the presence or absence of “seriousness” in poetry.

“Serious,” in this sense, does not mean “somber,” “grave,” or “humorless.” It does not mean “conscientious in craft.” It does indicate an awareness of premises, a belief in the validity of those premises to the exclusion of competing ones, and the will to execute them. Gertrude Stein, even at her silliest, is serious. Dylan Thomas, even at his most sonorous, is not. Milton is serious, justifying the ways of God to man; Donne and Marvell, playing with ideas like brokers playing with pork bellies, are not. For now I do not attach any value to the term. (I think Winters would call seriousness a necessary condition of great poetry, but would say Crane’s tragic flaw was seriousness in the absence of critical awareness.) You might call serious poets bees and unserious ones butterflies. A poet’s relationship to ideas is charged by his or her seriousness, and hedged by the lack of it; it is analogous to reader-writer intimacy in the moral case. When a poet’s ideas fail, our judgment, when it exists, is likely to be severe in proportion to the poet’s seriousness about them. This is why Crane’s fall, if you recognize it as a fall, is so heartbreaking and so far.

… You might very well object that Winters’s response to Crane is just barking up the wrong tree, and that whether or not Emersonian romanticism is philosophically tenable is irrelevant to the poems’ quality. Cleanth Brooks:

“…one could say that a poem does not state ideas but rather tests ideas. Or, to put the matter in other terms, a poem does not deal primarily with ideas and events but rather with the way in which a human being may come to terms with ideas and events. All poems, therefore, including the most objective poems, turn out on careful inspection to be poems really “about” man himself. A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged, not by the truth or falsity as such, of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by its character as drama—by its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.”

… These two camps can be to some extent reconciled if we take Brooks’s statement to apply properly to unserious poems, which by nature treat ideas hypothetically if they treat them at all. If construed otherwise Brooks’s position tends to go down the rabbit hole when presented with a poem that has any polemic elements. Restricted to talking about sensitivity and richness, unseriousness has no language with which to answer (for example) partisan political statements, religious heresies, or philosophical contentions.

This piece really needs to be read in full to get the proper sense of it. Highly recommended. [ link ]



Chasing the Rabbit

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:23 am

Is deterministic causation generally considered to be fractal? I can’t figure out a way to phrase it so Google will find the answer for me — or at least direct me to other people’s opinions on the subject.

In other words, why isn’t causation like the Koch curve, forever retreating down the rabbit hole of itself, rather than going forward or backward? Does not every cause have component parts (not before/after, but what it consists of) which in turn have component parts and so forth?


If you are not familiar with Koch curves, they are what you get when you do the following:

1. divide the line segment into three segments of equal length.
2. draw an equilateral triangle that has the middle segment from step 1 as its base and points outward.
3. remove the line segment that is the base of the triangle from step 2

What that means, simply, is wherever you see a straight line, you break it into thirds and replace it with a star-arm. Which, in turn consists of straight lines which in turn then must be broken up into thirds and replaced … you can see how this goes down, down, down. An ant walking along the Koch curve never gets … wherever.

Here’s a picture of a few iterations so you can visualize the thing:



September 21, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:43 am

In a response to a comment from Felix Grant in an earlier post of mine about photos that are waiting to be taken, I used the analogy of a safe-cracker to describe how it feels to go after a picture. That reminded me of a project from three years ago where I failed to crack the safe. I still like the idea, but, so far, this one is out of my reach.

What I envisioned was destroyed flowers as evocative of what they had been or what was gone; and at the same time what cannot be destroyed, which is the pure color of them. I took some irises and some peonies, both strongly colored (almost lurid) flowers, and flattened them with a sledge hammer. Like flower road-kill.






But these didn’t really do much for me. So I tried reconstituting them into sort of hand-made flowers. Like this from that last iris:


And one from a peony:


I wasn’t really very happy with these. They are a long way from what I was after with the original idea, but I had spent so much time fiddling with them at this point, I thought I should try to do something with them (they can’t just sit in a white background — that’s not what I do). So I tried using them in some of the Four Ways type bases.




Those looked so ridiculous that I finally gave up. I still find the idea of the pure color that remains in the mashed up form of what was a delicate and vulnerable flower — evocative. I just don’t know what to do with it. I’m not sure I appreciate being reminded of it because it frustrated the heck out of me at the time and now I’m thinking about it again.



More Human

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:23 am

… the desires of the masses are in a wider sense more human than those of the classes.

… the masses of the people—whose attachment to the past is comparatively slight and who work—respond more quickly and more energetically to the urgent demands of the hour than the educated classes, and that the ethical ideals of the best among them are human ideals, not those of a segregated class. For this reason I should always be more inclined to accept, in regard to fundamental human problems, the judgment of the masses rather than the judgment of the intellectuals, which is much more certain to be warped by unconscious control of traditional ideas.

Those two truncated quotes are from The Mental Attitude of the Educated Classes by Franz Boas. I think the essay applies both to art and to the current political turmoil in the USA. A little Sunday morning provocation to make you think. Here is more:

When we attempt to form our opinions in an intelligent manner, we are inclined to accept the judgment of those who by their education and occupation are compelled to deal with the questions at issue. We assume that their views must be rational, and based on intelligent understanding of the problems. The foundation of this belief is the tacit assumption not only that they have special knowledge but also that they are free to form perfectly rational opinions. However, it is easy to see there is no type of society in existence in which such freedom exists.

I believe I can make my point clearest by giving an example taken from the life of a people whose cultural conditions are very simple. I will choose for this purpose the Eskimo.

He gives a detailed description of Eskimo society and ends with:

… it never enters into their minds that any other way of thinking and acting would be possible, and they consider themselves as perfectly free in regard to all their actions. Based on our wider experience, we know that the industrial problems of the Eskimo may be solved in a great many other ways and that their religious traditions and social customs might be quite different from what they are. From the outside, objective point of view we see clearly the restrictions that bind the individual who considers himself free.

… the thought [processes] of what we call the educated classes is controlled essentially by those ideals which have been transmitted to us by past generations. These ideals are always highly specialized, and include the ethical tendencies, the aesthetic inclinations, the intellectuality, and the expression of volition, of past times. Their control may find expression in a dominant tone which determines our whole mode of thought and which, for the very reason that it has come to be ingrained into our whole mentality, never rises into our consciousness.

In those cases in which our reaction is more conscious, it is either positive or negative. Our thoughts may be based on a high valuation of the past, or they may be a revolt against it. When we bear this in mind we may understand the characteristics of the behavior of the intellectuals. It is a mistake to assume that their mentality is, on the average, appreciably higher than that of the rest of the people. Perhaps a greater number of independent minds find their way into this group than into some other group of individuals who are moderately well-to-do; but their average mentality is surely in no way superior to that of the workingmen, who by the conditions of their youth have been compelled to subsist on the produce of their manual labor. In both groups mediocrity prevails; unusually strong and unusually weak individuals are exceptions. For this reason the strength of character and intellect that is required for vigorous thought on matters in which intense sentiments are involved is not commonly found—either among the intellectuals or in any other part of the population. This condition, combined with the thoroughness with which the intellectuals have imbibed the traditions of the past, makes the majority of them in all nations conventional. It has the effect that their thoughts are based on tradition, and that the range of their vision is liable to be limited.

… In contrast to the intellectuals, the masses in our modern city populations are less subject to the influence of traditional teaching. They are torn away from school before it can make an indelible impression upon their minds and they may never have known the strength of the conservative influence of a home in which parents and children live a common life. The more heterogeneous the society in which they live, and the more the constituent groups are free from historic influences, or the more they represent different historic traditions, the less strongly will they be attached to the past.

It would be an exaggeration if we should extend this view over all aspects of human life. I am speaking here only of those fundamental concepts of right and wrong that develop in the segregated classes and in the masses. In a society in which beliefs are transmitted with great intensity the impossibility of treating calmly the views and actions of the heretic is shared by both groups. When, through the progress of scientific thought, the foundations of dogmatic belief are shaken among the intellectuals and not among the masses, we find the conditions reversed and greater freedom of traditional forms of thought among the intellectuals—at least in so far as the current dogma is involved. It would also be an exaggeration to claim that the masses can sense the right way of attaining the realization of their ideals, for these must be found by painful experience and by the application of knowledge. However, neither of these restrictions touches our main contention, namely, that the desires of the masses are in a wider sense more human than those of the classes.

It is therefore not surprising that the masses of the people—whose attachment to the past is comparatively slight and who work—respond more quickly and more energetically to the urgent demands of the hour than the educated classes, and that the ethical ideals of the best among them are human ideals, not those of a segregated class. For this reason I should always be more inclined to accept, in regard to fundamental human problems, the judgment of the masses rather than the judgment of the intellectuals, which is much more certain to be warped by unconscious control of traditional ideas. I do not mean to say that the judgment of the masses would be acceptable in regard to every problem of human life, because there are many which, by their technical nature, are beyond their understanding. Nor do I believe that the details of the right solution of a problem can always be found by the masses; but I feel strongly that the problem itself, as felt by them, and the ideal that they want to see realized, is a safer guide for our conduct than the ideal of the intellectual group that stands under the ban of an historical tradition that dulls their feeling for the needs of the day.

One word more, in regard to what might be a fatal misunderstanding of my meaning. If I decry unthinking obedience to the ideals of our forefathers, I am far from believing that it will ever be possible, or that it will even be desirable, to cast away the past and to begin anew on a purely intellectual basis. Those who think that this can be accomplished do not, I believe, understand human nature aright. Our very wishes for changes are based on criticism of the past, and would take another direction if the conditions under which we live were of a different nature. We are building up our new ideals by utilizing the work of our ancestors, even where we condemn it, and so it will be in the future. Whatever our generation may achieve will attain in course of time that venerable aspect that will lay in chains the minds of the great mass of our successors and it will require new efforts to free a future generation of the shackles that we are forging. When we once recognize this process, we must see that it is our task not only to free ourselves of traditional prejudice, but also to search in the heritage of the past for what is useful and right, and to endeavor to free the mind of future generations so that they may not cling to our mistakes, but may be ready to correct them.

Read the whole piece, if you like. [ link ]



September 20, 2008

The Sweet Center of Things

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:38 am

What many of us are looking for, as I understood it, is connection to the resolute life before the invention of incessant irony.

That’s from somewhere in an essay, How to Love this World  by William Kittredge in his book, The Next Rodeo: New and selected essays.

The story starts:

The great floating moon was more silvery than white in the luminous blue of an early summer sky over the Tetons. Hung over and semi-heartbroken when I woke at sunup in Jackson, I’d gotten out of town in a hurry, before any true sense of my own isolation could come catch me.

It was a getaway that didn’t work. Alongside Teton Lake, leaning against the fender of my yellow Toyota, studying the daylight moon, I was anxious and frightened to an almost breathless state. This moon was what was, and I was alone in its vicinity, under its gaze. Much as I wanted to love the silence and light, that white moon was an intimation of unfathomable dooms and infinities.

He goes on with wonderful recollections and ruminations on the West. Here’s a small bit from the middle of the story:

“God, she was purty onc’t,” that man said. It still is. We didn’t know what we had missed. Perhaps the country is tracked and roaded, but it was not, so far as we could see, entirely spoiled. Bud’s storytelling helped us see it not as ruined but layered with histories. Stories helped us understand what had happened in that long Montana valley where the October snow blows down from the mountains through the twilight, and stories helped us live with fragilities as we watched Bud and his friends take stock and breathe the joys of fellowship for close to the last time in the Choteau country that afternoon. We understood that our turn was coming, sooner than might be hoped, and that we ought to prepare, if such preparations are possible.

And the ending:

The story of John Colter’s several hundred mile wintertime walk into the environs of Yellowstone is one more of our defining legends in the West. The autumn and winter of 1807-08 through country no known white man had yet seen, Colter went from Fort Lisa, at the junction of the Big Horn River and the Yellowstone, down to Jackson Hole and the far side of the Tetons, and back through what would be Yellowstone Park. I want to think he was running on wisdom, and not simple courage; I want to think his isolation was something he accepted as a version of what we always have. I like to think Colter loved his chance to be where he was. Yellowstone in winter, seven thousand seven hundred feet in elevation at the lake, where the nighttime lows are thirty and forty below, the snows a dozen feet in depth, and the hot sulphur springs boil up, the grass still green beside them, down in a warm enclosure with drifted snowbanks rising high above your head. Think of spring, bison wandering through the mist near the steaming river where the trumpeter swans glide on glassy ponds. Colter had been with Lewis and Clark as they climbed the long grade to Lemhi Pass, on the Continental Divide, imagining that the beginnings of the great River Columbia, an easy route to the Pacific, might lie just on the other side. Instead they saw the long run of blue mountains across what is now central Idaho, range after range. John Colter knew there was no easy way out. I like to think he might have studied a full daylight moon over the Tetons, as I did a hundred and eighty years later, and felt he was as close to the sweet center of things as he would ever need to be, and thus privileged.

Many of the stories in The Next Rodeo have been published in earlier Kittredge collections, but if you haven’t read any of his stuff, I recommend it highly.



September 19, 2008

The Urge to Destroy and the Urge to Shine

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:46 am

Why should I believe there are poems waiting for me which I am not writing? Because I miss them, these shadows like birds dying of cold on the branches, their life diminished as I move closer to them. I frighten them with my nearness. Everything I say in prose, with its links, its clauses, its causal flourishes; its reservations and chatter of afterthought; everything with prose’s anecdote and self-observation and preening that is like the shiver of a body brushing back its hair before going into the room, dispels the poem. Explanations and the appeal to authority tear down the modesty of poetry. Its near invisibility. Its perfected impermanence. A scat of wind through a tall fir that knocks off all its caught-up snow and causes the branch to spring about … but in smaller, evaporating language that brings no attention to itself because it belongs to something greater—perhaps the greater “Whisper of running streams and winter lightning” Eliot wrote of as part of his own world of debased, involuntary phantoms.

… Notes from earlier decades. Traces of poems vanishing like straw in mud. Unabsorbed events. Grimaces of reality that I also fear because they block the lightning of forgetfulness. Even the dreams disturbing and complex. Regret, resentment, yearning, apprehension in both senses, suffering, and desire—but always stopped in gargoyle postures. Those scraps of loosened handwriting jotted down late at night, confessions stiffened by self-consciousness and peculiar longings and equally peculiar vanities and the urge to destroy and the urge to shine and (therefore) memories with the unnaturally strong shoulders of fiction: all of this avid pinning-down proved how great was the rift between the surges of will and the power of intuition.

— from The Poems I Am Not Writing  by Mary Kinzie in the May 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

As with all my posts that quote from or about poetry, I feel that they apply quite closely to (art) photography. Here is more from the linked piece:

Isn’t the material world fundamentally a kind of vulnerable or inept concealment? A fly apparently buzzing in place within the web, but in a shell the spider has siphoned the strength out of, moved now only by the wind … the reflection of a stone granary in the mere … freckled leopard apricots…. Grace that has been frozen—a bicycle frame like an antelope; a submerged jar; a shoe made of willow. At the edge of a hot field, a cow shed and chicken coop; beyond these, in a forest of hard blue, the “pierced iron shadow of the cedars” (Marianne Moore). Close around them, against the male sun and the cool female forest, the stretch of ground somebody has mowed despite the desolation of these frames with their sagging silvery boards. The coop. The shed. Who abandoned them and yet comes back to mow?

And, this last bit just because I love the word play:

I read the dictionary, the record of resemblances, a book that like a drug releases again the half-heard and the half-understood from the edge where you’d forgotten them. Better still, it puts you at the crossing where the past of other tongues, from a time long before, pours along the present. I discover that a word I thought of as a green liqueur popular in the forties is also a cloth full of holes (with the seeds of war mistakenly mixed in). Grenadine fr dim. of grenade, pomegranate (in turn from LAT pomum apple granatum stocked with seeds); from being spotted with grains (grain lat granus): a thin loosely-woven cloth of cotton silk or rayon used for blouses curtains. What had been dense is charged with a loosening light. The charge of sources. The action of apt definition. Energy loose and running just below the surface. A blouse of sheer grenadine. Ash with its wingèd fruit. Brogue a bond or grip on the tongue. Light pictures. Photographs, which are not images of living beings but of the light that once shone through them. Lintel, the timber that binds a doorway at the head or foot or the threshold stepped across or through. Scrape to make a trench or grave. A grave being scratched out, a love being frozen. Leaves scrape on the lintel under an icy light. Light turns the flakes of snow to bits of mica, streams of shadow rising from the radiator like thin throngs of microscopic creatures or the minute reticulation (net-work) of high wind on open water. Open water, which long remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake, Nemerov wrote. Wake on vök a hole in the ice track left in water by a passing ship the ghost of something that has passed by. Words as ghosts of all who used them but have passed by. Haunt ofr v.t. to frequent resort to bother pervade visit as a ghost n. (1) that place lair feeding place (2) also hant a ghost. The lesson of Kafka’s burrow: when you’re in it (as you are in the present moment), you’re afraid of losing it. In fact, with its walls about you, you must see it as already lost. No lintel. No hearth. No haunt. No time. No home.

There is much more in the full essay. Highly recommended. [ link ]



September 18, 2008

Not Fit to Print

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:05 am

“There is nothing left but his name … but there never was a dog like Algonquin,” or, “It’s all regrets,” or ,”After he got in his car and drove away I dug a grave and lined it with bright fallen leaves and there I buried all that could die of my good Fox,” or “He was allus kind to the younguns and he kilt a rattlesnake onct,” or one of my favorites, the passage in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. The great hound named Beaumont is on the ground, his back broken by the boar, and the expert, the Master of Hounds, William Twyti, has been hurt also. Twyti limps over to Beaumont and utters the eternal litany, “Hark to Beaumont. Softly, Beaumont, mon amy. Oyez à Beaumont the valiant. Swef, le douce Beaumont, swef, swef.” Then he nods to Robin Wood, and holds the hound’s eyes with his own, saying “Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog,” while the huntsman kills the dog for him: “Then Robin’s falchion let Beaumont out of this world to run free with Orion and to roll among the stars.”

That’s from a story, Oyez à Beaumont  by Vicki Hearne in her book Animal Happiness. The essay starts with this:

A student of mine called two days ago and asked, “What do the experts do when their dogs die?”

He developed a calcium deposit on his upper spine, did my good Airedale Gunner, and it would hurt him to track, so Gunner and I stopped tracking, stopped retrieving and jumping, not because he wouldn’t have gone on if it were up to him, and awhile after that he was very ill with cancer, and after a time of that, too much of that, I had him killed. Gallant Gunner, brave Gunner, gay Gunner. Once, late one evening on a beach in Malibu, he took down a man who was attacking me with a knife. The vet had to patch Gunner up some, but he didn’t turn tail the way my assailant did. Brave Gunner. Harken to Gunner. Twenty-four hours later, bandaged, he clowned and told jokes for the kids at Juvenile Hall, performing for the annual Orange Empire Dog Club Christmas party. Oh, rare and dauntless Gunner. Even his hip, broken when a prostate tumor grew right through the bone did not stop the courage of his gaiety, but I did. My friend Dick Koehler said, “He is lucky to have a good friend like you,” to encourage me, you see, to get on with it, kill him, and Dick was right, of course, right, because when there is nothing much left of a dog but his wounds you should bury those decently.

Until he died, he was immortal, and the death of an immortal is an event that changes the world. That is all for now about Gunner, because what it does to you when such a dog dies is not fit to print.

It’s a very short story, and you can find it in Google books if you care to read it all. I will link it here, but the link is so long, I’m not sure it will work. [ link ]

None of my dogs have died recently, but I have been through this many, many times in the past. The changing of the seasons — the suddenly chilly nights, the turning of the leaves — stirs up old memories.



September 17, 2008


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:27 am

We all know poets who won’t surprise us with a different sound because they’ve become habituated to a manner and the critical attention the manner attracts. If there’s restlessness in such work, it’s only wind rippling a pond—it doesn’t kick up bottom sand. Schuyler could have settled into a manner of pleasurable flat-line energy, engaging but responsive to experience in predictable ways. What saved him from the monotonous butcher-block whacking of, say, Lowell’s History  was a stylistic restlessness responsive to emotional and intellectual instability. “Style in art,” he said of Proust, “is not a matter of study, practice, revision or refinement of diction (means) but of vision.” And in a letter to John Button, a painter Schuyler met and fell for in the fifties: “There is a line which you sometimes use which… if it’s undesirable, it’s because it gives off a look of ‘finish,’ and a work should not look more finished than it intrinsically is.” Schuyler was aware of his own sleight-of-hand gesturalism, which makes of irresoluteness and uncertainty a chased “finish” and exasperates some readers of his poetry, yet he knew that a poem’s “finish” depends on internal dynamics, not shellacked surfaces.

That’s from “Baby Sweetness Blew His Cool Again …”   by W. S. Di Piero in the January 2006 issue of Poetry magazine. It’s a review of the book Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler, 1951-1991edited by William Corbett. [W. S. Di Piero was recently quoted in another post  on this blog. I love his writing.]

The ways that style and finish are achieved in photography are different from how they are done in word crafting, but the results can be criticised for the same reasons.

Another, very small quote from the above article that I made me stop and think was this:

… a voice that seems more exhalation than utterance.

Photography is always going to be more “exhalation than utterance” but how much necessarily more and is that what you want?

Here are a few more snips from the piece:

… The poems hold up physical reality, its sheer materiality, as if it were a glazed spiritual expanse, a thinly-spread condensation of some other energy state.

… Schuyler’s poetry is like attention deficit disorder turned to lyric advantage, a way of weaving the vapors and bulks of sensation and thought into a meditative squirminess, a repining restlessness that keeps tossing him back upon the world’s bosom: “Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself.”

… I don’t like “painterly poetry,” the sort that pants after beauty, drooling a little, delicately, while calling attention to the exquisite sensibility we are all fortunate enough to behold. The painterliness that matters in poetry lies in a structured suppleness that hums in response to what Cézanne called the “little sensation” physical reality stirs in us. Words as merely self-aware marvels and wonderments make for decadence. Poetry is patterning, something made thus and thus, words shape-shifting into a surprised and surprising sense that conjures the amazements of the ordinary.

I very much agree with that last quote when applied (loosely) to photography.

Read the whole article. [ link ]



September 16, 2008

Mining the Not Known

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

Statistical and applied probabilistic knowledge is the core of knowledge; statistics is what tells you if something is true, false, or merely anecdotal; it is the “logic of science”; it is the instrument of risk-taking; it is the applied tools of epistemology; you can’t be a modern intellectual and not think probabilistically—but .. let’s not be suckers.

To a gambler, a stock market investor, or a banker, the unknown is a minefield. To an artist (and, often, to a scientist as well), the unknown is a playground. How you view the field depends on the nature of your investment and what you would consider a desirable outcome.

The leading quote, and all that follow are from The Fourth Quadrant: A Map of the Limits of Statistics  by Nassim Taleb on The Edge.org. Throughout all of the quotes that follow, try to invert what he is saying. Wherever he describes a disastrous outcome, you should consider it a fantastic result. Wherever he says something is dangerous and should be avoided, you should think, “that’s right where I want to be.” So, here we go. Remember, invert what he’s saying about outcomes from bad to good  — whatever he says is good is bad (boring and barren) for the artist:

… So the central lesson from decision-making (as opposed to working with data on a computer or bickering about logical constructions) is the following: it is the exposure (or payoff) that creates the complexity —and the opportunities and dangers— not so much the knowledge ( i.e., statistical distribution, model representation, etc.). In some situations, you can be extremely wrong and be fine, in others you can be slightly wrong and explode. If you are leveraged, errors blow you up; if you are not, you can enjoy life.

… So knowledge (i.e., if some statement is “true” or “false”) matters little, very little in many situations. In the real world, there are very few situations where what you do and your belief if some statement is true or false naively map into each other. Some decisions require vastly more caution than others—or highly more drastic confidence intervals. For instance you do not “need evidence” that the water is poisonous to not drink from it.

First Quadrant: Simple binary decisions, in Mediocristan: Statistics does wonders. These situations are, unfortunately, more common in academia, laboratories, and games than real life—what I call the “ludic fallacy”. In other words, these are the situations in casinos, games, dice, and we tend to study them because we are successful in modeling them.

Second Quadrant: Simple decisions, in Extremistan: some well known problem studied in the literature. Except of course that there are not many simple decisions in Extremistan.

Third Quadrant: Complex decisions in Mediocristan: Statistical methods work surprisingly well.

Fourth Quadrant: Complex decisions in Extremistan: Welcome to the Black Swan domain. Here is where your limits are. Do not base your decisions on statistically based claims. Or, alternatively, try to move your exposure type to make it third-quadrant style (“clipping tails”).

The Black Swan domain is right where we want to be. The perfect playground.

You can live longer if you avoid death, get better if you avoid bankruptcy, and become prosperous if you avoid blowups in the fourth quadrant.

… Now you would think that people would buy my arguments about lack of knowledge and accept unpredictability. But many kept asking me “now that you say that our measures are wrong, do you have anything better?”

… I used to give the same mathematical finance lectures for both graduate students and practitioners before giving up on academic students and grade-seekers. Students cannot understand the value of “this is what we don’t know”—they think it is not information, that they are learning nothing.

Blowups are what we want! The Fourth Quadrant is our home! One person’s minefield is another person’s playground.

The full article makes some good points about the stupidity (re statistics) of those in charge of our financial systems. Read it if you’re interested. [ link ]



September 15, 2008

The Root-tangled, Cellular Underworld

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:46 am

Late one night, in my early twenties, during months I spent in a hospital for a mysterious crippling ailment, a nurse stopped to look in on me. I was probably listening to Charles Lloyd or Morgana King or Oliver Nelson on Philadelphia’s great jazz station WHAT. She told me I could stand if I really wanted to. That she would help. When with her support I got up on my pins, she turned her back to me, wrapped my arms around her waist, and snugged her butt against my groin. She hummed a little to the music, swayed just enough to rock my pain and make me hard, swayed protectively and invitingly with the young, mysteriously ruined white boy, who did his best to dance along. She said I seemed nice and promised, once I got well, to take me dancing. The slick crispness of her uniform stretched across her belly down to her heavy-tissued thighs and ass. Such a gentle manner she had, and the background music hummed straight through her into me.The moment planted deep in me the certainty that no sexual experience could ever satisfy the way that killingly bittersweet flirtation did. In that moment I must have given up the rest of my life—I thought, as a young man will, that I was going to die anyway from my undiagnosed problem: the twenty-year-old who shared my room died from bone cancer—she danced me into another kind of disorder, of complete unmediated pleasure that asks nothing but that you give the rest of your life to it, to the moment of it. Bliss is always loss, and we remember both as one trembling movement of the spirit. Eros fulfills itself by exhausting itself, it enlivens the life it’s draining. After that encounter, after that full-body promise of a real dance someday, my nurse never came back.

That’s the ending from a loose collection of observations, Semba!: A Notebook  by W.S. Di Piero in the October 2006 issue of Poetry magazine. Here are more bits from earlier in the piece:

… We get the culture we deserve and wish for. Can poetry matter? Why should that even be a question? It matters if it’s casually subversive and alters consciousness without being righteous. It doesn’t matter much to me if poetry doesn’t matter too much. It’s contaminated anyway by the huffy ethics of commerce, of peddling and consuming. All systems are the same system. Rumor forges fame, consumers have to be instructed (and really do want to know) what to pay attention to, and so reputations are made, desires shaped and fueled. Leopardi says somewhere that the sure way to become famous is by having someone tell everybody he meets that you’re already famous. I take on faith that readers who are patient with complexity, who believe that poetry brings what we need to know, brings questions we need to ask or conflicts we can’t resolve, and who care about patterned sound—such readers don’t have to be huckstered or harvested.

… A certain kind of depression, my kind—a Motown-ish lyric there: “My kind, my kind, my kind”—brings episodes that beat against the coastline of the sane or balanced self, baffled just so by meds and the talking cure. It’s not curable because it’s the nature of that particular self. (Or, in my own mental menagerie: the dragon of chaos must be fed, else he rip apart every order he sees; he never goes away; he sleeps in the gate.) Late one night, writing, I start to break up (who knows why? unknowability is pain’s core; sobbing is the stupefied noise pain makes) and so lie on the floor waiting for the waves, the dragon-ish sea, the un-nameable hurt, to pass over.

… Poetry doesn’t need neediness if it’s doing its work of naming the things of the world, in their orders and messes, and our relations to them. And not only the things of the actual world. It can be a verbal axis mundi, the world tree that connects, through our middle world, the root-tangled, cellular underworld to the supernaturals.

… Most days, writing takes on the emotional lucidity of dream life, its bite and garish clarity, but it’s also bereavement, tracing or tracking what’s no longer among us. The more you write, the more you feel something is missing, will always be missing; that ache makes you want to write more, inviting more of the same. So bereavement is a kind of grotesque bounty. Some mornings, gulping the oxygen of waking life out of a dream’s suffocation, I feel bereft, though I can’t remember what exactly has been lost, other than the dream state I wanted to escape, can’t remember any shape of face or body, just an ectoplasmic force, the spirit of the human presence in the dream now transformed into a felt compulsion. Write it down, then. Write it out. Getting older, I don’t so much want to remember things in poetry, I want to keep them.

Read the full article, if you have time. I’ve only given you a little bit of it. [ link ]



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