Unreal Nature

October 31, 2010

The Space of Music

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

… The conservation of matter or energy does not apply here.

Last post from Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound second edition by Don Ihde (2007):

… One of the first aspects that began to stand out in relation to this phenomenon [of listening to music] was the fragility of the musical phenomenon. Within the global field of auditory phenomena, sounds of all types are present. This very fact complicates and acts to the detriment of musical presence. It becomes impossible, in ordinary contexts, to secure an exclusive focus on music because of the global presence of sound.

… imagine a living room in which a stereo set is playing. By first attempting to concentrate as exclusively as possible on the music we become aware that a manifold of other noises intrude on this project. Our very project makes these noises explicit in such a way that from their previously ordinary presence we now discover they have been implicit. The focus of attention upon the music makes the other noises appear as distractions — but they also stand out in more vivid fashion. In attempting to listen to music for itself we become more rather than less sensitive to introducing noises. As purists each minor distraction becomes apparent, each scratch, each external noise distorts the music itself.

This fragility of music increases in direct proportion to the concern of attention “toward” it — and paradoxically the fringe noises of the environment begin to benefit from the attention toward music presence. Auditory phenomena intrude into my awareness.

… What is to be noted concerning the above phenomena is that the previously submerged noises do not intrude as a result of gesturing “toward” them. In the auditory realm our focusing, which should effect an exclusion, negates itself and produces the contrary effect of increased vulnerability in an increased openness to the environment’s total presence. Not content with the situation, we begin to notice a series of exercises designed to correct the problem. These exercises, which may be called the “Shh — be quiet!” phenomenon, begin to indicate the direction of auditory gesturing.

For example, if one wishes to itemize the auditory environment a positive act is one which gradually or suddenly calls for more and more quietness. One gestures “away from” sound “toward” silence. And the more effective this gesture-direction becomes, the more one realizes silence, the more radical the intrusions of formerly unobtrusive auditory disturbances become.

… Silence is the “space” of music. The “motion” that occurs in music is the motion through silence. In (visual) space, movement is a matter of displacement, relocation, or “matter” that is always someplace, comes from someplace, and goes somewhere. In music sounds come “from silence” and “return to” silence.

… The conservation of matter or energy does not apply here. At base this coming-to-be from silence from which music stands out shows the “space” silence of sound as possibility. Silence is nothingness but nothingness is sheer possibility.



October 30, 2010

Feeding on Errors

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:59 am

… Our adaptive mechanisms must be capable of detecting and responding to — nay feeding on — errors at different levels and across varied contexts …

This is from Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings by William C. Wimsatt (2007):

… Philosophers have established ways of creating order working from a few key idealizations about decision making and rational or logical inference. These principles crop up continually; normative frameworks for almost everything else they do, and (supposedly) everything else we do. These assumptions are deeply generatively entrenched, widely used pivotal assumptions that play a role in generating our philosophical theories of almost everything else.

So is this a problem? Unfortunately, yes: these particular idealizations demand unrealistic degrees of knowledge, unlimited inferential powers, or both (see Appendix D on LaPlacean demons). They don’t fit our behavior. As normative rather than descriptive principles, that’s not necessarily a problem. But they make assumptions that we cannot satisfy, and that is a problem. How can these provide goals toward which we should orient ourselves? How could they be correct even as normative claims? Should we give them up? We hear that to do so would be to open doors to irrationalism, relativism, or other unnamed horrors precipitating total cognitive collapse and chaos. But the very success of our cognitive and social adaptations in the real world belies those fears. It is an existence proof that there are better idealizations or models to be made.

Where should we look instead? I study the heuristic techniques scientists use to explore, describe, model, and analyze complex systems — and to “de-bug” their results. These are plausibly more carefully tuned and evaluated descendants of more broadly used inferential practices. So we start with our actual practice — but seeing these practices for their strengths as evolved cognitive adaptations rather than as compromised attempts to pursue our ideals. These “deviations” are not failings, but the source of our peculiar strengths in this uncertain world of complex, evolving beings, technologies, and institutions.

… I will systematically ignore the kinds of in principle claims … much beloved by philosophers to see how we do — and should — deal with situations we face in practice.

Our ancestors didn’t adapt in this complex world with simpler but still formally respectable deduction systems. Biology is full of diverse kinds of inductive pattern-detectors. The first problem was finding order, not testing it, and finding it according to rough error-prone procedures. If we look at ourselves as biological social cognitive beings, we see that our responses to problems of adaptation in a complex world are crafted with heuristics. Insofar as these are products of selection processes, biological and cultural dimensions of our reason must also be heuristic. Heuristic principles are most fundamentally neither axioms nor algorithms, though they are often treated as such. As a group, they have distinct and interesting properties. Most importantly, they are re-tuned, re-modulated, re-contextualized, and often newly re-connected piecemeal rearrangements of existing adaptations or exaptations, and they encourage us to do likewise with whatever we construct. We are just now beginning to come to grips with that picture: Nature as a reconditioned parts dealer and crafty backwoods mechanic, constantly fixing and redesigning old machines and fashioning new ones out of whatever comes easily to hand.

Heuristics are both causally and phylogenetically prior to our algorithmic abstractions. Evolution opportunistically favors results, using any available method, no matter how crude, that is cost effective in its context relative to other available alternatives.

… A naturalistic worldview of the genesis and operation of functionally organized evolving systems is heuristics all the way down — as far down as entities or configurations of them are products of selection.

… So, should we just substitute heuristics for axioms as new fundamental rules, acting on whatever comes easily to hand, and proceed as before with a neo-classical foundationalism? Not quite! We also need adjustments elsewhere: a change in the scope of (and expectations from) acceptable inference rules; a new conception of foundations, which must become dynamical and potentially changeable; a more error-tolerant conception of the organization of our conceptual structures; and a new treatment of error. Our adaptive mechanisms must be capable of detecting and responding to — nay feeding on — errors at different levels and across varied contexts, and exploiting parallelisms and redundancies eschewed by formalists to detect errors and fine-tune responses. One of the most common and effective uses of deductive arguments in science is to detect and localize errors and refine concepts.

With a new focus on error and change, a richer theory must address not only how generative structures work, but how they are changed or modified in midstream, and what patterns such changes should follow — for there are such patterns, important ones, and they make such an endeavor worthwhile. These are totally ignored in traditional approaches, but are central to a fuller reading of the nature of developmental and evolutionary processes — whether biological, cognitive, or cultural, including processes of scientific change. Generative entrenchment provides a heuristic and dynamical reading of an attractive feature of foundational theories: the remarkable generative power of a few well-chosen assumptions, structures, or processes, and the consequences of this power for freezing-in the assumptions that engender it.

To be continued …



October 29, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:12 am

… I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface.

This is from the chapter “Exactitude” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (1988):

… Among the scientific books into which I poke my nose in search of stimulus for the imagination, I recently happened to read that the models for the process of formation of living beings “are best visualized by the crystal on one side (invariance of specific structures) and the flame on the other (constancy of external forms in spite of relentless internal agitation).” I am quoting from Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini’s introduction to the volume devoted to the debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky in 1975 at the Centre Royaumont. The contrasting images of flame and crystal are used to make visible the alternatives offered to biology, and from this pass on to theories of language and the ability to learn. For the moment I will leave aside the implications for the philosophy of science embodied in the positions stated by Piaget, who is for the principle of “order out of noise” — the flame — and Chomsky, who is for the “self-organized system,” the crystal.

… Crystal and flame: two forms of perfect beauty that we cannot tear our eyes away from, two modes of growth in time, of expenditure of the matter surrounding them, two moral symbols, two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings.

… A more complex symbol, which has given me greater possibilities of expressing the tension between geometric rationality and the entanglements of human lives, is that of the city. The book in which I think I managed to say most remains Invisible Cities, because I was able to concentrate all my reflections, experiments, and conjectures on a single symbol; and also because I built up a many-faceted structure in which each brief text is close to the others in a series that does not imply logical sequence or a hierarchy, but a network in which one can follow multiple routes and draw multiple, ramified conclusions.

In my Invisible Cities every concept and value turns out to be double — even exactitude. At a certain point Kublai Khan personifies the intellectual tendency toward rationalization, geometry, and algebra, reducing knowledge of his empire to the combinatoria of pieces on a chessboard. The cities that Marco Polo describes to him with a wealth of detail Kublai represents with various arrangements of castles, bishops, knights, kings, queens, and pawns on black and white squares. The final conclusion to which this operation leads him is that the object of his conquest is nothing other than the block of wood on which each piece rests: an emblem of nothingness. But just at this moment comes a coup de scène, for Marco Polo requests Kublai to look more closely at what he sees as nothingness:

The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but now it was the game’s reason that eluded him. The end of every game is a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the real stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked aside by the winner’s hand, nothingness remains: a black square, or a white one. By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the empire’s multiform treasures were only illusory envelopes; it was reduced to a square of planed wood.

Then Marco Polo spoke: “Your chessboard, sire, is inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.”

Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.

“Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum’s nest; not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was the cause of the tree’s being chosen for chopping down … this edge was scored by the wood carver with his gouge so that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding … .”

The quantity of things that could be read in a little piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo was already talking about ebony forests, about rafts laden with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at the windows … [Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver (1974)]

[ … ]

… As Hoffmannsthal said: “Depth is hidden. Where? On the surface.” And Wittgenstein went even further than this: “For what is hidden . . . is of no interest to us.”

I would not be so drastic. I think we are always searching for something hidden or merely potential or hypothetical, following its traces whenever they appear on the surface. I think our basic mental processes have come down to us through every period of history, ever since the time of our Paleolithic forefathers, who were hunters and gatherers. The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

For this reason, the proper use of language, for me personally, is one that enables us to approach things (present or absent) with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things (present or absent) communicate without words.



October 28, 2010

This Imputation

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:57 am

… A correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation — this self — is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it.

Last post from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman (1959). This is from the last few pages of his final chapter:

… The general notion that we make a presentation of ourselves to others is hardly novel; what ought to be stressed in conclusion is that the very structure of the self can be seen in terms of how we arrange for such performances in our Anglo-American society.

In this report, the individual was divided by implication into two basic parts: he was viewed as a performer, a harried fabricator of impressions involved in the all-too-human task of staging a performance; he was viewed as a character, a figure, typically a fine one, whose spirit, strength, and other sterling qualities the performance was designed to evoke. The attributes of a performer and the attributes of a character are of a different order, quite basically so, yet both sets have their meaning in terms of the show that must go on.

First, character. In our society the character one performs and one’s self are somewhat equated, and this self-as-character is usually seen as something housed within the body of its possessor, especially the upper parts thereof, being a nodule, somehow in the psychobiology of personality. I suggest that this view is an implied part of what we are all trying to present, but provides, just because of this, a bad analysis of the presentation. In this report the performed self was seen as some kind of image, usually creditable, which the individual on stage and in character effectively attempts to induce others to hold in regard to him. While this image is entertained concerning the individual, so that a self is imputed to him, this self itself does not derive from its possessor, but from the whole scene of his action, being generated by that attribute of local events which renders them interpretable by witnesses. A correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation — this self — is a product of a scene that comes off,a nd is not a cause of it. The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited.

In analysing the self then we are drawn from its possessor, from the person who will profit or lose most by it, for he and his body merely provide the peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time. And the means for producing and maintaining selves do not reside inside the peg; in fact these means are often bolted down in social establishments. There will be a back region with its tools for shaping the body, and a front region with its fixed props. There will be a team of persons whose activity on stage in conjunction with available props will constitute the scene from which the performed character’s self will emerge, and another team, the audience, whose interpretive activity will be necessary for this emergence. The self is a product of all these arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis.

The whole machinery of self-production is cumbersome, of course, and sometimes breaks down, exposing its separate components: back region control; team collusion; audience tact; and so forth. But, well oiled, impressions will flow from it fast enough to put us in the grips of one of our types of reality — the performance will come off and the firm self accorded each performed character will appear to emanate intrinsically from its performer.

I wonder why Goffman assumes there is some “other” person/self/character that would happen in the absence of a performance or the need for a performance. It seems to me that all the things that he has described are not  alternatives or something else that one might otherwise have been; rather they are all that there is. In other words, contrary to the leading quote of this post, I think that product and cause are not separable. We don’t have a more “natural” doppelgänger on Planet Otherwise.



October 27, 2010

In the Midst

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:24 am

… Ordinary speech, although it potentially contains the richness of the unsaid, in its very ordinariness allows what is hidden to “float” lazily in the midst of the words.

… The silence of the context … is not a blank or total silence, it is the near silence of what can be said.

This is further from Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound second edition by Don Ihde (2007):

… Things show themselves as “faces” but never as mere “faces.” They are situated and hide within themselves as latently significant another side. This is a significance which I implicitly recognize and expect: I am not surprised when the block is turned around and it shows a different “face.” The thing presents itself as having a back, as having depth. This may be spoken of as a local or latently present horizonal feature of the thing. It is the hidden side of presence which is enigmatically “in” presence.

Again the approximation has been primarily a visual one, so the next step is to locate the same feature auditorily and, in the present context, in terms of word. The voiced word, however, also shows itself as having a hidden depth, a latently meant aspect. This is concealed within but detectable in listening to language. In everything said there is the latent horizon of the unsaid, which situates the said. Yet, as in all horizonal phenomena, the horizon is that which withdraws. It is easily overlooked or forgotten. Easy or naive listening attends only to the center, but in doing so the latent meaning of the horizon remains taken for granted and its latent meaning situates the saying by its unsaying.

… The silence of the context … is not a blank or total silence, it is the near silence of what can be said. In this the example is similar to the visual example of the latent “face” of the thing. I can turn the thing around and view its other “faces” and see only a relative degree of hiddenness at any one time.

… But it is also important to note how such a degree of the unsaid may be heard. Its silence is one that implies that in some sense what was not said explicitly has already been said. While not all can be said in a saying (there remains a ratio to the unsaid which is the transcendence of the context) what was not said has been said in a community with a history. Existentially implied in the context is some kind of tribe, or community with a history. Learning to hear the unsaid gains entry into this community and history to some degree. The learned is the initiate who has already heard and thus has entered into the community and the history.

There are technical “tribal languages” whose sayings hover near ordinary speech, but in which there are highly determined meanings that are heard only by the initiate and not by the ordinary listener. The unsaid can be missed in unlearned listening.

… The listener hears more than surface in listening to word. The clarity or opacity that he discerns in the saying remains in part dependent on the learning to listen which probes beneath surfaces, which hears the interior of speech.

… [However] There are occurrences when in word there may be heard an intimation of a wider limit. Such is poetic word. Poetic word elicits a new context. It brings to saying what has not yet been said. There is here a sense of violence to word in that the poetic saying disrupts the clarity of the sedimented unsaid.

… The sample of Dasein in such analysis is sufficient to suggest the possibility of a wider saying. In its ordinary context, Dasein is what is thought of as an ordinary existent or thing. But in Heidegger’s thought Dasein becomes Da-sein the “being-here” that I am. “Being” as an active experiencing and “here” as the finite position which I occupy are my Da-sein in a way more significant than the mere “being-there” of an inert object. By opening the word to a wider and deeper context, the word becomes “poetic” in the sense of a bringing-into-being of a meaning that I almost “knew all the time.” Philosophical poeticizing is such an opening of language-as-word. It is making silence speak. The silence is the horizon, and the word opens toward the horizon.

Skipping ahead two chapters …

… In the midst of the conversation that is humankind there are beginnings. But not all the beginnings belong to the center of language-as-word. There are beginnings that occur before and after speech.

… Every conversation, every meeting of the other hides within itself the possibility of a beginning. This beginning may be as prosaic as the generation of new sentences that the linguist today recognizes as a problem in the understanding of speech. Or it may be more intimate as in the beginning of a conversation that opens a friendship for a longer conversation. But as the beginning it is a beginning in the midst. Beginnings occur within the whole range of language. When they occur in the midst of language-as-word there remains the hidden pointer to the forms of silence, the pregnant silence bespoken by the face, the “outer” silence that masks inner speech, and the ultimate horizon of silence as the Open. In this sense the beginning of man is in the midst of word, but word lies in the midst of silence.



October 26, 2010

More Authentic Than the Original

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:38 am

… It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.

This is from an essay “The Glass Flowers” by Lorraine Daston in the book Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science edited by Daston (2004):

… The collection of 847 life-size models of over 750 species and varieties of plants is unique in the world, the work of two Dresden craftsmen, Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolph Blaschka (1857-1939), who in 1890 signed a contract with the Harvard botanist George Lincoln Goodale “to make glass models of plants, flowers, and botanical details, for Harvard University in Cambridge Massachusetts, exclusively and to engage in the manufacture of no other glass models” for the sum of eighty-eight hundred marks over ten years.

… What kind of things are the Glass Flowers? Much of their fascination derives from their unclassifiability — itself a paradox, since they were made and are still displayed in order to demonstrate post-Darwinian phylogenetic botanical classification. They are at once undeniably artificial and flawlessly natural, in the tradition of mimesis that extends back to Pliny’s story of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius and includes not only illustionistic painting but also reptiles cast in bronze, Palissy ware, and automata. In all these simulacra, artifice severs the usual connections between form and matter: the curtain Zeuxis attempts to draw is made of paint, not fabric; the innards of the Vaucanson automaton are made of metal and leather, not flesh and blood; the petals and leaves of the Glass Flowers are made of glass, not cellulose and chlorophyll. Matter does not matter. The naturalism is only skin-deep, an effect of pure appearance. Though the actual deception of appearance taken for reality lasts only for a moment, the pleasure of potential deception lingers long.

[click to see very large]

… The Harvard botanist Walter Deane undertook to examine the cluster of about twenty-five hundred to three thousand tiny flowers of the model of an angelica (Aralia spinosa) blossom with a lens and found each and every one of them to have “its five petals and five alternating stamens with long filaments.” It was a banality, repeated ad nauseam, that “as in Nature, no two flowers or leaves of a single plant are exactly the same, so in the glass reproduction every minute variation is followed with the greatest fidelity.”

… Pilgrims make long arduous journeys to see relics close-up; scholars and art lovers go to considerable expense and trouble to visit archives and museums where they can behold objects firsthand; friends of the great sequoias are not content with Sierra Club photographs. The same holds for the Glass Flowers, but for reasons that are more difficult to explain. Relics exert their virtue only close-up, often by touch; a slide of a Cézanne does not do justice to the details of brush-stroke and paint modeling; you cannot smell a sequoia photograph or be dwarfed by it. But the Glass Flowers were never meant to be smelled or touched or even peered at too closely. They are pure appearance, and for pure appearance, a good photograph, itself pure appearance, ought to suffice. Why, then, do they exude and demand real presence?

[from the Flickr collection Glass Flowers at the HMNH]

… It is not just the hold-your-breath fragility of the Glass Flowers that necessitates a trip to see them in three-dimensions. Although they are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden. The Glass Flowers are perfect copies, but for just that reason they are not perfect plants. One of the daylilies has begun to shrivel; there is a fungus nibbling at the strawberry leaf. The wonder of the Glass Flowers is not the idealized beauty of the finest botanical illustrations, or that of the prizewinning garden overflowing with a plenitude of vegetable colors and shapes, or even that of the consummate illusion of naturalistic art. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.



October 25, 2010

The Jerk

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:25 am

… The first sentence of the first chapter of the first book I opened read as follows: “The first law of cam design is to minimize the jerk.” It was in the second book too.

Second of today’s posts from Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings by William C. Wimsatt (2007), this gives a little bit of biographical background on Wimsatt::

… I’ve been messy from the start — more of an engineer than a theoretician, and seldom able to get interested in an important classical philosophical problem until I found it blocking the way on some path I wished to travel. I grew up liking big flashy equipment with lots of dials and controls — the kind in 1930s “mad scientist” movies. I entered Cornell in 1959 as a freshman intent on doing a degree in engineering physics on the way to becoming an aeronautical engineer and running in the space race. My biologist father was a classical histologist and embryologist who worked also on the physiology of reproduction and hibernation. He was, by avocation, a naturalist, a falconer, and a woodsman. I grew up playing around his lab in Cornell, going with him on field trips, and building various mechanical (and sometimes explosive) things in our well-equipped basement shop.

… By the time I entered Cornell, I was — apparently spontaneously and naturally — a hard-core reductionist who worshipped the adamantine clarity, precision, and deductive power of classical mechanics and similar disciplines, which all sciences should try to imitate or deserved to wither. I expected my college education to show me how all of the important phenomena reduced to Newtonian mechanics, or its descendants — I already knew that it was possible. I was a walking breathing straw-man.

Fast-forward to a course that Wimsatt audited, given by Edwin L. Resler Jr.:

… Resler spent the first lecture on methodology. He covered three boards listing the equations relevant to solving problems in magnetoaerodynamics — 22 simultaneous equations starting with Newton’s laws of motion, but rapidly progressing to non-linear partial differential equations for hydrodynamic flow, compressible aerodynamics, the electromagnetic field equations, diffusion equations, equations for ionization kinetics, and the like.

… “These are the state equations for our system,” he said, “How many unknowns?” (Count them! — which he did just before the bell rang, as the suspense built.) “Note that there are also 22 unknowns.” he said with an air of discovery as if he’d never counted them before, “Therefore they are solvable in principle!”

There was a pause. I waited expectantly for him to produce the analytical solution in closed form — or to say he’d do it in the next class. I started to draw the kind of box you do in your notes for closed form solutions — but none were forthcoming. I didn’t know it yet, but this was the first time I had encountered a set of equations that we weren’t going to be expected to learn how to solve. He continued: “But you can’t really solve them, of course. What you do is lump a few variables to make dimensionless parameters, let 18 of the variable go to zero or infinity, make a few more approximations, pick interesting values for the other 4, and put it on the computer for the weekend. [Remember, it was 1962.]

Skipping ahead. Wamsitt is now taking a year off from Cornell and working in the engineering department at NCR [National Cash Register]. He’s been assigned to design a cam. He thought he was finished with his design, but he wanted to double-check:

… I headed off to the engineering library at Cornell over the weekend to read up on cam design. I’m glad I did. The first sentence of the first chapter of the first book I opened read as follows: “The first law of cam design is to minimize the jerk.” It was in the second book too.

Was this a joke? I’d never even heard of “the jerk.” (How many of you have before now?) Reading on, I discovered that this was the derivative of acceleration — the third derivative of displacement! The book nowhere said why you had to pay any attention to the third derivative, and neither did any of the others.

… Why had I never heard of the jerk derivative? I had taken some potent applied math, physics, and applied physics courses (drafting, metal-casting, machine shop, circuit design, . . . ), and lots of things in between. Nowhere had anyone thought it important to mention the jerk, which could have been taught in a high-school physics course. It was an intuitively motivating example for elementary differential calculus, with potential application everywhere.

My puzzlement got deeper, and my curiosity led me farther afield. I learned that this phenomenological law was exceedingly general and applies to the failure of all kinds of materials. It is important for crash safety in automobiles twice over — because it described the tendency for structures (including bones) to break, and also because in moving or stabilizing ourselves, we counterbalance or adjust to impressed forces (read: accelerations) and detect sudden changes in force (read: jerks). The lag time for our nervous systems to detect and respond to these changes produces potential stress and chaos-inducing deviations from our optimal set points. By the time we respond to a strong jerk, usually the damage has already occurred, even if we could have handled a more slowly applied stress. If theoretical physicists didn’t have to learn about the jerk, why at least weren’t future engineers taught about it?

… My experience with asking about the “jerk” derivative, and the blank stares I got, suggests that avoiding such questions may be self-amplifying. If the teachers of too many physicists were embarrassed about being unable to explain it, too may of them would never encounter it — and go on to teach others without ever knowing their error.

Moving to the conclusion of this chapter (which is actually the Epilogue):

… In our world, objectivity, reproducibility, control, and systematic investigation are all secured via regularized procedures that are finely tuned and contextually adapted on the fly to our abilities and the task at hand — modulated, not mechanized. They are embedded within a hierarchically nested set of social interactions that regulate the flow of information and our attitudes toward it while managing people and resources. We need to recognize these structures, and learn how to use them in theorizing about science.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

This is from Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings by William C. Wimsatt (2007). Both of today’s posts are introductory to further from this book. Because Wimsatt’s conception of heuristics is central to the book, I give you most of Appendix B, “Important Properties of Heuristics.” After an introductory paragraph, he enumerates his idea of the properties of heuristics:

1. By comparison with truth-preserving algorithms or other procedures for which they might be substituted, heuristics make no guarantees that they will produce a solution or the correct solution to a problem. A truth-preserving algorithm correctly applied to true premises must produce a correct conclusion. A heuristic need not.

2. By comparison with procedures for which they are substituted, heuristics are cost-effective in terms of demands on memory, computation, or other limited resources. (This is why they are used instead of methods offering stronger guarantees.)

3. Errors produced by using a heuristic are not random, but systematically biased: (a) The heuristic will tend to break down in certain classes of cases and not others, but not at random. (b) With an understanding of how it works, it should be possible to predict the conditions under which it will fail. (c) Where it is meaningful to speak of a direction of error, heuristics will tend to cause errors in a certain direction, which is again a function of the heuristic and of the kinds of problems to which it is applied.

4. Application of a heuristic to a problem yields a transformation of the problem into a non-equivalent but intuitively related problem. Answers to the transformed problem may not be answers to the original problem, though various cognitive biases operative in learning and science may lead us to ignore them.

5. Heuristics are useful for something: they are purpose relative. Tools that are effective for one purpose may be bad for another and increases in performance in one area are commonly accompanied by decreases elsewhere. This may help to identify or predict their biases: one expects a tool to be less biased for applications it was designed for than for others it is co-opted for.

6. Heuristics are commonly descended from other heuristics, and often modified to work better in a different environment. Thus they commonly come in evolutionarily related families, which may be drawn upon for other resources or tools appropriate for similar tasks. On different scales of resolution, a family of heuristics may look like a single heuristic, or conversely. (Thus Lenat, 1981, exhibits some 60 heuristic rules for his theorem prover that are equally sensibly seen as 60 instantiations of the same heuristic with slightly different antecedent conditions.)



October 24, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:32 am

… When I began my career, the categorical imperative of every young writer was to represent his own time. Full of good intentions, I tried to identify myself with the ruthless energies propelling the events of our century, both collective and individual. I tried to find some harmony between the adventurous, picaresque inner rhythm that prompted me to write and the frantic spectacle of the world, sometimes dramatic and sometimes grotesque. Soon I became aware that between the facts of life that should have been my raw materials and the quick light touch I wanted for my writing, there was a gulf that cost me increasing effort to cross. Maybe I was only then becoming aware of the weight, the inertia, the opacity of the world — qualities that stick to writing from the start, unless one finds some way of evading them.

This is from the chapter “Lightness” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (1988):

… To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror. I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing. But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it. With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.

… As for the severed head, Perseus does not abandon it but carries it concealed in a bag. [ … ] Perseus succeeds in mastering that horrendous face by keeping it hidden, just as in the first place he vanquished it by viewing it in a mirror. Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.

… For Kundera the weight of living consists chiefly in constriction, in the dense net of public and private constrictions that enfolds us more and more closely. His novel [The Unbearable Lightness of Being] shows us how everything we choose and value in life for its lightness soon reveals its true, unbearable weight. Perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape this sentence — the very qualities with which this novel is written, and which belong to a world quite different from the one we live in.

… The De Rerum Natura of Lucretius is the first great work of poetry in which knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile. Lucretius set out to write the poem of physical matter, but he warns us at the outset that this matter is made up of invisible particles. He is the poet of physical concreteness, viewed in its permanent and immutable substance, but the first thing he tells us is that emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies. Lucretius’ chief concern is to prevent the weight of matter from crushing us. Even while laying down the rigorous mechanical laws that determine every event, he feels the need to allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line, thereby ensuring freedom both to atoms and to human beings. The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities — even the poetry of nothingness — issues from a poet who had no doubts whatever about the physical reality of the world.

This atomizing of things extends also to the visible aspects of the world, and it is here that Lucretius is at his best as a poet: the little motes of dust swirling in a shaft of sunlight in a dark room; the miniscule shells, all similar but each different, that waves gently cast up on the bibula harena, the “imbibing sand”; or the spiderwebs that wrap themselves around us without our noticing them as we walk along.

… As melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness, so humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight (a dimension of human carnality that nonetheless constitutes the greatness of Boccaccio and Rabelais). It casts doubt on the self, on the world, and on the whole network of relationships that are at stake. Melancholy and humor, inextricably intermingled, characterize the accents of the Prince of Denmark, accents we have learned to recognize in nearly all Shakespeare’s plays on the lips of so many avatars of Hamlet. One of these, Jacques in As You Like It, defines melancholy in these terms: “but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.” It is therefore not a dense, opaque melancholy, but a veil of minute particles of humours and sensations, a fine dust of atoms, like everything else that goes to make up the ultimate substance of the multiplicity of things.

Cyrano extols the unity of all things, animate and inanimate, the combinatoria of elementary figures that determine the variety of living forms; and above all he conveys his sense of the precariousness of the processes behind them. That is, how nearly man missed being man, and life, life, and the world, the world.

You marvel that this matter, shuffled pell-mell at the whim of Chance, could have made a man, seeing that so much was needed for the construction of his being. But you must realize that a hundred million times this matter, on the way to human shape, has been stopped to form now a stone, now lead, now coral, now a flower, now a comet; and all because of more or fewer elements that were or were not necessary for designing a man. Little wonder if, within an infinite quantity of matter that ceaselessly changes and stirs, the few animals, vegetables, and minerals we see should happen to be made; no more wonder than getting a royal pair in a hundred casts of the dice. Indeed, it is equally impossible for all this stirring not to lead to something, and yet this something will always be wondered at by some blockhead who will never realize how small a change would have made it into something else.




Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:28 am

These pictures are from a G10 dump (the G10 is the camera I carry with me when hiking — when it’s not raining water, snow, or sweat [above 90°]). These snaps have been unposted since late summer because they’re kind of boring. Anyway …

This is the approach to what used to be a very scenic mountain top. I’ve mentioned these before — the one on the right was under construction last winter and spring.

Isn’t this lovely? I asked the fellows who built the new one why they needed it since the other tall one seemed to have plenty of room on it. They said it couldn’t carry the weight. Seems hard to believe. Not shown are the large buildings at the foot of the towers complete with heating/cooling and fuel containers. And a fence with razor wire and locks, etc. The smaller (third) tower visible on the right is abandoned.  Not that anyone cares. They only add towers; they don’t remove them.

At least somebody is getting some good use out of this ugly mess. There were many more buzzards perched as I approached, but they left before my slooooow G10 could get going.

This is a black snake who wouldn’t pose. Usually, if you tickle them, they’ll coil up and look very handsome. Not this one. I went around and around, but no deal. He got a thorough tickling, but I got no thanks for it.

When I zoomed in on this shot of him, his eyes were all milky which means he was probably getting ready to shed. They tend to be a little grumpy at such times. I guess I would be too if my skin was falling off.

Yes, Miss Liberty still stands (or leans).



Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.