All posts made the week commencing Sunday 3 Aug., 2003:

Rather than explain what's on my mind, I wrote a Dictionary of the Intertextual Fabric. (A quick glimpse at last month's notes will show how confused I'm feeling at the moment.)

I'm watching a building site, and in particular a 360 excavator with a long arm. This is a yellow JCB vehicle on two large caterpillar tracks with a cab that can rotate all the way around, and a big scoop on an articulated arm at the front. The arm is curiously prehensile. It's filling a truck with rubble, and the excavator uses the back, curved side of the scoop to smooth down the heap before the truck drives off. Then the JCB has to move down a steep slope to pick up a bit more, so it steadies itself with the back of the scoop again, holding its arm out infront and bracing against the ground.

The portacabins - the temporary site headquarters - in the background are four deep and two high, and the whole block lifted two stories above the ground with girders. It was erected in a day or two, with a couple more days to lay quick foundations. It makes me laugh to see people using their specialities to make their jobs easier. I heard the other day that SMS was a hack by Ericsson engineers so they could communicate while they were working on the infrastructure without interrupting voice calls. The first thing the Mozilla opensource project did was write a web-based bugtracking system.

The light touch of experts. The unconscious ease with which they wield these extra limbs. It's beautiful. Out of respect I have to refer to the JCB and its driver as a single unit, man-machine. My sister the civil engineer tells me that these same excavators can turn on the spot by pivoting on the shovel, and one with claws on the end of the arm can pick up a glass milkbottle without breaking it.

Ben Oldroyd is breeding anarchist bees. There's a particular genetic mutation in honeybees that switches the drones from policing and destroying one another's eggs, to a situation in which egg-laying becomes more common and is not punished*. Usually the queen is promiscuous: you can calculate the genetic relationship coefficients and from there understand why the hive works as it does (why the workers will sacrifice themselves for the whole, why worker eggs are eaten). But once this change occurs (perhaps the drones can't tell the difference between the anarchist eggs and the queen's eggs), the initial conditions have changed and the solutions to the game theory equations change... the dynamic of the hive changes. It becomes an anarchist collective. It makes me wonder how stable our own ethics are [to small perturbations]. Are they the best available iterative solution to the game theory equations that describe society, physics, our behaviour? If so, shouldn't we see the same ethics arising in any system with the same basic rules, just like we see the Fibonacci sequence in the skin of a pineapple and rabbit populations over time?

There's more about the honeybees in Anarchist Bees in The Economist, where I seem to remember it saying Oldroyd's team had pinned the mutation down to a single gene, called alien. (If anyone has a subscription and can send me the full text, I'd be very grateful. [Update. Someone did. Thanks!])

(* Originally I'd said the mutation makes the drones fertile. This isn't true, honeybee drones are fertile anyway, and the cause is somewhat different. Thanks Mark Ward for the correction, and the email on honeybees and anarchy from his experience.)

Gregory Bateson is one of my favourite authors -- an anthropologist who took his knowledge of systems to help found cybernetics. They threw god out of the garden [via Heckler & Coch] are some of his letters on religion, worth a read if only because of their clarity in describing big ideas. However, what I really like is this line: "Norbert Wiener once described ants as 'cheap mass-produced articles'".

Rules for Local Distinctiveness. ("REVEAL the past! Decay is an important process. Don't tidy things up so much that the layers of history and reclamation by nature are obliterated. Let continuity show".) Part of Common Ground, "distinguished by the linking of nature with culture, focussing upon the positive investment people can make in their own localities, championing popular democratic involvement, and by inspiring celebration as a starting point for action to improve the quality of our everyday places".

There are four different timescales used... civil time, GPS time, atomic time, and they're growing apart: What time is it? Well, no one knows for sure [via 2lmc spool]. Nice image: "Since the debate began, the slowing of the Earth has become less pronounced and no leap seconds should be needed for several years. Experts are unsure exactly why this has happened - a number of factors can have short-term influences on its rotation, including earthquakes and even wind blowing on mountains".