All posts made in Nov. 2004:

20:38, Tuesday 30 Nov., 2004

And here we are, Mind Hacks has arrived! I was only expecting a couple of CDs too, the chap at the door said "delivery for Webb?" as he hefted the cardboard box in. I was bouncing off the walls for ages. The book, the book, the book. Done at last, in all good etc real soon now. There's a Mind Hacks weblog too, that Tom Stafford and I will be posting all the stuff we've saved up over the summer to (and roping in some of the contributors). This'll be fun.

Interconnected

A weblog by Matt Webb.

Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo.

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22:28, Monday 29 Nov.

From "It Was Never Really Different," a poem in Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home [about which I said]:

When I hit the drum like this,/ I think the sound/ was there before the beginning,/ and everything has gone to make that sound,/ and after it/ everything is different.

12:48, Thursday 25 Nov.

Two | The In Our Time research page on Zoroastrianism also gives this quote, from "De Iside et Osiride" (2nd century): Life and the cosmos... are compounded of two opposite principles and of two antithetic powers, one of which leads by a straight path to the right, while the other reverses and bends back. For if nothing comes into being without a cause, and if good could not provide the cause of evil, then nature must contain in itself the creation and origin of evil as well as good.

Hoffmeyer talks about fate and freedom. And there's canalisation/calcification and.. whatever the other one is [that's Delanda?]. It's like push and pull, meshwork and arboreal, digestion/uttering (this is a unfolding/folding pattern: dna to organism to dna, soundwaves to cortex/word to thought). These aren't always the same pairings (more)--they're different according to whether we're looking at timelike or spacelike systems, and how things are historically formed, and so on. But what's common is that they turn into each other, and there are these two, these two forces, wills, that are part of but separate from one another. This is what yin and yang is about: Not that there are two things, one called yin and one called yang, but that there's a meta description: that we always have two tendencies, a yin-role and a yang-role, that these roles are always analogous to yin and yang, and they always become one other. It's a how-it-works understanding as fundamental as entropy, manifesting in all kinds of ways.

Three | In fact, reading the description of Zoroastrianism wills, the aspects of god, again, I can see what people have been getting at, these past millennia.

There's the haecceity, the isness, the Bestund, the standing reserve, that's one thing: the world. This comes into being by some act of revealing or unfolding, or calcification of flow.

Second there are the wills, or the spirits, the patterns of becoming. These are not the lines of flight, but the condensations the lines of flight weave. The aspect of flowering, the aspect of tumbling. The texture, the weave, the grain of the way the world flows; that which buffets us from side-to-side, chance, Murphy's Law, inevitability: god. That which inhabits all, is in us and of us, the emergent properties that are actually somehow separate.

Then there is the transformer, the director, the transistor; the hinge, the difference that makes a difference, the journey, the surface between two insides: the coyote. And the coyote represents not just the human - the chooser - but the knot in the wood, the stone that you trip on, the butterfly that causes the hurricane. The coyote is the kybernetes, the steersman, the gardener.

These are the three, orthogonal to the yin-yang, which is a way of seeing inside each of these three densities and how they interact (the yin-yang is a metawill, one among several). Popper's three worlds of knowledge? More like: The lord, the son, and the holy ghost. The object, sign, interpretant. Time to reevaluate the symbol, index and icon triad as aspects of god, perhaps.

12:14

On wisdom, since I mentioned it earlier: Tom S told me about something Bruce Lee said: Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I've understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

The epiphany. Behind the mountain, there are more mountains. The deep understanding which is simplicity itself and has come back full circle. The wise have built up many such epiphanies, and, what's more, they understand the nature of epiphany itself, of paths and journeys (I think, I've caught maybe a sideways was-it-there-or-wasn't-it glimpse of it, perhaps). I love talking to wise people. You spend twenty minutes building a shaky spiderweb of a proposition, and they listen, and then they say "no" or "yes," and you know from listening that they're really understood, and they've taken that path before, and they've been past the epiphany. It's such a relief to receive that. That's what I think wisdom is.

12:14

In Our Time had an episode, a couple of weeks ago, about Zarathrustra, the prophet of Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion. About 11 minutes into the discussion, there's a description of these other entities that surround the central god. I've transcribed it:

We've been focussing on Ahura Mazda, but in fact Ahura Mazda is the sort of figurehead, he's the focus of the lord, he's the lord of wisdom. But he's surrounded by a pantheon of six other beings. Now I hesitate to use this word being because they're spirits, and they're wills. They're entities in some sense, but we don't know. They're spiritual beings. And these are aspects, if you like, if you're a monotheist you think of these as aspects of god. But in fact, he, they work with god, they collaborate. One of them, a very important one, is the idea of Khshathra Vairya, which means "good governance," the "best governance," and this is symbolised by the sky. Each of these divine beings has a physical correspondant, so the sky looks after the earth, which is the next amesha spenta, or blessed immortal, and the spenta are mighty, is the earth, and represents "holy piety," translated as "benevolant piety". So we have the sky and the earth and these are the manifestations of these divine beings, and then water is symbolised, is spiritualised in the concept of Haurvatat, which is "perfection" or "wholeness". And then the next divine being is represented in the plant, in plantlife, Ameretat, immortality, immortality. So you can see the connection between purity and wholeness, perfection and water, and immortality and plantlife. And the next very important divine being in this heptad, this group of immortal beings, is the "good mind," Vohu Manah, which is represented by the beneficent animal, which is tended by mankind. And then man himself is the representive of god, Ahura Mazda, the lord wisdom, is also known as the Spenta Mainyu, the most whole spirit, and it is man who is the embodiment of that most holy spirit. And then lastly we have the notion of supreme truth, Asha Vahishta, which is symbolised by, which is embodied in the physical creation of fire, and that's where we come to this very important symbol of the Zaruthrustrianisms.

These six aren't beings, they're not figures: they're wills. It's that pattern again: We're really used to dividing the world up into a pysical, container+conduit-based hierarchy (my keys are in the pocket which is on my coat which is in the closet in the bedroom in the house, street, town, country)--a powerful system of thought needs some way of breaking that down and pointing out that there are behaviours that are shared across objects.

It's hard to talk about, because we're talking about subtle patterns of behaviour. Some things are universal, therefore easy (things fall down), but others are vaguer and more complex: knots tend to get tighter, and you can see knots in rope but also political opinion; gardens tend to disorder, and that's true of plants, or growing children, or tidy legal systems. Becomings, lines of flight--it's very hard to point out the power of analogies and similarities in patterns of behaviour, because they're very hard to point at.

Whereas I'm calling them now "lines of flight" [D&G], it seems that the Zoroastrians called them wills, or spirits. It's a nice abstraction really: You can think of your garden as a mechanical, easy-to-understand system if you always admit that Angra Mainyu, the destructive spirit, is working alongside you. It's this spirit of greed which makes some plants spread rapidly, battling others and using up their own resources. It's your job to channel other spirits, of balance and governance, to make corrections. What draws me to structures like Zoroastrianism is that the epiphanic understanding its followers must have had of it coupled with its persistence means that it must be robust and close to the "truth": the pantheon of wills must have been a useful framework for life. When we come to analysing the botany of unfoldings we may find that we only need six, or seven too.

There's something appealing - and disarmingly now - about saying that we don't interact directly with the world, we collaborate with wills (or patterns of becoming, or lines of flight), and inflect and combine them (don't cross the streams!) to sculpt the world as we will. And of course, the reflexion, the world we shape creates more places for these spirits to inhabit. It's complexity wrangling, a cybernetics worldview, acting as the helmsman, the kybernetes, in working with the world. And it feels like computers and MMORPGS too, reaching through into a virtual space, unable to have direct manipulation but utterly capable to direct and choreograph the wilful unfoldings.

In the course of this post, I found these pages useful:

Also in the episode, somebody speaks of the omniscient one: Wisdom is everywhere, if only we could see it, reach for it, use it. Which, to me, sounds like a plea for Heidegger's Revealing, or maybe a realisation of the holographic patterns of being and becoming.

09:53, Friday 19 Nov.

Yesterday evening, thanks to Matt Ward (if we get on it's only because our names are similar), I went to my first Derrida seminar, on Derrida's response to Heidegger's analysis of death. You know, for kicks.

It was a somewhat desperate grab (desperate is a bit strong about someone who appears to enjoy perverse contradictions and lies in their own text) for something, anything objectively real, some kind of rock to hang onto.

I wasn't really there to hear about death. I was there to swim in the language. There were some beautiful turns of phrase, "inflecting the text," words setting fire to one another. I had to fall back to manifolds to get a handle on anything, this isn't my territory, but at the same time I know that misses the point: Previously I've merely discussed, using words [and n-branes of words, poetry almost, but you know what I mean]. But this text wrung meaning from the use and separation of words. Take a text, retell it and inflect it, the gap between the two is strung with taut meaning like the chewing gum from the bottom of your shoe stretched from the floor. To talk about the impossible - my death - contort language to summon up inconsistencies and impossible statements, and manipulate those, refusing analogy. While our brains have to be physically consistent, the language represented therein needn't hold together--take advantage of that. I had expected, by reputation, something like this of Derrida, but I didn't realise precisely what I'd encounter, it's a little epiphany to finally see it. It's a viscious technique, in a way, savage and disrespectful. And viscous too, swimming through language is like swimming through a machine of gears and chains.

Here's the thing. When I got home, late, I bought a deep-filled cheese pizza from Tesco, in an unconscious tribute to Sartre's omelettes, and I put it in the oven and ate it. After two hours of the impossibility of considering one's death, it seemed appropriate to take weeks off my life with a bowl of melted cheese. (Which somehow, also, makes me more authentic.)

Last night I nightmared of death and time, of trying to come to terms with the briefness of life if (but given I wasn't/won't be around in the rest of time, how can I say 'brief'), whether it matters, whether you get scared at the point of death, wondering how I can simultaneously be scared of the ultimate nature of death and of ghosts in the dark. I prefer the magic of ghosts I think, they at least hold out the promise of the escape from embodiment and hitting the singularity. In short, I got the existential heebie jeebies, which either means I think too much, or I really did have too much cheese for dinner.

On philosophy, and my future. I enjoy this stuff, but I enjoy it as purist exercise. I'm a physicist not a mathematician. And I enjoy the tools wielded by the sociologists and anthropologists, and I enjoy their arguments and discoveries, but I want to use and understand, not necessarily further. It's just quite evident that the philosophy I can wave in the air, apply, and recombine, it all comes out of other subjects: architecture, psychoanalysis, anthropology [some time ago]. I like science, and things which become [and the patterns of becomings]; I like puns and language, I can operate in design and in cybernetics [what cybernetics was, not what it is today]. I believe that the cyberneticians anticipated the present day from three decades ago, but because of social dynamics they didn't communicate their ideas and have them artistically bound. Cybernetics is our weapon against Fordism and the conduit metaphor (at least, a certain conception of cybernetics). I like practice. I like analogy, and (in whatever I end up doing) will have to mount a defense of analogy. To make one now: The way Derrida operates inside language instead of over it, I want a philosophy (or rather, a way of doing philosophy) which is of embodiment (embodiment of all kinds, including the nonhuman) instead of happening over it. Where can I find that? What can I do? Where can I start?

13:23, Thursday 18 Nov.

Google Scholar: Stand on the shoulders of giants [via del.icio.us]. Ranked by citations; appears to merge single results into one when the same PDF is present in different locations; gets results from pay-for libraries; use the author: marker to search metadata; includes books. Incredible. It looks source-based, like news.google, and they've included the major databases in the few fields that I know enough about to check. Already great, potential: huge. Abstracts? A better citation browser? Personalised (it's be useful, I need profiles to say I'm not looking for crystal papers when I'm really looking in sociology). Research tools and persistence. Presence. Trailblazing. APIs.

Gosh. I'm not sure it'll displace Citeseer as a paper discovery tool (ooh, there's a cool graphical browser I hadn't seen before), mainly because Citeseer has more detailed information immediately available, but as a way of getting a rapid overview of an area and to perform idle, broad searches, this seems to be a great orthogonal slice through academic space.

23:48, Wednesday 17 Nov.

The Prague revolution began 15 years ago today. In the course of researching Listopad, Prague 1989 [the November Events], I attempted to understand the tangled causes for the events 15 years ago, Friday 17 November 1989, that led to the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

A beautiful tangle. That something so recent can be so unknown. That a volume of truth can be so known and unknown.

At the time [of my reading], May and June 2002, I archived the websites I used as sources, incase they didn't persist. I haven't checked whether they're still online, but for the anniversary I've put my mirror and timeline online: Prague 1989 source research and notes. Enjoy.

There's so much to read and talk about here: first-person narratives; clashing embedded perspectives; decade retrospectives; how it fits in the year of revolutions. Really what I love are the three Martin Smids, the conflicts between stories and conspiracies, the reconstruction of and the swimming in the past, and the nature of truth. Truth. And for now, read.

15:28, Monday 15 Nov.

Design Engaged was fantastic. I was saying to Andrew shortly before we left, a good metric for conference success is how many of your ideas have been disrupted. I've had some strengthed or reinforced, others totally turned about, and some new ones. A good feeling.

Like our algorithmic walk [and my train journey earlier this year] the journey was the destination; the experience was to be swum in. Correspondingly my notes are scrappier than usual, listing keywords to provoke thoughts in myself rather than capturing anything. My presentation was scrappier still, a cut-up work in progress attempting to express my understanding of the brain-as-thing-which-can-be-compared after a summer of writing (and actually never approaching that high-level description directly). I opened my presentation describing a game I play, naming as many kinds of animals as possible in a minute, and watching the paths that are made by my mind. The talk itself followed the same pattern: I was unable to read my notes and talked from memory, inspired by each slide to attempt to reconstruct my reasoning for choosing it. I end with jetstreams.

At the end of the weekend we each recommended 3 books. They aren't favourite books, necessarily, or most influential, just recommended ones as if in conversation with people there.

My Design Engaged 2004 notes. Thanks, Andrew, for putting this on, and thanks too to my fellow attendees who made this an uncus three days. I hope I will be able to count many as new friends.

13:05

My Nokia 8310 has packed up--it won't even switch on (and nothing comes on the screen when I plug in to charge it). All my favourite text messages are in a folder on the phone memory. Is there anything I can rip out of it to get the messages off? (A new 3220 is arriving tomorrow, but I'm rather upset about the texts. I thought they were on the SIM.)

16:09, Friday 12 Nov.

The Aleph Detector.

12:44, Thursday 11 Nov.

You can now get Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time as a Podcast using this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/mp3/podcast.xml.

The MP3 trial runs till the end of the year (I didn't have anything to do with that, it's one of several MP3 download trials the department is running, and it's an enormous achievement for such a huge broadcaster. Very proud to be working here at the moment). But there are these folks writing software to make the whole audio-online experimence much smoother, the Podcast folks, could we give that a go too? And that's what today is about [I work in the BBC's Radio and Music Interactive department, btw].

Please let me know if you find any bugs/problems with our Podcast feed. I'll get em fixed. We'll be updating it once a week for the remainder of the MP3 trial (it's the same distribution channel really; no more or less information, no archives). The trials are being done because it's important to know what people think and how the MP3s will be used: Please share your reactions and give us feedback (if there's anything that needs addressing immediately, feel free to mail me too).

20:17, Tuesday 9 Nov.

I thought they'd stopped, but no. A third number, on a marginally larger square sticker of not quite so shiny white paper, Es just found it stuck to my left elbow: 44.

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