Visual pleasure

Some buildings and spaces provide pleasure to the eye and heart, and an inexplicable lift to the spirits.   One such place is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago, whose intimacy and proportions are ineffably balanced.  Another is the Italianate Church of St Brigid in Wavertree, Liverpool.  This Anglican church was designed by E. A. (Arthur) Heffer and built between 1868 and 1872.    The building can be clearly seen from the inter-city trains approaching and departing Liverpool’s Lime Street station, and seeing it never fails to lift my spirits.
Perhaps the pleasure arises from the stark contrast between the tall bell tower and the flat, surrounding landscape of  two-story Victorian terraces.  Or perhaps it is the shape and size of the tower; certainly, the visual pleasure would be much less if the tower were pyramid-shaped, or conical, or any shorter.

Mathematical hands

With MOOCs fast becoming teaching trend-du-jour in western universities, it is easy to imagine that all disciplines and all ways of thinking are equally amenable to information technology.   This is simply not true, and mathematical thinking  in particular requires hand-written drawing and symbolic manipulation.   Nobody ever acquired skill in a mathematical discipline without doing exercises and problems him or herself, writing on paper or a board with his or her own hands.   The physical manipulation by the hand holding the pen or pencil is necessary to gain facility in the mental manipulation of the mathematical concepts and their relationships.
Keith Devlin recounts his recent experience teaching a MOOC course on mathematics, and the deleterious use by students of the word-processing package latex for doing assignments:

We have, it seems, become so accustomed to working on a keyboard, and generating nicely laid out pages, we are rapidly losing, if indeed we have not already lost, the habit—and love—of scribbling with paper and pencil. Our presentation technologies encourage form over substance. But if (free-form) scribbling goes away, then I think mathematics goes with it. You simply cannot do original mathematics at a keyboard. The cognitive load is too great.

Why is this?  A key reason is that current mathematics-producing software is clunky, cumbersome, finicky, and not WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get).   The most widely used such software is Latex (and its relatives), which is a mark-up and command language; when compiled, these commands generate mathematical symbols.   Using Latex does not involve direct manipulation of the symbols, but only their indirect manipulation.   One has first to imagine (or indeed, draw by hand!) the desired symbols or mathematical notation for which one then creates using the appropriate generative Latex commands.   Only when these commands are compiled can the user see the effects they intended to produce.   Facility with pen-and-paper, by contrast, enables direct manipulation of symbols, with (eventually), the pen-in-hand being experienced as an extension of the user’s physical body and mind, and not as something other.   Expert musicians, archers, surgeons, jewellers, and craftsmen often have the same experience with their particular instruments, feeling them to be extensions of their own body and not external tools.
Experienced writers too can feel this way about their use of a keyboard, but language processing software is generally WYSIWYG (or close enough not to matter).  Mathematics-making software  is a long way from allowing the user to feel that they are directly manipulating the symbols in their head, as a pen-in-hand mathematician feels.  Without direct manipulation, hand and mind are not doing the same thing at the same time, and thus – a fortiori – keyboard-in-hand is certainly not simultaneously manipulating concept-in-mind, and nor is keyboard-in-hand simultaneously expressing or evoking concept-in-mind.
I am sure that a major source of the problem here is that too many people – and especially most of the chattering classes – mistakenly believe the only form of thinking is verbal manipulation.  Even worse, some philosophers believe that one can only think by means of words.     Related posts on drawing-as-a-form-of-thinking here, and on music-as-a-form-of-thinking here.
[HT:  Normblog]

Transitions 2012

Some who have passed on during 2012 whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Graeme Bell (1914-2012), Australian jazz band leader
  • Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012), British-American musician (heard perform in Canberra in 1976)
  • Dave Brubeck (1920-2012), American musician (heard perform in Liverpool in ca. 2003)
  • Arthur Chaskalson CJ (1931-2012), South African lawyer and judge
  • Heidi Holland (1947-2012), Zimbabwean-South African writer
  • Robert Hughes (1938-2012), Australian artist and art critic
  • Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012), Brazilian architect
  • Bill Thurston (1946-2012), American mathematician
  • Ruth Wajnryb (1948-2012), Australian linguist.

Resilient capitalism

Yesterday began with a meeting at an investment bank in Paternoster Square, London, which turned out to be inaccessible to visitors and the public.   The owners of the Square had asked the police to close public access to prevent its occupation by the anti-capitalism (OWS) protesters, encamped between the Square and St Paul’s Cathedral.  So our meeting took place in a cafe beside the square.

The day ended with a debate at the Royal Society, organized by The Foundation for Science and Technology, on developing adaptation policy in response to climate change.     The speakers were Dr Rupert Lewis of DEFRA, Sir Graham Wynne of the Sub-Committee on Adaptation, UK Committee on Climate Change, and Tom Bolt, Director of Performance Management at LLoyd’s of London.  (Their presentations will eventually be posted here.) As Bolt remarked, insurance companies have to imagine potential global futures in which climate change has wrecked social and economic havoc, and so are major consumers of scientific prognoses.   One commentator from the audience suggested that insurers, particularly, may have a vested short-term financial interest in us all being pessimistic about the long term future, although this inference was not obvious to me:  one human reaction to a belief in a certainly-ruinous future is not to save or insure for it, but rather to spend today.
A very interesting issue raised by some audience members is just how do we engineer and build infrastructure for adaptability?  What would a well-adapted society look like?     One imagines that the floating houses built in the Netherlands to survive floods would fit any such description.  Computer scientists have some experience in creating and managing robust, designing resilient and adaptive systems, and so it may be useful to examine that experience for lessons for design and engineering efforts for other infrastructure.

Berger on drawing

Following Bridget Riley on drawing-as-thinking, I have been reading Jim Savage’s fascinating collection of writings by John Berger on the topic of drawing.  Although Berger does not say so, he is talking primarily about representational drawing – the drawing of things in the world (whether seen or remembered) or things in some imagined world – not abstract drawing.  Some excerpts:

  • “For the artist drawing is discovery.  And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true.  It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations.” (page 3)
  • “It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking.  A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.  Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it.  Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it:  the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become.  Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical.  Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping-stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river, have put it behind you.” (page 3)
  • “A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event – seen, remembered or imagined.” (page 3)
  • “A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at.  . . .  Within the instant of the sight of a tree is established a life-experience.” (page 71)
  • “All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand.  Eloquent because it touches something fundamental.  How do we know?  We do not know.  We simply recognize.”   (page 80)
  • “Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious.  What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.”  (page 80)
  • “The pen with which I’m writing is the one with which I draw.  And there are times, like tonight, when it won’t flow and when it demands a bath or a hand moving differently.  All drawings are a collaboration, like most circus-acts.” (page 110)
  • “where are we, during the act of drawing, in spirit?  Where are you at such moments – moments which add up to so many, one might think of them as another life-time?    Each pictorial tradition offers a different answer to this query.  For instance, the European tradition, since the Renaissance, places the model over there, the draughtsman here, and the paper somewhere in between, within arms reach of the draughtsman, who observes the model and notes down what he has observed on the paper in front of him.   The Chinese tradition arranges things differently.  Calligraphy, the trace of things, is behind the model and the draughtsman has to search for it, looking through the model.   On his paper he then repeats the gestures he has seen calligraphically.  For the Paleolithic shaman, drawing inside a cave, it was different again.  The model and the drawing surface were in the same place, calling to the draughtsman to come and meet them, and then trace, with his hand on the rock, their presence.” (page 123)

John Berger [2005]:  Berger on Drawing.  Edited by Jim Savage.  Aghabullogue, Co. Cork, Eire:  Occasional Press.  Second Edition, 2007.
I have written more on the relationships between hand and mind and eye and object here.

Of quacking ducks and homeostasis

After reading a very interesting essay (PDF) by biologist J. Scott Turner discussing Intelligent Design (ID) and Evolution which presents an anti-anti-ID case, I was led to read Turner’s recent book, The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Turner argues that Darwinian Evolution requires, but lacks, a notion of intentionality. Despite the use of an apparently teleological concept, he is no creationist: he argues that both Evolutionary theorists (who refuse to consider any such notions) and Creationists/IDers (who have such a notion, but refuse to examine it scientifically) are missing something important and necessary.

Turner’s key notion is that biological and ecological systems contain entities who create environments and seek to regulate them. Typically, such entities seek to maintain their environment in a particular state, i.e., they aim for environmental homeostasis.  The concept of homeostasis is due to the French pioneer of physiology, Claude Bernard (1813-1878), who observed that the human body and its various organs seek to maintain various homeostatic states internally, for example, the chemical composition of the blood stream. That indefatigable complex systems theorist and statistician Cosma Shalizi has thus proposed calling entities which create and regulate environments, Bernard Machines, and Turner also uses this name. (Turner credits Shalizi for the name but provides no citation to anything written by Shalizi, not even a URL — I think this very unprofessional of Turner.)
For Turner, these entities have some form of intentionality, and thus provide the missing component of Darwinian evolution. For a computer scientist, at least for those who have kept up with research since 1990, a Bernard Machine is just an intelligent agent:  they are reactive (they respond to changes in their environment), they are pro-active (ie, goal-directed), and they are autonomous (in that they may decide within some parameters, how, when, and whether to act). Some Bernard Machines may also have a sense of sociality, i.e., awareness of the existence of other agents in their environment, to complete the superfecta of the now-standard definition of agenthood due to Wooldridge and Jennings (1995).
I understand that the more materialist biologists become agitated at any suggestion of non-human entities possibly having anything like intentionality (a concept with teleological or spiritual connotations, apparently), and thus they question whether goal-directedness can in fact be said to be the same as intentionality. But this argument is exactly like the one we witnessed over the last two decades in computer science over the concept of autonomy of software systems: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, there is nothing to be gained, either in practice or in theory, by insisting that it isn’t really a duck. Indeed, as software agent people know very well (see Wooldridge 2000), one cannot ever finally verify the internal states of agents (or Bernard machines, or indeed ducks, for that matter), since any sufficiently clever software developer can design an agent with any required internal state. Indeed, the cleverest software developers can even design agents themselves sufficiently clever to be able to emulate insincerely, and wittingly insincerely, any required internal states.
POSTSCRIPT: Of course, with man-made systems such as economies and societies, we cannot assume all agents are homeostatic; some may simply seek to disrupt the system. For computational systems, we cannot even assume all agents always act in their own self-interest (however they perceive that), since they may simply have buggy code.
J. Scott Turner [2007]: Signs of design. The Christian Century, June 12, 2007, 124: 18-22. Reprinted in: Jimmy Carter and Philip Zaleski (Editors): Best American Spiritual Writing 2008. Houghton Mifflin.
J. Scott Turner [2007]: The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges from Life Itself. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.
Michael J. Wooldridge [2000]: Semantic issues in the verification of agent communication languages. Journal of Autonomous Agents and Multi-Agent Systems, 3 (1): 9-31.
Michael J. Wooldridge and Nicholas R. Jennings [1995]: Intelligent agents: theory and practice. The Knowledge Engineering Review, 10 (2): 115-152.

A salute to Dick Bissell

For those who know his name, Richard Bissell (1910-1994) probably has a mostly negative reputation, as the chief planner of the failed attempted invasion of Cuba at the “Bay of Pigs” in April 1961.  Put aside the fact that last-minute changes to the invasion plans (including a change of location) were forced on Bissell and CIA by the Kennedy Administration; after all, as Bissell himself argued in his memoirs, he and CIA could have and should have done more to resist these changes.  (There is another post to be written on the lessons of this episode for the making of complex decisions, a topic on which surprisingly little seems to have been published.)  Bissell ended his career as VP for Marketing and Economic Planning at United Aircraft Corporation, a post he held for a decade, although he found it unfulfilling after the excitement of his Government service.

Earlier in his career, Bissell was several times an administrative and organizational hero, a man who got things done.  During World War II, Bissell, working for the US Government’s Shipping Adjustment Board, established a comprehensive card index of every ship in the US merchant marine to the point where he could predict, within an error of 5 percent, which ships would be at which ports unloading their cargoes when, and thus available for reloading.  He did this well before multi-agent systems or even Microsoft Excel. After WW II, he was the person who successfully implemented the Marshall Plan for the Economic Recovery of Europe.  And then, after joining CIA in 1954, he successfully created and led the project to design, build, equip and deploy a high-altitude spy-plane to observe America’s enemies, the U-2 spy plane.   Bissell also led the design, development and deployment of CIA’s Corona reconnaisance satellites, and appears to have played a key role in the development of America’s national space policy before that.
Whatever one thinks of the overall mission of CIA before 1989 (and I think there is a fairly compelling argument that CIA and KGB successfully and jointly kept the cold war from becoming a hot one), one can only but admire Bissell’s managerial competence, his ability to inspire others, his courage, and his verve.  Not only was the U-2 a completely new plane (designed and built by a team led by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed, using engines from Pratt & Whitney), flying at altitudes above any ever flown before, and using a new type of fuel (developed by Shell), but the plane also had to be equipped with sophisticated camera equipment, also newly invented and manufactured (by a team led by Edwin Land of Polaroid), producing developed film in industrial quantities.  All of these components, and the pilot, needed to operate under extreme conditions (eg, high-altitudes, long-duration flights, very sensitive flying parameters, vulnerability to enemy attack).  And the overall process, from weather prediction, through deployment of the plane and pilot to their launch site, all the way to the human analyses of the resulting acres of film, had to be designed, organized, integrated and managed.
All this was done in great secrecy and very rapidly, with multiple public-sector and private-sector stakeholders involved.   Bissell achieved all this while retaining the utmost loyalty and respect from those who worked for him and with him.  I can only respond with enormous admiration for the project management and expectations management abilities, and the political, negotiation, socialization, and consensus-forging skills, that Dick Bissell must have had.  Despite what many in academia believe, these abilities are rare and intellectually-demanding, and far too few people in any organization have them.
Richard M. Bissell [1996]:  Reflections of a Cold Warrior:  From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Norman Polnar [2001]:  Spyplane:  The U-2 History Declassified.  Osceola, WI, USA: MBI Publishing.
Evan Thomas [1995]:  The Very Best Men.  Four Who Dared:  The Early Years of the CIA.  New York City, NY, USA:  Touchstone.

The resonance of spimes

In 2004, Bruce Sterling coined the term “spime” for an object which tracked its own history and its own interactions with the world (using, for example, technologies such as RFID and GPS).  In Sterling’s words, spimes

“are precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story. 
Spimes have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.”

Spime wranglers are people willing to invest time and effort in managing the meta-data and narratives of their spimes. The always-interesting Russell Davies has been exploring the consequences of this idea for designers of commercial products.

Several thoughts have occured to me:
As with all new technologies, the future is unevenly distributed, and there have been spime wranglers for some artefacts for a very long time — for instance, for early industrial manufacturing technologies (eg, the 1785 Boulton and Watt steam engine (a diagram of which is above), in use for 102 years, and then immediately shipped by an alert wrangler to a museum in Australia in 1888) and for Stradivarius violins.  The service log books of motor vehicles, legally required in most western countries, are a pre-computer version of the metadata and narrative which a spime and its wranglers can generate.
Secondly, spime wranglers, like lead-users, become co-designers and co-marketers of the product, because they help to vest the product with meaning-in-the-world.   Grant McCracken has written on the trend to greater democratization of meaning-creation in marketing.  (Note: I’ll try to find a specific post of Grant’s on this topic.)
Finally, it strikes me that the best way to conceive of the narrative and metadata generated and collated by a spime and, working with it, by the spime’s wranglers is through Rupert Sheldrake’s powerful (and sadly neglected) idea of morphic fields.   I hope to explore this idea, and its implications for quantitative marketing, in a future post.