Vale: Sol Encel

I have just learnt of the death last month of Sol Encel, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of New South Wales, and a leading Australian sociologist, scenario planner, and futures thinker.    I took a course on futurology with him two decades ago, and it was one of the most interesting courses I ever studied.  This was not due to Encel himself, at least not directly, who appeared in human form only at the first lecture.
He told us he was a very busy and important man, and would certainly not have the time to spare to attend any of the subsequent lectures in the course.  Instead, he had arranged a series of guest lectures for us, on a variety of topics related to futures studies, futurology, and forecasting.  Because he was genuinely important, his professional network was immense and impressive, and so the guest speakers he had invited were a diverse group of prominent people, from different industries, academic disciplines, professions, politics and organizations, each with interesting perspectives or experiences on the topic of futures and prognosis.  The talks they gave were absolutely fascinating.
To accommodate the guest speakers, the lectures were held in the early evening, after normal working hours.  Because of this unusual timing, and because the course assessment comprised only an essay, student attendance at the lectures soon fell sharply.  Often I turned up to find I was the only student present.   These small classes presented superb opportunities to meet and talk with the guest speakers, conversations that usually adjourned to a cafe or a bar nearby.  I learnt a great deal about the subject of forecasting, futures, strategic planning, and prognosis, particularly in real organizations with real stakeholders, from these interactions.  Since he chose these guests, I thus sincerely count Sol Encel as one of the important influences on my thinking about futures.
Here, in a tribute from the Australian Broadcasting Commission, is a radio broadcast Encel made in 1981 about Andrei Sakharov. It is interesting that there appears to have been speculation in the West then has to how the so-called father of the Soviet nuclear bomb could have become a supporter of dissidents.   This question worried, too, the KGB, whose answer was one Vadim Delone, poet.  And here, almost a month after Solomon Encel’s death, is his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald.  One wonders why this took so long to be published.

At Swim-two-birds

Brian Dillon reviews a British touring exhibition of the art of John Cage, currently at the Baltic Mill Gateshead.
Two quibbles:  First, someone who compare’s Cage’s 4′ 33” to a blank gallery wall hasn’t actually listened to the piece.  If Dillon had compared it to a glass window in the gallery wall allowing a view of the outside of the gallery, then he would have made some sense.  But Cage’s composition is not about silence, or even pure sound, for either of which a blank gallery wall might be an appropriate visual representation.  The composition is about ambient sound, and about what sounds count as music in our culture.
Second, Dillon rightly mentions that the procedures used by Cage for musical composition from 1950 onwards (and later for poetry and visual art) were based on the Taoist I Ching.  But he wrongly describes these procedures as being based on “the philosophy of chance.”     Although widespread, this view is nonsense, accurate neither as to what Cage was doing, nor even as to what he may have thought he was doing.   Anyone subscribing to the Taoist philosophy underlying them understands the I Ching procedures as examplifying and manifesting hidden causal mechanisms, not chance.   The point of the underlying philosophy is that the random-looking events that result from the procedures express something unique, time-dependent, and personal to the specific person invoking the I Ching at the particular time they invoke it. So, to a Taoist, the resulting music or art is not “chance” or “random” or “aleatoric” at all, but profoundly deterministic, being the necessary consequential expression of deep, synchronistic, spiritual forces. I don’t know if Cage was himself a Taoist (I’m not sure that anyone does), but to an adherent of Taoist philosophy Cage’s own beliefs or attitudes are irrelevant to the workings of these forces.  I sense that Cage had sufficient understanding of Taoist and Zen ideas (Zen being the Japanese version of Taoism) to recognize this particular feature:  that to an adherent of the philosophy the beliefs of the invoker of the procedures are irrelevant.
In my experience, the idea that the I Ching is a deterministic process is a hard one for many modern westerners to understand, let alone to accept, so entrenched is the prevailing western view that the material realm is all there is.  This entrenched view is only historically recent in the west:  Isaac Newton, for example, was a believer in the existence of cosmic spiritual forces, and thought he had found the laws which governed their operation.    Obversely, many easterners in my experience have difficulty with notions of uncertainty and chance; if all events are subject to hidden causal forces, the concepts of randomness and of alternative possible futures make no sense.  My experience here includes making presentations and leading discussions on scenario analyses with senior managers of Asian multinationals.
We are two birds swimming, each circling the pond, warily, neither understanding the other, neither flying away.
Kyle Gann [2010]: No Such Thing as Silence.  John Cage’s 4′ 33”.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
James Pritchett [1993]:  The Music of John Cage.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Silicon millenarianism

Here we go again! We have another blogger predicting the end of the office.   Funny how it’s almost always bloggers and journalists and thinktank-swimmers doing this – always people whose work, most of the time, is by themselves, and who therefore fail to understand the nature of actual work in modern organizations.   As I’ve argued before, workplace interactions are primarily about the co-ordination of actions and the assessment of people’s intentions concerning these actions, not (or not merely) about sharing information.  Why did Barack Obama summon the Chairman and CEO of BP to the Oval Office earlier this week?  Why was the CEO also called to testify before Congress?   Why didn’t the President or the Congressional Committee simply place a conference call?  Because it is very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to accurately assess another person’s intentions without immediate physical proximity and face-to-face interaction with said person.
If all you are doing is writing a blog or researching a story, perhaps you don’t ever appreciate this fact about work.  But anyone tasked with doing something other than writing knows it.   Seth Goodin thinks that within 10 years TV programs about office work will seem to be “quaint antiques”.  I bet him they will not at all.  Moreover, I bet the people in those offices will still be using paper, still having meetings, and still talking by the water-cooler.   In fact, while you’re placing my bets, put me down for 100 years, not 10.

Poem: Tu ne quaesieris

Ode I:XI of Horace, Tu ne quaesieris (translated by David West), ending with the advice, carpe diem.

Don’t you ask, Leuconoe – the gods do not wish it to be known –
what end they have given me or to you, and don’t meddle with
Babylonian horoscopes. How much better to accept whatever comes,
whether Jupiter gives us other winters or whether this is our last
now wearying out the Tyrrhenian sea on the pumice stones
opposing it. Be wise, strain the wine and cut back long hope
into a small space. Even as we speak, envious time
flies past. Harvest the day and leave as little as possible for tomorrow.

Horace [1997 AD/23 BCE]: The Complete Odes and Epodes. Translation by David West. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nicolas Fatio de Duillier

Fatio de DuillierNicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753) was a Genevan mathematician and polymath, who for a time in the 1680s and 1690s, was a close friend of Isaac Newton. After coming to London in 1687, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society (on 1688-05-15), as later did his brother Jean-Christophe (on 1706-04-03).  He played a major part in Newton’s feud with Leibniz over who had invented the differential calculus, and was a protagonist all his life for Newton’s thought and ideas.
Continue reading ‘Nicolas Fatio de Duillier’

Social forecasting: Doppio Software

Five years ago, back in the antediluvian era of Web 2.0 (the web as enabler and facilitator of social networks), we had the idea of  social-network forecasting.  We developed a product to enable a group of people to share and aggregate their forecasts of something, via the web.  Because reducing greenhouse gases were also becoming flavour-du-jour, we applied these ideas to social forecasts of the price for the European Union’s carbon emission permits, in a nifty product we called Prophets-360.  Sadly, due mainly to poor regulatory design of the European carbon emission market, supply greatly outstripped demand for emissions permits, and the price of permits fell quickly and has mostly stayed fallen.  A flat curve is not difficult to predict, and certainly there was little value in comparing one person’s forecast with that of another.  Our venture was also felled.
But now the second generation of social networking forecasting tools has arrived.  I see that a French start-up, Doppio Software, has recently launched publicly.   They appear to have a product which has several advantages over ours:

  • Doppio Software is focused on forecasting demand along a supply chain.  This means the forecasting objective is very tactical, not the long-term strategic forecasting that CO2 emission permit prices became.   In the present economic climate, short-term tactical success is certainly more compelling to business customers than even looking five years hence.
  • The relevant social network for a supply chain is a much stronger community of interest than the amorphous groups we had in mind for Prophets-360.  Firstly, this community already exists (for each chain), and does not need to be created.  Secondly, the members of the community by definition have differential access to information, on the basis of their different positions up and down the chain.  Thirdly, although the interests of the partners in a supply chain are not identical, these interests are mutually-reinforcing:  everyone in the chain benefits if the chain itself is more successful at forecasting throughput.
  • In addition, Team Doppio (the Doppiogangers?) appear to have included a very compelling value-add:  their own automated modeling of causal relationships between the target demand variables of each client and general macro-economic variables, using  semantic-web data and qualitative modeling technologies from AI.  Only the largest manufacturing companies can afford their own econometricians, and such people will normally only be able to hand-craft models for the most important variables.  There are few companies IMO who would not benefit from Doppio’s offer here.

Of course, I’ve not seen the Doppio interface and a lot will hinge on its ease-of-use (as with all software aimed at business users).  But this offer appears to be very sophisticated, well-crafted and compelling, combining social network forecasting, intelligent causal modeling and semantic web technologies.
Well done, Team Doppio!  I wish you every success with this product!
PS:  I have just learnt that “doppio” means “double”, which makes it a very apposite name for this application – forecasts considered by many people, across their human network.  Neat!  (2009-09-16)
Article in The Observer (UK) about Doppio 2009-09-06 here. And here is an AFP TV news story (2009-09-15) about Doppio co-founder, Edouard d’Archimbaud.  Another co-founder is Benjamin Haycraft.

Newton and scientific publication

While on the subject of Isaac Newton, here are several statements by historian Scott Mandelbrote on Newton’s attitude to the public dissemination of his work.  The more we know of Newton, the less we should consider him a scientist in the modern meaning of the word.

His [theological investigation] was a voyage of personal discovery; even the Principia required Halley’s exertions as a midwife to bring them to light.  Newton might share his religious opinions with other members of the remnant, as he did in his letters to Locke, but he worried about the consequences of their wider dissemination:  ‘I was of opinion my papers had lain still & am sorry to heare there is news about them.  Let me entreat you to stop their translation & impression so soon as  you can for I designe to suppress them.’  Newton’s concern may have reflected fear of being discovered to hold unorthodox  opinions, but it was also the product of religious motives.  Not everyone could be expected to comprehend ‘strong meat’, which was  intended for personal consumption, and which might be wasted on others.” (p.299)

His [Newton’s] theology pervaded his alchemy, in his analysis of the Emerald Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus, and in turn  his alchemy suggested to him how matter might be understood physically.  A true understanding of the uses of language enabled  Newton to introduce astronomical calculation into his chronological writings, and to complete his mathematical arguments with theological references:
. . . .
Mathematics was God’s language; the language of the prophets communicated God’s purposes and ‘times’ to men.  Newton felt it was his duty to understand and to reconcile the two, to decipher the hieroglyphs which corrupted religion and learning had obscured.   The problems of mathematics ended in the solutions of divine majesty, and mathematical language solved the theological problem of describing Newton’s Arian interpretation of the relations within the Trinity:
. . .
Newton’s natural philosophical and theological discoveries removed the obscurities from divine language, in the books of nature and of scripture.  In the life of the true believer, the two could not be separated.  But most had to be content with the milk for babes, because Newton’s own language was beyond them.” (pp. 300-301).

Scott Mandelbrote [1993]:  ‘A dute of the greatest moment’: Isaac Newton and the writing of biblical criticism. British Journal of the History of Science, 26:  281-302.

Chasing the sources: a Newtonian mystery

As is well-known to historians (although less so among scientists), Isaac Newton was a devout religious believer, an alchemist, and a seeker after ancient wisdom about God and the cosmos.   He was a Unitarian, a belief not permitted at the time, and so he kept his religious views very, very close to himself and to a small circle of intimates.  When his friend and fellow FRS, Nicolas Fatio de Duiller, publicly supported the millenarian French Protestant sect, the Camisards (aka The French Prophets), in London in the first decade of the 18th century, Newton kept in touch with him to learn of their prophecies, and came close to publicly supporting them also.
So when an historian writes the following it is very plausible, at least to people aware of Newton’s religious beliefs and interests:

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was also enamored of Egyptian wisdom, as we shall see in the next chapter, even if it is not clear that he accepted the Hermetic tradition.  It was essential for his theory of gravitation to have an accurate measure of the world’s circumference, and for that he needed to calculate exactly a single degree of latitude.  Newton was convinced that there was no need to send a team of surveyors to plot distances on the ground, as the French were doing.  It was rather easier to determine the exact length of an Egyptian cubit, which ancient authors insisted was directly related to a degree of latitude.   This information could be obtained from the dimensions of the Great Pyramid, which was always believed (perhaps rightly) to enshrine perfect units of length, area and volume, as well as pi.  Sadly, the results of the Pyramid experiment did not fit Newton’s calculations, but, instead of scrapping the theory, the great scientist blamed the surveyors instead.   As luck would have it, the French astronomer Jean Picard (1620-82) succeeded in 1671 in measuring perfectly a degree of latitude in Sweden, so Newton could prove his theory of gravitation without the Egyptians.” (Katz 2005, page 31)

The reference the author David Katz cites for this story is Shalev 2002.  But consulting that reference, we do not see mentioned the story Katz relates here.  Instead, we find this sentence (on page 574):

As Robert Palter has argued in his critique on Bernal’s Black Athena, there is no evidence to show that Newton related his interest in the Egyptian cubit to his physics and geodesy.”

with the reference being to Palter 1993, pages 245 and following.
What is going on here?  Has Katz mistakenly cited the wrong source for the story above, something easy enough to do in academic writing?   Perhaps Katz could tell us.  I hope it is a simple mistake in citation, and not something more sinister.
David S. Katz [2005]: The Occult Tradition:  From the Renaissance to the Present Day.  (London, UK: Jonathan Cape).
Robert Palter [1993]:  Black Athena, Afro-Centrism, and the history of science. History of Science, 31: 227-287.
Zur Shalev [2002]:  Measurer of all things: John Greaves (1602-1652), the Great Pyramid and early modern metrology. Journal of the History of Ideas, 63: 555-575.

How environment shapes cosmology

Further to the post below about the relationship between language and thought, a friend has just remarked to me that the absolute (East-West-North-South) spatial reference system in the language of the Kuuk Thaayorre is in fact a relative system, relative to the magnetic poles or (since they are unlikely to have known about the poles) relative to the movements of the sun.  Accordingly, such a language would have been unlikely to have developed in parts of the world with continuous cloud cover.   Which observation brought to mind a famous article by French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, where he considered what type of mathematical physics humans may have  developed if the earth had been always covered in cloud:  no theory aiming to predict the return of meteors, no models of planetary motion, not much study of ellipses and related number theory, and perhaps a theory of gravitation long delayed.  (Thanks:  DW).