August 24, 2022

I’ll have no truck with that

by Carl Dyke

My commute keeps working as an example of systems in my Systems reading circle for our online program. The book is Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems.

My truck is in the shop right now, and that has my lenses on two different kinds of system.

The truck itself is an example of an important kind of system that is NOT what Meadows is talking about in this book. It’s a mechanical or “complicated” system. It has lots of parts and they have to fit together and work properly in exactly the right way for the whole system to work. The truck is designed and engineered for this function. When all is well, it works in a precise and precisely predictable way. 

It’s pretty awesome, and it’s pretty tough. But I was doing some tree and brush work out in the big field and I must have caught a brake line on something sticking up, and the fluid leaked out. No fluid, no brakes.

I commute 35 miles, and the truck is just useless for that without brakes. That’s the thing about designed systems, they only work within their engineering tolerances and they’re brittle outside of them. What this situation called for is flexibility, resilience, and adaptability. A very good driver well equipped with flexibility, resilience, and adaptability could probably get away with a trip like that without brakes. Pay attention, leave space, use the gears, friction is your friend. I got 250,000 miles out of a set of brakes on my old VW by driving like that for fun. But the road is full of uncontrolled variables (as a system it’s not complicated, it’s complex), so having no brake backup at all is a very risky play. I took the truck to the shop and put on my complex system lenses.

The solution was easy, and no big deal. My wife has a farm van she could spare for a day or two. She unloaded the feed grain, I offered to fill up the tank, and I was in business. None of that was a designed function of our little system, but it was an opportunity available in the elements and interconnections of our partnership that allowed us to adapt nimbly to an unplanned difficulty.

The commute itself is a tangle of systemic interdependence. We could say that I am the “manager” in this quote from Meadows:

“Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes. —RUSSELL ACKOFF, 1 operations theorist”

The road itself is certainly a mess. There are all sorts of other people on it. I don’t control them, and neither does the law. They can and do go as fast as they like, change lanes when they like, brake when they like. Freedom is uncertainty. None of that is automated, it’s all read and react. Each day’s commute involves a series of dynamic situations with changing problems that interact with each other. Try the systems lens the next time you’re driving, it will blow your mind. The computer it would take to calculate and control all of those trajectories and interactions does not exist yet. Yet somehow, not despite all of this but BECAUSE of it, like the slinky, we all (mostly) get where we’re going. Here’s one of my favorite videos, to illustrate (I whip this out every time someone complains about the traffic circle in Pinehurst. Traffic circles are AMAZING, but they do hurt the brains of people who prefer design to dynamics.)

Another mess is international energy supply chains. It’s not an engineered or controlled system and can’t be, because it’s international and because markets are involved. That means getting the gas into Rachel’s van or my truck works a lot like getting me from Moore County to Fayetteville. There are a lot of players, they all have their own stakes and agendas, and they all get at least a little bit of a say in how their big or little part of it goes. The outcomes are ongoingly dynamic and adaptive, with, as Meadows says, a variety of information gaps and feedback lags that make it impossible to know exactly what the system is doing in all dimensions or predict exactly what it will be doing in future. And yet, when I pulled into the Sheetz yesterday to gas up the van, the supply was there and the cost was ridiculously low for all the costs of building and maintaining roads and all the steps of extraction, refinement, logistics, and distribution it took to provide it. Amazing!

Aaaaand, right on cue, this arrives from the campus public safety office.

Whew…time flies, it seems like just yesterday you were arriving on campus! Hopefully, all is going well, and you’ve gotten settled into a routine, got your rooms all put together and figured out where your classes are because we are closing in on the end of the second week of this semester….Already, can you believe it?

With all those other things becoming habit we would like to remind you that safety is paramount on campus, but we can’t do it without each of you. To be more specific, vehicle and pedestrian safety is on the top of the list. When you are driving on campus, please remember to operate your vehicle safely and remember to abide by the posted speed limit on campus (15 mph campus roads, 5 mph parking lots). On the opposite side of the coin, if you are a pedestrian, please be aware of your surroundings and make sure you are safe when walking through parking lots or across roadways.

Good luck with that, amiright?

February 17, 2022

Attendance policy

by Carl Dyke

I used to work in a gym. That gym and all the other ones I’ve been around had an interesting business model. They would actively sign up many more people than their facilities and services could handle if everyone fully availed themselves. They did this knowing that many of those people would not actually use the gym. They didn’t have to engineer this behavior – it just happened, and they operated accordingly. Across that whole industry, the margin of profit was created by people who paid not to use the service.

There are all sorts of things we could say about the psychological and social functions of unused gym memberships. But what we can’t say is that those folks improved their strength, flexibility, endurance, and general health in any of the ways paying for a gym is supposed to be for. Just paying for access to a gym does exactly zero for your physical development.

How to get those benefits from a gym is not exactly a mystery. You have to go to the gym, and you have to do the work. For example, getting strong involves picking up weights and putting them down. Over and over and over. It’s not an immediately productive or rewarding activity. In fact it’s tiring, and it hurts, and it works by tearing your muscle down so it can build back stronger. The immediate experience is literally degrading. The weights have to be heavy enough to present a challenge, and to build strength or any other kind of capability the challenge has to escalate through multiple sessions over a long period of time. But the weights themselves are boring, and taking an interest in them is beside the point. You can coat them in colorful texturized plastic and wear little outfits and play energizing tunes and call it a made up word starting with Z all you want, but it still comes down to picking up the dang weights and putting them back down, over and over and over.

For an extra fee you can hire a personal trainer, who will guide and encourage you through the workout process. They will get to know you and care about you and try on your behalf. But, it’s not their job to do the workouts for you. Sometimes they’re jerks, but when they’re jerks that’s not why. If they do the work for you, they get strong and you don’t. You have to do the work. Of course you could do that yourself without going to a gym; lots of people achieve good physical health without paying huge fees for access to equipment and services. But the people who pay for gym memberships in the first place are not those people. They need setting, and they need equipment, and they need guidance, and they have to pay for those things.

Since antiquity, we’ve known that what you work is what gets stronger. In this way you can get particular muscle groups big and strong by focusing all of the work on them. But all-around physical capability and good health require working the whole body in a wide variety of ways. Today, we call this ‘cross training’. In a university context where it’s minds that are being worked out and becoming more healthy and capable, the major is that one big muscle group while general education supplies the cross training. And if you don’t do the work it doesn’t matter how much you pay, you get none of it.

Gyms don’t have an attendance policy. Why would they? Obviously you have to show up and do the work if you want the benefit. Obviously paying not to use the service is pretty goofy. But until we understand how these things really work, “that’s your decision.”

(Cross posted on Facebook)

May 12, 2021

Theory, chaos, constraint

by Carl Dyke

Theories manage chaos by constraining the field of attention. Selective attention is also selective inattention. So the question is always what’s gained and lost in the theorizing process.

Good theories are complex systems. They constrain chaos into order. Theories “cause” knowledge by ruling out the chaotic manifold of ignorance.

Theoretical pluralism adds fields of attention but tips back toward chaos.

Ideologies are theories that emerge from the constraints of direct experience. Everyone has at least one of those.

Radical theoretical agnosticism is an option – this is the Tao.

May 9, 2021

Making pie

by Carl Dyke

My grandma was famous for her pies. (I don’t actually know what that means. I never saw her on tv or anything, but there was a family lore to this effect.) I got to eat Grammy’s pies from time to time, and they really were yummy. She was from New England, which helps except when it doesn’t. And she had the knack of crafting a richly fatty crust that was still light and flaky, and she selected and prepared the fruit so it popped and snapped and crisped and smoothed to the tooth as it should, and she deftly balanced sweet and tart for a fulfilling burst of contrasting taste and texture sensation in every bite.

Mom was (is) also great at pie, so I grew up with pie as a kind of family heritage. Sometime in my teens, I don’t remember the details, I decided this meant I ought to figure out how to make pie. And so I did a little asking, and a little watching, and a little noticing, and a lot of reading in the canonical texts (especially Joy of Cooking, I believe), and I baked a pie. And then a few more, but they’re not the story. Like a lot of things I learn I sort of did pie and then was done with doing pie.

As I recall and therefore assert, that first pie was not at all bad. “Edible,” as we say in my family. Because making a pie that’s not half bad is well within the reach of someone who’s been around good pies and knows how to ask, and watch, and notice, and read.

Of course my first pie was not up to the standards of the family masters. I don’t suppose many pies in the world were, or are, up to those standards. I’ve had a lot of pie over the years, including some very good pie and some pie made by people whose business it is to make pie, and I’ve never had anything better than Mom’s or Grammy’s pie. How could my first pie have been that good? It couldn’t. But it was fine, a perfectly decent and edible pie.

Sometimes I’ll get into discussions at school, or in the world, about what it means to learn and to know things. You’d think we could just agree that knowing things is cool, and that asking is helpful, and watching is helpful, and noticing is helpful, and reading is helpful, and experience is helpful, and that there’s usually more to know, and that knowing more is generally better than knowing less. But there are plenty of folks who will adamantly deny that there’s any knowledge advantage to focused study and years of experience, or that it’s possible to know anything from “book learning,” or that leaning in and paying attention is important, or even that knowledge of any kind is of any value at all. They’ll actively resist knowledge that doesn’t come in the right look and feel and delivery system. They’ll get into goofy ranking games about who is a good person based on what they know and how they know it.

I … don’t care? I think it’s pretty cool you can make a decent pie if you pay attention and do some reading. And I think it’s pretty cool you can make even better pies if you keep making pies and just get better at making pies.

March 26, 2021

Raw materials on the interdisciplinary paracurriculum

by Carl Dyke

The syllabus is not the class

The process is the goal

A world full of people

Each class picks a little thing about MU to examine. A meal; a bathroom; a requirement; a building. Let’s figure this out, all of it. Faculty get to geek out on their part, but it’s just a part. What’s the food science of this? What’s the literature of this?

Pulling together the classes they’re taking – how do they relate? What do they contribute?

How is this fun? Interesting? Worthwhile?

“There must be some way this is / to make this simple” vs ok it’s just wicked complex

Being in that world vs trying to act on it

“It works when teachers care about the students, not the material.” – Tavares

Caring in education is learning and growing focused. It can’t stop at validation. We love them as they are and as they’re becoming.

How to learn and grow?

Not knowing, but finding out

[Library competency –> research competency, not a class but a project]

Feral connectivity – conspiracy, intelligent design – vs ecosystems, complexity

Wanting to know, wanting to belong, wanting to be ok

BE POSITIVE, opportunities not threats and deficits

Something to do, someone to be, having / knowing your place, connection / community, self/making – the spectrum of identity services. We are MU / Make MU Great +++

Hypothesis 1: people do better when the work is challenging and meaningful. Rising / growing to fullest. (Final potential may be fixed, but we’re not there yet.)

Hypothesis 2: people find ways to drag and shirk when the work is not challenging and / or meaningful.

The reward platter: nutrition vs sugary treats. Feedback logics – how do I get more sugary treats?

Social learning / family dynamics and metaphors. Getting stuck in the child / mom / dad, pupil / teacher, drudge / boss games.

Playing games vs changing games. Partners, colleagues, finders, learners. Relationships and flows vs hierarchies.

Not all active learning has to be kinetic. Sitting and paying attention works too. Miss Marple ethnography vs Indiana Jones. Divide the dispositions and the labor.

In a (civic) ecosystems view, “burn it down” is the dumbest thing anyone can say. But fire is one of the healthy dynamics.

Online makes crossing / blending logistics much easier

– set this up for experiment / piloting opportunities

Why doesn’t interdisciplinarity ever work? It’s a meta-wicked problem.

Surf not grind, infiltrate not attack, wiggle stuck drawers

Interdisciplinary is not the end but a means, dictated by the field of discipline. They will defend themselves. Why?

How is discipline a resource? How can it be queered without activating the defenses?

Material at hand.

Loose goal, local knowledge – what’s the value added?

Ask – what are your challenges? How could this solve a problem for you? Think big!

Stay away from the Center – edges, networks, flows, rhizomes (reinforcing loops, how systems snap to grid)

The enduring problems of the humanities and liberal arts are enduring because they can’t be solved – they are wicked problems. Difficulties, dilemmas, conundrums, impasses.

Especially in the modern world the tendency of the hard sciences and stem has been to think of the humanities and the liberal arts as the soft dumping ground for unserious questions and projects. What wicked problems and complexity offer is the opportunity to rethink the humanities and the liberal arts as resources for recognizing and managing wicked problems. The wicked problems framework frames citizenship as participating in shared complexity (the civic ecosystem) responsibly and intelligently. Not mastering but learning understanding and adapting.

Self centered, personal interest, leaning in to disconnection

Superficial / ignorant problem solving, dopey eliciting exercises

Rubrics, notecards, prompts, citation formats and plagiarism, hoop after hoop, how-to suck passion out of any topic

Everything is fine but the focus is on disconnected technical requirements rather than the project as a developing accomplishment linked to larger systems of attention. This is consistent with the pattern throughout our curriculum and academic support efforts, which features many interventions with no necessary connection to authentic projects and goals.

With this in mind, adding another disconnected intervention is an exercise in path dependent failure. Ours is a pattern of wasted effort we need to break, not multiply.

Ecology / microcosm

A world full of people

Start w/ one of the cameo histories, e.g. cod, lobster, sushi. Read as model for tracing networks. Everyone picks an ordinary object and does the full global history of it – the materials, the compopnents, the assemblages at various scales; culture, society, politics, economics, world systems. History of interconnection, interdependence, embedding.

Complexity: the mobile. Note distinction of functional, aesthetic, moral analyses. How does it work? Is it beautiful? Is it good/bad, right/wrong? Note tendency of each set of questions to try to take over (e.g. function is also beautiful and good).

“I have taught a course called Science and Politics for a number of years and
one year in particular, it was very early in the morning, a big lecture class
at 8:00am. To get to the lecture hall we all passed this little shop that sold
good coffee and chocolate croissants. . . . And just as a way of waking up in
the morning, I would ask people to unpack objects, to take a chocolate
croissant and lead me through flour and chocolate and butter and sugar and
coffee and connect us to world histories that way. I would ask people to pick
an object, the T-shirt that the person sitting next to them was wearing,
what was printed on it, the label, the very fact of labeling, the fibre com-
position. If it’s got polyester, then take me through the history of Purity
Hall and research labs at Du Pont; you know, back me up into nitrogen
chemistry. If it’s cotton, then back me into pesticides and the California
water projects and where cotton is grown and the length of the fibre and
what about what you are wearing on your chest? I would ask people, as a
way of talking about science and politics, to take a pencil, a piece of paper,
the architecture of the lecture hall that you walked past; pick something and
get the class started by giving me an account of it.”
—Donna Haraway, in Live Theory (via Dumit, Implosion)

NB limbering exercise – is that what IDS is for?

How many people had to do their job for you to (x)?

Resources: their experience, networks, previous classes, classes now, instructor expertise, informal and formal research


Hybrid / asynchronous enables all kinds of connecting and blending. Team teaching, project based learning, topic walkabouts. Plenary + breakouts / work teams, multimodal engagement.

To start with use interdisciplinary stuff as connective tissue. Student level, inherently customized, no need for faculty/major involvement.

Process not outcomes. Get curious about something and explore. Understanding vs problem solving.

“It was fun and challenging to work on such an interdisciplinary project. As a physics student studying biological systems, I had never expected myself to use concepts from economics.”

Prompting exercise: use this as a mad lib:

“As an X studying Y, I never expected myself to use concepts from Z.”

Thinking of disciplines as boxes of tools and resources rather than domains / turfs.

Research teams:

Figuring out the life

How did they feed themselves?

How did they think about things?

How did they organize themselves?

What did they do for fun?

How did they care for themselves?

How did they handle disputes?

“What we’re trying to do is to get managers to set up strange attractors, so that you get relevant behavior without somehow identifying a point in advance where you want the system to go.”

March 25, 2021

Education budgets

by Carl Dyke

A friend asked a question on Facebook about suggestions on teaching history writing – not articles or books for students on how to write (there’s a whole industry in those, and several industry standards), but suggestions for professors on offering feedback and teaching techniques. I feel like I’ve gotten far enough out in left field on these questions that I hesitated to do more than recommend Sam Wineburg via this old post, but what I think is that most conscientious content-oriented professors are probably doing about as well as they can do as long as they keep focusing on content. And that’s because, roughly speaking, teaching content crowds out anything else you might want students to be learning. If you want writing to get better, writing has to move to the center of what your class does.

There are a lot of ways to get to this thought – mine was conditioned by getting sick of reading through stacks of awful papers that never seemed to get any better. But one way to come at it is to think of our classes as being on a kind of budget, where the resources under management are time and attention and effort, both ours and the students’. And there’s only so much of those any of us have. I don’t think this metaphor forces us into neoliberal transactionalism, either. The myth of the infinite budget is a problem all over the political spectrum. There’s only so much we can do, so it’s good to think through the budget and invest it wisely.

In History education, you could certainly put all of your budget into content. The objective would be to cram as much information into the class via lecture and reading as possible. This is a kind of familiar old school of History education we still see sometimes today, and gets you into the world of study skills and note taking and reading comprehension and test taking. And you’re not going to have time or attention or effort to teach those if you’re all in on content. But if you can standardize the curriculum around this mode of instruction, you can offload the skilling onto a remedial paracurriculum and academic support services. Even better, if you can afford to be selective, you can just admit and work only with students who’ve already been skilled up in content acquisition and retention through their families and k-12 training.

Obviously you can try to do the same with the writing skills, but the problem there is that those require much more cognitive elaboration than information storage and retrieval. They’re beyond the capacity of most k-12 programs to teach, so they don’t. Kids are going to show up without any effective scaffolding in a complex skillset. And there’s actually very little chance the remedial paracurriculum and academic support services can accomplish from scratch all the heavy lifting of college level writing instruction, especially early in a student career where it’s had no time to take and settle and develop. Because this is now a very familiar and widespread problem there are lots of ways around it, all of them cringy and resulting in college graduates everyone agrees are kind of useless.

The only effective alternative is to move some of your time, attention, and effort budget into writing. If you want them to write well in your class(es), you’re going to have to teach them how. Preferably this is happening all over the curriculum and being supported by the paracurriculum and academic services, but good luck with that. I saw a very determined senior colleague break herself over many, many years on this obvious fact about writing across the curriculum. If you want a bite of other people’s classroom budgets, you’re not going to get very far without an apocalypse.

Like I said, writing is hard, and teaching it is going to come at the expense of content. So let’s circle back and see if we can get content to cost us less. I think we can, for two reasons. First, the content is now all readily available on the internet to anyone with a device and a data plan. And second, none of the content is in itself uniquely essential to being an educated person. I’m personally convinced this means I don’t have to budget for any content at all in my classes. Let’s see if I can make that case.

First, all of the content is available on the internet. Of course it’s not “all” available, but for any given historical topic vastly more is available than we could hope to ‘cover’ in any given class. Because this is true, there’s obviously no need for students to learn anything about history that they have to remember. Their prosthetic memory is in their pockets, and it makes their potential carry-on knowledge base much larger than it could ever have been with meat memory alone. What they need is clearly search, recognition, and processing strategies, to activate the availability of that virtually infinite content. We do have to teach them research skills, and those are also cognitively elaborate. But this saves us from teaching them particular contents, in favor of giving them responsible access to all of the contents.

So now they have something to write about, which is tremendously important in writing instruction, and they’re practicing historical researchers. Just like that, we’ve replaced a perennial content problem (what to cover, how to decide) with a perpetual content solution (whatever you need for any given purpose), and spent only the budget it takes to teach and practice internet research skills. It follows that the single dopiest thing any history teacher can say these days is, put your phones away. It’s the modern equivalent of smashing the tablets and burning the books. That’s where the freaking content is, all of it, right at our fingertips. And later, when we’re not around to carefully curate and control our students’ access to content, the internet will still be there in their pockets or maybe in a chip in their heads, waiting for them to make something of it or watch another kitty video or tumble down a conspiracy rabbit hole. Wouldn’t it be better if they knew how to get at, recognize, and process the good stuff? How many lectures and course-pack readings on the Napoleonic wars would we trade for knowing how to learn about the Napoleonic wars for themselves?

I picked the Napoleonic wars there because they’re in-field for me, so I could in principle think I was supposed to teach them, and in a European and modern history kind of way they’re fairly important. I think it’s fair to say that any well educated American man four or five generations ago would have been expected to have some Napoleonic wars in his game. He’d get the joke about land wars in Asia in “Princess Bride,” and have opinions about the weight of great men in the scales of History. He would not, however, have considered the Haitian revolution as a counternarrative of modern democratic nationalism, nor would he have read Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the rights of women. He would certainly never have pondered whether the White Lotus movement was an important precursor to the Taiping rebellion, or how the slow erosion of Chinese sovereignty by foreign interference throughout the 19th century might have fed into a series of escalating disruptions culminating in the Boxer Rebellion and ultimately the Chinese Revolution. But he would probably have heard of the Opium wars, which were about free trade (they were not about free trade), and seen a couple of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan movies. In other words, he would have been deeply, catastrophically historically ignorant. The kind of ignorant that enthusiastically supports intervention on the wrong side of a war of national liberation in Southeast Asia because he doesn’t have the faintest clue what Communism is or how it might have appealed to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong more than free trade. And no useful idea of how to find out.

How do we pick out what the essential historical knowledge is, in that paragraph? My categories are pretty chunky, but it’s still much too much. Especially for an undergraduate education, where we may hope for several courses but only get one or two, there’s no way for coverage to pick out the essential from the very important from the maybe what you urgently need right now from the oops, no time for the Cold War. We don’t make that better by just deciding our thing is the essential thing, although at least then we have a focus. But to know enough history is inevitably to know you don’t know enough history. Throwing content into that abyss in whatever quantity is forlorn.

So much the worse for content, I say. So with our budget freed from ruinously expensive ‘coverage’, how do we teach history writing? Workshops, basically. We learn any set of skills by practice and feedback on practice. So then we have to think about what the skills of historical writing actually are, and design the workshop practice around scaffolding them from basic research to primary sources and scholarship, through drafting to finished work. In my case, I’d like the students to get all the way to knowing their stuff, so these research and writing projects develop through a whole instructional term in a developmental and cumulative sequence of papers. If they buy in and do it right, they’re much better at it by the end and the final papers are fun to read.

But still, writing is hard, so what’s much better and not bad by the end is still mostly a bit short of really good. If good writing is what we want from and for our students, it’s just not a matter of little tips and tricks of pedagogical technique. It’s a matter of full investment in what it takes to achieve that outcome. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to cost us anything that matters much.

March 22, 2021

The nightmare of dead generations

by Carl Dyke

When I was a young intellectual in college I was really excited about the power of ideas to change the world. Just as the ruling class thinks rules are very important and the working class thinks work is very important and mothers think nurturing is very important and warriors think violence is very important and pigs think mud is very important, eggheads think thinking is very important. Sometimes you just have to smile and nod politely when people say their little thing about how the world works. It takes all kinds.

So a popular idea about ideas in coffee shops, brew pubs, and philosophy departments is that ideas make things happen. This idea should die the first time you try to make it come true, but it’s easy enough to avoid this confound if you only ever have ideas and never try to make them come true. You can also play all sorts of association games, where things were happening and meanwhile people were having ideas that sort of resembled the things that were happening, and so there we have it, ideas making things happen. Never mind the same sorts of ideas were around in other times and places without kicking up much dust. This is really easy to see with, say, Nazism. Nazism itself is a portmanteau of all kinds of garbage that was around in European thought and practice for at least hundreds of years. Finding Nazism precursors is like shooting ducks in a bucket. It didn’t just go away when Hitler blew his brains out in the bunker, either. Naziform thinking is as routine as lawns and registered animal breeds and thinking it means something to be from Pittsburgh. Japanese Buddhists of the early 20th century were basically Nazis, as it turns out, because they were zeeeennn with obeying orders and committing genocide. Yes, bonsai is a little creepy. You know what’s completely normal as part of the distribution of human thoughts and feelings? Control freaks and motivated reasoning and being just fine with other people’s suffering.

The historical challenge is to get, say, Christianity, or communism, or free markets to be ideas that map cleanly onto the accomplishment of enumerated goals. If two thousand years later we’re still having trouble with loving thy neighbor, it might be the relationship between the Christian idea complex and the world of living and doing stuff is importantly indirect. If you actually want to change things, it’s incumbent to see what else might have been going on that murderously intercepted living together in freedom in the great 20th century communist experiments. And every time a free market gets ‘captured’ by dynamics other than the free and fair pursuit of individual self interest, shaking a finger and scolding people for doing it wrong are on the silly side of sociopathic wokeness. Don’t get me started on the Constitution.

It is just impossible to find any ideas in, say, 18th century Europe that didn’t have slavery and white supremacy as part of their effective context and content. Sometimes this is explicit, as in the case of pro- and anti-slavery tracts. More often it’s just that nothing about Europeans’ world in the 18th century was possible without slavery and white supremacy, although a lot of it had been true on other grounds some hundreds of years before. So you couldn’t say “I like a good ham sandwich” without saying “I like a good ham sandwich where cuisines and standards of quality in foodstuffs are marked out on a hierarchy with race at the bottom, and in a political economy that conditions their availability to the likes of me,” where that political economy included the labor and status and price and finance and power gradients of slavery and white supremacy. I’ve started to talk about how ideas are emergent in systems. And, you couldn’t say “I want freedom for X,” without saying that at least for the moment you were ok with conditioning that freedom on the continued enslavement and domination of global brown peoples. And you couldn’t say “that’s not what I’m talking about,” the way philosophers do as the special way philosophers get to manage their own ignorance as if it’s deep wisdom, by sealing off their special kind of thinking from their context, without baking the context that allowed you to think like that right into your ideas as their essential contingent precondition.

But, I haven’t said anything unique about Europe or the 18th century or white supremacy, have I. This is just how ideas work. The bits and pieces of them are floating around all the time, everywhere (who doesn’t like a good ham sandwich or rank people or want the world to be just so), but the specific assemblages of them have a time and place. If they make anything happen, it’s because they’re in the flow with lots of other stuff in context. And so it goes.

Not that eggheads ever need any particular context to think like eggheads do! So another dopey thing the people you would expect to think like this think in coffee shops and brew pubs and philosophy departments is that ideas, being powerful, don’t have contexts but are just ‘in play’ all the time. So to pick an example out of a gagillion, we could continue to be interested in Hegel as a live option for how to think about things. And find to our disappointment that he’s not only a racist like everyone else in Europe in the 18th century, but also a little fuzzy and maybe not great on the question of complex systems and emergence. Like, it’s in some sense tautologically true that the world develops according to its logic, which is by definition rational. So there we have it, the progress of reason. But this may not be helpful if we’re interested in how systems shift more comprehensively, which would have to involve contradictions within the logic of history. So we’ve reinvented the Young Hegelians and we’re well into the 19th century now. And then Marx blows it all up with the 11th thesis. You can describe the world any way you like, according to whatever logic suits your fancy, but none of that means anything unless you can get in there and change things. Which, we mostly still don’t know how to do, not least because we keep casting our wistful glances at kludgy old ideas with racism or whatnot baked into them. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Being a practicalish kind of guy with limited time for other people’s descriptions of the world in various ways, I think it’s kind of fun Hegel might have been on the trail of complex systems, but it wouldn’t occur to me to try to get Hegel to be relevant to that discussion now. I’d start with Poincaré, who was just straightforwardly trying to figure out complex systems early in the game called complex systems. But I really wouldn’t start with Poincaré either, first because he’s pretty mathy, and second because there’s an intervening hundred years of smart people working that angle. I don’t look to Darwin for the state of the art on evolution either, although you can find plenty of dingbats on social media doing just that and heroically refuting 19th century science. So I might start with Prigogine, or the early systems theorists like Wiener, as my dear papah Dyke the Elder suggested I do back when I first got sick of chasing the magic of ideas and started poking around at what else was going on. But really I’d try to catch up on what people who study complex systems have been learning about complex systems over the last twenty, ten, five years. Which, is what I do. I don’t expect Hegel to come up anywhere in there, although there’s always some romantic who remembers freshman philosophy and thinks he can get hot dates by connecting the dots.

September 25, 2020


by Carl Dyke

By special request, a Chuck Dyke classic.

Geeklit #12

Call me E-mail.  A few weeks ago — how many I can’t remember — finding myself victim of the reorganization of an edutainment software producer, and with nothing particular to interest me in the Valley, I thought I would wend my way to the Sound.  With little in my purse to show for the Daedalian years, and with evening drifting near with the rain, I passed by Marriot and Hilton to find myself at the door of  “The Mainframe,” and with heart empty as pocket entered.  Was there room for my weary head? No.  It was a busy night.  But wait.  Would I share a bed with a fellow hacker (for my pocket protector had given away my trade)? The nod of my head gave the lie to the “No” in my throat, and I accepted the key.  “But mind now! He’s something of a strange fellow” filled out the ranks of my forebodings as I ascended the three flights.

The one bed promised little to a sharer.  I stripped off as much clothing as decency allowed and comfort required, spread myself out as far as I considered to be fair to the first-comer, and turned out the light.  Thus began the lying vigil of half sleep, with its demons and its hags, all Satan sent to share my rest.  The truth, when it arrived, was no less frightening: a brownish face, dark glistening eyes, attached to a body lithe as a snake and as apt to writhe in apparent harmony to an air that I, at least, could not hear.  But the sharer of my room belied the serpentine by creating the most God awful scratching and banging as he, apparently, unpacked.  The darkness of the room allowed no other judgment as to his nature.  Whatever toilet he required was evidently soon completed, for his presence inches from me was quickly and lightly accomplished; and I breathed, for I scarce had done so since his arrival.

I thought us both composed for sleep, but of a sudden a click gave rise to an eery glow beside me, and I feared in the bowels that Satan had resumed his play.  By the blue glow of Netscape I saw that not Satan but Okidata was the author of the eery light.  Fear turned to the relief of familiarity.  The sound of the surf lulled me to sleep.

His name was Keyqueg, and he was a Jamaican, smiling and welcoming in the morning light.  He had come to the Sound on a rumor as I had come on chance.  Someone was hiring on a crew, and there could be room for us both.  “Come along, mon.”  So presently I found myself the sequel to a spectacle as I followed the Jamaican, dancing once again to his Walkman, through the streets; first the city then along a new avenue to the industrial park with its dignified landscape of wonderously instant-achieved age.  

We entered.  The chairs creaked and groaned with the restless squirming of those not wanting, but needing to be added to the growing crew: oldtimers who had been there since the beginnings of the game of life; children of the wolf and the ram, spun off into the heavens and now trying to touch earth once more; scornful and aloof beside children of the Sega, pink cheeked and untried, but sure that their share awaited them.  

One by one they — we — approached the table, where sat a suit, sober and staid, ready to reject, reluctant to enroll.  Dozens were turned away while we sat, I beside Keyqueg, he working his Mojo.  Does my lot, I pondered, hang on that heathen charm? And yet mayhap it did; for we were called and, tested, passed on inside, inscribed.  My theological doubts were not laid to rest, but quieted for the time.  Had I known then what I now know, no quiet would have succeeded against the urgings of my Bahai beginnings.

We were on board.  Those who had passed the scrutiny of the suit were of no less ethnic and geographic dispersal than those from whom they were culled.  Who was it that required this Noah’s ark of the races? And why? We were not immediately to know, for our first contact was not with those who would limn our fate, but with those who would share it: the supervisors.

Billy was the improbable chief supervisor, a Micronesian who never spoke above a whisper, but whose leadership was justly legendary.  He stared at us from the front of the room with an insipid smile tucked behind equally insipid glasses.  No one could have dreamed that such a face could have been placed amongst us to command, yet command it did, as we, as legions before us, would soon be rendered witness.  If eyes are windows of the soul, Billy’s soul was a mystery, and one could feel the mystery drawing one in, opaquely yet with promise of kaleidoscopic lucidity.

Mac was the assistant supervisor.  He was of surly mien, yet stories were told of his youthful idealism and optimism: gone now, one suspects, a victim of the years spent with Billy standing in his every possible aperture of advancement.  So that by now the trust he had once inspired had evaporated to the point that  even his successes were gnawed to the skeptical bone by the rumor of his selling out.

We would be divided into three teams: one with Billy, one with Mac, and one with Java, a young Indonesian reputed to be a genious and to have been everywhere in the world during his few young years.  The older of us knew little of him; the younger secretly hoped that their fate and his would be in the same boat.  Keyqueg was chosen quickly by Billy, and I, in wonder how my Jamaican friend and talisman accomplished it, discovered that I too would share their time on DEC.

DEC.  Here I must detour, for misconceptions and myths abound in idle talk about the beasts whose vitals consume our quests; the supers, the parallels, the minis, the micros, and the dark misbegotten hybrids and avatars between.  Each generation inherits and surpasses the one before, variation amplifying variation in a generic and specific oedipism of electronic lineage.

The Crays. Great giants within which only just less great giants lock in computational coition; screaming frenzies of digits.

The Parallels. Ants nests of cooperative mediocrity with canny pheremonal pathways guiding an exquisite division of labor into exquisitely meaningless parts, then reassembling these parts to meaning once again.

The Mainframes.  A variegated clade of Abacus digitalis; the muscle flexors, tendon tensors, spermacetes of and and not.

The Minis.  All business; the CPA’s and actuaries of all the estuaries of international business; or servers, bustling messages of some or little moment into space and back again to soothe the solipsistic millions into complacent confidence that yes indeed someone is there.  “My numbers are their numbers; it is, by god, a cosmos.”

The Micros.  One on every desk; in every briefcase yet another: formats, spreadsheets, documents; electronic superhighways, inventorial byways, 8000 Dow and thirty billion games of solitaire.

And where in all of this the DEC? They are an early sport from ancient times when the eastern shores of the United States spawned the beast: before the breeding grounds encircled the other great ocean of the world.  Too small to be big, too big to be small their niche space is now modest as is their power.  Not every hopeful monster sends on its progeny to fulfill the hope.  And now we return.

We waited still.  The CEO was reported in the roadstead, but to us the prospects of his arrival dimmed in our impatience.  Presently his second in command, Starbuck, rolled in an urn of coffee, one supposes, to fill our time.  And so it did for the moment, but then the edge produced increased our tension and unease.  Who was this impending fellow, what was his will, what was our fate in his hands.  Were we to be driven mad on his purpose to fulfill some lunatic task of his device?

And then he appeared, and was introduced; not a mystery, but Scarhabov, a Russian whose genius was legend among us.  What was his business here with us?! A suspicion vague as the sea yet real as the sun crept through us, and yea that suspicion was to be confirmed.  His turn towards us showed a face still youthful and vital, but with a horrid livid scar newly etched so deep it seemed to reach down into his soul.  He lost no time.  “We set ourselves to conquer Big Blue!” he roared, thus confirming us.  “We shall not rest until he lies beaten at our feet.”

On the DEC? We thought as one.  There is the madness to which we are brought.  But he had anticipated this very thought and knew how to flatter and cajole.  He knew our egos and our fantasies.  He knew that we would undertake the task.  Before he ever ceased to speak we all were his.

And so we set out.  Day after day we hacked at the unwilling flesh of the DEC, shift after shift.  Billy’s crew gave way to Mac’s and then to Java’s and then we were back again.  Weeks into the odyssey we still were far from sight of Big Blue.  Scarhabov prowled the DEC, not knowing, we conjectured ‘mongst ourselves, what he saw or what he looked for.  One day he took to his tiny office and closed the door.  For days it remained in this impassive state, ’til finally Starbuck, carrying coffee, braved the portal, opened it, and went inside.  The rest of us could only gossip what went on between them, but Starbuck’s ministrations seemed to have a sobering effect.  He opened the door and called for Danish and more coffee.  Several hours later Scarhabov again circled the DEC.

The DEC had changed.  A maze of cable now connected it to a roomful of boards and drives; flotillas of micros tied up alongside dedicated to microtasks; tapes and discs and data bases spliced into macrotasks.  Where the DEC had once hummed with activity it now whined with hyperactivity.  The changing of the shifts were occasion for the most ungodly strife.  Mac had never really been compatible with Billy, and now at each change of crew they stood irreconcilable on their own platforms and screamed at changes, real or imagined, that one had made as if to confound the other.  Only Keyqueg, rocking to his silent melody rode placid o’er the storm.  

Those of us entrusted with minor tasks kept watch for signs that Big Blue was in reach, but only a navigator trained in Hell could have charted a straight course to the fate we sought.  Instead we coiled,  patched, and cannibalized until what once had been the DEC resembled nothing more or less than the labyrinths of my former trade.  To cool the electronic frenzy great snakes of air conditioning ducts panted and gasped, adding a drone pipe to the squirl of computation.  Was such a thing to walk in Fisher’s shoes? Or would our attempts at digital blasphemies damn us?

One gloomy morning over coffee, Starbuck remonstrated with Scarhabov, whose wound was purple now in the light of the monitors.  It was our shift.  Billies shift.  But Scarhabov was soul in charge. We all could feel it.  A test the day before had shown not the glimpse of Big Blue we had peeled our eyes for, but a possible sealane to its lair.  With all other paths, we knew in our  hearts, denied us, we were suddenly afforded the temptation of a demonic possibility stumbled upon by chance.  By a fluke we had discovered how we might hack our way into Big Blue itself.  We needed only the courage and faith to try.

We settled into place. Keyqueg readied himself to launch the attempt.  Starbuck cleared the cups and spoons.  Scarhabov glowed in anticipation.  Billy remained enigmatically insipid, but even he could not suppress the oozing signs of his excitement.  We pawns stood in readiness to do their bidding.  Zoltan the Rom hummed softly to himself.

Then for the first time in weeks the room was in a deathly hush.  We waited as Keyqueg sat poised, listening to the depths.  A purgatorial eternity went by.  Then his hands flashed over the keyboard.  The Dec began to whine again then scream.  The tapes and CD’s whirled and squirled anew.  The room began to pulse.  “We’ve got in,” Keyqueg roared and we could feel the very moment when the DEC was no longer in control but was, in truth, possessed by a power far greater than it had ever been created for.  It could not withstand the awful power/knowledge onslaught.  The smoke began to pour from every seam.  The frequency of its once intolerable screaming increased.  Without pause it cast us back against the walls, and back and back again.  Save Scarhabov, who now so close was not to be pushed aside.  He lept upon the smoking Dec, now so hot that his livid scars were new seared. He tried to get away, but caught in the airconditioning coils his every effort only bound him tighter.  “Thar she blows!!” The noise!  I could not stand the fathomless pain of noise!.  My thrashing hand encountered a now familiar object, Keyqueg’s Walkman.  I clapped the earphones over my ears, and on the waves of music swooned away.

The nightmare is over now.  Only I, saved by  chance, survive in sanity.  The others think their private thoughts and stare at things that I, at least, cannot discern.

August 27, 2020

Corona and Deacon

by John Doyle

It’s been a long time since we discussed Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature here and here at Dead Voles. I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but the book came abruptly to mind the other morning when I woke up from a dream. Coronavirus was delivering a speech; it stopped to reconsider, then it began again with a second speech. I don’t remember what Corona was talking about, what information it was trying to convey. What struck me was that the virus was trying – exercising intentional agency.

Even the rain runoff has agency, self-organizing into rivulets that carry pine straw and twigs, fill up the overflow reservoirs, flood streets and basements. In Deacon’s lingo the runoff rivulets are “morphodynamic systems,” the pull of gravity on the water constrained and channeled by the terrain over which it flows. But it’s just hydraulics interacting with topology: the water doesn’t care about getting down to sea level; the land doesn’t care about retaining its structural integrity.

Is this the same sort of agency exercised by Coronavirus, its individual virions accumulating and cascading through airborne droplets from host to host? Or does the virus care – does it in effect want to enter into the new host, appropriating the host’s cellular metabolic functions in order to replicate itself, gathering its forces in a life-and-death battle with the host’s immunologic system, activating the host’s cough reflex in order to fly into other nearby hosts, extending its territory? “Want” is too strong an attribution. Deacon would characterize the virus as a “teleodynamic system,” its actions to survive and to replicate itself as “ententional” – not full-fledged intent, but an evolutionary precursor. The consequences of the virus’s action sequence aren’t just happenstance; they’re in effect the point of undertaking those actions. The expected effect of the action – shaped by generations of mutation and natural selection that increase the likelihood of the species’s self-preservation and reproduction — is the action’s cause.

Ententional actions are spontaneous, instinctive, internally generated – what Deacon calls “orthograde.” Sometimes the orthograde behaviors of two teleodynamic organisms act in opposition to each other. In that case, one or both organisms must generate a “contragrade” response to the adverse situation in order to survive and thrive – a non-spontaneous response that requires work.

Confronted by the orthograde assault of the human immunologic system, a virus has no flexibility in its behavioral repertoire. The only sort of contragrade adaptation available to it is mutation. Humans, in contrast, can override at least some of their own instinctive behavior patterns in order to resist environmental threat. Some human contragrade behaviors are themselves instinctive – fight, flee, affiliate. Other contragrade behaviors, like driving on the right side of the road, are learned and, through repetition, converted into habits – second nature that doesn’t require much work to perform. Sometimes environmental constraints demand that the organism act in opposition to its own instincts. Resisting the internal pull of instinct and habit in order to survive environmental assault requires work. It’s the work of acting with intent.

We come at last to the matter of humans resisting the threat posed by Coronavirus.

Most human instinctive or habitual contragrade activities are triggered by environmental threats that can readily be perceived: a coiled snake, the stench of rot, an onrushing automobile. We might instinctively avoid someone who’s coughing, but not someone who’s shedding virus merely by talking, or singing, or breathing. Even recognizing the threat posed by Corona requires intentional work.

Viral contagion can be regarded as a kind of ententional dynamic equilibration process, in which the virus migrates from a saturated environment – the infected host –  into the viral vacuum of the uninfected person. To resist the threat, humans have to partition the environment so as to sustain the virus-human disequilibrium, physically separating themselves from their would-be submicroscopic invaders. Physical constraints must be imposed on the spontaneous flow of proximate human interaction via lockdown, social distancing, masks, quarantine. Performing these contragrade behaviors to protect against Corona requires intentional work.

Several aspects of the pandemic militate against humans effectively separating themselves from the virus. First, the threat doesn’t manifest at the human scale of granularity. Contagion is interpersonal, passing from one person to another at close distance. Immunity is even more intimately local than contagion, acting out its drama inside the individual human body. But the virus itself operates at an ecological microlevel in which humans are ill-equipped to engage; the threat it poses, while viscerally real, is recognized not through spontaneous instinctive perception but abstractly, intellectually. A dead body is as real as it gets, but a mortality rate? It’s an algorithm, an artifice, a simulation, shaping the contours of a probabilistic ecology that’s removed from the actual here-and-now physicality of individual human beings getting sick and dying.

All the while the epidemiologic aspects of the virus are being played out at an ecological macrolevel for which humans are not well adapted. Fetid corpses of the infected piling up in the streets is one thing, but case-positive percentages, effective viral reproduction rates, even daily death counts of people you don’t know who died sequestered in ICUs? Too abstract to trigger an instinctive orthograde response. In social aggregates the relevant metrics are also aggregate: averages, trends, demographics, surveys, forecasts, confidence intervals, statistical models. Effective contragrade responses to the threat must be adopted and practiced that demand intentional conscious monitoring of the self in response to abstract representations of the environment. That’s work.

The intimate, microscopic, visceral interplay between viral proliferation and antibody response, playing out between and within individual bodies and across entire populations – that’s where the covid action is. illness and recovery are just proxies and sequelae. But for humans the microbial cellular level and the aggregate statistical level are equally abstract. Humans spontaneously engage the world at neither the microlevel nor the macrolevel but at the mesolevel. I started feeling sick, then I got sicker, then I started feeling better, and now I feel fine: immunity at the mesolevel. And then you tell me that I can be infected, and contagious, without experiencing symptoms? Social distancing, like the virus and the pandemic, feels abstract, theoretical, unnatural, maybe unnecessary — remote from the reality of staying well versus getting sick.

It’s hard enough mastering any new behavioral repertoire, performing it flawlessly in every appropriate circumstance – that’s why they call it work. Making matters worse, the contragrade behavioral responses effective in neutralizing the coronavirus fly in the face of instinctive and habitual orthograde responses to the human social environment. Isolating oneself physically and avoiding close contact with strangers: these actions are typically prompted by fear, shame, disgust, sorrow. Covering one’s nose and mouth: fear again, or disgust, perhaps embarrassment or submission, maybe even malevolent intent. Distancing oneself physically from family and friends might be prompted by anger, shame, treachery. In short, people instinctively tend to distance themselves physically from others when they feel either repulsed by, or repellant to, others. Social distancing behaviors also send signals – to those shut out by the other’s self-isolation, to those evaded in close quarters through avoidant maneuvers, to those who can’t read the facial expressions hidden behind the mask. Physically, emotionally, interpersonally, it’s hard work to exapt instinctively antisocial defensive reactions as prosocial and proactive actions.

So, what’s to be done when the environmental threat isn’t perceived instinctively, and when the actions required for evading and minimizing that threat in social interactions are diametrically opposed to what people would ordinarily do spontaneously? One possibility is to amp up the intentionality. Learn to evaluate covid risk probabilistically rather than viscerally. Practice mindful attentiveness to specific interpersonal situations that call for evasive distancing maneuvers. Simulate situations that one might encounter in daily life in order to increase the likelihood of responding appropriately in real time to a real situation.

Another possibility is to amp up the ententionality. Alter the social environment so that the appropriate distancing behaviors are deemed prosocial rather than antisocial, altruistic rather than self-absorbed. Alter the interpretation of social distancing behavior not as a fearful reflex of self-abnegation but as a bold stroke of self-assertion. Alter the social affordances so that performing the effective contragrade behaviors for resisting contagion align with the spontaneous orthograde instinct to be perceived by others, and by oneself, as proactive and prosocial.

Another strategy for amping ententionity is subjecting to social sanction those who fail to act in accord with antivirus protocols. Moral and legal codes impose threats on those who don’t restrain their exercise of spontaneous impulse. Those who through misfeasance or malfeasance fail to perform the mandated protective behaviors incur the disapproval of gods and men, are consigned to purgatory or jail, must perform ritual sacrifice or pay a fine.

This should have been pretty easy. The environmental threat posed by the virus is lethal, providing ample motivation. The protective behaviors required to partition human space from viral space aren’t difficult to perform. Though the virus is highly transmissible, any individual who’s been infected remains contagious for only about ten days. Three or four weeks of serious lockdown, social distancing, and masking would do the trick, stopping the pandemic in its tracks with only localized intermittent outbreaks to be cleaned up as they arise.  What could go wrong?

Disseminate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete information about the magnitude of the threat. Promulgate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete recommendations for what  antiviral behaviors should be performed. Establish ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete social norms as to whether intentionally inhibiting spontaneous but dangerous acts of social self-expression is deemed proactively altruistic or reactively fearful, a voluntary expression of freedom or a totalitarian suppression of freedom. Implement ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete enforcement of recommended antiviral behaviors.

In the US the virus isn’t running rampant, but neither is it quashed and contained. Instead we’re occupying a semi-stable equilibrium between viral and human agency, in which the covid reproduction rate fluctuates between 1.3 and 0.8, with new infections and deaths alternately waxing and waning across the population and localized spikes shifting from one state or city or county to another. A thousand deaths and 120 thousand new infections, plus or minus, every day.

The American ethos celebrates the exercise of intentional agency in pursuit of personal and societal goals. Some neurophilosophers argue that intentionality is epiphenomenal, a conscious recognition after the fact of what’s already been “decided” in the cause-effect cascade of interactions between organism and environment and the synaptic pathways that those interactions activate. It seems – maybe I read it in Deacon? – that the reality of intent is demonstrated in part when intent fails, when we’re unable to accomplish what we’ve decided to do.


August 7, 2020

Why I won’t be using Zoom

by Carl Dyke

There’s a lot of personal detail in this post. I think it’s necessary, and also in my case pretty funny because I’m empowered to shield myself from the unfunny bits. But if you can’t be bothered I don’t blame you. The tl;dr is that for me and some other people, I reckon, the experience and performance of self is awkward in ways that make personal imaging technologies existentially confusing, disruptive, or even threatening. I don’t think I’m saying anything new here. But as we head into a technology-mediated school term because of the pandemic, I have this to add to the lore of video course delivery and the confounding diversity of human kinds.

My Grandma Liz famously disliked being photographed. This seemed odd to everyone else, because by many standards she was a beautiful young woman and a handsome older lady, with strong features and an intelligent gaze. The standard garbage folk diagnosis was vanity, but her frank discomfort with her own image ruled that out. Some of us chalked it up to the free-floating poisonous critical judgment that can emerge from the family talent for observation and fine discrimination. And certainly it becomes swiftly wearing for a smart, ambitious woman to be constantly reminded that for others she’s little more than a pretty face and a fine rack of lady parts. In any case this was nowhere near the only way Grandma was odd, as are we all, so we all got on with it. I don’t have Grandma’s figure (it’s probably for the best), but I used to get along pretty well with her and I’ve gradually come to believe we had something more permanent in common.

At some point when I was a kid, I remember being given to understand that Dad was concerned I might be showing signs of self-absorption. This was a pretty serious party foul in Dad-world so I installed it as a priority hypothesis to test in a life cobbled together out of experiments. I think the irony must have been lost on me at the time. There was plenty of evidence – I was pretty fascinated with mirrors, or really reflective surfaces of any kind. I looked at myself any chance I got, from every angle I could. Store and car windows were magnetic, personal video selfies before personal video selfies. It probably wasn’t quite obsessive.

Fortunately I was not self-absorbed, at least in the sense of vanity. The issue was not connection but disconnection. I was fascinated with the image because it was obviously ‘me’, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that to make sense. Every time I looked, every step and angle, this uncanny something or other I couldn’t find any way to identify with moved right along with me. In middle school I took the sewing version of home ec and for a few years after that I would buy thrift store shirts and custom tailor them for myself. Badly, which I knew at the time, but it wasn’t really the craft I was concerned with. I have no idea what I thought I was doing at the time, but I was trying, I now think, to get what I looked like to have anything at all to do with how I experienced myself.

Yes, I had a fedora phase. And this:

Felix the Superbeetle and cousin Lindsay

One of my girlfriends in college remarked that when she saw me walking across campus, “it” looked good to her. I was delighted! Yes, nailed it!

Was “it” like that for Grandma too? I have no object permanence to myself. I don’t fear death, because how would it be different? To this day, when I see my reflection in a mirror, in a photograph, or on video, my first reaction is “what the hell is that.” Every. Time. From one moment to the next, I have no damn idea what I look like. Obviously I get queer, and for what it’s worth I count normal as a genre of queer. I get the horror of being pinned into any of the categorical identities, and the further horror of having to inhabit them in self defense. I can really understand why some people automate their self-presentation with stereotyped hair and wardrobe constructs, and I’m sympathetic with the chaos that must break back into their lives when that presentation is disrupted. But when they expect it of me as well I draw the line. It’s not that I want to fight that battle, but I don’t want to live it either. I is the kaleidoscope you see (I guess?), for better or worse.

All of this is stuff I’ve long since learned to manage, or at least live with. The Carl-bot is a practiced performance in many settings, and lets me peek out around the edges of ritual and expectation to express my care in the ways I care to express my care. But the bottom line is that having or making an appearance is an active and chaotic and distracting process for me. It’s work, and adds to the multi-tasking burden of all the other chaotic feeds I’m getting from environments full of other critters like and unlike me commanding my attention in various ways.

Seeing that work reflected back at me in realtime is mesmerizing and awful. Thinking about it happening on all of the other screens is an infinite regress of confounding self-reflection. I know I can turn off my video. I’m not telling you a problem and I’m not interested in your solutions. I’m an adult, responsible, smart, and adaptable. I guess? What I’m saying is, this is why I won’t be using Zoom.

June 21, 2020

The Theory of Alimentary Particles

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke (Dyke the Elder) goofing (as usual) on what’s happening when we decide things are things:

[For use (in the right hands) as a pedagogical aid to understanding the quantum mechanics of particles, or (in the wrong hands) as a parody of the mess the physicists have currently gotten themselves into.]

We can begin with the intuitively persuasive fact that everything that lives is made of food. At a macroscopic level this is well understood, but raises the obvious question: what is food? A natural starting point for answering this question is the well established observation that just as the elementary constituent of matter in general is the atom, so, the alimentary constituent of food is the crumb. While this can be accepted without reservation, we will find that even this innocent truth involves us in some very non-intuitive mathematics. We are familiar with the fact that when an atom is split the result is not two half-atoms, but an array of fission products. This array does not add up in any simple way. Similarly, when a crumb is split, the result is not two half-crumbs, but two crumbs ( Carlin’s theorem ). One divided by two does not equal ½, but 2.
This “anomaly” warns us that we must be very careful about carrying our prejudices, formed in our everyday lives, into our investigation of food. Like atoms, food may not have parts in the way that, for example, bicycles and automobiles have parts. So, we will be led to questions such as: “Does a part of food have itself to be food?” Or, we may wonder what holds the parts of food together. That is, what are the fundamental food forces (FFF)? A familiar cautionary event should suffice to make the point. Early theorizing about light, and the discovery that it could behave like a wave, led physicists to think that there must be a medium, the ether, as that within which the waves occurred. Careful experiments failed to produce any evidence of any such medium, and now no one thinks that it exists. Just so in the early days of food particle theory, and especially in the Brillat Savarin theory (BS), it was speculated that there must be a medium within which all food occurred, in order to account for taste. This medium was called sauce. However, careful experiments soon showed this conjecture to be false. A brief account of the experiments is instructive.
Clearly, an examination of Coq au vin and/or Pasta al’Amatriciana wouldn’t prove a thing. Everyone agrees that they contain sauce. What is needed are cases where the presence of the sauce is not immediately obvious. In fact, the experiments were done by the BS theorists themselves in the hope of finding the sauce in apparently sauce-free dishes. We needn’t list the entire smoergesbord of dishes tested. Suffice it to say that they were chosen upon the criterion that neither the BS theorists themselves nor the skeptics could detect any sauce by any normal means. These dishes were then picked apart in such a way that all non-sauce food was eliminated. In some instances a substance ambiguously identified as sauce remained. These dishes were discarded from the experiment in favor of those where no such traces were to be found — where not a crumb remained.
Now the crucial stage had been reached. The results were examined, and it was found that the dishes so carefully purified had no taste! Here a milestone decision was made that set the course of basic food research on its current positive path. The principle was first articulated that Where there is no taste, there is no food (the NSF principle ). Food can taste good or bad, even be in bad taste, but if there is no taste there is no food. The days of sauce theory were over.
Diehards persisted for a time. They pointed out that fish swim in water, and don’t notice it; we live in air, and don’t notice it. Perhaps there is a very subtle sauce common to every food, hence unnoticed by any eater. As weak as this objection was, it had a disproportionately profound effect on theorizing, for it evoked the first statement of the fundamental food symmetry (FFS): If everything tastes the same, there is no taste. It was a short step to the ground-breaking realization that taste was a consequence of symmetry breaking. Food is possible only if differences appear where no differences existed before.
FFS is, in fact, not one symmetry, but a family. Indeed, the principle itself forbids a global symmetry. However, it’s entirely possible for there to be local symmetries: things that taste the same as other things. This observation quite quickly began to be treated in terms of the mathematical tools of Group Theory. A group is defined precisely in terms of a symmetry or set of symmetries. For example, in two dimensions a circle is radially symmetrical. If we think of a circle made out of string, we can see that properly smoothed out, any closed string (with no knots in it) can be made into a circle. So, from the right point of view, anything that can be smoothed into a circle can be thought of as a member of the circle group. On the other hand, a square is symmetrical under 90 degree rotations, a pentagon under 72 degree rotations, and so on. If we don’t change the shape, but simply rotate them so they look exactly the same in the new orientation as they did in the old, we can see clearly how they can be thought of as groups of things with a particular symmetry. Similar groups can be defined in any larger number of dimensions. In fact, there is no end to the number of groups something can belong to. The only question is the fruitfulness of considering objects as members of a particular group. The race to find the fundamental food groups was on.
Crumbs are alimentary particles, but they obviously can’t be the most basic particle, or the exclusive basic particle. It takes work to pull them apart, so something must be holding them together. What? The holding-together forces have to be found. Of course it would be ideal for the FFF and the FFS to coincide in some way, for that would make things tidier, always a major consideration when dealing with food.
Holding-together is always a problem. Take nails, for example. You nail two boards together. What holds the boards together? The nails. Bu twhat holds the nails to the boards? Or you glue two pieces of paper together. What holds the two pieces of paper together? The glue. But what holds the glue to the paper?
Years ago my older son embarked upon a career of profound thinking in the following way: He asked “What makes the light go on, magic?” I said “No, you flip the switch on the wall and the light goes on.” He said “By magic.” I said “No, when you flip the switch, electricity goes into the bulb and lights it up.” “By magic.” No, there’s a little wire in the light bulb that gets very hot when the electricity goes through it, and that makes it glow.” “By magic.” “No, when the electrons in the wire get excited (oh oh) they jump from one orbital to another, giving off a photon.” “By magic.” …
His persistence convinced me that he was now old enough to go out and play in traffic. Parenthood is a humbling experience.
My son had discovered, through some doubtlessly inherited genius, that without thinking about it, and without understanding anything in particular — on the contrary — he could enter into an infinite loop of magic. Well, we’d better be careful not to end up in one of those infinite loops if we’re going to understand what holds our food together. What, then, are the FFF’s?
We’d be well advised to make a new start: put a new spin on the question. So we start from what we know experimentally. Cooking will have to enter the investigational picture. We decide to make pizza, and start by pouring some flour in a bowl. We push at it, but it won’t stick together. We need some liquid. Eureka ! A scientific breakthrough. We begin to generalize the picture. If we don’t put some sauce (oh oh) or some cheese (phew) on the pizza later, the pepperoni won’t stick. We really may be on to something.
So we organize our thoughts. There are obviously two basic sorts of stuff in food. Firm things (we’ll call them firmions) that don’t stick together, and wet things (we’ll call them hosons, because whenever we need some liquid we can always turn the … oh well). Now wet things don’t stick to one another very well either. They tend to spray around, evaporate, leak away, and so on, but they seem to hold firmions together just fine. In addition, and this is a central concept, if you whirl a firmion around it keeps its shape; but try and whirl hosons around. They go flying all over the place. Thus firmions are said to obey the laws of spin, and hosons do not.
We experiment, and, to make a long tail short, we find that if, for example, we press flour together very very hard we can get it to stick together a little bit, but under normal pressures we do indeed need something wet. We can speculate that under high pressure the difference between firmions and hosons disappears in some respects; but confirming this grand unification will have to wait until we’re much farther along. For example, we’re obviously going to have to deal with heat somehow.
Consider a ball of Mozzarella. At low temperatures it behaves like a firmion, but at higher temperatures it behaves as a hoson. This may, however, be simply a matter of the cheese being a composite of firmions and hosons: and aren’t we all. Pure hosons might always behave like hosons, and firmions like firmions. How are we to isolate pure hosons or firmions? Decisions have to be made about the state of the world: cool/hot, high pressure/low pressure, and so on in which the basic particles behave the way they should in their purity. And how in the world are we going to recognize, say, a single hoson? Will it be wet?
One more key concept must be put in place before we can begin to hazard an answer to these questions: the field. No concept is more important to the study of food than the field. And paradigmatic it is firmionic earth drenched by hosonic rains so food may grow. Furthermore, to retrieve themes we laid aside before, what is absolutely striking as we look at a field of growing food is the subtle array of colors. Moreover, can we look at such a field without anticipating the tastes that await us? A field of growing things is a field of flavor — or, rather, flavors, for we must recall the FFS. How many flavors, and how much flavor? It’s time to be quantitatively more precise than we have been so far.
We hypothesize (on good grounds) that colors and flavors can be treated as symmetries, and thus handled in terms of groups (green vegetables, to take an obvious example, or sweets). But now we have to recall a common fact. Sometimes a bite of food is so small it has no taste, and seems to fly in the face of the principle that something without taste isn’t food. There thus must be smallest units of food –food quanta, we might say. So we define the (necessarily existing)smallest portion of food, and, remembering the central role of our taste buds in this investigation, we call that smallest portion the bud.
We can now ask “Do buds add up to produce the flavors we know and love?” The answer, for good or ill, is “No.” One of the pervasive facts we must account for in our theory is that flavors combine. Their combination is interactive and highly non-linear. Depending on cook in temperatures and a myriad of other culinary conditions that can’t be controlled with infinite precision, the result of combining buds is highly variable. If we tried to “add up” all the flavors that could result from the possible interactive combination of even two buds, we would find ourselves with an embarrassing infinity on our hands.
We find, however, that some resulting flavors are more likely than others. If there were no reliability whatsoever, fine cooking would be out of the question. So we determine the probabilities of the various flavors and square them to derive what we call flavor abundances. Then, to calculate the canonical flavor of any combination of buds we sum over all abundances .
It’s a mark of the current state of the theory that no one is quite sure how the procedure works to predict and produce reliable flavors. In fact there are some skeptics who maintain that the theory is no better than the BS that preceded it. Only the future will decide the issue, but one reflection may be apt.
The theory of alimentary particles is meant to be a theory of everything with taste. ( Elementary particle theories would call such a grand unified theory a GUT. Alimentary particle theorists are above such childish banter.) All possible food must be accounted for. But in saying this a fatal ambiguity is introduced. Do we mean all possible food in our world, or all possible food in any world? It may well be that we can’t derive the number of buds we discriminate in our world from any more basic “pure” principle. But that may mean that as we work our way back from our experiences, traditions of scientific practice, and contingencies of funding, some of the things we find are fundamental features of our gastronomic universe, and others are fundamental features of any gastronomic universe. But some, in their yearning for ultimate unification lump them together in the pious hope that they will ultimately form a smooth rational totality with but a single golden arche. Others of us candidly cultivate our gardens.

April 15, 2020

Self, echolocation, conspiracy theories

by Carl Dyke

Awhile back I tossed off a remark on a Facebook post that conspiracy theories are a form of echolocation. The host (Neuroanthropology, one of the very best pages I follow) asked me to say more and I gave it some thought, gave it some more thought, realized it had all gotten pretty unwieldy, and wrote this instead. As with most of my ‘pings’ I’m not sure it’s anything much better than a conspiracy theory, but maybe it makes a good blog post:

I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer this without getting too far down the rabbit hole and ending up reinventing the whole history of contemplation. So by way of sketchy sketch, what we call ‘self’ is pretty clearly an emergent, adaptive epiphenomenon of environmental, biological, and cultural feedback systems churning along at various scales. Because it’s dynamic, relational, and adaptive, there’s inherently no stable essence to such a structure. It only persists by active (massively active) engagement with its surroundings, whatever they may be from time to time. This is an energetic process obviously subject to resource constraint.

Adaptation and evolution create a distribution of strategies within this basic dynamic. Interaction is split off into subsystems that operate at different rates and intensities, both within and among ‘individuals’. Resources are differentially committed and optimized around particular interactive settings. For example, it seems that people have various relatively hard wired rates at which learning occurs, with characteristic advantages and disadvantages to slow or swift response to new information.

Again, the dynamic interactivity of self means that its maintenance requires constant orienting feedback with and from the environments, internal and external. This is the echolocation part. But resource constraint means that we can’t be operating active echolocation in every subsystem and every scale simultaneously, and adaptive differentiation means we’re optimizing and prioritizing those feedback loops across a range of strategies. Practically, this means people are going to be active and maybe even ‘needy’ around a range of interactive domains, giving off and taking in information asymmetrically across multiple axes, none of this chosen or conscious obviously.

“Who am I” is a much harder question to answer and keep answered in interactively chaotic environments than homogenously stable ones. Environments produce a range of echoes, and processing biases reward different collection routines. It may be that for some people sometimes, somewheres, the mismatch between their pings and the available echoes is profoundly alienating, if not literally crazymaking. You would expect these distributional experiments out on the long tails, and you would expect those tails to get fatter as environments become more variable and chaotic. You would expect people to become more aggressive in their attempts to create and manage congenial echo chambers.

Conspiracy theories then work as a special case of a very ordinary kind of echolocating ping, by broadcasting a strongly biased signal into a chaotic environment likely to generate a loud and clear response one way or another. Although this feedback loop is likely to be identity and community defining, it’s not in the first instance about ‘believing’ the conspiracy theory at all.

April 5, 2020

Dogma and criticality

by Carl Dyke

“I always believed that two masterpieces (I say this very seriously) summarized the thousand-year-old experience of mankind in the field of mass organization: the corporal’s manual and the Catholic catechism. I’ve become convinced that it is necessary to add, though in a field that is much more restricted and of an exceptional nature, prison regulations, which contain true treasures of psychological introspection.” Antonio Gramsci, Letters from Prison I, 97.

Critical thinking is hard. I work in a humanities / social sciences / liberal arts field where we celebrate but seldom practice critical thinking (and perhaps ‘wisdom’). Much more often what you get is some “critical theory” or other reduced to a kitsch algorithm and “applied” as dogma. This is obviously a mistake, but it’s also not at all a mistake. So I’m writing this post out of frustration, but also, I hope, critically.

“Criticizing,” in the sense of finding fault and locating errors, is always available, but it’s the thinnest possible understanding of critical thinking. You’re finding mismatches between one set of standards and another set of practices, which in a lumpy, complex world is like shooting ducks in a bucket. (I started out by doing that here. I’m still doing it. I’m trying to do better. It’s hard.) People start to get good at this kind of critical thinking around the age of two. “Critical theories” at this level simply provide the more or less elaborate standards in comparison to which practices can always be found wanting. Don’t do that thing, do the other thing. “This ham sandwich is not the platonic essence of the ham sandwich.”

I should say that I often revere the standards provided by critical theories. In my experience the platonic essence of the ham sandwich was produced by the Good Food Bus, parked beside Paley Library at Temple University, circa 1983. It was glorious. I’m also in favor of flourishing, human and otherwise, and firmly believe that mean people suck.

What “critical theory” even at its most algorithmic gets right is that criticality is edgy (fractal, as Nietzsche said, and therein lies the abyss). The center of any practice is never where the critical action is, as any bored suburban teenager can tell you. In those centers there’s just a way things work, and part of how they work is by locking out critical disruption. At a systems level all of the metaphors of mechanism and organism suggest themselves here. Engines and hearts don’t do a lot of critical thinking about how and whether to make the old crate go, and that’s for the best. It’s never a good thing when those subsystems ‘go critical’.

This sense in which locked in, algorithmic regimes of ‘normal’ enable a smoothly successful function of business as usual is incredibly, one might say critically, important. This is what critical theories do for communities of like-minded intellectual practitioners, and why they’re critically not critical. As Marx himself noted, there’s nothing less critical than “Marxism.” The road from theory to cult to cultural system is paved with good intentions and sound practical reason.

All of this makes both practicing and teaching critical thinking really tricky. Anything we tell the students is dogma. If we drill them in it they are foot soldiers, or prisoners. If we tell it to them charismatically and they are moved to embrace it, they are disciples. If we show them our work, they become priests. To enter criticality and think critically, they must somehow evade the syllabus and the curriculum with which we tell them things, without just falling back into a prior dogma. The ones who get this routinely drop out, leaving the priests to reproduce their orthodoxies on the next generation.

In complex systems, such as all of our doings together, criticality is the turbulent edge between order and chaos. It’s a creative but dangerous space. Critical thinking is hard precisely because you have to suspend and disrupt the algorithms, entering criticality and exploring the possibilities that become available there, with the settled order of dogma behind you and the wild chaos of nonsense churning all around.

March 28, 2020

Rolling with the times

by Carl Dyke

“The essential requirement is to recognize that conditions are needed that occasionally foster novelty and experiment. Those become possible during periods when connectedness is low and resilience is high. The low connectedness permits novel reassortments of elements that previously were tightly connected to one another. The high resilience allows tests of those novel combinations because system-wide costs of failure are low. Those are the conditions needed for creative experimentation. This recognition of resilience varying within a cycle is the first element added that provides a way to reconcile the delicious paradoxes of conservative nature versus creative nature, of sustainability versus creative change.”

Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson, “Resilience and Adaptive Cycles,” in Gunderson and Holling, eds. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island, 2002. Accessed at

March 26, 2020


by Carl Dyke

This was a dream. These guys were working in some foreign country. It wasn’t clear if they were missionaries or project engineers but they were good people, there to help. And they’d gotten busted for calling in prostitutes. A lot, routinely, so much so that they were getting blackmail callbacks from the local mob and causing problems for the home office, whatever it was.

No one could understand how this had happened, because these were good guys there to help, and this was against all previous evidence of character. So they were asked why. And they said well it was so cheap, and the girls were so good at it, and just waiting around for something to do.

February 2, 2020

Research guidance

by Carl Dyke

This is how I teach it, starting with the world history surveys. I wrote it down for the online class I’m teaching now. The whole process is meant to be recursive, generating new questions and diving back into the research. All of the research projects are written up in three phases culminating in the masterpiece.

Education can be a lot of jumping through hoops, and you may not be used to studying things you’re interested in. In this class, you learn by engaging your curiosity and then developing the skills and knowledge you need because there’s something you actually want to figure out and understand better.

Somebody has to do the research and find the sources that support informed and reliable historical knowledge. If you’re writing the paper, that somebody is you! There are some skills involved in good research, but there’s also a disposition. Good researchers are curious, stubborn, and persistent. They want to know, they’re confident the information they need is out there, and they keep digging until they hit it. Good researchers don’t say “I can’t find anything,” they say “let’s try another approach.”

If you can’t find the sources, you can’t be informed and reliable, and you can’t write a paper on that topic. There are two ways to handle this (well, three, if you count giving up). You can pick a different topic where the sources are easier to find. Or you can get stubborn, persist, and find the sources you need, becoming more ‘resourceful’ in the process.

Overview research

For any topic, it helps to have a general understanding of how that topic works in itself, and a general overview of that topic as part of a place and time with various other things going on. For this kind of orientation, encyclopedias and brief online summaries from reliable providers are fine! You can even go ‘Wikipedia surfing’ – find the entry for your topic and then click all the links, and then click all the links, and so on until you feel like you have a pretty good idea of the main outlines and features of your topic. Sometimes the citations, bibliography, and external links on better Wikipedia pages can even guide you toward more serious research.

Overview research is the common knowledge level of investigation. You’re just getting up to speed on what anyone who knows anything about the topic already knows. Any educated person with a device can do this step in a few minutes. You have not yet “done the research,” you have “informed yourself.” It’s very good to be informed, and a great start for serious research. But none of this basic information belongs in a research study. You only make yourself useful when you get way, way past Wikipedia and the first page of Google, and figure out something that wasn’t common knowledge.

Search terms

Other than general knowledge, the most important takeaway from overview research is an enhanced list of search terms. Most failed searches are just worded badly, and part of getting better at research is getting better at words. Make note of words and phrases that characterize your topic, then plug them back into your search to get more informed and specialized results. Keep doing this as you go to achieve a virtuous knowledge spiral.

Secondary sources

Most of your overview research will be what’s called “secondary sources.” In this case what makes them secondary is that they are written after the fact (second hand) by people with no direct experience of the topic. Secondary sources come in different grades of reliability and different levels of elaboration. For historical research, specialized sources published by scholars are usually where the reliable knowledge in depth is. They’re usually “peer reviewed,” which means approved by other people who study in that field. And they’re usually long format, starting in the 15-20 page range. You should get used to seeking out and reading research in that range.


Regular Google searches move ads to the front, and after that are designed to give you the common knowledge overview, because that’s what most people want. So if you’re not careful, Google can distort your research and even your understanding of how knowledge works toward the superficial and trivial. Over time you can teach Google to take you more seriously and return better quality results automatically, but in the meantime you can go direct to Google Scholar and do your search at


There’s lots of great free scholarly content on the web. But if you hit a paywall, or you want to get straight to the good stuff without fighting through garbage, and also take advantage of your tuition dollars at work, it’s best to go through an academic database. At Davis Memorial Library the one database to rule them all is Proquest. It comes in a lot of curated subsections, but unless you know for sure that you only want the results from a narrowed search, go with Proquest Central, which is all of it. Look under P in the Digital Resources section of the library web page, (). (For History specifically, JSTOR is also great. Look under J.)

Primary sources

Primary sources are really important in historical research, because they were produced at the time you are studying by the people you are studying (primary in this case means first-hand). They can be a little tricky to find and may require some creative flexibility. The Library has what are called “LibGuides” that offer access to some primary source collections. There’s a link to the LibGuides on the main library page, and they’re organized by general topic area, including World History. Lots of libraries have terrific libguides online and you can use any of them, but signing in and going through MU’s libguides can help with paywalls if that’s an issue.

If you know the specific primary sources you’re looking for, Google can work fine. There are also collections of primary sources online that can be accessed directly if you know what they are, or discovered by searching your topic plus the search terms “primary source” and/or “archive” (an archive is a place where old writing is stored). Obviously you should have lots of different ways of saying your topic to the computer so you don’t miss the resources you need just because of bad wording.


Finding great sources is terrific, but then obviously you have to read them. In good research where you develop knowledge in depth, you should expect to find and read hundreds of pages, including lots that don’t turn out to be all that useful. This is why it’s so incredibly important to pick a topic you find genuinely fascinating. For guidance on extracting information and understanding from sources by reading them, see “Reading for Evidence.”

Research help

You can schedule a personal consult with a research librarian. They will help you find what you’re looking for. It’s not even cheating! Here’s the link: ()

December 2, 2019

The rules of sociological theory

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been teaching sociological theory for twenty-five years now, long enough that what used to be contemporary theory is sliding into the classical theory / silly old obsolete theory grey area. Enrollment permitting I’ll be teaching it again in the Spring. I’ve taught it a bunch of different ways. Here’s my rough draft of the guts of the syllabus, after all these years:

This is a class for investigating and discovering how societies work. We’ll look at some examples of how that’s done. You can decide what society you want to investigate and what about it you’d like to discover. There are only two firm rules for the class:

1. You may not assume or assert that all societies work the same. The data set of that claim is every society everywhere in all of history in every dimension, plus every possible future society in all of the universe forever. None of us has access to that data set.

2. You may begin and end with methodological individualism (the principle that individual motivation explains social phenomena). But you may not just camp out there. That is, you must at some point honestly and robustly consider and explore the possibility that individual motivations do not explain social phenomena.

We will spend the first week of the class discussing what these rules mean, why these are the rules, and what is accomplished by them. They are subject to change if our little society legitimately reaches that consensus.

August 15, 2019

The origins of shovels

by Carl Dyke

If you have some shit to shovel and because you’re shoveling shit you pause to wax philosophical, and the question is “where do shovels come from,” “the Home Depot” is in some ways a good and correct answer but also not even close to a good and correct answer.

July 1, 2019

Complexity and clay soil

by Carl Dyke

From time to time I’ll post things here from the works of Dyke the Elder (Chuck Dyke). This one is from his series of reflections on Hesiod in collaboration with his friend Yrjö Haila:

Just to fill in some of the blanks on clay soil. Hesiod leaves a lot to be said on the topic. My direct experience with Mediterranean soil is all from Italy, with basically volcanic soil the norm, and sandy soil in second place. Of course we know there’s clay in the area (Crete): it would be hard to account for all the pottery otherwise. The sources simply say that clay was readily available everywhere, with some better than other because of the presence of particular metals.

Clay is also readily available all over my property. In fact, Bucks county is famous for its clay soil. Yrjo is absolutely right about the waterlogging issue so we’ll start there. Our clay soil, left to itself has two attractor states: mud, and adobe — unbaked brick. So something has to be done about it. How much has to be done depends on scale and crop. Acres and acres of feed corn (maize), as well as sweet corn, are still grown all around my area, even though the dairy farms have all but disappeared. Probably by now everyone knows what varieties to plant for high clay conditions, so the corn is successful most of the time. But for obvious reasons, either excessive wet, or drought, or both will give you a bad year. The excessive wet is worst in the Spring, because you can’t get your equipment into the fields to prepare them. There’s hardly anything more character building than getting your tractor in up to the hubs in waterlogged clay, and having to somehow pull it out. So the farmers are always moaning about the “late Spring”. The droughts are a late July and August phenomenon. Even if you’ve been lucky enough to plant your corn in good time, and it’s thrived to the point where it’s knee high or taller, midsummer drought can stop its growth in its tracks. Of course irrigation is an option – but watch out. If you irrigate and it then starts to rain, you may not be able to get your equipment into the field for harvesting.

One of the most conspicuous consequences of climate change around here is that, in effect, the seasons have precessed a month. What you used to be able to do in March, you now do in April; and what you used to have to do in October can now wait until November. (I’m writing this on March 19. Yesterday I tried to get some things done outside, but the ground is still frozen, and the temperature below freezing.) As we’ll see in a moment, I can wait, though not patiently, but the farmers are already getting edgy.

About five years ago it became obvious that if I was going to be able to get a good start in the Spring, I’d have to do something about the excessive wet. It was showing signs of being the new norm. Now, it has to be remembered that I’m growing things on a significantly different scale from that of the farmers. Strategies are available for me that would make little or no sense for them. So I dug a drainage trench across the bottom edge of the garden: deep enough to affect the drainage from the plot, and in a position that would considerably increase run-off. It’s made a big difference: several weeks, I think. Sure enough, the excessive wet has become the norm – something I can reasonably count on. We’ll see in the next month or so ….

However, the best thing I could do, at my scale, was improve the clay soil by adding large amounts of organic fertilizer. In the old days, especially when there were many dairy farms, the farmers could do the same, as Hesiod could have done. These days they use chemical fertilizers almost exclusively. Thus they lose the contributions to soil texture that organic fertilizers provide. But what with all the manure, compost, and organic mulch I use, I’ve been able to reduce (over forty-odd years) the clay-ness of the soil, as it were. It doesn’t make as good adobe bricks as it used to, but roots have an easier time growing through it. The good black dirt is by now about 8 to 10 inches deep in the garden.

Now is where we have to start to think of the “non-linear dynamics” of this whole situation , where the phrase “non-linear dynamics” means, for present purposes, that you can’t do something straightforward to fix one problem without affecting (and often causing) other problems. For, that wonderful 100 square meters of black dirt is, in effect, a shallow well within the surrounding field of clay. If you were a drop of water, where would you want to live? Well, the point is that the improvement of the soil exacerbates the wetness problem even as it helps with the clay-ness problem. It’s well worth it; but it starts another round of improvements we’ll get to in a minute. First, a parallel non-linearity:

Clay soil is naturally very acid. Some plants like that, or don’t mind it much; others hate it. On balance, clay soil is too acid. Adding all that organic matter makes the soil more acid still. So you find yourself buying a whole lot of powdered limestone, and spreading it around. Fertility of clay soil – the kind of fertility you really want – depends on lime. Since it dissolves easily a lot of it runs off with the drainage, reducing the efficiency; but the grass below the bottom of the garden is nice and green (good for the mulch, so you get back what might just have drained away). So, you can’t deal with tilth and fertility without increasing your drainage problem, which has to be addressed further. This leads to the final two important moisture management strategies: hills and valleys, and mulch.

We return to the shallow well filled with good black dirt. The ground water slowly oozes in from the clay field outside, gently slides from the high to the low side of the garden, and, to some extent, drains into the ditch; but not nearly quickly enough, especially during really wet weather. Furthermore, the wettest times are early in the season, at planting time and just after, when the plants are most vulnerable to being swamped, and, in the worst case, to rotting out. So, after I’ve tilled the garden I get out the hoe and build a system of ridges, in and upon which things are planted. The tops of the ridges end up about a foot above the low stretches between them, but settle a few inches over time. The bottoms of the holes into which the young tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants are set are about 3 or 4 inches above the low stretches. Beans are seeded a little deeper than you’d plant them on flat ground.

A short way to put the point of the system of ridges is that the aim is to buffer against extremes of wet and dry. Tomatoes, for example, develop one kind of vascular system under dry conditions, and another under wet conditions. You can tell that from the texture of the stems. The dry weather stems don’t work well in wet weather, and vice versa. So you don’t want the tomatoes to have to try to switch back and forth between the two kinds of stems. With the ridges, my tomatoes start their major growth under moderately moist conditions, and, as you’ll see in a minute, live their maturity and fruit production under moderately moist conditions. The same holds for the beans and everything else. Occasionally, if the time after seeding brings no rain, I have to keep the seeds on the tops of the ridges moist: a couple of watering cans usually does the job: no extensive irrigation.

Meanwhile, the grass in the field and the lawn is growing. It gets cut and dumped into the garden: first in the low stretches then over the ridges themselves. This doesn’t affect the drainage, but, obviously affects the amount of evaporation considerably. I mulch four to eight inches deep. That’s the last part of the puzzle. The result is that I never have to do a whole lot of watering, sometimes if it’s really dry the squash are happy with a bath, and sometimes I never have to water at all. By the time dry weather comes, of course, everything has sent roots all over the place, well below the surface of the low stretches. Under the conditions I’ve created, the clay down deep can actually become an ally, holding water, and releasing it slowly. My friends the earthworms do the rest.

Well, isn’t that a long song and dance just for a little garden! Yes. It takes time and patience to write it down; it takes time and patience to read it; and it certainly takes time and patience to do it. But that’s what it takes to deal intelligently with a complex system of interacting and largely competing requirements and problems. It’s also important to see that the song and dance it takes me to get things right is particular to my circumstances. The farmers growing corn couldn’t, and shouldn’t do what I do. Then, there are really good gardeners in my general area who do things differently. For instance, you may have heard or read about the (originally French) “raised bed” system. Some gardeners around here have come to use that system very successfully in their circumstances. Isn’t that what I’m clumsily groping for? No. I’ve thought a lot about using the system. It has some real advantages. For instance it’s a lot less work than what I do (especially if you can get someone to make the raised beds for you). But I don’t move to it because it doesn’t answer complexly enough to the tangle of interacting requirements and problems I have. The people who use the raised bed system “swear by it”. I’d probably swear by it too, in their circumstances. But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s one of the major messages to gain from the study of complex systems, even little ones like my garden. Yrjo and I have been thinking together about such things for a long time now, so the best possible example of one size not fitting all is to compare my account to his account to which this is appended. What he knows, and what I know, is that he’d have to be crazy to try to manage his garden the way I manage mine.

While particular solutions don’t travel well in complex circumstances, the overall message – that they don’t travel well — is itself pretty general. I just read a book that documented the same point as it’s sinking in among people who worry about foreign aid, and look for new ways to make it more efficient and increase its staying power. The message is a frustrating one, for obvious reasons. The task of “finding a solution” gets dauntingly hard at the scale and scope those people work. If you think of throwing money at problems as you’d think of pitching baseballs, then it might occur to you that not all hitters were the same. So finding a pitch and a location that worked with one hitter might not convince you that you ought to throw the same pitch in the same location to the next hitter. Baseball is usually more complex than that – unless you’re Sandy Koufax, and never have a bad day.

June 12, 2019

Financing regenerative agriculture

by Carl Dyke

Three articles turned up in my feeds today that taken together, illustrate the state of play with regenerative agriculture, and in particular its possibilities of expansion from the latest romantic back to the land fad to a serious challenge to industrial agriculture. Here at Slow Farm NC we do regenerative ag with the modest ambition to build a nice little life for ourselves, our critters, and our land in general harmony with the surroundings. We don’t think we must or can find some way to become world-changing in this. But it is fair to say that the contrast of regenerative and industrial agriculture is currently stark, and perhaps existentially consequential. How that shakes out is a matter of larger concern whether we like it or not.

Our land is right on the edge of two geological zones, the North Carolina Sandhills and the Piedmont. We’ve got a substrate of the red clay and overlay of ancient seabed sand that makes the local metropolis of Sanford the “Brick Capital of the USA”.  Our dirt is officially characterized as loamy sand, which essentially means that we start with a relatively poor soil with no particular alluvial advantages and a relatively short natural history of organic cycling. This is not amber waves of grain dirt. As a result this area didn’t have much in the way of large scale plantation agriculture, nor was there immediately a mass market crop after the local longleaf pines got logged out and boiled down for their “naval stores,” tar, pitch, and turpentine.

Somewhere around a hundred years ago, like lots of others in this area our plot was turned over to tobacco production in a family farm format. We know an old local guy who fishes our pond sometimes who ran a mule team here when he was young, and we’ve spoken with lots of older locals who talk with a distinctive mixture of fierce pride and wistful trauma about childhoods lost to the rigors of small scale tobacco production. It was a living, as they say.

Tobacco grows well in the local climate, but it beats the hell out of soil. Decades of intensive tobacco cultivation essentially strip mine all of the natural mineral and organic fertility out of soil, leaving an inert growth medium into which each year’s crop has to be artificially input as “fertilizer.” Weeds, blights, and pests are obliterated with poisons. This chemical assault finishes the job of killing off the biology of the soil that was started by the depletion of its food supply. Make no mistake, this works: one of our neighbors continues to get a big tobacco crop each year, another does well with mostly sorghum, and the third is a wizard with field peas and mixed vegetables, conjuring them from the ashy ground in astonishing abundance.

It’s a living, but not for the communities of the soil, so in the meantime big stretches of our dirt are essentially dead. On the plus we have woods and wetlands that remain biologically active and give us a head start on regeneration, and a few years of doomed horse farming by our predecessors got some manure on the ground and grasses established. In our own regenerative practice we aim to enable and support the whole biological community, from the bacterial and fungal microbiomes of field and gut and rumen that do the actual digestion at the heart of biological fertility, to the plants that pull in and convert sun and atmospheric gasses into organic materials, to the bugs and mixed livestock that eat it all and poop it back out again as composted fertilizer. It’s a bigger, fuller living, we like to think.

We call our place Slow Farm because all of this just happens if you set things up for all of the critters to live and do their things together, but it doesn’t happen quickly or in any immediate sense “pay off” except in good will and warm fuzzy feelings. After nearly four years our soil is still mostly dead and ashy, we still only rarely see dung beetles, stray worms are still cause for remark and rejoicing, and the livestock dung still mostly sits on the ground washing through and drying out rather than getting trampled in and feeding bugs and worms and processed into rich soil by the microbiome that still, mostly, just isn’t there yet:


Fossil goat poop or Kix cereal? Who could tell?

We don’t have a crop or anything to sell, really, nor is that our model, really. In some sense the essence of regenerative ag is that you not be removing any valuables from your environment, but rather keep cycling them back in. You can fudge and claim the sun and the air as universal commons, and of course you’re buying in feed and fuel and so on to make the books kind of balance. Because our livestock team includes chickens and ducks and pigs we love, we sell some eggs and we do a fine business in heritage breed kunekune piglets, who leave young without taking too much of the place with them. But I’ve just gestured at the fact that the economics of regenerative farming are inherently odd, which brings me to those articles I mentioned at the top.

This article from Modern Farmer is a genre piece celebrating the plucky agricultural ingenuity of a new small farmer, and bonus! – it’s a woman. She came to regenerative agriculture through a series of happy accidents and associations, working her way from a window planter to a half-acre farm-to-table vegetable plot to the organic cannabis industry. She’s thoughtful and good at it, there’s passion of course, and it’s honestly an impressive and inspiring story.

Obviously in the larger scheme of things one good farmer more or less isn’t much, but we’re all meant to nod and wave our hands around and solemnly proclaim that “It’s a start!” But no, actually it’s not a start. Romantic holism and back to the land movements have a long history. There are always these people around, they’re always figuring stuff out and being creative and bucking the trend, it’s always cool and admirable, and there’s always the hippie dream that you can scale up from these little serendipities to changing the whole world. And for many, many reasons, the next time that actually happens will be the first. When this kind of story becomes interesting as a data point of transformation is when there are so many of her that she becomes ordinary and unremarkable. “Local man chooses SUV over minivan” is the scale we want this story in. “Local man rides recumbent bike to work, thinks you should too” is a freak show, and so is this. But good for her, bless her heart.

Next we have an interview in Time with filmmaker, TV director, and regenerative farmer John Chester, whose documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” I have heard great reports about but not yet seen. The interview itself is brief and can’t possibly show Chester in his best light, but hopefully shows him at his hand-waving, talking point spewing worst. Chester and his wife have 200 acres where they grow “about 250 different things.” Extractive industrial ag is unsustainable and crazy. The farm doesn’t make money, but they experiment and they get $15 for a dozen eggs and they have investors. “And the meaning that is derived from the reconnection to nature is by far superior to any form of dopamine feedback loop that I know out there.”

We should be shopping at farmers’ markets and composting, Chester says. He may never have lived in a city or eaten on a budget. It is certainly true that mixing our organic wastes with toxic ones and burying them in sealed landfills or flushing them out to sea is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. But framing this as a matter of individual choice and virtue is, erm, unsustainable and crazy. For lots of people, the infrastructure of collection and distribution to make composting a real option does not exist. Composting our own sewage is a challenge at yet another odor of magnitude. Ironically, he likens composting to recycling, which as you know Bob has recently turned out to be quite a headache even at the relatively small scales at which it’s practiced. This is another of those places where “it’s a start” thinking is just pragmatically wrong.

$15 eggs make sense if you think about how much it costs to maintain land and structures and practices for chickens to live pleasant and fulfilling lives. The cheap egg industry is indeed a horror show. Farmers’ markets are great for local produce in season. They’re also, of course and for good reason, a much more expensive way to buy produce. Treating this as a matter of choice treats household consumption as a wonderland of ethical optionality, not the anxietizing minefield of constraint and consequence it is for most of us. I can illustrate.

A couple of years ago, being small farmers ourselves and knowing full well all of the things about the ethics and economics of small farming, we contracted with a fellow local farmer to buy our Thanksgiving turkey from her. The price was something like $7/lb for a happy, pasture-raised, humanely slaughtered bird. At that price and with a lot of other similar products, along with a whole lot of hustle, this farm is making it for the moment [update: they burned out and packed it in a year later].

The total price of the bird was a bit north of $100. It was robust and flavorful, a good feed. Upon reflection, last year I bought a factory farmed frozen turkey from Aldi’s. It was about the same size, and cost a bit north of $6. Although not as robust and flavorful as our friends’ bird, it was also a good feed. It should be noted that even with optimal distribution and minimal middlemen, the farm that grew the Aldi chicken got a maximum of $3 for that bird, and probably much less. Why they grow them fast and cheap and in very great quantity becomes easy to see.

Relatively speaking we are rich people, and we can “afford” $100 for a turkey once a year. But like a lot of people our wealth is highly leveraged. The bank owns most of our farm and the mortgage is a non-optional expense. Rachel has student loans from undergrad and graduate school in the tens of thousands of dollars. We bought the farm’s tractor, an essential piece of equipment to manage 47 acres with just the two of us, with a home equity loan. I got a nice deal on a used machine, but still that’s $10K to pick at when other expenses like vet care for the critters and repairs to the vehicles don’t chew up the surplus. We’re responsible people so everything has to be insured, including Rachel’s health, which since she works for an arts organization and for the farm we are self-funding.

In short, while we can always find $100 here or there, our monthly budget is tightly spoken for and any “extra” should go to debt reduction. Any money we don’t spend on debt reduction continues to cost us the rate of interest. At about 6%, $100 that I spend for a turkey rather than flipping to the home equity line quickly compounds, so two years later has grown to at least $112 and climbing. It’s entirely possible that we will have paid $200 for that one turkey by the time it’s all settled up. Meanwhile, the Aldi’s turkey is still south of $7, minus the debt retired with the saved $93 and its future compounding.

My point here is that no one but the independently wealthy can afford $100 turkeys or $15 eggs or any damn thing you can buy at the correct price for sustainability of regenerative practice at the farmers’ market as a matter of pure ethical optionality. It’s only in the brutal trade-offs of domestic budgets and finance that those costs can, rarely and exceptionally, be absorbed. And this means that regenerative agriculture at scale simply cannot be funded out of household consumption. All of that money is tied up elsewhere in those budgets, obviously all the more so for people less wealthy than us. Personal choices and virtues are powerless before this brute fact. “Rarely and exceptionally” is not the right scale for transforming a food system.

Chester may be oblivious to all that. Of course he’s not responsible for changing the world, and he’s got investors who are currently willing to fund his losses in the name of experimentation. It remains to be seen if being a hobby farm for rich do-gooders is sustainable for him, but it certainly isn’t a transformation model for the rest of us.

The bottom line here is that the money is in all the “wrong” places for regenerative agriculture to become anything but kewl marginalia, feelgood human interest stories, or peak experiences for yuppie dopamine junkies. Transforming the food system will be unbelievably expensive, which makes it prohibitive to people whose only relationship to money is to spend it. This may mean it’s just not going to happen, but for it to happen, the big money is going to have to become heavily involved, which means finance and ultimately the government. What changes the world is shifting trillions of dollars of finance from one profit regime to another. And right about here someone starts going on about capitalism and neoliberalism and Monsanto or maybe regulatory capture and the nanny state, and all that sort of mystical nonsense you can usually smoke out if substituting “Satan” as the name for the Big Other doesn’t significantly change the gist of the screed. “Satan is corrupting everything and ruining our lives!” Yep, right. Good luck with that, bless your heart.

The final article is a puff piece by a corporate shill at General Mills about regenerative livestock management and carbon sequestration at a lovely little place called “White Oak Pastures.” It’s earnest and informative and obviously serves the PR purposes of the food industry by recasting their profit-seeking practices as environmentally responsible research in the public interest. What this means, and it is by no means a sure thing or without the usual costs, is that the smart money is moving into position to fund regenerative agriculture. If they can find profit in it, and we can elect people who will move the fiscal and regulatory and subsidy incentives toward it, a lot of ifs there, it might be we can get something done. At least it’s a start.