Archive for ‘bemusement’

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by CarlD

One of the necessary little tricks in Star Trek is a device called the Universal Translator. What it does is something something something, and as a result all of the characters from all of the species and cultures in all of the galaxy can immediately and seamlessly hear and understand each other without having to labor over a lot of language acquisition. Handy!

In one of my favorite episodes of the Next Generation series of the show, the Enterprise encounters folks who speak entirely in metaphors (unless they are allegories, or even better, strategies, as Ian Bogost argues). Because the Universal Translator has no database of the original referents for the metaphors/allegories/strategies, it can render the words and names of the imagery but is confounded on their purpose and meaning. Frank incomprehension ensues. Brilliantly, the alien captain beams himself and Picard down to the local planet, where they are forced to work out an understanding under pressure from a belligerent prop critter (which makes no attempt to understand them, or vice versa). Even though Picard learns only a phew ‘phrases’ of the alien language, it is enough to stand down tension — although not to ground a relationship, so off the aliens go again.

So in effect, they get to the level of ritualized small talk, and like so many of our encounters in real life, that’s as far as they’ll ever get. What the Universal Translator gets wrong is that you could ever advance to understanding of another person or culture or conceptual complex just by translating the words without all of the unarticulated paratexts that give them meaning and purpose. This is also a thing that all of those lists of ‘untranslatable’ foreign words get wrong from the other side. No word is untranslatable, although sometimes it takes more than one word to do it. What’s tricky is all of the stuff embedded in the word that doesn’t come with it in the verbal substitution.

A good recent example is Paul Berman’s takedown of cross-cultural misunderstanding over French banning of Islamist dress and particularly the ‘burkini’, full-cover swimwear for women. Berman focuses on the French word laïcité, which is routinely described in American commentary as an untranslatable mystification justifying all manner of offenses against fundamental values like personal freedom. So Berman notes that the word is not at all difficult to translate, ‘secularism’. But what is hard to convey is the thick concept embedded in the thin word by the long history of the French working through all of its permutations in exhaustive public debates on the way to installing it as one of their fundamental national values. Not secularism, secularismSecularism, get it? Which means those women are not just exercising their personal rights of choice on those beaches, they are directly and explicitly attacking the French nation as such.

Berman does not go on to discuss how this kind of argument works pretty much the same if we’re talking about Americans freaking out over Muslim immigrants trying to get the schools to take Sharia law into account in dress codes and menu options and such, but if he did he might reasonably reply that in this context the fight is over which religious fundamentalism will dominate public spaces rather than its complete removal therefrom. And the profound differences between a liberal conception of serial diversity vs. a republican conception of compelling moral solidarity and a conservative conception of wholesome homogeneity.

What strikes me here is, yet again, that the same words can have not just different meanings, but completely different existential and conceptual underpinnings, different logics of practice to use a concept given meaning via Bogost, Bourdieu, and eventually Marx. Both the United States and France assert secularism as one of their core values. But it turns out that looks very different if you actually mean it. So what we’re seeing with France is an experiment in making secularism a finally deciding principle, rather than a nice bonus as long as nothing else important is at stake. In France, secularism grounds individual rights. When individual rights don’t express secularism, it’s the rights that must lose. In the U.S., individual rights can include secularism, but often don’t. Ours is the liberal secularism of not taking sides, in fundamental contrast to the republican secularism of defining a moral order prior to individual choice or group affiliation. But then, individual rights for us are themselves a fundamentalism.

All of this emerges from evolutionary histories. As Berman notes, France makes a lot more sense if we remember the religious wars that shredded Europe for a couple hundred years. Then the revolutions made the blood flow. Then primitive ethnic nationalism twice mixed blood and soil. Then the empire agonizingly collapsed in the blood rivers of identity politics old and new. France has tried out a whole bunch of extremisms, and is now extremely extremism averse. Well, except for the National Front, who don’t so much miss the lessons of history as proudly embrace their gruesomely formative slaughter. They relish the fight. They don’t want to ban burkinis, they want to throw the Muslims into the sea. To secularism fundamentalists, burkini bans are congenially available as a moderating response to that kind of extremism. Two birds with one stone. To rights fundamentalists, burkini bans are unthinkable, uncanny, horrific. Polluted and polluting. Their range of understanding and response are restricted accordingly.

Oddly, or maybe not at all oddly, I find myself in the same predicament in my sabbatical project, and especially trying to explain my sabbatical project. “A history of theories of complex systems,” I say. Most people know what all these words mean. They can use them creatively in ordinary conversation. After all, complex systems are all around us. I mention examples. It’s easy. A farming colleague has begun teasing me about how everything is a complex system. It reminds me of the old joke about Clifford Geertz, who after writing about ideology as a cultural system, religion as a cultural system, chickens as a cultural system, politics as a cultural system, and your face as a cultural system (ok, I made that last one up, but it’s plausible enough), was supposedly working on his magnum opus, “Culture as a Cultural System.” Haha, Carl and his complex systems.

But no, look, not complex systems, complex systemsComplex systems, get it? The difference is what happens if we start to take this seriously as a conception of the world. It’s not that things are complicated or that they can get unruly. It’s not about adding a variable or two to approximate a more complete analysis. It’s not that there are sometimes multiple factors and causes and motivations, and it can be tough to untangle them. All of that is sort of true-ish, but still completely missing the point. It’s taking complex systems and making them the rule, not the exception. It’s that actually, situations about which you could say the foregoing entirely truly are vanishingly rare and exceptional, and generally require massive inputs of effort and selective attention. The conceptual foundation of complex systems analysis is fundamentally alien and opposite to the way most of us have been taught to think about the world, which is in terms of isolating effective causes, and making shit up when that doesn’t work. God(s) did it, Fate did it, the Jews did it, The Man did it, men did it. Obama did it, Ike did it, Reagan did it, Hitler did it, Lincoln did it, MLK did it, Susan B. Anthony did it. Fertilizer did it, antibiotics did it, free trade did it, rational choice did it, the bourgeoisie did it, Bretton Woods did it, Socrates did it, Kant did it, Helen’s face did it.

Can you change your life by changing your diet? Sure. Will dropping red meat and eating yogurt with probiotics do it? Gosh, where to start. Maybe let’s talk about how we used to eat the stuff that the animals we ate were digesting. How paleo can you go? Yogurt, um. There’s a food system, there’s a culture of food system, family recipes and such, there are politics and economics, markets and climates, there are a lot of habits to talk about, there are billions of beasties doing a whole bunch of interrelated work in the soil you may not want to wash off that produce and in your guts, your guts include your skin by the way so let’s talk about soap and makeup and moisturizer. Will Donald Trump ruin everything, or fix everything? Which everything. Are we starting with checks and balances? Will we talk about the relative advantages and disadvantages of large and aging human populations? How exactly is he going to make the Mexicans do anything? How’d his first two marriages go? You say at least he tells it like it is? Gary Johnson, the candidate of choice! Jill Stein, for moral purity! I can’t even get there from here. Shaka, when the walls fell.

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by CarlD

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.

June 23, 2015


by CarlD

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by CarlD

The faculty at the University of Oregon appear to have hoisted themselves in exactly this way we talked about here earlier. I am officially sad about that.

kliban eye poke

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by CarlD

As a logical next step in my fiddlings with bread-making, I just baked my first sourdough loaf with home-made wild yeast starter the other day. To eliminate all suspense, it came out great – by which I mean, it reminded me of all the things I like about sourdough bread without introducing any new negative associations. I especially like it because I did it ‘all wrong’, which is what this post will now document.

“Softly now, softly now – try it, you won’t die.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings

So, how I went about this is I got on the ol’ internet and googled ‘sourdough starter’. A little reading got me pretty quickly to the further qualification, ‘wild yeast’ – thus distinguishing the truly artisanal starter from the kinds someone else made that you can buy for a whole lot of money from specialty baking stores, if you’re a clueless snob, or Amazon, if you’re even more clueless but at least not a snob. So once I had the correct verbiage for cheap-ass diy starter, I did some more searching and read through some instructions. (I omit the links because I just told you how to diy, get it?)

Well, opinions about exactly what’s happening with sourdough starter seem to vary a bit, starting with where the wild yeasts are actually coming from. Is it the air around us? Is it the flour? Is it the whole grains you must treat with excruciatingly careful reverence to yield their Gaiant bounty of biomagic? With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I decided it was probably all of the above, plus everywhere else, since that’s where yeasts are. So I ignored the instructions that said I had to be careful not to cover the starter vessel with plastic wrap or anything else impermeable. I also ignored the instructions that said I had to hermetically seal the starter vessel, sterilize every instrument that ever came in contact with the starter, wear a hazmat suit, never use stainless steel, always use stainless steel, never use silicon, always use silicon, and so on.

Go Green!

Go Green!

In fact I pretty much ignored every single instruction designed to seal off the wild yeast starter from the environment it had somehow come from. I also ignored all the instructions designed to make my starter a delicate, difficult thing that required constant, meticulous care. I know people whose lives are given a rich sense of meaning by arranging to provide constant, meticulous care to other creatures, but that’s not me and if it was, I’d pick creatures other than yeasts and lactobacilli.

Speaking of lactobacilli, I paid a lot of attention to discussions of the multi-biotic nature of sourdough starter. It’s not the yeasts that are making the sour, it’s the bacteria. But the bacteria don’t make the bread rise, and they also have a tendency to make the ‘spoilt’ version of sour when they get lonely and pig out. So a functional sourdough starter is actually a community of beasties each creating some of the conditions for each others’ happiness, encouraging each others’ strengths and discouraging each others’ excesses, and incidentally each handling part of a fairly complex little biological process that assembles into a tangy leavening. Which of course wasn’t at all what they ‘intended’, but makes an excellent complement to garlicky cream cheese. So anyway, ‘building’ a starter is a process of getting that community together to work out a harmonious relationship under the conditions they enjoy.

“Control is when others’ locked-in interactions generate a flow of collective behavior that just happens to serve one’s interests.” Padgett and Ansell, “Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434;” see also Padgett and Powell, The Emergence of Organizations and Markets (2012).

Those conditions are: flour and water. We’re talking about fermentation here, after all, which in real life is hard to keep from happening if you’ve got moist sugars around. Which brings up the mold problem, of which there’s plenty in my house, the dominant strain for unmysterious reasons being ‘bleu cheese’. But fortunately, between the acid the bacteria start producing right away, the alcohol the yeasts start producing soon enough, and the natural division of labor among the artistes of organic decomposition, mold is not actually much of a threat if you’re not trying hard to kill the yeast and bacteria somehow.

Mmmmmmm, stinky.

OK, so I read a whole lot about ambient temperature, water temperature, using bottled water, using distilled water and adding minerals back in, using orange juice, using pineapple juice, using white flour, using rye flour, not using white flour, not using rye flour. With just a slight knowledge of these matters, I reflected on the global success under the most extreme conditions of yeasts and lactobacilli, and decided not to sweat any of these factors too much (although, in principle, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised if a chlorine spike in my suburban tap water had set the critters back a bit). I did decide to take some of the chance out of the lactobacilli, mostly because I had an old tub of plain yogurt handy. And no, it was not any particular brand or type of plain yogurt, but it was past its expiration date as it happens.

I also looked at a lot of instructions about getting a kitchen scale, getting one that measures in grams because they’re more precise, calibrating hydration ratios, using a tall, straight-sided vessel with a dedicated lid, sterilizing this vessel and your hands before handling it, scraping down the sides so that, gosh, I don’t know. So anyway, here was my beginning recipe for my wild yeast sourdough starter:

Some flour
Some water
Some plain yogurt.

Roughly the same amount of each, by eyeball, probably a bit less yogurt because I thought of that as a ‘supplement’.

“My friends always say, the right amount’s fine. Lazy people make rules.” Silkworm, “A Cockfight of Feelings”

All of this went in a plastic bowl (with sloped sides because it has sloped sides) I also eat cereal, pasta, and curry from sometimes; with some plastic wrap loosely draped on top. This then went on a corner of the kitchen table I wasn’t using for anything else right then. I am woefully ignorant of the exact temperature of this spot, but I can guarantee it was neither hot enough to bake nor cold enough to freeze my arse. I started with bread flour, I think, but I ran out of that before the next feeding so I switched to rye for awhile because I had a bag of that open and it kept getting mentioned in the instructions. Then for awhile what I had open and easy to get at was some white whole wheat flour, so I used that.

And speaking of feeding, I read all kinds of instructions about pouring out exactly [some ratio I forget] of the starter before each feeding, adding back [another exact ratio I forget] of flour and water, doing this once a day at first and then every 12 hours, carefully swabbing down the sides of the container, adding strips of tape to allow precise measurement of the starter’s expansions and contractions, holding the container between your knees and counting to 6,327 by perfect squares, and checking carefully for ‘hooch’, which is such a precise technical term that at least half of the folks using it have no idea it’s why there’s NASCAR.

Medicinal purposes only, of course.

What I did instead was pour some out and add some back, roughly the amount it had expanded in the interim; when I remembered it, which was anything from a couple times a day to every couple of days. I tried to keep it pretty soupy because I read the beasties like to be wet, and I’ve found this to be true. I did this for something between a week and two weeks – I did not keep track. About day 2 or 3 it got that sourdough smell, then it settled into a kind of sweet peachiness I had not expected. I got back onto the internet and found a long forum thread on the many, many different permutations of ‘sweet peachy’ smell ranging all the way to ‘spiced apple’ that can be expected from a properly harmonizing community of yeasts and bacteria. Reassuring. So when I got sick of waiting any longer, although I think I was supposed to, instead of pouring out the extra I poured it into a bowlful of the flour I happened to have handy and open right then. Whole wheat, rye, and kamut as I recall – kamut btw is fun stuff, an heirloom grain that has a lovely buttery flavor and adds amazing elasticity to a dough.

Here was the ‘recipe’: salt in the right amount for the flour, bit of sugar to be friendly, touch of olive oil and enough warm (tap) water to make a wet dough just drier than a batter. Because the beasties like to be wet. Once they’d fermented that up for most of a day, I stretched, folded, smeared, punched and kneaded in enough more flour that it would stay in a loaf shape (not doing this is how you get ciabatta); let it think about that for maybe an hour longer; threw it in a hot oven on the pizza stone; dumped some water in the bottom of the oven to get some steam to keep the crust from setting too quickly (thank you internet); and some time later there was delicious whole wheat / rye / kamut multigrain sourdough bread.


Through all this I was aware that by failing to control for every possible variable the project could go horribly awry rather than pleasantly a rye. I reflected on the $.50 of flour and aggregate 10 minutes of work that would be irretrievably lost, and decided to roll those dice.

Does this mean none of the variables all that internet fussing is trying tightly to control don’t matter? On the contrary, I’m sure they do. But my little experiment suggests most of them other than flour, water, a container, and temperatures somewhere between freezing and baking are conditions of the ‘inus’ variety:

“The inus condition is an insufficient but non–redundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient condition” [quoting Cartwright, Nature’s Capacities and their Measurement, 1989, citing Mackie, The Cement of the Universe, 1980]. It’s best to read that backwards: you identify causal conditions sufficient to produce a given effect, but know that there are other conditions that could have produced the same effect. Within the sufficient conditions you’ve identified is a condition that couldn’t produce the effect by itself, is separate from all the other conditions that along with it could produce the effect, but must be among them for the effect to be produced through the causal pathway that’s been picked out. The inus scenario (any scenario containing an inus condition) shows up frequently in attempted causal analyses, and has to be accounted for somehow in any comprehensive causal theory (Chuck Dyke aka Dyke the Elder, “Cartwright, Capacities, and Causes: Approaching Complexity in Evolving Economies,” draft-in-progress).

There are lots of ways to skin a cat. Which means there’s an interesting sociology of popular science lurking in the internet’s various treatments of wild yeast sourdough starter. There are many strategies on offer, each presenting a series of essential steps to success. And each of the strategies will in fact result in a successful culture, while adding procedures that may be important only to offset the sabotage added by other procedures, or to create an outcome distinguished only by the specific way it was achieved; or not important at all except for attention focus or ritual (which, by the way, are not trivial considerations). Apparently when a thing happens to work one way, we can be inclined to leap to the conclusion that this is the one best way to make it happen; ignoring all evidence to the contrary, for example all the other ways described in their own loving detail by other practitioners just as convinced of the robust essence of their accidental triumphs.

Incidentally, this is also how I think about education in general, and general education in particular.

March 3, 2013

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

by CarlD

I’ve been thinking about democracy lately as one of a collection of strategies for managing complexity. The proximal stimuli are the recent American elections and their associated issues; the Eurozone ‘crisis’; and the Italian elections just now concluded. The immediate stimuli are an application I just wrote for a really interesting NEH summer seminar in Rome, titled “Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento – New Perspectives,” and a discussion of “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber.

Let’s stick with Italian politics. I’ve personally been following them more or less closely since the early 70s, when I was in Italian public school. The chronicle of this period is quite rich and contested, with the movement of the Communist Party into play for inclusion in the government (the ‘historic compromise’), right-wing paramilitary backlash sometimes called the ‘strategy of tension’, left-wing student and paramilitary activism, and in general lots of splashy violence, all of it collected under the rubric of the ‘years of lead’. This was clearly a period of crisis, although I must admit that it was not much visible in the lives of the kids I was hanging out with.

When I went back to Italy for a semester as an undergrad, Dyke the Elder plotted my political education by giving me the task of keeping a journal of the Italian press from left to center to right. Every day I would go to the newsstand and buy at least three papers, most commonly “Avanti!” and/or “il manifesto,” “Rinascita,” and “Il Secolo d’Italia.” Two things struck me at the time and have stayed with me since. The first was that having this range of explicitly partisan press in easy newsstand juxtaposition did a lot to discipline all sides’ relationship to ‘the facts’, so it was possible to get a pretty reliable skinny of events from any of the papers, accompanied with explicitly polemical analysis. The second was that Italian politics were again in crisis, this time most prominently over NATO and the placement of nuclear missiles on Italian soil, and the movement of the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi into a position of leadership; according to many, at the expense of anything still resembling socialist principles. I could always get a good political tirade with my coffee, Totocalcio and groceries, but life went on.

When I was in Rome for my dissertation research Italian politics were in crisis over the collapse and fragmentation of the Communist party. More recently of course Berlusconi and the populist/nativist Northern League created a new state of permanent crisis, the media-savvy prime minister presiding over a circus-like political spectacle nicely foreshadowed by the notorious Cicciolina. At this point the common, and often at least half-accurate, perception of Italians that their politicians are a pack of grossly incompetent clowns who somehow also manage to enrich themselves with ruthless efficiency at public expense became the near-explicit basis of government; Berlusconi’s point being essentially that if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well at least get some entertainment and vicarious wish-fulfillment out of it. That this shameless affrontery made enough sense to enough people to keep him in power for as long as it did (and maybe again now, even after his ‘ultimate’ disgrace less than two years ago) says something important, I think, about what sorts of functions Italians outside the talking classes take politics to perform. That more morally rigorous aspirations have been consistently damped and absorbed through succeeding regimes (see, e.g., Machiavelli, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Crispi, Turati, Gentile, Togliatti, Berlinguer, Pertini, Craxi, ‘mani pulite’ and the Second Republic) says something more. Grillo is unlikely to be a game-changer in this arrangement, but he’s the usual sort of fun intervention.

During most of this time I was also becoming a historian, which involved learning about all the ways Italian politics had been in crisis since the Risorgimento, which itself effectively created a national overlay for the regional and factional crises that had been going on since at least the Renaissance. In short, if you want to you can construct an account of Italian politics in permanent crisis for at least 500 years; although as we can see by my own short experience, the details vary quite a bit from time to time. And of course it’s self-evidently silly to call a dynamic that persistent a crisis, so it helps that the social history of Italy can be told as an account of long stretches of relative stability, relatively untroubled by the frantic political sideshows. I would now say ‘metastability’, however, since ‘the same’ outcomes kept being produced by ‘different’ means, hence the Lampedusa quote in the title. That is the story I now find the most fascinating.

To put my thesis bluntly, no one has ever gotten what they wanted out of Italian politics unless what they wanted was what they could get. I’d recommend that as a general orienting hypothesis about a lot of things, for example Iraq, Iran, Arizona, Russia, China, Baltimore, Britney Spears, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and women’s rights. What is the possibility space? How are agents built, e.g. constrained and enabled, in relation to the possibility space? What can we read back about possibility from how agents act? It seems to me that our analytical contrasts are severely distorted by the notion that intentions are a special kind of cause exempt from all the formation and interaction dynamics of complex systems. Let’s see if we can do better than Feuerbachian pseudo-theologies of empowerment, flattering though they may be. In any case, here’s how I put it in my NEH application, in pertinent part:

I’m assuming I’ll learn lots of new things and reconfigure some old ones, so any plan of study is necessarily speculative. But going in, I imagine it would be interesting to think forward from Gramsci’s contested analysis of the Risorgimento as a ‘passive revolution’ driven from above by elites, and connect that with recent developments in complex systems analysis. I’m thinking, for example, of Terry Deacon’s contrast between dynamical systems and self-organizing systems in Incomplete Nature. Just to gesture at that here, it seems to me that there’s only so much an active/passive agency analysis and abstractions like ‘modernity’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, and so on can tell us about nation-forming and -forcing processes. At this point we could be looking for the kinds of emergent, self-organizing poly- or para-intentional actor networks and assemblages Gramsci was starting to notice and trying to reconcile with the structure/agency constraints of the Marxist revolutionary project and conceptual vocabulary. I guess if I were to frame this polemically I might say something about getting out of the agency metanarrative without falling through its structuralist or post-structuralist looking-glasses, but that all seems a little tired now and I’m much more interested in theories as hypotheses for figuring out what was going on and how it was going on, at various scales.

Getting down to cases and figuring stuff out is what my teaching is about at this point. So I would want to translate what I learn about the Risorgimento and its transnational linkages back to my classes in World History and Modern Europe both as content and as a model of how to do good analysis; and then extend those practices to other cases. For example, perhaps to look at trasformismo in comparison to other self-organizing, quasi-political strategies to manage the intractable complexities of modernization; or to investigate in my “Gender and History” class how the particular gender formations of modern Italy evolved around and through the opportunities and constraints created by the ‘fare Italiani’ project in its local, regional, national, and transnational contexts.

I’m out on so many limbs here I have to hope they weave together into something that will support a little weight. But I really like the idea of taking the stuff we’ve all been thinking about here at DV for quite awhile and focusing it on a notoriously hairy case study. Maybe the hair is inherent.

Which brings me to “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber. I haven’t read the book by Colin Crouch that’s under discussion, but it seems to me that to call the advanced industrialized countries ‘post-democratic’ they’d have had to once be democratic and now not be. And at least in the Italian case I’ve just sketched out, I’m not sure anything like that sort of categorical delimitation of the discussion can do anything but confuse us. Italy right now is more or less just as democratic as it’s been at least since the Risorgimento and arguably since the Renaissance, which is to say, not at all if we mean by democracy a formal system in which popular votes lead directly to explicit policy outcomes and intentional transformations of collective life; and amply, if what we mean by democracy is one domain of self-organizing dynamical systems – like markets, patronage networks, trade complexes, families, fashion – that take unmanageably complex inputs and constrain them into orderly outputs. And we can notice that while each of these systems creates means for human intentions to be effective, they do so by radically constraining what humans are able to effectively intend, in relation to more comprehensive systems that work the same way. Freedom is the recognition of necessity after all.

December 9, 2012

A new Baroque?

by CarlD

Today was ridiculously warm for December, so we grabbed books and headed outside. I decided to take another crack at Charles Stross’ celebrated scifi novel Halting State (2007), which I bought on the recommendation of the tuned-in folks at Crooked Timber.

I say another crack because I started it awhile back and only lasted about 20 pages before I had to put it down. I found the second-person-omniscient narration profoundly irritating, for one thing; not only did it ping my introversion something fierce, but it seemed like the kind of gratuitous technical contrivance that also put me off Updike years ago.

Today those elements took a back seat to the writing itself, which knocked me out with its grandiose overdetermination. The chapter was JACK: Steaming, and within a page I’d been treated to a half-dozen elaborate metaphors for being stoned. As if that were a new, unusual and special thing. (In second-person I get to decide if that’s true.) I survived this purple onslaught with just a bit of cringing and grunting, and was rewarded with more of the same about the pathetic collapsing techie life that had precipitated the binge. During the course of which, ironically I hope, the cliche’ of beating a dead horse was transformed by the magic of wanton prolixity into this sentence:

Questions were asked in the lumpy-looking construction site down Holyrood Road, and the ministers did wax worthy and serious and proceeded to apply the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of the dead equine of games industry self-regulation with gusto and vigour.

Well, at the risk of applying the tawse of uptight self-righteousness to the rump of post-post-modern egghead litracha, how is this anything but what happens when you take geeks who fancy themselves edgy and pay them by the word?

The book seems to be roughly in the genre of cyberpunk, which I quite liked in its Pynchon pre-history and its Gibson / Stephenson early phase. But I lost track for some years and may have missed important developments. I get it that every genre reaches an event-horizon where only the application of massive thrust will keep it from spiraling down to oblivion, although I don’t know if that’s the case here. And I get it that every social set has its characteristic embarrassing pleasures, and this one doesn’t happen to be mine. So I assume there’s a complex of taste mismatches here, and probably a network of referentiality I’m not attuned to. Obviously I don’t need to like this, but if it’s something I could learn to like I’d like to. Can anybody reading this help a brotha out?

September 23, 2012

Things, relations among things, relations

by CarlD

There’s a really interesting discussion of David Graeber’s recent book Debt going on at Jacobin, including an original review by Mike Beggs, a reply defending Graeber by J.W. Mason, and Beggs’ riposte. The discussion is terrific on the merits and the ways Mike and Josh agree and disagree about how to specify their objects add up to a brief and pithy education on issues in modern economic theory. But it seems to me that they’ve kind of missed an antecedent point that would help clarify the discussion significantly, that being the distinction between object-oriented ontology and relation-oriented ontology.

Are they talking about things, are they talking about relations among things, or are they talking about relations? It seems to me that they’re trying to talk about relations, but because they don’t understand this to be the ground of their work they keep getting sucked into talking about relations among things. What’s the difference? Well, if you’re really working in a relation-based ontology, there are no such things as things. Or to put that another way, things ARE relations that for a certain kind of utilitarian cognitive convenience we’ve just settled at a particular scale and moment. You can find this sort of thinking threaded throughout intellectual history, but for modern economics the central figure is Marx – who neither Mike nor Josh quite understand this way, as N. Pepperell tells us is characteristic of even some of the best Marx scholarship.

Anyway, the problem with object-orientation, thinking through things and ‘their’ relations, is that to get things to stay things you have to pin them down to particular scales and moments, and then treat their dynamics as contingently supplemental rather than constitutive. (Or you can treat the dynamics as separate ‘things’, which is quite common and super weird.) In this sense, there is nothing more abstract and Platonic than a real, concrete, actually-existing thing. Both Mike and Josh feel to me like they kinda understand this, but they don’t have a language of relation-orientation that makes it clear. (Neither did Marx, hence repeated pointers, e.g. about reification, that seem quite cryptic if your orientation is objective.) So they can’t fully appreciate each others’ argument because each thinks the other is talking about things when in fact they’re talking about relations. And therefore they keep trying to teach each other to at least think in terms of relations among things, rather than getting on with thinking through how to talk about relations. This disconnect happens all the time; it’s one of the ordinary ways we misunderstand each other.

I’ve got journals to read so I’m going to have to leave this thought sketchy here. If it seems interesting, maybe we can work on it more in the comments.

July 16, 2012

Chaotically Speaking

by johnmccreery

Over on OAC, a new seminar is underway. The topic is Joanna Overing’s paper, An Amazonian Question of Ironies and the Grotesque. During an exchange with Joanna, I write,

When you write that, “Piaora laughter seems to me very close to Daoism,” you are, I suspect, alluding to what Chinese call Daojia, usually described as “Daoist philosophy” and associated with classic texts like the Dao De Jing attributed to Lao Zi or the Zhuangzi,attributed to Zhuang Zi. What I studied in Taiwan was Daojiao, usually described as Daoist religion, whose relationship to Daojia is complex and often contrary. But let’s put that aside.  What you write reminded me of a book by N. J. Girardot titled Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism (University of California Press, 1983, a volume in the series “HERMENEUTICS: Studies in the History of Religion”). In the preface to the paperback edition Girardot writes,

Chaos is an oddly fashionable topic these days. This is not the usual state of affairs, since chaos has typically been imagined as the fearful antagonist of God, of the cosmic order, and of all that is normal. The dark Otherness of chaos has, therefore, most commonly lurked within the locked closets of civilized discourse and sanctioned revelation—only showing its monstrous and misshapen face, still half-concealed by a primordial hockey mask, at times of dreadful confusion, insane retribution, and irrevocable change. However, at other times and sporadically within some traditions—especially as seen in the early Taoist texts examined in this work—chaos has been upheld as the creative source, hidden order, and ongoing power of cosmic life.

Girardot then moves on to chaos as conceived by modern science, mathematics and economics.

As pointed out in best-selling works like James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987), “chaos theory”—and its attendant exotica of Mandelbrot sets, Koch curves, Menger sponges, fractal clusters, smooth noodle maps, and other beautiful “monstrosities”—has opened horizons of understanding in fields concerned with the strange science of process and becoming.

While I wish to suggest no more than a very simple rhetorical symmetry between chaos theory in contemporary science and the hun-tun theme of a blessed “chaos-order” in the ancient Taoist texts, beneath the surface, and somewhat chaotically, both emphasize understanding reality in its authentic “wildness”—as a dynamic system in which constant change and erratic complexity harbor an enigmatic principle of patterned regularity and regeneration….For both, it has to do with the interrelated flowing of heaven and earth—the way clouds form, smoke rises, and water eddies, as well as the way human health depends on the inner rhythms of the body.

What I wish to point out here is that the “monstrous and misshapen” are described here as the evil other of the Southwest Asian monotheist’s Almighty God, the patriarchal principle of order in all things.  The “monstrosities” mentioned in connection with scientific chaos theory are, in fact, patterns of exquisite beauty, examples of dynamic order that emerge from chaotic processes, becomings rather than beings. To me they seem as alien to

The story of creation time [as] one of poisoned intentionalities, of cosmic follies: … a story of greed, hubris and mental derangement

as they are to the timeless order envisioned by Greek philosophers or Christian theologians or the Genesis story in which God speaks and the world Is, and death and evil slip in through the actions of Adam and Eve, who are ancestors but in no sense divine. Taking your premise,

that the humanities must be privileged to understand the polities/ societies of others of different time or spaces

as given, how should we account for these differences?

Let me rephrase the final question. How would you account for these differences?

June 26, 2012

Constraint and utopia

by CarlD

There’s a dataset for constraint causation making the pop culture rounds right now, emergent from long-existing elements but catalyzed by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Slaughter quit a bigtime job at the State Department because she found it pretty much ate up her whole life. From this she concludes that the ‘women can/should have it all’ narrative of [second wave, liberal] feminism (or, more accurately, the marketing spin on the entitlement movement of which that feminism is a part, as Stephanie Coontz astutely notes) is still not enabled by the intentional decisions of our society, culture and economy.

I’m not sure how much blood and treasure I want to spend on this, so I’m going to frontload the thesis here and say that Slaughter is simply correct, but that her simple correctness is utopian in at least two ways: because ‘having it all’ is a fantasy of infinite resource; and because specialization is enabling in ways that have to be accounted for in rejecting it (again as noted by Coontz). I should say that by ‘utopian’ I don’t mean ‘bad’, I mean ‘analytically irrelevant and of only a certain limited rhetorical utility’. Anyway, I take it as virtually axiomatic that all serious conversations about what’s haveable start from a ground of raw possibility (structural conditions) and then get right to trade-offs (intentional decisions). Those trade-offs then structure the possible into one or another actuality, enabling some things by disabling some other things and creating in part the structural conditions for the next round of intentional decisions.

So it should go without saying in serious conversation that no one has it all: because no one commands infinite resources, because there are some havings that are contradictory to other havings, and because some havings are simply impossible. The I-can’t-have-it-all critique is a give-up critique, a blast of generic anomic discontent that’s always true but only trivially so. And gratifyingly the conversation about Slaughter’s article has swiftly coalesced around this point. Everyone seems to get it that resources are not infinite and that choices inevitably involving trade-offs will be required. As Coontz concludes,

It was a great victory for gender equality when people finally stopped routinely saying “she’s awfully good at her job — for a woman.” The next big step forward will be when people stop saying, “It’s awfully tough to balance work and family — for a woman.” It’s tough for men and women. We need to push for work-family practices and policies that allow individuals to customize their work lives according to their changing individual preferences and family obligations, not just their traditional gender roles.

I like this, but let’s look at it. One of the really neat things to come out of feminist analysis over the last few decades is the observation that men’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of women – as the ruling class’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of the working class, white people’s achievement is predicated on the enabling effort of race/ethnic minorities, colonial cores’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of colonial peripheries, humans’ achievements are predicated on the enabling effort of the ecosystem, etc. etc.. To enable some, others are constrained. When Coontz talks about individuals ‘customizing’ their lives, she is talking about the kind of relative autonomy that historical elites have enjoyed only at the cost of heteronomy throughout the rest of the system. Of course as Hegel and his followers have explained, this carries significant costs and constraints for the elites as well, which we can notice without feeling any need to sympathize. In any event, on this account choice has historically been a luxury that comes at great cost. Making it available to everyone is not a trivial exercise of moral will but a world-historical transformation of the fundamental operating dynamics of our lives.

A cautionary tale, this. As humanists we have to worry that constraint is behind every enablement. Furthermore, every enablement (every choice, if you like) becomes a new constraint on future possibility. The exercise of freedom is inherently constraining; every choice is an exclusion. When I chose my wife I chose against every other woman in the world. All of whom were, of course, available to me – albeit not simultaneously, for reasons having to do with culture, biology and physics….

But we also have to look carefully at what’s enabled by constraint. My happy marriage, for one. Slaughter rues the home-life she had to abandon to devote her every waking moment to the business of running America’s foreign affairs. She is grateful to her husband for enabling this by taking on management of home and family. She imagines, Coontz imagines and we can easily imagine a more humanely balanced work/life system in which Slaughter and her husband both do their jobs at a level of intensity that enables significant and shared effective participation in family life. What we can’t imagine if we do that is either of them being optimized for either their job or their home life. If we want people to be really, really good at running America’s foreign affairs we need to enable them to do just that by providing a small army of support staff to take care of everything that isn’t on task, in the process disabling all other attention and effort. That is, we have to radically constrain that life in order to bring it to its fullest targeted development. Perhaps creating monsters. And if we want people to be really, really good at managing home life, we need to both enable and constrain them accordingly, by providing for their material maintenance with a staff of other persons so dedicated (breadwinner, plumber, grocer, mechanic, etc. etc.). Making it their choice does not change this basic fact, once that die is cast it’s cast, and no one in such a system has or can have it all. So as another datapoint, Rachel and I trade off a basically entropic home life for greater dedication to our respective careers as artist and educator. Wives are useful things – we wish we had one.

Choosing at the individual or cultural level for gender equity and balanced lives is therefore unavoidably a choice against the full advantages of focus and specialization, and therefore as feminists have also noted about men with dedicated domestic staffs, it creates a disabling competitive disadvantage. It is a luxurious choice in this sense, dependent on enabling constraints elsewhere in the system, a plenty that had to cost someone (else) something; or at least a judgment that we can afford to have the task in question performed suboptimally. It may be that we can evolve new systems (Marx envisioned this most explicitly in “The German Ideology”) that either don’t require constraint to enable excellence, or that are so exquisitely distributed that everyone’s excellence is joyously enabled by everyone else’s. I’m all for that, in principle. In practice I think the best we can do for the next little while is to distribute both constraints and enablements more equitably, and accept the costs of foregone excellence that follow.

May 22, 2012

Out of the box

by CarlD

We’ve been talking about constraint and causation (or ‘enablement’, as Garfinkel might say), and this morning I’ve stumbled into a chain of associations that illustrate the point. Specifically, two juxtaposed reviews in the NYRB, on Edward St. Aubyn’s Melrose novels and Margaret Wertheim’s Physics on the Fringe; the book Rachel is reading, Charlatan, on medical quackery in the fin de siecle; her previous research on Olaus Rudbeck; and a movie we just watched, “(untitled).” All of these are cautionary tales about thinking outside the box, and therefore reminders of the enabling function of boxes.

Let’s start with Rudbeck, a Swedish scientist who taught Linnaeus and (perhaps) discovered the limbic system. Rightly celebrated as a Renaissance man, he spent the second half of his life and blew his reputation pursuing his idee fixe that Atlantis had been in Sweden. Clearly a creative thinker, once he got into a field where his thinking was unconstrained by conventions and a developmental programme of investigation he came unglued and started making stuff up to suit his emotional preferences, then selectively interpreting the evidence to fit. This fact was clear to everyone but him.

In the review of Wertheim, Freeman Dyson tells a similar story about Sir Arthur Eddington, a brilliant astronomer whose observations of deflected starlight were instrumental to the experimental support of Einsteinian relativity, and whose lucid writing and teaching on the subject helped establish the new orthodoxy. But Eddington also had his own “Fundamental Theory,” an idiosyncratic mishmash of “mathematical and verbal arguments… [with] no firm basis either in physics or mathematics.” “Two facts were clear. First, Eddington was talking nonsense. Second, in spite of the nonsense, he was still a great man.”

What’s striking about these examples is how people exquisitely functional within one set of conventions can spectacularly implode outside them, and without any apparent reflexive awareness that this is the case. St. Aubyn’s novels (which I have not read) would seem to be excruciating meditations on this theme. Patrick Melrose, the main character, is an unwilling participant observer in a horrifying upper-crust British social milieu in which publicly effective people behave abominably to each other in private, with no apparent sense of disconnect. In fact, they seem to use the effective parts of their lives as systematic displacements of self-reflection. Patrick, in contrast, is practically disabled by self-awareness (“how could he think his way out of the problem when the problem was the way he thought”) and floats through drug addiction before finally working himself around to an effective balance of interiority and exteriority.

Charlatan is about a guy who got rich transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men anxious about their virility. Needless to say this was a fool’s errand and a septic nightmare, but neither he nor his patients seemed clear on these obvious facts. In Physics on the Fringe Wertheim writes about Jim Carter, a successful engineer and entrepreneur who spends his spare time concocting experiments to prove his pet theory that the universe is composed of hierarchies of “circlons,” of which smoke rings are the demonstrative exemplars. It turns out that unbeknownst to Carter a very similar theory was once entertained by Lord Kelvin, but dropped for lack of convincing evidence – despite/because of experiments much like Carter’s, experiments which he finds amply probative, although he cannot convince the scientific community to agree.

In his review of Wertheim, Dyson champions the fringe creatives working outside the box as courageous poetic visionaries. But the tricky thing is figuring out what the ‘good’ versions of this are, since both psychosis and ordinary crackpottery are also often characterized by poetic vision. “untitled” comes at this question from the arts side and shows that Dyson’s offloading of the question onto art only works because his understanding of art is romantic. (Of course he does not know this about himself.) The movie’s central characters are an experimental musician, his brother the painter, and the gallerist who takes an interest in both. The painter is a hack, but does not know it; his paintings sell very well to hospital chains for use as soothing motifs in their lobbies, which is how the gallerist funds her showings of the serious art that does not sell. The musician produces elaborate cacophanies; he tells us that tonality is over, now just a matter of “pushing notes around,” which is essentially what his brother the painter is doing with color. The problem is that although it’s clear the painter is a hack, it’s not at all clear whether the musician is something better. There are norms of judgment for the former, but not the latter. Is that just unpleasant noise, or is it a brilliant meditation on the contingency of norms of pleasantness? As the musician tells us, all sound is noise unless it’s welcome. What makes it welcome?

The problem turns out to be that outside the box, there’s no way to settle these questions, to move things forward or even to know what forward would be. “It’s all good,” as they say. But a river without banks is a swamp. So constraint, a box of some kind, is essential to getting anything done, even if all it does is provide the contrast space against which plausible innovation can be measured. Is that enough of a point for this post? It will have to be, because I’ve said all I had in mind to say at this time.

February 14, 2012

Aggregate, Arrange, Assemble

by CarlD

Today I had an ambitious day. I described paper writing to my intro World History sections as a process of aggregation, arrangement and assembly similar to the formation of stars as they collect atoms, compact them to fusion and burst forth in light. Then I told them about the episode of “Trailer Park Boys” in which Ricky breaks into a house to pick out an engagement ring for Lucy (aggregation = research), swallows the ring so he won’t get caught by the cops and throws it up again once they’re gone (arrangement = analysis), then hands it to Lucy and says “So, you want to get married or something?” (assembly = writing).

We talked about what’s wrong with stealing the ring (this would be the ‘plagiarized’ paper) and whether making Ricky a Viking who ‘plundered’ rather than ‘stole’ it made a difference. We considered why Lucy might have preferred a more ritualized arrangement of their eventual assembly, concluding that in this case the value of ritual lay at least in part in its enactment of focused competence and commitment in making arrangement for the assembled couple’s needs. It’s about credibility. We all agreed that the same ring might be stolen, plundered, bought or fabricated, transported in one’s guts or a velvet box, delivered via slingshot or placement in a glass of champagne, with each permutation of aggregation, arrangement and assembly making a significant difference in the meaning and value of ‘the same’ ring.

I took out some nice artisan multigrain bread I had aggregated to myself earlier and ate some. We talked about the process of chewing and digestion whereby the previous arrangement of the bread is broken down, rearranged into more directly nourishing compounds and waste, and ultimately reassembled into poo and me. We laughed a bit about making sure that these two assemblages not become mixed, and considered the consequences of substituting Skittles for bread in one’s regular diet. We talked about the paper that would result from just vomiting the bread back up or pooping it out without nutritional processing.

They may not immediately have digested all this, but they were intrigued and I had lots of fun.

January 30, 2012

Describing Tradition: A Problem in Anthropological Method

by johnmccreery

The following remarks are cross-posted from Open Anthropology Cooperative (OAC). It seemed serendipitous to receive a message reminding me that not yet a year ago we were discussing postmodern Christianity. Suppose that you are an anthropologist. You observe and participate in a local festival. Then you have to explain it.

It’s that time of year again. Mitsusawa High Town, the condominium complex in Yokohama, where my wife and I have lived since coming to Japan in 1980, has once again held its annual omochitsuki (pounding of the rice cakes). On Saturday I pitched in and helped to pull the necessary equipment out of the storage shed and get it washed and ready for use. That was a job for the men to do, outside, scrubbing and rinsing with cold water. Inside the High Town’s public meeting room women were gathering, bringing down pots of glutenous rice that had been parceled out among them for soaking overnight, chopping and wrapping sweet potatoes, first in damp newspaper, then in tin foil, ready to become yakiimo (roasted sweet potatoes) the next day, then chopping the vegetables that would go into the tonjiru (pork soup). A lot of people showed up. Many hands made light work, and the preparations were complete well before noon.

Sunday was the day of the mochi-pounding proper. A few hardy men were up to start the fires at 7:00 a.m. I drifted in around 8:00 a.m. and joined a crew busy pulling nails from the used lumber being used as fuel for the fires. The yakiimo crew had already started roasting sweet potatoes. The big wooden usu (mortars) and kine (wooden mallets) were already in place. After the nails were pulled, I drifted out and saw that the big steel soup pot (I’d guess 50 gallons or so) full of tonjiru was starting to bubble. The first batches of rice were steaming. The ladies in charge of distributing the finished mochi treats were setting up their table. Others were back in the meeting room, getting ready to assemble the treats. The former, who got to stand in the cold, looked younger than the older women who were making the treats in relative comfort.

An older man, locally regarded as the expert on mochi-pounding was teaching the art to a couple of younger men. The process begins (1) when a mass of steamed glutenous rice is placed in the mortar. Then it’s time (2) for one or more guys to grind it, pushing down hard as they rotate the heads of the mallets through the rice. This is the hardest work to be done. Next comes the pounding. The proper form involves a man who wields the mallet, raising it over his shoulder and slamming it into the rice, while a woman reaches in between strokes to fold the mochi back onto itself. Men will step in to do this if a woman is not available. Finally, (4) the pounded mochi is taken off to the meeting room where the older women shape it into mochi treats that reappear on platters delivered to the younger women at the outdoor tables, who are dipping in them in ground radish sauce (a savory version), rolling them in kinoko (ground soy bean) powder, or coating them with sweet azuki (red bean) paste. People who want to eat the mochi line up and pick the varieties they like.

By 10:00 a.m. or so, the men in the back, tending the fires, have already dispatched two large bottles of sake. Everyone is in a happy mood. The crowd is growing, filling up with people who come just to enjoy the festivity and free food. By noon the food is gone. The younger children, both boys and girls have had a chance to try their hand at wielding the mallet (a smaller one, their size). The festival is over. The organizers bustle about cleaning up. Both men and women participate in the clean-up. The division of labor is again along the lines of the men taking care of the outdoor equipment, the women the utensils used in preparing the mochi treats. Everything is tidy by 1:00 p..m., when the whole crew gathers in the meeting room for the uchiage “finishing up” party. The tables are laid with party snacks, mostly Japanese junk food, plus a few homemade items, and lots of beer, shochu (white liquor) and sake. The men congregate at one end of the tables, the one closest to the kitchen and back door that leads to the space where the men were doing their thing cooking the rice and sweet potatoes in the morning; the women at the other, the one closest to the front. Symbolic significance? Unclear. Should ask someone about that. The party goes on until 3:30 p.m. when most of the women and some of the men leave. A hard core of men, mostly members of the former softball team, hang around to finish off the booze. When I stagger home a bit after 5:00, I expect to be hungover the next morning.

Think of this as a field note. How does one proceed to extract information about “Japanese tradition” from what is described above?

Given that this is the 21st century, an obvious place to begin is a Google search for “omochitsuki.” It turns up 147,000 items. At the top of the list is the Wikipedia entry for mochi. It seems consistent with what I have observed. Ditto for a site designed to instruct Japanese-Americans on what this Japanese tradition entails. Things get more interesting when I start looking at other items, especially YouTube videos. Here I find an elaborate ritual that begins with a blessing from a Shinto priest in full regalia; then there is one with only a couple of guys in T-shirts, in what seems like an impromptu effort. I note how many of the videos depict what seem like all-male activities. I wonder what that’s about. I see stone mortars as well as wooden ones. Rice cooked on gas burners instead of wood-burning stoves. I could spend days checking and mapping the variations documented in this one source.

Therein, of course, lies the question. Is “Japanese tradition” an ideal type, imperfectly realized in all the variations? Performances whose nuances shift depending on actors, stagecraft and direction, while remaining fundamentally the same play? A grammar that allows a variety of equally legitimate forms, while excluding others as improper? An on-going series of bricolages/assemblages, to which new bits and pieces are constantly being added and subtracted?

Which is the better starting point? And which provides the best guidance when it comes to what to include and what to discard in writing up the final analysis?

January 30, 2012

Word to your Mama

by CarlD

I had a little fun with my scifi reading circle last week. They were pretty cranky about Gibson’s Neuromancer (although they picked it), which wasn’t giving them a nice clean linear narrative or conventionally identifiable / likeable characters. I told them it was all about getting cool with the unfamiliar, a slow difficult process in contrast for example to dating, boinking and marrying the woman who reminds you most of your mother. (It was boys doing the most vocal kvetching.) They were stricken.

[Update: It occurs to me that in a roundabout way this is one answer to Tim Burke’s question in his current post about why we think critical thinking should be work, not fun, or why we are suspicious of people seemingly just having fun.]

October 14, 2011


by CarlD

There’s Madoff. Then there’s Social Security according to Rick Perry. Now here’s an essay (from a website about a book) that ups the ante. Ellen Hodgson Brown argues that the entire global financial system is a Ponzi scheme.

Brown elegantly shows how the whole notion that the national debt has to be paid down or paid off is a red herring, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works (money is debt; the national debt is, essentially, the national money; it is therefore constantly both paying itself off and recreating itself in the normal course). But she also shows how leaving the creation of the debt/money supply in private hands, as it is now, keeps interest from circulating back into the economy where it can be earned back by debtors and used ongoingly to pay their debts, making the system unsustainable. Essentially this creates toxic debt sinks that eventually have to fill up, so that the deficit fretters end up being right albeit for the wrong reasons. She recommends public banking as the solution, which as she describes the problem does seem sensible, albeit further infuriating for the Ron Pauls (warning: balky script at this link) of the world.

The essay clarifies some things nicely and I recommend it. At the same time I’m suspicious of this kind of clarity, which feels a lot like the sort of self-help advice where everything will be cool if you exercise, eat right and get plenty of fiber. I have this intuition, maybe small-minded and self-serving, maybe I can get some Dao cred, or maybe it’s the same thing, that problems on a global scale are fundamentally unfathomable, indeed that to treat facts at that scale as problems is a kind of existential category error. Of course I know better from Marx, but then again we’re still waiting for Marx to pay off on the solution side.

August 14, 2011

There but for the grace

by CarlD

It warms my heart that we live in a society that provides employment of great consequence and social honor to the socially challenged. We all have our weaknesses but this is no reason to waste our strengths. As perhaps a case in point here’s a piece of a conversation on NPR’s “Marketplace” between host Kai Ryssdal and Robert Whaley, professor of finance at Vanderbilt. They’re talking about Whaley’s VIX, or Market Volatility Index, which essentially uses activity in portfolio insurance instruments to measure how “freaked out” the stock markets are. (I’ve modified NPR’s sloppy transcript very slightly so it makes more sense and accords with my memory.)

Ryssdal: All right, well let me ask you this, then: Is it not possible that knowing what’s coming creates more volatility, [that] a rising VIX creates a rising VIX?

Whaley: Oh, can you frame that question a little differently?

Ryssdal: Sure. Is it possible that this thing, knowing how nervous people are, makes people more nervous?

Whaley: Um, that would a behavioral type of interpretation. What makes me more nervous, actually, is sort of the movements that we’re seeing in the stock market on a daily basis. This VIX is just telling you that they suspect those types of movements to persist. But yes, I mean, you’re seeing that the price of insurance is going up, and so it makes you wonder, if you’re seeing the price rise, whether people smarter that know there’s going to be an event, so you might jump in too.

The question just doesn’t track at first for Whaley, who clearly hasn’t thought of the matter that way and whose strength is therefore clearly not ‘behavioral types of interpretation’ — that is, what people actually do and why.

June 16, 2011

Art Pope

by CarlD

Art Pope is the name of a local conservative businessman who gives lots of money to the Republican Party. It’s also a great image, isn’t it? What a crazy job Art Pope would be. I invite your imaginings.

Meanwhile, Newsweek has a little snippet on the Venice Biennale, with remarks from the curator, Bice Curiger. She would be an Art Bishop or perhaps even Art Cardinal, I suppose. Anyhoo, she says something that struck me for its thoughtful, pragmatic balance, unusual in my experience of the arts:

I don’t think art is a very powerful instrument to change the world. But it can make you rethink certain things. It can break your conventions.

Yup. I think it’s good for people to have their conventions challenged; even as I think the efficient automations afforded by conventions are essential for day to day living. I think resilience is an essential trait in a complex world, and resilience is largely a function of ability to imagine and live otherwise. A background project for me of late is thinking about general education; Bice’s account of art also works nicely as an account of what a general education can and maybe should offer.

I don’t suppose Art Pope would approve, however. And speaking of aggressive narrow-mindedness, no matter how bad Newsweek was before, how much worse is it now that it’s gotten sucked into the Daily Beast? It’s an object lesson in the downside of the new media: superficial, cliché-ridden reporting and commentary by people who seem to have been selected on purpose for their obtuseness and fundamental ignorance about the topics at hand. But I get it for free due to the NPR donation, and even the blind squirrels find nuts sometimes, so into the bathroom it goes!

In conclusion, an amusing depiction of the cliché form courtesy of Wikipedia:

April 27, 2011

skyhooks of the amazons

by Jacob Lee

One of the interesting things about the modern human environment is the extent to which autonomous processes and artificial intelligent agents of various kinds (and intelligences) not only figure in determining the situations in which we navigate, but figure in determining the situations in which *they* (the artificial intelligent agents ) navigate as well. For example, many retailers use automated pricing bots on sites like Amazon. Frequently these bots base pricing judgments  upon the prices of similar items being sold by their competitors. As might be expected, this can lead to various interactions between bots as they adjust to changes in other retailers prices. Sometimes the result can be amusing, even fascinating, as blogger Machael Eisen relates in his investigation of two absurdly priced books at Amazon daily ratcheting up in price:

What’s fascinating about all this is both the seemingly endless possibilities for both chaos and mischief. It seems impossible that we stumbled onto the only example of this kind of upward pricing spiral – all it took were two sellers adjusting their prices in response to each other by factors whose products were greater than 1. And while it might have been more difficult to deconstruct, one can easily see how even more bizarre things could happen when more than two sellers are in the game.


April 23, 2011

Blog death

by CarlD

Seizing the moment of a three day weekend, I’ve been poking at this and other blogs a bit today. Checking in on the usual circuit, belatedly hooking up google reader to some of the usual suspects, getting caught up. So I was stunned to see that Edge of the West, one of the very best history/philosophy group blogs I’ve seen, went on hiatus late last year.

Why didn’t I see this earlier? Why wasn’t I paying attention? Maybe for the same reason they went dark. As smart, thoughtful and rigorous as they were, after awhile it got to where I pretty much knew where they and their commentariat were going to go with any given topic. Good as the moves were, they became predictable like a waltz; conversation became stereotyped and provocations were more and more ritually damped out. Each post became a well-informed iteration of an orthodoxy, the audience more and more a chorus. A terrific one, but still.

Is this different than earlier periods of intellectual history in anything but pace? Didn’t Platonists get sick of Aristotelians’ shit after awhile? How long did it take for Confucians to know the Legalist playbook by heart? How surprised was the Pope about Luther’s n+1 heresies? And at what point of the separate dinner parties does each group run out of ways to agree with each other and lapse into benevolent mumbling? Isn’t that what the port, cigars and washing up are for?

April 18, 2011


by CarlD

is the name of a blog described as “a guide to living with your philosopher.” The current post addresses philosophers’ constant questioning of every little thing, diagnoses this as an occupational hazard, suggests being complimented that they find you worth taking seriously, and recommends a ‘safe sentence’ to use when you’re just not into being prodded about your premises and commitments.

Philosophers are every bit as weird as any Papua-New Guinean highlander, Kalahari bushman or stock analyst, so this ethnographic site is both inherently interesting and potentially critical to maintaining cordial relations with the tribe in question.