Archive for ‘how stuff works’

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.

Advertisements
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:

drygoatpoo

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 $10/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.

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.

February 5, 2019

Teaching to the fences, or what I’ve learned about world history from pigs and goats

by Carl Dyke

There’s nothing more obvious to a livestock farmer than using fence to control the movements of critters. You don’t just let them go wherever they want. There are some places you want to keep them in, and some others you want to keep them out, and rotations among those from time to time as a field gets grazed out or breeding and birthing is taking place, and distinctive forage patterns for each sort of critter, and so on. To a farmer it can only be shockingly surreal to question the value of physical barriers as an elementary tool of responsible stock and flow management.

On the farm our goats are, more or less, free ranging. We have fenced pastures and some perimeter fence, we have doors we can close, we fenced in the garden. Realistically the goats can defeat any of these barriers and occasionally have. For example they were well contained in our bottom pasture until suddenly they weren’t. They figured out how to get under the fence and jailbroke it in multiple locations. We could have firmed that up, notably by adding a couple strands of electric wire, but instead we accepted that they were out and about and that’s mostly worked fine.

sf goats 1

The younger pigs were out for awhile too. That was a lot of fun – kunekune pigs are delightful – but in their case we have a much stronger incentive to constrain them, to manage breeding and pilferage of the other critters’ snacks.

sf porch pigpile

The pigs are pretty content to stay put in a fenced pasture as long as they’re getting fed adequately. Kunes mostly graze, and we supplement with grain. They enjoy some room to spread out and we don’t crowd them. Once our boar Chubs got a whiff of the hot piggie girls the next pasture over he quickly figured out how to put the fence on his snout and shrug under it, so it’s pretty clear fence is just something they accept about their world rather than an actual impediment. Other farmers confirm this – motivated pigs are rough on fence. We try to arrange things so they’re not motivated.

The same could be said for the goats, but we’ve learned it’s a little more complicated with them. Goats are not grazers so much as browsers. A field of grass is not their idea of a good time for long. They’re happiest and healthiest when they have free choice of many different types of vegetation. They do a lot of sniffing and nibbling and are quite selective. They even eat things that the internet assures us will kill them dead. We’ve learned that they are actively managing their rumen for nutrition, body temperature, microbiome symbiosis, and parasite control.

The goats range pretty widely, but they’re able to get all they need from the top half of the farm, which is a mixed environment with field, woods, and wetland. Once they got out of their pasture they settled into a circuit where they amble around and hit all the zones. Other than the garden which we fenced defensively, they devoured every single thing we had planted on purpose, demolished the scrub, and cleaned up all the trees from ground to adult-goat-standing-on-hind-legs height. As landscaping goes it looks sparse but quite professional. Toots and Remy in particular have a taste for cardboard so package deliveries left on the porch are not safe, but after a couple experiments they’ve shown no particular interest in defeating the perimeter fence and eating our neighbors’ crops. There’s nothing over there they can’t get over here.

Barriers come up in world history too. In my Contemporary World History class we spent some time pondering the question why medieval cities had walls, but modern states do not. There are a lot of parts to that answer, having to do with the costs and benefits of controlling stocks and enabling flows. Roughly speaking, you get a lot more economy out of enabling flows than you do out of controlling stocks, but you need the larger security environment afforded by states to fully tap into that dynamic.

In my introductory world history class we’ve been trying to understand how the Europeans got into the exploration business in the 15th and 16th centuries.

major_trade_routes_of_afroeurasia_c1300_ce

You can see the bottleneck around the eastern Mediterranean. A lot of stuff becomes clear about early modern history if you look at the flow pattern of trade over the Silk Road, and then plop the Ottoman Empire down into the middle of it. Eurocentric kitsch about heroic exploration and the spirit of adventure doesn’t survive looking at the map. When the Turks fenced Europe off from the goodies of the East, some of them put their noses down and grazed in place, some started pushing and digging, and some went looking for another way around. Portugal in particular was left dangling off the edge of the world, but with free flow to the route south around Africa. Browsing their way down and around the coast and devastating the shrubbery is the sort of thing a goat might do, and the sort of thing it would be hard to keep a goat from doing.

Columbus was a known crackpot and a low cost dart throw for a queen flush from the completion of the Reconquista. Once the Spanish piggies got a whiff of the Americas though, they got the Atlantic up on their snouts and shrugged right through it. In deference to the scale of human misery that followed I’ll just drop that analogy now. But here is another case where you could see why the locals might have wanted some wall, and why it was unlikely to do them much good.

I make a point of not taking political positions in class. But I talk about the taking of political positions a lot. You can really see why it would make sense for people close to the management of livestock and with shrubbery to lose to default to fence as a solution to inconvenient stocks and flows. You can see why people habituated to modern cities in the context of states and international systems have no feel for fence. Free ranging is delightful and works great if forage is distributed and fungible. It’s not so great when the goats crash the corn field. No one pushes fence when there’s plenty on both sides. And when there’s not, there will be the violence of exclusion or the violence of invasion no matter what.

August 10, 2018

Really great lectures!

by Carl Dyke

A lot of electrons have been spilled over the pedagogy of lecturing. As a matter of research, I’m persuaded by the physicists and other scientists who have given up on lecture because they find that people who have been lectured at can answer lots of questions about physics but can’t actually do physics. I’m also too much of a dispositional anarchist to feel at all comfortable sharing a room with a bunch of other people and rudely hogging the conversation.

I do see what people like about lecture. In my own education I was fortunate to study with a number of really excellent lecturers (and a whole lot of really dreadful ones, who you might think would explore other options out of self defense). Maybe the best lecturer of them all was Rod McGrew. When I was an undergrad at Temple I took several courses with McGrew, including a really great one on disease in history and a couple on Russian history I would otherwise not have been much interested in, in large part because he was such a dynamic, compelling teacher.

In class, which I skipped much less than was my usual habit, McGrew lectured almost exclusively. I sat in front, he was at the desk. He also sat, but leaned forward with his knees out, his elbows down, and his hands up. He had huge, gnarled hands and bony wrists that stuck out crazily from his suit jackets, and as he spoke he would grasp at the air as if he could massage understanding directly from the atmosphere. His skeletal old face would crease with intensity, his wispy forelock would bob, and his drooping lower lip would struggle to keep the drool in around the flow of words. It was like watching the tightrope walker flirt with death and greatness in Zarathustra. McGrew lectured without notes, cogently, brilliantly. To see someone at once so comprehensively learned and so freaking smart about how things work was profoundly inspiring. I LOVED that guy. Rod McGrew is singlehandedly why I went from a wifty interdisciplinary undergrad degree to a graduate program in History.

Really great lectures! I think it’s fair to say I don’t remember a single thing Rod McGrew ever said. At all. Granted it’s been a long time, but I can report with some confidence that I didn’t remember anything in particular he’d said even in graduate school just a year or two later. I couldn’t tell you without refreshing my memory from his publications what his general approach to history was. He told us an amazing amount of information, organized with exceptional rigor and analyzed with dazzling clarity. It was, almost literally, in one ear and out the other.

What I do remember is the research projects I did for McGrew’s classes. I can tell you about those without refreshing my memory. In the disease class I got interested in how endemic malaria and other diseases degrade a population’s ability to maintain ‘surplus’ activity beyond subsistence, and what this might mean about patterns of civilizational distribution, density, rise and fall. It was pretty broad brush but it was a good start on thinking about multidimensional dynamics in history beyond the scope of intentional human action. In the Russia classes I got interested in revolutionary intelligentsias and the dynamics of change. This is when I first figured out that people use ideas like tools and therefore that the particulars of this or that system of ideas are not in themselves the causes of anything much.

As a research mentor McGrew had a light but effective touch. He was first of all interested and supportive; the message was yes, go to it. As the project developed he would drop little analysis prompts and bibliographical suggestions, calibrated to how fast and well you were integrating the previous suggestions. So for example for the intelligentia project I read all of Venturi’s Roots of Revolution and from there a bunch of secondary stuff on Russian revolutionaries like Berdyaev and Chernyshevsky, as well as some of the primary writings, and then moved into the secondary literature on ideas and intelligentsias by people I would never have heard of or discovered for myself like Mannheim and Gouldner. But then he suggested I take a look at a new book on the Bengali intelligentsia, which I now realize was the next level up in developing an understanding of how context shapes dynamics, and I balked because it seemed irrelevant, too far afield. And so he didn’t make that kind of suggestion again.

In fact I got kind of stuck, because I realized ideas and intelligentsias weren’t really where the action was at, but I wasn’t ready yet to do the work to develop a better picture. So in the end I kind of dumped the half-hearted debris on McGrew as my senior project, and he was appropriately disappointed. But he must have written me a great letter anyway, because I got a nice fellowship from U.C. San Diego, and it certainly wasn’t on the strength of the confused mess my transcript and essays were. I expect he knew it’s a process, and there’s only so far and fast someone can go from time to time.

I know I’m weird, that the way my memory works is weird, that the way I engage with people, ideas, processes, and things is weird. I’m not going to say my experience works as more than a data point, perhaps way out on the long tail, and as general rules my intuitions are useless. Nevertheless, when I talk to other people about how they learn, and in particular when I talk with people who like lecture about what they like about lecture and what they got from lecture, I don’t get back the kind of specific content recall you would expect from a pedagogical mode explicitly oriented toward clear and efficient transmission of content. Mostly, people don’t remember anything in particular from being lectured, which makes the whole fretful ritual of carefully preparing them seem kind of silly to me. What they do remember is having their curiosity stimulated, and having their learning process supported, and whatever work they themselves did in that general sort of context.

So oddly enough, even though one of my favorite and most influential teachers was a really great lecturer, that’s not what made him a really great teacher. Which then leads me to wonder what work the lecture is doing at all, and reminds me where I want to put my effort and care for the upcoming year.

February 25, 2018

Charles E. Dyke, 1938-2018

by Carl Dyke

Chuck Dyke

Chuck Dyke died Wednesday afternoon, February 21, 2018, less than a month after multiple inoperable cancers were discovered. He slipped away quietly with his wife and life companion Linda reading by his side, as perfect an end as such a loving and sentimental man could wish.

Chuck was the only son of Robert and Thelma and grew up in Stoughton, Massachusetts. From his childhood came his love of horse operas and pie for breakfast, and hatred of boiled chicken and being told what to do. As soon as he could, he began making decisions for himself, eventually opting out of the local school system and paying his own way at Thayer Academy. He worked his way up a series of jobs, including camp counselor, soda delivery man, and emergency room orderly, contributing to his extensive and often surprising fund of skills and lore.

From Thayer Chuck went to Caltech, where he realized he had made a mistake within the first two days but lasted out the semester. The mistake was not STEM, which remained his lifelong passion, but the way it was taught in relation to how he learned. He returned east to Brandeis University, where he was introduced to Philosophy in the most Chuck Dyke possible way, by signing up for the elective the guy he was chatting with in line was signing up for. Collaboration and saying yes to learning new things remained defining dispositions.

Graduate school was at Brown for training in analytic philosophy and a “doleful dissertation” on Rawls, Arendt, and civil disobedience. The undoleful thunderbolt of romance struck when Chuck knocked at a fellow philosopher’s door and her sister Linda, a biologist and St. John’s graduate, opened it. As soon as social proprieties allowed their two sons appeared: Carl, a historian, and Alex, an environmental engineer.

More on Chuck’s education and career can be found in the excellent interview by John Protevi at the New APPS blog.

In the happy days of the early Sixties the academy was still in full mid-century expansion. Chuck had his choice of jobs and settled on Temple University in Philadelphia, where he spent his entire career. Chuck and Linda looked at the local commuter rail system (pdf), drove out a little farther from the farthest stop, and bought a nice old house with a barn and an acre and three quarters out in Bucks County farm country which is still the family home. The mortgage was about $90 a month, which for thirty years was a source of increasing amusement as the bank tried frantically to get them to refinance. This homestead hosted many, many gatherings of colleagues and students over the years.

In the early 70’s, during the oil embargo and the World Cup, Chuck accepted a two year posting at Temple’s Rome campus, another typical embrace of an opportunity to learn new things, and a life defining experience for the whole family. He read Machiavelli, Mazzini, and Hugo Pratt, did the hard crossword puzzles in Italian, figured out how to launder a car registration through Switzerland, and made friends with local scholars who showed him how to find the best regional wine. In those days he was “Baffone,” Big Moustache, and carried his hand carved pipes in a tooled Italian leather holster on his belt. Linda began to become an art historian, the kids went to Italian public school, and everyone looked at more triptychs of the Madonna and child than is good for anyone’s sanity. For summer vacations he packed the whole family of four large Americans into one of these:

fiat 126

Fiat 126, circa 1973

It was a tight fit. The family insect collecting equipment went on the roof rack, which led once to an amusing loss by theft of multiple boxes of dead, pinned insects.

Although he was professionally housed in Temple’s Philosophy Department, Chuck never identified with that or any other discipline. His genius was association and he went where association, collegial and intellectual, took him. His early interest in collective decision-making evolved into concern for the broader fields of relationship and possibility in which decision-making communities emerge, to the evolutionary dynamics of complex adaptive systems, nature, ecology, and climate. He was deeply concerned, broadly speaking, with how humans are systematically fucking things up for ourselves and everyone else, and with finding ways to make this plain enough to do some good.

At home Chuck was a gardener and an artist. He spent decades of attentive digging, fertilizing, rotating, composting, and mulching, transforming an unpromising clay slab into an intensely fertile garden that left him no alternative but to sneak up to neighbors’ doorsteps late at night and ply them with produce by stealth. His art encompassed any useful and interesting thing that could be rendered in carved wood, ranging from pipes for his own iconic use made from everything from brier to salvaged barn wood, to Appalachian chain carving and caged balls,

IMAG1136

Chain carving from the Bells and Whistles series. Collection of Carl Dyke and Rachel Herrick.

mobiles, finials, tools, knockers, handles, distributed copiously and freely to friends and family, to finally his award-winning abstract sculptures in cedar and walnut. As he did in all his teaching and collaboration, he let the wood speak to him, worked with what it was, and prompted the best of what it brought to their partnership.

Chuck was a huge human being of many parts, relations, and situations. If you knew him, please add to these remembrances in the comments so we can assemble a more complete record of him together.

December 23, 2017

On knottiness

by Carl Dyke

It occurs to me while I’m out splitting firewood that this is another of those analogies for teaching. Not that we want to hit our students with axes, you understand.

If you have the right power machinery you can do anything you want with a pile of logs, make them any size and shape you need by application of brute force. This seems to be what a lot of people imagine teaching just is. Or marriages, or politics. But if you’re working by hand it’s fair to say that you have to work with the wood. It splits easily along the bias of the grain, whereas you can whack at it forever, make an ugly mess of it, and break both your heart and your ass if you try to cut across the grain.

So learning to read the grain is one of the basic skills of splitting logs (and indeed any sort of craft woodworking). As always the process is noticing, experimenting, and noticing some more. There are patterns and trends among types of tree and you can build a useful database of approaches and strategies out of that. Within those types there’s all kinds of variation down through particular trees to individual logs, ranging from the size and age of the tree, whether it had to cantilever to get to the sun or twist against its own weight, how it got stunted and adapted to the stunting. Branches make the grain flow in multiple directions at once and finding the splitting bias is either a matter of patient experiment or blind luck. Sometimes around lots of branches, injuries, and compensations, the grain is downright turbulent. That’s when it’s tempting to get out the chainsaw.

There are woods like maple and cedar that split so easily you only have to wave the axe at them. In contrast sweet gum, which we have a lot of, has a close, tight, one might even say grumpy grain and splits very reluctantly. You sort of have to work a suggestion of a split for awhile until it almost relaxes into releasing. Sometimes a piece of wood has set into a twist under some kind of pressure, and those will actually explode apart if you find the right seam. With big, tough old logs you kind of have to whittle them down from the outside in. No matter what, you can’t split a log with one blow. It takes a whole series of whacks.

You can split almost any sound log if you come at it right. But if the wood has been sitting outside in the weather for awhile it may have gotten soggy and rotten. You can’t split soggy, rotten wood. Same thing if the bugs and borers have gotten to it. I bust those up a bit and leave them for the chickens to pick over. My analogy may be breaking down a little bit here. I hope so.

Here’s one of my favorite videos. That’s nice splitty wood she’s working with there, but she’s also got this unbelievably skillful technique where she twists the axe slighty just after the moment of impact to pop the wood apart. That’ll learn it!

 

March 30, 2017

Fortuna’d son

by Carl Dyke

I just almost got myself into an internet fight with a deontologist.

Fortunately I kept my wits about me and took a powder. Nothing good ever comes of getting into it with the righteous and literal-minded. The occasion was a Facebook post on Erica Benner’s Guardian essay asking “Have we got Machiavelli all wrong?” Well of course ‘we’ have. She tells the familiar story of teaching Machiavelli the usual way, as a shill for power; but then starting to pay attention to all the stuff he says (especially in the Discourses on Livy) about freedom and citizenship and republican virtue; and finally realizing that all of the Prince stuff is framed by the other stuff as cautionary tales and instructions to a free people on how to spot and resist tyranny. This version of the argument obviously has Trump in mind. Of course careful readers have been having something like this epiphany for hundreds of years, not least Gramsci, as I have discussed at length.

The deontologist shrugged off the context and insisted on the text, where Machiavelli plainly says things about the exercise of power that are morally repugnant. QED. Machiavelli is the Disneyland of is/ought theorists. Never is it more plain that deontology (and its evil twin consequentialism) emerges from fundamental intellectual laziness. Morals do all the work of keeping things neat and linear, selecting out a priori all of the confounds. Nowhere to be found is any sense that the world is a manifold we stumble through with all manner of dispositions, habits, practices, heuristics, improvisations, reflexes, desperate gambles, selective ignorances, constraints, affordances, conditions, situations, assemblages, trajectories, strategies, roles, identities, networks, and whatnot before we ever get anywhere near ‘ethics’, the tidy parlor game of the mind. Take your shoes off before you walk on the carpet.

I am aware that there are myriad permutations and subtleties I am trampling upon here. It is my intention, nay, duty in life to never get drawn into any detailed examination of these. They have nothing to do with any serious business. With Machiavelli, we start with a person trying to make sense of and be effective within a lifeworld, a particular situation in turn of the 16th century Italy that constitutes and embeds him in particular conditions, dynamics, opportunities, threats, resources, and so on. He remains interesting because he takes a real crack at that, which means he has zero fucks to give about systematic ethics.

Nowadays we talk about real takings a crack in terms of complex dynamical systems. Machiavelli signals that’s what he’s up to, according to the available idiom, through the concept of fortuna. In my dissertation I talked generally about fortuna as contingency, following Pocock. But I would now translate fortuna and its conceptual partner ‘corruption’ into the range of complex dynamics covered by chaos, emergence, nonlinearity, and self-organization, arising respectively from broad historical processes and human relations more specifically. As an analyst, Machiavelli saw chaotic historical and interactive fields that defied linear causal analysis. As a strategist, he was looking for the stocks and flows that could be nudged toward emergence into a (meta)stable political order.

Here’s a characteristic orienting gesture, from The Prince chapter XXV, “What Fortune Can Effect in Human Affairs and How to Withstand Her:”

It is not unknown to me how many men have had, and still have, the opinion that the affairs of the world are in such wise governed by fortune and by God that men with their wisdom cannot direct them and that no one can even help them; and because of this they would have us believe that it is not necessary to labour much in affairs, but to let chance govern them. This opinion has been more credited in our times because of the great changes in affairs which have been seen, and may still be seen, every day, beyond all human conjecture. Sometimes pondering over this, I am in some degree inclined to their opinion. Nevertheless, not to extinguish our free will, I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.

So much is happening that is not and cannot be under any kind of direct human control. It would be reasonable to give up all hope for intentional action. But he sees free will as one constrained operator within a dynamic field, and on that limited basis it’s worth working out how to be more rather than less effective.

His solution relies first on the pre-stocking of all of the resources, conditions, and happy accidents needed to assemble the new order: a free and virtuous citizenry, custom, law, yes ethics, religion, institutions, checks and balances among the competing power bases. The configuration and interaction of these make up “the spirit of the times:”

I believe also that he will be successful who directs his actions according to the spirit of the times, and that he whose actions do not accord with the times will not be successful. Because men are seen, in affairs that lead to the end which every man has before him, namely, glory and riches, to get there by various methods; one with caution, another with haste; one by force, another by skill; one by patience, another by its opposite; and each one succeeds in reaching the goal by a different method. One can also see of two cautious men the one attain his end, the other fail; and similarly, two men by different observances are equally successful, the one being cautious, the other impetuous; all this arises from nothing else than whether or not they conform in their methods to the spirit of the times.

This is a rudimentary theory of inus (insufficient but nonredundant part of an unnecessary but sufficient) conditions. One size does not fit all. Not only are there many, path dependent ways to skin a cat, but the decision path is itself embedded in a larger dynamic field of supporting and thwarting conditions. Bloody messes are heavily represented in the possibility fan.

Anyone (say, a Prince) who wants to be something like intentionally effective has to orient themselves to existing flows, working with what is already working. Even then, it’s important to clean out as many variables as possible so that the various flows can be channeled together into a metastable, homeostatic order, actively maintained by continuing collective effort:

And this must be taken as a general rule: that never or rarely does it happen that any republic or realm is well-ordered from the beginning, or altogether reformed from its old order, if it is not ordered by one… but a prudent orderer of a republic, if he has this will to benefit not himself but the common good… has to arrange to have this authority alone; nor will a wise mind take issue with any extraordinary action necessary to order a realm or constitute a republic…. [But] if one is appropriate to order things, the order will not last long when it remains on the shoulders of the one, but very well when it remains in the care of many, and when it is up to many to maintain it. Because just as many are not suited to order a thing, due to not knowing its good because of the diverse opinions among them, so once they know it they cannot agree to abandon it.” Discourses, book I, chapter IX.

So what does it mean to be “Machiavellian?” It certainly doesn’t mean to focus on ethics, which are at best a strand of the larger analysis that involved him. I suppose if he thought you could get anything done with ethics, he would have been much more interested in them. But it also doesn’t mean simply being an amoral shill for power. Machiavelli liked republics and liberty very much – they are explicitly the end goal, and his life’s work. But he didn’t think there was anything easy about getting or maintaining them, and that lots of things had to line up to make them possible, none of them conforming to abstract ideals. It’s an old point, older even than Machiavelli, but it bears repeating in whatever ways the spirit of the times call forth. Nowadays we might say he didn’t have the privilege of focusing on ethics.

November 18, 2016

Ego condoms and possibility fans: Thinking with a Bannon

by Carl Dyke

It’s now pretty much officially understood that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media feeds promote cognitive bubbling, a subset of what Dyke the Elder just called “ego condoms.” In a way that was presumably much harder when there was just the one corner store and no portable screens to displace awkward neighborly interactions, folks get to select (and have selected for them) their feeds of news, commentary, entertainment, and social interaction for narrow, comforting self-confirmation. Folks think small, and defend their small thinking fiercely. When contaminants rudely break through the latex, the threat of contagion meets with a poorly developed intellectual immune system that has to kick into panic mode to repel the invaders. How’s that for some metaphors.

A current example is the liberal / progressive reaction to the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Donald Trump’s Director of Strategy. Consigliere Bannon was most recently a mastermind of the Trump campaign. Before that he ‘ran’ in some sense the clickbaity right wing news and commentary consortium Breitbart News Network, worked mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs, ran a media investment bank, made celebratory movies about heroes of conservatism, and directed Biosphere 2. Ha.

Bannon is a classic self-made man, working class, Irish Catholic, bootstrappy, with the usual disdain for ‘the Establishment’ and whiners who put their hand out rather than working their way up. Like anyone with this trajectory who takes this attitude, he seems to be completely oblivious to the systemic flows, gates, and filters that selectively advantage the efforts of guys like him, even while skillfully navigating them. We all know a bunch of guys like this. You’d like to be impressed and happy for them if they weren’t so poisonous. These are the people who are in charge now.

The obliviousness to the selectivity of system flows is one ego condom. The reification of ‘the Establishment’ is another. He’s well defended against the paralyzing confounds of complexity. Guys like this succeed not despite their selective perception but because of it. They’re hard points driven at the gaps and fissures of moving targets. All of the metaphors of the phallus and its disciplining apply here.

A lot of the left commentary would like this guy to be scary because he’s a bigot. That is literally the no-brainer response, a pure reflex. A guy like this may well be a bigot but also gives two shits about race, gender, sexuality, or any of the other ego condoms of righteous subalternity. You can be as blackly, gayly transwhatsis as you like, as long as you do it on your own time and don’t try to leverage it against him. You’re as free to be any of those things as you earn for yourself. These are libertarians, not social conservatives, although that’s one of the weirder aggregations of the American right at the moment. They’re brought together by the more than plausible perception that progressive identity politics does, in fact, try to leverage against them, whether it be ‘their’ resources and opportunities or their world view. So I take Bannon himself at his word when he says he’s not racist or sexist or homophobic. To him, all of that is (diagnostically, to be sure) beside the point.

Cognitive latexing against complexity ‘works’, in a pointy kind of way, but of course it comes with consequences. On the left it means we’ll go into the next election cycle still not knowing what hit us or having any idea what to do about it. On the right, among lots of other things you get Bannon.

You may not want to watch this whole video but never fear, I’ve done it for you. Why? Because my own defenses against complexity are poor, so I’m easily distracted. Bannon is actually a smart guy and he’d like to be engaged with the big picture. All that latex though means that the big picture can’t be complex, so he’s got to linearize it. Latex linearity is all over this talk. He tells a story about the heroic history of Judeo-Christian values. He grafts capitalism onto that story without even momentary irony. And here comes the apocalypse: the wealth and opportunity afforded the whole world by Judeo-Christian capitalism is catastrophically imperiled by the huge national debt racked up and then foisted on the common man by the rapacity and cronyism of the Establishment.

We’ve heard this all before. Righteous, angry, frightening certainty around a securely linearized narrative is, as Bannon himself says, one of the most profoundly motivating strategies of being in the world. As is so often the case, this version picks out some things that are more or less true. Bannon is right, he’s just not all the way right. As a linearizer he can’t be all the way right (well, none of us can) but he can be the kind of partly right that ends up being super wrong.

In passing, he’s a little right and then very wrong about the Western Judeo-Christian thing for all the reasons that Kwame Anthony Appiah says better than I could. The consequence of that is a severe truncation of the evolutionary resources that the whole process of historical experimentation has made available to us. Extinction awaits the species that locks itself into a single evolutionary strategy. The dinosaurs are gone but the birds are still with us. Bannon is a tyrannosaurus, which is a cool thing to be until it’s not. Evolution is for the birds.

More importantly he’s also a little bit right about the debt, or rather about how the debt has been played by the various loose assemblages of visionaries, fools, and scoundrels who have gradually over the course of centuries but then with increasing speed in recent times worked out how to make money appear and disappear without material mediation. It’s true, for example, that the numbers are now simply mind-boggling. A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money. Except we’re not. None of the money is real except the stuff regular folks are still expected to buy things with and pay back if it’s borrowed. All of the rest of it moves around and pops into and out of existence in computers in whatever numbers are needed to get stuff done from time to time. “Debt” has always been another name for money, but the point of distinguishing them is now functionally obsolete.

Bannon tells the story of the crash of 2008 and its bailout as the story of enormous debt being created that is yet to be accounted for and paid back. What actually happened is that the people who do money finally figured out almost all the way that they could just invent as much of it as they needed to settle things down and get on with being rich. And that’s what they did. Overnight. Several trillion dollars, by fiat. Many more trillions since then, as Bannon says. And it worked. It settled things right down, and it’s still out there being money.

In fact there’s so much money now no one knows what to do with it all. It’s parked in the zeros and ones of offshore computers, waiting for someone to have a bright idea. And still they make more, with no inflation because unlike Zimbabwe and Germany after WW 1, nobody but the latex apocalysts even begins to doubt the robustness of the underlying system. Money that was not borrowed, but flat invented. Money so fungible it makes money pointless. Making people pay for things, and especially making people pay for the money of debt, is at this point just a bad habit. It doesn’t even make the wealthy any wealthier – they can just write themselves on that many zeros and ones any time they like. It’s all counted with machine precision but it doesn’t need to be accounted for, and unless we get really unfathomably stupid, it never needs to be paid back because it was never taken from anywhere it needs to be paid back to.

Unfortunately this is exactly the unfathomable stupidity that Bannon is flogging. We’ve just finally demonstrated conclusively that there’s as much money as we need for whatever we think we need. Right now only ‘the Establishment’ are benefiting fully from that; we can be angry about that together. But we’re literally one evolutionary step from the regime of shared plenty, and the tyrannosaurus wants to collapse plenty into austerity. He wants to haul us back to the horrifying constraints of the gold standard and the poor house.

The problem is that there is literally no way for a linearizer to see this. The new money is an effective abstraction. It’s not causally tied to any material antecedent. It’s not produced by work, or ingenuity, or great stores of gold, or any other tangible whatsis. It’s no longer even indexing the wealth and power of any one nation state. It is enabled by the complexity of the global economy. It is supported by an enormous network of official and unofficial actors, all of them entrained to an accounting regime that completely by accident emerged, first vulnerably in places like Ireland and Greece and then invulnerably in the U.S., into a self-organizing, self-sustaining global guarantor of value. It’s a system that’s big enough and rich enough to effortlessly support a fine standard of living for the kind of global population we’d have if everyone was happy and secure, although right now it’s mostly just driving the left side of the Pareto distribution to ridiculous heights. A Hayek with his market emergence might have been able to wrap his mind around this, although he didn’t buy Keynes’ first rumblings. But it can only baffle and enrage a vulgar fetishist of individual striving like Bannon.

Bannon wants to bring back the jobs and get people working again. Oh for the good old days when America was more separately and tangibly great. This in an environment where our machines have increasingly displaced necessary labor, and where most of us ‘work’ at exchanging optional services in a way that makes the discourses of productivity a cruel joke. Why would we want to bring back jobs? The old folks and historical re-enactors can do whatever jobs they want to while the rest of us figure out what to do with all this time we’ll have on our hands. Make steel, if we like, or not. Learn things and share them with each other. Do one thing today and another tomorrow, hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as we have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.

We live in interesting times. The possibility fan includes the worlds of the apocalysts of the left and right, frightened and enraged and weirdly empowered by complexity and change, declaring doom and retreating to a cramped, sustainable austerity. It also includes pushing forward into this new regime that has now fully matured right under our noses. I’d like to think the latter is inevitable but in fact it’s not – the Stephen Effin Bannons of the world actually hold it in their power to enforce their cramped, austere, linear image on the world by decoupling the linkages that make the new order possible. This is now what’s at stake. Everything else is the tail trying to wag the dog.

October 14, 2016

The recombinant DNA of our political discourse

by Carl Dyke

I’m forging slowly and painfully through John H. Holland’s Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2014). I’m going to recommend it, but it’s tough going for me because Holland comes at complex adaptive systems from an engineering and computer science perspective. The approach is computational, so I would imagine tremendously congenial to Asher and perhaps JohnM. Whereas I can work it out (thanks, John), but it’s way out of my silo. I’m a house painter, not a pigment chemist, Jim. Consider a passage like this, from Chapter 5, which took me about an hour to decode:

To get a more precise view of the routing possibilities for tags, let’s look again at the use of #s to define the conditions for signal-processing rules (introduced at the beginning of Chapter 4). A condition can be set to respond to a given tag by using #s (don’t cares) on either side of the tag; thus the condition #100### … # responds to a signal string with tag 100 at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th positions of the string. Note that a condition with many #s can accept a variety of tags while a condition with few #s will accept few if any tags (requiring a specific string when it has no #s). Or, looking at tags themselves, short tags satisfy a variety of conditions, while long tags make highly specific requirements on conditions.

“Don’t cares?” Wah? And then he does some tables and stuff to show how the routing and recombination of tags happens, creating emergence. Which normally I’d ignore and wait for the explication in words, only then the words assume I have a basic understanding of how binary works; and although I do, I also kind of don’t. My balls are not making it through the urn gates, if you get my drift.

“If you’re not bringing math skills to the problem [of climate change],” [Bill Gates] said with a sort of amused asperity, “then representative democracy is a problem.”

So as usual I resort to a kind of rough and ready translation, to find enough cognitive overlap with something familiar where I can get a handle on what I’m being told. Which, if I understand correctly (but how could I, given this cludgy workaround), in itself corresponds to what Holland is saying about how information tagging works, and the emergence of something like knowledge. And because of the election and the work I’ve been doing to try to bridge the various discourse communities I interact with, the something familiar I go to is politics.

I’m especially interested in, roughly speaking, the information content of political discourse. I surf a lot of short-form information streams, ranging from domestic and foreign press and commentary (Atlantic, Guardian, Jacobin, Baffler, Breitbart, Red State, etc.) to online affinity groups (Sanford / Lee County Truth Seekers) to Facebook statuses. I interview Trump ralliers for my department’s oral history project. I talk with neighbors and friends. None of this is meant to be scientific or in any way dispositive; I’m just grazing.

What I find is that American political discourse seems like it could be usefully analogized to DNA. There isn’t actually that much divergence or diversity of original information. You can get almost anything said by rearranging and elaborating on a few basic concepts like individual, community, threat, and opportunity. DNA is just four proteins, CGAT. That’s plenty. How they’re arranged is what actually does the work, all the way up to thoughts about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Analysis of complex systems almost always turns on finding recurring patterns in the system’s ever-changing configurations (Holland).

There’s nothing new about ‘reducing’ political discourse to unit ideas. Recall George Lakoff boiling American politics down to basic orienting metaphors of the family: authoritarian father and nurturing parent. But those are already speciated information complexes, and as the subsequent commentary has shown, highly vulnerable to complexifying analysis. He’s missing the rearrangement step. It’s like if he said, “Over there you have monkeys, whereas here are the humans.” And because the matter is in motion, just about everyone turns out to be a missing link.

It is unusual for CAS agents to converge, even momentarily, to a single ‘optimal’ strategy, or to an equilibrium. As the agents adapt to each other, new agents with new strategies usually emerge. Then each new agent offers opportunities for still further interactions, increasing the overall complexity (Holland).

 So here is a human interaction I wrote about on Facebook the other day:

I don’t suppose I’m hiding my disdain for Trump and (qualified) support for Clinton very well. And yes, I think there is a lot of bad stuff you have to ignore or explain away to be excited about either of them, but so much more so with Trump that there’s no reasonable comparison.

But the world keeps turning. Yesterday I was clearing two big trees that fell across our driveway when two pickups pulled in and spilled out neighbors we hadn’t met yet, equipped with big chainsaws and neighborly fellowship. A job that would have taken me an hour took us ten minutes, and then off they went looking for more people to help.

The conversation made it clear they were Trump supporters – pretty much all our neighbors are – but I liked them very much and not just because they were helping me. They were no nonsense and capable, thoughtful and droll.

It sort of amazes me that good folks like this can’t or won’t scale their sense of helping out to the national level. I know that who needs help, and when, and by whom, and for how long, is a complicated question. Why people need help is even more complicated. Unless it’s a tree across the driveway. On that we can agree.

What does this agreement mean? Holland says that what I’m going to call understanding, which is a transformed relationship to the world, comes from the kinds of overlap that enable exchange, and that change emerges routinely from these swaps.

It has been observed that innovation in CAS is mostly a matter of combining well-known components in new ways (Holland).

So one overlap in my story is “chainsaw,” and it’s actually a critical one for this particular interaction. There’s even political information of a kind in it, since owning your own chainsaw and being usefully skilled with it express a position in and relationship to the world. These guys got a lot more comfortable once they saw me whacking off limbs and logs without a lot of fuss, and vice versa. This overlap then enabled later bantering swaps in which we explored (scant) overlaps in our gender and family systems via their assumption that my hatchback, trapped behind the trunks at the bottom of the driveway, must be my wife’s car. The rescuing the little lady narrative got weird for a second. It got ok again once it was the commute vehicle, and a diesel, and we could talk about retrofitting an electrical fuel pump on old Jettas to improve reliability.

The guys were grandfather, father, and son. Grandpa mostly sat and watched, Dad ran the main saw (he said they had “bar and bow,” which I didn’t properly understand until he pulled out his rig, learning and growing),

homelitesuperwiz66003

and Son sort of puttered around moving cut branches. In the following conversation, Dad talked modestly about a life of extraordinary accomplishment as a builder, mechanic, and entrepreneur. Son had the same easy feel of quality but turned out to be one of the completely useless young men I’ve written about before. He’s got a degree in History, so we overlapped there, and on our assessment that no one in their right minds would go into teaching in the current educational environment. Just a whole lot of overlap there, to be honest. He noticed my Farm Bureau Insurance cap and connected it to his pragmatic pursuit of insurance agent certification. There were no illusions about the redeeming value of this occupation, and here Dad made a crack about getting right with Obamacare and the mirage of “free” insurance, which is one of the branching tags of our current politics.

OK, so this is a blog post and can’t noodle around in anecdote forever. What about the recombinant DNA of our political discourse? The overlapping tags for us were the American classics: community, individual, opportunity, threat. In some sense we agreed on all the basics; that is, our ideas were composed of the same elements. Our political divergence was in those tags’ recombination across different environmental and developmental histories. In the right situation we could get the community and opportunity tags to overlap pretty robustly, but what became clear is that for a whole range of situations, that was not the effective exchange zone, branched especially by where we put the threat tags.

Roughly speaking and allowing for all the partial overlaps, conflations, and plain misses I think this is basically right, but I’m no more sure it’s usefully right than noticing that monkeys, apes, and humans share 98% of their DNA, or whatever it is. As Holland might say the vocabulary needs the grammar to emerge into meaning. On the other hand there’s always that idea of kinship that’s so easy to lose in our biological and political discussions. It’s not that conservatives don’t have the individual tag, it’s that it’s assembled differently with the community and threat tags. We could work with that, maybe. And as usual this is me thinking out loud where, if we can get the tags to overlap, others might be interested to think with me.

August 31, 2016

What the Universal Translator gets wrong

by Carl Dyke

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.

May 17, 2016

Replace starter and front shocks on 1992 Chevy S10

by Carl Dyke

I just did this job, and because I didn’t find much specific help on the internet, and because I learned some things while doing it, I’m leaving notes here in case they help someone else later. I am not a mechanic, so this is strictly diy stuff.

The starter is an easy job. What was hard for me was figuring out how to make it an easy job. That took two days. Once I figured it out, the job itself took maybe an hour. Here’s what I figured out:

  1. Unbolt the flywheel cover
  2. Get as much slack as you can on the wires

That’s it. Compared with the starter, the shocks were really easy. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Be ready to cut the top nut off

OK, now if you’re interested here’s my story, starting with the starter. The shop manual and the internet both explain the job in a sentence or two. Unbolt the starter; disconnect the wires; installation is the reverse of these steps. All of that is true, but unhelpful. Almost as unhelpful as this video:

The reason it’s unhelpful is because the starter is puzzle-pieced into this tiny space on the passenger side between the engine and the frame and the shock mount. You have to come at it from underneath. The two mounting bolts themselves are easy enough to access and remove, but then actually physically pulling the starter out is amazingly difficult. With the solenoid on top and the wires connected the range of motion is very small, the shapes are eccentric and ill-matching, everything catches on everything else, and the business end is wedged into the flywheel housing. And if you’re lying on your back with your arms all cramped up and only really room to bring one hand into play, well. And it’s heavy, so it keeps trying to drop out of the tiny little manipulation zone. Let’s just say it was only by sheer stubbornness and unfathomable luck that I got the thing out of there, after having at it and taking breaks to not yell and break things and looking for guidance on the internet (to be honest, I did not watch every available video, so I may have missed the perfect one. Because I prefer to read my instructions and I can only take so much of guys with great hands and senses of spatial relations but primitive people skills stumbling through endless inane introductory remarks followed by stilted explanations in that dumb teacher voice they all think they have to do; see above).

AutoZone had a cheap remanufactured starter with a lifetime warranty in stock. They insisted on testing the old one, because for some reason the tech thought he couldn’t sell me a new one if the old one still worked. Well of course, the old one spun right up on the bench. Between the shop manual and the internet I had worked out that the probable problem was a faulty overrunning clutch, which as I understand it was keeping the spin from being translated from the starter to the flywheel. (Interestingly, the encouragement to just go ahead and replace the starter for this fault came from a forum thread of military guys talking about the same problem with their humvees. I think – the jargon was pretty thick.) I told the tech this and he contrived to get a fail out of his rig somehow, and he winked at me and sold me the starter. So that was day one.

Day two, I’m back under the truck trying to recapture lightning in a bottle and get the new unit back up in by whatever miraculous path I got the old one out. Nothing, no chance. The exit and return paths are not symmetrical. You can either have the wires connected or you can have the starter in position, but you can’t have both. When they’re connected the wires take in just enough of the range of motion to defeat insertion. But the solenoid is positioned on the top of the unit, buried between the frame and the engine, which meant there was just no way I could see or read about to get the wires connected once it was in place. Which doesn’t stop numerous web sources from helpfully explaining to insert the starter, then connect the wires.

Around this point the friendly old local guy who comes and fishes our pond sometimes stopped by for a chat. He saw I was working on the truck and a long conversation ensued, extolling the virtues of Chevy trucks and reminiscing about the ones he’s had. In the course of this, he learned that I was working on the starter and his face broke all out in sympathy. Nasty job, tiny spaces, did it on his daughter’s Pinto once and practically had to take the engine out to get at it. So that made me feel a little better, because honestly I was starting to think that I was just being stupid somehow in a way I didn’t even know how to notice.

I’m not equipped to remove the engine. I don’t even have a floor jack to loosen mounts and move it around where it is. So back to the internet, playing search term roulette. Here is where I turned up the suggestion on some discussion forum or other to remove the flywheel cover. The usual laconic gear yoda, who explained there are four bolts, two up two down, then swing the something something out of the way. Well on my truck, I could get at the four bolts (plus another on the clip for some rigid conduit that wasn’t going anywhere but wasn’t fatally obstructive); but I wasn’t seeing anything I could swing out of the way, and as far as I could tell I’d have to remove the exhaust to get the cover all the way off. Which is a whole other level of never mind. However, taking the bolts out freed the cover to move a bit in place and gave me a half inch or so more wiggle room, which made a lot of difference for getting the business end of the starter up and in. Not quite enough, as it happened, so that was day two.

Day three dawned and I’d been doing some thinking. The wires were now the problem. Is there a tool that would allow me to reach in and attach the wires while the starter is in place? Someone sensible on a forum pointed out that if you need some heroic tool to do a job like this, you’re probably doing the job wrong. So I committed to what I knew about why I couldn’t get it done, and I went back in from the front side of the engine to see if there was any way to get even just a little more slack on the wires, so I could get the unit in with them attached. Well the ignition wire was already maxed out, and part of a harness I wouldn’t want to have to mess with at my skill level. But I could pop a couple of clips and get a little more play from the battery wire. And that turned out to be just barely enough to slide the sucker right in, as if it weren’t no thing. Put everything back together, squinted real hard, turned the key, and it started right up. No need for shims, for which I was grateful.

Total elapsed time: chunks of three days. Total effective job time to unbolt the flywheel cover, loosen the battery wire, remove and replace the starter, and tighten everything back up (not counting the AutoZone trip): about an hour.

As for the shocks, I knew from very little research that the top nuts could be frozen. Which they both were. So after giving WD40 a fair chance on both sides, I went to work with the Sawzall and a cold chisel. The saw was a bit fiddly again because of tight spaces, so I wasn’t able to align for an optimal cut, which is why I had to finish up with the chisel. But all that took about five minutes a side.

Then, I had read that you need something to compress the shock while bolting it back in at the bottom. Another place a floor jack would have come in handy. But for what it’s worth, I was able to do it by hand with some heaving and grunting. It was just a matter of shoving the shock up with one hand and getting one bolt started with the other, then using that one to tighten down enough to get the other one in. So now the truck doesn’t wallow, which was sort of charming really, except it made my wife seasick.

Why did I do it? The farm is already full of learning curves. My friend Patrick keeps telling me about my pay grade and just letting fellow pros do their thing. Which I mostly agree with. But with it being summer, the opportunity costs of my time are pretty elastic. And we saved maybe $500-$600 altogether, which is not trivial ever, but especially when the refi is still in process and we have all sorts of farm equipment and supplies to spool up. Plus we don’t have a trusted new mechanic at our new place, and at the end of the semester I was in no brain for the kinds of social situations that search involves. Finally, I just like that I can do it and I did do it. Not every time, certainly, but some times. Like blogging!

March 13, 2016

Another pointless exercise

by Carl Dyke

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

Bellwether?

by Carl Dyke

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.

December 11, 2013

Figuring out figuring it out

by Carl Dyke

I’m pretty sold at this point on ‘figuring out’ as a teaching / learning rubric. The idea being that what we’re up to is figuring things out, not being told things. Here’s what that looks like, according to one student in a journal I just read:

I’m really beginning to see how things are connected. There isn’t a piece of history that we have covered that cannot in some aspect be related to something previously discussed and it can be overwhelming, but exhilarating. When you start thinking, it’s like you can’t stop your brain from jumping from one track to another. This class seriously requires an adjustment to how I process information. I realized that I have to literally stop thinking when I go to my next class because that class doesn’t function that way.

I’m a bit embarrassed by the invidious comparison, but the purpose of the journals is for the students to work on their metacognition by tracking their learning process in this and other classes, so it seems to have worked here.

Here’s an email exchange with another student, who I’ve mentioned before as an enthusiastic but not-yet-confident newcomer to the concept of figuring things out for itself:

Me: I really like how you’re developing the project. Everything you’re writing is consistent with what I know, and you’re teaching me some new things. I can see that the volume of information you’re working with is overwhelming your sense of how it all goes together a bit, but you’re on the right track. This could be a life’s work. Stay focused on what you want to figure out, and pull it together as best you can.

I’m really looking forward to reading your final paper. ¡Buen trabajo!

Student: Thanks for your guidance, I am really trying to excel in your class. Now that I have gotten your feedback, I am questioning whether or not my final essay topic is the right one for me. I am doing how the new world treasure (gold and silver, etc) ultimately lead to Spain’s financial crisis (due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt).

If you think a different topic would be more suitable, I wouldn’t mind starting over on my paper.

Me: Your topic is wonderful! Please continue with what you’re doing!

The point about using the treasure as a place holder seems like a great example of how complex evolutionary systems work, by repurposing and reassembling available resources and relationships for the contingent dynamics, constraints and affordances of the environment. How that happens from case to case depends on initial conditions, as you’ve seen.

So interesting. Again, please continue.

In my experience this is pretty typical once a student begins to see how big a quality analysis is – they worry if they can handle it and how they’ll be judged, and feel like defaulting back to the comfort of pat answers, as represented by some-other-topic-they-don’t-know-as-much-about-yet. I’ve tried to calibrate my response here to be encouraging and collegial, and just far enough out of this student’s reach, yet decodable given what it knows already, to refresh the intrigue of discovery.

And look what this student did – went in one semester from thinking of history as a bunch of dates to memorize and spit back on a test, knowing nothing about Spanish colonial history, to following its curiosity to a weighty question of economic history and putting gems of analysis like “due to creation of credit systems, where they would just use treasure as a place holder which accumulated large amounts of debt” in parentheses. No big deal.

I’m getting more results like this, it seems to me, and as always I’m trying to figure out why what works, works. Part of it, I’m thinking, has to do with my own renewed / intensified relationship to figuring it out. Specifically, I’m sitting working on final grades, which now involves a multitude of technologies and platforms. I’ve got portfolios on Dropbox with drafts, papers, and journals; a Qualtrix data-entry form for the History Department’s evaluation matrix; Evernote windows for email addresses and roundtable grades and data collection from their journals for the teaching / learning complexity project. I’m backchecking citations on the web. I’m working on a laptop, tablet, and smartphone for all of this.

I still remember learning to type on a Selectric. My computer class in high school programmed on punch tape. My own first computer, in grad school, was an Epson XT clone with two 5.25 floppy drives and no hard drive. I think it really helps me be a better teacher that, like the first student with seeing connections and the second with colonial debt systems, I have learning curves in my life that are steep. I am figuring it out.

The usual story about the importance of doing research for teachers is along these lines, but I’m not sure the analogy actually holds. In standard disciplinary research there’s certainly a figuring-it-out element, but that happens around the edges of a whole bunch of embedded expertise. For the students, what we want them to figure out is often almost completely unfamiliar, an ocean in which there may be monsters. Both of the students I’ve quoted here actually have substantial resources of intellectual and scholarly disposition to draw on, as do I when I’m trying to figure out how to get things done with a new app. But the curves have still been very steep for all of us, and I think sharing the excitement and terror and humility of that in some dimension is a very helpful thing.

September 16, 2013

Of bargaining units and petards

by Carl Dyke

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

May 19, 2013

Survival of the fit enough

by Carl Dyke

In my perusings I just came across this interesting item:

Michael Vick says new Eagles coach Chip Kelly “taught” him how to properly hold the football while running. The 10-year veteran was apparently being serious. “The other day, I broke out in the pocket, and the first thing Chip told me was to tuck the football,” Vick said. “So I showed him how I was running with it, and he looked at it and he knocked the ball right out of my hands. And he was like, ‘Hold it like this.’ And what he told me felt comfortable. I had a tighter grip on the football. That should secure that problem as long as I work on it.” It’s beyond belief that Vick is implying that he not only didn’t know how to properly hold the football, but had never been taught by Dan Reeves, Jim Mora Jr. or Andy Reid, but here we are. Vick has lost 12 fumbles over his past 35 games, which is far too many.

How do four people – Vick, Reeves, Mora, Reid – who do a thing at the very highest level, who have pretty much done it all day every day for their whole lives, not notice there’s a basic, outcome-changing problem and take easy steps to fix it? Is that surprising?

In the book discussion over at The Long Eighteenth I’ve been trying to both discuss and, predictably, demonstrate this effect. Gikandi looks at the slavery / culture of taste complex; sees the one is both enabling and constraining the other; and apparently can’t think of any way that could make sense other than grand psychic defense mechanisms like repression and libidinal sublimation. Big effects must have big causes. Has Vick been repressing a desire to lose this whole time? Or did he just carry the ball a way, mostly not drop the thing, and therefore never think or feel much about it? After all, fumbling’s part of the game.

Do analyses like Gikandi’s repress a dark terror of the mindless operations of unreflective habit? We all get to have our favorite theories, but jobs go smoother if you use the right tools. In a book in large part about the history of the judgment of taste, with a 30-page bibliography, Gikandi mentions “French anthropologist” Pierre Bourdieu just one time, as having called “a set of socially acquired dispositions and predispositions” habitus once (218). Habitus, a concept more pertinently developed in Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, is the new grip that would have fixed some of Gikandi’s fumbling; but like Vick, Reeves, Mora, and Reid; Hume and Jefferson and the Beckfords; teachers, students and administrators, he’s been getting along well enough without it.

March 24, 2013

Wild yeast sourdough starter

by Carl Dyke

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 Gaia’s 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 to keep it from drying out too fast. 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.

IMG_20130321_220153

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 7, 2013

Complex systems made learnable

by Carl Dyke

My friend and sometimes tennis partner David just emailed me this link to a story at Phys.org titled “Through a sensor, clearly: Complex systems made observable.” It’s right up my alley, he thought, and right up our alley, I thought.

Now, I don’t have either the math or the graphical chops to get under the hood of this research. But I think I understand what they’re up to, and I think I know enough to spot a couple of places where questions might be asked. For example, if I understand correctly we’re talking here about describing a snapshot of a complex system; it’s my impression that once the system is actually complexing, the data-crunching becomes prohibitive. But if so, one moment of a dynamical system is of limited utility, since it captures the system but not the dynamical. If I’ve understood correctly, this is not a criticism, but an appreciation of where we are in the learning curve.

I also appreciate that there’s a devil in the details of observer design; that is, the sensors have to be able to tell the difference between information and noise, nonlinearity and randomness. In effect this means that the sensors have to be able to learn to discriminate intelligently, which most human brains are not that great at. But they’re just doing feasibility at this stage, and I gather they think if they can use graphical modeling to specify some system parameters, they can eventually walk-in the data-gathering to yield more satisfying descriptions.

Well, I bet about half of what I just said is at least a little bit wrong. What I hope is that I’m just wrong and not ‘not even wrong‘, that is, that I know at least enough to be worth talking to further by someone with a better understanding. And this brings me to the question for today, which is this. Given that the project here is to represent and understand complex systems, which explicitly include “biological systems [or] social dynamic system[s] such as opinion or social influence dynamics” – that is, to start with, citizenship and life itself – what responsibility does a university general education core program have to bring students up to a kind of elementary competence where they can participate responsibly in this kind of conversation? What and how would we have to teach to make that so? And what in the reverend paleo-disciplines and contents might need to retool or move aside to enable this development?

UPDATE: if nothing else comes of this post, at least I’ve learned what it means to be ‘fractally wrong‘.

March 3, 2013

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

by Carl Dyke

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 4, 2012

Can Odd Monisms Ruin Nagel’s Book? (4,3,6)

by Asher Kay

Yeah, that’s right — I used a cryptic crossword clue as a post title. I was going to go with “Something It Is Like To Be Bemused And a Little Relieved”, but that sounded too much like David Foster Wallace.

If you have solved my clue/title, you’ll know that this post is about Thomas Nagel’s newest book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.

The first thing likely to grab your attention is the subtitle, which might seem ever so slightly strident if you were not aware that shortly before publication, he toned it down from, “Come At Me, You Worthless Reductionist Pissants”. Happily, the book’s content does not reflect the vociferousness of the subtitle — it’s actually a pretty humble and friendly book. Nagel, in fact, doesn’t even explicitly say that Darwinism is false. He says that “psychophysical reductionism” is false, and by “psychophysical reductionism”, he seems to mean an array of things, some of which will strike the physicalist as strawmen (such as the idea that everything can be reduced to physics), and some of which will just seem a bit tone deaf (like the “reducibility of the mental to the physical”, which doesn’t really involve a reduction, per se, for someone who holds that everything is physical).

One could spend an entire post poking holes in Nagel’s conception of the physicalist stance (see Leiter and Weisberg’s recent review in The Nation if you already had your hole-poker out), but it’s a big topic, and I think it makes more sense to lay out a positive description of physicalism and show how some of Nagel’s objections look in light of that than it does to discuss it from the negative viewpoint of refuting someone. I’ll try to do a post on that soon.

What I want to discuss here are the several of things that puzzled me about Mind and Cosmos. The first is Nagel’s conception of “value realism” (he also calls it “moral realism” in some places). The basic idea of value realism, for Nagel, is that the truths indicated by value and moral judgements are truths that are not dependent on anything else — they are true in themselves:

Realism is not a metaphysical theory of the ground of moral and evaluative truth. It is a metaphysical position only in the negative sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical. It is metaphysical only if the denial of a metaphysical position like naturalism itself counts as a metaphysical position. But value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.

Of course natural facts are what make some value judgments true, in the sense that they are the facts that provide reasons for and against action. In that sense the fact that you will run over a dog if you don’t step on the brakes makes it the case that you should step on the brakes. But the general moral truth that licenses this inference — namely that it counts in favor of doing something that it will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature — is not made true by any fact of any other kind. It is nothing but itself.

For me, this view runs into two problems. The first is the question of how we are able to access these truths. Nagel doesn’t address this issue directly, and my sense is that he would not see it as a problem at all. He seems to be saying that we have access to them in the same way we have access to mathematical truths, but I don’t see how that makes the question any easier since we don’t have an explanation of how we access those either. Since the point of the book is to push for non-physicalist theories of mental processes, I am guessing that those theories are where Nagel would expect the question to be addressed.

The second problem is the weird duality of pleasure and pain. If, as Nagel says, “pain is really bad, and not just something we hate, and that pleasure is really good, and not just something we like”; and if the good and bad of pleasure and pain are not dependent on anything else (our like/dislike, their physical manifestations, the evolutionary consequences of our reactions to them, etc.); then we seem to have an awfully big coincidence going on:

Describing it is tricky, since it is obvious that biologically hard-wired pleasure and pain play a vital role in the fitness of conscious creatures even if their objective value doesn’t. The realist position must be that these experiences which have desire and aversion as part of their essence also have positive and negative value in themselves, and that this is evident to us on reflection, even though it is not a necessary part of the evolutionary explanation of why they are associated with certain bodily episodes, such as sex, eating, or injury. They are adaptive, but they are something more than that. While they are not the only things that have objective value, these experiences are among the most conspicuous phenomena by which value enters the universe, and the clearest examples through which we become acquainted with real value.

In the realist interpretation, pleasure and pain have a double nature. In virtue of the attraction and aversion that is essential to them, they play a vital role in survival and fitness, and their association with specific biological functions and malfunctions can be explained by natural selection. But for beings like ourselves, capable of practical reason, they are also objects of reflective consciousness, beginning with the judgment that pleasure and pain are good and bad in themselves and leading on, along with other values, to more systematic and elaborate recognition of reasons for action and principles governing their combination and interaction, and ultimately to moral principles.

Remember that for Nagel, there’s nothing metaphysical going on — no “root cause” that leads both to the truth that pain is bad and to our visceral aversion to it. As Nagel appears to recognize, this leads us toward a sort of dualism. I’d go further and say that it’s the same sort of dualism that gets us in trouble when we accept the mind/body problem as a real problem. Nagel also recognizes that his conclusion relies heavily on intuition: “That is just how they glaringly seem to me, however hard I try to imagine the contrary, and I suspect the same is true of most people”. Mind and Cosmos is refreshingly honest when it comes to intuition.

Okay, so that’s the value realism thing. The other puzzling thing for me was Nagel’s conclusion that an evolutionary account of reason is impossible because it is necessarily circular:

By contrast [to the case of perception], in a case of reasoning, if it is basic enough, the only thing to think is that I have grasped the truth directly. I cannot pull back from a logical inference and reconfirm it with the reflection that the reliability of my logical thought processes is consistent with the hypothesis that evolution has selected them for accuracy. That would drastically weaken the logical claim. Furthermore, in the formulation of that explanation, as in the parallel explanation of the reliability of the senses, logical judgments of consistency and inconsistency have to occur without these qualifications, as direct apprehensions of the truth. It is not possible to think, ‘Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.’ Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

My first intuitive response was to think that Nagel was going a little easy on perception. Isn’t an evolutionary theory of perception open to the same problem, since we are relying on our perceptions (empirical measurements through scientific instruments) to determine the validity of our theories? Or if we have ways of “checking” our perceptions to make sure they’re valid, wouldn’t the same kind of checking apply to our reasoning process?

I’m reminded of the refutation of moral relativism based on the idea that it makes an absolute claim (i.e., “no moral truths are absolute”). It feels like a trick — that it’s only circular because it’s “about” reason. Plus, as with value realism, this sort of rejection forces us into a position of turning reason into another “true in itself” thing that doesn’t require justification.

It seems to me that reasoning is something way less cool than Nagel makes it out to be. If I perform a reasoning task that takes me from proposition A to proposition Q, all I can say is that proposition Q follows from the procedural rules that I’ve set out. If proposition A is based on a perception of the world, and proposition Q also accords with a perception of the world, I can say that my procedure was successful in producing an inference about the world. Further tests might show that the procedure is wildly successful in producing a bunch of successful inferences about a bunch of things in the world. So when I’m “presupposing” reason when I theorize about reason’s awesomeness, all I’m really doing is saying that my confidence is high because the procedure I followed tends to be highly successful in making inferences about that kind of thing.

It’s really easy (for me, at least) to imagine this as a sort of algorithm-generating process that continuously takes A-propositions from perceptions, runs them through sets of rules, then tests the resulting Q-propositions against perceptions. Those algorithms that result in high “accordance” rates get weighted up and preferentially used. Those that don’t get weighted down and eventually wither away. If such a process occurs unconsciously and is repeated over years and years, even at early stages of an organism’s life, the adult organism would probably end up intuiting that the successful algorithms are “just true in themselves”. And if the external environment is perceptually consistent enough – if there is, in philosophical parlance, a metaphysical basis for the concordance between inferences and perceptions – those algorithms are going to be both easily discovered and widely applicable, given the right kind of hardware.

UPDATE: A recent review of Mind and Cosmos from John Dupré at Exeter contains a wonderful summary of the physicalist stance:

So here is the first problem. Reductionism can be understood as a metaphysical thesis, typically based on an argument that if there is only material stuff in the world (no spooky stuff), then the properties of stuff must ultimately explain everything. This is a controversial thesis, much debated by philosophers. But what the last 50 years of work in the philosophy of science has established is that this kind of reductionism has little relevance to science. Even if it turned out that most scientists believed something like this (which I find incredible) this would be a psychological oddity, not a deep insight about science. A more sensible materialism goes no further than the rejection of spooky stuff: whatever kinds of stuff there may turn out to be and whatever they turn out to do, they are, as long as this turning out is empirically grounded, ipso facto not spooky. Such a materialism is quite untouched by Nagel’s arguments.

I think critics of physicalism find this sort of stance to be extremely frustrating. If physical = non-spooky, then it could be said that everything we have a coherent theory of is physical, and that everything that seems spooky now will eventually be considered physical when we have a coherent theory of it. The only way for a critic to keep something permanently non-physical is to argue that no coherent scientific theory of it is possible (which is kind of what Nagel is trying to do with subjective experience and value judgements).