Eating dog food in the long driveway
or a stray french fry exposed by the upturned trash can,
do they feel the echo of the cottonwood and sycamore,
which was their verdant home
before development made them thrive?
Do they not miss the old growth forests,
standing with knees bent, claws gripping the bark,
the yellow halo surrounding their disdainful eye,
their sharp black beak,
and the slender shining judges robes
which swell into a feathered porcupine of justice,
addressing the little brown wrens and chipmunks,
frozen with seeds and nuts in hand?
Here they must scream to be recognized,
millions of them, at dusk
collecting on the power lines and bare limbs downtown
like black leaves in a racing imitation of spring.
Tourists gasp and regulars speak louder over
their cacophonous symphony,
the rusty gates of their harsh introduction
and the roar of their concurrent clacks,
a percussive mimic of sunset.
Today I saw a grackle on the pavement
his wings tucked close like a shawl
his head and collar was murky
blue and green like a deep pool
in the jungle, and his eyes were closed
like small crescents of darkened moon.
And suddenly he did not look like any other black bird
he is often mistaken for.
The raven and the crow
are both detested and revered,
for the way they perch eerily,
invoking Poe’s stormy nights,
and the rough shrewd care for an infant
Dalai Lama, swooping in for missing parents.
All the grackle has,
is its harsh eye and that voice,
like old papers blowing around in the creaking attic, or
bones breaking, or
two sheets of metal rubbed together, or
a machinegun, or fireworks, or an earthquake.
And when they gather at nightfall, it is to tell you
that once, before you were born,
and your ancestors addicted them to wide open space and grain,
they were kings,
and this is the sound of war.
I haven't been writing here. I was beginning to feel guilty, but a number of things have made me reconsider.
I haven't been reading much lately and I'm relatively fine with this. I've been very busy. I moved back to Texas, transferred to a new school, and I've been doing a lot of programming. I'm working on a strategy game and I may turn this space into a development journal for that if I have time to keep working on it over the summer. I believe I invented a new algorithm for generating realistic maps for games, and some time soon I'll write about that.
I've also undergone a number of subtle changes in attitude. To sum things up too quickly, some recent events have made me realize that I don't particularly care if I am ever part of the "blogging community" especially the one I'd previously been attracted to. My attitude toward philosophy as it's practiced in modern academic settings is in the process of shifting, and I'm beginning to think of my outsider status as a good thing. In short, I'm changing.
So I'll keep writing about books only now I don't care if anyone reads what I write. This is just for me now, if anyone happens to read it, they will have to put up with my pace and what I want to write about.
I just finished On Intelligence
by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee. While I enjoyed it a lot, I don't have a great deal to say about it right now. My thoughts will have to work themselves out slowly.
The central tenet of the book is that "prediction" can be said to occur on basically all neurological levels and that it's the basis of understanding. To build mental models of parts of the world, what we need is to be able to predict how they will behave in our experience. I agree and I feel that this is a pretty good place to locate an intersection between evolutionary theory and pragmatism. More thoughts on this subject will have to wait for another time.
I'd recommend the book for light reading. It could easily be read in a day. I took several days to finish it because I got stuck on a section in the "How The Cortex Works" chapter. This part involves a hierarchy of cortical columns ("higher" and "lower" regions), each of which is made up of a confusingly connected series of layers (which are also referred to with the "higher" and "lower" terminology). I didn't like the diagrams in the book, so I drew my own diagram of the structure of a cortical column, which after an iteration or two ended up looking something like the following:
It's missing a few details, but imagine trying to get a mental picture of that from a description and you can see why this section threw me for a loop.
Later I'll write about another thing that threw me off, but I have to meditate on it for a while first.
Things I liked:
- The Memory-Prediction framework. I haven't really written much about it but I anticipate it'll be coming up in my thought and discussions of other things soon.
- Learning about the Neocortex and general brain structure.
- Mountcastle's theory about a common cortical algorithm.
- Invariant representations. Add one more thing to the list of reasons to suspect cognition has a sort of metaphor as a basis.
- Treatment of sensory data as abstract patterns & the hierarchical structuring of pattern recognition.
- I was forced to think about how neural processing works & finally got a glimpse of what Hebbian learning is all about.
- The section near the end on differences between animal and human thought points in the right direction. It also contains an E. Coli thought experiment that's very similar to one from Stuart Kauffman's Investigations. I wonder if that's coincidence or influence.
Things I didn't:
- Though I think prediction of a sort is a huge part of cognitive function, the theory at hand seems try to render very important and complex aspects of intelligence as small problems to be worked out later. In the early part of the book the author spends quite some time explaining why intelligence has nothing to do with outward behavior. I suppose this is why the explanation of the brain's generation of outward behavior is so inadequate. I'll need to hear a lot more about how the memory-prediction model generates outward behavior to be convinced that it does. Also, I'd like to hear more about abstract reasoning. Maybe I've missed something here, but it seems like there's quite a bit that needs to be elaborated on before we can call the memory-prediction framework a total theory of intelligence.
- Since it's for popular audiences, it doesn't really get into details much. This is a problem with many of the books I've been reading lately, and I guess it's somewhat hypocritical to complain, as I've been specifically selecting books that I could read quickly.
- It seems that one of the reasons it doesn't get into details is that the theory presented in the book is very hypothetical. There are too many "we don't really know much about this" or "some neuroscientists would disagree but trust me" moments. I would like concrete models that I could play with but maybe they're just not available at this stage.
- I haven't really been able to find much discussion of the theory in question in other places. Though I like the theory I don't have any opinions about it other scientists, so I don't really know how to evaluate it as a claim to truth. As is pretty clear at the end of the book, there's quite a bit of work to be done before this is possible.
- It sets of my teleological and anthropomorphic interpretation detectors quite a bit, though when developing a semantic account of the function of brain structures for popular audiences, maybe there's no getting around this.
- It kind of loses focus near the end and starts going on with weird and questionable sections on creativity and consciousness. I suppose these sections are designed to suppress the horrific flow of reader mail there would be without them.
P.S. Invariably the "Things I didn't" list is longer than the "Things I liked" list, even though I definitely liked this book as a whole. I try to remain very critical and often the reasons to remain critical of a book are easier to describe than the impact it had on my thought processes as a whole. This is particularly evident in this post.
Labels: book review
I've been busy
Sorry for the lack of posts. I've been away for a while, and since I've returned I've been busy with various other things. I have these fits where I can do nothing but write computer programs. When I get further along in what I'm working on, I'll post about it here. I'm half way through a book on Wittgenstein, and I'm still preparing for my post on structuralism.
I watched The Science of Sleep
tonight which was a great movie which was hard to watch, given how susceptible I am to derealization, and how the main character does nothing but make mistakes.
I'm in New York City with a very spotty internet connection. I'll be gone for a few days. Expect much talk of structuralism when I get back.
Speaking of numbered lists:
- I'm taking another pass at continental philosophy. While some continental people have effected me a lot (Nietzsche), I too quickly dismissed others in my early years as essentially nonsensical, and I'm revisiting them to find out why some folks seem to see so much in them that I don't. I'm always trying to broaden my horizons, but I worry that the things I'm committed to (a certain form of physicalism) may not be commensurable with the objects of my study. Am I going to gain anything here?
- I've been thinking I'd learn another programming language. For practical purposes, my heart belongs to Python, but I'd like to learn a little more about programming theory. LISP seems to be a pretty good place to start, but Common LISP or Scheme? And for that matter, maybe a functional language (Haskell?) would be good; I'd like to learn more about lambda calculus.
- I wonder if I should I change the name of my blog. It's a lyric from the Orchid song "Snow Delay at the Frankfurt School" so it forms a kind of a cryptic reference to critical theory and the revolutionary politics that formed a big part of my intellectual development. Still, at the moment I'm going through a lot of turmoil politically, and I'm using this blog primarily for rather apolitical book reviews. Maybe this isn't the best place to be representin' as they say.
- This isn't a question at all, but for years I've been unreasonably obsessed with the Orchid album Chaos is Me/Dance Tonight! Revolution Tomorrow! and I just started playing it again. I think that if you can stand a band that quotes critical theory in songs made of pure chaos, you should check it out. Sometime I'd like to do a song for song explanation of why I think this album is so great.
What I'm reading
I've managed to shed nearly all the books I own over the past year or so. I gave most of my favorites to my lovely girlfriend, and so I consider these hers even though I still have access to them and I don't suspect she'll get around to reading them before she rounds out her to-do list by learning Hebrew and becoming an astronaut. When I moved up here, I left the rest of my books in the care of some people who will probably end up selling them (which I think I'm at peace with except for the tiny 1918 Modern Library edition of The Genealogy of Morals
So I've thrown myself on the mercy of the library.
As a new feature here at When We Move, I'm going to start writing about not only all the books I read, but in fact all the books I have signified my intentions of reading through the act of possession
. That is, I'll report on what I've checked out from the library, when I'm in the middle of a lot of things. A simple list would do just fine, but why not give it the extra 35% and adorn each item with a few notes.
- Shoenfield, Joseph R. Mathematical Logic. Being more familiar with the use of symbolic logic in mathematics never hurts, and I suspect I'll need it when I inaugurate my research project on the history of the idea of the formal system. Progress: 14/344 terse symbol filled pages.
- Chaitin, Gregory J. Meta Math! The Quest for Omega. Part of my "why not read everything by Gregory Chaitin" series. This one's for popular audiences. No LISP, but longer than the rest. Progress: Haven't opened it.
- Chaitin, Gregory J. The Limits of Mathematics. Algorithmic Information Theory. Not for popular audiences. Rife with LISP code, but short. Progress: Virtually none.
- Larson/Hostetler. Precalculus. Heh. I read about set theory, category theory, model theory, graph theory, topology, game theory, incompleteness, computational complexity, algorithmic information theory, probability theory, analysis, mathematical logic and combinatorics. My dark secret: I taught myself trigonometry and I'm terrible at it.
- Campbell, Jeremy. Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life. There's a serial comma in the title, which a consider a plus. Progress: I started this but got weirded out by the difference between (presumably) Shannon's wishy-washy interpretation of information content and Kolmogorov complexity. Maybe I'll pick it up again soon.
- Kenny, Anthony. Wittgenstein. I'm thinking about Wittgenstein again, I'm probably going to read PI sometime soon. I tend to try to surround my reading of primary sources with readings of lighter interpretive works, to get myself in the right frame of mind. Progress: I'm through the introduction.
- Pears, David. Ludwig Wittgenstein. See above. I haven't opened it yet.
- Rée, Jonathan. Heidegger. I've been trying to get closer to understanding Heidegger. There's no way I'm reading Being and Time unless I know it's going to be productive. I picked up a few introductory books to get a better handle on the situation. This one is tiny! Progress: I'm 10 pages into it which is like a fifth of the whole book. I haven't started either of the others.
- Inwood, Michael. Heidegger. See above. Apparently the same author wrote the VSI volume on Heidegger. I love the VSI series.
- Clark, Timothy. Martin Heidegger. See above, only with an emphasis on literary studies, as it's part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series.
- Plant, Raymond. Hegel. Another tiny book from the same series as the Heidegger one above. My only understanding of the dialectic comes from studying Marx. So I have questions. Progress: Zero.
- Hawkes, Terrence. Structuralism & Semiotics. I'm approaching structuralism again, as I got a muddled account of it in my introduction to anthropology class. Progress: I OD'd on introductions to Saussure near the beginning and haven't picked it up again yet.
- Nishioka, Hayward. Foot Throws: Karate, Judo and Self-Defense. I've been re-training, and I thought I might learn some throws as the style of Kung Fu I practiced is pretty percussive and, well, it's much easier to kick someone once you've thrown them on the ground. I'm martial-arts-illustrative-picture illiterate or something though; I can never read the motion of the move from the pictures. Progress: Virtually none, it'll probably be returned.
Plus everything I've reviewed here (I admit I'm lazy about returning things.) As you can see, I'm not more than a few pages into anything but I'm working on a lot.
Labels: library list
Thoughts on Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought
Tasić, Vladimir. Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought
. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 189 pages.
For a book that references the Sokal affair on the first page, this is a pretty illuminating look at "postmodernism". Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought
attempts to establish parallels between postmodern thought and the foundational controversies that occurred in mathematics around a century ago. It goes about this primarily by drawing connections between postmodern concepts and the ideas that came about due to the clash of formalism and intuitionism in the mathematical community, and by suggesting historical lines of intellectual influence between the players on both sides. The latter method is at times surprising but often sort of sketchy. This doesn't particularly bother me, as the historical and conceptual lens offered by the book is productive in some ways, regardless of how pronounced the actual influences between actors were.
The subject matter made the book somewhat difficult for me. The thought of Husserl, Heidegger and those influenced by them is of a style rather orthogonal to mine, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book to begin with. It's good to come at dense subjects by way of ones that you are more familiar with. Unfortunately for me, the book is more interested in using Heidegger and Husserl to get at more postmodern types in a genealogical manner than it is in shedding light on them in particular. Consequently, some passages left me straining to follow the train of thought.
Nevertheless, I found some aspects of Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought
problematic for their own reasons. It’s obviously and admittedly oversimplified. I didn't find the first few chapters particularly illuminating, and the introduction to Saussure is very unwieldy. It's not entirely clear on first reading whether the author uses Wittgenstein to get at postmodern types or whether he strangely considers Wittgenstein a postmodern philosopher.
Despite the author's warnings that he won't criticize his subjects for being derivative of romantics or mathematical theorists in ways that he can't conclusively prove, this seems to be exactly what he does in the end. The final section seems to condemn postmodern types for not being aware of the roots to which the author has hypothetically attributed to them. This isn't a very convincing criticism to me.
Regardless of his criticisms, at a certain level the author seems to share some assumptions with his subjects. A sort of Platonism is rampant among math people, which actually makes it easier for them to digest the strange sorts of hypothetical entities that seem to permeate postmodern thought. I would prefer a more thorough scientific naturalism but that's probably asking too much given the subject. Still, there's a superfluous argument against AI that's ridiculous.
Don't think that I wouldn't recommend the book. In many cases criticism is more interesting to write than praise. This book didn't inspire any great revelations on my part, but once it got started it was definitely interesting. This was a little bit deeper than the stuff I've been reading lately and it took me a while to get through, but it's inspired me to get serious about the parts of continental philosophy that I've never really understood.
Where I've been & where I'll be
I haven't been reading much in the last couple days because I've been busy: I'm doing my taxes, participating in some interesting discussions
about the possibility of conservative literary studies, and writing a short story based on a logical paradox and a particular interpretation of inflationary cosmology, in the style of Jorge Luis Borges, which I'll probably post here when I'm done with it. I did read a comic book which I'll maybe review sometime if I finish the series, though I doubt it's really worth the effort. I may be wrapped up in these projects for a few days.
Why I write & thoughts on Tools for Thought
, C. H. Tools for Thought: How to Understand and Apply the Latest Scientific Techniques of Problem Solving
. New York: Basic Books, 1977. 250 pages.
My return here is essentially due to a New Years resolution. I'm proud of my image among my friends, because it seems to be pretty similar to the way I'd like to think of myself. I'd like to believe that I am a kind of rogue scholar, boundless in erudition, devouring books with all my spare time. That hasn't really been the case. I've wasted a lot of time over the last few years, and that's something I regret. So in an effort to become something more similar to the person I'd like to think of myself as, I decided to read as much as I could this year. This started with a simple idea: I'd read as many books as I could and keep track of my progress in some way. Pretty quickly I remembered that I also wanted to write more and I realized I could use this space to both keep track of my reading and force myself to write. So far it's been working pretty well, though my original goal of "read a large number of books" is in the process of transforming to "spend a large amount of time reading" because I found myself gravitating away from anything which would take too much time. I've also been working on developing a set of operating guidelines to keep me making progress. One of these is essentially "finish what you start", as in the past I've been rather bad about abandoning books about a third of the way through.
I recently came across a book that thwarted my attempts to finish it. The book in question is C. H. Waddington's Tools for Thought
. I found it very promising initially. The table of contents has entries about complex systems, game theory, information theory and a few other things which are right up my alley. Plus, flipping through it, I saw that many concepts are illustrated appealingly in a style reminiscent
of East Asian calligraphy. Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to its initial
appeal. The author shies away from technical detail to the point of fault. Each section covers some ideas in a rather vague and unspecific way, giving the reader almost no indication of exactly what the "tool" under discussion actually is or how one might practically use it. He explicitly glosses over or just leaves out anything even remotely complicated and warns us beforehand when he approaches anything that he may need to use a technical tool (such as a "number") to explain.
I'm not totally comfortable saying outright that this book is bad. A great deal of this caution may be related to the fact that many of the ideas he does attempt to tackle were very new at the time, and Waddington
was certainly targeting
a popular audience, but this doesn't make the book particularly readable today. It's pretty outdated, and the author says strange things about some fields and gently condemns others (he has very little enthusiasm for "statistics".) There's an amusing quote about a "typical view of city traffic around 1995" that includes free and publicly available cube shaped electric cars. I gave up pretty close to that. This may have been better when it was written but it's not worth reading now, and it's caused me to revise my "finish what you start" policy into something like "finish what you can".
Labels: about, book review
Chaitin Series: Conversations with a Mathematician
Chaitin, Gregory J. Conversations with a Mathematician: Math, Art, Science and the Limits of Reason
. London: Springer-Verlag, 2002.
I've been reading a lot about Gregory Chaitin
lately, for various reasons. I find his mathematical work pretty admirable on its own and algorithmic information theory plays a pretty big part in my developing account of epistemology. The mathematics library around here has basically all of his books, so I figured I'd inaugurate a "Chaitin Series" and get through as many as I could (some of them seem pretty LISP heavy, which isn't much fun for light reading, but I'll try.)
So yesterday I finished Conversations with a Mathematician
, which is a collection of interviews with and lectures by Chaitin. It's apparently available on his website, so I've linked to it up top. I found it pretty enjoyable overall. It definitely stays close to the light reading territory and so it doesn't really need a huge review. Chaitin mostly explains his work in mathematics as well as some of the philosophical implications he draws from his results. He certainly seems to be acquainted with philosophy, but most of this is pretty "armchair" in tone. That's not to say it's problem, I don't consider him obligated to be interested in the things I am, to the degree I am. He gestures towards a lot of stuff I'd like to be serious about like a mathematical theory of evolution, and information theoretical epistemology, but this means that I get to be the one who investigates this stuff. He's coming to a philosophy of mathematics that would render it as a quasi-empirical science, which I am tentatively comfortable with. Much of the book is devoted to slightly more personal topics like what being a mathematician is like. Some of his remarks about the nature of insight and the evolution of science are poetically spot-on.
There are a few problems. One is that since for each lecture and interview, he has to cover some basic ground, the book tends to be pretty redundant. It's skimable
and short so there's not too big of a problem there. He switches back and forth a couple times between being overly cautious with the mathematics (like providing footnotes that explain what a real number is, as if he had a huge audience outside of the group of people who took algebra in high school) and occasionally blowing through some relatively hard to understand parts without much explanatory detail. Still, it's an entertaining read and it's pretty short, so I'd recommend it if you want a very light introduction to some of Gregory Chaitin's ideas or some thoughtful musings about what it means to do mathematics.
Labels: book review, gregory chaitin
Thoughts on Beginning Theory
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory
edition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. 290 pages.
As someone who is very concerned with the processes, possibilities and character of interpretation, I'm naturally drawn toward literary theory. I confess, I am significantly more drawn to theory than to most of the typical objects of literary criticism. I've been a non-fiction reader for a long time, though my reading list this year seems to show signs of easing on that stance. My diet consists mainly of a large volume and variety of pure theory.
However, when it comes to literary theory in particular (the kind of theory which, along with the thought of various figures associated with contemporary philosophy and anthropology, tends to be labelled simply "Theory") I'm an outsider. This isn't necessarily a choice of mine. I'd say that there are at least two factors in this. One is simply that I'm on my own here, given that I'm not part of a community that I can learn from (at least not very easily) and I can't take a class right now. Over the years that I've been (mostly) apart from academic institutions, I've been developing ways of getting into hard subjects on my own. Often brief treatments of entire subjects can be found in relatively small volumes. I've become a collector of these types of books. I can get through them easily and get a pretty good idea about the nature and value of the concepts involved in the discipline at hand, as well as a pretty good idea about what kind of thing to pick up when I want further information. Literary theory presents a challenge here, simply because it's a subject where there's quite a lot of fundamental disagreement, particularly about ideological
issues. It's hard to be sure, when picking up an introductory level literary theory book, that you're not going to get idiosyncratic interpretations of certain branches of thought that may not prepare you for further reading.
The second thing that's held me, and many others before me, back is that literary criticism has developed several sometimes quite abstruse ways of using language and dealing with concepts. I'm coming to realize that various scientists and mathematicians have had the biggest role in the formation of my perspective, and given this background (considering the antagonism between scientists, mathematicians and the people associated with Theory) I'm simply not yet equipped to translate the writing of, say, Derrida, into anything even remotely approaching sense.Beginning Theory
seems to have been written with someone much like me in mind. That's probably the most important thing to say about it. It's structured in exactly the way that someone looking for a relatively systematic breakdown of a field would benefit from. Some introductions to literary theory try to "show" and not "tell" by adopting some of the modes and concepts of criticism in the writing of the text. One of the criticisms I can imagine this text drawing is that it isn't written in a style very befitting of those who it describes, but I think this text actually makes the subject material more accessible
to outsiders by doing more "telling"than "showing".
As someone who is still something of a beginner to the field, I can't say with certainty whether the book is entirely accurate or strays away from particularly idiosyncratic perspectives. What I can say is essentially that I get a very good feeling from it. As I said before, it's clear throughout and definitely written for the benefit of people who are not already accustomed to the writing styles of say, the post-structuralists. It's definitely more about literary theory than cultural theory, though cultural theorists are certainly discussed, they're usually brought up in relation to the effect they've had on literary critics. Still, it seems to be pretty wide ranging, not focusing just on a single school, but including methods not usually written about, such as stylistics, and it comes across pretty even handed, as I wasn't able to detect a clear preference towards or bias against any particular strands.
I'm not totally new to most of the topics in the book, but in the past I've found many of them pretty confusing, for want of a good way into the study of them. Some light was shed on things that I had trouble with before, such as psychoanalytic criticism
, and deconstruction. Though I'm sure these subjects suffer from simplification, now I have a good idea of how to approach them where to go when I want to learn more. One of the most important things I gained from the book was simply the ability to tell the difference between things like new historicism
, cultural materialism and Marxist criticism.
I keep catching myself trying to show a great deal of caution in my enthusiasm here. I think this is because I'm naturally distrustful of books of this sort. "Theory" people, in my experience, really appreciate the irreducible complexity of things and are naturally distrustful towards simplifications, grand narratives and anything essentialising
. It follows that they'd be suspicious of a book that attempts to tackle several complex fields and sum them up in a number of small pages, and this makes me suspicious for various reasons. If irreducible
complexity and mistrust for essentialism
are such an important part of literary theory, then why try to present the simple essentials, why not just throw students in the thick of things to show them what it's really
like? The answer I'd like to give is that some of them won't gain anything that way. Some of us learn in a very global way; we have to get a very wide perspective before we can proceed to the details. This perspective may be in some ways essentializing
, distorted and oversimplified but it's temporary
; it's a scaffolding we can use to build a more nuanced and complex understanding. Not all "scientist types" are hostile to "Theory", or are advancing some authoritarian agenda of crushing uniformity and antagonism toward complexity. They just don't have a very good way in.
That's why I ultimately admire this book, it seems like it's a good way in to the study of literary theory for someone like me. At nearly three hundred pages, it's not an afternoon read, but it's split into pretty much self-contained sections that don't have to be read in any particular order, so it's digestible. Each section also ends in a recommended reading list, which is worth the recommendation alone.
Labels: book review
Short Review: DMZ, Pride of Baghdad
Wood, Brian (writer, artist), Burchielli
, Riccardo (artist). "On The Ground" & "Body of a Journalist". DMZ
#1-12. Vertigo, 2005-.
I recently got back into reading comics almost entirely by chance (by which I mean Wikipedia
or course.) DMZ has been my first foray back into graphic fiction, and on the whole it's been very enjoyable. The
story takes place amid a modern civil war in the United States. Three years before the start of the comic, an organization (or perhaps an anarchic sort of loose federation) called the Free States rose up against the U.S. government. The fighting was not localized, but quickly came to a standstill around Manhattan, which became a demilitarized zone (hence DMZ) which neither the Free States nor the U.S. Government occupy. Further details about the war are somewhat sketchy, which is a little bothersome
. The author (Brian Wood) seems to imply that the Free States are composed largely of preexisting militias, which would seem relatively right wing, but he occasionally seems to link them to more liberal issues like anger about post 9/11 U.S. foreign policy. Significant elaboration is generally avoided, which I didn't like at first, but I've slowly realized that the political situation that caused the war is not the primary focus of the story. Instead, the story is focused on the residents of the war torn Manhattan.
DMZ is rather journalistic in tone at times, which is understandable, as the main character is Matt Roth, a young photojournalist. In the beginning of the story, he's thrown rather unexpectedly into chaos and fighting in Manhattan as an outsider, but he slowly makes a home for himself there as the issues progress. Wood spends quite a bit of time showing how every aspect of the city has been transformed by war, from the psychological effects on the residents themselves, to the ways that communities have both been destroyed and have sprung up out of the ruins, to the sheer physical destruction of the landscape. The art, which I can't believe I haven't mentioned yet, is amazing and is a crucial part of the story, as it definitely gives events an impact they wouldn't have without a visual component.
I'm interested in why the author chose to tell the story the way he has. He certainly has a political point to make, as the U.S. Government and the media are portrayed in a very, very dim light. Still, he doesn't concentrate on the wider political concerns enough to make this the main focus of the story. I suspect that there is a dual purpose in concentrating on the personal aspect of the way the war has had an effect on the residents of Manhattan.
The first purpose seems to be to bring war closer to home in the most literal way possible. Certainly the scenes of urban destruction and faction warfare have been inspired in a large way by what's going on in Iraq right now. In the story arc I've just started ("Public Works", starting with issue #13) terrorism, including suicide bombing, is made an explicit issue, as the main character manages to infiltrate a cell. These scenes seem to be engineered to prevent us from being able to so clearly think of both the perpetrators and the victims of these acts as always "others" who live in very different worlds from us. The imagery of Americans living in the same kind of war-torn conditions we hear about in the countries we invade seems to be very targetted.
Secondly, a cautiously hopeful message about the possibility of human cooperation seems to seep out from the cracks of the destroyed and violent city. At times it's anarchistic in tone: the art scene on the island is portrayed as flourishing, money has been largely abandoned, people cooperate and there are vegan restaurants. A group of paramilitary environmentalists guards
the central park zoo and runs it as an eco
-friendly bamboo farm. This is undercut, of course, by the constant violence of faction warfare and the prevalence of paranoia. Still, most of the problems on the island are portrayed as being caused by forces clinging to concepts of private property and hierarchies
of power, whether these are large forces from the outside (like the U.S. Government and perhaps the Free States) or smaller internal ones such as the various street gangs or paranoid snipers who hole themselves off in buildings they've claimed.
Ultimately DMZ is pretty compelling. While the visual format is definitely crucial to the story, I think the episodic nature of the short issue comic books that it's published in is somewhat detracting. The art, and the social ecosystem of the island are so detailed that in comparison the stories sometimes seem a little compressed. Still, I'd definitely recommend it.
Vaughn, Brian K. (writer), Henrichon
, Niko (artist). Pride of Baghdad
. Vertigo, 2006. 136 pages.
Speaking of political, post-9/11 comics, I also just read Pride of Baghdad. It's okay. The story is a dramatization of the real life escape of a pride of lions from the Baghdad zoo during the bombing of Baghdad. The art is good but I've been a little spoiled by DMZ. The tone is a Lion King for grown ups type of thing, with really cheesy animal hijinx interspersed
with much more serious and unsettling moments. I didn't read very far into the metaphor of the escaped animals as the Iraqi people because, firstly, that's kind of ridiculous given that other nationalities are portrayed as humans, and secondly because it's hard to tell where the metaphor stops and the politics specific to a pride of lions begin. The end is sudden and painfully moralistic. I
should read this again because I suspect it may be deeper than I gave it credit for upon initially reading it, but I'm not really compelled to.
Labels: book review, comics
Thoughts on The Systems View of the World
, Erwin. The Systems View of the World
. New York: George Braziller
, 1972. 131 pages.
A few years ago, I really needed this book. The Systems View of the World
is very close to a perspective which was productive in my thought as a young scholar. I was certainly not as articulate as the author and I would've liked to have had something to recommend to others.
The book feels a little light, though I suppose the topic doesn't leave much room for data, as the tools Laszlo
offers are not so much predictive as interpretive, and in the end its lightness proves to be an advantage. The idea is one that now seems relatively commonplace: that complex systems (economies, ecosystems, living beings) seem to exhibit similar characteristics of self-organization. Laszlo
isn't the originator of such concepts (Bertalanffy's
general systems theory is credited in the book) but he does a very good job of explaining the advantages of the systems theory perspective in heavily humanistic terms.
From a philosophical perspective, it comes off a little naive, though still very interesting. The whole thing still seems to suffer from an inherent teleology, but in a certain way that's its power. The view described by Laszlo
is a very good way of getting a perspective on complex systems. I'm not sure how rigorous the systems perspective he describes will ultimately turn out to be, and I'm not prepared to chime in regarding holism vs. reductionism right now. I do think that the systems perspective is a very good one, and one which is useful for recognizing that to study the properties of trees doesn't always give one a good picture of the forest.
I think that some things we know now complicate the author's hopeful outlook for the systems theory perspective. I'm no expert on the field, but while I was reading this book I couldn't help but wonder if systems theory and chaos theory formed a kind of thesis-antithesis relation, which is slowly synthesizing
into the study of "complexity theory" (for lack of an agreed upon description of what's going on at places like the Santa Fe Institute.) Laszlo
seems hopeful that as the concepts he sketches out become more precise, more concrete results will arise. Chaos theory showed us that though complex systems do tend to follow broad patterns, these patterns can't give us precise predictions about the behavior of the system. Low level interactions can result in chaotic behavior at higher levels and break down the usefulness of our teleological hierarchization
of embedded systems.
To quote the book, in reference to our brains, "no system can process sufficient information to decode every aspect of another system of equal complexity". We rely on high level concepts to recognize broad patterns in extremely complex phenomena. Insomuch as large scale behavior in complex systems is sometimes contingent on low level behavior (the actions of one person in an economy, the firing of one neuron) we can't rely on high level concepts to fully predict the behavior of systems.
The people involved with "complexity theory" seem to be very much influenced by the systems theory perspective and very intent on dealing with and integrating chaos into their understandings of the behavior of such systems.
Laszlo's prose is very effective at times, particularly for a book on a somewhat scientific topic. His discussion on cultural values is interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable from an anthropological perspective and highly based on teleological observations of complex systems. I'm still grappling with whether this line of argumentation is philosophically fruitful.
Despite some small limitations, The Systems View of the World
remains an accessible introduction to a compelling semi-philosophical perspective that's been motivating some of the more interesting scientific thinkers over the better part of the last decade.
Labels: book review
G. J. Chaitin on Amazon
There's a book at the Cornell mathematics library entitled "Mathematics and the Roots of Postmodern Thought" which I was thinking of picking up. I decided to check out some reviews of it to see if it was worth my time, and I stumbled on Gregory Chaitin's Amazon profile
. Chaitin's a mathematician who did (is doing?) work on complexity that plays an important role in my thought. Chaitin seemed impressed by the book in question which made me instantly want to get it but then I remembered that he had a blurb on the back of Gödel: A Life of Logic
, which I thought was rather poorly written in some places (but did contain an overview of Chaitin's work.) Reading his profile made me feel a little like a voyeur. He's done seven reviews, one of which was of a book he wrote, another of a book he contributed to, and one of a book that I suspect mentions him. Also, there's this one
, which seems to be the odd-one-out. He has a wish list too! It contains one book, an introduction to calculus. How strange.
The Amazon profile, though certainly public, is strangely personal in some ways. You never expect someone to actually look at it. It's weird to run into one owned by someone who I've only thought about with reference to their serious academic work, and to see him talking about himself and recommending novels that made him cry. Still, I'm totally tempted to check out the books he points to.
I'm picking this thing back up again. I periodically attempt blogging and always fail, but I have a good purpose for this thing now, which is to document my readings this year. I think my only new years resolution was to read more consistantly this year than ever before. I'm trying to average at least a book a week. I've been reading a lot of short popular science books (on inflationary cosmology, Kurt Gödel, etc) as of late and I've discovered that I enjoy them a lot, even though they're not quite as deep as the stuff I need to be reading more of. I'm going to start reviewing them shortly.
Regarding Perspective, Boxing
I was going to reflect on what I've been doing for the last few days but I felt that I was veering away from the sort of topics on which I'd like to concentrate. I'd like to write a lot less about me
, than about other things
. I'm often led away from this goal by my style of writing, which I find unfortunate. "Formal" is the word I'd like associated with the vocabulary I make use of and the ways I put grammar to work for me, possibly accompanied by "terse", focusing on the "effective" component of this word, though I would perhaps do well to concentrate more on the "short". Secretly, I would also settle for "old-fashioned".
However, my ambitions in this regard are somewhat stunted by my inability to escape from a personal perspective. I am, of course, quite capable of writing without asserting how statements relate to me, but I don't particularly like it. It feels somehow less truthful to produce writing which is "disembodied" from me. All writing, except the algorithmically generated, is a product of someone and a product of their perspective. It seems rather disingenuous to me to write as though that's not true. I feel the need to take responsibility for my claims as products of myself and my beliefs and goals, rather than posit them as disembodied facts.
I see this as a byproduct of a certain sort of intellectual hygiene; it is the inverse of the act of remembering to evaluate one's sources of information. Everything you read, from a scholarly paper to the packaging of products, was written by someone
for a reason
: this is important to keep in mind. Thus, I try to remain present
in my writing.
Onward: Boxing. I am somewhat fascinated by it. I can't say I'm a boxing fan
, because the things that go along with that are not true of me. I don't know who beat who and when. What limited experience I have had with boxing has rendered it an intriguing subject. I've truly "boxed" only once before, though even that is questionable because I was unsure of how serious my opponent was and the "match" ended in a single blow that left me with a small concussion. Let this not be an indicator that I am unfamiliar with combat. I practiced a certain brand of Northern Shaolin Kung Fu for a while and I've very loosely kept in practice in the years since I discontinued my training. However, sparring is very different from boxing in a number of ways, which I think directly translate into the differences between boxers and other martial artists.
To begin with, sparring is very much more like play
as I understand it. The "play" in sparring functions equally through the various senses of the word. Sparring is very obviously a game of sorts, like a sort of forceful asynchronous version of tag
. Additionally, I always felt that sparring had a certain amusing, experimental quality to it, that is characteristic of play. My opponent and I found the ways in which our bodies could interact with one another, given our styles and capabilities, and the nature of the rules of sparring. In this way it's like a conversation. We are both versed in a language of movement, though our vocabularies may differ slightly and certainly our grammar
does. We construct sentences of movement with one another, reacting to the tone of the other's stance and the well placed points they've composed out of the punches, kicks and blocks that are the linguistic units of our playful violence. We try to guide the conversation in the direction we'd like.
I've found that it's become very hard for me to associate the idea of violence with the type of fighting I do when I practice martial arts. Boxing is largely different. It's very clear that violence is a part of boxing, though it's a very strange, selective sort of violence. It obviously acknowledges the methods of violence, or at least a symbolic cross-section of them, and it does seem to acknowledge the psychological feeling of power
that is an important component of the acts of violence, but it does not (often) acknowledge the component of emotional malevolence
that has traditionally motivated intentional personal violence. I imagine that this is actually common, that societies other than my own, perhaps significantly less industrialized ones, have many forms of ritualized combat which are actually quite violent, however I can't help but see this as a metaphor for much of my own society. Men (and women) are made opponents of one another by the system they participate in, not due to any specific personal animosity between one another or often even a tangible conflict of resources. Boxing fascinates me because it is violence for the sake of itself as a cultural structure. On this subject, I could write very much more than most people would enjoy reading. Alas, I feel that the link between boxing
has probably been thoroughly explored before.
What really interests me about boxing is the technique
of it. There's a pattern I'm noticing among things that I love, that boxing fits. It's the use of constraint to more thoroughly and creatively explore a possibility space
. I don't mean this in the "let's see if I can write a novel while omitting a single letter" sense, though that sort of thinking has produced some interesting works. I mean defining a very particular domain within which to conduct a series
of investigations regarding the possibilities of expression within that domain. I don't know exactly why the idea of a series of investigations is important to me, though I get a certain iterative
feeling from the things that I indicate are illustrative of this concept. It is perhaps linked with the idea of the process of exploration of the possibility space rather than a single foray into it, the development of techniques in doing so and the recognition of patterns within the space you are working in, which often result from the shape of the space that is created through constraint. Particularly, I find that there's a point where a certain balance is found, based on the nature of the constraint.
This is why I enjoy the solo piano works of the various composers more than their orchestral work, it's why I enjoy Orchid's Dance Tonight! Revolution Tomorrow!/Chaos Is Me so much, and to a large extent, why I embrace certain forms of modern art so much. It's why I like boxing. It seems to me that there's a fine line between something that can be studied as a science, something that can be charted by rigorous study, mathematically modeled with combinatorics, and something that is deep in the domain of art, something impossible to map out or even comprehend without a deep experiential appreciation of the elusive patterns within it. Along this phase change, there are fields with properties of both the scientific and the artistic: they are limited in scope enough to allow for a manageable study of them without the possibility of a complete statement of their entire space of possibility.
Boxing as it's surely been said before, is both an art and a science. The possibility space of movement is quite constrained compared to most martial arts: you can't use your legs and you can't grapple effectively, or use locks or throws or any of the fancy stuff. What this means is that the space that consists of what you can
do can be studied in a much more methodical way. The repercussions of the rules of boxing change the topology of that space to make certain things effective, collections of behaviors can be sequentially linked to make strategies and styles. Some game-theoretical variant of the no-free-lunch theorem operates on the space, preventing one style from dominating all the others (though some have come close).
You can study the topology of the space, but you can't entirely map it out. It's impossible to work out every single style of boxing and if you could find some mostly optimal strategy, how would you teach it? The practice of boxing is one that retains the qualities of an art form. It is essentially imperfectible, and a large component of it is intellectually unassailable. It has to be experienced to be learned because the patterns of it are deeper and more subtle than can easily be expressed. You can know a lot about how to box but you can't box if you don't have the feeling
That is what I like about boxing.
"And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets."
-Alex Golub in Passion for Paper
My greatest hope is that after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse (or When Society Grinds To A Halt For Lack Of Petrolium) there exists a market where that transaction makes sense from the other side also. That is to say, I hope all my stockpiled bullets and food can still be traded for something valuable
Additionally, I agree about the advantages that books gain from their embodiment and all the things that come along with that. The problems I've had with nontraditional media forms mostly stem from organizational problems. There's a distinct downside to having so much information at your fingertips sometimes. With a great density of related information it can become very hard to process into meaningful catagories, and very hard to make decisions about where to spend your time, etc. I often find myself "skimming" in these situations, unable to investigate with any real depth. My example of this comes, ironically, from a great collection of paper resources, NYU's own Bobst Library.
Bobst is a great academic library, by all measures, but something about it always bothered me. It was so much more complete than I was used to, that I could never get any real work done there. Whenever I would need information about a subject, I'd need to browse several shelves in different sections, and I'd turn up dozens and dozens of potentially helpful books. The problem was that they were all potentially helpful and I'd spend an hour or two skimming the lot of them, trying to determine what would render the most fruitful information, when probably any one of them, given a deeper reading, would render at the least information about how to narrow my search. Additionally, in a research setting, it is essential to be presented with both the resources and the time to investigate things that are tangentially related in interesting ways. Bobst presented me with too great a density of tangents. For every book I needed to read, there would be a hundred books I wanted to check out. I was pulled in too many directions and it was impossible to get anything done. In short, my search algorithm was not prepared for the breadth of information presented to me.
I often feel the same way about online resources. Though I adore Wikipedia for reasons I'll elaborate on later, it is easy to get lost in it. Often, I'm presented with too many paths that potentially render useful information and I'm left skimming over them shallowly. I appreciate a good library because of the way it allows me to find what I need in a relatively linear fashion, while providing a managable density of tangential links so that I might crawl over the network of information before me without becoming totally overwhelmed.
Anyway, check out Golublog
for more writing by Alex Golub, and Savage Minds
for more anthropological stuff from him. I've recently started reading both again, as I return from my temporary exile from academia.
Beginning in an ending
It's somewhat hard to explain why I began this, originally. I intend now, to use it as a place for my thoughts, to finally start getting them out of my head. I have very rarely been able to do this so far, due to a certain kind of perfectionism. Previously, when I wrote, I would always look back at my writing in regret later. I am cursed with the ability to see my own immaturity as a writer. Gaps in my knowledge embarrassed me endlessly. These are unavoidable, but they have made it impossible for me to write anything, knowing it wouldn't stay as current as my thoughts. I found myself in a kind of unending state of preparation
for the time in which I would feel that my thoughts were complete enough to document. This is a project to combat that lingering feeling of preemptive regret, to force myself to write about what I am learning and thinking. This, hopefully, signals the end of my preparation and the beginning of a time when I can accept the changes my thought and my ability to write go through. This is my acceptance of my public self as a process
. Incomplete logic, ill-informed opionions, immature writing and the inescapable typo, I welcome you.
"Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."