Wednesday, February 28, 2007
  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.
Monday, February 26, 2007
  Why I write & thoughts on Tools for Thought
Waddington, 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: ,

  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: ,

Sunday, February 25, 2007
  Thoughts on Beginning Theory
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 2nd 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 and interpretational 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.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007
  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: ,

Thursday, February 08, 2007
  Thoughts on The Systems View of the World
Laszlo, 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.


Wednesday, February 07, 2007
  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 Return
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.

"Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead."

When we move, it's a movement

An attempt to overcome a crippling perfectionism; an appendix-in-progress for a perpetually unwritten book. Notes on variety of subjects including but not limited to: cognition, mathematics, sociology, philosophy and art. Now with book reviews!

Regarding The Author

J.S. Nelson is a young fellow with a broad array of interests and a lot of time on his hands.

Regarding The Archives

May 2006 / February 2007 / March 2007 / April 2007 /

Regarding Others

Alex Golub
Jeff Vail - A Theory of Power
John Robb - Global Guerillas
Savage Minds
The Valve

Powered by Blogger