Tag Archives: ideas

The Evolution of Useful Things

by Henry Petroski

What really stands out for me in this book is Petroski’s assertion that form does not follow function. In the author’s words, “Here I have focused not on the physical failings of any single thing but, rather, on the implications of failure–whether physical, functional, cultural, or psychological–for form generally. This extended essay, which may be read as a refutation of the design dictum that ‘form follows function,’ has led to considerations that go beyond things themselves to the roots of the often ineffable creative processes of invention and design.”

And:

“We can find fault with any common object if we look hard enough at it. But that is not Pye’s goal, nor is it this book’s intention. Rather, the objective here is to celebrate the clever and everyday things of an imperfect world as triumphs in the face of design adversity. We will come to understand why we can speak of ‘perfected’ designs in such an environment, and why one thing follows from another through successive changes, all intended to be for the better.”

How to define design? “The distinctly human activities of invention, design, and development are themselves not so distinct as the separate words for them imply, and in their use of failure these endeavors do in fact form a continuum of activity that determines the shapes and forms of every made object.”

An example of something which will not, for the present discussion, qualify as design:

“To design or ‘redesign’ a chess set may involve some minor considerations of weight and balance in the pieces, but more often than not it is taken as a problem in aesthetics. And in the name of aesthetics many a chess set has been made more modern- or abstract-looking, if not merely different-looking, at the expense of chess players’ ability to tell the queen from the king or the knight from the bishop. Such design games are of little concern in this book.”

Fair enough. And he shares with me a love of a beautiful bookshelf:

“The typical book is now ‘perfect-bound,’ which means that its sheets are folded in signatures as before but not sewn. Rather, the signatures are gathered and stacked, and trimmed all around to a boxlike shape. Containing no thread in its folds, the stack of paper does not bulge at the spine, and so does not have to be rounded. Instead, it is ground to a rough finish, the better to receive an adhesive similar to the stuff that holds pads of paper together. This procedure was first used in binding cheap paperbacks and has now been almost universally adapted to even the most expensive hardcovers, to the dismay of many an author, reader and bibliophile. In spite of its name, perfect binding has great failings, not the least of which is that a book so bound is often badly misshapen after a single reading. The modern bookshelf is thus characterized not by a neat ripple of round-ended volumes but by a jagged surface of creased spines. When seen on end, once-read perfect-bound books are sadly skewed reminders of how form follows fortune. Even if this may be to the myopic delight of manufacturers, it can certainly be to the dismay of those who have a sense of form.”

There was some really fascinating discussion of eating utensils, and how we in the west came to eat with a fork and knife… rather than with just a knife and our fingers. But then how many tines are necessary on a fork? And does one eat ice cream with a fork? And what is a fish knife? Why won’t a regular dinner knife do when eating a fish? How much of this is fashion versus truly functional design? Petroski will sort it out for you. But again, one of the points he means to make is that the knife and fork are not the only solution to moving food to our mouths that humans have evolved. In the east, there are chopsticks, a very different solution indeed. Both forms provide the functionality needed for eating.

However, our opinions might diverge when it comes to the intersection of designed objects (technologies) and evolution:

“From a certain point of view, prehistoric life was all well and good enough for prehistoric man and woman. Indeed, the artifacts and technology then in existence played a large part in defining the nature of the era. By definition, prehistoric tools and ways were (perfectly?) adequate for getting along in the prehistoric world. The argument that technological advances were necessary to advance civilization is at best a tautology and at worst akin to the myth that necessity is the mother of invention.”

Really? Where is the horse and where is the cart, here? I can state with a certain degree of assurance that the horse came first. Then some human designer had a bright idea…

Category: design | Tags: , ,

I am a Strange Loop

by Douglas Hofstadter

I hadn’t read any Hofstadter since The Mind’s I. That title may also have been my introduction to Dan Dennett… I’m not sure if I read it or Consciousness Explained first. But anyway, in the ensuing 20 years, I have read nearly all of Dennett’s output, and the present book makes a (not so) strange loop back to Hofstadter. I suppose, based on my knowledge of their work together, that I should not have been surprised to realize at a point somewhere short of halfway through this book that Hofstadter’s theory of mind reminded me of nothing so much as Dennett’s “Multiple Drafts” model.

Hofstadter describes the definition of a self, an “I,” a soul if you must, as the core issue of his book. The reader must bear with him as he takes a few tangents into such things as video feedback, mathematics, self-driving vehicles…

“[My aim here is] to point out how widespread is the tacit assumption that the level of the most primordial physical components of a brain must also be the level at which the brain’s most complex and elusive mental properties reside. Just as many aspects of a mineral (its density, its color, its magnetism or lack thereof, its optical reflectivity, its thermal and electrical conductivity, its elasticity, its heat capacity, how fast sound spreads though it, and on and on) are properties that come from how its billions of atomic constituents interact and form high-level patterns, so mental properties of the brain reside not on the level of a single tiny constituent but on the level of vast abstract patterns involving those constituents.”

A fundamental problem for us, in grasping the I within, is the dichotomy between the macro world we live in and the micro level at which everything is actually operating. So we perceive things at the visual level as “real” while in fact what is real is what physicists would insist upon – the interactions of elementary particles. Those particles make up your brain. Which ultimately makes up your consciousness. Your I. Yourself. But Hofstadter reminds us of the impossible complexity of the world if we do not look at the world at the macroscopic level where our senses reside. We need these larger groupings, else the world becomes a buzzing hive of microscopic particles without boundaries.

Hofstadter also expresses an annoyed dissatisfaction with philosophers of mind such as John Searle, who insist that computers can only simulate “real life” but not exhibit or experience it themselves. Hofstadter believes that “real life” is but another complex system that we will ultimately decipher:

“…today’s technological achievements are bringing us ever closer to understanding what dos on in living systems that survive in complex environments… If an automaton can drive itself a distance of two hundred miles across a tremendously fording desert terrain, how can this feat be called merely a “simulation”? It is certainly as genuine an act of survival in a hostile environment as that of a mosquito flying about a room and avoiding being swatted.”

The reader is presented with many vivid examples of loops, but not all of them are strange. Hofstadter sets the stage with such phenomena as a hall of mirrors, or a video feedback loop, in order to present us with the strange one:

“In any strange loop that gives rise to human selfhood, by contrast, the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are xxxxxentrap, indispensable elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues the loop with “strangeness”. The overall gestalt “shape” of one’s self – the “stable whaler”, so to speak, of the strange loop constituting ones’ “I” – is not picked up by a disinterested, neutral camera, but is perceived in a highly subjective manner through the active processes of categorizing, mental replaying, reflecting, comparing, counterfactualizing, and judging.”

Again, it is the place between the micro and the macro, or the place where they intermingle, that we need to keep in mind:

“On the one hand, “I” is an expression denoting a set of very high abstractions: a life story, a set of tastes, a bundle of hopes and fears, some talents and lacunas, a certain degree of wittiness, some other degree of absent-mindedness, and on and on. And yet on the other hand, “I” is an expression denoting a physical object made of trillions of cells, each of which is doing its own thing without the slightest regard for the supposed whole” of which it is but an infinitesimal part. Put another way, “I” refers at one and the same time to a highly tangible and palpable biological substrate and also to a highly intangible and abstract psychological pattern. When you say “I am hungry”, which one of these levels are you referring to? And to which one are you referring when you declare, “I am happy”? And when you confess, “I can’t remember our old phone number”? And when you exult, “I love skiing”? And when you yawn, “I am sleepy”?

And still later:

“…one of the leitmotifs of this book has been that the presence or absence of animacy depends on the level at which one views a structure. Seen at its highest, most collective level, a brain is quintessentially animate and conscious. But as one gradually descends, structure by structure, from cerebrum to cortex to column to cell to cytoplasm to protein to peptide to particle, one loses the sense of animacy more and more until, at the lowest levels, it has surely vanished entirely. In one’s mind, one can move back and forth between the highest and lowest levels, and in this fashion oscillate at will between seeing the brain as animate and as inanimate.

A non dualistic view of the world can thus include animate entities perfectly easily, as long as different  levels of description are recognized as valid. Animate entities are those that, at some level of description,manifest a certain type of loopy pattern, which inevitably starts to take from if a system with the inherent capacity of perceptually filtering the world into discrete categories vigorously expands its repertoire of categories ever more towards the abstract. This pattern reaches full bloom when there comes to be a deeply entrenched self-representation – a story told by the entity to itself – in which the entity’s “I” plays the starring role, as a unitary causal agent driven by a set of desires. More precisely, an entity is animate to the degree that such a loopy “I” pattern comes into existence, since this pattern’s presence is by no means an all-or-nothing affair. Thsu to the extent that there is an “I” pattern in a given substrate, there is animacy, and where there is no such pattern the entity is inanimate.”

Category: mind, philosophy, science | Tags: ,

Teaching a Stone to Talk

by Annie Dillard

Dillard is an author I’ve been aware of but never before read. This was a fine introduction. She reminds me of a cross between Diane Ackerman and John Berger. Or maybe Jeanette Winterson mixed with John Armstrong. Carefully observed nature and equally carefully chosen words result in little lessons in how a life might be productively led.

“The point of going somewhere like the Napo River in Ecuador is not to see the most spectacular anything. It is simply to see what is there. We are here on the planet only once, and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived, for the Amazon basin, which covers half a continent, and for the life that–there, like anywhere else–is always and necessarily lived in detail: on the tributaries, in the riverside villages, sucking this particular white-fleshed guava in this particular pattern of shade.”

Descriptions of the Galapagos Islands lead to musings on the world closer at hand, retaining a whiff of Darwin – or is it Diamond?:

“Geography is life’s limiting factor…The rocks shape life like hands around swelling dough. In Virginia, the salamanders vary from mountain ridge to mountain ridge; so do the fiddle tunes the old men play. All this is because it is hard to move from mountain to mountain. These are not merely anomalous details. This is what life is all about: salamanders, fiddle tunes, you and me and things, the split and burr of it all, the fizz into particulars. No mountains and one salamander, one fiddle tune, would be a lesser world. No continents, no fiddlers. No possum, no sop, no taters. The earth, without form, is void.”

Category: essays | Tags: , , ,

Consider the Lobster

by David Foster Wallace

I’ve been rationing my last DFW, trying to delay the pleasure. Since The Pale King has now been published, I figured I could indulge myself with the Lobster. One or two of these I’d read in whole or in part, including the title essay, in Gourmet magazine. Still, a pleasure to re-read. Another that I’d read at least bits and pieces of previously was “Authority and American Usage.” I’ve had ongoing English-usage battles with several people, the old prescriptivist versus descriptivist fights, and it’s always good to get a ruling from one of my favorite users. Even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with my own. Even if he disses a little bit on Steven Pinker. Bonus: I get to learn new words, e.g.

“The truth is that most US academic prose  is appalling – pompous, abstruse, claustral, inflated, euphuistic, pleonastic, solecistic, sesquipedalian, Heliogabaline, occluded, obscure, jargon-ridden, empty: resplendently dead.”

And another down-vote for Political Correctness!:

“This reviewer’s own opinion is that prescriptive PCE is not just silly but ideologically confused and harmful to its own cause.

Here is my argument for that opinion. Usage is always political, but it’s complexly political. WIth respect, for instance, to political change, usage conventions can function in two ways: on the one hand they can be a reflection of political change, and on the other they can be an instrument of political change. What’s important is that these two functions are different and have to be kept straight. Confusing them – in particular, mistaking for political efficacy what is really just a language’s political symbolism – enables the bizarre conviction that America ceases to be elitist or unfair simply because Americans stop using certain vocabulary that is historically associated with elitism and unfairness. This is PCE’s core fallacy – that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes – and of course it’s nothing but the obverse of the politically conservative SNOOT’s delusion that social change can be retarded by restricting change in standard usage.” (SNOOT being Wallace’s preferred term for “Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police.”)

Another favorite was “Up, Simba,” Wallace’s coverage for Rolling Stone magazine of the 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain. Not only it is hugely entertaining reading, it has some pretty useful little insights into why you might want to be a part of the process:

“Assuming you are demographically a Young Voter, it is again worth a moment of your valuable time to consider the implications of the techs’ last couple points. If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible psychological reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.”

Or how about Wallace writing on Joseph Frank writing on Dostoevsky:

“…I think that any serious American reader/writer will find himself driven to think hard about what exactly it is that makes many of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished, in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky (or even to lesser lights like Lermontov and Turgenev). Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desert questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtapostion, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”

Wide-ranging, fun, brilliantly written in his trademark long, winding, and always structurally sound sentences, this is writing that I will miss not having more of.

Category: essays, philosophy, politics | Tags:

But Is It Art?

by Cynthia Freeland

Well of course it is. I didn’t need to read this book to know that answer. But of course, I am always interested in hearing about/reading about other people’s opinions on Art, to see if they might knock a hole in my own theories, which have been 30 years or so in the making.

Freeland certainly knows a bit about art, and art history, and presents her case with care and good examples. The book is a brief tour through art history, with a very select group of examples taken from various periods – from the contemporary world of shock art such as Serrano’s Piss Christ or Hirst’s dead animals as well as from the ancient Greek tragedies, Goya’s anti-war paintings, Wagner’s operas… She covers many of the major theories expounded by certain art critics/theorists/philosophers, from Hume and Kant and their views on beauty and taste, art as imitation of nature or human endeavor, a la Plato and his techne, to more recent critics such as Dewey and Danto.

Institutional theory, ritual theory, how about expression theory, as expressed by Tolstoy: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced and having evoked it in oneself then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit this feeling that others experience the same feeling–this is the activity of art…”

Does imitation theory hold up any better:

“Since the late nineteenth century, imitation has seemed less and less to be the goal of many genres of art: impressionism, expressionism, surrealism, abstraction. Nor does the imitation theory leave room for our modern emphasis on the value of an artist’s individual sensibility and creative vision. Do Van Gogh’s or O’Keeffe’s irises impress us because they are accurate imitation? Plato would criticize these modern artists for creating mere images of Beauty–hopelessly striving to emulate something ineffable or Ideal. But that did not seem to be their aim, and we value Van Gogh’s or O’Keeffe’s flowers for other reasons.”

There are several other really interesting examples which Freeland spends more time elaborating. I myself looked at the Chartres cathedral in Art History class in school, and walked through the actual building in 1981. But in the present book I learned about the allegorical meaning of everything within a cathedral, such as the one at Chartres. The sculptures, the windows, the shapes of the stones, all told a story, and all related to the others:

“Chartres manifested an array of artistic expertise ranging from architectural design to the highly skilled labour of masons, woodcarvers, stone cutters, window painters, and others. Individuals of great ability worked here, perhaps receiving high pay and recognition, but ultimately subordinating their efforts to the spiritual purpose of the whole. The result of collaboration at Chartres is an overall harmony serving the three primary Gothic aesthetic principles of proportion, light, and allegory.”

Another place I visited in France was the palace at Versailles. Freeland describes how the gardens at Versailles were, like a cathedral, designed and created with much of the same intent and meaning. “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, gardens were recognized as high artistic achievements.”

The theme seems to be that definitions of art have continually evolved, and will continue to do so. The cultural specifics and the historical milieu have their roles in determining the art of any given society, yes, okay, fair enough. This reminds me of something Steven Pinker said in his book, How the Mind Works:

“Theories of art carry the seeds of their own destruction. In an age when any Joe can buy CDs, paintings, and novels, artists make their careers by finding ways to avoid the hackneyed, to challenge jaded tastes, to differentiate the cognoscenti from the dilettantes, and to flout the current wisdom about what art is (hence the fruitless attempts over the decades to define art).” So let’s push forward, with a couple of newer theories:

John Dewey said that art “expresses the life of a community.” This is fairly close to Arthur Danto’s idea that culture determines what art can be. Warhol’s Brillo boxes are used to exemplify Danto’s definition of Art. “Danto argued [ ] that the artworld provides a background theory that an artist invokes when exhibiting something as art. This relevant ‘theory’ is not a thought in the artist’s head, but something the social and cultural context enables both artist and audience to grasp. Warhol’s gesture could not have been made as art in ancient Greece, medieval Chartres, or nineteenth-century Germany. With Brillo Boxes, Warhol demonstrated that anything can be a work of art, given the right situation and theory. So Danto concludes that a work of art is an object that embodies a meaning: ‘Nothing is an artwork without an interpretation that constitutes it as such.’ [ ] Danto argues that in each time and context, the artist creates something as art by relying on a shared theory of art that the audience can grasp, given its historical and institutional context. Art doesn’t have to be a play, a painting, garden, temple, cathedral, or opera. It doesn’t have to be beautiful or moral, It doesn’t have to manifest personal genius or devotion to a god through luminosity, geometry, and allegory.”

But she’s preaching to the choir here, of course. Far more interesting to me is always the question of good art versus bad art, and how one can make the distinction. Freeland points out that artists can exhibit talent, training, and knowledge, and still have their work condemned because of the content they choose to depict. “Artistic talent” then would seem to have no bearing on whether a given piece is to be labeled Art. I would argue that the reverse is just as true: no talent or training or expertise is necessary for someone to produce a work of art. Or Art. The point is that questions of quality are secondary when what we are attempting to do is to define what Art is.

Category: art, philosophy | Tags:

Zero History

by William Gibson

This was a fun read, and a fast read, but it didn’t blow me away. I’m not sure that anything Gibson writes from here on will ever top Neuromancer. That book set the bar for the particular brand of science fiction that places the future so near that you can practically smell it. And in fact the most recent books, Spook Country included, are set in what is recognizably the present.

And so while with Neuromancer Gibson seemed able to show us the world as it would be tomorrow or next week, Spook Country in some respects feels already dated. To be fair, it was published in 2010, and has been sitting on my shelf for months. A Gibson book published in 2010 must have been written in 2009, no? Therefore I should not be too critical of his use of the MacBook Air as the prop of choice, rather than the iPad… Plus the fact that the iPhone does play a prominent role, and this seems dead on. There’s an app for that.

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will

by David Foster Wallace

Tough going. The most difficult Wallace of them all. This is Wallace’s graduate thesis in philosophy, a rebuttal of Richard Taylor’s argument that human beings have no free will. As background to the works of fiction that he was later to create, the book is fascinating. We learn what kind of mind was responsible, where it came from. From the introductory bits:

“Wallace would also identify  another subconscious desire behind his early philosophical enthusiasms: the craving for a certain kind of beauty, for the variety of aesthetic experience characteristic of formal systems like mathematics and chess.”

“The reason I applied to philosophy grad school is I remembered that I had flourished in an academic environment. And I had this idea that I could read philosophy and do philosophy, and write on the side, and that it would make the writing better.”

What kind of writing did Wallace want to do, exactly?

“…there are areas of inquiry that might seem remote from the concerns of everyday life but that can, in fact, offer an array of intimate emotional and aesthetic experiences. Even for the reader with an appetite for it, however, a theoretical work can be so intellectually taxing, so draining of one’s mental energies, that what Wallace called the ‘emotional implications’ of the text are overlooked. The novel of ideas is at its most valuable, he contended, not when making abstruse ideas ‘accessible’ or easy to digest for the reader, but rather when bringing these neglected undercurrents to the surface.”

So, without going into too much detail (or any at all, really) on what, first of all, Taylor was saying in his argument, is it possible to condense down Wallace’s counter-argument?

“I will be making a case for the claim that situational physical possibility is best understood in terms of compatibility between sets of physical circumstances under unvarying natural laws. Since the sets of circumstances that bear on the modal character of an event or state of affairs usually can and do vary with the passage of time, an since thus the physical-modal character of some event or state of affairs may very well change from time-and-situation to time-and-situation, it is not surprising to find that scope problems of significant complexity arise when we try to formalize and interpret tensed physical-modal propositions. It is precisely such a semantic scope confusion that I think Taylor, offering a semantic argument for a metaphysical conclusion, has fallen for, and would have us fall for.”

I am reminded, when I read Wallace’s explanations of how vital the distinctions of modal language are, of the arguments that I have had in the past with those who would accuse me of being a prescriptive grammarian for my desire to maintain and use words and sentences correctly and precisely:

“What it means in a nutshell is that the denial of the consequent’s obtaining today means only that it cannot today be the case that yesterday did occur, not that it was the case yesterday that the explosion could not occur. We might say, more naturally if less perspicuously, as we enjoy the relatively low radiation today, that the explosion ‘can’t have’ occurred yesterday, not that it ‘couldn’t’ occur yesterday. This is an absolutely vital sort of distinction. Compare the following sentences, and think of the kinds of ‘impossibilities’ they really express: ‘It can’t have rained last night; there are no puddles on the sidewalk this morning,’ vs. ‘It couldn’t rain last night; last night a high-pressure ridge was keeping all precipitation-causing clouds out of the area.’ ‘He can’t have gone for a drive in his car an hour ago; the hood of the car’s not even warm,’ vs. ‘He couldn’t go for a drive in his car an hour ago; an hour ago his car was broken.’

Later:

“…This is so simply because physical modalities are understood here as sensitive to time and sensitive to world-situations causally joined in mother- and daughter-relationships, as parts of causal paths. And this understanding of physical modality seems to point to a way to solve the Taylor problem, to show that even under the most generous acceptance of his premises and reading of his argument, the fatalistic conclusion he wants to ‘force’ upon us simply does not validly follow.”

Simple, right?

“…physical possibility is, I have tried to argue, properly understood in a significantly different way from logical possibility. A ‘physical possibility,’ if it obtains, always obtains, and is to be evaluated in the context of, an index and a situation. It is to be understood as a relation of causal, physical compatibility between indices and their respective situations through time. It is true that in system J what is now-actual is also now-physically-possible, but this is a physical, not an alethic, relation; it is to be understood as holding simply for the reason that what is actual now is, quite obviously, physically compatible with what was actual a few moments ago and gave rise to what is actual now.”

Category: philosophy | Tags: , ,