Blur Circle

Steve Yost's weblog

May 30, 2002
A-life's tipping point

Very interesting reading in the two Atlantic articles by Jonathan Rauch (via Rebecca) on artifical societies. How much will this work begin to influence public policy? The summary is in the last question of the second article (an interview with Jonathan):

Q: Do you think about the world in a different way now that you've delved into this field? And if so, how has it changed your world view?

A: I've come to have much greater respect for the notion of society as an independent actor in human life. I've come to be much more suspicious of the notion that if I think I have good intuition about people, that I then have good intuitions about public policies and society. I have come to understand in a way I didn't before that it's possible at the same time for societies to be both more surprising and more orderly than I ever thought. To me a lot of what this kind of thinking has done is set out a third, unexplored continent between determinism and randomness, where in fact there are patterns in life and in society that we may now have a shot at finding. And to me, that's a real eye-opener.

May 29, 2002
Not just good -- it's good for you

Kevin Marks points out, among other interesting things, an article that examines how a forgiveness-oriented algorithm beats the classic "Tit for Tat" in Axelrod's iterated prisoner's dilemma simulation. I'm looking forward to reading it. Man, this is great when interests -- Kevin's, AKMA's, and mine in this case -- overlap like this. I'm still surprised to discover the new linkages and benefits of weblogging.

And a bibliography of forgiveness!

I'm also trying to catch up with Rebecca's society modeling links.

Dictionary bookmarklet

I really like Merriam-Webster's bookmarklet for looking up words on the current page you're viewing. It's a great cheap answer to Dictophane. One nit with it, however, is that it doesn't pop up a new browser window for the lookup. So I've tweaked it to do so. Grab it here. Just drag that link to your bookmark list.

The state of forgiveness

AKMA continues his excellent series on forgiveness, and for me really gets to something in the last two paragraphs:

David's right to note a divergence here between "Jewish" and "Christian" sensibilities, but it goes deeper than that too. Many Christians feel a strong attraction to an ethic that emphasizes putting beliefs into action, walking the walk, whereas another large body of Christians recoil in horror from what they regard as works-righteousness, the notion that you can earn God's favor by doing the right stuff[...]

I'd suggest that presumption [of restitution] poisons the possibility of forgiveness[...] In an odd way, presumption constitutes an antithesis of forgiveness...
AKMA really illumines the argument there. The differences are regarding inner attitude. "Am I earning God's favor?" and "Am I earning your forgiveness?" are questions conveying certain states or attitudes. While they may be important, these questions and attitudes are outside of the ongoing transaction we call forgiveness.

Emerson again

There's a section on Emerson's Essays in the older wiki-based part of my blog. So I'm happy to see Diane McCormick's discussion of Emerson over at In A Dark Time, via Mark Woods' incredibly prolific good linking.

May 28, 2002
Mas Paz

Homage to Claudius Ptolemy

I am a man: little do I last
and the night is enormous.
But I look up:
the stars write.
Unknowing I understand:
I too am written,
and at this very moment
someone spells me out.

-Octavio Paz, A Tree Within, translated by Eliot Weinberger

May 27, 2002
Octavio nails it

Octavio Paz, via Mark Woods:

This consciousness of being separate is a constant feature of our spiritual history. Separation is sometimes experienced as a wound that marks an internal division, an anguished awareness that invites self-examination; at other times it appears as a challenge, a spur that incites us to action, to go forth and encounter others and the outside world.
...and goes on beautifully with things related to humanness and what we're doing here. Paz's poetry is among my favorites -- he clearly has a deep, subtle sense of things.

My father, when I saw him last, also said , "I'm going to a greater wholeness, it's just getting there that's difficult."

Practicing forgiveness

AKMA blogs thoughtfully about forgiveness. He looks mostly at the perspective of the forgivee (more to come), and he addresses the act itself. I think he's right on the mark in paying attention to forgiveness of even the smallest things, because that's where we can practice for the hard work of big-time forgiveness, and because it's where it's needed most frequently.

The reason I think practice is important is because forgiveness, from the perspective of the forgiver, means, as AKMA points out, not that we forget about it or pretend it didn't happen. It means "resolving not to permit this past wrong to determine where I go from here". That involves a careful watch over my own later attitudes about the person I forgive, attitudes that can be manifested in a flash, often before I'm even conscious of them. So the work on forgiveness is not a one-time event, it's an ongoing attempt at participation in my own often-automatic inner workings.

May 24, 2002
Tribe or universe

The feeling came to me as I entered the office building this morning after a brief solitary automobile commute: "I need a tribe". I need a group of people I share a continuity with, interdependent, feeding on each other in many ways. Sometimes I've experienced that briefly at a job. I wish for a more sustained version. Some people get this at church or school. As a busy father in a medium-sized town, doing contract work for a big company, I'm too isolated. We don't have a regular circle of friends that we have dinner with often, for example.

While blogging gives some connectivity through writing (though I haven't established the links that other bloggers have), it just isn't the connection that we've evolved for thousands of years to want. The Internet will never approximate the face to face. Maybe our family should move to a small town in Vermont.

Then I read in whiskey river:

"A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security."
- Albert Einstein
Yes, this is what we're called to do by our highest consciousness. The problem is that we're evolved to do otherwise. And yes, part of our highest calling, especially now as we each have new global reach, is indeed to fight some of the things deeply ingrained in us by our evolutionary history.

We're at a discontinuity in history. We've suddenly (by historical standards) become connected globally, yet are often isolated. The social entities we form are dispersed and often transient. Our attentions are so drawn by our jobs that we have little community in our communties.

That's part of the appeal of this mostly-broadcast medium of weblogging. We're trying to substitute for what we really need socially. "Writing ourselves into existence" is a poor substitute for just living well.

Damn, I've got to get out more. Thanks for the wake-up call, Steve.

May 23, 2002

OK, here's where I wanna be:

Understanding how complex societies are organized and evolve is still a central question in evolutionary biology. We now know that in order to understand how social organization evolves, we must understand the mechanisms that link the different levels of biological and social organization. We must determine the transformational algorithms that link gene to neural system, neural system to individual behavior, and individual behavior to social organization.

This is one of the core themes of the Santa Fe Institute’s Program in Evolutionary Dynamics funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Hotmail pulls a Yahoo

I'm not reading many of the techie blogs these days, but I'm still surprised not to have seen much flap about Hotmail pulling a Yahoo in resetting your personal-info-sharing settings. I confirmed that the settings had been changed in my account.

I first read this in Media Unspun, a great source.

Seeing patterns

Kewl stuff here -- a site linked from the Digital Physics site where Wright's 1988 article resides.

May 22, 2002
Binary vs. digital

Unless I misunderstand, I don't think AKMA makes the necessary distinction between binary (if he's referring to his use of the term earlier in his authenticity/complexity discussion) and digital or discrete in his short comment on Jeff Ward's post. Maybe, if he hasn't already, he might delve a bit into the discussion of Wolfram's book and the complexities of the topic -- the same virtuous process he discussed earlier. On an analog scale of 0-5, I'd give his comment a rating of about pi :-)

More on Kurzweil's article

I finished reading the Kurzweil article. Highlights for me:

However, cellular automata on their own do not evolve sufficiently. They quickly reach a limited asymptote in their order of complexity. An evolutionary process involving conflict and competition is needed.
I would add that this needs to go beyond simple Darwinian rules and add specialization and cooperation, to build higher-level entities or "patterns" (see below).

The following piques my interest, echoing as it does my hunch that information theory is important to a fundamental understanding of How It All Works:

Wolfram is hypothesizing that there is a digital basis to the apparently analog phenomena and formulas in physics, and that we can model our understanding of physics as the simple transformations of a cellular automaton.

Others have postulated this possibility. Richard Feynman wondered about it in considering the relationship of information to matter and energy. Norbert Weiner heralded a fundamental change in focus from energy to information in his 1948 book Cybernetics, and suggested that the transformation of information, not energy, was the fundamental building block for the Universe.
My question remains: what is it in us that recognizes certain patterns as information ("order" in Kurzweil's nice distinction) as distinct from everything else? If our particular instantiation of Order recognizes only certain kinds of order, naming it "information" or "complexity" or "intelligence", are there other forms (necessarily outside our ability to recognize them) that recognize other kinds of order? Pattern recognizes pattern. See the 14-Nov-2000 entry in DeepThoughts.

Kurzweil follows with an extended quote of Robert Wright talking about Edward Fredkin, from the not-very-aptly-titled Did the Universe Just Happen? by Robert Wright. Sounds like Fredkin (and Wright's article first) needs to be on my to-read list. [added later: Wright's 1988 article reveals, in the midst of breezy narrative and exposition about Fredkin's theory, the personality quirks that distinguish Wolfram from him. He apparently couldn't stick to a project very long or apply the necessary academic rigor. Wolfram spent 10 years on his book.]

These paragraphs near the end fired a bunch of epiphany neurons for me, in particular the stream-pattern analogy:

There is a philosophical perspective to Wolfram's treatise that I do find powerful. My own philosophy is that of a "patternist," which one might consider appropriate for a pattern recognition scientist. In my view, the fundamental reality in the world is not stuff, but patterns.

If I ask the question, 'Who am I?' I could conclude that, perhaps I am this stuff here, i.e., the ordered and chaotic collection of molecules that comprise my body and brain.
So I am a completely different set of stuff than I was a month ago. All that persists is the pattern of organization of that stuff. The pattern changes also, but slowly and in a continuum from my past self. From this perspective I am rather like the pattern that water makes in a stream as it rushes past the rocks in its path. The actual molecules (of water) change every millisecond, but the pattern persists for hours or even years.
This is strongly reminiscent of the ant-colony study outlined in Emergence, but that's not the only reason this shows up in green glowing letters in my brain.

Kurzweil on Wolfram

To read: from A&L Daily. Ray Kurzweil weighs in early on Wolfram's A New Kind of Science.

He must have gotten an early copy. Mine's in the mail.

One thing that's appealing about this book bears directly on AKMA's discussion of complexity. It purports to explain that much of science reduces down to a simple set of rules. Therein lies its extreme audacity -- and maybe it's necessary for Wolfram to make his outrageous claims to garner attention from serious scientific circles. There's no doubt that there'll be debunking effort paid to it. If there weren't, it would be a sure sign of Wolfram's failure. But enough blabber -- I haven't even read Kurzweil's article.

Google will do it all

wood s lot also points to the new experimental Google toys, among them:

  • Google glossary: Find definitions for words, phrases and acronyms. Can Dictophane be far behind? (Actually I'd like to try a quick implementation -- I've got the tools in place with Quick Doc Review -- and propose it to a dictionary site).
  • Keyboard shortcuts: Navigate search results without using your mouse. This is pointing towards what I'd hope for if Google were to allow navigation of discussion threads: "[using a search engine] I find a message in a thread. I should be able to follow the thread up and down its hierarchy (at the search site)".

Barth synchroblog

AKMA pointed out to me (in an email exchange about the Lord's Prayer) that he mentioned the same Karl Barth story in a radically different context, just two days before I wrote about my father's telling of the story. I'm puzzled by AKMA's usage. What's the real story behind the quote? It's such a minor point in his interesting examination of complexity and authenticity, though.

And best wishes to Margaret regarding her big toe. Yeeeouch.

Every Day

Wood s lot points to Jack Kerouac's Belief & Technique for Modern Prose. 23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning (wouldn't it be the most left-brained item that stands out to me) reminds me of a thing I used to try: before going to sleep, try to remember as much detail about the day as possible. Go back to the day before if you can.

May 21, 2002

Inspired by occasional words in Joe's blog (Joe has a better command of English than most people who make a living with it -- the problem is that he leaves us plebes in the dust.): idea for a dictionary lookup web service:

Type in a URL. The service parses the designated site and presents it to you with dictionary links for words. You can set a word-commonness threshold. Only words above the threshold get linked to their dictionary definition. Extra-cool would be a slider that changes the threshold dynamically.

I guess I'll post this over at halfbakery, though most of the stuff there these days is pretty, er hmm, half-baked. And oh dear, my babbage drum machine has slipped to the top fifty, though it made it (along with charity banner portal, an idea I still like), onto Jutta's wonderfully designed t-shirt. How are you doing, Jutta?


Just heard Tom Waits interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR. Tom is an absolute genius of creative repartee. It's worth getting the archive and listening a couple of times. I think I'll get it and go over to my friend Jeff's house (if only it wasn't a seven-hour drive) and listen to it over a Guiness (if only he still drank) and a pack of smokes (if only either of us smoked).


Last Wednesday my father had a heart attack. When I got the news I caught the next available flight to Michigan (thanks to my wife Marielle). I didn't know if he would be alive when I arrived. I was in prayer the entire trip; not intercessory or full of words -- it was a state of closeness, acceptance, focus, preparation, reverence, humility... Can a wordless state be de-scribed?

This isn't a drama, but there is a sequence -- how do I write about it? Disclose the essential fact: my father was alive when I arrived. He still is. But his heart condition is inoperable, and the doctors think he'll live less than six months. These cold words are the bare framework -- the stonework of the chapel where the light filters through stained glass.

Where do I go next? I can't describe first seeing my father in his hospital bed, holding his hand, looking into his eyes. More than these facts is too intimate, subtle, and personal to portray, though maybe we're all in this state at some time in our lives -- if we're fortunate.* My mother and brother were there -- all of us. We spoke simply and lovingly, the most important things first, before my dad, in full presence and acceptance, told me the medical details, and I finally began the first full conscious absorption of the inalterable facts.

A small glimpse: My father, a minister for the latter half of his life, retold the story of the great theologian Karl Barth, who was on his deathbed, surrounded by a group of friends. One friend asked the great thinker if he had a thought he could leave them with. Karl replied: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." A deep smile spread over my father's face.

Over the next two days, we were visited by nurses and doctors continually. These were some of the most caring people I've met, and taken in the whole, their presence itself was a healing factor. The hospital -- Saint Joseph's Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor -- and especially the Cardiac Care Unit, is imbued with this sensitively receptive, assertively careful attitude. A woman with a great soul who came to empty the waste basket in my father's room left with tears in her eyes.

Doctors -- specialists in several fields (as necessary) and interns -- huddled for an hour each day to review each patient's case. Their process impressed me as Socratically social and exemplary of human cooperation and knowledge sharing (businesses could learn a lot from the best hospitals). Nurses and doctors shared their observations and thoughts with my father in a direct, receptive way, listening thoughtfully.

My dad is now home and in a hospice program, about which I hear nothing but good things from friends who have experienced them in their families. This particular one has a waiting list of volunteers, probably people who have themselves benefitted from the program. My mother is heroically, in the midst of anxiety, love, and her own worries, learning all she needs to know from the hospice worker and beginning the process of caring for my dad at home. I'm home, wishing I lived closer, and keeping a bag packed.

How can I carry some of the attention, intensity, and caring that I've had for the past week back into the rest of my life? Any meeting between any of us, any conversation, can be our last. If only we could acknowledge and remember this.

*Is this why the Gospels sometimes seem to have a surprisingly matter-of- fact tone? Some states can't be extracted to dessicated words. The full state of the body, the mind, the whole can't be encoded in the ciphers we see with our eyes, trying to reconstitute the original. Only the greatest poets, writers, and artists come close, and they require audiences with their antennae all finely tuned.

May 14, 2002
Wolfram's new book

Stephen Wolfram's new book is finally being published today.

"I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible," Mr. Wolfram writes in the book's preface, "and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides."
The claims have been audacious all along. I'm looking forward to reading it.

May 10, 2002
Beyond Emergence and Darwin

I just finished reading Emergence, which I was excited about earlier. I have to say first off that for me, while there was an exciting early flash of recognition -- all my favorite topics! -- Johnson doesn't take it further than a well-grounded introduction, with examples and some speculation regarding digital entertainment and the web, and brief examples of experiments in corporate organization and hints about political organization. Before I'm dismissed as a cranky curmudgeon, I'll say that Johnson does provide an excellent overview to the topic, with many thought-stimulating illustrations and open-ended questions. But for me, I've thought about much of this, and gone a bit further with my own ideas, the brunt of which I saw explored in Wright's Nonzero. [More later...]

Children's Rights

Heard on the BBC today: The United Nations Special Session on Children is happening now.

"The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely accepted human rights treaty - of all the United Nations member states, only the United States and the collapsed state of Somalia have not ratified it." What's up with that?

May 03, 2002
Gitlin again, with feeling

Ah, I finally read the conversation between Fallows and Gitlin in The Atlantic about Gitlin's book. It's worthwhile reading (a fine alternative to Gitlin's book), and seeing David Weinberger's book mentioned early on, I remember that I first read about the series of articles in David's blog. Two random highlights (really, read the thing):

Fallows: One of the book's most engaging aspects is its easy combination of actual scholarship and informal pop references.
The plethora of "informal pop references" is exactly what put me off.
Gitlin, in response to Fallow's question "so, what do you want people to do"?: As to how anyone should respond, I'm partial to the romantic notion that people should make the acquaintance of all their senses—including touch, smell, and taste, unserved as they are by screens. A walk in the streets or the woods is a good idea. Loaf and invite your soul, as Walt Whitman did. Conversely, you could converse. Love those whom you love. Bowl together. Learn languages and single-handedly strike a blow against American isolationism. The need for political actions hasn't gone out of style, though lots of the actions have. That Paris café sounds like a good idea, too.
Now you're talkin', Todd.

May 02, 2002
Geezer telescopy

[Update: Oh shit. Joe was talking about the Wilson Quarterly article "Wittgenstein's curse", not Lukacs' article. And he's spot-on about it. The author also falls victim to other fallacies cited here. Finding which ones is left as an exercise for the reader. This reminds me of the time I built a wooden implement, carefully measuring and gluing everything, then discovered it was the mirror image of what I needed.]

Joe calls it telescopic fallacy (and illuminates the concept nicely). Robert Fulford called it Geezer Talk (the pointer is still there at A&L Daily, but the link is dead). Joe thinks John Lukacs has a small case of it. Lukacs himself refers to his essay (seemingly self-deprecatingly) as a Jeremiad and offers counter-Jeremiad examples, so the case is indeed mild and treatable. (BTW, a search for "telescopic fallacy" turns up this page, first-glance worthwhile reading regarding fallacies of historical argument, which appropriates Joe's term for another use.)

Maybe there's another discount we can apply: is Lukacs' stated perception -- of being at the end of an era -- simply one that commonly comes with age? It's understandable enough that at acertain age, as one starts seeing one's life mostly in retrospect, one could want to close the book on something much larger too, especially if you've felt particularly identified with a time that you see fading. (On the other hand I've known several seniors who, though they're satisfied with the fullness of their lives, wish they could hang around longer just because there are so many exciting things on the horizon.)

But Lukacs' conclusion goes beyond that to a point we see frequently now: Francis Fukayama (the End of History chap) is now talking about the necessity for oversight in genetic research, Robert Wright sums up Nonzero with a caution about the critical time we live in, suggesting just a wee bit of slowing down, and of course Bill Joy is dour about nanotech. The common thread, which Lukacs also pulls out at the end, is that we're unthinkingly propelling and propelled by our science, and we rarely question where it's taking us -- an attitude we could label as conservative, in the strict sense of questioning change.

One place Lukacs overshoots the benefit of simplification, IMO, is in his closing statement about the great division forming in the U.S. The "there are two kinds of people in the world" device is perhaps another overused attention-getter (another recent use was a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly, where David Brooks writes of the two Americas -- the coastal big-city dwellers and everyone else). I think Lukacs' motive there, however is to open the conversation beyond the existing label-sticking by looking for a couple more. But getting stuck in label-sticking isn't useful.

In any case, I found Lukacs' sweeping historical generalizations to be a good temporary scaffolding from which to get a more detailed perspective.

Words about God

This gets back to my discussion with AKMA, especially regarding the limits of our understanding of God.

The Level of Words

God has said, "The images that come
with human language
do not correspond to me,
but those who love words
must use them to come near."

Just remember,
it’s like saying of the King,
"He is not a weaver."

Is that praise?

Whatever such a statement is,
words are on that level of God-knowledge.

-- Mathnawi II, 1716-1719
Poetic version by Coleman Barks,
based on the classic translation
by Reynold Nicholson
"Rumi: One-Handed Basket Weaving"
Maypop, 1991

Emergence grows on me quickly

Just started reading Emergence, which I picked up at my local government-funded intellectual property redistributor (town library).

On first seeing that it covered practically all of the scientific/social topics that attract me most, my first reaction was something like "oh no, a thin popularization all my precious interests". But one chapter into it, I'm impressed by Steven Johnson's scope and presentation. It engenders the same excitement as James Gleick's Chaos, with a somehow even more direct (i.e. not journalistically packaged) style.

I'm excited to read further.

There's even a quote on page 39 that might summarize the reason for all that Gitlin writes about in Media Unlimited, cited from German cultural critc Walter Benjamin:

Perhaps the daily sight of a moving crowd once presented the eye with a spectacle to which it first had to adapt...[T]hen the assumption is not impossible that, having mastered this task, the eye welcomed opportunities to confirm its possession of its new ability.
Benjamin goes on to posit this as a source for impressionist painting, but Johnson is more onto Gitlin's theme in the preceding paragraph: "There is, first the more conventional sense of complexity as sensory overload, the city stretching the human nervous system to its very extremes, and in the process teaching it a new series of reflexes -- and leading the way for a complementary series of aesthetic values, which develop out like a scab around the original wound." I.e. we like the rush of images because we're calloused to it.

May 01, 2002
A different Postmodern

In It's the End of the Modern Age (found at A&L Daily), Professor Emeritus of History John Lukacs writes a thought-engaging, sweeping, necessarily overgeneralizing (and Western-focused) article reflecting on where we are in history now. Though a couple of his points missed the mark for me, I thought it overall a good summary. You? Discuss

1/3 of the way into it, after laying an historical foundation for his proposed name for the fading era -- "The Bourgeios Age" -- he states his thesis:

The Bourgeois Age was the Age of the State; the Age of Money; the Age of Industry; the Age of the Cities; the Age of Privacy; the Age of the Family; the Age of Schooling; the Age of the Book; the Age of Representation; the Age of Science; and the age of an evolving historical consciousness. Except for the last two, all of those primacies are now fading and declining fast.
He then provides broad examples of how the designated qualities are in decline. A couple of highlights:
Income is more important than capital, quick profits more than accumulation of assets, and potentiality more than actuality -- that is, creditability more than actual ownership. What has been happening with money is, of course, but part and parcel of a much more profound development: the increasing intrusion of mind into matter.
It may be said that the production of consumption has become more important than the production of goods.

The summary:

A great division among the American people has begun -- gradually, slowly -- to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between "conservatives" and "liberals," but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and in economic determinism and people who are not. Compared with that division, the present "debates" about taxes and rates and political campaigns are nothing but ephemeral froth blowing here and there on little waves, atop the great oceanic tides of history.