Monday, September 29, 2014

We must obey the forces we want to command

For a recent MOOC, On Strategy: What Managers Can Learn from Great Philosophers, the final exam asked us to respond to Francis Bacon's assertion that "we must obey the forces we want to command," presenting two arguments, with a quotation and an example for each.


Francis Bacon famously wrote that we must obey the forces we want to command in reference to the laws of nature. One can readily transpose this dictum to other domains: market forces, military forces, cultural forces, psychological forces, etc. — each being subject to the same rigor and scrutiny we demand when performing natural science.

Literature is one such domain. Although it is steeped in tradition – the rules of language (from grammar to semantics), conventions of genre, formal narrative structures, as well as cultural expectations – truly original work emerges only once these elements are firmly understood [Argument 1]. The rules are acknowledged and assimilated, and subverted to new ends. This is especially true in the example of Oulipo – a formally defined literary movement. Cofounder Raymond Queneau described Oulipians as "rats who construct the labyrinth from which they plan to escape"[1].

Consider for a moment, though, how it (or any other constraint, for that matter) works. It places a restriction on the expressions and phrases that can be used in a poem, and it determines to some extent what the poet is able to say. It makes the process of writing both more difficult — by short-circuiting habitual modes of self expression — and, paradoxical as it may seem, easier: certain decisions have already been made for the writer. A constraint confronts the writer with a puzzle to solve, not a blank page, and this can be strangely comforting. Finally, a constraint will almost always force a writer to be creative, to seek out new means of self expression.[2]

Clearly the forces of language are fully obeyed by Oulipians in order that their practitioners can bend them to their will.

Science has evolved since Bacon’s time, and its ambitions have become more complex and its progress more nebulous. The pursuit of artificial intelligence is limited in exactly the way Bacon’s dictum would suggest [Argument 2]: "How do you make a search engine that understands if you don't know how you understand?"[3].

Douglas Hofstadter is a cognitive scientist who has become disillusioned with the common approach: "Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not"[4].

While advances have been made in data processing, and a form of "intelligence" has grown out of this capability, we have not yet achieved a truly artificial intelligence. We cannot master this domain until we have fully understood the workings of the mind and can obey the algorithms that are in play.

Bacon's assertion is thus borne out in both successes and failures across domains.

1. Raymond Queneau. Definition provided at Oulipo meeting. Apr 5, 1961.
2. Paul Kane. Review of Oulipo Compendium. Oct 2006.
3. James Sommers. "The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think." Atlantic Monthly. Oct 23, 2013.
4. Douglas Hofstader. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 1979.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Caffeine or alcohol?

Why, I briefly wondered as I took a seat on the sofa, did everyone but me seem to find caffeinated beverages more conducive than alcohol to pondering the mystery of existence?

I'm with Jim Holt on this one. His book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story is under discussion tonight at Argo Bookshop. I'm hoping the bookclub also favours alcohol over caffeine.

Although in essence it's a retrospective of modern philosophy and the major theories that might shed light on why there is something instead of nothing, but I love how it's framed as a personal journey, how sitting with one philosopher led Holt to call up the next.

I haven't actually finished reading the book — I just ran out of time — but I can't wait to see how it ends.

Check out Jim Holt's TED Talk for a summary of the issues.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In which I am disillusioned by Comiccon

The kid and I went to Montreal Comiccon the other week. I'd never been to a comiccon. In past years I've been in the area of the convention and was hugely entertained by the cosplay. Looked like fun.

And when we discovered Matt Smith would be there this year, it was decided. We had to go. Geronimo!

We bought tickets. It turns out that "The Hour of the Doctor" featuring Matt Smith was being treated as a separate event. So we bought tickets for that too.

Then I figured out how the rest of it worked: Book a timeslot to have your picture taken with Matt Smith, $110. Want an autograph? That's another $110. (I believe Smith commanded the highest price among the attending celebrities. Patrick Stewart, a mere $80.)

Sorry, kid. No upclose photos for us. We'd have to settle for hoping to be able to snap something candid.

But we reviewed the schedule and got excited. We'd make a day of it: start off with some Walking Dead cast members, treat ourselves to a nice lunch, wander around, see what there is to see, before settling in to be regaled by the Doctor's charm and wit.

And then the day was upon us.

Walking Dead event: cancelled.

But there was a lot to see. Comic book stores, more comic book stores, poster shops, costume shops, artists selling their comic or comic-inspired wares. Kiosks selling swords and chainmail. And a recruitment booth for the army reserves (really!). And more comic book stores.

Mostly, I'm kind of galled that we paid admission for the privilege of buying stuff. Most arts and crafts fairs don't even do that anymore — event organizers these days tend to waive admission fees and pass the costs of leases and rentals etc. onto the exhibitors.

Food onsite was also incredibly limited: $7 for a slice of pizza. With the anticipated turnout, I'd've thought more options than this would be made available.

I should have known, of course, that it's all about money.

To cap off the day, Matt Smith: cancelled.

And there were tears. He's her ultimate Doctor, after all. (To the point that she refuses to watch Capaldi — "he's sssoo ooolllld.")

Yes, our tickets for the special event are being refunded, but I can't help but wonder, in general, where all the money goes. Does it really go into the celebrities' pockets? I thought comiccon was all about the fans. Does it add value for a fan if the fan pays $100 for some artifact? Does it add value to fans knowing the celebrities aren't doing it for the fans, or for the love of the character, but for cold hard cash, that they're being paid off to perpetuate the myth of a given franchise? Of course it's about the franchise, and the franchise is about the money.

But it wasn't all bad. We had a great time just people-watching and identifying characters (there were Timelords!). Also, watching people try to raise Thor's hammer over their shoulders — "106 pounds of pure steel"!

And we did finally get to board the TARDIS. But this is the way to do it: The Doctor Who Society of Canada sponsored the props, and they'd take your picture for you for a donation (any donation) to the Montreal Children's Hospital. That's something I can get behind.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The most important French writer you've never heard of

The Guardian calls Emmanuel Carrère "the most important French writer you've never heard of," and I quite agree. (Except for all the important French writers I've actually never heard of.)

It's an interesting profile for a few reasons, which are maybe all the same reason.

1. Major themes are identity and memory. The Moustache was brilliant on these points. (There's a novel that has really aged well in my memory.)

2. He seems to have found his niche writing nonfiction novels. Whether he recounts episodes from his own life, or somebody else's, what's the difference? (Must get my hands on his book about Philip K. Dick.)

3. He seems particularly interested these days in exploring his Russian heritage, which interests me in hopes that it may shed light on my own desire to know my Polishness. Which has nothing to do with the culture per se, but rather the need to know from whence you come.
I stopped writing fiction and began to write "non-fiction novels." I tried to write about the world and about myself, describing reality through my own experience.

Check him out in interview with the CBC's Eleanor Wachtel (Writers & Company).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The evolution of book technology

Norway, 2001

Spain, 2010

Sweden, 2014

I've posted all of these separately to Google+ over the last few weeks, and I'm sure everyone's seen the bookbook by now. But I thought they bore collecting in one spot to demonstrate the evolution of the technology.

The latest iteration doesn't offer much new value, but it has the clear benefit of better packaging and marketing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Galaxy is going to pot!"

I'm reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation. Classic of science fiction, blah, blah, epic and political, I never had any interest. Plus its daunting reputation, the bigness of it, a TRILOGY, the titles often all caps, as if it really were the foundation of something.

Well, a friend pressed it on me. And it's so small, Foundation is just over 200 pages. And me between reading plans, and looking to augment my sci-fi education. So here I am.

In all these years, how come nobody ever uttered the words "Encyclopedia Galactica"?

The back cover is all empire and warfare, blah, blah.

Had somebody told me "Encyclopedia Galactica," and explained "foundation" as in "research foundation" to assemble a repository of all human knowledge, I'd've been all over this years ago, even if the project is just a pretense.

We all know that one respect in which the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy scores over the Encyclopedia Galactica is that it has the words "Don't Panic" inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. The publishers of Foundation should learn a lesson from this. Every edition of Foundation I've ever seen has the opposite of large, friendly letters on the cover. They usually bear large, imposing letters, self-important, sometimes angry, sometimes mocking, god-like. On the cover of the book I'm actually reading, the title is small, but still unfriendly all caps, overly confident; the gold foil makes it brash. If it looked friendlier, if it soothingly assured me everything was going to be alright, I'd've warmed to it much sooner.

I'm about a third of the way in. To this point, Foundation:
  • Brings a whole new level of understanding and humour to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I never knew how much the Guide owed to Foundation — an awful lot, with regard to theme, plot points, and structure, it seems.
  • Defines psychohistory as "that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli." Which ties in very nicely with my reading of late (neuroeconomics, two-system thinking, black swans, etc.), as well as setting the stage for an infinite improbability drive.
  • Takes a piss at academia — indeed, the University structures are "almost ivory in color." Hands-on research is eschewed in favour of the scientific method: book-learning.
"The Encyclopedia first," ground out Crast. "We have a mission to fulfil."

"Mission, hell," shouted Hardin. "That might have been true fifty years ago. But this is a new generation."

"That has nothing to do with it," replied Pirenne. "We are scientists."

And Hardin leaped through the opening. "Are you, though? That's a nice hallucination, isn't it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what's been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, estending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You're quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for Space knows how long. That's why the Periphery is revolting; that's why communications are breaking down; that's why petty wars are becoming eternal; that's why whole systems are losing atomic power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.

"If you ask me," he cried, "the Galaxy is going to pot!"

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fabulous, magnificent!

I had some trouble finding my groove with Robert Walser's Berlin Stories, because they're not really stories. They are vignettes, sketches, poetic musings. Nothing really happens in them. Walser calls one of them an essay, and another reads like a reminder to himself.

Finally I was able to give myself over to them. Their meditative quality demands a slower pace, some introspection. These stories are lovely! Full of life and humanity. Here there are keen observations of people of diverse kinds, many of them in the theater, their peculiar behaviours, their interactions with others, but also their relationship to the space they occupy. Truly, Berlin is the most magnificent character inhabiting these stories.

Robert Walser, Swiss-born, moved to Berlin in 1905 to join his artist brother. The stories in this collection were written between 1907 and 1917. The city was burgeoning.

This book is highly quotable. It seems every couple pages I'd turn to someone: "Listen to this — Isn't that perceptive, don't you find that's true?" I've noted so many passages, it's hard to choose what to share.
Often I heard through the thin wall a sound that I was only ever able to explain to myself with the thought that someone was weeping. The tears of a wealthy, stingy woman are surely no less doleful and deplorable, and speak a surely no less sad and moving language than the tears of a poor little child, a poor woman, or a poor man; tears in the eyes of mature human beings are appalling, for they bear witness to a helplessness one might scarcely believe possible. When a child cries, this is immediately comprehensible, but when old people are induced or compelled to weep despite their advanced years, this reveals to the one hearing and seeing this the world's wretchedness and untenability, and such a person cannot escape the oppressive, devastating thought that everything — everything — that moves upon this unfortunate earth is weak, shaky, and questionable, the quarry and haphazard plaything of an insufficiency that has entwined itself about all that exists. No, it is not good when a human being still weeps at an age when one should consider it a divinely lovely activity to dry the tears of children.

Berlin Stories was for me a badly needed breath of fresh air, reminding me to slow down, not just in my reading. Just look around you, really look.

My favourite story by far is "Fabulous," written in 1907. Just three paragraphs long (text available here), it evoked for me such joy the morning I read it. Magnificent!

You Are the Robert Walser! sums up the mood quite nicely.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Your suffering's taste

I recently acquired The Poetry of Rilke, translated by Edward Snow and with an introduction by Adam Zagajewski (excerpt), a volume I've been wanting for years. I unpacked it and opened it randomly:
You must suffer long, not knowing what,
until suddenly out of bitterly chewed fruit
your suffering's taste comes forth in you.
Then almost instantly you'll love what's tasted. No one
will ever talk you out of it

— Rainer Maria Rilke
Paris, March 1913

It's a bilingual edition, and I read aloud in my imaginary German.

I've been looking into taking German classes. Am I crazy? I want to learn German for the poetry. No one will ever talk me out of it.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Hockey, poetry

I don't watch a lot of TV, hence I don't see many commercials, so forgive me if you've been overexposed to this ad, but I couldn't help but pay attention when this aired other night. Apart from it being funny and clever, I think it says something interesting about the target demographic. Sports video games are for people who have disposable income, but this ad also presumes they'll get the joke — they're of a certain age, but also of certain cultural smarts. Hockey, video games, beat poetry — they go so well together, n'est-ce pas?

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Berlin is outstanding

A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention. Elsewhere he is permitted to stop up his ears and sink into willful ignorance. Here this is not allowed. Rather, he must constantly pull himself together as a human being, and this compulsion encircling him redounds to his advantage. But there are yet other things as well.

Berlin never rests, and this is glorious. Each dawning day brings with it a new, agreeably disagreeable attack on complacency, and this does the general sense of indolence good. An artist possesses, much like a child, an inborn propensity for beautiful, noble sluggardizing. Well, this slug-a-beddishness, this kingdom, is constantly being buffeted by fresh storm-winds of inspiration. The refined, silent creature is suddenly blustered full of something coarse, loud, and unrefined. There is an incessant blurring together of various things, and this is good, this is Berlin, and Berlin is outstanding.
— from "Berlin and the Artist" in Berlin Stories, by Robert Walser.

I've been wanting to visit Berlin for more than twenty-five years now, since I first saw Wings of Desire. I must go someday.

I love this passage. Reminds me a little of Patrick Hamilton's description of London in The Slaves of Solitude.

(Perhaps I shall begin collecting literary city descriptions, to compile a sort of travelogue...)

More excerpts from this and other Walser stories at The New York Review of Books.

Friday, September 05, 2014

All kinds of thinking

I recently completed a MOOC on neuroeconomics. Basically, the study of decision-making. It's a little more exacting than other courses I've taken, but sometimes I think if I just let things play in the background I'll become smarter through osmosis.

The course actually covered some fairly familiar concepts regarding intuitive thinking versus rational thinking, how responses are affected by whether a situation is framed positively or negatively, how those responses can be primed by unrelated factors in our environment, etc. And the material referenced the work of scientists with which I'm actually conversant, like Antonio Damasio and Steven Pinker.

And then: Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. And I realized I have a book of his lying around somewhere unread that I received for Christmas a few years ago. Well, Thinking, Fast and Slow: no longer unread.

Kahneman summarizes the book in his conclusion:
I began this book by introducing two fictitious characters, spent some time discussing two species, and ended with two selves. The two characters were the intuitive System 1, which does the fast thinking, and the effortful and slower System 2, which does the slow thinking, monitors System 1, and maintains control as best it can within its limited resources. The two species were the fictitious Econs, who live in the land of theory, and the Humans, who act in the real world. The two selves are the experiencing self, which does the living, and the remembering self, which keeps score and make the choices. In this final chapter I consider some applications of the three distinctions.

I read the whole book word for word, cover to cover (is that how people read nonfiction?). The writing's a bit tedious at times; basically it's a retrospective of Kahneman's career, touching on all his research and the discoveries he made along the way. Anyone with an interest in cognitive processes will find examples and case studies to entertain or to puzzle over, some resonating more than others.

What Kahneman saves for the conclusion, though, caused a lightbulb moment. Individuals make intuitive but irrational decisions, and contradictory judgments, and "objective" assessments imbued with external influences — and these issues hold at the societal level of decision making as well. Kahneman makes a soft appeal for libertarian paternalism, where, given the known workings and weaknesses of systems of reasoning, policymakers should judiciously guide individuals using the principles of behavioral science (with experts to advise the policymakers, of course). Examples of applications of these principles include opt-out enrolment in social plans (like health care) and regulations regarding the labeling on food packaging and the framing of disclosures regarding fuel consumption. So, not just brain theory stuff.

Reviews and Insight
Two Brains Running — Jim Holt in the New York Times
And frowning — as one learns on Page 152 of this book — activates the skeptic within us: what Kahneman calls "System 2." Just putting on a frown, experiments show, works to reduce overconfidence; it causes us to be more analytical, more vigilant in our thinking; to question stories that we would otherwise unreflectively accept as true because they are facile and coherent. And that is why I frowningly gave this extraordinarily interesting book the most skeptical reading I could.

How to Dispel Your Illusions — Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books
There are huge differences between Freud and Kahneman, as one would expect for thinkers separated by a century. The deepest difference is that Freud is literary while Kahneman is scientific. The great contribution of Kahneman was to make psychology an experimental science, with experimental results that could be repeated and verified. Freud, in my view, made psychology a branch of literature, with stories and myths that appeal to the heart rather than to the mind. The central dogma of Freudian psychology was the Oedipus complex, a story borrowed from Greek mythology and enacted in the tragedies of Sophocles. Freud claimed that he had identified from his clinical practice the emotions children feel toward their parents that he called the Oedipus complex. His critics have rejected that claim. So Freud became to his admirers a prophet of spiritual and psychological wisdom, and to his detractors a quack doctor pretending to cure imaginary diseases. Kahneman took psychology in a diametrically opposite direction, not pretending to cure ailments but only trying to dispel illusions.

The King of Human Error — Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair
There's a quality both impish and joyous to Kahneman's work, and it is most on display in his collaboration with Amos Tversky. They had a rule of thumb, he explains: they would study no specific example of human idiocy or irrationality unless they first detected it in themselves. "People thought we were studying stupidity," says Kahneman. "But we were not. We were studying ourselves." Kahneman has a phrase to describe what they did: "Ironic research."

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Why is there something instead of nothing? That's the question — along with some variations ("What banged? Why did it bang? And what was going on before it banged?") — Jim Holt asks, and sets out to answer (but, unsurprisingly, doesn't, entirely), in Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story.

Coincidentally I was about 20% of the way through this book (so maybe Holt does answer it, I dunno) when this TED Talk turned up. Why Does the World Exist? is Argo Bookshop's next book club title, set for discussion on September 25.