Friday, May 28, 2010

Sympathy for the Devil You (Pretend to) Know and He is Us

I felt like writing a "perspective" post, one of those things where I get all uncomfortable with certain self-truths (about me, and about us, you buncha complicit fat-cats you), and I figured I'd take the double-edged sword to David Brooks, who pretty well deserves a twice-weekly evisceration (I originally had a whole over-complicated metaphor as my opening graph, by the way, which I've scrapped, only regretting that now I'll have to shelve the phrase "pissant Promethei" for some other time), and for whom I developed a small fascination with his particular form of contemptibility back when I was reading him a lot back in the firewall days (thanks, daveto). Instead of digging around for the best example of his form, I figured I'd just wait for his next column.

Here's today's. I regret for the purposes of this post that it's a little more coherent than usual--normally Dave likes to offer non-sequitur sorts of theses, conclusions that pretend to resolve to Republican wisdom as derived from the bigger ideas or the (better) counterarguments that precede the message, ideas which clearly grab his interest, but which he doesn't labor to understand (Last week's piece on the Enlightenment is a good example of this. Did you know that the whole intellectual movement hinged on arguments over "go fast," which is where deductive reasoning gets you, and which perfectly describes populists and Democrats today, versus "take it slow," because Edmund Burke? I'm no philosopher either, but that seems to, uh, elide some important thinking of the time.)--and that I disagree with him just a skosh less then usual this time around (He may be right, sort of, about complexity, or at least it's an idea that many people accept. But in the case of BP and minerals management in this country, not to mention his other examples, he kind of elides the long-standing and fundamental problems of resource extraction vis a vis the environment, of public vs. industrial interests, about which people have not quite been silent but they have certainly been marginalized by serious chin-strokers such as himself, and here he pops up like Wormtongue again, flattering the industry, telling the world on its behalf that it was inevitable anyway, and was in no way related to cost-cutting or insufficient attention to the dangers of drilling that have been known since 1853. Complex systems may or may not be extra sensitive to external shocks, but you know what Dave? Fuck you.), but it's not a bad example of the traits I most feel like picking on.

Bobo is forever about that critical elision. What gets me is that I can't tell if he's lazy or lying, if he's failing to apply the reason he celebrates because he's dumb, or because he purposely ignores it. I tend to think it's the latter, and my running images of him include a contented lickspittle in the service of power or a knowledgeable, self-selected operative (like that guy Syme in 1984, who understood what was going on with the Eurasian political philosophy, and bought in anyway; in the novel, they eventually disappeared him, as I recall), but there's really no evidence of inner intellectual turmoil in his writing or speaking gigs. Even if he's in the habit of skimming science and philosophy articles for smart-sounding quotes, his conclusions never stray from conservative cant, no matter how irrelevantly he introduces them or how soothingly he enunciates. There's never any work to show. Maybe I get this impression that he's too smart to believe this shit because Brooks is an okay writer, a guy who can master the tone of his arguments, clearly, and is capable of delivering the intellectual patina that thoughtful conservatives crave. Maybe he's just phoning in the columns that he knows will keep him in print, burnt out eons ago from actually believing (or disbelieving) in anything, regardless of however he claims to have seen the half-light of boring faux-moderation. (I was going with "low-rent Lucifers" in the first draft too. Just sayin'.)

And that brings me to my last mental image of the guy, the one where I project heavily. Two columns and a half-dozen television and radio appearances a week have got to shake the believerism out of all but the most clear-headed or righteous, and never mind that sincerity isn't really a job requirement anyway in his line of work. The David Brooks of my sometimes imagination has defended against this by not treating the subject seriously, and softens the usual bullshit with a dollop of the important stuff he imagines he's interested in. Here's the author authoring away on auto-pilot, and in his fantasies he's dreaming of a job where he could wear a white coat and and carry a lab notebook, hammering out the problems of cognition, philosophy, or whatever it that he imagines Richard Feynman did, never mind that he doesn't really have the analytical skills to really understand the subjects or the motivation to keep up the technical effort for very long.

And you know, here I am, a mediocre scientist in an unglamorous discipline, gliding along with what skills are easier for me, fucking around on my blog in my free time and wondering if I could have been a writer instead. There are natural and brilliant scientists out there (and far better opinion writers, Bobo), and I am not one, but I am even less well-suited to the job of my fantasy, as should be obvious. Even if Brooks is fatigued down to his soul, it doesn't excuse the stuff he writes, and in his public life, he's a terrible human being. But I look at what I'm supposed to be doing for a living, and even though I have a lot of good rationalizations, I'm in many ways feeding the same beast, with about as much passion. I'm struggling to discern a difference.

[Added: There are far better opinion writers out there.]

Monday, May 24, 2010

Media Monday

0. Luv.
I don't watch the televisions at the gym, and can't listen to them (why they haven't figured out closed captioning, I have no idea), but in context, there is no amount of stationary biking I could do, no number of squats--and playing tennis never got me close--that could ever fill out my woefully flat, quintessentially white-guy hindquarters. And that's why I was looking--I'm just sensitive to these things.

I was too far away this morning (and honestly, I was trying to not look) to realize that Venus Williams was, in fact, wearing flesh-colored bottoms on her bottom, and that the presentation spread coverage the attention that was given to her outfit across five simultaneous screens was relatively unfounded. I suspect the usual combination of titillation and disapproval was being employed by the networks, bringing in the entire middle American Good Morning America demographic, both the prudes and the unhappy people they're married to. ABC was definitely showing her off as they scowled, and the local news didn't hesitate either. Oddly, Fox and Friends made their angry faces without highlighting any revealing serves. (CNBC and the NFL network did not mention the incident at all.)

And if she looks that good, well, who can blame her for showing off? Venus is a badass cool.

1. Lost.
I still haven't seen a single episode, not even the pilot, which I avoided only due to the usual confluence of business trips and mild aviophobia. I don't necessarily shun commitments requiring lengthy analysis of lesser art, and even though I consider my time too valuable these days to comb the waste for improbable diamonds, I can't deny that I've wasted many happy hours discovering how the discussion and speculation can blow up into something far more entertaining than the story itself (and sometimes the story can pleasingly confound your expectations too).

Anyway, I got into a conversation with the microscopy guy on Friday about this very thing, and he attempted to convince me (as others have tried) that Lost really did so have it all plotted out from the get-go, and that it's totally worth the five years of your life. I've got far too much invested in being a non-watcher at this point, so I'm not likely to engage until well after the post-mortem, if at all. Nonetheless, it's fun to have opinions, and here's my top five predicitons, based on knowing not a goddamn thing about this show:

  • It was all a dream. (c.f., The Wizard of Oz.)
  • It was all a simulation in which the characters have participated, willingly or no. Something universal about human nature is asserted, in this case probably at the last minute, through the experience. An experiment on humans by higher beings is a likely possibility. (c.f., The Matrix. Also a number of sf books, my possible favorite of which is The Deep by John Crowley.)
  • It was a mysterious simulation, and these characters dissolve in a horrifying fade-out with the realization that none of them are "real". (I'm sure I've read or seen more than one story of this type, but I've got no canonical example. My favorite short along these lines is Forlesen, by Gene Wolfe. Maybe The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathon Hoag by Robert Heinlein qualifies.)
  • They all died in the crash, and the time on the island has been a sort of Purgatory, as they unknowingly defend their lives for the appropriate torment, or else it's the last mad flailings of their minds before they all let go and pass on to oblivion. (The prime example is A Strange Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge, by Ambrose Bierce. For a more afterlife-themed version, see the movie, Jacob's Ladder. Aging is such a weird, slow disappointment that sometimes I wonder if I'm really in the back of an ambulance back in 1994 or something, hallucinating the whole thing.)
  • They're participating in some alternate reality, that is possibly just as true, due to death or delirium. The increasing madness of life on the island is a symptom, or maybe an unconscious metaphor, of trying to break free into "real" reality. (My favorite example of this is The Iron Dragon's Daughter, by Michael Swanwick.)

    What do I win?

    2. Iron Man 2
    (Okay, let's note a certain method to the numbering here. Ain't I something.)

    Speaking of surpassing expectations, there was a lot to like about the first Iron Man movie. To be sure, there was quality acting (including the Dude taking a turn as a meticulous, technologically savvy villain) that could sell it, but there was almost a--I don't want to go so far as to label it verisimilitude--there was also a low threshold for suspension of disbelief that let me accept Tony Stark flying around at unsurvivable accelerations and looking totally kickass. It's fairly obvious that they hired a technology consultant for the films, and even if putting a little fusion reactor into his chest made little medical sense (what, it was an electromagnet meant to prevent the migration of shrapnel? That's silly.), what makes Iron Man believable over Marvel's panoply of mutants is that you could convince yourself that these are merely engineering challenges overcome, not outright magic. The reactor in particular was a smart touch, with throwaways that it was a long-running failure by the company. It resembles a tiny tokamak (and the one in their lobby was a a more plausible big one, if you could imagine they'd build 'em with glass walls, or would keep one running down the grid as a demo piece), a real device and actual long-running failure, which is screaming for some revalatory inspiration from a gifted scientific mind. The suit too, in a compelling discovery sequence (a directorial achievement given its length) had its struggles and successes, to the extent that it was believable enough to warrant viewer apology (we assume that Stark Enterprises must have already developed some wicked shock absorbers, etc.).

    Good stuff, but on to the sequel, and we're running into problems. First of all, palladium is a noble metal, and considering it doesn't react with things very much, I am not convinced that it's especially toxic. (Hey Tony, I realize that in the comics universe radiation often gives you powers instead of kills you, but maybe the neutron damage is, you know, the problem.) You encounter this in science, where a limited set of material properties (usually with complicated interdependence) gets in your way and I suppose with enough computational effort, you could identify hypothetical materials that are more amenable (and then hind them in your futurama floorplan for some reason). But a new element? What the fuck is up with that? Did they find a new number between 1 and 107 that no one has thought of before? And that shit isn't toxic and radioactive? Let's ask the science consultant how one might go about doing this. It was great that Tony built a particle accelerator in his garage, on top of old milk crates and piles of laundry, though I'm even more impressed that he could shoulder it and wing around a glowing beam like a laser. (See all that stuff inside, Homer? That's why your cyclotron didn't work.) And all he had to do was hit that little slab with his harmless high energy proton beam (or whatever), and blammo, a little coathanger made out of unobtainium. Man, if nuclear chemistry is that easy, then I'm back to the basement to work on my gold machine. Meanwhile, some nerd chucks off his glasses in disgust.

    It's the sort of thing that makes me look for other flaws. The antogonsist Ivan Vanko, now given the run of a defense contractor's full secret facilities, can run giant production items without using any of the people on the floor, no people at all, except an occasional complaining visitor. Ivan had great potential for a character, and Mickey Rourke damn near sold him as both an impressively scary motherfucker and a brilliant physicist, but given his origin story, whatever's contributing to this guy's amorality really needed to be filled out. Revenge is usually a passionate enterprise, you know? (Also, did Iron Man just cold-cock him in a suit powerful enough to throw a tank? And he lived?) And Sam Rockwell was unpleasant and non-technical enough, but I'd no indication of how he could possibly run a big company. So at least that part was plausible.

    Of course I wish that I could age as well as Robert Downey Jr.. Getting older has only made him better looking, and I was surprised to learn that Gwynneth Paltrow shares this quality. Scarlett Johanssen plays an alluringly blank-faced enigma, which, beautiful as she may be, might best be described as her "entire range." The silliest casting was Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, a pointless excercise that lengthened an already-long movie with sequel tie-ins: have they learned nothing from casting this guy as Mace Windu?

    And they dared to crack open the military/technology/arms race can of worms, but then left it there stinking up the joint. Maybe it was better that way, at least approaching some basic philosophical challenges about the very existence of this stuff and leaving the questions open to the fanboys. I found myself thinking that the world would be bad enough off with one Iron Man, accountable to anyone only by his acquiescence, but an army full of them was even more terrifying. I'm not expecting deep political analysis from a superhero movie (and it's implied that Iron Man, as well as a number of other too-dangerous-for-just-anyone technologies will be relegated to oversight by special entities which would never, ever be tempted to fight covert or unjust wars), but no good is coming out of this. Didn't anyone regret the collateral damage when 20 giant robots started blowing up Madison Square Garden?

    At least in comic book land, we can count on moral resolve from the good guys when we need it.

    3. Treme
    I like this show enough to only stay a week or two behind. There's the well-developed character dramas, of course, but you can watch it for the music alone, for what it means (and doesn't mean) in the culture. Sneaking in that many of the local artists was an act of sheer brilliance, but I want to tell Mr. Simon that there's a threshold for this sort of thing. Anyone who's routinely featured on television, or who's crossed the bar in record sales is going to be conspicuous, and their introduction needs a deft hand. When the dialogue reads, "Oh my god, that's Elvis Costello, famous musician and record producer," then something's a little off in the way you're bringing in your special guest cameos, even if some characters might actually talk like that in the situation. "That's Tom Colicchio, and he brought along Eric Ripert and Wylie DuFresne. They're notable New York chefs!" Or maybe there's just no good way. Why wouldn't people like that show up? Of course they would.

  • Friday, May 14, 2010

    Five More Thoughts: Important Questions Ed.

    1. Does this ever happen naturally?
    In the first place, it impresses me that such a gigantic quantity of hydrocarbons has been infusing the crust all these millennia. Crazy that it's even there; crazier still that it's so well seized up in the rocks for so long. Organic crud is lighter than stones are, and lighter than water too for that matter, and you'd think that it'd've bubbled up eons ago, farted out into the air by seismic activity, tracked across the verdure by the dinosaurs' gooey talons. The earth's geological cycles, evidently (or at least by successful analogy) swirl around similarly to other convecting systems, they just do it really slowly. Impossibly slowly. The forests and pond scum of yesteryear get drowned, buried, subducted, chemically reduced. The suite of un-oxygenated organic materials ranging from from methane to graphite gets caught up in the cracks and pores, frozen bubbles waiting out the interminable centuries till the crust gets turned over and the pressure's released.

    The oil leak in the Gulf is horrific, really, shaping up to be a generational national disaster, maybe an epochal one. What fucking hubris--nothing can go wrong? you really thought that?--and yet I keep thinking that with all these pressure bombs lurking under the surface, don't any of them go off from time to time without human influence? Are there no recorded gushers due to earthquakes? Along faults? This is not meant to be an exercise in douchey climatological contrarianism, just something that got me curious. There is (or was) a lot of oil under there, and are we the only reason it ever gets out? Sounds anthropocentric.

    acoustic image of a methane plumeNo Googling turned up any inadvertent natural blowouts, although the crust certainly outgasses regularly. Some of the more famous modes are gas seeps from the sea floor, along which methane-eating microbes flourish. Near active geological regions and fault lines, these trapped organics, as well as water, can also get hot and get released. Mud volcanoes are one way that hydrocarbons get released from the earth, causing trouble, or just looking cool when observed in the depths. (Hee hee, mud "diapir"!)

    Other reading has suggested that an oil slick emerged from Haiti's recent earthquake, maybe from new faults that released the subterranean material. Oil formations might underlie one of the Caribbean's more tragically impoverished communities. Would energy development save the island? (Resources have had ambiguous benefits in the past.)

    underwater mud volcanoSome hydrocarbons on the ocean floor are present in clathrates, crystals composed of methane and water, resembling ice (more generally, clathrates have cage-like molecular structures in which various compounds can be incorporated). Methane clathrates burn, which is just awesome--I want some in my freezer to impress my friends. These are evidently sedimentary minerals, formed by the reduction of carbon dioxide by methanogens or some similar bugs, and fallen to the anoxic depths. It's been hypothesized that enough atmospheric warming and ocean acidification could release all this otherwise stable methane (a greenhouse gas), raising global temperature in a runaway fashion. This may have even caused the big Permian extinction. Scary, but according to the Wikipedian sages, most of it is deep enough that it's not expected to play the major part in our own lurking doom--I'm thinking of these clathrates as the shallower turns of the carbon cycle, an epicycle jiggling along the even slower elemental circuit. Methane lives a relatively short time in an oxidative environment, and if you go back far enough, free methane must have been more significant in the reducing Achaean proto-atmosphere. Where did the carbon originally come from? Condensed with the rest of the planet probably, buoying itself along the surface regions with record ebullience, as far as geological terms go.

    And so we have mud volcanoes, but tar pits are famous too. They're still here, having leaked the heavier crude fractions along fault lines for ages, sustaining permanent lakes of sludge. We've found a lot of cool stuff preserved in there, and my suggestion is that we deliver time capsules into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sunken offerings for far-future paleontologists to discover, for whatever they may make of all of this.

    2. Seriously, if the problem was that we neglected to clean the bathtub for a whole month, what makes us think that the solution is to get one of those spray bottles that you have to use *every single day*?
    Update: it's still sitting there.

    3. Did coal cause the Renaissance?
    A lot of things changed at the end of the middle ages, which to us moderns, appear to have happened very fast (we like to forget the generations that passed in obscurity, as always, and celebrate the pockets of leisurely thinkers that woke up here and there). Anyway, suddenly we imagine a Renaissance, an explosion of art, science, economics, population, international instability, schism, and war. I've been asking myself, off and on, over the years of this blog, how the hell did it happen? Did prosperity cause democritization of power? Or maybe it was the other way around. Did the establishment of systems of learning and patronage (universities, monasteries, pet intellectuals) spur secularism in Europe (or Protestantism, the next-best thing at the time), or was it the reverse? To pick any one observation as the cause of the others is to taint yourself with ideology, and I try to avoid that. Well, usually I do.

    Even if an inferiority complex about the grandeur that was Rome pervaded the West for centuries, progress didn't exactly grind to a halt. The accelerated close of the late middle ages may well have been a consequence of the enthusiastic recovery from the famines, plagues, and climate disaster of the the regrettable 14th century. Urbanization was happening apace, and it was running on wood: by the 1500s deforestation was already major problem. Northern Italy was pretty well wiped clean of trees when the Medicis aspired to employ the likes of DaVinci and Machiavelli. Later, Elizabethan England would be built on, and run on, imported timber.

    Coal was well known enough by the time of the Renaissance, but it was not preferred thanks to its general stinkiness. But as the economy took off, there was little else to go on. Surely there was an interdependence in all these changes: innovations required fuel, and even if, say, ship-building couldn't help but be wood-intensive, the means of manufacture of everything else still had to be accounted for. It might be too much to say that new fuels caused the new thinking, but they certainly sustained it. Coal came just in time, and if it came to soot up the streets of London with obscene quantities of filth, it kept the imagineers of the age employed too. In our own times, the industrial revolution couldn't have proceeded without an immense supply of oil either.

    Without energy availability, you can't do anything. What scares the shit out of me is that (regardless of the rest of the ecology) if sixteenth century people couldn't be sustained by wood, the current population sure as hell can't come close. If we're low on hydrocarbons, what the hell are we going to revert to as fossil fuels get scarce? The next amazing fuel? We might be a little behind. I deeply fear the limits to Cornucopianism.

    4. Daddy, can we watch Spider Man tonight?
    I am surprised to regard myself as an authoritarian. "What's allowed" is what they ask. Apparently, these royal indulgences are sufficiently rare that they're scooped up with budding entitlement. Uh, rated PG? I guess. (I don't give much of a shit about the language, but I tell the kids they can't watch violence until they understand irony, and as far as sex goes, I'd rather they learn to be in charge of it--I know far too well how much you should trust boys, and, well, we can have a discussion of what happens if you don't treat fucking very seriously--which the media seems a bit sketchy on, and I'm less comfortable sharing this than I thought I'd be when I first joined the club.)

    Anyway, what's curious is that if a movie is watched once together, it becomes part of the family canon. Spider Man, now that he's been admitted into the club, is one of the handful of flicks that my little darling troll for obsessively on the on-demand (not to mention the sequels). Cartoons that I've happened to mention hating less are the preferred viewing when I'm around. It's like the cargo cult of parental affection, television selections in place of non-functioning airstrips. "See Daddy, we reproduce the stuff that was on when you loved us," or maybe it's a just their stretch for common ground. Am I so stingy in my interaction? In my affection? What a terrible thought! My god, turn it off, let's do something real!

    5. Will this change the price of beer?

    I take back whatever I might have ever said about John Kerry over the years. The senator is proposing to reduce the taxes on brewers that make less than two million barrels of beer yearly (about the Sam Adams threshold). He's clearly targeting the microbrew industry, which is still strong in New England, despite the decline in the small-brew fad over the last ten years or so. For the tax discount, we're talking three bucks a barrel for the little guys, an excise tax, which I guess means on production, which according to my calculations, might save me as much as six cents on a ten dollar six-pack if it all of the windfall is reaped by the consumer. But you know, it's the priciple of the thing, and if it's an edge to keep local brewers alive, then I'm all for it.

    (I hope they have similar relaxations for local agriculture. As it is, the regulations often favor the big boys...)

    Friday, May 07, 2010

    A Sciencimilitudinous Three-Fer

    1. Naughty Economics
    You know, there are lots of things I wish I wrote. Happens all the time. More rarely, I encounter stuff that I like to pretend some more sophisiticated, educated, practiced, knowledgable, motivated, and skilled version of myself could pull off--not just what they said, but I'd like to have said it that way too. Readers of this-here blog, and God bless both of you for sticking around this long, might have noticed my sometimes-uneasy fascination when it comes to contrasting things like macroeconomics and demographics against engineering and the physical sciences. Maybe the fact that I'm such a slapdash practitioner of the latter is why those former things appeal in the first place, but I also think, more generally, that quantification and understanding the relationships between variables are important skills for understanding aspects of the world beyond basic science, and I believe that there are patterns in those dynamics that either actually repeat, or that humans are especially adept at recognizing, and that these different schools of understanding should inform each other better than they appear to. And I love nothing better than torturing a scientific metaphor as well, there's always that.

    The field of economics adopts phsyics math concepts rather consciously at times, and I've frequently thought I should be able to get some traction there, at least get it up to my shitty physics comprehension. But there's something that's always been niggling at me about the whole damn thing, and in all those posts (and as usual) I sidle up to a point repeatedly, and try to wrestle the language into representing what the hell it is exactly that's bugging me. And so I say that economics just doesn't support the precision it claims. I say it's a behavior model which in many cases fails to model behavior, one that tries to be a phenomenological representation, but that thinking about it that way will only get you so far. Also, I distrust financiers who purport to give me advice, when they own suits that are more expensive than my car. Fuck those guys.

    Anyway, I found this paper via a commenter on Balloon Juice, who referenced another blog. You should read the article, it's awesome. I very much enjoyed the discussions of deductive reasoning vs. empiricism (both good things), and I also liked the just-enough-epistemology-to-be-dangerous, including the part acknowledging some continuity between natural sciences and the humanities, so that's why all my friends are engineers and lawyers.* Deirdre McCloskey details the sins of economics, including the virtues that are mistaken for sins (should economists apologize for the urge to quantify? for trying to understand via deductive reasoning? absolutely not!), serious sins, and ultimately the two dark, secret sins:

    Economics in its most prestigious and academically published versions engages in two activities, qualitative theorems and statistical significance, which look like theorizing and observing, and have (apparently) the same tough math and tough statistics that actual theorizing and actual observing would have. But neither of them is what it claims to be.
    Okay, the article is not perfect; there's always something to complain about. I don't how her Libertarianism has survived, why assumptions about fairness are supposed to be an ennobling (and weakly defended) virtue instead of a perhaps venial sin of naïvete (even if a motivation to fairness is all well and good). But she gives plenty of tools to address what's wrong with this outlook. It's a bit more implicit in her piece, but I might further emphasize a general failure to embrace induction--observing laws based on the data—maybe it's buried in her sin of institutional ignorance (not spending time in the places where economics actually happens), the first serious one not unique to the field, or maybe it's a part of the second secret sin.

    [I don't know about her anthropology either. I have never suspected a tendency to exclude impersonal variables in favor of humanist ones, and my limited reading has certainly suggested the opposite. If Marvin Harris and E. O. Wilson (who, okay, is not really an anthropologist) are atypical, then I'm going to have to revise my opinion of the field! The poster at Language Log didn't think her closing comparison with linguistics was apt, either. Oh, and Euler's formula is damn useful in addition to being a particularly elegant expression of pure mathematical theory. Dissention noted.]

    The second sin is a discussion of what we choose to measure and say is important, which I think is common everywhere, but when you're dealing with human variables, as you do in ecomics, what matters is inherently subjective. McCloskey tells us that the field has deviated unforgivably from this, and has, almost as a rule, confused statistical significance with either an essential truth, or worse, an essential importance. I appreciate the first argument more: that economic theory is based on pure deduction, heavily dependent on its description of starting conditions and its governing assumptions, both of which can be suspect, and which does not result in a quantitative, measurable result. That's an artifact of my naïve background, of course; my last ten years has been more about exploring the humanism.

    None of which means that such an endeavor is not useful and important, just that we should understand what it is.

    *that and the life of relative, though not impressive, privilege

    2. Inherent Complexity
    Dear Deirdre:
    "I have to keep saying “pure” because of course it is entirely possible—indeed commonplace—for novelists, say, to take a scientific view of their subjects...Likewise scientists use elements of pure narration...or elements of pure make scientific arguments. I do not want to get entangled in the apparently hopeless task of solving what is known as the Demarcation Problem, discerning a line between science and other activities. It is doubtful such a line exists. The efforts of many intelligent philosophers of science appear to have gotten exactly nowhere in solving it. I am merely suggesting that a science like many other human practices...should be about the world, which means it should attend to the world.
    It's not quite where she's going with the quote, but I'm taking a chance on using it as a segue. It's not easy to dispassionately observe the world even in the pure sciences; the fact that we're people is hard to escape. A recent Archdruid Report post was about complexity (I have no intention of latching onto the guy like a remora nibbling up post ideas--it's more that I made a long comment, the only reply to which leaked over here and wrung another long comment out of me. He's been getting the brain working.). He points out some contemporary versions of complexity, and relates it to Joseph Tainter's theories of societal collapse, in which the diminishing returns of bifurcated attempts at problem-solving doom the endeavor at some critical point. It sounds like a reasonable description of how humans behave when they run into problems, and sometimes diversifying the approach isn't going to be enough to overcome a deeper problem (simplification may be—can we branch from an earlier point?). I can't quite get myself to describe collapse is an inevitable consequence of complexity, however. And I think we need to be clear about what complexity actually means.

    As I understand it (knowledge! I read a paper yesterday), the usual measure of complexity, pulled from the computational world, is defined as the length of the minimum necessary description of something. As a useful description of the natural universe, of course, this is fucking nuts. Anything can be "minimally described" by nothing more than "that thing." When I describe a pin, it's simple as can be, but I tend to neglect the innumerable quantum mechanical angels dancing around on its head. Nature gets more complex the deeper you look at it. Wheels within wheels, dude, and turtles all the way down. For that matter, some things that look complex are overestimated. A wave looks more complex than a gradient...until you do the appropriate transformation on it. I mean, "complexity" is so obviously and closely tied with our ability to describe something, that working on that definition as a natural phenomenon is a mighty philosophical head-scratcher. You can't have complexity without invoking the ability of humans to represent a system, right?

    [And as far as the complexity of finance goes, it doesn't seem to follow Occam's suggestion of a minimum necessary description of trade and investment. That's something beyond what an inherent complexity might be: I think intellectual positions of power within society (whether financiers, academics, or priests) have a temptation to add complication in order to perpetuate their exalted and insulated role. (But don't worry, when I use jargon it's only because it's necessary.) Unnecessary complexity is another word for bullshit.]

    And yet....

    Complexity really seems like it could be a material property, a thermodynamic variable. We already have entropy, which--and this still blows my mind--has a statistics basis that is related to the information content of something. Maybe call entropy a measure of meaninglessness, or of equivalence. Complexity, if it can be cornered, has got to be something related. And statistical thermo also has some of the same issues that a description of complexity would, namely, how do we account for the all of the microstates (not to mention all the underlying nano-, pico-, femto-, and myrmecological attostates, and so on, all the way down)? The dodge is that any coarse-grained microstate is a superposition of a ridiculous number of quantum mechanical (atto?)states, which end up being equivalent enough for government funding.

    I'm going past my own observations now. I'm not the first to head down this path, unsurprisingly, and now I'm specifically looking at some descriptions from a paper by paper by Rojdestvenski et al. (It was the first credible-looking source when I Googled the topic yesterday, and I mean, really, if I knew you could publish irresponsible speculations like this, I'd have quit this thankless paying job long ago. Maybe they were reading my blog? Nah, the dates don't work out.) Unfortunately, I can't link a pdf, but trust me that it introduces itself via a ride on some of my old bloggy hobby horses (shameless self-linking follows), such as admitting an early problem with completeness in describing the information content of something real, the peculiar situation of looking at coded things when we are the expressions of coded things, and entropy vs. evolution. It was a little validating, I admit.

    They make a point that complexity, like the usual thermodynamic variables, is better thought of in terms of differential changes anyway (whether any third-law equivalent applies to complexity, who knows). The macro relations hold, in other words, and if complexity is a valid thermodynamic quantity, then this is how it must behave. If you think about things like internal energy, then the microstates aren't generally counted well there either. It's not that unusual, but it still feels weak on what complexity is.

    I am a good deal less comfortable with their evasion of that question. They say that DNA, which has an inherent pattern, is independent of our observation, and is thus especially well-described by some (hypothetical) thermodynamic complexity. But doesn't everything have some level of organization? Surely any such material property must apply to non-living systems as well. It reminds me uncomfortably of the crank arguments that say the second law of thermodynamics proves creationism, and for that matter "complexity" is also a buzzword of intelligent design, so who knows what sort of search results I'll get on this one. Rojdestvenski has the opposite agenda, I suppose, and unlike creationists (or irresponsible economists), he (or she) is at least trying to refine a theory that describes evidence. The reason the authors wish to keep complexity in the realm of living things is because they are interested in forming a physics-based description of evolutionary processes, and they draw up some entertaining little cellular automata simuations to describe how evolutionary adaptions to deal with that energy balance might affect the development of populations. But still, even if evolution is unique to living things, I don't believe that complexity is.

    I don't know enough about Tainter's ideas to know if they can work with evolutionary theory or not. For some extreme perturbations, the more complex individual (or species) will fail, even while complexity of the whole ecosystem appears to make life itself more robust, just giving us a bigger toolbox of accessible traits and adaptations to adjust to the big change. Evolution appears to increase complexity, but there also should be something to explain that the populations of complex organisms ain't got nothing on the simpler ones--even at this late date the bacteria are outnumbering us, possibly even pound for pound. The authors observe that in their highly limited simulation, highly variable conditions favor simpler organisms. That seems reasonable enough.

    And it might also not be a bad shot at imagining how societies end. If the perturbations are big enough, then a more complex system will be less robust, and if I were clearer on what Tainter says, this would be a far better post. I'll go back to this eventually. Maybe in another couple years.

    3. Pissed Epistemology
    Okay, this is getting long, but since I've cited the thread already, here's a good example of something that's bothered me for a long time. The poster had a great start:
    Mental constructions of gardens are much simpler to create than real ones, because putting a theoretical person on a plot of rhetorical soil is just the beginning...
    What follows is a description of examples of the challenge of understanding a small agricultural ecosystem, much of which is ignored by industrial-scale farming, which, I'll bet you a lap in the nearest shit lagoon, is at our long-term peril. Gardening is a complex effort, even in the human-limited language of the comment. But clearly, gardening is technology. Hawk1eye starts advocating a better, deeper level of understanding, and the conclusion, to "chuck the idea that the best way to proceed is by working the industrial teeter-totter of 'empirical observations' leading to 'theoretical formulation'" just doesn't follow from those kinds of arguments. I mean seriously, if we want to entertain the idea of intuitively listening to the land instead of gaining an understanding and keeping track of what works and what's real, then let's start shitting in the wild, eating random berries, and take our best chance at surviving the first cold night. What, all of a sudden we have to observe and be careful? Well, no shit! So how should we know how much to observe, and how are you going to justify how much? If there's one bottom-line lesson I learned from nearly a decade of engineering edjumication is that intuition is something that's earned.

    Here's my broader complaint: I hate it when people try to invoke reason to dismiss reason. People arguing something like intelligent design will often try to corner you in a rational-esque Encyclopedia Brown kind of gotcha moment. "Hey, it couldn't be that complex without thwarting thermodynamics, so therefore God made it six thousand years ago. Huh? Am I right?" Faith isn't necessarily such a bad thing, but when it's willfully pitted against science (which is really just an organized attempt to be descriptive), sometimes I wish they'd go full-on mystic and be done with it.

    It's a similar phenomenon as demanding authority to regulate authority. Maybe it works when it's different authority with a different constituency, or if you're reasoning around different observations or assumptions, but you know, if that's what you're saying, then go ahead and say that. For a guy who doesn't know much philosophy, I realize that using rational argument to probe the nature of rationality (to uncover paradoxes and such) is valid enough, but that's a slightly different animal than using reason to prove non-reason. If arguments in general are not valid, then neither are the arguments making that case. (And maybe a contradiction like that can be derived from some advanced thinking--those knowledge paradoxes again—but those don’t really deny the thinking that got them there, and I don't think what we're talking about incorporates quite that much thought--on the practical human scale, it's well past the why-bother point.)

    Describing our epistomologies and ontologies while using those same things is a formidible challenge, but making the effort to do so is both reasonable and important. Like Deirdre said, the asking of the why is no sin.