5 March 2014

Covering the Territory

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:57 am

This one scientific study, this one business, this one war, this one church: each individual creation is simultaneously a part of a larger reality and a separate reality in its own right. How does the reality of the larger category of Science, Business, War, Church shape the way you create this particular instantiation?

Say I want to write a novel. All the novels ever written comprise the larger reality of The Novel. There are abstract properties that apply to most novels: they are fictional, they are written by one person, they’re pretty long, there are characters, there are stories involving the characters. There are novel-writing skills: good writing technique, imagination, character development, dialogue. There are subcategories of novels, the “genres” of fiction: science fiction, romance, inspirational, literary. Then there is the environment where novels “live”: publishers, bookstores, the reading public. There’s what the customers want out of a novel: characters they can relate to, some sex and violence, snappy dialogue, straighforward story development.

Then there is my novel. A man is sitting at an outdoor café table. It’s southern France. It’s raining, late afternoon. He’s sitting by himself, drinking a beer. Just like every afternoon. He’s distracted, lost in thought – he’s just heard disturbing news from a distant friend. After a while he realizes that there’s a woman standing across from him, greeting him by name. She extends her hand…

This is the reality as it exists inside this particular novel, a novel that isn’t even written yet, a reality that’s being summoned into existence out of the formless void of the individual imagination. I’ve read plenty of novels, I’ve worked on my skills: now I’m writing this novel, creating this one idiosyncratic creation. I’m totally immersed in this emerging reality that’s taking shape around me. To me as I write there are no other novels: there’s only this one.

Say I’ve finished writing the novel. There it sits in the agent’s slush pile, one manuscript among hundreds, thousands, millions. What’s distinguishes mine from the rest? Perhaps nothing: it’s a product of the novel-writing industry. It’s a cottage industry comprised of hundreds of thousands of individual practitioners working in relative isolation. From forty thousand feet my novel is identical to every other novel.

I can approach the work of writing a novel in one of two ways. I can think about where my novel sits in the larger reality of The Novel: the component parts, the skills, the genres, the market. I want to make my novel enough like everyone else’s so that it’s attractive to the publishing industry and the reading public, but different enough that it stands out from the competition. Or I can think about the guy getting up from his café table to greet the woman. Does he kiss her extended hand, shake it, grasp it tenderly? What does he say to her? Does she join him for a beer? Why has she come?

In my view, the only escape from Baudrillard’s world of the simulacra, of copies without originals, of representations without realities, is to ignore The Reality and to create this particular reality. Instead of seeing a world overwhelmed by more and more of the same, you find – or you create – a formless void where nothing exists except pure unprecedented possibility. Are there any formless voids left in a world inundated by mass-produced simulacra of everything under the sun? From forty thousand feet, no. But right here, right now, the guy at his café table rises to greet the woman. He bumps his leg on the table, sloshing just a little of the beer out of his glass, but neither of them notices. The man reaches out to take the woman’s extended hand as the waiter stands by the open door of the café, empty tray in hand, watching the motorcycle as it splashes its way between the double-parked cars toward the sea…

*   *   *

The preceding is an exact replica of this post, dated 4 October 2006. Is it, like Menard’s Quixote, different now, maybe even better, more original than the original?


25 June 2013

Accelerating the Float

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:45 am

[In light of ongoing blog discussions of Accelerationism, I thought I’d post the chapter that I’ve been editing this morning. It’s one of several “news reports from the future” interspersed through the novel. Suggested augmentations are welcome.]

TAHITI – The first three of fourteen floating tax-free islands being built in the South Pacific are ready for occupancy. Some two thousand of the wealthiest individuals and families in the world have commissioned the construction of the artificial archipelago as a residential and financial paradise. Together the islands will comprise a new nation-corporation, with citizenship granted to anyone paying one billion dollars into the archipelago’s development trust. According to domestic and international law, the floating nation will constitute a tax-free haven for the global earnings of each citizen.

The floating islands, located in the open sea twelve hundred miles east of Tahiti, represent a significant advance in large-scale artificial land technology. Each island is assembled from enormous modules that are themselves being constructed at a Peruvian offshore assembly facility and towed into position. Layered with topsoil, the artificial surface can support most varieties of the lush plant life and exotic bird species native to the South Seas habitat. The islands are convex, a hundred feet above sea level at the center and sloping gradually toward the ocean, where a layer of sand will be maintained as an artificial beach. Each citizen is deeded a wedge of property extending from the island’s apex to the shore. Residences, constructed from strong ultralight material, are limited to a single storey and will be built at least forty feet above sea level as protection against tropical storms and the high waves they can generate. Citizens are also permitted to erect beachside cabanas. An area of each island will be set aside for establishing a small village of sturdy, attractive huts that will be assigned to servants and nannies and other personnel supporting the citizens’ households.

Automobiles are prohibited, so residents will use bicycles and motorboats to get around. A limited number of cafés and small shops will be built on the islands. Groceries, clothing, and other bulkier commodities will be sold from ships that travel from island to island, ferrying customers back and forth from their homes. A small, fully outfitted cruise ship will house’s the archipelago’s schools. Teachers, support staff, and boarded students will live in the luxurious on-board suites, while day pupils take the hydroplane “bus” to and from school. Electricians, plumbers, police, and other maintenance personnel will make “house calls” to the islands from their motorboats. The service marina will thus comprise another sort of floating community within the perimeter of the artificial archipelago. A decommissioned aircraft carrier will function as the local airport, with commercial flights scheduled to and from Tahiti and Pago Pago. Citizens will also have the opportunity to purchase private craft hangar space on the carrier.

The islands are kept afloat by enormous bulkheads that sink half a mile beneath the surface. The bulkheads are automatically maintained at the optimal level of inflation by computerized pumps and pipelines mounted on low, subtly-landscaped platforms positioned a mile offshore of each island. Instead of being anchored to the seafloor, the islands are stabilized by means of a network of enormous underwater buoys submerged at varying, precisely calibrated depths. The buoys are automatically raised or lowered to adjust for variations in tides, currents, and temperature. On the surface, the islands are buffered against trade winds and waves by a circular system of levees, also anchored to underwater stabilizers, that completely surround the archipelago.

Collectively, the fourteen islands and their citizen-owners will comprise the floating nation-corporation. It is anticipated that, once formed, the archipelago’s government will rapidly establish the country as a tax-free, unregulated offshore financial center. It has been proposed that multinational corporations and partnerships of which island citizens own at least twenty percent will be granted tax-free status by the archipelago. Not surprisingly, financial institutions, shipping firms, and other companies desirous of taking advantage of the islands’ attractive business climate have begun wooing potential citizen-investors by means of designer low-price stock offerings, limited-liability partnerships, and hedge funds.

If the floating nation-corporation proves successful, the owner-citizens may consider expanding the territory, constructing additional islands within the protected perimeter or even extending territorial boundaries farther into the open seas. While citizenship presently costs a cool billion dollars, the sticker price might well go up in future offerings. Other wealthy consortia are forming to explore the possibility of launching their own start-up floating nations that would demand less up-front outlay.

The wealthiest one percent of the world’s population controls more than sixty percent of the world’s wealth; soon most of that wealth might be sailing out to sea. Traditional land-based countries, watching their tax revenues floating away, are rapidly lowering their tax rates in order to compete.

22 April 2013

I Like My Similes Like I Like My Metaphors

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:57 am

[I’m about two-thirds of the way through the current book. This excerpt comes from the immediately preceding one.]

“Hey Lois,” he shouted out the open office door as he veered toward the flipchart. “Go get us a round of beers if you would.” He studied the top sheet for a few seconds before ripping it from the pad and tossing it to the floor. Uncapping the black marker he began writing something at the top of the page. The marker was nearly out of ink and Karas flung it across the room, its tip making a short grey smudge on the wall between two of the taped-up sheets before caroming onto the hardwood. He snatched up the red marker and began again:


“This is the progression, yes?” But Karas wasn’t waiting for the Courier to keep up with him now. “We’ve always thought – I’ve always thought about the progression in individual terms. A man becomes a mighty man becomes a god. Pilgrimage as decisive and extreme movement away from the norm, from the collective. The outlier becomes a double outlier, and maybe finally a triple outlier. Instead of waiting for the one in a million to come along we would accelerate the difference engines, turbocharge the thrusters, propel more of the exceptional people out of orbit. Some of them might shoot out of sight altogether, never to be heard from again. But others – well, instead of launching one revolution at a time they might catalyze simultaneous cascades, multiple singularities in art, science, economics, warfare…

“Still, there has always been the statistical underpinning. Difference relative to the norm, stretch out the axes of deviation. We’ve always speculated that a society of outliers might emerge, reticulated through the Portals via some unknown and perhaps unprecedented mechanisms exceeding mere empathy and cooperation. We didn’t want the Stations to be seen as anything more than termini linking the Trails, transient nexuses for Pilgrims passing through as each by each they pursued their separate trajectories into exceptionalism.

“But now we face the empirical facts: most of the Pilgrims are going nowhere fast. Money, power, sex, prestige – the vectors and endpoints are all so fucking predictable. Sure there are exceptions, and exceptions are what we prize above all. Maybe our project is doomed from the start, but we wanted to establish the preconditions and the apparatus and the impetus for cultivating a whole host of exceptions. Hey, we should make that our new motto.” Karas turned back to the flipchart and printed in large block letters, filling the sheet:


Lois brought in two tall tapered glasses of cloudy beer with a skim at the top. “Belgian blond lambic,” she announced as she placed one of the glasses on the conference table in front of the Courier.

“I like my beer like I like my women,” Karas insinuated archly as Lois handed him the other glass.

“Cold and flat and murky?”

Karas watched Lois walk back out to the antechamber.

10 April 2013

Undead Text

Filed under: Culture, Fiction, First Lines, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

“I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.”

That’s the first line of The Shadow of the Wind, a 2004 novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón that I’ve been reading. Yesterday I was searching my document files — my private cemetery of forgotten texts — for a fragment I remember having written, thinking that I might be able to splice it into the fiction I’m presently writing. I never did find what I was looking for, but I did come across a document from 2004 that read like a Ktismatics blog post before Ktismatics even existed. Better late than never, I figured, so I reformatted the document as a post. I titled it “Wallace Stevens, Bond Man.” While proofing it I was remembering a couple of other posts I’d previously written about Wallace Stevens. So I googled myself: it turns out that I had already turned this same text into a Ktismatics post. It’s called On Keeping Your Day Job, posted in August 2007. So it was three years after having written the text that I turned it into a blog post, but that post is nearly six years old now and I’d forgotten all about it. Sometimes even the resurrected texts find their way back into the crypt.

24 March 2013

Wherein I Recall My Prior Life as a Mad Scientist

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:10 am

If the glass is half full, that means it’s also half empty.

After finishing my doctorate I did a postdoc in an AI lab. These were the early, heady days of expert systems, a technology predicated on making explicit the tacit knowledge of human experts, converting the heuristics of human decision-making into conceptual objects and rules for manipulating them that could be run on computers. Our core group consisted of cognitive psychologists and computer scientists, and in building systems we would collaborate with “domain experts” in medicine, business, law, engineering, and other practical disciplines. A standard division of labor was established: the domain experts provided the expertise; the psychologists did the “knowledge engineering,” which consisted of making explicit what the experts knew and how they used that knowledge; the computer scientists designed and built the computer systems encoding the engineered expert knowledge.

Early on I came to a sobering realization: human experts aren’t nearly as good as computers at using knowledge. Humans have limited processing capacity, and so they can’t remember very many things at once, can’t pay attention to very many features of the task in front of them, can’t deal with very many variables at the same time. To compensate for their limitations, humans take various short-cuts and work-arounds in solving complex problems. Computers have limitations too, especially in their ability to acquire new knowledge, but in their ability to process lots of information they vastly outperform humans. Equipped with knowledge already learned by human experts, computers can manipulate this knowledge more efficiently, and more accurately, than can the human experts.

I remember giving a talk in DC to a gathering of all the AI postdocs funded under the same national grant program, working in labs at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, U. of Minnesota, UC San Diego, maybe others (my memory has degraded since then). Most of the talks were about AI work in progress. I talked about the differences between human and computer decision-making. Instead of fancy slides I drew overheads by hand with a black marker. I drew out a simple binary decision tree that went maybe 7 layers deep, pointing out ways in which knowledge and logic interact in actual decision-making tasks, describing how computers are not vulnerable to the same sorts of biases as humans in working through even a fairly simple decision. I remember one of the colleagues at my university telling me afterward that he thought my talk sucked. But I also remember discussing the implications of my presentation with the overall head of the grant program nationwide and one of the pioneering figures in expert systems. It turned out that his group was moving away from having computers imitate human heuristic knowledge toward more reliance on what computers are best at: manipulating numerical information via quantitative algorithms.

While I did some work on a pediatric cardiology expert system, I spent most of my time as a postdoc doing knowledge engineering on two other projects. One was a system for designing so-called fractional factorial experiments, where the domain expert was a statistics professor in the business school. The other was a system for making credit decisions, the domain expert being a professional credit analyst in the insurance industry. In both cases, through conversation and observation, I was gradually able to identify the information the experts looked for in the “task domain” and the ways in which they used this information to render decisions. As had been the case in other domains, these experts used short-cuts and rules of thumb to compensate for human processing limitations. I put together alternative “inference engines” for both of these task domains, with decision-making processes predicated on the heavy number-crunching capacity of computers. I also went ahead and did the programming on both of these systems.

The results should have been predictable. Both the experimental design system and the credit rating system were excellent at performing their respective tasks. Where it was possible to evaluate their decisions in comparison with the “right” answers, the computer systems outperformed the human experts. The human experts acknowledged their machinic doubles’ excellence, even at times conceding their superiority. But they didn’t trust these hybrid expert systems, using their own human knowledge but processing it algorithmically rather than heuristically. They couldn’t understand how these systems thought, how they arrived at their decisions. The systems’ reasoning procedures, more efficient, more consistent, and arguably more accurate than their own, were too opaque, too alien for the human experts to grasp. I concluded that the only way systems like the ones I built would ever be used in real-world decision-making would be if the human experts weren’t sitting around looking over the expert systems’ shoulders second-guessing their decisions. You would need lower-level human technicians to feed the computer systems with data, to read the output, and to enact the systems’ decisions without constantly grousing about robots ruling the world and all the rest of the tedious all-too-human resentment my systems seemed to provoke.

16 March 2013

The Brain’s Glass is Half Full

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:06 am

My brain doesn’t have to understand its own workings in order to work. Even a frog can see a fly, hop toward it, and catch it mid-flight with its tongue, all without knowing how its neuromuscular apparatus accomplishes these feats. I don’t know through introspection how I see and run and catch a ball, how I feel warmth or hunger or sexual arousal, how I understand spoken language or remember the name of my elementary school. Why should I expect my ability to decide and to take intentional action to be any more accessible to introspection than any of these other neurological functions?

Humans are at least partially aware of their own limitations. I don’t have much body fur, but if I turn on the heat inside and put on a coat when I go out I can survive in a cold climate. I can’t outrun a zebra, but if I get in my Jeep and drive after it I can overtake the zebra. I have a hard time remembering a 9-digit number, and even then my memory degrades rapidly, but if I write the 9 digits down I can retrieve them when I need them. Humans build and use tools largely to compensate for their mental and physical limitations: this ability is paradigmatic of human intentionality.

Cognitive psychology as an empirical subdiscipline emerged in the late 60s not from philosophical idealism but from behaviorism, which regarded all behavior as an automatic stimulus-response mechanism unmediated by thought. Cognitive psychology presented empirical evidence supporting the alternative contention that there is a black box intervening between S and R, processing inputs and preparing outputs. Neurologists are exploring more directly how the black box works. But explanation won’t change functionality. When Copernicus figured out that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and when Galileo confirmed the heliocentric system observationally, people didn’t suddenly spin off the surface of the world and float into space, nor did they suddenly stop seeing the sun rise in the east and set in the west. If a satisfactory empirical explanation of intentionality is achieved, that won’t mean that people will suddenly stop intending or realize that they’d never in their lives actually intended anything.

13 March 2013

Intentionality as Adaptive Mutation

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:18 pm

[This post follows my prior posts on Terrence Deacon’s 2012 Incomplete Nature entitled Why Life? and Reducing the Intentionality Problem.]

I don’t know why or how life evolved from nonlife. Other self-organizing systems, like heat convection or atmospheric currents, are dissipative structures that accelerate the production of entropy in far-from-equilibrium conditions. Organisms do it too, maintaining their negentropic functions by using free energy from their environment, thereby accelerating overall entropy. Maybe that’s what organisms are for: to accelerate the inevitable heat death of the universe. Certainly humans are highly efficient entropy production systems, using not just their own bodily metabolisms but the artifacts they create to suck free energy out of the universe, replacing it with waste, exhaust, and other entropic byproducts.

Regardless of how and why they came into existence, organisms do maintain and reproduce themselves. Organisms that through random mutations achieve incrementally better abilities to obtain access to free energy and to metabolize that energy are more likely to survive and to reproduce. A bacterium doesn’t have to have intentions motivating it to waggle its flagella in search of sunlight and nourishment. A bacterium is a self-organizing system: it spontaneously perpetuates its own equilibrium by means of genetically encoded drives that are sensitive to indicators of environmental energy sources. Presumably it’s cause-effect all the way down.

Suppose the environmental sources of metabolic energy — food — available to an organism are uncertain, quantities are limited, and access is difficult. If following its genetic program the organism pursues an unfruitful path toward food, it will die. Suppose this organism carries a set of mutations that permits it to evaluate the relative likelihood of finding food by pursuing different uncertain trajectories. Suppose the organism is further mutated such that it is able to identify and work around obstacles standing between itself and the food source. These mutations would be adaptive, enhancing the organism’s survival odds, if the extra energy expended in the exercise of its mutated food-finding abilities are more than offset by increased access to sources of energy replenishment.

This whole mutated apparatus is still following straight cause-effect, motivated by genetic instincts attuned to environmental affordances. There is still no need to invoke intentionality. Even if through more mutations this organism became aware of its own enhanced food-finding capabilities, the self-awareness does not imply or require intentionality. I’m aware that I’m presently digesting my supper, but that doesn’t imply that digestion is the result of my intentions.

What if some further mutation occurred in which the organism does achieve intentionality? This mutant creature plans for its next meal even when it has no immediate need to replenish its energy stores, even when there are no signs of food being present in the organism’s immediate environment. Would this mutation prove adaptive? The same conditions are in effect: if intentionality works, and if the exercise of intentionality more than replaces the calories it burns up, then it should enhance the organism’s survival. Is intentionality a straight-ahead cause-effect mechanism? I think it would be better to regard it as a mechanism that anticipates cause-effect based on prior experience — a temporal feed-forward loop. Intentionality is predicated on the anticipated desirable future effects of causal mechanisms that the organism itself puts into operation: if I cause myself to go to the watering hole, this action will probably result in my finding some food there; if my speed covering the distance to the watering hole causes two hours to elapse, then as a result I will probably be hungry by the time I arrive there.

Another mutation: the organism becomes aware of other organisms’ techniques for finding food, whether those techniques are intentional or not. This organism observes a creature locomoting in some direction and infers that the creature is on the trail of some food source; it then follows the creature in search of its own food. It observes a creature evading complicated obstacles to obtain food; it imitates the other creature’s behaviors and secures its own food. This organism would need the sort of intentionality that enables it to infer that the other creature’s motivated behavior is relevant to its own motivations and therefore worth imitating as a cause that will likely generate a desired effect. Adaptive? Same rules apply. Cause-effect? The feed-forward loop of intentionality is augmented by a feedback loop of observing and imitating others’ behaviors.

In short, intentionality can be built incrementally on unintentional survival mechanisms without transcending cause-effect, and intentionality offers survival benefits if it isn’t too much of an energy drain to operate.

21 February 2013

Elohimic Systems Engineering

Filed under: Christianity, Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 5:06 pm

[Just having a little fun now, writing along this afternoon on the current fiction, working title The Scriptorium…]

…There was a software engineer who before setting up residency had built a couple of automatic holy-poem generators that attained immediate popularity among the Pilgrims to whom he had demonstrated them over drinks along the Trails. Once he got settled in at the Scriptorium the engineer quickly got to work on what he termed an old-school elohimic expert system. From interviews with theologians, gurus, cabalists, and prophets he extracted a substantial body of godly insight, which he compiled as textual aphorisms and brief enigmata that he then programmed into the system’s knowledge base. In response to fairly complex Q-and-A sessions with spiritual seekers the elohimic expert system would automatically string together its fragmentary wisdom into multiple paragraphs of polytheistic revelation. It’s like a sophisticated Magic Eight Ball, the engineer scoffed as he scrapped the device, which had immediately attracted a strong following among the Pilgrims who had beta-tested it.

Next the engineer set about building an object-oriented elohimic system, or OOES. Instead of propagating the so-called sensual properties of hierophantic loci with which votaries typically interacted – words of holy texts, pictorial images of icons, architectural and topographic layouts of sacred spaces – the OOES was designed to manipulate the withdrawn essences of these spirit-objects. Almost invariably the user interacting with the OOES would receive in response to queries neither direct answers nor enigmatic ones but silence. Some Pilgrims spent weeks contemplating the system’s apophatic non-pronouncements; most headed on down the hallway after fifteen minutes or so…

5 February 2013

Cartoons without Bubbles

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Movies, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:51 pm

In Italy in the twenties the Corriere dei piccoli used to publish the best-known American comic strips of the time: Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Felix the Cat, Maggie and Jiggs, all of them rebaptized with American names. And there were also Italian comic strips, some of them of excellent quality, according to the graphic taste and style of the period. In Italy they had not yet started to use balloons for dialogue (these began in the thirties with the importation of Mickey Mouse). The Corriere dei piccoli redrew the American cartoons without balloons, replacing them with two or four rhymed lines under each cartoon. However, being unable to read, I could easily dispense with the words — the pictures were enough. I used to live with this little magazine, which my mother had begun buying and collecting even before I was born and had bound into volumes year by year. I would spend hours following the cartoons of each series from one issue to another, while in my mind I told myself the stories, interpreting the scenes in different ways — I produced variants, put together the single episodes into a story of broader scope, thought out and isolated and then connected the recurring elements in each series, mixing up one series with another, and invented new series in which the secondary characters became protagonists.

When I learned to read, the advantage I gained was minimal. Those simple-minded rhyming couplets provided no illuminating information; often they were stabs in the dark like my own, and it was evident that the rhymster had no idea what might have been in the balloons of the original, either because he did not understand English or because he was working from cartoons that had already been redrawn and rendered wordless. In any case, I preferred to ignore the written lines and to continue with my favorite occupation of dayreaming within the pictures and their sequence.

– from Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988) by Italo Calvino

*  *  *

I’m still a bit hacked off about Google no longer routing image searchers directly to the blog post where the image appears, instead steering traffic to a Google-generated simulacrum of the original blog post. This devious maneuver shifts vast numbers of hits from blogs to Google — probably they’re artificially juicing their traffic numbers to satisfy the investment community about business growth potential. In my prior post I noted that over the years a lot of people have visited the blog to look at the screengrabs I put up from movies I’d recently watched. So what’s the big deal about losing these visitors to Google’s insatiable attention-gobbling maw? It’s not like I shot the films from which I nab the still images. I do have to select the images to post, and it takes a bit of effort to isolate the right ones. For me though what’s important is the assemblage, the selection of multiple images from the same film.

The stills might trigger memories for people who have previously seen the movie. For those who haven’t, the stills could serve as a kind of teaser or trailer, perhaps stimulating them to give it a viewing. But for me the process of selecting and assembling the stills functioned as a kind of prismatic concentration, bringing into clearer focus a particular thematic element extending through the movie. I couldn’t necessarily name the theme; it’s more of a visual resonance. Take this one, for instance, or this one — both historically popular hits from Google image searches. They’re like cinematic triptychs, or Calvino’s cartoons without bubbles. If you don’t already know the stories that go with the pictures you might be able to make up your own.

If I were a different sort of psychologist I might suggest a self-help intervention. Find five photos of yourself, or — better — envision five situations you’ve experienced in your life that you regard as important in some way. Describe each situation in a paragraph, focusing on facts rather than interpretations — sort of like a screengrab without dialogue or a cartoon without a bubble. Now take those five scenarios and, disregarding as best you can the meaning you usually ascribe to these events, invent a new story linking them together.

Me, I’m trying to figure out whether this is a good fiction-writing maneuver: assemble a series of short situational stills involving a character without linking the situations together narratively. Then the (imagined) reader can assemble a story from the fragments.

5 December 2012

The Mailmen of Truth

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Language — ktismatics @ 11:16 am

The unitary or dominant way of thinking is that of a generalized hermeneutics, a hermeto-logy… The unitary philosopher (the philosopher of Being, then of Difference) was always a representative, emissary, and civil servant of the Postal and Telecommunication ministry; a transmitter and decoder of hermeto-logical Difference; an agent of postal ingenuity. He exploits confusion, the ambiguity of the secret and of censure. Nearly all philosophers were the mailmen of truth, and they diverted the truth for reasons less to do with the secret that with authoritarian censure. Meaning, always more meaning! Information, always more information! Such is the mantra of hermeto-logical Difference, which mixes together truth and communication, the real and information. The most extreme version of this hermeto-logical ambiguity is the Hegelian and Nietzschean principle: the real is communicational, the communicational is real. it is in the omnipresent effectivity of communication that hermeto-logy itself deteriorates.

– François Laruelle, “The Truth According to Hermes,” 2010

This is important to me, but I can’t tell you why.

Okay fine, I’ll say a little bit about it. I just read The Infinities, a John Banville novel narrated primarily by the Greek god Hermes. He is the divine messenger, interpreting the gods to men and vice versa. But at some point Banville’s Hermeneutical narrator acknowledges that, for the gods, watching mortals engaging in the material world is like looking into a mirror: try to reach in, to make direct contact, and the mirror breaks. Even for this narrational Hermes, then, the world of men is sealed off from the gods. This got me thinking about the other Hermes, Trismegistus, the purported author of the ancient esoteric Hermetic Texts. Was he god or man? I don’t know. He is credited with using his alchemical knowledge to make an airtight seal on a glass tube, hence “hermetically sealed.” Plato alleged that some Egyptian temple contained a secret library of Hermetic texts dating back 9 thousand years. I don’t know much about his writings, but I presume that this other Hermes claimed access to hidden knowledge. Evidently Banville’s hermeneutical narrator didn’t have access to the hermetic keys for unlocking the material world.

It turns out that I recently finished writing a novel called The Courier, about a guy who transmits packages and messages. I didn’t explicitly link the titular character to either Hermes, but he is both. As carrier of messages he is a hermeneutician; as one who does not break the seals on the messages he carries he is hermetic.

Yesterday I happened to come across Laruelle’s essay; I know it was referenced by one of the theory blogs, either Agent Swarm or An Und Fur Sich or Ecology Without Nature or Archive Fire. Laruelle’s idea of the philosopher as general-purpose hermeneutician, as “mailman of truth,” suits my fictional Courier nicely. Earlier Laruelle writes:

Next to the unitary and authoritarian Hermes, there is another Hermes. He defines the essence of truth as a secret, but as a secret that in order to exist and to be made known needs none of the light of logos, none of the tricks of meaning, the strategies of interpretation, the horizons of the World, or the transcendent forms of appearance. Truth as secret exists autonomously prior to the horizontality of appearance. The secret enjoys an absolute precedence over interpretation; it is itself the Uninterpretable from which an interpretation emerges. It is the invisible that has never been visible because it is known from the outset to be invisible. The essence of the secret does not reside in a rupture or redrawing that de-limits presence via some kind of withdrawal or “retrocession.” That the secret has never appeared in the horizon of presence is simply an effect, the effect of its positive essence.

And that works for my Courier too, in his hermetic mode: some parcels can never be opened. Not that I necessarily believe that Laruelle’s discussion of truth is itself true…

11 November 2012

Reducing the Intentionality Problem

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:26 pm

How can intentionality exist in an unintentional universe? And if intentionality exists, how can it be explained scientifically? Scientific investigation looks for causes, and causes precede effects. When I do something with intent, the cause of my behavior is in the possible future rather than in the actual past. Arguably intentionality evades what counts as an acceptable scientific explanation. It would seem either that intentionality is ineffable and transcendent, or it should be eliminated as a self-delusional false explanation of how brains work. The only way out, it would seem, is for science to expand beyond backward-looking causality into teleological explanations.

I think this is a bigger problem for philosophers than for scientists.

It’s possible to speculate on evolutionary causes for intentionality. Hard-wired instincts are of only limited value in a variable and changing environment, so being able to craft intentional schemes for finding food, for wooing sexual partners, for protecting oneself and one’s people, etc. offers survival value to the organism. Random mutations that incrementally increase intentional capabilities would thus be naturally selected.

But what about the individual intentional act? I go to the candy drawer in order to get a snack. Why is this a problem? There is a cause preceding my intent: hunger, or the desire for the taste of chocolate. I already know from experience where the chocolate is most likely to be found: that expectation too is caused by past events. I don’t see the paradox.

Humans don’t have direct perception of the present; rather, we use sensory input to construct neural representations of our environment. We don’t have direct perception of the past; rather, we retrieve neural representations of specific past events. We don’t have direct perception of the future; rather, we neurally represent possible future states and situations. Intentionality can operate by constructing a neural representation of a desired specific future state — eating one of those little Snickers bars left over from Halloween — and constructing a behavioral routine that is likely to transform this desired future into an actual present state.

Some fMRI studies intriguingly suggest that the brain unconsciously activates a neural cascade that precedes, and perhaps causes, conscious intent. Is it possible that conscious intent is merely a recognition after the fact of what the brain has already done? The experimental task — intending to push a button — is as simple and unitary as possible. But much intentional behavior is more complex: making airplane reservations to visit your family, deciding where to go to college, preparing a 3-course meal, writing a blog post. For decades psychologists have studied intentional behaviors without recourse to neural imaging or brain probes. The intentional tasks are broken down into components, the requisite skills for performing them are evaluated, the developmental pathway by which children acquire the necessary competencies are systematically studied. Even if it turns out that intentionality cannot be reduced to brain activity, the performance of intentional acts can be subjected to the usual sorts of  scientific cause-effect sequences. If intentionality is transcendent and immaterial, it’s not monistic; it can be analyzed.

What about free will? Sure, most of our intentions are caused by motivations, but what about unmotivated intent? Sometimes we wonder why we do things we didn’t consciously intend, but we have come to accept that we may be moved by motivations of which we are not consciously aware. But that’s not free will; it’s almost the opposite, where our intent is controlled by appetite or fear or societal expectation. In order for an intention to count as free, it would have to be unmotivated by either conscious or unconscious causes within ourselves or our environment. Unmotivated intent would be hard to prove. Even if I managed to do it, I would be motivated by a desire to demonstrate my own freedom of choice — a desire that preceded and caused my intention and my action.

The big problem, or maybe The Big Problem, is to account for the causal forces shaping both conscious and unconscious intentions. Even single-celled organisms act in ways that increase their likelihood of surviving and reproducing — what Terrence Deacon calls “ententionality.” Inorganic self-organizing systems are very efficient heat pumps: once the energy gradient between system and environment is equalized, the system spontaneously disorganizes. Why and how, in a universe that’s winding down into inevitable heat death at both the macrolevel and the microlevel, did certain kinds of systems evolve that ententionally preserve rather than dissipate the energy gradient between themselves and their environments?

1 October 2012

Partners My Ass

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:47 pm

If we take on the idea of mimesis as world-creating alongside its meaning as world-reflecting, our idea of what we do as readers and audience members can change. In this case, we don’t just respond to fiction (as might be implied by the idea of reader response), or receive it (as might be implied by reception studies), or appreciate it (as in art appreciation), or seek its correct interpretation (as seems sometimes to be suggested by the New Critics). We create our own version of the piece of fiction, our own dreams, our own enactment. We run a simulation on our own minds. As partners with the writer, we create a version based on our own experience of how the world appears on the surface and of how we might understand its deeper properties.

– Keith Oatley, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction (2011), p. 18

See, this is what happens when you get too caught up in one particular psychological construct.

When I look around me, I’m looking at a 3-D simulation of the room generated by my brain. But it’s still a simulation of the room itself. That’s what the brain’s simulation-making perceptual apparatus is for: to generate a reliably accurate visual representation of what’s out there in the world.

When I try to understand someone else’s motivations in a particular circumstance, I might run a simulation of the other person so as to understand how I might respond if I were in his shoes, how I might feel, what I might think, what I might have in mind to do next, and so on. But my simulation of the other person is not the same as that person, nor do I become the other person by running a simulation of him. The simulation is a tool to help me understand the other person.

When I read a novel I run simulations. I can create a mental and emotional simulation of the fictional world in which the fictional characters are acting. But my simulation of that fictional world isn’t the same thing as the world as depicted in the novel; it’s a tool to help me understand that fictional world. In simulating the characters in the story, walking in their fictional shoes, I do it not in order to become the characters, but to understand them.

We create our own version of the piece of fiction… as partners with the writer

Don’t flatter yourself. If you read fiction, then be satisfied with understanding, responding, receiving, interpreting, and simulating it. If you want to create fiction, then write something.

12 September 2012

Reaching Across the Fictional Terrain

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 9:01 pm

As the time got into the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, everywhere, altogether new relationships between chords and paths were being fulfilled now, the analytic character of my note choices, as good notes for such chords, coming under consistently thoroughgoing reformulation as a handful choosing, the song as a progression of demarcated and harmonically conceived placements becoming a rather different formatting structure.

For now I would do jazz sayings that increasingly brought my full ‘vocabular’ resources, my full range of wayful reachings, into the service of that jazz on the records, into the hands’ ways of pace-ably traversing not from route to route, but doing singings. And the language of paths and path switchings, born of my instructed introduction to jazz music and deeply intrinsic to the nature of my selectional negotiations for so long, thoroughly situated in the image-guided traverse ways of my past, must be abandoned…

For there is no melody, there is melodying. And melodying practices are handful practices as soundfully aimed articulational reaching. There is no end to ways for characterizing the ‘structure of a melody,’ given the possibilities of terminological revision, theoretic reclassification and structural analysis. But the action essentially escapes descriptive attention. If it can be said that I ‘do repetitions,’ it must then be asked: how do jazz hands behave so as to produce ‘appearances’ for a material examination by all who talk about them.

I learned this language through five years of overhearing it spoken. I had come to learn, overhearing and overseeing this jazz as my instructable hands’ ways — in a terrain nexus of hands and keyboard whose respective surfaces had become known as the respective surfaces of my tongue and teeth and palate are known to each other — that this jazz music is ways of moving from place to place as singings with my fingers. To define jazz (as to define any phenomenon of human action) is to describe the body’s ways.

David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand: The Origanization of Improvised Conduct, 1978

In my doctoral thesis I explored the ways in which expert scientists differed from novices in scanning scientific journals. Second-year grad students were as good at extracting and evaluating the information about any given research study as were the tenured professors. Where the experts excelled was in linking a seemingly wide variety of studies’ theoretical constructs and findings to their own research programs.

I don’t have much sense of gradually achieving greater technical proficiency in the writing of fiction. As far as I’m concerned, the sentences and paragraphs I wrote last week aren’t any better than the ones I wrote shortly after I began writing fiction eleven years ago. Like Sudnow perhaps, I have become better at sustaining longer coherent riffs, at “storying” across broader swathes of terrain. For me it’s not a matter of writing several good paragraphs or pages in a single burst, like a jazz improvisation. It’s more the ability to see coherent patterns across varied surfaces, to grab “wayful reachings” spanning whole chapters, sections, books.

It’s like the difference between conducting one scientific study at a time versus pursuing a coherent research program across many studies. Each study still has to be done, from beginning to end, and done well. Together the studies circle around an assemblage of linked thematic and material concerns rather than pursuing headlong the Grand Theory with monomaniacal linearity. Sometimes the circle expands; sometimes it contracts into a pinpoint focus. Individually, few of the studies approach brilliance, and some are downright pedestrian. But they all contribute to the larger program. Together they are the program.

29 May 2012

Why Life?

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:12 am

At Dead Voles I’ve been participating in an intermittent multipronged discussion of Terrence Deacon’s 2012 book Incomplete Nature. Deacon proposes a pathway by which life might have emerged in an inanimate universe. Here I have to confess that I don’t quite get two of Deacon’s main points: (1) some kinds of self-organizing systems spontaneously become ends-driven; and (2) understanding how such systems come into being depends not so much on the components of which they’re composed but on the constraints they impose and propagate.

Self-organizing systems seem to counteract the second law of thermodynamics, which specifies that everything in the universe tends toward disorder, or a state of energy equilibrium. However, self-organizing systems, which emerge under far-from equilibrium conditions, actually maximize the rate of equilibration and entropy gain. The organized structure of the system serves to accelerate system-wide expenditure of potential energy. Deacon presents the example of a stream with a boulder in the stream bed. The stream will spontaneously organize a system of eddies and currents around the boulder, seeming to resist the spontaneous downhill movement of the water. However, the eddies actually serve to move the water downstream past the boulder more efficiently than would be the case if the flow were disrupted in a less organized way. Because a self-organizing system is such an efficient entropy-maximizing apparatus, it also tends to self-disorganize. E.g., once the stream wears away the boulder, the system of eddies spontaneously relapses into a smooth flow.

So why would a self-organizing system ever reach the point where it seeks to perpetuate itself? It’s ridiculous to imagine an eddy in the stream trying to keep the boulder from disintegrating, or trying to position more boulders in the stream bed so that more eddies can be born. But living beings seem to do it: they actively seek out nutrients and avoid/repair damage in order to keep themselves alive; and they reproduce in order to make more beings like themselves. Deacon summarizes four ways in which organisms invert the spontaneous order-producing “morphodynamics” of self-organizing systems via “teleodynamics”:

1.  Organisms depend on and utilize energetic and material gradients in their environment in order to perform work or to sustain the constraints of their persistent, far-from-equilibrium dynamics, and to maintain constraints that are critical for countering the tendency toward thermodynamic decay.

2.  Organisms actively reorganize their internal dynamics and relationships to the environment in ways that specifically counter or compensate for any depletion of the gradients that is necessary to maintain their dynamical integrity and their capacity to so respond.

3.  Many organisms have evolved means of gradient assessment and spatial mobility that enable them to anticipate and avoid conditions of depleted gradients and to seek out more optimal ingredients.

4.  Organisms and ecosystems evolve toward forms of organization that increase the indirectness of the “dissipation-path length” of energy and material throughput in order to extract more work from the available gradients.

Deacon goes on to characterize organisms in abstract terms:

Living organisms are integrated and bounded wholes, constituted by processes that maintain persistent self-similarity. These processes are functions, not merely chemical reactions, because they exist to produce specific self-promoting physical consequences. These functions are adaptive and have evolved with respect to certain requirements in their environment that may or may not obtain. And these adaptations exist for the sake of preserving the integrity and persistence of these integrated systems and their unbroken chain of ancestral forms for which they are defining links.

Deacon describes at some length how a hypothetical system could organize itself teleodynamically, maintaining ongoing contact with a substrate of energy and material while simultaneously self-constructing a barrier around itself to prevent dissolution. What I don’t get is why such a system would spontaneously organize itself. The best I can figure, extrapolating from Deacon’s discussion of self-organization, is that a teleodynamic system organizes, protects, and replicates itself in order to dissipate potential energy more efficiently than less complex morphodynamic systems, thereby accelerating the general universal tendency toward maximum entropy. It’s certainly the case that I’m using up more of the universe’s potential energy now than I will when I’m dead and all of my metabolic functions have ceased. Maybe that’s the main purpose of my existence: to accelerate the heat death of the universe.

Maybe I’ll write something about constraint propagation later. But it’s 5 a.m. now, time to slow my metabolism for awhile by going to sleep. That way I can recharge myself for another round of energy dissipation, incrementally fulfilling my ongoing mission in the universe.

17 August 2011

B.S. in Eccentricity

Filed under: Fiction, Ktismata, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:59 pm

Stephen slipped off his shoes. “Yoohoo! Anybody home?”

“Upstairs.” Lynne had started painting again, and she had outfitted one of the spare bedrooms as a studio.

“Where’s Avery?” Stephen asked, and Lynne pointed out the window. Two yards over, across the cul-de-sac, a girl was laughing as she chased a friend and her dog between the still-spindly trees sprinkled through the new subdivision. In the distance a line of jagged foothills angled toward the right, like giant dominoes falling. Beyond, the high peaks showed white. The house backed into a section of the greenbelt that surrounded the town, affording great views all around: location, location, location. They had bought this executive home when they were on a roll financially and professionally. Now that Stephen had jumped the track they really couldn’t afford the mortgage payments any longer. Stephen had the sense that they needed some tangible alternative dream to keep them from feeling that their best days were already behind them. The Salon had seemed to offer that alternative, but now he wasn’t so sure.

Stephen looked at the table under the window: on her sketchpad Lynne had watercolored a variety of abstract shapes, overlaid with precisely engineered black lines, probably executed in ink. “I’ve been trying to make a copy of this Kandinsky,” she said, pointing to a postcard-sized reproduction taped to the wall.

He inspected both versions carefully, point by point. Lynne’s variant, much larger, deviated only slightly from the postcard. She began applying a dark purple smudge of paint to her rendering of the masterwork.

“I’m not sure which one I like better,” Stephen said, though truth be told he didn’t really know what to look for. “Listen, suppose I have a client who believes things that are sort of nutty. Surely I don’t need to go along with everything the client believes?”

Concentrating, she extended the purple shape out and down. “You mean that young guy with hemophilia? Can you give him your opinion without sounding like you think he’s a little off center?”

“I guess not. Still, it seems dishonest not to, or at least disingenuous.”

Lynne put her brush down. “See this painting? Kandinsky had synaesthesia. When he saw colors he heard music. Literally. He painted like he was playing a keyboard, like he was playing his audience. He believed that each brushstroke would set off sympathetic harmonies in people’s souls. Kind of odd, but also kind of true. Before Kandinsky there was another Russian, a composer, Scriabin. Scriabin believed that if he played a certain chord, and if at that precise moment a certain pattern of colors was displayed, then — right then — the world would come to an end.”

Maybe Scriabin was right, Stephen thought: maybe some day somebody will hit the right combination. Maybe Scriabin already did it a century ago, and since then we’ve been living in some other world. “So,” he asked asked his wife, “would you have told Scriabin and Kandinsky you thought they were nuts?”

“I’d have told them I admire their work very much. Besides, only Scriabin was really nutty. Kandinsky was just eccentric.”

Stephen looked again at the Kandinsky postcard. A work of exuberant precision, the picture looked to him like a mapmaker’s rendition of a dreamscape. The fragments of geometry incorporated into the work: were they engineered segments of an intricate scaffolding being erected around the fantasy in order to contain it? Or was something uncontrollable smashing through the gridwork, breaking it to bits? “One more thing,” he said to Lynne. “If you’d had the chance, would you have encouraged Kandinsky to pursue his eccentricity to the limit, even if it took him all the way into madness? All for the sake of genius, for the sake of art, for the end of the world?”

“I wouldn’t have had to,” Lynne replied as she picked up her brush. “Kandinsky had Scriabin. I’m not sure who Scriabin had – maybe Rasputin.”

*   *   *

If the characters in this novel are at least partly autobiographical, then tomorrow Stephen and Lynne will be driving halfway across the country to take their daughter Avery to college. Time’s arrow and all that. Avery’s friend still lives in that cul-de-sac, as do the dog and all the other neighbors who don’t make an appearance in the story. While there are some visitors to this blog who teach college, and others who go to college or grad school, and still others who still think about their college days with some frequency, I’m guessing that not many of you are parents of college kids. Maybe even that will happen to you some day.

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