Multitasking and multipurposing

jit-data-structures-03-loresThe other day was entirely typical, but I paused to consider the wonder of it all. I was trading moves back and forth with a friend playing Civilization. I was the American civilization under Roosevelt, and because of some luck with natural resources, advantages in constructing Wonders, and some devilishly clever economic planning, I was king of the world. My stack of cavalry units and catapults overtook Japan without a single casualty, and I followed up by conquering Russia for dessert. (I have been playing the game for some time, and I was not always good at it.)

At the same time, I was watching in bits and pieces an excellent BBC documentary on “Science and Islam.” I had just read a book on the enlightenment of central Asia, and it was fascinating to see some of the places, palaces, markets, and texts I had been reading about. Of course, all the while I was assessing the rise and fall of Islamic caliphates in terms of Civilization – what research strategies they were following, how religion was interacting with politics and science, the awesome military strength of the Mongols, etc.

And between both of these endeavors, I was reading Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory, which recounts the various methods developed in the ancient, medieval, and early modern worlds of refining one’s memory to fabulous extent. The general advice coming from the ancient world is to have in mind a building you know very well, and to place in that building – your “memory palace” – little odd tokens and situations that will help you remember whatever it is you want to remember – a lecture, a long list of names, the sequence of events of some exciting episode, etc.

Here’s an example from Quintilian. Suppose you want to remember the case in a lawsuit. “The prosecutor has said that the defendant killed a man by poison, has charged that the motive of the crime was to gain an inheritance, and declared that there are many witnesses and accessories to this act.” So in one room in your palace you might arrange the following:

We shall imagine the man in question as lying in bed if we know him personally. If we do not know him, we shall yet take some one to be our invalid, but not a man of the lowest class, so that he may come to mind at once. And we shall place the defendant at the bedside, holding in his right hand a cup, in his left, tablets, and on the fourth finger, a ram’s testicles. In this way we can have in memory the man who was poisoned, the witnesses, and the inheritance.

(I might explain to puzzled readers that the Latin word for witnesses was testes. And no, this is not because Romans used to hold one another’s testicles when swearing oaths to one another, as inviting as such an image may be. No one, then or now, can make a compelling promise while engaging in mutual groping.)

The technique might sound implausible, but there are many stories of orators remembering long speeches through such a method. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) was supposed to have had a stunningly capacious memory palace, and he used it to awe the Chinese in the hope of converting them to Christianity. (Read or hear more about Ricci here; and you might find amusement in a poem I wrote for my friend Jerry on the topic.)

The fundamental trick of a memory palace is to re-purpose something you already remember easily. It is important to start with a place you know well, a place that does not require any clever trick for remembering. Then the place is modified in such ways as to encode or model something new. The new memory rides upon the structure of the old one, in just the way that Doug Hegdahl, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, reportedly remembered the layout of the prison camp by fitting a description of the camp into the old tune “Old MacDonald had a Farm.”

This mix of things – Civilization, the BBC documentary, and The Art of Memory – caused me to wonder how much of our learning consists in mapping new information onto old structures. I certainly was using the structure of Civilization to help me understand the dynamics of medieval Islamic history, just as the details of the BBC documentary were making my musings over Civilization more nuanced and complex. My understanding of memory techniques right now is riding upon my understanding of repurposing structures of data to new ends, which is at the same time my understanding of Turing machines, and how computers can run games like Civilization.

It is as if in one’s head is some finite number of structures, which become repurposed in multiple ways to serve as models for new things we are learning. Just as it is said there are really only four (or six, or ten) basic scripts in the world, which get turned into countless novels and films by changing the names and places, there may be only four (or six, or ten) basic structures we can comprehend, which can then model anything, with only a change of data values.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games | Leave a comment

Early modern revolution

43819_maxIn the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants invaded Catholic territories both geographic and ideological. Armed with sharp invectives and printing presses, anti-Catholic firebrands overturned centuries-old accounts of God and the natural world, flooding markets with new bibles, new confessional literatures, and new treatises of astronomy, astrology, medicine, alchemy, and magic. The Catholics reacted with ultimately futile attempts to limit the contagion of heresies, prohibiting books and authors and doing everything they could to stop their publication. But as the Reformation became institutionalized and protected by princely powers, the revolution could not be stopped, and the modern world was made.

The hottest fighting was in the areas of religion and science – in the broadest strokes, Luther vs. the pope, and Copernicus vs. Ptolemy. But tightly implicated in both religion and science was metaphysics, the philosophical understanding of matter, spirit, and causality. Medieval Catholicism had found ingenious ways to appropriate Aristotle’s metaphysics in its various accounts of the world. But the oncoming deluge of new books, and the radical ideas contained in them, placed new disruptive pressures on the standard metaphysical accounts. Just as Ptolemy’s theory of the heavens started to wobble, Aristotle’s account of substance, essence, and accident became increasingly suspect. Galileo demonstrated success in applying mathematics and geometry directly to moving bodies – without needing to work out any of the Aristotelian substantial forms. When it came time to explain and predict, his Simplicio was no match for his Sagredo.

So there was a philosophical challenge to be met in the wake of the early modern rebellion. The challenge was to find a new metaphysics to go with the new science – and along with that, a new metaphysics of human beings and their ways of coming to know themselves, the world, and God. The good news and the bad news was simultaneously this: everything was up for grabs.

Not all the philosophers saw the challenge in the same way. For the most ambitious among them – Bacon, Comenius, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz – the challenge was to co-establish traditional religion and the new sciences, each perfect and together complete: a new System of the World. For Spinoza – and, much later, the German Idealists –  the challenge was to surmount old-style thinking in a radical way that transcended (and yet, in true Hegelian fashion, also preserved) both the new physics and traditional monotheism. For Hobbes, Locke, Pascal, and Bayle, the challenge was to negotiate a middle way between the Scylla of religious zealotry (those many snapping mouths) and the Charybdis of godless scientism (that all-consuming, sucking vortex). So there you have it: the Establishers, the Transcendentalists, and the Negotiators. All of them sought some way past Aristotle and past the entrenched positions of myriad religious confessions. At stake for each of them was the future of Europe.

It is imperative not to be so seduced by the intrinsic glory of their philosophical thoughts that the historical and political contexts of these philosophers is ignored. True: what they wrote stands the test of time. But to see them in context, to see their intellectual moves in a world being torn apart by cannon and treaty, is to accord them proper humanity; and thus to make them more real to us than any disembodied mind can be. When Spinoza wrote to Henry Oldenburg and compared our ignorant place in the universe to that of a little worm in someone’s bloodstream, he was not merely invoking the theme of the microcosm in the macrocosm. He was writing to a friend across a channel where two hundred English and Dutch ships had recently clashed and sent three thousand men to watery graves; he was writing to a friend whose city (like his own) was being ravaged by plague, and who was about to be sent to the Tower on suspicion of treason; and he was writing as a man who before long would himself succumb to the blind actions of a worm in his blood, mycobacterium tuberculosis. Spinoza’s advice – to see the universe as determined to follow its own laws, and to console ourselves by turning our minds to what is eternal and divine – was not just pretty words; it was offered as a palliative for existential anxiety and despair. When we ignore their complicated circumstances, we risk mistaking these philosophers for university professors, with nothing more at stake than records of publication. These philosophers regularly saw the corpses piling up from bad politics, angry religions, and ignorant doctors; and – strange as it may sound to us – they believed a better metaphysics could help reduce their number.

But how did they deploy their metaphysical insights? For it is not enough just to think them up. They had to be shared, published, promoted, or poured directly into the ears of those in power. All of them wrote books and letters that were meant for wider circulation. Some of them crafted proposals to be sent directly to electors and princesses, dukes and emperors. Some of them tried to establish societies of savants, in the hope that the impact of a larger group would have greater effect. One of them (Spinoza again) was ready to put his opinion on a sandwich board and march directly into a hostile mob. Translating ideas into impact required then, as now, shrewd thinking about audience, rhetoric, and medium. This very practical business – the marketing department of philosophical enlightenment, as it were – must always be borne in mind when coming to grips with a philosophical text. It does not pay, on every occasion, to say directly what one thinks is true; nor is it wise to alienate those who are in a position to advance the cause.

It must also be borne in mind that, in a very real sense, none of these philosophers had a firm grip on reality. Not because they were crazy, of course, but because the state of knowledge was – in hindsight – very confused: alchemy and astrology shouldered up against early physics, the distinction between magic and natural change was fuzzy at best, and political philosophy was often imbued with millenarian enthusiasm. Newton himself thought the mystery of alchemy might explain gravity’s otherwise “spooky” action at a distance. We may find amusement today over the Royal Society’s early discussions of stones found in the skulls of venomous snakes that were said to draw poison from wounds, of patients in whose veins ran milk instead of blood, and of salamanders living quite comfortably in fire; but these accounts run alongside much more practical observations of sea tides and expedient methods for crafting lenses. It was all of a piece; and philosophers seeking an adequate metaphysics often found themselves trying to accommodate an exceedingly generous range of seemingly authentic observations. Endeavors to found universal learned societies were often predicated on the expectation that Christ’s rule on earth was about to begin; arguments that clarified and fortified Protestant Christianity were mounted in the hope of converting the Jews, a prerequisite for the end times. It was, by our lights, a weird and wacky world; though of course to the people living in it, it was of course just – the world.

Posted in Historical episodes | Leave a comment

On appreciating systems

How wonderful it would be to be a systematic thinker! One marvels at the Aristotles, the Aquinases, the Descarteses, the Kants, and the Hegels and the Marxes (well, the Karl Marxes anyway), the Freuds – those who know how to approach anything, how to incorporate any material into a systematic empire, those who can see the universe as fulfillments of their own plans. It may sound like I am satirizing them, but I really do admire them: I admire their imagination, their enthusiasm, and their persistence. Chiefly I admire their ability to take their own thought so seriously, since every time I have tried to construct a system, it turns into fits of giggles.

Read more…

Posted in 3QD essays, Kant and/or Hume | 2 Comments

Worlds of Terry Gilliam and M. C. Escher

MM_ZeroTheorem_OneSheet-660I recently had the chance to watch Terry Gilliam’s film, The Zero Theorem. I gather that some have called it the final piece of the Brazil trilogy (following Twelve Monkeys), and that makes some sense: in all three films, we find the same harrowing mix of Kafka with Orwell, the same conflicts among imagination, reason, love, and despair, and the same clear plastic raincoats. In this case, the main character is Qohen Leth, an “entity cruncher” who pedals furiously at a stationary bike while solving math problems, handing the solutions in tubular form through a slot to another set of hands. He petitions to work at home because he has been expecting a phone call that will reveal to him his purpose. His home is a burnt-out cathedral, complete with pigeons and rats. The most powerful image in his mind, to which he frequently returns, is a terrifying and beautiful black hole. He eventually is granted permission to wall himself inside his cathedral in order to work on Management’s big project: the Zero Theorem, which proves that all of existence sums to nothing.

Complications ensue, and Leth begins to care about other people, and the story ends with the sort of dreamy but nihilistic conclusion Gilliam fans can expect. I had thought that Leth was named after “Lethe,” the ancient Greek’s river of forgetfulness, but Wikipedia tells me that the screenwriter Paul Rushin was “was inspired by Ecclesiastes to write the film (the Hebrew title of which is קֹהֶלֶת, Qoheleth, meaning “Gatherer”, but traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”), which he felt suggested such questions as “What is the value of life? What is the meaning of existence? What’s the use?”” It’s a marvelous film, and I’m resolved to teach a class on Gilliam’s films and philosophy. We’ll see the films I’ve mentioned, but also The Fisher King and Baron von Munchhausen (this latter one being still my favorite of the Gilliam ouvre).


Coincidentally, I also came across today an interesting article by Steven Poole in the Guardian about M. C. Escher. The following passage helped me to see the common strain running through Escher’s paradoxical etchings and Gilliam’s worlds of cartoons:

Most dazzling, perhaps, is the celebrated Ascending and Descending (1960), with its two ranks of human figures trudging forever upwards and eternally downwards respectively on an impossible four-sided eternal staircase. It is the most recognisable of Escher’s “impossible objects” images, which were inspired by the British mathematician Roger Penrose and his father, the geneticist Lionel Penrose. Fascinated by House of Stairs, the Penroses published a paper in 1956 in the British Journal of Psychology entitled “Impossible Objects: A Special Type of Visual Illusion”. Receiving an offprint a few years later, Escher wrote to Lionel expressing his admiration for the “continuous flights of steps” in the paper, and enclosing a print of Ascending and Descending. (The paper also included the “tri-bar” or Penrose triangle, which is constructed impossibly from three 90-degree angles: in 1961 Escher built his never-ending Waterfall using three of them.)

The mathematical trickery in Ascending and Descending’s staircase is not the subject of the image. Escher was never a surrealist. But in this picture, it becomes clear that he was a kind of existentialist. He had long admired Dostoyevsky and Camus, and in a letter to a friend while he was working on Ascending and Descending he explained: “That staircase is a rather sad, pessimistic subject, as well as being very profound and absurd. With similar questions on his lips, our own Albert Camus has just smashed into a tree in his friend’s car and killed himself. An absurd death, which had rather an effect on me. Yes, yes, we climb up and up, we imagine we are ascending; every step is about 10 inches high, terribly tiring – and where does it all get us? Nowhere.”


This dreamscape of futility is perfected by the two figures who are not on the eternal staircase. One gazes up at his condemned fellows from a side terrace; one sits glumly on the lower stairs. “Two recalcitrant individuals refuse, for the time being, to take any part in this exercise,” Escher commented. “They have no use for it at all but no doubt sooner or later they will be brought to see the error of their nonconformity.”

Gilliam’s films are all about a figure who does not wish to be on the eternal staircase. But in The Zero Theorem, the depiction of the figure is as direct as a Zen master’s lesson: for here is a man who believes in a purpose, expects it to ring up at any moment, and yet whose day job proves there is no meaning.

Posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff | 2 Comments

Wonderful photo of Prague

(Thanks to tumblr)


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Central Asia’s Golden Age

[S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, Princeton, 2013]

I can’t even say what my hazy mental picture of medieval central Asia was before I read S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment. That’s how poorly represented it was in my mental geography – there was not even a little sign on a stick saying, “there’s a lot going on here you don’t know.” I suppose I would have stammered out something about horse archers, camels, and furry hats. Now, thanks to Starr’s book, I can say a bit more.

Original Illustration-1P289-ThumbnailLost Enlightenment covers a significant historical period of a region that now boasts several politically distinct ‘stans – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, all clustered between Iran and China. The “significant historical period” – really, a renaissance rivaling that other one several centuries later and to the west – ranged from about 750 to 1150. Philosophy, theology, logic, mathematics, optics, libraries, medicine, geography, and social sciences like history and anthropology – not to mention great poetry and music – all flourished during this period, driven by great intellectuals receiving state support at greater-than-Medici levels.

We really don’t know what all they discovered, since so much has been lost. One of the period’s greatest intellects, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (or just Ibn Sina, or Avicenna), hailing from modern-day Uzbekistan, wrote over 400 works – and of those only about half survive, and these exist mostly in fragmentary and unpublished form. Scholars have access to only about 13 of the 180 known treatises of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, who was Ibn Sina’s main man in Turkmenistan. So we are really looking only through a keyhole at a wide canvas of intellectual achievement. Given what we do see, it would not be out of the question for there to be, in some hidden corner of the canvas, some forgotten figure feeding punch cards into a steam-powered difference engine.

One of Ibn Sina’s countrymen, Abu Abdallah Muhammed al-Kwarazmi (780-850), constructed precise instruments for determining latitude, and solved problems of spherical astronomy using a device that employed sine quadrants (not that I really know what that means). Along the way, he also invented algebra, and lent his name to those powerful abstract entities we now call algorithms. A later thinker, Ulughbeg (1394-1449), son of Tamerlane (or Timur), calculated the length of the sidereal year more accurately than Copernicus did, and correctly calculated the exact degree of Earth’s tilt. Abu al-Rahman al-Khazani wrote a book in the early 12th century that has been called “the most comprehensive work on weighing in the Middle Ages, from any cultural area.” (It was entitled Book of the Balance of Wisdom.) All of these brilliant thinkers were building on efforts of brilliant predecessors – which means there was a sophisticated network of preserving and sharing knowledge throughout the region. And of course, through it all, there is a rich population of philosophers and theologians wrestling with the tensions between natural knowledge and revealed faith, making all the moves to be repeated centuries later in early modern Europe. This includes Abu Hamid Muhammed al-Ghazali’s anti-rationalist work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which made its way through the knowledge network westward to Spain and Morocco, and prompted Abu Muhammad ibn Rushd’s rationalist reply, The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

A set of brothers in the 9th century – Jafar, Ahmad, and Hasan ibn Musa – turned their minds to constructing ingenious mechanical devices, resulting in Ahmad’s book, naturally enough entitled The Book of Ingenious Devices:

This neglected but astonishing document bears comparison with Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks for the bold and intricate devices it describes. Here were pioneered one- and two-way pneumatic valves, automata that responded to feedback, and a host of ingenious devices that demonstrate a wildly imaginative yet disciplined and practical engineering mind. Ahmad’s mechanical flute, driven by steam, has been hailed as the first programmable machine, a title that is contested by the brothers’ own hydro-powered organ, which was programmed through interchangeable cylinders. In both devices Ahmad showed the same inventiveness that led a millennium later to the Jacquard loom, player piano, and eventually the punch card-programmed computer. The brothers also invented the clamshell excavator, a bellows to clear air from mines and wells, a gas mask for use when the bellows failed, and hurricane lamps, self-feeding lamps, and self-trimming lamps. (146)

Many of these central Asian thinkers ended up in Baghdad, home of the renowned House of Wisdom, which has been said to be the single greatest center of research in the world, from the time of the fall of the Library at Alexandria to (perhaps) the formation of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge.

Why did this golden age come to an end? Well, as the saying goes, it’s complicated. In part, it was politics and religion: politicians found an unlearned Islamic fundamentalism to be politically expedient, and Islamic fundamentalists found political tyrannies to be religiously expedient. In part, the pointed and violent battles among competing visions of what true piety requires chilled the free expression of ideas. In part, a focus on gunpowder and siege machinery displaced the focus on more theoretical realms. And in part, it didn’t come to an end, or at least not to a final stop: scholars and artists continued to explore, invent, and create under every ruler, and still at impressive levels, though not as impressive as in earlier times. But over time, as conditions for inquiry became less favorable or at times impossible, scholars migrated to the west, carrying with them all the texts they could carry, and the timing was right. The west gradually was brought up to speed with algebra, competent astronomy, rich commentaries on Aristotle, and a complete set of Plato’s works – or as many as we’ll ever have, anyway. By the 17th century, the west could begin to continue the work that had been done in the east in the 12th century.

Posted in Books, Historical episodes | 1 Comment

Online education as the silver bullet

A recent story on Utah Public Radio reports that the Utah System of Higher Education is projecting an increase of 50,000 additional college students in Utah over the next ten years. That’s huge. And the immediately attractive response – “More online education!” – is not the way to go.

Let me be straight: for the most part, online education stinks. Sometimes, when you need specific training for a narrow subject – like how to build a website, or fill out a tax return – it’s just fine. But when it comes to broader or more complicated subjects and problems, online education is the wrong medium. It’s like doing surgery over the telephone.

People who reach for it as a cheap way to handle tens of thousands of students have a mistaken model of higher education. They adhere to “the bucket model”: student has empty bucket – comes to knowledge resource – gets bucket filled. But most things worth learning, of course, are far more complicated than this. What are the various ways of framing this problem? How might each frame limit the solutions we’re likely to see? What is a new way of looking at it? How do you weigh out the advantages and disadvantages of the possible solutions? These are the sorts of questions we want our future leaders to be raising, since the problems they are going to face will not be getting any easier.

These are the sorts of questions we find across all departments and majors in a university, and there are two ways of handling them online. First, and most usual, they can be simply ignored, and everyone can just pretend that some real education has taken place. Second, a truly dedicated online instructor can provide online chats, inventive exercises, and detailed assignments that get at these questions – but then the “efficiency” that made online instruction attractive in the first place goes right out the window. Such a high-quality online course will not serve any more students than a face-to-face course would – and, arguably, it would just be easier to sit the students in a room and get the thing done.

From the point of view of most students, the appeal of online education is that you can take it at your own pace – that is, you can cram it all into a week or two of binge quiz-taking, and it’s far easier than taking the class “for real.” (This I hear from the students themselves.) So long as the farce awards university credit, it’s a win/win for everyone: the student gets more (credit) for less (work), and the university gets more (tuition) for less (expense). But ask yourself whether university education comes by way of binge quiz-taking, and the ruse reveals itself.

There’s no cheap, technological “silver bullet” to accommodate 50,000 more students. Universities need to build classrooms, hire faculty, and do it right.

Posted in Items of the academy / learning | Leave a comment