Monday, September 29, 2014

We must obey the forces we want to command

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


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

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

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

Clearly the forces of language are fully obeyed by Oulipians in order that their practitioners can bend them to their will.
Science has evolved since Bacon’s time, and its ambitions have become more complex and its progress more nebulous. The pursuit of artificial intelligence is limited in exactly the way Bacon’s dictum would suggest [Argument 2]: "How do you make a search engine that understands if you don't know how you understand?" [3].

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Caffeine or alcohol?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

In which I am disillusioned by Comiccon

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then the day was upon us.

Walking Dead event: cancelled.

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

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

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

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

To cap off the day, Matt Smith: cancelled.

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

The most important French writer you've never heard of

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The evolution of book technology

Norway, 2001

Spain, 2010

Sweden, 2014

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"The Galaxy is going to pot!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fabulous, magnificent!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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