Planning Through Complexity

If this were adults rather than children perhaps the “piss-up in a brewery” metaphor might be more apt, but I love the dead-pan delivery of the choices in planning a childrens party from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge. I saw Dave do this a few years ago, so it’s good to have the video to share – the point is well made anyway.

“Cross that line you little ba****ds and you die.”

Common Chorus

Audience participation for conference speakers ? The common power of the pentatonic scale demonstrated by Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival.

After rehearsing just two notes the entire audience is spot on the third – with absolutely no warning of where he’s going next, up or down. And it continues eventually to the tonic / octave via random intervals. Simple but very impressive.

(Don’t know anything about WSF – looks a lot like TED – but got the link via StumbleUpon.)

The Horror

Two ironic points struck me at last night’s Muse gig at Oslo Spektrum. Excellent performance by Matt, Dom and Chris as we have come to expect, and performance is the word.

(1) as Muse repertoire grows, the new stuff slots in with the old quite seamlessly, even though it clearly becomes impossible to experience all your favourites at one gig. The last two albums have been more symphonic, even “themed”, and even they fit the tried and tested Muse pattern – hence the seamless fit – and they’re so damned good at it. BUT … it’s all getting a bit 1970’s overblown pre-punk “concept” album and tour backlash. Don’t go there Muse … back to basics for future variety please, you know it makes sense.

(2) Supporting the audience. Muse have never been great at engaging with their audience, beyond the performance itself (which is of course excellent – see above). If Dom didn’t stop to talk to acknowledge the crowd occasionally – the personal engagement would be zilch. Ironic that when Muse were invited to support U2 recently, Matt noticed that “We must be doing OK, but not as well as them, clearly”. Following that “honour” I have to say Muse (or their tour promoters) need to be taken out and shot for serving up “The Horrors” as a support act to the Muse audience, to any audience.

Sense of Place

Interesting edition of Thinking Allowed. Laurie’s newsletter about forgetfulness focussed light-heartedly on the aging process of finding it harder to remember names and faces. In fact the subject matter is more about cultural change and the evolution of greater difficulty in remembering generally – a book by Paul Connerton.

Not simply displacement by overload in the information age – but primarily a loss of a sense of place since the industrial revolution. We cannot mentally attach memory images to stable locations in our environment. Major construction projects used to take lifetimes, and entire home towns and cities our daily locations could be held in view for a lifetime. With construction projects driven by increasingly distibuted economies, locations change and we travel between them so much more day by day, year by year. We are less stably “situated” and have less fixed phsyical hooks in our environment on which to hang mental images that make remembering natural. Interesting idea.

Beyond The Edge

Followed a series of links from Johnnie Moore (on more reflective, indirect approach to “problem solving” when the situation is complex and the “problem” itself not at all clear – reminded me of Terry Eagleton’s “C-Word” reaction to the macho “can do” mentality).

Peter Block …  we have a deeply held belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs.  We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now. What is hard to grasp is that it is this very mindset which prevents anything fundamental from changing.  We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation.

Led me to Viv McWaters “Beyond the Edge” – lots of good self-organization / emergence material.

This particular post caught my eye because amongst other things it includes specifc links to the Dutch Road Traffic approach – of removing all instructional road-traffic signs – improving road safety. I frequently quote it, but was beginning to think it was apocryphal, something I’d maybe imagined. Hell no. Wikipedia has the specifics.

The idea of self-organization arising from relatively few simple rules – the old flocking / shoaling “A-Life” simulations – rather than detailed expert instructions on how to achieve some complex end result (which can never work), is fitting with two current threads.

(a) How to handle complex situations, by simplifying the “architectural approach” rather than attempting to simplify the complexity of teh situation itself – which is conserved however you slice and dice “the problem”, (Cue Einstein – “Simple as possible, but not more so.”) and

(b) the “Aha!” moment that this is entirely consistent with the ethical approach to acting local – “tending one’s own garden” – rather than presuming to address a large complex global-scale “crisis” as something with a tractable solution.

(Both also fit another current thread – that ontologies may be a red-herring. Why spend time designing or discovering the best or correct ontology for a given enterprise, and debating which is best, when you can give the means to each player to characterize the ontological relationships with its neighbours ?)

Horoscopes in Space-Time

Prompted partly by “And Another Thing” the latest (No.6) in the HitchHiker’s Guide being published, and partly by wanting to remind myself what DNA would really think of Dawkins, I’ve been re-reading the first five parts of the trilogy.

OK, so the film could not do justice to the the constant stream of verbal, philosophically significant gags, since most of them are spoken in narrative by the “chronicler” often by reading the pages of the guide itself – but I say again the film is a good piece of work in presenting a true reflection of the plot and characters of the original.

I’ve been listening to the abridged BBC Book at Bedtime version of “And Another Thing“. True it has the style and many characters & space-time locations and history of the original(s), and the improbability thread, but so far I’m disappointed with the plot content and haven’t picked up any deeper message yet ?

Reading, I’m currently a few chapters into No.5 “Mostly Harmless“.

The original “HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is uniformly good with a coherent plot we have come to know and love – part of folklore itself now – essentially the earth as a privately commissioned computer just failing in its purpose to solve the “What was the question?” riddle of life, the universe and everything, with a whale and a bowl of petunias thrown out there for good measure.

No.2 “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” is very patchy, and No.3 “Life, the Universe and Everything” is indeed just one long and pretty weak gag on cricket as a universal and deeply significant ritual.

Whilst No.4 “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” makes no sense without the immediately preceding krikket story, it is a much more comprehensive plot, bringing the whole cycle to what might have appeared like a satisfying conclusion … except for the deliberately lame “ending” …

And in an astonishing reversal of normal practice … everybody concerned lived happily ever after. There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.

But lots of good plot and gags. The rain-god, Fenchurch, the biscuits, the number on the raffle ticket, the flying in Islington, the main dolphin & Los Angeles plot and the unfinished business of Casablanca, which provides that lame ending.

No.5 “Mostly Harmless” is already packed with good stuff. New York, cabs, the hotel, the limo, the reception, the messages and especially the astrology. The reason I paused to post …

Astrologer talking to Trillian (the astro-physicist journalist in the Dawkinsian hyper-rational scientist role).

“I know astrology isn’t a science. Of course it isn’t. It’s just an arbitrary set of rules like British [… jokes deleted …] parliamentary democracy. The rules just got there. They don’t make any sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology, the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could just as easily be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem that lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge.” [Post – A “catalytic probe” in Dave Snowden’s complex system terms.]

“It’s like throwing a handful of graphite dust on a sheet of paper … it lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above … The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing [the] indentations. So you see astrology is nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people [and their problems].”

“So, when you got so emotionally focussed on stars an planets [in our earlier interview], I began to think [you’re] not angry about astrology, [you] really are angry and unhappy about actual stars and planets.”

An aside from the Guide [H2G2] on parallel universes …

The H2G2 has, in what we laughingly call the past, had a great deal to say on the subject of parallel universes. Very little of this is however, at all comprehensible to anyone below the level of Advanced God, and since it s now well-established that all known gods came into existence three millionths of a second after the universe began rather than, as they usually claimed, the previous week, they already have a great deal of explaining to do as it is, and are therefore not available for comment on matters of deep physics at this time.

One encouraging thing the H2G2 does have to say on the subject of parallel universes is that you don’t stand the remotest chance of understanding it.

The first thing to realise about parallel universes, is that they are not parallel. It is also important to recognise that they are not, strictly speaking, universes either, but it is easiest if you try and realise that a little later, after you’ve realised that everything you’ve realised up to that moment is not true.

The reason they are not universes, is that any given universe is not actually a thing as such, but just a way of looking at what is technically know as the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash. The WSOGMM doesn’t actually exist either, but is just the sum total of all the different ways there would be of looking at it if it did.

The reason they are not parallel is the same reason that the sea is not parallel. It doesn’t mean anything. You can slice the WSOGMM any way you like and you will generally come up with something that someone will call home.

And speaking of home, later Trillian as a journalist is faced with the scoop of a lifetime when she encounters “aliens” ….

Alien;  looking at the shelves that held her CDs. “Look, Elvis. Some of your people think Elvis has been kidnapped by space aliens.”

Trillian; “What ? Has he ?”

A; “It is possible.”

T; “Are you telling me you have kidnapped Elvis?”

A; “No. Not us. Aliens. It is a very interesting possibility. We talk of it often.”

[Long conversation – fruitless to journalist and astro-physicist Trillian –  in which it transpires the “aliens” don’t really know who they are, where they are from, why they are monitoring earth or who their leader is …]

T; “So what are you doing here on earth then?”

A; “We’ve come to fetch you.” T; “Why?”

A; “Because we have lost our minds. We liked your interview with the astrologer. We see everything. We are very interested in astrology. It is interesting. Not everything is interesting.”

T; “But I don’t know anything about astrology”

A; “We do. Yes. We follow our horoscopes. We are very avid. We see all your newspapers and your magazines and are very avid with them. But our leader says we have a problem. He said someone has to do something around here.”

T; “Ah. Where is here?”

A; “Rupert. Your people call it Rupert. The tenth planet from your sun. We have settled there for many years. It is highly cold and uninteresting there. But good for monitoring.

T; “Why are you monitoring us?”

A; “It’s all we know to do.”

T; “OK. Right. What is the problem  your leader says you have?”

A; “Triangulation. Astrology is a very precise science. We know this. But it is precise for you here on earth. So when Venus is rising in Capricorn, for instance, that is from earth. How does that work if we are out on Rupert? What if Earth is rising in Capricorn? It is hard for us to know. Amongst the things we have forgotten, which we think are many and profound, is trigonometry.

T; “Let me get this straight. You want me to come with you to … Rupert?” A; “Yes.”

T; “To recalculate your horoscopes for you to take account of the relative positions of Earth and Rupert?” A; “Yes.”

T; “Do I get an exclusive?” A; “Yes.”

T; “I’m your girl.” thinking at the very least she could sell it to the National Enquirer.

Just love the multiple levels of irony that the non-scientific methods of astrology are useful in the study of humans, but that the aliens require scientific knowledge of astronomy – from a sceptical scientist / journalist – in order to make use of it from their objective but clueless vantage point.