A Call For ‘Unfair and Unbalanced’…

July 27, 2006

There seems to be a premium these days placed on the notion of what are so called ‘Fair and Balanced’ approaches to just about everything.   From global politics and war strategies to news reporting and social policies,  we hear all kinds of calls and claims for balanced, rational approaches.  To objectively see all sides of an issue and everyone’s point of view. Sounds good right?  As if such a thing ever existed or could ever exist.  As a brilliant John F Kennedy once famously proclaimed ‘Life is not fair’.   Nor is it balanced.  

How refreshing it is to hear that statement in our day and age of false objectivity and pompous declarations.  The purveyors of such claims makes outrageous underlying assumptions about equivalences and simillarities of classes of things that may have no right to be compared.    Beyond that, the assumption that they themselves have the ultimate wisdom to navigate and arbitrate objectivity can only be described as dishonest and arrogant.  It has the effect of hiding inevitible biases, often exacerbating situations.

I am saying that the mental and physical act of forcing a symmetry or equivalence on to a situation of interacting agents where none exists is in itself an act of asymmetry, distortion and disturbance.  It can for example ascribe attributes to agents where none exist, or ignore other critical properties when they don’t fit the model. Similarly the equivalency may be at a hopelessly abstract and irrelevant levels that obscure the true nature of the problem.

The dice of life is not fair  – it is heavily skewed.  Just ask the dinasaours if you can find one.

I am not arguing against things like for example equal rights for American citizens in America.  We fought hard for these.  Of course our laws should protect the freedoms and rights of the individual to live and to achieve to each one’s abilities and within reason – but only generically.  We should however not attempt to enforce nor expect equal outcomes in all results, achievements, potentialities,  in all circumstances and in all details of life. That is insanity.  

The balance should not stem from false notions of arbitrating beforehand what a balanced world should look like.   In the case of equal rights, the balance should be between the order that we get from preserving our founding culture of stability and freedom for all to pursue life, with outcomes that challenge our intuitions of what is ‘fair and balanced’ – to have courage to let the chips fall where they may.


Complexity and the New Physics

July 25, 2006

All of my studies in physics as a graduate student led me to believe that in order to understand anything in nature you had to break it down.  You had to abstract out what the essential components or dominating features of a system were until you could actually solve the problem.  That meant isolating a part of the real system, treating it as seperate, independent of both observer and the rest of it’s internal and external environment .  After that maybe you could start adding back in stuff you left out treating it as a perturbation or small correction.   This paradigm is amazingly effective, much more than you would think.    

For example, in atomic physics the important approximation to solving multi-electron atoms is to completely ignore the effect of the Coulomb repulsion between electrons.   That is the part of the problem that makes it really hard – so let’s get rid of it!   You could then solve an independent election problem using Slater determinants, mean field approximation and so on.  This procedure works almost too well, predicting quite well the spectra of complex atoms.  

Similarly, most great advancements in physics during the 20th century relied on reductionist approach.  Break matter down to molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, quarks, strings etc.  Keep simplifying…

As productive as that approach is, one must question whether it is any help at all in describing the complexity in our world.  Complexity relies fundamentally on building things up, that the interaction and interconnections are not to be swept under the rug and treated as a perturbation.  In fact the interaction creates new realities, new scales and innovates new functions and structures in matter.   The origin of life itself requires such synergies.

So the new physics must focus equally, if not more so – on the meta principles of complexity.  In other words, it must work in the exact opposite direction than what traditionally had paved the way to much understanding as I mentioned before.   Those are hard habits to overcome!

The new laws of physics will describe why and how nature builds useful forms/functionalities, variablilities, adapatative behaviors, division of labor etc from reducible components that show none of these attributes.  New physics is needed to understand the creation and dynamics of meaning. 

I believe physicists are turning the page to this new era.  The Santa Fe Institute and The Complexity Studies Center at the University of Michigan focus exclusively on these kinds of questions.  Techniques such as Genetic Algorithms and Neural Networks are beginning to us more in this direction.  It is an exciting prospect.


Modern Warfare: The Myth of Proportional Response

July 15, 2006

We don’t live in a controllable world any more.  One where inputs to a process or system yield predictable and managable outputs.  One where variations of strategies and tactics result in measurably proportional changes in outcomes.  This is the Myth of Proportional Response.  The Information Age defies it.

I want to discuss how belief in this myth impacts modern warfare, in particular in how this outdated way of thinking is an impediment to defeating a dangerous and sophisticated enemy like the Islamic Terrorist movment. 

Our world seems to exist in perpetual state of phase transitioning between order and disorder.  I do not assess judgement that order is good or that disorder is bad… it is just a fact of complexity.  It is a state of potentially extreme and unpredictable sensitivity to events spontaneously generated from within.  The scenario where events occur only locally and will not disturb components deemed ‘far off’ is illusory. 

The modern Islamic Terrorist Movement (al-Qaeda, Hezbollah etc) intuitively understands this, and is ironically way ahead of the West in implementing such kind of thinking.  They are not bogged down by the Myth of Proportional Response. 

Terrorism’s impact relies on the widespread panic and influence wreaked by relatively small scale activities, and the psychological expectation of such events.  (It doesn’t mean they are not actively trying to execute large scale attacks similar to 9/11 or worse using nuclear or biological weapons)  They leverage a huge amount of disproportionality in their activities – and it acts in their favor.  For example they use them as propaganda tools to recruit new members for further attacks.

As the frequency and scope of such attacks increase, we can believe that cumulative stresses build up over time.  The role of Western Liberal media in helping to generate this effect is interesting and should be investigated as well. 

Yet the West continues to hold on to the notion of Proportionality when fighting an enemy whose very strength exploits the sheer fallacy in it.  In particular note the Vatican and Western Europe’s criticism of Israel retaliatory responses to Hezbollah rocket attacks on her home soil – that her response wasn’t  ‘Proportionate’ to the attacks that set them off.  The underlying assumptions of such criticisms completely neglects amplification the attacks generate – the leverage gained in a world dominated by feedback, herding instinct of the media, and other nonlinear effects.   In principle the very notion of a ‘size’ of a terrorist attack is fuzzy at best given the global impact they can have in an unstable and volatile background.  It becomes impossible to arbitrate what an equal response means or should be. 

Proportionate modelling is dangerous in this case as it permits a serious advantage to terrorists who successfully and consistently exploit such misjudgement. It doesn’t do much to reduce or end terrorism and in fact does much to perpetuate it.  Proportionality presumes there is some sort of limited, isolated and quantitative measure of the effect of a terrorist attack, and that this measure should be conferred to the response.  But we arguing here that such measures are impossible to discern owing to the huge leverage effects terrorists gain by the very nature of their acts.  How do you measure the impact of forcing hundeds of thousands of people to flee to bomb shelters?

I propose we learn something from a clever enemy.  If we are to defeat the menace of Islamic Terrorism, we firstly must eliminate the false notion of Proportional Response.   It means initiating activities against terrorist groups and their state sponsors that span a wide spectrum of scales and type – both preemptive and retaliatory.  It means avoiding characterizing terrorist acts by quantitative size only and avoiding tying the scale of a response to an undefined sense of ‘size’ of a terrorist attack.  This has a desired effect of keeping the enemy guessing and uncertain about what actions we will take.


RIP Syd Barrett

July 13, 2006

I found out yesterday Syd Barrett died – supposedly of diabetes.   In actual fact the Syd Barrett we know and love died many years ago.  He being the poster child for the damage psychedelic drugs like LSD can do to a human brain.

He was a musical hero of mine, a creative genius.  For those who may not be familiar,  he started a group called Pink Floyd in 1965 or thereabouts.   This is not the Pink Floyd of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ but a much more vibrant, energetic band who almost singlehandedly ushered in the age of colorful or psychedelic music.  To me that means imaginitive exciting music that operates on many levels. 

The genius of the Barrett era Floyd sound and songs lies in the innocence and originality of lyrical themes as well as new musical ideas no one had ever heard before.   His unique groundbreaking stylings were created before the word or concept of psychedelia even existed.  Before even Jimi Hendrix or the The Beatles ‘Sargeant Pepper’ which is generally (but wrongfully) considered the first conceptually psychedelic record.

I think immediately of tunes on Pink Floyd’s first singles and LP ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.  There is ‘Bike’, ‘Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk’, ‘See Emily Play’, ‘Arnold Layne’, ‘Gnome’, ‘Astronomy Domine’ and many more.   The sheer brilliance of these tunes astound more today than ever before. 

Barrett was a pioneer in both songwriting, guitar playing (that immediately recognizable ‘sloppy guitar’ sound on his Tele), sound scaping, style, melodic sensibility, and thematic explorations.  Very few compare in these regards taken as a whole. 

As an example of his uniqueness, his songs seem to lack minor chords completely.  This was a departure from the earlier period of popular British music invented by the Beatles.  It gave his songs a seperate unique quality.   Rather than a classically harmonized flow of chord progressions, his songs evoked an otherwordly feeling as the chords seemingly clashed.  But they worked beautifully because his melodies softened the surprising progression and made it sound perfect.

His well known appetite for LSD may have contributed to his unbelievable creativity.  I don’t have an answer for whether the drugs actually stimulated his mind, at least untill the point where it destructed. 

I should also mention his solo albums (made after being removed from Pink Floyd as a result of his drug problems) were also masterpieces.  These records (‘Barrett’, ‘The Madcap Laughs’) tend to be more fragile and haunting.   The product of a brilliant creative mind on the other side of pretty much every touchstone  of a normal living creature.

I don’t really feel sad about the loss of Syd Barrett.  It is not just the usual observation that that his music lives on forever.  But realistically he had lost himself a long time ago… 



July 6, 2006

We must embark on a new era – the era of nonlinearity.  We should do it and contrary to popular belief we are equipped for it. After all, our brains are fundamentally nonlinear.    The mind is a representation of the inexhaustable source of complexity found everywhere in nature. 

So we should be prepared to move on from our notions of linear models to non linear ones.  Why do we need to do this?  Linear models had been very useful.  They are relatively simple to use and imagine.  Their predictions tend not to surprise us.  Safe and warm.  They appear to be valid ‘most’ of the times.  They don’t demand suspension of our intuition in the very objects and phenomenon they describe since dynamics are quantitative only – not qualitative.  They exhibit regularity and are predictable (except when we force them not to be).  Linear systems tend to be very stable, close to equilibrium, and reversible.  They are made up of components that interact only with their local environment and feel the prescence of far off influences only in an average way.  As a result local disturbances tend to die off quickly, no global effects are possible.

As reasonable as all that sounds, linear models fail to explain or predict pretty much anything that is interesting or important…   wars, hurricanes, beatlemania, financial market crashes and bubbles, intelligence, language, the origin of life itself.  Interesting complexity is out of reach of linear models.  The barest hint of nonlinearity is enough to yield exquisitely rich structures.  That is where creativity resides.

We have gotten so stuck on linear models that even our very mental processes have become highly linearized.  We become highly conservative, we don’t imagine that things can change in a qualitative or transformative way.  We get complacent.  It is time to change and face our nonlinear futures.


Why I Don’t Go to the Flickers Anymore.

July 1, 2006

I love movies.  That is why I don’t go to the movies anymore.  What the hell does that mean? 

The classic, black and white, technicolor films  on the big screen of course!  B movies, mgm musicals, rko melodramas, pathe silents,  german expressionists, universal horrors, hitchcocks, welles, fords, hustons, langs…  Ever more than adore, I am a product of these.  the way i think, the shadows and echoes haunt me.  I sometimes imagine myself as Bogart, or Widmark or Mitchum or Stewart, or Tracy. 

This piece is not about whether current movies or movie stars match up.  That argument is for another day.  I can go to the movies whenver I want and see my favorite films at revival houses.  There are a couple left in New York City.

But I cannot go.  The reason is the audience ruins everything.  Literally.  The unignorable collective snickerings of the pseudo intellectual make it impossible for me. Revival house attract a certain type of audience.  They are the worst kind of audience.   They are jaded, cynical to the core – and they are obnoxious and loud about it.  They probably wouldn’t be caught dead going to the latest Tom Cruise or Nicholas Cage or Leo DiCaprio film.   

They make incessant giggling and laughing throughout for reasons I find unfathomable.   Even during climactic dramatic scenes.  When the nun driven to madness finally declares she’s in love with the rogue in ‘Black Narcissus’. or when Stewart falls from the tower in ‘Vertigo’ or when Edward G puts on the apron in ‘Scarlet Street’.   Or during a tough talk by a G-Man in ‘House on 92 St’. 

I don’t deny anyone going to a movie for whatever reason they want.  But why go to a movie to laugh at it, to mock it?  This audience may not even know it is doing it.  But it ruins the experience for me.

It is not the kind of hardy laughs from watching Laurel and Hardy, or beloved Marx Bros.  No – their nervous twitters are there to remind them of how sophisticated they are with their cappacchino sipping cafes. 

How primitive ‘they’ (who are ‘they’?) were then, and how modern and cool we are today!  After all we have the internet and gay rights! How quaint that things mattered back in those days, how old fashioned that taboos existed, and that actions had consequences.  How primitive that heroes loved their country then.  No we are beyond that today.  How sad.

Why not try to live briefly in the moment of the film, in its universality, its humanity?  At lease show respect for it and for those of us who want to enjoy it in quiet by keeping the snickers to yourself.  Can’t you get beyond your biases neuroses and preconceptions to enjoy a film in it’s own terms?  It is an arrogance that afflicts our culture in general (I call it the David Letterman effect – everything is there to be made fun of) 

Makes me wonder whether we can ever learn anything at all from the legacy left for us, from our history.


Man Made vs Natural Structures… or Grace under Fire

June 30, 2006

If we are to learn anything about what we do and how we are to build, let us learn from Nature.  The emergent structures than Nature hath built …complexities on top of complexities… are supremely graceful to errors and mistakes.  They are self healing.  I am thinking of life.   Life eats up its errors mostly by ignoring them, repairing them if necessary, or by generating new forms from them.  Contrary to popular belief, most mutations or errors in the genome are not lethal, but are simply ignored.  If they are judged to cause a problem that needs to be fixed,  they will heal themselves. Quite often they produce variabilities critical for selection fitness.  Nature handles her errors gracefully and even takes them as opportunities for creating new abilities.  Only a minority of errors which cannot be ignored or fixed cause global system failure.

How ungraceful we are!  Errors in man made systems are mostly lethal.  A plane on take off runs over a piece of metal which sheers the wheels and causes a fire which crashes the plane.  Think of what a miscoded bit of data that transforms 0 to 1 or oversteps a memory space in a computer binary can do to a running software program. 

In our designs, and in our daily life we can pay attention to those times when we need to handle errors and indignities gracefully and purposefully  We can practice this. To eat them up, to not let them ravage us, indeed to use them to our advantage.   Systems that can do this are self aware.  Check out some recent progress on self adaptive technologies.

I will talk more about this as it applies to my musical performance capabilities later on….

good night dear reader.