I’m deciding to take advantage of “structured procrastination” (I should be studying for a French test) and write about simplicity – again. A recent digg article shot to the front page about webdesign simplicity. It wasn’t particularly insightful or newly informative. But it did practice what it preached: Link. Mirror(png). Noticed how it was technically in the common five paragraph essay format/structure.

This common format is taught around 6th or 7th grade and then internalized throughout high school where it becomes enforced in college and a necessity for intellectual life. A quick google search produces a simple to understand guide for this: JCU.edu

This past year I read “A Hacker Manifesto” and its unusual aphorismic format was immediately appealing. It succeeds in its brevity where the common 5-paragraph system fails. It does this by breaking the monogamy of argument-example. The main argument to maintain this relationship for the 5-paragraph format is to allow for ‘further understanding’ or “support” of the argument. It allows the reader to more appropriately understand the meaning and context of the body’s premise. But, for certain information, this is not a necessity.

Before I proceed: I recognize the irony in having to utilize the 5-paragraph format in my own writing and I also recognize that I’ll have to use an example to further explain my previous statement. This is only a handicap because I haven’t internalized the aphorismic method, yet. So: For instance, in the above digg article the main argument statements in each body is in bold. You may if you need further clarification/understanding read the body’s non-bolded text. But you could read and understand the entire essay’s point by simply reading those short one-sentence arguments.

This setup makes the logic of the essay more explicit. One of the first challenges schoolchildren have in understanding a block of text in an essay is by recognizing what and where the thesis statement is. In the previous example, there is no interconnected logic but rather an abundance of one-liner arguments. But most other essays, particularly philosophical ones, require step-by-step argumentation.

Consider a simple syllogism:

All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Now, if this logic was to be put under the two structures previously described, then you shall see which has its flaws.

Very simplistically, in the 5-paragraph structure you’d have something like this. The obviousness of the supporting statements may come off as stupid but this yet another unnecessary flaw in 5-paragraph sytem.

It is no mystery we humans live and die. Socrates was no different in this distinction. In this essay, I will argue that since men die, and that Socrates is a man, that Socrates has the potential to die.
All men are mortal. This is evidenced by numerous graves and the fact that there are no men who have lived forever. All the decedents of men have died. Since we are living things, we must be vulnerable to death. For example, etc. This manifestation of humanity allows for the analysis of one such man, Socrates.
Socrates is a man. This can be shown in so many ways such as the certain traits that compose “man” which are shared by Socrates himself. For example, he has a beard. Another example, is that he has male genitalia. It is now imperative I describe the most important trait Socrates shares with mankind: mortality.
Thus, because Socrates is a man and that all men eventually die, Socrates will eventually die. It is possible to see the effects of death by his deteriorating health and lack of pulse. The trail and eventual willful execution by poision was the proverbial final nail in the coffin.
I have thus shown the intricate reasons for Socrates’s own mortality. It is taken syllogistically from the major premise that all men are mortal to the minor term that Socrates is a man and finally to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal.

How unbefuckinglievably laborious was it to wade through that dumbfounded essay only to point out the obvious syllogistic logic that Socrates is mortal? This has to be done for virtually every argument presented by anyone. It is beneficial to do this for rather complex arguments and arguments which may require such laborious support but this is only mainly done to cater to the possible stupidity and ignorance of the reader. It is not something that is necessitated by the form or argument itself. In “A Hacker Manifesto” Wark employs a slightly different approach. It is a little synthetic in that it is between the extended form of the 5-paragraph essay and the minimalistic form I’m arguing which would be an Wittgensteinian essay composed entirely of propositions. Wark will have an abundance of propositions in regard to a central idea/subject. He will also support those propositions with sub-propositions which could be separate but are kept within a single paragraph due to their relevance to the main topic sentence. Quote:

In the frontline states of the old cold war, the forces of revolt were most successful. In Tawian, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines; in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and the Baltic States, the forces of revolt pushed the old ruling classes toward a new state form, in which further movements toward abstraction at least have a fighting chance.

Revolt [237]

Two propositional statements. That whole paragraph could be dissertation. A dissertation analyzing the revolts in all those countries described, in support of a main thesis to describe the success of them as a movement toward Wark’s conceptualization of “abstraction.” Wark modeled his writing for “A Hacker Manifesto” on Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” Debord was influenced by Isidore Isou (here is his manifesto) and his hypergraphology theory and Lettrist movement. Another writer’s style whose relevance is undeniable is Wittgenstein. In his magnum opus, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein dissolves philosophy by logical atomism through arguments about language and reality. In 80 or so pages it critiques philosophical analysis, language, logic, reality, with some ethical overtones and develops a ‘picture’ theory of propositions. Each theses is numbered (1 through 6, with a 7th and last proposition being his famous dictum: “Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” or sometimes translated as “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”) and sometimes has sub-theses which are comments or elaborations on the main theses.

 

In fact, the entire ‘book’ can be simplified into 7 direct statements:

1. The world is all that is the case.

2. What is the case – a fact – is the existence of states of affairs.

3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

4. A thought is a proposition with a sense.

5. A propositions is a truth-function of elementary propositions.

6. The general form of a truth-function is [p, E, N(E)].

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

 

That’s it. If Wittgenstein had been forced into the 5-paragraph structure the book would be monumental. His simplicity highlights another flaw in the 5-paragraph paradigm which I consider to be a manifest contradiction. In English writing classes we are taught two things: critical thinking skills and essay writing skills. But, the ideology behind both in regard to the reader-writer relationship is contradictory.

 

The reader is taught to be skeptical and critically analyze the information presented in an essay. They are taught to avoid logical fallacies, and not become victims of persuasion. But, the writer is given intellectual tools which he/she is supposed to utilize to convince the reader that the writers arguments are not only valid but sound and true. Writers are also urged to utilize writing which is not explicitly intellectually dishonest but is just as a persuasive in trying to convert the reader to the writer’s philosophy. This doesn’t make sense. Everyone is a writer and a reader. If you are a writer, you must use as many tools at your disposal to ‘trick’ the reader into adopting your view with the least resistance. If you are a reader, you must use as many tools at your disposal to be critical and open minded so as not to fall into the writer’s ‘traps’.

 

Aphorismic writing is not illusory. It presents a proposition within a logically flowing piece of literature and it is up to the reader to critically analyze it. Analyze it on its own merits and its relation to other propositions in the text. In Aphorismic writing, the potential intellectual dishonesty of the 5-paragraph method is avoided while the information and logic of the argument is maintained.

 

I wrote this entry in part to ‘do’ something today. But I also wrote it to allow myself to synthesize all these thoughts which bounce around in my mind loosely tied together. I didn’t write an outline for this, I just sat and wrote. I feel that I have convinced myself that I want to convert to writing aphorismically. However, first, I’ll have to start internalizing that method.

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Norman and Spolsky: Simplicity is Out

Been savin’ this. Awhile back Joel Spolsky and Don Norman came out with two articles against product simplicity. It eventually made its way to slashdot.org where /.’s informed users laughed, ridiculed, and analyzed their peices to utter destruction – rightly so. Norman and Spolsky completely missed the mark on both understanding simplicity and why simplicity is implemented – actually they even misunderstood the thing that they supported instead: complexity. Norman was gracious enough to come out with an addendum to his article in order to respond to some of the /. flak he got but, I think, despite his best efforts, he came up short and made the problem a little worse for his arguments.

First, Norman pops out with this:

“Why can’t products be simpler?” cries the reviewer in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the local newspaper. “We want simplicity” cry the people befuddled by all the features of their latest whatever. Do they really mean it? No.

But when it came time for the journalists to review the simple products they had gathered together, they complained that they lacked what they considered to be “critical” features. So, what do people mean when they ask for simplicity? One-button operation, of course, but with all of their favorite features.

No. For those journalists who demanded “critical” features (which essentially means necessary ones) simplicity does not mean “One button to rule all the functions.” It means exactly what they meant: Simplicity means having all the necessary features and no (or the least amount of) unnecessary ones. That’s the core motto of simplicity: necessity. It’s the core of Okham’s Razor – the grand philosophical quote of simplicity. Either quote is applicable be it the technical one: “entities shall not be multiplied beyond necessity” or the colloquial one: “The simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”

Granted, this manifestation of simplicity isn’t always “fair” to the engineer who tries to follow the 80-20 rule (as is discussed in Spolsky’s article) but that’s the very paradox engineer’s deal with. The only thing you, as an engineer or as a product designer, need to be concerned about is if you’ve applied the bare essential features to whatever product it is you’re selling.

Norman, when he suggests that simplicity means “one button” he should mean, or rather intends to mean, minimalism. The difference in understanding minimalism in relation to simplicity is best explained via painting – well maybe that’s just me with my art history background. A painting of one color is obviously minimalistic. A portrait painting of one man sitting in a chair in an empty room is simplistic. Minimalism is the view that tries to cut everything down to the core of expression. Conceptually, this means not merely getting rid of the excess – the unnecessary – but cutting down everything to the “singular” the “one” core peice of artistic expression that exists. Simplicity, although conceptually similar, allows for pluralities. It just must be understood that as long as everything included is absolutely necessary.

For some product designers – I’m guessing here – they’ll employ techniques of minimalizing as well as simplifying. Having one button do the work of two (like a pause/play button on an mp3 player) is minimalizing. Removing the calender nobody uses on an mp3 player – simplifying.

And while were discussing the terminology of simplicity it’ll be appropriate to quote the most worthwhile thing in Spolsky’s article:

If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product in which the user model corresponds closely to the program model, so the product is easy to use, fine, more power to ya. If you’re using the term “simplicity” to refer to a product with a spare, clean visual appearance, so the term is nothing more than an aesthetic description much in the same way you might describe Ralph Lauren clothes as “Southampton WASP,” fine, more power to ya. Minimalist aesthetics are quite hip these days. But if you think simplicity means “not very many features” or “does one thing and does it well,” then I applaud your integrity but you can’t go that far with a product that deliberately leaves features out.

The gut reaction here should clearly be that he’s leaving out the definition of simplicity of “that which has all the necessary features.” And, well, while I’m quoting Spolsky I did also have this to say.

Spolsky’s article is much more cogent and agreeable. But here I did a double-take:

Devotees of simplicity will bring up 37signals and the Apple iPod as anecdotal proof that Simple Sells. I would argue that in both these cases, success is a result of a combination of things: building an audience, evangelism, clean and spare design, emotional appeal, aesthetics, fast response time, direct and instant user feedback, program models which correspond to the user model resulting in high usability, and putting the user in control, all of which are features of one sort, in the sense that they are benefits that customers like and pay for, but none of which can really be described as “simplicity.”

That last clause of the last sentence through me. To me, the only things that struck me as being non-simplistic factors in 37signals/iPod’s success were “building an audience, evangelism, and direct and instant user-feedback.” Everything else has some direct or indirect relationship to the concept or aesthetic of simplicity. Doesn’t “clean and spare design” literally mean “simple design” and doesn’t “program models which correspond to the user model” refer to a “simple product model”?

Back to Stormin’ Norman.

Norman then comes out with these gems:

Describing toasters, refridgerators, and coffee makers: “all of which had multiple control dials, multiple LCD displays, and a complexity that defied description.”

Describing a Korean car’s dashboard: “A rear view mirror with an on-off switch? The salesperson didn’t know what it did either.”

Great. Now we’ve got products so complex we don’t even know what to call them or what the fuck they even are supposed to do. Supporting product complexity invariablly means that you propose a philosophy where the consumer wants less bang for his buck. Let’s revisit the 80-20 rule. It’s a rule of simplicity – if your demographic is that 80% who use 20% of the features – just implement that 20%. Spolsky’s insight is great when he says that the problem is most of the time it’s a different 20% of the features per consumer.  But if Norman is proposing a complexity situation it ends up meaning that 80% of the demographic will end up using much much less than 20% of the features!

Some are familiar with the recent press releases of Apple’s new iPhone (lawsuit pending). Its main features include mp3 player, camera, video player, web-browser, oh.. and apparently it’s a “cell phone” too. Say I buy that $500 cell phone. Say that most of the time I use it just as a cell phone. Setting aside “real” math, I’m using 1/5th of the phone’s features – ahh – 20%. However, if Don Norman had his say and this iPhone also had features like a scanner, portable video games, PDA, coffee grinder, and an intuitive “widget” engine then I’ll end up using 1/10th of the phone’s features – 10% at twice the price. Granted, I’m probably a stupid consumer for buying a product for one feature I use and 9 I don’t but with Stormin’ Norman on the prowl my money is being wasted twice as fast.

In trying to figure out this rather ridiculous conundrum of why these products were designed in such a way he goes on to say:

“Why is this? Why do we deliberately build things that confuse the people who use them?

Answer: Because the people want the features.”

No. Actually, you already had this question of yours answered just a few lines above your own answer:

“Why?” I asked my two guides, both of whom were usability professionals. “Because Koreans like things to look complex,” they responded. It is a symbol: it shows their status.”

It’s a Korean status symbol. It’s got nothing to really do with whether or not complexity and simplicity are universally virtuous aspects to have in a product. It’s just something of cultural significance. As far as I can tell, Americans on the other hand, don’t view complexity as a “status symbol.” Well maybe they do, but it certainly isn’t a favorable one. The past few years of Apple-crazed products and logo-less clothing lines as well as Tivo and RSS feeds and so forth is that simplicity, not complexity, is what is “in” and rightly so. In fact, I will even go so far as to argue that it is environmentally imperative that we focus on cutting down to bare essentials of living – and that means product design first and foremost. RSS feeds are being used to conglomerate numerous infosites into a singular simplistic interface for ease of use. Tivo cuts out the unessential and rather annoying experience of watching commercials for products I don’t want to buy and food I shouldn’t be eating. Life in Korea may favor complexity but life in America favors simplicity.

His addendum tends to encourage the rather fallacious way humans currently go about buying products based on design. It’s horrific to see someone come out and say this:

“We have to take human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.”

…and mean it. It’s a very pessimistic quote is it not? Human behavior, Norman agrees, is fundamentally flawed. But because it is flawed is the reason why “We” (whoever “we” may be) should at least try to improve ourselves from our own flawed nature.

“Haven’t you ever compared two products side by side, comparing the features of each, preferring the one that did more? Why shame on you, you are behaving, well, behaving like a normal person.”

Consumers should be shamed. Perferring the one that did more when it does more than you need it to do is not “behaving like a normal person” it’s behaving like a glutton – it’s consumer greed and it is the great economical sin of the century.

Norman also talks about the consumer predisposition to conflate complexity with power. This, again, isn’t a virtue. It’s a fallacy which Norman encourages:

Sorry: it is the apparent complexity that drives the sale. And yes, it is the same complexity that frustrates those same people later on. But by then, it is too late: they have already purchased the product.

Is there some sort of Designer’s Ethics Committee that can censure this guy? This is the designer’s equivalent of a hooker saying “Hey, want a good time?” You: “Hell yeah!” You spend 200 bucks on a experience where half the time you’re thinking to yourself “I could’ve just gone home and beat my meat for free.” Then, once this horrible ordeal is over you have to check yourself for spots for the next 6 weeks.  You’re lured in and fucked.

Designers shouldn’t be conmen.

Complex things do not mean more power – if anything they mean less power in the realm of electronics. An mp3 player will tend to have a longer battery life if all it does is play mp3s. The new Apple iPhone is a video ipod, camera, phone, PDA, and web browser all-in-one. That is quite powerful. I don’t know if I’ll ever spend the $500 dollars on a phone (hah, and people were complaining about the price of the PS3! It’s a fucking super-computer media hub for crissakes) but if I do, I’ll get the one with the simplistic interface. But this Apple iPhone is not all that powerful after its 5 hour battery life. However, I had never thought of simplicity and complexity in their relation to power before – an interesting relation to consider too.

Norman also wrote the article: The Truth about Google’s so-called “simplicity”:
He comes out with these gems:

Why are Yahoo! and MSN such complex-looking places? Because their systems are easier to use.

A) No they aren’t. B) “complex” and “easy” are antonyms!

True [Google’s interface is simple], but that’s because you can only do one thing from their home page: search.

What do you mean “but”? Isn’t the point of a search engine to search? He follows up this quote with:

Anybody can make a simple-looking interface if the system only does one thing.

True, anybody can. Very few actually do.

If you want to do one of the many other things Google is able to do, oops, first you have to figure out how to find it, then you have to figure out which of the many offerings to use, then you have to figure out how to use it. And because all those other things are not on the home page but, instead, are hidden away in various mysterious places, extra clicks and operations are required for even simple tasks — if you can remember how to get to them.

Did it ever occur to you that you could just search for something on Google? Fucking Christ Norman. Saying something along the lines of “How do you find something on Google” is about as stupid as looking up the word “dictionary” in the dictionary.

It hides all the complexity by simply showing one search box on the main page. The main difference, is that if you want to do anything else, the other search engines let you do it from their home pages, whereas Google makes you search through other, much more complex pages. Why aren’t many of these just linked together? Why isn’t Google a unified application?

Because Google isn’t an operating system with a desktop. It’s a search engine with peripheral applications its linked to based on its success of buying out innovative companies. You aren’t looking for a search engine – you’re looking for GoogleOS or some massive website that is an amalgamation of all those products you want in one tight website riddled with links to applications you intermittently use. People use Google (lemme pull a statistic out of my ass) 90% of the time to search for fuck-all. Sometimes they need a map, sometimes they need the news and sometimes they want to check mail or their calender. All of this is a click away. When I use Google to search for something, I don’t need the latest information in my calender or mailbox and I sure as hell don’t need to see a map of the US. I need a text box and button titled “I’m feelin’ lucky.” Thats. It. And that’s the point.

Well I sure blitzed through this book. That should be somewhat of an indication of the clarity of Duane Elgin’s exposition. But as usual, I have some curt words to say about it. I just first say how enormously well-written and thought-out the book is and how comprehensive it is as a manifesto for voluntary simplicity. It has its problems, in part due to naiveness and in part due to Elgin’s sophmoric sociological theory of social change. It’s just a bell-curve and a graphically uninformative one at that.

I’ve realized that the spiritual aspect of this movement has much more of a rich history than I had previously envisioned. The “personal”, “spiritual”, and “inner value” that simplicity champions is far too embedded into the movement. Elgin does a great job, however, of not making this aspect a dogmatic one. He illuminates that golden rule and if not universal morality then at least the grand shared belief among Judeo-Christian, Hindu, and Buddist faiths. If I were to write book about this subject, and hopefully I will, I will most likely leave out the spiritual. It won’t be because I have some disdain for spirituality – spirituality and religiocity can be noble insights – but simply because the spiritual aspect of simplicity (the concept itself) is not important nor necessary. You do not need a spiritual backdrop in order to develop an ideology of simplicity.

The reason spirituality is used, however, is because it is a convincing and persuasive counter-part to heathenistic materialist consumption philosophies. Of course “the inner” is more grandly beautiful and truly satistfying (theoretically…) when the alternative is only pointless materialistic consumption of mostly unnecessary things. One of the most poignant examples of this is people who suffer from obesity AND malnourishment.  That’s the real fuckin’ irony.

Spiritualism is being used as the magnate which attracts people into simple lifestyles.  But spirituality is not a necessary virtue of simplicity. So then the problem becomes a question of whether or not simplicity or simple living have enough merit as ideologies in themselves to be favorable alternative views/lifestyles to Capitalist over-consumerism. Essentially, if Elgin and Gregg had believed that simplicity was worthy as an alternative economic lifestyle then they wouldn’t, or rather shouldn’t, have used spirituality as a necessary virtue of simplicity especially when it isn’t.

I think I’m ready for Eliot Sober’s book Simplicity now. The voluntary simplicity psuedo-religious movement has really begun to sound repititious and pedantic.  It’s far too “new age”-ish. Elgin’s book is great, but is overly spiritual and it doesn’t rigorously outline a definition of simplicity or simple. And if you can’t understand simplicity from an objective standpoint (Gregg and Elgin both consider the aesthetic judgment of simplicty to be almost entirely introspective) then it won’t be useful as a collective ideology. If everyone was running around saying stuff is simple because it’s simple “to them” then it isn’t a collective movement at all, it’s anarchy all over again. The malnourished fat guy probably thinks that his 2 mpg Hummer and 15lb box of twinkies are “necessary” to his livelihood either to psychological gratification (which is SO easily confused with spiritual wellness) or to his economic stability. And really, what kind of bullshit is that for a movement of simplicity.

Richard B. Gregg’s 1937 essay that truly breathed life into this movement was excellent. It wasn’t so dependant on spirituality, but it did support spirituality as a necessary virtue, but more importantly, it was a much more all-encompassing analysis of simplicity. The simplicity is very ubiquitious and pervasive – it can be applied anywhere. Because of this, Gregg’s essay fails. John Madea insightfully said that for certain things you cannot and sometimes must not apply simplicity. On ODN (online debate network) I wrote a little counter-argument to Gregg’s application of simplicity to politics. I don’t perfectly remember the argument but I think I first said that it would be unrealistic to apply it considering the fact that a democractic government has to consider the opinions of numerous people. The system is innately complex and simplifiying it might cause injustices but more importantly vulnerabilities. I think my counter-example was something like how a military in a simplistic government will almost always lose a battle. You want and need surplus in an army.

So really, because I’m somewhat fed-up with the naiveness and unecessary spiritualism of the voluntary simplicity socio-political movements I’m going to now start on simplicity in regards to the philosophy of science. It’ll be really interesting to see in what way scientific simplicity might be able to resolve the faults of the socio-political perspectives.

Social Change

September 3, 2006

Well, I just finished a textbook that I read for intellectual pleasure. I took it with me while I was on a mule trip on the High Sierras of Yosemite. That was weeks ago and I originally thought of bringing A Hacker Manifesto instead but I felt it would be a little too weird to be reading about techno-politics while being completely isolated from that entire atmosphere. Then again, reading about society was probably just as silly. Either way, both books were enlightening.

After reading this textbook on interdisciplinary studies of social change (albeit with a an emphasis on sociological studies, obviously) I wonder just how hungry the US is for change. However, I bet non-US citizens are hungry for the US to change its ways than its citizens themselves. “Terrorists” surely, but Europeans, Venezuelans, and surely those in the Pacific theatre.

Right now there are accusations against the administration in regards to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The people seem to want an impeachment. But I think that the Clinton impeachment proceedings pretty well established that the impeachment process is not a process that involves “the people” anymore. It’s a closed-circuit process completely contained within those in power. The republicans impeached Clinton. Not the people. Since the democrats make up 50-60% of the people but hold only 10% of the power, the chances of a Bush impeachment or any kind of transitory organizational change is just not going to happen.

Besides, who the hell wants Cheney to have more power than he already does? The guy wants to ban homosexuality (note: not just homosexual marriage) even though his daughter is one.

If I were to give a forecast of the possibility of some dramatic planned (or at least “conscious”) social change at the hands of the American people I’d say “fat chance.” Political apathy is greater than it’s been in decades, the iron cage of rationality is exploding (remember hearing about the passenger mutiny? – granted that was Australia but the irrationality is everywhere), a gross misunderstanding of the Islamic faith (and when coupled with irrationality the conclusions people make are absurd: “We value religious freedom. Islam does not value religious freedom. Therefore, we must control Islam.” – What the fuck?) and the fact that since there is also a rise in paleo-conservatism and paleo-liberalism (and neo-liberalism too) people are just waiting for social change to “happen” come election time.

But screw that. The programmer admitted to electronic tampering (even though his book was coming out at the same time he testified). We shouldn’t have to wait for society to change. That’s not how it works. Get up. Stop being apathetic and unnecessarily patient and ask for change. If they don’t answer your request. Demand it. If they don’t obey – make the change yourself. You’ve gone through the system and the system failed. Secondly, when the system is considered a failure and when the system is viewed as illegal then illegal actions are permissible.

Like the guerrilla artist Banksy says (actually, it might be the other guerrilla artist, Simon Munnery):

The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It’s people who follow the orders that drop bombs and massacre villages [and uphold holocausts].

And what is really gross is that guerrilla art is more offensive to people. It “destroys property”, “ruins the beauty of the city”, and in some ways affects people’s intellectual property. And yet, guerrilla art is just non-violent civil disobedience. Since civil disobedience exists in all civil atmospheres, I’d much rather have graffiti than the L.A. riots. Maybe they don’t view graffiti in the way that I do – urban folk art; modern civilian calligraphy; and something that simultaneously makes a statement about branding through art and a statement about art through branding.

ahh… pessimistic sociological rants are so healthy.

Chaos = Order

April 5, 2006

Yuuuppp…. I've known that for years ever since I realized that patterns can be found in seemingly random series of numbers, behaviors, thoughts, decisions…. But today I came across an article in which a group of physicists came to some interesting and amazing conclusions based on some work they were doing on oscillations.

http://news-info.wustl.edu/tips/page/normal/6845.html

While working on their model — a network of interconnected pendulums, or "oscillators" — the researchers noticed that when driven by ordered forces the various pendulums behaved chaotically and swung out of sync like a group of intoxicated synchronized swimmers. This was unexpected — shouldn't synchronized forces yield synchronized pendulums?

But then came the real surprise: When they introduced disorder — forces were applied at random to each oscillator — the system became ordered and synchronized.

Chaos Theory, Catastrophy theory, game theory, and other mathematically applied sociological models (or is that socially applied mathematical models?) are generally "new", mostly theoretical, fields. The conclusions found in the article could affect conclusions and studies being made in everything from neurobiology and neural systems to politics and economics.

Personally, my favorite example of ordered systems through chaos (or maybe perceived chaos, or absurdism) is the fractal art of Jackson Pollock. It's truly inspiring stuff. In Pollock's paintings you can occaisionally see thick round blotches of paint, or sometimes thin fijords (only word that I can think of to describe it). This is a sign of the speed (or rather velocity) of Pollock's brush. The Australian Physicist Richard Taylor, as far as I know, was the first to analyize Pollock's painting mathematically. "[Drip painting] produced trajectories of paint on the canvas that were like a [two-dimensional] map or fingerprint of his [three-dimensional] motions around the canvas."

Taylor and a small team of researchers took pictures of Pollock's work to analyize the trajectories. They concluded that Pollock's paintings reflect fractals – an aesthetic mode typically sanctioned only in the computer realm – because there were several repeating forms within the same object at different scales. They also concluded, through some mathematical models, that Pollock's drip technique was refined over the years and with that refinement his style came closer to larger fractal dimensions. His earlier work has a fractal dimension of about 1.2 whereas his work in the 1950s is closer to a fractal dimension of 2.0 Basically, they became more complex.

http://www.maa.org/mathland/mathtrek_9_20_99.html

I don’t mean merely anthropological evolution, the evolution of concepts, behaviors, social systems, blah blah blah… etc. as well. Organisms seem to be evolving, for the most part, toward higher forms of complexity in order to continue the fighting the war that is life. Our immune systems become stronger and more complex with more antibodies. This is evolution towards complexity. However, sometimes biological evolution takes another route and the organism becomes less complex. We begin to lose parts and traits which we once had evolved to have, typically these are called vestigial organs. This is evolution towards simplicity.

Then, more abstractly, ideas are subjected to these two types of evolution. Theoretical physicists are looking for the holy grail of physics with a “Unified Theory” or “final theory” of everything. String theory, relativity, and quantum theory all try to explain everything in our universe from the smallest quarks to the largest nebulae. This is an example of an idea which is trying to evolve towards simplicity. Mathematics and programming, on the other hand, seems only to become more complex. There is a problem with computer programming in which “the problem” becomes more complex, unnecessarily so, once it is translated into a computer-literate language so it can be solved. Cryptography takes a simple concept and muddles it into a near-unbreakable realm of complexity for the simple purpose that it is so complex that nobody bothers to understand the simple concept it muddled. (aright, in my head that made sense and I know I should clarify it… but fuck it) This is, heh.. obviously, an example of a concept evolving purposefully towards complexity.

I find all of this grandly beautiful. It’s the recognization of these kinds of patterns which are my substitue for spirituality. I think I sort of understand now why I used to have little faith in “beliefs.” I’ve come to notice that I’d much rather have a belief which is founded on logically flowing premises, falsifiable evidence, and an acceptable philosophy rather than a belief for the sake of having something to believe in. I’m not saying I only believe in things which can be proven, rather I’m saying I believe in things which at least attempt to prove something. I tend to look at religious ideas as something which people believe as true, and because of that vague indemonstrable connection to truth, continue to believe it. That’s why I adore philosophy over theology. Why I like arguments instead of opinions.
I am simply loving this  “what we believe but cannot prove.” book.

Behold! I have finished 440 pages of the nerdiest book I’ve ever read! All in all, it was extremely enlightening. I got through about 14 essays before I began to just finish the book off with essays that actually seemed interesting like “The Brain that makes music and is changed by it.” I’ll break down some of the essays in the book which seemed most intriging. After this I’ll probably be reading Color: the Secret Influence and while I’m in Arizona I’d really like to finish a book on Arvo Part and his tintinnabuli style.
Evolution:

There’s 2 solid essays about the role music may have played in evolution but other essays revist the evolution of music from time to time. Unfortunately all of the ideas about the origins of music are strictly speculative. Essentially they say that music stemmed from either a linguistic need or a social need. Species/social groups would use music to establish territory (think the present-day howler monkeys), as well as establish cultural individuality. They also make sure to include the idea that music may have been a form of proto-language, or should I say, pre-language. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that music consists of rythm, pitch, tone, and timbre. All these aspects are pretty much the same aspects of lanuage. Mainly spoken language, but there is enough flexibility of music to make comparisons to written work such as poetry, in fact there is a great essay in the last section about comparing the sounds of music to a Robert Frost poem. Darwin, however, suggested that language predates music.

One pretty interesting finding was a flute fashioned from a bone (I want to say it’s a wolf femur but I frankly don’t remember, I might be mixing that up with the wolf bone found which suggested that cavedwellers had a sexigesmal number system). This suggests that music, specifically wind instruments that predate percussion (drums) instruments, was used in upwards of hundreds of thousands of years ago instead of recently (as in the last 5,000 years). What was strange was that the flute was found in a Neanderthal excavation. That’s right… music came before our modern day species of homo sapien. And this ALSO suggests that music pre-dates PAINTING!
Infant Predispositions and Temporal Universals:

Apparently, infants have the same musical predispositions as most adults, but just not as specialized. Basically, they aren’t as judgemental of dissonant sounds. Infants will focus more attention to higher-pitch simple ratio sounds than barotone complex ratio sounds. This, as they suggest, correlates to the music babies listen to from their mother’s singing. A woman’s speaking voice is lower than that when they are talking to a child. Their speach to their children is higher still than their singing voice. This high-frequency sounds in a woman’s speach to their infant is probably a way of transmitting much needed emotional information to the infant. 3 month infants are barely able to cognitively distinguish dissonant (unpleasant, unharmonious) music from consonant (pleasant, harmonious, expectational) music. From 6 to 9 to 12 infants continue to become more discriminant of tones, pitches, and tempos.

A later chapter basically confirmed the ancient claims of previous scientific theories of musical consonance, specifically Pythagorus’s claim that people prefer simple ratios to complex ratios. People will enjoy octavs that are something like 3/4, 2/3 and consider ratios like 16/25, 36/45 unpleasant. There is evidence of this all the way to neuronal activity. Without going too techincal (and because I don’t have the book anymore and just going of what I remember) dissonant sounds will cause uneven periodicity in brain activity (maybe even brain waves) whereas consonant, simple ratio, sounds do.

The infamous and notorious myth of the “Mozart Effect”

Debunked. The writer goes off on a dozen or so experiments and studies which attempt to suggest a correlation to listening to Mozart and an increase in intelligence and pointing out where and why they failed to properly make the connection. Mainly because, there isn’t one. Previous chapters essentially prove that there is no specific area of the brain concerned specifically with just music or just language (unlike motor control). Language and music are inherently connected but are different enough in that people who are suffer from amusic (tone deaf) are still able to understand and speak in tonal languages (like Chinese). So it is, in part, so far, inaccurate to make the connection that listening the Mozart will enhance non-musical areas of the brain. But that doesn’t mean there absolutely isn’t a connection, just that any attempts and finding the connection have not been valid enough to be considered proof.

Music and Emotion

What was interesting here is that they suggest that music doesn’t express specific emotions but rather induce emotions through common cues. Slow, unrythmic music will induce sad and relaxed emotions whereas fast, rythmic music will induce happy and energetic feelings. But music, unlike R. G. Collingwood’s theories of art, do not express emotion explicitly but rather mimic emotions by using similar triggers. Consonant and dissonant tones can be used to cause conflicting emotions or series of emotions as well. Because music is (or can be) highly organized and pattern oriented, we tend to expect certain sounds to be played, all the way to the point of prediction and musicians can either confirm these predictions which gives rise to validation and resolution, or revolt against these assumptions/predictions which will give rise to tension/stress and confusion.
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There are other areas the book covers but these seemed the most interesting and the easiest to summarize and grasp (one being a very muddled discussion of where in the brain high-pitch frequencies are oriented in the brain versus low frequencies). I kinda wish I had been writing notes while reading this book (which I really should have done since it’s a scientific book) or at least practices marginality (but it’s a university library) book, so I probably should’ve bought the book. Unfortunately, the essays are really disorganized if you are reading the book sequentially. Each section is has an unhealthy balance of muddled writing and clear writting. The first essay on evolution was ridiculously and unnecessarily florid that I could barely understand a single sentance. The second essay on evolution, by David Huron, was way more accessible and now that I think about it was simply a restating of a lot of the concepts described in the first essay.

I figure now I can pretty much read any book that I want and not worry about how confusing it’s writting will be, how complex the ideas (except maybe some advanced mathematics books) are, or how drab and unattentive the subject matter.

Nothing.

January 28, 2006

I just finished reading an extremely hard-to-find book titled “Nothing.” It’s a compilation of art works and essays edited together for the purposes of travelling art exhibition around the turn of the century. It’s main purpose was to describe, in so many ways, nothingness, absence, invisibility, disappearance, the void, the lack of value.. etc. It is an intriguing book to say the least but it doesn’t hesitate to point out the fundamental flawed logic of trying to create “something from nothing.” In fact, one of the essays by Pierre Bismuth is titled “Never believe an artist who says their work is about nothing: the culture consumer’s fear of hte void.”

You’ve got to keep in mind and handle several things when you are talking about “nothingness.” For philosophers, or actually anyone who understands and abides by the rules of argumentation have to force themselves to agree to use a few logical fallacies and weasel wording in order to actually use the concept of nothing properly in a discussion. Mainly, the fallacy of reification, which is the fallacy of treating an abstract idea as if it actually exists. In this case, as if you could stand in a room of “nothing.” But nothing doesn’t exist. It can’t. Or maybe, if current science has anything to say about the universe.. “nothing” is the most abudant “thing” in it. That is to say, there is more nothing than there is something in the universe. Planets constantly drifting away from each other, black holes popping all over the place sucking every something into itself, everything being hundreds of thousands of millions of billions lightyears away from one another.

What’s interesting is in how many different places the concept of “nothing” forces itself into existence in order to validate the existence of “something.” The ancient mathematician Zeno gave the Greeks the paradox of infinite regression forcing two things to be accepted, infinity and zero. Nishida Kitaro blended the Western and Eastern philosophies with the Kyoto school, creating an additive mixture of the two powerful schools of thought and wrote several books on “The Logic of Nothing.” The West was immensely concerned with every philosophical concept while the East was wrestling with Zen and Enlightenment. The experimental artist John Cage ushered in silence into music with 4’33. And I am reading more and more newstories about children who suffer from a frightening nerve disorder which makes them invulnerable to touch and pain; they feel nothing.
I can’t even begin to say how much I love the linguistic problems when talking about nothing. For example, my anthropology teacher asked me what book I was reading, and I had to reply honestly “Nothing.” I almost offended him before I showed him that it was the actual title of the book.

What’s the best part about the book? That pages 150 to 158 are missing and I know exactly why. And by the time you finish this post, you should know by now too.

The term “digital art” is not incredibly appealing. It has connotations of a rigidity dissimilar to all other art. In a way, it feels less free. For some reason a lot of non-artists are of the opinion that art should be specifically hand-made, without the “help” of technology and tools. This conflicts with digital art because technology is not only used as a tool to create art, it is the fundamental medium in which it is created. A few posts down you’ll see why I personally am attracted to digital medium. It’s non-physical and intangible. In this way it is art, visually created, but remains in one way or another in the same form as when it was created: an idea. Also, in this way it has the opportunity of being the most abstract form of art.

To make things clear I believe that the difference between a painter and an artist is the creative mind. A painter has the skill, the artist has the idea. If you are a painter but cannot invent an artistic idea, you are not an artist. If you are an artist who doesn’t have the skill to paint, you are not a painter (obviously). Art is not about paintings or scupltures. It’s about ideas. And by all means expression of that idea in any way; physical, non-physicial, audible or inaudible, visual or non-visual. My last art teacher, who I didn’t spend much time with, didn’t consider himself an artist; he considered himself a technician of the arts. Digital art has expanded on art in a way that removes the physical skill commonly associated with artistry. It is not intellectual skill. Computer programmers, graphic designers, and others have now been able to create and express ideas through a medium not associated directly with the “fine” arts of painting and sculpture. Without this burden, digital artists (or technoartists as I’ve heard) can create visual representations more real than any super-realist, more abstract than an Islamic temple or Jackson Pollock painting, and so on.

Take a look at this picture (click here to enlarge) and decide for yourself if digital art could or should even be considered “rigid.” It surpasses and expands art and thus giving it more freedom:

Edit: Here are some other incredible super-duper-realist computer generated portraits and face studies. Care of the CGsociety/CGtalk.
http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?threadid=308052
http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?t=225468
http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?t=219323

Take notice that each portrait has almost pitch black eyes. I’d imagine that colorized eyes would detract from it’s realism, however if you zoom in on the man’s eyes there is an excellent reflection. There are, unfortunately and expectedly, parts of each portrait which reveal a computer-esque (ie, unnatural) property. For instance, the woman’s forehead, the man’s hair, and the young boy’s eyebrows. But conversely there are parts of each picture which are remarkably realistic, even surpassing or equaling photorealism. Such as, the resolution on the woman’s lips and cheeks, the man’s skin texture, and the depth in the picture of the young boy.

Thank you John Maeda

January 5, 2006

I just finished up Design By Numbers which is a book and visual programming language created by John Maeda. I read the book as a precursor to understanding and controlling Processing (also known as Proce55ing). John Maeda summed up in two sentances what I believe to be the most beautiful attribute of algorithmic art, generative art, generally any kind of computer generated or mathematically controlled art.

“Computation is intrinsically different from existing media because it is the only medium where the material and the process for shaping the material coexist in the same entity: numbers. The only other medium where a similar phenomenon occurs is pure thought.”

(251) – Design By Numbers, John Maeda