Tag Archives: Transience Divine

Complexity’s History and the Future

A vast leading edge of a new gestalt has begun to upset and encompass mathematics, philosophy, computers and the Internet, psychology, art, and science. It will change how we understand our world and ourselves, and what we believe is possible.

This new gestalt is the culmination of threads that have been developing in many different areas, and they intersect in the emerging understanding of complexity and its connection with computers. Here are a few thoughts of how historical developments have brought us to this point.

Within mathematics, the rise of formalism upended the very nature of mathematics, making math about the creation of math, only to see this approach run up against fundamental flaws (Incompleteness and Halting problems). However, that process of realization itself led to the creation of computer.

Within physics, linear models gave rise to systems understandings (the inadequacy of causality, overdeterminacy), paralleling the evolution of mathematics away from the simple mechanics of truth. This process of exploration is now giving rise to models of out-of-equilibrium processes and entropy, possible only to study through simulation.

These processes in academics were connected to what happened in art, with the transition from the importance of technique (like physics’s former focus on formulas), to an exploration into the nature of painting itself (formalism), to a re-engagement with society (systems). Now new media (computers) are breaking open the possibilities of experience (simulation).

Within philosophy, the trench warfare that has shown a slow receding of absolutism to the forces of relativism is giving way to a new philosophy of multiple perspectives.

Within psychology, early neurobiology combined with the opportunities of technology produced positive psychology, but now more modern views are developing an idea of the emergent self.

It is no mistake the study of complexity is arising at this moment in history, nor that complexity science is so closely tied to developments in computational approaches. Another society-wide driver is also inextricably connected: the rise of big data. Big data lays out complexity for us to see, and demands a new fundamental theory of physics which combines thermodynamics with information theory.

The process of formalism changed the way that people thought about what they were doing, and computers are changing the way we think about everything again. The new gestalt recognizes multiple realities, and it recognizes the importance of simulation. In fact, it ties these two together: simulation and reality are linked. When you make a simulation, you create a new reality. It isn’t this reality, but this reality isn’t a well-defined thing either.

A moment in philosophy

Like art, there was a time when philosophy eschewed any direct relevance to ordinary life. Like mathematics, it was built-up by a new kind of formalization. In math, that process was inspired by set theory; in philosophy, it was called logical positivism. When Godel’s theory showed that such formalisms ultimately eat themselves, both math and philosophy had a wake up call. Of course, by then all their friends had moved away.

Philosophy is going through a renaissance right now, for the same reasons that math is. It’s computers. Computers aren’t just changing society, how we think about ourselves, and what we can know. They are breaking open the notion of truth itself.

Godel’s theorem tore down the notion that formal languages can embody all of truth. But it had a much more important consequence, which had nothing to do with its result. As speech by Chaitin argues:

[Formalization] failed in that precise technical sense. But in fact it succeeded magnificently, not formalization of reasoning, but formalization of algorithms has been the great technological success of our time—computer programming languages!

So if you look back at the history of the beginning of this century you’ll see papers by logicians studying the foundations of mathematics in which they had programming languages. Now you look back and you say this is clearly a programming language! If you look at Turing’s paper of course there’s a machine language. If you look at papers by Alonzo Church you see the lambda calculus, which is a functional programming language. If you look at Gödel’s original paper you see what to me looks like LISP, it’s very close to LISP, the paper begs to be rewritten in LISP!

I was recently working on my Research Statement, for the impending academic job market, and dusting off some thoughts I put into my essay to get into grad school. I said, “Philosophy is grappling to find a life-affirming and ethics-motivating way to acknowledge the advances of technology and science. It has been driven by both them and worldwide clashes of culture to search for a more inclusive world view.”

It’s obvious now that one result of this search has been positive psychology (which I’ve ranted about before). But I think there’s more brewing.

I study complexity, which is ripe with connections both to science and technology. It’s not a mistake that complexity as a set of models is so closely associated with computational techniques like agent-based modeling. I happen to think that it’s also ripe with connections to philosophy– to the nature of reality and our relationship to it.

Complexity has been called the study of “little programs that never halt”: there’s a core of simplicity to any complex model, but there’s also a level of unknowability. Formalizing complexity just doesn’t work, in the traditional sense. Turning a complex model into a simple model loses essential elements, just like if you were to remove recursion from a programming language.

Ancient philosophy was content with irreducible mystery, but modern philosophy always wants to explain the foundation. It accepts that the explanation is infinitely complex, even if the foundation itself is not. But for a long time, it has been trying to explain itself to a world that wants simple models.

Computers give us a new paradigm. The world isn’t like the number zero or the number infinity. It’s like Twitter. We are creating new realities all the time now. And we can get to the bottom of our realities. We’ll never know what reality has to say, as both philosophy and science once tried to do. But we can still study why and how it says it.

Pictures from Brisbane

Here’s the first of 2-3 picture entries of pictures from my work trip to Australia and Vietnam. I give you– Brisbane!

The South Bank

A view across the river Artificial beach Park pond with Ibises Fig trees in the city Botanical garden

Coot-Tha Reserve Botanical Gardens

Local tropical forest section Overlooked by restaurant Impecable landscaping View of Brisbane from the top

See more in my Australia and Vietnam album.

Vietnam 2: Capitals

Vietnam is officially one of my new favorite countries.  Between lively cities, casual lushness, delicious food, and kind folk, I need to come back here.

I'd hoped to see the natural wonder (UNESCO'd) of Halong Bay, but a category high-3-or-4 typhoon was headed straight for it.  I'd expected Hanoi to be similarly drenched, but the nonchalance of everyone I asked turned out to be justified: all that reached Hanoi was a steady (if at times heavy) sprinkle all day.

So instead I saw Ho Chi Minh's body, in the vast mausoleum complex that includes a museum, old house, new house, and botanical garden.  His pale face was no less iconic for being on such a short body.  The line filed by him too quickly to feel much of the weight of the nearness, but there he was a few feet away.

Other observations from Hanoi: The city has a thing for turtles.  They claim that the one turtle that they didn't eat in the Old Quarter lake is over 500 years old, and the stone slabs raised in 1484 to honor Vietnam's best scholars (at the Temple of Literature– a university from 1070) are placed each on a unique-looking turtle.  A lot of the pagodas feature turtles too.

The Old Quarter is a blast to get lots in.  Each street specializes in a different kind of ware (at least historically), from shoes to tin boxes.  But all have street food, coffee shops, fruit-sellers, and sidewalks that have been turned into motorcycle parking lots so everyone shares the street.

Also, my real purpose for being here– peppering people at all levels of hydropower plant decision-making with questions– was totally successful.  Each meeting filled in more of the picture, and identified more of what others weren't saying.

Saigon, Soon gone

I think I really like Vietnam!  Or at last the centers of a couple major cities.  I met up with Semee, whose grant is funding our travel, on Saturday night.

So far, I've spent two days in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), in the south, and Hanoi, in the north.  Saigon's center has wide streets and wide parks, lots of modern conveniences and lots of cultural institutions.  On Sunday, we wandered around Saigon's "old city", seeing the Reunification Palace (the underground bunker is a trip!), the Museum of Fine Arts (quite good!), and the copious parks.  The lush parks are filled with individuals and groups playing games, learning guitar, studying, lounging.  And the birds here sing on the Pentatonic scale!  One was going C-G-E-D-C'.  It's like a picture of utopia.

On Monday morning, before having our first interview at an apparently deserted and gutted university, we went on a boat tour down the Mekong, to a floating temple plastered in painted-dish mosaics.  The tour was supposed to include an island town, but there's some problem with the bridge there (an odd story, since we were in a boat), so we just went to a posh riverside hotel instead.

The streets are nerve-wracking, but not as bad as Cairo.  Very few intersections have signals.  The typical approach to crossing the street involves moving very slowly and trusting that the constant flow of traffic will move around you.

Vietnam loves its coffee.  There are multiple coffee shops on every block, and half the time people just get their coffee from vendors huddled on plastic stools on the sidewalks (the same place they get their food and haircuts and park their motorcycles).  I'm a little confused about it though, since Vietnam coffee is all Robusta, which my coffee books have been railing against.  But it tastes good to me.

Australia 3: Into the outback

[NB: I'm now in Saigon and getting ready to leave it, but I wrote this on the flight here and forgot to post.]

My calves are killing me.  I decided to spend Friday exploring, starting with Mt. Coot-tha, a bush reserved 8 km from Brisbane city center.  On the way, I stopped at Brisbane's real botanical gardens, at the base of the mountain.

As opposed to the gardens in the city center, these actually have a range of plants.  Quite a range, in fact: plants from arid, temperate, and tropical of Africa, the Americas, and, of course, Australia.  Only about a third of plants seemed to be Australian, but those were the ones the signs gushed over.  Excerpts from travel diaries, aboriginal uses, Australian history, kids games.  And there were bush turkeys everywhere, including one that seemed to have been working for hours on moving all of the dirt on the side of one of the paths to cover one of the paths.
I begged my way on to the bus that went the rest of the way to the top, where trails started, not realizing that it was the last bus of the day.  So, after looking out over the city and walking halfway down the mountain and back on trails, I realized my predicament.  I asked a store-keep how to get down now that the buses had stopped.  "Waulke", she said, looking very apologetic.
So I walked.  I only had to go about 4 km before coming to a train station to take me the rest of the way in, but after traipsing around the gardens and walking trails all day, it was 4 km too much.  I got a grocery store salad on the way home, did my laundry, and went to bed.

Australia 2: Big islands make you feel small

I did my presentation today, successfully, so I’ve earned my dinner.  So to speak– since my dinner consists of an extra sandwich I nabbed from the lunch buffet (they always seem to have three times too much food).  I think I’ll call it my last day of IIFET.  There are two more sessions tomorrow, but this is my only opportunity to see a bit more of Australia.

Australia, not surprisingly, is colossal.  For the dozens of reserves, sanctuaries, and national parks within striking distance, the town that marks the entrance to any proper rainforests or a visit to the reef is 29 hours away (same state though).  I’m torn between Moreton Island, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and Mt. Coot-tha Reserve for tomorrow.

Yesterday, I hung out with the world record holder for circumnavigating the globe in the smallest vessel.  A couple years after doing this, he met his now-wife, who traveled South America with my aunt, trying to discover a solution to food security in the 1970s in the plant of amaranth.  We went to the Powermill, a gutted powerhouse that sat unused for years and now is an art-space and bar-restaurant complex.  Then to Farm Valley, famous for good restaurants for good Indonesian food, and the next door to much better gelato.

I have some pictures (not many, not much sight-seeing), but my backpacker’s hostel net connection is not far from excruciating.

Queensland, Brisland

My first day in Australia, operating on plane sleep over an endless night.  But whatever hardship I expected from traveling in a foreign place, whatever vestige of roughness I expected from Australia's history, there was absolutely none.  Brisbane is one of the most friendly, modern towns I've ever visited.

I visited the botanical garden in the city center, but it is mostly just a park.  But I also visited the South Bank park, which was so, so much more than a park– with covered piazzas and man-made beaches and the Brisbane Eye.

It still seems foreign though, with its whale-song warblers, wandering giant ibises, big leaves.  And a cat just climbed into my room.

Coffee is all the rage here, with tons of roasters, and one of the chains is just called "coffee is my life".  I had, I think, the best cappuccino I've ever had (not difficult, given that it's been like my 6th to date), but the dusting of cocoa added a whole new level to it.

The rumors of expensive food seem to be right– there are tons of eateries, but the "lunch specials" tend to be $10-15.  Other expectations seem to be different too.  I was encouraged to invite people into my room.  Indigenous people are really a concern that's one people's minds.  And people can't seem to decide whether it's "so cold", like they were saying this morning, or if Brisbane has "perfect winter weather", drawing people out to sidewalk tables, like my [new] guidebook says.

My last activity of the day was the opening reception for the conference that brought me here, at 5pm.  I went, I had a glass of wine and an hors d'oeuvre, spoke with one person, played with the cool technology screens, and left.  I blame jet lag, though I've never really figured out how to do these conference receptions.

Hammocks and Callings

When a colleague of mine was asked what she'd be doing at her new job in Sweden, she answered, "I'll wake up each day and decide on the most important thing I could work on, and work on it, as long as it seems important, and then do something else."

The life of an academic is a pretty sweet deal– if sometimes brutal and dehumanizing. I answer to no one, no one sets my research agenda for me, and my only job to understand and think deeply about important issues. And between climate change, ecosystems, complexity, and the rest, the opportunities for doing that abound.

But this isn't what I want to do. I would much rather spend my time making art, snoozing in hammocks, writing sci-fi short stories, acting in local theater. Unfortunately, we're called on to pull the world back on track. If the world didn't have such strong drives toward persistent inequality and progressive exploitation, if the ethical demand wasn't there, we could seek a greater joy.

And yeah, yeah, seeking joy supports our capacity for ethical acts, and is an ethical act in itself. Maybe I'm wrong to spend my time at a monitor every day. Or maybe I would want to do it even if I didn't need to. But I don't really think so. I think we are asked to serve, because this isn't a utopia.

The challenges of this paradox– which I think are the challenges of really living– are quickly overshadowed by the challenges of actually doing the job that we think we're compelled to do. I don't often take the time to think deeply or to understand. I get quickly caught up in the action, which never seems to let up. One project leads to another, before the first ever finishes.

At a recent count, I'm working on 20 projects with 20 coauthors (not one-to-one, not including large groups). And I always want to join more. This isn't about the challenges of being overwhelmed with self-imposed work. But the self-imposed work is the fun and the futility, and pretty far from the final end.

I think I like hammocks and short stories because they're ends in themselves, rather than means to other means. But helping the world isn't about ends. The challenge is just to make sure that the ends get more time than discussions by water coolers and post on LJ and witty replies about new jobs.