May 6, 2004

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Chains and links: The tree-like structures we've grown up with are being challenged by messy webs.
The most beautiful idea in history: The Harmony of the Spheres is just too wonderful an idea to ignore, even though it's irrelevant to JOHO and everything it cares about.
Just a few links: A handful of links.


No to torture

Do you know how you feel in the 24 hours after you find out you or someone you love has a serious disease? That's how I feel in the wake of the revelation of the torture at Abu Ghraib. I am heartsick.

Here are some of the places I've blogged about this:

Seeking middle ground on torture
The truth of the image (Washington Post)

Aw, shoot, now torture may not be worth the paperwork
Outsourcing fascism


It's a JOHO World After All

1. Without my knowing it, a speech I gave on how marketing is killing democracy was broadcast live on C-SPAN. The Real Player version is available here. And there are some photos of me with senators here.

2. Did I mention two commentaries that ran on NPR's "All Things Considered" recently? One was on why we shouldn't let e-voting machines make voting too easy. The other was on how DRM, digital ID and "trusted computing" are going to make the Internet more locked down than the real world ever was.


Love 'n' Marriage Day in Massachusetts

May 17 is the first day same-sex marriages are allowed in Massachusetts. Anyone else feel like celebrating together?

How about this? We show up en masse at our local town halls. We each come with a bouquet of flowers or two. As the couples leave, we each give one flower to each couple.

Other ideas?


A speech I'd like to hear

When I get especially frustrated with politicians, I write a speech I'd like to hear. That's what I did last night. For some weird reason, I fall into the bombastic rhetorical style of American politicians on the stump, so you'll find lots of feel-good phrases about America, most of which I mean. But for this speech to work at all, you have to picture a typical candidate giving it, not Noam Chomsky or Michael Dukakis.

It's here. It's called "Making America our own again."


dividing line
Chains and Links

Over sixty years ago, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, a professor at Johns Hopkins, gave a series of lectures that resulted in his classic work, The Great Chain of Being. Its central aim was to show that there was a:

...plan and structure of the world which, through the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth century...most educated men were to accept without question - the conception of the universe as a "Great Chain of Being", composed of an immense, or...infinite, number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents...through "every possible" grade up to the ens perfectissumum.

At the top was God, of course. Then came angels and demons, then humans, then animals, then plants, minerals, and at the bottom, non-being. Within these broad categories, each and every thing had its place, depending on how much "spirit" it contained as opposed to mere "matter." Not only were rabbits ahead of fish, and gold ahead of lead, but squires were above merchants.

While the hierarchy of beings was laid out as rungs on a ladder, the theory of "correspondences" added a layer of complexity and even beauty to the notion: Different sets of rungs reflected the order of larger sets in what we would today call a fractal way: The governmental order reflected the order of the cosmos, human psychology reflected the four elements, etc.

Despite this nicely complicating wrinkle, the fundamental fact and purpose of the Great Chain of Being was to be simple and complete: Every entity had its spot in the hierarchy, every spot was filled, and there could be no movement and no vacancies ... ruling out evolution and extinction, not to mention making social mobility a crime against nature.

Why believe such a foolish thing? After all, it can't be derived from evidence. It does, however, do something that all great theories do: It unifies disparate experience. In fact, the Great Chain is precisely about showing the inner order of the diversity of entities. It unifies them not only in terms of their rank order but also in terms of their value. And it explains why there are precisely these types of creatures and not others.

Even though the Chain has gone through some serious revisions over the millennia, in one important way it has remained the same. In the 18th Century, Linnaeus re-did Aristotle's classifications, adding a couple more grand categories. But, like Aristotle, Linnaeus assumed that he was uncovering God's own way of classifying the world. Likewise, modern "cladistics" redraws Linnaeus' tree (and Stephen Jay Gould would remind us that it's more like shrubbery than a tree) according to each animal's ancestry, not according to the similarities of their anatomy, which is all Linnaeus had to go on. In all these cases, the chain or tree is assumed to represent real classifications, although the nature of the reality — God in Aristotle's or Linnaeus' eyes, Nature's in Darwin's — is different.

But now we are at a breaking point, for the digitization of knowledge makes it inescapably clear that most of the classificatory schemes that we care about are invented, not discovered. Why is this so clear? Because it's so easy to pivot the table, to switch schemes, to file ideas under multiple categories. Classifications are tools.

Further, classifications often no longer are the best guides to value. Google beats Yahoo because, while Yahoo puts everything into neatly arranged folders, Google looks at the one-to-one links that spread across the tree of knowledge like the work of a million spiders on LSD.

The overtaking of trees by webs means that instead of something getting its meaning from the bucket it's in, its meaning is determined by the billion different reasons people thought it'd be interesting to link to it. If you want to see what something is, don't look to where the Great Bucketer in the Sky put it. Instead, look to what the population of people who care about it think that it's about. That's why Google can turn up a page that doesn't even have the words on it that you're looking for: The page thought it was a maintenance manual for O-rings and didn't know that it's in fact about why the Challenger blew up. But the web of interested people knew it.

Once we recognize that classification schemes are tools and not representations of reality, they get much handier as tools. Of course, the price is giving up our place in the eternal order of the universe.

This piece will run as my monthly column in KMWorld. You ought to subscribe to KMWorld because it's good and the people who run it are delightful.

dividing line
The most beautiful idea in history

If our hearts were as pure, as chaste, as snowy as Pythagoras' was, our ears would resound and be filled with that supremely lovely music of the wheeling stars. Then indeed all things would seem to return to the age of gold. Then we should be immune to pain, and we should enjoy the blessing of a peace that the gods themselves might envy.

"On the Music of the Spheres," by John Milton

About 550 years before your Lord was born, Pythagoras came up with the most beautiful idea in Western history. Here's roughly what he thought:

It's obvious from the shape of the night sky and the movement of the stars that the universe consists of five nested spheres. The distances between those bowls must reflect the order and beauty of the universe, for that order and beauty is uniform throughout the cosmos.

We can hear the order in music. Use a bridge to divide a string into the ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3, or 5:4 and you hear something beautiful. (Notice that you can make these ratios with only the numbers 1-5, a simplicity required for order and beauty.)

Since the cosmos is perfectly ordered, the distance between the moving objects in the sky must be in the same mathematical relationship that sounds so beautiful when applied to a lyre. The spheres themselves must make a sound as they whir around. That sound must therefore be harmonious and beautiful.

But, why don't we hear the sound? Because we have been hearing it all of our lives. If it were to stop, we would notice its absence.

How wonderful! This idea assumes the Greek notion that perfect orderliness and reason is indistinguishable from beauty. It adds that beauty is so always-present that it is absent; we could only hear its presence if it were to become absent.

Philosophy may start with awe, as Aristotle said, but it usually proceeds pretty quickly to tell us that what we think is real isn't real, but something else we can't see is. If the watery-ness of everything were obvious, Thales wouldn't have had to say that everything is water. If you could take the world at face value, we wouldn't need philosophy. (Yes, maybe you can and maybe we don't.) Having said the the universe is other than it seems, the philosopher then has to explain why it seems other than it is: If everything is made of water, why isn't everything wet? Or, in MadLibs form: "Despite the way it seems, the universe is really ________. It doesn't look like that because _________."

Pythagoras' view of that inevitable mystery of philosophy is remarkable. That which is always present can't itself be known or experienced, the Harmony of the Spheres implies. Knowledge requires lack, imperfection, absence, separation, apartness, nothingness. Our knowledge is a disruption of the perfection of order. That's why the world can be other than it seems. Its truth is in the unheard and the unspoken.

No wonder Pythagoras founded a religion.


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Just a few links

Mark Dionne, in an email, asks an excellent question:

We were eating a chicken tonite, and wondering where the ovaries were. I speculated that one ought to sometimes find an egg inside a chicken one was eating, if the chicken were slaughtered just before it was ready to lay one.

The Web being the Web, Mark found his answer here.

(Note: My including this link should not be taken as condoning the slaughter of chickens for food. Or, as Charleston Heston once said: "Soylent Green is sentient life forms!")

In response to some blogging about pages not saying what they're about, Hanan Cohen points us to an exceptionally well-written article about latent semantic indexing (not to be confused with latex cement and indenting).

Glenn Fleishman writes:

The CUWiN [Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network] project wants to allow self-forming, noncentralized, mesh-based Wi-Fi networks using standard, old PCs with no configuration.

Take a bunch of 486s and you can create your own functioning WiFi mesh network.The old paradigm of top-down network provisioning is so fragile that just one garage-based genius — surrounded by an open source community — could implode it. Exciting.

Balldroppings: Game, Artwork or Sport? Whatever, it's elegant, free and makes nice boopy sounds. [Thanks to Lockergnome for the link.]

The VP of Iran has an honest-to-god blog.

I went to Portugal for two days, so I am now quite an expert on the country, yessir. Here are some photos.

That's it for now. Next time: Hegel's chocolate chip cookie recipe, plus my 7 minutes in Tibet.

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