To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.

This is from Laws of Form. I was reminded of this quote by Mike Travers, who recently quoted the part that precedes the part I quoted:

We find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt.

Spencer-Brown here is saying that knowledge should be relatively lower status, while ignorance should be relatively celebrated. But he is not advocating against a search for truth. To the contrary, he suggests that the contemplation of truth should be something that ought to be so driving as to cause one to deceive and ignore others.

I can empathize with Spencer-Brown’s thesis. When I understand something, it’s dead to me. It’s boring. And there are perhaps three “big problems” (which might turn out to all be the same project) I’ve held in my mind for decades, always chewing and sometimes chipping off bits of bone, but not yet getting to the marrow that I know must be there. Nobody knows what my real project is, because I don’t talk about the object of my contemplation. Conversation and collaboration are useful, but only at the periphery, where problems are still real and relevant, but indirect.

Of the thinkers I admire the most, I am convinced that many also have a “real project” that they are gnawing on, and I sometimes imagine that I have caught a glimpse of what their real project is.

But one doesn’t talk about these things, and Spencer-Brown’s advice is terrible advice for the majority of the population. For more than 99% of humanity, it is proper to esteem knowledge and discourage the vain contemplation of “truth“. Given the constraints that Spencer-Brown puts around contemplation, the risk of encouraging crackpots is high, and we don’t need to that, do we?

Turbulent Waters

In this video clip, Benoit Mandelbrot explains how Kolmogorov inspired his works on fluid turbulence, published in the years immediately before he coined the term “fractal”.

I had the pleasure of seeing Mandelbrot in person when he visited Microsoft, and he described his lifelong fascination with things chaotic. One of the great accomplishments of complexity theory is that it proscribes some mathematical limits on how deep or how far we can understand certain otherwise deterministic phenomena. Robert Frost wrote, in his poem “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep”:

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be–
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Only The Moon Answers

This is from my copy of LeRoi Jones’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”. All apparent spelling errors and unmatched parenthesis are deliberate. This is a perfect transliteration, and is meant to be exactly as you see it.


(For Kellie Jones, born 16 May 1959)

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands



… And how much of this
do you understand? I hide
my face, my voice twisted
in the heavy winter fog. If I
came to you, left this wet island
& came to you; now, when I am young,
& have strength in my fingers. To say,
I love you, & cannot even recognize
you. How much of me
could you understand? (Only
that I love colour, motion, thin high air
at night? The recognizable parts
of yourself?

We love only heroes. Glorious
death in battle. Scaling walls,
burning bridges behind us, destroying
all ways back. All retreat. As if
some things were fixed. As if the moon
would come to us each night (&
we could watch
from the battlements). As if
there were anything certain
or lovely
in our lives.

motion of air
pushing in my face. Lies,
weakness, hatred
of myself. Of you
for not understanding
this. Or not
despising me
for the right causes. I am
sick as, OH,
the night is. As
cold days are,
when we must watch them
grow old
& dark.


I am thinking
of a dance. One I could
invent, if there
were music. If you
would play for me, some
light music. Couperin
with yellow hillsides. Ravel
as I kiss your hair. Lotions
of Debussy.
I am moved by what? Angered at its whine;
the quiet delicacy of my sadness. The elements.
My face torn by wind, faces, desire, lovely chinese ladies
sweeping the sidewalks. (And this is not
what I mean. Not the thing I wanted for you. Not, finally.
Music, only terror at this lightly scribbled day.

Emotion. Words.
Waste. No clear delight.
No light under my fingers. The room, The
walls, silent & deadly. Not

If there were
a dance. For us
to make; your fingers
on my face, your face wet
with tears (or silence. For us
to form upon this heavy air. Tearing
the silence, hurting the darkness
with the colour of our movement! Nakedness?
Great leaps
into the air? Huge pirouette; the moon blurred
on ancient lakes. Thin horns
and laughter.


Can you hear this? Do you know
who speaks to you? Do you
know me? (Not even
your lover. Afraid of you, your sudden
disorder. Your ringless
hands. Your hair
disguised. Your voice
not even real. Or

(What we had
I cannot even say. Something
like loathing
covers your words.


It grows dark
around you. And these words
are not music. They make no motions
for a dance. (Standing awkwardly
before the window, watching
the moon. The ragged smoke
lifting against
grey sheaths
of night.
You shimmer like words
I barely hear. Your face
twisted into words. “Love, Oh,
Love me.” The window facing night, & always
when we cannot speak.

What shapes stream through the glass?
Only shadows
on the wall. Under
my fingers, trailing me
with a sound like
glass on slate. You cry out
in the night,
& only the moon


The house sits
between red buildings. And a bell
rocks against the night air. The moon
sits over the North river, underneath
a blue bridge. Boats & old men
move through the darkness. Needing
no eyes. Moving slowly
towards the long black line
of horizon. Footfalls, the
twisting dirty surf. Sea birds
scalding the blackness.

I sit inside alone, without
thoughts. I cannot lie
& say I think of you. I merely sit
& grow weary, not even watching
the sky lighten with morning.

& now
I am sleeping
& you will not be able
to wake me.

Murderous Elephant Sophonts

Gregor links two news articles I also noticed.  The most recent says that Elephants pass the test of self-awareness, like apes, dolphins, and man.  The other is about maurauding bands of violent orphan elephants.  The journalist cited in NYT draws a parallel between human war orphans.  The theory is that elephants actually learn civil behavior from their parents, and removing the parents breaks this pattern.

Of course, Rousseau’s ideas about humans were overturned long ago — if you abandon human children to raise themselves, they don’t automatically become civilized.  The fact that “Lord of the Flies” was still widely discussed shows that Rousseau’s ideas were seductive less than 100 years ago, but thankfully we’re past that.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to completely kill nature and swing exclusively to nurture.  Do the elephant examples show that elephants have an ancient culture passed down from some Abrahamic elders?  Probably not. 

Two interesting questions arise:

  • Do some elephants, at some age, develop the ability to think far into the future and pass the wisdom to their young?  That is, is the incidence of “culture” among elephants the result of intellectual prognostication?  I say no.
  • If you eliminated all adult elephants, would the current “civilized” state of elephant culture eventually re-emerge after a number of generations?  If so, after how many generations?  I say yes, with caveats.

Basically, self-awareness, mimicry, and empathy seem to go hand-in-hand.  All that is necessary for “culture” to form among a group species is ability to observe, mimic, and condition behaviors.  Think of it like this.  One elephant gets into a particular situation and has a good outcome.  Another gets in the same situation and does something different, and has a bad outcome.  The elephants surrounding him observe and mimic (mentally or physically).  Depending on the strength and characteristic of the accompanying stimulus, the behavior will become conditioned after few or many repetitions, and will stick without need to mimic.  Younger elephants, presumably more impressionable, will pick up many stock behaviors by mimicking elders with acquired repertoire.

Basically, I am arguing that elephant societies (and dolphin societies) are a lot like neural networks.  The self-awareness indicates ability for the nodes to communicate, and mimicry/conditioning is like nodes firing and propagating.

Of course, this pattern would apply to apes and humans, too.  But with apes and humans you have to factor in third and fourth order intensionality, which makes things considerably more complex.  And of course, none of this discounts nature — aggression is clearly in the elephants repertoire of in-built behaviors, and will emerge again if the neural net is scrubbed clean.

It also is no guarantee that the same “culture” will emerge again.  The mechanics described just say that the social species will pass learnings intergenerationally; but these learnings are not necessarily logical.  The environment today may be very different from the environment in which the current net was programmed.  It is entirely plausible that the net today could be reprogrammed in a completely different pattern.  The pattern is not evolutionary, rather it is environmental, so it is also quite possible that the “learned” pattern could be one that is deadly to the species as a whole.  In other words, there is no evolutionary basis to say that the bands of murderous elephants will be assimilated and conditioned by the gentle elephants — it is equally possible (given our current understanding) that the murderous elephants could infect the elephant culture and skew it off on a survival-hostile path.  Of course, I’m not predicting disaster, but it is completely illogical and unscientific to assume that such cultures will always “emerge/converge” back to the current state.  The neural net of social learning is a lot more volatile than genetics, and a lot more is open to chance.

Don’t Erase

So, I recently finished Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language”.  Although I am not convinced about Nostratic, Dunbar gave more than enough material to convince me I was right about past/future tenses in Chinese and English.  I think it is pretty obvious, and was probably common sense to people with access to Alexandria library.

I think it was Meister Eckert who once said “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing”.  And Saint-Exupery said “Perfection is achieved, not when enough has been added, but when there is nothing more to remove”.

These philosophies of willful filing of gear teeth lead to a “snaggle-toothed thought machine” that “clicks and whirs with the imprecision of a cuckoo clock in hell.” (Vonnegut).

The proponents of “document deletion^H^H^H retention policies” argue that e-mail takes up too much space.  Let’s examine that claim.

Suppose that the average human can spew forth language at 200 words per minute, rarely listens, and spews language for 8 hours a day (speech, typing, or otherwise).

200 wpm
* 2 bytes
* 60 min
* 10 hours
* 365 days
* 80 years
/ 1024 bytes/kb
/ 1024 bytes/mb
/ 1024 bytes/gb

Every bit of language you emit over your entire lifetime would fit on less than 7GB of space.  This is basically uncompressed.  Add modest compression, some timestamping and geocoding, and your whole life still fits in less than 10GB.  There is no excuse for EVER deleting anything that any human being ever says.

Imagine if linguists 1,000 years from today have access to a corpus containing every word spoken/written by every human for the previous millennium.  Imagine how much easier it would be to track dialect migrations (ala Brothers Grimm), repetition of memes, and so on.  Imagine if a person asking questions on Yahoo answers can have instant access to every answer given for the same question in the past 1,000 years, and the personal histories and outcomes of every one.

It would be a lot harder for Chomskyans to bluff and bluster and shout “IT IS ALL AN ACCIDENT; LANGUAGE MEANS NOTHING!”

Is Your Car Spying on You? Is Your Car Spying on Me?

Another nail in the coffin of Doctorow’s “metacrap” arguments.  I never want to see anyone citing that inanity again.  Doctorow said that metadata would fail because “people are lazy”, and “people lie”.  The fact is, privacy is dead, because people are too lazy to STOP their metadata from leaking, and too lazy to lie/cover their tracks.  And powerless to stop other people from collecting metadata about them anyway.

For the past 5 years, I’ve been writing things like, “I want my car to gossip with your car”.

Now Nissan is testing a system where cars can gossip with one another, so you know (for example) when you are in the vicinity of a dangerous driver.  I pinged my friend Craig, who works on systems like this, and he assures me that all of the manufacturers are exploring different variations of the theme.  It’s just a matter of time.

One example scenario I’ve often used is the “Amber Alert” in the U.S.  The authorities send out an alert with an automobile description, and it gets displayed on freeways in the area of search.  The alert is something like “Blue jeep cherokee with plates 555XY”.  Good citizens on the road are expected to peer about and call 911 immediately if they see the wanted vehicle.

Now, imagine if your car had sensors to read the license plate of any car that it passes.  That’s cheap technology.  Now imagine receiving the amber alert automatically.  Perhaps from the current freeway sign, using talking signs technology.  Or over cellular network.  Your car could beep and alert you “you passed the wanted car 20 minutes ago”.

The privacy implications are profound.  If it’s completely legal for a neighbor to watch you going into a strip club and tell everyone at your church, and it’s legal for citizens to spy on one another for purposes of law enforcement, why would it be illegal to automate that process?  If my car remembers every car that I’ve passed, that seems like a feature; especially if I have to opt-in to share that data with others.  Do we tolerate citizen spying only because citizens have limited memories?  Should we outlaw people with photgraphic memories?

In fact, your license plate number is a public identifier.  We now have case law saying that anyone can key off of that identifier without “probable cause” or permission.  I could outfit my car to automatically take the GPS position, timestamp, and license plate of every car I pass; and upload it to Google base.  When enough people do that, it’s going to be pretty difficult to claim that we were somewhere we weren’t.

Everybody Knows (Without Your Clothes)

I vividly remember the first time I lied.  I was 4 years old.  Very soon after, I deceived for the fist time.  Two days after my first deception, my mother suspected the first deceit and tested me on it.  She tested me in a deceitful way; asking the question in a way as not to raise suspicion.  Realizing what she was doing, I pretended to not know why she was asking, and successfully passed my fourth order of intensionality deceit exams.  Or did I?  Mom, did you just pretend to be fooled to increase my self-confidence — lie to me if you did!

It was then that I was struck by a realization.  When you hide things, you can NEVER know for sure if other people don’t know, or if they are just pretending not to know.  I realized that you have to assume everyone knows, but that it’s only relevant if they chose to acknowledge and act upon their knowledge.  To account for the first category, I invented a race of people in the sky, who observe all of your secret actions, but live very far away and don’t care to come down often.  And you have no idea what will really set them off — they could ignore murder and punish candy-bar stealing for all you know.  This was a temporary arrangement, until I had better language skills to invent things.  But the concept is truth as only a 4 year-old mind unsullied by conscience can apprehend it.

So [via Dare] we recently had someone post an ad for submissive Sex on Craigslist; collect about 100 responses from lonely guys, and then post ALL of their details on the web in full glory.  It has already destroyed one marriage, and is gonna cause a lot of pain.

At the same time, we have HP board members crying bloody murder because the company obtained their home phone records.  And William Loughborough is riffing on the notion that privacy is dead.

My opinions (substitute guy/girl below freely):

You can’t blame the griefer.  Perhaps this was just a techie nerd who wanted to understand the dynamics of the swingers magazine business.  Now, he would have done a lot better by just getting involved with the industry, but he decided to conduct an experiment.  As all good techies know, knowledge belongs to all humans, and there is no reason that only bad people should know what the response rates for such ads are.  Sure; the release of personally identifiable information was VERY malicious, but that just means the guy has some personal issues to work out.  Clearly people responding to this ad have their own personal issues to deal with, and you can’t blame THEM for returning the favor.

Privacy is an Illusion.  Your phone records were public up until three months ago anyway.  You have no assurances that prissy people with picturephones aren’t taking your picture every time you enter the strip club anyway.  As technology spreads, privacy is dead.  If you cannot imagine plausible ways that every secret of yours is in the hands of others, your imagination is deficient.  When the guys in the sky leave you alone, feel grateful.  When they (random as it may be) expose you, it sucks, but assume people knew anyway and move on.

It Could be Worse.  If this had not happened, chances are something much worse would be happening to these guys down the road.  “Between consenting adults” is simply a way of saying that both sides think they can get the upper hand.  And the side that has less to lose, and is less ruled by hormones, is going to win.  The “domination” guys are the easiest marks, because they come into the situation with the belief that they are in total control, or that they can control the situation through bluster and aggression.  And when she ruins his life, she won’t feel bad, because the victim is a perverted jerk (and an e-mail stranger).  Of course, not every victim can be successfully blackmailed, broke, enticed to beat up other customers (as adjunct to blackmail “Oh Ricky, I love you so much, this stalker guy won’t stop calling me; please beat him up!”).  But it’s a numbers game.  These guys think the same way — even if the scam/fraud rate in this game is more than 50%, they just need to try enough times to get a “good” one.  The problem is, as you can see, the girl gets a LOT more numbers than the guy.  She can go through the list for the easy marks and ignore anyone who seems even slightly uncontrollable. 

If someone is doing this stuff, he should ASSUME some things.  Assume that a coworker is running the phone screening service or e-mail for the girl (they rarely are computer savvy).  Assume that she’s emotionally unstable (high probability), so she could very likely get attached to him and start stalking him to work.  Assume that irrational and angry “boyfriends” could get involved.  If she’s rational enough to be greedy (thank God) assume that she’s going to attempt to blackmail him (and blackmail takes many forms).  It takes two to tango, so this is not to blame the girl (and the guy quits when he gets burned; the girl usually can’t/doesn’t).  And not every transaction is scammed, but these guys don’t want to hear about the risk rate anyway.  Both sides are going to get scammed, repeatedly, given enough time.

Now; to Dare’s point, I really doubt that Craigslist sees the “adult hobbyist” scene as a lucrative business priority.  They are probably relieved that this has happened, because they escape the “taint”.  And the experienced hobbyists (on both sides) prefer venues where “enforcers” have some sway.  Someone who’s going to expose herself to physical abuse for the possibility of scamming a person is going to scoff at a Craigslist banning/fining policy.  Both sides are operating outside the law, so both have an incentive to operate under the umbrella of extralegal “protection”.

And this is a story that’s been told a thousand times.  The Craigslist angle is just fresh lipstick on a really old story.  Imagination should be sufficient, but if not, the weight of history should do.  Putting it up again on a wiki isn’t going to do much for the people who didn’t want to hear in the first place.

Talking Signs Seattle!

Congratulations to Seattle for winning the Federal DOT Grant for Remote Infrared Audio Signage!  This means that various real-world places around Seattle are going to be annotated with identifiers which can be directionally detected.

This should be interesting to Virtual Earth people, Wikimapia, and anyone interested in tacking metadata to real-world locations.

Talking signs address some scenarios which RFID, GPS, and other techniques cannot.  Being based on infrared; they work indoors and are directional (e.g. if the mens and womens bathrooms are next to one another; GPS isn’t necessarily going to tell you which is which).

Additionally, the directional (line of sight) aspect means that talking signs are useful for accessibility for people with vision impairment.  This is the underlying motivation for the project; the federal government is funding this because it’s the law — all cities will eventually be required to implement this technology.

Burn the Books

So, as I predicted when I booted all of my subscribers and converted this blog without copying old posts, my Google PageRank has plummeted (to 3).  I have actually brought back most of the old posts, but the URL format is a bit different (although the file at exists on the filesystem, WordPress returns a 404).  So more than 99% of post permalinks over the past 6 years are broken.  Watching the 404s pile up in my error log is heart-wrenching; I feel like Li Si presiding over the burning of the books.

I recently discussed this issue with Jeff Sandquist.  In the context of “e-mail retention policies”.  Some companies have such policies, which are really “e-mail deletion policies”.  Lawyers think it’s a good idea to have clear and consistent processes for deleting e-mail, so that people are not tempted to delete e-mail in ways that arouse suspicion.  On the other hand, people like me argue that the “delete” button is obsolete anyway, and deleting things is anti-human and destroys institutional memory.  Jeff tends to be rather pragmatic, arguing that “it’s not that big a deal when you get used to it”.  And he’s right.  But I prefer to argue from a religious standpoint.  As I argued in “Renmin Voice“, one of the two fundamental principles of semantic web is that people’s voices are indelible.  Or, as this photo of Google’s master plan (see, even lies are preserved!) jokingly states, the real master plan is “don’t erase”.  This week, Qwest communications called for mandatory data retention policies at online service providers; and in this case they really do mean retention (not deletion).  Qwest’s reasons were exactly the ones I used in defending Google, “When Privacy is Bad“.

The other fundamental law of renmin voice is that voices are audible — that is, no artificial barriers to your voice being heard by someone who has ears and wants to hear what you have to say.  Again, Jeff is right when he says that a private blog is still a blog.  But speaking religiously, anything that gets in the way of future humans hearing what you want to tell them, is unethical.  Depending on the circumstances, such barriers could include DRM, security ACLs, and proprietary closed formats for data like social networks.

Idea Slaves

Aaron Clauset has a rambling post attempting to contrast science favorably with non-science.  The key defining difference is easy to sum up; science seeks to disconfirm.  The rest of his post talks about things that are shared by science and non-science alike.

He does quote a useful little statement, which can be applied to the “Metcalfe’s Law” debates currently being retread by the A-List: “all models are wrong, but some models are more useful than others” (George Box).  I like the Richard Bandler variation, since it is more honest: “All generalizations are lies”.

The “Metcalfe’s Law” debate comes down to an argument about which “rule of thumb” is best for valuing networks.  It’s great debate fodder, because it can be used to kickstart any pet topic, like “it is/isn’t a bubble” (I agree with Umair), or “closed networks will die” (Closed networks/”moats” are still alive and well, but Marc’s ideas will win in the end).  But as Umair said last time the debate popped up, “it’s just a model, stupid!”

Since Aaron mentions Popper, I am reminded of George Soros’s crusade of the past ten years.  Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory has been responsible for massive wealth and liberty spread over the past couple of hundred years, but Soros points out that it is dangerous to extend it too far, saying “We need to maintain law and order. We need to maintain peace in the world. We need to protect the environment. We need to have some degree of social justice, equality of opportunity. The markets are not designed to take care of those needs. That’s a political process. And the market fundamentalists have managed to reduce providing those public goods.” 

In fact, his crusade seems to be falling on deaf ears.  The “market fundamentalists” are basically the same as the “evolutionary fundamentalists”, who are the same as the “scientific inquiry” fundamentalists.  And they are taking over everything.  I see evolutionary theory being used to explain all sorts of phenomena these days; and presumably all behaviors we have are related back to baboon’s desire to procreate and produce offspring.  Since B.F. Skinner is no longer fashionable, I’m trying to figure out how to train my dog via evolution (it will take a lot of dogs, but puppies are cute).  Or balance my checkbook (if we learn from mistakes, let’s make as many as possible).  All of these fundamentalists take their theories a bit too far, and fail to realize that all models have their limitations.

A rather disturbing example of this fundamentalist trifecta is the just-published “Origin of Wealth“.  Take a little bit of evolutionary “selfish gene” thinking, market speak, and cloak it in scientific discourse, and now market systems are practically laws of nature.