Later On

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Archive for May 13th, 2017

Life as chaotic equilibrium: An orderly but chaotic process

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From page 10 of The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore:

Darwin’s argument requires three main features: variation, selection and retention (or heredity). That is, first there must be variation so that not all creatures are identical. Second, there must be an environment in which not all the creatures can survive and some varieties do better than others. Third, there must be some process by which offspring inherit characteristics from their parents. If all these three are in place then any characteristics that are positively useful for survival in that environment must tend to increase. Put into Richard Dawkins’s language, if there is a replicator that makes imperfect copies of itself only some of which survive, then evolution simply must occur. This inevitability of evolution is part of what makes Darwin’s insight so clever. All you need is the right starting conditions and evolution just has to happen.

The evolutionary algorithm

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995) has described the whole evolutionary process as an algorithm, that is, a mindless procedure which, when followed, must produce an outcome. Nowadays we are used to the idea of algorithms, although Darwin, Wallace and other early evolutionists would not have been. Many of the things we do are based on algorithms, whether it is adding up sums, dialling a telephone number or even making a cup of tea. Our interactions with machines are particularly algorithmic and the prevalence of machines makes it easier for us to think this way – take a cup, put it under the spout, choose the drink, put in the right amount of money, press the button, take the cup out – if you do the right steps in the right order then the result is a cup of cappuccino, do it wrong and you have a mess on the floor. The computer programs that hold our medical records or run the graphics in our computer games are all algorithms, as are the ways we interface with word processors and financial packages.

Algorithms are ‘substrate–neutral’, meaning they can run on a variety of different materials. A human with a pencil and paper, a hand–cranked adding machine, and a digital computer can all follow the same algorithm for some mathematical procedure and come to the same answer. The substrate does not matter – only the logic of the procedure does. In the case of Darwin’s own argument the substrate was living creatures and a biological environment, but as Dennett points out his logic would apply equally to any system in which there was heredity, variation, and selection. This, again, is the idea of Universal Darwinism.

Algorithms are also completely mindless. . .

The environment itself is constantly changing because of all these developments, and so the process is never static. . .

Algorithms must always produce the same result if they start from the same point. This seems to suggest that, if evolution follows an algorithm, its results must be predetermined and predictable. This is not the case, and chaos theory explains why not. There are many simple processes, like dripping taps or moving gases, or the path drawn out by a swinging pendulum, which are chaotic. They follow simple and mindless algorithms but their end results are complex, chaotic and unpredictable. Beautiful shapes and patterns can emerge, but although the kind of pattern may be repeatable, the detail cannot be predicted without running the procedure right through. And since chaotic systems can be highly sensitive to initial starting conditions, a tiny difference at the beginning may lead to an entirely different outcome. Evolution is like this.

And that kind of sensitivity to starting conditions shows up constantly. I was peeling shallots and got to thinking about how they are all the same, in a way, but in detail each one is unique and some quite different from its neighbor. The variations in their configurations and shapes seems exactly what was described: following an algorithm (the genetic code for a shallot), but with small variations in initial conditions that leads to all the different shapes. And in a way, you can see how relentless is the process of evolution: even here, in the 10 shallots I was preparing, each one was a little different. Constantly varying, constantly interacting with the environment, whatever environment it is, since that also changes constantly and includes not only other lifeforms but also human choice (as in selective breeding). Reality is amazingly rich in detail at every level. And the same is true for memes—in writing this, for example, it is in a way like a lot of writing (same language, same sort of argument and exposition) but it is also unique (unless someone else has by coincidence written this same post, word for word—and that seems unlikely). So again: same sort of result, but specifically different.

And so many levels! Everything is clearly a process—nothing is static—so take a very brief process—say, a college student reading Starbuck’s “On First Looking in on Blodgett’s Keats’s “Chapman’s Homer”“ to a friend while smoking a pipe.

Now think of the various descriptions/scales. Start with the quarks. That brief process involved various perturbations of quarks, but that view, though certainly a view of reality, would not convey the full nature of the process. Nor would a view at the level of atoms or molecules. Or of cells and their metabolism. Or of the simple physical scene: the substances of which things are made. But there is a view other than the lifeform and physical views, and that is the view of the cultural meaning: the poem’s meaning as understood by the reader and his perceived intellectual/physical experience: his thoughts about the poem combined with the taste of his tobacco and the reason he is reading it to his friend. Obviously, there’s much in the way of emergent phenomena here, but at each level what we see is reality—just incomplete. And complete reality is everything together. Hard to get one’s head around.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 4:13 pm

Posted in Books, Memes

Interesting how the social fights the natural: early scene in “War and Peace”

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This occurs early in Book I, at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée. (I am rereading the earlier parts in the light of what I’ve learned about the characters and because I keep noticing new things, like how Anna Pavlovna is determined that the natural be banished in favor of social convention.)

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Bonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’ favors, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Bonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

The story was very pretty and interesting, especially at the point where the rivals suddenly recognized one another; and the ladies looked agitated.

“Charming!” said Anna Pavlovna with an inquiring glance at the little princess.

“Charming!” whispered the little princess, sticking the needle into her work as if to testify that the interest and fascination of the story prevented her from going on with it.

The vicomte appreciated this silent praise and smiling gratefully prepared to continue, but just then Anna Pavlovna, who had kept a watchful eye on the young man who so alarmed her, noticed that he was talking too loudly and vehemently with the abbe, so she hurried to the rescue. Pierre had managed to start a conversation with the abbe about the balance of power, and the latter, evidently interested by the young man’s simple-minded eagerness, was explaining his pet theory. Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pavlovna disapproved.

“The means are… the balance of power in Europe and the rights of the people,” the abbe was saying. “It is only necessary for one powerful nation like Russia — barbaric as she is said to be — to place herself disinterestedly at the head of an alliance having for its object the maintenance of the balance of power of Europe, and it would save the world!”

“But how are you to get that balance?” Pierre was beginning.

At that moment Anna Pavlovna came up and, looking severely at Pierre, asked the Italian how he stood Russian climate. The Italian’s face instantly changed and assumed an offensively affected, sugary expression, evidently habitual to him when conversing with women.

“I am so enchanted by the brilliancy of the wit and culture of the society, more especially of the feminine society, in which I have had the honor of being received, that I have not yet had time to think of the climate,” said he.

Not letting the abbe and Pierre escape, Anna Pavlovna, the more conveniently to keep them under observation, brought them into the larger circle.

Tolstoy writes explicitly of Anna Pavlovna’s role at conducting and controlling the soirée. And I love how the little princess communicated how much the vicomte’s anecdote impressed her: not just repeating the verbal compliment, but complementing it with a gesture.

But the point is how quickly Anna Pavlovna moves to stifle any outbreak of natural feeling and interest, undirected by social conventions.

Update: I mentioned that for this readthrough I’m keeping a Word document with character names and brief descriptions. For Anna Pavlovna I noted:

To Anna, observing correct form is everything, thus her approval of the men greeting her aunt not showing their boredom or impatience. She recognized their feelings, and her approval is for their having the social manners to hide those feelings and perform social rituals well. Anna Pavlovna dislikes Pierre immediately because Pierre lacks a social mask. “The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pavlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing room. But in spite of this lowest-grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room.” Thus Anna Pavlovna’s great distaste when Pierre doesn’t talk when he should (to Anna’s aged aunt) and insists on talking when extended conversation is inappropriate (when he attempts to give her a detailed critique of the Abbe’s plan for peace. Naturally, Anna hides her dismay. Tolstoy writes: ““We will talk of it later,” said Anna Pavolovna with a smile.” I’m sure that, however forced that smile may have been, to all appearances it was cheerful and friendly.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Bosses who demand personal loyalty from their subordinates

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The usual reason a boss demands loyalty to him (or her) personally, rather than to (say) the Constitution or the company, or the ethics of one’s profession is because the boss wants to know if s/he does something wrong, whether you will help cover it up. The boss foresees that there may be a conflict between what s/he wants and what the law, regulations, ethics, standards, etc., require, and s/he wants your commitment that you will let those go in favor of the boss.

Loyalty is good or bad, depending on what you’re loyal to. When Donald Trump asked for James Comey’s loyalty, it seems pretty obvious that Trump was in effect asking Comey to shut down the Russia investigation: loyalty to Trump above loyalty to law.

However, it’s worth noting that conservatives value loyalty as a primary virtue, whereas liberals value fairness and reciprocity as the primary virtues. More here: Conservatives VS. Liberals.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 10:17 am

Posted in Politics

Ten great interviews from “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 9:25 am

Posted in Daily life

Snakewood brush, Barrister & Mann Cologne Russe, and the Eros slant

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I bought the brush a few years back from Strop Shoppe, and I do like the handle. The knot is also good: fluffy but resilient, and it easily and quickly made a fine (and very fragrant) lather from Barrister & Mann’s Cologne Russe.

The Eros slant shown shaves a lot like the 102 but with a bit more blade feel, and in looking at the head, I think it would be less prone to clogging for those men with thick, dense beards who like to shave only once every five days or so. It easily smoothed my face with no problems at all.

A good splash of Cologne Russe aftershave and the weekend is launched.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2017 at 9:22 am

Posted in Shaving

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