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Preparing for Chaos: Patently Lame


The Boston Molasses DisasterIt seems tautological that it’s impossible to get ready for Chaos. Yet a recent patent application by researchers at IBM claims to do just that. In their System and method for optimizing the selection, verification, and deployment of expert resources in a time of chaos Robert Friedlander, Richard Hennessy, Anwer Mujahid Khan and James Kraemer describe:

A computer implemented method, apparatus, and computer usable program code for finding skills and resources for a chaotic event. Skills data for the chaotic event are organized. A determination is made whether the skills and the resources are available in response to a receiving an identification of the skills and the resources that are required to manage the chaotic event. The skills and the resources are optimized based on requirements and constraints, potential skills, and enabling resources to determine optimized skills and optimized resources. The availability of the optimized skills and the optimized resources are verified. The optimized skills and the optimized resources are reoptimized in response to a determination that the optimized skills and the optimized resources are unavailable.

Pardon my skepticism here - while what is described here certainly seems laudable, it doesn’t sound like much more than a nice robust system that links resources with those who need them. The word "chaos" is being (mis)appropriated to add some juice to the patent claim. There ain’t no chaos here, at least not in the sense of CHAOS Theory. The word chaos then doesn’t convey anything more than a hook for readers and , presumably, patent examiners.

Maybe the authors do better in actually describing a chaotic event. See what you think:

Major chaotic events are, by definition, times of great difficulty. Chaotic events are events that cause an interruption in routines normally performed by people in everyday activities because of damage inflicted to individuals and infrastructure. For example, there is great potential for episodes of profound chaos during hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, solar flares, flooding, terrorism, war, and pandemics to name a few. Even when the chaotic event is statistically predictable, the results are often still shocking. Chaotic events do not occur frequently, but the results may be long lasting and unexpected.

About the only thing missing is the chaos ensues when it rains on the day of an outdoor wedding…

Again, I cringe at how "chaotic" is thrown around, an adjective without a country: "chaotic events are, by definition, times of great difficulty". Whose definition?

This entire patent application is filled with this stuff, along with the technical specs. Chaotic events convey something much different, richer and deeper. Certainly "statistically predictable" is a hollow phrase if I’ve ever heard one. Shouldn’t a chaotic event occur because of a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, making predictability oxymoronic?

It seems to me that the more appropriate wording would be "the chaos that surround catastrophic events." This is still not the chaos from chaos theory, but it is closer to the mark.

Just be careful if you’re planning an outdoor wedding.

Categories Chaos Understanding & Prediction

The Face of Spam


Uugh.. who would want to look at anything remotely representative of two of the most hideously ugly realities of online life?

Alex Dragalescu, that’s who. Dragalescu, a Romanian visual artist, often uses analyses of spam and other annoyances to drive visualization schemes, producing highly-organic-looking computer-generated images. (And, in this case, a nice example of meta-imagery: CGI’s of nasty things that see their birth, and are spread, via computers.)

For example, Alex uses "the ASCII values found in the text of spam messages determine the attributes and qualities of the Spam Plants."

The graphic in this post is from Spam plants.

His latest series is entitled Malwarez, which is

a series of visualization of worms, viruses, trojans and spyware code. For each piece of disassembled code, API calls, memory addresses and subroutines are tracked and analyzed. Their frequency, density and grouping are mapped to the inputs of an algorithm that grows a virtual 3D entity. Therefore the patterns and rhythms found in the data drive the configuration of the artificial organism.

This is all fascinating, fractal stuff, and is in the spirit of other visualization projects posted on fractalog.

Categories Fractals Visualization

Nonlinear Nabokov


In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote most achingly of the need, for those so called, to write…

ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity;

Vladimir Nabokov - a pre-eminent author of the 20th century, Russian emigre, butterfly expert, author of Lolita - built his life according to Rilke’s mandate.

But he shuffled while he wrote.

Nabokov’s writing method typically included composing on index cards. Quirkily, he would shuffle these cards daily, allowing him to see different paths to take by looking at the story unfolding in different ways.

This non-linearity in structure was also matched by a non-linearity in focus: he often wrote the middle of the story last.

At several thousand index cards per book, this produces a lot of different paths.

Yet Nabokov’s books are marvels of precise writing - made more improbable that even though his native language was Russian, he wrote in English. No word, sentence, paragraph is imaginable in any other position.

It’s as if the literature bubbled out of the shuffling madness in a pure form. An "emergent" story line, to co-opt the most popular adjective of complexity theorists.

And now the case of the 50 Index Cards. Nabokov was working on The Opposite of Laura when he died. Only 50 index cards long , he requested on one of the index cards that the cards be destroyed upon his death. For a variety of reasons, they were not. Currently his son Dmitri has them, and is pondering either their release or destruction. (Read all about it here.) The case brings up all sorts of interesting dilemmas, and there are as many opinions of what to do as there are authors who have weighed in.

How non-linear: a non-book on index cards that may or may not have become a full-fledged book may be released. The actual order of the cards is not necessarily what Nabokov would have published. Indeed, it is possible that he would have discarded some of the cards, or re-written them.

So, if published with all of this swirling uncertainty, are the wishes of Nabokov being violated? Technically yes, but, since Nabokov’s non-linear process was a wellspring of his genius, shouldn’t sudden changes in plans be welcomed, whether the planner is around to see the changes or not? This is an especially cogent argument, given the meta-connection, structure within structure theme: apparently the story line is about "work that seems to be unfinished,” according to Brian Boyd, a Nabokov biographer.

Perhaps Laura should be published electronically, with the order of the pages appearing randomly on each reading. Put it on an iPod, hit shuffle, and enjoy the nabokovian nuances.

And wonder about the connection of non-linearity and emergent structure to literary creativity. Update on Monday, April 28, 2008 by Registered Commenter

R.A. DiDio
Dmitri Nabokov has recently announced that The Original of Laura will be published. Note that he claims that he never considered destroying the index cards, as his father wished.

Categories Literature & Poetry Randomness

Van Gogh's Turbulent Period

Starry Starry night, Vortices swirl around each star, Eddies within eddies from near and far With flows that know the darkness in my soul..

OK. Enough Don McClean. This post is about Van Gogh and his uncanny ability to depict reality in an unreal way, raising once again the question: Do certain artists have an ability to capture physical process and /or mathematical truths that can’t be mimicked by others? And is there a correlation with this ability and madness?

Where Jackson Pollock’s paintings are instantiations of splattered fractals, Van Gogh’s paintings have recently been compared to one of the main avatars of chaos theory: turbulence.

José Luis Aragón and colleagues of the National Autonomous University in Mexico and colleagues have mapped out the swirls in many of van Gogh’s most famous paintings and discovered that they pretty much were dead-on renditions of the Kolmogorov statistical model of turbulence. (In which eddies within eddies appear across many length scales.) Read about their fascinating research methods in Turbulent luminance in impassioned van Gogh paintings

Turbulence, the ultimate "hard problem" described so well by Gleick, and of which I am reminded in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Strange Notion, seems a perfect way to view and understand van Gogh (at least to someone steeped in non-linear dynamics).

At a Van Gogh exhibit at the Phila Art Musem a while back I had the opportunity to stand close enough to the paintings to not just see the swirls, but to almost feel them. The 3-D nature of his thick brush stokes projected from the paintings in a way that was almost dangerous. The thick tubes of paint didn’t just protrude into my world; they beckoned me inward, into the painting, into Van Gogh’s fevered mind, into the maelstrom of turbulence that contains within itself all of itself, at every scale, with every stroke of the brush.

So what of the connection with madness? Apparently, van Gogh’s earlier works, painted before his descent, do not display the turbulent signature of his later pieces, and especially Starry Night, Road with Cypress and Star and Wheat Field with Crows. Gerardo Naumis, one of Aragón’s colleagues, speculates that brain activity during periods of inner turmoil may have dynamical features similar to those of turbulence. I don’t know whether I buy this or not. One problem is that the physical turbulence depicted in van Gogh’s paintings are being compared to "dynamical features", which are usually phase-plane undulations, i.e. Naumis is conflating real space with phase space.

And the other problem - the really big one- is that this explanation removes the creative human from the objet d’art. So I will always imagine that Van Gogh painted with flows that knew the darkness in his soul.

(van Gogh video by MrAdamBurns )

Categories Art Chaos Turbulence

Prescience and Spice and Everything Nice


There is prediction, and there is prognostication. And, once in a great while, there is true prescience.

Consider the case of J.C.R. Licklider - a seminal figure of whom, until recently, I had never heard. On reading about him, I am staggered by his dead-on prescience in predicting the ultimate power of social connections via the internet - back in 1960. His Man-Computer Symbiosis has to be read to be believed. In it he touches on the obvious: the need for speed, memory, robust programming languages, and effective I/O. But he goes much deeper, brilliantly identifying memory and its organization (which leads to necessary "searchability") as necessary developments before the symbiosis can happen:

Man-computer symbiosis is an expected development in cooperative interaction between men and electronic computers. It will involve very close coupling between the human and the electronic members of the partnership. The main aims are 1) to let computers facilitate formulative thinking as they now facilitate the solution of formulated problems, and 2) to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs...Prerequisites for the achievement of the effective, cooperative association include developments in computer time sharing, in memory components, in memory organization, in programming languages, and in input and output equipment.

And note the reference to emergent behavior: to enable men and computers to cooperate in making decisions and controlling complex situations without inflexible dependence on predetermined programs.

Man-Computer Symbiosis reminds me of one of my favorite sci-fi books, although pigeonholing it into that genre doesn’t do justice to Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, by Olaf Stapledon. Here Stapledon predicts the fate of mankind from Stapledon’s present (1930) through the next two billion years, during which mankind evolves through 18 distinct human species First Men, Second Men, etc. Each of these species are truly different breeds of cats. Third Men, e.g., used their ears for bragging rights, had six steel fingers on each hand and were "deeply interested in music and in the design of living organisms." And how about those Sixth Men? "Sadly reduced in stature and in brain, these abject beings… gained a precarious livelihood by grubbing roots upon the forest-clad islands, trapping the innumerable birds, and catching fish… Not infrequently they devoured, or were devoured by, their seal-like relatives."

(Note: I didn’t read First and Last Men until I was 30. While reading it I was reminded of a song that was released near my 16th birthday, and which I still consider to be one of the Top 10 Worst Songs ever to become a #1-hit on AM Radio: In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) by Zagar and Evans. Now that I think about it, I wonder whether Z&E themselves were inspired by Stapledon. Maybe they are really Sixth Men who have not yet been devoured by their seal-like relatives. Check the video. I don’t know - I think that I can see six steel fingers on Zagar’s left hand.)

But back to Licklider. I used the term prescience to suggest something more than just prediction. There is a mystical quality to one who has prescience; the person sees/knows the future, hence the pre-science.

And there’s another literary connection here. Paul Muad’Dib of Dune becomes prescient when he ingests melange - the spice of Dune.

And Licklider did it without the prescience-enhancing-spice.

Categories Literature & Poetry Music Understanding & Prediction

ODE to Dark Matter


Dark Matter may account for the large-scale structures being mapped by HubbleMy dream job: working at The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. The latest from this "autonomous" center for theoretical physics is a Teaching tool for Dark Matter - a DVD, Teaching guide, and downloadable activities. The 30-minute video is embedded in this post and is definitely worth watching.

Even though there is now some agreement that Dark Matter has been observed (see my earlier post on this topic), there is still much debate about its reality. For an interesting take on matters dark, consider the position of artist/author Anton Sevcik, who, in a private e-mail to me some time ago suggested that

On a really simplistic level, I'm wondering if we've over theorized the subatomic realm, creating too many particles to explain too few things. Just because something is tiny, we seem to presuppose it can only have one property, so we've created a particle for every property. The reason I'm thinking about this is the dark matter myth. I say myth, because dark is a particularly uncomfortable word to anglo saxons, suggesting evil (say, film noir), and anything inexplicable seems by its nature unsettling to our minds.

Sevcik has since expanded on this theme, and I highly recommend The Fallibility of Perception on his View From the Studio blog.

While we’re getting all literary here, a web search for Dark Matter poetry yields way too many hits to be a coincidence, and indeed suggests something dark, impenetrable, and slightly creepy, (if not necessarily "evil") at play in the universe. For example, look no further than Musicman’s free verse:

            I have not come to the            solution of an            illusion or any            delusion to a            solution to the            problem of the cosmic            question which to answer would           create a chasm in the            chaos of the            universe.           The problem with the            problem is the            solution before those who           jump to conclusions not taking            time becomes a            problem with their own            solutions to            conclusions of their own.

(Read the rest of this poem, and rank it here.)

The Perimeter Institute producers don’t have these existential qualms: "The module provides teachers with tools to show how dark matter was discovered, to explain why it remains a mystery, and to share the passion of scientists who are trying to discover what it’s made of.”

View the video, and wonder about a universe that can accommodate such weirdness, if dark matter is indeed really out there.

Categories Literature & Poetry Physics

Me Data? No, You Data


In The Bush Tragedy, a recently published, depressing view of the Bush presidency, author Jacob Weisberg writes that

Bush thought examining evidence was beneath him. 'The President of the United States is not a fact checker,' as one aide put it...

A flashback of "I’m a uniter, not a divider" was clanging around my brain pan , morphing into "I’m a decider, not a diviner" as I read and tried to assimilate this. It’s one thing to have difficulty seeing the logical connection between a large amount of disparate experiments and a complex argument such as occurs when considering climate change. It’s quite another thing to act as if the data doesn’t exist - a truly irrational, scary denial for any POTUS.

In a more- than -chance occurrence, just around the same time that TBT was released, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) issued a position statement titled Human Impacts on Climate , which begins

The Earth's climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system—including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons—are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century.

The position statement doesn’t say much more than what has already been said by the IPCC, but it is nice and concise. The opening statement is particularly strong: the climate is "now clearly out of balance and is warming." Now this may be clear to 43. If so, it’s apparently not based on data.

Given the dire consequences of the AGU statement, their call to action is rather tepid. But they have given themselves an impossible task. Can you spot it?

With climate change, as with ozone depletion, the human footprint on Earth is apparent. The cause of disruptive climate change, unlike ozone depletion, is tied to energy use and runs through modern society. Solutions will necessarily involve all aspects of society. Mitigation strategies and adaptation responses will call for collaborations across science, technology, industry, and government. Members of the AGU, as part of the scientific community, collectively have special responsibilities: to pursue research needed to understand it; to educate the public on the causes, risks, and hazards; and to communicate clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate.

No doubt the AGU members are well-suited for most of their "special responsibilities." Research and education is not a problem. However, communicating "clearly and objectively with those who can implement policies to shape future climate" is a major problem when what needs to be communicated - namely data and their interpretation - is not a theme that resonates with the - the "implementer, not the reasoner."

What’s most galling about this disdain for data, and ultimately the models that live and breathe because of this data, is that the behavior is a beacon for others with pretty sharp political axes (I’ll avoid any reference to "pretty dull reasoning skills"), So it’s not very surprising that the AGU statement has touched off a fire storm by those who claim that "warmists" are at it again, fanning the flames of hysteria. These anti-warmists all have something in common with POTUS - they tend to discount facts. (See the responses to news about the AGU release here.)

No objective look at the data produced by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which has accumulated vast amounts of data of the Greenland ice cap and many other regions, will fail to convince someone that climate change is progressing in a way that is definitely "not natural." (The NSIDC animations of sea ice changes are truly convincing.)

Note that I wrote "objective look," so forget the NSIDC data and AGU statements. When faced with data, the anti-warmists (coolists?) fall back on a few hoary ripostes: we’re only looking at a 100 years of data, Greenland used to have much less ice, etc. Many don’t even acknowledge that rapid climate change, regardless of what is causing it , is catastrophic. More dangerous, many don’t agree to a correlation between mankind’s emissions and the observed climate change being so carefully observed (of which the loss in sea ice is the most compelling.) The responses to the AGU statements are so angry, so vituperative, so ad hominem, it’s easy to believe that they will refuse all data because it’s not what they want to hear.

And they’ll be backed up the data-discarder-in-chief. Models, it all comes down to models. Where is the acknowledgment by the anti-warmists that most climate models are fairly predictive, and most claim catastrophe if the level of greenhouse gases increase? With a government oblivious to facts and their consequences, the models might as well be discarded in the dustbin of history, which is where we may all be heading.

Art and the Event Horizon Effect


Horizon Event, by Anton SevcikIn a wonderful MASM (meeting of arts and science moment) a few weeks back, Anton (John) Sevcik - an old friend I had not seen in almost 16 - years had an art opening at the Fleisher Art Memorial in Phila. In his show Myth and Landscape, Anton displayed a number of paintings that featured a horizon as part of the story and inspiration for the piece, including one titled Horizon Event.

Anton has read and talked about physics for as long as I’ve known him. His work is often influenced by the ideas that affect him deeply. In Horizon Event, Anton conflates two ideas - The Event Horizon, and the Horizon Effect.

The event horizon is the boundary of a black hole, a region of space-time from which light cannot escape. Anything passing the horizon will vanish into oblivion.

The Horizon Effect arises from a non-physical situation. This effect is usually used to describe a situation where something that is out of sight - just beyond the horizon - is assumed to either be benign, or not exist. Often the horizon is not a physical one, but rather a demarcation point in a process. Artificial intelligence software, e.g., often suffers from the effect. Using look-ahead trees for decision making (as in, e.g. a chess program), the trees must be truncated at some point, possibly before revealing a fatal error about to occur.

Both event horizon and horizon effect then describe a knowledge/lack of knowledge interface. One is physically defined because of a singularity in spacetime, while the other arises from algorithmic expediency. In both cases there is tension at the boundary between information and chaos, knowledge and incoherence.

Anton’s paintings, many of which are dark and brooding (just what is on the other side of that horizon?) suggest a cleft unbridgeable by science but traversable by canvas, oil, and artistic creation.

Anton/John has just started his own blog, View From the Studio, where you’ll find more pictures from Myth and Landscape Show.

Categories Art Physics

Chaords, Credit Cards, and Complexity


Framework Complexity - the Pater Noster LighthouseIn the I-don’t -know-how-I-missed-this department, I was quite surprised, but not-shocked , to hear that someone had coined a term to try to capture the world’s uncanny ability to present both chaos and order. Dee Hock, former CEO of VISA coined the term "chaordic" to describe conditions that are either present and/or needed in organizations and their leadership in order to maximize the potential for success. For more detail, check out a review of Hock’s book Birth of the Chaordic Age. Published in 1999, Hock defines both chaords and chaordic. I’ll just go with the noun here:

(kay'ord) 1: any autocatalytic, self-regulating, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization, or system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos. 2: an entity whose behavior exhibits patterns and probabilities not governed or explained by the behavior of its parts. 3: the fundamental organizing principle of nature and evolution.

Coming from the CEO of one of the most successful enterprises of all time, I guess he can call "it" - that special stuff that made VISA what it is - whatever he wants.

Note that definition (2) is more a hallmark of complexity, because it really is describing emergent structure. So it really goes beyond the chaos/order duality that is the mainstay of chaos theory.

My question now is whether the definition of chaord and chaordic adds anything to anything. Can it really help CEO’s shape their companies for success? Last year I took on those who usurp words and ideas from science and try to apply them to social situations in my post The Terrible Tao of Chaotic Career Moves. While seemingly harmless efforts to harness some of the great ideas of non-linear dynamical systems, I always cringe when I read this stuff because it makes chaos seem like new age hocus-pocus.

Now the chaords of the world actually have an organization called The Chaordic Commons, which "collaborates with groups committed to organizing themselves as chaords - systems functioning on the edge of chaos with enough order to give them pattern." In other words a chaord of chaords.

Note the "edge of chaos" reference. Credited to Chris Langton but more associated with Stuart Kauffman, both part of the world of complexity theory and associated with the Santa Fe Institute, the phrase is often used to describe the precariously poised conditions that often seem to characterize life. So why is chaordic any different from what the complexity folks have already done in much greater detail, and with actual real live mathematical detail and true predictive power?

Of course, I haven’t brought myself to join this group. Without joining I can’t see who the member chaords are, or the discussion threads that are listed under Chaordic Initiatives. So who am I to pass judgement? Creating an account is free, so why not at least see what is up behind the security wall? I should, I know, but I am fighting it because I know what will happen.

I’ll be struck again by how easy it is to get myself into a state of apoplexy, wanting to write posts like the one I am writing now, and simultaneously wanting to apply chaordic theory to my life.

In short, I will find myself on the edge of chaos, chaordically hoping for some hocus-pocus that will somehow grant me the time to come up with the werewithal to apply terms from chaos theory to my own ventures.

And if that helps me pay off my Visa bill, then all the better.

Categories Chaos

Systems Chemistry


The B-Z reaction underway…Recently, R. Frederick Ludlow and Sijbren Otto, both at Cambridge, published a paper in Chemical Society Reviews calling for a new type of chemistry. Titled Systems Chemistry, their approach "deals with the emergent properties of interacting chemical systems or networks. In other words, properties that result from the interaction between the components in a network, rather than any one species acting individually."

Systems Chemistry is a different way of looking at patterns that emerge in space and time because of the complex interplay among/between constituent reactants and reactions. (Not surprisingly, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction is a canonical example of the complex results of a complex system.)

Complex chem systems are either under thermodynamic (equilibrium) or kinetic control.

The authors point out that chemical systems are good models for certain biological systems, and make a rather bold prediction:

The ability of synthetic chemical networks to mimic some of the features of much more complex, but fragile, biological networks makes them ideal model systems, from which we can hope to gain some insight into the common organizational principles behind a range of complex networks. This may in turn lead to a better understanding of how to modify biological systems effectively, engineer more complicated functional systems, or even provide us with clues to the origin of life.

This sounds great, but until life is actually observed as an emergent property of a complex heap of lifeless goo, the Intelligent Design community will most likely ignore the results of systems chemistry in the same way that emergent properties in complexity theory are ignored.

The authors’ tutorial on Systems Chemistry can be found here.

(And thanks to Michael Prushan in La Salle Chemistry for introducing me to Systems Chemistry.)

Categories Modeling Science