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A Sign of the Times – in today’s Post

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on skilled design, and on choosing to purchase influence, elegance or beauty ]
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There’s something very neat about this front page:

Okay, okay, Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post. But what intrigues me about this front page of today’s digital edition as it appeared on my screen this morning was the way a color photo of Bezos sneaks in (left) below a larger black and while photo of Katharine Graham (center) — while an ad for the China Daily (right) takes up a third of the real estate (right), to be read, mark you, on Bezos’ own Kindle.

So we have today’s future, to coin a phrase, with the “pivot to Asia” and the “pivot to Bezos” right there together — and the “pivot to digital” pretty much a done deal.

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The price of the Post was $250 million, and plenty of people have talked about what Bezos could have bought instead — and while we’re on the topic of neat design, I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a $250 million penthouse under construction in Monaco, described by HiConsumption as The World’s Most Expensive Penthouse, and that one of the numerous architectural illustrations provided also features a striking lesson on graphics:

What catches my eye here is the parallelism between the window with its center divider and balcony rail (left) with the geometry of the painting on the wall (right) — that’s a brilliant design choice, as the photographer well knows.

In my dreams I’d prefer my own choice of art-work, frankly — and if I only had $250 million to play with, I’d go for a small craftsman cottage in Pasadena, perhaps — with that luminous $250 million Cezanne to grace one of my walls…

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That — and the digital Post on Kindle, I suppose.

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Two beauties, or how the mind meanders

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on the proposition that no topic is more than a link or two away from beauty ]
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I was butting in on a conversation about terrorism between JM Berger and Suzanne Schroeder — JM had said something about me and I chipped in, one link or tweet led to another, and soon we were at these two images —

The top one is a Magritte-like photo that comes from the mind and eye of Alexandre Parrot, hat tip to El Cid Barett — the second a still from Maya Deren‘s extraordinary film, Meshes of the Afternoon.

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One beauty for the startled mind; one beauty for the ravished heart…

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Glass Beads and Complexity

Monday, May 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- achieving something like closure on a post I started for Adam Elkus here, with a side dish along the way here ]
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It’s astonishing to me how closely complexity science is related to Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game.

Adam Elkus recently pointed those who follow him to Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science: an Overview, and just a quick dip there gave me the graphic I’ve put at the head of this post, together with this quote about “patterns” as Shalizi understands that term:

I mean more or less what people in software engineering do: a pattern is a recurring theme in the analysis of many different systems, a cross-systemic regularity. For instance: bacterial chemotaxis can be thought of as a way of resolving the tension between the exploitation of known resources, and costly exploration for new, potentially more valuable, resources (Figure 1.2). This same tension is present in a vast range of adaptive systems. Whether the exploration-exploitation trade-off arises among artifcial agents, human decision-makers or colonial organisms, many of the issues are the same as in chemotaxis, and solutions and methods of investigation that apply in one case can profitably be tried in another. The pattern “trade-off between exploitation and exploration” thus serves to orient us to broad features of novel situations. There are many other such patterns in complex systems science: “stability through hierarchically structured interactions”, “positive feedback leading to highly skewed outcomes”, “local inhibition and long-rate activation create spatial patterns”, and so forth.

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Let’s start with patterns. The “people in software engineering” Shalizi mentions gleaned their use of the term “pattern” from the architect Christopher Alexander, author of the extraordinary, seminal book A Pattern Language, which in turn has hugely influenced computer science. Alexander distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, called his book with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch Laws of the Game — and it deals with molecular biology, cellular automata, game theory, and games. But not just that — it is specifically written with Hesse’s concept in mind:

We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

While we’re on about cellular automata, what about Stephen Wolfram? I don’t know that he talks about the Glass Bead Game himself, but at least three people talk about Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, and/or his search engine, Wolfram Alpha as being strongly analogous to Hesse’s game — Jason Dyer, Graeme Philipson, and most recently, Mohammed AlQuraishi. Here’s a key para from Quraishi’s piece:

I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

And then there’s John Holland, the “father of genetic algorithms”. Holland told an interviewer:

I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.

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I’ve been working on a playable variant on the Glass Bead Game too, for twenty years quite consciously, and more if you count subterranean stirrings. And I don’t think glass beads, or stones, or chess or go pieces, or beads on an abacus, or strings of ones and zeros, or cells in an agent-based model for that matter, are the way to go. Which is not to say those approaches shouldn’t be tried, or don’t have remarkable things to teach us. I just don’t believe they give us quite what Hesse envisioned:

a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

I think what’s important in Hesse’s game is that concepts that humans can grasp should reveal their stunning interrelations to heart and mind. And for that reason, the “moves” in my games [Hipbone, and more recently Sembl] consist of concepts — musical, verbal, visual, mathematical — and the links, the analogies, the “semblances” between them.

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And thus the game is a search for analogies.

The human mind must inevitably perform what Shalizi calls the “trade-off between exploitation and exploration”. Some thoughts are proximate to others, they can be developed without any special insight by regular “linear” thinking. We do this every day, every minute — but it is not particularly revelatory. It doesn’t solve thorny problems, much less create beauty. There is another mode of thinking, however, that leaps between thoughts that are not so “close” but are nevertheless deeply related. To leap the apparent distance between such deeply related thoughts, we deploy analogy and creative thinking, and that is where the aha! of revelation occurs.

So I would suggest there is a close analogy here with the point Shalizi is making with the diagram atop this post. The human mind, to slightly paraphrase Shalizi’s caption, will “exploit the currently-available patch of food” for thought by linear, inside-the-patch thinking, but at full stretch it will also “explore, in hopes of ?nding richer patches elsewhere” — the “elsewhere” being attained precisely by “creative leaps” — by seeing semblances, patterns, analogies.

And to return to my earlier post, Thinking outside the cocoon, of which this post is a continuation, and perhaps the completion….

Shalizi’s “random walk” is thus also the archangel’s “zig-zag wantonness” in that great poem, Tom O’Roughley — when William Butler Yeats asks, “how but in zig-zag wantonness / could trumpeter Michael be so brave?” and writes, “wisdom is a butterfly / and not a gloomy bird of prey”…

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A hop and a skip, YouTube-style

Saturday, May 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- on a brief random walk through YouTube, an ambulation for a sedentary soul -- nothing serious, I promise ]
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Back when I was a wee lad at Oxford there was another wee lad, also of a poetic disposition, named Heathcote Williams. For some reason, the other evening I stumbled on a clip of Heathcote performing the role of a psychiatrist in a movie I haven’t seen, but will probably keep an eye out for.

Here’s that (somewhat ob)scene:

Well, I’m the nomadic type, and my eye somehow strayed from there to this:

Okay? I get the sense I’m on a roll here, Salma Hayek is compellingly beautiful, and so I compulsively gamble away a few more minutes of my precious time, and find… You’ll forgive me, I hope, and see this clip through to the end, because in its own light-hearted way it’s about miracles.

And as you know, I have theological interests:

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So that was my evening’s delectation a couple of days ago, delivered here today for yours.

If, however, you are willing to take a grander leap into anti-monarchical, pro-poetic, anti-theological polemic, you might take a look at Heathcote’s fiery account of Shelley, his volatile predecessor at Oxford, in seven parts beginning on YouTube here: Shelley at Oxford.

Heathcote takes the liberty of speaking his mind, and consequently several of my own sacred cows get scorched to steak along the way — you have been warned.

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Hints followed by guesses; and the rest Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action

Monday, May 6th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- you can safely ignore this if you have zero interest in any or all of Bach, Eliot, Christianity and Sufism ]
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It’s Sunday evening here, let’s start with Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach — the great Chaconne:

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This post began to coalesce for me when Dr Alan Godlas, whose web-pages at the University of Georgia offer, among other things, a profound “gateway to Sufism“, gave me his permission to quote a comment he’d made in a private communication:

Sufis and Muslims need to learn how to recite and listen to the Qur’an (and how to do dhikr and practice Islam and Sufism) at the depth at which Bach wrote this Chaconne and at which it was played by Menuhin.

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That really gets to the heart of the issue of spirituality and beauty — and it brought to mind a comment made by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict Emeritus, in his speech at Rimini on The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty:

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true”. The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration. Isn’t the same thing evident when we allow ourselves to be moved by the icon of the Trinity of Rublëv? In the art of the icons, as in the great Western paintings of the Romanesque and Gothic period, the experience described by Cabasilas, starting with interiority, is visibly portrayed and can be shared.

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John Eliot Gardiner, the great conductor of Bach with whom I apparently spent some of my earlier school-years, offers us an intriguing insight in In Rehearsal with John Eliot Gardiner (Bach Cantata No. 63), immediately after Sara Mingardo‘s deeply devotional rendering of the recitative O selger Tag

Nota bene: Bei einer andächtigen Musik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart. Now I find that very, very significant. That he’s saying wherever there is devotional music, God with his grace is present. Which, from a strict theological point of view is probably heresy, heretical, because it’s saying that music has an equivalent potency to the word of God. And I think that in essence is why Bach is so attractive to us today because he is saying that the very act of music-making and of coming together is, in a sense, an act which invokes the latency, the potency, the potentiality of God’s grace, however you like to define God’s grace; but of a benediction that comes even in a dreadful, overheated studio like Abbey Road where far too many microphones and there’s much too much stuff here in the studio itself, that if one, as a musician, puts oneself in the right frame of mind, then God’s grace can actually come and direct and influence the way we perform his music.

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But I’ve quoted both Benedict and Gardiner on this very topic before, I know, so I’ll move on to the poet TS Eliot, who in Four Quartets tells us:

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

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I would like to offer three more interpretations of the Bach Chaconne, and one anecdote. The first interpretation is of the entire Solo Violin Partita #2, including the Chaconne, by the young and already great Hilary Hahn. Her rendition of the Chaconne alone is available as a separate YouTube video here:

There’s also a Busoni piano arrangement, played here by Helene Grimaud — it was, I think, our own J Scott Shipman who introduced me to this stunning performance:

And even more amazing, perhaps, is the disc called “Morimur” by the Hilliard Ensemble, which you can watch much of on Youtube here, then purchase in full and with a detailed accompanying booklet here

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Finally –since I obviously love the Chaconne – I would like to leave you with the story of a double performance of this same piece by violinist Joshua Bell at L’Enfant Plaza metro in Washington, DC — as told by Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten — who won a Pulitzer for this article:

Pearls before Breakfast:

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L’ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play …

Go ahead, read it if you haven’t already — it’s quite a story!

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