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Of butterflies, snowboarders, tornados and avalanches

Monday, April 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- deeply uncertain as to how often he should be grateful for narrow escapes from troubles he was utterly unaware of ]
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See, the first thing I want to know it: is an oblivious butterfly’s wing-flap roughly equivalent to an oblivious snowboader’s short slide across snow? And the second: is a tornado roughly comparable to an avalanche? I mean, a second’s worth of a living creature’s movement in the one case, and a “natural disaster” of somewhat larger proportions in the other?

Of course, the avalanche was closer to the snowboarder, who wound up “riding” it to safety, than Brazil is to Texas. Is that a difference that makes a difference?

The first quote above is from Laura Zuckerman‘s Reuters report, No charges for snowboarder who triggered killer Montana avalanche, posted yesterday, and the second is the title of a celebrated talk given to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Edward Lorenz on December 29, 1972.

Although if it had been given just 3 days later (a very mild change in initial conditions) it would have been given not merely on a different day and to a different audience, but in a different month and a different year… and maybe even mentioned first in different editions of Encyclopedia Britannica and the OED!

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Well, see, I am also interested because in the paper with that intriguing title, Lorenz also said:

You can fill the lower panel with your own conclusion as to the question of the snowboarder: is there one of them helping us avoid an avalanche for very one that sets one going? Does it all cancel out in the long run?

From Zuckerman’s article again, broadening our scope from one incident in Montana to see the wider picture:

Almost all U.S. avalanches that affect people strike in the backcountry of the mountainous West and are caused by snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders who inadvertently trigger them. Avalanches have killed 26 people so far this season, records show.

How many avalanches have we already missed this year thanks to other snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders? And have we expressed our gratitude?

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On a somewhat similar tack, I wrote back in 2009:

A deer crossed perhaps twelve feet ahead of my car on the road from Sedona, Arizona to Cottonwood a year or two back. 60 mph is 88 feet per second. A tenth of a second later and the deer and or I would likely have been dead — one full second later, he or she would have crossed sixty feet behind me and I would have seen nothing, known nothing.

There are deer constantly crossing our paths sixty feet behind us — and it’s a normal day at the office, it’s one more day like any other: sunny, then partly cloudy, with a ten percent chance of rain.

Another time, and this was in Southern California, my car skidded out of control on a slick road as I was driving home with son Emlyn (then age 10). We hit the 3′ concrete center divider, jumped it, and flipped over, landing upside down. Emlyn and I climbed out with minor scratches — making sure we could climb out through the squished windows was the main issue. We were unscathed, but the car itself was totalled.

Had I taken that turn three seconds earlier or later, hitting a slicker or drier patch of road, and angling more or less steeply at the center divider — would we have been, in words made famous by wanted posters long before Schrodinger’s cat pondered them: Dead or Alive

Who knows?

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I suspect we have no idea how many close shaves and narrow escapes we have over the course of a lifetime — but the Recording Angel might know, and be in a state of perpetual hysterics over our ability to ignore a dozen near-disasters while getting totally discombobulated over a very minor incident that we happen to notice…

Unless the Recording Angel, too, is subject to Heisenberg‘s uncertainty and Schrodinger’s collapse…

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Serpent logic and related

Saturday, September 14th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- where paradox begets form in phrasing, redux ]
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Here for your entertainment and entrainment are some further instances where the tweet doubles back on itself, bites its tail, or otherwise embodies some form of “form” that’s noteworthy in its own right, and possibly indicative of the heart of a problem — think of these tweets as eddies in the flow of things, knots in the wood…

Two arms crossed as in that MC Escher hand-draws-hand piece:

And a net version of the same, aka “tit for tat”:

Speaking of economics, here’s a bit of spiral logic — the economics of spiralling out of control?

And here’s an example of “endless” recursion, as featured in two tweets about “end” times from Barth’s Notes:

and its 2013 equivalent:

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Okay, here are some simple sample opposites. First, the weather forecast for Syria:

— spelled our explicitly by Andrew Stroehlein, who tweeted “Sunny with a chance of cluster bombs…” in response.

That one seems fairly fair, but click on the links yourself to see the nuances in King‘s actual statements.

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Now for some regular serpents’ tails, from the reasonably light-hearted to the heavier end of the scales:

Okay, here are two from Mikko Hypponen, the first of which is frankly outdated, but still fun:

Angela Watercutter caught the tide at just the right moment with her Wired piece, Skynet Becomes Self-Aware: How to Welcome Our AI Overlords:

The time has come. According to the Terminator clock, at 8:11 p.m. Tuesday, Skynet will become self-aware. And humanity will be screwed. Going by canon set out in the Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series, Judgment Day should hit Thursday.

Never mind Mikko, this one’s funny too — if and only if one’s also familiar with Wikipedia, which seems plausible in all cases for those who follow twitter — it wins double-honors in fact, hitting it out of the self-reference ball-park and into parallelism as satire:

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Namarupa, or “name and form”, has to do with parallelisms between a name and its referent — or what zen might call the “finger pointing” and the moon — always fun:

The next one depends on your knowing that the Greek mythological creature known as a Naiad refers to “any of the nymphs in classical mythology living in and giving life to lakes, rivers, springs, and fountains”:

– aptly named indeed.

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We’re almost done — here’s one with a built in time-factor:

It it still there? Aha!

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Finally, this isn’t a serpent eating its tail by itself:

— but it becomes one, I’d suggest, when Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011, retweets it!

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Until next time…

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A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the four goats go with the woman, the cow called Bessie belongs with Hiyakawa's Ladder of Abstraction ]
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My friend the anthropologist Peter van der Werff recently wrote this paragraph about a woman he met in India:

The very poor woman explained me she and her four goats needed the shadow of a tree to escape from the blistering afternoon sun in their semi-arid part of India. There was a tree at the edge of the village, but the owner did not allow her to come near that tree. Therefore, she and her goats suffered from the heat, at the cost of her health and the productivity of the goats.

I was reminded of SI Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction.

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Caution: you really do need, as it says, to “read” this image from the bottom up…

See Bessie, the Cow, in SI and AR Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, pp. 83-85, 5th ed..

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Why did I think of Hayakawa’s ladder?

Here are two other things m’friend Peter had to say about the woman and her goats, the merciless sun, and that tree with its abundance of merciful shade:

As long as economists don’t include oppression and exploitation in their models, they cannot understand poverty.

and:

Such cruel relationships occur in many of the 750,000 villages of India. Without including those oppressive and exploitative realities, real poverty is not captured. We may invite economists to fit this reality in the computer.

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We humans can do it. But how do we configure models that can hold those levels of granularity and abstraction — of individual human concern and global decision-making necessity — close enough together to give our grand plans humane flexibility?

I suspect writers such as Lawrence Wright know more about this than the number crunchers — and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic

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Jottings 8: of words and numbers

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- nota bene: numbers are my piano, words are my forte ]
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The New Scientist in its feature Charting Syria’s civil war http://syria.newscientistapps.com/index.html claims that it “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria” and then says “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”.

Jay Ulfelder in Challenges in Measuring Violent Conflict, Syria Edition at Dart Throwing Chimp suggests “That inference is almost certainly wrong” — and proceeds to say why. Here’s the broad strokes short form:

As Deborah Gerner and Phil Schrodt describe in a paper from the late 1990s, press coverage of a sustained and intense conflicts is often high when hostilities first break out but then declines steadily thereafter. That decline can happen because editors and readers get bored, burned out, or distracted. It can also happen because the conflict gets so intense that it becomes, in a sense, too dangerous to cover.

I’m interested in close reading versus sloppy writing, and from my POV the likelihood of that sort of almost axiomatic decline not being factored into New Scientist‘s conclusions slides in when they write that they “crunched the numbers on violent events in Syria”.

If instead they’d written that they’d “crunched the numbers on reports of violent events in Syria” — wouldn’t it have been a little harder to then write, “the resulting view suggests that the violence has subsided in recent months”?

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to write, “the resulting view suggests that the reports of violence have subsided in recent months”?

I’m sorry, but from where I sit it’s not the numbers, it’s the sloppy language that seems problematic.

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A Meditation In Time Of War: “precision”

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- comparing two species of precision and imprecision found in time of war, one which the camera can record, one which the heart must wait to learn -- let us pray the cease-fire holds ]
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The key phrases here are “the mosque remained undamaged by the precision strike” and “how many Palestinians were killed and who exactly they were a tough one to answer with precision” — both of which are addressing issues of precision in the course of war.

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What interests me here is the notion of two kinds of precision — each of them significant, but in different ways.

The IDF wants to publicize the precision with which it takes down its targets, and showing that

the mosque remained undamaged by the precision strike

is clearly preferable to admitting that

Among the Palestinians killed in Gaza this week are the 12 members of the Daloo and Manzar families, including four small children, who died when an Israel Air Force pilot bombed their home by mistake, according to the IDF.

War is not yet perfected.

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But what of the other type of precision?

After a certain point, numbers simply numb the mind. Eighty-seven died, or ninety-six? When I, several thousand miles distant, read a statistic of this kind, the lack of precision I can tolerate is somewhere in the region of “plus or minus twenty percent”. Thus fifty deaths would differ in my mind from a hundred, but not by much, not by as much as a human life — of which the Talmud, in Sanhedrin 37a, says: –

Whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel, Scripture ascribes to him as if he had preserved a complete world

as is confirmed in Qur’an 5.32:

Therefore We prescribed for the Children of Israel that whoso slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain mankind altogether; and whoso gives life to a soul, shall be as if he ha given life to mankind altogether. Our Messengers have already come to them with the clear signs; then many of them thereafter commit excesses in the earth.

Forty-seven killed, fifty-three killed — who notices the difference?

Six “complete worlds”, six times “mankind altogether” lies within the “margin of error” I find it hard to notice.

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That, in a nutshell, is why I’m a strong Qualit advocate against the pervasive Quantification of modern life.

The eye of the camera may record how precise a given strike was, or conversely show the collateral damage — but it is the eye of the heart which must wait in an agony of suspended grief to know who, what uncle or niece, perhaps at a Sbarro pizzeria two blocks away, may have died.

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