Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Dear Alex

  Here’s where I am.  All theory must be built on physical data, sensorily perceived.  Faraday did the experiments, Maxwell developed equations to describe those data, Einstein explored the equations and developed his two theories of relativity, these were confirmed by physical data, sensorily perceived.
  As I understand it cosmologists and particle physicists often observe data, develop a model, and go and bother friendly mathematicians saying, I know you’re busy, but have you got a bit of theoretical maths that looks about this shape, and they talk for hours, and the mathematician either has or hasn’t.  If they’ve got a bit of maths that might fit, the physicist takes it away, tries it out and if it continues to fit, tries to derive new predictions from it.  If further experimental evidence, (physical data, sensorily perceived) fits with these predictions, then the fit between maths and data is making progress.  This applies even to the ascertaining of the statistical near-certainty of the existence of something as totally off the map as the Higgs particle.
  Okay, it can be argued that that’s exactly what the large group of historians, anthropologists, sociologists and others like me who are exploring the idea of cultural evolution are doing.  All I can say is that I read a bit of this work (not all of it by any means, I’m not a professional) and I don’t think it’s what a lot of them are doing at all.  Put briefly, they are using quantum physics to prove that the sun shines.  People have known the sun shines for aeons.  The clever bit is to derive quantum physics from the shining of the sun (and other bits of the universe, obviously).
  Recently I was asked to comment on a bit cult evol work by an eminent practitioner.  The study proposed a match between a statistical procedure and a set of sociological observations which were only data in the sense that the results of opinion polls on voting intentions are data.  There was a kind of a match because the whole exercise was assembled to portray the match.  It was entirely hermetic and self-referential.  I showed the results to a non-specialist friend.  His observation was crude, but along the lines that this guy is pretending to use quantum physics to prove that the sun shines.
  It must be born in mind that just because a piece of mathematics looks from a distance, and if you screw up your eyes, like a good fit for a very loosely worded notion, that doesn’t mean it is.  I guess you could use the maths for getting the Ariane capsule hooked up to the ISS to predict the social attitudes of various groups to same-sex marriage as long as you knew what those attitudes were in the first place and were prepared to cut a few corners
  The attractor: one of the most memorable lectures I have been to was by a mathematician describing the Mandelbrot set.  Sitting just in from of me was the late great composer György Ligeti (this was at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival), and the lecturer gave us a lot of information on Mandelbrot and fractals and so on.  But he started his lecture with a very simple bit of equipment, a bowled base, a pylon, a weight with a point on a line, I can’t remember the details, and demonstrated the relationships of complex planes, and how they could generate a pattern.  I am in no way a mathematician, but what I took away from the talk was a strong notion of what, in terms of physical data, sensorily perceived, a mathematical attractor is.  Looking now at how the Mandelbrot set is generated  and converted into that amazing pattern of colour reiteration I realise that my idea of an attractor is less than primitive, but I can still see in my mind’s eye the in-the-world existence that underlies all that theory, and its resultant physical expression.
  The “attractor” in recent discussion about, let us say, a formative something or other that has some effect at a distance on the content and sequencing of stories, let us say Cinderella, is not an attractor of this type.  So what actually is it?  And how does it attract something as amorphous as a story?  These are not only questions that haven’t been answered, I’m not sure that they have even been properly asked.
  What is required is a huge dose of reductionism.  It is the only way science works.  If those who talk about cultural evolution actually mean what Darwin meant, then we need at first to be able to describe, in a replication variation selection way, what Pitt-Rivers demonstrated visually, the evolution in lithic technology from leaf shape to tanged arrow head.  If we are incapable of doing that, then how on earth are we to deal with something as huge and almost infinitely extensible as a story.
  I read a paper on the cladistics of the Baltic Psaltery once.  It was honest and illuminating.  The writer outlined his methodology, described where it went, and concluded, fairly quickly, that every time he tried to abstract a characteristic it shot off into the distance in a cloud of pyrotechnic bifurcations.  So to speak.
  But that is what has to be done.  Starting at a very simple level.  And it’s not only possible, it’s productive, and it’s quite fun.
  If we don’t mean what Darwin meant, then the whole project is something else, a branch of sociology, very valuable and interesting, but only to do with evolution in the sense of “things change” with the rider, we still don’t know how that happens.  Eusociality! (points gun to own head and pulls trigger).  Now, film of one young male chimp smiling and offering food to another even younger male chimp; we could work on that.
  One of the things that puzzles me is the complete lack of interest on cult evol shown by two friends of a friend, Chris Stringer, and Professor Howard Morphy, who specialises in Australian Aboriginal art and culture.  I’ve tried to interest both of them in cultural evolution, but though Stringer has been instrumental in conferences on it, he’s says it’s a very peripheral interest.  I feel the fact that they are not interested is our responsibility, because if we were doing things right they would have to be, even though the theory would in some way disrupt their specialisms.
  I am concerned about all this because I am at the moment half way through a book in which I hope to engage the general reader in the “argument that human culture, which is to say the extended human phenotype, is a subset of the mass of the universe that has evolved, in the manner described by Darwin, step by step and alongside and in obligate symbiosis with the human organism”; and, despite the promise of Mesoudi Whiten Laland 2004, I seem to be on my own.  But I’m having fun writing it, and I’m still very confident that Darwin works.
  I envy you Falmouth.  I come from south of you, just above Cadgwith down on the Lizard.  I used to sail at Restronguet club.  One of my first loves, when I was about nine, lived in a laundry near Custom House Quay.  There seems to be a song in that.  Evolution of a song, that would at least be a bit easier than a story.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Tour de France, Yorkshire, 2014

Tour.  What tour?  Tour of where?
France thou numbskull.  What other Tour
Might you find in Yorkshire, it’s silver cliffs of limestone
Turning to mustard and brown somewhere around Malham?
What other Tour in July, coke-hot sun on the upland tarmac,
Moor-grime or handbone-clawing sleet;
The Tour de Yorkshire’s, en Vaucluse, dream sibling
 Condensed from February slush
That skips like the rings of Saturn off the front tyre
And rasps your eyeballs on the Huddersfield ring road.
Except, in fact, it’s real, it’s like
Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostella, Canterbury,
But Grassington, Haworth, Holmfirth.
There’ll be pilgrims
In their millions, a good three, so ‘tis said,
(millions, that is)
A bit will be drunk, and argued, and no doubt
Begotten too.  But all forgotten when
Above the din of lapwing, curlew, sheep,
The roar of the pilgrims, chopped by the clatter
Of the helicopter, swells out of Holme Moss
Like a cloud, and at it’s core,
The silver hiss of chains, the wuther of tubs
Fighting for height
The deep pump of breath and thud of heart,
Encased by bone, then muscle, then skin and gaudy fibre
That’s all we know of those scything skeletons
The heroes and martyrs of a peregrinal rite.

And then they’re gone. We turn to screens,
Leaving bog cotton to weather and creaking grouse.
We follow them on through France, which is not Yorkshire,
To the Seine and the Elysée
Where it will be merely a race, another Tour de France.
Sure we’ll care who wins and loses,
But the thing, the thing was
It was here, they were here,
And here is part of it and them,
Of every inch of Yorkshire road
That we today, tomorrow, can pump our tyres to glass harp pitch
And turn them to.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jero's Demon

Jero's demon at rest
  Sethren, one of my disciples, oh yes, that learned lady with the complicated name, has pointed out that in my last revelation concerning how a piece of kindling wood may become a demon, I made an elementary error.  “The purpose,” she proclaimed to the street at large, and her voice is neither dulcet nor low, “of the collar which you were trying to hammer onto the seat tube using the intermediary of a so-called demon, has a purpose, which is to hold the seat post, which in turn supports the saddle, in a vice-like grip, transmitted by virtue of a lever and a cam.  In order to force the collar down onto the seat tube, you opened the cam.  The seat post was free.  Why, oh Brother Jero, did you not merely take the seat post and saddle out, leaving the collar open to the sky, and then wallop the fucker with a rubber hammer?”
  Sethren, I have always taught that women are equal to men in every way—you who have been with me from the beginning of my ministry will remember that this is why we say sethren and not brethren.  But this did not mean, sethren, that women were equal to me.  In wisdom, judgement, and understanding.  No, nor men neither, sether Albert.
  Nevertheless, here I have to bow to a greater wisdom, the wisdom of the metaverse, and events therein.  At a trivial level, sether Pritchard-Achebe-Wajda has a point.  But that point merely emphasises my rightness.  Suppose the piece of wood was pointless.  Suppose sether Pritchard-Achebe-Wajda’s method rendered that piece of wood entirely redundant in any logical, mechanical, methodological sense.  Why then, what do we have?  We have a piece of kindling wood that has seized its chance, become a demon, inserted itself into a niche in the metaverse where there was no demand, no call for it, and, despite the fact that I used the actual piece of wood to light the fire two nights ago, is still there, in the metaverse, allying with other demons, with concepts, transmission of force, with things, hammers and bicycles, with acts, hitting the fucker with a rubber hammer.  It is out there, its form and colour and use, in a digital image.  If I had not burnt it (kindling is scarce on the Huddersfield ringroad, and the nights are growing cooler) it might have been preserved, found its place in the first great Museum of Evoculture, as the first demon to become known to the general run of humankind.  But that is no matter.  It exists, and may do so as long as the human species.  It shall be called “Jero’s demon”, and in time, mayhap a Jero; and finally, when is fully integrated into the metaverse, just a jero, a common or garden ordinary word for a thing universally acknowledged.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Photo of a demon

Quick post, sethren, in some haste.  The wolves are after me, because I am about to reveal the idiocy of the symbolic realm, as in, "there is evidence that Neanderthals entered the symbolic realm".  Anyway, in some haste.
I have a photograph of a demon.  The technical details of how I took the image are not important.  The demon is the bit of wood in the left hand of the person who created the image, none other than myself.
This piece of wood is a demon.  Thus.  The collar that holds the seatpost of my trusty steed had worked it's way up the post.  It was hard to get back on.  I had a hammer, I needed a tool to convey the force of the hammer to the narrowness of the collar.  My eye alighted on a piece of kindling wood, ash, with a certain elegant and useful curve.  This piece of kindling entered my brain as a demon, which was, by the question "what the fuck can I use for this purpose?" guided into an alliance with the concept of a certain tool, somewhere between a punch and a tappet.  Fortified by this alliance, the piece of wood, previously kindling, became a specific tool, and thus as demon took position in an infinitesimal part of my brain.  Whether it survives or not depends on whether the collar works loose again.  But hang on a moment.  It's there, above left, for ever, or as long as the blogger server lasts.  It has journeyed, this demon, from non-existence, to my ideoverse, to the metaverse, or that portion of it which is the internet.
That is what a demon is.

Thursday, June 06, 2013


et encore, moi - Brtiannica 1911
Should you for some reason wish to read all this in the right order, sethren, it is here:  each word set down by my faithful amanuensis in the order that I spake it.

For the short months of summer, adieu

  Sethren, summer has come at last, and it is time for me to go on pilgrimage, to wend eastward from Huddersfield, beyond even Grimsby, further than the North Sea, to the lands of the Franks, the Lombards and the Slavs.  You may, if you will, follow, or you may choose to stay here, savouring the dust and oncogenic miasma of the ringroad, mumbling disconsolately about the clownish self-aggrandisement of the political class until, if you survive, I return in the Autumn.  Then I will attempt to complete what I have here started.  So far I have looked upon culture and its evolution as though it were a self-sufficient process, and the humanity which it inhabits merely a passive environment for that process.  Next, when the time comes, I shall investigate the human organism, and then finally attempt to derive, from the hypothesis concerning the co-operation of human organism and evolving culture, which more scientifically can be called their obligate symbiosis, a representation of what it is to be a human being among the whole set of human beings, all seven billion of us.
  Why do we do it?  For no purpose but to acquire knowledge.  And why do we acquire knowledge?  Because we are Homo sapiens.  That’s what we do.  Or, as Francis Bacon said of knowledge, it ‘is not onely the excellentest thing in man, but the very excellencie of man’.  Aye, and woman too, sether.  The queen he served could reflect upon the nature of things for three hours at a time, in Latin.
  Aye, bacon, sether Albert, we can smell the butties of it on the June breeze, even if it is beyond our depleted purses, and we must still make do with MadamMeMe’sMeatyBits, now dispensed in noisome slurry by ill-paid and angry semi-slaves coerced by the plump pink plutocrats into drudging for less than a working wage, so even this miserable condition of labour has to be subsidised by tax, so that the tax-free corporations can become even more hideously deformed by cancerous wealth.
  But it is not of dead pig that I speak.  It is of that prophet of the Enlightenment, of the way we who are at the leading edge of evoculture think and feel, Francis Bacon, who lived more than four hundred years ago.  He would have understood evoculture.  To hear him quoted is to get glimpses of our present seen from nearly half a millennium ago.  We could, maybe we will, take his sayings and of each one ask, and how does evoculture account for this?
  I leave you with some of them, sethren.  They are taken from a review, in the London Review of Books Volume 35 Number 3, by Keith Thomas, of The Oxford Francis Bacon Vol. I: Early Writings 1584-96, edited by Alan Stewart with Harriet Knight.
  Keith Thomas’s first quote for sure deals with something we will need to explain by cultural evolution.  Sethren, for the short months of summer, adieu.

  Bacon had a keen understanding of the bonds that held political societies together… :  ‘Relligion and Conscience restinge in the devine ordinaunce whereby princes raigne; Feare of the settled power of the present estate; Love in Recognition of benefittes enioyed, with apprehencion of the manyfolde evills of Innovacion; and Custome of obedience fortefying all the rest’.
‘The monumentes of witt survive the monumentes of power.’
  …acquire knowldege, ‘which is not onely the excellentest thinge in man, but the very excellencie of man’.
  The scholastics were men of ‘ great wittes, farre above myne own’, but they had produced nothing.  ‘All the learneinge that hath byne thiese many hundered years’ had not resulted in a single invention or brought to light ‘one effecte of nature before unknowne’, but the crucial inventions of printing, gunpowder and the mariner’s compass were ‘stumbled vpon and lighted on by chance’. The ‘Souerraignetie of man’ still lay ‘hidd in knowldege’.
  In Graies Inne Revells Bacon projects the in-the-world apparatus of the Enlightenment and the Encycopaedia to enable a  systematic exploration of  ‘what soeuer is hidden and secret in the world’.  This apparatus would include ‘a most perfect and generall librarie’; ‘a most spacious and wonderfull gardin'; ‘a goodlie huge Cabinett’ of ‘whatsoeuer the hand through exquisit arte and engine hath made rare in forme or motion’; and a ‘still-house’ or laboratory, ‘furnished with mills, furnaces, instruments and vessels’; all this for ‘the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible’.
  ‘A contentious retayneinge of custom is a turbulent thing aswell as innovation.’
  And again, much later, ‘a Froward Retention of Custome is as turbulent a Thing as an Innovation.’

  And of all of us, sethren:
  ‘He doth like the ape that the higher he clymbes the more he shews his ars.’

Thursday, May 30, 2013

What next?

  Sethren, that’s the Jeroan taxonomy dealt with.  So what? you will say.  Just stood up like that, it don’t amount to a can of beans.  Why you should say that in an American accent, sethren, I do not know, but you do, you do.  And I have no quarrel with a can of beans.
  Taxonomies are powerful things.  None more powerful than Linnaeus’s, who gave us the whole kingdom of biological life, laid out just so.  And from the other end of the telescope, Mendel, who gave us something just this side of nothing, but an infinitesimal so powerful that it can anatomise all that Linnaeus named.
  And then there is Jorge Luis Borges.  Here is his taxonomy of animals, which I’m sure you know, but has that strange quality, that every time you come across it, there seems to be something there that was not there before, while the list is no longer, and nothing is missing:
(a) belonging to the emperor,
(b) embalmed,
(c) tame,
(d) sucking pigs,
(e) sirens,
(f) fabulous,
(g) stray dogs,
(h) included in the present classification,
(i) frenzied,
(j) innumerable,
(k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
(l) et cetera,
(m) having just broken the water pitcher,
(n) that from a long way off look like flies.

  This may at first seem unscientific.  However its purport is to demonstrate that a constant of all taxonomies is fallibility.
  I have suggested
Demon    thing    act    concept    map narrative    praxis    Culture
and you, sethren, could well ask, but then, what kind of thing in your taxonomy is a scientific law, or a mathematical proof, or a rule of thumb such as that of a good man of Cork, John Punch: “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem”.
  I could try, sethren, like the scholasticists of old, or like Procrustes, to fit these succinct, recognisable, bounded and coherent cells of the metaverse into the Jeroan taxonomy, thus:
  A scientific law is the sequential coupling and obligate linkage of  a series of concepts, any of which may and probably will themselves be composed of a series of concepts, possibly recursively until, once you get down to simple enough concepts, demons begin to appear; ergo, a concept (in the sense of the Jeroan taxonomy).
  Same goes for a mathematical proof.
  And for a rule of thumb.
  But that is all trivial circularity, sethren.  What we need to do next is to explore the ways in which the descriptees of this taxonomy, collectively evoculture, co-exist with and within the collective of human organisms.  The space that they configure is the metaverse, which is continuous, through the nexus of all functioning human neural substrates, with the rest of the universe.  Evoculture must account for not just stone knapping and sewing, but family, friendship, art and science, agriculture and warfare, love and hate.  All right, all right, sethren, do not flee.  Quite right, this is the work of ages, and I do not intend to even attempt it, especially as summer has now been deferred until at least July and we may all die of vitamin D deficiency before the sun shines again.  While our fuckhead Prime Minister talks of more wars and his soft pink lust for fracking.  Evoculture must account not only for the wonderful in humankind, but also for the criminals who have superseded bankers, and the political class.
  What I shall try to do, sethren, and that very briefly, is to delineate, not with a fine camel hair brush, but with a yard broom dipped in road grime, some ways in which evoculture might account for human nature a lot better than sociology or religion does.  And I am too pessimistic (though not about the political class), for tomorrow the sun shines.  A pic-nic, maybe, sethren.  Away with you, while I call up Fortnum & Mason upon my phone.