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Archive for January, 2007

Conversation and chaos

Bear with me, for today is the day I deviate (sort of) from my usual liberal arts/humanities subject matter and venture into the world of math and non-social sciences. Gasp! Will I be any good at it? Will I utterly fail? We shall see, my friends, we shall see.

I’ll start with an anecdote: last weekend, I had an English project. It wasn’t just any old English project; it was asking me to do what I engage in every single day–critical analysis of a written work. Actually, it was seven written works, and all had to be analyzed to a very specific list of seven non-engaging questions to be applied to every one of them, and the answers would preferably be in paragraph form. I tend to procrastinate on assignments that I see no value in, so I left this all to the very last night: seven written works and 49 paragraph-answer questions. In retrospect, it was pretty stupid, even for me… at three in the morning with more than twenty questions left to go, for some reason, I went searching through my contact list to find someone online to talk to. After I explained my situation, the person asked why I was starting a conversation when I obviously had a lot of work to do, and mindlessly, I replied with something similar to this: “I need to keep my mind alert, and conversation just works that way… it’s unpredictable, it makes me think… it works like chaos.”

And just about when I pressed ‘send’, even in my feverishly caffeinated state of mind, I thought: oh my God, it is chaos.

Mathematical chaos, I mean. It’s a real-life example of chaos theory in action.

First, I offer this incredibly simplified and probably not perfectly sound explanation from what I understand of chaos theory. Here it goes: in chaos theory mathematics, chaos comes as a result from something called nonlinear feedback occuring in dynamic equations. That means that when you have a constant and a variable with a power greater than one (eg, a number squared) that changes with feedback (the result being inserted back into the equation as a variable) in the same equation (eg, x^2 + c = r, where r becomes the next x), you start to get chaotic results like this graph that was derived from a nonlinear dynamic equation for population growth. One of the more classic examples of nonlinear feedback is the three-body problem of physics. It’s impossible to plot the long-term paths of, say, two moons that revolve around the same planet, because the long-term results eventually get chaotic. That doesn’t mean that three orbiting structures don’t suddenly fly erratically off into space (we wouldn’t have our own Sun-Earth-Moon system if that was the case); it just means that the three orbiting paths start to slowly change in ways we can’t predict beforehand. This is because the three masses each have their own nonlinear gravitational force that effects the two others.

Complicated? Try this oversimplified (possibly too much so?) summary:
(dynamic number with a power greater than one) + (unchanging constant) + (result that becomes the new first number with a power greater than one) + (optional: dynamic variables that all effect the others) = unpredictable (chaotic) results

One of the curious traits of chaotic systems is a sensitivity to initial conditions–the butterfly effect. In fact, the butterfly effect was discovered by Edward Lorenz, who placed an approximated value of 0.506 into one of the variables of his chaotic system instead of the full number, 0.506127, and ended up with wildly different results. (He went on to discover the famous Lorenz attractor, which is still the poster child of chaos theory and the butterfly effect.)

Now, to tie all of this back to conversation–and hopefully, some readers are already starting to see the connection (I’m not just crazy, am I?). I think that conversation is an example of chaos theory. At this point, I think I have to admit that I lied a bit at the start of my post. I don’t have the knowledge or skill to prove beyond reasonable doubt via scientific or mathematical method that conversation is chaotic… just logic and speculation. So it’s actually philosophy, not science or math. (Consequently, if one of you can explain it mathematically, there’s a lovely little ‘Comment’ link at the bottom of this post, and I would really appreciate hearing about it.)

Firstly, it’s not that hard to establish the fact that conversation is very dependent on initial conditions. What those initial conditions are, though, is harder to determine. There are probably a lot of them. The personalities, interests, and knowledge base of the people involved, where the conversation takes place, the initiating line from either party, first impressions, what each person was doing earlier that day, how long they have to talk, etc. I happen to think that the most crucial of the initial conditions is the first: the personalities, interests, and knowledge base of the participants. Feel free to disagree.

This is where my lack of math/science expertise becomes a problem: proving the existence of nonlinear feedback. The feedback part isn’t an issue, because of course conversation is feedback; that’s more or less the point. The problem is proving that this feedback is nonlinear (represented in an equation by a number with a power greater than one). How does one prove that kind of thing? For me, at least, philosophy has to take over and fill in the rest.

Instead of arguing for the nonlinearity of conversation (which I can in no way prove), I’d like to try and prove things through analogy. This is why I introduced the three-body problem in my original explanation; because I think I can use it to prove my point. In the three-body problem, we see that the long-term paths of three orbiting bodies of mass (think planets) are impossible to accurately predict–they’re chaotic–because each of the bodies exerts a (nonlinear) force on the other two. Chaos comes as a result of these three variables that each effect the others; that’s the feedback. If we apply this to conversation, where at least two people are listening and reacting to each other (the feedback), we might be able to prove the same chaotic results. Even if there are only two people (not enough to fit the proper three-body problem), I would argue that there are at least four variables that effect all the others: what person A says and thinks, and what person B says and thinks.

Why are what the participants say and think two different variables? Because people claim, rightly or not, that a huge percentage of communication (the actual number varying from source to source) is non-verbal. If this is true, than in a conversation, what you think matters as much or more than what you actually say. In circumstances where one of the participants says one thing and is shown by their body language to be thinking something completely different, the conversation is likely to go in a different direction than if only the content of the person’s speech had been considered. There may be other variables to consider as well (tone? context?), but I think these are the two big ones. Four variables that depend on feedback from the others is enough to satisfy the three-body problem (which is actually the greater-than-or-equal-to-three body problem, but that sounds cluttered). It would be optimal if I could prove that the variables effected each other in a nonlinear way, but unfortunately, I can’t.

As for the constant that I mentioned in my explanation, well–that can be a number of things. If I had to guess, it would be who the participants actually are; what a person says and thinks can change during a conversation, but I haven’t seen someone spontaneously change into someone else during any conversations I’ve had. If the variables determining who the participants are were dynamic and depended on feedback, we would see that sort of thing happening. It doesn’t. Therefore, it’s reasonable to believe that the participants themselves are the constants.

At the end of all this, I conclude that conversation is an example of chaos theory because (a) it is highly sensitive to initial circumstances, (b) the result is constantly being fed back into dynamic variables, (c) it contains dynamic variables that depend on (possibly nonlinear) feedback from other variables, (d) it contains at least one constant, and (e) it displays unpredictable behavior. If I’ve lost you somewhere in the middle of all of this… well, I’ve lost myself several times while writing this, so you’re not alone.

Thoughts and criticism are accepted and appreciated.

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Selectively Permeable

While killing time before dinner at my grandparents’ house, I amused myself by pulling out my notebook and writing a little couple of paragraphs that wondered what Voltaire’s life would have been like if he had been born in the 20th century. This was a while ago–back when I was in the middle of reading Voltaire’s Letters on England (last year) and I had done enough research on his personal life beforehand to think it would be a fun challenge.

No… not really. It took me less than a paragraph to decide that it wasn’t, and the recent developments of Web 2.0 and TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year: You issue reminded me of why that was. (Why did it come just occur to me now to write it all down? …Not a clue.)

Let me explain it this way:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the 1900s seemed to be the time period when personal career paths really started to catch on. In earlier centuries, someone’s future career depended almost entirely on what their father did for a living, or the area in which they lived in (big-name factory in the area = go into manufacturing). That stopped mattering about mid-century, when careers became a more personal choice–anyone could be just about anything they wanted, for the most part regardless of their parents’ career(s). Anyone could decide to become a novelist, or a scientist, and a lot of people started to choose those paths. Certain careers that were once avoided because they were impractical, impossible, or inaccessible–careers in the sciences, in the arts, etc.–were opened up to anyone.

Unfortunately, opening the doors of every career to everyone is a mixed blessing. Back in earlier centuries when careers in, say, the arts were impractical, impossible, and/or inaccessible, the people who did make a living that way had to be very good at what they did. If a person wanted to make a living as a poet or a playwright (who describes themselves as a poet or a playwright nowadays, anyway? Apparently we’ve all moved on…) they had better have had a damn good reason: that they had a certain aptitude for it or a very strong desire to succeed in that area, etcetera, because otherwise it was easier and more profitable to look for work elsewhere. The creative work that came out of the arts in those times had to be excellent, because each individual’s standard of living depended on it. Nowadays, I would argue, creative work need not be excellent–just acceptable. A walk into the political science or cultural studies section of most bookstores is convincing enough that anyone can get published these days; even more so with the romance, pulp fiction, or fantasy sections. Similarly with a walk through any store selling modern art.

This is a problem because it creates the overload of stuff, creative or otherwise, we see today: more books than we could ever read in a lifetime in one bookstore, millions of paintings sitting on the shelves in art stores, enough CDs in HMV or Music World to damage our hearing, thousands of styles and colors of the same basic (not really) clothing, etc. Consider this: Technorati alone is currently tracking 63.2 million blogs, with 175,000 new blogs added every day. The problem we now face, as creative individuals, is trying to stand out in a crowd of 63.2 million others who are trying to do exactly the same thing. Not even, actually; with the amount of creative work that everyone is spinning out nowadays–why not, if there’s no roadblock of impracticality, impossibility, or inaccessibility anymore?–we’re all trying to stand out in a crowd of billions of others trying to do the same thing. The popular t-shirt quote comes to mind: “You are totally unique… just like everyone else.”

How does this all tie back to my thinking about Voltaire in the modern times? Well, there’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam in creative work floating around today–or should I say, dotsam and netsam, a term we’ll probably be hearing a lot more of in the near future. What occurred to me, as I was writing that day to amuse myself, was that in today’s world Voltaire would be nothing exceptional–or at least nothing as exceptional as he was in his day. His most famous works, though far ahead of their time, wouldn’t count for much today. Candide, for example, probably wouldn’t have gotten published with today’s book markets, even though it was sensational at the time. His Letters on England would have been hardly more than another travelog, and a false one at that, because his Letters were greatly exaggerated to glorify English progress and tolerance over the old regime of France. The Philosophical Dictionary, an amazing work, wouldn’t have had a market today at all. The controversy surrounding his work at the time would have been non-existent nowadays, unless he had bothered to go to the extremes of Dan Brown or Richard Dawkins (which, given his personage, is not such a wild expectation). At the time Voltaire died in Paris, he was the greatest writer in France–but would he achieve similar fame in this time? As a great fan of his work and character, it depressed me to think that he might have been ‘just another writer’ had he been born in the late 1900s. A successful columnist, maybe, but probably not to the same acclaim he received in his own time.

I think that our society is experiencing a Flynn effect of creativity. As a whole, society gets more creative, just like we rise about three IQ points every decade. Just as IQ tests are made a little bit harder every so often to reset the average score to 100, maybe we need to set higher standards for blogs and other creative work–or maybe those standards will just fall into place as we mature into the Information Age. If everyone continues to produce content–some good, some not–the system will eventually have to collapse, because I don’t think we can deal with that much information efficiently. How long does it take to find a good blog now, compared to how long it took to find a good book when there was still a selectively permeable wall between mainstream and creative careers that let in only the talented?

Perhaps I’m just being pessimistic and elitist, but I think that wall might need to stay there. Of course, I want as many people as possible to have the opportunity to express themselves creatively, but I also think there needs to be a limit on the amount of information circulating out there. 63.2 million blogs is a lot. I don’t want to guess how many books are out there, but it’s probably several millions too many. Personally, I’m not one hundred percent sure where I stand on this (though it’s clear where I’m leaning), but I hope we can learn to work all of this out. Wall or no wall, it’ll have to be settled someday.

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As I type, an article titled ‘Murdered for Being an Atheist’ is at the top of Digg‘s popularity list, currently with 2392 diggs (approvals from Digg users). This morning, when I first checked my Digg feed, the article had a mere 200 diggs–barely enough for the front page–featuring a dozen or so comments from outraged atheists condemning religion. I gave the comments page another glance just a few minutes ago, and the sheer volume of them actually froze my browser. (From what I could read before it collapsed on me–about a hundred or so comments in–most of the discussion was strongly bigoted on both sides.)

And, lo and behold, just as I was starting to think, “Gee, there have certainly been a lot of pro-atheist articles on Digg these last few months,” an article called ‘Digg and YouTube Powering Atheism 2.o’ clawed its way to the front page. Since I opened a new tab to begin writing this post, it has gone from 300 to 608 diggs. This, folks, is just in the last ten minutes. By the time I finish writing, I bet it’ll break 800. The article stated that there have been seven articles about Richard Dawkins on the front page in the last 2-3 months, and 10-12 other atheism-related articles. I disagree with these numbers. At the very least, I’d guess that I see at least one Dawkins- and/or atheism-related article every other day.

It’s not just atheism, either. A lot of trends–ideologies, software, politics–are being vastly spread through, and accepted by, the internet community. This isn’t a new thing, but it’s interesting to see which ideas are catching on and which are completely floundering in the era of Web 2.0. Going by Digg stats and my own observation, these are the biggest trends that are spreading via the web at the moment:

1. Atheism/Richard Dawkins.
As I mentioned before, atheism is gaining huge popularity among Digg users in particular. So much is being said about it right now that even the Los Angeles Times has jumped on the bandwagon with their recent article ’10 Myths–and 10 Truths–about Atheism’ (strangely, less than a week after reading this article on the web, I saw it reproduced in my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun; it’s that popular.) Richard Dawkins, atheism’s front man, gets his own mention in this trend, and not just because he may have encouraged it with his recent bestseller, ‘The God Delusion.’ Dawkins himself is gaining a huge amount of internet popularity, with his articles and video lectures constantly appearing on the front page of Digg and making headlines in print newspapers, as well.

2. Anti-Christianity.
Though it could definitely be argued, I think it’s a trend apart from atheism. In fact, I have a hunch–though perhaps not a correct one–that this trend may have encouraged the atheism trend, because I was seeing a heck of a lot more anti-Christianity than atheism a few years back. It’s not just bashing fundamentalists, because even more liberal Christians are really getting it on the ‘net nowadays. I wish I could say it was a fair turnaround, but a lot of the outspoken Christian-bashers on the web are just as bigoted as the fundamentalists they condemn.

3. Anti-Bush.
Bush had the misfortune of coming into office at the time when the internet was just starting to really tear down barriers between civilians and authority. Certain things could just be expected to fade away in the past, or never reach the public eye in the first place. Not in Web 2.0. In Web 2.0, any sort of incompetency in authority can and will be spread through the masses. And indeed, it was–his current 30% approval rating is proof enough of that. I think the anti-Bush trend was probably the most widely internet-circulated of all.

4. Opensource.
This one is soft of a no-brainer, because why wouldn’t the opensource movement be popular? Getting spectacular, better-than-Microsoft software for free–plus constant and similarly free upgrades–was bound to catch on among Web 2.0 users. The only users who wouldn’t be quite as thrilled would be the programmers who depend on software companies for their paychecks. That’s why the huge popularity of the opensource movement is so important as an internet trend; it encourages more programmers to participate for the international recognition. Certain aspects of opensource have really taken off in the last year, particularly Ubuntu Linux, which probably wouldn’t have become so popular without forums and tech blogs to spread the news. For these reasons, I think it should still be considered an internet trend, even if its popularity among users was for obvious reasons.

I’ll end with this: the article I mentioned above about the spread of atheism through Digg and YouTube has reached exactly 850 diggs at this moment. How’s that for internet popularity?

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