Showing posts with label intellectual pursuits. Show all posts
Showing posts with label intellectual pursuits. Show all posts

Monday, November 12, 2007

Harmony and its absence

I often tend to drop the term "harmony" into my everyday conversation, to explain my choice of behavior, or my preference for a particular approach or solution to such and such a problem. Whenever I do so, I'm aware that I'm cheating, that I'm acting—as they say in French—"in bad faith", because the musical metaphor of harmony is so fuzzy, when transposed into non-musical domains, that it's akin to declaring that one is guided, like Joan of Arc, by mysterious voices from afar.

The context is a tiny bit clearer when I speak of the absence of harmony, because most of us can detect the presence of discord, dissonance, cacophony and clamor. But, even at that level, I'm still cheating when I decry disharmony in a superficial fashion, because I was profoundly attached for years to the celebrated musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer [1910-1995]. Indeed, my brilliant mentor would be perfectly justified in zapping me instantly into oblivion with a terrible electronic crescendo from the heavens—like the voice of the Castafiore shattering a crystal glass—if ever he were to hear through the divine grapevine that his old disciple Skyvington had been advocating, even for an instant, the blessings of harmony!

Normally I don't appreciate complicated and pretentious ways of saying simple things. For example, the expression "mind-set" [meaning a certain way of looking at things] horrifies me, because it represents what the French designate, colorfully, as trying to emit gas from a level above that of your anus. Likewise, using the expression "sea-change" [meaning a major change of address] is ridiculous unless you really happen to be diving into the upside-down world of Shakespeare's Tempest. When I hear a suburban housewife in Australia explaining that "My husband's mind-set imposed a sea-change"—meaning that the family had decided, for multifarious reasons, to move to another town—I end up wondering whether there's any hope for the English linguistic culture.

Having said this, I must admit that there's a silly trendy formula that I love, which I would have been proud to invent: cognitive dissonance. If you look up this delightful expression in Wikipedia [display], you'll find references to a book, half a century old, entitled When Prophecy Fails. The author, Leon Festinger, apparently tackled the case of a flying-saucers cult that believed the end of the world at hand. It might be imagined normally that crazy folk, observing that their crazy predictions don't materialize, would revise their crazy beliefs, and turn to less-crazy expectations. According to Festinger's cognitive dissonance thesis, this is not the case. In a nutshell (pun intended: nut shell), crazy folk often tend to solve their cognitive problems [a euphemism for crass ignorance: an incapacity to get around to understanding what's happening in the world] by deciding consciously to plunge even more deeply into the abysms of stupidity. They make plans to stage the Olympic Games of Ignorance.

I've detected traces of cognitive dissonance in my contacts with the Australian lady who owns an unsigned/unfinished ceramic plaque with a portrait of Queen Victoria [display]. Sheridan has remained convinced that a female ancestor was a bridesmaid at the wedding of Victoria, and that the portrait in question was one of a series of gifts from the queen. I've gone to extraordinary lengths in revealing that Sheridan's Heath ancestors were no doubt related to the great London dynasty of Heath artists [engravers, miniature portraitists and experimenters] who worked in the shadow of British royalty, and that the bridesmaids legend is rubbish. Family beliefs, however, are stronger than research. In the face of cognitive dissonance, little can be done. When humans decide to adopt false beliefs, all contrary evidence can be construed to suggest that black is white, that two and two add up to five, or anything other than four!

Humanity is a fascinating case study. We're not basically scientists, but rather swindlers! Opposed to facts, fantasy is infinitely more exciting. In the cognitive domain, listeners know that dissonance can be Mozart!

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Gumption. I love that old Scottish word (which I recall from my childhood), although I'm not really sure it means much, and even less sure that I grasp what little meaning it might have. My online dictionary says it designates "shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness". Then there's a wishy-washy example about a woman who had the gumption to put her foot down and dissuade a fellow from pursuing his crazy schemes. In fact, I don't like that example. In my mind, this vague stuff called gumption—whatever it might be—is exactly what you need to pursue crazy schemes. I would go so far as to say that, without a good supply of gumption, it would be crazy to even think about crazy schemes. In such contexts, gumption is a sine qua non.

For some time now, I've been saying to myself [that's a habit derived from living for too long in France: the homeplace and haven of reflexive verbs] that, if only I had the necessary gumption, I would embark upon a popular-science book project, to be known simply by a one-word title: Creation. The basic idea—the inspiration, if I were to take myself more gumptiously—is that, while the scientific writers Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins have already done a hell of lot about making the world a more understandable (but not necessarily easier) place to live in, they are both visibly weak (well, less than optimal) in the domain of computing.

I had this impression about Dawkins when I first read The Blind Watchmaker. Like everything by Dawkins, it's a fabulous book, but his biomorphs (computerized graphic gadgets) reveal instantly that the author is a novice computerist, unfamiliar with more sophisticated realms of information science... otherwise he would have alluded to the pioneering work of precursors such as John von Neumann and others. [Click here to see my earlier blog article.]

The "missing link" between Dawkins and me (to borrow a silly Darwin-inspired expression) might be referred to pompously as the computing paradigm. Already, back at the time of my Machina Sapiens [click here to see an earlier reference to this book], I hinted at the fact that we computerists are tempted to see almost everything in terms of... computing. There's a trivial saying in France. What do you bike-riders talk about when they come together? They talk about... bikes! Well, we computerists are like bike-riders. It's a fact. We see the world as some kind of a giant computer...

In the USA in 1971, when I was filming Les machines et les hommes for French TV, I encountered an amazing man named Ed Fredkin. If I remember correctly, he was in charge of computers in the artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], whose intellectual star was, of course, Marvin Minsky. Fredkin invited me to his family home to talk about his work and my TV project. There, in his family environment, I lost no time in discovering that Edward Fredkin was an amazing individual... probably one of the most surprising and talented people I've ever met. He didn't fit into the US academic mold. He belonged to an intellectual America that has fascinated me on countless occasions, that has nothing to do with Bush mediocracy. As a retired jet pilot in the US Air Force, Fredkin came upon computers as some kind of a gigantic and delightful game, which enabled him to become a millionaire, among other things. When I met up with him, he was fascinated by the possibilities of computer music, and had actually designed a prototype thing that emitted ugly noises. Ed was persuaded that this amazing gadget would enable him to earn further millions, and he started out naively by manufacturing hundreds of these devices which were stored, when I met up with Ed, in the basement of his luxurious Massachusetts home.

Today, the former jet-fighter pilot Edward Fredkin is living somewhere on the planet Earth in recluse... as a digital monk. I would love to see him again, but I don't know how to go about getting back in contact with him.

Meanwhile, an MIT acolyte named Seth Lloyd has become famous by publishing a wonderful book on the subject that enthralls me. Basically, in terribly rough terms, the idea is that quantum mechanics can be visualized as a computerized affair. It's all very vague, very hard to fathom. That's why I'm hoping, as a writer, that I'll be able to amass enough mysterious gumption to tackle this affair, and put a little much-needed order into the Cosmos.