(Roughly) Daily

“In the sphere of thought, absurdity and perversity remain the masters of this world, and their dominion is suspended only for brief periods”*…

From a (somewhat sarcastic) 1896 essay (“The Art of Controversy”) by that gloomiest of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, advice that (sadly) feels as appropriate today as it surely was then…

1. Carry your opponent’s proposition beyond its natural limits; exaggerate it. The more general your opponent’s statement becomes, the more objections you can find against it. The more restricted and narrow his or her propositions remain, the easier they are to defend by him or her.

2. Use different meanings of your opponent’s words to refute his or her argument.

3. Ignore your opponent’s proposition, which was intended to refer to a particular thing. Rather, understand it in some quite different sense, and then refute it. Attack something different than that which was asserted.

The first three of “Schopenhauer’s 38 Stratagems, or 38 Ways to Win an Argument.” Via @TheBrowser.

[Image above: source]

* Arthur Schopenhauer, “The Art of Controversy

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As we celebrate sophistry, we might recall that it was on this date (or near; scholars disagree) in 325 that Roman Emperor Constantine I convened a gathering in which all of Scopenhauer’s tricks were surely employed: the First Council of Nicaea. An ecumenical council, it was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all Christendom. Its main accomplishments were settlement of the Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father, the construction of the first part of the Nicene Creed, mandating uniform observance of the date of Easter, and the promulgation of early canon law.

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea holding the Nicene Creed

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“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”*…

Each year, millions of barrels are shipped from NYC to the Caribbean. Ameena Walker unpacks the why, how, and the economics involved…

For many Caribbean communities across New York City, carefully curating barrels to ship to relatives outside of the U.S. is a relatively common practice. Fueled by an urge to provide for loved ones left back home, the Caribbean diaspora in New York, and cities around the country, meticulously source a variety of sought-after goods, intricately packing them in barrels on the cusp of overflowing and eventually mailing them overseas. The unconventional shipping method is the most affordable way to get a hefty load abroad. More than four million barrels are shipped from the northeast to the Caribbean annually, indicating a strong demand for merchandise from the U.S and a thriving business in this niche logistic sector….

The justification for using barrels to ship goods is practical. An empty 55-gallon HDPE or HMWPE drum weighs around 50 kg, but has a capacity of around 1,200 kg. Their maneuverability also plays a large part, as they can be easily stacked, rolled, or forklifted and withstand pressure and temperature changes during storage and handling….

Once the barrel is obtained, you’ll need to fill it to the brim. This is one of the more intriguing aspects of the process, as it is essential that no space is left unfilled. Practices like rolling clothes as tight as possible, stuffing the insides of footwear with additional items, removing excess packaging (e.g., taking shoes out of boxes) and shoving small items like batteries and toothbrushes into nooks and crannies ensure that not even a single crevice is left void. It’s not uncommon for someone to climb into the barrel to squish the whole mass further down, provided there aren’t any breakables or spillables inside. Virtually any item can be shipped, and it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to several months to fill a drum to maximum capacity. It’s an unspoken rule that if the barrel doesn’t require a full-sized adult to sit on top of it to force it closed, there’s room to pack more! After the drum is willed shut, it is sealed with a metal clamp and locking security cable that secures the lid and ensures its contents will not be accessed while enroute. It is then labeled on the top and side with sender and receiver’s information that should match whatever is on the shipping documents…

Despite the expansion of e-commerce, many Caribbean countries still don’t have access to simple conveniences like online shopping, making it difficult to obtain necessities. Relatives in major U.S. cities mollify this by making sure their loved ones back home get the goods they want and need, with no ocean standing in their way and no barrel packed too full…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Remittance by the Barrel,” from @awalkinny in @the_prepared.

Proverb

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As we pack it tight, we might send gilded birthday greetings to Johns Hopkins; he was born on this date in 1795. A businessman who is largely remembered as a philanthropist, he operated wholesale and retail businesses in the Baltimore area; he built his fortune by judiciously investing his proceeds in myriad other ventures, most notably, the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad. In 1996, Johns Hopkins ranked 69th in “The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates – A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present

His bequests founded a number institutions bearing his name, the best-known of which are, of course, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University.

Although Hopkins is widely-noted as an abolitionist, recent research indicates that Johns Hopkins was a slave owner for at least part of his life.

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“The real alchemy consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.”*…

16th century alchemical equipment, and 21st century reconception of Luria’s 16th century Sephirotic array by Naomi Teplow.

About a decade ago, the formidable Lawrence Weschler was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he conceived a concept for an exhibit that, sadly, never materialized. Happily, he has shared the design in his wonderful newsletter, Wondercabinet

Lead into Gold:

Proposal for a little jewel-box exhibit

surveying the Age-Old Quest

To Wrest Something from Nothing,

from the Philosopher’s Stone

through Subprime Loans

The boutique-sized (four-room) show would be called “Lead into Gold” and would track the alchemical passion—from its prehistory in the memory palaces of late antiquity through the Middle Ages

(those elaborate mnemonic techniques whereby monks and clerks stored astonishing amounts of details in their minds by placing them in ever-expanding imaginary structures, forebears, as it were, to the physical wondercabinets of the later medieval period—a sampling of manuscripts depicting the technique would grace a sort of foyer to the exhibition),

into its high classic phase (the show’s first long room) with alchemy as pre-chemistry (with maguses actually trying, that is, to turn physical lead into physical gold, all the beakers and flasks and retorts, etc.) to one side, and astrology as pre-astronomy (the whole deliriously marvelous sixteenth-into-seventeenth centuries) to the other, and Isaac Newton serving as a key leitmotif figure through the entire show (though starting out here), recast no longer in his role as the first of the moderns so much as “the Last of the Sumerians” (as an astonished John Maynard Keynes dubbed him, upon stumbling on a cache of thousands of pages of his Cambridge forebear’s detailed alchemical notes, not just from his early years before the Principia, but from throughout his entire life!).

The show would then branch off in two directions, in a sort of Y configuration. To one side:

1) The Golden Path, which is to say the growing conviction among maguses and their progeny during the later early-modern period that the point was allegorical, an inducement to soul-work, in which one was called upon to try to refine the leaden parts of oneself into ever more perfect golden forms, hence Faustus and Prospero through Jung, with those magi Leibniz and Newton riffing off Kabbalistic meditations on Infinity and stumbling instead onto the infinitesimal as they invent the Calculus, in turn eventually opening out (by way of Blake) onto all those Sixties versions, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, etc., which set the stage for the Whole Earth Catalog and all those kid-maguses working in their garages (developing both hardware and software: fashioning the Calculus into material reality) and presently the Web itself (latter day version of those original memory palaces from back in the show’s foyer, writ large);

while, branching off to the other side, we would have:

2) The Leaden Path, in which moneychangers and presently bankers decided to cut to the chase, for, after all, who needed lead and who needed gold and for god’s sake who needed a more perfect soul when you could simply turn any old crap into money (!)—thus, for example, the South Sea Bubble, in which Newton lost the equivalent of a million dollars (whereupon he declared that he could understand the transit of stars but not the madness of men), tulipomania, etc., and thence onward to Freud (rather than Jung) and his conception of “filthy lucre” and George Soros (with his book, The Alchemy of Finance), with the Calculus showing up again across ever more elaborate permutations, leading on through Ponzi and Gecko (by way of Ayn Rand and Alan “The Wizard” Greenspan) to the whole derivatives bubble/tumor, as adumbrated in part by my own main man, the money artist JSG Boggs, and then on past that to the purest mechanism ever conceived for generating fast money out of crap: meth labs (which deploy exactly but exactly the same equipment as the original alchemists, beakers and flasks and retorts, to accomplish the literal-leaden version of what they were after, the turning of filth into lucre).

And I appended a xerox of that napkin sketch:

Eminently worth reading– and enjoying–in full. “The age-old human quest to turn nothing into something.”

* Edith Wharton

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As we appreciate the abiding attraction of alchemy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. A feature of the New Deal, the TVA was created to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, regional planning, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region (all of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) which was particularly hard hit by the Great Depression relative to the rest of the nation. While owned by the federal government, TVA receives no taxpayer funding and operates similar to a private for-profit company.

The TVA has been criticized for its use of eminent domain, which resulted in the displacement of over 125,000 Tennessee Valley residents for the agency’s infrastructure projects. But on balance the TVA has been documented as a success in its efforts to modernize the Tennessee Valley and helping to recruit new employment opportunities to the region.

FDR signing the TVA Act [source]

“A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”*…

Metaphysical debates in quantum physics don’t get at “truth,” physicist and mathematician Timothy Andersen argues; they’re nothing but a form of ritual activity and culture. After a thoughtful intellectual history of both quantum mechanics and Wittgenstein’s thought, he concludes…

If Wittgenstein were alive today, he might have couched his arguments in the vocabulary of cultural anthropology. For this shared grammar and these language games, in his view, form part of much larger ritualistic mechanisms that connect human activity with human knowledge, as deeply as DNA connects to human biology. It is also a perfect example of how evolution works by using pre-existing mechanisms to generate new behaviors.

The conclusion from all of this is that interpretation and representation in language and mathematics are little different than the supernatural explanations of ancient religions. Trying to resolve the debate between Bohr and Einstein is like trying to answer the Zen kōan about whether the tree falling in the forest makes a sound if no one can hear it. One cannot say definitely yes or no, because all human language must connect to human activity. And all human language and activity are ritual, signifying meaning by their interconnectedness. To ask what the wavefunction means without specifying an activity – and experiment – to extract that meaning is, therefore, as sensible as asking about the sound of the falling tree. It is nonsense.

As a scientist and mathematician, Wittgenstein has challenged my own tendency to seek out interpretations of phenomena that have no scientific value – and to see such explanations as nothing more than narratives. He taught that all that philosophy can do is remind us of what is evidently true. It’s evidently true that the wavefunction has a multiverse interpretation, but one must assume the multiverse first, since it cannot be measured. So the interpretation is a tautology, not a discovery.

I have humbled myself to the fact that we can’t justify clinging to one interpretation of reality over another. In place of my early enthusiastic Platonism, I have come to think of the world not as one filled with sharply defined truths, but rather as a place containing myriad possibilities – each of which, like the possibilities within the wavefunction itself, can be simultaneously true. Likewise, mathematics and its surrounding language don’t represent reality so much as serve as a trusty tool for helping people to navigate the world. They are of human origin and for human purposes.

To shut up and calculate, then, recognizes that there are limits to our pathways for understanding. Our only option as scientists is to look, predict and test. This might not be as glamorous an offering as the interpretations we can construct in our minds, but it is the royal road to real knowledge…

A provocative proposition: “Quantum Wittgenstein,” from @timcopia in @aeonmag.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

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As we muse on meaning, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that the official ground-breaking for CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire) was held. Located in Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world… that’s to say, a prime spot to do the observation and calculation that Andersen suggests. Indeed, it’s been the site of many breakthrough discoveries over the years, maybe most notably the 2012 observation of the Higgs Boson.

Because researchers need remote access to these facilities, the lab has historically been a major wide area network hub. Indeed, it was at CERN that Tim Berners-Lee developed the first “browser”– and effectively fomented the emergence of the web.

CERN’s main site, from Switzerland looking towards France

“Hierarchy works well in a stable environment”*…

… and often not so well in a dynamic, unstable setting. Simon Roberts reminds us of an alternative concept, one that shifts perspectives by taking into account multiple relationships and interdependencies– heterarchy

Some ideas about how the world works feel so obvious as to be beyond question. They have taken on a sense of appearing to be part of the natural order of things. Hierarchy—an arrangement, ranking or classification of people or things on the basis of their importance or value—is one such idea. Hierarchies are evident at scale in societies when classes or castes of people are ranked on the basis of some factor or other (be that wealth, cultural capital or purity). And secular hierarchies are often supported by hierarchies in the realm of the sacred, symbolics or spiritual.

The idea of hierarchy seems so natural because the criteria by which things are ranked have themselves a tendency to appear innate. Consider, for example, class distinctions. These are often expressed in hierarchical terms (“She married beneath herself”, “He’s a social climber’), but are constructed, communicated and cemented by a bewildering array of cultural distinctions that show up sartorially, linguistically, symbolically and through social practice. The result is that the hierarchical ranking of people takes on a logic of its own that is difficult to see for what it is – an invention.

Ideas and practices informed by hierarchy are common in the world of business too. Hierarchy informs organisational design, decision making and cultural practices. These practices naturalise hierarchy. And hierarchy is a feature of the methodologies and frameworks used by consultants, like “need hierarchies” and the propensity for rankings of things like product features or benefits.

What results from the fact that hierarchy is an unquestioned element of the grammar of human existence? It’s that hierarchy has an outsized impact on how we think about culture, society and organisations. But many social, cultural and natural forms are not organised hierarchically. A different lens—that offered by the concept of heterarchy—provides more than a corrective to our obsession with hierarchy. It helps explain more fundamental processes at play in the natural and social world…

Read on to learn more about an organizing (and organizational) framework, rooted in nature, that’s “built” for the turbulent times that we’re in: “How heterarchy can help us put hierarchy in its place,” from @ideasbazaar and @stripepartners.

See also: “Heterarchy: An Idea Finally Ripe for Its Time,” by (your correspondent’s old friend and partner) Jay Ogilvy (@JayOgilvy), whose wonderful book, Many Dimensional Man, explores heterarchy deeply.

And, also apposite, see Cory Doctorow’s (@doctorow) “A useful, critical taxonomy of decentralization, beyond blockchains“; while the word “heterarchy” never appears, its spirit is present in the description of the approach that intrigues him…

* Mary Douglas

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As we rethink relationships, we might spare a thought for Harry Burnett “H. B.” Reese; he died on this date in 1956. A candy-maker who began his career working in the Hershey’s Chocolate factory, he began to moonlight, creating confections in his basement. In 1923, he started his own company, H.B. Reese Candy Company, manufacturing a selection of sweets. Then, in 1928, he created the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. A huge hit, it came to dominate his line– and ultimately became the best-selling candy in America. Reese is enshrined in the Candy Hall of Fame.

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