Archive for January, 2010

Copy me, I'm on my way out

Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth cannot understand why people desire original works of visual art rather than printed reproductions, especially when we’ve been buying printed books rather than manuscript codexes for centuries now.  He presents – and demolishes too quickly, I believe - some potential reasons for this.  I am very surprised by his view, but perhaps its the sheltered life I lead.

Thomas Jones A Wall in Naples

First, let me say as a computer scientist, that a map is not the territory.  It is easy to confuse a representation of some object with that object itself, and the people now singing the praises for e-books seem to be doing just that.   Au contraire, I believe that hard, physical books will continue to be purchased and kept yet for hundreds of years, and possibly many more years, because books are souvenirs of our experience of reading them.   The same is true of works of visual art.    If you have had some hand in the commissioning, the creation (for example, as subject of the artwork or as patron of the artist), or the selection and purchase of a work of art, you want the work of art itself, not a copy, to remind yourself of that experience.

Second, let me say as a former mathematician, that printed reproductions of artworks are projections onto 2 dimensions of 3-dimensional objects.  By definition, such projections will lose something.  If you think that what is lost thereby in visual art is unimportant, as Cosma seems to, then you’ve not been looking very closely at real paintings or drawings.  There are too many examples to recount, so let me just point to:  the brush-strokes in JMW Turner’s seascapes, which manifest and convey the torment of the scenes (and that of the painter); or the drip effects in Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, which likewise manifest and convey the energy of the creation process; or the careful, visible brushwork of the leaves and blades of grass in Pre-Raphaelite art or in the art of the Yangzhou painters of the early Qing Dynasty; or the brush-strokes in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.   These effects are either invisible or can barely be seen in printed reproductions.  It is also worth noting that Chinese art has, for hundreds of years, supported “factory production” of 3-D paintings, using lesser-skilled artists to make approved copies of paintings by famous artists, usually under the direct, personal supervision of the famous artist him or herself; that these copies are purchased rather than printed reproductions indicates that the 3-D object has qualities perceived to be lacking in any 2-D print.

Third, let me say as a former statistician, that it seems to be easy for people familiar with Andrei Kolmogorov’s theory of complexity to imagine they have represented faithfully some object, when all they have captured is its surface form (its syntax).   As I have argued before, the canonical example used in discussions of algorithmic complexity is Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is alleged to be easy to reproduce with an algorithm such as: 

Paint a pixel of black in each pixel throughout the square.

At best what this algorithm generates is a copy not of the 3-dimensional painting itself, but of a 2-dimensional projection of it.  But even were it to recreate the 3-D object, such an algorithm ignores the meaning of the painting and the historical context of its creation – in linguistic terms, its semantics (or its use-context-independent meaning) and its pragmatics (its use-context-dependent meaning).      Both these aspects are immensely important to understanding and appreciating the work, and for explaining why it appeared when it did and not before, and understanding its reception and influence.  As I noted before, one can just about imagine the 18th-century Welsh  landscape painter Thomas Jones eventually creating something similar to Black Square, since he painted contemplative, Zen-like depictions of seemingly-featureless Neapolitan walls (such as A Wall in Naples, pictured above), but no other artist before Malevich.

How is this relevant?  Well, once you’ve seen and admired Malevich’s painting, no printed reproduction would satisfy you for an instant. 

Finally, paintings – even when traditional, representational art – are best understood, not as representations of objects or scenes or feelings or indeed of anything at all, but as attempts at solutions to problems in painting.   Most solutions fail, so the artist abandons that attempt, and tries again.  In the meantime, the abandoned partial solution may provide pleasure and joy (or other responses) to those who view it, and to those who seek to emulate the methods of its painting which a careful study of it may disclose.

FOOTNOTE:  The post title is a reference to an Ambitious Lovers song.




Copy me, I’m on my way out

Cosma Shalizi at Three-Toed Sloth cannot understand why people desire original works of visual art rather than printed reproductions, especially when we’ve been buying printed books rather than manuscript codexes for centuries now.  He presents – and demolishes too quickly, I believe - some potential reasons for this.  I am very surprised by his view, but perhaps its the sheltered life I lead.

Thomas Jones A Wall in Naples

First, let me say as a computer scientist, that a map is not the territory.  It is easy to confuse a representation of some object with that object itself, and the people now singing the praises for e-books seem to be doing just that.   Au contraire, I believe that hard, physical books will continue to be purchased and kept yet for hundreds of years, and possibly many more years, because books are souvenirs of our experience of reading them.   The same is true of works of visual art.    If you have had some hand in the commissioning, the creation (for example, as subject of the artwork or as patron of the artist), or the selection and purchase of a work of art, you want the work of art itself, not a copy, to remind yourself of that experience.

Second, let me say as a former mathematician, that printed reproductions of artworks are projections onto 2 dimensions of 3-dimensional objects.  By definition, such projections will lose something.  If you think that what is lost thereby in visual art is unimportant, as Cosma seems to, then you’ve not been looking very closely at real paintings or drawings.  There are too many examples to recount, so let me just point to:  the brush-strokes in JMW Turner’s seascapes, which manifest and convey the torment of the scenes (and that of the painter); or the drip effects in Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, which likewise manifest and convey the energy of the creation process; or the careful, visible brushwork of the leaves and blades of grass in Pre-Raphaelite art or in the art of the Yangzhou painters of the early Qing Dynasty; or the brush-strokes in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy.   These effects are either invisible or can barely be seen in printed reproductions.  It is also worth noting that Chinese art has, for hundreds of years, supported “factory production” of 3-D paintings, using lesser-skilled artists to make approved copies of paintings by famous artists, usually under the direct, personal supervision of the famous artist him or herself; that these copies are purchased rather than printed reproductions indicates that the 3-D object has qualities perceived to be lacking in any 2-D print.

Third, let me say as a former statistician, that it seems to be easy for people familiar with Andrei Kolmogorov’s theory of complexity to imagine they have represented faithfully some object, when all they have captured is its surface form (its syntax).   As I have argued before, the canonical example used in discussions of algorithmic complexity is Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is alleged to be easy to reproduce with an algorithm such as:

Paint a pixel of black in each pixel throughout the square.

At best what this algorithm generates is a copy not of the 3-dimensional painting itself, but of a 2-dimensional projection of it.  But even were it to recreate the 3-D object, such an algorithm ignores the meaning of the painting and the historical context of its creation – in linguistic terms, its semantics (or its use-context-independent meaning) and its pragmatics (its use-context-dependent meaning).      Both these aspects are immensely important to understanding and appreciating the work, and for explaining why it appeared when it did and not before, and understanding its reception and influence.  As I noted before, one can just about imagine the 18th-century Welsh  landscape painter Thomas Jones eventually creating something similar to Black Square, since he painted contemplative, Zen-like depictions of seemingly-featureless Neapolitan walls (such as A Wall in Naples, pictured above), but no other artist before Malevich.

How is this relevant?  Well, once you’ve seen and admired Malevich’s painting, no printed reproduction would satisfy you for an instant.

Finally, paintings – even when traditional, representational art – are best understood, not as representations of objects or scenes or feelings or indeed of anything at all, but as attempts at solutions to problems in painting.   Most solutions fail, so the artist abandons that attempt, and tries again.  In the meantime, the abandoned partial solution may provide pleasure and joy (or other responses) to those who view it, and to those who seek to emulate the methods of its painting which a careful study of it may disclose.   (The thoughts of Marion Milner are relevant here, especially regarding the quaint idea that artists make art to express some pre-existing emotion.)

FOOTNOTE:  The post title is a reference to an Ambitious Lovers song.




Mnemosyne

Ljova and the Kontraband have today released a video of their song, Mnemosyne, a setting of the poem by Joe Stickney which I posted here.  I mentioned listening to their superb album here.  

The evocative video uses footage from Ilya Khrjanovsky’s film 4, and is available here.




Maps and territories and knowledge

Seymour Papert, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, once wrote (1988, p. 3), “Artificial Intelligence should become the methodology for thinking about ways of knowing.”   I would add “and ways of acting”.

Some time back, I wrote about the painting of spirit-dreamtime maps by Australian aboriginal communities as proof of their relationship to specific places:  Only people with traditional rights to the specific place would have the necessary dreamtime knowledge needed to make the painting, an argument whose compelling force has been recognized by Australian courts.  These paintings are a form of map, showing (some of) the spirit relationships of the specific place.  The argument they make is a very interesting one, along the lines of:

What I am saying is true, by virtue of the mere fact that I am saying it, since only someone having the truth would be able to make such an utterance (ie, the painting).

Another example of this type of argument is given by Rory Stewart, in his account of his walk across Afghanistan.   Stewart does not carry a paper map of the country he is walking through, lest he be thought a foreign spy (p. 211).   Instead, he learns and memorizes a list of the villages and their headmen, in the order he plans to walk through them.  Like the aboriginal dreamtime paintings, mere knowledge of this list provides proof of his right to be in the area.  Like the paintings, the list is a type of map of the territory, a different way of knowing.  And also like the paintings, possession of this knowledge leads others, when they learn of the possession, to act differently towards the possessor.  Here’s Stewart on his map (p. 213):

It was less accurate the further you were from the speaker’s home . . .  But I was able to add details from villages along the way, till I could chant the stages from memory.

Day one:  Commandant Maududi in Badgah.  Day two:  Abdul Rauf Ghafuri in Daulatyar.  Day three:  Bushire Khan in Sang-izard.  Day four:  Mir Ali Hussein Beg of Katlish.  Day five: Haji Nasir-i-Yazdani Beg of Qala-eNau.  Day six:  Seyyed Kerbalahi of Siar Chisme . . .

I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map.  I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as credentials.  Almost everyone recognized the names, even from a hundred kilometres away.  Being able to chant it made me half belong:  it reassured hosts who were not sure whether to take me in and it suggested to anyone who thought of attacking me that I was linked to powerful names. (page 213)

Because AI is (or should be) about ways of knowing and doing in the world, it therefore has close links to the social sciences, particularly anthropology, and to the humanities.

References:

Seymour Papert [1988]: One AI or Many? Daedalus, 117 (1) (Winter 1988):  1-14.

Rory Stewart [2004]: The Places in Between. London, UK:  Picador, pp. 211-214.

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Poem: No one visits here

In recognition of the heavy snow-falls in some places this week (eg, Cottonopolis under cotton), here is a poem by Japanese poet, Saigyo Hoshi (1118-1190):

No one visits here
In the dark mountain hut
where I live alone.
But for this sweet loneliness
it would be too bleak to bear.

Reference:

Sam Hamill (Editor and Translator) [1997]: Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing.  Boston, MA, USA:  Shambhala, page 55.




Stewart on Bam’s Afghan policy

When faced with untenable alternatives, consider your imperative.” (Admiral Helena Cain)

Rory Stewart, prospective MP for Penrith and the Border, has written a thoughtful response in the latest New York Review of Books to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan policy given at West Point on 1 December 2009.      Stewart’s conclusions:

What can now be done to salvage the administration’s position? Obama has acquired leverage over the generals and some support from the public by making it clear that he will not increase troop strength further. He has gained leverage over Karzai by showing that he has options other than investing in Afghanistan. Now he needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence. This is what the administration began to do in the days following the speech. As National Security Adviser General James Jones said, “That date is a ‘ramp’ rather than a cliff.” And as Hillary Clinton said in her congressional testimony on December 3, their real aim should be to “develop a long-term sustainable relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, primarily our abandonment of that region.”

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

 

References:

Barack Obama [2009]: Remarks in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, given at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, 2009-12-01.

Rory Stewart [2010]:  Afghanistan:  What could workThe New York Review of Books, 57 (1), 2010-01-14.




Stewart on Bam’s Afghan policy

When faced with untenable alternatives, consider your imperative.” (Admiral Helena Cain)

Rory Stewart, prospective MP for Penrith and the Border, has written a thoughtful response in the latest New York Review of Books to President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan policy given at West Point on 1 December 2009.      Stewart’s conclusions:

What can now be done to salvage the administration’s position? Obama has acquired leverage over the generals and some support from the public by making it clear that he will not increase troop strength further. He has gained leverage over Karzai by showing that he has options other than investing in Afghanistan. Now he needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence. This is what the administration began to do in the days following the speech. As National Security Adviser General James Jones said, “That date is a ‘ramp’ rather than a cliff.” And as Hillary Clinton said in her congressional testimony on December 3, their real aim should be to “develop a long-term sustainable relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, primarily our abandonment of that region.”

A more realistic, affordable, and therefore sustainable presence would not make Afghanistan stable or predictable. It would be merely a small if necessary part of an Afghan political strategy. The US and its allies would only moderate, influence, and fund a strategy shaped and led by Afghans themselves. The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to regain their trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government.

What would this look like in practice? Probably a mess. It might involve a tricky coalition of people we refer to, respectively, as Islamists, progressive civil society, terrorists, warlords, learned technocrats, and village chiefs. Under a notionally democratic constitutional structure, it could be a rickety experiment with systems that might, like Afghanistan’s neighbors, include strong elements of religious or military rule. There is no way to predict what the Taliban might become or what authority a national government in Kabul could regain. Civil war would remain a possibility. But an intelligent, long-term, and tolerant partnership with the United States could reduce the likelihood of civil war and increase the likelihood of a political settlement. This is hardly the stuff of sound bites and political slogans. But it would be better for everyone than boom and bust, surge and flight. With the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today. That would be excellent for Afghans and good for the world.

Meanwhile, Obama’s broader strategic argument must not be lost. He has grasped that the foreign policy of the president should not consist in a series of extravagant, brief, Manichaean battles, driven by exaggerated fears, grandiloquent promises, and fragile edifices of doctrine. Instead the foreign policy of a great power should be the responsible exercise of limited power and knowledge in concurrent situations of radical uncertainty. Obama, we may hope, will develop this elusive insight. And then it might become possible to find the right places in which to deploy the wealth, the courage, and the political capital of the United States. We might hope in South Asia, for example, for a lighter involvement in Afghanistan but a much greater focus on Kashmir.

I began by saying that “calling” in poker was childish and that grownups raise or fold. But there is another category of people who raise or fold: those who are anxious to leave the table. They go all in to exit, hoping to get lucky but if not then at least to finish. They do not do this on the basis of their cards or the pot. They do it because they lack the patience, the interest, the focus, or the confidence to pace themselves carefully through the long and exhausting hours. They no longer care enough about the game. Obama is a famously keen poker player. He should never be in a hurry to leave the table.

 

References:

Barack Obama [2009]: Remarks in Address to the Nation on the Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan, given at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, 2009-12-01.

Rory Stewart [2010]:  Afghanistan:  What could workThe New York Review of Books, 57 (1), 2010-01-14.