Books

Cataloguing the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age
by Alex Wright

-Writer of Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages. Wright wrote an article in Designing Universal Knowledge, a mind-expanding sprint through the evolution of information systems, which caused me to seek out his other work. This Otlet book, which I got for Christmas(!) a couple years ago and finally read, was interesting, a bummer to read about how Otlet’s life work was destroyed and his hopes dashed and destroyed, and not the ecstatic trip into deep wizardry I was hoping for…more like a biography and some magazine article chapters about his connection to the Internet creators. Maybe a deeper dive into the archives and theories is what I was looking for, and more pictures of the drawings and notes like this. The milieu of optimistic modernist Belgium was interesting to read about…a cool book, glad I finally got to it.

Who is Rich?
by Matthew Klam

-Novel about sad dad, former cartoonist with sex issues. Page turner, lyrical, well-written.

How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning, and Thinking—for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers
by Sönke Ahrens

-Read this in one day. More theory and justification of the system than actual practical talk about the system, but there’s enough of that in there if you hunt for it. As a book that exemplifies its own system, it’s a mixed bag. Too much linkage and sprawl, maybe?? As Tom K said “It's almost a philosophy of mind book in disguise,” and the touchstones of this are familiar to me and I was already on board, so I sped through a lot of it. There is also the fact maybe that this is just “notecard writing” which is what I was taught in AP English in high school…but there’s new stuff in there about linkages and meta-structures and how to keep it simple and useful…what NOT to do. Good book for students! I’d make it part of my teaching repertoire if I was still teaching… Anyways it made me optimistic and excited to get back into “my studies” and re-connected me with some ideas and practices I’ve let slip…I’m more into the paper and pen version than digital… This book also is a application and corrective to GTD for creative work (Souther Salazar). Next: apply this all to the process of comics making? Or maybe the daily strip constraints, the newspaper etc. is already that? The idea of this book and GTD etc. that the system is a virtuous cycle of low stress routines and tasks, out of which emerges the work… Also! connections, networks, hypertext and nonlinear textual links and metatexts etc with the Otlet book.

Book Review

Ninety-nine More Maggots, Mites, and Munchers
by May R. Berenbaum
-Insects are written about in short 1-2 page entries. This is a sequel. I did not read the first book. This short form is fitting for writing about insects. The form of the entries consists of: many puns, perhaps to add some light-heartedness to descriptions of the insectoid horror-world; some discussion of how each species affects the lives of human beings; and of course Latin name, life cycle, diet, mating, unusual behaviors and memorable peculiarities, etc.. Insects are strange and beautiful and they often mess up things for human beings by biting them or messing with their crops. I enjoyed reading this book. First I read it as something to help me fall asleep but then as pure pleasure and distraction for a troubled mind.


Book Review

Science, Order, and Creativity
by David Bohm and F. David Peat

I bought this book at a sale because I thought the cover was so...unusual. Plus the title and the whole package was my kind of thing. There's stuff about fractals and Heisenberg and there's a chapter named "What is Order?" 

I didn't plan on reading it, but then one night I gave it a shot, and I saw that these guys really knew what they were talking about. They take us from physics to metaphysics, to meta-, and then on to the mystical and the cosmic and the everyday mind. By the end they're discussing Krishnamurti.

I like their idea of "false play" / "playing false:" This is when a person "is engaged in an activity that no longer has meaning in itself, merely in order to experience a pleasant and satisfying state of consciousness" but is now concerned with "reward or the avoidance of punishment." This not only screws with the "generative order of consciousness" but generates violence: the denial of the freedom of creative states of mind "brings about a pervasive state of dissatisfaction and boredom. This leads to intense frustration..." and deadened senses, intellect, and emotions, and the loss of a capacity for "free movement of awareness, attention, and thought." (I've been thinking back and forth about signing up with Patreon all week...)

A lot of thought went into this book. Reading it gave me a nice feeling of texture and struggle. It felt like good exercise for the mind AND the heart. Over-earnestness, a vision of the beyond, struggling with language — I can sympathize. 

As usual as I was reading I couldn't help but think more diagrammatic thinking would have helped, and not just thinking—more actual diagrams would have helped. I guess that's what the cover artist Andresj Dudzenski was trying to get at with the flower, cubes, etc. But the cover artist and the writers are using different metaphor-schemes, as far as I can tell. I don't remember any of those sorts of things (such as shaped holes and pegs, flowers or magnifying glasses) appearing inside the text.) Relatively speaking there are actually quite a few illustrations—fractals and geometric figures, and even the Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Rembrandt and some JW Turner. 

But how about a sense of humor, an ironic sense? This book is pretty dry. Here's a sample of the writing: "Thus, if there are rigid ideas and assumptions in the tacit infrastructure of consciousness, the net result is not only a restriction on creativity, which operates close to the "source" of the generative order, but also a positive presence of energy that is directed toward general destructiveness." It's true, but it's not exactly powerfully written. In the end, though, it's hard for me to hold this against a book so dedicated to making clear this vision of reality which makes humor and compassion possible at all, by "operating close to the source of the generative order" in a spirit of openness and creativity.



Near the end:
Consider, for example, a hypothetical individual whose consciousness had been "cleared up" both in the individual and the cosmic dimensions. Although this person might be a model of wisdom and compassion, his or her value in the general context would be limited. For because of "unconscious" rigidity in the general infrastructure, the rest of humanity could not properly listen to this person and he or she would either be rejected or worshiped as godlike. In either case there would be no true dialogue at the social level and very little effect on the vast majority of humanity. What would be needed in such a case would be for all concerned to set aside assumptions of godlike perfection, which makes genuine dialogue impossible. In any case, the truly wise individual is one who understands that there may be something important to be learned from any other human being. Such an attitude would make true dialogue possible, in which all participants are in the creative "middle ground" between the extremes of "perfection" and "imperfection." In this ground, a fundamental transformation could take place which goes beyond either of the limited extremes and includes the sociocultural dimension.

Incomplete Nature by Terrence W. Deacon

(Cross posted from my

bookblog

.)

(I read this book while at the same time reading 

Dynamics in Action

 by Alicia Juarrero. I finished Deacon's book first. I decided to read them together, because Juarrero has formally accused Deacon of plagiarism. You can read about that 

here

 and 

here

. Read the comments on the latter for more. Anyways I'm trying to get my head around the ideas first.)

Daniel Dennett's 

review

 from last December is a good place to start. There are many other reviews of this book around the web, so I won't struggle too much with trying to summarize the ideas. I got a big kick out of reading Deacon's other book, Symbolic Species (

link to my write up

). That book was about the dialectical co-evolution of language and the brain, and this newer book (2011) is in a way about the co-evolution of self-organizing forms. Both of these books seemed very "dialectical" to me, but I honestly still don't know if I'm using that word correctly or if I'm only using it in my own private way. Anyhow the idea is that as simple material forms work through their thermodynamic changes they can come together in mutually supportive ways to create new meta-forms (like what happens with crystals or whirlpools), which can then combine to form more complex forms-of-forms-of-forms which can be said in a extremely primitive way to look after themselves, to work to persist in their current arrangement of forms, and to reproduce and evolve. Deacon calls this primitive life-form an "autogen." (Juarrero sometimes uses the phrase "structured structuring structures" which I guess she got from Antonio Damasio.) It only really exists in theory, but his point is that it's not a totally crazy idea that something like that could have come together billions of years ago on Earth. It doesn't violate the laws of physics.

I associate this kind of "leveling-up" or differentiation with dialectics. In 

Symbolic Species

 the 3-part dialectic you needed to get your head around was Charles Peirce's icon > index > symbol. In this book, there's another nested 3-part structure: thermodynamic > morphodynamic > teleodynamic. (Peirce again makes a few cameos here.) The complex lifeforms we know and love evolved after billions of years of teleodynamic activity. There are also difficult chapters that discuss the concepts of information and work in terms of this dialectic.

Deacon discusses how in theory this dialectical geometric logic could unfold in simple material systems, and then towards the end discusses how this logic can apply to what we know about brains and consciousness. The sections on brains were of course what I was interested in. They felt intuitively right to me, for what it's worth, and the parallels with Buddhist ideas were obvious and exciting to see.

He argues against the idea that consciousness and life are to be understood in merely linear terms, such as mechanism/function, or information/computation. Instead we should pay attention to how life emerges from forms of thermodynamic and morphodynamic energy flows which use geometrical arrangements to pit physical processes against each other in order to perpetuate far-from-equilibrium structures. Thus new formal arrangements become new efficient causes. The parts affect the whole, the whole affects the parts. As new arrangements of forms persist, new possibilities arise for new systems and relationships between forms to emerge, and as these affect the ability of the sub-forms to survive and reproduce the new meta-arrangements persist insofar as the sub-forms which support them are selected to perpetuate them. Wholes support parts which support wholes. In this way forms "level-up" into new meta-forms (these are my words for thinking about it). Once these forms (which at this point are no longer merely material, but are self-perpetuating forms-of-forms, and so exist as it were in the spaces between matter, and are "absential" (to use one of Deacon's many neologisms)) found ways to use the patterns of DNA and RNA molecules to integrate different areas of themselves they got really good at generating different architectures for staying alive and reproducing. At this level the material form of the organism is in a sense beside the point—the point is the whole dynamic arrangement of self-perpetuating form (which is parasitic on matter but also paradoxically independent in the sense that it is a dynamic matter/form combo, "more than the sum of its parts" at any one moment, emergent and absential).

A lot of this is standard evolution stuff, but what I guess Deacon is saying is that the important thing is to follow the formal logic of nested spiraling yin/yangs of presences and absences all the way down to the basic level of thermodynamics and back up again in order to see how life and consciousness are best understood in terms of a dialectic of dynamic processes. The higher levels at which information and function and consciousness seem paradoxical only make sense if you take into account the whole multi-dimensional dialectic of presence and absence.

So did Aristotle nail it? All four causes are accounted for and back in action. There's a lot of discussion of Aristotle in this book and 

Dynamics in Action,

 which I look forward to finishing. Greek science's turn toward the timeless and mathematical and away from the contextually embedded narrative description is a big issue in that book. What about Lao Tse? "Clay is fashioned into vessels but it is on their 

empty hollowness

 that their use depends.” (Deacon quotes this too.) Deacon also discusses the "discovery" of zero as analogous to what he is trying to say about absential "things." (More often he uses the word "ententional" to refer to these absent forms that make a difference. I don't think that word is going to catch on.)

I haven't mentioned how difficult to read this book is yet. It's not super bad, but it's pretty difficult. He coins a lot of new words, which normally I'm fine with, and even wish more writers would do, but other reviewers have felt it was a bit much. You need to have a pretty basic understanding of physics and biology. I'm no master wordsmith but I couldn't help but feel at times like he could have explained things more clearly and that he was making it more difficult than was necessary. I'd love to take a crack at diagramming or drawing comics about the ideas in this book and Juarrero's book. Deacon throws in a few diagrams, but it seems to me like visualization would really help. Saying "figure/background reversal" over and over doesn't quite drive the point home without an illustration, like one of 

these

.

Notes on Couch Tag



Couch Tag
by Jesse Reklaw
-In this book there's a lot of pain and chaos in Jesse's memory and in his family. He uses an ironic scheme to organize the story of instability--playful, peaceful objects like games and animals and toys. On another level, in the book there's the thing where you try to figure out who you are in relation to the Others you bounce off—family, friends—and who shape you, and it feels like he's trying to triangulate himself in relation to these other people. It can be a difficult process in the best of times, but especially when your family has troubles. As you grow older you try to figure out yourself in relation to abstract ordering schemes you read about, like in comics, philosophy, or what it means to be an "artist." In the "Fred Robinson story" the friendship and creative collaborative relationship between him and another guy grows organically around some arbitrary organizing devices, and it seems like those were good times. Late in the book he twice tells anecdotes in which there are organizing schemes which lead to him taking the position of “nothing” (in psychological testing + Greek numerology) or adopting the nickname "Nothing." This instinct to sublimate life into metaphors and symbols is responsible for the book itself, and is a recognition of new possibilities for coping. In the final story he uses the alphabet, and his calm, quiet—almost too quiet—cartooning style gets noisier and frantically layered. There's this feeling like the manic energy is straining to break through the ordered arrangement of the comics grid and the storytelling devices. I'm not sure how to read that change in style, in terms of what it is an expression of. [later addition: looks like it's arthritis.] It threatens to bring the whole house down around it, or become something other than an orderly comics page. It’s a fun style to look at, in the sense that there’s a lot of new psychedelic levels through which to look at the panels, but I don’t think you want to go too far down that path, or else the comic as a readable balance of mark-making and symbol will start to break down. There’s a lot of energy hidden, pent up, in Reklaw’s older normal “square” cartooning style, and it’s starting to bust out and become unpredictable, more like he is in person. 
xposted from my bookblog 

Trees of Life (2/2)

Another thing I liked about Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution is the chance to think about how representing evolution itself evolved.* What form does the evolution of forms take? etc. It's disappointing that the author didn't try to draw a tree diagram of the evolution of tree diagrams. That seems like a no-brainer. Also there is no attempt to find or discuss a tree diagram of the evolution of trees, which also would be the ultimate for xeroxing and taping to your office door if you're a biology professor.

It’s weird that animals are shown in “tree” diagrams. Seems insulting to animals. But, an animal diagram of trees? I don’t know.

I think books which survey a variety of forms should include at least one chapter to play around and suggest new possibilities and new forms, and forms of forms. Even if some ideas are kind of dumb, as above. But obviously I’m not just talking about making jokes. Editors may frown, careful not to go “beyond the scope of the book." It’s true that Trees of Life is already 350 pages, and I’m sure many interesting tree diagrams couldn't fit. But if you're going to draw attention to forms, systems, or formal systems, etc., with this kind of history or survey, it would also be valuable to take some space to experiment at this elevated, meta-level and scope out the boundaries of the territory and draw some sketches of what you see from up there.

The form that this book (which its author, Theodore W. Pietsch, calls “a celebration”) takes is that of a standard book with chapters, notes, a bibliography and an index. The chapters consist of brief commentary on a species of tree diagram, and then examples follow, crisply reproduced. I thought the text was interesting and to-the-point, but I also wish the book was more ambitious. Not to seem ungrateful, but it left me wanting more (see above). Again, space was probably the issue. Maybe a positive way to put it would be that it opens up a lot of possibilities.

The book begins by discussing the varieties of bracket diagrams used to show taxonomic relationships before the discovery of evolution, and then the development of varieties of tree diagram types, and on from there into boring-looking—but more densely meaningful—computer-aided trees which depend on DNA data and statistics. By the end of the book you’re very sensitive** to how the forms that diagrams take can represent and misrepresent the messy and complex reality of natural history, and you can’t help but be dissatisfied both with the limitations of ink-on-paper tree diagrams and of books.*** Obvously a 3D computer-generated tree that you could rotate and zoom in and out of would be pretty great, and it seems totally doable, too—something huge and editable with many nested hierarchies and expandable branches, like you find in mind-mapping programs.****

Other than the Quinarians, my other favorite type of tree diagram from the book is where the diagram-maker opens up the 3rd dimension. Examples are below. Dissatisfaction with the limitations of form is on display big time. I think this may be what separates us from the animals?—the working memory capacity to stick with a form and evolve it, moment to moment, sensitive to how changes of form affect functionality, or sensitive to the possibility of bracketing it or framing it or abstracting “up” or “out” to other levels, or into new dimensions, and enjoying all of this, as we enjoy a good story or a joke.






(I added arrows and highlights to show what's happening in this one.)





____

* This evolution-of-evolution thing is just one of those things you have to deal with if you’re going to read about evolution. No writer could possibly still think it’s a witty move? But you can’t escape it. Just be tasteful and don’t overdo it. I avoided a chance to say something about “pruning” tree diagrams later in this reviewthat’s just gross. (Also, the author’s name is Pietsch?! Leave it alone.) There are probably unavoidable meta-groaners in every area of study, and there’s probably a survey article in Cabinet or something.

**Not for the first time, hopefully.

***Very good, though, is the unfolding of animal and plant forms on Earth, which makes up the real subject of all of this.

****Dissatisfaction with the forms of printed-book-divided-into-chapters and mind-mapping apps is beyond the scope of this blog post. 

Trees of Life (1 of 2)


Here's one of my favorite parts of Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution:

"…the so called quinarian approach to classification that was embodied in the work of British entomologist named William Sharpe Macleay (1792-1840) but taken up almost immediately by others, principally Nicholas Aylward Vigors (1787-1840) and William Swainson (1789-1855) during the 1820s and 30s. They somehow came to believe that living things existed in natural groups of five, that such groups of five are naturally divisible into five subgroups, each subgroup into five sub-subgroups, and so on. Affinities among taxa formed circular chains…Quinarians were also convinced that similarities between taxa based on affinity as well as analogy could be indicated in the same diagram…"

Here are two examples of these diagrams (check the pentagram…evilution): 




Another quinarian, “…Swainson devoted several years to the development of a new general classification of animals based on quinarianism, applying it, for example, throughout his two-volume Natural History of Birds that appeared in 1836 and 1837.” Imagine spending years on this. Imagine those wonderful days when everything seems to fit, and the frustration when they don’t. Notice, in the diagrams above, that three asterisks were placed where taxa that "had yet to be discovered.” The “ ule of five” predicts them, so they must be out there somewhere. 

Looking for patterns, can't knock it. It's not like they were numerologists or anything. And they were def. way smarter than I am. I’m sure this played out differently in reality than the Borges-lite story in my mind.

The questionable pattern I see reminds me of this post at waggish, the part about Fludd vs. Kepler: 

“I too play with symbols and have planned a little work, Geometric Cabala, which is about the Ideas of natural things in geometry; but I play in such a way that I do not forget that I am playing. For nothing is proved by symbols; things already known are merely fitted [to them]; unless by sure reasons it can be demonstrated that they are not merely symbolic but are descriptions of the ways in which the two things are connected and of the causes of these connections.” (Kepler)

Here's the good part. Why 5? Why not 6? or 9? “…As the approach developed and became more widespread, some proponents of circle arrangements were not content to restrict the number to five.” You can see where this is going... 

Here are diagrams based on numbers 7 and 10:

2011 Books of Earth

^ loved reading

# did not like


FICTION

The Great Gatsby ^

by F. Scott Fitzgerald


Swann's Way

by Marcel Proust


Game of Thrones ^, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords ^,

Feast for Crows, Dance of Dragons #

by George R.R. Martin


The True Deceiver

by Tove Jansson


The Pale King ^

by David Foster Wallace


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives #

by David Eagleman


The Metamorphosis and other stories

by Franz Kafka

(Sammy Harkham edition)


The Looking Glass Book of Stories ^#

by Various, ed. Hart Day Leavitt

Also: New Yorker stories, and misc. short stories in collections which I didn’t finish.

The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt


Obviously the list is short this year because George RR Martin dominated with 5 giant books. I’ll admit that I loved escaping into the unpredictable and empty plotlines, but I wish I had spent a lot of that reading time on better, meatier stuff. They’re candy. But it was easier to read these books while I was in the middle of Ganges #4 and in the hangover period after than to read more demanding books; it can be dangerous letting something rewire your brain in the middle of a big project. That’s what I told myself. Still, I wish I had read more Proust or Kafka instead. (Did not like the show.) Sisters Brothers is a weird western -- very fun to read, you'd like it.



NONFICTION

Emergence

by Steven Johnson


Pulphead ^

by John Jeremiah Sullivan


Moonwalking with Einstein

by Joshua Foer


The Memory Chalet ^

by Tony Judt


Moby Duck

by Donovan Hohn


Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline ^

by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton


All of the books in the nonfiction category are more or less recommended. (Lousy abandoned books are not listed.) I learned a lot. I finally Moonwalking this after an article by Foer first introduced me to the idea of memory palaces in an article back in 2007. I've been obsessed with the idea and the meta-idea ever since. Memory palaces was a theme this year: Tony Judt used memory palaces to help him compose the essays in The Memory Chalet, which are wise and moving. This may be the first year in a while that I didn’t read anything about climate change — a conscious choice -- though Moby Duck was somewhat eco-apocalyptic. Cartographies of Time is great. I knew when I saw Saul Steinberg in the first few pages that it was going to be great. I can't recommend it highly enough, if you're interested in that kind of thing.



SELF HELP

The Creative Habit

by Twyla Tharp


Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection ^

by John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick


Find Your Focus Zone #

by Lucy Jo Palladino


My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey ^

by Jill Bolte Taylor


Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware

by Andy Hunt


The self-help category is comprised of books I found at the library when I’d wander around on a break from writing or drawing. The self-help section at this library is huge, many times the size of, say, the painting section. I got a lot of help from Loneliness — one of the most significant books of the year for me. My Stroke of Insight taught me (finally) to understand and begin thinking in the right/left brain model. Creative Habit and Pragmatic Thinking also both have a lot of good stuff in them. There were some lousy books too, but those aren’t listed here because I barely read them. You can tell pretty quick with this type of book whether it's going to be good or not. Focus Zone is listed because I actually read it, and it was somewhat helpful, even though it wasn't very special.


IDEAS

What Do Pictures Want? ^

by WJT Mitchell


On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion ^

by Gabriel Josipovici


The Book of God: A Response to the Bible ^

by Gabriel Josipovici


Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? #

by Leszek Kolakowski


The Grand Design #

by Stephen Hawking and Leon Mlodinow


What Technology Wants

by Kevin Kelley


This blog post here got me to read two books by Gabriel Josipovici, for which I’m very grateful. They’ll be with me for a long time. I had read WJT Mitchell’s other books in college (I have re-read Iconology, though — 3 or 4 times!) and one day I was like, “oh yeah...what is he up to?” I really enjoyed the riffing and thinking in What Pictures Want (2004), and recommend his work to any intelligent comics reader who likes thinking about the nuts and bolts of these things, or really anyone who likes thinking and reading. What Technology Wants was a good sprint through a generally optimistic argument about technology, and humanity, but it was maybe too optimistic for me. A lot to chew on. I'm going to have to think more about it before I figure out what I think. The Grand Design didn't really grab me, and Why Is There Something was an unremarkable intro to philosophy.


* * *


In terms of pure reading enjoyment, for me The Great Gatsby was #1, followed by Josipovici, then WJT Mitchell. Proust and Kafka are in their own category of, I don’t know, “the sublime” or something. Other books, like Loneliness or My Stroke weren’t masterpieces but did teach me big ideas that will probably stick with me and improve my life (“technologies!”). I liked Cartographies and Book of God so much that I bought them after reading library copies.


Many of these books were found at the library, either on the book sale shelf, or just browsing around.


I started a few other books that I never finished -- you know how it is. Maybe next year. I'm not listing comics or graphic novels because they should get their own post, as should Internet reading. (Also, for the record, I'm not listing the research reading I did for various projects.)

____

UPDATE 1/1/12: It just occurred to me that the title What do Pictures Want? contains a play on the word "want" (desire/lack -- Mitchell points this out himself several times), but What Technology Wants does not contain this double meaning, and reading that book you can see how it couldn't. I'd love to see Mitchell review and play with the ideas and ideology of Kelley's book.


Also, I had somehow forgotten about Cartographies, so I added that.
____
UPDATE 1/7/12
Forgot Sisters Brothers!