My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been interested in the work of Stuart Kauffman since I first read about him 10 years ago. I have read his other book “At Home in the Universe” and so wanted to read this one. I find Kauffman very difficult to read, but worth the effort. This time I took notes as I was reading, which helped a great deal. Part of the reason I find him so interesting is that his books are, for me, a view into a mind on the edge of discovering something significant. I’m not sure Kauffman will actually discover whatever it is he is closing in on, but he’s barking up the right tree and its fascinating to watch him wrestle with his problems.

His books are a blend of hard scientific fact, his own studies, and his own speculation. He’s usually pretty good at identifying the difference but the way he switches between topics and draws parallels across widely differing disciplines can sometimes be hard to follow.

I really wanted to give the book 5 stars but can only muster 4. Kauffman starts strong but finishes weak. The last two chapters on the need for a global ethic and the value of calling the reinvented sacred “God” do not seem to follow from the rest of the book and seem a bit of a compromise. It would be a 3 if not for the flashes of genius.

Initially Kauffman explains emergence, both epistemoligical (emergent properties cannot be deduced from lower level properties) and ontological (emergence of real entities that are independent of their component parts). He compares this convincingly with the multi-platform argument for turing machines and goes on to argue that life is both ontologically and epistemologically emergent. He points out that life is probably platform independent having likely switched from RNA to DNA as the main carrier of genetic information billions of years ago. Then he argues that evolution is also platform independent operating on emergent features – genes that build complex organs like hearts that bestow advantages on individuals.

He goes on to define a minimal definition of life: self reproducing, bounded, having at least one receptor to sense the environment and able to perform one, or more workcycles. From here he builds a case for meaning and value , stating that Agency implies semiosis: Receptors detect “signs” the “meaning” of these are interpreted by the agent which then assigns a “value” and then “does” something. He claims that meaning, value and actions are ontologically emergent and therefore independent of their underlying implementation.

Kauffman spends some time explaining the difference between ordered and chaotic networks and how many naturally occurring networks seem to sit on the boundary between the two states where diversity of behavior and range of information = entropy can be maximized. He suggests that many familiar networks; the biosphere, the economy and individual cells are such poised networks that tend to maximize diversity.

Darwinian preadaptation is Kauffmans trump card. A darwinian preadaptation is one in which an existing adaptation proves to be a significant advantage in a new or changed environment. If ontological emergence is common in complex networks and these networks are poised to maximize diversity then Darwinian preadaptaions must be common. But darwinian preadaptations are not prestateable. They are emergent functions that can only be discovered in the context of the entire biosphere. This means it is hopeless to try to predict the biosphere. It’s not just a matter of being difficult and requiring a large amount of computing. It’s is literally impossible. You cannot even state the initial conditions let alone run the calculation.

And this then is Kauffmans new reinvented sacred, the unending and unpredictable creativity that is inherent in the universe.

He throws in a speculative chapter on mind and the quantum origins of consciousness and rounds off with two chapters on ethics and god which don’t really convince.

All in all rather scattered and difficult to read but brilliant non the less. This is the journal of a smart man grappling with discoveries at the edge of human knowledge. Kauffman tries to answer the question “what does it all mean” without retreating to religious mumbo-jumbo. He takes a stab at an answer that is both invigorating and hopeful..

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Catch 22 is a truly great novel, but it’s difficult to digest. I listened to the unabridged audio book narrated by Jay O. Sanders and I’m very glad I did. The book is arranged into 42 chapters each named after a character in the novel. These chapters contain many anecdotes about the characters and their lives in a bomber squadron on the island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy, towards the end of the Second World War. The book is not arranged in chronological order and many of its anecdotes and sub-plots are impossible to place on a linear timeline. There are a few key events and plot markers that help position everything but it gets pretty complex trying keep track of all the events and characters. The Audio book really helped in this respect. There is a lot of dialog in the book and the narration by Jay O. Sanders was excellent. His use of accent really helped distinguish between the characters and keep everything in its place.

Catch 22 is a satire of the first order it ruthlessly skewers bureaucracies everywhere through the use irony and paradox. Although set in the Second World War none of the characters really care about the wars progress. The higher officers care only about their own promotion and the men care only about their own survival. Catch 22’s “hero”, Yossarian, is “an intelligent person of great moral character who has taken a very courageous moral stand” – He believes the war is madness, he is surrounded, on both sides, by madmen who want to kill him and he wants no part of it. Yossarian’s struggle to wrest control of his own destiny from the machine is the central theme of the book.

Several satirical anecdotes from the book are so perfectly aimed that they are instantly iconic. The books title – Catch 22 – has obviously entered the language as the name for a bureaucratic paradox. Many other equally memorable themes are presented: I will be unable to look at an official form again without feeling the urge to sign it Washington Irving. Doc Daneeka’s “death” at the hands of paperwork has been relived countless times to lesser degrees wherever bureaucracies flourish. Mudd the dead man in Yossarian’s tent who cannot be removed because he died before he had officially arrived. The book is full of such delicious ironies.

While deeply funny catch 22 also contains many superbly observed descriptions of high emotion. Chapter 15 “Piltchard & Wren” Has an astonishing account of a bombing run over Bologna. Given that Heller was himself a bombardier in the Second World War this description has the ring of truth. Another deeply disturbing description is that of Snowden’s death which is alluded to early on and gradually expanded until it is fully disclosed right at the end.

Catch 22 seems to me both a great American novel and a deeply un-American treatise. Heller’s description of Milo Minderbinder’s seduction by laissez-faire capitalism and his inevitable decent into profiteering at the expenses of his own comrades is a damning indictment of the capitalism. When Milo bombs his own airfield in a deal with the Germans. Heller reaches his darkly satirical climax and makes his deepest cut into the American dream.

All in all this book makes it onto my top ten list, somewhere around the middle.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had no idea what i was getting into! All I knew was that this was the story of a mad captain hellbent on killing the white whale. I did wonder why it was such a big book with 135 chapters! Not so much a single narrative about Ahab and Moby Dick as an immersion course in the 19th century whaling industry, its practices, myths, and misconceptions, all interwoven with various stories, hung on the framework of Ahab and the great white whale. Of course, there are many subtexts, some of which I could pickup but many ran too deep and escaped me. Mostly I think my lack of biblical knowledge meant i missed out on many nuances of plot and motivators for various characters, not least Ahab.

I have several favorite chapters..

Chapter 32 Cetology – In which Melville describes the family tree Cetacea and how they are sub-classified. This is like reading a slow motion intellectual train wreck. At first one thinks this is merely tedious, then you realize it was written before the Origins of Species and it is not only tedious but also wrong. Then one tries to find something redeeming about the chapter, anything! In the end, for me, it highlighted just how overarching, and revolutionary Darwin’s achievements were. With one stroke Darwin caused this entire chapter of accumulated knowledge to become valueless except for the artistry of its construction.

Chapter 69 The Funeral – Melville describes the release of the whales remains after the oil has been harvested. He explains how other vessels spying the breakers around a dead whale would often mark the area as shallows or a reef. Thus for years afterward other vessels would avoid the spot. Melville suggests this is the whales ghost haunting the spot. This concept of a habit perpetuated long after the reason for it has gone is one I have come across many times but I’ve never heard it described so poetically. From now on it will be a whales ghost for me.

Chapter 92 Ambergris – I never knew…Yuck!

Chapter 119 The Candles – “Warmest climes but nurse the cruelest fangs” Now this is what I thought the book was about. Massive storms, men swearing oaths against nature. Ahab facing down the lightening.

and of course the last “Chase” chapters.

The Immortal Game

The Immortal Game, originally uploaded by Virtual Traveler.

This is a photo of a painting I commissioned from Blair Bradshaw last year. It shows the final crushing move of the Immortal Game, circled in red. I chose Blair because I have a print of one of his other pieces and had been to his studio so was familiar with his style. I thought he would do a great job of the immortal game, which I had been thinking about getting painted for some time. The piece is 5ft square and is comprised of 64 small square mini-canvases. Blair and I spoke at length about how to visually show the history of the game. I think he did a great job and am very pleased with what I got.

I have been experimenting with Python 2.3 andMySQL 4.0.13 recently and have been using a copy of my Movabletype 2.661 database as a sandbox. Before I started a spent a few minutes working out the structure of the database. This Entity Relationship Diagram is what I came up with. I expect version 3.0 of Movabletype is different, but just in case anyone else is digging around in Movabletype and could use a map here is a pdf version.

Moveable Type Entity Relationship Diagram

I have not included the “MT_” prefix on every table name or the table name prefix on every column but otherwise I think its accurate. The guys at Six Apart seem to like using surrogate keys and then denormalizing them. Surrogate keys are worthwhile if you want to optimize joins but they seem to have been introduced where they will never be used in a join (the placement table for example). Also the denormalization of keys (blog_id on the comment table for example) seems a bit pointless given the small size of the system. The average blog is never going to have a significant number (>50,000) of entries and I’m pretty certain performance will only be marginally improved for such low volumes. Unless they are using this same model for Typepad in which case it might be worthwhile. The only valid reason I can think of for this kind of denormalization in such a small system is to simplify the sql. Mysql does seem fairly limiting – no support for sub-queries etc, so maybe that’s why they did it. Anyway let me know if I got anything wrong and I’ll correct it.