Haircuts by children, my vanity.

Awkward stage.

Galen is getting his hair cut by a ten year old in a few weeks, as part of a performance about the segregation and disenfranchisement of children in society. An opportunity to trust the skill and style choices of a kid. I think this is a great idea for a performance and I’ve been telling a lot of people about it. (More explanation if you want it.)

I am not getting my hair cut. It turns out I am still terrified of bad hair cuts. I’m not terrified of no make up, belly rolls, showing cellulite in public, body hair, laundry day outfits, etc. But hair cuts, yes. I’m fascinated.

I had unflattering hair cuts that didn’t express my soul essence for about 13 years in a row, between my mum deciding I looked cute with a mushroom cut in grade 1, through a lot of small town $7 haircuts, through getting my friends to chop off my hair in grade 11 (somewhat better), through shaving it off in grade 12 (worse again), growing that out a bit (better again), and deciding to go to my grandmother’s hair stylist when I moved to Victoria. That was how much I knew about haircuts when I was 18. I thought the neighbourhood wash-n-set was the place to go for the punk rock haircut of my dreams. Granny’s stylist did alright as long as I kept it really short. It took me until I was about 20 to realize there were people who knew how to create a haircut on purpose, rather than just cutting to the approximate length and hoping for the best. My hair trauma is not helped by the coincidence that I was a giant nerd during pretty much the exact same time as the ugly haircuts. That photo shows me five minutes after having my hair cut and styled at some $10 Hair Hut type place at the mall in my hometown. It also shows me about 1 month into a three year stretch of on-and-off suicidal depression. COINCIDENCE? I’m joking about 50%. I could have used a hair mentor.

So. This haircuts by children performance may have cured me of my inner judgments about feminist environmentalists who won’t talk about reusable menstrual products. The shoe is on the other foot now. And even making that connection might help me sort out my hair terror. I had my share of menstrual shame and angst as a teenager. Maybe if I think about how I rearranged that, I’ll be able to rearrange my hair anxiety into something more in line with the rest of my values.

In the meantime I am telling a lot of people about these haircuts by children. So far I’ve prompted I think three people to set up appointments, one of them a stranger.

Unyeasted bread, quests.

Unyeasted breads have a deep, hearty, honest spirit with a certain substantial integrity. Dense and thick-crusted, they require a good bread knife for cutting and a certain endurance for chewing…

No matter how much I mentioned the dense, “bricklike” nature of some of these breads, still I received many letters from people wondering why the bread came out of the oven like a piece of building material. O.K., they are not to everyone’s taste, but some people really like this sort of thing: “How real,” they say, “How flavorful.”

— Edward Espe Brown in The Tassajara Bread Book, 25th Anniversary Edition

I’ve been finding a lot of inspiration in a particular kind of far-out food book. Not dietary inspiration; something like philosophical inspiration. Emotional inspiration? Attitude inspiration. The connecting thread seems to be authors who used to practice more extreme diets. Former vegans, former macrobiotics, former hippies. Some of these books have consistent ways of respecting radicalisms and moderations at the same time, finding another level of inclusion where you get the thorough, grounded ethics of radical thought without the isolating righteousness. I find myself re-reading bits of non-content like the introduction to a recipe, just for the tone or the attitude.

Does that Bread Book passage do any of that for anybody else? I know I’m reading the way I need to read.

This is helping me rename a personal communication quest that I’ve been naming and renaming for, I don’t know, fifteen years? My teenaged fixation was how to be honest and also nice (both in the sense of liked and in the sense of kind). Later it was how to have a critical analysis without alienating people who don’t. How to be compassionate without self-censorship. How to make space for differences without them being cast as disagreements or negativity. How to maintain boundaries without being judgmental. Consideration without passivity. Empathy without enabling. Belonging without conformity. How to make connections across differences. All of these draft mission statements have been discarded or modified, but I’m getting somewhere. I want to joke that it wouldn’t be hard to be both more honest and more kind than teenaged me, but that isn’t true. It has been hard!

Flipping through a chapter called Vegetarian Ethics and Humane Meat that kept me up late last night, I have totally failed to find a quotable section. I started just collecting words. “Much depends,” “life and death and life,” appreciation, reflection, mistakes, “not so easy,” “Plan B,” courage, “emotionally spent,” responsibility, “more directly involved,” experiments, clumsy, “I’m very curious,” “our memories diverge… isn’t memory funny?” Vocabulary for a big, thoughtful mess.

Who said that keeping up with fashion is the ultimate way to create anxiety? Connecting people in a big mess seems like the opposite to that. Seeking ways for many fashions to co-exist together is comforting and useful. So I guess that’s the communication quest for now. It must seem like this is too abstract to possibly be useful in my real life, but I bet I will refer to this in the next 24 hours, trying to explain a decision or action to someone. “It’s like the unyeasted bread! I know how to do this!”

Ernst Haeckel, categorization, sets of sets, primary colours, dog tv

Ernst Haeckel, Kunstformen der Natur

I fell into a bit of a well of naturalism and anatomy links, and ended up wanting to read Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, although I’m pretty sure it isn’t as critical or curious as I want it to be. One review quotes this tedious oversimplification as a “philosophical insight into the scientific and human impulse to categorize.”

“To have a concept… is to have its negation already in tow…. There is a class of things called ‘dog,’ and there is a class of things (quite substantial, in fact) that are ‘not-dog.’… Language and thought cannot really function without this most basic tool for carving up reality.”

Never heard of fuzzy continuums and the rewards of using them, I guess? Odd, since natural history museums are full of ambiguous specimens (two headed mutant dog, alleged dog-cow hybrid, newly discovered tentative dog, etc) that illustrate quite nicely the space between dog and not-dog. Sort of dog. Possible dog. Both dog and yet not dog. Natural history museums are pretty much ground zero for failed categorization schemes and fuzzy margins, sets that are more complicated than somebody was hoping they would be. Maybe the quote is just out of context. There are a lot of ellipses in there.

To balance out the sad saga of binary categories in science, I like to think about primary colours. These seem like a life-affirming, pro-ambiguity, scientific success. Primary colours are sets of colours that are chosen to maximize the usefulness of the spectrum between them. A noble, everybody-wins way to think about categorization, and also an easily visualized example of information organized into multiple overlapping continua. Wikipedia points out that “Any choice of primary colors is essentially arbitrary; for example, an early color photographic process, autochrome, typically used orange, green, and violet primaries.” Concrete! Maybe this is because colour science is so bluntly tied up in perception and perspective. It has to be aware of observer bias and intention, because it is about observing. My favourite bit of that Wikipedia page:

If a human and an animal both look at a natural color, they see it as natural; however, if both look at a color reproduced via primary colors, for example on a color television screen, the human may see it as matching the natural color, while the animal does not; in this sense, reproduction of color via primaries must be “tuned” to the color vision system of the observer.

I wonder how long it will be before someone makes a TV for dogs, with two kinds of pixels instead of RGB. Or TV for bees, with four kinds.

7 wrens, sets of sets

seven wrens

I was thinking about sets of sets when I came across this set of similar wrens, discussing the collections of identifying marks that make up a distinguishable bird species.

The same site has a lovely little discussion of preparing the mind to see birds.

Experts say that when we lose something, before we begin our search to find the lost thing we should picture the object in our minds. This kind of “visualization” causes the brain to do something wonderful. On the one hand, it appears to filter out many unnecessary sightings but, on the other, if something even remotely resembling the lost object comes into view, the mind seems to “jump” at it.

Power of pattern matching.

Jaron, wishing for crowd science

Digital Maoism Revisited lays out Jaron Lanier’s concerns that we don’t know how to build an open, optimistic kind collective intelligence. (I seem to have started collecting instances of people talking about The Age of Complexity.)

There is a third empirical problem to tackle, and it is the least comfortable. To what degree is mob behavior an inborn element of human nature? There are competing clichés about human identity: that we naturally and inevitably form into competing packs or that we would refrain from doing so if only we had decent gang-free peer groups in our teens. These theories can actually be tested. The genetic aspects of behavior that have received the most attention (under rubrics like sociobiology or evolutionary psychology) have tended to focus on things like gender differences and mating strategies, but my guess is that clan orientation will turn out to be the most important area of study.

I always find Jaron such a calm and polite writer, in contrast to the shit storms he occasionally stirs up around himself. I like this. “It is the least comfortable.” Such a considerate warning.

The vagina method of narrowing a thesis

Today I went hunting for influential works about death and dying on Amazon and got vagina-related deja vu again. Last time this happened I was reading hospice literature about rejecting the default role for dying people, and it was exactly like vaginal literature about rejecting the default role for women (or sexual beings, mothers, etc). Death is regularly compared to both birth and orgasm, so maybe my background in vaginas will be useful in more direct ways than I expected. Ha ha.

I joke about having a Bachelor of Vaginas, but I think I might start saying that more seriously. I did pretty extensive studying on the subject, but I’m starting to wonder if I may have also worked out a decent method for researching general, interdisciplinary sorts of topics, like vaginas or death. It makes me feel a little safer to realize I know how to choose books and papers to read, and how to make sense of them. Go team!

But more importantly (for me), All About My Vagina might be a workable machine for turning curiosity into thesis topics. As I’ve been telling more and more people about my indie thesis, I’ve become more and more aware of how painfully broad my topic idea is. What I want my death to be like, or how I’d like to deal with dying? That’s big, and too vague to be a real thesis topic. A book topic maybe, or a website topic, but not a new, exhaustive, academic contribution on a specific idea.

And yet, “all about my vagina” is exactly as big and fluffy a topic as this (I could call this project All About My Death, yes?) and I’ve managed to pull a specific area of expertise out of that website. Ask me sometime about women understanding ideal vulva shapes and forming body image in relation to their own childhood genitals.

I could write you 100 or more pages on it, with dozens and dozens of references including my own primary research. Except none of the primary research is actually rigorous, and I’ve never written out the whole document, because that’s not what I had planned to do with the vagina website. (What does a person plan to do with a vagina website? That’s funny.) So I think that project will stay a website, and not be any kind of thesis. But it could be, I think, in a pinch.

So here it is:

Method for turning curiosity into thesis topics using a vagina website.

  1. Post everything you know that is interesting or important
  2. Keep reading and investigating
  3. Post your new results and ideas
  4. People will ask you questions. A lot of them will be the same.
  5. Try to answer the questions. Research to find answers.
  6. Post the new results. Get more questions.
  7. Notice the things you can’t find answers to. They are thesis topics.

This strikes me as a Wisdom of Crowds type of method, where I’m kind of an aggregator. Hooray! I like thinking about complexity and information overload, and how generalists and interdisciplinary projects are useful to deal with that, so it’s kind of hilarious to see that it might work the other way, too. Complexity and crowd actions might be useful for dealing with generalism and interdisciplinary projects! (I only said kind of hilarious.)

This is the dawning…

This is a bit flaky, but I’d like to propose that we are living in The Age of Complexity. Not the information age, or the age of media, internet, connectivity or whatever, but the age of complexity. I think that’s the primary obstacle in modern problems and stresses: how to stop clinging to simplified half-truths and start understanding complex, interconnected systems. Naming the thing might help us to remember to figure it out.

Complexity— and how counter-intuitive everybody seems to find it— comes up everywhere these days: in media and internet, software design, urban planning, health, environmentalism, psychology, and anything that tries to organize a group of people. I think George Lakoff’s work with the Rockridge Institute, to provide priorities and frames for progressive ideas, is part of dealing with complexity, even though his books are about politics and linguistics, not systems theory.

I’ve been thinking about generalism and distributed knowledge for my independent education project, too, which just struck me as a sort of complex system of learning. Rather than specializing in a particular field, I’m trying to figure out what would count as graduate level work on a general problem (the topic so far is what I want my death to be like). And rather than hook up with a structure or institution, I’m trying to use a lot of small, independent resources. This pleases me more and more, because it suits how I think about information and the web, etc. (Is that called symmetry, when different levels or parts of a system have the same patterns?)

So. This is the link that finally put me over the edge, when I was catching up on Kottke today.

I wanted to ask a more general question: how can people stop needing simple stories, and what can we use instead? I remember, back when I first started making websites in the ’90s, when I first understood hypertext as an alternative to linear narrative, it seemed like the same idea that Kottke is looking at, up there, in the history of science. (How’s that for a hyper sentence, remembering things in the past and present? It seems accurate so I’m going to leave it.) My favourite websites are still the ones that use links as complex context, instead of in sequence.

All of this is just the last chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities all over again. That’s the chapter where Jane Jacobs describes the kind of problem a city is, and suggests that human knowledge needs new tools to understand organized complexity. The longer I live after reading that book, the more I can’t believe how many people haven’t read it, or how I hadn’t heard of it until I was 25. I come back to that book all the time, and it wasn’t even the first thing I read about complexity or emergent systems.

I think the reason Death and Life had such an impact on me might be because Jane Jacobs is so definite and concrete in that book— she really captures the “aha” of suddenly seeing patterns in chaos, of seeing the bigger, realer simplicity. She sums up the problem of cities in only four principles. Four!

The books I’d read before were much looser. Christopher Alexander’s pattern language for designing houses and cities has over 200 items. Godel, Escher, Bach never intends to sum up intelligence in a set of patterns, although it nearly does anyway. Jane Jacobs got her perspective down to a tight, efficient package, without simplifying anything. It’s inspiring.

There are more general introductions to complexity and emergence (like say, Emergence), but I would still recommend Death and Life as the essential tome on the subject. So far. I’m still learning.

Activist patterns

I posted this in a discussion about The Grim Meathook Future over on Warren Ellis’ new Die Puny Humans site.

I find all this talk of leaders and critical masses and movements fascinating. To my mind, everything keeps getting more fractured and more complicated and we can’t put it back in a nice tidy box. Simple, reductionist, comprehensible viewpoints only lasted until we built machines that could handle thousands of variables at once. Now look how many things actually have thousands of variables at work. Practically every news story boils down to “it had more consequences than we thought.”

I don’t think any kind of movement will gel. These problems are bigger than human minds can handle, at least the way we’re used to thinking. When, before now, have average peasants fancied they might figure out how to alter the course of every society on earth in this level of detail? I think progress will be about learning to deal with complexity, and not just the parts with catchy names like “emergence” or “the long tail.” Parts like “a land war in Asia” or “we’re all getting cancer.”

Lots of fields have formal techniques for dealing with complexity. “Scale later” in software, etc. I’d be really curious to collect similar patterns from activists or politicians.

Then I immediately thought of a bunch of possible patterns and places to find them. I’m going to post them here, before I go see to what degree my comment has been eviscerated by other puny humans. I can’t believe I said “practically every…” on the internet. Bring on the nitpickers!

These are mostly about compassion.

  • The Fog of War documentary about Robert MacNamara by Errol Morris talks a lot about understanding your enemy and understanding that war is very complicated
  • Cory Doctorow says, “If your popular revolution demands that we give up on popular entertainment it won’t be very popular.” I think that’s a big part of the problem facing environmentalism these days.
  • The Ethical Slut gave me a lot of ideas about getting what I want without imposing on other people, and about finding ways to collaborate.
  • Fernando Flores gave me ideas about using trust as a tool for change, and as a good partner for criticism. I wish his books weren’t so ’80s.
  • I’d really like to hear Heather Corrina’s ideas about patterns for activists, because she spends so much time and energy on activism.
  • Lots of people talk about 80/20 rules, but I like Umbra Fisk’s explanation best.
  • Women, Passion and Celibacy is really angry and ranty, but it had a lot of good ideas about doing without things, in this case sexual relationships. The author compared celibacy to vegetarianism, which actually blew my mind. I like to compare both those things to atheism, and reduced consumerism.

Long ponderous rant about simplifying the internet

I’m about to launch the next website in what will eventually be a sort of stable of websites that I publish. This one is a knitting wiki covering techniques, patterns, people, gear, etc., and linking the diverse partial references that are already online. In general, my vision for this stable of sites is for each to be a sort of calm at the center of a chaotic storm of information, a viewpoint on the fray, a simple starting point into the endless details.

It isn’t just me who is inspired to focus, filter, reduce. Simplify the information. Smaller, smaller.

FM publishing is doing a similar thing (but about 20 times sexier, with celebrity power): collecting individual authors and blogs into a “federation,” a reliable brand. FM Pub approved. One less thing to worry about.

And this Squidoo thing; filtering through expert “lenses” to find worthwhile content. Rollyo allows focussed, limited searching. RSS is about checking a bunch of websites in one place instead of all over the internet.

A Kottke discussion several weeks ago about the future of the web inspired a lot of comments about simplification, unification, resolving the chaos of the web and our million interfaces into some palatable, consistent format.

Is simplification a productive way to deal with overwhelming media? It feels defensive to me. Save us from the information!

I don’t really buy the possibility of simplification. When does anything get simpler? My icon for this impossibility is the closing chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities… Jacobs discusses the leap we need to make to thinking about complex systems in useful ways, and how everything from cities to medicine depends on it. Complex systems can’t be conceived of by scaling up a set of simple rules because there are too many interactions to keep track of, but neither can they be understood properly as broad generalizations because that misses the complexity. I wonder if some of this push to simplify the web is an attempt to make generalizations easier, and I’m wary of that. I want to find a way to engage with the overwhelmingness and know it for what it is.

But meanwhile I make these websites that collect and filter and editorialize the chaos? I guess that having a clearinghouse is not really a cop-out; it frees up energy to engage with the overwhelming media-soup in other, more useful ways. RSS doesn’t tend to reduce people’s information intake; it just makes it more convenient. It makes room for more.

A major reason that I like to do things manually on a regular basis is to get a feel for how much work is really being done. I go to individual websites instead of firing up Bloglines, I walk my groceries home. I don’t make jobs impossible by insisting on this approach, but I like to keep in touch with the inconvenient ways (yes, I know life gets a lot more inconvenient than typing URLs by hand).

When I walk instead of riding in a car, I keep a human perspective on my spatial surroundings. This is how long it takes a human to travel this distance. This is how big the space is compared to my body. Then when I drive or bike the same trip, I know how big the distance is, and how the vehicle’s capabilities compare to my body’s. I like having that perspective. It keeps me grounded.

In a similar way, I like visiting websites individually to keep a semi-human perspective on my informational surroundings. This is how many sources I’m reading; this is how much time I save by aggregating.

I’ve kind of run out of steam here without any new comment on businesses and projects that aim to simplify our interface with the internet. I’m just percolating. Hopefully something will pop out soon and I can make a website about it 🙂