Thursday, August 14, 2008

Improvability and Impracticality

Originally the laws of chance and nature were attributed to gods whom we worshiped (and whom magicians still worship). We make sacrifices to probability hoping to gain its favor.

Eventually though people noticed patterns in the behavior of the gods and started working these patterns into scientific theories. We took two steps forward and one step back as scientific progress brought about an opposing idea: if there was no arbitrary god-rule then the universe must be ruled by a universal constant. An understanding of universal laws would allow manipulation of them. If one could simple know all of the information in the universe then one could be God. Kind of like Groundhog’s Day.

Chaos theory peeks its head in: a butterfly flaps its wings in Cairo and Hillary Clinton becomes senator of New York, but the same butterfly flapping its wings didn’t help her win the presidential nomination. The same initial circumstances don’t lead to the same results.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states the knowing the circumstances of the universe is impossible. According to the Uncertainty Principle, subatomic particles can never be accurately measured because observation of these particles influences them away from their natural state. The same goes with social dynamics: only an invisible outsider can observe natural social behavior. There goes our shot at becoming God: we can never know with certainty the universal laws. Bullshit in, Bullshit out.

Even though information is unobservable, quantum mechanics has been able to pinpoint particles in waves, imprecise measurements, not where a particle is but where it statistically is most likely to be. We’re able to know that the particle will be in either X, Y, or Z but not which specific place. But these states are interconnected so knowledge of X allows knowledge of Y and Z.

I remember…uh oh, she’s going to start delivering some boring vagina monologue again. Shut up and let me continue my blog. After Grant Morrison had finished Animal Man, the series was taken over by a writer whose name I don’t remember but should at least give the courtesy of looking up. _______ did an arc which introduced me to the thought experiment now known as Schrödinger's cat. Schrödinger's cat imagines a cat inside an opaque box with a lid on it with a radioactive isotope and a package of poison. One of two events can occur: the isotope decays releasing the poison and killing the cat or nothing happens and the cat is still alive. According to Schrödinger, until we look inside the box, we do not know which event occurred. Metaphysically, both events could have occurred, did occur and exist in a state of superposition (both events simultaneously occurring). Once the box is opened, the superposition dissolves and one event occurs. (I’m superstitious like this whereby if I’m having a bad day, I won’t check my e-mail; the theory is that if there’s a bad e-mail waiting for me on a bad day, the e-mail will transform into a good e-mail if I open it on a good day). Quantum mechanics has even stated that Schrödinger’s cat illustrates the concept of parallel universes: in one universe the cat dies and in another universe the cat doesn’t. (A movie that somewhat illustrates this concept is Sliding Doors which was on a few nights ago).

What happens is there is no universal constant but universals constants. We can measure the universe at a particular time and predict what it will be like at another time but an understanding of one moment in time doesn’t allow an understanding of every moment. The universe exists in constant superposition with probabilities shifting as soon as we observe them. How can we ever travel the road not taken?

To make matters worse, without universal constants, we run the risk of violating laws of conservation which states that information cannot be destroyed. Why not? Doesn’t it come to a natural conclusion that probability should erode the strength of circumstances? Back to the butterfly, why then is it that initial identical circumstances produces drastic results? Information erodes, reducing knowledge of the universal constants. I guess we can call this entropy or even worse, change…

Quantum mechanics has found that microscopic and smaller particles are highly subject to random behavior. In tightly controlled experiments in which all factors are considered and tested for, random outcomes still occur. Definitive outcomes are impossible, only probable outcomes according to statistical evidence. A cop out theory to explain microscopic randomness is the hidden variables theory (or theories) which states that various factors not evident in the procedure are changing the outcome.

British physicist John Bell did research on Hidden Variables and found them not to exist. I’m not a physicist but in my drug-induced paranoias, I’ve always found the divine monkey wrench in the form of an x-factor or unknown piece of information that screws everything up. What this means in scientific terms is that the universe may be ruled by gods.

Randomness does not necessarily disallow predictability. In a series of flips of a coin, the chances of heads will always be 50% with half of the flips yielding heads. Quantum mechanics allows prediction within waves, meaning statistical probability, while wave theory does not allow knowledge of a thing but does allow knowledge of things linked to a thing.

Randomness may simply be superstition and lack of knowledge. An event appears random because the observer does not recognize the pattern.

Philosophically, determinism states that there are no random events, only events so small that the un-attuned eye cannot see them. A good book to read on determinism is issue #4 of Alan Moore’s Watchmen entitled “Watchmaker.” Free will and randomness go hand in hand; determinism prevents free will or the theory might be that the complexity of social conditions makes the determinism unnoticeable – one thing leads to another as the song goes and social interaction is merely a timeline of imperceptible microscopic events. Free will is limited to microscopic events while larger issues are predetermined.

One might argue that a notably chaotic system is actually ordered because there is a sense to the system and the chaos is predictable. Organized chaos is a term often used to describe a messy room where a person knows where everything is but a stranger entering the room sees only a mess.

Chaos theory in itself arose mainly as a way of describing noise in formulaic systems. As Shakespeare wrote, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies, and exceptions to the rules, these more things, were soon acknowledged as valid parts and problems within any organized system. Magic could not be ignored.

Yes, we’ve all heard the stories of where chaos theory came from. Originally it was all about predicting the weather. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz used a computer to re-model a weather prediction. The computer when running the simulation rounded the mathematics off to the thousandth when the original numbers extended to the millionth. This small rounding-off created a totally different weather model.

Early chaos theory allowed and incorporated variations, believing that variations were constant influences that required planned over-compensations to balance out variables. Constant and consistent. Mathematician Benoit Mendelbrot, however, noticed that measurements became inconsistent according to the scale in which the measurements were being taken, reducing measurements and consistency to unpredictability.

The famous exceptions are fractals, objects that can be broken down into infinite identical pieces all maintaining the same dimensions, infinity within a finite space.

When looking at probability, it isn’t a factor of one but rather a factor of at least three variables:
  1. Environment and outside influences
  2. Initial conditions
  3. The system in which the “game” is being played
Not every system is chaotic, though. The system in itself needs to be incredibly sensitive to variations from its initiation condition, that is, there are many many ways to go after point A. In some situations, like the alphabet, A is always followed by B, while a standard word can have A followed by 26 variations, the complexity of the system increasing as the word develops. The above example of letters and words however can still be seen as non-chaotic because a chaotic system also needs multiple variables within the system that in themselves are subsystems reacting with other subsystems. Think about the weather: there is no such thing as THE weather but rather atmospheric systems overlapping with each other.

Simplistic systems can be apparently chaotic whereby the initial conditions can deviate from normal responses but the system in itself is not chaotic, only sporadic. This is the noise that chaos theory tries to address: the noise is not the system but a system can be noisy.

Determining the chaos of a system means simply a cross-comparison of the same system over the same distribution of time. In other words, look at the behavior of a tomato plant growing in your garden and then compare its growth to another tomato plant in which conditions are identical. Variations usually mean an error within the system but this error doesn’t stop the system from functioning or produce drastic results. Each tomato plant will develop along a similar route and to a similar result, that is, producing tomatoes in the end, regardless of conditions. The time table in this measurement is important in establishing consistency and subjectivity to initial conditions.

Look for what is chaotic and what is not.

Divination, in particularly, has always relied upon observation of random patterns within nature. In some instances, patterns are noticed in natural objects or events, in others, more elaborate procedures are set up and interpreted. With augury, the flight patterns of birds in their natural behavior is studied free of manmade manipulation. With alectryomancy, however, the magician intervenes more directly with the birds, either scattering feed before them to observe how the birds peck or in some cases burying the bird up to its neck and surrounding it with seed sigils to spell out words in the bird’s pecking behavior.

Randomness is seen as the ultimate fairness or objectivity, free of bias. But random acts of violence or shit happens is rarely seen as fair.

In gathering my thoughts together on probability in magic, the lottery comes to mind. Isn’t magic like a lottery? Magicians scratch off magical tickets in the form of spells or what-not in hopes of achieving some wild fantasy? The thrill of the lottery is rarely in economic gain but more in the indulgence of a short fantasy of winning. Isn’t magic the same, the belief of successfully manipulating the universe?

A good metaphor for probability and randomness and how people should react is gambling. Dice, in particularly, has become the universal scientific metaphor for the mechanism of the universe. “God does not throw dice” Albert Einstein argued: the universe follows rules and is not about a crap shoot. But chaos theory has proven otherwise.

In many cases, playing cards, for example, the randomness of gambling is accompanied by the skill in which the gambler handles the randomness. Many card games are entropic systems; each card that is pulled reduces the cards in the system. This can be detrimental because information is being reduced or it could be beneficial because the complexity of the system is being reduced as cards/information are being eliminated. Card games also require decisions based upon lack of knowledge of other components (the Uncertainty Principle).

The same goes with board games like Risk that use dice to simulate randomness within the rules of the larger game. What role then does randomness have in the overall board game of life (or rather Life, ha ha, fuck you)? Board games involve not just randomness but also strategy, value management, risk management, and diplomacy.

Many casino games, the slot machines especially, seem to rely on chance but are actually rigged. Slot machines are rigged to reinforce gambling behavior. A slot machine that never pays out will soon frustrate the gambler and the gambler will leave (not put any more money into the machine). If the slot machine pays off every so often, the gambler continues to put money into the machine not realizing that the input exceeds the output. (Inconsistent behavior is actually the strongest motivator).

Randomness can be beneficial because it leads to the introduction of new ideas. Evolution is a quick example which relies upon random mutant genes/memes. However, as mentioned in my previous blog posting, creative invention doesn’t often evolve spontaneously but rather spontaneously after formal understanding of the components of a system. Think about all those stars who suddenly became famous. They didn’t suddenly become famous; many had long unimportant careers that went unnoticed until randomness allowed their skills to be noticed. Others may argue that there is no chance and that success is the result of pure skill.

In a universe that is unbound by lack of rules and subject to the whims of the gods, how then can one act? In a universe in which information and knowledge of a system is constantly being eroded and obscured, how can one act with certainty?

Improvisation is a necessity in understanding one’s role in the universal moment. How is one to react at any given moment, in particularly unexpected moments? Is there anyone who hasn’t had a freeze up when confronted with something unexpected? Shouldn’t we work to prevent these freeze ups?

People who learn how to improvise show less anal retentive tendencies. They don’t have to be in control but can go with the flow. One learns to better evaluate and focus on what is going on in real time. Distractions are reduced. Information is processed more quickly. Decisions are made more easily.

Wow, I’ve moved from the scientific to the philosophical and now I might actually get practical:

Improvised Visualization: Find a partner, a group, or do it by yourself. Name a location and then as many items as you can that belong in that location.

Template Tennis: Imagine a conversation (either with a human being, an animal, an imaginary friend, the TV). The other side is providing information that can in some way be categorized. I just had a conversation with a woman about underground music. Your goal becomes to continue the game using the topic as a template. “We’re talking about underground music. What do I know about the topic, what can I add to the topic, or what questions can I ask?” You volley back your topic or question and prepare for the next template (when it changes). Oh, we’re talking about…!

Advance: Eventually a template grows stale and needs something added to it to advance the interaction. Randomness is used to evolve the topic. You’re talking about underground bands and the topic is getting stale: throw in the topic of sports and make a connection between underground bands and sports. Don’t ask the question “what sports does Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play?” but rather make the statement about Avril Lavigne and skateboards; perhaps she should water ski…

Either/Or: You’re given two options. Instead of choosing, take both. In some cases, this may be impossible. Make it possible. “Would you like to stay or leave?” “I’d like to be cloned so I can stay and leave and compare notes with myself later.”

Yes, And?: If asked a question, “no” will stop the conversation. “Yes” will continue it. “Yes, and” means that when asked questions, you answer “yes” and add more information to the initial question. “Do you like underground rock bands?” “Yes, but only if they perform underground like in wine cellars.” Like with Advance, this new information allows the continuation of the idea.

Homeric Epithets: Greek bards had a nifty was of improvising: they used catch phrases inserted into a specific meter. Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, performed using a hexameter or series of sentences composed of 12 syllables. Whenever he had a brain fart, he would throw in either pre-planned descriptions or use the demands of the meter to introduce new descriptions (“Oh, shit, I need another two syllables; I’d better describe Achilles as gold-haired Achilles!”).

Dozens: An exchange of insults or self-insults. Also known as “Yo Mama.” Insults and self-deprecation are talents that should be developed.

Partiman Tenso: A debate with oneself about a controversial (abortion) or abstract (love) idea presenting two sides of the issue. “Love is a wonderful thing.” “No, it’s not.”

Role-Playing: It’s easier to act and react when you’re not being yourself. Being yourself requires reflection; role-playing someone else, whether it’s your crabby teacher or a knight in shining armor, reduces the performance to black and white caricatures, easy directions.

Appropriation: Take something and turn it into something else. Appropriation might include: appropriation, steal someone else’s idea and use it as the basis for your own work; combines, creating shapes out of unusual objects (paper clip art); intervention, fixing or changing objects because you feel something is wrong with them (Star Wars the Phantom Edit tried to remove Jar Jar Binks; draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa); readymade, taking common place objects and putting them somewhere else where they are out of context or place (like a toilet in the middle of a park) or using them for another use (a bidet drinking fountain) or simply making an unusual combination of objects (a small birdcage containing a thermometer, cuttlebone, and 151 marble cubes resembling sugar cubes).

10 Fingers: Requires a partner. Each person holds up all of their fingers. Your partner asks a yes or no question/statements – “you have a cat", "you have never stolen anything", “you like cheese” – if the asker is incorrect, he puts a finger down. If a question is yes, he can put a finger up if needed. Take turns. First person with no fingers up loses.

3some: Requires a partner. You offer an imaginary object – a slice of cheese – and player number two has to offer a related object – a slice of bread – you finish the set with a third related object – a pickle. Restart the set.

Dissociation: Requires a partner. Start with a word and come up with as many words NOT connected with the word until a connection is made, at which the game re-sets. Example: cat, deodorizer, house, green, grass. Here we restart, because grass is obviously an association with green.

Letter Association (pre): Come up with as many things starting with a chosen letter within a 15 second period.

Letter Association (post): Start with a word and come up with another word that starts with the letter which the previous word ended with. Example: juice, eggplant. Can also be done with celebrity names.

Sing-Song: Requires a partner. Start singing a song that both players know. When you start to fizzle, the other player has to take over with a new song.

The following are some additional suggestions with a change in format. Instead of games, these are more general advices:

Don’t be philosophical: The more you open your life up to open-ended questions that have no real answers or solutions, the more you freeze your response system. The more you expose others to open ended questions, the more you freeze them. Mutual exchange becomes impossible. Ever have a kid keep asking you “why”? Better yet, don’t ask questions at all: make statements.

Give information: When talking with people, give them something to work with, even if they don’t catch on – a talented improviser will catch on.

Listen: Pay attention to what people say and look for opportunities to respond to.

Allow response time: Give your partner a chance to respond to what you say and do. Don’t just jump in and cut them off.

Get lost in the soon, not the now: Many people when interacting get caught in stasis; they focus on the now and end up with nowhere to go. I was in Wal-mart and saw a tattoo on a woman’s neck that read “Leo.” I asked her if the tattoo was her sign and if she had a birthday coming up. She said “yes” to both and we looked at each other confused because the conversation was a dead end. When interacting with people (or whatever), your goal is to always provide and gain information, to make a change in your position. Otherwise the back and forth is really just bouncing a ball off a wall.

In starting this entry, my goal was to examine various aspects and theories that deal with randomness, uncertainty, and probability. My ideas are strung together haphazardly with only a minor attempt to provide coherent transitions. My purpose got lost somewhere between the divine and the practical but I think I’ve been trying to make some commentary on how to develop skills in surviving in a random world. Hopefully in my next blog I can take the information here and develop it into something more workable and formulized.


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