Completely Unreasonable

9780262019354Sitting in my big comfortable chair, I feel as though I’ve traveled several million miles since I started reading Noson Yanofsky’s new book, The Outer Limits of Reason. When I measure the distance from the comfy chair in the family room to my bed (where I read several chapters) and to my office (several more), I suppose I walked no more than 100 feet (round trips included). I think I started reading the book on December 30 and I finished it today, January 5—a week, pretty normal for an interesting book. Actual distance traveled, book in hand: 7 days x 1,600,000 miles per day for a total of about 11 million miles. How did I rack up so many miles? While I was sitting in my chair, reading in bed, or listening to music to accompany several chapters in the office, the earth never stopped moving. We tend to forget that part of the travel experience because, well, everything’s relative. We tend to think that we’re pretty much stationary in space, in a fixed position of some kind, but of course, we’re not. This is not new information: we’ve known this to be true for more than a century (thanks to Albert Einstein).

170px-Yogi_Berra_1956Somewhere between Yogi Berra (“half the lies they tell about me aren’t true”) and the goofiness of language (“This sentence is false.”), Professor Yanofsky, of Brooklyn College, runs through thought experiments at the edges of reality and reason. One of my favorites (which may be familiar) is the ship of Theseus, which won many battles and was therefore allowed to linger in the port for hundreds of years. Over time, it began to rot, so the good people began to replace rotten planks with new ones. That way, they figured, the ship would last longer. Reconstruction and restoration were, and remain, common practice, but the ship, and the practice, raise some questions. With each each new plank, a portion of the original ship, rotten though it may have been, disappears. In time, most of the ship is composed of new planks, so it’s reasonable to wonder how much of the old ship still exists. Eventually, the answer may be none at all. Of course, this is about more than decomposing ships. Are you the person that you were a decade or three or more decades ago? Natural processes suggest otherwise: your brain, your blood, so much of each of us is naturally replenished. on a regular basis (doctors and other practitioners may add, delete, or replace more).

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Oxford Mathematics Professor Marcus Du Sautoy explains the Monty Hall Problem on YouTube.

Breezing through Zeno (Achilles and the Tortoise), Monty Hall (why you should change your mind when making a deal), and The Traveling Salesman problem (where computer or logical routing becomes an impossibility), Yanofsky pursues progressively more mind-bending stuff. Again, some of this is likely to be familiar if you follow this sort of thing: The Butterfly Effect, which abbreviates “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” (not exactly, but probably, sort-of). There’s quite a bit, well-explained, about the strangeness of quantum mechanics (that is, unlike the observable and more easily measured physical world), also not new anymore.

An internet place to explore tiles and other interesting things to make and do.

Click on the pic to visit an internet place where you can explore tiles, and see what people have been making in extraordinary ways.

I’ve always been taken with tiling problems: the shape of tiles that can fill a large space with only adjacent edges between shapes. Of course, a square is perfect for this sort of thing, and so, too, is a hexagon, but pentagons and circles don’t work at all (you need to fill in the blank spaces with other shapes). I had never seen the Myers shape, an odd solution to this interesting geometric design problem. (Thanks, Noson, whose childhood ponderings probably included palindromes.)

Much has been written about the relationship between mathematics and the universe, and Yanofsky summarizes this situation in terms that I could (mostly) understand. The fascinating essence: how is it that we, mere mortals living on this strange planet that is, mostly, inhospitable to human life (tornadoes, bacteria, extreme climates and attorneys  [his humor]), manage to develop a language based, mostly, upon numbers and calculations that somehow manages to explain so much of how it all works. When mathematics and science fail to explain the natural world, or present conundrums and paradoxes (for the correct plurals of these words, consider this from the Guardian), Yanofsky becomes interested, and offers the right illustrations to begin the conversation. Sometimes, there are formulas (too many, in fact), but I’d suggest that you skip past the Stephen Hawking “dictum that every equation halves the number of readers” and simply do your best to navigate the sections that are mired in equations and symbolic logic; the book can be easily enjoyed without fussing over the likes of p(A^~ C) ≤ p(A^ ~ B) + p(B^ ~ C).

So is all of this mathematical musing without much of a point? Or is he flirting with the true nature of the universe? I suspect he could speak eloquently about the former, but in the end, he may conclude the latter. After carefully defining reason as “the set of processes or methodologies that do not lead to contradictions and falsehoods” (why not “or falsehoods?), he italicizes this important idea: we human beings already live beyond reason. He goes on:

Our minds do not live in a world of stones, carbon-based life forms, and molecules following habitual laws of physics. Rather, we have feelings and emotions that are not dictated by reason and logic. We have a sense of beauty, wonder, ethics, and values that are beyond reason and defy rational explanation…In this sense, every one of us already transcends the bounds of reason.”

So here’s the ultimate paradox. A man spends his career thinking about, and teaching others, about the intersection of mathematics, science and reason, then writes a very good book about the success and failure of that way of thinking, then decides, on the final pages, that the edge of reason has nothing whatsoever to do with mathematics or science. Instead, it’s the soft stuff that defines the edge of reason, the ideas that cannot be quantified or measured. Not now, at least. Maybe someday.

Steve Evans from India and USA. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Photo by Steve Evans. Permission: (Reusing this file: Creative Commons
attribution. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

The Triple Revolution

I think I prefer that name to the simpler Networked: The Social Operating System by Lee Rainie, who runs the Pew Research Center for Internet and American Life, and Barry Wellman, a professor who runs NetLab in Toronto. The triple revolution is easy enough to understand: we’re living at intersection of three significant changes in modern life:

  1. Social networks, which encourage connections between people regardless of their physical location
  2. The widespread availability of the internet, which provides a never-before-possible power for information access, and transmission and reception of messages in every medium.
  3. The mobile revolution has transformed digital devices into “body appendages” that allow “people to access friends and information at will, wherever they go…”

These trends define the new space in which we live, and, armed with both the necessary research and a knack for explaining a wide range of interlocking ideas with clarity, the adventure begins.

NetworkedProfessor Wellman’s work helps to make the case that the old idea of groups has become the new idea of networked individuals. At first, the distinction may seem, well, academic. Then again, consider the number of people with whom you interact every day or every week. If you lived in, say, Europe of the 1800s, most of these people would share proximity, language, culture, friends, family members, transportation routes, and more. Today, those ties are not fixed in a group. Instead, the connections are more fluid, more varied, more precisely defined by the individual and not by his or her membership in a group. Boundaries are permeable. Connections may or may not be long-term. Something’s lost here in terms of long-term friendships and relationships with family members (some or many may no longer live nearby), and something’s gained in the richness of more diverse lives.

I remember working for a client named Steve, who carried his cell phone in a case the size of a lunchbox, and I remember working for a successful entrepreneur whose phone was built into her car’s dashboard, like a car radio. Both date back to the 1980s. At the time, not more than a few thousand people owned mobile phones. In fact, that first decade was slow going, but after 1995, the trajectory is very nearly a 45-degree angle, running uphill to over 300 million cell phones today, and more on their way. Fully 83% of the U.S. population owns a cell phone.

Those stats aren’t surprising, but the combination of internet growth, changes in our individual behavior, and the fact that so much can now be accomplished any time and anywhere sets up the story. Public and private spaces begin to blur–think about the number of people you saw on TV during the inauguration who were checking their cell phones. Nowadays, it’s perfectly acceptable to work just about anywhere–and the need for offices is beginning to fade, certainly for creative workers, and now, for many other types of workers, too. Companies are shrinking or closing their offices and instructing employees to conduct their business from home (in one case, a friend was told to “take the office furniture because it is no longer needed.” The authors consider the idea of “place-to-place” networks to be hopelessly old-fashioned; these days, it’s all about “person-to-person” networks. As family composition and roles have shifted (women working outside the home; household free time spend on digital devices; the individual activity of computing; a 25% drop in the average number of hours devoted to housework since 1965), we interact in different ways that don’t always connect generations effectively. For example, the authors describe a young woman who communicates daily with both of her parents while they complain that they never hear from her. What they want is personal touch. What she wants is regular contact. These are not the same, and as a result, there is conflict.

When attempting to explain the changed world of journalism, the explanations do not come so easily, in part because it is so very difficult to understand what’s really happening and why. With so many people writing and communicating on the web, in so many different ways, the old and traditional role of a reporter is difficult to outline in the new world. Where does credibility or experience or context fall? Do we perceive more value in a local person telling a story on the spot in, say, the changing Middle East, or an experienced reporter who provides the experience and wider view? What about people who comment on the work of the local observer or the reporter? Not all are pundits; many are simply trying to understand what happened by reviewing many sources and many stories.

And so the layers are applied, one after another. It’s not just that there’s a remarkable internet or an astonishing Wikipedia, and it’s not just that we’re able to access this material and respond to it at any moment from any location. It’s these phenomena mapped over a much-changed society and dramatically shifted individual behavior patterns. It’s all one large idea, and it’s time that we begin to think about these changes in a more holistic way. The data is here… enough of it to get the conversation started, anyway. And in this iteration, the writing and smart and the analysis is sharp. It was written about 18 months ago–one of the ironies of the book writing, publishing and reviewing process is that it takes more time than our triple revolution deems reasonable.

P.S. After I write each article, I search for pictures. My first search on the term “Networked” yielded a Wikipedia article that provided my evening’s dose of irony:

networked book is an open book designed to be written, edited, and read in a networked environment. It is also a platform for social exchange, and is potentially linked to other books and other discussions. Wikipedia is a networked book.

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