Archive for March, 2007

resonance and change

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Saw this message on my way to work and it reminded me of something Allison Okamura – a mechanical engineer and computer scientist with a focus on Haptics at Johns Hopkins, told me concerning the physiology of grasping and holding.

Upon taking something in hand an interesting pattern of clenching, relaxing, sensing the object slipping (via the ridges/folds on the walls of an organ called rugae, in this case the organ is our skin, the specific location the fingers and hands), then clenching and relaxing, sensing the slippage, repeat, until we no longer wish to hold on to the object any longer.

It occurs to me that much of our nervous system functions along the same line – we respond to changes in state, and if there are either no observable changes in state, or if the changes in state become either noise or a drone (a pattern of change that doesn’t vary) then we don’t notice them.

So, “it” whatever “it” is, is “there” (experienced), because it “bothers” (or calls attention to) us.

So, “it” is an experience of change, and depending on other variables “it” can be: time, love, hunger, art. “it” is a quality of change, and our bodies are dynamically and persistently linked, and a participant in, these fluctuations.

I remember reading something by Dr. John C. Lilly where he mentioned that after prolonged time in a sensory deprivation chamber subjects would emerge without a sense of their name, age, where they lived, etc., and it was only after about thirty minutes out of the tank that this information returned to them.

To me, this indicates that who and what we are is the result of a persistent coupling, a pinging, of the environment that occurs, metaphorically, with each heartbeat – as if “we” are periodically dissipated and reassembled, and the resulting self is always dependant on the fluctuations of whatever we share our space with. The probability that the majority of the dissipation/reassemblage cycles among all of the elements within our environment will have a consistent quality that we experience and express as: time, history, identity, etc… persistence = resonance, in other words, and resonance has specific qualities that we term: time, history, identity, art, love, etc. Perhaps…

The point is that some graffiti I saw on my way to work made me think that we live in a dynamic environment comprised of degrees of change whose forms and experiences seem may be based on probability and a resulting resonance.

Julian Barbour, in his book the end of time, refers to our environment as configuration space.

Decorum, Metaphors, and the Social Construction of Reality

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

A friend of mine’s brother, Tim, has some phobias.  One of them is about stairs and escalators.  When anxious he refuses to use them.  My friend (Bea) often asks her brother to let her know if he’s feeling uncomfortable. He seems more willing to express his phobia verbally, and in advance of encountering stairs/escalators, when they are alone together.  Surrounded by strangers, like at a mall, he seems unwilling to tell her he’s feeling anxious, choosing instead to wrestle the anxiety on his own.  He often loses these contests, and an awkward, public moment of ‘aberrant’ behavior ensues.

 This has happened enough so that Bea has been able to observe and note both Tim’s behavior/response and the public’s behavior/response.  She characterizes both as ‘crude’ and ‘awkward’.  Tim suddenly stops or pulls away from the stairs or takes a few steps and then retreats, won’t look at anyone directly (even her), and then refuses to talk about what is going on. The public, by and large, do nothing, or simply get pissed-off, scowl, occasionally mutter some things to themselves, and also avoid any conversation or dialogue (like, “are you ok?”).  Both parties seem to want to just get past the awkwardness as soon as possible while acknowledging that the experience was not acceptable, and have nothing further to do with each other.

 Bea tells me that she’d like to try to anticipate these episodes but feels like she needs more information in order to do so.

 To me, this is an side-effect of decorum (appropriate behavior) and illustrates how rules governing proper behavior have the effect of arresting our own potentials for more detailed understanding of experience.

 Tim is responding to and expressing aspects of the agora.  His actions and experience have just as much to do with him and with everyone around him, as they do with the design of the spaces where these events occur.  There is, potentially, a wealth of understandings waiting to be explored in regard to behavior and environment that might benefit a significant group of people.  Instead, we end up with seemingly pat, clumsy, and hopeless responses.  When neither Tim nor anyone else will spend any time exploring those awkward moments in situ, the events remain vaguely defined (and experienced) by grunts and grimaces, instead of understood, described and explored by nuanced language.  Language is, obviously, a major tool for sharing and learning.  When we lack the words to express ourselves accurately we tend to become individuated from the collective – segregated by our inability to share our experience and thusly disconnected from others.

 It has been said that metaphors are the tools of knowledge.  Think about how many metaphors you have at your disposal for so many aspects of your experience and how using those metaphors allows you to broaden your understanding and experience of countless aspects of your life.  Think about how your ability to express your experience is related to your ability to engage with, and connect to others; an essential aspect of the human experience.  When experience can be accurately represented it can be shared and can be a basis for mutual understanding and integration.

 Choosing to divide aspects of experience into acceptable and unacceptable (whatever that means) is one thing.   Not participating in the exploration of experience – direct, ‘real’, ‘first-hand’, experience like the episode described above, whether acceptable or not, is akin to arresting one’s (and one’s culture’s) own capability for intellectual growth and understanding.  Choosing a grunt or a scowl (or a ‘nothing’) in response to a complex public event involving another person in apparent trouble implies subservience to rules and regs over innate human empathy and curiosity.  Projecting this model forward, what sort of future do you imagine?

 We need better metaphors, and must work on developing nuanced expressions providing more accurate understandings of events and experiences we participate in to facilitate interaction with others. Such interaction inevitably fosters greater understanding and empathy, and often implies evolution and change.  The alternative is a developmental path (things change persistently, and our participation in this change has a palpable effect on the quality of our lives and on the forms our culture takes) of diminishing returns as we narrow our point of view and individuate from each other into a mash-up of misunderstood factions.

 Artists, Scientists, everyone thinks and models (as in builds things that embody key aspects of experience for the purpose of sharing and exploring them with others), and these models become discussion points that bring us closer as I, for example, find an aspect of what you’ve chosen to describe resonates with something true within me, that I haven’t been able to express, until now.

 I think about the areas of experience that I can readily discuss, and about the real but ill-defined aspects that I look forward to figuring out with you.  I imagine that if I accept whatever you express with empathy first, and judgment, if at all, later, we’re off to a decent start.

 Or maybe Tim could just medicate himself; apply a pharmaceutical on/off switch to any unacceptable behavior and smooth those rough patches, keeping us moving comfortably within a clear set of immutable parameters.

Tools for a Classroom of the Present

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

In a previous post I wrote about a few php scripts connected to an SQL database that produced a Class Tag Cloud where members of my class can anonymously contribute words or phrases while we dialogue, and the words/phrases they contribute end up projected on a screen for all to see. Words may be sent via phone or PC. The font size of the words/phrases are proportional to the prominence in the database, so, if someone contributes something to the class tag cloud and you want to emphasize the thought you would then submit the same word/phrase and that word/phrase would literally become larger on the screen.

Here’s a recent pic of the display:

I’m writing about this again because I’ve put it into practice lately and can report that it has been a valuable aspect of my classroom work, permitting the expression of notions, associations, and other ideations that tend not to bloom under the protocols of traditional classroom decorum – i.e., speak in turn, raise your hand, contribute proper sentences, etc.
While contributions to the class tag cloud do not have one specific, individual author associated with them I can’t call them strictly anonymous as sometimes it becomes clear who submitted them, and they have a agency within the group that, like their authorship, is shared. My experience tells me that this is understood by the class.

As an addition to the class tag cloud (which I do a screen capture of at the end of each class), last week I used Twitter and found it to be another valuable addition. The way we did it was that each class member signed up for the service and we all then took the time to issue the “follow_ x_ “ command for each classmate. At various times during our work the room fell silent as we were all focused on the sms flow around the group, then, one by one, the group became more vocal, and less twittered, and the form became more about speaking and tag clouding, and so on. It was, I think for many of us, a fine in-class experience.

For me, though, the magic occurred once class had ‘stopped’ and I continued to receive messages via Twitter from classmates throughout the week. The messages had a random quality but, as we’ve been discussing bohm style dialog and collective intelligence lately, the challenge of associating these messages as aspects of our respective and collective ‘here’ opened our work and class out in a way that I found beautiful. Twitter also provided the possibility and architecture for meetings (online and/or offline) to occur at any time, allowing the class to take a variety of forms throughout the week. Twitter also provides a method for students to let everyone know if they are running late, sick, near a store that has supplies that others may need, etc.

This experience with Twitter gave me the image of taking our Class Tag Cloud out for a walk – allowing us to know each other better, while exploring the relationship of environment to idea. I strongly recommend these tools and welcome your feedback.

Below are the scripts with instructions for the class tag cloud, they require the creation of a simple database table (in the examples below called ‘cloud’) comprised of two fields: ID (int, auto-increment, primary key), and Words (var chars, at least 25 characters long).


Here is how to make your own class (y) tag cloud.

    1. Create a database table (use PHP ADMIN or MYSQL wrapped in PHP, for example) called cloud with two columns: ID and words. Make ID your primary key, and make it an int, that auto-increments. Make words a varchars with a length of at least 25 chars.
    2. Create (or download below) a script called code.php. You’ll need to replace the ‘database_name’ in the scripts below with your database name (database name is not the same thing as the table name), along with your username, and password. If you make other changes (name of mysql table and/or columns for example, or if you change the names of the scripts below you will have to make changes within the body of the scripts to reflect those changes!!! Use search and replace to make things easier!
    3. When you first launch tag_cloud_input.php (input) you will see some errors because there is nothing in the table. Enter a word and the errors will disappear. To view the tag cloud open tag_cloud_display.php. tag_cloud_input.php is formatted to work on cell phones as well as a desktop.
    4. NOTE: the scripts below all work. I have commented out a lot of added functionality (principally a way to keep track of the most recent six words – on the input page I’ve boiled it down to the most recent three words, with the most recent in black, then gray, then white.) I’ve left the scripts as is, with the comments, in the event that you’d like to explore this history on your own.

Scripts for INPUT/DISPLAY>> You’ll need these two scripts (code.php and tag_cloud_input.php) to input words into the tag cloud, you’ll need the tag_cloud_display.php to display the tag cloud. When you first launch the input script you will see some error messages followed by a text input box and a submit button. This is normal as there is nothing in the database yet. Once you place a word in the database the errors will dissapear.