Cathedrals in Spain

November 21, 2008

Pancake people?

The image is arresting: Pancake people. Yum. Melting butter, syrup dripping off the edge of the plate, coffee, sausages, the Sunday paper cracked open, Dick and Jane playing with Spot on the front lawn… Such an attractive metaphor—W e are pancake people. Doodle a little face with chocolate sauce and dig in.

mount-mike3aOkay, this is not what Richard Foreman has in mind when he writes about his new play The Gods are Pounding My Head in Edge. (New in 2005; and new to me; ideas are eternal, right?) Rather, he has something perplexing to tell us. ‘Pancake people’ is being contrasted with ‘cathedral people’ and it is the thinness of the pancake that he is emphasizing, not the sweetness of the experience. We as a people, he suggests, are being spread too thin by the very wealth of our resources, spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button. Does this make sense? Pour water into an 8 ounce glass and the water will amount to a cool refreshing drink. Pour it into the ocean…

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

A personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West…that’s a mouthful: Mateo Ricci in China building memory palaces, Erich Auerbach writing Mimesis while exiled in Turkey without his library, Giordano Bruno reciting poetry first forwards and then backwards, the many people who could and did memorize all of Shakespeare’s sonnets—or who could at least get through Casey at the Bat—these are the cathedral personalities he has in mind, I think, able to quote an apposite line from Shakespeare,  whistle the entirety of Mahler’s Second Symphony, and discourse with some intensity on the relationship of Picasso’s The Family of Acrobats had on Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and then rip off a sortie on Einstein’s equations or Gödel’s proof . These people have disappeared, it seems, dissipated in the ocean of the Internet.  Why memorize Tennyson’s Ulysses, Mr. Pancake Head asks, when one can call it up at a moment’s notice? Why worry about a stupid baseball poem? To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield: There is no joy in Mudville—the mighty Casey has struck out.

Divertimento: trains of thought

They have a new program in New York City—new as of April 2008. They are posting the occasional ‘train of thought’—history, philosophy, literature, and science—they think might pique your interest. Here’s one I saw yesterday from George Eliot.

Do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual…If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

And this from John Stuart Mill was on the A train the other day:         

The only freedom deserving the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

A couple of 19th century stalwarts, and a new source of information: mass transit. But the A train is not a danger to suck my cathedral-like personality into its maw, is it? It’s only the computer that is a danger.

Can computers make mistakes?

The words we couple with ‘person’ are revealing. ‘Pancake person’ and ‘cathedral-like personality’ suggest different orientations for the human. Pancakes are flat and thin, and simple; cathedrals are complex, highly articulated structures. Pancakes tend to lack detail; cathedrals are chockablock with information, detail and significance. Here’s Henry Adams, chapter one of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres:            

The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth which seems, in the eleventh century, to leave hardly room for the Virgin of the Crypt at Chartres, still less for the Beau Christ of the thirteenth century at Amiens. The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant. He is the conqueror of Satan, the mightiest of all created spirits, the nearest to God.

This detail can be a mnemonic device. Practitioners of the art of memory picture a complex image and then associate a list or a poem or the dialogue Hamlet speaks in Hamlet with the particulars. The Archangel may stand for Church and State but you’ve created an association with ‘angel cake’ so you’ll remember to pick one up—along with butter (the Virgin), eggs (the devil, as in deviled eggs) and sliced bread (that sword). Pancakes won’t help you remember anything, save maybe that you’ve got to cut back on eating so many—besides we’re making French toast this morning.

The mnemonic everybody knows is ROY G. BIV. Go ahead, recite the primary colors for me. Mateo Ricci, despite a little misunderstanding as to the significance of the crucifixion—it looks a little violent to the uninformed viewer—found the Chinese were impressed with his prodigious memory. Success is China’s bureaucracy depended on how much you could remember; they didn’t have computers then. If Christianity could do this for your mind, maybe there was something to it.

But Richard Foreman isn’t positing a correlation with the Internet; his contention is that we are developing a deep relationship with computers. The parallel is not so much with pancakes, but with food. Thus, when he asks can the computer achieve everything the human mind can achieve, he seems to be asking a question similar to one that might have been proposed long ago: Can this new fangled system of farming and breeding achieve what we hunters and gathers have been doing all along? Or, to jump ahead a few years: Can this new system of agribusinesses, where we depend on pesticide and petroleum products to raise and deliver our food, really achieve what the family farm has achieved?

These are not stupid questions. Both questions might be answered in the negative and both might qualify as monstrous mistakes humanity has made—and mistakes too big to rectify. But Foreman is interested in mistakes; in fact, he is recommending them. Since the computer is sucking our personalities into its maw, we’re going to need it to make the occasional boo-boo, the better to eat you with, my dear. Mistakes, he argues, can be the basis of a whole new world of insights and procedures. What seems to be worrying him is this: as the computer takes over our thinking process, it could rope us into tight circles of inflexible logic, air-tight, hermetically sealed loops of computer programming. It will recycle what we know, but it will evolve into nothing new. The pancake will soon lose its panache.              

Random numbers and very large amounts of information appear to be the answer. Alan Turing foresaw the problem (and why not? He foresaw pretty much everything to do with computers.) Infallibility is not a characteristic of human intelligence. Intellectual activity consists in various kinds of search. The trick is to model programs not on an adult’s mind, but a child’s.

George Dyson explains: Turing proved that digital computers are able to answer most—but not all—problems that can be asked in unambiguous terms…Most of real life, however, inhabits the third sector of the computational universe: where finding an answer is easier than defining the question. Answers are, in principle, computable, but, in practice, we are unable to ask the questions in unambiguous language that a computer can understand …A solution finds the problem, not the other way around. Random networks (of genes, of computers, of people) contain solutions, waiting to be discovered, to problems that need not be explicitly defined. Google has answers to questions no human being may ever be able to ask.

There are more solutions in this world than there are problems. They lurk in the data base like fish taking shelter along a coral reef. Articulate the right lure and you will draw them into an available sea of solutions….

Well, maybe. George Dyson can bring on a headache, if you’re not careful.   

Let’s look at Yahoo Answers for a minute. Suppose we have an almost-infinite number of monkeys asking questions, and an almost-infinite number of experts (more monkeys) with answers. A couple of things: first, there a large number of answers out there that will not be asked about; second, the askers by framing their questions will help the experts know that they know the answer, and what satisfies expert A will not be sufficient for expert B; and third, because we’re talking about such about such a large number of askers and experts, a sort of survival of the fittest dynamic will pertain with the answers functioning as criteria of survival, the bedrock that  will function in much the same was as reality does in the survival of the fittest scenario. If your mutation does not help you to survive in the world, it (you) will be superseded. If your question does not elicit an answer, it will have to be reformulated. Just as reality is the ultimate arbiter of the evolutionary process, the answers are the ultimate arbiter of the thought process.

And what John Stuart Mill suggests… that mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest…fits in here doesn’t it?  

Pancake people, spread wide and thin? Yes, but even as we slip from the pan into the fire…think about it a little.  We may be approaching the other side of silence.



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