Moulton Lava

Moultonic Musings

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Location: New England, United States

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Loss of Traction, and Intractability

I've been thinking lately about a problem posed by a fellow researcher at MIT regarding an AS (Asperger's Syndrome) chap whose visit to his residence hall reportedly made others 'uncomfortable'.

I hope he's made some progress singling out what dimension of his behavior people are reacting negatively to, and what their reaction is, in more specific terms. My guess is that they are 'baffled' by him and don't quite know how to react.

Generalizing from that anecdotal case, it occurs to me that relationships between NT (Neuro-Typical) and AS (Asperger's Syndrome) populations often suffer from a 'lack of traction' — it's hard to get them (sociable relationships) to go anywhere. It often feels like one is 'spinning their wheels' — unable to find firm common ground or bridges across the chasm to make a meaningful connection.

My current diagnosis is that the parties are communicating in largely non-overlapping channels. The AS party is largely ignoring affective cues signaled in facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc. The NT parties are similarly confounded by unfamiliar non-verbal gestures of the AS chap, and perhaps also overwhelmed and bewildered by the density and pace of English language verbal streams coming from the more loquacious AS types.

Although I am fairly hard to read in terms of non-verbal signals, I've also been told that some of my more prominent gestures lie outside the 'gestural vocabulary' that most NTs routinely learn to recognize and interpret. Most people who are good at reading facial expressions tell me they cannot read 'perplexity' on my countenance, even though it's my most common baseline affective state. But more to the point, I've also been told that my verbal communication content is often too dense, too complex, and too fast-paced for most people to follow in real time. That is, listening to me has been likened to drinking from a fire hose. Another correspondent tells me his daughter would be unable to read any of my essays.

The flip side of 'lack of traction' is the notion of banging one's head on intractable problems — something that MIT researchers spend a lot of time doing. Most of the problems I work on are nigh-intractable.

In the case at hand, I think a lot of progress could be made if the NTs learned to better express their affective states in more precise vocabulary terms by jointly solving the problem of alexithymia — developing the vocabulary terms to accurately and precisely name their transient affective states, instead of relying so much on erratic non-verbal signaling cues. At the root of the problem, as I see it, is the challenge of constructing a map linking dimensions of one's patterns of behavior to nameable affective states produced in others with whom one is struggling to establish a comfortable relationship. This is the same problem that affect-sensing computers are struggling to solve. Since a lot of smart people at MIT are working hard to solve it, that's evidence it's a hard problem.

The problem of alexithymia is related to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — namely that our thinking is constrained by the languages we learn. The AS population and the NT population seem to be working in largely non-overlapping languages.

It occurs to me that one way to fix this is to rely more on stories and anecdotes, which seem to bridge the gap better than most other channels of communication. I've struggled all my life to learn how to tell stories and anecdotes. It's a skill that doesn't come easy.

It doesn't come easy for affective computers to construct context-appropriate stories, either.

We need more traction if we are going to make better progress on intractable problems.

I dunno if we are gonna stumble onto a 'magic bullet' here. We may just have to puzzle it out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Chaotic Drama

Mathematical recursions can have any of four trajectories.

1) The sequence of iterates can converge to a fixed point (including zero).

2) The sequence of iterates can generate a finite repeating cycle.

3) The sequence of iterates can march off to infinity.

4) The sequence of iterates can yield a non-repeating pseudo-random or chaotic pattern.

Life generally corresponds to the fourth case. Cancer generally corresponds to the third case. War and other tragedies also correspond to the third case. Extinction corresponds to the first case, where the limit of the sequence vanishes to zero (the dying breed).

The 10 systemic problems which plague civilization — Conflict, Violence, Oppression, Injustice, Corruption, Poverty, Ignorance, Alienation, Suffering, and Terrorism — are currently operating in the recursive regime of cancer, war, and tragedy (meaning they are not a sustainable pattern of over-consumption of scarce planetary resources).

To see an example of how these ten plagues feed back on each other, see this story:

VA Tech Shooter Diagnosed as a
'Collector of Injustice'

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Corruption, Truth-Telling, and Liminal Social Drama

Telling the truth very often has negative short-term consequences for the truth-teller. It is very dangerous to tell the truth in our culture.

Corruption is a good example. Being a whistle-blower in the face of corruption is a risky business. The story of Jeffrey Wigand is a classic example.

Corruption is one of a dozen ineradicable scourges that afflicts civilization: Conflict, Violence, Oppression, Injustice, Corruption, Poverty, Ignorance, Alienation, Abuse, Despair, Suffering, and Terrorism.

These twelve intractable problems all have a similar etiology — they are self-seeding, self-regenerating cancers on the culture.

In mathematical terms, they are all examples of problems in recursion. That is to say, any one instance of the problem tends to produce additional future instances, through the process of mimesis, whereby the culture mindlessly xeroxes whatever processes are inherent in the prevailing culture, without regard for philosophical arguments of morality, ethics, or negative long-term consequences.

If you delve into the mathematical structure of problems in recursion, they are often mind-boggling, but not entirely intractable. However, their solution typically requires a level of mathematical sophistication typically found only in graduate level studies. That's why I say these problems are soluble in theory, but not in practice. Since one of the systemic problems in our culture is (stubborn and willful) Ignorance, it is nigh impossible to educate the Body Politic to a level sufficient to solve any of those systemic problems.

Incidentally, the first systems thinkers to address these problems were the founders of the world's great religions. Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Lao Tsu (among others) introduced teachings that concord with the systems theoretic model of the mathematical solution to such problems as Conflict, Violence, Oppression, Injustice, and Suffering when they are analyzed as mathematical problems in recursion.

Conflict, under tightly organized rules, is called a Game, and there is a branch of applied mathematics that examines the Theory of Games. Under more loosely organized constraints, Conflict morphs into Drama, and the applicable analytical model of the Governing Dynamics morphs into Drama Theory. While it is theoretically possible to craft a drama that runs to comedy, the default outcome of Liminal Socio-Political Drama, in the face of Ignorance, runs to tragedy.

Comedy, Tragedy, Mendacity

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Reflections on Patterns of Relationships and Trust

Cultural Anthropologist Victor Turner studied the ritual cultural practices that kicked into play whenever some kind of political conflict or disagreement arose within a tribal community.

According to Turner, conflict gives rise to a Liminal Social Drama that replays the original conflict until some kind of resolution is crafted.

The Liminal Social Drama (what we sometimes call political debate in our modern culture) had a remarkable structure that Turner called Anti-Structure.

That is, the Liminal Social Drama reprises the original conflict in inverse chronological order, as it reaches back to diagnose the roots of the emergent conflict. Once the roots of the conflict have been uncovered, revealed, and understood, the Liminal Social Drama can be recrafted and rewritten with an alternative ending, converting the arc of the story from an arresting, lamentable tribal tragedy to a rollicking, ritual communal comedy.

The historical account of this correction process thus reflects this mirror-image Anti-Structure.

In conventional dramatic literature (especially in bible stories), this same mirror-image story structure is called Chiasmus (after the Greek letter Χ, which illustrates this pattern).
"Mammals in general, and we among them, care extremely, not about episodes, but about the patterns of their relationships." —Gregory Bateson
One night, a few months ago, I was reflecting on the observation, found in Victor Turner's notion of Anti-Structure, and in the literary analyst's notion of Chiastic Structure, that these two labels apparently refer to the same phenomenon, found in the pattern of events that ineluctably arise in the wake of human conflict.
A sequence of episodes makes for a story. The story is a reflection of a sequence of episodic events.
The above observation is not only a definition of Chiasmus, it's an example of it as well. After all, it is well and meet that a story reflect the observations which it recounts.

When the story bears accurate witness, when the account is a trustworthy reflection of the scene being reprised, the coherency of the account is reflected in the Chiastic Structure of the story.

That explains why Liminal Social Drama and Bible Stories feature Chiastic Structure so prominently. It's not an accident. It's an ineluctable feature of bearing accurate witness when crafting a coherent story.

The two halves of the Chiastic Structure are in symmetric balance around the fulcrum, like the excursions of Foucalt's Pendulum. The Yin and the Yang are in complementary opposition and in balance around the point, line, or surface of reflection.
As above, so below.
If the Kings are Ruly, the Subjects are Unruly.

There is a country named Tajikistan. The name means Land of the Ruling Kings.

There is an adjacent country to Tajikistan. The name of the adjacent country is Afghanistan. The name means Land of the Unruly.

If you want artisanship, you don't go to Tajikistan. You go to Afghanistan. The Afghanis weave artfully patterned fabrics.

Do you suppose the patterns of the Afghan fabrics reflect the pattern of relationships found in their Liminal Social Dynamics?

The Liminal Anti-Social Dynamics perpetuate ad nauseum until someone records and recounts an artfully crafted faithful account of Episodic Structure and Anti-Structure.

You will recognize such an artful account by its Chiastic Structure.

Call it Original Sin Meets Original Spin.