Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms

Crabs Are A Process

The word “crab” brings to mind a snapshot (or perhaps a scuttling mental video) of the surface appearance of an adult crab. Like most nouns, “crab” is a metonym for a complex system of processes that are concealed by the snapshot-in-time and surface appearance connotations of the word. Some processes are internal to crabs, such as respiration, digestion, and the Krebs cycle. Other processes are impossible to localize in the space and time of a crab snapshot. The adult coconut crab (Birgus latro) is evidence of a complex reproductive process, in which crabs mate and drop their eggs into the ocean on a rocky beach at dusk; the eggs exist as plankton, then as small hermit crabs; eventually some re-emerge on islands to grow into adult coconut crabs. They also interact with human processes, such as fishing, cars, and perhaps occasionally the deceased female aviator process.

Boxer crabs carry anemones in their claws and use the toxins in the anemones’ tentacles for defense; the anemones feed on the crabs’ scraps. The boxer crab process is inseparable from the anemone process. Wider processes are relevant to crabs as well, including the weather effects from long-term astronomical processes, ocean currents, asteroids, and evolution itself. Some processes are inseparable; others have limited interaction; some are completely separate, although subtle interdependencies are often hidden.

The physical shape of the adult crab represents the successful interaction of many processes. Carcinization is the process by which diverse non-crablike life forms adopt the shape of a crab – indicating that the crab shape is a kind of attractor, a particularly viable form given all the relevant processes within the system.

Christopher Alexander: Fit, Attractors, and Visual Solutions to Complexity

Christopher Alexander’s books Notes on the Synthesis of Form (hereafter Notes) and A Pattern Language are the two most insight-dense books about design I’ve ever read. In order to borrow and expand on Alexander’s concepts, I’ll summarize them briefly.

“Fit” is a property of good design – a design element or system interacting with humans and other systems to produce a useful, comfortable, stable, or otherwise appropriate result. “Misfit” is the absence of fit – an uncomfortable chair, a teapot too heavy to use, long commute times, or a house that falls down in a heavy wind. Fit exists in context – a video game that is predictable exhibits misfit because it is boring, while a restaurant schedule that is predictable exhibits good fit. Misfit is more visible than fit; as noted above, subtle interdependencies are hard to predict. Misfit cries out for a solution, but naive solutions often result in worse misfit.

How can human brains handle such complexity? Noticing and cataloging interdependencies within a system is the first step toward human-brain-accessible good design. When you change something in a large, densely interconnected system, you often change many other things. Luckily, complex systems can often be broken into densely interconnected parts that are not very connected to each other. I reproduce Alexander’s elegant illustration of this process in Notes:

Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form
Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form

Once systems are divided into relatively independent parts, the third step of the design process occurs: creating visual representations as fit solutions for each sub-part. These sub-parts are then visually fitted together into a whole. Visual insights are often extremely difficult to communicate in words; encouraging and practicing the communication of visual insights is one of my medium-term goals for this blog. Visual representations have the power to conceal and render useful complex analytic rigor, as with the concept of shape in go.

Notes is a brief description of a process of design. A Pattern Language, I believe, is an attempt to catalog attractors with the quality of good fit in the human design domain, from the level of the room to the level of the city. Just as a crab represents a successful pattern at the intersection of many processes, so Alexander et al.’s patterns represent forms that achieve or characterize good fit in interaction with complex human processes. (I will note that I came to this conclusion under the influence of hallucinogens, a state in which visual insights that are hard to articulate frequently present themselves.) Though flawed, incomplete, and occasionally insane, these patterns and the method by which they are derived are powerful tools for thinking about how human flourishing is accomplished. I would love to see A Pattern Language for religions, for example. D. E. Brown’s list of human universals is a minimalist starting point. Convergent evolution, whether biological (as with carcinization) or cultural, points to the existence of an attractor at the intersection of all the relevant processes.

Time and Dragons

In addition to thinking about things interacting with surrounding systems, we must also think about things over time. The snapshot view of a crab is not as helpful as the view of crabs as a process over time. It may be more useful to sometimes think about peopling, rather than about people.

Much of the magic of the excellent TVTropes is its crystallization of narrative processes and changes. It is a Book of Changes for narrative, a hundred times richer and more successful than V. I. Propp’s The Morphology of the Tale. What is needed is nothing less than a TVTropes for human life.

Someone once told me that in feng shui, one of the principles is to imagine a dragon moving through a room, to mentally simulate people walking through over time. This is an elegant idea, taking rooms out of the still world of architecture models and placing them in the context of peopling over time. I propose using “dragon” as a metonym for insightful ideas like this: a conceptualization that makes a process over time apparent, especially one that enables easier mental testing of “fit” in Alexander’s sense.

There are probably many dragons buried beneath our awareness, in our verbs and process nouns. New dragons are easier to see; I think gene surfing is an example of a dragon, though not one with design implications. Can you think of any examples of dragons? Triple points for dragons related to social or religious domains.

19 thoughts on “Toward the Synthesis of Flourishy Forms”

      1. It was an attempt (particularly as popularized by Zeeman) to come up with a universal geometric theory/classification of abrupt changes in systems over time. All kinds of implications for neurobiology, psychohistory, etc. Didn’t pan out, was subsumed by chaos theory about 15-20 years later. Chaos theory also didn’t entirely pan out.

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    1. Math has fashion fads/cycles, same as anything else. Which is interesting for its own sake!

      I remember Catastrophe Theory being hyped like crazy around when I was a freshman. I was like “that sounds interesting, but I don’t understand it.” I didn’t yet have good detectors for what’s flashy but won’t go anywhere vs. powerful in practice.

      Seeing a few rounds of intellectual fashion cycles unfold in real time in your life helps hugely with sorting that out. Studying intellectual history is a way to shortcut the process, probably.

      Obligatory disagreeableness: the Santa Fe Institute specializes in surfing waves of flashy-but-useless science-y intellectual fashions.

      [This site still isn’t letting me comment with either WordPress or Twitter logins.]

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        1. Yeah, there’s a heuristication thing going on. Trying to use wordpress login directly failed. So I supplied an email address and hit post. Then it said “are you this other person? if so, log in.” So I gave it my wordpress password, and it failed. Then I tried again, and it worked, but apparently only half-worked, because it still shows me as a foreigner on the page here.

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        2. Ah, I think I see what is going on here. There’s both carcinisation.wordpress.com and carcinisation.com. I had Cookie Monster set to accept cookies from wordpress.com, but not carcinisation.com. Accepting cookies from carcinisation.com looks like it is about to solve the problem.

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  1. A close analogy of a dragon might be the physarum polycephalum slime mold with can solve the Traveling Salesman problem:

    It opens the door to lots of fun analogies between biology and computation by the way:
    DNA as parent class of information in which specialized cells inherit different sets instructions.
    Intelligence as algorithm – some dung beetles use path integration to find their way back to their burrows
    (13:50 http://www.ted.com/talks/marcus_byrne_the_dance_of_the_dung_beetle#t-819702)
    Living things as an optimization solution – Ant colonies cooperate without any central oversight, just automatically releasing and responding to pheramones. Just one type of nature inspired algorithm: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swarm_intelligence

    As for ‘Pattern Language’ for religion, this Edge talk/transcript is the closest I can think of:
    http://edge.org/conversation/the-paradox-of-wu-wei

    Around 13:40 he addresses his research project which is trying to answer ‘why are humans religious?’, its an example of what an emperically rigorous science of religion looks like that can go beyond ad-hoc ‘just so’ stories, towards hypothesis testing and modeling.

    Some questions his project hopes to answer:
    what are the necessary componants to make a religion cooperative?
    Do secular instituions like legislature/courts/police replace the function of religion?
    What’s the relationship between god described as angry/loving and crime/instability in a region over time?

    My worry with Alexander’s work, I’m guillty of commenting on things I haven’t read here, my apologies to the innocent strawmen, is that he finds analogies and metaphors across so many fields which are great insight porn but don’t translate into testable predictions and interventions. Do his ideas at least give us new ways of answering old questions like how consilence efforts offer scientific tools for the humanties’ debates described in the Wu Wei dilema in the Edge talk.

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