The Fifteen Fundamental Properties

Pages 144-235 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life contain a theory of beauty as perceived by humans, conveyed in fifteen “fundamental properties.” Not every property occurs in every beautiful object, but in very beautiful buildings and objects, many of these properties are usually apparent, baked into the logic, structure, and detail.

Here I will briefly explain the fifteen fundamental properties, with reference to an early 20th century ivory dog netsuke and a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture.

Here is the netsuke:
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In The Timeless Way of Building (1979), Christopher Alexander argues for the counterintuitive proposition that feeling (in the sense of perceiving the beauty and “life” of a space), unlike ideas or opinions, is quite objective; there is an astounding level of agreement between people about how different environments and buildings feel, though there may be little agreement of opinions or ideas about them in general. I reproduce here a few crucial paragraphs from Chapter 15 of the book, which chapter and book I of course recommend reading in their entirety.
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Internet Respite Ritual and Public Suicide Threats

The internet is probably the most important social domain for play, not just for children but for adults as well. All cultures have some form of ritual combat – a form of ritualized fighting that transforms and subverts the normal human tendencies for hostility towards outgroups into fun. The most obvious and widespread form is athletic competition – football games, fencing, soccer. Non-athletic competition, such as chess and go, also fits the bill. The anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes cockfighting among the Balinese as such:

Fighting cocks, almost every Balinese I have ever discussed the subject with has said, is like playing with fire only not getting burned. You activate village and kingroup rivalries and hostilities, but in “play” form, coming dangerously and entrancingly close to the expression of open and direct interpersonal and intergroup aggression (something which, again, almost never happens in the normal course of ordinary life), but not quite, because, after all, it is “only a cockfight.”

Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight

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“How do you manage trash disposal in the Endless World?”

As he looked, he observed that the name was not inaccurate. Unlike the other places he’d visited so far, the horizon here never actually terminated… If he strained his eyes, which seemed impossibly perceptive, he could continue to differentiate further detail. There were all sorts of questions he wanted to ask Endless’s god, but that wasn’t the issue at hand.

“Trash? Disposal of industrial and household waste, you mean?”

Endless’ god gestured to a nearby smattering of color, differentiated from emerald fields around. A small town, and indeed, in a single lot near the town’s center was a stack of materials. Corrugated metal, extruded aluminum; thin, dry cardboard, bound in thick bundles; bronze and steel cast into various odd shapes; and colorful sheets, cut to be more hole than plastic, peeking out here and there and fluttering in the wind. All remnants of different industrial processes.

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In Order To Give A Man A Fish, You Must First Teach Him How To Eat It

A couple weeks ago I got to spend an evening with Haley and Gabe in Boston discussing various things that probably bored Haley to tears (sorry!), but at least Gabe found interesting. One of Gabe’s shticks is that art should do a better job of conveying important ideas and concepts to its consumers. His favorite example of this (of everything?) is The Wire.

I want to push back on this a little bit – an alternate title this post might be “In Which I Attempt To Troll Gabe Into Coming Back To The Internet At Least In Small Doses And In A Totally Responsible Fashion Which Won’t Disrupt His Life And Waste His Time And Also Into Maybe Writing Something Interesting” but it just didn’t seem catchy enough.

Let’s take the premise at face value – that art should try to convey useful, meaningful concepts to its consumers. This seems reasonable as at least one of the things art should do. Well, it’s reasonable so long as art can convey these concepts. But can it? At face value, the answer is obvious – of course it can! The Matrix taught a generation that their perceived reality is possibly not even real. Inception did this for another generation.

But this dodges the question by avoiding the steel man: can art realistically convey new concepts to people often? Or efficiently? It’s easy to be less sanguine about this question.

A good example here is a concept from economics (and elsewhere) called elasticity. The price elasticity of demand, for example, is the % change in the quantity of a good demanded caused by a 1 % change in the price. There’s an ambiguity here though – are these percentages computed by using the original price and quantity as the base? The new price and quantity? Or maybe the average of the new and old price and quantities? Different textbooks and instructors make different decisions here, and students often get lost in a formula that doesn’t at all seem intuitive. Conveying the concept of elasticity at a high enough resolution that the recipient can understand the math is hard.

Unless they already know calculus. In terms of calculus, price elasticity of demand is dQ/dP * (P/Q), or in other words the derivative of demand with respect to price times the ration of price to demand. We can rearrange this equation as (dQ/Q)/(dP/P) in order to make it look more like percentage changes. If a student already knows calculus, it’s often very easy to explain elasticity to them – the ambiguity about base percentages goes away through the magic of calculus, and learning calculus already taught them about rates of changes. It’s also really easy to explain acceleration (the derivative of velocity) or jerk (the derivative of acceleration) or a whole host of useful concepts from a wide variety of disciplines.

I’m not just saying it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish – as Gabe told me in Boston there’s some low hanging fruit to be grabbed just from giving people fish, and I agree. Some of the people you give fish to may have starved after all! But there’s something else going on here – not everyone knows how to eat fish. The fish eating novice might not chew thoroughly and miss the small bone tucked in the flaky goodness, resulting in some discomfort, post traumatic stress syndrome, and a lifetime devoid of fish. This, I contend, is a potential problem with trying to give someone the concept of elasticity who has never had calculus. Fundamentally, this is a really hard thing to do in such a way that requires no work on the recipient’s end.

Perhaps this is why Gabe reveres art which successfully conveys important, meaningful, and difficult concepts well – precisely because it’s so difficult. But I must ask the question, was is really that successful? Or did the people who got the concept already have the equivalent of calculus under their belt? Consider The Wire. As Robin Hanson notes:

The overall moral of the story seems to me largely libertarian.  A renegade cop effectively legalizing drugs in one area works out great, and the show’s writers have a Time oped supporting drug law jury nullification.  Dire consequences follow from child labor and prostitution being illegal.  The police, courts, prisons, schools, and city hall are unrelentingly corrupt and dysfunctional, because voters don’t much care.  In the background of the story, industries managed mainly by private enterprise, such as stores, hotels, shipping, and cars, seem to mostly function well.  Private newspapers look bad, but mainly because readers don’t much care.

Apparently, however, many see The Wired as calling for more government.  At a Harvard symposium on The Wired, many panelists said the answer was more funding.  Simon was there:

The wire is about a world in which people are worth less. … We depicted a world in which market forces always have their say and in which capitalism has triumphed, and marginalized labor – it makes labor cheap. … What we have here is a market-based [world]; capitalism has been the God.  To even suggest that there should be some social compact along with the capitalistic forces, to mitigate any of that, over the last twenty-five years, has been political suicide. … We are only getting the American that we’ve paid for, no more, and God damn it, we deserve it.

– See more at:

To many people, The Wire illustrates all the reasons why capitalism caused the problems of Baltimore and other cities. Any understanding of market forces goes over their head. But to libertarian leaning economists like Robin and Alex Tabborak, The Wire is obviously illustrating how market forces work and the problems that arise when we ignore these forces. We can give these men fish; they already know calculus.


Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

Cultural evolution represents an entire field of study. It has the potential, like biological evolution, to be a mechanism underlying and connecting many fields of study. This short introduction will pull together a few themes and compelling stories from this large field and present some of its concepts, mechanisms, and evidence—hopefully enough to increase the reader’s suspicion of the claim that cultural evolution is a “myth.”

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Ask Tosomitu About Tumblr Drama

For the purposes of this article I will be using Tumblr drama to mean roughly “publicly calling out some entity’s ethical transgression (and ensuing discussions)”.

Starting with the obvious: not all Tumblr drama is created equal. In determining whether a particular contribution to the Tumblrdramasphere is positive or negative, I am concerned primarily with three classes of affected people and two classes of effects.

The first class of affected people is you (“the speaker”). What will the consequences of speaking be? How will speaking make you feel, and how would different possible responses (including hate speech and harassment) make you feel? You may or may not have the most at stake, but in either case you are a human being and how you feel matters. Consider doing a back-of-the-envelope expected personal utility calculation. (But if you do, throw it away immediately. It’s not accurate.)

Also consider how speaking will change you. Acts become habits.

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