Democracy and Technology

I had an interesting dream last night – I dreamed about democratic decision making support software. Instead of my regularly scheduled dreams of – well, nevermind. The whole thing is (like all dreams) a bit fuzzy now, but the gist of it was this: a bottom-up wiki-like decision support system with real-time animation and graphics (a bit like an RTS). The wiki enabled reasoning and supporting arguments to be filed and voted on, and allowed alternatives to arise and float up as they gathered support. i.e. avoiding false dichotomies seemed important to my dream.

As people (supporters and opponents) argue and lobby for positions, the decision makers can see the ebb and flow of support on an RTS like map. The map – the terrain – is not fixed, since the appearance of a new consensus position can change the lay of the land. Also, stretching the map metaphor is probably not wise. In reality you would want multiple maps or views on the current state of  opinion.

Democracy is not a simple popularity contest – and the underlying wiki information should provide useful input to the decision-makers.

After waking up, and a bit of googling – there does not seem to be anything quite like this:

  • The Center for Democracy and Technology is more concerned with Internet regulation than with the Democracy part of its name.
  • The Democracy Journal has an interesting article about the topic: how open source wiki technology can make government decisions more expert and more democratic.

The dream is probably affected by some of the projects I’m working on at SuperOffice – and some political discussions before bedtime, but this seems like a generally interesting area.

  • Automatically summarizing information, presenting digests on demand to decision makers. Something like N6 – but wikified.
  • Automatically distilling votes or participant activity into clusters, presenting clusters graphically or as simple charts.
  • Allowing bottom-up participation in the decision making process, and allowing everyone to see the decision basis.

Laws and politics have been likened to a sausage factory before, and while it is easy to ignore where the sausage comes from, we are obliged (I think) as citizens to keep an eye on what goes on inside the factory.

If we can help people make better decisions as well as improve people’s involvement in government, that sounds like a worthwhile goal.

A brief look at the current state of decision-support systems is not exactly encouraging. There is a lot of graphics and statistical modeling and analysis, but the user interaction seems to be very much stuck in the 80s. This is probably just a naïve impression. I hope.

Anathem

image by Neal Stephenson

Do not be fooled by the monastic trappings of the book-cover. This is high-concept, big ideas, mind-bombing science fiction. By the time you are through the 800 page story, you will have had a philosophical, mathematical and cosmological education. Much like his Baroque cycle, the novel builds on real research.

Annoyingly, the research is obfuscated by placing the action on the planet Arbre (french for “Tree”),  where the philosophers and concepts all have their own names. Instead of Pythagoras, we read about Andrakhones; instead of Occam’s Razor we read of The Steelyard and so on.

The reason for this is presumably to avoid endless discussions about the precise meanings of the philosophical stance of Andrakhones/Pythagoras, and instead focus on the story. The faux greeks are in some way all straw-men, to pad out the back-story and buttress various philosophical or cosmological positions.

The footnotes and acknowledgements for Anathem get their own web page. These help you discover the primary sources and the earthly thinkers behind the straw-men.

The philosophy and cosmological questions in the book run the gamut from basic Platonism to Husserlian phenomenology.  You will learn some of the ideas Thales and Pythagoras, Plato, Saint Augustine, Leibniz, Kant, Mach, Husserl, and Godel brought forth. The Syntactic vs Semantic divide (on Earth called the Analytic vs Continental philosophical divide) is one thread through the story. This is not your typical sci-fi story.

Stephenson has basically hidden a philosophical primer in the guise of an apocalyptic sci fi novel. My favorite parable/story is a discussion on the nature of consciousness. This becomes important later on, when we apply it to the many-worlds interpretation of cosmology. Anyway: The Bat-Fly-Worm story goes a bit like this: imagine a world with an ideal Bat (all hearing, ultrasound echoes, flying), an ideal Fly (all eyes, flying), and ideal Worm (all touch sense, crawling). These three creatures co-exist in a cave. How do they communicate? How does a deaf Fly describe something to the blind Worm, or vice versa?

The Fly-Bat-Worm is a metaphor for consciousness – our senses report a multitude of distinct, disparate sensory inputs that our consciousness sorts into a coherent whole. How do we build a perception of continuous time, when all we have are distinct observations? The argument in Anathem is a lot more enjoyable to read than the original Husserl.

The major question in the novel is Platonic in nature: the Platonic Ideal world (or Hylean Theoric World, in Arbre) is real in the many-worlds sense. Pi exists independently of observers, it exists independently of the universe. Pi is constant in the ideal world of plane geometry, no matter which of the many universes you calculate it in. Pi is something we discover, rather than invent. Similar to the allegory of the cave, there is a series of levels between the ideal world and the real world. Anathem proposes that these levels all exist as parallel universes, and that information flows between these universes in an acyclic directed graph. The idea of Pi flows from the Platonic Ideal world through the multi-verse into our own, occasionally bumping into a consciousness that is affected by it. Feel free to laugh and ridicule the concept now.

There is an acknowledged indirect intellectual debt to the Clock of the Long Now. The idea of the Long Now suffuses the society the book focuses on. The “mathic” world is monastic and focused on the long term, while the outside “sæcular” world is much like our own: short-term and distracted by blinkenlights and money. The “mathic” world sees the skyscrapers outside come and go as the “sæcular” civilization rises and collapses.

The idea that a monastic society can be so separate from its surrounding society for so long seems far-fetched, but the continued existence of the Amish would seem to show that it is possible. In any case, the idea of a community focused on long term thinking rather than on short-term satisfaction, of thinking beyond the next millennium rather than just the next quarter, is well worth pursuing. Anathem deserves respect for pushing the concept to its extreme, just to see what happens.

So Anathem is not exactly an easy read, but if you enjoyed the Baroque cycle or Cryptonomicon, or if you liked the bits of Snowcrash that discussed linguistics and Sumerian myth, then Anathem might be the book for you.

The Graveyard Book

image by Neil Gaiman

The story of a young orphaned boy, raised in a graveyard’s community of ghosts, protected by vampires and werewolves, hunted by an ancient league of assassins. The novel is made up a series of short stories tracking the growing boy.

Ok – so this is really a book for children, but like Terry Pratchett’s children’s books, they are enjoyable by grown-ups too. Unlike Pratchett, the moral and teaching is not quite as explicit in the telling, but a little more woven into the story itself. Like Pratchett, the story moves along at a page-turning pace. Each story concludes safely, and usually includes a useful nugget of learning ready to be used in a later story.

The overall story arc moves along quickly: as the boy Nobody Owens grows up, the challenges and problems he faces increase as well. His world is initially limited to the graveyard he is raised in. The first stories chronicle his exploration of his world, and his discoveries of witches, ghouls, ancient Romans and ancient Picts. Later, as a teenager he needs to go to school, and encounters bullies, thugs and greedy pawnbrokers.

Gaiman manages to make the ordinary business of going to school seem exciting by seeing it from the outsiders fresh perspective. Nobody Owens is the outsider – he’s in school to learn stuff. He reads books for pleasure. What a weirdo. Gaiman reminds us how difficult life used to be when we were 10 and stuck in a classroom full of others who did not necessarily want to be friends with us.

Gaiman once wrote in Sandman that “All stories are true”. The Graveyard Book, if not factual, feels true to itself. Like a good fairy tale or fable, it has lessons to teach, and a happily ever after ending. Most of all, the story has heart and wonderful new images and allusions. Instead of re-using the goth-chick Death, Gaiman has a new image of Death: the Lady on the Gray horse. Werewolves and Vampires are shown in a new light – as reformed characters, working to protect the young Nobody.

Gaiman notes in the afterword that he was inspired by his own son playing in a graveyard, and by Kipling’s Jungle Book. If nothing else, this should inspire more people to dig out the original Jungle Books, not just the Disney film.

Ibsen x 3

This past month has been a bit of an Ibsen fest, with two plays in the past week alone. But for twice the price of a movie ticket, you get live performance and (if you’re lucky) staging beyond what you remember from your school trips to the theatre.

Rosmersholm

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This was a modern, stylized performance of the play. Subdued lighting and a fog machine replaced props or the vast black stage. Rosmersholm is a story about convictions and the perceptions of society. Rosmer’s beliefs are affected by his friends (radical and conservative) and by what is published in the local paper. Tricks, insidious lies, insanity and suicide ensue – as only Scandinavians know how.

The text has the doomed lovers jumping into the foaming waters together, but the director injects doubt: Rebecca is full of conviction, and leaves to jump in, but Rosmer – who has vaccilated and questioned his own beliefs all through the play – does not follow her to death before the curtain falls.

An Enemy of the People

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Again a very stylized and minimalist production. The stage is barren – locations are created using lights and shadow. While Rosmersholm was very traditional, An Enemy of the People played the form against the content.

It put on the form of a slapstick comedy, complete with spit-takes and line dancing on the serious matter of public health and the question of personal integrity. The slapstick dominated the first act, where the doctor’s life is happy and everyone was dancing cheerfully.

Towards the end, when society, the elites, his brother, everyone he thought he could count on has rejected him, the lighting rig is lowered, closer to the stage floor for each new rejection, reflecting the increasing social pressure on him.

The sound design is also more explicit and overt. While Rosmersholm had a subdued soundtrack of a distant waterfall in the background, the director of the Enemy of the People felt it necessary to underline all the major character beats with some audible cue. Metronomic beats and ghostly eerie sounds distracted from the performance more than they helped.

The Enemy of the People is a man with the strength of his own convictions – he is right, and the majority is wrong. Science and rationality trump the politically and socially expedient.

I enjoyed the themes of this play most of the three. The social forces of conformity and group power over the individual are still very much active today.

Brand

Brand - Maria Bonnevie Brand - Sven Nordin

Brand is directed by the catalanian Calixto Bieito. There are many clichés about passionate Spaniards, but it does explain why this otherwise bleak play is bursting with life and color that is missing from the other performances. An antidote to the barren minimalist stages, Brand opens with a party in full swing, a giant suckling pig dominating the rear of the stage. Singing! Dancing! Sex! Three-ways! I’m sure I saw the polar-bear and the male stripper getting it on with the sexy nurse.

It is certainly not the Ibsen you read in school.

The stage thrusts a pier out among the audience, and occasionally characters enter through the audience. Before the play starts proper, a party is in full swing, and audience members are encouraged to dance or wiggle in their seats.

The scalloped oyster backdrop in the first act underlines the bubble that the party exists in. Then it deflates and transforms into the glacier / snow-fields for the remainder of the first part of the play. The scene changes happen as part of the action on stage – with either a chorus or sing-along to distract you from the actors who are clearing away props.

After the intermission, the audience returns to find a half-constructed church on stage, and Brand marches in to start whacking the plaster walls of the Nationaltheatre with a great big mallet before painting his slogan on an immense canvas sheet.

Brand is a man of unshakeable faith and conviction, but he demands equal faith and conviction of those around him. He sacrifices his son, his wife and ultimately himself to his uncompromising faith.

It’s a stunning piece of theatre – and one you should go see if you get a chance. It will hopefully shake your notion of what serious theatre can be.

Brand, Dr Stockmann and Rosmer all struggle with conviction. Rosmer loses his, Stockmann keeps his and grows stronger, while Brand lives off his until it destroys him. They all argue against the lack of conviction is the greater danger, and I suspect that today’s society would frighten or disgust them all. Our fear of causing offence and desire to avoid conflict leads us to abandon or hide our convictions in a manner that Dr Stockmann would find all to familar.

Cultural Weekend in Paris

My better half asked “Can we go to Paris?” “urm – yes – let me see if I can get some time off.” My boss says “Go – relax, enjoy yourself. It’s important to get new inspiration.”

A few clicks and googles later (Thank you Hotels.com and Norwegian.com) – off we went for four nights in Montmartre, Paris.

The Eiffel tower blinking while lit up in EU blue  Umbrellas outside the Louvre in Paris

Paris was beautiful, even in the rain. The Eiffel tower was lit up in European Union blue, with gold stars. We were surprised when it started sparkling for us – an effervescence of light. A beautiful bride and groom standing next to us on the sidewalk having their picture taken were ecstatic.

We slogged up the hill from the hotel to the Sacre Coeur to take in the view, and to wonder at what the large buildings scattered around Paris were supposed to be.

We had a packed program: Friday wandering around Paris – walking along the Seine, visiting the Notre Dame.

PA300022 Abstract art in the Tuilerie garden

A flock of tourists on segways passed us at the Place de Concorde, on our way to the Tuileries. The classical statues (like Caesar or nymphs) fit in with the style of the garden, but the more modern pieces (like the one above “Gesture of Friendship” (I think) commissioned by the Minister of Culture) are a bit more challenging to get to grips with.

Saturday at the Louvre

Crowds gawking at the Mona Lisa at the Louvre  Lots of art at the Louvre

Ten hours of walking around, gawking at artwork. Getting out for some fresh air and storming around the sculptures in the Richelieu wing. It’s overwhelming – the amount of beauty, wonder and horror that hangs on the wall.

We had the entire day to wander around – we made a meal of the south Denon wing where Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo live. After the number of crucifixions and halo’ed angels I’ve seen, I should have been converted to a devout Christian – but I remain Christian in name only.

We even made it to the norwegian corner – up in the corner on the top floor of the Richelieu wing – we found Peder Balke‘s paintings of norwegian landscapes. A pleasant meeting – something small and familar amid all the large scale art that hangs in the Louvre.

 Peder Balke and tourist  More Art in the Louvre

The wikipedia and an internet enabled phone is very useful when you come across a particularly interesting piece of artwork. My french got a refresher as I tried to decipher the little plaques next to the artwork. Next to the “Raft of the Medusa” was an explanation of the history behind the painting. Knowing the story and intention behind the painting makes it even more gripping and interesting.

Liberty Leading the People - Delacroix  The Louvre main entrance 

We made a trip to the Arc de Triomphe – I thought this would be boring, but I was pleasantly surprised by the view and the museum inside the Arc itself.

It’s bigger than it looks.

Champs Elysees at night from the top of the Arc de Triomphe It's only a model

We arrived just as the ceremony for the kindling of the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier was winding down. Up on top it was windy and cold, and I was afraid my mobile would slip from my stiff fingers and take a tumble down into the traffic below.

Dinner at a small brasserie near the hotel – after trekking around the far end of the Champs Elysees looking for a good french restaurant. It was getting late, so we were grateful to sit inside and get a hot meal. I misunderstood the menu, and ended up with a pair of suspicious (but delicious) sausages.

Sunday at the Orsay

(first sunday of the month – so we got in free!). The line to get in was long as we showed up at 11 am – but it moved along at a generous pace, so we didn’t have time to get bored.

Inside the Orsay was yet more art. A special exhibit on impressionists and pastel art that turned out to be quite educational. Fay wanted to go see an exhibit on Picasso and his Masters (Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe) but the line to get in was too long.

Dancers - Degas Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe after Manet - Picasso

My biggest surprise was wandering into a room full of van Gogh paintings and Japanese tourists. There is (I think) something especially vibrant in van Gogh’s colors. The late summer heat shimmers and radiates from “The Harvesters”

van Gogh's harvesters  School-children learning about art

While walking through the larger galleries on the ground floor we passed a lovely polar bear surrounded by children drawing sketches. Their teacher was explaining something about how the bear was standing on a platform, and asking if that was part of the statue or not.

Dinner at a nice Hungarian restaurant up the street from our hotel. The proper restaurant experience, not just a simple brasserie meal, but with fancy dishes and the works. Lovely and satisfying.

Monday in Montmartre and Pompidou

We had time for a brief trip to Les Abesses and to the Pompidou before we left for Orly in the evening.

I Love You at Les Abesses  Vi Elsker Deg - Diana Graffiti

Fay had heard about a wall covered in “I Love You” messages, near the Abesses in Montmartre – right by the Metro entrance. After a bit of walking around the back streets of Amelie Poulin country, we found it – it is in the abbey garden – with quiet little walkways that lead you to the wall itself. This wall is beautiful.  “I love you” repeated in dozens of different languages. While we were taking pictures and spotting languages we recognized, another class of students on a field trip showed up for some graffiti appreciation.

A different wall of “Love You” messages is not so far from the Eiffel tower. Originally a symbol of American-French fraternité, the torch of freedom has now been repurposed as a Diana memorial. On the wall over the highway underpass are scribbled love notes to the dead, including one from this year’s Miss Norway contestants.

Outside the Pompidou center Inside the Pompidou - a macabre wedding dress

The Pompidou was a pleasant surprise. Outside the sun was shining and the water was burbling in the sculpture/playground. Inside was even more art, but also interactive video installations, torn up posters, sculpture, and a special exhibit on the Futurist movement.

Girl Running on Balcony - Futurist painting Posters - Jacques Villeglé

Some of it makes you ask – how can this be art? Torn posters, anonymous art? Collage? If nothing else, it made me think and ask questions. Answers were not as forthcoming though.

Bon Voyage - CAI Guo-Qiang - 1000 objects collected in airports - a flying air whale The Kiss - Wang Du

Other artwork just left you dumbfounded – the whale that dived down at you as you came into the room was beautiful and left me with an impression of a dream of flying.

Strangest sight was a room with ropes strung across it, with a pair of binoculars entangled in the ropes. It’s sculpture, but not as we know it. The inflatable furniture was a good laugh (especially since it’s now readily available from Ikea)

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The view from the top of the exterior escalator at the Pompidou is also well worth the trip up – standing up on the free-floating platform and looking out over the rooftops of the city made my stomach flutter in a way that the Eiffel does not. The feeling that the platform is just hovering in the air is unnerving.

We had an early dinner (Chinese take-out. Turns out that most bars and restaurants close between 3 and 6 pm.) and trip back to the airport. Orly is thankfully straightforward to navigate, but less futuristic in its architecture than CDG. After only a 30 minute delay, we got to sit in the foetid air inside the norwegian branded metal tube with wings. Not so much fun.