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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.



Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Complexity is Easy!

The more I learn about the world of library cataloging, the more I see parallels between it and the larger world (particularly in biology and engineering). And one statement that can definitely be made about the world is that there seems to be such a thing as a Law of Unintended Consequences.

Unintended consequences of design, that is (which is naturally implied by the statement).

One would think that cataloging a book (or any other medium of expression such as a videotape, DVD, audiotape, map, rare document, etc.) would be the easiest process in the world. One would also think that formulating rules for the consistent and logical cataloging of library materials would also yield only a few, simple rules.

Wrong.

For example, here are some of the issues that we have covered in class:

What if a book has an author and an illustrator of arguably equal importance? What if the illustrator is actually more important than the author (as in the case of many children's books)?

What if the book is the personal memoir of a former pro wrestler who also happens to be the former governor of Minnesota? What if the document is a state proclamation by the same given while he was governor?

What if there is more than one author of the book? What if the book was originally written by one author, but then revised and expanded by another or others after the original author’s death? What if the author publishes under a pseudonym? What if the pseudonym is a fictional character known from other literature (such as Dr. Watson or Superman)?

And my personal favorite (I am not making this up): What if this is a book posthumously “dictated” to a medium by a dead person, such as JonBenet Ramsey or Princess Diana?

Welcome to my grad school cataloging world.

The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules 2 is the result of decades-long collaboration between America and Europe to formulate clear, consistent rules for librarians, and this has been achieved. The rules are for the most part clear, and they are internally consistent, as well as being absolutely necessary. And yet the AACR2 is a 5-inch thick volume of bureaucratic speak that, in planning for every possible contingency, makes it one dull, complicated read—surely never the writers’ intentions.

Welcome to “design”!

In America, an attitude persists that simple rules yield simple results, and that complexity needs some kind of supernaturalist boost in order to develop. It’s simply not true. Government deregulation, the “simplification” of the tax code, the cutting of budgets, and the belief in a 6-day, thousands-year-old earth have yielded

*convoluted bureaucracy in business and worse-than-Russia labyrinthine run-around in health care;
*incomprehensible “Press seven for zippity-doo-dah” recorded customer service menus;
*longer and more complicated tax forms;
*tax preparation “specialists” who obligingly devise complicated ways to rip you off;
*multiple job descriptions of government workers, who were already never at their desks when you called before they were short-staffed (was forcing bureaucrats to perform three jobs instead of one supposed to make them more efficient? I've been there!); and

*the Babel of contradictory doctrines, themselves alternately called (and they change with the wind) “creationism,” “intelligent design,” “old earth creationism,” “young earth creationism,” “catastrophism,” and most laughably, “scientific creationism.”

And creationists wonder how speciation happens. Hello. It happens all by itself.

Complexity is easy. Complexity is the natural order of things. It only takes a few simple rules to arrive at complexity.

Take Paley’s watch, for example. Paley’s rhetorical watch is not the result of one designer being efficient. That is not, after all, how the watch developed. The watch developed over centuries, through trial-and-error. The watch had many “designers,” all of them fallible, and hardly an analogy to an infallible Designer-deity.

The watch went through many incarnations: as a stick in the sand, then a sundial, then a marked candle, then a water-clock, then a timepiece, etc., until it finally could keep time accurately enough for Paley to naively posit the mechanism as a model of supernatural design. But even though the watch was indeed “designed” by human beings, the story of the watch is actually the story of evolution, after all!

Most evolution is co-evolution, and humans and their tools co-evolved. “Design” doesn’t subvert Darwin’s theory, any more than artificial selection subverts evolution, or any more than my intention to drop an apple, as opposed to seeing one drop, subverts gravity.

It is simplicity that is difficult. I know this especially from dance. I could never stand Tai Chi because it required one to perform one movement at a time, with the aim of forcing one to think one thought at a time, whereas belly dance incorporates “layering,” the art of performing distinct physical isolations on top of one another (such as performing a hip shimmy, snake arms, and a head slide all at once. No, I cannot do all three). This is complicated, but the aim of the dance is to make it look easy. One must find and interpret simplicity in this complexity—which is why I call belly dance my an-Tai Chi, because when done correctly, after much practice, it stops looking like an absurd mess and resolves into one movement after all.

IDiots like William Dembski, Michael Behe, etc., only use the word “complexity” to impress their fans anyway—it’s a “big word,” it has multiple syllables, it sounds “technical,” which wows the “simple rules, simple results” crowd.

Simplicity is difficult, because simplicity entails elegance—and elegance, not sensational “complexity,” is the scientific ideal.

And you’re not going to believe the answer to the posthumous “as told to” question! Okay, POP QUIZ: According to the AACR2, who is to be listed in the catalog as the author of Princess Diana's posthumous "autobiography," Diana, or the huckster medium who is the real author?

5 Comments:

Blogger Dan said...

Take Paley’s watch, for example. Paley’s rhetorical watch is not the result of one designer being efficient. That is not, after all, how the watch developed. The watch developed over centuries, through trial-and-error. The watch had many “designers,” all of them fallible, and hardly an analogy to an infallible Designer-deity.

The simple-minded yobbos don't think of it that way. They think of this particular watch, which was created by a specific person in a specific time and place, not of "the watch" as a generalized design-form with its own very long engineering history. The idea that the modern watch is something that was arrived at over time is completely beyond their understanding.

It's not simplicity that they thrive on, it's shallowness.

I could never stand Tai Chi because it required one to perform one movement at a time, with the aim of forcing one to think one thought at a time,

Tai Chi has the outward appearance of parsimony, but that is quite deceptive. Intentionally so, actually. But there is nothing simple about the underlying principles of the internal-style martial arts.

Yang style Tai Chi (the style that is most often practiced as "Tai Chi for health") is much "simpler," to untrained eyes, than most other styles, but if you want a great workout with all kinds of complicated body-flow, try to find an instructor who specializes in Chen style.

October 11, 2006 2:24 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

They think of this particular watch, which was created by a specific person in a specific time and place, not of "the watch" as a generalized design-form with its own very long engineering history.

Oh, I get it. Well…geez, that is pretty damn shallow! It’s difficult even to try to think that way. In fact, it's painful.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that there was nothing complex about Tai Chi. I’m just too lazy to discover it. (I am lazy in my own way.) If you ever saw the movie Sweetie in which the protagonist tries to meditate and then tells the guru, “It just makes me irritable,” that’s me. I like what I like, I guess—but I really wanted to learn Tai Chi, until I actually did it. It’s work, but not the kind of work that I want to do.

What I should have said is that I prefer multi-tasking!

(I just thought of something: what if Paley's watch has missing parts? Is that due to "God," too?)
;-)

October 11, 2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oh, I get it. Well…geez, that is pretty damn shallow! It’s difficult even to try to think that way. In fact, it's painful.

The root cause is an inability to think abstractly or to generalize from observations (although those are basically the same thing, I guess). It's the same reason they don't grok science or philosophy and can't construct a logical argument to save their lives.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that there was nothing complex about Tai Chi. I’m just too lazy to discover it.

The problem with learning Tai Chi in America is that most people who teach it here teach it badly. It's like cooking Brussels sprouts, in that regard. The number of quacks in American martial arts instruction is far above the cross-disciplinary average rate of quackery.

If you can find a good instructor, it's one of the most emotionally rewarding yet physically demanding workouts there is. You'll be sore for days after a really good session, but it's the good kind of sore. And, again if you find a good instructor, it's also one of the most effective, efficient forms of self-defense in the world. It does take a special kind of patience and dedication, though, since it's traditionally taught so slowly and meticulously.

October 11, 2006 4:16 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Well, that's good to know. Cooking brussel spouts encapsulates it!

What should I look for in a good instructor?

October 11, 2006 11:16 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

What should I look for in a good instructor?

It's tough to say, since there's no certification standard. You'll want someone who has mastered more than one style. The three "classical" Chinese internal styles are Tai Chi, Hsing-I Chuan, and Pakua Chang. Anyone who teaches at least two of those probably knows their stuff. If they teach something relatively obscure like Wa Lu or Fukien White Crane, that's a definite bonus.

The kung fu club at Vanderbilt, where I studied, is affiliated with the Chinese Boxing Institute International. I'd suggest you find one of their instructors, but there are only about a dozen of them and as far as I know none live in your area. The people there definitely know what's going on, though, so if you contact them, they might be able to point you towards someone in Minneapolis.

October 12, 2006 12:57 AM  

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