/* Added by TWP, 10/12/2012 */ /* End of addition */

One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bokononism Everywhere

When I talk or write, people often tell me they are depressed with what I tell them.  These people crave for a more palatable approach that belongs to Bokonon:
I wanted all things
To seem to make sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all  fit nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise
Bokonon's Calypso, Kurt Vonnegut, "Cat's Cradle," p. 127.

Bokonon's true power is in imagining other people's dreams before they realize what it is that makes them happy.

Bokonon's approach is commonly applied in all mass media, including advertizing and some of the major science journals. It has also been the standard operating procedure in all religions since times immemorial and in politics.

In short, Bokonon's Calypso reflects human nature and my creations do not. Therein lies my problem in communicating with the public.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Who could foresee all that?!

Here is the best reflection I could find of how humans thought about science, technology and complexity in the year 2011.  On March 19th, Mr. Jeff Sommer wrote his masterful piece, A Crisis That Markets Can’t Grasp, which was published by NYT on the front page of the Sunday Business Section.  Here are the salient quotations:
The details of this catastrophe [of the Tokyo Electric Power Company's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant] were unforeseeable, leading some to conclude this was a black swan event — something so wildly unexpected, so enormous in its impact, that it seems to defy our understanding and expose the fragility of our knowledge of the world. How could anyone have predicted this?
So perhaps a bigger question is whether the markets — in which we have come to place so much trust — can put a true price on outsize risks like this.
Many have compared the events unfolding in Japan with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the financial collapse of 2008 and 2009, the BP oil spill, and the uprisings in the Arab world — in that all have shown the limits of the collective wisdom of the marketplace.

A stone tablet in Aneyoshi, Japan, warns residents not to build homes below it. Hundreds of these so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan. Photo by Ko Sasaki for The New York Times,  April 20, 2011.

It appears to me that Mr. Sommer may be thinking that
  1. Most engineers - and all of us for that matter - are idiotes and atechnos, who stumble blindly in the dark and can't read stone tablets; and he puts his faith in
  2. The Invisible Hand of God that guides us through it all, and chooses our (His?) best creation ever - The Markets - to make sense out of the mess we're in.
In the Roman census questionnaires in Egypt, mostly between 103 and 215 A.D., there were two categories of respondents, "atechnos" and "idiotes," that denoted people with no profession and no education.

To me, Mr. Sommer's masterpiece is pure Bokononism, which I shall explain next. In our dark world of confusion, bad design, lack of imagination and managerial ignorance, mistakes are easily excused, because black swans happen. This particular black swan, like so many black swans before it, should not have happened, and is easily explained away post factum. Bokononism is a supremely ironic way of joking about reality.
    Now let me quote Kurt Vonnegut to explain why I still might agree with Mr. Sommer's Bokononist rationalizations:
    And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I read in its entirety the night before.  The Fourteenth  Book is entitled "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
    It doesn't take long to read The Fourteenth Book.  It consists of only one word and a period.

    This is it:

    Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, Chapter 110, page 245.

    Bokononism was a religion conceived as a joke and a bunch of lies, which nevertheless were adopted by all people of San Lorenzo, poor and rich, because Bokononism was such a pleasing and reassuring religion. As fate would have it, all of the San Lorenzans, and many of their guests perished. Modern Science, that black magic that works, and the Science's child, Technology, swiftly killed all of those sorry atechnos. They were told by Bokonon himself to lick the most potent fruit of Science and Technology, and end their miserable existence.
    P.S.  At first I did not want to tell you the rest of this story, but then I decided that you too needed to know.  Dr. Hoennikker, the physics genius and the best scientist who ever lived, created not only the Atomic Bomb, but also Ice 9, a new crystalline form of ice that melted at 114.7 degrees Fahrenheit.  Besides killing Dr. Hoennikker and his dog, and all San Loranzans but Bokonon, Ice 9 froze the whole Earth and killed all the oceans, the fish, the birds, the forests, the animals, and - yes - almost all humans too.  Pure science triumphed, but our beautiful, blue and green living Earth died. We died too. Do you still care to know what happened to The Markets?

    P.S.P.S. That last black swan in the living Earth's history was not black at all, but glistened with white and blue.