TweetFollow Us on Twitter

December 94 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

Nothing Comes From Nothing

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 109-111_Vet_Neophyte_8_1.GIF]

Take a good look around at all the different structures you see in the world. Not only the physical structures, like buildings and mountains and dogs and trees, but the conceptual structures, like language and government and the Dewey decimal system and the management hierarchy at your place of work. Some of these structures seem to exist independently of humans, but others seem to be completely invented, made up from whole cloth, so to speak. But how can that be? Can you really create something from nothing? I wonder.

I just got back from a sort of educational/recreational summer camp for adults (I'm writing this in early August). It was the California Coast Music Camp, a week of intensive classes and refreshing musical single-mindedness. There were no cars, no computers, no worries -- nothing to do but play and sing and learn (and swim and eat and hike).

The camp itself was classic: squat brown bunkhouses scattered in small groups like big hollow dice; long low latrines, redolent with that cloyingly sweet chemical peculiar to outdoor bathrooms; enormous vats of jello and drowned salad at the ends of the long serving tables in the echoing dining hall; bug bites, bug spray, and bugs -- you get the idea. And even though it was strictly adults, all the same feelings I remember from my one camp experience as a kid were there in the wide and ragged spectrum of emotions it generated. I had the same scary and uncertain feelings at the beginning, wondering if I really should be there at all; the same gradual discovery that it was all OK, and in fact was fantastic; and, at the end, the same bittersweet longing to start it all over again.

Music really is a lovely thing. One of the classes I took was called "Theory, Scales, and Chord Construction on the Guitar" and it was on the third day of class, as I was plunking away at yet another arpeggio, that I began to get my first glimpse of the underlying structure of the notes on the guitar fretboard. (And I do mean glimpse: it's something that will probably take a year or more to see clearly, and five or ten years to really feel -- and that's if I practice every day.) I was suddenly struck by the notion that it's the discontinuities in musical scales that make them both difficult and interesting, that it's the complications in the structure of music that give it an interesting shape. If you've ever taken a music theory class, or even a piano class, you might know what I mean: if only there were a black key between every pair of white keys, things would be much simpler. It's that damned half step between B and C and between E and F that screws things up. But it also seems that those discontinuities -- those bumps and dips in an otherwise smooth, even progression -- are what give rise to all the beauty and complexity and subtlety. It's precisely those "flaws" in the structure that lend it an interesting texture.

However, the structure itself is artificial. Underneath, the range of musical tones is actually continuous, as any slide whistle demonstrates. It's a spectrum, a continuously varying quantity, in this case the frequency of vibration of a material. So the set of notes we use -- our tuning system -- is externally applied, a necessarily arbitrary set of discrete slots pasted onto an underlying continuum. It's a sort ofquantization of something inherently smooth that lends it a tractable structure, that gives us a handle with which to manipulate it and a context in which to make sense of it. By conceptually making the smoothly varying curve into a step function, by arbitrarily chopping the continuous line into discrete chunks, we can somehow work with it more manageably and think about it more clearly.

If you look around a little, you'll find examples of this kind of artificial structuring of continuums all over the place. The computer in front of you (or wherever it is) is an excellent example. Many early computers were analog; they dealt with smoothly varying quantities (usually voltages in circuits). But they turned out to be too hard to program -- in effect you had to create a physical circuit that modeled the problem you wanted to solve. By making the computer purely digital, we abstracted its operation away from the physical realm into the realm of pure logic, and that really opened up a lot of doors. Another much simpler example is a radio dial; it actually represents a continuous spread of frequencies, but we've arbitrarily divided it into bands so that we can parcel it out to those who want to use pieces of it.

More abstractly, in mathematics one often takes a continuously varying function and "pretends" for a moment that it's a step function, simply because it makes things easier to deal with. Then, when you've got a handle on the step function, you can use a nifty trick (called calculus) to sort of extrapolate what you've discovered about the steps and apply it to the whole curve. Time itself (which sure feels like a continuum, whatever it is) is conveniently chopped into bits by humans to make it easier to keep track of and to talk about.

But there are other quantities in our world that seem to come to us already divided up into discrete chunks, already structured. The periodic table of the elements certainly isn't a continuum. There's no smooth transition between sodium and magnesium, though they sit next to each other in the table. The distinction between the phases of matter -- solids, liquids, and gases -- seems pretty clear, too. (Well, OK, there are some bizarre in-between states you learn about in college, but they're encountered only in extreme conditions, usually artificially induced in laboratories and definitely inhospitable to mammals.) Living things appear to be made up of lots of discrete functional blocks -- organs and cells and organelles and protein molecules and such -- and the interactions of these discrete parts are what makes them "go." DNA itself, the structure that stores the instructions for building, is just a binary (or rather quaternary) string, with each discrete position capable of storing only four possible values. Even the seeming continuum of a fluid like water is an illusion. In reality it's made of discrete particles, and it's their interactions with one another that give rise to "fluidness."

This endless interplay between the continuous and the discrete, between discovering structure and creating it, seems to be at the heart of many (maybe most) human endeavors. On the one hand, we often labor mightily to reveal structures that are somehow already there. Many of the sciences, in particular, are precisely an attempt to make clear the underlying structure of the universe, to peel away the layers of obfuscation that our senses have piled on. But it's not limited to science: Michelangelo spoke of sculpting not as inventing the shape of the statue, but rather as freeing it from the stone in which it was imprisoned.

On the other hand, many human activities are all about applying structure to something formless, or about creating structure from nothingness. Again, the arts spring to mind. A painting, a poem, a story, a song -- all these begin from nothing: from a blank canvas, from an empty sheet of paper, from silence. Computer programs, those awesomely complex logical constructions we devote ourselves to so slavishly, seem to be created from thin air, and serve as the structure for an otherwise "formless" machine. Business contracts, sheet metal ventilation ducts, bingo games, steering committees, and acoustic guitars -- these are all structures that we've created from, essentially, nothingness.

Ah, but there's the real question: are the structures we build really new? Do we really just invent them, whole, from nothing? Or do they grow from and reflect other underlying structures that are already there? The latter seems much more likely to me. If you look closely, even a structure that at first blush seems really new turns out to be a recombination or an extension or a reworking of some existing structure. Sometimes I think of evolutionary processes this way, as a sort of extrapolation, a patient elaboration, of a very few essential, innate principles that lie buried far beneath the surface, an endless cycle of structure standing on the shoulders of what has gone before. Perhaps the macroscopic shapes of living things hint at the underlying nature of matter: quantum reality writ large, for all to see.

So, getting back to music, does the tuning system that we use reflect some underlying structure, some relationship among the frequencies, or is it truly arbitrary, decided by some bewigged old coot in the dim and dusty past? To find out, I did a little snooping around in the local library and on the net. The answer turns out to be complex (no surprise there), and it has as much to do with accidents of history, people's personalities, and the practicalities of tuning instruments as it does with mathematics. There is an underlying structure beneath the western tuning system and many others (the relationships among the harmonics of a vibrating string or column of air, first elaborated by -- you guessed it -- the Greeks). But it also turns out that most music has evolved away from those "ideal" frequencies for a variety of reasons that have little to do with mathematics or physics. Here's what I think: I think the structure of music is largely determined by the structure of us.

Sunburst shapes -- mandalas -- appear over and over in pictures drawn by children, no matter what their culture or language or what part of the world they live in. You could argue that it's simply because there are lots of radially symmetric things in the world, and that children are simply drawing what they see. But I prefer to think that mandalas somehow mirror the internal structure of the human mind, that they are, in a sense, pictures of humanity.

Humans spend enormous amounts of time shaping things, refining things, expressing things, creating. Where does all the structure come from? I think it's simply an outgrowth, an elaboration, a reinterpretation and repackaging, of the structure inside ourselves, which in turn reflects the structure of the universe we live in. Taken all together -- all the songs, all the buildings, all the stories, all the social groupings and computer programs and bad jokes and trash and art -- the structures we humans reveal and create form a churning, turbulent, clouded mirror, a mirror that occasionally, if we look very closely, may afford us a glimpse of who and what we really are.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul (Villard Books, 1991).
  • Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (Harper & Row, 1989).
  • Cane Toads: An Unnatural History by Stephanie Lewis (Doubleday, 1989).

DAVE JOHNSON has for years had the same favorite quote, from Albert Einstein: "He . . . who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe is as good as dead; his eyes are closed." But recently he encountered another, in a book by Primo Levi, that came very close to unseating Einstein's: "It is enough to think of intestinal worms: they feed themselves at our expense with a food so perfect that, unique in creation, together perhaps with the angels, they have no anus." Although Dave howled uncontrollably at that one, Einstein still wins in the end. *

Thanks to Lorraine Anderson, Jeff Barbose, Brian Hamlin, Mark "The Red" Harlan, Bo3b Johnson, Lisa Jongewaard, and Ned van Alstyne for their always enlightening review comments. *

Dave welcomes feedback on his musings. He can be reached at JOHNSON.DK on AppleLink, dkj@apple.com on the Internet, or 75300,715 on CompuServe.*

 
AAPL
$101.02
Apple Inc.
+0.06
MSFT
$47.17
Microsoft Corpora
-0.36
GOOG
$587.99
Google Inc.
-8.09

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Monosnap 2.2.2 - Versatile screenshot ut...
Monosnap allows you to save screenshots easily, conveniently, and quickly, sharing them with friends and colleagues at once. It's the ideal choice for anyone who is looking for a smart and fast... Read more
Tunnelblick 3.4beta36 - GUI for OpenVPN...
Tunnelblick is a free, open source graphic user interface for OpenVPN on OS X. It provides easy control of OpenVPN client and/or server connections. It comes as a ready-to-use application with all... Read more
SoftRAID 5.0.4 - High-quality RAID manag...
SoftRAID allows you to create and manage disk arrays to increase performance and reliability. SoftRAID's intuitive interface and powerful feature set makes this utility a must have for any Mac OS X... Read more
Audio Hijack Pro 2.11.3 - Record and enh...
Audio Hijack Pro drastically changes the way you use audio on your computer, giving you the freedom to listen to audio when you want and how you want. Record and enhance any audio with Audio Hijack... Read more
Airfoil 4.8.9 - Send audio from any app...
Airfoil allows you to send any audio to AirPort Express units, Apple TVs, and even other Macs and PCs, all in sync! It's your audio - everywhere. With Airfoil you can take audio from any... Read more
WhatRoute 1.13.0 - Geographically trace...
WhatRoute is designed to find the names of all the routers an IP packet passes through on its way from your Mac to a destination host. It also measures the round-trip time from your Mac to the... Read more
Chromium 37.0.2062.122 - Fast and stable...
Chromium is an open-source browser project that aims to build a safer, faster, and more stable way for all Internet users to experience the web. FreeSMUG-Free OpenSource Mac User Group build is... Read more
Attachment Tamer 3.1.14b9 - Take control...
Attachment Tamer gives you control over attachment handling in Apple Mail. It fixes the most annoying Apple Mail flaws, ensures compatibility with other email software, and allows you to set up how... Read more
Duplicate Annihilator 5.0 - Find and del...
Duplicate Annihilator takes on the time-consuming task of comparing the images in your iPhoto library using effective algorithms to make sure that no duplicate escapes. Duplicate Annihilator detects... Read more
jAlbum Pro 12.2 - Organize your digital...
jAlbum Pro has all the features you love in jAlbum, but comes with a commercial license. With jAlbum, you can create gorgeous custom photo galleries for the Web without writing a line of code!... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

Partyrs Review
Partyrs Review By Jordan Minor on September 22nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: LIFE OF THE PARTYUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Partyrs makes party planning as fun as partying itself.   | Read more »
View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS...
View Source – HTML, JavaScript and CSS 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Utilities Price: $.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: View Source is an app plus an iOS 8 Safari extension that makes it easy to do one key web developer... | Read more »
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: De...
Avenged Sevenfold’s Hail To The King: Deathbat is Coming to iOS on October 16th Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Just in time for Halloween, on October 16 Avenged Sevenfold will be launching | Read more »
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be...
Talisman Has Gone Universal – Can Now be Played on the iPhone Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »
Tap Army Review
Tap Army Review By Jennifer Allen on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: SHOOT EM ALLUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Mindless but fun, Tap Army is a lane-based shooter that should help you relieve some stress.   | Read more »
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! Epic Island f...
Monsters! Volcanoes! Loot! | Read more »
Plunder Pirates: Tips, Tricks, Strategie...
Ahoy There, Seadogs: Interested in knowing our thoughts on all this plundering and pirating? Check out our Plunder Pirates Review! Have you just downloaded the rather enjoyable pirate-em-up Plunder Pirates and are in need of some assistance? Never... | Read more »
Goat Simulator Review
Goat Simulator Review By Lee Hamlet on September 19th, 2014 Our Rating: :: THE GRUFFEST OF BILLY GOATSUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Unleash chaos as a grumpy goat in this humorous but short-lived casual game.   | Read more »
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here fo...
A New and Improved Wunderlist is Here for iOS 8 Posted by Jessica Fisher on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipp...
Evernote Update for iOS 8 Adds Web Clipping, Quick Notes, and More Posted by Ellis Spice on September 19th, 2014 [ permalink ] | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

13-inch 128GB MacBook Air on sale for $949, s...
B&H Photo has the new 2014 13″ 1.4GHz/128GB MacBook Air on sale for $949.99 including free shipping plus NY tax only. Their price is $50 off MSRP. B&H will also include free copies of... Read more
iFixIt Tears Down iPhone 6; Awards Respectabl...
iFixit notes that even the smaller 4.7″ iPhone 6 is a giant among iPhones; so big that Apple couldn’t fit it into the familiar iPhone form factor. In a welcome reversal of a recent trend to more or... Read more
Phone 6 Guide – Tips Book For Both iPhone 6...
iOS Guides has announced its latest eBook: iPhone 6 Guide. Brought to you by the expert team at iOS Guides, and written by best-selling technology author Tom Rudderham, iPhone 6 Guide is packed with... Read more
How to Upgrade iPhone iPad to iOS 8 without D...
PhoneClean, a iPhone cleaner utility offered by iMobie Inc., reveals a solution for upgrading iPhone and iPad to iOS 8 without deleting photos, apps, the new U2 album or anything. Thanks to more than... Read more
Inpaint 6 – Photo Retouching Tool Gets Faster...
TeoreX has announced Inpaint 6, a simple retouching tool for end users that helps remove scratches, watermarks, and timestamps as well as more complex objects like strangers, unwanted elements and... Read more
Worldwide PC Monitor Market Sees Growth in To...
Worldwide PC monitor shipments totaled 32.5 million units in the second quarter of 2014 (2Q14), a year-over-year decline of -2.9%, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide... Read more
Updated Price Trackers
We’ve updated our Mac Price Trackers with the latest information on prices, bundles, and availability on systems from Apple’s authorized internet/catalog resellers: - 15″ MacBook Pros - 13″ MacBook... Read more
Mac Pros available for up to $260 off MSRP
Adorama has Mac Pros on sale for up to $260 off MSRP. Shipping is free, and Adorama charges sales tax in NY & NJ only: - 4-core Mac Pro: $2839.99, $160 off MSRP - 6-core Mac Pro: $3739.99, $260... Read more
13-inch 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pros avai...
B&H Photo has the 13″ 2.6GHz/256GB Retina MacBook Pro on sale for $1379 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $120 off MSRP. Read more
Previous-generation 15-inch 2.0GHz Retina Mac...
B&H Photo has leftover previous-generation 15″ 2.0GHz Retina MacBook Pros now available for $1599 including free shipping plus NY sales tax only. Their price is $400 off original MSRP. B&H... Read more

Jobs Board

Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
…customers purchase our products, you're the one who helps them get more out of their new Apple technology. Your day in the Apple Store is filled with a range of Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** At the Apple Store, you connect business professionals and entrepreneurs with the tools they need in order to put Apple solutions to work in their Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** The Apple Store is a retail environment like no other - uniquely focused on delivering amazing customer experiences. As an Expert, you introduce people Read more
Position Opening at *Apple* - Apple (United...
**Job Summary** As businesses discover the power of Apple computers and mobile devices, it's your job - as a Solutions Engineer - to show them how to introduce these Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.