[joho] JOHO - May 6, 2004

  • From: "David Weinberger" <self@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 8 May 2004 12:19:42 -0400

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
May 6, 2004
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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  | CONTENTS                                    |
  |                                             |
  | CHAINS AND LINKS: The tree-like structures  |
  | we've grown up with are being challenged    |
  | by messy webs.                              |
  |                                             |
  | Harmony of the Spheres is just too          |
  | wonderful an idea to ignore, even though    |
  | it's irrelevant to JOHO and everything it   |
  | cares about.                                |
  |                                             |
  | JUST A FEW LINKS: A handful of 'em from you.|
  | NO TO TORTURE                               |
  |                                             |
  | Do you know how you feel in the 24 hours    |
  | after you find out you or someone you love  |
  | has a serious disease? That's how I feel    |
  | in the wake of the revelation of the        |
  | torture at Abu Ghraib. I am heartsick.      |
  | IT'S A JOHO WORLD AFTER ALL                 |
  |                                             |
  | 1. Without my knowing it, a speech I gave   |
  | on how marketing is killing democracy was   |
  | broadcast live on C-SPAN. The Real Player   |
  | version is available here[1]. And there are |
  | some photos of me with senators here [2].   |
  |                                             |
  | 2. Did I mention two commentaries that ran  |
  | on NPR's "All Things Considered" recently?  |
  | One was on why we shouldn't let e-voting    |
  | machines make voting too easy[3]. The other |
  | was on how DRM, digital ID and "trusted     |
  | computing" are going to make the Internet   |
  | more locked down than the real world ever   |
  | was[4].                                     |
  | [1] rtsp://video.c-span.org/project/c04/c04042604_tech.rm
  | [2] www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/002612.html
  | [3] www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1800361
  | [4]
  |                                             |
  | May 17 is the first day same-sex marriages  |
  | are allowed in Massachusetts. Anyone else   |
  | feel like celebrating together?             |
  |                                             |
  | How about this? We show up en masse at our  |
  | local town halls. We each come with a       |
  | bouquet of flowers or two. As the couples   |
  | leave, we each give one flower to each      |
  | couple.                                     |
  |                                             |
  | Other ideas?                                |
  | A SPEECH I'D LIKE TO HEAR                   |
  |                                             |
  | When I get especially frustrated with       |
  | politicians, I write a speech I'd like      |
  | to hear. That's what I did last  night.     |
  | night. For some weird reason, I fall into   |
  | the bombastic rhetorical style of American  |
  | politicians on the stump, so you'll find    |
  | lots of feel-good phrases about America,    |
  | most of which I mean. But for this speech   |
  | to work at all, you have to picture a       |
  | typical candidate giving it, not Noam       |
  | Chomsky or Michael Dukakis.                 |
  |                                             |
  | It's called "Making America our own again." |
  | www.hyperorg.com/misc/ourownamerica.html    |                          

Over sixty years ago, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, a
professor at Johns Hopkins, gave a series of
lectures that resulted in his classic work, "The
Great Chain of Being." Its central aim was to show
that there was a:

        ...plan and structure of the world which, through
        the Middle Ages and down to the late eighteenth
        century...most educated men were to accept
        without question - the conception of the universe
        as a "Great Chain of Being", composed of an
        immense, or...infinite, number of links ranging
        in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of
        existents...through "every possible" grade up to
        the ens perfectissumum.

At the top was God, of course. Then came angels and
demons, then humans, then animals, then plants,
minerals, and at the bottom, non-being. Within these
broad categories, each and every thing had its
place, depending on how much "spirit" it contained
as opposed to mere "matter." Not only were rabbits
ahead of fish, and gold ahead of lead, but squires
were above merchants.

While the hierarchy of beings was laid out as rungs
on a ladder, the theory of "correspondences" added a
layer of complexity and even beauty to the notion:
Different sets of rungs reflected the order of
larger sets in what we would today call a fractal
way: The governmental order reflected the order of
the cosmos, human psychology reflected the four
elements, etc.

Despite this nicely complicating wrinkle, the
fundamental fact and purpose of the Great Chain of
Being was to be simple and complete: Every entity
had its spot in the hierarchy, every spot was filled,
and there could be no movement and no vacancies ...
ruling out evolution and extinction, not to mention
making social mobility a crime against nature.

Why believe such a foolish thing? After all, it
can't be derived from evidence. It does, however, do
something that all great theories do: It unifies
disparate experience. In fact, the Great Chain is
precisely about showing the inner order of the
diversity of entities. It unifies them not only in
terms of their rank order but also in terms of their
value. And it explains why there are precisely these
types of creatures and not others.

Even though the Chain has gone through some serious
revisions over the millennia, in one important way
it has remained the same. In the 18th Century,
Linnaeus re-did Aristotle's classifications, adding
a couple more grand categories. But, like Aristotle,
Linnaeus assumed that he was uncovering God's own
way of classifying the world. Likewise, modern
"cladistics" redraws Linnaeus' tree (and Stephen Jay
Gould would remind us that it's more like shrubbery
than a tree) according to each animal's ancestry,
not according to the similarities of their anatomy,
which is all Linnaeus had to go on. In all these
cases, the chain or tree is assumed to represent
real classifications, although the nature of the
reality -- God in Aristotle's or Linnaeus' eyes,
Nature's in Darwin's -- is different.

But now we are at a breaking point, for the
digitization of knowledge makes it inescapably clear
that most of the classificatory schemes that we care
about are invented, not discovered. Why is this so
clear? Because it's so easy to pivot the table, to
switch schemes, to file ideas under multiple
categories. Classifications are tools.

Further, classifications often no longer are the
best guides to value. Google beats Yahoo because,
while Yahoo puts everything into neatly arranged
folders, Google looks at the one-to-one links that
spread across the tree of knowledge like the work of
a million spiders on LSD.

The overtaking of trees by webs means that instead
of something getting its meaning from the bucket
it's in, its meaning is determined by the billion
different reasons people thought it'd be interesting
to link to it. If you want to see what something is,
don't look to where the Great Bucketer in the Sky
put it. Instead, look to what the population of
people who care about it think that it's about.
That's why Google can turn up a page that doesn't
even have the words on it that you're looking for:
The page thought it was a maintenance manual
for O-rings and didn't know that it's in fact about
why the Challenger blew up. But the web of
interested people knew it.

Once we recognize that classification schemes are
tools and not representations of reality, they get
much handier as tools. Of course, the price is
giving up our place in the eternal order of the

This piece will run as my monthly column in KMWorld.
You ought to subscribe to KMWorld because it's good
and the people who run it are delightful.


        If our hearts were as pure, as chaste, as snowy
        as Pythagoras' was, our ears would resound and be
        filled with that supremely lovely music of the
        wheeling stars. Then indeed all things would seem
        to return to the age of gold. Then we should be
        immune to pain, and we should enjoy the blessing
        of a peace that the gods themselves might envy.

        "On the Music of the Spheres," by John Milton
                        * * *

About 550 years before your Lord was born,
Pythagoras came up with the most beautiful idea in
Western history. Here's roughly what he thought:

        It's obvious from the shape of the night sky and
        the movement of the stars that the universe
        consists of five nested spheres. The distances
        between those bowls must reflect the order and
        beauty of the universe, for that order and beauty
        is uniform throughout the cosmos. 
        We can hear the order in music. Use a bridge
        to divide a string into the ratios 2:1, 3:2, 4:3,
        or 5:4 and you hear something beautiful. (Notice
        that you can make these ratios with only the
        numbers 1-5, a simplicity required for order and

        Since the cosmos is perfectly ordered, the
        distance between the moving objects in the sky
        must be in the same mathematical relationship
        that sounds so beautiful when applied to a lyre.
        The spheres themselves must make a sound as they
        whir around. That sound must therefore be
        harmonious and beautiful.

        But, why don't we hear the sound? Because we have
        been hearing it all of our lives. If it were to
        stop, we would notice its absence.

How wonderful! This idea assumes the Greek notion
that perfect orderliness and reason is
indistinguishable from beauty. It adds that beauty
is so always-present that it is absent; we could
only hear its presence if it were to become absent.

Philosophy may start with awe, as Aristotle said,
but it usually proceeds pretty quickly to tell us
that what we think is real isn't real, but something
else we can't see is. If the watery-ness of
everything were obvious, Thales wouldn't have had to
say that everything is water. If you could take the
world at face value, we wouldn't need philosophy.
(Yes, maybe you can and maybe we don't.) Having said
the the universe is other than it seems, the
philosopher then has to explain why it seems other
than it is: If everything is made of water, why
isn't everything wet? Or, in MadLibs form: "Despite
the way it seems, the universe is really ________.
It doesn't look like that because _________."

Pythagoras' view of that inevitable mystery of
philosophy is remarkable. That which is always
present can't itself be known or experienced, the
Harmony of the Spheres implies. Knowledge requires
lack, imperfection, absence, separation, apartness,
nothingness. Our knowledge is a disruption of the
perfection of order. That's why the world can be
other than it seems. Its truth is in the unheard and
the unspoken.

No wonder Pythagoras founded a religion.


Mark Dionne, in an email, asks an excellent

         We were eating a chicken tonite, and wondering
         where the ovaries were. I speculated that one
         ought to sometimes find an egg inside a chicken
         one was eating, if the chicken were slaughtered
         just before it was ready to lay one.

The Web being the Web, Mark found his answer here.

(Note: My including this link should not be taken as
condoning the slaughter of chickens for food. Or, as
Charleston Heston once said: "Soylent Green is
sentient life forms!")

In response to some blogging [1] about pages not saying
what they're about, Hanan Cohen points us to an
exceptionally well-written article [2] about latent
semantic indexing (not to be confused with latex
cement and indenting).

[1] http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/002623.html
[2] http://javelina.cet.middlebury.edu/lsa/out/cover_page.htm

Glenn Fleishman [1] writes:

         The CUWiN [Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless
         Network] project [2] wants to allow self-forming,
         noncentralized, mesh-based Wi-Fi networks using
         standard, old PCs with no configuration.

Take a bunch of 486s and you can create your own
functioning WiFi mesh network. The old paradigm of top-
down network provisioning is so fragile that just
one garage-based genius -- surrounded by an open
source community -- could implode it. Exciting.

[1] http://wifinetnews.com/archives/003279.html
[2] http://www.cuwireless.net/

Balldroppings [1]: Game, Artwork or Sport? Whatever,
it's elegant, free and makes nice boopy sounds.
[Thanks to Lockergnome [2] for the link.]
[1] http://www.jtnimoy.com/itp/balldroppings/
[2] http://www.lockergnome.com/

The VP of Iran has an honest-to-god blog:

I went to Portugal for two days, so I am now quite
an expert on the country, yessir. Here are some

That's it for now. Next time: Hegel's chocolate chip
cookie recipe, plus my 7 minutes in Tibet.


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  • » [joho] JOHO - May 6, 2004