Category Archives: Biological Systems

Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

Dandelion seeds (achenes) can be carried long ...

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The Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere is a unpublished model of cognition that I began developing in the late ninety’s and early years of 2000 as a result of my training in linguistics and anthropology.  I worked on it before I knew what Cognitive Linguistics actually was and, in fact, it was part of my conversion to CogLing.  With a nod to remix culture and assemblage theory, this model tried to blend together several validated models of discourse and culture in a super feeble attempt to bridge the epistemological gulf between realism and relativism and explain the complete communication picture in a systematic and procedurally elegant way (read: quasi-arbitrary).  This was the early days of my interest in systems theory, but I was really naive about the complexity of complexity.  Basically, the more that I worked on the model the more I came to see that Cognitive Linguistics already had working solutions to a lot of the questions I was addressing.  In fact, when I read back through my notes now, I see that it is actually a model of attention and dynamic construal.  I won’t tell you anything more about the mechanics right now, but I expect that one day I will pull it back off the shelf and show it to the world; in the mean time, here is an analogy from my original manuscript (part of which is in this book) for you to chew on:

“Pick the white puff of seeds on a dandelion clock, pick the stem and hold it in your hand, and meticulously and decidedly, remove every single floating seed, one-by-one until there is only one remaining.  This is what the first thought does when it moves to the second thought.  You have deselected every seed, ignored them all but one, the one you highlighted, the one you lit up – the one you selected.  This, the lone seed on the stem, a sphere at the base, the rod line of the seed body, and the end of the seed a circle of tiny white hairs that extend radially from the stem in many many directions, this seed is a snapshot. You are holding in your hand the most natural visible representation of how your thoughts live and travel.  Now put that last seed up to your mouth and do the wind’s job and send that seed floating.  Where it lands it either develops or dies, just like your thought.”

“If you can take a line of thought and follow it to every dead-end, out every open door and window, to every destination – and catch it resting – you will see simply and plain how lawless and unruly even simple thoughts are in their brief lives.”

You can view images from my portfolio that were inspired through this process at:

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Schematic Construals in Favor of Ecological Transportation

If you say the admittedly odd sentence “The baby feeds on mother’s milk.” it accesses a parasitic construal for the act of eating.  Pardon any offense this might cause you; I promise to redeem myself.  I am not saying that babies are parasites, but that the transfer involved could be construed as parasitic at this stage (depending on your nature/nurture views).  Please hang on for a few more sentences.

If you replace the lexical items with items from the same grammatical categories you could arrive at this sentence: “The car runs on gasoline”; this construal is merely consumptive.  All that has been done is replace a subject noun (baby) for another subject noun (car), a verb phrase (feeds on) for another similar verb phrase (runs on), and finally, a noun (mother’s milk) for an another noun (gasoline).

The innocent and non-parasitic behavior of the car in the second example sentence results from the fact that the source of the consumed material is absent from the semantics of the sentence.  Some would argue that it is implied.

So far we have a baby that acts parasitically toward its mother in order to consume a substance in order to operate, and a car that acts consumptively toward a substance in order to operate.

I want to argue that the car is actually parasitic depending on how your worldview construes the relationship between gasoline and its originating source: fossil fuel that comes from within the earth.  A reading of the earth as a mother (which many mythological systems do) would render the car’s unidirectional consumption of fuel a parasitic consumption of a resource from the earth.  If you construe the concept CAR in this parasitic way and realize that it is markedly different from a relationship between a child and a mother (the child later benefits the mother, they have a loving bond, they provide things for each other – exculpating the child from the parasitic framing), it seems reasonable to begin to look for ways to mitigate the parasitic nature of the car.  While some of the emissions from a car may provide positive feedback into the system our earth belongs to, by and large the car does nothing good for the earth, and truly embodies the role of parasite.

Something should change.

Because transferral of energy always entails a forward chain of consumption, it cannot be the consumption model that needs to change; it must be the parasitic nature.

One alternative is an epiphytic consumption, something like a solar car.  (At this point you probably see that this is not an article about babies or about cars, but rather construal and schematization).  Whether or not solar cars are a reality, that model would satisfy the need to reduce the parasitic nature of gasoline-run cars on the limited resources of a mother earth.

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How I became a Linguist: Characteristics of Intelligent Behavior

Systems thinking about the society

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Sometime in the early nineties my mother gave me a list of Arthur Costa’s twelve characteristics of intelligent behavior.  This list actually had a lot of influence in my life as I stumbled upon the trajectory toward anthropology and linguistics.  It taught me that I could actually organize observations and thoughts and cause them to not only make sense out of reality, but to blend the sense-making process with the process of describing reality.

I wanted to summarize Costa’s 1988 list here and to provide a link to a full article by Costa that explains the rationale behind each of the list items.

  1. Persistence, persevering when the solution to a problem is not immediately apparent
  2. Decreasing Impulsivity
  3. Listening to Others – with Empathy and Understanding
  4. Flexibility in Thinking
  5. Metacognition: Awareness of Our Own Thinking
  6. Checking for Accuracy and Precision
  7. Questioning and Problem Posing
  8. Drawing on Past Knowledge and Applying it to New Situations
  9. Precision of Language and Thought
  10. Using All the Senses
  11. Ingenuity, Originality, Insightfulness: Creativity
  12. Wonderment, inquisitiveness, curiosity, and the enjoyment of problem solving – a sense of efficacy as a thinker [Costa: 1988]

What strikes me as important in this list, is the correlation to the task of conducting both anthropological and linguistic fieldwork.  Wherever one is a stranger this list equips with the basic attitude necessary to learn to fit it, or at least to be welcomed in to a community.

This list is also manifest in anyone doing any kind of systems science.  All twelve of these skills make it possible for you to collect data, analyze it, and turn it into some kind of presentable report that describes the system.  This three activity cycle: collect, analyze, present is what I feel is at the core of being any kind of productively observational person.

Since this original list was published in the 80’s, Costa has revised it under the label “Habits of Mind” and expanded it to include 16 habits.  Since this revised list was not a part of my path to linguistics I chose instead to list the original.  However, the revised list is great and can be found here.


Costa, Arthur, L. (1988). Teaching for Intelligence: recognizing and encouraging skillful thinking and behavior. (p.22) in Transforming Education (IC #8), Context Institute. Stable URL:

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On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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An Emergentist vs. Universalist view of Language and Cognition

Distributed cognition

Image by Lisa Brewster via Flickr

I wanted to present a list that outlines some of the main differences in thought about language between Emergentist and Universalist perspectives.  This is important I think because it shows how only certain kinds of programmers and mathematicians can work successfully within a Cognitive framework.

Consider these characteristics of an Emergentist (Cognitive) view:

  1. Singular Mind (General Cognitive Abilities)
  2. Distributed Cognition
  3. Neo-Empiricist
  4. The Complex System IS the primitive
  5. Prototypes
  6. Online and Dynamic Processing
  7. Usage Based View of Language
  8. Falsifiable
  9. The Appropriate Level of Granularity is the Form-Meaning Pair (i.e., constructions)

Now, compare that list with this Universalist (usually Generative) view on the same issues:

  1. Modular Mind
  2. Localization in Neuroscience
  3. Innate
  4. Atomistic, Reduce!
  5. Feature based categories & Atomistic Set Theory
  6. Stable Structures and “Switches” that enable cognition
  7. Competence Based View of Language
  8. Language is the de facto expected product of the mind
  9. Reductionism refines phenomena out of existence

Can some middle perspective be taken that combines both extremes?  What are your thoughts?

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Doing Strategic Planning #4: Adapting Existing Organization-External Materials for Internal Use

GDP Composition By Sector and Labour Force By ...

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This is part of the continuing series about Strategic Planning and outlines the process I am using with a particular organization.  I wanted to briefly explain something that I think is a viable pattern for learning from others, namely, looking at their work and seeing how you need to shape your own work in order to be considered a participating member of the industry.

The organization I am working for is trying to draft a strategic plan that also accounts for decision-making policies in how they invest in different causes.  Many of those causes include development work in places that have the shared features of extreme poverty, drastically different cultural values, and non-Western perspectives (i.e., post-colonial environments).  After listening to the organization talk about their vision and mission and seeing the history of their work and recognizing their place of respect in the development community I felt that it was important to make sure that they were at least in line with the ethical standards of similar industries (especially anthropology).  After looking through different industry codes of ethics I decided that the American Anthropological Association had a superb code of ethics and that without violating copyrights I would use it as a research tool to identify the major domains of concern for ethical conduct.  This is an ongoing process and it will be a few weeks before I am completely content with the results.  My approach will include working with my organization to help them see how the AAA code of ethics can inform their own tactics and methods that emerge to meet the strategic goals.  Basically, I hope that the organization can use this code of ethics to continue to drive their own policy and decision-making.

This is following my personal learning strategy: Collect, Analyze, Present.  And I am teaching the organization to collect the views of others, to analyze how they might apply to their own work, and present them in a format that suits the strategic goals of the organization.

Stay tuned for updates.

Post Script: WordPress has a feature that suggests related articles and before I published this article it suggested this interesting link:

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Stone Soup, Bouillon Cubes, and Innovation

In my childhood I think it was the fable about Stone Soup that made me start to think about innovation.  As I learned to cook and came further into the world of soup-lore I realized that good soups rely on a reduction of some sort, some kind of richly delicious liquid broth.  In the food world reducing things to something rich and dense is worthy of gustatorial praise.  A brief tour of cookery terms reveal that we have many aspirations to reductions (I am thinking about words like reduction, concentration, syrup, et cetera) and our food science inventions reveal something similar: the bouillon cube.  I think beyond a soup stock, the bouillon cube is the pinnacle achievement of reduction.  It is an abstraction of flavor from the specificity of the ingredients.  But anyway, getting to the point, I don’t like to use bouillon cubes; instead, I make my own soup stocks from scratch in much the same manner as the man who first made stone soup.

For a while now I have been finding myself throwing my vegetable scraps in the freezer so that I can use them to make soup stocks from scratch.  I have recently started cycling through the process on a weekly basis.  Take a look at this week’s table-scraps: Continue reading

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Think Like a Bacterium: OSMOS, Naïve Quorum Sensing, & the iPad

I was recently sucked into playing OSMOS on my iPad.  I never play video games (usually I am too busy: wife, art, school, work) but I did happen to spend four hours straight playing this game over winter break.  This game synthesizes math, physics, biology, conceptualization and human enhancement.   Continue reading

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