Category Archives: The Art of War Against Boredom

Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere

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

Image via Wikipedia

The Perpetual Epicentral Density Sphere is a unpublished model of cognition that I began developing in the late ninety’s and early years of 2000 as a result of my training in linguistics and anthropology.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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On walking and mediated embodied experience in ethnographic map making

Girl walking in a beach. Porto Covo, Portugal.

Image via Wikipedia

Recently I’ve been thinking about my spatial experience of my contextual environment and about what I have learned over the years in consciously encountering space as a user of space, a creator of space, and a participant in community through space.  I am thinking about this as I am getting ready to do some tutoring on domain mapping in ethnographic research.  Here is a summary of my spatial experience.

As a child most of my experience with space was either moving through it on foot or by being driven around in a car.  Toss in the stroller, occasional plane ride, boating, crutches, sledding, riding a bicycle, but by and large WALKING and RIDING dominated my childhood experience of space.

As an adult I would live in cities like Chicago and Honolulu, places where the infrastructure encouraged walking.  This changed my understanding of terrain, and walking became my primary vantage point for my movement through space, although each place did have new modes of movement; Chicago had a train, Honolulu had surf boards.

Doing fieldwork in West Africa I would never drive; I saw most of sub-Saharan Africa in a van, or a Volkswagen, or a Renault, but I was always the passenger.  At least I could stare out the window and imagine what it was like at a walking pace.

Where I live now has a walkability score of 25 out of 100.  Where I lived in Chicago had a score of 98, Hawai’i had a score of 78; clearly my current 25 is pitiful in comparison.

To be fair, where I live now there are some residents with a score of 82, so, it is not like walking is precluded by living here, just that it is not easy for everyone (like me).  I walked home from work once and it took me three hours.

This has restricted my daily routine movement to driving.  These days I experience my landscape from a vehicle (much like my Africa passenger days), but this time I don’t even get to look around and pay attention to what zooms past my face; no, I only pay attention to that which is necessary to avoid collisions.

Driving has seriously hindered my sense of place.  I used to spend a lot of time walking, exploring, noticing things at street level, at a pace that let me participate and observe; being a car driver has forced me to give up participation with a place in favor of being a consumer of that place, the road is just a conduit.

Instead of participating with the place I now participate with my driving peers as we consume the street on our way to our various destinations.  The interactive dynamic is not with the people who reside in a place, but with people who routinely pass through the place.  This is like the boat that is moored to the riverbank, the boat might not move but the river has certainly changed.

Compared to the speed with which I now drive through my neighborhoods, walking is practically standing still.  Walking is being the boat moored to the bank; driving is the rushing river.  And the places I drive through do not really change either, but I have nothing to do with the neighborhoods which I zoom through, not the shops, not the landscape, not the people.

I need to stop driving so much.

I need to learn to walk, again.

I need to experience the physical crust of earth and to encounter a place with my feet, unmediated by round rubber tires and a gas pedal.

Being a driver has abstracted my encounter with a place by removing the minutia and patient tiny details made visible to the walking man.  I say “man” because I speak of myself; I was a walking man, like James Taylor, but now, where I live, if you walk expect to be stared at, honked at, yelled at by crazy fun-loving child-drivers, and occasionally the target of someone’s empty sodacan/coffeecup/waterbottle hurled out the window with an insult.  I am serious; walking is stigmatizing, and dangerous.

This is partly why I drive places.

My level of attention to place as a driver does not decompose into lower level experiences with place like it does on a stroll where those small experiences gradiently build up to become a walking journey, instead I pay more attention to how many red lights have impeded my progress.

Walking for me does more than serve the function of travel between places; I walk to know a place.

When I move somewhere new (or even visit from out of town), the first thing I do is walk around a place, in an ever widening gyre, a scroll stroll uncurling through a city emanating away from my apartment or hotel room.  I walk around and I get a feel for what surrounds me.  I don’t even look at a map until I have learned the map through my feet.  By doing this I start to learn my place in the broader context, and this is where you encounter the joys of a place, its people, its vitality, its curiosities; by walking you learn the identity of a place.

This afternoon I thought about how walking is natural for me as an ethnographer; in fact, walking is essential.  And one of the reasons it is so important is that it helps in making maps of a place, in mapping the domains and the various spatial relations found in that place.  Sure, you can sit somewhere and draw a map of everything you see, but I promise you, if you walk around a place and look first with your feet, your map will be more detailed, more accurate, and more relevant as you come to capture the reality which each participant experiences as they use that space.

I might have seen a lot of sub-Saharan West Africa, but it doesn’t mean too much to me, and I certainly could only attempt to map it out from an approximation of the various landmarks I happened to have noticed from the window.  This is because the dynamic and progressive movement of a vehicle is that your sense of figure-ground organization is constantly shifting, and it goes as fast as the driver feels is necessary.  But when you walk around, if something becomes figural in your field of vision, and you feel it is important, you get to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of what you have seen.  This kind of intentional embodied experience is vital for making sense of a place.

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Borrowing Tools Across Disciplines: Blacksmithing to Linguistics

I am going to be exploring what it means to incorporate accrued extralinguistic experiences into professional practice as a cognitive linguist and to start it off I wanted to post an introductory post on my experiences as a blacksmith.

Some of you might know that I spent some time working as an apprentice to an old Italian blacksmith and that much of what I learned from him has been a guiding framework for thinking about problems through the lens of an orthogonal discipline.

For now, I want you to think about something that occurs in all professions, the development of professional wisdom which is reduced into phrasal algorithms that are like bullion-cubes for making meaning.  In other words, the way a discipline perpetuates its knowledge is through building either the recipes or the ingredients for how to do things.  From my experience in blacksmithing, these recipes have been captured in Italian proverbs and English literary metaphors.

Think about those metaphors: “too many irons in the fire”, “lose your temper”, et cetera, I guess these blacksmithing metaphors probably emerged from failures to adhere to the two Italian phrases I heard repeated most in my shop:

pian piano vai lontano

slowly slowly you go far


Il monici dicono in questo mondo di via vera multa paciencia

In this world, the monks say that you have to have a lot of patience

If you don’t have patience you forge ahead, ignoring the fact that you have too many irons in the fire to work them in a reasonable amount of time.

If instead of trying to rush through a process (like tempering a knife blade or a chisel) take it easy, go slowly, it will get you farther that rushing (working too quickly could cause a tool to lose its temper).

I spent a lot of my time writing during the evenings while I was a blacksmith.  During that time I wrote this procedural essay describing the process of forging steel (in this case it is using an acetylene torch instead of my blacksmith’s hearth…but forging is forging.  It is actually the prologue to a book about how the creative process of artists and scientists are parallel.  Anyway, read the prologue.

One of my favorite aspects of blacksmithing is the act of harnessing fire to work metal into a desired shape, I am going to explore this further and describe in future posts how this is similar to the cognitive processes of dynamic construal.  Stay tuned.

Post Script for Metalworkers:

If you got to this page because you are looking for advice about blacksmithing or are interested in toolmaking check out The Complete Modern Blacksmith…and take a look at my Amazon book list for metalworking.

Post Post Script for people interested in other people’s blacksmithing experiences:

Here is a woman who wanted to learn blacksmithing to “keep making history live” [I love it!]. Check out her blog about history and blacksmithing.

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Cognitive Mindfulness #9(b)

Martin Creed 'Work No 850' at Tate Britain

Image by Loz Flowers via Flickr

This is part two of Cognitive Mindfulness #9, and continues the Evans & Green passage.

“The difference between the domains of TIME and SPACE is that while TIME has the property of progression, SPACE is static.  ‘Progression’ means that the quantity within this domain is made up of a sequence of distinct representations because it changes from one instance to the next.  By way of illustration, imagine photographing someone engaged in an activity like stroking a cat.  Each of the photographs you take will be different from the previous one, and together they portray the activity.  In contrast, change is not an inherent property of objects, although of course objects can be involved in processes of change.”  [515-516, Evans & Green, 2006]

Immediately this reminds me of Dave Eggers and his quote about relationships from his work “You Shall Know Our Velocity!” Continue reading

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Cognitive Science & Engineering by Deductive Reasoning

Flywheel from old factory

Image via Wikipedia

Here is a brief passage from my book The Art of War Against Boredom.  I wrote this passage around 8 years ago, and while it is influenced by my background in descriptive linguistics as opposed to strict cognitive linguistics, I still feel that it has something to say about the cognitive enterprise.  For example, in cognitive linguistics the actual language in use reflects the mental processing which produced that actual language.  In this passage below, the designed object reflects the mathematical processes which drove the production of the designed object.  I recognize that this can be interpreted through a generative lens too, but the passage isn’t meant to illustrate linguistic theory, it is a folk-methodology for problem solving.  Anyway, the designed object reflects the process of production. Continue reading

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