Posts Tagged ‘Buckminster Fuller’

Addenda to My Conversation With Harold Channer

datePosted on 17 December 2014 by cjf

Harold Channer invited me to the studios of MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network) in New York City to record two one-hour editions of the TV program “Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer” on Tuesday the 25th of November, 2014. Since few things I write or speak come out fully baked, I thought I’d add a few additional thoughts to clarify, improve, or correct some of my comments. Since I value discussion, I sprinkled my remarks with many questions which I hope will elicit your feedback in the comments.

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I participated in the ReVIEWING Black Mountain College 4: Looking Forward at Buckminster Fuller’s Legacy conference on September 28-30, 2012 in Asheville, NC, USA. I gave two talks (click on the links below to see the PDF presentations):

  • Education Automation Now and in the Future. In this talk I recognize Buckminster Fuller as one of the conceptual founding fathers of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, detail six of his educational ideas, and give a brief review of several OER courses I’ve taken to indicate the kind of comprehensive education now possible using freely available on-line courses.
  • Synergetics and Model Thinking. In this talk I synthesize Scott E. Page’s Model Thinking with Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics. I introduce both subjects, then discuss the importance of model thinking. Then I sketch some ideas about how Model Thinking and Synergetics can inform a more incisive approach to science.

Please share any thoughts you might have about these presentations in the comments. I would value your feedback.

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Models of Projective Geometry

datePosted on 24 July 2012 by cjf

For me the most enticing facet of projective geometry is the profound way in which it treats duality. Duality is the notion that certain fundamental distinctions have similar structure in their complementary forms. In comparing a form with its dual, the basic structure remains even though the roles of the forms reverse. Inside and outside. Convex and concave. Yin and yang. In 2D (two-dimensional) projective geometry, point is dual with line; in 3D point is dual with plane while lines are self-dual. The relationship of duality is so penetrating and pervasive in projective geometry, that we might consider it the geometry of fundamental duality. It provides a geometrical stage upon which duality can be studied in a pure form.

Another profound aspect of projective geometry is its elementary treatment of incidence where one considers the join (∨) and meet or intersection (∧) of two basic geometrical objects such as point, line, plane, and hyperplane. The most fundamental correspondence of geometrical forms associates points and lines in dual arrangement: the points on a line form a range and the lines through a point form a pencil. The correspondence between a pencil and a range is a basic projection. Next a perspective relation joins a pencil with two ranges or a range with two pencils; that is, by combining two elementary projections. Such a perspectivity maps points to points, or dually, lines to lines as shown in the figure. Point and Line Perspective

In the essay “Design Strategy” in Buckminster Fuller’s book Utopia or Oblivion, he includes projective geometry in his list of recommendations for a curriculum of design science. The connection between projective geometry and design thinking is an area that deserves more attention.

A Catalog of Models of Projective Geometry

The rest of this essay tersely describes a broad listing of some of the more basic models of projective geometry. Models are a powerful tool for learning and for understanding as explained in my essay about the Importance of Model Thinking (based on Scott E. Page’s course). The models included below should provide an introduction to and an overview of projective geometry for those new to the subject (Note: some of these models require background knowledge that is not explained here. They are indicated with a Orange Asterisk from http://www.fatcow.com/free-icons licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. I encourage you to skim or skip such models, but to read on as later models may be more tractable.) I hope the experts will find the succinct summary and references useful. Although this list is fairly comprehensive, there are many models that are necessarily omitted. If you have a favorite model, please post a comment about it.

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The Importance of Model Thinking

datePosted on 14 June 2012 by cjf

Models can help us understand, predict, strategize, and re-design our worlds. This is the profound lesson from Scott E. Page’s engaging on-line Coursera offering on Model Thinking. I was particularly interested in this 10 week course because Buckminster Fuller instilled in me a deep appreciation for models. With this course, Scott Page reinforced and enhanced that appreciation in spades. Also, like Bucky, Page makes his penetrating approach accessible to a very broad audience. This is a great course for anyone with even rudimentary algebra skills.

In addition to reviewing the course, I will also suggest that model thinking is a new more incisive kind of science. This approach and its nascent toolkit for understanding, decision-making, prediction, strategy, and design is vitally important for practitioners of all types. Model thinking may be just the type of tool humanity needs to solve some of its thorniest problems. As such its arrival into broader consciousness is not a moment too soon!

So if you want to be out there helping to change the world in useful ways, it’s really really helpful to have some understanding of models.
— Scott E. Page

Why Model Thinking

There are many ways to model the world. One of the most popular is with proverbs or short pithy sayings (our modern media seem to particularly love this deeply flawed “sound bite” approach to knowledge). As Scott Page points out, there are opposite proverbs too. For instance, the opposite of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is “better safe than sorry.” Proverbs and their more elaborate cousins, allegories, can model or represent the world with persuasive stories, but they provide little discerning power and little basis for deeper understanding. In contradistinction, model thinking with its greater concern for precision can help us more carefully distinguish a complex of important factors with their interrelationships and behaviors. Therein lies its power!

Is intuition sufficient? No! Philip Tetlock, Robyn Dawes and others have demonstrated that simple naive models outperform experts of all stripes. In 1979 Dawes wrote a seminal paper, The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making, which showed the effectiveness of even “improper” linear models in outperforming human prognostication. Tetlock has made the most ambitious and extensive study of experts to date and finds that crude extrapolation models outperform humans in every domain he has studied.

That is not to say that models are “right”. Page emphasizes that all models are “wrong” too! Which leads to his most profound insight in the course: you need many types of models to help think through the logic of any given situation. Each model can help check, validate, and build your understanding. This depth of understanding is essential to make better decisions or predictions or build more effective designs or develop more effective strategies to achieve your goals.

Is intuition important? Yes, absolutely! The many model thinker relies upon intuition to select and critically evaluate a battery of models or to construct new or modified models when appropriate. These models help test our intuition. Intuition helps tests the models! Writing out a model often identifies facets and elements of the situation which intuition misses. Intuition is essential to find the aspects of the models that are a bit off the mark — and all models are a bit off. Model thinking is not “flying on instruments” or turning control over to mathematical or computer models. Instead it is about evaluating and comparing diverse models to test, build, fortify, and correct our intuitions, decisions, predictions, designs, and strategies.

Fascinating Models

Page’s course is filled to the brim with fascinating models! One of the first models Page introduces is Thomas Schelling’s segregation model which represents people as agents on a checkerboard. We discover deep and unexpected insights about how people sort themselves into clusters where everyone looks alike, for example, the segregation of neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, income, etc. It is the first of many agent-based models to be discussed.

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The Pickwickian Sentiment

datePosted on 24 January 2012 by cjf

The Pickwick PapersI tuned in to the Pickwickian sentiment some 30 years ago when I first read Charles Dickens’ inaugural novel The Pickwick Papers. Thanks to the impetus of The Free Library of Philadelphia’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, I’ve re-read it and had the chance to think through its meaning more carefully. It seems to me that Pickwickian refers to the quality of certain expeditions, slice of life adventures or ordinary events which entail the strife and mettle incumbent upon most trials and tribulations which with good-heartedness, good-humour, patience, nurturing and some surprise tend to bring forth general benevolence and joy. It is a great sentiment which we could use more of in this world!

It seems to me this Pickwickian sentiment is the thread that holds together the plot of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, the title in the original publication. The sentiment emerges explicitly with Mr. Bolton’s clamour in chapter 1 and continues with the cab driver in chapter 2 who assaults Pickwick for taking notes on their conversation. Throughout there are countless incidents of turmoil and challenge which after at least some modicum of sound and fury end with wholesome benevolence and good will.

In the big picture of the novel, it is Pickwick’s relationship with Nathaniel Winkle which exhibits Pickwickianism in its most dramatically nurturing and good-hearted sense. It is Winkle, the sportsman, whose careless shooting wounds fellow Pickwickian, Tracey Tupman. Winkle’s disastrous outing on ice skates results in Pickwick’s scathing admonition “[You're a] humbug, sir. I will speak plainer, if you wish it. An impostor, sir.” Then at Pickwick’s trial, it is Winkle who volunteers the “one instance of suspicious behavior towards females” which helps the jury decide against our good natured and innocent protagonist.

Through all these ills borne of Winkle’s youthful ineptness, our eponymous leader embodies Pickwickian good spirit and supports his protégé. He intervenes after the unfortunate incident with the Dowlers in Bath which sends Winkle in flight. The dénouement of the novel is Pickwick’s difficult mission to reconcile Winkle with his father. I was struck at Pickwick’s remarkable devotion to Winkle and how that relationship exudes the Pickwickian sentiment through and through. Is this the plot that GK Chesterton missed in critiquing the novel?

These good-hearted and good-humoured adventures in the large as well as the innumerable little scenes throughout the novel reinforce my view that the plot of The Pickwick Papers is a tale of adventure showcasing the Pickwickian sentiment which through numerous fun and funny tribulations end with good-humour, pride and exultation. A comedy indeed!

It may be that my exalted view of Pickwick is unjustified. For a more conventional perspective see Edward Pettit‘s write-up Dickens Literary Salon: Pickwick Papers with its sundry references.

How would you characterize “Pickwickian”? Does “the Pickwickian sentiment” constitute a plot?

Pickwick and Bucky

When I discovered Buckminster Fuller it was his benevolence (“the planet’s friendly genius”) that attracted me. Could my enchantment with Pickwick have led me to another humanist like Bucky? I do not know. But both the great character and the great thinker share Pickwickian qualities. The one that seems most striking is Bucky’s Mistake Mystique — Pickwickian indeed!

Do you see connections between Bucky and Pickwick?

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The view that randomness impacts and shapes our lives in profound ways has been gaining traction since 2002 when Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky in characterizing human weaknesses when facing uncertainty. My thinking on the subject was first awakened by reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness which will give anyone who imagines they can think “rationally” a healthy dose of humble pie. A more helpful discussion can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide which The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow pays heed to our brain’s strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses. As I relayed in a post on the brain, mind and thinking, Lehrer recommends thinking about your thinking process to strengthen its decision-making function. Recently I finished reading Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives which provides an accessible, historically detailed, and elementary introduction to the sciences of randomness and uncertainty and shows how they rule our lives.

These books have started to change my thinking about the nature of reality itself: I see now that randomness and uncertainty have an essential role to play. Interestingly, I shunned probability and statistics, the sciences of randomness and uncertainty, in college because I was steeped in Euclid, logic, and Buckminster Fuller’s “generalized principles” in Synergetics. I wanted to design destiny with deliberate application of knowledge … to worship at the altar of scientific determinism. Fortunately, Bucky taught me to “dare to be naïve” so I have been open to the new evidence about randomness. Now I suspect that Bucky and I were a little off about this subtle subject. It isn’t surprising, probability and statistics are among the newer branches of mathematics having developed mostly after the calculus was well established. They have not had enough time to pervade our collective consciousness.

Do you think the world is fundamentally deterministic or random? What influences have shaped your thinking and biases about the subjects of randomness, uncertainty, probability, and statistics? Do you think the increasing focus on the role of randomness and uncertainty in our lives is an important trend?

Randomness Rules Our Lives

Is Mlodinow’s thesis that randomness rules our lives really so convincing? Evidently so. Mlodinow finds dramatic evidence of randomness in our economic lives. He retells the poignant story of Sherry Lansing who led Paramount Pictures to huge successes in seven consecutive phenomenal years. Then after three years of bad results, she left the company. Did Paramount let her go too quickly? Evidently so because the pipline she left behind was full of new hits that restored Paramount’s revenue and market share. Shouldn’t seven years of success earn the right to forgive a few bad years? What if another great leader happened to have their three consecutive bad years at the beginning of their tenure? Do we replace them before their ship comes in? Mlodinow cites many other examples including the fact that “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was rejected by publishers some 27 times before Dr. Seuss’ career launched. Mlodinow also shows that student grades are often random and independent of their skill and knowledge.

Should we insist that our students, our schools, and our business leaders perform, perform, and perform with no “bad” years allowed? Do you believe that performance results are somewhat random? We invest a lot in exam and executive performance. Given the evidence, is that wise?

Venn Diagram of sets A, B, and COne part of Kahneman’s Nobel-prize winning work addressed the conjunction fallacy. Let A, B, and C be statements represented by a colored circle in the venn diagram to the right. The only case in which they can be simultaneously true is in the small area where all three colors overlap. So it is much less likely (less area) for three statements to be simultaneously true than for any one of them to be true. However, when someone weaves a story filled with a lot of concrete details, it seems more vivid and hence more believable than the statements considered separately: that’s the conjunction fallacy. Evidence of people falling for this fallacy has been documented widely even in medicine and the court room. We humans are easily duped by a good story!

It is surprising that the Nobel prize for the work showing how “blind” humans are to the elementary logic of the conjunction fallacy was only awarded one decade ago! Humanity has only just yesterday identified this basic weakness in our cognitive function! Add to the conjunction fallacy the many other fallacies and biases that Taleb, Lehrer, and Mlodinow show us to be subject to and one can see that Emanuel Lasker who was world chess champion for 27 years got it right: “In life we are all duffers”!

What is the significance of our weakness in understanding uncertainty? Do these weaknesses of the human mind subject us to the ravages of randomness? Are they a consequence of an inherent randomness in reality? Or do they simply lead to the appearance of randomness?

Our weakness extends to our sensory organs and perception as well. Mlodinow notes

Human perception … is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination. Perception requires imagination because the data people encounter in their lives are never complete and always equivocal.

Mlodinow illustrates the problem by explaining that the human visual system sends “the brain a shaky, badly pixelated picture with a hole in it” (due to the relative weakness of our vision outside the fovea and the blind spot). In addition to conjunction bias, the sharp shooter effect, the hot-hand fallacy, availability bias, confirmation bias, and more, it becomes evident that “When we look closely, we find that many of the assumptions of modern society are based … on shared illusions.” And his conclusion

It is important in our own lives to take the long view and understand that streaks and other patterns that don’t appear random can indeed happen by pure chance. It is also important, when assessing others, to recognize that among a large group of people it would be very odd if one of them didn’t experience a long streak of successes or failures.

What shared illusions do we hold? How often are our lives subject to pure chance events? How important is serendipity? Do you believe that a long series of failures or successes is just the result of luck? When is it luck and when is it skill? How can we tell the difference?

The problem of randomness is deeper still: even machine-enhanced human sensing and measurement are fundamentally random! In Walter Lewin’s excellent video introducing physics and measurement in MIT OCW’s Physics I course, he says “Any measurement that you make without any knowledge of the uncertainty is meaningless.” Understanding uncertainty is at the heart of scientific measurement. No physics experiment ever found an exact match between theory and the laws of nature: data points always appear at random! Then add in effects like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and we see that randomness and uncertainty are vital elements of experience: they are pervasive.

In view of the elementary role of uncertainty in our perceptual and physical experience, what can we say about reality? What is reality if experience is so imprecise, fuzzy, uncertain, and fallible?

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Recently I had occasion to speculate that existentialism may be characterized as a thread of thought that advocates and honors the individual’s unrestrained freedom of choice in building meaning, defining personal responsibility and formulating personal authenticity in a discussion at the Ben Franklin Thinking Society.

Existentialism does not seem to provide a world view or school of philosophy since the thread of thought that it represents has been incorporated by various thinkers into philosophical systems of diverse and even conflicting character (from fascism to socialism to communism to objectivism; from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche, Heideger, Sarte, Camus, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Ayn Rand, and Simone de Beauvoir). So the way in which the honored values of “existentialism” are developed and expressed varies considerably from thinker to thinker. I conclude it is an element of philosophy and not a philosophy unto itself.

I note there are some existentialist threads in Buckminster Fuller’s thinking. Bucky’s title “No More Secondhand God” suggests that the individual should build their own personal God. The following quote speaks deeply about authenticity, personal meaning and cosmic responsibility:

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done. Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed by others on the individual.

— R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path

The discussion group felt, and I will also speculate, that some degree of honoring freedom of choice in building meaning and personal responsibility are evident in most thinkers today. Witness the expression “personal relationship with God” which would put an existentialist garb on Christianity. History suggests that before the modern era family, profession, religion, economic status, crown and country precluded an individual interpretation of life’s mysteries. So it may be that existentialist thinking is a new way of thinking characteristic of modernity. Now, it seems existentialist thinking has become omni-present. Is that because of or in spite of the fact that most of us have little evident bearing on the events that comprise most “news” stories?

Frankly, I do not know that much about existentialism, so I’m wondering what others can add to my characterization and speculations? How would we measure or demonstrate that existentialism has become pervasive in modern thinking? When did the trend start? Are there any who still think of the individual as just a cog in the wheels of bigger forces and not an active builder of their own reality? Or was existentialism prevalent in pre-modern thinking too and I just haven’t yet tuned into its historical threads (the Wikipedia article on existentialism suggests that the Buddha, Saint Augustine, and even Hamlet exhibited existentialist thinking, but pre-moderns may have had just a flicker of insight with no real consciousness of the modern sense of individualism)?

Please let me know your thoughts on these questions in the comments. Thanks.

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In Buckminster Fuller’s essay Guinnea Pig B, he lays out the hypothesis that the purpose of Humans in Universe is to support the integrity of cosmic evolution:

In our immediate need to discover more about ourselves we also note that what is common to all human beings in all history is their ceaseless confrontation by problems, problems, problems. We humans are manifestly here for problem-solving and, if we are any good at problem-solving, we don’t come to utopia, we come to more difficult problems to solve. That apparently is what we’re here for, so I therefore conclude that we humans are here for local information-gathering and local problem-solving with our minds having access to the design principles of the Universe and — I repeat — thereby finally discover that we are most probably here for local information-gathering and local-Universe problem-solving in support of the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe.
—R. Buckminster Fuller

This precept of the function of Humans in Universe is, to me, one of the most deeply motivating responsibilities that I have ever taken on as a working hypothesis. I love the way it engages me as a co-designer in Universe. And I love the way in which it inspires me to a higher purpose.

Recently I read a National Geographic news article that Time Will End in Five Billion Years, Physicists Predict and my mind went into a tizzy. The following fairy tale emerged:

A Cosmic Evolution Fantasy

Captain’s log of Brenda S______ dated 5,000,002,010 CE (that is, 5 three-illion, 2 one-illion and 10 years CE).

Galaxy Cluster (NASA)“I have just returned to Earth after a 7,042 year survey of our galaxy cluster testing the integrity of the fabric of space-time throughout the isotropic vector matrix. What a trip! Our team has verified that all the millennia of research and development by countless humans and other sentients throughout Universe has succeeded in holding time together: the Universe will continue for the foreseeable future! We have verified that all vital parameters for managing the entirety of the cosmos are within fail-safe tolerances!

“Of course, there are a few issues (there always are);

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For the past couple of years, Jeannie and I have been engaged as students using so-called “open educational resources” (OER). We’ve “taken” a number of courses at MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW), OpenYaleCourses as well as dabbling in material from numerous other schools around the Internet.

I first read Buckminster Fuller’s short book Education Automation many years ago. I was amazed at Fuller’s foresight in advocating so much of what has now become the OER movement. Then a week ago I led a Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion on Buckminster Fuller and the Open Educational Resources Movement. Here are my reflections on what I learned from preparing and participating in that discussion.

The Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement

The OER movement is simply an Internet-powered expansion of the time-honored practice of students and teachers sharing materials and ideas. On the Internet this sharing can include video and guided tutorials as well as traditional media such as lecture notes, homework assignments, textbooks, and exams. All of these materials were more difficult and more expensive to share before high-bandwidth Internet and modern computer systems became widespread. A group of educators has tried to define the OER movement in the 2007 CapeTown Open Education Declaration. Here is a short excerpt which gives the gist:

Unlocking the promise of open educational resources

We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go.

During the discussion, I asked participants if they had used any OER materials. Many of them had not. But I was excited to learn that one of the participants studied Linear Algebra with video lectures by Gilbert Strang. Jeannie and I put more time into that excellent course (even doing all of the homework, quizzes, and two and a half final exams) than any other OER course we’ve worked through.

As a self-learner, one of the most important elements of OER courses to me is that I can choose how to use the materials (unlike in school where one is more or less told what to do). For example, there are some courses where I just want an overview or a feeling for the subject, but I may not need to master the material. Like when we studied Introductory Biology at MIT’s OCW, we watched the videos and only briefly looked at the lecture notes. We skipped the homework and the tests. We quickly ignored the parts that were not, at that moment, of interest. I think this is a big improvement over school where I frequently suffered from wanting to go into more depth than the course in some parts and less depth in others. Using OER I can get the education I want, when I want it!

It should be noted that the OER movement has been partly inspired (according to this good review article on open educational resources in Communications of the ACM) by the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) movement. I find this fascinating since I have long been involved in the FOSS / Linux world (I’ve written about that extensively in the managing FOSS blog). Fuller’s global vision has foreseen elements of both movements.

To find out more about OER, the wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources can get you started.

Buckminster Fuller on Education: Prescient Harbinger of the OER Movement

To prepare for the Ben Franklin Thinking Society discussion, I re-read Education Automation twice. That led to these five quotes on Bucky’s thinking on education including how he foresaw elements of the OER Movement. The quotes and my commentary expand the discussion to address some broader issues in education as well. The quotes are all from Education Automation which was published way back in 1962.

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Welcome to the Syntropy Blog

datePosted on 22 October 2010 by cjf

I enjoy writing my other blog which is Managing FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) for Business Results. But I keep wanting to write about things that are far afield from the computer side of my life, so I thought it was time to start a blog with a more general purview.

Although, as is my wont, this blog is rather ambitiously scoped to support increasing syntropy in local Universe, I deeply understand that trial-and-error is the only way we humans learn. So I expect to make a lot of mistakes (the alternative is to learn too little which is less interesting).

With your help, dear reader, and your feedback, I am sure that we can work through any issues and work together “in support of eternally regenerative Universe” (a Buckminster Fuller expression that I particularly like).

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