On the NATURE of bOXES

On the NATURE of bOXES.

Your beer or wine glass cannot possibly exist without being directly connected to all the other glasses. So, drink fast, in case I am wrong…


On the NATURE of bOXES

With all the fuss there is in some quarters about Big Data, I got to wonder how it related to my feelings of categorization.

I mean, I look out of my window and I see stuff.

I look at a Jackson Pollock and I see stuff.

Hrub 02 Market stallsBig Data sounds rather like yet another way of not admitting a rather uncomfortable truth – that we have spent way too much time talking about boxed content as if the boxes always had meaning, and their actual substance and arrangement less.

Look at it this way: what is a beer glass? Whatever answer you choose you can be sure it will always be inadequate, because a beer glass contains infinity – sadly only in its description rather than content. If it were the other way around I probably would not be here writing to you, and you might not be there to read the nothing that I might have written, our present existence might be nothing more than a blurry wish. Or not.

Whether we keep our beer glasses boxed in a category or distributed around the convenient surfaces of our house or apartment, they seem to remain a constant, a fixed reality, objects we can take in our hand , separate from any other object, fill, empty. However, just as we cannot have existed without our full complement of ancestors, that beer glass we are so dreamily caressing cannot exist without all the beer and liquid containers that have gone before it and alongside it, nor indeed without our enduring memory. That beer glass can only exist because enough of the other beer glasses have existed, as well as beer and whatever came before beer, and money, and all the things that exist today around the world that we use as containers for things, including that jam jar of wild flowers or that box of computer components lashed to a camel in a barless desert.

Our class or category called ‘beer glasses’, and the specific item in our hands are nothing but part of a continuum, a dream of our existence, the physical representation nothing more than a picture of a  pebbly beach on the shore of a greater existence. In other universes they may never have existed.

We have barely begun to explore the connections yet. Our glass is the daughter of a materials industry, an ancient parent, one of many, a marriage of mixed ages, including manufacturing, sales, advertising, brewing and design, and many other, less obvious donors, but all helping to suspend our little glass in a web of fields streaming out into the past and future. More significant than any of these is our decision through time to participate in drinking, without this then our glass would never have existed and continued to exist.

The point is, all of this has existed throughout time, the difference now is not especially the ability to process large amounts of data, but that those with the knack of processing data in non-classical ways can meet, and those without it cannot but notice that there are people who can. Non-classical data processing is no longer something one can simply pretend does not exist, that such an analyst is lying about their methods.

Apples fell from trees before Newton, but after one could not pretend that there was no force to ensure that they always fell.

Big Data? Big Excuse, more like 😉

More on What We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know…

Ha, I was going to write about something else, but then I went on a boozy company weekend with some translators, and realized that here was a practical use of my theory. Not with booze, with translations!

059-Good ShipThe photo does have relevance – you don’t just know what is in my mind, you don’t what you don’t know, simply that. In my text editing world of work I get to sharpen the work of translators, largely translators working from their native language into English, my language. Like any specialization where the participants spend too much time talking to each other, the translation industry is full of whimsical ideas about what the final customer wants or needs. What is more, translators attend the same courses at university as language teachers, and herein lies one of the basic problems anyone has to deal with when they want a translation.

You school teacher gives you a set of language values, like the importance of grammar. You go get a text translated and when you get it back, horror of horrors, there is a grammar error! What the translator has had to struggle with is a context-free piece of text written by someone he or she does not know writing about a subject the translator does not know. And the customer complains of a grammar mistake. Of course, if university teacher had more experience in the applied field of language then they would be more aware of the failings in their teachings to both teachers and translators, so when Joe Public goes to school he learns that there is more to writing than grammar, then does not battle the translator so hard when a grammar mistake is found.

But the university professors really do not know what they do not know because they are never there to see the processes they set up fail.

On another level, I have a problem with the word ‘cosy’. You know the word, throws up visions of comfort, maybe you sitting in front of a warm, cottage fire. In the Polish-English dictionary it is used as an equivalent of a Polish word I never remember. Anyway, it often comes up in translations from many languages to describe things like huge halls or modern offices – not that it couldn’t be used in those circumstances, just not the circumstances the translators choose.

Anyway, it goes like this – in your head you know a lot of vocabulary, grammar, structures, syntax and so on, this is what you know. There are also things like vocabulary that you don’t know, but when someone uses it you go from not knowing it to knowing it in a comfortable way. The latter is because what you do not know remains predictable – you may like or dislike what you know, but it conditions your comfort when you come into contact with what you don’t know.

Cosy, though, is known vocabulary to English speakers, but there is more to it than vocabulary, it also has a set of connections and contexts we know and don’t know it fits. However, when used as a translation of an item from another language for something that has different connections and contexts, we are suddenly faced with a new linguistic situation that we have to create in our minds. Since our predictive controls for what we do not know have not been designed to deal with the foreign use of a word we already know, it does not sit comfortably with us. Rather like going to the cinema and suddenly discovering you are seated next to the president of the Russian Federation.

And the photo? Well, we had a competition to remake selfies done by other people, and this is a picture I took of myself several years ago. However, it demonstrates that there are no boundaries – what we know blends into what we do not know which blends into what we do not know what we do not know. The chances of you predicting that image from knowing me on this blog is tiny, and as a consequence lies in that disputed ground beyond what we merely do not know.

Trevor Butcher, artist, engineer, philosopher, lover… and some other things as well.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know – Hic!

…or the third dimension of knowledge

NY Drunk small

Drinking can be a wonderful thing for the drinker, all kinds of thoughts that usually get tucked away to make room for our daily existences have their chance to push toward the front row, and demand their share of our attention. Luckily for most of the world, my wife shoulders the major burden of my particular drunken wittering. For example, and I suppose I ought to get to the point, I have for a long time wondered why I could never quite explain something that I felt was important about information, or knowledge. And so it was that one night that I pondered the moon.

Imagine yourself living a thousand years and many trillions of pieces of knowledge ago in the past, a different you with a world view that was complicated in other ways than the present you. And it is night, and you are staring up at the moon, as I would, many centuries later. What you would have seen is a silvery disk or crescent, and you would say to yourself in your language: ‘Ah, the moon.’

We would be able to state that our knowledge included the fact of the moon’s existence, its visible existence and changes through the lunar month. This is what I call the first dimension of knowledge, and our today selves could also include the sum: ‘1 + 1 = 2’. It is what we know, that storehouse of facts we can refer to from our experience and education, even if it is not all fully correct.

The second dimension of knowledge is that which we know that we do not know, but which we believe we understand. Back then, in the past, we might have felt, after seeing the moon traverse the heavens night after night, that if it has a front face then, like a plate, it must have a reverse side, even if we could not describe it having not seen it. In our present life we might, instead, see the sum: ‘23823489.3455 + 237387483.567’ and believe that there is an answer – we just do not happen to know what that answer happens to be. This second dimension is when we infer existence from our prior existence, and if we go somewhere new and see something tree-shaped, we may use this second dimension to infer that what we see is, indeed, a tree, and not a polar bear.

The third dimension is harder to describe, because we are so used to using our facility with second dimension knowledge. However, this third dimension is important, it fills the gap between everything we can possibly infer from our present level of experience and the theoretical limit of what our brains could possibly understand if it somehow had access to all possible experience. Today we can imagine what it would be like if a starship came down from the sky and an alien popped out because we have been brought up on films and stories of such events – but our 1000-year-in-the-past-self would have no such access to that experience and may just assume that some god has popped down from heaven for a spot of bush burning.

Imagine, then, you are on such a moonlit night, a millennia ago, and this ‘god’ invites you up to examine the reverse side of the moon. Imagine further your surprise when you discover that the moon has no reverse side as such, as behind the moon is the surface of planet Earth, and you are back where you started. This is the third dimension of knowledge, beyond what your second dimension knowledge could create. It is not what we know, not what we know we don’t know, it is what we don’t know that we don’t know – and that kind of knowledge is all around us, hidden by our store of experience and training, our expertise and specialistic careers.

It is what artists seek to explore, not beauty.

%d bloggers like this: