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Amira Skomorowska's notes

"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso



Age of information
Artificial intelligence
Cognition, perception, relativity
Cognitive science
Collective intelligence
Human being
Mind & Brain
Science & Art
Self improvement
The other


A Box Of Stories
Reading Space




Rome Reborn ☞ A Digital Model of Ancient Rome

Rome Reborn is an international initiative whose goal is the creation of 3D digital models illustrating the urban development of ancient Rome from the first settlement in the late Bronze Age (ca. 1000 B.C.) to the depopulation of the city in the early Middle Ages (ca. A.D. 550). With the advice of an international Scientific Advisory Committee, the leaders of the project decided that A.D. 320 was the best moment in time to begin the work of modeling. At that time, Rome had reached the peak of its population, and major Christian churches were just beginning to be built. After this date, few new civic buildings were built.

Much of what survives of the ancient city dates to this period, making reconstruction less speculative than it must, perforce, be for earlier phases. But having started with A.D. 320, the Rome Reborn team intends to move both backwards and forwards in time until the entire span of time foreseen by our mission has been covered.”

Rome Reborn - introduction

Rome Reborn 2.2: A Tour of Ancient Rome in 320 CE

This video presents a fly-through of the latest version of Rome Reborn (2.2). The new version incorporates some new content (including the Pantheon) and for the first time includes animations. — Prof. Bernard Frischer

See also:

☞ Dylla, Kimberly,  B. Frischer, Rome Reborn 2.0: A Case Study of Virtual City Reconstruction Using Procedural Modeling Techniques (pdf), Archaeopress: Oxford, 2010.
☞ More papers


Why Man Creates by Saul Bass (1968)

"Whaddaya doin?” ‘I’m painting the ceiling! Whadda you doin?” “I’m painting the floor!” — the exchange between Michaelangelo and da Vinci

Why Man Creates is a 1968 animated short documentary film which discusses the nature of creativity. It was written by Saul Bass and Mayo Simon, and directed by Saul and Elaine Bass.

The movie won the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject. An abbreviated version of it ran on the first-ever broadcast of CBS’ 60 Minutes, on September 24, 1968.

Why Man Creates focuses on the creative process and the different approaches taken to that process. It is divided into eight sections: The Edifice, Fooling Around, The Process, Judgment, A Parable, Digression, The Search, and The Mark.

In 2002, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.


The Edifice begins with early humans hunting. They attempt to conquer their prey with stones, but fail, so they begin to use spears and bait. They kill their prey, and it turns into a cave painting, upon which a building begins to be built. Throughout the rest of the section, the camera tracks upward as the edifice grows ever taller.

Early cavemen begin to discover various things such as the lever, the wheel, ladders, agriculture and fire. It then cuts to clips of early societies and civilizations. It depicts the appearance of the first religions and the advent of organized labor. It then cuts to the Great Pyramids at Giza and depicts the creation of writing.

Soon an army begins to move across the screen chanting “BRONZE,” but they are overrun by an army chanting “IRON”. The screen then depicts early cities and civilizations.

This is followed by a black screen with one man in traditional Greek clothing who states, “All was in chaos ‘til Euclid arose and made order.” Next, various Greek achievements in mathematics are depicted as they build Greek columns around which Greeks discuss items, including, “What is the good life and how do you lead it?” “Who shall rule the state?” “The Philosopher King.” “The Aristocrat.” “The People.” “You mean ALL the people?” “What is the nature of the Good? What is the nature of Justice?” “What is Happiness?”

The culture of ancient Greece fades into the armies of Rome. The organized armies surround the great Roman architecture as they chant “Hail Caesar!” A man at a podium states, “Roman Law is now in session!”, and when he bangs his gavel, the architecture collapses. Dark soldiers begin to pop up from the rubble and eventually cover the whole screen with darkness symbolizing the Dark Ages.

The Dark Ages consist of inaudible whisperings and mumblings. At one point, a light clicks on and an Arab mathematician says, “Allah be praised! I’ve discovered the zero.” at which point his colleague responds, “What?” and he says “Nothing, nothing.” Next come cloistered monks who sing, “What is the shape of the Earth? Flat. What happens when you get to the edge? You fall off. Does the earth move? Never.”

Finally the scene brightens and shows a stained glass window. Various scientists open stained glass doors and say things such as, “The Earth moves!” “The Earth is round!” “The blood circulates!” “There are worlds smaller than ours!” “There are worlds larger than ours!” Each time one opens a door, a large, hairy arm slams the door shut. Finally, the stained glass breaks in the wake of the new Enlightenment.

Next, Michelangelo and da Vinci are depicted. The steam engine is invented, and gears and belts begin to cover everything. The light bulb and steam locomotive are created. Darwin is referred to as two men hit each other with their canes arguing whether man is an animal. The telegraph is invented and psychology created. Next, a small creature hops across the screen saying, “I’m a bug, I’m a germ, I’m a bug, I’m a germ… [indrawn breath] Louis Pasteur! I’m not a bug, I’m not a germ…” Great musicians such as Beethoven are depicted. Alfred Nobel invents dynamite.

Next, the cartooning shows the great speeches and documents on government and society from the American Revolution onward with quotes such as “All men are created equal…”, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, “And the Government, by the people,…”, etc. and ends with “One World.”

Finally, the building stops and the Wright Brothers' plane lands on top of it. It is quickly covered in more advanced planes, in cars, in televisions, and finally in early computers. At the top is a radioactive atom which envelops a man in smoke. The Edifice ends with that man yelling, “HELP!”

Fooling Around displays a random series of perspectives and the creative ideas which come from them.

The Process displays a man who is making artwork from a series of geometrical figures. Each time he attempts to keep them in place, they move and rearrange themselves. He tries many different approaches to the problem. Finally he accepts a working configuration and calls his wife to look at it. She says, “All it needs is an American flag.”

Judgment is a series of reactions, presumably to the creation from The Process. It displays their criticisms of it, such as “It represents the decline of Western culture…”, and only a very few support it.

A Parable begins at a ping-pong ball factory. Each ball is made in exactly the same way, and machines test them to get rid of anomalies. As the balls are being tested for their bounce levels, one bounces much higher than the rest. It is placed in a chute which leads to a garbage can outside the factory. It proceeds to bounce across town to a park, where it begins to bounce. Quickly, a cluster of ping-pong balls gather around it. It keeps bouncing higher and higher, until it doesn’t come back. It concludes with the comment:
“There are some who say he’s coming back and we have only to wait …
There are some who say he burst up there because ball was not meant to fly …
And there are some who maintain he landed safely in a place where balls bounce high …”

Digression is a very short section in which one snail says to another, “Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?” to which the other snail replies “No.” and the first says dejectedly, “Gee, for a minute I thought I had something.”

The Search shows scientists who have been working for years on projects such as solving world hunger, developing a cure for Cancer, or questioning the origin of the universe. Then it showed a scientist who had worked on a project for 20 years, and it simply didn’t work out. He was asked what he would do with himself, and he replied that he didn’t know. (Note: each of the scientists shown was working on something which still has not been solved to date, even though each one expected solid results in only a few years. This forwards the concept shown in this session far better than the creators could have known in 1968.)

The Mark asks the question, Why does man create? and determines that man creates to simply state, “I Am.” The film ends by displaying “I Am” written in paint on the side of a building.” — (Wiki)


When history was made - an alternative timeline for the past two millennia

"Some people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison's figures.”

Two thousand years in one chart, The Economist, Jun 28th 2011


Geoffrey West on Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster


What extent can biology and social organization (which are both quintessential complex adaptive systems) be put in a more quantitative, analytic, mathematizable, predictive framework so that we can understand them in the way that we understand “simple physical systems”?

It is very clear from the beginning that we will never have a theory of biological and social systems that is like physics — that is, something that’s precise that we can predict, like for example, the motion of the planets with great precision or the magnetic electron to 12 decimal places. Nothing approaching that can possibly be in these other sciences, because they are complex systems.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have a quantitative theory. It would simply mean that you would possibly have a theory that is cross-grained. Meaning that you would be able to ask questions, big questions, and answer them in an average idealized setting. (…)

Scaling phenomena

I started working some years ago on questions in biology. I started using the very powerful techniques developed in physics, and that have run through the history of physics, to think about scaling phenomena. The great thing about scaling is that if you observe scaling (that is, how the various characteristics of a system change when you change its size) and if you see regularity over several orders of magnitude, that typically means that there are underlying generic principles, that it is not an accident. If you see that in a system, it is opening a window onto some underlying, let’s use the word, “universal principle”.

The remarkable thing in biology that got me excited and has led to all of my present work (which has now gone beyond biology and into social organizations, cities, and companies) is that there was data, quite old and fundamental to all biological processes, about metabolism: Here is maybe the most complex physical chemical process possibly in the universe, and when you ask how it is scaled with size across mammals (as an example to keep it simple) you find that there is an extraordinary regularity.

This is surprising because we believe in natural selection, and natural selection has built into it this idea that history plays an important role. There’s the environmental niche for every organism, every component of an organism, every cell type is unique and has its own unique history. So if you plotted, for example the metabolic rate on the Y axis and size on the X axis, because of the extraordinary diversity and complexity of the system and the historical contingency, you would expect points all over the map representing, of course, history and geography and so on.

Well, you find quite the contrary. You find a very simple curve, and that curve has a very simple mathematical formula. It comes out to be a very simple power law. In fact, the power law not only is simple in itself mathematically, but here it has an exponent that is extraordinarily simple. The exponent was very close to the number three quarters.

First of all, that was amazing in itself, that you see scaling. But more importantly was that the scaling is manifested across all of life into eco-systems and down within cells. So this scaling law is truly remarkable. It goes from intracellular up to ecosystems almost 30 orders of magnitude. They’re the same phenomenon. (…)

That is, it scales as a simple power law. The extraordinary thing about it is that the power law has an exponent, which is always a simple multiple of one quarter. What you determine just from the data is that there’s this extraordinary simple number, four, which seems to dominate all biology and across all taxonomic groups from the microscopic to the macroscopic.

This can hardly be an accident. If you see scaling, it is manifesting something that transcends history, geography, and therefore the evolved engineered structure of the organism because it applies to me, all mammals, and the trees sitting out there, even though we’re completely different designs.

The big question is where in the hell does that number come from? And what is it telling us about the structure of the biology?  And what is it telling us about the constraints under which evolution occurred? That was the beginning of all this.

Are cities and companies just extensions of biology?

I’ll say a few words about what we propose as the solution. But to jump ahead, the idea was that once we had that body of work, understanding the origin of these scaling laws was to take it over into social organizations. And so the question that drove the extension of this work was, “are cities and companies just extensions of biology?”

They came out of biology. That’s where they came from. But is New York just actually, in some ways, a great big whale? And is Microsoft a great big elephant? Metaphorically we use biological terms, for example the DNA of the company or the ecology of the marketplace. But are those just metaphors or is there some serious substance that we can quantify with those?

There are two things that are very important that come out of the biology of the scaling —it’s theoretical and conceptual framework.

One: Since the metabolic rate scales non-linearly with size — all of these things scale non-linearly with size — and they scale with exponents that are less than one, what that means is that if the metabolic rate per cell is decreasing with size, the metabolic rate of our cells, my cells, are working harder than my horses. But my dogs are working even harder, in a systematic predictive way.

What does that say? That says there’s an extraordinary economy of scale.

Just to give you an example, if you increase the size of an organism by a factor of ten to the fourth, four is the magnitude, you would have expected naively to have ten to the fourth times as much energy. You would have the ten to the fourth times more cells. Ten thousand times more cells. Not true. You only need a thousand times. There’s an extraordinary savings in the energy use, and that cuts across all resources as well.

When we come to social organizations, there’s an interesting question. Do we have economies of scale or what? How do cities work, for example? How do companies work in this framework? That’s one thing.

The second thing is, (again, comes from the data and the conceptual framework explains it) the bigger you are, the slower everything is. The bigger you are, you live longer. Oxygen diffuses slower across your various membranes. You take longer to mature, you grow slower, but all in a systematic, mathematizable, predictable way. The pace of life systematically slows down following these quarter power scales. And again, we’ll ask those questions about life … social life and economies.

The work I got involved in was to try to understand these scaling laws. And to make it a very short story, what was proposed apart from the thinking was, look, this is universal. It cuts across the design of organisms. Whether you are insects, fish, mammals or birds, you get the same scaling laws. It is independent of design. Therefore, it must be something that is about the structure of the way things are distributed.

You recognize what the problem is. You have ten14cells. You have this problem. You’ve got to sustain them, roughly speaking, democratically and efficiently. And however natural selection solved it, it solved it by evolving hierarchical networks.

There is a very simple way of doing it. You take something macroscopic, you go through a hierarchy and you deliver them to very microscopic sites, like for example, your capillaries to your cells and so on. And so the idea was, this is true at all scales. It is true of an ecosystem; it is true within the cell. And what these scaling laws are manifesting are the generic, universal, mathematical, topological properties of networks.

The question is, what are the principles that are governing these networks that are independent of design? After a lot of work we postulated the following, just to give an idea.

First, they have to be space filling. They have to go everywhere. They have to feed every cell, every piece of the organism.

Secondly, they have things like invariant units. That is when you evolve from a human being to a whale (to make it a simple story) you do not change the basic units. The cells of the whale or the capillaries of whale, which are the kind of fundamental units, are pretty much indistinguishable from yours and mine. There is this invariance. When you evolve to a new species, you use the same units but you change the network. That’s the idea in this picture.

And the last one is of the infinitude of networks that have these properties - space filling and invariant total units. The ones that have actually evolved by the process of continuous feedback implicit in natural selection are those that have in some way optimized the system.

For example, the amount of work that your heart has to do to pump blood around your circulatory system to keep you alive is minimized with respect to the design of the system. You can put it into mathematics. You have a network theory, you mathematize the network, and then you make variations of the network and ask what is the one that minimizes the amount of energy your heart has to use to pump blood through it.

The principle is simple. Mathematically, it is quite complicated and challenging, but you can solve all of that. And you do that so that you can maximize the amount of energy you can put into fitness to make children. You want to minimize the amount of energy just to keep you alive, so that you can make more babies. That’s the simplest big picture.

All of those results about scaling are derived. A quarter, four, emerges. And what is the four?  It turns out the four isn’t a four. The four is actually a “three plus one”, meaning it’s the dimensionality of the space we live in plus one, which is actually to do, loosely speaking, with the fractal nature of these networks, the fact that there’s a sub-similar property.

In D dimensions, you read D plus one (that’s my physicist self speaking). Instead of being three quarters for metabolic rate, it would be D over D plus one.

Life in some funny way is actually five dimensional. It’s three space, one time, and one kind of fractal. That’s five. So we’re kind of five dimensional creatures in some curious way, mathematically.

This network theory was used to predict all kinds of things. You can answer questions like why is it we sleep eight hours. Why does a mouse have to sleep 15 hours?  And why does an elephant only have to sleep four and a whale two?  Well, we can answer that. Why do we evolve at the rate we do?  How does cancer work in terms of vasculature and its necrosis? And so on.

A whole bunch of questions can follow from this. One of the most important is growth. Understanding growth. How do we grow?  And why do we stop growing, for example?  Well, we can answer that. The theory answers that. And it’s quite powerful, and it explains why it is we have this so-called sigmoidal growth where you grow quickly and then you stop. And it explains why that is and it predicts when you stop, and it predicts the shape of that curve for an animal.

Here is this wonderful body of work that explains many things — some fundamental, some to do with very practical problems like understanding sleep, aging. The question is, can we take that over to other kinds of network systems. One of the obvious types of systems is a city. Another obvious one is a company. The first question you have to ask is, okay, this was based on the observation of scaling. Scaling was the window. It’s interesting of itself, but actually, it’s more interesting as a revelatory tool to open onto fundamental principles.

What did we learn from scaling in biology? We not only learned the network theory, but we learned that despite the fact that the whale lives in the ocean, the giraffe has a long neck, and the elephant a truck, and we walk on two feet and the mouse scurries around, at some 85, 90 percent level, we’re all scaled versions of one another.

There’s kind of one mammal, and every other mammal, no matter what size it is and where it existed, is actually some well-defined mathematically scaled version of that one master mammal, so to speak. And that is kind of amazing.

In other words, the size of a mammal, or any organism for that matter, can tell you how long it should live, how many children it should have, how oxygen diffuses across its lungs, what is the length of the ninth branch of its circulatory system, how its blood is flowing, how quickly it will grow, et cetera.

A provocative question is, is New York just a scaled up San Francisco, which is a scaled up Santa Fe?  Superficially, that seems unlikely because they look so different, especially Santa Fe. I live in Santa Fe and it’s a bunch of dopey buildings, and here I am in New York overwhelmed by huge skyscrapers. On the other hand, a whale doesn’t look much like a giraffe. But in fact, they’re scaled versions of one another, at this kind of cross-grained 85, 90 percent level.

Of course, you can’t answer this question just by sitting in an armchair. You have to go out and get the data and ask, “If I look at various metrics describing a city, do they scale in some simple way?”

Is there one line, so to speak, upon which all of them sit? Or when I look at all these metrics and I plot them, do I just see this random mess, which says that each city is unique and dominated by its geography and its history? In which case there’s not much you can do, and you’ve got to attack and think about cities as individual.

I got into this work, because first of all, I believe it’s a truly challenging, fundamental, science problem.

I think this is very much science of the 21st century, because it is the kind of problem that scientists have ignored. It is under the umbrella of a complex adaptive system and we need to come to terms with understanding the structure and dynamics and organization of such systems because they’re the ones that determine our lives and our extraordinary phenomenon that we have developed on this planet.

Can we understand them as scientists? The prevailing way of investigating them is social sciences and economics  — which have primarily less to do with generic principles and more to do with case studies and narrative (which is of course, very important). But the question is, can we complement them and make a science of cities, so to speak, and a science of corporations?

It is a very important question, certainly for scaling, because if it’s true that every city is unique, then of course, there’s no real science of cities. Every case would be special.

Another remarkable fact is that the planet has urbanizing at an exponential rate. Namely, 200 years ago, here sitting in Manhattan, almost everything around me would be a field. There would be a teeny settlement down at Wall Street somewhere of a small number of people. But most of the people would be living in these fields all the way up Manhattan into upstate New York. Indeed, at that time, less than four percent of the United States was urban. Primarily, it was agricultural. And now, only 200 years later, it’s almost the reverse. More like 82 percent is urban and less than 20 percent is agricultural. This has happened at an extraordinarily fast rate — and in fact, faster than exponential.

The point to recognize is that all of the tsunami of problems we’re facing, from global warming, the environment, to the questions of financial markets and risk, crime, pollution, disease and so forth, all of them are urban.

They all have their origin in cities. They have become dominant since the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, they’ve been with us for the last two or 300 years, and somehow, we’ve only noticed them in the last ten or 15 years as if they’d never been here. Why? Because they’ve been increasing exponentially. We are on an exponential.

Cities are the cause of the problem, and they’re also the cause of the good life. They are the centers of wealth creation, creativity, innovation, and invention. They’re the exciting places. They are these magnets that suck people in. And that’s what’s been happening. And so they are the origin of the problems, but they are the origin of the solutions. And we need to come to terms with that, and we need to understand how cities work in a more scientific framework, meaning to what extent can we make it into a quantitative predictive, mathematizible kind of science.

Is that even possible?  And is it useful? That’s quest.

The first thing was to ask the question, do they scale? I put together a wonderful team of people, and I’d like to mention their names, because they play an extremely important and seminal role.

One is a man named Luis Bettencourt also a physicist who is at Los Alamos and the Santa Fe Institute. A man named José Lobo, who was at Cornell when I first got him involved, an urban economist and now he’s at Arizona State. Another is a student, Deborah Strumsky, who was at Harvard when she joined us, and is now at the University of North Carolina. And there are others, but these were the main characters. Most importantly, they were people that were part of a trans-disciplinary kind of group. And they brought together the data. They did the data mining, the statistics, analysis, et cetera. They have the expertise and the credentials.

The result of all of that was a long, tedious kind of process. To make a long story short, indeed, we found that cities scaled. Just amazing. Cities do scale. Not only do they scale, but also there’s universality to their scaling. Let me just tell you a little bit about of what we discovered from the data to begin with.

The first result that we actually got was with my German colleagues, Dirk Helbing, and his then student, Christian Kuhnert, who then worked with me. One of the first results was a very simple one —the number of gas stations as a function of city size in European cities.

What was discovered was that they behaved sort of like biology. You found that they are scaled beautifully, and it scaled as a power law, and the power law was less than one, indicating an economy of scale. Not surprisingly, the bigger the city, the less gas stations you need per capital. There is an economy of scale.

But it’s scaled! That is, it was systematic! You tell me the size of a city and I’ll tell you how many gas stations it has — that kind of idea. And not only that, it’s scaled at exactly the same way across all European cities. Kind of interesting!

But then, we discovered two things later that were quite remarkable. First, every infrastructural quantity you looked at from total length of roadways to the length of electrical lines to the length of gas lines, all the kinds of infrastructural things that are networked throughout a city, scaled in the same way as the number of gas stations. Namely, systematically, as you increase city size, I can tell you, roughly speaking, how many gas stations there are, what is the total length of roads, electrical lines, et cetera, et cetera. And it’s the same scaling in Europe, the United States, Japan and so on.

It is quite similar to biology. The exponent, instead of being three quarters was more like .85. So it’s a different exponent, but similar. But it’s an economy of scale.

The truly remarkable result was when we looked at quantities that I will call “socioeconomic”. That is, quantities that have no analog in biology. These are quantities, phenomena that did not exist until about 10,000 years ago when men and women started talking to one another and working together and forming serious communities leading to what we now call cities, i.e. things like wages, the number of educational institutions, the number of patents produced, et cetera. Things that have no analog in biology, things we invented.

And if you ask, first of all, do they scale? The answer is yes, in a regular way. Then, how do they scale?  And this was the surprise to me; I’m embarrassed to say. It should have been obvious prior, but they scaled in what we called a super linear fashion. Instead of being an exponent less than one, indicating economies of scale, the exponent was bigger than one, indicating what economists call increasing returns to scale.

What does that say? That says that systematically, the bigger the city, the more wages you can expect, the more educational institutions in principle, more cultural events, more patents are produced, it’s more innovative and so on. Remarkably, all to the same degree. There was a universal exponent which turned out to be approximately 1.15 which translated to English says something like the following:  If you double the size of a city from 50,000 to a hundred thousand, a million to two million, five million to ten million, it doesn’t matter what, systematically, you get a roughly 15 percent increase in productivity, patents, the number of research institutions, wages and so on, and you get systematically a 15 percent saving in length of roads and general infrastructure.

There are systematic benefits that come from increasing city size, both in terms of the individual getting something — which attracts people to the city, and in terms of the macroscopic economy. So the big cities are good in this sense.

However, some bad and ugly come with it. And the bad and ugly are things like a systematic increase in crime and various diseases, like AIDS, flu and so on. Interestingly enough, it scales all to the same 15 percent, if you double the size. Or put slightly differently, another way of saying it is, if you have a city of a million people and you broke it down into ten cities of a hundred thousand, you would require for that ten cities of a hundred thousand, 30 to 40 percent more roads, and 30 to 40 percent general infrastructure. And you would get a systematic decrease in wages and productivity and invention. Amazing. But you’d also get a decrease in crime, pollution and disease, systematically. So there are these trade-offs.

What does this mean?  What is this coming from?  And what do they imply?  Let me just say one of the things that they imply.

If cities are dominated by wealth creation and innovation, i.e. the super linear scaling laws, there’s increasing returns to scale. How does that impact growth? What does that do for growth? Well, it turns out, of course, had it been biology and it had been dominated by economies of scale, you would have got a sigmoid curve, and you would have stopped growing. Bad for cities, we believe, and bad for economies.

Economies must be, in a capitalist system, ever expanding. It’s good that we have super linear scaling, because what that says is you have open-ended growth. And that’s very good. Indeed, if you can check it against data, it agrees very well. But there’s something very bad about open-ended growth.

One of the bad things about open-ended growth, growing faster than exponentially, is that open-ended growth eventually leads to collapse. It leads to collapse mathematically because of something called finite times singularity. You hit something that’s called a singularity, which is a technical term, and it turns out as you approach this singularity, the system, if it reaches it, will collapse. You have to avoid that singularity in order to stop collapsing. It’s great on the one hand that you have this open ended growth. But if you kept going, of course, it doesn’t make any sense. Eventually, you run out of resources anyway, but you would collapse. And that’s what the theory says.

How do you avoid that? Well, how have we avoided it? We’ve avoided it by innovation. By making a major innovation that so to speak, resets the clock and you can kind of start over again with new boundary conditions. We’ve done that by making major discoveries or inventions, like we discover iron, we discover coal. Or we invent computers, or we invent IT. But it has to be something that really changes the cultural and economic paradigm. It kind of resets the clock and we start over again.

There’s a theorem you can prove that says that if you demand continuous open growth, you have to have continuous cycles of innovation. Well, that’s what people believe, and it’s the way people have suggested that’s how you get out of the Malthusian paradox. This all agrees within itself but there is a huge catch.

I said earlier that in biology you have economies of scale, scaling that is sub linear, three quarters less than one, and that the pace of life gets slower the bigger you are. In cities and social systems, you have the opposite. You have the super linear scaling. You have increasing returns to scale. The bigger you are, the more you have rather than less.

It turns out when you go through the theoretical framework that leads to the opposite to biology the pace of life increases with size. So everything that’s going on in New York today is systematically going faster than it is in San Francisco, than it is in Santa Fe, even the speed of walking.

There’s data, and if you plot it, you will see that the speed of walking in cities, actually, I said the data is actually taken primarily in European cities, but you can see this systematic increase in some reasonable agreement with the theory.

The first thing is that we have this increasing pace of life. We have open-ended growth, increase in pace of life, and the threat of collapse because of the singularity. But there’s a big catch about this innovation. Theory says, sure, you can get out of collapse by innovating, but you have to innovate faster and faster.

Something that took 10,000 years 20,000 years ago to make a change, now takes 25 years. So this is not the clock that is governing social life. There’s a clock that’s getting faster and faster. And so you have to innovate faster and faster in order to avoid the collapse. And it all comes out of this exponential growth driven by super linear scaling.

The question then is, is this sustainable? The system will collapse, because eventually you would have to be making a major innovation, like you know, IT every six months. Well, that’s completely crazy. First of all, we’re human beings. We can’t adapt to that, even.  But we can’t do it, so this is very threatening.

This leads then to all kinds of questions about global sustainability and how can you construct a conceptual framework that gives rise to having wealth creation, innovation, this kind of quality and standard of life, wealth production, and yet, not grow in such a way that you are probing the singularity and collapsing. That’s the challenge. That’s certainly something that we have to face.

Let me just say a few words about ideas as to why it is there’s scaling in cities. What we’ve shown is that there’s universality that on the one hand, you have this sub linear scaling, economies of scale for infrastructure like biology. But the dominant part of the city, wealth creation, innovation and the socio economic kinds of quantities, that have no analog in biology, scale super linearly.

This is true for any metric you want to think of and across the world. If you look at Japanese data or Chinese data or data from Chile or Colombia or the Netherlands or Portugal or the United States, it all looks the same. Yet these cities have nothing to do with one another.

It says that geography and history played a subdominant role as it did in biology in a sense. And so if you tell me the size of a city in the United States, I can tell you with some 85 percent accuracy how many police it would have, how many AIDS cases, how long the length of the roads are, how many patents it’s producing and so on, on the average.

Of course, you can use that as a baseline for talking about actual individual cities, how they over and underperform relative to this idealized scaling number. But the question is, where in the hell does that come from?  What is it that’s universal that transcends countries and cultures?

Well obviously, it’s what cities are really about, not these buildings and the roads and things, but the people. It’s people. What we believe is that the scaling laws are a manifestation of social networks, of the universality of the way human beings interact, what we’re doing now, talking to one another, exchanging ideas, and doing tasks together, and so on.

It is the nature of those networks and the clustering — very importantly, the hierarchical clustering of those networks, the family structure, the way families interact, and then all the way out through businesses and so on, that there’s a kind of universality to that that is representative of the kind of scale at which humans interact.

For example, even though families in China and the United States traditionally may look different, most people cannot interact seriously, in a serious, dedicated way with more than five or six people. It doesn’t matter how big the family is actually. Despite Facebook, you cannot have a hundred best friends anywhere in the world.

These things are representative of the universal nature of the social networking. Our belief is that it is the nature of that and the hierarchy of it. For example, not only the hierarchy in size, but the hierarchy in the fact that you’re strongest interaction is with your family. You have a much weaker interaction with your colleagues in your job, and in your job situation, you have a much weaker interaction even with the CEO of the company, and all the way around the hierarchy. There is this presumed self-similar structure that goes up through the hierarchy in terms of the size of the hierarchy and in terms of the strength of interaction.

We believe it is that hierarchy which is transcending all of the aspects of the city and is being represented by these kinds of laws. So how is it that when we plot, we can plot GDP of the city, the number of AIDS cases and wages on one plot, and they overlap one another? They’re just the same line. Well, that’s because from this viewpoint, they’re all manifestations of people interacting with one another.

Predominately companies are dominated by economies of scale rather than innovation

The last piece of this is to take it to companies. Again, I must say that when I first started working on this, I just assumed companies were little cities so to speak. I also assumed they were dominated by creativity and so on.

It took us a long time to get data for companies, because unlike cities, you have to pay for that data. But we’ve just done it. (…)

In fact, we’ve done it primarily without paying attention to sector, although we’ve done some decomposition into sector. What I’m going to talk about here is regardless of sector. If you just take all companies equally for a moment, indeed, what you see if you plot the various metrics of a company from sales and profits, taxation, assets versus company size, using the metric of employees (you could use others — you could use sales itself but we used employees) you find scaling.

There’s much more variation, many more outliers among companies than there are among cities, and more among cities than there are among organisms. But nevertheless, you see very good evidence of scaling. And the thing that surprised us about this scaling was that it was like biology, not like cities. It was sub linear predominately.

That was surprising because sub linear in the kind of conceptual framework we developed was a reflection of economies of scale, and super linear as a reflection of wealth creation and innovation. It is said that predominately companies are dominated by economies of scale rather than innovation.

If it were dominated by economies of scale, sub linear scaling, unlike cities (which have open ended growth) companies would grow and then stop growing. And not only that, if you extrapolated from biology, they would indeed, die, ultimately.

We looked at the growth curves as the metrics of the company, like its assets or its profits, as a function of time, or its number of employees as a function of time. Indeed, the generic behavior is a sigmoid. They grow fast and they stop. All the big companies stop at roughly the same value, which is intriguing of it self. I think that number is about half a trillion dollars.

We have a wonderful graph that has about ten thousand companies plotted on one graph and they are these growth curves. You see this kind of spaghetti looking graph by just eyeballing it. Everything grows and stops growing. That’s what it looks like. We’re still in the middle of analyzing a lot of this.

The picture emerges. Companies are more like organisms. They grow and asymptote. Cities are open ended.

More importantly, what we discovered is that on the one hand, sales increased linearly with company size. On the other hand, profits increased sub linearly of an exponent of about one eighth. This data is all U.S. data on publicly traded companies.

Sales to profits are systematically decreasing so that eventually, the profit to sales margin is going to zero. If you just extrapolate this, indeed, if you look at the data, you see that the fluctuations in all these quantities are proportional to the size of the company. The fluctuation is getting bigger and bigger. The profits are decreasing relative to sales. Even though the profits are increasing the bigger you are, where you think, “we made several billion dollars” what you realize is that you’re in an environment where the fluctuation is eventually bigger than that. This is possibly the mechanism by which companies die.

Let me tell you the interpretation. Again, this is still speculative.

The great thing about cities, the thing that is amazing about cities is that as they grow, so to speak, their dimensionality increases. That is, the space of opportunity, the space of functions, the space of jobs just continually increases. And the data shows that. If you look at job categories, it continually increases. I’ll use the word “dimensionality.”  It opens up. And in fact, one of the great things about cities is that it supports crazy people. You walk down Fifth Avenue, you see crazy people, and there are always crazy people. Well, that’s good. It is tolerant of extraordinary diversity.

This is in complete contrast to companies, with the exception of companies maybe at the beginning (think of the image of the Google boys in the back garage, with ideas of the search engine no doubt promoting all kinds of crazy ideas and having maybe even crazy people around them).

Well, Google is a bit of an exception because it still tolerates some of that. But most companies start out probably with some of that buzz. But the data indicates that at about 50 employees to a hundred, that buzz starts to stop. And a company that was more multi dimensional, more evolved becomes one-dimensional. It closes down.

Indeed, if you go to General Motors or you go to American Airlines or you go to Goldman Sachs, you don’t see crazy people. Crazy people are fired. Well, to speak of crazy people is taking the extreme. But maverick people are often fired.

It’s not surprising to learn that when manufacturing companies are on a down turn, they decrease research and development, and in fact in some cases, do actually get rid of it, thinking “oh, we can get that back, in two years we’ll be back on track.”

Well, this kind of thinking kills them. This is part of the killing, and this is part of the change from super linear to sublinear, namely companies allow themselves to be dominated by bureaucracy and administration over creativity and innovation, and unfortunately, it’s necessary. You cannot run a company without administrative. Someone has got to take care of the taxes and the bills and the cleaning the floors and the maintenance of the building and all the rest of that stuff. You need it. And the question is, “can you do it without it dominating the company?” The data suggests that you can’t.

The question is, as a scientist, can we take these ideas and do what we did in biology, at least based on networks and other ideas, and put this into a quantitative, mathematizable, predictive theory, so that we can understand the birth and death of companies, how that stimulates the economy?  How it’s related to cities? How does it affect global sustainability and have a predictive framework for an idealized system, so that we can understand how to deal with it and avoid it? If you’re running a bigger company, you can recognize what the metrics are that are driving you to mortality, and possibly put it off, and hopefully even avoid it.

Otherwise we have a theory that tells you when Google and Microsoft will eventually die, and die might mean a merger with someone else.

That’s the idea and that’s the framework, and that’s what this is.”

Geoffrey West, British theoretical physicist, former president and distinguished professor of the Santa Fe Institute, Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster, Edge, 23 May 2011. (Photo Illustration by Hubert Blanz)

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations

Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

Geoffrey West: The surprising math of cities and corporations,, July 2011

Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster |

As organisms, cities, and companies scale up, they all gain in efficiency, but then they vary. The bigger an organism, the slower. Yet the bigger a city is, the faster it runs. And cities are structurally immortal, while corporations are structurally doomed. Scaling up always creates new problems; cities can innovate faster than the problems indefinitely, while corporations cannot.

These revolutionary findings come from Geoffrey West’s examination of vast quantities of data on the metabolic/economic behavior of organisms and organizations. A theoretical physicist, West was president of Santa Fe Institute from 2005 to 2009 and founded the high energy physics group at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

— Full program: Long Now Foundation,, Cowell Theatre, San Francisco, CA, Event Date: 07.25.2011

See also:

☞ Geoffrey West, Scaling Laws In Biology And Other Complex Systems, Google Tech talks August 1, 2007
☞ Geoffrey West, On the Scale and Unity of Life from Cells to Cities, Research channel lecture
The sameness of organisms, cities, and corporations: Q&A with Geoffrey West, TED, 26 July 2011.
☞ Jonah Lehrer, A Physicist Solves the City, The New York Times, Dec 17, 2010
Vlatko Vedral: Decoding Reality: the universe as quantum information
☞ Mark Buchanan, Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks - ‘To be human is to be quantum’, New Scientist, 05 Sep 2011
‘To understand is to perceive patterns’ - B. Fuller, Powell, Johnson, West, Kurzweil & video narration by J. Silva


Map–territory relation- a brief résumé


     René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe)

"If words are not things, or maps are not the actual territory, then, obviously, the only possible link between the objective world and the linguistic world is found in structure, and structure alone.
The only usefulness of map or a language depends on the similarity of structure between the empirical world and the map-languages.”

Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Institute of GS, 1994, p.61.

"The map–territory relation describes the relationship between an object and a representation of that object, as in the relation between a geographical territory and a map of it. Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory,” encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. For example, the pain from a stone falling on one’s foot is not the actual stone, it’s one’s perception of the stone; one’s opinion of a politician, favorable or unfavorable, is not that person; and so on. A specific abstraction or reaction does not capture all facets of its source — e.g. the pain in one’s foot does not convey the internal structure of the stone, you don’t know everything that is going on in the life of a politician, etc. — and thus may limit an individual’s understanding and cognitive abilities unless the two are distinguished. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories—that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself—in this sense. (…)

Gregory Bateson, in “Form, Substance and Difference" from Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), elucidates the essential impossibility of knowing what the territory is, as any understanding of it is based on some representation:

"We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum."

Neil Gaiman retells the parable in reference to storytelling in Fragile Things:

"One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory."

Korzybski’s dictum “the map is not the territory” is also cited as an underlying principle used in neuro-linguistic programming, where it is used to signify that individual people in fact do not in general have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So it is considered important to be aware that people’s beliefs about reality and their awareness of things (the “map”) are not reality itself or everything they could be aware of (“the territory”). The originators of NLP have been explicit that they owe this insight to General Semantics.” — (Wiki)

Erik Evens in The Linguistic Metaphor:

"Korzybski’s General Semantics offered a view that human knowledge is limited by two main factors: the structure of the human nervous system, and the structure of human languages. He maintained that people cannot experience the world directly, but only through their “abstractions” - nonverbal impressions derived from data detected and transmitted by the senses and the nervous system, and verbal indicators derived from language. (…)

Here’s a story about Alfred Korzybski that’s amusing, and worth repeating because it’s illustrative of some of these ideas:  One day, Korzybski was giving a lecture to a group of students, and he suddenly interrupted the lesson in order to retrieve a packet of biscuits, wrapped in white paper, from his briefcase. He muttered that he just had to eat something, and he asked the students on the seats in the front row, if they would also like a biscuit. A few students took a biscuit. “Nice biscuit, don’t you think”, said Korzybski, while he took a second one. The students were chewing vigorously. After a while he tore the white paper from the biscuits, in order to reveal the original packaging. On it was a big picture of a dog’s head and the words “Dog Cookies”. The students looked at the package, and were shocked. Two of them wanted to throw up, put their hands in front of their mouths, and ran out of the lecture hall to the bathroom.

"You see, ladies and gentlemen", Korzybski remarked, "I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but they also eat words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter." It seems his prank aimed to illustrate how some human suffering originates from the confusion or conflation of linguistic representations of reality, and reality itself.

The Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte illustrated the concept of “perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves”   in a number of paintings including a famous work entitled The Treachery of Images, which consists of a drawing of a pipe with the caption, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“This is not a pipe”).” — (Wiki)

The painting is not a pipe, but rather an image of a pipe, which was Magritte’s point: "The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture "This is a pipe," I’d have been lying!" — (Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images. p. 71.)

Alfred Korzybski:

"I use the map-territory relationship because the characteristic are general for all existing forms of representation which include the structure of language.
We observe

1) That a map-language is not the territory-fact, etc.,

2) Map-language covers not all the characteristic of territory-fact,

3) Forms of representation are self-reflexive in the sense that an ideal map would include the map of the map, etc., and in language we can speak about language.

These three premises are child-like in their simplicity, and yet involve a flat denial of the fundamental present, yet very ancient, unrevised, harmful premises. The third premise has been historically entirely neglected except partially in mathematics.
This self-reflexiveness of language, however, is on the botton of most human difficulties in daily life as well as in science. (…)

As we have seen, for maximum predictability, we must have a map-language similar in structure to the territory-facts. The next crucial problem is to investigate empirically whether our present map-language is similar in structure to the territory-facts. We know empirically that “space” and “time” do not exist separately, otherwise they can not be divided, and so the facts are non-elementalistic. We know, on the other hand, that verbally we can separate or split thein into ficticious elements which do not exist as such. In other words, that the structure of the existing language is elementalistic where the facts are non-elementalistic. This goes much farther. Thus, in actual life we can not split “body” and “mind” “emotions” and “intellect”, etc., while verbalistically we can do that quite happily, and speculate uselessly on these split fictions. We conclude that this elementalistic language is not similar in structure to a non-elementalistic world and ourselves.

Let us analyze further. We find that every “chair”, “match”, “house”, “horse”, “man”, etc., is different, while the old language of intensional structures has only verbal definitions for verbal fictions called, say, “man”, “chair”, etc., emphasizing similarities and disregarding differences. By extension we have only actual chair1, chair2, etc., Smith1, Smith2, etc. which are actualities, not verbal fictions and verbal definitions. We conclude that the structure of the old accepted language being elementalistic an dintensional is not similar in structure to the facts of life and ourselves. This is a conclusion reached by inspections of facts of ordinary life and scientific work and also linguistic facts concerning structure of language which have been entirely neglected in the past.

The conclusions we must draw from these obvious observations are startling and extremely far-reaching, involving fundamentally the future of mankind and civilization.

Because the structure of the present language is definitely and empirically not similar in structure to facts of life and ourselves, proper evaluation and so predictability in our human affairs is thouroughly impossible except by accident.

Another more serious consequence of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic chaos is due to the lack of a science of man by which I mean the lack of application of standard scientific methods to the affairs of man. With our present intensional verbalistic attitutes which follow the structure of language, agreement between individuals and groups is in principle impossible. With a change to extensional orientation, strictly connected with the extensionalization of the structure of language, disagreement becomes impossible. (…) We must make a serious analysis of the neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic factors involved in our present situation and that realization may, perhaps, help us stop the suicide of our world.”

Alfred Korzybski, Collected Writings, 1920-1950, Institute of General Semantics, 1990, p. 275-276.

Heiner Benking:

"We have to be able to talk about the same things with words which are grounded. (…) We need to see terms and concepts in their context. (…) We can construct frames-of-reference as a schemata to visually reference and share diverse but inter-connected positions, focuses, ranges and horizons, in order to develop not only common grounds but a tolerance for alternate ways of seeing our different levels and scopes. By adequate and open conversation, we can create a common ground. In this way every player can discover his own place in the general panorama and understand better what he does and what he could and should do, or not do.” We can use the cybernetic tools to order our data-base.  But he warns that we should not let us stray in a “virtual cyberspace” in a mainly and merely technical sense, with no relevance to real situations. Scales and proportions and their consequences should be duly taken in account in our representation, as we construct a 3 dimensional space/time model.”International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics

[This note will be gradually expanded…]

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Cognition / relativity tag on Lapidarium
John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices, Lapidarium
Philosophy of perception, Structural differentialRepresentative realism, List of cognitive biases, Emic and etic, Simulacra and Simulation, Social constructionism


Thomas Cole - The Course of Empire

There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.
And History, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.

Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer. American Sublime, Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880, Princeton University Press, 2002. (Cole read Lord Byron’s 1818 work, Childe Harold, and cited these lines in regard to his series.)

The Course of Empire is a five-part series of paintings created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. It is notable in part for reflecting popular American sentiments of the times, when many saw pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, fearing that empire would lead to gluttony and inevitable decay. (Wikipedia) “Cole captured a theory of imperial rise and fall to which most people remain in thrall to to this day. Each of the five imagined scenes depicts the mouth of a great river beneath a rocky outcrop.” (source: Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010)

"In a letter to his patron Luman Reed, Cole wrote enthusiastically of an idea for his first large-scale allegorical series:

A series of pictures might be painted that should illustrate the History of a natural scene, as well as be an Epitome of Man—showing the natural changes of Landscape & those effected by man in his progress from Barbarism to Civilization, to Luxury, the Vicious state or state of destruction and to the state of Ruin & Desolation.

The philosophy of my subject is drawn from the history of the past, wherein we see how nations have risen from the Savage state to that of Power & Glory & then fallen & become extinct…

— Cole to Luman Reed, 18 September 1833, NYSL; quoted in Foshay, Mr. Luman Reed’s Picture Gallery, 130. (See more: Explore Thomas Cole)

                                           The Savage State

"In the first, The Savage State, the valley from the shore opposite the crag, in the dim light of a dawning stormy day. A hunter clad in skins hastens through the wilderness, pursuing a deer; canoes paddle up the river; on the far shore can be seen a clearing cluster of wigwams around a fire, the nucleus of the city that is to be. The visual references are those of Native American life.

                                  The Arcadian or Pastoral State

In the second painting, The Arcadian or Pastoral State , the sky has cleared and we are in the fresh morning of a day in spring or early summer. The viewpoint has shifted further down the river, as the crag with the boulder is now on the left-hand side of the painting; a forked peak can be seen in the distance beyond it. Much of the wilderness has given way to settled lands, with plowed fields and lawns visible. Various activities go on in the background: plowing, boat-building, herding sheep, dancing; in the foreground, an old man sketches what may be a geometrical problem with a stick. On a bluff on the near side of the river, a megalithic temple has been built, and smoke (presumably from sacrifices) arises from it. The images reflect an idealized, pre-urban ancient Greece.

                                  The Consummation of Empire

The third painting, The Consummation of Empire, shifts the viewpoint to the opposite shore, approximately the site of the clearing in the first painting. It is noontide of a glorious summer day. Both sides of the river valley are now covered in colonnaded marble structures, whose steps run down into the water. The megalithic temple seems to have been transformed into a huge domed structure dominating the river-bank. The mouth of the river is guarded by two pharoses, and ships with lateen sails go out to the sea beyond. A joyous crowd throngs the balconies and terraces as a scarlet-robed king or victorious general crosses a bridge connecting the two sides of the river in a triumphal procession. In the foreground an elaborate fountain gushes. The overall look suggests the height of ancient Rome.

                                   The Destruction of Empire

The fourth painting, The Destruction of Empire , has almost the same point of view as the third, though the artist has stepped back a bit to allow a wider scene of the action, and moved almost to the center of the river. The action is, of course, the sack and destruction of the city, in the course of a tempest seen in the distance. It seems that a fleet of enemy warriors has overthrown the city’s defenses, sailed up the river, and is busily firing the city and killing and raping its inhabitants. The bridge across which the triumphal procession had crossed is broken; a makeshift crossing strains under the weight of soldiers and refugees. Columns are broken, fire breaks from the upper floors of a palace on the river bank. In the foreground a statue of some venerable hero stands headless, still striding forward into the uncertain future, reminiscent of the hunter in the first painting. The scene is perhaps suggested by the Vandal Sack of Rome (455).


The fifth painting, Desolation, shows the results, years later. We view the remains of the city in the livid light of a dying day. The landscape has begun to return to wilderness, and no human beings are to be seen; but the remnants of their architecture emerge from beneath a mantle of trees, ivy, and other overgrowth. The broken stumps of the pharoses loom in the background. The arches of the shattered bridge, and the columns of the temple are still visible; a single column looms in the foreground, now a nesting place for birds. The sunrise of the first painting is mirrored here by a moonrise, a pale light reflecting in the ruin-choked river while the standing pillar reflects the last rays of sunset.

Sic transit gloria mundi (“thus passes the glory of the world”).” — (Source: Cedar Grove - The Thomas Cole National Historic Site). Collection: New-York Historical Society

"Conceived in the mid-1830s, Cole’s great pentaptych has a clear message: all empires, no matter how magnificent, are condemned to decline and fall." - Niall Ferguson, Complexity and Collapse, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010)

See also:
☞ Thomas Cole - The Voyage of Life
☞ Niall Ferguson, Empires on the Edge of Chaos, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2010
☞ Noah Raford, Collapse Dynamics: Phase Transitions in Complex Social Systems, MIT


A brief history of writing

          (Photo: Babylonian legal tablet from Alalakh in its clay envelope, British Museum)

"True writing, or phonetic writing, records were developed independently in four different civilizations in the world. Writing systems developed from neolithic writing in the Early Bronze Age (4th millennium BC).  The invention of the phonetic system is roughly contemporary with the beginning of the Bronze Age in the late Neolithic of the late 4th millennium BC. The Sumerian archaic cuneiform script and the Egyptian hieroglyphs are generally considered the earliest writing systems, both emerging out of their ancestral proto-literate symbol systems from 3400–3200 BC with earliest coherent texts from about 2600 BC.

The history of human communication dates back to the earliest era of humanity. Symbols were developed about 30,000 years ago, and writing about 7,000. The early writing systems of the late 4th millennium BC are not considered a sudden invention. Rather, they were based on ancient traditions of symbol systems that cannot be classified as writing proper, but have many characteristics strikingly similar to writing. These systems may be described as proto-writing. They used ideographic and/or early mnemonic symbols to convey information yet were probably devoid of direct linguistic content. These systems emerged in the early Neolithic period, as early as the 7th millennium BC.” — (Wiki History of writing)

The world’s three main writing traditions: Afro-Asiatic, East Asian and American

                                                        (Click image to enlarge)

— from Steven R. Fischer, A History of Writing (pdf), Reaktion Books, 2001, p. 296-297.

 (Video: Early History of the Alphabet by Jennifer Ordonez & Tatiana Mirzaian)

"Most of us know, but often forget, that handwriting is not natural. We are not born to do it. There is no genetic basis for writing. Writing is not like seeing or talking, which are innate. Writing must be taught. (…)

About 6,000 years ago, the Sumerians created the first schools, called tablet houses, to teach writing. They trained children in Sumerian cuneiform by having them copy the symbols on one half of a soft clay tablet onto the other half, using a stylus. When children did this — and when the Sumerians invented a system of representation, a way to make one thing symbolize another — their brains changed. In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf explains the neurological developments writing wrought: “The brain became a beehive of activity. A network of processes went to work: The visual and visual association areas responded to visual patterns (or representations); frontal, temporal, and parietal areas provided information about the smallest sounds in words …; and finally areas in the temporal and parietal lobes processed meaning, function and connections.”

The Sumerians did not have an alphabet — nor did the Egyptians, who may have gotten to writing earlier. Which alphabet came first is debated; many consider it to be the Greek version, a system based upon Phoenician. Alphabets created even more neural pathways, allowing us to think in new ways (neither better nor worse than non-alphabetic systems, like Chinese, yet different nonetheless). (…)

Anne Trubek, Handwriting Is History, Miller-McCune Online, December 17, 2009.

"The invention of writing is only thousands of years old. In addition, for most of us, our grandparents, great grandparents or great great grandparents didn’t read at all. Writing is much too recent for our brains to have evolved to have reading mechanisms. (…)

The solution is that culture made writing easy on the eye, by shaping letters to be what the eye likes. The idea that culture shapes our artifacts to be good for us is not new. What’s new here is a specific hypothesis for what writing should look like in order to be good for us.

To be easy on the eye, writing needs to “look like nature,” just what our illiterate visual systems are fantastically competent at processing. The trick of that research direction was making this “writing looks like nature” idea rigorous, and coming up with ways of testing it. I show that there are certain signature visual patterns found in nearly any natural environment with opaque objects strewn about, and that these signature patterns are found in human writing. In short, writing has evolved so that written words look like visual objects.”

Mark Changizi, Everything We Knew About Human Vision is Wrong. Mark Changizi Tells Us Why, N e u r o n a r r a t i v e, May 5, 2010.

Language isn’t just an internal process. Rather, linguistic components overflow their boundaries in the mind and become concretized as artifacts. Writing is the most obvious of these boundary overflows, but every technology represents some sort of material fixation of a linguistic concept. In that sense, the materiality of human history is a story of how homo sapiens learned to speak with their hands, translate their language into artifact, and then engage in a conversation with these artifacts. This sets up a very interesting feedback loop, because the exteriorized linguistic object – the technology – produces ramifications of language, which in turn produce new technologies, etc., until the whole thing spirals completely out of control. And we’re already well past that point.” 

Mark Pesce, The Progressive Ingression of Intelligence into Matter | h+ Magazine

Stephen Fry on the science of language | BBC

"Stephen Fry explores linguistic achievements and how our skills for the spoken word have developed in a new five-part series for BBC Two. In Planet Word, Stephen dissects language in all its guises with his inimitable mixture of learning, love of lexicon and humour. He analyses how we use and abuse language and asks whether we are near to beginning to understand the complexities of its DNA.

From the time when man first mastered speech to the cyber world of modern times with its html codes and texting, Planet Word takes viewers on a journey across the globe to discover just how far humans have come when it comes to the written and spoken word.”

See also:

Mark Changizi on how we read
Mark Changizi, The Topography Of Language, Science 2.0, Sep 17, 2009.
The world’s three main writing traditions: Afro-Asiatic, East Asian and American (diagram)
☞ Maria Popova, A Visual History of the Alphabet, The Atlantic, Jun 21, 2011
☞ Mark Changizi, Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music? How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

The Art of Knowing graphics by Joyce Pendola

The Art of Knowing graphics by Joyce Pendola

China’s Sustainability: Asynchronous Revolutions by Jiang Jun
The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics broadcast China’s Four Great Inventions as the contributions of an ancient and creative power. However, the historical distinction among the four inventions, as well as the differentiation in their global effects, has long been ignored. Two of the four inventions, gunpowder and the  compass, had a clear military application, while the other two, paper making and type printing, had more to do with cultivation.
Sustainability, a modern description of “long life”, was the latent principle behind all dynasties of pre-modern China.  It was based on three aspects of civilization: unitive politics as the organizational model of the state, agriculture economy as the social model of production, and Confucian culture as its ideology. Unitive politics minimized internal exhaustion by virtue of its centralized instruction system and national collectivism. Agruculture economy stabilized local power via its land-oriented production mode and local collectivism. Confucian culture synchronized the two into “oneness” with its state-family isomorphic structure. The stability and sustainability of pre-modern China was defined by this trinity. The sustainability of the state was therefore resolved into the sustainability of all those local families. The repression of demilitarization and the extrication in self-organization resulted in periodic massive population increases. Most mechanical inventions were supposed to merely reinforce human power not replace it. (Source)

China’s Sustainability: Asynchronous Revolutions by Jiang Jun

The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics broadcast China’s Four Great Inventions as the contributions of an ancient and creative power. However, the historical distinction among the four inventions, as well as the differentiation in their global effects, has long been ignored. Two of the four inventions, gunpowder and the compass, had a clear military application, while the other two, paper making and type printing, had more to do with cultivation.

Sustainability, a modern description of “long life”, was the latent principle behind all dynasties of pre-modern China. It was based on three aspects of civilization: unitive politics as the organizational model of the state, agriculture economy as the social model of production, and Confucian culture as its ideology. Unitive politics minimized internal exhaustion by virtue of its centralized instruction system and national collectivism. Agruculture economy stabilized local power via its land-oriented production mode and local collectivism. Confucian culture synchronized the two into “oneness” with its state-family isomorphic structure. The stability and sustainability of pre-modern China was defined by this trinity. The sustainability of the state was therefore resolved into the sustainability of all those local families. The repression of demilitarization and the extrication in self-organization resulted in periodic massive population increases. Most mechanical inventions were supposed to merely reinforce human power not replace it. (Source)

Voyager Golden Record 
The Voyager Golden Record are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them. The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years.
This gold aluminum cover was designed to protect the Voyager 1 and 2 “Sounds of Earth” gold-plated records from micrometeorite bombardment, but also serves a double purpose in providing the finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time. Flying aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 are identical “golden” records, carrying the story of Earth far into deep space. The 12 inch gold-plated copper discs contain greetings in 60 languages, samples of music from different cultures and eras, and natural and man-made sounds from Earth. They also contain electronic information that an advanced technological civilization could convert into diagrams and photographs. Currently, both Voyager probes are sailing adrift in the black sea of interplanetary space, having left our solar system years ago.

Voyager Golden Record

The Voyager Golden Record are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them. The Voyager spacecraft are not heading towards any particular star, but Voyager 1 will be within 1.6 light years of the star AC+79 3888 in the Ophiuchus constellation in about 40,000 years.

This gold aluminum cover was designed to protect the Voyager 1 and 2 “Sounds of Earth” gold-plated records from micrometeorite bombardment, but also serves a double purpose in providing the finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time. Flying aboard Voyagers 1 and 2 are identical “golden” records, carrying the story of Earth far into deep space. The 12 inch gold-plated copper discs contain greetings in 60 languages, samples of music from different cultures and eras, and natural and man-made sounds from Earth. They also contain electronic information that an advanced technological civilization could convert into diagrams and photographs. Currently, both Voyager probes are sailing adrift in the black sea of interplanetary space, having left our solar system years ago.