Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pointful Gossip

I'm saying this gossip isn't pointless, needs to get out there, more in the "thousand dots of light" genre, in need of interconnections.

My own little life became a little more complicated when the University of Buffalo decided to kill Geodesic, a long-running list frequented by crackpots, wackos and other die-hards, including myself on occasion. Joe Moore is a serious scholar. There's actually a lot of good sharing on that list. The university has made this material all the more interesting and valuable for having pulled the plug after all these years. Now we have a better story than ever.

The Wild West Internet is like that; we were warned...

My ISP Internet Arena slunk away in the night that time, no warning, sites gone. I'd fallen in with them when Teleport shriveled. Then when Drexel inherited the Math Forum from Swarthmore College, all kinds of URLs fell by the wayside, as the indexing scheme was completely revamped.

For writers like me, like ducks to water with hypertext, massive link loss just goes with the territory. But that's not to say I'm always jumping up and down with joy when my "geometry of thinking" gets interfered with in this way.

Think of a spider, going home mad, after a long day at the office, when some kid comes along and... But hey, there's always for a lot of what's gone.

To the matter at hand:

A Top Geometer

Journalist Siobhan Roberts does some excellent storytelling in her King of Infinite Space, a book about H.S.M. Coxeter, the great 20th century geometer.

Here's finally a place to start up with the Bucky stuff, making those links, telling the story of our own lifetimes. Fuller dedicated Synergetics to Coxeter, with permission, as a part of a long history of communications.

One of the juicy bits (here's the gossip):

M.C. Escher's son George bumped up against the Fuller machine, otherwise known as the DoD, as a newly naturalized citizen of Canada, was incensed to discover the DEW-line radomes could be patented to the extent they had been, given their natural occurrence in nature, and as mathematical concepts.

"These should be open source!" he was thinking (paraphrase). Coxeter felt the same way. Who is this interloper, this non-mathematician who thinks he's hot stuff, warping the legal structure so badly as to give the whole idea of "intellectual property" a bad name? Arthur Loeb agreed: we need to watch this Bucky guy, he's got charlatanical aspects, could mean trouble for us.

This was long before any talk of a dedication, having dinner with Fuller and his wife in Carbondale.

Fuller's reputation as an architect was internationally recognized, so it wasn't like there wasn't a ready pigeon-hole for the guy. What was maddening (crazy-making) about Fuller is he wouldn't stay in his hole, not that he didn't have one (he had several -- wore many hats over the years).

Dr. Loeb, a respected MIT crystallographer and teacher for Amy Edmondson, author of A Fuller Explanation, later became friendlier towards Fuller, to the point of writing a frontispiece.

Loeb's sincere wish that Synergetics not be construed as occult esoterica or dark ages metaphysics from hell, is more mutedly expressed in this intro, as for the most part there's a lot of good stuff here that crystallographers might use to pass on their discipline, i.e. reading Synergetics at a place like Harvard couldn't be all bad, even if the occasional nut case felt moved to burn it as a "Witches' Bible" in a public square or someplace, Boston being what it is (if you know your history).

But getting academia all riled and foaming at the mouth was part of Fuller's grand strategy for world domination, as we in the open source world are wont to say (the FOSS community has always expressed that as a goal, somewhat in self spoof (shades of Subgenius)).

Fuller was out to make a point, about "what one individual could do" amassing credit to himself in heaping helpings ("ungodly amounts"), knowing full well the patents would expire eventually, but wanting to tout himself as "not a corporation or government" i.e. "just some guy" (or "an average human being" as he liked to put it). He aimed to champion "everyman" -- call it a literary endeavor, The Adventures of Guinea Pig B (good title for a children's book eh?).

Like he really was quite distinct from the military-industrial complex, had that "maverick" label right from the get go, and with good reason (because he was one)). People will call him a "cold warrior" and that may be so, but you have to read the sections on cryogenics in Synergetics to really know what this "cold war" thing is all about (hint: no outward weapons need apply if the strategy is working).

Towards the end of his life Dr. Fuller cashed in on his never having sold out to some "boss corporation" and wrote these "tell all" epics that were all over the map in terms of displaying his loyalties. Here was stuff the Russians could use for ammo, not just the Americans, although that Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan really helped me on the USA side of the fence (I've had rather limited time in the former Soviet Union, went through there en route from Kabul that time, exiting to Helsinki I think it was, then on to Findhorn in Scotland, an intentional community of some esoteric nature).

Part of what he wrote in Grunch of Giants was subversive of intellectual property rights, which you might consider hypocritical given how he'd lived, but his whole point was it's we humans who do the real work in this city (Spaceship Earth) whereas our "big institution" Grunchies are but mythical animals, puppets, not really real in the same way that a human being is real, e.g. as a source of real, human intelligence, kindness, compassion and so on.

It's a philosophical point I suppose one could say. In the Wittgensteinian namespace we'd underline that he showed (pregnant pause) what he meant, didn't just say it. He was a "walk your own talk" kind of engineer, "ate his own dog food" (geek expression), lived in a dome (sometimes). He also aimed for a responsible degree of transparency given the level of intervention he was performing, kept his life an open book. Blogs hadn't been invented yet, but if they had been, he'd've likely had one, maybe several.

Fuller's writings have a very definite flavor compared to most flavors of corporatese, which, like lumps of clay, tend to mean anything you want them to mean (very slippery), in case the political winds shift. For example Operating Manual for Spacehip Earth is an easy read and works well in Chinese, because it's so comic book clear, so full of pirates and so on.

Fuller's writings are not all equally difficult, any more so than Nietzsche's are.

That being said, the magnum opus Synergetics, originally published by Macmillan in two volumes, is a lot of obviously difficult reading, especially if you mistake it for a physics or a geometry textbook, whereas it's clearly labeled as philosophy ("geometry of thinking").

This is not a work one tackles just for the heck of it. 99% of humanity is otherwise employed. Universities mostly said "pass", meaning they kicked the can down the road for a couple generations, leaving career diplomats to fend for themselves for the most part.

Diplomats had to say something intelligible because of the networking Fuller engaged in. Fuller knew a lot of heads of state. He'd circuited the world many times well before the term "jet set" had yet been coined. His good friend Ed, aka Sonny, was a spook, and very out of the closet about it.

My advice: maybe read Love's Body by Normon O. Brown to get in the mood, followed by Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. Fuller's Synergetics (as distinct from Haken's) gets very literal and specific in many places, but on the other hand Fuller has high tolerance for "polymorphism" as we say in hermeneutics.

Brown's aphoristic tirade against literalism (shades of Nietzsche) is a good antidote if you're not used to "reading for meaning" in the humanities sense, whereas LW's PI reminds us about "spin" (Fuller was a strong "spin doctor" within his invented namespace).

Synergetics is a circuit diagram yes, but not for anything you might literally build, any more than you could find a recipe for Monads (a Leibniz idea) in Make: Magazine.

That being said, there's lots you might make after studying this magnum opus, with spheres and domes just the beginning. Read a lot of H.S.M. Coxeter too, and L. Euler, and W. Gibbs... other greats Fuller admires, features prominently in his pages. Plato, Democritus, Kepler... Boltzmann.

Science writers tend to eschew metaphorical thinking except when they acknowledge writing "a popularization" of science, whereas laypeople aren't supposed to need access to the "real deal" i.e. "the hard stuff" (very mathy, very Springer-Verlag and considered non-metaphorical because "not literary" because "formal and logical" (strut puff)).

Synergetics isn't a popularization of anything, is the hard stuff point blank, but is more prose than squiggles, more accessible to the humanities trained. Consider it a contribution to American Transcendentalism, if you want a pigeon hole. Esoteric, yes, but it's not Dianetics.

When I corresponded with that Most Beautiful Molecule journalist, he thought I was admitting something, throwing in some towel, when I claimed Synergetics was a work in the humanities (like Poe's Eureka! in some ways).

To his way of thinking, that was like admitting defeat i.e. "the hard stuff" is by definition on the other side of the C.P. Snow chasm, and if Synergetics were to be taken at all seriously in future, it'd need to stake and defend turf on that far side, stop sounding so much like Neoplatonism (not in vogue).

But then what if Synergetics were itself a bridge across said C.P. Snow chasm? What if there were no more chasm? That'd be more like the old days, when Philosophy straddled a more wholistic vista. It all gets rather zen-like at this point: no difference, no sameness, non-duality etc. (kind of est -- a philosophical work, true, but also a performance, a kind of engineering, or reality TV).

Synergetics isn't about sweeping away all that came before (a paranoid fantasy). It's about wiring stuff up, with plenty of continuity, lots of smooth gear shifting. It's backward compatible (e.g. there's the Synergetics Constant), but it's also forward compatible, and that matters too.

Fuller's later writings hearken back to the days before "corporate personhood" when "artificial persons" were more clearly perceived as such. Portland's Thom Hartmann has done some excellent scholarship in this area.

There's another juicy bit in Siobhan's narrative (quoting from his diary) where Coxeter bolts from a Bucky talk, 1500 students or so present, because he doesn't like the frequency mix, which sounds way overinflated, not like anything a conservative academic could ever sponsor or endorse.

This was Bucky the "rock star" doing his exhortationary shoptalk, pretty much all self-invented, and quite intelligently designed (built to work, code worth keeping).

It wasn't purely mathematics or geometry though, this stuff he was saying, these stories he was telling, and whereas western cultures give their pulpit preachers a blank check for fiery fulmination, the social contract is they should in return leave science to the scientists and math to the mathematicians -- a contract many scientists feel is now broken, given all those militant creationists and questioning Pentacostalists ("Sarah Palin types"), other brands of home schooler, many highly unorthodox.

In Coxeter's view (at the time of his bolting), Fuller was simply trespassing too deeply, apparently giving himself credentials he didn't deserve and therefore gaining access to the very same inner sanctum (student body) he would be professionally involved with. If everyone became some "raving 4D-ist" as a result of Fuller's great pirate talk, how would that affect the tenor of his classes? One cannot blame a good professor for feeling like Fuller might be stirring up trouble, as that's precisely what he was doing, and students loved it.