Tag Archives: technology

Stumbling upon M.C. Escher’s garden in Bohuslän

A very rough,  preliminary sketch of an apology to Socrates for the arts

What does the art of M.C Escher have in common with Bohus knits?  Surprisingly much, if you ask me.  While most people, even if they don’t know the name, would probably recall having seen at least a few of M.C. Escher’s prints, the same is not true of Bohus Knitting.  Because many people, at least outside of Sweden and outside of knitting circles, are likely to be wholly unfamiliar with Bohus knits, a short history is in order.

The history begins in 1939, when a group of Swedish women living in Bohuslän (the Göteborg area in the southwestern part of Sweden) formed a knitting (“stickning”) cooperative.  Many of their husbands – miners and farmers – lost their jobs due to the Depression, so they hoped to supplement their income.  Their venture turned out to be a tremendous success both at home and abroad.  Bohus knits were widely exhibited internationally and presented as gifts to visiting kings and dignitaries in Sweden.   The cooperative closed in 1969, but many of the patterns are still in circulation today.  The Bohusläns Museum (click here for an English version of the page) also has a fairly extensive collection of patterns on display and knitting kits on sale.  Additional patterns can be found here.  The two images below are examples of the intricate patterns and color work that became the signature of this knitting style. (Clicking on the image redirects to a more detailed picture on the Museum website.)


Bohus "Skogsmörkret" pattern (Forest Darkness)

Bohus "vävnaden" pattern

Bohus "Vävnaden" pattern

I have been posting some of my knitting and crochet projects in my blog gallery, and I was browsing through the Bohus patterns in search of something new to knit.  It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that these patterns were well beyond my current skill level.  As I am often blown away by the ingenuity of even some of the most basic knitting motifs and the sheer number of possibilities unlocked by the use of just two fundamental stitches, I surmised that the woman tho created the first Bohus pattern must have been a mathematical genius, and a quote from M.C. Escher, which had once deeply impressed me, leapt to mind.  I went to look up the passage, which was as follows:

Mathematicians have theoretically mapped out the regular division of a plane because this is part of crystallography.  Does it therefore belong exclusively to mathematics?  I do not think so.  Crystallographers have given us a definition of the concept and have researched and determined what and how many systems and methods exist for dividing a plane regularly.  By doing this they have opened the gate that gives access to a vast domain, but they themselves have not entered.  Their nature is such that they are more interested in the way the gate is opened than in the garden that lies behind it.  Let me continue with this analogy for a while.  Long ago during my wanderings I happened to come into the neighborhood of that domain.  I saw a high wall and, because I had a presentiment of something enigmatic and hidden that might lie behind it,  I climbed it with difficultly.  However, on the other side I landed in a wilderness through which I had to make my way with much effort until I arrived via detours at the open gate, the open mathematical gate.  From there well-cleared paths extended in various directions, and since then I often spend time there.  Sometimes I think I have covered the entire domain and trod all the paths and admired all the views.  Then all of a sudden I find another new way, and I taste a new delight.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plain, as compiled in Escher on Escher

It occurred to me that the Bohus knitters were playing in, or at least on the perimeter of, that very same garden described by Escher.  Knitters must knit their own canvas, so in a way, the very nature of knitting assures that the background will not be reduced to an inferior status.   And, repetition and multiplication, which Escher credited for “everything we love, learn, order, recognize, and accept,” is also central to the knitters craft.

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

One of my favorite plane-filling motifs by M.C. Escher

Plane-filling Motif on Bohus Mitten

Plane-filling motif on Bohus mitten

While Escher was a graphic artist (so the template for his individual prints was contained in an etching),  a knitter reproduces his or her work by means of codifying the pattern in a set of instructions which look something like this:   K1, p1, [p4, k4] twice, k5, p1 (the preceding symbols representing a single row in a pattern for a scarf).  Or, more complicated patterns can be represented in charts, using symbols like these:

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

Chart from scarf pattern on knitty.com

To the uninitiated, these symbols appear fairly daunting:  there is nothing to connect it with, it is a language that stands on its own.  Yet, at least knitters possess a language into which they can translate their visual creations and share them among themselves.  This allows for the creation of vibrant knitting communities and the development of distinctive styles of knitting, such as that exemplified by Bohus Stickning.  Escher, on the other hand, expresses frustration in what follows with his inability to communicate thoughts which he, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, viewed as essentially objective:

It is not part of my profession to make use of letter symbols, but in this case I am forced to.  However, I have not received any training for this, as I have in the use of illustrations that serve as a means of expressing thoughts in a more direct way than the word.  Still, my images require explanation because without it they remain too hermetic and too much of a formula for the uninitiated observer. The interplay of thoughts they translate is essentially completely objective and impersonal.  To my unending amazement, however, this is apparently so unusual and in a sense so new that I am unable to identify any “expert” in addition to myself who is sufficiently comfortable with it to give a written explanation.

-M. C. Escher, from The Regular Division of the Plane, as compiled in Escher on Escher

Escher found a certain degree of comity with mathematicians, however, with whom he sometimes collaborated. I don’t even think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that his collaboration with the physicist Roger Penrose, among others, is quite possibly the closest link between art and math and the natural sciences since the time of Leonardo da Vinci’s collaboration with the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli. The resulting book, De Divina Proportione (The Divine Proportion), written by Pacioli and illustrated by Da Vinci, carried an immeasurable influence on the trajectory of art and architecture that followed, up until today.  It is an astonishing shame, therefore, that although any property right maintained in that work should have long since expired, the book appears to be unavailable today, either in hard copy or as scanned in databases such as Project Gutenberg or Google Books. (If anyone knows anything about this, please comment or email me!)

The preceding thoughts all led me to wonder:  why, apart from a few notable exceptions, is there such a large divide between art on the one hand, and math and the natural sciences on the other?  This divide traces back at least to the time of Plato, who, in his Republic, famously argued for the censorship of all art that didn’t pass his rather strict criteria. This, I believe, was Plato’s greatest error, as I will try to explain.

In the single most profound statement of educational philosophy I have ever encountered, in Book VII of The Republic, Plato claims that education is not “putt[ing] into the soul knowledge that isn’t in it,” but rather a redirection, a “turning around.” Plato thought that the soul must be turned away from the material world, or what “is coming into being,”  and instead turned towards the forms, which for Plato were true being, or what is.  A significant part of The Republic is thus devoted to the problem of ensuring that able people remain faced in the right direction, so to speak.  To accomplish this, Plato resorts to all kinds of contortions, including the extreme censorship mentioned previously, but also the so-called “noble lie,”  the deprivation of wages and all forms of private property for the upper-classes, communal living (no spouses, no one to know whose children belong to who), and the suggestion that knowledge of the forms will allow one to reap rewards posthumously.  All of these measures were outlined as means to blunt the all too human desire for material gain.  But, these measures also transformed Plato’s noble aristocracy into a regime that had all too much in common with a tyranny.

Plato didn’t need to resort to so many contortions to accomplish his objective.  What he needed was art.  Although he devoted much of his work in defence of philosophy, in part by drawing a clear distinction between true philosophy and philosophy corrupted by worldly values, he apparently failed to allow that art too, could become corrupt.  In keeping with an analogy used by Plato in the Gorgias:  sophistry: justice :: cookery: medicine :: entertainment : art.  Or, too put it in another way, a lawyer has about as much in common with a true philosopher as an entertainer has with an artist.

Although I do not of course subscribe to Plato’s view of the forms, I do think that there is still a certain sense in which philosophy (and more generally, the natural sciences, which were not distinct in Plato’s time) need art.  Art is the natural motivating factor that forms the counter-balance to the material drives that Plato so desperately tried to control.  Escher expresses this point so perfectly by his garden analogy to which the mathematicians opened the gate but did not enter.  Unfortunately, Escher’s words resonated with all too few, and today a connection between art and science is often very difficult to find.

Instead, it is science and technology that are bound so tightly that it is sometimes hard to tell when science ends and technology begins.  This is all good and well, but I cannot help but feel that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger was on to something with his essay The Question Concerning Technology:  there are other ways of relating to being that we might do well to remember.  Art is one of these ways.

To borrow a useful distinction from Berkeley Professor John Searle concerning ontological and epistemic subjectivity and objectivity, albeit in an unintended context:   technology is created roughly by taking something given, something which is ontologically objective, and then manipulating it to perform a function which is ontologically subjective.  Recall now Escher’s statement that the thoughts he represented were essentially objective.  True art, I believe, takes care to maintain ontological objectivity – there is no change on a fundamental ontological level.  Instead, with art, the change occurs on the epistemic level.  The artist shows us a different way of looking at – of knowing – something ontologically objective.  Art is thus epistemically subjective, but an underlying ontologically objective structure must be maintained, or it is not art. [When an epistemic change is brought about to an underlying structure that is ontologically subjective (e.g., buildings, furniture, clothes, etc.), it is design.]*

It is this epistemically subjective feature of art that accounts for another interesting observation of Escher’s.  He notes:

The plastic arts have not experienced an evolution.  In everything else that man makes and in much of what he thinks, he adds his contribution to what has been done by previous generations.  In everything he strives toward perfection.  The development of his spirit and his increasing mental grasp are staggering in all aspects — except in the plastic arts.  It seems to me that here each individual has to start from scratch each time, without ever taking anything of really primary importance from a predecessor.

-M.C. Escher, from Newsletter of the Dutch Circle of Graphic Artists and Illustrators as compiled in Escher on Escher.

While one might certainly argue against Escher and hold that art has evolved and artists, just as scientists, also “stand on the shoulders of giants,” I think this is missing the point.  There is undeniably a sense in which art is not cumulative in the same sense as that of progress in technology.  This argument is all too often used against art, to show its inferiority (or perhaps more often, it’s unworthiness for funding).  I suppose this is what prompts patrons of the arts to argue that art has “evolved,” as well as other arguments attempting to show the material usefulness of art.  However, any defense of art that proceeds by attaching an ontologically subjective function to it could only result in a Pyrrhic victory:  such a win could only come at the cost of denying to art its defining and most-worthy feature.

A proper defense of art must redress Aristophanes’ affront to Socrates which so enraged Plato. Such a defense would necessarily invoke the same difficulties Plato had in The Republic with defending philosophy generally, but if we are to avoid the contortions Plato resorted to, art must take its rightful place beside philosophy as the one motivational factor capable of “turning around” the intellect  and providing a counter-balance in the individual’s life to the drive for material gain.  The roots for such a defense, I think, are there to be found in the writings and work of M.C. Escher and the Bohus knitters.

* These distinctions are not always so clear due to the fact that there can also be art on top of (or even, e.g., on the walls of) a design, as is the case with knitting, but this simply recasts the age-old form-function-ornament debate, which is beyond the scope of this draft.


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On neuroenhancement

The New Yorker recently featured an article on so-called “neuro-enhancement” or “cosmetic neurology.” As the name suggests, neuro-enhancement refers to off-label use of stimulants usually prescribed to children and young adults for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The article cited some alarming statistics. For example, at some universities, the number of undergraduates taking prescription stimulants for non-medical use reached up to twenty-five and even thirty-five percent. Average use was reported to be around 4.1 percent of students according to a study completed in 2005. The statistics suggest that pill-popping among college students in order to stay awake and focused is becoming about as “normal” and socially acceptable as drinking a cup of coffee. Why is that so disturbing?

There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate as to whether measures should be taken to stop this practice. Unlike the case in the sixties, when hallucinogens and other “mind-expanding” drugs were all the rage across college campuses, there is no “war” on this type of drug. Perhaps this is partly because the stimulants have a legitimate medical purpose, and are prescribed to treat a recognized psychiatric disorder. Most of the drugs that became popular in the sixties have no corresponding medical use, although, at least in the case of marijuana, some people might argue otherwise. But I think a more likely explanation for the relative complacency surrounding the stimulants has more to do with today’s efficiency driven culture. Unlike drug usage in the sixties, the drugs today are not being taken in the context of a counter-cultural movement. To the contrary, they are being used for the purpose of meeting or surpassing the very demands that we as a society, via educational institutions, employers, or other organizations, place on our youth.

In law school, we had a word for hyper-competitive, brown-nosing students. We called them gunners, and they were not liked. You know the type– the kind of student who would resort to misfiling the books in the library that everyone needed to use for the completion of an assignment, and other deceptive and off-putting behavior, just to give themselves a slight edge. In the end though, it was never the gunners who earned the highest grades and got the best jobs. In our first year, almost inevitably, the top grade in any given class went to an unassuming student that no one else had really paid much attention to before. Later of course, we did notice them, and knew exactly who was going to be at the top of our class. They were always the students that floated through seemingly effortlessly, supported by a natural, unquantifiable knack for the nuances of legal analysis. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard. Sometimes those with the most natural talent were also the least motivated, and those students ended up falling behind, and after an initial advantage, ended up about the same place in the class rankings as the gunners and others who, while maybe not as diabolically competitive as the gunners, worked extremely hard but simply lacked that innate ability that catapulted their peers to the top.

Why do I relate these observations about the old pecking order at my law school? Well, it struck me that the gunners are going to be among the early adopters for this new class of neuro-enhancing stimulants. Might this make them a little more effective in their quest for classroom dominance? If the statistics cited above are correct, and such a high percentage of students are taking these drugs, then it seems likely that this indeed might be the case. This is disconcerting to me because of the type of ability that this could potentially devalue and displace.

What does it mean to have a “natural” ability or knack for something? Although this manner of description comes quite “naturally” to us in common speech, it’s a concept that’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly. I venture to offer a few characteristics that people usually have if they are described as having a knack for something. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and reasonable people may well disagree with the importance that I assign to these two factors, but it seems to me that the advantages enjoyed by a person with a knack fall into two broad categories. First, there is a quickness factor. A person with a knack usually picks up the target skill very quickly. A corollary to this might be that such a person does not stand to benefit as much from additional exercises and practice sets designed to teach lower level aspects the person with the knack already understands. Second, the perspective of a person with a knack seems to differ from that of their peers. A person with a knack tends to have more insight into the “big picture,” and perhaps largely for that reason, it is usually the person with the knack that comes up with innovative new ideas.

Both of these characteristics – quickness and the tendency to have a better grasp of the whole – are intangible features that don’t lend themselves very well to quantification or scientific study. They are also features that don’t respond well to training and practice as means of improvement. Whether you “get it” or you don’t seems to be governed, not by conscious control, but largely by subconscious processes. In many respects, what we call natural ability overlaps with a concept cognitive neuroscientists call “automaticity,” or perhaps, it is better to say that people with a knack seem to be able to automatize difficult or complicated tasks more quickly than others. Neuroscientists categorize a set of skills as automatic if it is inevitably and incorrigibly executed given the relevant stimulus, and once executed, it does not consume cognitive capacity. That is, other tasks can be performed in parallel. Paradigmatic examples include reading or playing a piano sonata. In short, people with a knack are able to quickly automatize certain necessary skills, which then frees up cognitive resources for use in exploring a given subject more deeply, or simply from more of a meta-perspective.

So what happens if the gunners begin setting the pace? They lead us right into a Heideggerean nightmare: instead of using technology to take over the drudgery and the minutiae and leave us free to actualize those creative impulses that, perhaps even more than reason, set us apart from animals, we are using technology to enslave our minds. Sparks of inspiration don’t come when all cylinders are firing, when for example, we are frantically putting together that quarterly report for the boss by the end of the day. They are far more likely to come when the mind is free to wander: while we are taking a walk, sitting by the side of a pool, or relaxing in the evening before we head off to bed. Neuro-enhancers may lead to an amazing ability to churn out more reports, but they also have the effect of crowding out the possibility for inspiration and originality, leaving behind the slick outer shell of an over-polished, two-dimensional world. Ironically, it appears that the things we don’t have conscious control over might be the very things that set us apart as individuals, for it is our subconscious, automatic, instinctual behavior that frees up cognitive capacity and saves us from becoming automatons, mere cogs in a machine. Perhaps society would benefit more if the best students, instead of following the lead of the gunners, took the afternoon off to smoke a joint or experiment with LSD.

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Real Anatomy

John Warner and James Edmonson recently published a collection of photographs from early twentieth century gross anatomy classes in American medical schools. The pictures date from a time right after Kodak introduced cameras to the masses, and when it was considered fashionable for medical students to pose with the remains of dissected cadavers. The publication of these pictures, however, arrives at a time amid much discussion as to whether this rite of passage the first year of medical school – dissecting a human corpse – should be phased out in favor of new technology which allows for the possibility of virtual dissection.

Virtual dissection? I simply cannot understand how a virtual process can come even remotely close to offering students an experience similar in kind to that of a real dissection. I am not a doctor, so I suspect I must be missing something here. After all, my only first-hand experience with dissections I acquired in high school biology. I did visit a gross anatomy class once though. But that was years ago, when I myself was in my first year at law school. I was a bit tipsy, and it was sometime around 2 or 3 a.m. And no, I wasn’t supposed to be there. I had been out that night with a couple of friends who were in their first year at medical school, and they decided it would be fun to show me the cadavers. Despite my alcohol influenced mental state, the experience left its impression. The cadavers were preserved in what I guess was formaldehyde, in shiny metal, coffin-like tanks. A lever was pulled, and the corpses popped out of the boxes in a ghoulish version of jack-in-the-box, with the preserving liquid streaming off their bodies back into the tank. I remember telling my friends that the scene didn’t disturb me in the slightest, and that I found a nearby skeleton on display far creepier.  That was a lie.

One of my friends took me aside and told me, with a deeply serious, grim look on his face, to never even consider donating my body to science after my death, or to allow anyone I love do so. He said I wouldn’t believe the level of disrespect shown the cadavers, a fate he could not wish or imagine for anyone he had known or had cared about. I think now that he must certainly have turned into a fine doctor. I suppose the disrespect he spoke of was a mark of detachment, the beginning of a defensive mechanism that doctors often use in order to cope with the kind of emotional turmoil faced when constantly reminded of one’s own mortality. The knowledge that the corpse they were dissecting was once a living, breathing, human being – for most of them, this was their first real confrontation with the emotions stirred up by that simple fact. I wonder, will a computer program similarly be able to force them into that stare-down with the grim reaper, that dark, robed figure lurking about the hospitals that these young doctors will really be fighting against for the rest of their careers?

Another thing I remember from that night was a discussion, or rather, portions of a discussion, my friends had about a specific body part that was the focus at that time in their anatomy class. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember what this body part was or even the general area in which it was located. All I remember was that it was apparently very, very tiny, and didn’t seem to be located in any of the cadavers where the textbooks said it should be. They were trading stories about the surprising locations they ended up finding the part, or the bizarre ways it had been bloated, shrunken, or otherwise distorted nearly beyond recognition. How can a computer program capture these infinite variations? Wouldn’t the installation of virtual dissection programs necessarily involve a degree of standardization to a far narrower range than is seen in real life?

Proponents of virtual dissection maintain that the programs represent a vast improvement over the smelly, messy inconveniences of flesh. But isn’t that precisely what we are supposed to be training doctors to cope with – the smelly, messy inconvenience of the human body? There is something else that strikes one as they look through the old pictures: no one is wearing gloves. The pictures were taken before latex was invented. So I wonder, am I playing the part of a nostalgic and a Luddite? Were people back then voicing similar concerns concerning the use of gloves? Were they worried that something essential would be lost when they no longer felt the raw sensation of touching entrails and secretions with their bare hands? At what point is it that a change spurred by technological development brings about a qualitative, essential difference in experience, and when does it matter? Or does it ever matter?

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