Of aquariums and arcades: John Cage and Walter Benjamin

An interesting remark in the preface to avant-garde composer John Cage’s 1969 book, Notations:

A precedent for the absence of information which characterizes this book is the contemporary aquarium (no longer a dark hallway with each species in its own illuminated tank separated from the others and named in Latin): a large glass house with all the fish in it swimming as in an ocean.

This aquarium metaphor immediately reminded me of another work: Walter Benjamin‘s Arcades Project.

Both represent examples of literary montage — collections where the author’s primary contribution is the compilation of materials for the works.

In the case of Notations, Cage assembled a complete compendium of graphical music scores submitted by composers. For the unfinished effort known as The Arcades Project, Benjamin researched and cited works to create, in a way, his own arcade: an arrangement of windows into 19th century France for the reader to stroll through and explore.

What are similar examples of this that you’ve seen?

View the full Notations book on Archive.org:

Path of discovery

I first learned about Notations (and John Cage, though I had to formally discover him independently more than a year later) by reading Theresa Sauer’s Notations 21. I came upon that  and purchased it after being captivated by a post on Brain Pickings. (Although only very expensive re-sell or used copies are on Amazon, it appears to still be available directly from Sauer for $34.)

As for The Arcades Project, Max Fenton featured it during his week of the Snarkmarket Seminar in March 2013. He also kindly gave me a copy of the book (thanks again!) during the in-person gathering last November,  which I reciprocated by giving him a copy of Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius.

And, to close the loop: I knew Max was interested in Kenneth Goldsmith, whom I learned about when fellow seminarian Tim Carmody recommended Uncreative Writing. Goldsmith, who references Unoriginal Genius early on in Uncreative Writing, helped bring Cage to my attention and rediscover the Notations connection.

Patterns in shells, cellular automata, knitting and music

Earlier tonight I read the following article (via an NYT piece about Nautilus mag):

Biologists Home in on Turing Patterns: Was Alan Turing right about the mechanism behind tiger stripes?

For the work that led to his 1952 paper, Turing wanted to understand the underlying mechanism that produces natural patterns. He proposed that patterns such as spots form as a result of the interactions between two chemicals that spread throughout a system much like gas atoms in a box do, with one crucial difference. Instead of diffusing evenly like a gas, the chemicals, which Turing called “morphogens,” diffuse at different rates. One serves as an activator to express a unique characteristic, like a tiger’s stripe, and the other acts as an inhibitor, kicking in periodically to shut down the activator’s expression.

And then watched an older video linked from it:

Mathematical Impressions: Shell Games

From the description:

One-dimensional, two-state cellular automata produce a list of bits at discrete time steps, whose output, depending on the parameters, may be trivial or very complex. Surprisingly, this simple mechanism can be Turing complete — that is, capable of calculating anything that any computer can calculate.

The knitting part reminded me of this photo I took of one of my mom’s crocheting pattern books:

"I can read patterns. It's kind of like programming," says @excdinglyrandom while crocheting next to me.

A post shared by Greg Linch (@greglinch) on

“I can read patterns. It’s kind of like programming,” says @excdinglyrandom while crocheting next to me.

I then went to Hart’s site, which included a link to his daughter’s YouTube page. I hadn’t watched one of Vi Hart‘s videos for a while, so I browsed and immediately clicked the one on Folding Space-Time:

And, of course, it reminded me of Crab Canon on a Möbius Strip:

All of this really just being another reminder that I need to continue reading Gödel, Escher, Bach!

When a path of discovery becomes a loop and a mini “eureka” moment

I’m fascinated by paths of discovery. Not just the link you share, but the steps you took to get there. How did you end up at this point?

I experienced one such path tonight that turned into a loop and gave me a mini “eureka!” moment, so I wanted to share:

I met a fellow journalist/geek, Keith Collins, at BarCamp News Innovation Philly on April 28. We were chatting about science and that, of course, led to RadioLab. He mentioned a segment he enjoyed about a pendulum. I did a quick search on my phone and sent myself the link to read later. When I returned to the post, it didn’t seem like I found the right item — this was a post on the Krulwich Wonders blog about a Pendulum Dance. Nonetheless, it fascinated me.

I tweeted it with a hat tip to Keith and he replied with the actual segment he had referenced on the Limits of Science. It did not disappoint. I responded to say that I’d enjoyed it and Keith replied with a link to one of the things mentioned in the segment called Eureqa, which is described as a

“software tool for detecting equations and hidden mathematical relationships in your data. Its goal is to identify the simplest mathematical formulas which could describe the underlying mechanisms that produced the data. “

After downloading the application for later and browsing the page, I happend to scroll down to the “more information section.” A link about symbolic regression, which led to the Wikipedia page on genetic programming, grabbed my interest.

I happened to scroll past the introduction to the history section and read the first line there:

“In 1954, GP [genetic programming] began with the evolutionary algorithms first used by Nils Aall Barricelli applied to evolutionary simulations.”

Baricelli is a prominent figure in the wonderfully insightful book I’m curerntly reading about the origins of the digital universe:  Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson.


No. Scratch that.


Now that’s what I call finding hidden relationships in your data.

Bonus discovery path: When I tweeted the Pendulum Dance post, Xerox PARC‘s @PARCinc Twitter account favorited it. It seems clear they found it after seeing my reply to a tweet from Scott Klein. That prompted me to look at their recent tweets to see if they were an account I wanted to follow (I did!). In a then-recent tweet, they shared a Wikimedia newsletter that included a summary of a PARC report titled Thermodynamic Principles in Social Collaboration. Gotta love the interwebs!