Monthly Archives: August 2015

VENKATESH RAO – Extraordinary Laboratories

from: (my highlighting)

Where it is actually used, a (not the) Scientific Method, which I’ll just refer to as a (big-M) Method, is used for scaling an instance of a small-s-small-m scientific method. One that achieved unreasonable traction with respect to a particular problem, suggesting hidden investigative potential: a Method-Mystery Fit (MMF), by analogy to the notion of a Product-Market Fit (PMF) in entrepreneurship. There is no canonical Scientific Method, just a plurality of scalable investigation processes that come and go with particular streams of discovery. When an investigative approach proves to be unreasonably effective, we scale it from method to Method. When we attempt scaling without MMF, we get the cargo cult process I called Science! (with exclamation point). You can tell the difference easily: true Methods are built around scientific instruments, not philosophical concepts. A class of instrument-makers emerges around a true Method. Telescopic observation is a Method. Some funding agency bureaucrat’s idea of “observation, hypothesis, experiment, theory” is not.

Science itself is a methodologically anarchic process, driven by a sensibility rather than a set of techniques. The aggregate of all currently fertile Methods constitute only a small part of all science. But the scaled Methods do share two features: a finite lifespan (there is no immortal Method that yields great discoveries for all eternity at a steady rate) and a deliberative element you could call “experiment design.”

Central to the idea of experiment design in the first codified Method — call it Method Zero — is the idea that one must only change one variable at a time. I suspect this one first developed around the laboratory equipment of traditional wet chemistry, with Lavoisier’s experiments being prototypes. This of course has limited Method Zero to narrow domains, where input isolation/purification and independent parameter variation in fully sealed containers is a possibility. Method Zero yields WEIRD results when used outside that narrow zone.

Method Zero is mostly a commodity today. Algorithms and robots can do it. You almost have to automate Method Zero today to get a yield rate worth the effort.

At the other extreme is what one might call Method Omega, used in astronomy, where the possibility of doing controlled design is basically non-existent. So experiment “design” consists of forming opinions about historical observations (sometimes made by ancient astronomers in the context of entirely non-scientific cosmological or astrological theories) and making predictions. Predictions in astronomy, even when they come true, are not necessarily conclusive evidence, as was the case with early evidence for general relativity based on flawed observations (involving eclipses and the orbit of Mercury). The flaws were overcome in later observations, but the point is, in Method Omega, one cannot conclusively prove that there an observation means one thing in particular. It is an uncontrolled natural phenomenon. A recent example is a significant correction to four centuries worth of sunspot data (with implications for the climate change debate). Method Omega is basically the Method of history (which is based on the instruments of archaeology) generalized.

Most Methods, such as the Method of macroeconomics, fall somewhere between Method Zero and Method Omega. The system under study is somewhere between fully controlled and completely uncontrolled. Despite the criticisms often leveled at it, macroeconomics does count as a science with a true Method, since it is based on at least two real and well-defined instruments: controlling interest rates, and issuing debt. Both should be considered scientific laboratory equipment, not engineering tools. We know how to use them to uncover new macroeconomic truths. We do not know how to use them to actually manage economies effectively enough to deserve the term “engineering.” In recent decades, for example, we’ve used these instruments to uncover mysterious phenomena with names like zero lower bound that nobody seems able to explain.

The ability to vary some parameters (interest rates in macroeconomics for example) independently while holding others constant goes from comprehensive to shaky as we progress from Method Zero to Method Omega. There is little potential for codification of Methods in this gray zone (though there is some). The effect of some parameters varying autonomously, some varying in controlled ways, and others in coupled ways, makes experiment design mostly a matter of aesthetics. In the social sciences, you also have many adversarial investigators moving variables around with entirely different discovery intentions and instruments. The macroeconomic relationship between the US and China is like two experimenters in a chemistry lab sharing the same bench and using the same equipment in uncoordinated ways and running experiments that severely interfere with each other.

What we can say about this gray zone of Methods is that repetition helps. Many effects and parameter movements cancel out over time, leaving behind only two things: the movement of the controlled variables and the effects of systematically varying uncontrolled parameters. These must then be modeled before experimentation with the controlled variables of interest can proceed. So discovery in such cases must proceed by recursion. You have to push the phenomenon of interest onto a stack while you model out the unknown, non-self-canceling effects. But the burden of modeling is not as high, because you merely want to bound your actual experiment away from the unmodeled phenomenon, not model it in detail. One way to think of this recursion process is as progressive refinement of frame assumptions: they go from “things don’t change until I change them” (the so-called “closed-world” frame) to “things change this way, and I have good reason to believe they can’t affect these other things within this scope” to “everything can change unpredictably and I cannot influence any of it” (what we might call the Omega frame of astronomy).

This recursive process carries the risk and opportunity of never coming back up to provide an account of the original phenomenon. You may get lost in yak-shaving for ever, or discover a more interesting phenomenon to explore.

The quality of scientific truths is always contingent upon the quality of sequestration achieved by the final refined frame of reference. The frame is never entirely “leak-proof” — dark matter and dark energy always threaten to sneak up our non-dark physics truths — but we look for a zone where the “truths” do seem to be stable, without constant interference from known unknowns. This is the generalized equivalent of “laboratory conditions.” Every scientific truth only holds within “laboratory conditions” in this sense, and is weird outside of it. In toy science, we understand the laboratory before we do the experiment. In real science, the outcome of the experiment defines the laboratory. The amount of repetition you need to define the laboratory in terms of its frame is also the amount of repetition needed to establish the Method.  “Reproducibility” is the corresponding cargo-cult bureaucratic notion. There is really no point to reproduction that does not add some clarity to the definition of the “laboratory” frame.

If MMF is analogous to PMF, then the “laboratory” is analogous to the discovered “market.” You cannot tackle the scaling problem for a Method until you’ve gotten a sense of the scale of the “laboratory.”

Physics is the prototypical example of this sort of discovery, where truths are neither entirely contingent on laboratory conditions, nor entirely open-world, but sequestered in a big “laboratory” defined by phrases like “at non-relativistic speeds…” We build scaled instruments like the Large Hadron Collider only once we get a sense that the laboratory is sufficiently big to be worth the investment.

This is one good reason (there are others) to operate by Carl Sagan’s principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This principle does not follow in any obvious way from non-quantitative (lacking a measure of “extraordinary”) philosophies of science such as positivism or falsifiability.

But it does follow from the idea that gray zone Methods generate truths that live in  implied laboratory conditions. Conditions that can only be uncovered with a great deal of repetition. A truth without a domain of applicability mapped is speculation.

When the burden of extraordinary claims and extraordinary evidence is met, you have defined an extraordinary laboratory: an unanticipated truth with an unexpectedly large domain of applicability. One that justifies the building of extraordinary instruments like the Hubble or the LHC.

Or economies based entirely on issuing debt as a basis for currency, and interest rates. We don’t normally think of modern economies that way, but they are to old gold-standard economies as the LHC or Hubble are to Galileo era laboratories.

Civilization is the world we build within these extraordinary laboratories. A contingent state of affairs that is only stable to the extent that the truths it is built on are sufficiently sequestered. Understood this way, all of civilization is one giant laboratory instrument, poking at the unknown.



Note: This entry resonated with me, the points made are vague, but hint at something rather fundamental. Why do we build immense laboratories such as the LHC? Who is ‘we’?

There is hard science involved, of course; the projects are designed by scientists with track records in the field. Large scale scientific projects are deeply fascinating. Because they remain, despite the enormous scale and pre-planned infrastructure, experimental laboratories where the outcomes are far from predetermined.

LHC provides tons of data and I suppose many side discoveries have resulted from pursuing the main experiment. Venkathesh’s last sentence, ‘Understood this way, all of civilization is one giant laboratory instrument, poking at the unknown’ is wild, I like the scope and vision, and I’m wondering what precisely he meant by ‘all of civilisation’. Because not everyone is building large scale science projects. The world is not as united as this sentence suggests. The sentence almost sounds as if earth already had a world government and that it was widely accepted that science would be the dominating force to follow. Unfortunately it’s not like that. Earth is still riddled by science-denying forces that would not never come close to even think of building the mentioned laboratories.

I don’t mean to put ‘science’ on a pedestal to be followed blindly. By science I do mean an experimental, world-building and discovering force in the vein Venkatesh has written about: An open field to be approached with a certain amount of reason and planning, to be entered with an openness for surprises and a readiness to adjust initial objectives (in short, the ‘inhuman’, navigational attitude Negarestani has often written about). Applying the mentioned last sentence to world politics or structure, the question can be asked: Who does invest in large scale experimental laboratories? Who advances ‘civilisation’?

A resulting list might not to be satisfactory. What is advancement anyway? Should poking at the unknown be kept at a personal, managable level? Could the most fervent supporters of science and science projects turn out as the most dangerous force, bringing atomic bomb like technologies into this world?

Still, I would like to see Venkatesh’s last sentence practically applied onto the current world structure. For turning we into we, in the long run, a European Union style structure needs to be applied on earth. Critics of the EU don’t get. Of course it’s pretty messed up. But then try to engineer a large scale, multi-national and lingual community in your turf. Good fucking luck.

When deciding not to take the nation-assembling route, nations, corporations, or individuals are damned to repeat what happened before. It won’t be perfect when assembling. Borders will remain, for most areas, for a long time coming. But science, and large scale science projects dreamed up and designed by visionaries such as the EU, NASA or Elon Musk are the driving forces behind the stated leap, and, ultimately, behind what Venkatesh broadly calls ‘civilisation’. Poking at the unknown can be done in many ways. It can be pursued in a more structured manner, like via a vessel such as a painting, a novel or theoretical outline. It can spring from the individual to a large undertaking involving people, nations, research bodies.

When talking LHC at CERN, thinking ‘civilisation’, filtered through a national lens, looks like this:Location_CERN_member_countries_on_map_of_Europe.svg



Observer states and organizations currently involved in CERN programmes include the European Commission, India, Japan, the Russian Federation, UNESCO and the USA.

Non-member states with co-operation agreements with CERN include Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Georgia, Iceland, Iran, Jordan, Korea, Lithuania, Malta, Mexico, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

CERN also has scientific contacts with China (Taipei), Cuba, Ghana, Ireland, Latvia, Lebanon, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mozambique, Palestinian Authority, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Venezuela.

(This is beautiful).

For large scale projects such as LHC or Hubble, one needs a solid economic and cultural foundation. It needs political support, funding and thousands of highly educated minds willing to commit to the cause. It’s still dreaming and experimental, for sure, but dreaming in a sophisticatedly designed, next level vessel. By tracing a line back to Galileo, Venkatesh is pointing at the Western lineage of science experiments and when taking CERN as an example, the West does dream the wildest.

Below are some of my paintings that go in a similar ‘experimental laboratory’ direction. An idea is to evoke and reveal, through the appropriation and combination of images, a sense of shifting meanings behind images in order to bring alternative, strange, unthought elements into agitation in order to open up unknown sides of known images. The rationale behind these works is also, in a broad sense, to think how science and elements of science-fiction films can help to rethink terrestrial institutions such as democracy and the various bodies engaged in international cooperation and regulation.

The Marshall plan poster features a young branch evolving from a wooden strips held together by bands featuring national flags – with the whole design hinting at how the future and a common sense can be rebuilt from the ashes of war. It’s a delicate process. There are two paintings with black rectangular shapes based on the floor layout of the House of Commons in London. The first painting is in Black and White, the second has a sky in the background. The sky is a darkened version of the Marshall plan poster sky. Democracy as such is fragile, always in danger of being submerged by various interests. The Marshall Plan historical moment is crucial for the post-WW2 world design with the US and the West in general trying to keep the top post via institutional design (IMF, World Bank, UN). The second House of Commons painting is as if the first one is dreaming of another moment in time, another image, another painting. Btw. there is also an LHC painting of 2014.

In short, despite trying to resist a clear label, I would say that these paintings can be seen as connected very much to a geopolitical and international rational and scientific discourse, in a line of experimental thinking not dissimilar to Venkatesh’s blog entry.


2013_Branch(Marshall Plan)_80x55 _Oil on canvas_low res

Branch (Marshall Plan), 2013, Oil on canvas, 80 cm x 55 cm


2013-2014_Man without Qualities (Ships)_80x50m_Oil on canvas_low res

Man without Qualities (Ships), 2013-14, Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm


2014_A Behavioral Theory of Election (Paul Gerrard)_80x55cm_Oil on canvas_low res

A Behavioral Theory of Election (Paul Gerrard), 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 55 cm


2014_Drunkard's Walk (After John Harris)_80x50cm_Oil on canvas_low res

Drunkard’s Walk (After John Harris), 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm


2014_EEC (Josh Kao)_80x55cm_Oil on canvas_low res

EEC (Josh Kao), 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 55 cm

Tree of Nations_low

Tree of Nations, 2013, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 80 cm x 54 cm


House of Commons (Seating Layout)_low

House of Commons, 2013, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 80 cm x 56 cm


2014_House of Commons 2_80x55cm_Oil on canvas_low res

House of Commons 2, 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 55 cm


2014_LHCb-Alice_80x55cm_Oil on canvas_low res

LHCb-Alice, 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 55 cm






2014_Psychological Comments (Paul Gerrard)_80x58cm_Oil on canvas_low res

Psychological Comments (Paul Gerrard), 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 58 cm


2014_The Tet 2_80x52cm_Oil on canvas_low res

The Tet 2, 2014, Oil on canvas, 80 x 52 cm

Are films stupid?

I don’t remember where I came across the question ‘Can we learn from film’? From time to time I think about this question. There are thousands of films. Each tells a story, often a scripted one. The stories are inhabited by fictional characters following the script. Many films are adaptions based on already existing stories or storylines. I would include television series in these reflections here as well, as they can be seen as long films cut into digestible pieces.

‘Can we learn from film’ hardly leads to a straightforward answer. Robert Ebert saw many films. His comments were often on point. How to talk about film like he did? He was a proper film nerd, personal and analytical in his judgements.

Films involve large crews. Hundreds or thousands of people work on a single film, busy with the task like ants building a colony. Money is part of film, how else to pay the crew, material, expenses? There are independent films of course, with smaller budgets and possibly more spirit. Expensive films are risky financially, therefore they often fall back on proven narrative formulas in order to function as a profitbale investment.

An artist friend once said ‘films are stupid’. I understand what he meant. In a way, films totally are stupid. Except when they’re not.

Sitting through a two hour movie demands attention and time. The internet offers many distractions, spending time with youtube videos or on social media platforms can feel like being sucked into a dark vortex for a couple of hours. By the way, ‘social media’ is a strange term. What just happened inside this vortex? Not sure. Internet, as film, can be just stupid. It most often is, actually. Slowly cutting vegetables can be a time better spent. You might be absorbed by the cutting, but there you will see what you will eat later on. You’ll see the matter to be digested. You spend time with pre-digestion, so to speak. Anyway, tv series are well suited for life in a city. You can follow characters over time. You somehow share or witness their trajectories. You develop feelings for them or start to feel ambiguous about them. Ambiguity means strength in recent tv productions. You walk along the episodes of a tv series, there is a movement to it, a longing as well. Wheareas films can have this 20th century vibe of having to squeeze a story into a two hour time frame and ask people to sit through it.

Some films are good. Even the good ones seem to have some flaws. But the individual flaws don’t alter the overall impression. One can like a film for particular reasons. A character or scene, the dialogues, the framing, the story arc. It’s hard to say or pin down. The reception of a film often remains vague, like ‘this film was pretty good’. Being a film critic must be a difficult, even frustrating job. Because films are stupid, somehow. You write a review that should render justice to a complex economic and human endeavour. You attribute some stars to the film. Then you see how, after a few years, a film can reveal itself in another light. Maybe aspects of it have been overlooked or misjudged. Maybe that silly scene did have some hidden, political undertones. Maybe that weird character did reflect on traits of that age through its gestures, its speech pattern.

Films are difficult to judge. Failed or underperforming films might turn into jewels, cult films, lying dormant for a few years. The quite many references, ideas, discussions that went into a single film can delay any sensical reception which has to unfold over time. Like a tree demanding space above and below the ground.

Some films or scenes or fictional characters plant deep roots into the wider cultural memory. They become more than ‘just a film’. They become windows into other worlds and propose ways of functioning, acting or being in the world. These stories, combined with the visual, are powerful, you want to enter them repeatedly; return as a witness again and again. The many casual, interpersonal, unrecorded discussions help to form a wider idea of what a film’s shifting position might be in the wider realm of cultural artefacts. As a fluid device, it can, potentially, sink deeper into this landscape, constantly navigating to find its relative place in the wider cultural psychosphere. From there it can radiate back to stories in development, engage a dialogue among stories and solidify cultural image traits. To give an explicit example, the Simpsons and South Park are brilliant in how they manage to weave and integrate current or recent cultural elements into their stories. The audience recognises these elements, enjoys the ride of listening to these elements re-emerging, re-vibrating. There is a sense of knowing attached to this experience. A sense of delayed, curated immediacy. The reception itself treated, folded, presented warped. You look at something that happened and everybody talked about, knowing that you will talk about it again. A textual incredibly rich, cultural feedback loop. The way these series treat references is top film criticism. And almost every film or series commit to weaving other stories and images into their own. What I mean is that films and tv series nowadays, when they shine, are not just stupid plain storytelling anymore, but textured, orchestrated, designed artefacts that do tell stories, but not just one, but many simultaneously with delayed impact models. What David Joselit mentioned in his essay ‘Painting beside itself’ also applies to current film and tv production. The audience wants to be engaged in a multilevel experience that overwrites the simple film/audience dichotomy, and be addressed as a subject in movement. This is, again, why tv format corresponds better to the time now. The story moves forward, there is a push, a navigational sense towards new plot points and multiple mini-conclusions. The visual and narrative material is rich to say the least, the design, clothing and location incredibly charged and composed. This is, essentially, painting 3D in its highest incarnation. 

Then the stories themselves are often brilliantly written. Nowadays tv/films are watched for the writing, created by auteurs like David Simon, Nic Pizzolatto, Vince Gilligan, Jane Champion. They write scenes and characters so powerful they insribe themselves into the flesh of the viewer. You feel eluded, violated, touched, made pensive. Film is a pretty visual, visceral place. Stupid and great.