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Thursday, March 29, 2007 -- 9:49 pm

It's tempting to suppose that our experience of the world passes through interesting and tedious phases, as if the sun were drifting past some forgotten constellation of the zodiac. Sometimes it seems like there's never enough time to accomplish all the things on our agenda; other times we just can't be bothered, and feel stifled by the vapidness of existence. Can't we only assume that finding there's nothing on the Internet is a symptom of this?

I wonder if boredom could be diagnosed as a physiological condition, like depression. Long ago I developed an aesthetic notion of boredom, linked to the mind's perception of repetitive and easily predictable patterns that make clear to our Kantian Judgment (or our abductive faculties, I suppose) that further examination is likely to be fruitful. Thus boredom, like beauty or ugliness, is a property that can reside, at least in part, in the objects of the world.

But boredom is not exclusively a property of objects. A great deal, of course, depends on the mind's ability to seek out form and meaning in its environment. A shuttered mind, or a barren one, or even simply a tired one, is unlikely to be alert to the same possibilities as a lively one, and so the same object can be both dull and shimmering with possibilities depending on the preparedness of the mind perceiving it. But if a particular spell of boredom is unattributable to lack of imagination, or lack of education, or fatigue, perhaps it's a medical condition -- such as they now seem to consider some forms of depression.

Sunday, March 25, 2007 -- 8:45 am

I've long been interested in how knowledge (in general, from the flavor of chocolate to the construction of a quantum computer to the conjugation of a Navajo verb) can be represented in a uniform and systematic way. This is by no means a straightforward proposition, and it seems likely that representations of information derived from different senses will have to be stored in various unique and incompatible formats. There are also a whole number of algorithmic difficulties associated with converting sensory information from data to knowledge. I won't trouble myself with that for the moment. What I am thinking about is the ability to compare and manipulate different kinds of knowledge within the same framework. Clearly this is possible, because we can draw analogies (even bad ones) between radically differing contexts: to pick a ludicrous example, we are capable of comparing the changing odor of a fruit bowl over the course of a month (or, to abstract away from sensory issues, our knowledge of the biological processes underway in said bowl) with the evolution of American politics from the Revolutionary War to the present. This isn't to say that such a comparison would be worth making, or terribly meaningful -- I leave that for more partison commentors to decide among themselves. By what method of representation, and what calculus, could we cause a machine to replicate this process?

I think the study of grammar (and the development of a syntactic template) can only partially answer this question. Philosophy of mind also probably has its part to play, to the extent that it can provide us with a meaningful inventory of our psychic toolbox. Evolutionary psychology? I'm not sure-- from what little I've read of it, I'm suspicious, because it seems to have all the rigor of a modern-day Freud. Besides, I'm rather puzzled with how evolution and adaptation, which are necessarily ad hoc, could give rise to a reasoning toolset that appears, at least from the inside, to be of universal application.

But language is something that I'm pretty comfortable with and is a pretty decent way to start. I note that in Tariana, for example, nouns take classifiers which are by no means semantically redundant, and quite a bit can be expressed about our intended use and perception of a thing simply by specifying how it is to be classified. Navajo, as I understand it, has a comparably elaborate classification system that tends to communicate how and by what means an object would be carried; if I recall correctly, a swaddled infant is classified as a "spillable object", much like a sack of potatos. It may be that an organized study of the world's systems of classifiers could be a step in the right direction.