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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: May 2009

Sunday Soccer: A Study in Sociology

While the most structurally complex objects are carefully engineered by external designers, living things have an amazing ability to self assemble into highly non-trivial formations without any external premeditation. The driving force of such architecture is willingness of each member to constrain their behavior by the perceived well-being of the whole ensemble. For example, let us look at schools of fish or political grass roots: each constituent acts locally, letting the global chips fall where they may, and yet the whole group shows distinctive marks of macro-behavior: the common purpose and the division of labor. How exactly does order and hierarchy arise from a chaotic soup of individuals without any blueprint is an intriguing question and a subject of intense research in sociology.

Every Sunday morning, unless it rains or my muscles are out of commission, I play a pick up soccer game in Fairfax. That means that a grab bag of some 20-30 heads and twice as many legs gathers on the field, forms two teams based on the color of their t-shirt and starts kicking the ball. But it's not like when we were kids and swarming the ball was our only tactics. Adult games are more intricate. It is no longer "where ball, there everybody".

At first, people take random positions, some in the midfield, some in offense and some in defense. But as soon as the game starts, everyone learns quickly who the solid players are and who are the weak links, who to pass the ball to in a clutch and who needs more time to control the round beast, who can dribble past their opponent and who just kicks the ball as far away from own goal as possible. If there is a weaker defense, some people draw back, if the defense is solid, more people venture on the attack. There are no powwows. It's all self-adjustment. Everyone tries to maximize their value for the team and after about 30 minutes of playing you have two smoothly operating machines. Without a captain, without a coach. And often, without a word.

Scientists interested in how communities form should participate in the pick-up games. They have very fluid dynamics and provide an instructive crash course in the Evolutionary Sociology 101. I think they would be well worth a Federal Grant. No textbook or lecture in the world can really substitute for hands-on experience. Or legs-on for that matter.

French Funk at Kalorama

French don't live their lives. They smoke them. Slowly and prepensely. French were the first nation that mapped out the complete genome of wine and cheese, and in doing so they nosed out that life is a fine cigar and it should be treated as such. Coddling it in a hand carved humidor. Savoring every waft of its subtle aroma.

Kalorama Park is a little leafy oasis in the middle of Adams Morgan, Washington's premiere clubbing district. Today it belonged to a French Funk group "Tarace Boulba", which threw a late matinee in its grassy center. Camped under a stately tree, the improvised ensemble featured one bare-footed young lady in a plain red dress, and about twenty undershaved vagabonds, some in stereotypical berets, whose casual elegance must have been copied straight from the illustrations to Francois Villon's ballads. Yet there was nothing balladic about their music. Note by note, stalk by stalk, the band turned the green turf into a giant dancing parquet. The brass extravaganza was sharp, perky and severely contagious. An open bar for musical viruses.

But they brought with them more than just their music. Hidden underneath the nonchalantly coiffured sound was a conspiring smile of enjoyment. They brought their love of life - and myriad of its attendant hues, some smooth like melted chocolate, some robust like hearty tartiflette, each of them eventually finding its way out of the inner tubular maze of trumpets and trombones. Once issued into the open space by the unrelenting chimneys of the brass instruments, they turned into intoxicating wisps of smoke from Graycliff Chateau Grand Cru cigars. And if you narrowed your eyes just a little bit, you could have recognized a row of glistening question marks where the battery of saxophones used to be. They had all been punctuating the same question: Parlez vous danse?


Scope and Range

Light is a special form of electromagnetic radiation. It is made out of the same undulating field as its oscillatory brethren: ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, radio waves, microwaves etc. The important difference is that your retina can register the light waves as long as their wavelength is roughly between 400 and 700 nanometers. That does not mean that the other forms of radiation are any less real. You can verify their existence through various detection devices. But you won't see them. If you could, the world would look like a bizarre blurry nightmare of a drunk cartoonist. Just think X-ray vision. Sure airport security guys would have easier job, but a rose garden would lose much of its charm. Our view of the world depends crucially on what part of the electromagnetic spectrum we can directly detect.

When I was in high school, I thought that our knowledge was fully defined by its scope: some people knew Egyptology, some knew all the secrets of Thai cooking, and some were experts on vintage Porsche cars. But once two people trained their crosshairs on the same thing, I assumed that they would see the same thing. That turned out to be a deploringly oversimplified assumption.

Once, in my junior year, a friend of mine gave me his take on the first movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and I realized that his impression of the piece was completely and bafflingly different from my own. It was then and there that it dawned on me that our understanding has a wavelength, too, and that perception is a crucial cog-wheel of our cognitive apparatus: not only has our knowledge scope, but it also has a very subjective range at which we are individually able to process it.

Have you ever heard two people describe the same event? No, I don't mean the Republican and Democratic talking heads clashing their opinion swords on Sunday morning shows. I mean normal people. It's like hearing two different stories altogether. That is just one of the consequences of the fact that they perceived the event at hand in their own personal wavelength ranges. Their intellectual retinas were sensitive to very specific and highly subjective stimuli.

Different emphases, different blind spots, different levels of detail. That is all part of our mental range, whose traces can be found in all areas of human activity: in visual arts, where the same painting may elicit diametrically opposite reactions, in psychology, where the same person can generate the widest scale of feelings, in singing, where a jarring voice for some may be a soothing sound for others, or in sciences, where the same subject often produces different expertly opinions.

Sometimes it fascinates me, how brilliant some scientists can be, and yet, almost at the same breath, display what looks like a gaping hole in their judgment. But it is really just a missing part of their perception spectrum. Perhaps that is why many major discoveries or inventions are often best described by the follow-up researchers, rather than original creators. Those who come in subsequent waves after the initial discovery have different cognitive range and see the matter in a context which is often better aligned with the mainstream way of thinking. If you want a report on Anna Kournikova's sprained ankle, you'll be better off giving it to a New York Times sportswriter, even though it was the guy with the X-ray vision who spotted it first.

Our perceptional idiosyncrasies also show how utterly foolish it is for one person to judge another. How can you even understand someone else's reality, without seeing it in the same light. I think only a reasonably broad group of people has a chance of passing a somewhat fair judgment, because that group can collectively span a representative range of perception and reach a relatively objective judgment. And even that I have doubts about.

But individual judgment is like writing a book review without speaking the language in which the book is written; it betrays failure to appreciate the beauty whose wavelength happens to lie outside of one's mental range. Yet many court jesters embark on that folly every day.

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