“When one has nothing to lose, one becomes courageous. We are timid only when there is something we can still cling to.”
Carlos Castaneda

The Second Ring of Power

Milford Graves

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this delightful creature came to me via Fred Wilson

I just went swimmig through these two albums:

reminded me of my encounters with Ariel Shibolet in Israel … right around my time with Shahar

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Christopher Alexander – 15 Fundamental Properties

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There is a bit of an anxiety in me as I arrive at this excerpt. It is rooted in knowing that in publishing it I am making a kind of commitment about the next 15 excerpts. And since this is my second reading, I know how daunting a task this can be. So I am curious how this is going to unfold.

“… I began to notice that objects and buildings which have life all have certain identifiable structural characteristics. The same geometric features keep showing up in them, again and again. Initially I began writing these characteristics down informally, and I began to ‘keep watch’ on them.

What I did was straightforward and empirical. I simply looked at thousands and thousands of example, comparing those which had more life with those that had less life. Whenever I looked at two examples, I could determine which one had greater ‘life’ or greater wholeness, by asking which of them generated a greater wholeness in me. Thus I did not impose on myself the modesty of judgement typical in a pluralistic society …

I asked myself this question: Can we find any structural features which tend to be present in the examples which have more life. and tend to be missing in the ones which have less life?

… This is what I did. For twenty years, I spent two or three hours a day looking at pairs of things – building, tiles, stones, windows, carpets, figures, carvings of flowers, paths, seats, furniture, streets, paintings, fountains, doorways, arches …

I managed to identify fifteen structural features which appear again and again in things which do have life. These are:

  1. Levels of scale
  2. Strong centers
  3. Boundaries
  4. Alternating repetition
  5. Positive space
  6. Good shape
  7. Local symmetries
  8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
  9. Contrast
  10. Gradients
  11. Roughness
  12. Echoes
  13. The void
  14. Simplicity and inner calm
  15. Not-separateness

At first, I observed  these features without understanding what they were. That is, I understood each of them … as something which was present, often or very often, in a living system – to such an extent that one might almost say that each one was a predictor of whether a thing would have life or not … [but] I did not understand why …

I came to understand that they work, they make things have life, because they are the ways in which centers can help each other in space.

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Centers & Life … and Robert Pirsig

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This excerpt has, for me, a unique flavor. It is brief. I originally intended to skip it, but decided to come back to it. It will probably come across as abstract. I did not find a way to capture the essence of the next few sections which contain examples that illustrate the point Alexander is trying to make (which is why I was leaning towards skipping it).

This point is also special for me because in it (details below) Alexander references the work of Robert Pirsig. This is the only work that I’ve encountered that acknowledges Pirsig’s work which has inspired me so much.

“Armed with the ideas that each center is a multi-levelled field-like phenomenon made of other centers, let us now come back to the idea that each center has its degree of life[*footnote referencing Pirsig].

… I want to now extend this idea and apply it separately and individually to every distinct center in the wholeness of a thing …

… the degree of life of each center in a given wholeness depends on the degree of life of all the other centers in the wholeness.”

Robert Pirsig footnote:

“The idea that every center has its life make the ‘life’ of the centers teh ultimate primitive of this theory. This is perhaps comparable to Robert Pirsig’s idea that Quality, not Substance, is the ultimate primitive. As Pirsig puts it, ‘Quality is supposed to be just a vague fringe word that tells what we think about objects … The idea that quality can create objects seems very wrong … but the idea that values create objects gets less and less weird as you get used to it.’ … I am saying something similar about that which animates the living centers.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

The following section includes an image (though not this one) of this space in the Alhambra:

… followed by a detailed inquiry into the pattern that is un the lower half of the picture – the texture beneath the arched openings. I attempted to play around with recreating in sketching one of the elements that make up the pattern and was blown away by 1) allowing myself to sketch, shifting my attention away from precision and towards centers and 2) the seeing and subtlety that are required to recreate it, even when it already exists before my eyes as a reference. It is amazing how very small variations project so strongly into the wholeness that is created. The more time I spent with it the more I realized how much more there it to see … my “success” or “failure” was not so much a function of my drawing abilities (close to none) but of my ability to perceive.

I am now playing with sketching a more elaborate pattern from one of a Turkish rug mentioned in one of the next sections.

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Christopher Alexander – Recursive Centers

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“What exactly is a center? …

The crux of the matter is this: a center is a kind of entity which can only be defined in terms of other centers. The idea of a center cannot be defined in terms of any other primitive entities except centers.

We are used to a view where we try to explain one kind of entity by showing it to be constructed of other different kinds of entities. An organism is made of cells, an atom of electrons, and so on … If we ask what the centers are made of, we come up against a brick wall. Here we have a question so fundamental that it cannot be explained or understood, as a composite of any other more fundamental kind of entity … centers are only made of other centers.

… In mathematics, such a concept is called recursive. Grasping this idea, and grasping the fact that this bit of understanding is a positive step forward, and not problematic is key to understanding wholeness.

… What then is a center? A center is not a primitive element. Centers are already composite. Yet they are the most primitive element available. They are bits of wholeness which appear as structures within the wholeness … It is … a field of organized force in an object or part of an object which makes that object or part exhibit centrality.

… This circularity … is the essential feature of the situation.”

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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Christopher Alexander – Living Structure created by Centers

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Once again, the illustration is my attemp to replicate an illustration from the book.

“mutual helping among the centers … causes … life

… the terrace is made of structural bays – each made by four columns – each roughly square … Each of these bays it itself a center … The columns are centers too. And on each column, on each of its corners, there is a chamfer. The chamfer is once again a center in its own right.

Each of the four-column bays is helped to be alive by these tiny chamfers on the columns at the corners of the bay … each bay becomes more of a center, and is more alive, because of the chamfer. Suppose, for example, that the column had been square, without the little octagonal chamfer on the corners. Then … each column would slightly eat into the space of the bay, thus disturbing the wholeness of the bay. Instead, the four chamfers help, geometrically, to increase the unity and wholeness of the space in the bay … chamfers … two or three inches across, strengthen and intensify the structural bay …13 feet across.

… this helping relation … does not occur automatically … the columns could have been given a shape which does not help … “

Christopher Alexander – The Nature of Order – Book 1: The Phenomenon of Life

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