Between a rock and a hard place

Today I went out, ostensibly to think about my game. I went to Slide Rock in Sedona, where a canyon creek produces a delightful water slide, and bottle-green water cascades through brilliant red rocks as if designed for a film set. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a delicate mood and there were also a lot of women in bikinis, so not much thinking got done and therefore I have nothing to blog about.

I sat opposite a spot where people could jump about 15 feet into the water below, which they did with gay abandon until a pretty, preppy girl of about 18 called Jessica came along. She walked up to the edge, hesitated for a moment and was lost. She chickened out and withdrew in a flurry of nervous giggles. But she had a couple of friends on my bank, who hollered at her for being such a wimp and generally tried to encourage her, thus making it ever harder for her to get up the nerve. She tried again, and chickened out big time. People started to notice, but she bravely kept on trying, and kept on chickening out again. After about ten minutes it had become a major life ordeal for her, and had drawn a crowd of about a hundred of us who were helpfully counting to three and chanting “Jump! Jump!” at the poor girl. Can you imagine? By now it was completely impossible for her and she walked away, with shame and bitter disappointment seething inside her. I really felt for her.

Anyway, up above all this, taking no notice whatsoever, was a small hoodoo, on which sat a precariously balanced cap rock, whose only mistake had been to have a crack in one side, a thousand years ago, which had widened and isolated the rock from its neighboring strata. Once water had seeped into the crack and found its way to the soft sandstone below all was lost for it, too, and it gradually became marooned on a pinnacle of sand, maybe three inches across, from where, unlike Jessica, it will soon plunge into the foaming depths below.

Those foaming depths are formed into a series of potholes, because once such a rock falls into a hollow it can’t float out again, and hence acts as a millstone, grinding and digging itself an ever deeper and more inescapable hole.

The potholes in turn alternated with beaches, because of the way that, once a river starts to churn and bend, the outside of the bend gets the brunt of the water and debris, and so gets carved deeply, while the inside ends up with a slower current and consequent deposition. Once the process has started it can’t stop, until eventually the curve becomes horseshoe-shaped and a flood breaks through the ever thinning wall to produce an oxbow.

And the pebbles on these beaches were graded very neatly, with all the big stones at the top and all the finer ones at the bottom, not because God had carefully arranged them for best effect but because small stones can fall through the gaps between big stones, but big stones can never fall through the gaps between small ones.

And the people who sat on these beaches laughing at Jessica were arranged in clumps that drifted, rose and fell rhythmically during the afternoon, because everyone finds themselves in a tension between the desire to be with other people and the desire not to be seen to stand too close to strangers. As the gaps between them fill they find themselves in a crowd and wander off to find some space, thus becoming a nucleus for further aggregation.

And the level of noise rose and fell too, as each person had to speak louder to be heard over the others, who in turn had to speak even louder, until the crescendo reached the point where someone paused in their conversation to wonder why everyone else was shouting, then others wondered why that person had suddenly stopped talking and stopped too, and then finally those who were a bit slow on the uptake realised that they were the only ones left speaking too loud.

I have absolutely no reason to tell you any of this other than to remark on how amazing it is when positive feedback meets negative feedback and each has a time delay. The result is self-organisation. The result is also very beautiful, and anyone who thinks all this order needs a designer is sadly mistaken: you only have to look at things which have been designed to see that they can’t compare. Only randomness ratcheted by selection and driven by feedback can produce such elegance. Self-organisation blows my mind even more than women in bikinis.

And meanwhile, whilst everybody was kicking the pebbles and wondering about the noise and remarking at the tops of their voices to their neighbours about whether that hoodoo was safe to walk under, Jessica realised that no-one was looking any more, stepped up to the edge and jumped, bless her. I think it probably made her week.

Luckily the rest of us noticed in time to cheer.

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About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

4 Responses to Between a rock and a hard place

  1. Alon says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading this very descriptive piece. I was very into the Jessica part. It’s like… society’s peer pressure versus natural survival instincts, all culminating in human perseverance without the duress.
    Some of the other things you spoke about really made me nostalgic of your first book, Creation. Thanks for posting this. 🙂
    On another note: Such pleasant imagery, yet not one of your beautiful photos? Tisk tisk. 😛
    (Then again, you’re not a tourist. I guess I’m just bitter about being stuck in a dull, grey city, while you’re out there in paradise. ;))

    • stevegrand says:

      Aw, thanks Alon, you’ve cheered me up.

      Someone commented yesterday on the “Home” movie that I blogged about, saying that the natural world is more like a tug-of-war than a harmonious balance, and he’s right. But a tug-of-war is a creative state, very labile, very computational, very sensitive. Poor Jessica was caught in a tug-of-war exactly as you describe. And everywhere I looked I saw the creativity and self-organisation that such tensions give rise to, but I didn’t really manage to capture those very well. My heart was too wrapped up in young Jessica’s torment to feel my usual empathy with the rocks and rivers.

      I put my camera out to take and then forgot it. Shame – it was a pretty scene. I promise I’ll bring you a few slices of paradise soon – I’ve only just bought a car and it was hard to get very far on my bicycle. I’m really looking forward to exploring this place – so many dynamical marvels!

  2. Steve,
    This is a beautiful, sensitive and intellectually elegant piece of prose. It has a complete trajectory that marks it as a great story.
    Engineered systems are laughably weak next to evolved ones. I have had this discussion many times in my life; the “saved” say “how could the universe just happen?” I respond: “How could it plausibly have happened otherwise?” They retort: “Doesn’t it make you feel bad to think that you’re an accident?” I reply: “How I feel has nothing to do with it, but I don’t feel bad about it – I feel joy and wonder that I’m part of something so amazing, and it makes life worth living when all the chips are down.”

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