I was boasting how much of my love of finding patterns is related to my propensity for music, programming and research in general. A friend warned me that what works for arts and science might not be the best approach for, you know, life – specifically relationships with, you know, people. That sent me seeking some (non-scientific) writings on the current thinking on pattern recognition, specifically: seeing patterns where there are none.
It seems William Gibson wrote a book called “Pattern Recognition” for which the Wikipedia article mentions apophenia which is defined as “seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data.” That lead to a more recent coinage by Michael Shermer in the Scientific American (Dec. 2008) of “patternicity” which means, ironically enough, the exact same thing as apophenia. The latter is infinitely more marketable, however, and so is Shermer’s definition which reads like a tagline for an indie film:
“The tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”
Shermer’s column is a fascinating read about the evolutionary necessity to get things wrong. Is that sound coming from the high grass just the wind? Or a tiger? We are all descended from the creatures that assumed it was a tiger every time whether it was or was not. But really these findings are based on a totally rocking piece of science from a the Royal Society called “The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour” (Sept. 2008) which makes the bigger point that it was evolutionary necessary to constantly make shit up about causality in the world.
One of the keywords on that article was the irresistible “optimality theory” (OT) which (if I understand it) is about how we use a rule based process of elimination to map between what we want to say and the words (and conjugation) that might be appropriate. (To be honest, I don’t know how this slipped into linguistics except by the thinnest notion that grammar can be used as a pattern of expectations – if the plural of cat is cats, the plural of dog must be dogs.) This process of elimination is based on strict constraints which yields the optimal outcome.
What caught my eye is that OT is the outgrowth of Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar. OK, pause. As of this moment, could there be a sexier word in the English language than generative? Awesome. Thank you. Resume. Just yesterday I participated in an AskMeFi thread on generative art which lead to this Tweet and I recently saw Brian Eno give a lecture where he, balls out, took credit for inventing generative music. (I have no idea if that’s true or it’s just Eno living up to some evolutionary necessity.) So I’m scanning the Wikipedia article and sure enough, there’s section on music but it has nothing (directly) to do with Eno. There was a lot of jabber about music analysis (which I find duller than Jello) but then the “main article” link was to something called “Chord progression#Rewrite rules”
Here we get to the work of one Mark Steedman who claims (I think rightfully) that “a set of recursive rewrite rules generate all well-formed transformations of jazz.” All of jazz (and most of Western music period) is a “rewrite” of the blues with just a few set of simple rules (dominant 7th everywhere, ii V I, etc.)
So, I started by looking for miscues in my relationships with people and ended up proving that the world is a blues progression. I think I see a pattern here.