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inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #0 of 128: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 15 Feb 08 10:22
    
I'm honored to introduce our next guest, Pamela McCorduck, who -- with her
latest work, "The Edge of Chaos" -- has turned her attention back to novel-
writing after many years in the field of nonfiction.

Pamela (http://www.pamelamccorduck.com) has published nine books, including
best sellers "Machines Who Think," "The Fifth Generation," and "The Futures
of Women."  Her books have been translated into most of the major European
and Asian languages.  She has written for magazines ranging from Redbook and
Cosmopolitan to Daedalus, and was a contributing editor to Wired. She has
appeared on many television shows, including PBS's News Hour and the CBS
Evening News.  CNN based a two-part series on the book she co-authored with
Nancy Ramsey, "The Futures of Women."

Longtime WELL member David Kline leads the conversation with Pamela. David
is an energy economist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, leading
programs with developing countries on sustainable energy and development.
He has facilitated clean energy projects around the globe, Egypt to Botswana
and Mexico to China.

He calls himself a dilettante who's dabbled, for example, in chaos theory,
bird identification, quantum mechanics, and the science and policy response
to climate change; one year, he went on a tear and read all the novels of
Jane Austen.

Welcome to Inkwell.vue, Pamela and David!
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #1 of 128: David Kline (kline) Fri 15 Feb 08 10:40
    
Thanks, Cynthia.

Let me start right in.  Pamela, how did you come to write this
particular book?  
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #2 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 15 Feb 08 12:12
    
I was a guest at the Santa Fe Institute in the summer and fall of
1991, and that visit introduced me not only to the notions surrounding
the sciences of complexity, but also introduced me to some of the major
players, including the Institute's founders.

I was much taken with complexity, and thought I'd write a book about
it (actually, I already had in "Aaron's Code," except I didn't know
that then, and struggled horribly trying to invent a vocabulary for
that art-making program, only to discover later that the SFI people had
such a vocabulary).  So I didn't expect to write a novel.  Luckily,
Mitch Waldrop's wonderful "Complexity" came out instead, and so I
didn't have to write that book.

Still, I was fascinated.  I began thinking of complexity in terms of
tale-telling (I even worked out a nice little complex adaptive system
scheme of the Old Testament; don't ask).  

Eventually, I thought that it would be fun to see if I could embody
some of the principles of complexity in a novel, and as I worked on it,
it began to be self-referential--the characters are explicitly
concerned with the sciences of complexity, but the underlying scheme of
the novel also embodies some of the ideas of complexity.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #3 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Fri 15 Feb 08 12:16
    
So much for the formal answer to your question.  As the book moved on,
the characters took over.  They lived their lives.  I watched.  I
probed.  I uncovered from time to time.  But they lived their lives in
spite of me, not because of me.  

I would "watch" a character do something and think, "No!  You idiot! 
Don't do that!"  But he or she would go ahead and do it, and then I'd
have to watch the trainwreck, and see how that character extricated
himself or herself.

I did not know how it would end until I wrote the last chapter, and as
I began that chapter, didn't even know it *was* the last chapter.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #4 of 128: David Kline (kline) Fri 15 Feb 08 19:38
    
We'll have to circle back around to you watching your own characters
(as in Escher's 'Drawing Hands?), but first I'd like to know what is
was about chaos and your visit to SFI that captivated you so much.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #5 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 16 Feb 08 07:13
    
My visits to SFI persuaded me that a new kind of science was underway.
 Maybe it would succeed, maybe not.  It had lots of affinities to
artificial intelligence, which I'd already written about, so I had a
cognitive structure to hang stuff on--it wasn't all new and
ridiculously difficult (though it was mostly new and mostly difficult).

I loved that it was cross-disciplinary.  The sciences of complexity
are devoted to finding out general rules about systems that hold across
disciplines and systems, whether they're natural or artificial (e.g.,
whether ecosystems or economics; biological evolution or the evolution
of technology).  I'm a fox not a hedgehog; I love to know lots of
things.

A word about the way SFI was in those days.  It had expanded past its
first home in a former convent on Canyon Road (picturesque, but much to
be desired in the way of human comforts; my husband was teaching in
the summer school when it was still in the convent, so I got to see it,
even though I wasn't an official visitor).  

Anyway, by the time of my own official summer and fall visit in 1991,
SFI was housed in a nondescript office complex on the Old Pecos Trail.

But the important thing is, everyone's door was open.  I'd sit in my
cubbie and try to read the papers, and when I'd cracked my brain to the
utmost, I could get up, walk over to the office of Stuart Kauffman or
Chris Langton, and say, "you know, I just don't get..."

They'd drop everything and explain.  It was part of the SFI culture
then (in many ways, it still is, thankfully).   
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #6 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sat 16 Feb 08 07:17
    
Anyway, you'd stagger away from a day at SFI with its seminars and
colloquia, its informal discussions in the hallway; your forays into
people's offices for what amounted to private tutorials, and you'd feel
like you were doing the best drug in the world.  It was a high of the
best kind.  It was almost unbearable it was so good.  Your brain was
bursting, but you wanted more!
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #7 of 128: Susan (skjrs-too) Sun 17 Feb 08 10:55
    
You paint such a vivid portrait of Santa Fe in your novel.  It almost
functions as a character too.  Can you share a little about your
relationship with Santa Fe and how the city figures so importantly in
your novel?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #8 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 11:32
    
Hi, Susan!

Santa Fe nearly is a character in its own right in the book.

It remains one of the few cities with real character in the U.S. (you
know the others) and that distinctiveness is one part real, one part
fake.  Judith the mathematician talks about it--"Santa Fake," she call
it, a favorite little joke of outsiders. But it's an effective fake,
she adds.  Molloy the financier thinks he feels at home there because
it's one of the last outposts of old Europe left in the U.S. (he's
spent a lot of time in Europe).

I have a second home there, and one thing my two homes have in common
(Manhattan and Santa Fe) is they're both walking towns.  The scale is
such that you can do things on foot. The buildings are mostly
one-story, some two- and even three-story structures.  But the
(simulated) mud hut appearance of the place goes back forever.  I was
stunned to be in southern Morocco a few years ago and see that their
desert dwellings looked just like those in Santa Fe.

History hangs heavy in Santa Fe.  It was officially founded in 1610,
and the Europeans who founded it just squeezed themselves into a much
longer set of Native American cultures.

For all its problems--and it does have problems--I like that about the
town.  I wanted to write about it.
  
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #9 of 128: Donna Odierna (strega) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:21
    
Santa Fe sure does come through as a character. I don't know if the story
would have had its strong coherence if it had taken place elsewhere. Of
course, chaos flows around all over the place in the book, internal and
external places. You think things are stable and safe, and then they become
transparent and alien.

The human characters, even the sparingly drawn ones, were often strongly
portrayed and at the same time elusive. They must have driven you crazy.
Money plays an important part in the story and in the lives of many of the
characters, even when they think they reject its importance. How did you
manage so many elements at once? It's not a very long book, after all.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #10 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:35
    
What a hard (though flattering) question to answer.

The book just erupted, and then I went back and edited the eruptions. 
Lots of false starts.  You learn, as a writer, to let the eruptions do
what they will; the editing process is different, and later.  

Ah, money.  It's certainly the great dramatic engine of 19th century
English novels, money and class.  It plays a pretty big role in French
and Russian novels too.  My characters are, in a sense,
post-money--that is, they have a sufficiency (except Molloy, who has
plenty more than that) so, as Ron puts it to Judith, "this isn't a
novel by Trollope...you could get together."  I paraphrase.  Judith
uses Molloy's money as an excuse to dodge him.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #11 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 12:52
    
May I give credit where credit is due?  Donna Odierna, my favorite
witch, might have a Ph.D. in public health, but she has a very open
mind about alternative healing methods, and she was my authority for
all the material about Luz, Benito's mother, who is the folk healer. 
Hope I got it right, babe!
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #12 of 128: Donna Odierna (strega) Sun 17 Feb 08 13:42
    
Well, there isn't a right way to be an herbalist (although imo there are
wrong ways). Herbal practice varies a lot. I don't know a lot about the
curanderas and yerberas of the Southwest, but many folk herbalists are a lot
like Luz. (I didn't know that pamela was litening so intently when I was
talking about herbs; I got a kick out of seeing some of it in her book!)

I was going to bring up Benito later, but since you mentioned him I'll
forego waiting. Benito was my favorite character in the book. I wanted a lot
more of him. I especially wanted to hear more about the exciting project he
was working on. I am left pondering a mystery.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #13 of 128: I am of course married to the Berlin Wall (katecat) Sun 17 Feb 08 15:14
    
Benito was my favorite character, too; he was almost the artist character,
to me, the one most involved in work for work's sake (rather than for money
or world-changing or career advancing or what have you). And his work was 
so interesting!

you make your time at SFI sound like heaven, just 100% heaven. I would love
to hear more about how you worked to 'embody some of the principles of 
complexity in a novel'--that's such an interesting idea.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #14 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Sun 17 Feb 08 17:24
    
Maybe first a word about Benito.

A Santa Fe friend said very quietly--uhm, is he based on somebody real
here in Santa Fe?  Nah, I said brutally, I made him up. Oh, she said. 
Rather sadly.  When I saw what she was getting at, I reminded her
Benito had moved to Tucson.  She nodded, again sadly, and said yes,
I'll console myself with that.  Heavens!  True, he's gorgeous,
gainfully employed, and a great lover.  With an artist's soul, as
katecat says.

I still have a connection with SFI, and I still love it.  The ambience
has changed a little--it's bigger now, somewhat more structured--but
the intellectual buzz is terrific.  Again.  It had a little swoon for a
while.

How did I embody some of the principles of complexity?  I laid them
out as simply as Judith lays them out for Molloy (and these are by no
means the beginning and end of the sciences of complexity, I rush to
say).  Then I focused the work to highlight those principles.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #15 of 128: David Kline (kline) Mon 18 Feb 08 10:05
    
What's more, you used a lot of the newly-coined words from complexity
studies as chapter titles, which I thought was a lot of fun.  The first
one "domain of attraction" seemed to me a hint about what universe the
book is going to operate in--human attractions and their strange
dynamics.  My favorite chapter title may be "Strange Attractors." 

How did you decide to use these terms that way, which seems to me part
play on words and part a supplement to Judith's lectures on
complexity?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #16 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Mon 18 Feb 08 10:56
    
I love the jargon ("bird twitter") of certain fields.  Complexity is
one of those fields.  I made a list of my favorite phrases, then saw if
I could match them more or less to the content of the chapters.  I had
a few left over, and will save them for the next book. :-)
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #17 of 128: Ellen Dubrowin (ellen) Mon 18 Feb 08 18:35
    

hmmm... a sequel?
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #18 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 07:54
    
About three people have seriously suggested a sequel; one gave me
detailed issues to be worked out in such a book.  
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #19 of 128: David Kline (kline) Tue 19 Feb 08 09:55
    
Oh good, you'll have a chance to use a piece of jargon that I noticed
you left out of this one: "tight coupling."  :-).

Maybe we can avoid drifting too far afield (on to the sequel) if I
were to ask if there are things you feel like you didn't explore in
this book, or that you would have liked to delve further into--if only
those willful characters had made different choices, or something.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #20 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 10:49
    
More like things I wish I'd had room for.  

For example, in the original draft, I went into great detail about
Benito's first visit to the archaeological dig north of Albuquerque,
Black Crow, I call it.  It's a real site (named after a different bird)
digging newly begun, and I happened to visit when a kiva was unearthed
for the first time.  I also met some archaeological luminaries who
were incredibly helpful to me, especially Linda Cordell, who sat me
down and told me what it was like being a woman archaeologist at a
certain time in the profession.

So the draft went on and on, especially regarding the backhoe
operator, "Alley the Trowel of the Southwest," a Native American guy
who operates a backhoe with such finesse that they could bring him in
to a sensitive site like that and not worry he'd so much as chip a pot.
 In fact, they'd had to wait for him until he got back from Egypt,
where he'd been working on a dig there.

I loved it, but artistically, it had to go.  There were others like
that.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #21 of 128: a very simple agent (zippy) Tue 19 Feb 08 15:20
    

on the subjects of Santa Fe and complexity, I was very taken with the
complex interaction of cultures there - current anglos and both historic and
present day threads of Spanish and what, Puebloan?  Is that the right term?

but the magic (also the chaos) of what can happen as cultures intersect and
merge is fascinating if you allow and celebrate it.  this contrasts so
sharply with the frozen oreder that results when those of means appropriate
a culture in order to merely accessorize.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #22 of 128: Allegro ma non tofu (pamela) Tue 19 Feb 08 16:52
    
Oh, in Santa Fe's real life, there's a certain amount of
"accessorization" on the part of the three Santa Fe cultures.  Remember
how we hear (I write) about the blonde trophy wives of Native American
artists; and there are Anglo women who wear Native American jewelry,
but who wouldn't dream of actually socializing with a real Native
American.  And so forth.

But the three cultures do intermingle in ways planned and unplanned,
and that's one of the things that gives Santa Fe its spice.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #23 of 128: Maxine Rockoff (maxine-rockoff) Wed 20 Feb 08 07:32
    
Before we leave the "what's next" thread, I'm willing to wait for the
sequel but I sure want the movie, which I imagine stars Meryl Streep.
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #24 of 128: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 20 Feb 08 09:23
    

(Note: Offsite readers with comments or questions may send them to
 <inkwell@well.com> to have them added to this thread -- be sure to put
 "Chaos" in the subject line, thanks!)
  
inkwell.vue.321 : Pamela McCorduck, "The Edge of Chaos"
permalink #25 of 128: Ellen Dubrowin (ellen) Wed 20 Feb 08 12:00
    

I admit to near-total ignorance of the science of complexity, but your book
has opened me up to seeing things in intriguing new ways. I recently had
the great fortune to spend a week on the big island of Hawaii. the cultural
patterns of mingling vs mixing there are strikingly parallel to what you've
described in Santa Fe. also, the natural edges of lava flows, between the
rock and the untouched forest, or between the rock and the first plants to
recolonize the flow, are amazing.
  

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