I've wanted to contribute to Pie Paper since first hearing about it a few years ago. It's a fascinating publication filled with miscellaneum centered around a particular topic that changes with each issue. For this issue it moved away from the large and unweildly newspaper format towards a far more portable pocket sized book. I liked the newspaper layout but I love the smaller format. The design is suburb, each spread is a joy to look at and feels appropriate at every level. Reading the whole publication feels like moving absently through a well curated encyclopedia where all the tangents and links are connected in some unknown manner. I'd highly suggest you head on over and get yourself a copy. It's well worth it. The theme for this issue is on Failure:
Failure is an intrinsic part of experimentation, creativity and inconveniently, life. It’s said if you’re not failing often then you’re not trying hard enough. We celebrate the beautiful screw ups, the happy accidents, the painful flaws and the Epic Fails. For this issue we’ve taken the idea of failure in all its variant forms and looked for the beauty, humour and wisdom gained from these unwanted mishaps.
I wrote two pieces, one on the Phaistos Disk and the other on when the rules of emergence fail to live up to the hype. I put in too much of myself into both of them; as such they sick out and don't really blend in with the whole book. This is a bit of a shame really. Still, I got to play around with the misdirection in the historical record an object such as the Phaistos Disk brings up.
Found in a basement in a Minoan palace in 1908, the Phaistos Disk has remained a stubborn historical anomaly since its discovery. The clay disk – with pictograms placed in a spiral pattern circling towards the centre on both sides – has given us no clues as to its intended original use. Is it a mythical tale, historical record, game board, or something else entirely? That the pictograms don't match up or connect to any other known language or culture from around the world only adds to its frustrating mystique.
A cypher like the Phaistos Disk provides us with an interesting problem. By remaining a puzzle, it acts as a glaring hole in the historical record, opening up the possibility that we don't know the shape of history, not like we thought we did anyway. And if this is so, then what other cracks are waiting to be filled in. How many other civilisations, city states, stories of unknown peoples remain lost forever.
If it is a fake, as many people have argued, then we can set it aside as an interesting prank. An object legitimately out of time that doesn't belong. But if it is an authentic piece of history that signals an unknown culture then it's a glaring omission from the historical record and our collective knowledge. This device exists outside of history, in a different time stream. Without knowing more about it, all potential pasts are possible.
Time moves in one direction with one thing following the next; Space moves out in all directions as different cultures and civilisations inhabit different parts of the world. These two materials of the historical record are connected and by mapping how they interrelate we gain a deeper understanding of our heritage. But an object that doesn't provide clues to a culture that may or may not have existed prompts us to question the grain of our understanding. If we don't fill in the holes caused by objects such as the Phaistos Disk, then history starts to lose its shape.
Who doesn't love a spot of emergence from time to time? Let a few simple rules govern behaviour and watch the breathtaking complexity unfold. The problem occurs when an individual makes a simple mistake and the collective facepalm ensues. These two examples of emergence tripping over itself illustrates the problem with an over reliance on simple rules.
Ants, the darling species of bottom-up systems can always be counted on to illustrate the beauty of simple rules and simple behaviours. When foraging for food they will leave behind a trail of pheromones alerting their sisters to the location of food. This system allows a few foragers to explore a large area on behalf of the whole colony. The problem occurs when a few of them get stuck following a circular trail and don't realise that they've been marching the same path for some time. The whole colony can eventually wander into this loop without realising it, strengthening the pheromone trail and making it even harder to break out of it. They'll end up following this circle of doom until everyone dies from exhaustion, leaving behind a thick carpet of dead ants.
Keen to test how traffic jams form, researchers from the Japanese Mathematical Society for Traffic Flow (yes, of course this exists) set up a large circular road and told drivers to maintain a steady speed and even distance between each other. Everything works fine until the inevitability of a traffic jam occurs. One driver speeds up and then slows down too fast, causing the next driver to push on the brakes to prevent an accident. A traffic jam shockwave reverberates backwards through the circle as half are always in gridlock and the other half trying to maintain an even pace until they catch up to the jam. It doesn't matter how simple the rules are, there's always going to be one jackass who makes you late for work or kills everybody.
Like I mentioned before, you really should go get yourself a copy. While you're at it, the rest of them.