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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Does Fluxus Quo Do?

Perito Moreno Glacier Patagonia Argentina. Photo taken by Luca Galuzzi (

Dear Reader,

Fluxus quo acts upon our world through two kinds of dynamism: flow that results in motion, and flow that results in stillness.

First, everything is actually moving and changing even when it appears not to be. The appearance of the world is stability interrupted by intervals of change—punctuated equilibrium, as Steven Jay Gould called it—but the deeper truth of the world is flow. Look up from your computer screen and look about your room. Not a single thing you can lay your eyes upon is genuinely static. The glass is a liquid, ever so slowly oozing its way toward the bottom of the window, which is why old window panes are rippled. The paint, the wood, the fabric, all of these organic materials are slowly converting their volatile organic components via chemical reactions into gas, which is evaporating into the air, some of which you're inhaling. Every scrap of metal is like the glass, congealed into solid metal only because of how cold it is, but someday, sooner or later—a thousand years, a million, a billion—the metal will be hot again and will resume its liquid flow, and until then electrons readily flow within many metals creating electrical currents. Certainly all living things you can see are always engaged in both internal flow and many cyclic flows of interactions with the greater world around them. Seven years from now, some of their physical makeup will be the same—lead or mercury poisoning unfortunately—but most of their cells will have been replaced with new ones.

Stasis, things holding still or being what they are and only what they are, is partly an optical illusion, like a single frame of a motion picture, a moment caught in a strobe light. Seen for a brief enough instant of time, even a river appears to be a complex frozen ripple, in a photograph or the blink of an eye. Seen for a long enough period of time, the misunderstanding that a glacier is merely an enormous frozen river breaks down and the river of ice it truly is can be seen to flow, which it is always doing regardless of our limited perception of it. As Homer wrote, all human beings are ephemeroi, creatures of a season, like leaves on a tree. Our lifespans are far too short to see any but the fastest flows; the apparent stillness of so many things that our flashes of life illuminate are optical illusions, a trick of mortal perspective.

Heraclitus expressed this form of dynamism in several ways:

One can grasp no mortal substance in a stable condition.

It scatters and gathers, it forms and dissolves, approaches and departs.

Everything flows and nothing abides.

You cannot step twice in the same river.

Second, the pace of change does actually accelerate or slow in response to another layer of flow under the physical surfaces of the cosmos. Physical forces and organizational principles of the cosmos conflict with one another, subvert one another, tangle and release, and otherwise interact in complex, shifting ways so that the pace of change for any given thing is sometimes rapid, sometimes so slow as to create near stillness. When things are briefly still, it is because the forces within them are balanced enough to convert their dynamism into internal stresses instead of external motion.

Like a taut bowstring, these kinds of situations are pregnant with energies waiting to be unleashed. To a literal-minded person, a bow held undrawn and a bow held drawn are both just things, objects, static, but to one with eyes to see, the drawn bow is a wound-up explosion of change about to happen. Viewing the world in terms of the objects or things leaves you perpetually surprised by earthquakes, tsunamis, wars, terrorist attacks, and other kinds of sudden change, but truly it is during the apparent still periods preceding those disasters that the problems were created, that the invisible energies tangled up and pulled one another into tension. Part of the secret to the cosmos is that the visible things we cherish or fear are merely the side effects of the movements and conflicts of the deeper principles that underlie everything. That is, as important as it is to come to understand the flow of the things that make up the visible cosmos, it is the invisible flow of the principles and forces of the cosmos that actually produces everything we take for real.

Heraclitus wrote about this form of dynamism too, as an endless war that creates and sustains the harmony of the cosmos:

It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife.

Homer was wrong in saying, "Would that strife might perish from amongst gods and men." For if that were to occur, then all things would cease to exist.

It is in changing that things find repose.

Opposition brings concord. Out of opposition comes the fairest harmony.

People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the case of the bow and the lyre.

The hidden harmony is best.

Fluxus quo cannot be stopped to create stability, nor can it be ignored since it permeates and shapes all things, yet these are the two strategies most people try. Nevertheless, if we want to produce anything lasting in this world we cannot just go with the flow, or else the first form of dynamism created by fluxus quo will simply scatter our efforts in the river of time, but the second kind of dynamism it creates can and does paradoxically produce a dynamic kind of stability, what Heraclitus calls the harmony in the bending back.

This is the secret to harnessing fluxus quo, to achieving success with something as complex as VISTA. If we try to stabilize the things in the VISTA community that we want, our efforts will be swept away, but we can instead bend back the underlying forces that produce and organize those things so they conflict with each other to produce a harmony, a dynamic, self-reinforcing stability. In such a harmonic configuration, the flow of fluxus quo strengthens the stability instead of breaking it up.

A bow may be dynamically stabilized with two primary counter-reacting forces, from the wood and the string—with additional forces introduced when it is drawn, of course—but for something as complex as VISTA we need a more complex harmony between more forces. That would seem to reduce the odds we can keep them stabilized, but another field of study reveals that even complex harmonies can be achieved using a specialized method of bending back the forces upon one another.

The field is biology. The method is homeostasis.

Yours truly,

Monday, February 8, 2010

What is Fluxus Quo?

Supposed bust of Heraclitus from the Villa dei papiri in Herculaneum (bronze, Roman), Naples National Archaeological Museum

Dear Reader,

Just as Parmenides and Plato were the preeminent Hellenic philosophers advocating a static understanding of the cosmos, so Heraclitus was the preeminent Hellenic philosopher advocating a dynamic understanding of the cosmos. Although dismissed by the ignorant as a philosopher asserting that all things were made up of the element fire, Heraclitus actually strove to use the metaphors of fire, water, and many other things to try to capture the idea of the cosmos as a domain of radical transformation and flow, in which not only does nothing stay what it is eternally but also nothing is what it appears when you look below the surface, that everything that seems even briefly static is only kept that way temporarily through the intense dynamism of shifting, contesting cosmic forces.

Twenty-five hundred years of progress have not made any easier the difficulty Heraclitus experienced, the struggle to help people see past the sometimes static surfaces of things to understand the seething, roiling storm underneath. Even our very language works against us, as we find comfortable and therefore readily adopt terms like status quo that reinforce our attachment to the illusion of stasis while resisting terms like fluxus quo that might be the keys to unlocking our ability to see things as they truly are.

My first exposure to this term was in the summer of 1999 when I read a philosophical column in a magazine. Here was the crucial paragraph for me, a concise statement that captures the Hellenic view of the cosmos as a realm of change:

Nature is understood in at least two profound senses, becoming and intrinsic validity, which to the Greeks are equivocally the same. The first sense of nature, as physis—"becoming," "growing," the gerundive or process-form of the verb phuo—describes the domain of relentless, tidal mutation: nature is the realm of all things generated and perishable where nothing can remain simply what it is (we have our word "nature" out of Latin as Cicero's invention, by analogy with physis, from the past participle of the verb nascere, natus = having been born). All natural existence is pregnant with its other, incubating cryptic forms of future order and orientation which are presently unthinkable: to exist in nature is to be variable and subvertible—all that is natural changes, falls prey to the fate of alliosis or "othering." All of natural existence is thus in motion, on the way from one state into another: Heraclitus' incisive dictum Panta rhei—All things flow—captures for all time the quintessence of ancient dynamism: the world as "fluxus quo."

——from "End Times: Millennia in Microcosm, Ancient Civilization Part 1: Nature as Becoming and as Intrinsic Truth" (Kenneth Smith, originally written 15 February 1997, published in The Comics Journal #215, August 1999)
Like most reasonably educated people, I knew the term flux, certainly in two senses from the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language—(1) the action of flowing, and (2) a continuous succession of changes of condition, composition, or substance—but when I read Smith's definition of fluxus quo above it was a revelation.

Here, I thought, was a term we badly needed in English, a term that in a nutshell captured an essential but hidden truth about the cosmos, a term that was especially vital for understanding the VISTA software lifecycle. Eventually I came to understand that it was not just VISTA but all medical informatics that were driven by the principle described by this term. The practice of medicine continually changes and flows as our understanding of it improves, so medical software, too, has to continually change and flow.

Where status quo is best understood as things being the way they are because they are standing still, fluxus quo describes things as being the way they are because they are changing.

The best way, though, to understand this or any other cosmic principle is not through a description of it, since principles are not things, but through a description of what it does, how it acts, how it changes the world, because principles are agents of change that generate patterns of flow in the cosmos.

So what about fluxus quo, the principle underlying all other principles? How does it work?

Yours truly,

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What is Status Quo?

Dear Reader,

The philosopher Plato did two-thousand-plus years of damage with his attractive but ultimately false view of the cosmos, and medical informatics suffers from his philosophy even today.

Plato was not comfortable with changes. He felt that a cosmos in eternal flux could not be comprehended. He wanted a world of fixed, stable, enduring ideas that could be used as a frame of reference, so he postulated the idea that change is an illusion, a mere flickering of shadows on the walls of the human cave, and the truth is fixed, eternal, unchanging—indeed, that the true cosmos is made of eternal unchanging ideas that are casting these shadows.

It's all very pretty and vivid but utterly false. The man was more poet than philosopher, in the end, and all his philosophies suffer from holding more beauty than truth (apologies to Mr. Keats).

Plato was not the first to try to bury his head in the sand - Parmenides before him had even more radically denied the existence of change and asserted that all is one and unchanging in defiance of the evidence of our senses - but it was Plato who developed the philosophy of stasis in the form that continues to trip us up today.

The problem with Plato's ideas is that they are an attractive nuisance. Any idiot can see change all around them all the time, but when someone is under the right kinds of pressure the rejection of change can be extraordinarily attractive.

Project managers, for example.

When you are being battered from every side to meet a deadline, the desire to pin down your targets to create a fixed frame of reference for managing the chaos can be overwhelming. In this way, most project managers become neo-Platonists, struggling against change.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language defines status quo as The existing state of affairs, a definition that is expressed in Platonic terms because it obscures the underlying principle unconsciously assumed to be at work by those who speak of a status quo: stasis.

status and stasis both derive from the same Latin/Greek root sta-, meaning to stand, as in to stand still, to hold, to be where and what you are in an unchanging fashion. You see, status quo seems to be a neutral phrase meaning "the way things are" because we ourselves are immersed in the philosophy of stasis—we take it for granted—and so cannot perceive that it really means "the way things are because they are standing still," that is, when things are the way they are because they are unchanging.

The extensive influence of mathematics in our education—which was advocated by Plato, by the way—exposes us deeply to simplistic math, the mathematics of is, of A equals A and A does not equal not-A, but cuts most of us off before we ever get into the mathematics of flow and change and flux from calculus on. We come to have a taken-for-granted worldview that understands a Newtonian and Cartesian fixed, mechanical universe far more easily than we can grasp the flow and flux of relativity and quantum physics because our math never went that far. Therefore, however much we may have thought we hated or resisted math in school, we pick up there and from the culture at large that the idea of a cosmos in which things are what they are and not what they're not just makes more sense than a cosmos in which everything is in continual flux.

The proof?

When under pressure, most of us seek security in some kind of fixed safety rather than by immersing ourselves more deeply into the flow of life. Stasis just feels safer to us, when push comes to shove. It feels more safe, more right, more natural, more real, more true.

So when we become project managers, we design our projects around fixed targets and seek to fight change to arrive at our fixed destinations. We are mercenaries who sell our services for money, and our services are that we promise to deliver a desirable fixed state by breaking down the gap between here and there into a series of manageable quantum steps. And at the end, we promise that the client will have been shifted into the new state they desire, they will have the things they want.

They will have a new status quo.

Too bad it's all a delusion, because Heraclitus was right: panta rhei, that is, everything flows.

Which brings us to the point of this series of essays: what is fluxus quo?

Yours truly,