Adjacencies and Algorithms

30.56 degrees Celsius.

That’s the temperature at which fungus is normally known to thrive. Now, since fungus is the staple diet for termites, even in the scorching heat of Sub Saharan Africa, they are known to meticulously maintain this constant level of temperature within their mounds.  But how do they pull this off?

The answer for this question has been the inspiration for the design and construction of Zimbabwe’s largest commercial complex – The Eastgate Centre. Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication.

During a Formula 1 race, a car sends hundreds of millions of data points to its garage for real-time analysis and feedback. So why not use this detailed and rigorous data system elsewhere, like … at children’s hospitals?

These tangents of thought are some of the several examples that stand out for the power of combining seemingly different ideas to  arrive at breakthrough concepts and revolutionary designs.  Frans Johansson calls this The Medici Effect in his insightful book by the same name – a must read for anyone fascinated by the world of creativity, innovation and ideas. This is very similar to the concept of The Adjacent Possible that Steven Johnson speaks about in his book Where Good Ideas Come From.  

Essentially it is about two things:

  1. Identifying seemingly different or intuitively unrelated ideas and
  2. Combining them together in new and unexpected ways to yield  actionable insights or practical – yet unforeseen –  solutions to existing problems.

One related concept of The Adjacent Possible is what could possibly be called as Meaningful Adjacencies.

Two very interesting ways in which the application of this concept has panned out in the recent past. One in the field of stylometry and the other in ‘commemorative design’.

(1) The Algorithm that declared “It’s J.K. Rowling” 

When The Cuckoo’s Calling – a detective story was released earlier this year, the novel has received lavish praise and the writer one Robert Galbraith was marked as someone to watch out for. But, reportedly The Sunday Times believed that Robert Galbraith was just a pen name for an author who could possibly be a bit more familiar. So on July 11, Professor Patrick Juola received an interesting mail from The Sunday Times. The task? To verify that Ms. Rowling was indeed the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling!

So what did Prof Juola – the stylometry expert do do?  He deployed a computer program called the Java Graphical Authorship Attribution Program (JGAAP) that he had designed to recognize writing styles undetectable by human readers.  He loaded the e-version of The Cuckoo’s Calling into JGAAP, along with several other texts, including The Casual Vacancy, J.K.Rowling’s post-Potter novel, set the program running and sat back to watch the fun.

Essentially, the JGAAP algorithm works by comparing the following variables in each of the book within the comparison set:

  • Word-length distribution
  • The use of common words like “the” and “of”
  • Recurring-word pairings and
  • The distribution of “character 4-grams,” or groups of four adjacent characters, words, or parts of words.

While the first two variables are more distribution and frequency related, the last two are adjacency related. Now this was an insight for me-

– that a set of adjacent words / characters / or even part of words can potentially have a unique pattern of their own so much so that they constitute a distinctive signature of their own and can thereby possibly bring out unique attributions to a specific author!

So in just 30 mins, Prof Juola’s JGAAP did confirm J.K.Rowling as the ‘suspected’ author and to his delight the conclusion was later confirmed by Rowling herself!

The interesting question that this now begets is – Should we teach literature students how to analyse texts algorithmically! Well, if an author’s literary signature is hidden deep within the recess of adjacent characters and words and if algorithms can squeeze out meaning from these adjacencies – then, I’d say Why Not?

(2) The ‘Commemorative Calculus’ Of The 9/11 Memorial

Nearly 3,000  men, women, and children were said to have been killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and February 26, 1993 on the Twin Towers.  In order to commemorate them, the 9/11 memorial has a very unique feature – the names of every person killed inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the 9/11 Memorial’s twin pools.

National-9.11-Memorial-4a-Credit-Amy-Dreher

(Image Source)

As Michael Arad – an architect of the memorial puts it “(the idea of having the names of all the 3,000 men, women and childen) allows families’ and friends’ stories to be told.” He says “the river of names, without other identification (like age or title or company affiliation), was meant to convey simultaneously a sense of individual and collective loss.”

But it’s here that it gets interesting. These names on first look, would seem to be randomised in their grouping.

However on deeper inspection it becomes apparent that this grouping has been the result of some truly complex set of algorithms based on the concept of Meaninful Adjacencies – whereby each name has been meticulously mapped to each other on the basis of specifics like location, floor, company of a person and laid out in relation to other people based on relevant relationship contexts .

The result?  An intricate mapping of names that commemorates those laid to rest in a deeply compelling way by reflecting thousands of complex interpersonal relationships among them – and thereby telling a story with a real emotional impact.

193921

(Image, Source)

So there we have it – an analytical process that brings in a new twist to the adjacencies of words inherent in an author’s writings and a design paradigm that is predicated on bringing out narratives based on adjacencies of the underlying elements. 

So the next time when someone tells you that new ideas thrive at the intersection/adjacency of seemingly different concepts, tell them that it can literally be the case.

(Featured Image, Termite Mound in Namibia, Source)

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