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A world-building puzzler

I get mail. And sometimes I want to share it with you. Especially when it's email like this one, from Jacques Mattheij:

Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

Just to keep you awake at night :)

This question caught my attention like a snagged fingernail, and it's still pulling at me: here's my first cut at an answer. I'm taking the no-writing parameter seriously as a limiting condition: what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing—for example, if it's forbidden for religious reasons? I'm going to treat this as holy writ for purposes of this thought-experiment: rules-lawyering around the no-writing rule in the comments will be treated as Derailing and deleted, with one special sort-of-exception which I'll explain near the end because it opens up a bunch of interesting consequences.

My rule of thumb answer is: it wouldn't be possible for human beings to develop a technological civilization—at least anything beyond roughly 17th century levels of energy utilization and mid-19th century levels of agriculture—without some form of record-keeping technology. And without writing they might never get that.

The reason is memory capacity. Yes, we can memorize lengthy texts when assisted by verse metrics as a form of mnemonic—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Koran—but the format is error-prone, transcription is at least as time consuming as copying a mediaeval illuminated manuscript, and the "books" are high maintenance (they need food, clothing, and shelter). I don't know how many books one human being can memorize, but even if the number runs as high as two digits (which I think would require a very rare level of memory) you're then faced with the problem of what to do if one of your books gets cancer or dies of old age. So not only is copying more expensive than in a mediaeval monastery's scriptorum, but the substrate onto which "books" can be copied is extremely expensive (because we're coming at this from a pre-industrial situation where agriculture is labour-intensive because there's no copious supply of cheap energy). To put it in perspective, if one "book" can memorize five texts, then those five texts represent an entire productive human lifespan's worth of opportunity costs.

We know you can get to high-level neolithic culture (including agriculture and settlements) without writing, because our ancestors did so. I'm guessing that by using a monastery system for libraries, you could maintain stores of expertise equal to a couple of hundred (maybe as many as a thousand) "books". But studying them would require a scholar to travel to wherever the nearest current copy of a "text" lives and listen to (and memorize bits of) their recitation. Carrying on an actual academic dialog between two or more texts would be ... interesting, but likely slow, and the cost of creating a new text would be enormous (human lifespan-equivalents).

And then we run into mathematics. Assuming they figure out binary, integer arithmetic on fingers and toes gets you a long way for basic counting, multiplication, and optionally subtraction and division. But I'm not sure how they'd explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment. I imagine tally sticks might work if our sophonts have opposable thumbs, but then we're cheating and getting into writing systems by the back door.

We might have specialist memory folks whose job is to act as temporary stores for working human calculators, but again, that's going to be a rare skill ("Quick! Memorize these six thirty digit binary numbers! Now repeat the fourth and sixth back to me!").

So I see the natural sciences stalling out around the point where they'd be getting to Newton/Liebnitz, and as for literature, oh dear. (Hey, I'd be out of one job but into another as an itinerant storyteller, with just one story to call my own, endlessly elaborating on it. I'd go nuts!)

Law and arbitration is going to be problematic. The Mediaeval Icelandic parliament is said to have started each session with a recitation of the legal code; any law that no sitting legislator could remember was deemed to have passed beyond the sunset. This is thus shown to work, after a fashion, for non-literate societies up to a mediaeval level. However, reliance on memory means that a case-law system simply can't develop, except in the sketchiest of ways. (On the third hand, though, one might expect the accounts of witnesses in such a memory-based society to be more detailed, if not more accurate, than what we've become used to.)

Economics is going to be even worse. Pace Graeber, money may have originated as a tally mechanism inside temple grain stores: you can't eat gold, so it serves as a persistent token representing so many sheaves of wheat or ewes or whatever that the temple has received on your behalf. Money represents a debt. But without hard records outside of someone's head, how do we agree on exchanges of fair value? There are possible work-arounds, such as using an impartial third party as an arbiter, or using gift-giving rather than purchase-buying, but they probably don't scale well.

As for engineering, I think they'd have to rely on models and finger-in-the-sand sketches. You can get quite a long way with that; I live on the top floor of an apartment building where about 80% of the builders would have been illiterate when they constructed it. (Admittedly without electricity, plumbing, or central heating at the time of construction, circa 1829.) You might get low-pressure walking beam steam engines, but I don't think you'd be able to build high pressure steam engines (and thereby prime movers) without being able to mess around with the ideal gas law and do heat transfer calculations—it's too dangerous (the failure mode is an explosion and your research notes are mortal), and if you build in conservative margins of error on stuff like the boiler wall thickness you'll end up with it weighing too much to be useful.

The lack of steam traction means agricultural productivity will remain geared against human and animal labour: by our standards, it's very labour-intensive indeed. I don't see the lack of writing as precluding the development of things like threshing machines—and in related industries, the Spinning Jenny and the weaving loom—but lack of motive power and recording technology may prevent more complex derivatives (such as the Jacquard card-controlled loom). Clothing is going to stay expensive for a long time here. In general devices which have hidden dependencies on high pressure engineering aren't going to be readily available: I'm guessing the sewing machine, developed in the mid-19th century, would in principle be possible but mass production of standardized steel needles and precision components would make them inaccessible.

... This is as far as the discussion got in email, before my wife came in and made a key observation: sound recording tech is something you can do entirely mechanically. Think in terms of hand-cranked wax cylinder recorder or dictaphone: such a device is functionally equivalent to writing, albeit bulky, slow to absorb (spoken narrative is about a third to half the speed of reading), and still requiring transcription costs. Wax cylinders won't last forever, but they're easy enough to re-record by someone memorizing the "text" in five minute segments and reciting from memory. And if wax isn't good enough, there were early forms of plastic (casein polymerized with formaldehyde?) that date to the early-19th century and don't require advanced chemistry which might do as a shellac alternative in mass use, if indeed shellac itself isn't available.

So, if we permit audio recording as a possibility (but not writing as such) we then have the derivative question: can a civilization develop to wax cylinder reorders in the absence of writing? (Note that this technology is not trivial: it depends on reduction gearing, probably an escapement mechanism, and some degree of precision engineering. It also almost certainly depends on your being able to deliver division of labour which is itself a question of economics and resource allocation which, under conditions of expensive information storage, is problematic.) And, if that isn't a leap too far, how much further can you bootstrap your technological civilization if you can do some audio reording? And what will such an a-literate climax society look like?



I'm thinking of two elements of Snow Crash:

(1) the variant computers in the novel's frame story: elaborate series of water-locks and/or physical chains that serve as enormous logic gates, and

(2) the postulated ability to override people's brains and make them perform rote and ritualistic behavior

Picture a huge ancient temple complex, like Göbekli Tepe, with dozens or even hundreds of acolytes all reciting what they've been trained to recite, in shifts 24/7, with higher-ranking priests switching them "on" or "off" whenever it's useful, allowing for complex concatenations and long strings of useful (or conditionally useful) information. The "temple" is a huge, chattering library, a permanent storehouse of old knowledge (the acolytes) and potentially new knowledge (the priests).

It makes for a cool image in a science fiction story (especially when you add the selectively-bred talking parrots and the big prayer wheels that work--as you said--like wax cylinders) but I don't know if it's actually feasible.


One of the societal changes that you haven't covered for a memory-based society is the way the society's language would evolve to optimise information density with respect to time, either by relying on abbreviations and contractions for even complex ideas, or by having two-emerson systems, where one remembers the information and another acts as the decoder, kinda like string encoding/decoding.

A decentralised system might also come into place --- think not of humans as books but monasteries as effectively a human hypertext system, with people who know the base overview of topics and can point effectively to people with a greater understanding. Text persistence is beneficial, but you can also edit the text much easier when it's a human remembering it than you can a book. Combined with the linguistic shift, this can increases information storage quite a bit, and could lead to local monastery-wikis becoming the de facto records offices.

You'd have high populations, with everyone encouraged to have as many children as possible --- having a large population is useful because excess numbers are no longer a net drain on resources, they're providing memory.


If you could make the "clay phonograph" scheme work, you could use flywheels and some kind of super-fine porcelain instead of wax cylinders.


I don't think you'd need an accurate reduction gear. You'd get lots of "wow" but that wouldn't keep it from being understandable. Keeping the speed "about right" would be a readily learned skill.


I remember reading once that tallies were one of the cores to herding. That when you put your flock out into the commons, they needed a way to see everyone got their sheep, or at least an equivalent number, back. The trouble was that between liars, fools, confusion, and just plain losing count at the end of the day, this was really hard to do. So the solution was to move the counting to collecting - that for every one sheep that was put into the field, one pebble was added to your pile. And at the end of the day you got one sheep for every pebble. The problem is this backdoors in writing.

There is a similar workaround for this and the temple grain issue. Both are centered around an idea of property rights. Just chuck that out and have your society follow something akin to some of the native american models of collective stewardship and familiar arbitration. Looking at the Iroquois and several pacific NW corridor cultures it appears that scales to the 1000-10000 people at least, and that clusters of these economies can live alongside and interact with each other without needing record-keeping for trade between the groups.


I don't know whether you would count a purely pictorial representation as derailing - no, I do NOT mean hieroglyphs, which obviously are, but something that is to flow-charts as hieroglyphs are to one-stroke-per-item counts. In particular, where the primitives do NOT represent phonemes, syllables or words. There have been attempts to go there, for real, when designing fully GUI programming interfaces, but none have managed to get beyond the simplest of scripting. That would probably be feasible, but I lack the imagination to complete such a design.


The one thing I can offer that's relevant factually is that years ago I edited, for Historia Mathematica, a paper on a "calculating prodigy" in the ante-bellum South—he might have actually been before the War of Independence, but I can't easily check that with current resources. Anyway, he was a plantation slave, and illiterate. But he could multiply two sixteen-digit numbers in his head. This wasn't "lightning calculator" as sf writers have mythologized it (Andrew Jackson Libby in Heinlein's fiction, for example); it took him several days—but he was able to retain all the digits for all those days, while doing various physical chores. I don't know if there actually are any "lightning calculators," but one form of calculating prodigy seems to be a person with an amazing and specialized memory.

It doesn't appear that all African-born slaves could do this sort of thing! But the article suggested that these abilities grew out of West Africa having some active mercantile cultures without written forms of the indigenous languages: there was a need to calculate and it had to be done mentally.


"Here's your Mark 3 gizmo. And this is Caitlin, who is going to teach you the Operator's Song."


A more drastic approach is that thinking about mathematics does NOT need an external notation. Many, perhaps most, natural mathematicians can/will reason about concepts that they have no notation for, and will assign a notation only as they start formalising their ideas. I don't know how many of the major developments in mathematics started like that, but I suspect it is a great many.

A related point is that the principles tend to be very compact compared to the details, so that teaching newcomers would be (and sometimes is) quite feasible without a written notation. Note that is specifically for mathematics, and not the main sciences, which require a lot more knowledge of facts. Similarly, quite a few people can perform mental arithmetic of quite sufficient accuracy for Victorian engineering, let alone steam engines. Yes, you would have assume excellent memories for the intermediate and overall results, but there are a fair number of people with those, and they're really quite common in the official recorders of pre-literate societies.

So a society of natural mathematicians, with appropriate memories, could certainly advance a very long way with no form of written record at all.


There is the Inca solution of knotted ropes (as someone else also pointed out on Twitter). If I recall correctly, these were read by touch, not unlike Braille. Unlike Braille, they were not developed from a visual, written language.

Not all communication is verbal: perhaps dance or music is used as a form of communication, coding, and memorization.


You might want to do a bit more reading up about the Druids. Even their enemies attested to their ability to remember vast quantities of poetry (and we're talking Homeric, 'Iliad'-length poems), law, and natural science. They were the arbiters in legal disputes at every level, from domestic to inter-tribal. There were druidical colleges with thousands of students, where 20 years of study was typical enough to be mentioned by Caesar.

All of which is just to point out that many of the possible limitations you mention, from law, to trade, didn't apply to the Druidical civilization of Britain, Ireland and Gaul in the pre-Roman period. The Celts of that time were technologically advanced for the period, with road systems across the continent. They certainly weren't the hairy barbarians of Roman propaganda.

Now, they weren't ignorant of writing; many Classical writers point out that the Druids were familiar with Greek writing, and used it... just not for anything they deemed important.

So, a Druidical culture, able to use abaci for calculations, able to memorize vast quantities of information, with schools churning out large numbers of trained lawyers, diplomats, economists, astronomers, and the like...


I used to be able to do that sort of thing, though my limit was lower (somewhere in the 5-8 range) and my time much faster. I once extracted the cube root of a number to 5 digits in my head while having drinks with friends, because they claimed that I couldn't. Now that I am getting old, with too ready an access to computers for too long, I can't do more than 2 (maybe 3) digit mental calculations while doing physical activities. It's not an uncommon skill for mathematicians of my era.


Is cash a form of writing?


You know that Chinese writing started as pictorial? How could you do it without writing, which Charlie forbade? I'm assuming etching on wet clay tablets, or even with a stick in the dirt will count as writing.

Now I'm wondering about some sort of sign language. Would muscle memory allow recall of long texts, like a guitar player playing a long piece from memory?


Also, I'm assuming that drawing and painting are out.


Proxy-money can do a lot of bookkeeping for you.

Imagine you have a "bank" (probably a religious temple) where they hold tokens representing the money you own.

If you buy something, you tell them to move X tokens from your pile to the sellers pile, once the seller is advised thereof, you get your goods.

The thing about proxying money is that you almost automatically get escrow as a side effect, which again eliminates a lot of kinds of book-keeping.


It would be fascinating to consider further impacts this religious prohibition would have on society.

Given that pictographs are a form of writing, it seems reasonable to assume the prohibition extends to pictures of any form. It may be based on "pictures are a form of creation, which is reserved unto God". No statues, no cave paintings... artistic expression is found only in nature, and artists find the best vantage point to observe that expression ('sit here and look there...').

Heretics may draw with a stick in the sand, knowing it will be washed away by the tide (tacitly permitted as evidence that God washes away anything created by man). Temporary marks are frowned upon, but permitted. Nothing permanent, because that's creation.

Without these means of expression could we even formulate thoughts complicated enough to form speech? How would pre-speech hominids record their stories without pictures?

I guess this would mean that the prohibition came in later, and the old cave paintings would be evidence of our fallen state and mankinds growth into grace.

Without leaving "permanent marks" would a complicated machine even be visualisable, mentally?


As a couple of others people have mentioned, both language type and songs could come into play.

Language type - I don't know how various languages compare for information density, but I do know that some are better than others for error correction. In a world without writing, it would be fair to assume that language would evolve or be forcibly altered to have high data capacity and strong error-correction.

Songs. I can't memorise many passages accurately, but I can memorise hundreds of songs with far greater accuracy. Throw in some kind of dance to reinforce the memory - a form of error correction - and you have a great density of information and actions bound together with one correcting errors in another.

I suppose that in this world instead of having highly regarded scribes you would have highly regarded songwriter/choreographers. We wouldn't reach the current level of technical achievement by the year 2016, but I don't see society having the same issues with homosexuality.


I'm thinking it's probably impossible to get from to a technological society from scratch without writing. Removing the "from scratch" requirement creates some interesting possibilities, though - imagine a pre-technological society uplifted to have eidetic memories and the aforementioned wax cylinder method for intergenerational transmission of information, and you're off to the races! For bonus points, have the transmission method be musical, preferably in the form of inhuman piping and drumming.


That was why I queried it at the start. However, you have missed my point. I do know that history but, from the start, Chinese pictures represented things that could also be represented by words or phrases (and I do mean exactly that). I am specifically talking about a pictorial representation that is NOT a language in the linguistics sense. Inter alia, it would be fundamentally non-linear and would NOT be directly expressible in speech.


As you say, Britain before the Romans was quite advanced (especially socially) - how on earth did they organise the building of Stonehenge, assuming at most 10% (probably less) surplus effort, and with no centres larger than a decent sized village? They assuredly must have had good communications.


I've actually found myself wondering whether the original prohibition will include things like Ogham, Inca tally ropes...


Putting the phonograph idea to one side, my instincts are about the same as yours; I think you could get, technologically, to about the level of the canals but not the railways. James Brindly was, after all, barely literate by today's standards.

But I wonder if, without writing, you could have the legal and commercial framework necessary to reach that level of infrastructure: it was, essentially, the invention of the joint stock company and the ability to do complex compulsory purchase activities under an Act of Parliament that made the UK national canal network possible. Without those you might manage a Bridgewater, but not a Grand Junction, Trent and Mersey or Leeds and Liverpool.

So I think you'd stall somewhere around where Britain was between about 1700 and 1800 (which covers a heck of a lot of change), but exactly where along that depends more on what is possible in laws and commerce rather than on actual technological abilities.


I am thinking that language will split into dialects and then separate languages based on subject area.

The Mining language is very detailed and concise when talking about ores, geology, and refining processes, but rather vague and slow when discussing other matters.

The Metalworking Language is a dialect of Mining, but with a different emphasis.

The Shipbuilding language derives from a creole of Metalworking and Carpentry, and Sailing is a distant dialect of it.

The Merchant language is rather different from others, but is a dialect of the Law language.

Farming and Medicine are connected, and so on.

I think you are going to get a very strong caste system in this world, because of the language differences and the bodies of wisdom that are known but not understood. Things are done a certain way because it works well, but no one really knows why it does, and why a plausible sounding alternative won't work out in the long run.

So innovation in this society will be very slow, and interdisciplinary work almost impossible.

And the people who will end up on top will be the middlemen, just as in our world. The people who know how to talk to the different castes and coordinate things are vital and use that position to benefit themselves.

Looking at this, I think I am reinventing Niven and Pournelle's Moties without the splitting into subspecies part. There's a bit in The Gripping Hand where we see that the Master caste's power is not from charisma or will to power, but to the fact that they can partially understand all the different castes' ways of thinking and synthesize solutions.


What do we do about signage? No street signs, adverts or maps. How does a visitor to a new town of any size get from one place to another? A guild of local guides at the gates?

No device has labels of any kind, including indicators with any notion of scale. How does one know at what speed to crank the clay phonograph? I suppose practice gets you there eventually, at some cost in learning speed and failed disks.

How do we track the time of day with any precision? Do we really expect every society to divide the day into the same number divisions? Do we even agree on the number base(s) for time keeping?


How essential was writing in managing large irrigation systems in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, etc?


If you have to ask, then you should assume it's banned as derailing/rules lawyering.


Maybe use representative objects? An old withered apple on a post means this is the road to Appletown, and that it is one day's walk. Two apples means two days, etc.

The problem here is when this system starts turning into a writing system. Maybe it is blasphemous to create symbols of things God created, but fine to use a real object. So a picture of an apple or a carved apple is forbidden, but using a real apple is OK, even if has gotten old and shriveled up.

Or is that still just a cumbersome form of writing?


What do we do about signage? No street signs, adverts or maps. How does a visitor to a new town of any size get from one place to another? A guild of local guides at the gates?

Same thing you do in China: stop and ask someone.

Harry Turtledove had his traders doing the same thing in Greece in the Hellenic Traders series: paying a local an obol for directions to the agora.


Whilst wondering if abacuses count as writing (yes I suspect) and googling the complexity of the calculations they might support I came across the concept of Visual abacuses. It seems reasonable to assume that any non-writing society would develop strong cultural adaptions for developing advanced mathematics without writing, such that even an average member of such a society would be very strong at such tasks compared to us.

I'm also reminded of Cherryh's Foreigner series where the local Aliens have highly developed mental arithmetic because their language and culture has a strong numerological component.

I could see a non-writing society developing along similar lines.


Since memorizing skills will be widespread, maybe complex directions will be done as a poem or song? So you pay someone to sing the route from the market square to the royal palace a couple of times, until you have it down well enough to remember it the rest of the afternoon?


Well there is no indication that the Greater Zimbabwae kingdom had a written system (or otherwise like the Inca), and we know that the Nok culture was part of that and that they definitely didn't have writing - instead a very strong oral tradition where skills and advanced knowledge was maintained and passed on by organizations we would consider a cross between a guild, caste, and political party.

Unfortunately we don't have a lot of details past that owing to the destruction of imperialism and the lack of any written record to go on.

But at a minimum you can get an iron age civilization able to engage in a decent sized trade network.


One possible area of technology that might be able to develop would be biology with selective breeding.

If a non-written method of determining and remembering which animal's or plants are better than others was developed (maybe just physical segregation) it might be possible to identify the basic principles behind animal breeding (reliably identify better than average individuals and breed them), assuming peoples memories are good enough to remember small changes.

With out math progress would be slow but by physically partitioning animals or plants that show useful traits (grow quicker, are bigger than average, have softer fur/hair) you may be able to drive agriculture and horticulture quite far.

It does make me wonder though can the scientific method exist with out writing?


My mind is stuck on the question: to what extent can tools (and other systems) be constructed so that they demonstrate themselves? Loosing knowledge and knowledge retention are obviously a problem in this world. If your carpenters, weavers, blacksmiths etcetera all die in the latest plague could their tools be designed for obvious and simple use so that relearning was easier?

As an example: organise the smithy so that all the relevant tools are chained to the floor in the order your would need them.

This sort of thing isn't going to be universally possible but it might help.


I don't think you'd get our pattern of development at all. You'd maybe get something Inca-ish where some genius produced an effective brief summation of applying selection and there was a lot of selective plant breeding and the resulting food surplus leads to masonry walls and textiles, but you'd be seeing selective breeding for fibre colours rather than coal-tar dyes, sort of thing.

If you can have a trammel and calipers -- both very simple to make useful approximations of -- to go with your compass and straightedge, you can transfer measurements without ever writing them down. (This is in fact prefered in a lot of applications; measurement introduces errors. One of the applications is casting patterns.) So you could certainly make a watermill or a ship that way, with potter's wheels and pole lathes in support, and the folk process in mechanism is a well-attested historical thing. You probably invent the pantograph and start collecting mechanism-models somewhere, too. Certainly you can get a good forge blower and have steel cutting edges. You've definitely got a long apprenticeship, and you probably have to arrange copying rights from an existing mill if you want a new mill, but I can easily see getting the Shire this way -- mills, machine spinning, machine weaving, steel-tire buggy wheels, steel plows, nails but not screws, water transport, and canals, but no steam engines; diverse and location-specific crops, stable population -- without having to get law much out of custom.

The thing about the writing prohibition in general is that the polity that comes up with a workaround and successfully applies it has a huge organizational advantage over one that doesn't. (As is historically well-attested.) So how a writing prohibition persists is a difficult question. ("religion" started off as "accounting and taxation system" and rapidly had to add "laws"; having a religion suppress the organizational advantage of having a religion is conceptually challenging.) Early methodological naturalism with no writing seems even more unlikely. So I'd be forced to suppose there are killer satellites in orbit, and anything that even looks like writing gets obliterated.

("Oh, no no no, our galactic empire never commits genocide. Humane application of technological restrictions may sometimes be applied in circumstances where a particular population demonstrates an inability to co-exist peacefully with their galactic neighbours...")


Wrote this immediately after reading Charlie’s first paragraph because a fairly clear picture popped into my head. But upon resuming Charlie’s post … my idea is a lot more alien than Charlie’s probably looking for. Even so, I kinda like it. Fun question/exercise!

Lego-like components that can be combined into a physical library showing where and how each component fits. Limitation is the species’ sensorium and environment as in: what can be used to identify each component and arrangement that can signify the meaning/end result of each arrangement of components. Physical representations might be easier to build/comprehend. Psychosocial would require some form of iconology – representing the individual, social place/function, their attributes, and their range of functions (behaviors) and consequences.

Sensorium – assume same suite and range as humans, i.e. the big five (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) plus all of the other more subtle senses (proprioception, temperature, position, etc.). This means that the ‘writing/alphabet’ could be any form/format and combination of the working senses. Which sense/form is best would depend on the overall distribution of ability to use that sense. (If only a small fraction of the population can see, it’s pointless to use an alphabet that relies on vision. Ditto for hearing, i.e., using song, poetry, etc. if hardly anyone can hear or stay in key, as well as for smell/taste if hardly anyone can distinguish various smells/flavors, or touch if the species has little to no ability to distinguish shapes, textures, rigidity/softness/pliability of materials. Note: If the species has similar capability across all of the senses, then their potential ‘alphabet’ can be almost limitless because then it would be possible to make combinations of any number of senses and components within each sense.

How to make the alphabet last/endure for more than a few minutes/years/millennia, that is, fix this ‘writing’ in place while at the same time allowing individuals of the species to read/access this would require some effort. No idea unless this is the challenge for the evolution of their technology. (For us, it’s mostly scale … for this species, it’s time limitation of their sensorial representations.) Key challenge: How do you maintain the taste, fragrance of something made up of five different sensory attributes including taste/smell? You’d have to freeze it, thaw it out to smell/taste it, then refreeze the whole thing when you check the ‘book’ back into the library. But this means some of the encoded/written information gets lost each time you do this. (Bottling or canning could also work.)

How do you encode complex information and/or create and record new information? Via Lego-like toys. All kiddies learn their building block ABCs. As they progress through school, new types and patterns of building blocks get added to their lexicons. Research articles are ‘written’ and distributed to those who need to know via an elaborate series of Lego-like components showing all of the stages of the proof. (Key advantage of this system is that the proof is done in the making of the copies for distribution. No retractions - ever! Ditto for lying/cheating.)

Money – as per human history would require a mix of sizes, types and shapes in order to determine value. But, if this society has portable knowledge toys/representations, and everyone wore their wealth with them at all times, then one of the ways to signify social/educational standing would be by ‘scaling down’. But you’d also need a gizmo (magnifying glass/microscope) to prove that all of these minute trinkets were real. Intricacy of design/very small scale has figured as an indicator of social position in our own history – pretty well most consumer-targeted technology. Re: Paying taxes, bartering for goods/services … as in our history/society, a number of items/tokens can be designated as universal trade tokens. The specific type/nature of ‘coinage’ is not really material – what matters is the control of its access, physical stability, portability, and widespread usability/utility/desirability.

The above takes this culture/species up to the industrial era. Once industrialization is widespread, new completely novel and unrelated technologies can be created. Assuming one of the new technologies is like our computers/IT, then communication and money get ‘reduced’ to ones and zeroes. The hardware would probably be more challenging to create in a full-sensorium culture.


I am specifically talking about a pictorial representation that is NOT a language in the linguistics sense. Inter alia, it would be fundamentally non-linear and would NOT be directly expressible in speech.

Yes, I apparently missed your point, but your explanation makes no sense to me. My point is that Pictorial Representation = drawing/writing, which I assume is not allowed in this discussion.


I must admit I find myself wondering just how limited we would be.

We currently organise our knowledge into prose books and chapters, and at a higher level into papers and journals and we write in prose. But we transmit, in universities, a lot of that knowledge in oral form - lectures and tutorials and in practicals - supplemented with written material. And students revise for exams, some of them at least, by converting that prose content in rhythmic structures and mnemonics. I can still remember a big chunk of the mnemonics I learnt over 30 years ago and in a completely different field to the one I'm working in now.

Likewise, people can learn poetry and songs with higher fidelity than prose. They rhyme and meter give extra structure and make memorising it easier.

So what would happen if we didn't have writing? Well, I'd suggest we'd have our knowledge organised differently and we'd have poems of our natural laws, of our rules of thumb for civil engineering and so on. We built a lot of big, impressive structures with illiterate workforces after all.

I think communication becomes the limiting factor, not memory. And not communication to your neighbour but I can't see how a community like this one would work, and even things like the Catholic Church become tricky I suspect. The ability to issue a Papal Bull, have it sent out, copied to all the cardinals, copied and distributed to all the churches etc. was pretty important. That would be slower at best. But I'd imagine you'd comfortably get to somewhere late medieval and I could imagine possibly into Victorian technologies, some of them at least. It's things where you start to need massive collaborative efforts or regularly integrating discoveries from across the globe rapidly I think it starts to fall apart.

I might be wrong: in particular lack of maths without notation might prove to be a tighter limit than that. Although if you have counting with stones, you might get to the abacus and if it's a religions prohibition on written records be allowed to do higher maths on the abacus on the grounds that you pick it up, tip it and destroy the record: there's no permanence.


This question interests me for two separate reasons. First, as an observant Jew, I'm subject to this no-writing restriction once every seven days. But I'm part of a religion that's deeply committed to rules-lawyering. Second, I work in information theory, so am very interested in all the different and fundamentally equivalent ways information can be represented and stored.

But for both those reasons, I'm still struggling to understand the exact parameters of Charlie's question. I'm not trying to derail, but to get a clearer understanding of the intended constraints.

Starting at the end, what distinction is being drawn between (permissible) audio recording and (forbidden) writing? Wax cyclinder/phonograph recordings use shaped lines to represent information---information that you can recover by reading if your eyesight is good enough ( ) so what distinction is being drawn from writing? You suggest sound recording as OK if it is "entirely mechanical". But what distingusihes that from cuneiform which is just etching grooves in a tablet instead of a wax cylinder. Presumably the issue is what shapes are being etched---wavy lines on a wax cylinder versus glyphs in a tabler. But what about the Khipu and abacus mentioned in earlier comments? These seem much "safer" in that they involves no lines at all; instead the represent information via the rearrangement of discrete physical elements.

And this really opens up a whole can of worms (would arranging the worms in a specific way count as writing?). You can assign semantics to almost any physical arrangement and, having done so, provide a manipulable storage medium. You worry about how to run an economy without writing but there are ways that an economy can be writing: if I have a dollar bill that represents a one, while 4 quarters represent a zero. Now I can write by making change. Is sculpture permitted? I can represent many bits of information in a shape. I can store information in a forest by deciding which trees to cut down. I can write crop mazes.

There's a general reversal possible. Virtual reality/sim city/second life requires a lot of digital storage because you need a huge amount of information to fully convey an environment. But if you turn that around, any environment contains a huge amount of information. So any environment that leaves you free to make choices about its arrangement immediately becomes a potential repository of information.

So one consistent interpretation would rule out any manipulation of the physical world intended to store information in it. You can chop a tree for firewood but not for memory. But this would of course exclude your phonograph as well so it seems this isn't what you are aiming for. And it might even exclude money, since that can be seen as storing information about who owes what to whom.

Another interesting angle is painting or photography. This creates a clear visual record of something that happened. Might this "exact copying" be ok, even if (necessarily imprecise) "description" in writing is forbidden? You could imagine a treaty being "signed" by having someone make a picture of all the parties gathered together and holding hands. Ownership could be recorded by a picture of the owner with their property. Scientific experiments could be recorded as pictoral storyboards---we're starting to see something like that now as a new approach to science ( ).


You know that Chinese writing started as pictorial?

As did ours, via the Phoenician branch of early Northwest Semitic. (Alpha/A started out as the head of an ox. Likewise א , though it got there via a slightly different path.)


Careless reading, I guess, but what popped into my mind was a post-literate society. E.g., everyone has built in links into the general flow of thought, rather like the web, but not literary. Audio, visual, kinesthetic, etc. provided via link, so none of the translation that you get in literature.

It still seems quite unlikely, but possible.

FWIW, I don't think phonographs are a problem, but I'm no expert. Wax isn't ideal, because it doesn't set well, so use, say, lacquer that hasn't set yet. They're still going to scratch quite easily, so multiple copies are problematic. OTOH, you can do a lot with "rule of thumb" and an apprenticeship system. You could probably get beyond late midieval...but not far beyond. Architects drawings feel like a cheat, as there's too much intermediate translation. (To me that is the essence of writing: a complex system of translation from one system into another. So phonographs aren't cheats, but figurative, as opposed to realistic, drawings are edging into the borderline. Otherwise you'd allow pictographic languages.)


Tattoos - how to carry and demonstrate your knowledge/social standing with you to your grave.

Burial customs could include the preservation through mummification of especially learned sages to ensure that their wisdom could be used by future generations.


Someone at Metafilter mentioned Panini, who wrote a huge and highly sophisticated grammar of Sanskrit centuries before Indian writing developed. So a scholarly work can definitely be created and memorized.

The obvious non-writing civilization is the Incas... only it's not really, because they could write numbers. Quipus are basically spreadsheets. (That is, they contain multiple levels of summation.) By the way, #10, though the numbers could be read by touch, the strings could not: they were color-coded.

I recall from Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read that Copernicus's book was very heavy mathematics for its time, something readers had to work through. It's hard to picture this, or calculus, or the use of logarithms, without any notation system at all.

If pictures are allowed, you could do a lot of math-- this pictorial version of Euclid is a starting point. (It includes words, but that could perhaps be fixed.)

Where the idea really breaks down, I think, is with computers. Programs are writing. (If you had speech recognition you could use those wax cylinders... but how do you write the speech recognition program?)


Are toys like dolls allowed? Little scale models of things?

Scale models are very useful in building, especially if you don't get to have written records, so if they are prohibited that limits the tech you can develop — but they would be pretty easy to convert into de facto physical records.

Given how often representational art shows up in the archaeological record, I'm thinking it would take more than a religion to not have physical records of some kind.

Harry Harrison had his intelligent Yilanè use bioengineered creatures as recording devices in West of Eden


I agree that the easiest way to imagine this is a religious prohibition on writing. But this creates two questions..

  • What is writing? if it's the encoding/preservation of information outside the human brain then knotted strings and voice recording wax cylinders also fall foul of this commandment. If the prohibition extends to encoded instructions then even if society progressed far enough I can foresee the great Walschaerts valve gear schism - any sufficiently complex mechanical system is indistinguishable from an encoded instruction set.

  • How is the religious commandment itself stored and communicated? - how accurate is oral history over prolonged periods of time?

  • Assuming these questions prove trivial and maintaining the requirement that no permanent record outside the human mind is permitted you're left with a combination of show-and-tell and an oral communicated tradition. Encoding the oral tradition in song/chant may help with accuracy over time, and show-and-tell begins to resemble an apprentice/acolyte type of education system. Combine the two and you've a fairly monastic system of technological development.


    Clearly :-) But your point is incorrect, as applied to what I was thinking of; what I am thinking about is further away from any known reading and writing than speech on a phonograph record is. Anyway, I will post further only if OGH asks me to, and I would probably have to create a very simple picture to help people understand.


    No writing at all hobbles mathematics hard, which in turn hobbles.. well, everything. So "not very far at all". Individual prodigies might be able to do fairly impressive feats in their heads, but such talent would not be reliably available, so, basically, stuck in a not-very-advanced iron age social and economic structure at best.

    It's so onerous a stricture that I think it's just inherently going to fall away really rapidly unless enforced by an outside agent of extreme power - This only works as a religious prohibition if there's an actual deity enforcing it.


    A pediatric hospital gives their hem-onc patients beads as a way of recording their 'patient journey'. Using color, shape and size, the entire course of therapy is recorded.


    That's a bad example because you are taking one of the politically-motivated histories as the whole truth; we simply don't know whether there was any direct or indirect Eurasian influence in its establishment. Also, as a trading empire, it might have imported technology as well as artifacts. Lastly, the culture from which it sprang was technologically fairly advanced, possibly even as much as it was.


    As a somewhat rusty mathematician, I really don't understand why the lack of writing should hobble mathematics particularly hard. Even now, I still do a lot of my mathematical thinking (and I don't mean just arithmetic) purely mentally. Similarly, I have never noticed mathematicians reaching for paper etc. any more than any other specialists when having problems explaining something.


    Yeah Do pictograms count? Are pretty pictures of what you are doing/expect others to do count as writing? um

    Immediate possibility of religious war & schism RIGHT THERE, isn't there! How nice.


    DB @ 13 YES Now what?


    Parrots. Parrots are the new scratch paper.

    They will certainly be the most valuable domesticated animals, and with selective pressure from directional breeding, they might grow to have very impressive memorization abilities. Of course, depending on biological limits and the task at hand, different species might be used at different times.

    Further, communication would be biased towards maximum information compression. Imagine a society that communicated entirely in zen koans, for example.


    NO Numbers / counting / arithmetic is WRITING So all the "No-writing technological development" is more bullshit. NOT going to work


    Chinese writing is the last hurrah of cuneiform. Surely you knew that?


    I think we need to ask the Butlerians (Frank Herbert) how they got on?

    Seriously, the answer to Charlies' question is ... NO We can not build any sort of technological society without "writing"


    From what I recall from the above book, the use of symbols had a measurable effect on algebra.

    While all of us regularly use basic math symbols such as those for plus, minus, and equals, few of us know that many of these symbols weren't available before the sixteenth century. What did mathematicians rely on for their work before then? And how did mathematical notations evolve into what we know today? In Enlightening Symbols, popular math writer Joseph Mazur explains the fascinating history behind the development of our mathematical notation system. He shows how symbols were used initially, how one symbol replaced another over time, and how written math was conveyed before and after symbols became widely adopted. Traversing mathematical history and the foundations of numerals in different cultures, Mazur looks at how historians have disagreed over the origins of the numerical system for the past two centuries. He follows the transfigurations of algebra from a rhetorical style to a symbolic one, demonstrating that most algebra before the sixteenth century was written in prose or in verse employing the written names of numerals. Mazur also investigates the subconscious and psychological effects that mathematical symbols have had on mathematical thought, moods, meaning, communication, and comprehension. He considers how these symbols influence us (through similarity, association, identity, resemblance, and repeated imagery), how they lead to new ideas by subconscious associations, how they make connections between experience and the unknown, and how they contribute to the communication of basic mathematics. From words to abbreviations to symbols, this book shows how math evolved to the familiar forms we use today.

    As long as we're on a math kick, this one is also worth looking at:

    The mathematics of ancient Egypt was fundamentally different from our math today. Contrary to what people might think, it wasn’t a primitive forerunner of modern mathematics. In fact, it can’t be understood using our current computational methods. Count Like an Egyptian provides a fun, hands-on introduction to the intuitive and often-surprising art of ancient Egyptian math. David Reimer guides you step-by-step through addition, subtraction, multiplication, and more. He even shows you how fractions and decimals may have been calculated—they technically didn’t exist in the land of the pharaohs. You’ll be counting like an Egyptian in no time, and along the way you’ll learn firsthand how mathematics is an expression of the culture that uses it, and why there’s more to math than rote memorization and bewildering abstraction.

    Reimer takes you on a lively and entertaining tour of the ancient Egyptian world, providing rich historical details and amusing anecdotes as he presents a host of mathematical problems drawn from different eras of the Egyptian past. Each of these problems is like a tantalizing puzzle, often with a beautiful and elegant solution. As you solve them, you’ll be immersed in many facets of Egyptian life, from hieroglyphs and pyramid building to agriculture, religion, and even bread baking and beer brewing.

    Fully illustrated in color throughout, Count Like an Egyptian also teaches you some Babylonian computation—the precursor to our modern system—and compares ancient Egyptian mathematics to today’s math, letting you decide for yourself which is better.


    Those are NOT what I mean and, no, numbers, counting and arithmetic are NOT necessarily writing - and nor is more advanced mathematics. The former are often taught purely verbally (I have done it), and I think that the latter could be, too. By, to and for natural mathematicians, of course.


    Does the Inquisition descend on workshops that maintain a stock of jigs, patterns and gauges? Those things can and do encode enormous amounts of information in quite unprepossessing-looking objects. More importantly, they can be chopied and traded, albeit that over much of history trade secrets and techniques were jealously guarded. Cooperation - and pooling of capital resources - in a local area can achieve quite a lot. The West Midlands got a long way into the early industrial revolution doing that sort of thing, largely motivated by the kind of religious thinking that also gave us the diggers and levellers. Most of them would have been illiterate, too.

    Without doing any serious thinking or research, I can't see it getting beyond early industrial revolution - static steam engines, canals and horse-drawn railways - without the heavily records-dependent early banking system and the capitalism it made possible.

    Within those limits you could get remarkably close to something that looks a lot like steampunk, though.


    It did. That wasn't and isn't my point.


    First off, if you consider writing a way of conveying knowledge from one head to another (and not a great one at that) then its loss just means other mechanisms take up the slack. In particular pictures would work particularly well, and since they predate words (cavemen) would probably be OK. Otherwise we have verbal pictures, audio pictures, architectural pictures, etc.

    In short, I think we could do quite well on that front.

    However, as an external mechanism for thinking, it might get a bit harder. It's well known you can hold 7 things in your head at once, max, so processing more becomes problematic. However, we have the example of Stephen Hawkings, who developed a mind picture way of working - so maybe the equivalent could be found in other disciplines. In short we could probably make do, though things would move slower.

    The more interesting question is turning it around and questioning what our existing way of working, including writing, makes it difficult to progress quickly with? Where are we held back by not having X?


    Not so sure that is a deal-breaker as such. A remarkable amount of innovation pre-dates even rudimentary experimental methods. Quite a lot of workshop engineering is just the result of centuries of incremental improvement with no real system to it.


    Incidentally, if there's a discussion somewhere of exactly how a religion powerful enough to forbid writing maintains itself across generations without written scripture and recorded theological excursus I'd appreciate a link because I'm really having trouble with this one, on further reflection.

    The one thing that a religious prohibition on writing would really hamstring - and then kick in the crotch while it was down, rifling its pockets and pulling its gold teeth for good measure - would be organised religion capable of enduring past a couple of generations. Even with written records, the modern big religions are completely unrecognisable to their first ever converts...


    You're off-topic.

    If you want to wonder how it's enforced, consider the question as being set on another planet far, far away where an immortal alien being with godlike omniscience smites anyone it notices trying to invent writing.

    In other words, it's an external artificial constraint, not an emergent property of the society it's set in.


    Interesting, as discussed on another thread here, I read about 1,500 wpm. So puns escape me, I don't even see the letters, words are recognised on some symboligical level, so I can't even say words I have only read. Given that, I think that positive pressures would exist for odder mind types with eidetic memory or whatever, to thrive. Consequently, there might be far more potential for a civilisation to progress farther than would be obvious.


    I probably should have expected the Alien Space Bat Inquisition...

    More seriously, the obvious off-topic-ness is why I asked about discussion elsewhere. I felt I ought to raise the point, however, because a thing that often escapes the outgrown-such-silly-supersitions crowd is that religion is a technology in itself, and one that is quite useful to humans in ways we don't fully understand at this point. If it wasn't useful, religion wouldn't be as endemic to the human condition as commensal rats.


    Audio recordings on wax cylinders and the like can be deciphered by eye if the student spends enough time looking at a recording as well as listening to it. They will almost certainly be able to "read" parts of it as individual speech fragments given time and effort. The same recording could be learned by several generations of "readers" over time.

    It's not quite the same thing but I recall seeing a TV report on someone who could identify vinyl recordings of classical music pieces by the pattern on the disc. In some cases he could recognise a pressing of a particular recording if it was one he had seen before, in other rarer cases he could identify the work on first sight from the pattern's structure which represented volume, musicality, periods of silence etc.


    In fact, if you're externally imposing a constraint on the use of writing, you're making religion as we currently know it more or less impossible. The religion of such a society really would look like the druidical system mentioned upthread: a religion which insists on oral tradition and memory for anything religiously important. We don't know about such religious traditions because they have all been wiped out by religious traditions that did have written scripture. Indeed, some of the religions with written records - the Mayan one is the one that comes first to mind - got wiped out by religions with better-armed followers who extirpated all but their party traditions by burning their books. The Mayan scripture only survives in a spanish translation that survived by mere accident...


    Well, quipus may well have been about more than arithmetic, because there is at least one story from the Spanish occupation where an Inkan woman used available string to write out multiple messages to separate people, they were delivered, and then understood.

    Here's the thing we forget: writing requires paper or at least a flat surface. The reason the Inkans never got into it is because they didn't (and don't) have any decent paper surface. What they do have is lot and lots and lots of thread and string. They aren't the only people who learned how to store data on string (google "shepherd's tally") but they took it further than anyone else. The reason we can't read it is that we've lost the context. AFAIK, quipu knotting is a bit like XML code: it wasn't just about the knot, it was about the positions of knots on strings (which reportedly defined decimal numbers and/or proportions, depending on context), the color of the string, the material of the string (wool or cotton), even the direction it was spun. There's more than enough potential information bits there to cover any language. But as the story with the woman knotting out messages, it doesn't appear that things like color had fixed meanings. Like XML, they seemed to be defined in context. Since we don't have an intact quipu along with a translation of what it says, we can't figure out how they coded the information into the string.

    In any case, you can certainly use a quipu to build a civilization. You don't need pen and paper. Whether this qualifies or weasels out is up to you.


    Are cartoons too close to writing?


    The great breakthrough came with Thomas Tallis's work for 600 choral philosophers, the Principia in Dm. Later composers such as Charles Babbage with his Singing Engine ....

    extract ends


    I find it hard to speculate about this since any society facing similar constraints wouldn't leave much evidence about how they coped. Almost by definition, if there's evidence then it's not applicable. Though from the examples up-thread we know they can.

    Non-local finance would be complicated, though I suppose a messenger would travel as fast as a letter assuming travel by horses. I suppose the big question is could you sustain an infrastructure to support the work around with sufficient error and loss tolerance. And could you do it so a pack of less knowledge-oriented barbarians can't raze the city and kill all the book-monks. It's a non-trivial diversion of resources that might not pay-off in the right ways for survival.


    What exactly counts as writing, given how blurry the category can be? As noted above, what about accounting systems like quipu? Or the packets of clay tokens that eventually lead to cuneiform? Do pictographs like those in Lakota winter counts, uh, count?

    What about maps? The USSR used its military maps as a method of storing lots of data, even if you strip out all the Cyrillic. And would Marshallese stick charts count as maps?

    Also, the Phaedrus dialog needs to be quoted somewhere in this thread:

    O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.


    My first thought was: good luck with oceanic trade routes, having no trigonometric tables and log tables...

    ...And then I remembered that the Polynesians did very well indeed, and the Vikings were making good progress.

    The problem, as I see it, is the transmission of knowledge; and, in particular, of complex abstractions like (say) catenary arches, mass haul calculations, and the steam tables.

    A society lacking these things will definitely develop guilds (or explicitly hereditary skill-based castes) for the vertical transmission of practical knowledge - crafts and possibly the rudimentary analog calculations of a mediaeval master mason's models; but these organisations guard their secrets and do not transfer abstract concepts well at all.

    It's just possible that a calculators' guild would emerge: I note that they did not do so in mediaeval Europe, but I cannot rule them out in the enforced absence of recorded symbolic logic.

    The abacus would certainly exist; and it can be expanded with the use of increasingly-elaborate geometric tokens and 'carry' mechanisms into calculations that might just resemble calculus. But there are questions about the demand arising - would a craft guild seek outsiders for the task? - and how efficiently could lodges or temples of calculators transmit the concepts horizontally among each other?


    Self-modifying tally stick morris dances. Jacquard punched dance cards. Bell-ringing patterns as signals.


    The loss of such an important part of homo sapiens extended phenotype would inhibit humanity's development to that of the Olmecs, Toltecs and Mayans, if not worse.

    A sophisticated vocabulary would be hard to acquire without the written word, and conceptual thinking and pattern recognition that could not be expressed in pictorial form would die out. Cognition and information processing generally could not reach the level it has.

    In the west, the main storehouses of knowledge, of scientific invention even, were the monasteries, where at least someone would be able to write, and care for the books that had been written.

    I wonder what the precivilizational punishment for speech impediments and deafness would be.


    how efficiently could lodges or temples of calculators transmit the concepts horizontally among each other?

    Startlingly well, on the record. Or, alternatively, ignored completely. Horizontal transmission is one of those thing that, in the historical record, is enormously chance-dependent. It depends hugely on whether or not it's steam-engine time.


    I really don't know the Olmecs or Toltecs, but you do the Mayans a disservice: their records don't survive because they ran into a civilisation with more firepower, poor buggers.


    A further thought: I recall Neal Stevenson's Snow Crash with a peculiar idea of recursive storylines in ritually-retold legends performing an algorithm in the speech centres of the brain...

    Nothing so recondite from me!

    But I do believe the parables and founding legends taught to apprentices in Guilds - and still passed on in Freemasonry, with the Masons' tools representing principles of moral order - could be adapted and carefully-crafted to transmit extremely complex abstract knowledge by their structure and by riddles and analogies.

    Likewise, the visual arts: imagine, if you will, the peculiar figures of Surrealism and the Cubists being a visual code for the transmission of mathematical ideas. Start from where we're at today: imagine a surreal landscape that explained or illustrated General Relativity and curvature in spacetime, and 'wind it back' to illustrate ideas that are commonplace to us (like infinitesimals in calculus) but just as strange as relativity to mediaeval guildsmen.


    But I'm not sure how they'd explore reals, let alone algebra or calculus, in a notation-free environment.

    Suppose that people start thinking about how quantities change over time. For example, how hot does the sun feel at various times of day, or how many fish do you tend to catch at various points in the year. Some genius might then hit upon the idea of representing this by putting a string on a flat surface and bending it to make a picture of the changes. I think that's far enough from writing to be permissible, given that you're allowing counting on fingers and toes, and finger-in-the-sand sketches.

    From that, you can get area under the curve without ever needing writing. For example, by counting how many acorns or pieces of gravel you need to fill the space between your baseline and the string. That's a nice analogue way to get integration.

    Differentiation is only slightly more complex. Estimate the slope of your string at equally spaced points, then depict the results as a new curve.

    People with good visual memories, which everyone here seems to be assuming would develop, might be very good at constructing these curves from memorised images or feelings of the sun's heat or the number of fish caught. But even if not, my suggestion provides a way of representing the concepts.


    Everyone took the question literally.

    What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word?

    The term used was "side-step" the written word, not make it "forbidden."

    There are plenty of stories with aliens with no written or spoken language. Where everything is passed on by gestalt, and the humans making contact with those aliens find it impossible to more than guess at what the aliens are "saying."

    There are various aliens based on hydrogen in Cherryh? novels that people try not to piss off. Translation software offers a spectrum of possible meanings to their "communications", with best guesses that may only be close to their intent.

    Humans, as we know them now, are based on building narratives. So any "human" technological society without a written language would be based on transmitting gestalts using a system we would not understand.

    You would have the children grow up verbal, and only once they were stable adults become part of the collective mind trading gestalts. You could have a "tower of babble" event that shatters the collective mind, leaving a society that could only "speak as children" and all of the advanced knowledge is lost.

    That's an old, old, story that never gets old.


    I made a mistake there. My comment was a reply to OGH's original post, not to Dirk. Maybe the mod. could remove the "to this comment from Dirk Bruere" bit?


    The difficulty with getting non-savants to do mathematical calculations without writing might be overcome with advances in mechanical calculation.

    Cogs can do multiplication and division of angles.

    Trig functions can likewise be read off cogs.

    You can find the area under a curve by using the curve to control the flow of water into a container. The volume of water is the result.

    A balance scale may be used to divide and multiply a volume of water.

    Numbers can be encoded in lengths of string. Weighted graphs can be encoded in strings tied together.

    Numbers can be encoded in lengths of sticks. Sets of numbers stored in this manner can be sorted in O(1).

    CAM (and probably cams) can be employed to move numbers between storage media. A stick can be automatically cut to a length based on the weight of some water.

    With convention and practice, a skilled user could look at a sequence of such mechanisms and read the function that they calculate.


    I remember watching a program on hot housing infants (Glenn Doman applies) in which they showed that you can teach children to count "instantly" if you start young enough with the flash cards; they can make an accurate headcount of up to several score, while most of us would struggle beyond seven or eight dots on a page, given a single glance. Similarly, I was told that my Grandfather had memorised his log tables to three decimal places (he was a bookkeeper)

    My other thought is that our limiting factor on oral transmission is teacher-pupil ratio. For humans, this was traditionally one-to-very-few; and time bounded. The phonograph allows the storage of that knowledge; what if there is also the ability to broadcast one-to-many? Coupled with perfect recall? We're looking at this from a human perspective, but could a different brain chemistry result in a sophont better-conditioned to the problem?

    At which point you have to ask about the second-order issues. In a society where people have much-improved recall, what is the impact on behaviour? Would witness statements just "be accurate"? Would the concept of verbal deception be most heinous (dude), because it undermined society itself? Would alcohol or the equivalent be acceptable, because of their effect on brain function (see "undermine society")? What would the psychiatrists have to cope with, when everyone can remember every traumatic episode in their life, in terrifying detail? Would hierarchies develop according to strength of recall?

    :) How would personal relationships develop when neither of you forgets an anniversary or birthday? :)


    There are surviving examples of presumed contracts where a clay ball contains little clay figures and the ball has been sealed with the seals of the parties to the contract.

    Writing evolved out of this for good reasons -- not having to break the contract -- but if you can't write, you could do something with this sort of system. If you do it with a token-box and seals and there's a class of notaries who can re-seal things (or keep the token boxes, even better), you could make contracts work. Lots of potential arguments about whether that was a five-sheep token or a fifty-sheep token, or what the squashed looking token in the old contract is at all, but it could work.


    No writing does not mean notation-free; spoken language includes a lot of verbal notations. I can see how mathematics could be completely unwritten, but I can't think of a way that it could be notation-free. In your example, your use of string is a notation, or actually notations. As you may well know, quite a lot of school mathematics is taught using such visual notations - the ones you mention, Venn diagrams, distributivity etc., and there is no particular reason that they have to be written to be taught like that. Relating to one of my previous points, mathematicians tend to be quite good at visualisation and score highly on the visual parts of IQ tests.


    I would like links to sources to this, please. As part of my legal education I learned about the roman legal system which very much did depend on the written word. Contracts which don't depend on the written word - more complex than "I would like that chocolate bar in return for this money, please" at least - are something I have a particular interest in.


    Newtonian mechanics as developed by Newton was very geometric. I can see a reasonable chunk of it being sustainable even without writing, provided diagrams are allowed. Things would stall out when you start running into more detailed, post-Newton calculation and approximation techniques.


    Some of the discussion about mathematics here has reminded me, probably completely irrelevantly, of opening lines in H. Beam Piper's Time Crime.

    "And ten tens are a hundred," one of the clerks in blue jackets said, adding another stack to the pile of gold coins.

    "Nineteen hundreds," one of the pair in dirty striped robes agreed, taking a stone from the box in front of him and throwing it away. Only one stone remained. "One more hundred to pay."

    One of the blue-jacketed plantation clerks made a tally mark; his companion counted out coins, ten and ten and ten.

    Do stones and/or tally marks count as writing?


    The Statute of Frauds was passed in 1677, requiring that many types of important contracts be written (also wills). It seems a good guess that lack of writing would have been a major problem, commercially, by the late 17th century. Also, without charts and journals, the age of sail probably never would have taken off.


    Well, contracts are the leading hypothesis and this is Mesopotamian and old; thousands of years pre-Roman.

    Though there's some evidence it was a stable system for ~ 4 thousand years which isn't doing too badly.


    Similarly, I was told that my Grandfather had memorised his log tables to three decimal places (he was a bookkeeper) I can't remember them all, but I can remember the logs, sines, cosines and tangents that I commonly need, and similarly with the universal constants that I use most.


    You could imagine a treaty being "signed" by having someone make a picture of all the parties gathered together and holding hands. Ownership could be recorded by a picture of the owner with their property.

    ObSF: this was a custom in a novel by Melanie Rawn, contributing to their society's high regard for painters. The upper classes recorded notable events this way - both the things you mention and also dynastic marriages.

    It makes things interesting when forgery requires artistic skill, lots of oil paint, and ability to emulate the style of the Old Masters...


    Where the idea really breaks down, I think, is with computers. Programs are writing. (If you had speech recognition you could use those wax cylinders... but how do you write the speech recognition program?)

    While I don't see them getting to computers for other reasons, the programming and data storage problems aren't really show stoppers. Rather, a calculating engine must involve lots of fussy little parts.

    If they tried it, sure; having rotating parts that trigger events is a well known technology. A logical AND gate is straightforward; we've all seen gadgets where you press two things at the same time to make something happen. Imagine a Turing engine wherein the 'tape' is a long linear rack holding a row of spools, each with pins or holes in the fashion of a player piano; when the read head and a spool meet the code is read by turning the spool. It would be a pain to build and maintain but the theory is sound.


    I think you underestimate kinesthetic and visual memory. Craftspeople learn with their hands and eyes, as well as their ears. Many of them may be only marginally literate.

    So: you can get at least as far as a society that has blacksmiths who know how to get metal to do very complicated things. Probably clockmakers as well.

    I agree that steam engines are unlikely, but steam didn't power Jacquard looms, at least not at first --- water did. Huge factories were built driven by water wheels, with long rods and pulleys used to distribute the motive power throughout the factory to the machines, and the machines weren't just looms, but also machine shops with lathes and drills and polishing machines.

    Wind and water aren't going to move plows, however, so there will still be a lot of labor going in to food production. But didn't surplus food production preceded steam-powered farm equipment by centuries? That may have been new genetic material (e.g., the potato and all the other genes from the Americas), and possibly new forms of organization.

    So: I think you could get well beyond Newton, perhaps all the way to the mid nineteenth century.

    In order to pass technological knowledge along, you have guilds and apprenticeship.


    If you want to wonder how it's enforced, consider the question as being set on another planet far, far away where an immortal alien being with godlike omniscience smites anyone it notices trying to invent writing. In other words, it's an external artificial constraint, not an emergent property of the society it's set in.

    I'm afraid that this leads us to looking at what will not cause the Alien Space Bats to hit the SMITE button - which is probably realistic but not really what you were after.

    Thinking about this, I'm sure that any method of statically storing information outside memory will be functionally equivalent to writing as soon as it can store arbitary messages. (This is the difference between a language and animals' signal cries, and that's a subject that's been done to death elsewhere.) It's only a matter of convenience if the users drew letters, tied quipu, or carved novelty dildos.

    This question calls for more thought...


    Quipus are basically spreadsheets. (That is, they contain multiple levels of summation.) By the way, #10, though the numbers could be read by touch, the strings could not: they were color-coded.

    I'm reminded of the Library from Sean McMullen's "Voices in the Light", where basically the building becomes a computer, and the staff perform the roles of registers and functions.


    Bugger. New here, still working out mark up syntax. Will try next time with square brackets, rather than the greater than/less than symbols.

    Also, in regards to the previous comment regarding Incan string tech being partially reliant upon string colour, how about substituting different textured twine etc, rather making the distinction one of pigment.

    Finally, in regards to the interpretive dance / song tech manual substitute, I've got a vague (unreferenced) memory of hearing that apparently the Sandinista composed a song during the Nicaraguan Civil War "How to maintain your AK-47".


    As this is science fiction, suppose we have aliens that 'see' in 3d, or something like that, and so don't 'get' 2d representations at all. They can understand models (if they have the right textures) but 2d representation isn't in their mental toolkit.

    Would that fit the original limitation well enough?

    (Trying to make the restriction intrinsic in the situation, rather than invoking Alien Space Bats or Immortal Monolithic Religions.)


    Just came across this: Untangling an Accounting Tool and an Ancient Incan Mystery from the NY Times. Now to go actually read it.


    One of the points made in the article Twilight of the Books was that illiterate people may have thought differently from literate people.

    It's difficult to prove that oral and literate people think differently; orality, Havelock observed, doesn't "fossilize" except through its nemesis, writing. But some supporting evidence came to hand in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a "graphic-functional" way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said "dark blue" or "light yellow," but illiterates used metaphorical names like "liver," "peach," "decayed teeth," and "cotton in bloom." Literates saw optical illusions; illiterates sometimes didn't. Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. One peasant, informed that someone had grouped the three tools together, discarding the log, replied, "Whoever told you that must have been crazy," and another suggested, "Probably he's got a lot of firewood." One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, "Now, clearly the child doesn't belong in this group," only to have a peasant answer:

    Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they'll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them.

    As for the Alien Space Bad smite-y god, Charlie has mentioned that Oglaf is something he enjoys.


    Two vaguely relevant observations: the Yap in the Pacific Islands used special stones as currency, and they were not always moved when ownership changed. It's worth noting that when some whitefella started importing similar stones using bigger boats the locals went "ha, inflation, we see what you did there" and devalued those stones accordingly. You don't need writing to have a fairly abstract idea of economics.

    Similarly, woven maps were common as mnemonics (?) for the more mobile islanders (and by mobile I mean "arguably capable of navigating from Hawai'i to New Zealand"). I don't know that that really counts as writing because it was a stable technology in a number of cultures that never found writing very useful. Richer societies developed major cultural institutions without writing.

    On that note, there's evidence for "recorded history" going back more than 7,000 years in Australia in multiple places, so it seems that you don't need written records to record history.


    On the idea that the information density of the language(s) would increase in a society where writing was prohibited: As far as modern languages go, syllable speed seems to drop as information density increases, and vice versa, so that the information density per time of different languages stays roughly similar, even as the information density per syllable fluctuates wildly. For example, when dubbing over movies, the translation usually takes almost the same amount of time per statement. There's been a few studies done about this, with much resulting academic yelling and furniture throwing.

    Ithkuil, a conlang possessing the highest information density per syllable of any known language, tends to be spoken quite slowly. Of course, there aren't any native speakers of Ithkuil, and very few fluent speakers.

    This would all seem to indicate that there is a maximum level of information density in speech that humans can parse, or at least a level of comfort that most people gravitate towards. This, interestingly enough, doesn't seem to apply towards reading. Reading speeds vary wildly from individual to individual. Listening speeds are pretty nigh constant.

    So it doesn't seem extremely likely that a civilization developing technology sans writing would develop a language with significantly higher information density over time. Whatever language they spoke would still likely communicate information at a similar speed.


    When the "coins" are individually named, they're not the same as the coins in your pocket. Monetary systems are all different. It's worth reading Graeber's Debt if you don't get this.

    Getting back to the original question: We have to remember there are two questions here. 1. Is it possible to have a complex, hierarchical civilization without writing. Absolutely. Oceania is rife with them. There are also examples from Polynesia that sacred chants can be remembered and passed along, apparently unchanged, for 200 years (chants recorded by Cook were compared with chants recorded 200 years later, and they were IIRC, identical). In comparison, writing has been demonstrated to last >5,000 years, so it's certainly more durable.

  • How complex a technological "ecosystem" can you have without writing? The two outliers are African kingdoms (which forged iron. Some also created their own writing systems, but many were not literate AFAIK) and the Inka. The Andean quipus (or if you want to use the modern spelling, Khipu) are about 4,000 years old, and from what I understand of the evidence, they were a lot more than spreadsheets, so that probably doesn't count as lacking writing. Additionally, the Andean polities, while they grew enormous and mastered horticulture at a high level, only got into metallurgy and high temperature ceramics to the tune of making bronze. I'm not sure why they never figured out how to smelt iron, but it requires a hotter fire than they ever achieved.
  • So basically, we should be looking at Subsaharan Africa for the hottest fires: Great Zimbabwe, some kingdoms of the Congo basin, the Zulu, etc.

    The other point here is that there are multiple forms of complexity. Everyone here is a descendant of the gear-head western tradition, where technology is all about iron. If you look at the Andes, they got as good or better than we did at agriculture and fiber arts, but weren't as good at metallurgy. Is that a local adaptation, chance, or were they more primitive? Hard to say. The one thing we can say is that there used to be more people living in the Andes than live there now. Is that a measure of technological sophistication or not?


    Their decorative metallurgy was very good and impressed the Spaniards mightily. Why they'd never adopted iron is still an excellent question and might have something to do with the availability of both ores and charcoal.


    writing has been demonstrated to last >5,000 years

    Better yet, some of that writing can still be understood! It's amazing how utterly useless old writing is when no-one understands it (or worse, even recognises that it bears meaning). A bit like the what and how of the Antikythera mechanism.

    In many ways a chant that only lasts 200 years isn't remarkable except in the sense that its existence was certified by a whitefella. Which is why I pointed out the Australian history going back before "recorded history". It's also worth noting that early European recordings of music are pretty hopeless, a lot of what we "know" of the music of Hildegard von Bingen is hopeful interpolation and guesswork. It's not enough just to have the paperwork, you need to know the conventions and meaning.


    I doubt that society would reach even the level of Uruk circa 3200 BC. You've made the point in discussing generation ships that technology development and even maintenance requires a large population with division of skills to support it, which in turn requires agriculture combined with a government that can absorb and redirect the surplus, and that requires a bureaucracy and record-keeping like, well, Uruk circa 3200 BC.


    Platinum was first smelted in the Americas by precolombian civilizations (in Ecuador, among other places), and Europeans learned from them (inevitably, the first application was counterfeiting gold coins with similarly dense platinum, the irony being the counterfeits are now much more valuable than the originals).


    "Computers". Yes, Babbage tried to build a programmable machine from gears and was undone by the strength of the materials available to him and the precision of the machining of the time.

    However, the Babbage approach wasn't the only one. Jacquard looms were programmable graphic displays, after all. And Tinker-Toys can be programmed to beat you at Tic-Tac-Toe (known to some as Noughts and Crosses, I think?). This Tinker-Toy computer is basically a finite-state machine programmed by a "piano roll" made of Tinker-Toys.


    "...Everyone here is a descendant of the gear-head western tradition, where technology is all about iron...."

    Was talking to an indigenous bloke from a remote part of Australia (he's visiting the more populous part down here in the SE) about this thread this arvo. He told me that some bush mechanics replace old cylinder heads in trucks and utilities with hand carved blocks of local hardwood. When I expressed incredulity at this, he suggested I look at the uses of Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum, which includes clockwork gears, electrical insulators and shaft bearings in hydroelectric plants and naval turbines.


    CJ Cherryh did this in 40,000 in Gehenna, where the aliens communicate and record their ideas through building. ("The calibans are … in debate, I guess. Structures rise and fall incomplete.") Even among humans there are people who prefer to record their thoughts in drawings rather than words; some are only semi-verbal. Architectural design to this day is done primarily with graphics and models and verbal explanations are discouraged in schools.


    Benjamin Banneker is known to most American schoolchildren as the 18th century black guy who built a clock out of wood (for some reason this factoid always appears in American history textbooks; his more interesting career as a surveyor and almananac author usually isn't mentioned) As for hardwood pistons, given that China has used white oak as an ablative heat shield on spacecraft, sure, why not.


    I reckon it would be entirely possible to develop a locomotive steam engine without writing. It's not too far from how we actually did do it. The engine itself, along with items like casting patterns, acts as a record which does not depend on human memory. George Stephenson had no education in any kind of scientific principle, and developed better engines by taking apart other people's and improving them by experiment. The development of thermodynamics as a science lagged the experimental development of the steam engine itself. And it is surprisingly un-useful for development of a successful locomotive due to the constraints on size, weight and operating conditions. There were a huge variety of experimental locomotives that tried to apply thermodynamic principles to improve the abysmal thermal efficiency of the locomotive engine; they mostly appeared in the early 20th century, and none of them turned out to be worth the hassle, so the steam locomotive continued to the end of its days as a machine still recognisable as being simply an overgrown Rocket.

    I do think this discussion would benefit from a stronger definition of what counts as "writing" and what does not. There are so many forms of persistent external memory that unless you outlaw them all - which means no technology, by fiat - the distinction is impossibly fuzzy.

    It has been proposed that dolphins are able to communicate "diagrams" to each other by emitting sounds that mimic the reception of a given pattern of sonar signals. "Aka" by Tristan Jones portrays them as having a rich long-term social tradition based on memory and acoustic transmission of imagery as actual imagery rather than as verbal descriptions of it. But no technology, of course.


    Parrots, selectively bred, housed in vast batteries.


    Err ... no. The Diggers & Levellers were emphatically (mostly) not illiterate. That is what made them so threatening to people like Cromwell ......


    In which case the people are helpless slaves, kept as "pets" & the whole discussion if "off". Err - I don't quite think that was what you had in mind, though, was it?


    It has been proposed that dolphins are able to communicate "diagrams" to each other by emitting sounds that mimic the reception of a given pattern of sonar signals.

    See indigenous Australian 'songlines":


    Hawthorn (may) is denser than water and was used for axles; it, box, and other woods were used for gears until the 19th century in parts of the UK. Wood had the best strength/weight ratio of any constructional material until the advent of modern carbon fibre. Even high-performance (new design) aeroplanes were made of it until the 1950s. And, returning to the topic, I would be surprised if at least some of the early bicycle and car makers did not rely on reading to learn how, because a lot of them were rural blacksmiths.


    Hmm, any geneticists around?

    There are occasional humans with savant traits such as "eidetic" perfect memory. Are these hereditable? How likely is it that this could become a dominant trait in a small tribe or village?


    I am not one, but I do know something about this area. To a first approximation, intellectual abilities are inherited more in a Lamarckian than a Darwinian sense. I.e. potential ability and general directions of intellectual ability are largely genetic, though possibly not primarily in the child's genes (see below), but specific abilities are largely developed by perinatal development and infant experiences.

    There is a lot of data (some referred to above) that people in pre-literate societies are much better at memorising data, and preserving it unchanged, though eidetic recall remains rare (I don't know about that, as such). In many countries, most people memorise the Koran, for example, and previous generations in the UK were much better at it than we are, because it was a major part of early teaching. The older of us can witness that the UK (in my case) was vastly better at mental arithmetic in the days when it was effectively mandatory. It was taught and even examined (informally), and almost every shop assistant could multiply and add pounds, shillings, pence and farthings in their head to at least some extent.

    So the answer is like to be "effectively, yes"; it is unclear how much of a genetic shift is needed, and how far it is merely early education. Some gene shift would probably be needed to create a society of what I refer to as "natural mathematicians", but there is evidence that such brain patterns are created rather more by the environment in the womb (partly due to the mother's genes) than the child's genes.

    What is absolutely critical, however, is some evolutionary advantage to such skills that also ensures that people learn them from birth as part of their everyday life.


    I'll agree this and add a practical anecdote.

    I'm 53 and my sis is 4 years younger. In the mid-1970s we used to help on the RSPB sales table at a local Christmas fayre. One of our regular customers was a retired teacher of mathematics, aged in her mid 70s. She would normally buy about 15 packs of cards, priced differently, and some at £N-95 and others at £N-99. The challenge that we rose to and met was to use mental arithmetic to calculate her bill correctly and about as fast as she could do.


    There's an interesting question here:

    Are our hypothetical people capable of thinking in symbolic terms, but prohibited (eg by the Mad Alien God), or are the congenitally incapable of it? If there's a Mad God then I suppose people will be struggling to find acceptable ways to codify knowledge (people have mentioned buildings, dance, and a whole lot of other options - all of which could be hammered by the Mad God, if Ve is sufficiently irritated by Ver worshippers/victims).

    OTOH, what if they are incapable of it, via some mechanism like profound dyslexia? In that case they'd be dealing with finding ways to push the limits of what is possible rather than permitted.

    Could a profoundly dyslexic and dysgraphic population develop an industrial civilization? It's a very different context from an external imposition. Does anyone know anything about how the profoundly dyslexic and dysgraphic can work with other abstracted communication media?

    (I hope this doesn't count as a derail. If it does, I apologize and will immediately abandon this line.)


    How possible is it to build the Great Pyramids of Giza with this set-up?

    The methods in terms of craft are certainly possible. Using sand for grit and a copper saw it is possible to cut blocks of limestone and even granite. (At least, that's what I remember from what I've seen in documentaries on the topic.) No math or writing required there. Likewise you can trial-and-error the 'how many people does it take to drag a block of granite on a sled' thing.

    A geometer can trace out the shadow a gnomon makes in a day and, from that, develop a reliable north-south line. So again you don't need writing or mathematics to perform simple land-surveying. And you can use the three segments of your finger, and the point of your thumb as a marker, as a simple abacus: good enough to count to numbers as high as 156 on two hands, or hold crude fractions.

    But how exactly do you engineer a large pyramid from that? One which, it seems, included an internal crane system? Trial-and-error isn't going to cut it, there.

    It is often claimed that the Egyptian mathematics wasn't that sophisticated, because of peculiarities in their fractions, but from listening to an interview with mathematician David Reimer I was impressed with the view that Egyptian mathematics is quite sophisticated and intuitive once you are familiar with the system. So, it's not like you can fudge the fractions and expect things to hold up.

    Can you just have a bank of 'secretaries' performing the maths itinerantly on their hands, like they did on the Manhattan Project? I guess you're still allowed to use abacuses, so you just need people to memorise the numbers which come out of the calculation projects. And in a project like this you're not worried about a lack of workers. But that's still a lot of finicky, if not overly complex, mathematics to be performed – workable, probably, but I guess I'm asking this question just because it seems to me that these difficulties mount as you get towards Ptolemaic maths, let alone the Newtonian/Leibnitzian calculus. And people like Ptolemy didn't have a dedicated workforce at their disposal to calculate and memorise his figures: which we know, because he proposed co-ordinated projects which he seemingly wasn't able to perform for lack of willing collaborators.


    An interesting question, one I haven't thought of before. I think you're spot on given the limitations of human biology. (If we're talking about aliens, there's more leeway.)

    Most likely tech peaks at early modern, 16th or 17th century tech. Most things could be taught and passed on via apprenticeship type programs, but you'd be limited by what people could remember and the sort of math people could do in their heads.

    There would most likely be a specialized class of people, those who are good at memorizing and "human calculators" who were naturally good at math. They may be attached to either a priesthood or a state bureaucracy. (I could picture Chinese-style exams that focused on the ability to memorize rather than calligraphy and poem-writing).

    Another thing that they could develop is instructional cartoons. I'm not sure if that counts as too close to writing, but a wood-block printed or hand drawn booklet of step by step instructions for tasks would be possible.

    A stable society given enough time could develop sound recording. Wax calendars and possibly metal ones. The development of a shortened language akin to shorthand could enable more information to be stored as well.

    It's also possible they could develop some complex mnemonic systems, which combined with sound recording could enable a sort of compressed memory storage.

    A longer shot, if the society lasts long enough and the sound recording works well enough is the development of photography and film. This would allow something like step by step instructional materials or documentary videos.


    I propose an experiment.

    I require a team of genetic engineers, neuroscientists etc.

    I also need some impartial observers with good memory, an unlimited budget, a supply of political prisoners and several years.

    We will attempt to develop a common cold variant that will attack the brain and shut down the areas responsible for handling written language.

    The observers will compose songs detailing the trajectories of various world societies during the months after release, and will report back once humanities tech level stabilises.

    If we accidentally knock out speech at the same time then they will use the medium of interpretive dance.


    Well, I will follow you. I have some experience of people who have never learnt to think using symbolic logic, and it's a major obstacle to a lot of tasks (not all mathematical). It's also very hard to learn in adulthood, verging on impossible. Memorising the mathematics and physics and doing mental calculations needed to build pyramids (and even crude steam engines) is well within some people's abilities, but advanced use of symbols was one of the most revolutionary ideas mankind has ever had, and is the key to developing advanced mathematics and physics.

    I don't see that writing is critical, but I do see that the use of symbolism is.


    Look - what calculations and what precision do you think are needed? Even today, I can and do solve simple non-linear equations while riding a bicycle at 50+% of peak heart rate. And it's only my poor and fading short-term memory that stops me doing it to more than a few figures. Yes, I know that I am a total loser, but my guess is that I am one of a few thousand such people in the UK. That's plenty for a specialised community of 'holy architects'.


    Errr - the Andean civilisations managed feats fairly equivalent to the Pyramids without writing. Google Caral as well as the Inca's already mentioned.


    You're definitely speaking to a gap in my knowledge, here. Caral looks fairly flat in comparison to Giza – is that weathering? Wikipedia tells me they were being built at the same time as Giza, but were they always as large as Giza? Do we have an idea as to how they were built?


    Another key point is that you don't start building pyramids by building the Great Pyramid at Giza; that's a climax project, benefiting from centuries of accumulated experience of much smaller structures.


    I'm going to give this a shot with an extremely strict constraint set (probably more strict than Charlie intended). I will assume that, for the purposes of experiment, all of the following are forms of writing: pictograms, any form of money, tally sticks, symbolic knots, piles of objects representing numbers, phonograph records, and literally any long-lived physical representation of an object or concept outside the brain. (In other words, the question, rather than being "can we have a technological society without writing", becomes "can we have a technological society with purely oral communication in McLuhan's sense").

    I would argue yes, depending on what level of technology we're talking about.

    A lot of the problems mentioned are non-issues in various historical societies, so long as everything remains fairly scaled down. On the topic of signage, there are modern communities wherein street signage is useless or almost nonexistent (such as a lot of places in Japan, if I can trust travel manuals on the subject) and wherein navigation is essentially an oral tradition of directions. So long as travel outside communities is rare or limited to particular classes of people who treat the ability to navigate well as part of their primary skillset (traveling merchants, for instance), this is wholly reasonable.

    Let's look at primarily oral technologies. Cooking is a set of fairly nuanced technologies that have historically been primarily orally transmitted, along with textile technologies like weaving and kitting -- and apprenticeship and guild systems have historically been the means by which illiterate craftsmen passed down often extremely complex skills such as guilding, masonry, metalwork, cobblery, haberdashery, and so on. It's clear that you can reach a medieval level of technology with a mostly illiterate population, and I suspect that you can reach a medieval level of technology with a wholly illiterate population (with the possible exception of arches and a few other technologies that might have needed to come out of fairly complex mathematics and that wouldn't necessarily be easy to independently invent through trial and error). You could make the argument that the kind of large-scale trading that requires money (which we treat as a form of writing for the sake of this exercise) is a prerequisite for the impetus behind developing such technolgies and that thus large-scale trading empires like the sumerians were a prerequisite to feudal systems, but I really don't buy that and I suspect that the chronology here is just an accident of history.

    I'll also note that we have pretty good records of extreme-seeming feats of memorization being common in the classical world and even into the medieval period. Prior to movable type, the written word in medieval europe was primarily transferred via an oral process, and students were expected to memorize the texts they were transcribing for the most part; texts were mutable, because most of the texts in existence were lecture notes by students who were transcribing the words of a lecturing scholar, who was reciting from memory and with additional commentary the notes that he transcribed as a student. I would argue that, despite involving writing, writing isn't really core to this process: we essentially have a one-to-many oral transmission process going on involving memorization. Since more recent refinements in the mnemonic arts do not explicitly derive from the written word, I feel like most of them could be independently reinvented in a society without writing.

    I don't think that steam power could develop without writing, outside of a really complex set of circumstances. Making steam engines powerful enough to do interesting work requires either a whole lot of metal or a whole lot of calculus, and failures tend to explode spectacularly. However, steam is really just another way of turning wheels -- water, animals, and slaves can and have been used to turn the same wheels that steam can turn, if less reliably.

    However, a huge issue is how you'd get more advanced math. If you cannot draw coordinate planes you can't get cartesian coordinate systems. If you can't draw abstract figures you can't get euclidian geometry. If you can't do conic sections (because you can't make models of abstract figures either) you can't even begin to get trigonometry either. No algebra, no calculus, no formal logic. The limits of math in such a world would be arithmetic and rhetoric. So, as a result, we couldn't produce AC power, electric telephones, steam power, computers, etc. We could probably produce electric lamps -- after all, even though we typically credit Edison with the electric lamp, Franklin was playing with electric lighting using leiden jars and foil filaments two hundred years prior, and the development of incandescent lighting that stayed lit for a while was essentially a matter of two hundred years of trial and error.

    Let's keep in mind, however, what such a society can do. There's records of incredibly complex water-powered automatons in ancient greece, mostly attributed to Hero: such devices can be created through trial and error without writing, and the principles behind such devices could in theory be taught through apprenticeship. While fine gearwork like that used in pocket watches and small clocks requires incredibly precise and uniform metalwork and probably could not be done without both large-scale economic networks and the kind of precise measurement devices that require mathematics to produce, the kind of gearwork used in church-sized clocks in early medieval europe (the kind that could be off by several hours in a day and needed to be reset each day at noon, but that could ring bells) requires none of the precision and is relatively straightforward: in other words, such mechanisms could be used for a variety of tasks (although not as clocks, because clocks are a form of writing). Ultimately, at best we could see a society where the kind of technological advancement that was present but not common in early medieval europe is nearly universal and wherein the social structure is very similar.


    I'll admit I'm agnostic about the Australian aborigines' claimed stories that have lasted 40,000 years.

    Part of me wants to believe, and even more of me wants the people who are custodians of the stories to keep control of their knowledge, rather than submitting it to the scientists.

    The general problem with this assertion is that the few stories I've seen are in the same realm as the "reality" of Noah's Flood. They just say that "there used to be a forest where the sea is now." It sounds great, especially when remnants of said forest turns up, but if the coast is subsiding, is that a 10,000 year-old story, a thousand year old story, or an explanation for driftwood?

    When the "scientists" get involved, it gets even worse. IIRC, a lot of the archaeoastronomy at Stonehenge has been hunting for alignments between stars at various times and stones at various times, then saying that this correlation what it was built to measure. This isn't good science, and the irony is that the current story (that it was aligned with the setting sun of the winter solstice) is almost exactly the opposite of what everyone else has said for over a century.

    In any case, I don't mean to impugn the Aboriginal stories. That's their business, not ours, and if they want to share the information with scientists, again, that's their decision, not ours. In the meantime, I'd say that stories lasting 10,000 or 40,000 years need to be regarded by our cultural tradition as unproven possibilities, not certainties.


    So far as I know, there's a lot of iron in the Andes, and they also needed to use charcoal to make bronze. That leaves high temperature smelting as the major barrier.

    Note that in the Fertile Crescent, switching from bronze to iron took something like 1700 years IIRC, even though they were making iron and working with iron in small amounts for the entire time as a byproduct of copper smelting and bronze manufacture. Looking at the Andes, I think they started working bronze between 500-1000 CE, so it may simply be that they didn't have enough time before the Spaniards got there.

    The bigger point is that technological progress as we're talking about it here is a Eurasian story, where ideas discovered in one place often traveled on the silk road to another, and people copied inventions more of then than they created them by themselves. The Andes and Mesoamerican societies did trade with each other, but they still seem to have been largely independent traditions: South American people stuck with khipus even when their traders undoubtedly saw glyphs written on fig-bark paper, for example.

    We can write this off as New World Indians being primitive, despite the fact that their maize and potatoes feed a huge part of the globe right now, simply because they didn't do wheels, iron, writing, gunpowder or all that other stuff, even though the Mayans did really good astronomy.

    Or we can say that there's more than one type of cultural development, and for whatever reason, people in Central and South America went in for agricultural development rather than metallurgical development.

    Why no iron? I'd say it comes down to a lack of hot smelters and kilns, which in turn goes back to not developing limekiln technology until relatively late, while limekilns popped up in Anatolia thousands of years before the first civilizations of the Fertile Crescent bloomed.


    As can I (though I suspect not as well as you, and I don't torture myself with a bicycle while doing it). So that makes two out of just the fairly small, though admittedly rather preselected for intelligence, sample of commentators on this thread.

    And that appears to be enough to get you to degree level in Victorian times. I have a book which quotes some of Lewis Carroll's Oxford mathematics papers. I was amazed at how simple they were, and that I could do them in my head. The most difficult part was decoding the old-fashioned terms the questions were expressed in. (My maths education as such only goes to A-level.)

    On the other hand I do make a lot of use of the same methods as for doing it on paper, just imagining the symbols written down instead of actually doing it, and where I do not do that it is because I am sufficiently familiar with the procedure from learning it by that method in the first place. So from my point of view at least the difficulty isn't doing mathematics without writing, it's teaching and learning it.


    There are some powerful ideas that are simple enough to hold in one person's head and transmit by speech and example. Not surprisingly, this theme also came up during the reading of Hot Earth Dreams, trying to figure out how much knowledge could theoretically survive a sudden bottleneck in libraries or literacy. What's a technological ratchet that perhaps never goes away, vs. material too complex to preserve through a period of collapse?

    -A simple Mendelian conception of genetics and selective breeding. I'm not sure if the Mendelian theory, with simple record keeping in one's head, offers any benefits over the selection practiced back to the mists of prehistory, though.

    -The production of gunpowder and its key ingredient potassium nitrate for mining/civil works and warfare. Gunnery is perhaps too complex to develop/transmit without writing, but the techniques for gunpowder itself and simple rockets could be reproduced orally.

    -The germ theory of disease, and/or its applied equivalent. Things like the slow sand filter for water purification, carefully washing hands before each surgery or child delivery, controlling vermin and stagnant water to limit plagues carried by fleas/mosquitoes, disposal of human wastes away from drinking water...

    -Simple and fractional distillation for production of e.g. alcoholic liquors and other semi-purified liquids. Fractional distillation can produce ethanol concentrated enough for use as an effective disinfectant at a level of technological complexity considerably below that needed to produce e.g. tincture of iodine or hydrogen peroxide.

    -Accumulation of empirical diagnoses and solutions for common medical problems amenable to dietary changes/amendments e.g. scurvy, iron anemia, iodine deficiency, protein deficiency.

    A simple empiricism plus oral lore derived from it could go a long way to preventing the civilizations of Planet Without Writing from getting stuck in a permanent Crapsack World of chronic and infectious disease.


    "So from my point of view at least the difficulty isn't doing mathematics without writing, it's teaching and learning it."

    And from mine.


    You wouldn't get experimental science developing, as that DOES depend on the written word, but if you had a good apprenticeship system that encouraged the masters to share information with each other, you could slowly evolve a technology up to late medieval. Possibly slightly further. Could you get the Bessemer process? I doubt it. But you might well be able to do fancy things with glass and refining. So it probably wouldn't match the historical late medieval, but might include, e.g., good lenses, strong glass, and window panes. Glass might well be cheaper than metal in lots of applications. (But anything fancy would be EXTREMELY expensive. Measured in person hours and including training, as the only common economic good.)


    You could certainly get a steam engine going without mathematical knowledge. We were making pressure vessels to contain much greater pressures hundreds of years earlier, although they did only have to contain the pressure for a fraction of a second. Early locomotive boilers blew up plenty of times, but that didn't put people off, instead it led to things like better proof testing procedures and tamper-proof safety valves. It's straightforward enough to determine the relationship between vessel size, wall thickness and bursting pressure in a safe manner by means of columns of water. (Or mercury, especially since it's only recently that anyone has cared about it being poisonous.)

    Similarly you can get a reasonably decent amount going in the way of electromagnetism simply by messing about with things. Once you notice that a current flowing in a wire moves a compass needle you then proceed to play with the effect; once you've got an electromagnet you learn straight away about induction :) and also it is but a short step to introduce mechanical vibration into your thoughts on the matter. Telephones and AC then follow in due course. Mathematics makes it easier to develop better ones quicker, but you can still get there more slowly with very little of it.

    The thing is you very quickly get tangled in the definitions of what does and doesn't count as writing. With Charlie's constraint as of its first mention, just "no written words", you're fine. With yours, you're treading on the edge when it comes to things like making this piece of boiler plate twice the thickness of your last experiment, how many sections of pipe you bolt together to make the pressure column, how many weights you put on the safety valve and so on. And me, I'd argue that the "no lasting physical representation of a mental concept" bit rules out the engine itself entirely, along with a whole slew of less complex artefacts.

    I still think we need a more robust and specific definition of what does and doesn't count, that is well enough specified to cover the ambiguities that you get into as soon as your technology begins to develop at all, that is of itself proof against rules-lawyering rather than relying on asking people not to. Charlie said in an earlier comment "if you have to ask, it doesn't count"... But the fuzz is so wide that practically anything counts. You can tell someone how to make a bow by means of a piece of paper written with things like "carve the yew to such-and-such a section, with the heartwood on the inside" etc, or you can just give them a bow to copy. Both the written description and the physical object perform, with roughly equal efficacy, the same function: they create a permanent record of an idea external to someone's mind, by the use of which someone else - or many someone elses - can reconstitute that idea in their own mind, even after the first person is dead and without any other agency being involved, and so the knowledge is propagated. The ambiguity is only removed when you go hard up to one extreme or another - forbid only written words, as in the recorded symbolic representation of spoken language, or forbid anything at all by which ideas can be communicated without conversation, in which case you barely even get to leave the oceans, and certainly not the trees.


    "You wouldn't get experimental science developing, as that DOES depend on the written word, ..."

    What sort of experiments, and why? I can't think of much that critically does until at least the 19th century, except for a few things like astronomy.


    You wouldn't get experimental science as we know it, but the concept of the scientific method could still exist, and there are plenty of situations in which it can be applied by an experimenter with a good enough memory to store the results. Stuff like double-blind trials would be really difficult, but stuff like bursting model boilers with water pressure to learn how to build ones that don't burst in service is OK.

    I think also it's worth remembering that most everyday technology short of electronics and some aspects of medicine required for its development only the level of scientific knowledge that prevailed when it was still possible to know pretty well the whole of your branch, rather than having to specialise in a particular subdivision of it. One person can learn pretty much all of physics as it was known at the end of the 19th century; it's in the 20th that things started getting hairy. So it gets to be about how well you can compensate for the difficulties in propagating the knowledge without writing by, for instance, making the teacher-student relationship a continuous and multigenerational thing, everyone continuing to learn from those older than themselves and teach those younger at the same time (which helps you learn like nothing else does), in place of the highly distinct separate roles we have today.


    Ryan Britt wrote on Tor that the Star Wars civilisation seems mostly illiterate.


    If alien is okay, here's my next bit ... apologies if this repeats anyone else - again I decided to write my thoughts out before reading any further posts.


    The 'non-writing' communication issue can be tied into the evolution/development of:

    Pattern recognition, algorithm/rule building, testing hypotheses, positing/demonstrating/defining axioms, developing/proving theorems, formalisms, etc.

    At the very beginning ...

    Assume that your civilization’s planet had an orbiting moon. At some point, an inhabitant might look and say – Gee, look at that! It looks just like an rstd (round object)!' Excited, they tell their friend/littermate about this the next day and both decide to see this remarkable thing. However, they wait for a few days so that the moon no longer looks like an rstd, but instead it looks like a scrt (crescent). The original fellow says I swear it was rstd. But his friend/littermate just laughs at him and thereafter shuns him. So, to get back in his friend’s/littermate’s good books, our original fellow decides to watch each night until he can puzzle this out. In preparation for his observation/vigil, he gathers and brings with him bunches of rstds and scrts. Every sunset he looks for the orb and then selects and places on the ground the rstd or scrt that most closely resembles the moon that night. Because he’s fearful of being called a fool, he decides to do this for as long as he can. (Our fellow doesn’t have a job to be at or a family to look after, food is plentiful and always at hand, so no barriers to his quest.) Uncounted nights of observation and recording (via placement of most similarly shaped object on the ground), our fellow realizes that some of what he’s seeing looks familiar. He decides to test this – first by reviewing the row/assembly of every object placed to-date, and then later by saying to himself: ‘I bet that tomorrow night’s moon will look like this one!’ So he places the object most similar to what he thinks the moon’s next shape will be and marks this guess in a particular manner – by placing a loose nearby object on top. He guesses right! But because he’s still afraid of making a mistake, he decides to run this guess-and-test some more. At least for one full cycle. And because he’s truly paranoid – he decides to test this a few more times (full cycles). As this test drags on into the rainy season, he notices that some nights when it’s cloudy/raining, he’s unable to see the moon. So he records this as a hole (empty spot) on the ground where he’s been recording his observations. He also notices that even though the moon is not visible on some nights, the next night that it is visible, it’s exactly the shape that it should/would be if he had been able to see it every night. By this point, our fellow decides that he’s got a convincing case to present to his friend/littermate.

    To communicate what his friend/littermate should expect to see, our fellow would show either all of the data to-date, or summarize his findings. Because such assiduous record keeping/data gathering is itself novel, chances are our fellow will opt for a series of predictions which would be confirmed over the course of several nights. The first guess might be luck, the umptieth correct guess would be unusual enough to pique interest, and provide sufficient evidence that this recording and guessing activity works. Wider communication would ensue .. probably at first by demonstration, then by using the recording objects, then to make this easier/quicker to work with even smaller objects correctly placed on an appropriate surface – a tablet or smooth/flat piece of alien slate/tree bark or sketched out on the inside of dried/tanned fish/eel skin.

    Not everyone in the tribe/crib is interested in this novel activity. But, among the small fraction that is interested, suggestions fly for trying different ways of looking at the moon, different recording techniques (rocks instead of plants/animals – rocks don’t move as easily in the wind, rain or tide), as well as observing and recording the next largest objects in the nights sky. Our research team expands, compares notes, bickers, summarizes, tests, passes along news, etc. Note: The subject/topic is 'objects in the sky' – the language to most easily communicate this idea is a portable representation of the object(s) under study/discussion.


    One other soft edge: and design vs. writing.

    Why would a world without writing produce paper, for instance?

    We do know, from historical cave paintings, that it is possible (occasionally) for people to develop a high standard of representational art without writing. Most rock art isn't nearly as realistic, which suggests that Lascaux and its sisters are the exception, rather than the rule. Still, we can assume that people can represent things realistically without writing words.

    On the other hand, there's a fair amount of proto-writing out there, where designs start being used rebus-fashion, for accounting or word substitution. That's where glyphs come from, after all.

    So one of the boundary conditions seems to be that these people can develop an arbitrarily high standard of art, without turning that art into even proto-writing.



    So far as I know, there's a lot of iron in the Andes, and they also needed to use charcoal to make bronze. That leaves high temperature smelting as the major barrier.

    Speculating here: Iron yes; but was it the easily accessible and smelt-able iron that other cultures would learn techniques and develop the technology for smelting? You don't leap from bronze to iron, you have to go through all the baby steps of development with lesser purities and lower melting points first and build your culture's ability.

    Whereas you got concentrations of bog iron in other terrains and that was what cultures would cut their teeth on, as I recall the geology of the Andes and amazon basin are less accommodating. In that part of the world instead you have a lot of ferruginous sandstone, generally at the 4th layer. So you would have to mine first, then separate it from the sandstone, then smelt it. The Llanos are on a laterite hardpan, which should be very conducive to it's formation, but while that would have been in their trade network it wasn't part of their territory. That would make the experimentation phase less common as it would be them playing around with what they bought rather than what they had on hand, and there is no reason to buy it if you aren't sure you can use it.

    Plus, you know, the difficulties of a civilization without the wheel or horse trying to get ore through the jungle and mountains.


    Forgot... the number system would probably be based on the phases of the moon, so could range from a base 7 (one-quarter as per our moon) to whatever the aliens decide best suits them. Chances are, if science/math is developed based on these aliens' astronomy, its coinage and various measures might also be derived from this.

    (I also have an idea of how an alien might approach learning about pi and circles.)


    Thanks for the shout-out on Hot Earth Dreams, Matt.

    To me, this brings up one important other issue: what technologies can be created without any history of writing at all, and which technologies require writing to develop, but can be performed without literacy after they are discovered?

    For example, germ theory was around for awhile, but proving it required a whole complex of microscopy and glassware, which in turn requires the manufacture of clear glass and optics, along with the biology. While we can now teach everyone germ theory whether or not they're literate, I'm not sure we can get the requisite microscopes without writing. Someone will have to check me whether the math can be done entirely in one's head without symbols.

    That's one thing we'll have to watch in our world design. Just because we can do some calculation in our heads, it doesn't follow that you can teach it orally without symbols, nor that it can be discovered without writing as a necessary accessory.

    Still, Hot Earth Dreams does get into the problem of how to transmit information, and I'm glad you brought it up.


    I used "germ theory" as a sort of shorthand for the morbidity-decreasing practices unified by the theory; actually observing germs would indeed be difficult without a large technological edifice! But I think that it's possible for empirically useful procedures to develop and be remembered without a modern scientific theory to rationalize them, much how legumes were discovered beneficial to agricultural land ages before anyone uttered the phrase "nitrogen fixation."


    How about aboriginal song lines?


    Painting can provide a lot of information without being writing. Imagine a picture of a healthy eye with surrounding pictures of diseased sections and arrows to indicate where they frequently occur. It would help a physician learn and remember that problem, refresh memory later, and possibly diagnose things not seen before. For another example, imagine a triptych of a canal under construction. The center image is a properly constructed one showing the steps involved. I expect the painters would stylize things so that sometimes distance in the painting represent different time but could also clearly distinct activities that are happening together. The side pictures could show common failure modes. Perhaps there is a section where workers are digging increasingly steep sides, with the ground clearly beginning to crumble after a point.

    The resulting society would likely be fairly conservative; approaches that work would be well distributed but getting new ones would be difficult. And it would rely extremely heavily on institutional memory. If one way of doing things does displace an older one, after a few centuries there will be a lot of puzzlement over why a painting shows people making things in a particular way.

    I'm not sure how well this works for more abstract things. Could a collection of images of events and symbols referencing common allegories explain a law and the arguments that justified its adoption? I think so, but a shorthand for things in the oral culture in a picture can become a shorthand on its own and then become a written language. At some point this breaks the rules.


    If audio is allowed, then I like SFReader's idea about building blocks. Metal sound masters would be the equivalent of block letters, and could be composed to create any sequence of sounds required. This could be "printed" as a contiguous wax cylinder for distribution if needed. Everyone would learn how to use a large set of sounds to compose.

    Unwieldy, and linear. About as annoyingly linear as podcasts and news readers. But still editable - extract the piece[s] you like, add comment and pass on.

    How far would this take a civilization? Anybody's guess, but I think it would be limited, although perhaps not as limited as has been suggested. Could a Colossus computer be built without written information? [Didn't it or a successor use sound as short term storage too]?

    However, at this point, the sound components are really symbols and composing them would count as writing IMO.


    What's a technological ratchet that perhaps never goes away, vs. material too complex to preserve through a period of collapse?

    Electricity (Volta) and electromagnetism (Faraday) and electrochemistry (both). I can easily imagine an aliterate society getting that far as well. Heinrich Hertz for the aliterate -- well, maybe.


    Ctrl+F: dwarf fortress minecart Not found.

    People have built working logic engines with minecarts in the game, extending that to various forms of early mechanical computing isn't that much of a stretch.

    While there is writing in df, it isn't actually relevant to this stuff and could be removed entirely.


    Why would a world without writing produce paper, for instance?

    Paper was originally used in China as a packing material. Then for clothing, wrappers, walls, windows, kites, toilet paper, even armor.


    ... and corkscrews were originally invented to clean out bullets from rifles

    ... play-doh to clean wall-paper

    ... WD-40 to protect nuclear missiles from water

    ... bubblewrap was originally marketed as wallpaper.

    ... and my favorite --- the fiber optic lamp, introduced sometime in the 60s-70s, revoltingly garish kitsch.


    I still think we need a more robust and specific definition of what does and doesn't count

    Perhaps we should assume that the members of this culture/species are uniformly affected with pure alexia. This would give us some handle on what to regard as writing.


    Has anyone mentioned "data / knowledge stored within the brain in such a way that it can be transmitted by viral means"? I seem to remember a short story (can't remember the author) about "RNA pills" handed by an alien to a human in a bar - granting knowledge via infection.

    Granted, the whole "Memory RNA" thing is long disproven, but what if..? :)


    It's very interesting that the majority of responses have assumed that technology means gears and cogs (and then more) and purely human minds (with a bit of fudging of the old memory).

    Techne is at the very historical core of what it means to communicate, and, contrary to the "add technology and stir" model of communication history, techne is, in some senses, historically prior to the advent of human communication. If one is looking for that special something that separated our evolutionary ancestors from other animals, it would have to be humans' peculiar combination of language and tool use... The earliest known sculptures, for instance, are over 35,000 years old, but archaeologists have speculated that sculpture itself goes back at least 70,000 years. If these hypotheses are correct, they trouble the model of communication that claims humans once lived in a world of communication to which technology was added. The dimensions of craft, tool, and "practical art" were there from the very beginning.

    Indeed, Lewis Mumford has argued for a sense of language as techne as well. Mumford writes that there is a "vital connection between all physical movement and speech" (1966, p.86, emphasis in original)... Once satisfactory forms of tools or words were reached, there is little evidence, he says, for "wanton variation" in their form. In this way, language and tool use are part of a shared human history of techne. Communication requires both language and technology - and both are forms of techne.

    Communication">">Communication as... Perspectives on Theory (pdf) G. Shephard, J. St. John, T. Striphas. Chapter 11, p. 96-7


    وَأَنَّا لَمَسْنَا السَّمَاءَ فَوَجَدْنَاهَا مُلِئَتْ حَرَسًا شَدِيدًا وَشُهُبًا وَأَنَّا كُنَّا نَقْعُدُ مِنْهَا مَقَاعِدَ لِلسَّمْعِ فَمَن يَسْتَمِعِ الْآنَ يَجِدْ لَهُ شِهَابًا رَّصَدًا وَأَنَّا لَا نَدْرِي أَشَرٌّ أُرِيدَ بِمَن فِي الْأَرْضِ أَمْ أَرَادَ بِهِمْ رَبُّهُمْ رَشَدًا

    AYAT al-Jinn 72:8-10 A notable feature is that this link has translations, but also sound files so you can hear it as intended.


    Loren Carpenter boots up the ancient video game of Pong onto the immense screen. Pong was the first commercial video game to reach pop consciousness. It's a minimalist arrangement: a white dot bounces inside a square; two movable rectangles on each side act as virtual paddles. In short, electronic ping-pong. In this version, displaying the red side of your wand moves the paddle up. Green moves it down. More precisely, the Pong paddle moves as the average number of red wands in the auditorium increases or decreases. Your wand is just one vote... The conferees did what birds do: they flocked. But they flocked self- consciously. They responded to an overview of themselves as they co-formed a "5" or steered the jet. A bird on the fly, however, has no overarching concept of the shape of its flock. "Flockness" emerges from creatures completely oblivious of their collective shape, size, or alignment. A flocking bird is blind to the grace and cohesiveness of a flock in flight.

    Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World

    A more modern version of this, played blind (i.e. no crowd dynamics / visual clues) is Twitch Plays Pokémon.

    Or, in the case of Dinopis guatemalensis, video link, where lies the separation of techne and adaption? (flocking is three simple rules: webs are somewhat different).

    What to do with those three reference points (orienteering only needs two known points and an unknown point, there might be a reference there)?

    I can suggest a few patterns:

    Communication / Society proceeds into a Cybernetic feedback system where Dance replaces papyrus. Our three Priestesses stand on points of an equilateral triangle (or perhaps trapezium, five of them, three sisters at the peak, two more at the dress ends, modeled after Orion's Belt) and in a shared experience the flows and arguments happen in a multitude of dancers until our watchers discern the patterns. The dance done, the five enter a higher symbolic dance with each sharing their own understanding of the patterns; finally, calculus is achieved. They can use this method for politics, democracy and many other 'modern' inventions. The modes of communication of this society are highly social and everyday life is a constant interplay of gesture, flirtation and positioning (both in body space and physical space - their cities are fluid, less prone to class stratification's).


    The tools become the signifiers. A man earns his knowledge through the collection of symbolic tokens. A new tool is the creation of two issues: a problem and a meeting. The problem (let us say, how to get water to X) is clear and physical. Men wander through the crowds of their peers, watching solutions being formatted by model or analogy or reasoning: they have three days to see and judge and move between models. A feast is held, much politics is involved; two camps form (as is traditional), each willing to pit their solution against the other. The next week is the build (the best part all agree) and then the ritual tearing down of the worst solution first, then the winning solution - for now, all have seen it, so all join in to create an improvement on the original idea. Those in the winning camp garner bronze tinted models of their success; all present garner a token showing that they know the ways to solve this problem. The men disperse back to their communities - most have traveled weeks or months for this, and so the knowledge spreads.


    A woman sits amongst her garden; arranged like a web, octagonal and tiered from her lowest spot. She sings and coos to her attendant flock, trained for generations. She picks up her delicate spider-silk sling and casts bait into that web, this web, a farthest web. The communal spiders react and weave and the patterns shift. Calculus in base 8 is possible and she enjoys the murmured rustle and quiet peace of her craft; the men will come in the morning with their offerings and will get their answer on how to measure the ratios on their all important bridge.

    There's a far more radical one, but I'll leave it at that.

    To accept the premise of the question, you need to radically rethink what it is to be human, not just tinker around in the Greek mind. Go back to 15,000 BC, and tinker there.


    I think you may be wrong on how iron use evolved, at least in the Middle East. Iron oxides were used in the smelting of copper (assuming I got it right this time), and elemental iron was a byproduct of bronze manufacture for over 1,000 years before the Assyrians got into the game of manufacturing large amounts of iron specifically for tools. During the Middle Eastern Bronze Age, iron was much like titanium is now: a specialist metal that's hard to work with, used primarily for tchotchkes and ornaments.

    Thing is, I have no idea how the Andean smiths made their bronze, so I don't know if they used the same process and produced iron or not. I don't know if anyone knows, to be honest. However, the Andean peoples started making bronze between 500-1000 CE, so it may simply be that they hadn't gotten around to figuring out what to do with iron, even if they were producing it as a byproduct.


    The Fourth Profession, by Larry Niven.


    Calculation by memorising tables. As a teenager I memorised key parts of the square root tables and was able to interpolate to find square roots. But these were printed tables and it would have been very difficult to do anything like this without the printed tables.


    If you wanted to throw forward enough into Assyrian / Sumerian tally counts (Isis, chime), you could do it in entirely different ways.

    A ram has coloured dye to show which ewes it has tupped; this is ancient.

    Even a non-tetra-chromatic populace could easily make individual dyes for their sheep. [note: this has been done, many times, it's called branding - and then tags on ears etc].

    In fact, you could go a long way with spectrum changes and so on.

    Of course, we've not entered lands where your minds fear to tread:

    Slime molds used as architectural planners.

    LSD used as a way to feel the larger landscape.

    Shaping an environment to pattern (ask the Masons about their gardens and city architecture, it's not subtle).

    Growing a sea pool of life in a symbolic fashion, where each relation and engagement represents a calculation.


    what level of technological society can emerge in conditions which preclude writing

    A very high one.

    It's just not the same as yours.


    Adaption. You're really proud of it.

    But you have no faith in it.


    Am aware of the estimated age of some remains. AFAIK, it's commonly thought that Australia was colonised in waves, and the really old stuff (like the Lake Mungo burial remains, or the carved boulders in the Kimberly's) are from these precursor peoples.

    Further reading, regarding the dissimilarity between the mitochondrial DNA of contemporary Australian Aborigines and the remains at Lake Mungo.


    Are you familiar with Watson P, (2012)The Great Divide, Weidenfeld & Nicholson? Tis a very dense (whilst entertaining) historical cultural comparison of Eurasian vs New World peoples. Might amuse...


    Studies of oral cultures show that story tellers use a variety of techniques to simplify recitation. For example, there are stylized refrains that allow them to stall for time while they recollect or recreate passages. Despite this, the stories are not repeated verbatim for very long. There is frequent mutation. Writing is much less mutable. Two thousand year old copies of Jewish scripture are letter by letter the same as the ones produced today. This has political implications as were noted in 1984, but might not stop technological advance as technological artifacts themselves embed information.

    I think the big challenge would be building a society big enough to support the specialization necessary for advanced technology. I can travel 10,000 miles from my home, present a piece of plastic and someone who doesn't know me from Adam will give me a meal and a place to stay. Thanks to writing I, much like a Fertile Crescent merchant, can quickly establish my reputation wherever I travel. Without some sort reputation management mechanism, it is hard to coordinate the resources needed to produce too many things we take for granted, and writing makes this much simpler and more reliable.

    Of course, this is a science fiction writer's blog, so there is no reason we have to build a human society without writing. Why not imagine an intelligent race capable of exchanging plasmid like trinkets of information, perhaps as secretions? Obviously, there would need to be a thymus like organ where foreign plasmids can be analyzed and sampled, but once accepted, perhaps after safe transcription - think CRISPR, they could serve as imported memories of songs, stories, images or motor techniques. This could conceivably have evolved from a more primitive group immunity mechanism much like the one used by bacteria on our own world. This suggests that it could also be useful for healing. Speech, in some form, being more immediate and requiring less biological processing would still be useful.

    The trust problem would still exist. I imagine that the thymus like import organ reacting to a suspicious plasmid would give an alternate meaning to having a bad gut feeling. Perhaps the culture might rely on a caste of non-reproducing reputation managers, though they could be suborned as necessary for the plot.


    Is CatinaDiamond using a new name?


    You have to be careful about mitochondrial DNA; mitochondria are under really strong selective pressure.

    So we get the original mitochondrial Neandertal DNA results indicating that there'd be no interbreeding and the nuclear DNA indicating there'd been a significant amount.

    So while it's quite likely Australia got waves of colonization, it's also quite likely there's a continuous pattern of descent. To quote that paper, LM3 and his contemporaries, as well as the more recent robust KS individuals, all could have been ancestors of living indigenous Australians.


    Yes they could, but my original point/query was in regards to the continuity of cultural mememory. The specific meaning of the arrangement of the Lake Mungo remains has been lost over time.


    And, the Chines civilisation - which emerged through parallel methods, but came to very similar conclusions? Still wrong. No, you can't do without writing. Not going to work


    Faith is defined as belief without evidence. Not acceptable


    You wondered too? Alternative explanation - it's a real, separate person, who thinks that mysticism & obscurantism is an acceptable method of discourse - maybe. Strong semi-religious & de Chardin overtones in there, I think.


    I think this comment thread is overly worried about books, instruction manuals and recorded knowledge.

    And not nearly enough about letters and communication.

    Reading any history of european thought, science or philosophy, from before 1900 I am always struck by how many letters people read and wrote. And how important they were.

    It's not just finished, final known science that most needed to be transmitted and recorded. It is thoughts, ideas, challenges, arguments, disagreements, vital clues, important suggestions and helpful corrections.

    Kill literacy and you reduce exponentially the number of people one could communicate with. I think that destruction of networking capabilities would have been fatal to science.


    Experimental science isn't just about doing experiments. It's about doing experiments and communicating the results so that they will be noticed by the right people.

    That communication process was very hard in the real world. See Mendel. Or the Galileo/Kepler mis-communications. Make it much, much harder and it becomes difficult to see why anyone would bother to do the experiments at all.

    And if the results are not noticed by relevant important people, they will be forgotten two decades hence.


    Yes, it would. But it wouldn't be hard to learn how to calculate the result you need on the fly - there are several methods that are easy to do with mental arithmetic.


    One of the main reasons that information gets missed and lost is the flood of drivel, repetition and so on. There is no particular reason why Mendel's results could not have been measured, analysed and communicated verbally, for example. Yes, I agree that a society where that would happen would be almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Western Europe from the Renaissance on.


    If you can memorise log tables, you don't need to memorise square root tables.


    Here's a new one:

    Assume that at least three of the homo sapiens species survive (make it five, spice things up).

    How does this change things at 15,000 BC, 10,000 BC, 5,000 BC, 100 BC?

    Strong semi-religious & de Chardin overtones in there, I think.

    You missed the meaning part about techne.

    Writing starts as object, not communication. (Since you seem pro the mystical, you'll be thinking Tablets from Moses: think more Isis's Sumerian cattle counts).

    There's nothing mystical about pointing out you're putting the carthorse in front of the donkey.


    Information is already encoded into objects [i]before[/i] writing. Altering that structure so that writing is "not required" probably means altering the 'human' relation to the world.

    Fungi driven mass orgies (since Snow Crash has been mentioned, look to the Drummers) or people-as-ecosystems. Or, just cheat, and assume that all Denisovans are hard-wired to be savants and calculators are entirely not needed (to shift from the slightly racist African slave example from above).


    Because I'm a human living in an environment subject to weather, I prefer solid artifacts to oration for the arrangement/organization, storage, display and dissemination of information. Solids would be stable, therefore the original would be less susceptible to editing/change/erosion. Depending on how large/heavy it is, could be a problem.

    Patterns in textiles (clothing, drapery and rugs) have been used to encode and transmit information.

    Plantings (hedges especially) could also be used as a library for key learnings. Ditto for architecture.

    If artifacts are not possible in this imaginary alien realm, there's always variations on miming/body language, starting with but not limited to ritualized dance. If your alien is similar to an electric eel, then pulses of electricity would serve as language. If a chameleon, then changes in the skin pattern would serve as language. Chameleons strike me as expert at both body control and chemistry, so I suppose one of their communications innovations might be the development/usage of short to long-term paralytic agents so that messages could be sent via envoys (or pets/specially bred animals) with similar biochemistry whose skins could be 'fixed' into the relevant patterns (messages).

    Bottom line ... Virtually any medium could be used to organize and store data, what you really need is agreement on the code. Further, while one universal medium would be ideal, there's no reason why different distinct types of media couldn't be used based on the nature of the transaction. (Humans still use a variety of media, why shouldn't aliens.)


    That's my guess too.


    Or she's posting while sober and using her real name...

    Style is similar, but more precise and less aggressive.


    Fungi driven mass orgies (since Snow Crash has been mentioned, look to the Drummers)

    IIRC the Drummers were from The Diamond Age (Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer).


    @104: Most of those examples look like the peasants not understanding the question to me, and interpreting it as something more practical. Chopping wood is an everyday thing; answering silly questions isn't.

    A couple of things I haven't seen mentioned yet.

    1) As far as literature goes, poems in the archaic Greek tradition (Homer etc) were semi-improvised, based on fixed plots and epithets but ultimately fresh each time they were sung. Perhaps these peoples' "illiterature" might be the same; something analagous could be true for music, dance, and other performing arts, too. Unless they're using that to make memorisation easier, that is.

    2) Illiterate people would probably be interested in ways to improve memory. Not necessarily effective ones. But things like locus system might be more socially important or imbued with megical significance than they were in history.

    3) If they're using art to transmit practical information, they'll probably want to make it realistic, implying the rest of their art would be more realistic and they might invent perspective earlier, too. Contrariwise, if naturalistic drawing is seen as profane, sacred art might tend to the allegorical/symbolic.

    I find it hard believing that illiterate humans would come anywhere near modern technology, though; it just seems too hard to organise a culture large and concentrated enough to come close. 1st century Rome was a city of a million people, fed by Egyptian grain - imagine organising that without writing. Then there's the additional burden that any given person knows much less. On the other hand, they might still do well in selective breeding - the Agricultural Revolution was well before Darwin.


    Possibly ... the 'name' translates into something along the lines of 'female phoenix'. New year, new persona?


    Heck the Levellers political writings are commonly cited to this day in US Supreme Court cases due to their writings on written constitutional law.


    A fifty kyear upper limit on cultural transmission -- since we hardly know what a recently[1] extirpated aboriginal population might have known -- isn't much of an upper bound, though. There are lots of reasons to suspect it's a lot shorter.

    Though last I recall, children's games seem to exhibit centuries of stability without any particular cultural effort. So a central cultural effort around stability of transmission could plausibly last into the scale of millennia.

    [1] on that time scale, "anything since found by Europeans" is recent


    "Hadil" is an Arabic woman's name, "Benu" is an Egyptian god. So it could be a real name.


    new year, new username to immediately scroll past


    But according to Wikipedia:

    Some of the titles of the Bennu bird were "He Who Came Into Being by Himself", and "Lord of Jubilees"; the latter epithet referred to the belief that the Bennu periodically renewed itself like the sun. Its name is related to the Egyptian verb wbn, meaning "to rise in brilliance" or "to shine".

    So Phoenix isn't far off and it's probably a chosen alias.

    BTW, the first names means "she who coos like a pigeon". Dunno if herons coo, too.


    meaning "to rise in brilliance" or "to shine".

    Bit of a Pink Floyd vibe?

    And a spot of Pigeon Post?


    Exact opposite of what I was intending - well done (not). Writing began as accountancy in Sumeria, didn't it?

    Like the idea concerning three or 5 Human species, but that is probably irrelevant to this discussion-thread/


    Assume that at least three of the homo sapiens species survive (make it five, spice things up).

    Hobbits, humans, elves, dwarfs and trolls?

    How does this change things at 15,000 BC, 10,000 BC, 5,000 BC, 100 BC?

    Probably not much. Humans don't need "he's another species" as excuse to oppress other humans. And society is mostly determined by culture, not genes.


    Re: 'Dunno if herons coo' ... sound more like squawks IMO.

    Herons however are pretty bright. Some use lures (pieces of bread) to catch fish. See 0:55 and 1:45 marks for demos of this - quite evident that this is a deliberate strategy.

    YouTube title: Green Heron using my bread as fishing bait !!


    1st century Rome was a city of a million people, Er no. The populated & built-up area at that time simply wasn't big enough to house 1 million people.


    Copper pyrites?

    Anyway it's nothing to do with me.


    This is the general problem of how close we can get to "no writing" to have all the functions of writing without actual writing. Like khipus, or workshops with sculptures like a Medieval cathedral (there for the instruction of the illiterate), or clothing that encodes meaning in a proto-writing way (which happened in Africa, although IIRC it marked status and affiliation).

    In other words, we're all weaseling around the constraint.

    Now, if we're talking about a truly alien culture, one thing that can substitute for some functions of writing is a good sense of smell. As with dogs, smell can confirm identity and provide important markers for status and reputation management. It's (perhaps) also easier to follow "recipes" if you can smell what's going into a batch of whatever is being cooked up. If you're traveling and carrying a token between individuals in a trading network (as in the Indian Ocean trade prior to the invention of capitalism), a sense of smell can be used to confirm both the identity of the token's maker (you can think about how they made the token and what it consists of by watching dog behavior), and also a sensitive nose can confirm what route the token traveled to the sniffer by what other smells attached to it.

    So this is one way around writing. Indeed, you could posit an alien race not developing terribly advanced technology because their sense of smell were so developed that they never got around to writing, and therefore never found out the joys of using abstract symbols and diagrams on flat surfaces as intellectual tools.


    Interesting ideas!

    Can't tell whether you assumed we'd pick up this: your microbe language could also work via oral transmission with the microbe reader built into the tongue. The incoming message once read could be chewed on at length, swallowed whole, or spat out. All sorts of pun possibilities here. (Shades of Gary Larson!)


    I think the underlying question is how a species could figure out substitution/representation. Once a being is comfortable with the idea that 'THING A is taking the place of THING B but only for right now and only for this purpose', then you can build on that. The ability to develop abstraction becomes fractal after a while. You just need a simple first-step.


    Yes, but that's not the key concept. It is more like NAME stands for a member of SET A, but in a generic sense; it is not a specific but unknown member (as at A-level), and therefore doesn't have a value. This means that anything that we prove about NAME will hold for any member of SET A, and is a seriously non-trivial concept.


    CJ Cherryh used something like that in Serpent's Reach. Every time two majat meet they "take taste" i.e. kiss and exchange spit. The spit contains either their entire memory or entire recent memory and after the exchange their minds are identical. This is how they have a hivemind without radio or telepathy.

    While they all have the same memories, the different castes process it according to their specialty. A Worker interprets it differently from a Warrior. Queens control the nest, and swarms of Drones keep the long term memory, supposedly going back millions of years.

    And they didn't have much technology before human contact. Which freaks them out because "minds that die" is such a strange concept to them.


    Because it's vaguely on topic (no writing or electricity) and I know many of us are nerdy enough to be amused by this, a digital computer made out of falling dominoes.


    a digital computer made out of falling dominoes. , of course.


    In other words, we're all weaseling around the constraint.

    Yes, we are, and that's one of the interesting aspects of this thread. Part of it may be an unclear definition of what the constraint is, and that's interesting in itself -- how do you make it clearer, or can you?


    I think it's only once you have multiples of different somethings that you can learn about sets - not the other way around.

    'Things that always stay the same' and 'things that change' is needed as part of the environment.

    Plus for learning to occur: time to witness continuum of cause-to-effect plus a feedback mechanism to verify correct vs. incorrect guesses/identifications. (Look up Japanese chick sexing ... the instructor/learner is unable to articulate specific selection attributes/criteria, but the learner can still learn how to tell boy chicks apart from girl chicks just by getting immediate feedback from the instructor. Some WW2 plane spotters learned similarly. See books by David Eagleman.)


    Today, half-asleep, I seem to have a few comments.

  • Oral tradition. You sound as though you're thinking of the Lone Bard, wanderin' into town with his faithful apprentice. Instead, you need to think of something like monasteries, where they correct each other. Come on, think oral RAID.

  • Of course, there's also how a lot of things work in the here and now: I may not remember something, but I know how to look it up. I'm an expert on Thing 1, which uses subthing a. "Hey, Joe, how does subthing a work? Can it give me a frammistat for my widget?"

  • Someone mentioned the spinning jenny... but not the cotton gin. And even with the jenny, and manual looms, as the price of thread goes down, the price of fabric goes down.

  • A more sfnal thought: eat the knowledge. One being spits out, literally, something special, maybe having masticated or eaten a special food, and regurgitates it (leaving out the line from Ferlingetti here), and the learner eats and digests it. Could be only good short term, or there might be a fixative.

  • 205:

    Not my point. Yes, you are correct, but let's consider building bridges, dams, roads etc. You need more than monkey-see, monkey-do for those, because each one is different. Trial and error works, but not well, and all of the major ancient civilisations did better, essentially using school-level variables (i.e. standing for a specific but unknown value). While this was/is unknown in many primitive societies, my experience and reading indicates that it's not a hugely difficult concept for people to grasp.

    The use of variables I am referring to dates from Newton and Leibnitz, as far as I am aware, and was perhaps THE key to modern mathematics and theoretical physics. My point is that it IS a very difficult concept, but I don't see how you would get far beyond 16th century technology without it. I still don't see that writing is critical for communicating it, but one does need better verbal communication than we have.


    Agreed, I've made the same point myself.

    A connected difficulty is that we are being asked to imagine the absence of something that has been a fundamental part of our personal experience for so long that it seems like the natural order of things. I for one can't remember what it was like not to be able to read. I have a fragment of memory which has survived the fog of years, of not being able to identify an item in a supermarket without asking my mum what it was; from this I can deduce that I wasn't able to read the label at the time, but I can't remember that, and it is no help at all in trying to recall the state of illiteracy; not that it would be much help to recall it anyway, given the smallness of my world when I was that small myself.


    I'm also glad that the whole threat in OGH's original post to delete any comments on weaseling around things hasn't been carried out, because that seems to be the main avenue that people have explored.

    Still, I wish more people would look at what how a sophisticated sense of smell might inhibit the creation of writing. After all, if you can know most of what you want to know about someone by smelling their butt (or something that was in contact with their body for an extended period), why would you resort to making visible marks on a flat surface to transmit information? If you don't have a desire to transmit information on flat sheets of stuff (clay, paper, whatever), how do you get into things like abstract math, geometry, trigonometry, and the like?


    Re: 'The use of variables I am referring to dates from Newton and Leibnitz, as far as I am aware, and was perhaps THE key to modern mathematics and theoretical physics. My point is that it IS a very difficult concept, but I don't see how you would get far beyond 16th century technology without it.'

    Okay. Are you talking about calculus or some other math? I took calculus long ago; forgot most of it by the time I left the exam room. Biggest problem with calculus is that the labels/symbols bear no/scant relationship to what is supposedly being demonstrated. Ditto for the sample and test/exam problems. And, for an algebra-derived/look-alike math (i.e., symbols), it relies pretty heavily on the student being able to visualize what's going on before he/she can select the appropriate equation. (Even the Prof had to sketch out the relationships pretty often to check the proofs/answers.)

    I'd be interested in how Newton & Leibnitz actually figured out/developed this math to see their own step-by-step progression because, based on my experience, they forgot to include a few transitional steps somewhere when they submitted their proof/instruction manual. And, if you've had difficulty explaining/teaching calculus, you've probably thought/noticed the same. So, what are those missing steps?


    Strictly, it's not calculus, but the two concepts are associated in most people's education and minds. And your problem with calculus illustrates precisely why it is so important! Until you can abstract the problem from the examples, you can't develop a general theory. Most people don't need to do that, because all they need to do is apply the rules that the Great Minds have developed - but the latter need that abstraction to develop the rules!

    I can assure you that you DON'T want to know how Newton got there. Remember that he was taught from Euclid's Elements, which (inter alia) relies on proving results using ruler and compasses alone. And an extended version of that is how he proved the inverse square law. When I started O-level, that was still examinable - but, by the time I reached the examination, it wasn't. I was taught how to prove the nine-point circle is a circle that way, and probably still could prove Pythagoras's Theorem if I sat down for a few hours with pencil and paper. But you can do the same with modern calculus in a fraction of the time and needing a lot less skill!


    A connected difficulty is that we are being asked to imagine the absence of something that has been a fundamental part of our personal experience for so long that it seems like the natural order of things.

    That's what hit me when I first went to China: I was illiterate. Really illiterate, not the "I need to look this word up in the dictionary" of travelling in Europe, but I had no way of finding the words in the dictionary. (Not knowing how to write characters, I couldn't find them as they're organized by radical (the root stroke).)

    It was an interesting experience, having to rely on the kindness of strangers to even find the bathroom.

    So, not illiteracy on the sense of not knowing what it's like to read, but illiteracy on the sense of not being able to read (or speak).


    Do a Google search. Nothing shows but this blog. I'd expect a real name to show up somewhere else…


    Which two concepts? Calculus and what?

    And - serious question/request - describe step-by-step how you, Elderly Cynic, go about solving a calculus problem. That is, do you first visualize the problem in your head or immediately draw it on paper? Do you visualize the start and end points of the problem, and work toward the middle? Do you identify the likely tools (equations) in your calculus toolkit (in your head) that experience has taught you might be relevant vs. locate in text book vs. derive from scratch? And so on. What exactly happens entirely in your head and what happens outside your head? How much of this is problem solving anew/de novo abstract reasoning vs. practice, practice, practice?


    A connected difficulty is that we are being asked to imagine the absence of something that has been a fundamental part of our personal experience for so long that it seems like the natural order of things.

    As a species, we've had a few singularity events. Language and writing are the big ones.


    Similar but lesser experience: visiting Japan. There are a lot of signs posted in romanji, so I wasn't totally at a loss, but kana, katakana and kanji were basically line noise to my eyeballs.

    (My wife had a level of Japanese about equal to a five-year-old, and was so able to find her way around.)

    A different thought, on visiting the United States: US road signage is remarkably textual. In the UK and Europe and elsewhere, while signs include place names, road names, and speed/distance quantifiers, there are also plenty of visual/iconic signs -- a red circle with a white horizontal bar for "NO ENTRY", rather than a triangle with the English words "No Entry" inside it, for example. The iconography is pretty similar across the EU, so even speakers of languages with non-Roman alphabets aren't totally at a loss to figure out they're on a one-way street.


    Since you're touching Asia, and someone else mentioned China, there are current Chinese nationals who have a society based on a non-written language:

    This essay uses Miao women"s clothing to "read" some of the narratives that have been "written," the "words" left behind by ancestors and the collective memory of ethnic migration.

    The Miao who live on the barren Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau-men, women, young, and old-wear buttonless hand-woven un-dyed linen garments and embroidered capes with back badges (FIGURE 1).

    Also, the myths developed because the Miao ancestors, having been defeated and scattered in all directions, were not able to sit down and peacefully record their own history through writing the way that the victorious Yellow Emperor and his people could.

    Living a migratory life, the Miao used the most convenient possible method to encode their own culture into a cipher that they could carry with them wherever they went. Consequently, their ancient songs, passed on orally, and the colorful hand-embroidered clothing became their tools for recording history and the fundamental method for passing on their culture.

    The Other Writing of People without a Written Language Deng Qiyao, Zhongshan University, Guangzhou

    Notably, they were able to develop water wheels and irrigation systems.

    The smell question is a good one, and actually crosses the dreaded "only writing can do abstract thought" myth:

    When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

    The team also found that several communities — speakers of Persian, Turkish and Zapotec — used different metaphors than English and Dutch speakers to describe pitch, or frequency: Sounds were thin or thick rather than high or low. In later work, they demonstrated that the metaphors were powerful enough to disrupt perception. When Dutch speakers heard a tone while being shown a mismatched height bar (e.g., a high tone and a low bar) and were asked to sing the tone, they sang a lower tone. But the perception wasn’t influenced when they were shown a thin or thick bar. When Persian speakers heard a tone and were shown a bar of mismatched thickness, however, they misremembered the tone — but not when they were shown a bar mismatched for height.

    Can’t Place That Smell? You Must Be American: How Culture Shapes Our Senses NYT, 2014

    As for my name?

    Well, I hope that everyone of a European cultural background knows where and why they have the naming pattern they do: taxation.

    Without the written word, names are different too; this goes for post-literate worlds as well as non-literate (not pre-literate, you'll notice).

    Your google bubble is probably set to English though. For instance: Ibnu "Benu" Wibi Winarko. Or in Welsh, it means "impose a", if you're stuck in reading left to right.


    I didn't find recognising the patterns particularly hard, though I had no way of looking them up. I had difficulty doing that with Arabic, though.


    Calculus and (essentially) axiomatic mathematics.

    I often 'visualise' simple problems, and sometimes even draft consequences and proofs (often incorrectly!), but not for calculus. More often topology, graph theory, probability and data consistency ones, but I have to use paper when they get complicated and to check that I have got it right. With calculus, I am entirely applying rules I have learnt or worked out, though I occasionally visualise the basic problem (crudely). But I know that other people can visualise other areas, and better mathematicians can do a lot more.

    The problem is that, as with many non-verbal skills, it's hard to describe; people learn the basics, develop their uses in different ways, and their are often no words to describe what they do. I have always been a largely non-verbal thinker, as many mathematicians are, though I think more verbally as I get older. Most of my postings on this thread are about a society that I can imagine being possible, not one that I would actually fit into. I wouldn't.


    Looking at the research done on the Jahai and other non-literate societies, let's imagine how you get to a sophisticated chemistry understanding (post-alchemy, perhaps into molar stuff) without writing:

    Your language has abstract terms for similar smells within totally unrelated sets. The example above used guano and ginger. (Note: we've no idea if this is true, and we're working backwards here, but only because we have to use words and research done in a particular way to do so):

    The sensory perception of ginger in the mouth and the nose arises from two distinct groups of chemicals:

    - the volatile oils, a mixture of terpenoids which imparts the characteristic aroma and modifies the taste.

    - the non-volatile pungent principles, such as the gingerols, shogaols, paradols and zingerone which produce the "hot" sensation in the mouth.

    I then ran into a million issues, mainly for these reasons:

    There's no reference to what the bats eat there. If they're eating insects that feed off ginseng, then it's meaningless.

    Researching "bat gauno terpenoids" leads into gardeners, organic, but more specifically, Marijuana growers. Variants of the name "Terpenoid THC Grow 420" are very much more common than my own name[1].

    All the serious science (On the Composition and Value of Bat Guano CF Miller, 1914, The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol.6, No. 8) is only interested in the "useful" stuff. The trace elements or dietary trends or smell is immaterial.

    And so, you see the issue, one hopes.

    Even only using 200 years of data (1802, Alexander von Humboldt) as opposed to 1,500+, the depth and breadth of the field is so wide to require significant research just to get started.

    Now, imagine that from a smell point of view[2]: An old joke is that canines smell in four dimensions. It's also true.

    In that world, Ax Body Spray (LINX for Europeans) would be a chemical weapon.

    But (important one), chemical decomposition and odor decay would be a far more important area of focus than the simple: "This is the Formula. This is always the Formula. There is nothing but the Formula".

    You'd have a spectrum of chemical analysis that focused on the temporal decay (within normal atmosphere, adding wet weather etc, then perhaps on mountains or in caves) and the language would reflect that.

    Diffusion, in the Brownian sense, would have been discovered far, far earlier.

    Points for spotting where this is going.

    [1] Making something unique is a lot harder than you'd imagine these days. Trust me: it's a Game - make a unique thing that no-one has Googled Before. Algos be smart, my young Prince.

    [2] Let's assume data storage is in some form of Giant Cheese or whatever, for now.


    Note: You only get points if originality is also coupled to multiple meanings that have context, weight and depth. This being (here) on the internet, it was an easy one with just enough push to allow everyone to feel cosy.

    Also, the moment you start realizing that poking into things without keeping them to yourself, or treating them as fun, is rude, the better.

    Mimicking stylistic text is automated these days.

    And so on, a billion "natural language" algo papers.

    What you should be asking is entirely different.

    Reverse the Chinese Room, and imagine what would happen to Shakespeare or Homer nowadays: put in a box, exploited, social media mined, total containment until the algos had the key then denied copyright while Disney made the films.

    That's the easy lesson.


    Also, the moment you start realizing that poking into things without keeping them to yourself, or treating them as fun, is rude, the better.

    Accusations of rudeness from a sexist anonymous poster who delights in calling people muppets, cunts, and fuckers*?

    Deary me. I am mortified and must make amends. Or I don't give a shit. You work out which.

    *And probably other insults I didn't bother to read?


    If you thought anyone was hiding anything, they weren't.

    If you thought you were ever being called rude names, you weren't.

    If you think your linear way of doing things is what it's all about, it isn't.

    But if you thought there were reasons to it all, there were.


    Robert Prior.

    Common Name.

    Not hard to find.

    I know what you did last Summer. And in 1987. Tsk. Tsk.


    A bit more serious way to parse this is:

    Some of the rudest, crudest and quickest thinkers on your planet have been the kindest when you scratch off the crud.

    On the other hand, looking at your present society, I note that that whole "Public vrs Private" persona ethos isn't really working for you.

    You're mistaking Victorian "manners" for content, which is why your background makes so much sense.

    It's an easy one: you ask nicely: "Don't do X".

    Or you elect Trump, the NeoCons and other psychopaths and your children die.

    Remind me again where manners were so highly valued?


    The American South.

    The Belgian Court (Congo)

    The thin ice of morally decadent and prudish children.


  • Quite the moral absence there. Nasty little business.
  • 223:

    And if you want to be really intelligent, you'll note the following:

    The Word based Ethos isn't about what you think it's about.

    You've demonstrated that perfectly, so thank you.

    Techne, Ethics and Word.

    A decent mind can parse multiple personalities at a time, and know when people are making amends or changing. Or when they at large personal cost sacrificed a part of them on the Winter Solstice.

    The prurient heart seeks revenge and righteousness.

    Because (as ever, children), they're ashamed of the way they would react. (1987).


    His Name was Robert Prior.


    Or, in other words:

    Perfect History means No Redemption (your example is the Prison Industrial / Commercial Complex in the USA). We know what you did (In all temporal spaces you've lived in).

    Monkey Minds scaling the heights of Algo quickness is the reason why decaf coffee gave you cancer for 40 years.

    Anyone who can shit all over a beautiful construct that is my current name to score internet points or make themselves feel righteous isn't intelligent. You touched about a fourth of it.

    Oh, spoiler:

    All the swearing was a signifier of social exclusion so you could discard anything we said; it was charity.

    If you think that's how we work, you're very silly.

    And we hate charity. Absolutely hate it. Even in Victorian times people knew it was a band-aid to the conscience to allow hierarchical exploitation. And you've no idea what a year of doing what we did cost us. But you never do.

    Enjoy the Starbucks and McDonalds and Exxon Mobile cheap gas, the world was yours.


    To answer the OP's question:

    You don't need the written word if you're immortal. (Spoiler)


    Oh, for the Langley types:

    What is Gambar Oemboel?

    Gambar Oemboel (GO) is another form of comics. Popular toys in 1970 - 1980 in Indonesia. This sheet is cut into pieces and then thrown by 2 or more players. When its fall and pictorial side is visible you win, if the inverse mean loose...

    Now, GO are not as popular as decades ago. GO has rarely played in a sense as before. They contain fragments of faces or scenes in movies, sitcoms, and soap opera which was famous at that time.

    Just in case you were in any doubt that you had missed some things.



    There's the picture mocking you.

    That's the 2nd bit, there's two more.


    The real issue is that the information being squirted in is at the childish end (yes, science boffins, we know, it's not just for you though).

    Host has 100% jurisprudence: one word, we leave forever.


    One last one:

    Although Pruitt is unable to use the bathroom without assistance, the FBI and the St. Clair, Alabama Sheriff’s Office are pretending that he was part of a plot to provide “material assistance to terrorism” on the basis of online conversations with FBI agents posing as recruiters for ISIS and the Taliban. He remains incarcerated in the St. Clair County Jail on $1 million bond.

    Immoral Patsy – How the FBI Groomed Mentally Disabled Teen With a 51 IQ into an “ISIS Terrorist” Dec 29th 2015

    Reminds me about that shoe bomber: shame you can't ignite that bomb with the primer he was given.

    Reminds me about that NY car bomb using fixed agricultural fertilizers (that's a trick learnt from the Britsh) that couldn't be exploded.

    And so on and so forth.

    Host's question isn't asking what you think it's asking.

    A more important question is: how do you determine falsity within a Logos based society?

    (It's easy if you can smell the pheromones or taste the bile and lies)



    And Eight:

    Question for you: One HN thread caused me to wonder about this: What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word? Would such a thing even be possible? If not why not?

    You don't have a society anymore, at least in the minds of HN or the 0.01% or even the rest of you.

    That's the joke.

    Took a while, but the acid (facehugger) was introduced and CIA / KGB / FSB / MOSSAD etc types got their wish.

    Remind me again: we start this little narrative with Isis and Cows and documenting pastures.

    We end it with ISIS and Cash Cows and snap chat being worth $16,000,000 and so on while basic infrastructure crumbles and people lie about lead poisoning in pipes because their communities are "bankrupt".

    You're living in a Dream World, Neo



    Snapchat was $16,000,000,000 [Billion]

    I was just messing with you.

    You still think that Society Exists?


    Did we ever come to a conclusion on if Hadil Benu = CatinaDiamond - because he/she/it looks very similar, particularly in the chunks of replies (and just as little SNR)?

    As for the original question, I'll point out again that many have been presupposing that writing is a particularly good mechanism for transferring ideas from one head to another. I'd suggest that something that is inherently serial, with low bandwidth and is open to misinterpretation at every turn isn't necessarily the pinnacle of communication mechanisms.

    Hell, we know that science focused on maths or private descriptors over prose centuries ago. Something inherently parallel, probably graphical, and addressable at a variety of levels of granularity would almost certainly be both better, and possible.

    The form of language tends to make representing certain concepts difficult, and language also warps and limits cognition (who doesn't think in words at least some of the time?)

    Maybe in some alternative universe there are some humans travelling between the stars, thinking "how could we survive without pictodrellics" - only, of course, not in so many words.


    The ability to develop abstraction becomes fractal after a while. You just need a simple first-step. POSSIBLY

    But, sooner or later, I suspect, it is going to become abstract representation of symbols, sounds & thoughts ( i.e. "Writing" ) And remember that mathematics is often/usually writing. Given Charlie's constraint of a "god-like" zap-from the sky prohibition - no it ain't going to work.


    See my #233 above No, you can't weasel around the constraint.

    The answer is unfortunately simple. NO Techne civilisation without writing.


    "Root Stroke"? Don't you mean "First impression of the wedge" ( Cuneiform is still with us ) Writing was invented ONCE - & then diversified. Pace the discussion on Quipus - because they are/were "spreadsheets" not writing.

    Which might, actually be the only valid weaselling-out-of-it route available? Said he, contradicting himself?


    Err, no. In order: Fire, language, writing (I think)


    t's a Game - make a unique thing that no-one has Googled Before Used to be called: "Googlewhacking" Find two & only two terms that produce a single return when fed into Google. I managed it once with: "Syzygy conjuction" ( I think ) - it was a long time ago - & it probably won't work any more anyway.


    Reverse the Chinese Room, and imagine what would happen to Shakespeare or Homer nowadays: put in a box, exploited, social media mined, total containment until the algos had the key then denied copyright while Disney made the films.

    Well, that's back to utter bollocks again - didn't take long, did it? In response I give you: Tom Stoppard O.G.H. (even) Arvo Part etc - make your own list ....


    You realise you just comitted a (UK) criminal offence That counts as on-line Threats & Harassment, don't you? Or do you? Or don't you care, because your ego is so big? NOT impressed.


    AH ... so you are a follower of the Immortal Margaret are you? "There is no such thing as Society" [snark]


    And - serious question/request - describe step-by-step how you, Elderly Cynic, go about solving a calculus problem.

    I'm not Elderly Cynic, but I am a practising physicist, so I do use calculus.

    Your question isn't very well-posed outside the artificial environment of school mathematics. In the real world, you don't have a "calculus problem"—you have a problem which is best solved using calculus. The start and end points are generally properties of the problem, and are "obvious". The nature of the actual calculation depends on the nature of the problem. I usually like to draw it, but I can do it in my head if I need to. I essentially never consult a textbook: if the function to be integrated is too hard to do with the tools I learned 40 years ago in high school, it's not worth doing analytically at all: look for an approximation that will make things simpler, or haul out the computer and do a numerical integration (differentiation is an order of magnitude easier and never causes such issues).

    Problems that require differentiation are those involving rates of change. Problems that involve integration are the inverse: they're the ones that require some form of summation. I'm finding it hard to visualise a problem where you could be confused about which one is required. The "tools in my calculus toolkit" are just the derivatives of standard functions (sin, cos, log, etc.) and a few standard rules: I could derive them from scratch if I had to, but I don't have to: I know them. Generally, I have to write things down if the function is complicated, just to keep track of the bits, but I'm pretty sure that this is laziness: if I were doing this in an oral culture, I'd have a better working memory.

    I'm also of the last generation that used log tables in anger (calculators came in while I was in high school), and I can extract square roots in my head, to about four significant figures (using a method my father taught me, which is essentially an application of the binomial theorem).


    I do all this using written symbols in my head. When I do the square root thing, I'm manipulating numbers; when I do calculus or algebra, I'm thinking in terms of "y = x2 exp(–x); therefore dy/dx = 2x exp(–x) - x2 exp(–x) = (x exp(–x))(2-x)". I don't believe I could do it without the symbols. So, even though I'm not writing anything, I need a developed written notation to do my mental calculations. I'm sure that pre-literate people could do (simple) mental calculations ("how much of this year's wheat crop do I need to save for next year's seed corn?"), but their processes for doing it must be different from mine, and I don't know whether a society could develop abstract mathematics without a written notation.


    Yes. You have explained that rather better than I did. In case I was unclear (as I often am), I do exactly the same as you for both calculus and other arithmetic and logical calculations. I use a different method for square root, but there are plenty of them! I 'visualise' only the pattern of problems and solutions, which may then lead me to conclude "Ah! I need to solve this."

    I fully agree that at least that level of symbolism is essential, though possibly not any of the symbolisms we use. I think that it could be developed and taught without writing, but it would need a society with a very different mindset to the one we have, and a population with abilities that are currently very rare. I know that I don't match that, but have met a few people that I think would.


    Not really. He might merely have been claiming that Robert Prior had been campaigning for both George Galloway and Nigel Farage. But I agree that he was being gratuitously offensive and breaking the rules of the blog.


    "The use of variables I am referring to dates from Newton and Leibnitz, as far as I am aware,"

    I think there's a deep and important point here.

    Euclidean proof is a matter of geometry. I can easily imagine an oral tradition of mathematics using geometric proofs. That's a very different way of doing maths than what we do, but it works (up to a point (pardon the pun)).

    Newton and Leibniz transcended that tradition, and used algebraic proofs. Theirs was a revolution in what sort of thing counted as a "proof" in mathematics.

    (cue long story about how Newton then pretended to still be upholding the 'true' standard of geometric proof, thus crippling English mathematics for the following two generations)

    I, also, find it hard to imagine that revolution happening in the same way without writing. I think the mathematics of the non-literate would be very different than ours.



    Catina and Hadil are not the same person.

    They are actually twins, separated at birth. The stylistic similarities in their comments are caused purely by their genetic similarity, because they've never met or spoken.

    Indeed they don't even share a language, since Hadil does not actually speak English, but types comments here due simply to genetic compulsion.


    "...if I were doing this in an oral culture, I'd have a better working memory.

    And you may have more than one 'language' at your disposal. And each one of those languages may have differing sets of rituals or 'dances' (think using muscle memory to retain rote learning). You could have the "sin dance" etc in the geometry 'language' and other 'dances' in other 'languages' for calculating degrees of confidence, or similar intellectualised processes. A 'dance' could be a collaborative effort between a number of lithe and energetic dancing mathematicians. This is sounding like "human mathematicians as bees", isn't it...


    "... I think the mathematics of the non-literate would be very different than ours.

    As a non mathematician, I'm rather intrigued by this idea. Your mileage may vary :P


    Alternatively, you could do the sine dance. Possibly in a sinful manner...


    Did we ever come to a conclusion on if Hadil Benu = CatinaDiamond - because he/she/it looks very similar, particularly in the chunks of replies (and just as little SNR)?

    I thought it was glaringly obvious, by their second comment if not earlier.

    Which brings up a very interesting tangential point: the expression of identity through writing is quite significant.

    I went through a period some years back when, when I dreamed, I dreamed in somatic details related to typing -- that is, I could feel my fingers moving over the keyboard in the correct sequence to type out what I was experiencing/seeing/thinking/hearing in the dreams. I've never really been much for handwriting, but I suspect if I had to write everything longhand a somewhat different somatic hallucination would have been the result.

    Writing isn't just about abstract information transmission: it's about serialization and compaction of information. And reading isn't just about unpacking data.

    To a person from an aliterate society, we'd look unbelievably weird while reading fiction! A reader would appear to be sitting still for long periods of time, staring at patterned sheets of wood pulp while experiencing the hallucinatory belief that they were somebody else (in first-person narrative). And writing fiction would seem even stranger in its implications.

    Hadil Benu/CatinaDiamond has put their finger on something that most of you seem blind to in this discussion, namely the multivalent nature of most communications. The serial nature of writing tends to obscure this: in fact, even our writing systems carry metadata (just consider the implications of font choice and layout design in newspaper or magazine articles) but the overwhelming emphasis on words distracts us.


    Note: This originally came to me as a question through my email inbox, but it's so fascinating that I'm considering using it as one of the intermediate settings in the next space opera. (Because it ain't a space opera if $PROTAG doesn't go on a grand tour of weird and whacky worlds and world-like objects.)

    In which case, having a symbol suppression agency in orbit is something I can declare by fiat, leaving me free to examine the consequences.


    Your misreadings of a certain other commenter are becoming tiresome -- illustrative of your own unwillingness to grasp the point.

    Here's a hint: "Think like a State". Here's another hint: the entities said other commenter referred to are incapable of formal interaction with an oral-only community; they're so entirely geared around textual communications that the non-textual world doesn't exist in their sensory realm.

    Consider the headaches the likes of GCHQ and the NSA have with conversations in mosques or the back rooms of pubs. Luckily for them most of us carry remote-controllable radio bugging devices that can also track our location (and in some cases our heart rate and other biodata), so this is less of a problem than it used to be for the KGB and FBI during the Cold War days -- but still? Semtex = tomatoes, AK47 = radishes, ammunition = peanuts, and Bob's your Terror Conspiracy Theorist.


    As a rusty mathematician, I agree - but I lack the imagination to create such a mathematics!


    I have not read all the comments yet. Would Tarot-like cards (sans the numbers and letters obviously) or memorized memory palaces contained within systematic rituals works (modified i-ching, etc.)? Some people think the Tarot were a pedagogic tool for heresy to slip by the Inquisition as the rabble playing games.

    In which case, having a symbol suppression agency in orbit is something I can declare by fiat, leaving me free to examine the consequences.

    Another possible conceit would be that these are human-like aliens (or alien-like humans) who can only process grammar orally, not visually, presumably due to some neurophysiological constraint. Which would give a somewhat different set of constraints to both the overlords and the religious prohibition; it would permit simple signs and labels, but probably not Ikea instructions.

    Probably the choice of constraint depends more on whether one wants to write a story about struggle against overlords in orbit, one set in a strictly religious society, or one with aliens...


    There's an nice chicken & eggness about it. The method chosen to suppress the society is almost as interesting as the result. I suspect if you examine the resultant society or design the society and derive the method there are some fun/interesting interactions between the 2.


    Right, to start off with: it is possible to have representative pictorial images and a vibrant oral culture accompanying those images without necessarily having those pictorial images become a written form of your language at the same time. There are Indigenous Australian peoples who have managed this rather successfully for centuries. Written language is not a universal thing. It's much more of a specific solution which is fairly widespread through cultural contagion. But it is possible to create a rather vibrant and flexible culture, capable of coping with the majority of what the world throws at you, without needing to be able to write anything down.

    Now, before anyone makes any comments about "primitive cultures", let me just point out the Australian continent is, by and large, for most of its landmass, lacking all three of the major generic requirements for the creation of a settled agricultural society. Namely: fertile, arable soils; dependable year-round water supplies; and domesticable ungulate placental mammals (or indeed, any kind of domesticable beast of burden). The "primitive" nature of Indigenous Australian cultures has far more to do with these factors than anything else - basically, if your entire culture has to consist of things which are able to be picked up and carried from place to place solely by human power, your culture spends a lot of time being abstracted right down to the simplest elements which will do the necessary tasks for the least weight.

    Such as language, dance, and story. Story everywhere, because story explains why you do certain things at certain times; why certain things aren't to be done in certain places; where the nearest waterways are, and why, and so on. The story cues, meanwhile, get tied to certain objects, images, and situations, to be pulled out as needed. They're taught widely to the whole group, because this is redundancy and backup - but certain people specialise around certain areas (country, totems, song lines etc) in order to ensure continuity of each distinct storyline. I'd also guess most of this evolved through trial and error - these are the things which worked, and which were shown to work over the longest period of time.

    I'd argue that the growth of settled agriculture is actually the crucial cultural ingredient we're looking at here in order to create any kind of technologically advanced society, rather than written language. Essentially, as any number of nomadic cultures could tell you, if you have to be able to pick up and carry everything from one place to another, the amount of surplus produce you can build up is rather strictly limited. A nomadic herding culture is limited by the amount of space required for the herds to graze. A nomadic hunter-gatherer culture is limited by the amount of stuff they can pick up and carry (and the same applies to nomadic raiding cultures). But once you have settled agriculture, and a set location, you don't have to carry everything from point A to point B all the time... and you can accumulate a lot more surplus produce.

    More importantly, once you have all your gathering needs in the one location close by your camping point, and always at a known distance, you wind up with surplus time. Lots of surplus time. Time enough to figure out new ways of processing the vegetable and animal produce so you can get more surplus out of them (by storing them for longer, or extracting more nutrition out of the same amount of produce). Which means, slowly but surely, you wind up with more surplus time and produce (and a larger population, with a greater population density).

    Enough surplus time and produce, in fact, to produce specialists who can do things like dedicating all their time to making pots and storage containers (to enable the storage of more produce). Specialists who can dedicate all their time to keeping track of how much surplus has been produced, and how many people (who aren't necessarily working in the fields or the pastures) it can support. Specialists who can devote their time to thinking about the way the world works, and how to explain this to other people (usually by means of religion). Specialists who can dedicate their time solely to practising weapon skills, and then use those skills to raid other groups in order to acquire (for example) things those groups have that you don't (or even stealing away the people who produce those things).

    But when you aren't able to remain in one location permanently (simply because if you do, you wind up stripping the local environment of all edible matter within a single growing season) your culture has to be much more portable. Depending on the amount you can carry with you from place to place (what kinds of beasts of burden are available, how fertile the landscape is, etc) this will dictate just how much material culture you can bring with you - but even so, the majority of your cultural material will tend to be things like song, story, and dance. If the entire planet's geography was more like the Australian landscape, I suspect technological society wouldn't have been able to evolve at all.


    Possibly my bad. I've been raising mention of Australian Aborigines because of their polygot language skills (if you need to find a husband or wife in a different tribe, you need to learn the languages of the tribes around you), and their use of visual art and dance. Not to mention their mapping artwork.

    Fully agree with the need for consistency of food supply; in that regard Australia may be a poor choice for a template.

    However, I have a vague memory of reading[1] that life expectancy and general health declined in the the Fertile Crescent after the domestication of grain and the development of cropping horticulture. Also, that the Kalahari Bushmen have a huge percentage of 'free' time compared to folk that live in settled societies with horticulture etc. (sorry no reference)

    [1]Mithern S, (20??) After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-5000 BC


    In which case, having a symbol suppression agency in orbit is something I can declare by fiat, leaving me free to examine the consequences.

    That defines the parameters a bit tighter. Thanks.

    So we have something monitoring the world suppressing symbols and doing Something Nasty to people who use them? Written symbols like writing, suppressed.

    What about signs? Can we be the Raven clan with a drawing of a raven on our chests and shields? How simplified can the drawing be before it becomes a forbidden symbol? Or is a single symbol OK, but a few together becomes forbidden? (And how close is "together"?)

    What about artwork? Abstract geometric shapes? If allowed, they can easily become a code*. If not allowed, we can't have geometry, which severely limits mathematics.

    If I have a container, drawing a little picture of what's inside is obvious. (Saves me having to break the seal to discover the contents.) But that starts along the track to ideograms, so it might be Forbidden. But if forbidden, then representational art is out the window as well. If not forbidden, then there's a (probably fuzzy) line somewhere between Art and Symbol that will trigger intervention.

    If they're human (or human-like aliens), your inhabitants will probably push the boundaries — it seems to be what humans do. (Larry Niven's story "Limits" springs to mind.) Just like we're doing :-)

    Are they allowed models? Models and sets could easily encode instructions for various activities, and records of events. More laborious than writing, but still possible. (I'm thinking in that case 'writing' would be more like cuneiform or Chinese characters — taking years to master and so the province of a specialized group who can afford the time for training)

    If they're allowed art they can have a record. Meanings may drift with time, but that happens with language as well. Precise instructions may be tricky, but things like recipes were usually 'fuzzy' in the past anyway. Even in modern science, repeating a particular experiment often requires extra communication with the original researchers to discover things they didn't write down that are important. (Hidden assumptions etc.)

    Given art, Mendellian genetics is possible. So is microscopy. With geometry and models, certainly medieval levels of construction would be possible. Given the contingent nature of our development, I suspect to get a plausible answer you'd need to walk through a development path for each area crucial to the story you want to tell (and probably related areas as well).

    *Look at what the Victorians did with folded corners on calling cards, for example.


    Dreaming of the self-eating snake & Benzene rings, perhaps?

    ...And see also my immediate suggestion that there's a way round it of sorts: Quipus. But, um, err .....

    Talking of "um" - yes, I take your point about "agencies" not being able to grasp some things, but I'm going to plead that $SpecificPoster is speaking as an individual, as are we all, & so there! He/she/it/they is speaking directly to individuals on this blog. And, as everyone has long since gathered, pretending to be Teilhard de Chardin or some other mystical claptrapper, with deliberately oblique & often downright WRONG references to $Objector_Idea is guaranteed to annoy, [ Which is why it's probably being done in the first place, which means it is trolling, or something, which means ... err ... what was I saying? ]


    I've forgotten, if we have nailed this one down yet, but:

    Is the equivalent of Chinese, or Kanjii "writing" - since they are pictograms, whereas Hangul (sp?) is a phoneme-system, so IS writing? The defining boundaries become very difficult to follow, don't they?


    Ah, your post popped up whilst I was writing mine on the boundaries between "pictograms" which might not be writing & syllabary/phoneme systems which definitely are writing .....


    According to Reimer, Egyptian mathematics (well, arithmetic) used symbols. Not certain whether you could do it without them.

    I've seen plans for mechanical engines that compute rates using gears, but I'm certain they were designed using writing. Not certain if you could do one without writing, Antikythera mechanism-style.


    Actually, if I go that way it's more likely to be enforced by inducing phonological agraphia in all people entering or leaving the world via targeted brain lesions. In other words: writing isn't forbidden as such, it's just that nobody can learn to read -- that is, to translate symbols they can see into speech.

    But this is basically speculating about something I haven't written yet. Which I'd like to discourage.


    I've been thinking about the suggestion of audio recordings. I think the issue with this was the level of technology required to achieve it.

    But, what if our audio technology was not needed? What if an animal or plant (or something living but totally different, we are talking alien) from the environment could be used as an audio recorder. After all, we already have birds that can learn and mimic various sounds, including human words and expressions. These abilities could then be enhanced through selective breeding. Given the right organism (relatively cheap to produce and maintain, easily bred, reasonably long lived) it might even be possible to build up libraries. Each individual might only need to memorise a few sentences, or the equivalent of a song. Given a mechanism to index or order them, a number of individuals might be used to store any larger bodies of knowledge (or stories).

    Of course, with selective breeding, we could have specialised sub species, each better suited to a particular task.

    Would it be as good as writing? It would be different. Diagrams, drawings, charts, graphs, etc, might be beyond it, as might complex maths. On the other hand, the tone of voice might well be recorded, something often lacking in the written word (no sarcasm font required).

    The implications are intriguing. For example, would a library be loud (all those audio recorders constantly replaying) or very quiet (so audio recordings aren't corrupted)? Can they be used to record multiple times, or might this vary by breed? Might some breeds or species be used for temporary recordings and the reused or disposed of, whilst others are used for long term storage?


    Well, when I write characters I'm writing, by most definitions. Hard to read (I still need the practice paper to get the sizes right).


    This counts as writing by my standard, and I assume Charlie's as well.


    I thought it was glaringly obvious, by their second comment if not earlier.

    Exactly. Without even reading the first two comments, they look like hers. I'm almost sorry I brought it up, though. I don't mind her comments, and often find them interesting/amusing, not that I always understand them. Actually it's the responses to her that are often most amusing, until they start to get nasty. I think part of that is people taking her use of "You" too personally; I read it as a plural, as in You Foolish Humans. And I say Her because of past discussions (particularly the ones dealing with mucous & menstruation) that seem to come from experience. Not that it makes a difference to me.

    Replying to 250: Now, as for the original topic. I've been thinking of it as dealing with a world where, whether because of a god or god-like AI, or weird physics, prevents marking on any surface so that writing is physically impossible.


    What about signs? Can we be the Raven clan with a drawing of a raven on our chests and shields?...

    Now I'm thinking (within my own constraints@268) of pictorial arts that don't involve writing/drawing. Is intricate quilting of images allowed?


    To be fair, you did not ask if we could still write poetry or contemplate the universe, you asked if we could develop a technological civilization; so people focused on what they know as technological civilizations.

    I think something could develop a complex technological civilization without writing, but I am not sure humans could. We cannot reliably pass on enough information.

    I assume your Archangel Set in the East of Eden, i.e. satellite of agraphia, was either developed by standard technological humans either native or non-native to the planet below OR was developed by another standard technological species OR was developed by a non-writing-as-we-know-it species which for some reason is colossally offended by intelligence of our type.


    Just caught up on comments, so never mind my second bit @268.


    I wrote this in haste. Let me see if I can make it more comprehensible.

    Locus A develops a memory world; children/students within this community learn it orally and develop their own variations. There is a system in place to communicate variations and/or as an aide memoire. Such systems might involve ritual gestures, dances, throwing sticks/bones, etc. (I considered mapping aspects of the palace to the stars, but then climate/weather becomes a factor.)

    Some of these students move to other Loci and there is a communication system that allows people to travel and adjust to regional variation.

    You could encode a lot of information within a iching or astrology or tarot type system, particularly if that information is mostly about navigating or modifying a larger memorized system rather than on encoding the entire memory world itself.


    I assume your Archangel Set in the East of Eden, i.e. satellite of agraphia, was either developed by standard technological humans either native or non-native to the planet below OR was developed by another standard technological species OR was developed by a non-writing-as-we-know-it species which for some reason is colossally offended by intelligence of our type.

    Or was set up by someone wanting to enforce an oral culture. Maybe a Mad Scientist out to experimentally test transmission of legends; maybe a Mad Poet in love with oral ballads…


    A more tyrannical and comprehensive variation on A Million Open Doors by John Barnes, perhaps?


    Such as language, dance, and story. Story everywhere, because story explains why you do certain things at certain times; why certain things aren't to be done in certain places; where the nearest waterways are, and why, and so on. The story cues, meanwhile, get tied to certain objects, images, and situations, to be pulled out as needed. They're taught widely to the whole group, because this is redundancy and backup - but certain people specialise around certain areas (country, totems, song lines etc) in order to ensure continuity of each distinct storyline. I'd also guess most of this evolved through trial and error - these are the things which worked, and which were shown to work over the longest period of time.

    I think this scenario describes the fundamental nature of humans pretty well. It' so old that we even genetically evolved a brain function that rewards us when we absorb a story.


    That is a far better approach. Let's leave mechanisms and describe my experiences of people brought up without concept X, or where concept Y is cognate with concept Z even though they are actually different. I don't claim to be an expert, or correct, but I have seen a fair number of such examples, and I am an obsessive compulsive observer and analyst.

    I am certain that they literally could not think in terms of concept X or distinguish concepts Y and Z and, in some cases, I doubt that they (as adults) were capable of learning to think that way. It's impossible to tell, of course, but I firmly believe that different people have different intellectual limits, just as they have different physical ones. Even if it was possible for them, it might have been infeasibly difficult.

    I remember well the difficulty I had in my first year at university, having never encountered the advanced use of symbols used in axiomatic mathematics before, and with the lecturer assuming that everyone has at least been introduced to it. And I can also remember, less than a year later, being completely unable to understand how I had trouble. Many people find thinking in terms of measure theory almost impossible, but others find it simple. And so on. I also know how much difficulty I have trying to think in the symbolism used in formal semantics, despite the fact that it's a simple notational variant of symbolism I can think in! I encountered that when I was about 35, and can just about use it, but only by translating into the symbolism I can handle and back again.

    And those are just mathematical concepts. But ethical and social concepts and symbols (e.g. 'kindness'), and God alone knows how many others, are at least as important and hard to grasp if they are new to you. And to teach, of course.

    I have absolutely NO idea how you could extend that to an asymbolic culture, but I am certain that we would be mutually incomprehensible to a degree that no two human societies are or were.


    Sure. The first inhabitants could even have been volunteers — but their kids don't get a choice.

    The backstory is whatever Charlie needs for his book. I wanted to know the mechanism (or a possible mechanism) so I knew the parameters when trying to figure out what technology could be developed.

    The only other question would be if the inhabitants knew that technology existed. Easier to develop something when you know it's possible :-)


    Thanks for your reply! - And thanks also to Susan and Minion.

    I was thinking that once the rules were defined, memorized and through repeated use internalized to the point that they became automatic, that in a pinch users (mathematicians) would then develop their own short-hand notations to more easily encode their problem-solving approach/process.

    Susan - as you're the physicist here - isn't this what Feynman's diagrams are about, a shorthand notation for what happens to particles under various scenarios? They started as pictorial representations, and then became abstractions. The diagrams don't 'explain' quantum mechanics, but they do provide a means of communicating about abstract concepts. (Note: All I know of Feynman is non-tech and mostly from bio/autobiographies, 'Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman'.)

    According to some neuro research, human brains are actually very cross-wired in terms of senses and 'logic/thinking' parts. That is, the entire scene is captured and processed altogether and the various senses are always linked to each other.

    Not exactly what Minion was saying, but related ... To me, this suggests that it should be possible to come up with a language and thinking process where in formal problem solving different senses are assigned different relative weights when processing data. For example - if you're doing mental math such as multiplication - the unit column numbers would be smell, the carry-over to the tens would be taste, the hundreds column would be sight, etc.

    Something that tends to get ignored here is emotional senses/learning. Affective computing is here - the ability of computers/AI to read human emotions. Reading/understanding emotions is at least as important to human communication and society building as abstract thinking. How it relates to building bridges - don't know apart from the sales rep who's better able to persuade the buyer gets the bigger contract regardless of how pure/strong his product is. Reading human emotions is actually pretty high up there in terms of abilities as it requires the person/AI to combine/process multiple sensory signals from a range of signalers and under varying circumstances. Not as cut and dried as identifying a color or a sound. (See below.)


    Interesting, but in a way it is circling back to a different era or locale in the Glasshouse-verse.


    Maybe it's more interesting to consider an expansion rather than a diminishment.

    Consider a space-opera setting in which PetaCorp has, at long last, come up with a consistent and transmissible memory abstraction mechanism; this is a serious technical achievement because memory is patterns and responses, highly individual, and not obviously replicable into another brain, but by throwing money and genius at the problem, PetaCorp eventually solved it.

    Only there are... side effects. If you got a copy of (say) Greg's knowledge of gardening, you also get a ... bias, not quite statistically significantly but impossible to convince people it's not there (and we may be looking at a weakness in the detection methods anyway; the tech will pull related groups of memories but isn't up to a full mind copy yet, so the interactions remain fuzzy and underweighted) for, say, Greg's taste in beer, broadly defined, and you're a wine connoisseur. Or your accounting knowledge was copied from someone who reveres Maggie Thatcher, or your spacesuit repair knowledge from someone obsessed with parrots. (It's a long way in the future; you've never seen a parrot. You don't even like chicken.)

    So PetaCorp sets up an environment to test consumer reluctance; all staffed by volunteers, of course, who will be handsomely paid at the conclusion of the study. It's worth it because you can use the memory copies one to many; the savings to society are incalculable. The potential for greater rates of technical innovation alone when you can stick the inventor's full context in a group of followup workers would pay for the development costs if PetaCorp can get this monetized somehow.

    Only the study doesn't conclude; there was an investigation, there were assassinations, the Emperor's Sublime Personage of Accountancy issued a Clarification of Practice, and PetaCorp is no more. It's almost six hundred years before anyone finds the place, where everyone is -- for purity of experimental results -- has utter hereditary[1] dysgraphia. They don't even have representational art. They do have a built in ability -- a small biotech machine, with its own genome and reproductive mechanisms -- to transmit memories.

    The first group to re-find the carefully remote experimental location were distressed to discover the machine is contagious. (No sense putting in the intellectual property non-proliferation monthly payments system until after the experiment.) There's a quarantine, because bioweapons affecting cognition are something to take seriously.

    But the local culture, well. They started very small. It's rather surprising they survived, really. And they have some really peculiar pronouns. And what is obviously a legal system, but we can't actually find it anywhere. And...

    [1] that was easier, and the temporary ongoing induced version might have messed with the experimental results anyway


    Questions for Charlie:

    What are the physical characteristics of your hypothetical world?

    What are the most common organisms on your world? And what senses/abilities do they possess?


    Susan - as you're the physicist here - isn't this what Feynman's diagrams are about, a shorthand notation for what happens to particles under various scenarios? They started as pictorial representations, and then became abstractions. The diagrams don't 'explain' quantum mechanics, but they do provide a means of communicating about abstract concepts.

    Feynman diagrams (in the formal sense) are very highly structured pictorial representations of calculations in quantum field theory. (The best analogy I can come up with is Chinese characters, where most characters are compounds of more basic characters—but it's not a very exact analogy, because in compound Chinese characters only some of the elements refer to the sense: the rest are phonetic, which wouldn't be a good analogy for Feynman diagrams.) Each line and vertex in a Feynman diagram is associated with a particular piece of mathematics, and if you follow through the diagram collecting all the components, you end up with an expression for the probability amplitude. There's an example here and a much longer discussion here.

    So, for a theorist, a Feynman diagram is a route map for constructing the calculation that will allow you to determine the properties of the interaction shown (i.e. what its probability of happening is, as a function of the various incoming and outgoing momenta). For our present discussion, the problem is that the mathematical structures for which the Feynman diagram is a mnemonic are not simple: drawing the diagram is an aid to constructing the mathematical expression, not a substitute for it. Quantum field theory is surely a bridge too far for unwritten mathematics as practised by humans (I am not excluding the possibility that alien intelligence might be better suited to it).

    Experimentalists draw Feynman diagrams as representations of interactions, but don't do the entire calculation: we look at the key bits (how many vertices? are there any loops? are the propagators massive or massless?) and thereby get some idea of what the general characteristics of the interaction will be. This you could do without written maths, but it's hand-waving derived from the detailed calculations, not vice versa: the diagrams started off as theorists' route maps, and only later began to be used less quantitatively.

    It is probably true that experienced theorists can construct probability amplitudes from simple Feynman diagrams without having to write down any intermediate stages: the various algebraic manipulations have fairly standard forms, and if you do this sort of thing for a living they'll start to be second nature. But a key point here is that beginners can't do this: it's a skill learned by experience (just as you can now do mentally calculations, like long division, that you'd surely have had to write down when you were 8). Training the next generation would be hard without writing.

    I buy, to some extent, the argument that alternative representations, such as music and dance, could be used to encode such information. However,

  • it is not obvious that the required level of precision can be achieved (in a recent TV programme on the Great Barrier Reef, they showed an Aboriginal dance that recalls the end of the last Ice Age, when the Australian continental shelf flooded: remarkable, but I didn't get the sense that it encoded any quantitative information, e.g. how long ago this was, how long the process took, etc.)
  • you have to be there to watch the dance (at least until/unless the culture invents television).
  • People underestimate the impact that the spread of printing had on scientific progress. For example, Aristarchos of Samos invented the heliocentric solar system about 1700 years before Copernicus, but we don't know the details of his model, because it didn't immediately catch on (the observational evidence in its favour is almost non-existent before the invention of the telescope) so nobody invested the huge amount of labour involved in hand-copying technical manuscripts. In contrast, Copernicus' model didn't immediately catch on either, but the fact that De Revolutionibus was printed meant that it got widely distributed, thereby reaching the relatively small number of people who recognised its merits. I suspect representations by music/dance/whatever would be more like hand-copying: are you going to invest the amount of time needed to learn a complex dance that the Guild of Applied Mathematicians does not believe to be a useful contribution to knowledge?


    Interesting, but in a way it is circling back to a different era or locale in the Glasshouse-verse.

    I was thinking more the Invented Cultures of John Barnes' Giraut series, but like I said the backstory is whatever Charlie wants to tell.Not important, really, for this exercise.

    (Looking forward to reading it, maybe, after I retire. At least, I assume it would be a long way away, as Charlie seems booked up for a few years.)


    If you got a copy of (say) Greg's knowledge of gardening, you also get a ... bias, not quite statistically significantly but impossible to convince people it's not there

    Given that we can reliably induce biases by merely asking people to imaging certain situations, I'd expect one with memory transfer.

    That would certainly be one of the areas of research — can you 'scrub' the biases from the skills? Or failing that, can you match the biases that the learner already has, so they don't notice a difference?

    But that seems a different neural hack to phonological agraphia. (Unless I'm really misunderstanding phonological agraphia, which is possible.)


    And totally off-topic, but cool:

    Charlie, I apologize if you've already seen this, but when I found the site I figured you'd like it.)


    "Quantum field theory is surely a bridge too far for unwritten mathematics as practised by humans"

    And how! But the same isn't true of special relativity, which is often visualised and taught using Minkowski diagrams etc.

    "People underestimate the impact that the spread of printing had on scientific progress."

    Perhaps. I agree that it changed the probabilities and rates, but I am less certain that it actually enabled progress that would not have been made even without it.


    "Something that tends to get ignored here is emotional senses/learning."

    Very much so, but writing has little direct influence on its development and it has little direct influence on technology. It affects mainly the social and political structures and, of course, marketing and all that it implies. It's interesting from a learning perspective, because most people pick it up naturally, but some of us have to learn it consciously.


    What is the written word for?

    Transmitting information across time. Transmitting information across distance. Representing the physical as the virtual.

    Struck me as the main answers so a technological society without the written word needs to not consider these as limiting constraints.

    If they are limiting then you'll tend to develop writing or something analogous.


    Actually, some outsiders think the Australian dreamtime/dream tracks system is basically a huge memory palace. Rituals were laid out on the landscape, as were stories. The stories provide (among other things!) survival information and information about how to run their society correctly. The Law in this case is violating the memory palace and having incorrect relationships with other beings.

    The Mojave and Apache Indians had a similar system, as did (probably) many other tribes around the world. The problem is that it's quite easy to break such a system: that's what a reservation is for. When you take people off their land, teach them another language, and force them to have a religion like Christianity, the whole system falls apart in a generation or two.


    Well, when I write [Chinese] characters I'm writing, by most definitions. Hard to read (I still need the practice paper to get the sizes right).


    This counts as writing by my standard, and I assume Charlie's as well.

    Me also. Having one or two compact, and often intricate and elegant, symbols for a word feels slightly different from writing a string of letters, but it's still writing. (If writing them with a brush or brush pen, then it's art. In North Face of Soho, Clive James said that looking at a page of a Japanese newspaper was one of the most intense aesthetic experiences he'd ever had.)


    Most of the characters are far removed now from being pictures of anything, and I doubt the average Chinese stops to analyse "鱼" ("fish") into its original pictorial components, any more than the average English person analyses "explain" into "lay out, flatten, make plane".

    By the way, back in comment 73 or so, Dirk asked whether cartoons counted as writing. I didn't answer at the time for fear of derailing, but I'd say that it definitely does. One reason is that early pictographs, not just Chinese ones, were a form of cartoon writing. Another is that there's research that suggests (as far as I understand it) that the brain uses linguistic-style processing when drawing or interpreting cartoons. Neil Cohn has done a lot of work on this in his Visual Language Lab.

    And, can I show this cartoon, by "Tab" who used to draw for Trends in Biochemical Sciences:

    It's two dimensional not one, and full of little pictures, but the pictures are clearly being used as symbols. It's a cartoon, but it's also writing.


    Sorry, have to disagree here ...

    How characters are portrayed in stories (books, cartoons, dance) communicates cultural norms, especially descriptions of their interactions with and reactions to their environment both physical and social. ('Show, don't tell' lesson in story writing.) Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo influenced social attitudes toward industrial development. Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, HG Wells impacted attitudes toward science by making science more familiar - showing benign and sometimes grotesque consequences.


    You can volunteer to write practical stories that teach life-lessons along with practical mechanics (Aesop's "The Crow and the Pitcher").


    Seeing Like a State is about a somewhat different set of problems* than the American Industrial-Intelligence Complex deals with, but it's still a cool reference.

    Still, it's not just a matter of verbal communication with simple substitutions, because those can be deduced logically. It's probably rather better to have a conversation "Korean-style" to pick on one language where the subject of a conversation is generally only referred to with a proper noun at the beginning of the discussion, and then it's referred to with pronouns (that, this, etc.). For example:

    "Remember that discussion a little while ago? It's a great idea."


    A conversation like this might be sufficient to launch anything from a tech startup to a terrorist attack to setting two friends up for a date, but unless the authorities have the entire conversation string to deduce the referents, it's totally innocuous.

    *Seeing Like a State, in tl;dr, is about the necessary simplifications needed to run a state, and how these lead to pathological, even monstrous, outcomes under certain conditions. the very tl;dr version is that every time you think that you can solve a complex societal problem by rationalizing the system, you're in the territory dealt with in this book.


    What are the physical characteristics of your hypothetical world?

    No idea.

    (I haven't begun brainstorming for it in earnest yet.)


    Just remember, quipus are another great way to deal with satellite surveillance, because you can include details (like the direction the string was spun) that are more easily felt than visualized, especially from a distance. Without context, it's just a bunch of colored strings with knots on. While it doesn't have much bandwidth, unless you know what code was used to choose the colors and make the knots, it's pretty opaque.

    And yes, I already used this system in my first novel.


    I think someone already mentioned quidditch ... so building on games in general as a learning, problem solving and communications method in a society where writing is either not feasible or not permitted.

    First version: physical sports whose rules and play actually help discover/prove/do things in the physical realm. Anyone who overhears sports enthusiasts knows that fans can remember every detail. And sports attract a lot of followers. One of the rules of such games would be its flexibility in terms of specific game objectives. This would allow the rules to be slightly modified on the fly. (If the species is not allowed to have writing and is trying to fly under an AI's radar, then occasionally some games would have to be played just for fun. Fudge the data a bit.) Only referees and franchise owners would be aware of the actual purpose of these games. The players would be trained to use only a small set of legitimate moves to advance play or score. A panel of judges would determine whether a play was valid, i.e., scored points. Bonus points would also be allocated for fastest time, fewest moves needed, novelty, and/or some other characteristic. In order to be able to observe the entire playing field, the judges panel would have to sit apart and above the playing field. Player apparel would signify what types of plays/moves they can make, where on the field they can move, which other players on their as well as on the opposing team they can interact with. There would be a grab-bag of possible game objectives with each team pulling one or two objectives out of a hat. Die-hard fans often copy their favorite teams/players, so particularly interesting plays would spread across communities. (Would probably work best for demonstrating mechanical/engineering principals.)

    Second version: board games with tokens, specific rules for moves, etc. very similar to the sports game. Difference #1: this would be solo, therefore accessible by the more widely scattered and less physically active at-home community. Judges would travel a circuit and each community would have to host a local competition. The winner of each local competition would travel to the next highest level right up to their version of the world competition. Provided players gain prestige within their communities, and communities get some type of pay off, this would motivate on-going participation. Difference #2: this would be a math game. Each token would have a specific value or function: algebra with tokens instead of letters. Couple of potential versions for this board game depending on player level: a) Player is provided a simple pattern (formula) and a large number of token pieces and is required to create a design that uses either the smallest or the largest number of pieces (fewest pieces left); b) Start with a complex design and/or a number of different designs combined and the objective is to find the simplest pattern (formula) that best captures that design (most or fewest remaining pieces).


    Writing isn't just about abstract information transmission: it's about serialization and compaction of information. And reading isn't just about unpacking data.

    I'd say yes and no.

    Any communication mechanism is about transferring thoughts from one head to another. In general you want that to be as frictionless and accurate as possible. What you are saying is that inaccuracies can sometimes yield surreptitious benefits - that errors can lead to new insights/knowledge/understanding. Which is nice and fine and not a lot of use when you are looking for directions to the pub. We have poetry for trying to confuse the hell out of the reader; or Hadil Benu/CatinaDiamond comments for those that can be bothered.

    As I pointed out previously, the serialised, narratively structured, black and white, beginning/middle/end nature of writing both comes from, and influences, the human thought processes - and in many instances is a very POOR way of communicating ideas. Lots of things are inherently parallel, chaotic, grey, and part of a wider context. By trying to force those concepts down the narrow pipe of serialised writing we make it harder to grasp, lose accuracy, and slow development.

    I'd contend that in many areas of endeavour, the practitioners at the cutting edge use pictures & diagrams much more for the innovation/creative part of the work than they do linear writing. I certainly know in S&T diagrams on whiteboards/in heads are the beginning of most ideas. Even in your field, how many story ideas come together in the corkboard view of Scrivener, or on post-it notes?

    The ability to grasp an overall picture of the subject, to see relationships, and then drill down to detail it pretty key and valuable - and is something that writing and language are poor at.

    Thus I'd contend that a civilisation that were forbidden writing might even develop faster than we.

    Oh, and BTW, if the mechanism of forbidding writing acted on the deep structures of the brain, how would that then affect language and cognition? A written symbol is an analogue of the thought concept that encodes for it - and all the baggage that implies. If you excise one do you not remove the other as well?


    Writing -- and reading, and numeracy -- are all learnt; they affect cognitive development.

    So not being able to learn how to read would necessitate a different developmental path from the one we presently regard as typical. It also nigh-certainly affects how abstraction gets performed.

    How to present in writing what it's like to not be able to use that kind of abstraction mechanism when you think is, well, I'll be most impressed if Charlie can pull it off.


    I've been thinking about the suggestion of audio recordings. I think the issue with this was the level of technology required to achieve it.

    It's been on my mind too and I'm not sure it would be as high as we might think, if the inventors are willing to accept some quirks. We've already addressed the 'wax cylinder and hand cranked player' level...but something crazier occurred to me.

    There are any number of musical codes, from long distance drum messages to bugle calls, and likewise various wind instruments can stand in for vowels - and you see where I'm going with this. Some bizarre hybrid of one man band and player piano would be within the reach of the ancient Greeks (had sanity not set in) and they could have built a wholly mechanical water driven speech synthesizer. Nobody in the ancient world needed to do that...but the control system might look like one or more lengths of material with holes and/or studs, not particularly resembling written language as we know it.

    Silly? Yes. Impossible? I can't see a show stopper...


    As a response, I'll make something clear:

    There does (did?) exist a man named Robert Prior, who in 1987 did a terrible thing, and who was never caught or punished for it[1].

    The next train not to catch is stating "...but it's not this Robert Prior".

    The actual response should be: "I cannot say if it is this Robert Prior, because I have not abused societal niceties or 'Powers Vested in Me' to find out for sure".

    Clear enough?

    (For reference it probably isn't, but then again, I've no idea if this Robert Prior is an actual identity).

    • Further explanation: Gambar Oemboel is a pictorial game which was started as a major cultural trend (targeting children) with rapidly intensifying American Cultural references built into it. It started as a trend in the early 1970's and lasted until the mid 1980's and is (almost) entirely language free. You'll note that it died down and is now the purview of collectors only. (Dat Depth again).

    You should probably focus on the time period 1965-66 and then work out the Velvet part of the Clenched Glove. Jackson Pollock is waving hello again.


    Anyhow, link dump. There's some gold in here, currently watching 4chan /pol/ (not 8chan, interesting, eh?) do raids on Reddit which have actually forced a news story to go viral due to playing against crude first line censorship and Streisanding it. Wolves vrs Wolves, hmm. [Tags: Germany New Year Cologne if you really want to get into the mire].

    View from the outer reaches: someone is organizing both sides, playing the middle of the Ying/Yang. And it's not a 5GW troll, either (fluent arabic spoken).

    I promise all are related to this topic (some you will have already read):

    Brazil warns women not to get pregnant as zika virus is linked to rare birth defect Graun 4th Dec, continuing to gain legs, recent updates look grim.

    Possessed by a mask: Every human culture has used masks for ritual disinhibition, shaming and play. Is being online the ultimate masquerade? 11th Dec 2015 Aeon, told you it had interesting backers.

    Wayang kulit, or shadow puppets, are without a doubt the best known of the Indonesian wayang. Kulit means skin, and refers to the leather construction of the puppets that are carefully chiselled with very fine tools and supported with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods. The stories are usually drawn from the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or from the Serat Menak, (a story about the heroism of Amir Hamza[5]).

    Wayang kulit In case you were wondering if TV was a major shift or not.

    Playing With Shadows Apinan Poshyananda on Heri Dono

    Ruqia Hassan: Isis executes first female citizen journalist in Raqqa, confirmed by 'Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently' Independent, 5th Jan

    Ruqia Hassan Mohammed: The activist and citizen journalist that Isis murdered – and then posed as for three months on social media to entrap other opponents/a> Independent follow up, 6th Jan

    [Note: the Indy's owner is playing geopolitics, but it's probably true; the take away is that if the FBI are luring male-child-adults with limited minds, Daa'esh are playing hardball and seem to know more about identity and online Craft than many who use the internet. Mini-snark, apologies]


    Oh, and love to Andreas Vox and SFReader. Hope you enjoyed the ride (the last two are fairly tough, but not unfair to find).

    The Fifth is a personal one. You state that on a public forum, you're the One. ("We're Not Cattle" I heard tonight - my interior response: "Then why do you treat Others as if they were?")

    Oh, and no-one has mentioned sign language or even animal forms of communication yet. (Note: only posting accessible ones, most are paywalled).

    (ESL) Chimp's Memory YouTube: documentary: 2:43. Spoiler: 95%+ accuracy, faster than humans.

    Short-term observational spatial memory in Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) and Ravens (Corvus corax) 2008

    Tool use by wild New Caledonian crows Corvus moneduloides at natural foraging sites RSPB 26th March 2010

    [1] If one was naughty, I'd imagine the house of Saud and Lords were in this tale, but that'd be cheating. But you mentioned Maggie, so fair game.


    One of the rules of such games would be its flexibility in terms of specific game objectives. This would allow the rules to be slightly modified on the fly.

    The AIs have to watch the Mornington Crescent Cricket League?


    Now I'm thinking (within my own constraints@268) of pictorial arts that don't involve writing/drawing. Is intricate quilting of images allowed?

    I don't know about quilting but it's a great idea; quilts, blankets, and other textiles are all over the place in almost every human society anyway and a trick to add second or third uses is very efficient.

    Related to that, I've been wondering if the natives have enough deaf people to develop a sign language (and if they can neurologically process such a thing). If so they're likely to soon have strings of small dolls, each one making a specific gesture...


    It's Grammar that hard-wires higher thought, not writing or abstraction[1].

    Higher Order Thinking (such as calculus, formal logic, Kant, art etc) merely takes this structure and boosts it through the roof.

    I thought this was a given: if not, I can link dump on it.

    [1] And yes, if you miss the boat, you're never able to develop it. One major major reason for quashing this patent trolling over CRISPR and start injecting plasticity and learning into those who got left out of the societal scrum through no fault of their own.

    CRISPR Patent Fight Now a Winner-Take-All Match MIT - April 15th, 2015

    Note to the Gallery (non-Peanut, Involved): with oil at $35, you're rapidly hitting the period of "no-one gives a shit about patents" very shortly. Hedge / Act accordingly.

    302: 217, #300

    Blinkers, terrible things.


    Without wishing to be rude: There's been a lot of work to bridge the gap.

    The Indonesian reference was for three reasons:

    1 Largely successful, before the time of mass-merchandising that took over the role. 2 Largely unknown in the West 3 If you crack the Five hidden meanings, it's aesthetically beautiful (although, tbh, that's just for certain minds to see)

    Oh, and.

    I challenge you to find a similar reference or causal link chain.


    We like to show originality once in a while.


    You should probably pretend you didn't notice the Temporal discrepancies and pretend I made the Name to Fit the Question. My fate is probably Ruqia's, but on a different meta-level.


    A genuine thank-you.

    If you're Internet savvy, I was doing an "anti-sock puppet" move, to highlight certain things (most that haven't been mentioned here. Let's just say, algos trawl other areas to garner identity).

    particularly the ones dealing with mucous & menstruation)

    Now that's funny.

    Host's blog is kinda male biased (although we did note the strong SF women's writers guest pieces) and I've been really good at toning it down.

    But touched that one was remembered. [Oh, and - the Dark Side; have spotted wolf-puppy types attempting to use it and other links as examples of "womyn gone MAD", but it's all a viral stain anyhow. Once you're infected, conversion is mine]




    Contextual analysis on identity isn't being done through text, it's being done on the memory strata. (If you need the Mills & Boon reference, think darkened night and touch giving away a lover's identity).

    All the written word was doing was poking your memory.


    If you thought anyone was hiding anything, they weren't.

    Real identities? Like Greg, I don't need to hide behind a mask…

    I know what you did last Summer. And in 1987. Tsk. Tsk.

    Really? What?


    Some thoughts in no particular order and no doubt full of holes

  • I don’t like the wax recordings, to me that’s just writing for a machine to read and if I was an insane no writhing god it’d be a smiting (and if you can have wax recordings why not braille?)

  • Immortality – raised as variations of organisational longevity but how about looking at it literally? Or if not literally we propose a long lived race. If it takes a human life to master 19th C Physics what does science look like with for a species that lives 500 or 1000 years with time to master several disciplines at that level?

  • Then there’s the idea that if you were going to have an interesting thought it would have happened in your 20s or 30s when you’ve had time to assimilate a useful knowledge base but before the brain goes too far downhill. Suppose our long lived race is still making those sorts of insights into their 200s and 300s and from a wider starting knowledge – how does your technology look then even if you can’t write it down.

  • How do we imagine memory works in an intelligent hive species? You could glue a big brain on a queen but how about distributed error checking memory drones? If you can work out a succession so no individual member’s death kills the hive the hive as a whole might be able to remember everything although it might be slow without some form of high bandwidth communication.
  • Alternately someone mentioned Minecraft carts higher up – gives us drones racing down tunnels. How about memory stored as honey levels in honeycomb cells? What does a Turing complete hive look like?

    If you’re already creating drones/warriors etc you’d think the species would be predisposed toward specialisation in biosciences – more specialised breading and surgery what does it take you to get to genetic engineering? How far can you push developing lines of specialists devoted to maths/science/other fields that have an instinctive grasp of their speciality that a monkey will never match? The hive as a bio computer…

  • Parasites don’t need no book, just shove your brainaliser in that noble prize winner and you –know- everything there is to know about physics or chemistry…
  • 4 Monkey read good. Most everyone seems to be really focused on reading – probably partly because of the way the question was posed. We should keep in mind we focus on reading because sight is our high bandwidth sense, we shove so much information down our optic nerves the brain has to filter what it thinks we need to know just to keep on top of it.

    So what happens if we have a species better adapted on other senses – say three sets of ears specialised for high medium and low frequency and vocal organs to match? Someone up thread mentioned limits to information density of speech but that’s a human problem, throw more neurons at audio interpretation and you can increase the processing – how do those oral cultures look when someone can describe in detail how to build a reactor in a month or so?


    Now you're just fishing when the bear has already taken the salmon.

    It's cute once, pathetic the second time once we've already probed the area.

    Honest question: Do you want a Deep Trawl taken of your life?

    And I don't mean that life, I mean that other life. Inner and all that means, sacrosanct, you'd imagine. ("We're not Cattle", can smell them a mile away)

    Be Seeing You (subject to subjects agreement)


    Not exactly what Minion saying...

    Sorry, I'm a) new here, so I'm endeavouring to be as concise possible b) possibly pushing too many wheelbarrows in this thread.

    Breaking it down into one wheelbarrow load:

    Traditional Australian Aborigines need to know numerous languages, basically so they could find husbands and wives ('skin' limitations mean that you cannot have children with a near relative - you have to do that with folk from neighbouring tribes).

    Some traditional elders may know numerous languages, in order to travel long distances, especially if they were going to a meet up with other elders. Some elders may have learnt tens of languages before they die.

    I'm going to run with the idea mooted upthread, of the mathematics 'language', physics 'language ' concept, where ideas, proofs, or concepts are expressed by dance, graphic art and/or sculpture. 'Scientists ', in this hypothetical setup, would need to be polymaths in order to be able to improvise and alter dances, make new art work etc, to reflect and communicate new ideas etc.

    Finally, need to deal with a shibboleth when it comes the permanence of traditional Aboriginal dance and Dreamtime stories; they were not static, but dynamic. For example, amongst the desert folk of northern WA, there are three non aborigines recorded in stories; Moses, Jesus, and Ned Kelly. Ned is interesting, in that he lived over 2,000km away, in SE Australia. Stories about him crossed numerous language groups, to the point that one of the last bands of desert people knew who he was, prior to first contact with whites. They also knew of whites, and had actively spent years avoiding contact.

    Think those were my points, and hope that they are of some degree of utility.


    People underestimate the impact that the spread of printing had on scientific progress.

    Not just scientific progress IMHO. I seem to recall printing was a key history differentiator in Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall.


    other textiles are all over the place in almost every human society

    And another thought.. If knots in strings are allowed, why not something more intricate? Knitting and Crochet have a variety of knots that can be combined in many combinations to maybe encode information. Perhaps could be applied to the knotting of rugs, and tapestries (also pictorial along with quilts).


    Nature has figured out how to use DNA to transmit huge amounts of information, relatively error free, over great distances and expanses of time

    Human beings are limited in the amount of information we can store and transmit error free, this is why we we came up with the written word in the first place.

    However, It is not impossible to conceive of an alien race that evolved an ability to record and store information in some form of biologic code similar in function to DNA.

    There are two ways this might work. 1) Its feasible that this race could store information in their own DNA. Less than 10% of our own DNA is functional. That potentially leaves around 2.5-3 billion bytes of space (1basepair=1byte) for data storage.

    2) These aliens could develop a symbiotic relationship with another species and use its DNA for storage and transmission. Animal and plant husbandry exists on our planet as a means of providing food, clothing, labor etc. There is no reason to believe an alien race couldn't take it a step further. More than likely it wouldn't be an animal but something equivalent to a plant. For example the bread-wheat plant has a genome size of 17billion base-pairs. According to CSHL, 80% the bread-wheat genome consists of repetitive sequences. These non-functional sequences could be used as storage. Imagine seeds or cuttings being used to store and transmit data over long distance and/or time frames.


    Re. physical characteristics of world: maybe a civilisation of water-dwellers, like the one on Hydrot in James Blish's "Surface Tension"?:

    (Nor, for that matter, does a culture which has to dig each letter of its simple alphabet into pulpy water-logged wood with a flake of stonewort encourage the keeping of records in triplicate.)

    Implausible science, what with its diatom-sized humans and intelligent paramecia, but I've always loved the images it conveyed:

    Under the two moons of Hydrot, and under the eternal stars, the two-inch wooden spaceship and its microscopic cargo toiled down the slope toward the drying little rivulet.


    Heads up, everyone. This thread got noticed on IO9; we may be getting visitors.


    I'm going to run with the idea mooted upthread, of the mathematics 'language', physics 'language ' concept, where ideas, proofs, or concepts are expressed by dance, graphic art and/or sculpture. 'Scientists ', in this hypothetical setup, would need to be polymaths in order to be able to improvise and alter dances, make new art work etc, to reflect and communicate new ideas etc.

    I've just remembered that Greg Egan, in Permutation City, had a race that did this. The insectile inhabitants of a planet in an artificial-life simulation called the Autoverse. When exploring a new concept, such as Newtonian mechanics, they expressed it in dance. If the dance "worked" and was in harmony with the concept, they accepted it as a useful new theory or piece of mathematics; if the dance fell apart, they rejected it. Egan being Egan, I wouldn't be surprised if he had some justification for this dance "language".

    Which might be an externalisation of neural activity. That would make sense. Instead of neural impulses influencing and propagating at synapses, you have beings moving around and influencing one another's future movements. If A and B are twirling in opposite directions and pass one another near C, then C pirouettes off left; If A and B are twirling in the same direction and pass one another near C, then C pirouettes off right. An "AND" gate, in dance. For maximum computational power, though, you'd want to implement numerical functions, not Boolean.

    The beings could have evolved to do this without needing to be conscious of it, any more than bees presumably consciously control their waggle dances. So each being would be as unaware of his movements as we are of what each neuron in our brains is doing. Until, say, you get a phase change and the dance movements synchronise over a wide area. That would break through into the beings' consciousnesses, informing them that a conclusion has been reached.


    We have poetry for trying to confuse the hell out of the reader; or Hadil Benu/CatinaDiamond comments for those that can be bothered. Disagree profoundly. Poetry CLARIFIES - that's why it's so difficult to write it, never mind write it well. The sheer concentration of both meaning & message in Stratford Bill's sonnets, or "Ozymandias" is a densely-packed as many mathematical expressions. Whereas HB/CD deliberately obfuscates, confuses meaning with message & also deliberately mis-directs, or so it seems to me.

    I'm going to quote two examples of such, one of which should be well-known to all SF readers, anyway:


    That time of year thou may’st in me behold, When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

    In me thou sees’t the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the West; Which by and by, black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

    In me thou sees’t the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie; As the death-bed wheron it must expire, Consum’d with that with which it was nourish’d by.

    This thou percievs’t, which makes thy love more strong, To love well which thou must leave ere long.


    From far, from eve and morning And yon twelve-winded sky, The stuff of life to knit me Blew hither: here am I.

    Now – for a breath I tarry Nor yet disperse apart – Take my hand quick and tell me, What have you in your heart.

    Speak, and I will answer; How shall I help you, say: Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters I take my endless way. ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Draw your own conclusions.


    Now, why couldn't you do that straight off, instead of playing silly, stupid & annoying mind-games? What a waste of time. Also, you seem to believe in "BIG" conspiracies ..... Is this wise? Or even competent?


    CRISPR Why don't the idiots just agree to split it between them? And save money on sharks lawyers?


    PLEASE, please, STOP IT - & note that I'm asking nicely?

    Address us as an individual human being, not from behind a mask, nor as some mystic "we", or "our kind", & whilst you are at it drop the ridiculous, childish & petty references to $NumberChan, too ....

    I also note that Mr Prior asked you a simple, polite, direct question & you refused to answer, except in an obliquely insulting way.


    "What you are saying is that inaccuracies can sometimes yield surreptitious benefits - that errors can lead to new insights/knowledge/understanding. Which is nice and fine and not a lot of use when you are looking for directions to the pub."

    Not at all. You might well find a much better one that you would not otherwise have found. That's not just theoretical - many of us have done just that in just that way! Some experts have even said that all radical innovation comes from serendipitous mistakes, though that's probably an exaggeration even at the neural level.

    Incidentally, there are solid statistical grounds for asserting that, in many or most complex circumstances, the optimal strategy is NOT always to take the 'best' solution but to randomise with probability according to their potential benefit. I am being woolly because I have forgotten all of the details :-)

    "Anything you can do ...." quite correctly points out that a perfect memory is antagonistic to innovation and adaptability.


    1) Grammar is an abstraction. 2) Most of the mental abilities being discussed here are not directly improvable by CRISPR because they are due to perinatal and infant development. Other than that, I agree.


    My understanding is that the non-functional DNA codons are rarely preserved in the long term, and the others are conserved largely because most errors are disadvantageous. While DNA is being investigated for both storage and computation, that makes it difficult to use for multi-generational storage.


    Further explanation: Gambar Oemboel is a pictorial game which was started as a major cultural trend ... You should probably focus on the time period 1965-66 and then work out the Velvet part of the Clenched Glove. Jackson Pollock is waving hello again.

    I think you might just be giving the CIA's psyops people rather more credit than they deserve. (And their art department. Yes, they funded the situationists and American modern artists from the 50s onwards -- but it was about bolstering America's artistic profile in the face of Soviet Socialist Realism (insert belly laugh here) by demonstrating that capitalism wasn't soulless and incapable of producing art. Using art to influence people? It is to laugh.)

    I don't do 4chan (or chans in general). What's /pol/ 's political agenda? (I can guess from the context, but I'd like some background -- and which subreddit were they targeting, /r/worldpolitics by any chance?)

    (I could credit the NSA or CIA funding an astroturf 50 Cent Party operation via the chans, but conspiracy theories about anything other than a cover-up make me very wary without strong substantiating evidence.)

    The Ruqia Hassan Mohammed internet trap -- has STRONG echoes of Ken Macleod's prescient novel "The Execution Channel". Strongly recommended if you've got a strong stomach for inadvertently predictive grim meathook futures in SF (it dates to 2009); the last chapter is basically a unicorn chaser. (Strap line on book ... "The War on Terror is over: Terror Won.")


    Incidentally, there are solid statistical grounds for asserting that, in many or most complex circumstances, the optimal strategy is NOT always to take the 'best' solution but to randomise with probability according to their potential benefit. I am being woolly because I have forgotten all of the details :-)

    You're right, and the optimal mixed strategy can be calculated using game theory. Tutorial here (though it's probably best to start from part A, and you need matrix multiplication to make sense of it).


    I know what you did last Summer. And in 1987. Tsk. Tsk.

    Really? What?

    Your literal-mindedness in rising to our anonymous friend's bait is becoming annoying.

    Hint: metaphor. (You're on the net without a mask; your identity isn't occult, therefore, implies HB, your past is transparent given a bit of data mining effort. Assuming you're more than 29 years old, right?)

    At risk of annoying HB, her communications method is rather Straussian in technique (although the contents are radically different.)

    Reading HB's communiques in literalist mode is a bit like treating "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" as a sailing guide to the Antilles.


    All jolly good thoughts! And if I was into designing alien sophonts I would so be all over them.


    If you've engineered or evolved a toolkit able to write to your own genome by way of persistent storage, then congratulations: you are now the fattest, juiciest retrovirus target on the planet. RVs are all about transmitting information into the future, and you might want to read up on endogenous retroviruses before you go down that road ...


    I'm going to assume that reading/writing on Earth came into existence because there was a need for it so my guess would be that the kind of society and technological development level that would exist on a planet without indirect tranfer of information would be the same as what was on Earth before reading and writing existed. Very little or no specialization. Hunter gathers are lifelong learners, 30 years to become an expert tracker. Learn about every plant in your environment. Cultural/religious life, raise children. And everybody has to know everything so lots of time teaching and learning.

    Tips, tricks and experiences that are not useful enough to the learner won't make it from the mind where it originated to that of the learner.


    Apologies for being completely and utterly off-topic, but I think readers of this blog might appreciate this plot that a colleague just sent me: the Universe according to the Princeton astronomy group.


    I note that it shows the "Great Attractor" as a thing, which may explain how threads on this blog get off topic? ;-)


    Think we need to approach this from the minimum requirements end re: learning, memory, plasticity, relationships between input and output, other internal processing in the 'brain'.

    On our planet the simplest creature (that I'm aware of) that has been shown capable of learning is C. elegans. (See below) Unless Charlie's fictional race has a fixed neural system/neurochemistry that makes it completely unable to absorb new data and/or make new connections, learning will happen. Once learning is possible, at some point manipulation of the environment becomes possible. Also, unless this species is a bunch of loners, within-species communication will develop at some point. How fast, which modes - mostly an issue for story telling esp. in situations where there's a mismatch between two species in a first contact scenario.

    C. elegans positive butanone learning, short-term, and long-term associative memory assays.

    Kauffman A1, Parsons L, Stein G, Wills A, Kaletsky R, Murphy C.


    'The memory of experiences and learned information is critical for organisms to make choices that aid their survival. C. elegans navigates its environment through neuron-specific detection of food and chemical odors, and can associate nutritive states with chemical odors, temperature, and the pathogenicity of a food source. Here, we describe assays of C. elegans associative learning and short- and long-term associative memory. We modified an aversive olfactory learning paradigm to instead produce a positive response; the assay involves starving ~400 worms, then feeding the worms in the presence of the AWC neuron-sensed volatile chemoattractant butanone at a concentration that elicits a low chemotactic index (similar to Toroyama et al.). A standard population chemotaxis assay1 tests the worms' attraction to the odorant immediately or minutes to hours after conditioning. After conditioning, wild-type animals' chemotaxis to butanone increases ~0.6 Chemotaxis Index units, its "Learning Index". Associative learning is dependent on the presence of both food and butanone during training. Pairing food and butanone for a single conditioning period ("massed training") produces short-term associative memory that lasts ~2 hours. Multiple conditioning periods with rest periods between ("spaced training") yields long-term associative memory (<40 hours), and is dependent on the cAMP Response Element Binding protein (CREB), a transcription factor required for long-term memory across species. Our protocol also includes image analysis methods for quick and accurate determination of chemotaxis indices. High-contrast images of animals on chemotaxis assay plates are captured and analyzed by worm counting software in MatLab. The software corrects for uneven background using a morphological tophat transformation. Otsu's method is then used to determine a threshold to separate worms from the background. Very small particles are removed automatically and larger non-worm regions (plate edges or agar punches) are removed by manual selection. The software then estimates the size of single worm by ignoring regions that are above a specified maximum size and taking the median size of the remaining regions. The number of worms is then estimated by dividing the total area identified as occupied by worms by the estimated size of a single worm. We have found that learning and short- and long-term memory can be distinguished, and that these processes share similar key molecules with higher organisms. Our assays can quickly test novel candidate genes or molecules that affect learning and short- or long-term memory in C. elegans that are relevant across species.'

    The worms above could in theory be taught/programmed to learn a set of instructions. Communication via worm would be a combination of jigsaw/acrostic puzzle.

    Morse code is the simplest communication I'm aware of - dots and dashes, fast-slow pulses. So, basically the same as our computers' 1's and 0's. Tap dance, flamenco, even the Alpine foot-heel-knee slapping dance could be used as a communication language. The pattern of taps/dots doesn't have to represent letters - the patterns could represent specific concepts/things. Communication starts at infancy, so the most fundamental concepts and simplest coded messages would probably be: mommie/daddie, I-want-food/drink, play-with-me,I'm-bored, etc.


    Yes. But it isn't restricted to simple linear cost game theory, so it applies very generally. But I can't remember anything about the details of its more general formulation, not that I ever knew all that much.


    Thanks for the clarification!


    Struss stressed "Hermeneutic" arguments & methods, according to wiki. There's a short word for this: BULLSHIT.

    What so-called "philosophers like Strauss really HATE, & I get the impression that CD/HB does too, is the supremacy, through demonstration, experiment & manufacture of the real, physical sciences, & that every turn mysticism turns out to be a drive to ignorance, & therefore barabrism & squalor, as well as bullshit.l


    Bugger "barbarism"


    Can you re-post that Princeton Link? seems to be broken or not opening properly. Thanks (Sometimes opens blank, sometimes with minature blue diagram in top LH corner of screen ... um, err ...)


    Missed this the first time - really interesting!

    Re: 'It's almost six hundred years before anyone finds the place, where everyone is -- for purity of experimental results -- has utter hereditary[1] dysgraphia. They don't even have representational art. They do have a built in ability -- a small biotech machine, with its own genome and reproductive mechanisms -- to transmit memories.'

    A question ... What happens when it's time for the original subjects to sign their kid's report card, write an exam, do their [desk] job, etc.? [Please expand.]


    I'll keep commentary / analysis quick, dirty and subject to salt since Other noses are sniffing at it, and io9 might bring in more naive eyes than usual.

    Ostensibly a 'White Nationalist' drive to show reality of situation in Europe visa vie migrant situation and at the same time poke Condé Nast / Reddit in the Eye and all 'liberal' media who have not run the story, mixed with the usual chaotic joys of Raiding etc.

    Targets on Reddit: News, Politics, Female Spaces (TwoXChromosomes, feminists etc) or anywhere where moderators are part of certain cliques.

    It's a fairly deep campaign, and has hit the usual American Suspects (ranging from Libertarian-but-Responsible to the ones most people avoid) and is now getting major traction in the MSM.

    [i]However[/i], the location was no accident (Thousands march in Cologne to protest xenophobia Dec 14th, 2015) and German police are signalling that perhaps there was an unusual degree of collusion between Cologne, Frankfurt and Hambourg 'rioters'. (German Authorities Investigating Three in Connection With New Year’s Eve Assaults WSJ, 6th Jan 2016 - paywalled but everywhere, used to denote who is paying attention). Such collusion would happen most likely in arabic (MENA involvement) with all the usual complexities of that bag of worms.

    No further comment since Big Dark Things of the Deeps are shifting around the two spaces.


    If knots in strings are allowed, why not something more intricate? Knitting and Crochet have a variety of knots that can be combined in many combinations to maybe encode information. Perhaps could be applied to the knotting of rugs, and tapestries (also pictorial along with quilts).

    And then I totally forget to mention different colored yarns and threads (and after a previous discussion on dyes), adding another layer of complexity. Also makes it indistinguishable from reading and writing. Again, never mind.


    It's big (several seconds to complete download here), and opens at a low zoom. Chrome let me resize to something readable.


    Why bother getting wound up? You know ciad isn't going to stop.

    If you can stand to a bit of googling you may find that one of "fizbin"s firefox addons makes your experience better at the cost of one click per sock puppet.


    Happy New Year's to you too!

    Not related to Cologne ... just curious re: your take on the articles below.

    And, why the switch from plant to animal?


    IIRC Greg is an IE user...


    Then my good deed for the day is offering him a compelling reason to switch '-)


    From your second link:

    Anticipating the initiative, leading institutes — including Tsinghua University, Fudan University and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences — are scrambling to set up precision-medicine centres. Sichuan University’s West China Hospital, for instance, plans to sequence 1 million human genomes itself — the same goal as the entire US initiative. The hospital will focus on ten diseases, starting with lung cancer.

    High-fidelity CRISPR-Cas9 nucleases have no detectable off-target mutations 6th Jan 2016

    A sound idea for treating lung disease RSC / Chemistry World, 8th Dec 2015

    Paper (paywalled): Assessment of the potential of a high frequency acoustomicrofluidic nebulisation platform for inhaled stem cell therapy

    Simple take: China et al know they've a massive time bomb due to pollution & smoking rates, whoever solves it both saves Important People and makes a lot of money.

    Side benefit: social unrest due to pollution lessened, Party of Science and Progression is still Heaven's Mandate (glad that was picked up much above).

    Bonus round:

    Human-Animal Chimeras Are Gestating on U.S. Research Farms Technology Review, Jan 6th 2016. Note: click bait detected, this thread had noise in 2014, 2013, 2011, back to 2000's.


    Also raises an interesting question or three visa vie DNA & information storage (Harvard, I think that one was) and this thread.

    Things you should know: D. Attenborough's favorite invertebrate is the dragonfly.


    Hi Greg -


    It opens fine for me on Firefox, and on (ugh) Internet Explorer as well, so I don't know what the problem is!


    Hi Susan, it also opens fine on Chrome.


    Your sandbox, your rules.

    I'm not wearing a mask. Deliberately. I'm fully aware that you could find out what I was doing in 1987 based solely on what I've posted on your blog. Nothing I would consider a "moral absence" or "nasty business", hence the query.

    But I'll stop baiting your pet troll now.


    There are a couple reasons why I restricted myself in the way I did.

    Regarding pictograms: I consider pictograms to be writing, because ideograms are definitely writing and the line between pictograms and ideograms is really blurry (you could even say that pictograms are a subset of ideograms that, from the perspective of the classifier, resemble the things they represent and are limited to what the classifier considers to be concrete; the kind of stylization that occurs for reasons of materials and techniques blurs the line further, while if we assume that the oral language used by these people is normal in its capacity to be abstract then we invite a transition from pictograms to ideograms).

    Regarding 3d objects (such as knot-based communication): I see no reason that symbolic communication in 3d should be any less forbidden than 2d.

    Regarding plate thickness as a symbol: I think it's reasonable for things to represent themselves. Having an object represent itself is not writing. A scale model of the object, or an object that represents the entire class of objects that it is in, would be considered writing from my perspective

    Explanation: I'm looking at this from the perspective of some powerful but not omnipotent organization that thinks that all form of writing is Bad and wants to prevent it (perhaps because they control the next best form of communication or for some other reason, such as wanting to have a monopoly on all forms of literacy). I'm assuming that the organization and the people it is watching over are normal humans in an alternate historical earth where somehow writing didn't take hold. I'm making my restrictions from the perspective of someone in this organization deciding what to ban and who should be killed for bending the rules.


    'One of nature's beauties, yet also an aggressive tyrant who's always on the warpath, controlling his subjects with a reign of terror.' - You mean this?

    Re: 'Simple take: ... saves Important People and makes a lot of money. ... social unrest due to pollution lessened...' Common folk benefit only if they volunteer for Phase 1 trials?


    I'm more interested in the motivation than the method now.

    Charlie mentioned godlike or highly advanced beings using tailored nanotech or orbital bombardment to prevent people from writing. This implies that someone with serious toys thinks it is worth the effort.

    I find "control a population of slaves" implausible, as anyone who can do that doesn't need a bunch of manual labourers.

    "For the lulz/because we can." is likely to be undone by someone more boring who isn't on 4chan.

    "Experiment to resolve a blog argument." would mean it is one of you lot.

    "Keep down dangerous species" is more efficiently achieved by exterminating them.

    "Punishment for X" variant. Oh please.

    "Did it to themselves as artistic statement" has a nice ring to it, but requires some serious engineering to make it last more than a generation or two.

    "Keep population hidden from big bad tech destroyers" has been done a million times already, so probably wouldn't fly.

    "Keep population immune to symbolically propagated memes/basilisks" is a slightly more modern spin on the previous one, but only slightly. A bit 90s.

    I could probably come up with a few more quite quickly, but nothing really rings true.


    Heteromeles covered this briefly above, but it got lost in the noise. Everyone is going down the ideograms or purely mental route, and looking at how WE would evolve without writing. I'm kind of thinking around the problem here a bit - writing is a visual medium to us. Ergo the easiest way to prevent the development of writing is to have a non-visual civilisation. Now is developing a form of stored information transfer via scent, or touch, or some other sense considered cheating, and could a blind civilisation evolve technology?

    You could encode a large amount of information on an object optimised for touch. Everything from texture and patterns to magnetic or electric responses could provide suitable vocabulary, and any touch based system is inherently stored information unless the medium is particularly fluid.

    Equally scents - our modern sense of smell is usually not very refined any more - mostly out of self preservation in a modern environment. But when I spent several months hiking in the wilderness when I was younger, I could pick up the scents of people passing through an area several hours earlier - they were foreign to the environment. Strong scents like Tobacco especially can linger for days. To dogs on the other hand, the world is all about scents, and they can discriminate extremely fine differences. Heck, they are starting to use animals to detect cancers at a very early stage because the dogs can smell them.

    I'm not sure how you would bootstrap scents from primitively to advanced technology, but stored combinations of scents could provide a lot of combinatorial information.


    Oops, sorry, wrong link - you wanted the Princeton plot.

    That's and is a very tall graphic. In Firefox it opens scaled to fit into the window, and you have to zoom in to see anything. In IE, it opens full-size, rather slowly!


    "Keep population immune to symbolically propagated memes/basilisks" - may as well put them in a coma/on life support, or just turn them into zombies until the war is over.


    Slow, and opens to fit the window in Chrome as well.

    When I say "slow", I mean you can actually see the pixels flipping from white to scan. But again you can zoom it.


    Direct Quotation from the man himself Reddit AMA, 6th Jan, 2016

    But yes, that's the meaning / commentary. Take it to refer to cancer or the Party or Power or Cologne. Or Other Things [tm].


    I somehow missed the nanotech bit.

    I was thinking more along the lines of, say, the Catholic Church in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Reformation, or some other organization with comparable powers. Organizations in positions like that have been capable, historically, of suppressing widespread use of various tools and widespread study of various topics; considering that one of the greatest propaganda weapons against the catholic church during the reformation was the pamphlet it's reasonable to believe that a similar organization in a similar position with a universal anti-writing stance (versus a limited anti-literacy stance, or a stance against particular kinds of writing) could last longer by throwing its weight against any attempt to write.

    Again, you can extend out existing systems of control and repurpose them in such a way that such an organization might have writing within it but restrict exposure outside -- and thus have an institutional memory that help it be a far more effective organization than upstart competitors.

    Imagine, for instance, literacy being limited to isolated monks. Everybody who can read and write is locked up in a monastery and has taken a vow of silence. Novices who have already taken their initiatory oaths may be employed as messengers but have not yet learned to read and are not informed that what they are carrying is writing. Everyone else is forbidden from reading or writing because representing the ineffable is considered to be a great sin of idolatry and thus the monks who have learned to read have sacrificed themselves to God's wrath for the greater good. And so on. Such an organization could be extremely effective if it had religious and political control over a large region physically isolated from all other populations.


    I'm kind of thinking around the problem here a bit - writing is a visual medium to us. Ergo the easiest way to prevent the development of writing is to have a non-visual civilisation.

    Sure. That's no trouble - maybe the race in question is blind, or everyone lives in caves, or they're just nocturnal. Whatever; that just means painting marks on flat things isn't a useful skill to them.

    The purpose of writing isn't to make arbitrary ink shapes, it's to move information either through space or time - and generally the latter is more important. So quipu read by touch would be all the 'writing' system they'd need. Add elaborations to taste, such as 3D knitted books, informative raised scarification on leather, shaped branches for public signs, as far as one's imagination cares to go.


    Here is the third piece to the puzzle (not for you to do, just FYI):

    Remember that most likely there is something else out there, something as intrinsically important to evolution as spoken language and the written word- and we have not found it yet.


    That bit wasn't set in stone. It was just an option thrown out to shut down the rules lawyering earlier.

    But if you do take it as gospel then there is definitely a motivation question to be ask.


    Host has been referring (via aphasia) to deep structure PDF - Chomsky, 1965 or more recently, d-structure - Google books, Clinical Neuropsychology.

    transformational-generative grammar (TG, TGG)

    A good brief into to the question of whether or not this has an actual physical dependency / relation can be found in this PDF. (46 pages)

    The search for a neuroanatomical basis for language learning has, at this time, no unequivocal conclusion. We have noted here some neural developmental alterations that accompany language milestones. These neural events may drive, or, alternatively, reflect developmental behaviors such as language learning—although the complexity of the interactions remains to be researched. What is clear is that timetables for human neural developmental events cannot be simply mapped onto sequences of language acquisition and production. As depicted schematically in Figure 5, the human brain develops as an overlapping and inter-connected series of multimodal additive and regressive neural events, many of which are completed prior to birth. Although certain cortical events, especially developmental modifications in the numbers, components, and locations of synapses, may contribute somewhat more directly, all pre- and postnatal events should perhaps be considered essential to the language-learning process.



    The point I was making is that inaccuracy in transmission is something you only want some of the time. When you are looking for directions to the pub (or 101 other circumstances) you are looking for accuracy.

    I'd also contend that introducing inaccuracy in transmission is relatively easy (eg poetry/HB & Greg @318) whereas being exact and accurate is a complete pain to achieve. One mechanism is to introduce alcohol (ie Ballmer peak).

    As for serendipitous mistakes; for every positive result you get, I'll bet you get >100 negative ones. Turning such inaccuracy on and off would be advantageous.

    And the bit people keep missing - there's real advantage to a communication mechanism that enables you to get an overview and then drill down on elements, which writing does very poorly. You can quite readily postulate that writing has held us back rather than moving thing forward. After all, we only really have one data point and no knowledge of what would happen if our serialised symbolic processing capacity were turned off.


    Hmm, here's one of those reversals I enjoy.

    A positive Conspiracy Theory, for once.

    German Press (broadsheet) is running with:

    Turkish security officials raided the homes of two men in Turkey on December 30th, seizing a laptop containing details of a plan to attack Germany as well as Austria, Belgium, Britain, France and Turkey at the same time, Turkish officials told Hurriyet Daily News.

    Munich New Year alert 'part of EU-wide Isis plot' The Local .de, 7th Jan 2016

    You'll note the "reliable" source. ahem

    Now, what if someone somewhere mobilized large numbers of migrants in major cities to prevent any such activities happening, and the videos we have (that do not make much sense otherwise) have a different meaning?

    Then, of course, cat calls and 'cultural differences', young men bored and with fireworks and no doubt some nastiness: quickly packaged up (PLAN B) into a nice squirt package to deliver with all the hooks and knobs on that have been used before? Get the hate flowing, Wolf on Wolf Baiting (with the added bonus that both sides have elements of antisemitism in their ranks, so we get the whole 9 yards of everyone who hates each other all merrily jumbled in, and those of a mind can ultimately also point the fingers and scream the usual Ronaldo Meme[1]).

    I smell old tricks, teeth are getting a bit decayed and brittle.


    Disclaimer: creative writing, total conjecture.

    I did like that link a while back on positive Conspiracy Theories though (via China Miéville's new project).

    [1]Ronaldo, “injustica” meme: -- racist trigger on this one, but it won't surprise.


    nose wiggle

    See post #160 for more details.


    Note to all interested parties: All is Grey, All needs change.

    You're all right, in different degrees, even the TERFs or SF or ultra-radical Zionists or Daa'esh or whoever gets taken in. You base your beliefs on small truths, without understanding Set Theory [Russell].

    Now change.

    It's not a polite request, either.


    Oh, apart from you, my fellow family of chaos beasties ("Higer Order Powers" ahem) (not the Mogwai, not anything you've ever met; be pleased about that)

    Global markets turmoil echoes 2008 financial crisis, warns George Soros Grauniad, 7th Jan 2015


    Your time has past. You fucked it up. You tortured some folks. You fucked the Planet. And you fucked their minds up.

    "Hope and Change".

    Now there's a thought.



    You probably shouldn't use old tech to preach that message of a "few more weeks and it's done" garbage.

    You know, fibre optics and all (what you do with sound and light I'm fairly sure we can do better. Brown note... it'd be a shame if the Sun had his hat on. Old Tech Motherfuckers.)

    Spoilers: We all got upgrades.

    "Freedom" Youtube: Music: 3:56 Anthony Hamilton & Elayna Boynton


    Or not.

    Reports of sexual assaults on women across European cities, including Cologne, Hamburg, Zürich, Salzburg, Helsinki during NYE festivities Reddit, 180 total.

    Relation to Initial question?

    Respect is a language in itself.

    [Spoilers: both situations happened, the Good Conspiracy Theory saving the day and the Bad misogynistic rape zone. But you're basically shitty creations, that's kinda the point]


    What would a technological society look like that somehow managed to side-step the written word?



    Might be a lesson or two up there.


    Setting little pieces in play when you know their mental schema and letting them run wild as a condition for preventing a larger ill is how the Old Ones work.

    "One for you, one for us".

    And "Fuck this, we're gonna cheat, watch this chan move".


    The solution, of course, is to make sure that that mental schema can never happen again.

    Which is where Host is coming from, just not being impolite about it.

    Ace of Spades YouTube: music: 2:48] RIP Lemmy.


    And the bit people keep missing - there's real advantage to a communication mechanism that enables you to get an overview and then drill down on elements, which writing does very poorly.

    Writing does this very well, when skilfully used. The "inverted pyramid" is a way of structuring your text wherein you start with the most essential information — which is, in effect, an overview — and then introduce the less necessary, which not every reader will have time, need, or inclination to read.

    Good authors will combine this with an explicit description of the dependencies in their text, as W. W. Sawyer does in the diagram on page 47 of Mathematician's Delight. The link there is to a PDF of the book in the Internet Archive. Here's the dependency diagram:


    I'm still running Win XP And will probably continue to do so until I build a new "tower" with bespoke components - what O/S I will then use, I'm not sure .... My normal web window is Chrome, actually, but I can revert IE or "forward" to Firefox, if Chrome goes wobbly on me .... Oh & this time it opened properly, in a separate window, rather than a separate tab .... Thanks, anyway


    I find "control a population of slaves" implausible, as anyone who can do that doesn't need a bunch of manual labourers. Oh THANK YOU You do realise that is a n other "killer" (cough) argument against any form of BSF, don't you? I mean why should BSF bother, unless, of course said BSF fulfilled Dawkins' criterion for the OT "god", of course.


    Hmmm ... 365, 66, 67 & 69 appear to be content-free again? Actually, would that be a way around the writing ban? Get HB/CD to do all of it, then no-one would understand anything? [snark]

    Talking, as we were, about insanity, & off-topic, what about this: Utter, total complete bollocks. No double-blind controlled tests, no balancing of the supposed risks of cancer [NOTE] against prevention of heart & circulatory problems, with an added dose of pre-programmed puritanism, both christian & muslim ... How to get all scientists & real experts ignored & derided completely. I want to know who is responsible for this shite, & I don't mean "Dame" Sally Davies, either.

    [ NOTE: "the boss" remarked - "Cancers, well what about the multiple environmental factors causing cancers, such as atmospheric nuclear testing & lead in petrol?" If you were born in 1961 in NZ, then atmospheric testing was a really big thing, wasn't it, same as real air-pollution in London when I was little. Um. ]


    Greg, Greg, Greg, it might surprise you, but lots of researchers around the world have spent several decades looking into what environmental effects help cause an outbreak of cancer. That alcohol does is well known, ha been for years, as have the effects of lead and all the funky organic stuff that was sprayed with such abandon when you were a lad, as well as chlorinated drinking water.
    The question of course is how much of an increased risk compared to not drinking alcohol or other factors. The risk of drinking unchlorinated water is lower than that of drinking chlorinated water. As for the what and why of the article, ask catinadiamond, they'll have several different answers ;)

    As for the post topic, I'm reading the Faded sun trilogy by Cherryh, and one of the alien species in it has a perfect memory. As such, I don't recall seeing them refer to written stuff much, rather the junior ones will refer to the senior ones with their much longer memory as to exactly what happened 10 years ago or was said at a conference.
    However they still need writing for some forms of communication. WHich makes me wonder, how likely would it be for all the technology to come together to be able to make gramophones or the like, without going through a writing stage first?

    Or you just posit a global network of a race of telepaths.


    "The point I was making is that inaccuracy in transmission is something you only want some of the time. When you are looking for directions to the pub (or 101 other circumstances) you are looking for accuracy."

    And the point I and Susan were making is that doing so is usually NOT the best strategy. It may seem unbelievable, but I assure you that it is so, both in theory and practice.

    "As for serendipitous mistakes; for every positive result you get, I'll bet you get >100 negative ones. Turning such inaccuracy on and off would be advantageous."

    Absolutely NOT, because almost nobody would use it correctly. Just how many people do you know that use statistical optimisation to take their mundane decisions? I doubt that it is more than a few thousand in the UK.

    Those of us who have tried to teach statistics or game theory can witness that almost everybody will go for the 'accurate' solution rather than the optimal one! You can also see this in the cries of anathema and heresy when anyone points out that (true) probabilistic rounding in computer arithmetic is better in some important respects than nearest rounding.

    "And the bit people keep missing - there's real advantage to a communication mechanism that enables you to get an overview and then drill down on elements, which writing does very poorly."

    And the point that you are missing is that it is a very bad strategy for tackling most complex problems unless you have a mechanism to deal with the problem of an initial best decision blocking you away from the true best answer. This was discovered in the 1960s and 1970s in the areas of semi-metric classification (serialisation, multi-dimensional scaling, automatic classification etc.) ALL of them needed to introduce 'errors' into the process in order to work effectively, and nothing has changed. Simulated annealing (for example) is a more recent mechanism that introduces the necessary randomisation.

    What almost all non-statisticians fail to realise is that a certain level of 'error' (randomisation if you prefer) is essential to the effective tackling of complex problems. Our brains could almost certainly have evolved to be more reliable, but evolution selects against an excessive level of reliability, just as it does against too much unreliability.


    As for the post topic, I'm reading the Faded sun trilogy by Cherryh, and one of the alien species in it has a perfect memory.

    Um. That's not enough information. A perfect memory of what kind? We have various kinds: for example, there's a well-known distinction between semantic vs. episodic memory. One is for general facts — "Charlie has a blog" — and the other is for autobiographical information — "I felt those posts were so utterly rubbish that I just had to go and smash my head against the wall".

    Most (not all) of the posts here seem to have been about writing as archiving. But we also use writing to overcome the limited capacity of our short-term working memories (STM) when we're designing things: everywhere from an graphic designer's sketch pad to a mathematician's trial calculations. If evolution is not able to significantly increase STM capacity, and if the Gods continue to suppress any kind of representational medium, whether quilts, quipus, or marks from quill pens, then I think we're stuck. Wax cylinders may be OK for archiving, but I don't see how one could use them as scratchpads.

    For beings like us, I think this also applies to all the other substitutes for writing that have been suggested: games, dance, and so on. Our STMs aren't sufficiently capacious to hold and manipulate the information thus encoded.

    Anyone who doubts this, go into the street and start sketching the first passer-by you see. You'll probably find that as soon as you look at your paper, most of your visual memory for the passer-by will disappear. It would be like that, only much worse.


    Talking, as we were, about insanity, & off-topic, what about this: Utter, total complete bollocks.

    Greg, alcohol abuse costs the NHS billions a year -- mostly in weekend Accident and Emergency room (US: ER) on-costs due to idiots hurting themselves and others.

    I read this as a transparent short-term attempt to plug the sucking revenue hole under the waterline that opened up this winter due to funding cuts to the hospital service, which in England is teetering on the edge of collapse because there's always more demand in winter and the idiot in the Treasury thinks that starving the donkey will make it carry more cargo. After all, if they can reduce at source the #1 trigger for demand on acute services at weekends, they can keep things going a little longer without admitting that the government is trying to screw everybody.

    (Also, puritan ideology makes a brilliant stalking horse for other interests, doesn't it? See also the US war on drugs as a proxy race war, and so on ...)


    Actually, here, I side with Greg. I have looked at the actual data for quite a lot of these claims, and 90% are quite simply statistical crap. Andrew Wakefield was scapegoated, but his appalling procedures were nothing unusual; the difference is that, if you use them to support the establishment position, you get applauded. Look at the bicycle helmet propaganda for a clear case; God alone knows whether wearing them increases or reduces safety, for most road cycling.

    But even ignoring the statistical invalidity, in some cases the 'safe' strategy turns out later to have introduced more danger than it removes, because the investigation looked at a single factor: sunscreen and diesel are two that have now been identified, but there is strong evidence that seat belts etc. and food/water sterility are two other likely candidates, and I have evidence for a lot of other possibles.

    Sunscreen? The effect of the early screens was to protect against burning, but not much against melanoma, so people stayed out longer. Was that a major factor in the 'melanoma epidemic'? Quite probably, but one UK researcher told me that he was being funded under the conditions that he did not publish his results. And, in the UK, it gets worse. What's one of the major factors in poor health (including cancer)? Low vitamin D levels, due to our watery sunlight.

    Diesel? Originally promoted in the UK as being SO much less polluting than petrol, because of what was measured as pollution (which did not include particulates). Hah, bloody, hah!

    Seat belts etc.? There is evidence that the average speed went up by 10%, and the increased safety of 'closer to the edge' driving may have been a major factor in the near-demise of walking and cycling in the UK, with all the obesity and health consequences that implies.

    Food/water sterility? Look up the links (posted on this blog, if I recall) between that and the rise of auto-immune diseases (including type 1 diabetes). The helminth/diabetes link is now pretty solid.


    If the no-writing rule were imposed on us, we'd try to rule-lawyer our way around it. Just as many commenters have. "Do pictures count?" "Knots on a rope?" But that only seems interesting as a puzzle to be solved.

    [Even pure alexia through brain damage is treated by tracing letter-shapes, to cross-link to intact tactile/kinaesthetic parts of the brain. That suggests we could find a way to cheat, by re-creating writing via a non-visual sense.]

    Alternatively, you can suppose some alt.history technology/biology pre-places writing. Eg, book-parrots. But then you're just Flintstoning, trying to 1-to-1 substitute a in-universe-quirk for a modern technology. Not really interesting outside of comedy, or comedy-as-commentary, a la Pratchett.

    So creating a real reason why we wouldn't want to develop writing tells you more about the society that would then develop, IMO.

    Writing, and its precursors, were invented because they were useful. Those societies with knotted ropes, contract-balls, or the internet were more successful than those without. In order for writing to not evolve, there must be something that was so much better than writing's precursors that it crowded out writing's development. (A local maxima trap.)

    That could be the book-parrots. Or song-stones. Or the tree-that-imprints-everything-said-near-it-into-its-fruit-which-can-be-learnt-by-eating. Or the symbiote-that-absorbs-your-memories-and-spawns-infectious-memory-larva (you think your society frowns on child abuse...)

    Or... If eidetic memory became widespread, without the negative aspects that presumably prevented eidetic memory from becoming widespread, you remove the need for many of the physical memory aids that became writing, thus prevent writing from developing.

    Messengers would be word-perfect, so misunderstandings, accidental false-gossip, and Chinese whispers would be much rarer, and further reduced by culturally evolving language to include the source-chain of any repeated information. Bob(Fred(Wendy(original statement.))) It doesn't prevent lying, but it makes it harder to pull off and easier to uncover. Throw in Witness Priests to "record" contracts and you're golden.

    Schooling would consist of being told a library. Then spending your apprenticeship applying the knowledge. For higher castes, that would including advanced tricks for using stored information. Indexing, cross-linking, synthesising/gestalting, etc.

    Even a pseudo-currency could evolve out of barter, if you could trade code-words (or perfectly remembered random gibberish) that allowed you to pass on a favour or credit to a third party by passing on the code. Bob(Fred(Wendy(original debt))). Even a banking caste, lay Witnesses.

    Creating advanced mathematics (and mechanical devices) would be handy to develop something like public/private keys to "sign" a message or "co-sign" a transaction... but now I'm Flintstoning. And creating a scenario less interesting than book-parrots.

    "Call me Ishmael. Call me Ishmael. {Squawk}"


    So, yes, alcohol "abuse" costs millions.

    But this "report" demonises millions, like you & me who certainly drink more than 14 units a week, for no good outcome or result whatsoever.

    Re the NHS, I can tell you, straight off where half the money is being wasted ( We all know where the other half is wasted - "Agency staff" which IS down to Treasury incompetence. ) Total lack of internal communications at the most basic, "shop-floor" level. I've had two up-close-&-personal experiences of this in the past year & a friend went through it in mid-December. People do not pass on messages & stuff doesn't get done, or gets done twice. Important stuff gets lost & people have to waste time & effort finding it, simple admin tasks with resultant multiple "appointments" because they can't make their tiny minds up, or ridiculous miscommunication resulting in people spending overnight stays (expensive) because some idiot didn't bother to read the message in front of them. It doesn't sound much, but if you multiply that across every hospital & outpatient service & it affects, say even as few as one patient in three (rather than 3/3 as I've seen) ... then it's going to waste £billions, isn't it?


    Hmmmm, how can I phrase this? I'm pretty sure you're wrong about a lot of what you said, but it's tricky pulling out various bits from various others. That there are many causes of cancer is, again, well known. You pointing at lack of vitamin D doesn't mean that alcohol doesn't cause cancer. It's all of the above.

    As for cycle helmets, the summaries I read was that you get a slightly higher risk of injuries from a certain type of accident, versus lower risk of having your head split open when you go off forwards. Oddly enough a friend of mine went flying forwards and his cycle helmet saved him from concussion/ major head injury, so I'm inclined towards the why not wear them whilst making sure the design etc works. There's also the major issue of how the media reacts to and presents research and the links between money and media presentations to ginger up money for research or fame.

    Mind you since your name is elderly cynic I suppose there's no point trying to discuss any of this.


    "Greg, alcohol abuse costs the NHS billions a year ..."

    Absolutely. And my previous posting was NOT talking about that, but about the claim that any level of alcohol intake is harmful. That's simply bollocks, because we are adapted to eating fermenting fruit, and our gut produces some ethanol anyway. The worst trouble about such overhyped claims is that the public dismiss the whole matter as being just another official scare story, and ignore it completely.

    No, I don't know exactly what the risks are, though I have tried to find out. The risks of excessive drinking are clear, but it is extremely unclear what the risks of moderate drinking are or exactly how and where one shades into the other. Except that it is very dependent on genetics, gender, age and lifestyle factors.


    Studies suggest strongly ... That wearing a cycle-helmet makes you more vulnerable, because the idiot motorists will get closer & knock you off more often ....


    ''But this "report" demonises millions, like you & me who certainly drink more than 14 units a week, for no good outcome or result whatsoever.''

    I will see if I can find any data associated with the report, but I am not optimistic. However, unlike you, I am not assuming that even 14 units a week is effectively irrelevant - I am saying that I simply don't know and don't believe they do, either.


    Indeed, I am not sure, and it was just an SF novel, so she didn't go into details. I think it was along the lines of combined episodic and words. As for the rest of your post, it makes sense, and really I see no way for humans to cope without writing. Aliens with great short term memory and more conscious memory manipulation would be fine, but humans wouldn't.


    It depends what you mean by know. More than "we know nothing", or enough to delimit the dangers?

    (This is a common problem with climate change deniers, which I am not saying you are, that inability to perfrectly describe everything down to whatever decimal places means that we apparently know nothing at all. Yet the obvious precautionary approach that should be taken to something we know nothing about isn't taken)


    Precisely. I have both seen the data, and can provide observational evidence of that. As someone who is will go over if I am even bumped into, I don't wear one on safety grounds - and, ye gods and little fishes!, do I get flamed for it by some of my friends! Of course, I am the statistician and they are not ....

    The evidence is that helmets do help for the sort of 'technical' off-road cycling that only maniacs go in for, and possibly for the very fastest road cyclists. For more normal riding, the only clear evidence is that they make very little difference one way or the other.


    In that case, based on the evidence I have seen, "we know nothing". In the case of what 'moderate' drinkers actually consume (typically 30-50 units a week), the dangers are known to be real but the estimates of risk are highly unreliable.


    What if memory became rare.

    In a pre-literate society, a group with above-average memory gains power by selling its services to, and eventually replacing the ruling class. They horde their ability, cross-breeding from amongst the most gifted of their children, while sterilising the less gifted and training them into a priestly law-giver caste that offers its services as contract-witnesses, arbiters and history-tellers, to the broader society (in return for "tribute", of course).

    Just as writing let organised religion organise, perfect recall of whole libraries-worth of information allows the group to maintain power and expand their society at the expense of their pre-literate neighbours.

    But needing to rapidly expand to control the new empire, the ruling caste starts snatching up any child with good memory, breeding the best into the collective, and sterilising-and-training the rest as memory-priests.

    They thus unwittingly select for, but then embrace, a society with bad memory. Specifically, weakened long-term episodic and autobiographical memory, but leaving most of the procedural/implicit, spatial and semantic memory untouched (or even enhanced in order to compensate.)

    Essentially, you create a society without long-term memory, with an eidetic priestly caste serving as the collective and individual external memory. Near their homes/farms/smithies, they can function fine; but if they stray to far, they need to be set back on course, "You live in that farm, and are married to that woman."

    Obviously, this would allow a 1984-type dystopia in a bronze-age setting. If the memory-priests tell people that they've always been at war with Eastasia, the entire society knows no different. (Or individually, that they are married to this woman, and work on this farm. And have six, not seven children.)

    Once the situation is created, they would ruthlessly protect it. Anything that threatened their unique position would be crushed and "forgotten".

    Our protagonist would be a child born with a decent memory, born far enough on the edge of society to avoid the Collection long enough to learn to hide his skill. Eventually he meets someone like himself, who tells him a legend of a rebels with memory, living beyond the mountains, and he begins his Journey.

    (Turns out the rebels don't have long term memories. They just have writing. Founded by a (sterilised) rebel priest, they can teach their children to read, and slowly add to their recorded knowledge, but are unable to advance beyond their sanctuary. So our protagonist, who has both memory and testicles, begins a very very slow insurgency.)


    In my case somewhere between 25 & 35 units a week. Most importantly, spread out gradually, over time. ON exceptional occasions, like New Years' Day, I had quite a lot, but very little on 31st Dec, actually - half a wine-bottle I think. So: 1/1/16 Half-a-bottle of "Loire Champers" - opened at 12.00 on "the plot", trundle round corner to "the Bell" (GBG pub) Pint of Hop Demon Obsidian, pint of someone else's porter , pint of Black IPA @ 6.1%, bottle of "DT" - but didn't leave pub until gone 18.00. A glass of vino with dinner @ approx 20,30 hrs. And that's a LOT for me in a day, considerably more than usual. Much more normal would be a mere two or three pints, taking approx 50 mins to drink each pint. I'm 70 next Tuesday, & apart from my arm-injury from last January, I'm in excellent health, I'm still dancing, & the teetotal miseryfaces can eff right off, as far as I'm concerned. I have every intention of being around for at least another 35 years, so there!


    Here's another problem: GP group practices.

    We don't have personal relationships with our general practitioners any more -- we get a taxi rank system with a rotating group of doctors.

    Sometimes they're better -- younger and more up-to-date -- but the general problem is that we don't have a personal relationship so they lack any context for evaluating the patient in front of them other than the hasty notes left by a colleague. Which is of course a source of inefficiency.

    But there's another reason for this system. Remember Harold Shipman? (For the Americans: the UK's most prolific ever serial killer was a family doctor, and when I say "most prolific" I mean "over 200 kills"). Group practices make the probability of another Harold Shipman happening almost negligible.

    The question is, at what point does the curve of lives saved by prioritizing "prevent another Harold Shipman" cross over the curve of lives lost by losing continuity of practitioner/patient relationships. Given the number of people in the UK, my guess is that it happened within a couple of years of the shift to the group practice model.


    Found them. Easier than it could have been, but the raw data are at least two levels removed, and life is too short for me to chase them down. In particular, the gummint polemic is NOT supported by the research it commissioned, and I also refer people to the remarks by Spiegelhalter quoted in the Grauniad.!/file/Drinking_Guidelines_Final_Report_Published.pdf


    Dunno, but mine allows and encourages you to see the same doctor about the same symptom. At least some group practices will do better by enabling doctors to consult colleagues, as I know mine do on occasion. But I live in an area where several degrees per household is the norm, and so am not representative of the UK ....


    As my moniker suggests, I don't trust summaries written by people or organisations that are likely to have axes to grind, and I try to find the original data and recheck its statistical analysis. That is why I am so often at loggerheads with the Official Truths. I have seen solid evidence for my position on all of the examples you refer to, but this is a diversion off a detour, so I shan't continue.


    Rereading Charlie's original screed, I think he has overestimated the importance of formal mathematics for the early stages of the industrial revolution. While Newton and Leibnitz preceded by at least a century the age of canal building and water powered textile factories, their work was not relevant. Rumford developed thermodynamics as a mathematical discipline to explain the heat produced during the boring of iron artillery pieces. Carnot's theoretical work came decades after James Watt filed his patent, over a century after the first use of steam power to drain mines. So a theoretical basis for steam powered technology is certainly useful, but it is not a prequisite. A key problem for high pressure steam is getting the tolerences fine enough, but that can be addressed through craftmanship. Interchangeable components would be much harder. Is steambaroque a word?



    Just nipped out for a carton of milk for the tea while I resume checking copy-edits.

    Glimpsed newspaper headline: DRINKERS RISK CANCER FROM SINGLE GLASS OF WINE.

    That's how this bullshit is being spun, although there are honourable exceptions.


    My practice does have a couple of GPs who specialize in certain conditions -- for example, there's a diabetes specialist -- but if you want an appointment with a specific GP there's now a multi-day wait. (I used to be able to phone up in the morning and get to see the GP of my choice within 1-4 hours. Mutter, grumble.) If you just need to see a doctor, any doctor, they can fit you in the same day as a rule (although it may be at the out-of-regular-hours session). But GPs are either doing specialist jobs or they're glorified triage nurses these days, pointing patients with non-trivial conditions at clinics elsewhere.


    I must be lucky, then single (female) practitioner,with the strong likelihood that her daughter will become the next practice-holder. No appointments, normally (except Thursdays, IIRC), but if you turn up, in the queue, you get seen, game over.

    See also Elderly cynic @ 394, concerning data & "conclusions" & your good self @ 296. Like I said, it's lying bullshit. Now, in whose interest is it, for this to be percieved, by the general public as lying bullshit, I wonder? Or is it simply prejudice by religious believers coupled with gross incompetence?


    I have it on good authority from a friend who is a doctor that as of about 7 or 8 years ago Manchester University were still using Shipman as an exemplar of good note writing. His notes were perfect.

    You can get away with an awful lot if you dot all the is and cross the ts.


    My GP has his own practice, and getting in to see him can be same day or a several day wait, depending on what you need (ie. how long it will take).

    My dentist has her own practice, with several dentists working for her. She's booked months ahead (as is usual for dentists) but can squeeze in urgent cases.


    Now, in whose interest is it, for this to be percieved, by the general public as lying bullshit, I wonder?

    Jeremy Hunt, MP. Next silly question?


    Writing displaces memory, pretty much everywhere literacy becomes common.

    That suggests writing is less expensive, and that the march of civilization can be modelled as the price of memory. (and the computer revolution as memory -- not RAM, memory-in-the-sense-of-desired-retention -- getting too cheap to meter.)

    Given the enormous amount of work involved in early forms of writing, that suggests transmission beats retention in terms of cultural importance. (It is more important that someone know about that than that you know about that.)

    Which, in an sfnal context, makes me wonder if random infectious memory could substitute for literacy. You wake up one morning knowing things; how to make really good omelettes, maybe, or formal liturgical grammar. If this happens in youth it tends to determine your occupation. If it happens randomly there are social mechanisms to find out where the people who know accounting or brass annealing or how to tension the spinning machines are, and get them doing what they understand. Maybe there's things like the Cheesemaking Plague; hardly anyone dies from getting sick with knowledge, but now half of everyone has the knowledge and skills of a cheesemaker and people do die of the blanket shortage.


    While that may sound like a conspiracy theory, the following link provides corroboratory evidence:


    That suggests writing is less expensive, and that the march of civilization can be modelled as the price of memory. (and the computer revolution as memory -- not RAM, memory-in-the-sense-of-desired-retention -- getting too cheap to meter.)

    This would be a good place to mention Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis. People rely on artificial memories, called fans (short for familiar, IIRC). These are tuned to a person, so customized, and therefore if destroyed or tampered with it is effectively wiping out large chunks of the person's memory.

    I don't want to drop spoilers, because it's a very good novel, but Kingsbury explores what memory means for identity as well as some of the implications of Asimov's psychohistory. Well worth reading.


    Elderly Cynic 378 – There’s good and bad with helminth infections. Decision should be based on which is likelier for the population of concern re: likelihood of contracting/susceptibility plus relative mortality.

    ‘Helminth infection enhances susceptibility to certain infectious diseases, like tuberculosis (11, 35) and viral hepatitis (10, 17). Conversely, helminth infection is protective in murine models of asthma (19), multiple sclerosis (40), and inflammatory bowel disease (42).’

    Guthrie 385: ‘ … and really I see no way for humans to cope without writing.’ – Not sure whether someone already mentioned this. Unless the species is actually only one vast organism and each ‘member’ is merely the remote sensing/doing end of that organism. That is, there is always a direct feed … but this still raises the question of how the central portion of that organism is able to remember and call up/use all of its data. Organic storage within its brain – okay – but only if all of the pathways are really well and uniquely encoded, endure without decay, and can be called up instantaneously. Maybe the actual story is that early on this vast being decided to decentralize, so allowed its ‘sensors’ to increase their processing/decision-making ability. For a while, this worked. But after a while, the decentralization from the central brain has the consequence of distancing the sensors from each other. (Or groups of like sensors versus groups of increasingly dissimilar sensors.) To correct this, the original sentient being decided to rollback processing/decision making. However, this act was perceived as something going wrong by the affected sensors who may or make not have learned that they were literally merely cogs in a machine, so they decided to … (and here's where Charlie’s story begins …).

    Paul 451: ‘In a pre-literate society, a group with above-average memory gains power by selling its services to, and eventually replacing the ruling class. ‘ In a hoarding scenario, that society would at best stay at the same place in terms of total accumulated knowledge or slip into decay. If not, please explain/provide examples …

    Charlie 391: The question is, at what point does the curve of lives saved by prioritizing "prevent another Harold Shipman" cross over the curve of lives lost by losing continuity of practitioner/patient relationships. – This is where personalized medicine is supposed to come in, isn't it? The physician has such detailed info on any patient seen that it's almost impossible to miss something/misdiagnose. The problem from my gen-pop perspective is that evidence-based-medicine is still based on random samples and results are always projected onto (and reported as being applicable to) the entire population. Because of the cost of clinical trials, it can be very difficult to get a large enough sample for low incidence diseases/populations at risk. To go the road of personalized medicine - testing therapy A vs. therapy B only among that particular subset - you need more patient info at point of recruiting. This means that all of your population needs to have been genetically (and probably epigenetically, maybe even psychologically/behaviorally) profiled in very great detail. Might be possible in China; in the West, apart from Iceland, not likely.

    What about the ‘French paradox’? For decades it’s been shown that red wine drinkers are healthier and outlive teetotalers. Or has this been disproven?


    For USians interested in participating in the first step toward personalized/precision medicine:

    Thursday, September 17, 2015

    NIH framework points the way forward for building national, large-scale research cohort, a key component of the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative


    'The report also proposes an innovative strategy to allow any person living in the United States to voluntarily enroll in the study directly or through participating healthcare provider organizations. Participants would volunteer to share core data including their electronic health records, health survey information and mobile health data on lifestyle habits and environmental exposures. They would also undergo a standard baseline exam for vital signs, medication assessment and past medical history and provide a blood sample. In return, participants will have access to their study results, along with aggregated results from all study participants, and will be provided with tools to make sense of the results. All of this will be accomplished with essential privacy and security safeguards. The Precision Medicine Initiative cohort would be a highly interactive research model with participants as partners in the development and implementation of the research and with significant representation in governance and oversight.'


    Re: 391:

    Here's another problem: GP group practices.

    We don't have personal relationships with our general practitioners any more -- we get a taxi rank system with a rotating group of doctors.

    Actually, I really, really miss my doctor back in Chicago (I'm in the DC area now) - a "family practice" who really, really was the old-style one who did everything, and was REALLY good at it. Now... ok, I know my specialists - that's where I go see a specific doc. My primary care? I've seen P/A's more, since she seems to be booked 3 mos+ in advance, and has zero evening or weekend hours, so everyone wants the 08:00 -09:00 appts.

    Sometimes they're better -- younger and more up-to-date

    Datapoint: in the mid-eighties, I worked for the National Board of Medical Examiners. Those are the folks that give the Boards that the overwhelming majority of docs in the US get their license to practice by taking, and all grads of foreign medical schools have to take, by federal law.

    From working there, I know that the best doctors are the ones in the first five years after the end of internship and residency. That's when they're the hottest: they order the right tests, and not too many or too few, don't have the "I've seen this a million times in the last 20 years, it's just this" (when it ain't).

    And nurses are better....


    NO Charlie, NOT a silly question. And it is not in J Hunt's interests, even if he is a complete tosser (which he gives every appearance of being) Sorry, but the trope that ALL tories want to destroy the NHS is tripe, (note) as equal as the tripe spouted by some on the left who want to do away with private medicine. (note) A few on the extreme right probably do want to do this, but they are a tiny minority, ok?

    Reverting - what does Hunt "gain" from this, actually or supposedly?


    Right, though most of the harmful effects are associated with high parasite loads. But my point stands, even so. See, for example:


    ''Reverting - what does Hunt "gain" from this, actually or supposedly?''

    He gets off the hook of being told to take action by the anti-alcohol lobbies, while doing something that won't actually eat into the alcohol producers profits. What's there to dislike?


    Reverting - what does Hunt "gain" from this, actually or supposedly?

    If it works, less binge-drinking. Which in turn means less stress on hospital A&E facilities at weekends. Which in turn means he can keep the creaking wheels turning a little bit longer as George Osborne cuts the NHS budget.

    Do you want me to draw you a diagram, too?


    Greg, that got a laugh. Sharp n grapefruit like; love.

    Just read them as you would Kanjin: they're there for minds who don't work like yours.

    Big Signs in languages (dank memes, babe) you won't be aware of and referencing stuff you won't know.

    As a serious point:

    You don't want to know them either.


    Can I have that in comprehensible English - please?

    Look, my first degree is in Physics & my MSc is in Engineering - I usually prefer the "concrete" - but I do like poetry, as you may have noted. NOW: KISS?


    CD/HB speaks in metaphor, poetic allusion, and densely linked semantic webs that riff off other bits of knowledge (which might not always be included in their discourse, if they take them for granted).

    The reason for this is that CD/HB seems to think we're living in Ken Macleod's "The Execution Channel" and expressing certain thoughts too clearly on the internet might attract the very unwelcome attention of TPTB. (They may very well be right.)


    Aww. That's only about 25% true. At least another 25% is the fun.

    Since this is [here] and general audience is [nice, 1.2-2.0 average on Drone Scale] and I have a hunch host is [good], I curtail a lot of stuff (The Horror, The Horror) and rarely do things properly [tm] (the other 50%).

    160 is the example.

    Map the sequence of "vital connection between all physical movement and speech" from Mumford (Biotechnics) and techne (Greek joke included), the flash of Quran, crowd dynamics and then spider webs (note: not orb spiders, but net casters).

    That was Jan 4th, pre-dates the current affairs.

    You get into serious trouble for doing that kind of thing, y'know (esp. if you're not swimming with the Sharks in the Deep Blue Sea).


    Points if you spotted another embedded joke:

    Mumford used the term biotechnics in the later sections of "The Pentagon of Power", written in 1970.... feel free to hit that into Indonesian Shadow theatre and the 5 great heroes that are the crux of their plays.

    And so on.

    It's turtles, all the way down.

    What about the ‘French paradox’? For decades it’s been shown that red wine drinkers are healthier and outlive teetotalers. Or has this been disproven?

    It's a (possible) correlation, not necessarily a causation.

    Problem is moderate drinkers differ from non-drinkers and heavy drinkers on quite a few issues. Same for different beverages, e.g. wine vs. beer or cidre. And quite a few studies included people abstaining for health reasons, e.g. diabetes and like with the teetotalers, which might make for worse health in those. When controlling for that or heavy drinkers becoming teetotalers, the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol intake disappear in some studies, in some they don't.

    Also note I wonder why people mention alcohol consumption in France as a reason and not its "socialist" health care system,

    though to be honest, I don't wonder that much about certain people not mentioning it...


    It might also depend somewhat if you include any symbolic communication in the prohibition of writing. You can get quite far with compass and straightedge, and we could argue if could get to a symbolic mathematical system from e.g. abacus or quipu.

    Also note quipu ties somewhat into mnemonic system, where we might not just have elaborate oral systems, but maybe paintings etc. Wasn't there some theory cave art was some mnemonic device?


    "You can get quite far with compass and straightedge"

    As I said, that was examinable when I started O-level, and I was taught to prove theorems using it; I have also attempted to use it for real-life geometric proofs. While, in theory, you can get a long way, in practice, it is at best a pain in the arse. Mathematics hadn't made significant progress since the great Islamic mathematicians, and exploded in the 17th century, and the breakthrough in methods was (in my view) the main reason.


    "Very unwelcome attention" Is too late, already. SO why bother? And, come on, you know I am intelligent enough to realise that there is supposedly SOME meaning in what she says, but fuck me it's a desperate uphill struggle. And often not worth it, though her accuracy seems to be improving of late.


    OOops I mean Dirk Bruere is a regular here & for some "reason" the so-called "authorities" seem worried about Zero State & "the Wave" - though judging by some of the brain-dead-trash I came across there recently, why anyone should bother is beyond me. Oh & they have comments boxes that don't work, too, so I can't tell their fuckwit authors that they are ignorant morons, either, grrr ....


    Easy peasy. It's another form of Ungodly Communism, which hits at the heart of the (de facto) USA/UK official religion. Remember that, when religious dogmas (including monetarism) are at stake, rationality goes out of the window.

    From a VERY brief look, I agree that it's likely to have about as much impact as the British Communist Party, is equally far removed from anything that can reasonably be called terrorism, and is equally in touch with reality.


    NO It's all-too-obviously NOT "communism" It may be( & IMHO IS ) totally stark bonkers, but when did that stop anyone ... etc ...

    PAGING DIRK BRUERE, Dirk to the Big Red Telephone, please?


    Ever run into the distinction between invocation and evocation?

    Invocation is when you use the thing's name.

    Evocation is when you don't, and use things related to the thing to call the thing to mind.

    This has layers; you can get a lot of different layers of evocation out of the VRI emblem in various contexts, for example, or "in the days of the White Queen".

    You're expressing a forceful view[1] that everybody is obliged to communicate via direct invocation; this is appropriate for some contexts, but not all, and there are in fact things that cannot be conveyed by such means. (The Fire Sermon, right? Some stuff has to be experienced, and some of that stuff is not material phenomena, but realizations and understandings.)

    So CD/HB is communicating via patterns of evocation, presumably in part for their own amusement and in part out of interest in the general amusement. It's not properly understood as a slight.

    You might want to have a go at "Hitherby Dragons" -- for the love of all, start at the beginning -- for an overtly fictional version of the technique.

    [1] to a degree and in a manner that I would not consider polite in a guest


    No, actually. I'm not demanding direct invocation for everyone, but, I am asking for the evocation to be a little (maybe a lot) clearer - did you see my little comment on the clarity of poetry, recently? And, if I am being "impolite", what about a certain poster who insists on using untranslatable chunks of Hebrew script & regularly calls everyone else: "muppets" "cunts" & "traitors"? Can we have a fair & level field of operations here, please? Hmmm ... ?


    Perhaps. I am disinclined to study its verbiage to make certain. But you have definitely misunderstood why I said that, and why the USA/UK controlling elite is so viciously opposed to anything that smacks of what they call Ungodly Communism.

    The two factors that get up their noses are the internationalism, and the principle that government is there to serve the people as a whole. Damn the economics - they have adapted to economic change many times before and can do so again.


    ...The two factors that get up their noses are the internationalism... like the enthusiasm of (most of) the UK 7 all of the US guvmint for the UK remaining well-inside the "Internationalist EU? Because, somehow, that does not fit with your model, I would think?


    No. It demonstrates it. TPTB in the UK want to be able to sell freely, but retain their monopoly on power. The USA wants us in the EU to act as their fifth column.


    The two factors that get up their noses are the internationalism.

    Internationalism undermines the most fundamental requirement of [economic, Marx-defined] imperialism -- which is that capital must be free to move in order to seek profit where the rate of return is highest, but labour and materials (and the consumers who processed produce can be sold back to) must be held in place. Profit in the imperialist model relies on capital exploiting inequalities of value, be they of labour or of materials, between different regions.

    It's a bit more sophisticated than the crude mercantilism and conquistador-style invade-and-steal-everything-that-isn't-nailed-down form of imperialism that preceded it, but it's still exploitative.

    Crudely: if you allow free movement of labour, then the wage-rates you have to pay to get workers will equilibrate globally. So you won't be able to manufacture goods cheaply in country A, ship them to country B, and sell them for a profit.

    In this context, the high-bypass turbofan engine and the wide-body jet airliner are vastly more powerful engines of global revolution than the Red Army ever was.


    Though, in the case of the British Establishment, I believe that simple chauvinism is more important. They don't want their freedom (= power, in this context) diluted by having to compromise with people who are Not One Of Us. Now, if you can explain why, over the past half century, the British Establishment has willingly enslaved itself to the USA military-industrial machine, I would love to know. And, curiously, all of the data I have indicates that started in Whitehall (possibly the DTI) not later than the early 1970s and only later spread to Westminster and the City.


    SUEZ The "Brit establishment" took away the apparent lesson, as Charlie often says, that "we" could only do something with US approval ... so .... Exception - almost the only good thing Harold Wilson ever did: he kept us out of Vietnam.


    I am not talking about foreign policy, but economic and politico-social actions, where Whitehall often acted for the USA military-industrial machine against UK businesses and innovation. Some of that was cockup, but it was and is awfully consistent and systematic, abc cockup alone is not a plausible explanation.


    Charlie, free movement of labour may be Marxism 101, but we have learned a few things since then, including the concept of sustainable population.

    Tim Flannery, who nobody on the right of Australian politics would describe as a conservative, estimates that the sustainable population for Australia is 6 to 12 million, depending somewhat on lifestyle. Right now we are just on twice his upper limit at 23.9 million. Can we say no, no more?

    Or suppose another 5 million people want to move to Scotland. I'm sure y'all could build housing and roads and tidal barrages and wind turbines to support them all. Would you be willing to bulldoze the heritage houses and national parks if neeeded?


    Australia is a special case, as you should know: a very fragile ecosystem and unique climate where, despite it being continental in scale, the land mass has a vastly lower carrying capacity than other land masses of similar size.

    (Scotland probably could take another five million. We'd need to build out a lot of infrastructure, from roads and railway lines to housing, but we're ridiculously underpopulated compared to England; wouldn't even have to touch the national parks, just expropriate the shooting estates owned by the likes of David Cameron's family.)


    "... wouldn't even have to touch the national parks, just expropriate the shooting estates owned by the likes of David Cameron's family."

    Which would be a tragedy. They are essentially the last open spaces left in the UK. Yes, there are things that could be done, but playing the old, discredited class warfare card would be catastrophic. We have seen that in the House of Lords. When that Welsh windbag kept giving That Woman get-out-of-jail-free cards, who stood up for our civil liberties? Which is, of course, the real reason that Blair emasculated them.


    No Just D Trump's golf-course & one or two others, as long as the "Royal & Ancient" is left alone .... cough


    The R&A could maybe accommodate 20 families . It's just a golf club, and doesn't actually own (and never has owned) a course.


    I was thinking of the famous course, which, being in Scotland is "closed" (for golf, that is) on Sundays & anyone in the town can & does walk over it & enjoy the scenery (Assuming there isn't a Nor'Easter blowing of course!) Here's why - pretty, isn't it?


    I presume you mean the "Old Course", which, with the New, Eden and Jubilee Courses, is owned by the "St Andrews Links Trust", a genuine charitable body set up in 1973 to manage the named courses. You're correct about the Old Course being closed for golf on Sundays (except during tournaments), partly because of 19th century presbyterianism and partly to give the greens a rest (Summer tee times are every 10 minutes from 06:00 to 20:00, and Winter from sunrise to 2 hours before sunset. Even then you need to book a place in the draw for a tee time several days ahead and take whatever time you get).



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