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5 Things: shape notes

Published onSep 02, 2021
5 Things: shape notes

What is the shape of life, of thought?

Is it really possible that I
misapplied the mould?

1. Ideonomy : Idea topology of Patrick Gunkel

Patrick Gunkel and Tatiana, biking on Martha’s Vineyard. (WSJ, 1987)

Patrick Gunkel was a cataloger, cat lover, futurist, idea cartographer, and something of an enigma. His keen interest in the structure of ideas and possibility-space led him to develop the framework of Ideonomy — a scientific study of ways to generate ideas, and shapes and visualizations that could capture their interconnections. He spent his life illustrating this nascent field with examples, both in narrative writing and in visual diagrams, and designed thought experiments, frameworks, and other tools to help others generate their own examples.

In his own words, ideonomy is “an ambitious exploration of all possible combinations, permutations, transformations and generalizations of ideas. It is a search for analogies and forms of symmetry between ideas. Ideonomy focuses on 'discovering, researching, describing and using the laws governing ideas, regarding their causes, effects, relationships, behaviour, history, future, dimensions, properties, structures, merits, limitations, predictive value, evidential value, exceptions, anomalies, usage, analogies, differences, conflicts, implications, classifications, misconceptions, elements, complexities, levels and hierarchies, generalizations, distractions, paradoxes, divergences and convergences”.

Above: From a book on theories of mind.

Left: An idea tree for sausage-like foods. courtesy of Gunkel archivist Om Gnawali.

Gunkel met Marvin Minsky and Ed Fredkin at MIT in the 70s, while the pair were discussing misunderstood geniuses. As Fredkin recalls, with his steady outpouring of ideas, Gunkel “seemed to be a living example of what we were talking about”, and they gave him a research position. He maintained a friendship with them and with Whitman Richards, for the rest of his life. Many of his indexes, diagrams, and books are hosted at, and his friend and archivist Om Gnawali continues to digitize his lesser-known books.

Over the years had similar lightning interactions with Britannica editor Charles Van Doren, and Herman Kahn, co-founder of the Hudson Institute, who hired him to compile overviews and forecasts including “A Catalog of Futural Ideas” and “The Future of Space: An Encyclopedic Prospect”.

Despite publishing hundreds of charts and diagrams and three full-length books, he never felt that he had fully conveyed his ideas to others, or inspired a science of ideas.

2. 40-fruited tree : Grafted the most, by Sam Van Aken

Testing the boundaries of speciation and horticulture, Sam Van Aken developed the first Tree of 40 Fruit over five years, after adopting an orchard from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

Its popularity and transformative spirit have led to a series of similar trees, now 75 in all, across the country.

Schematic for a Tree of 40 Fruit

Tree of 40’s fruits (Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike other common graft experiments, such as combining multiple varities of a single flower in one bush, these trees combine parts of trees with very different development cycles, designed to flower and fruit over different seasons of the year. A reminder that, despite tremendous differences in phenotype and appearance, we are all branches of the same long-armed tree.

3. Spider colony :  Topography of a 100-million-spider city

Being part of a colony changes the natural social and geometric impulses of spiders. Orb weaving spiders, known for their circular webs, normally have one web per family. However they have also produced the largest spider colonies ever seen, architecting webbed cities that span multiple trees or entire buildings.

Ceiling-spanning setion of the Back River Arachnotopia, in a Maryland water processing plant.
(Entomological Society of America, Greene, et al. 2010)

The largest known spider colony, the “Back River Arachnotopia”, spanned four acres over a running source of water, housing 100 million spiders from multiple species in 4,000 cubic meters of webbing. The colony had almost no regions that looked like individual webs, but consisted of long laminar sheets and volumetric three-dimensional regions. Sampling the webs at various regions suggested that different areas specialized in housing different ages and types of spiders, and the webs strung over the waterways were again specialized to attract and catch insects.

4. Glazed bowery : Frozen time in trees, water, and light

a crazed glazed branchlet

Glaze ice, after a long slow drizzle, when the temperature is just right, can sheathe forests in a skin of ice for days. It highlights the space between the fronds of trees, solidifies light, and hangs in the air as a reminder of the boundary between fall and winter, liquid and solid.

It is a microclime stretched out on time, waiting for transformation’s touch ~ And the light chime of branches in a still breeze sounds ancient and heavenly.

Driving slowly through a glaze ice forest.
Northern Massachusetts, New Year’s 2020.

5. Topic galaxy : Literary synthesis of Open Syllabus

A conceptual embedding of books and topics, mediated by the world’s syllabi, hints at how current teachers link writing and thought. Imagine seeing this change over time and place, and through the lens of different ages and approaches to presenting the thought of others: by similarity or by contrast? as progression or as mixture of possibility?

A section of the topic map of US university syllabi. (Open Syllabus Galaxy)

Aftermath: Grey Bull - the shape of identity

On the shape of identity, and remaining Sudanese abroad.
With extended cameos by kindness and honesty.

Samuel Klein:

See for a browsable example 🌌