October 16th, 2006



I watched clouds gather yesterday evening, and all night the stars have been concealed. Damp steeps a scent from decaying leaves, until the chill night is saturated with the odor of woods in decline. All the insects have at last fallen silent. Very late, a faint play of light here and there on the marbled eastern sky reveals the vain attempts the waning moon makes to show itself. But the clouds will allow no more than this ghost of light to pass. Whatever water the clouds contain they also hoard. No moonlight, no rain, but only this smell of damp trees and soil and leaf mold. I feel as though I'm waiting for dirt to be tossed into a grave.


There is a splendid autumn chill in the air. For most of the day, the clouds were almost as stingy with the sunlight as they were with the moonlight last night. Now and then a bit of light got through, but the day was mostly gray. It was dry as well, until just a few minutes ago when both soft rain and bright sunlight escaped the clouds at once. The sun-struck leaves of the dogwoods flashed deep red and the gold kindled on the pine trees where their needles have turned brown. Surprised birds chirped and chattered and flew through the falling drops. The rain never became audible, but it soon dappled the pavements and made the leaves and lawns glisten, and the bright streaks filled the air for several minutes. Then the clouds closed again and both rain and sunlight were gone. I'm keeping a watch on the window, in case it happens again.

Back in the world of abstractions, the November Scientific American contains an article by Stuart A. Kauffman titled The Evolution of Future Wealth, in which the author exhorts economists to switch from their prevailing approach to their discipline, which largely follows a model derived from physics, to a model which pays closer attention to biology. As I recall, the notion that an economy more closely resembled an evolving natural ecosystem than it did any sort of clockwork mechanism was implicit in Jane Jacobs' book "The Economy of Cities" which was first published nearly forty years ago. Kauffman says:
"Such an approach to economics... is based on the emergent behavior of systems rather than on the reductive study of them. It defies conventional mathematical treatments because it is not prestatable and is nonalgorithmic. Not surprisingly, most economists have so far resisted these ideas."
Also not surprisingly, Kauffman himself is not an economist. He is listed as a professor of biocomplexity and informatics at the University of Calgary. (Though "informatics" sounds vaguely like something the Church of Scientology might come up with, it's an actual discipline.) I don't know if the economists are going to pay any more attention to Kauffman than they did to Jane Jacobs, but maybe it doesn't matter. As long as the meddling of the economists doesn't precipitate a terminal economic disaster, people engaged in actual economic activity can continue to create new forms which the economists are then obliged to account for. If their accounts resemble a Ptolemaic treatise on epicycles of wandering stars, they still can't alter the reality they mis-describe any more than the learned blatherings of pre-Copernican astronomers shifted the real movements of the planets. People engaged in actual economic activity tend to ignore economists anyway, and it's they who will be making use of these new ideas. Once they've changed everything, the economists will eventually catch up-- probably just in time to miss the next big change.