The self-made tapestry chapter 1: Pattern

Ok we should get started! I thought I’d nominate something that I haven’t properly read yet, and doesn’t conform to my usual human-centric agenda on pattern. The first chapter in the “self-made tapestry” is called “Pattern”, and fits the bill nicely. This book was recommended to me by incredible pattern-maker Jones who might be lurking here. I managed to get a second hand copy fairly cheaply.

I found and added a PDF and (better quality) epub file to the group library on zotero: Zotero | Your personal research assistant

You have to join the group before you can access the epub/PDF attachment which you should be able to do here (sign up and then click the ‘join’ button, it’ll take a short while for someone to manually approve you): Zotero | Groups > Alpaca

I’m still not sure how we should run this, maybe lets wait a couple of days to give people a chance to read it, before kicking off the discussion? As the nominee I could do that by summarising the chapter and raising some questions about it.


There is also an .epub file on libgen (or a .chm file, if you like proprietary formats)

1 Like

Great first choice!


Thanks, I noticed the .pdf I found was badly rendered, with missing em-dashes making it difficult to read.

I added the epub file to zotero:

If you have problems opening it, please let us know

… and there he is! Thanks for the recommendation :slight_smile:

1 Like

Terrific choice! I love it!

this has been a really fun book so far, looking forward to when we open up d i s c u s s i o n

1 Like

Ok I’ll introduce this chapter and try to provoke some reaction!

So ALH84001, the 4 billion year old martian asteroid looks like it contains fossils of bacteria and their appendages:

Actually they’re probably ‘dubiofossils’, and the wikipedia page for the meteorite says the scientific consensus is that you can’t tell whether something was living just by it’s shape. Philip Ball uses this as an example to point out that life isn’t a requirement for complex patterns, they can come from simple physics.

So we don’t need a computer to create patterns, but we don’t even need a human or any form of life… They ‘just happen’. (That does lead to cosmic thoughts about what the difference between life and mineral growth really is… and how autonomous life emerged from this kind of growth.)

Hidden in here is a nice definition of pattern that Ball admits is also a cliche - complexity from simplicity. Behind these complex form lie simpler rules or conditions. This again is quite a cosmic thought, bringing up the hippy staring into a fractal. We somehow have to put these feelings of cliche aside to actually think about this stuff… Or rediscover the lost hippy hiding in each one of us.

I do find something a bit uncomfortable about a subtext here, of treating nature as separate from us. This really is the live coder in me speaking - in a some ways I see live coding (people writing and editing code to make stuff on-the-fly) as the opposite of generative art (letting processes run to grow something autonomously, in a way that often references nature). We are animals, animals are part of nature, nature arises from physical processes… Are these really separate categories?

The chapter continues to argue for pattern as an alternative to Darwinism, saying that growth laws aren’t selected for through evolution, but are inevitable. I don’t know anything about contemporary evolutionary biology, but it makes some sense to me that evolution plays with parameters and compositions but that the re-occurence for certain shapes like spirals aren’t really the outcome of evolution but basic physics.

Well I’m only the first couple of pages in (I’m such a slow reader…) but maybe rather than delay things I’ll share this now, and invite others to share their summaries of/thoughts on this or the rest of the chapter… Then maybe we can organise a video chat this weekend if that’s not too short notice?


So for chapter one I feel like some of the interesting bits I took away from it are that

  • True randomness looks very uniform because it maximizes allowed symmetry
  • We tend to look at patterns and think “something planned this” because we’re used to complex things being made through intention
  • The design space of evolution is more constrained than we often think simply by physical laws and their consequences

I get what Yaxu is saying about the book posing nature as something separate than human and I have a feeling we agree on why. I kinda want to play off of what he said though about live-coding and generative art as being opposites. I personally think of it as more being on a spectrum of intention and involvement since you can have projects that are more like a back and forth between algorithmic output and person in a way that isn’t quite as immediate as live coding and also isn’t “we let gpt-3 eat petabytes of text to produce vaguely human phrasing based on prompts”.

The first chapter also has what I think is an unfair dunk on complex systems theory, which opposes reductivist thinking because it’s trying to study emergent properties that by definition don’t show up until you’re dealing with aggregates as opposed to the operation of parts. In fact, I find that couple of sentences jabbing at complexity extra weird because a lot of the stuff that gets talked about later in the book are exactly the kinds of things you read in intro textbooks on complex systems, e.g. the slime molds?

Those complaints aside I think the overall point of the chapter is a good one: patterns come from symmetry breaking, symmetry breaking can be intentional or it can be consequential, and the book sets up to talk about the latter kind.


Thanks for this chapter.
I found 2 interesting new moments for me:

  • first one is about fig. 1.12 and 1.13 about shell surfaces - previously I’ve seen them in the pages about Steven Wolfram’s automata rules - - and on one hand it’s funny that they have this automata-like pattern, but on the other never understood how could they be related to automata (my concern was that the automata is 1-dimensional and shell cone is 2-dimensional). But if the shell grows linearly according to generating curve in fig. 1.12, then it somehow now makes sense to me at least intuitively (but then we also probably need a continuous version of rule 30).
  • and also there was an interesting moment about difference between patterns and forms (illustrated with an example of ripples of sand).

I am also a very slow reader and I have no idea how people read so many books in a year when I haven’t finished a book in,… well, never mind that but it is good to know I’m not alone here…

Agreed w/ the discussion of nature vs human and it reminds me of these articles I came across discussing the establishing of the American national park system? And the ideal of “untouched nature” and the subsequent kicking Native Americans off of land to form parks partly in pursuit of this ideal but probably mostly because of racism but this is a topic for another time…

Yeah, I too liked the discussion of pattern and form and how pattern is through perceived (but not necessarily exact) repetition because that’s what I’m after with so many of my tunes and why I like working in live coding systems and not DAWs because with live coding systems you’re able to get repetition but program bits in that things don’t exactly repeat the same each time and play around with that and it makes the repetition slightly less monotonous and more “organic” feeling (although produced by machine!).

I get what the author means by form being “an individual affair” as to distinguish it from being a bunch of similar sorta things compared to each other, but in a way, form isn’t quite so individual? At least I guess from my music background thinking about form, there’s often elements contained within the form that are compared to each other that gives a form a sense of organization (although these elements don’t have to be repeated)? And I suppose form is always defined in relation to something,… not-form but I guess in a way this like describing what “up” is in relation to “down”.

All this discussion of patterns appearing nature because of physical forces and what not reminds me of composers (sorry to put on the music hat again but I did go through a lot of music school) interested in chance and aleatoric processes. Like with John Cage tossing coins, using the I Ching, using transparent sheets with things printed on them layered on top of each other, using star charts,… and Iannis Xenakis using all these mathematical MODELS (to tie it into the reading hah) of natural phenomenon like the movement of gas particles and what not… in a way all these composers thought (at least to me they thought), why am I the human making all the decisions when there’s are systems in nature giving ram horns spiral shapes and giving these viruses depicted in the chapter such regular forms and giving rise to all these forms living and non-living? What makes me think that I can do better than that?

Yeah, the knock against complex systems was weird and also something I wanna read more about and hopefully I’ll get a chance to read about it here hint hint and also reminds me of a few essays from Lewis Thomas’s Lives of a Cell? Namely the titular essay where he talks about how our inseperableness (is that a word) from nature and how we are just a collection of parts at various levels of organization and how the earth in a way reminds him a cell. And also On Societies as Organisms from the same book which describes the emergent behavior of various creatures such as ants making hills, birds and fish flocking, etc. Thinking about all of our connections and interactions and how we are components of larger networks and systems living and non-living is something I get lost in thought about every now and then…

I guess live coding can be generative? I mean, there are various degrees of which we can cede control to the computer and let it do its thing and sometimes these automated processes can allow us nudging it along various paths as we react to its output but maybe also generative art has its own particular meaning these days? like ML-generated sorta things that you just kinda have to let chug along.


Another slow reader here, but I partly blame the chapter for packing so many interesting avenues of patterns into one essay; I thought this was a great way to start the group!

I hope to add a few more notes later, but I thought to start with I’d just share a note on this first topic of distinguishing biotic and abiotic patterns. Coincidently we had a meeting of the UK astrobiology community last week and a geobiologist was sharing their latest results on synthesising these ‘dubiofossils’ in the lab (he actually had an argument of why he didn’t like the term dubiofossils but I’m afraid it went over my head), so I though I’d share the figure because the techniques and images have come a long in the last twenty years!

All of these images are synthetically grown from abiotic processes, and you can find the paper details here: Earth's earliest and deepest purported fossils may be iron-mineralized chemical gardens | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

These were produced in the context of finding the signs of the earliest life forms on Earth, but were presented in the context of studying Mars samples.

I like how the first foot forward has been on the topic of the transition from abiotic to biotic processes, because for me this is perhaps the deepest unsolved problems on the topics of patterns! I also can’t help feeling from what I’ve read of the chapter so far that if I were a chemist I’d be feeling quite neglected, because chemistry is such a brilliant framework for understanding how complex patterns emerge in nature - in that you have a small number of properties of these building blocks, the atoms, and these three laws of thermodynamics, and then out of this comes all these phenomena from the simple action of burning a candle to the incredibly energetically improbable action of burning calories to be alive

[apologies I put the image twice haven’t figured out how to correct that]


Sorry for going missing, I had a lot of distractions, catching up now!

Yes I liked this too. It seems related to how noise is as featureless as silence.

Yes agreed, I guess I’m labelling one extreme as ‘generative’ and the other extreme as ‘live coding’. On one side you have people using computers to model and wonder at the computational beauty of nature, and on the other side you have people having total control over the process and making it all about them. The interesting stuff is definitely between the extremes!

I think maybe Philip Ball leaves a lot of work for the reader too. Like the bit about defining pattern and form seems to be explicitly vague (if that makes sense), and you just have to define the terms and the differences between them for yourself based on the impression he gives. At least for me, this just leaves me pondering and re-reading everything to try and get what he means. Like he seems to define the word ‘pattern’ simply as something that repeats, then goes into symmetry and order without making the link, just leaving the paragraphs next to each other and leaving you to draw a conclusion… He returns to pattern, form and symmetry later under ‘breaking the monotony’ with this really thought-provoking idea about breaking symmetries, and how the process can spontaneously create new symmetries. But it’s not clear to me whether this is something that happens to a pattern, or whether the symmetry breaking is the pattern itself… I’m looking forward to reading on, anyway.

Thanks for sharing the slide! This reminds me of tardigrades/water bears, which can survive for 30 years without food or water, even in outer space… It’s almost as though they can go form biotic to abiotic and back again…


Thanks for sharing this! I enjoyed this first reading, and you’re right; definitely a thought-provoking piece.


As per the other thread, for those who can make it lets meet for an informal chat about this 2020-10-24T20:00:00Z (that should show in your own timezone)

Lets meet here: (a ‘jitsi’ web-based video conferencing thingie):

In the past I’ve found that it works best in the chrome browser.

Hi all,
Here’s a document for making notes:

thanks, that was fun :slight_smile:
here’s the cat I was talking about

he made a map of the energy pathways through the body
when playing the 'trap set
(here he demonstrates the first of sixteen at Sonoma State
same as what I learned at UC Santa Cruz)

just like a river on a map
is an abstraction of the water flow through the land


I didn’t have time to participate in the meeting sadly, but did very much enjoy this first read! Looking forward to the next choice.


No problem at all, this is a low-commitment reading group. Feel free to share your thoughts on previous readings (at the time of writing, this is the only previous reading…)