Category Archives: Fables, myths & parables

Myth thematics and mathematics

Myths are narrative formulas.

In mythological algebra the characters are variables; the plots, operators.

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To express an objective matter with precision, mathematize it.

To express a subjective matter with immediacy, mythematize it.

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Is mathematics inherent in nature? Are myths inherent in humanity?

Perhaps both are collaborations with immanence: true instaurations.

The visionary

There was once a painter whose eyesight was limited to the domain of artistic expression.

He was literally blind unless he had a blank or painted canvas in front of his face.

When he wasn’t painting or contemplating paintings, he had to stumble around with his hand extended in front of him, feeling for forms he could identify, or avoid bumping into — or, in exceptional cases, capture as a painting. His genius was rendering what he called “darkly felt objects” as hyper-visible art.

Whenever the artist did happen upon some novel form “in the outer world” that “demanded to be painted”, he would set up his easel and observe it with his entire being. He would capture in a painting, not just the impression the object makes on the eye, but also on the soul, or as the artist put it “the object’s essence”.

When he finished a painting he would place it in his repertoire of visible things. In the future, whenever his fingertips registered that particular object, or another object identical to it, he could pull the corresponding painting from his collection and see the object through his own vision and experience its essence.

The artist also kept a small sketchbook for less important things that didn’t concern him much — object/obstacles he needed to see just enough to get them out of his way: things of which he needed only to “get a gist”. Of these less relevant objects he sketched tiny, schematic, cartoon-like diagrams, dozens per page. He kept this sketchbook with him at all times more for reference than for drawing. The book only had so many pages, and he was conscious of the need to conserve.

Does this sound like an awkward way to deal with the visible world? Think again. Where others were constantly glimpsing and losing sights, and incapable of showing their vision to others, the artist was able to produce on demand every image of his entire visual experience. Once he saw something himself, he could convey the image to others, and even provide his followers with replicas of his images to use as a substitute for their own feeble and ephemeral looking. For this reason, the artist was universally celebrated as the most visual person who ever lived.

Painting blue

A painter had three colors of paint: black, white and what we would call “red”. Red was the only hue he knew about, so he he just called it “intensity”. He described the colors he mixed in terms of their relative lightness, darkness or intensity.

The painter worked in a studio and never left it. Everything in his studio was some shade or tint of red or gray. (Scholarly note: Some theorists have speculated that the reason all the objects in the artist’s studio were red and gray was that the artist himself had painted them all with the same paints he used for his paintings.)

The artist would compose these red, pink, black, gray, mauve and white objects into monochrome still-life scenes and paint them perfectly photo-realistically in red, pink, black, gray, mauve and white.

One day the painter’s assistant burst into the studio babbling excitedly about a new blue paint he’d seen at the market.

“Blue?” The painter asked him to describe where it fit in the range of colors. How light was “blue”? How dark was it? How intense was it?

The assistant tried to explain it. The painter could tell that what his assistant was describing was nothing more than plain-old intensity. And being a no-nonsense, plain-spoken man, he said so.

The assistant told him that wasn’t right. “Blue” really was different from normal “intensity”.

So the painter challenged him to show him what this so-called “blue” was. “It is easy to talk about theoretical new intensities,” he said, “but it is a whole other thing to actually mix a color. Produce this ‘blue’ for me.” The artist handed the him his black, white and red paints.

The assistant sat down at the easel and began painting the color blue. Or trying to. He mixed up a million permutations of red and black. Then black and white. Then red and white. Then he tried mixing the three pigments together in varying proportions, until he finally found the right combination to make blue.

Seeing blue with his own eyes for the very first time, the artist was amazed. He realized in hindsight how narrow his pink-and-gray studio-enclosed world had been. He spent a few days experimenting with his improvised and somewhat imperfect blue, and decided it was time to leave his studio, and venture out into the world to buy himself some real blue paint.

After this, the artist’s paintings acquired an entirely new depth of richness and expressiveness. His career entered a new stage, and it was only at this point that he became the legendary figure we remember today.

The end.

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The moral of this story: Anyone who wishes to introduce a completely new concept to another person must start where the other person is. We cannot ask anyone to come to us — not right away.

Instead we should explain the concept simply, using only familiar terms that the other person understands. And we should show the other person how this new idea will work within his existing way of doing things.

Once we’ve done that, the other person will understand us better and trust us more, and be far more willing to take the next step in exploring the matter to its depth.

This is how the world changes.

Good luck!

Thoughts on jots

Beautiful handwriting is learned and performed like dance. As long as you guide your movements to accord with a visual outcome, or execute your movements explicitly step-by-step you will write like a child.

Visual reproductions and execution of algorithms are means to cultivating tacit kinaesthetic knowledge. They are guides, and at each stage on the way visual and algorithmic considerations have varying degrees of emphasis.

Only with sustained effort can one internalize the visual and algorithmic elements and learn to write with spontaneous grace.

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Lately, I’ve been obsessed with fountain pens.

A fountain pen is not a tool a person uses to deposit ink on a surface. That is what a technical pen is for.

A fountain pen records a hand’s motion over a surface. It is a kind of seismograph that produces an ink trace of physical movement. Different pens and different nibs inspire and emphasize different kinds of movements. The movements are primary; the line follows. And the line reveals the source and the nature of the movement.

In my hand, a fountain pen reveals total gracelessness. I have enormous control over my writing hand. I can place ink precisely where I want it to be. But my hand has very little kinaesthetic intelligence of its own. It receives commands and reports sensations.

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Most people think like children.

They use their minds to produce some sort of outward effect, or they execute intellectual algorithms they were trained to produce as children.

It takes sustained effort to think with spontaneous grace.

It takes sustained effort to live gracefully.

Life feels most like living when it acquires grace.

“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

(unübersetzt?)

“Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes”

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around –,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

 

 

Fable of the Olive Gloss Army Jeep

When my Uncle Steve was in the Army he managed a warehouse. He was responsible for ordering and shipping supplies and managing inventory.

I say he “managed a warehouse”, but actually he managed two warehouses, an official one that belonged to the official Army supply network and a second unofficial gray-market warehouse that was part of a second network supplied by mistakes made by the official supply network’s. And because the official supply network did little but make mistakes, this second supply network was quite robust.

Due to the enormous number of procedures imposed on the network to guarantee maximum reliability and efficiency, the network was impossibly complicated, unreliable and inefficient. And that was the easy part. The processes involved in correcting a fuck-up was ten times more complicated, error-prone and slower than the process of generating a fresh fuck-up.

So, according to Uncle Steve, whenever he was forced to do things the Right Way the official warehouse system would invariably take aeons to complete his order and send him none of what he needed. Instead of attempting to correct the error, he would simply accept the incorrect order, put it into his second warehouse. He’d then use his second supply network to get what he needed a hundred times more reliably in one-hundredth the time.

At some point Uncle Steve started to collect mis-procured Jeep parts, a la “One Piece at a Time”. Soon, he’d assembled an entire vehicle. However, Uncle Steve made one strategic mistake that I feel sure he never regretted: he painted his new Army Jeep high-gloss olive. This extravagant touch attracted the attention of a general who immediately confiscated it for his own use.

The moral of this fable: The Right Way and the Effective Way of getting shit done is not necessarily the same. But even success is won despite the Right Way, once a success is won, the proponents of the Right Way will confiscate the success.

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Note, proponents of the Right Way confiscate successes as triumphs of the Right Way without the slightest curiosity about how the accomplishment was accomplished.

However, if shit goes wrong the proponents of the Right Way immediately look for deviations from Standard Procedure to explain why things went wrong.

Thus, due to the overwhelming power of selective curiosity, successes are always credited to the Right Way, and failures are always blamed on deviation from the Right Way — when if fact the only role the Right Way really plays in any success being as negligent, ineffectual and otherwise nonexistent as possible.

Continue reading Fable of the Olive Gloss Army Jeep

Serres’ pragmatogony

“I imagine, at the origin, a rapid whirlwind in which the transcendental constitution of the object by the subject would be nourished, as in return, by the symmetrical constitution of the subject by the object, in crushing semicycles that are endlessly begun anew, returning to the origin. … There exists a transcendental objective, a constitutive condition of the subje t through the appearance of the object as object in general. Of the inverse or symmetrical condition on the whirling cycle, we have testimony, traces or narratives, written in the labile languages. … But of the direct constitutive condition on the basis of the object we have witnesses that are tangible, visible, concrete, formidable, tacit. However far back we go in talkative history or silent prehistory, they are still there.” — Michael Serres

Two case fables

Case fable 1: Qualico

Qualico studied one unique customer and came to understand that customer very deeply and thoroughly, to the point that they knew precisely how that customer perceives, interprets and responds to every detail of his life. From these insights Qualico knew exactly what kind of product would win that customer’s permanent brand loyalty. Based on the study the company rolled out a product, and sold exactly one unit of that product — to that one customer they studied, who, by the way, was ecstatic. Encouraged by this success the company repeated the study with 3 more customers and in three product roll-outs sold three more units and won three more brand fanatics.

Case fable 2: Quantico

Quantico developed a technique for observing, measuring and recording every behavior of every one of their customers. There was no gap in this data. The database could report the exact frequency of any given behavior performed by customers of any given demographic over the course of any given span of time. Unfortunately, nobody in the company could objectively explain what motivated the behavior; they could only report the fact that certain behaviors happened. The company developed what they called the ITMRSM (Infinite Typing Monkeys Rapid Prototyping Methodology), where permutations of the product were systematically generated and tested on customers, whose behavioral responses were measured and tabulated. The products that elicited the highest frequency of desired behaviors were put into production. Eventually the company became able to sell a modest number of units of the product to a modest number of modestly dissatisfied customers.

Lennon-McCartney reimagined

In an alternate universe John Lennon came to Paul McCartney with the start of “She Said She Said” and Paul said “That’s a great start. Let me know when it’s finished, then let’s record it.”

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In an alternate universe John Lennon and Paul McCartney met once every few months and shared musical ideas with one another. They’d critique one another’s melodies, hum out accompaniments, talk about the possibilities of rock and roll. Then each would take the new exciting ideas back to their session bands and try them out.

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In an alternate universe the Beatles signed a contract that obligated them to produce a new album each month for 19 years. This required them to spend every waking hour in the studio recording. There was no time to sit around idly thinking up melodies, much less to engage in non-musical activities. They wrote their songs in the process of recording their albums and discharging their contractual obligation. The band got really, really good at music.

Muir – “The Grave of Prometheus”

“The Grave of Prometheus”

No one comes here now, neither god nor man.
For long the animals have kept away,
Scared by immortal cries and the scream of vultures;
Now by this silence. The heavenly thief who stole
Heaven’s dangerous treasure turned to common earth
When that great company forsook Olympus.
The fire was out, and he became his barrow.
Ten yards long there he lay outstretched, and grass
Grew over him: all else in a breath forgotten.
Yet there you still may see a tongue of stone,
Shaped like a calloused hand where no hand should be,
Extended from the sward as if for alms,
Its palm all licked and blackened as with fire.
A mineral change made cool his fiery bed,
And made his burning body a quiet mound,
And his great face a vacant ring of daisies.

– Edwin Muir

The Eighth Day Adventist

The theologian began with the assumption that humankind is created in God’s image, and proceeded to reverse-engineer God’s being from the psychological image of mankind.

He concluded that the Seventh Day was the most strenuous day of all for the great workaholic God. On the Seventh Day God constrained Himself from further creation and thus created stability.

The theologian dreaded the coming of the Eighth Day, the day that God would resume His ex nihilo creation with renewed enthusiasm.

He reflected on the last 5,700 years of reality in stasis, and humanity’s struggle to understand it. He tried to imagine humanity’s first Monday morning on the job, against the background of what had been from a cosmic perspective, an idle afternoon.

Humanity would wake to a new reality that would change faster than our collective capacity to learn. We would think, but the thoughts would not work, since they pertained to a nature superseded an hour ago (in part by the act of thinking). We would manipulate the world with increasing skill and shape it to our satisfaction, with growing dissatisfaction. We would explain the world with increasing precision, but the explanations would fail to explain the manifest inexplicability of the situation: that our helplessness grows with our expertise, as if the two were grafted together. Maybe they were never separate.

Like an infant we would stare out into a swirl of progressive chaos. New beings would appear out of nowhere, but, having no words for them, we would be unable to recognize them as real or distinguish them from fantasies or memories. Our knowledge would smash into these beings, break into conflicting opinions, and in churning debate, grind each other into powdery silt before disappearing under the foam. Our sense would make no sense. Gradually we would grow oblivious even to the possibility of making sense. Only a dumb awareness of an absence would remain, and that would disappear, too, negated by the self-evident fact of nothing missing.

God would press ahead, dividing, reunifying and articulating — all the while declaring His every act “Good!” in a language humanity will never learn.

The theologian feared that we would never emerge from our second infancy. In rude moods the theologian referred to Eighth Day humanity as the Great Retard.

Vision management

To be assigned responsibility for something is almost synonymous with taking care of all the details of some work activity or work product. But rarely is anyone assigned responsibility for maintaining the vision of the whole in the execution of the parts.

A management truism applies: “If nobody is responsible for getting a job done, it won’t get done.”

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If you suggest that vision needs to be managed apart from the details many people will dismiss the thought on the grounds that once you’ve conceived an idea (in the form of a strategy or a concept), and developed a plan to execute it, the whole is contained in the details.

This is untrue.

It only seems that way because the majority of businesspeople are intellectually blind to wholeness. It isn’t that they can’t feel the difference between a whole and a fragmented mess — it’s just that they don’t know how to think about the problem and prefer to ignore it. We let wholes slide, because it’s hard to bust someone for neglecting a whole. It feels very… subjective. Parts are objective, so that’s where we focus.

But ignoring wholes is what makes so many companies competent but mediocre.

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Philosophies have practical consequences, even when we are not aware we hold any philosophy at all. As Bob Dylan said: “It might be the devil / or it might be the Lord / but you’ve gotta serve somebody.” Actually, it is especially when we are unaware it that a philosophy’s influence is strongest, determining our thoughts, perceptions and action.

One philosophy 95% of people in the modern world believe without knowing it, which they have unconsciously absorbed through cultural osmosis and accepted unquestioningly, is atomism.

According to atomism, wholes are made entirely out of parts. Once all the parts are accounted for, the whole is accounted for as well. In other words, wholes are reducible to parts.

Holism asserts that wholes have an existence independent of their particular constitution (of parts). Some holists say that wholes are what give meaning to parts, and that parts deprived of the context of a whole are inconceivable. Reductionistic holists go as far as to claim that all we have is wholes which have been artificially or arbitrarily divided up into parts.

I’m against reductionism on principle. I think wholes have one kind of being, and parts have another kind of being, and that human beings find life most satisfying when wholes and parts are made to converge.

And my philosophy has practical consequences: wholes need management as much as parts do. And when you do not explicitly manage a wholes the parts will overpower, degrade and smother the whole.

This happens to products, to initiatives, and to organizations.

We forget wholes, mostly because we don’t understand what they are and how they work.

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Inevitably and automatically, if allowed to develop by their own logic, parts diverge from the whole.

Parts tend to work themselves out according to the most local conditions, governed more by expedience, habit and myopia than by the guidance of vision. This type of localized logic is made of very crude forces and very tangible considerations.

Envisaged wholes are more fragile, at least at the beginning, before they are firmly established. They must be protected from the roughness of localized logic, like as we fence off sprouts and saplings until they’ve established themselves and no longer need protection.

Envisaged wholes (especially unprecedented wholes) are vulnerable in three specific ways. They are essentially inchoate, elusive, ephemeral .

  1. Envisaged wholes are essentially inchoate. — We tend to think of vision as being the envisioning of a whole, a detailed picturing of some possible reality. That is not how it happens. Vision is sensing a possibility. Some of the possibility is given in broad outline, and some of it is given in arbitrary detail, but most of it is simply latent in a situation, there but inaccessible to the imagination. As the situation develops under guidance of the vision, the development is recognized as conforming or deviating from the vision. But what is strange is that the vision itself is affected by the recognition. The vision understands itself, reflected in the concrete attempts to actualize it, in a dialogical process of revelation. This is why visions are not directly translatable into plans. The plan must accommodate and support the development of the vision, or it is only a recipe for sterility.
  2. Envisaged wholes are elusive. — While virtually all people are capable of recognizing and categorizing objects, and virtually every professional is capable of grasping processes and plans, relatively few are able to understand or conceive concepts, even after they have been clarified and articulated. An envisaged whole gains concreteness, clarity and general accessibility in the course of its development, and as it does it comes into view of more and more people. In its early stages, though, the fact of its existence, much less its nature will be far from obvious, and completely beyond the grasp of most people. Those with firsthand experience with vision know this process. Those who don’t either operate by faith and support the process or they undermine it, or they create conditions where vision doesn’t even happen. (In many organization, the wholes are determined solely by leadership; but leadership is earned through success in managing details. The result: the only people able to earn the right to set vision are precisely the ones with absolutely no awareness of vision. They try to provide their organizations with “vision”, but all they know how to come up with are ambitions, metrics, and plans to accomplish what’s been done before.)
  3. Envisaged wholes are ephemeral. — Because of how they are known, envisaged wholes are very easily corrupted and forgotten. They are revealed in dialogue with concrete actualization. The vision tries to respond to the actualization. If the actualization is not responsive to the vision and moves away from it far enough, the vision will lose not only its hold on the process, it will get caught up in the localized logic of the development and lose itself altogether. This is what is meant by getting “too close to the situation”. The vision holder must maintain the right balance of contact with the situation — close enough to guide it, but far enough from it to see when the development has begun to go off-track. When nobody is permitted the distance, and everyone is required to roll up their sleeves and get mired in the details, the vision’s chances of survival are nil. The problem is not with the vision, nor with the visionary, but with the absence of conditions necessary for maintaining vision.

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The captain of a ship, after charting the ship’s course and pointing it in the right direction, went below deck and grabbed an oar.

Two stories about skin

His overwhelming desire to get out was his eviction notice. He had to leave this place immediately. It wasn’t so much that he needed to not be here anymore. It was that he needed to be there — to know his independence, to look upon his home from a distance and see it whole against the sky.

He stripped some bark from a nearby tree. (As he cut into the tree and peered beneath the bark he felt bad for this tree, for he knew the shame of being seen beneath; but this was immediately eclipsed by an even greater feeling of pride.)

On the bark’s smooth inner wall he created a map. He paused to admire it, and savored calling it good. Then he set off to chart the edges of the world. As he traveled and traced his path on his map, the shape that emerged came to him as good news. Now he knew for certain what he had suspected. With his completed map in hand he left his home behind.

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In the end,
the trees will grow like snakes,
splitting and sloughing bark,
bending in coils of green heartwood;
and the snakes will grow like trees,
depositing skin under skin,
in casings of turgid leather,
and they will lie about on the ground
like broken branches.

Crests

Years ago my sister and I were swimming in the ocean as a storm was coming in. The waves were huge and powerful. It was nearly impossible to move from the near-region where broken waves grappled in churning knots, out further to where the wave dropped themselves in permanent quarter-ton suplexes, and further still to where we wanted to be, to where the curls were just beginning to form. Out there waves still had univocal thrust and could pick us up and carry us back over the violence and set us on the shore. But the closer we got to the break line, the harder it was to stand upright and advance. We would get knocked off our feet and thrown to the bottom, and washed back into the brown foamy shallows, our faces full of dirt and our bellies scored by sharp little shells.

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Where the water is deeper, it is more impersonal and disciplined. Out there, waves move through the ocean and the ocean feels the movement running through it. Each individual quart of salty water makes a patient circle like a rider on a ferris wheel, returning again and again to where it began.

But once the force of the wave hits hard ground, everything gets personal. The water at the bottom is smashed into the ground; the water in the middle loses its balance and begins to topple; the water at the top is overthrown and falls on its face. Here, water identifies with the wave and knows itself to be the mover. Every eddy strives to pull the rest of the ocean in its wake. A foaming brood of rivers coil, constrict, crush and swallow each other endlessly.

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Somewhere between the complacency of the depths and the ambitions of the shallows, where the waves touch bottom with the tips of their toes, there is motion that can move us. And when we are moved, it is the residual unified force of the deeper traditions, challenged by the dirty spasms of the everyday, to leap and push and bring order where there are too many orders.