Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why is this photo so popular?

I posted it to Flickr on August 29th and it's gotten 1500 views so far. It's my fourth most popular photo. The most popular photo has 3,663 views and is from 2006. The second and third most popular photos are from 2006 as well. Those three are all graffiti photos. This one is of lights, but the camera was moving when I snapped the shot. I can't for the life of me figure out why it's so popular.

It's a bit interesting, yes. But not THAT interesting.

The Freedoniad: A Tale of Epic Adventure in which Two BFFs Travel the Universe and End up in Dunkirk, New York

And another thing

This is the story of Sparkychan and Gojochan and how they started in Jersey City, New Jersey, traveled the universe, and ended up in Dunkirk in upstate New York. Sparkychan’s the pink one and Gojochan’s the grey one. “Chan”, as I’m sure you know, is a Japanese diminutive and is appended to the names of children, where it has affectionate connotations. “Sparky” is obvious enough, and as for “Gojo,” that’s short for “Gojira,” which became “Godzilla” when rendered into English.

I bought the two toys so I could pose them among some of Jersey City’s grimier spots, as you see them above. I named them when I started using them in stories I told to two young girls I’d recently met.

Except that I didn’t really meet them.

I met their father.

Except that I didn’t really meet him either.

Not in the “real” world.

I met him online, at Bérubé’s joint, where he posted as The Constructivist. Bérubé – that’s Michael Bérubé, formerly president of the Modern Language Association – ran a real sociable place, where The Constructivist and I joined a bunch of others in a major interwebs project/party. And that is how I more or less – the details don’t matter – ended up at Mostly Harmless, one of The Constructivist’s blogs.

These days he mostly posts about women’s golf. But back in those days he would also post about his two young daughters, which he identified as onechan (the older one) and imoto (the younger one). I believe onechan was between three and four at the time.

Graffiti: Then and Now

Graffiti is a curious activity. Existing at the edge of the law, it has to make its own laws. Perhaps the most important of those govern wall protocol: going over some other writer's work. The basic rule is simple: Always improve the wall. That means that, if you go over someone else's work, you should put something better in the spot. If you don't, that's taken as an insult and can lead to war – which happens mostly on walls (see Tales Told on a Wall, A Year in the Life), but can also lead to physical violence among writers should the combatants happen to meet face-to-face.

So, I took this flick on Oct 28, 2006:

Distort Komar Then

That's on one of the stanchions supporting the 14th Street viaduct in Jersey City, and it's one of the first walls I saw when I got serious about flicking graffiti. That boy in the mushroom cloud, by Komar (flanked by Distort on the left and Then on the right), told me there's something serious going on here. It's not just a bunch of kids breaking the law. Here's the middle of the same wall on Oct 26, 2014:


The Komar is mostly gone, though you can see a bit of it peaking over the SMEAR throwie. That's definitely NOT a step up. But there may be mitigating circumstances. There's been repair work on the viaduct recently and you can see that a lot of dust and slurry has leaked down over the wall, obscuring the graffiti. It's possible that the Komar was obliterated before SMEAR went over.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Elements of Style: A Short Graffiti Flick

Voices from the Beginning of the World

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman
by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 622 pp., $39.95
Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. We take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:
I do not possess old books in which my ancestors’ words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me…. They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them…. They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will still be as new and strong as they are now.
The book was transcribed, translated, and edited from a hundred hours of taped interviews Albert conducted with Kopenawa in the Yanomami language from 1989 through 2001.
What I'm wondering is whether or not it makes sense to think that Kopenawa is, in some non-trivial way, undergoing time-travel when he talks of "renewing" the xapiri's words, the ones set "in the deepest part of me" (cf. the discussion of brain states Time and Again, the Curse of the Linearizing Amulets). His body, yes, it days in the present. but his mind, it does not. It goes outside of time.

Dusk on an overcast day


Feminist Scholarship at the Leading Edge of Digital Tech

Signs@40: Feminist Scholarship through Four Decades: Forty years of Signs via topic modeling, editorial curation, and commentaries
To celebrate it's 40th anniversary Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society has put together a special website (link above) using digital techniques of various kinds, thus providing what may well be the most sophisticated deployment humanities scholarship on the web. And check out the Cocitation Network Graph:
Rather than mapping articles published in Signs, the graph provides a way of viewing the broader field of feminist scholarship that is reflected in the sources cited in the articles that the journal publishes. The assumption operative in this type of graph is that scholarship can be viewed as conversations among various participants represented by particular sources; sources that tend to be cited together are being put into conversation with one another and are thus representative of a particular strain or school of thought within a field.
Out in the Twitterverse Andrew Goldstein remarked:
And that comment points up an interesting digital divide, not the one between those who can afford the technology and those who can't, but the one between scholars who understand the intellectual potential of these techniques and those who are blind to that potential. For Goldstone is right about those comments; they're a rich field of ideas for further digital scholarship. Who will take advantage of those opportunities?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On not dancing

There's this interesting and curious article over at Medium, Please respect my decision not to dance, by Henry Reich, though I don't think he's right in characterizing ours as a "dance normative" society. More like dance ambivalent and conflicted.
People seem to be able to respect my other decisions not to do things — they respect my decision not to bungee jump, not eat mustard or drink coffee or beer (all of which I think taste disgusting), not to smoke, even not to eat meat. But the problem is that going to places where there is dancing is at times an unavoidable part of modern socializing — dancing is often the expected entertainment at weddings and concerts, at bars and clubs, and at parties with friends. And unlike how tea or juice or water tend to be available at coffee shops in addition to coffee, it’s quite common for there to be nothing to do at a dancing venue other than not dance.

And I just have no taste for dancing. I don’t enjoy it and it definitely doesn’t make me feel good. When I do dance, I always feel like I’m forcing it, these weird artificial flailing and shaking motions I’m trying to make my body do. This is not what my arms and legs were built for.
He goes on to point out that he's a musician and feels drawn to play music whenever he hears music:
... in fact, I can’t listen to music while doing other things like homework or reading or working the way most people can — I find myself drawn inexorably into music, it distracts me, captures my attention, and even compels me to act. Act, yes. Dance, no.
I understand how he feels. When I'm at dancing occasions I have, for the most part, been like Reich. I stay away from the dance floor and don't like to be approached about dancing. On those occasions when I'm in the band that's supplying the music – which I have been for many years – things are easy. Since I'm in the band, playing music, no one expects me to dance; but I can enjoy (making the) music and watching the others dance.

But there was a time, and a certain scene, when I danced. And enjoyed doing so. We're just not there now.

And I think there's more to Mr. Reich's story than he's telling us or than he even knows.


FR8s: Tankers with ethanol and graffiti




When art meets science

Arthur I. Miller. Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art. Norton: 2014. 352 pages. $29.95.
Dr. Miller’s encyclopedic survey begins at the dawn of the 20th century, when physicists as well as painters were testing radical new models of space and time. In the vein of his previous book “Einstein, Picasso,” Dr. Miller shows how the discovery of quantum mechanics inspired a generation of avant-garde artists, including Picasso, Kandinsky and Dalí, who said, “It is with pi-mesons and the most gelatinous and indeterminate neutrinos that I want to paint the beauty of the angels and of reality.”

Starting in the 1980s, Dr. Miller began to spend time with artists who have found their muse in science, and has watched as the scene grew. He knows the field like few others, interviewing many of the artists for hours at a stretch and visiting museums, galleries, media labs, and corporate behemoths like Pixar and Google.
This is important stuff. Artists should be making use of scientific imagery, which is often quite astonishing. It's certainly more important than the post-post-modern wanting that fills so many galleries and 'cutting edge' museum shows.
The book brims with an underdog mentality, as the author explains how the establishment art world has turned a cold shoulder to science-driven artists. The tide seems to be turning, as wide-eyed futurism goes mainstream and everyone wants to do a TED talk. “Some people who have been out in the wilderness for years are now getting traction,” as a museum director puts it.

When it comes to the future, Dr. Miller holds a utopian vision that includes young people “working with computers made of not-yet-invented materials” and “producing theories that generate images that can be manipulated like equations.” Tech gurus seem to agree that a discipline-blurring digital renaissance is underway. Some researchers counter that real science will continue to demand ultraspecialization rather than skillful dabbling.

Autopilot and an Old Dutch Song

I’m playing trumpet in an ad hoc trio that’s supporting a local production, A Legend of Communipaw. We supply a variety of simple tunes and sound effects here and there. One of the tunes we play is an old song, Al is ons prinsje – at least I assume it’s old. Here it is on YouTube:

“How could you possibly get it wrong?” you ask, “It’s so simple.”

I know, I know. That’s what’s been bugging me. It’s so simple; how could I possibly get it wrong?

But I figured it out. Here’s a score for one version – there’s a bunch of them out there, all slightly different, but most more or like this one in one crucial way:


It starts with a three-bar phrase that’s repeated once (the first line). Then we have an eight-bar phrase that’s really two four-bar phrases (line 2, line 3). Most of the half-dozen or so versions I’ve looked at agree that this is the form [3 3][4 4].

Notice the rest at the end of that first phrase. Well, I simply extended that rest a whole bar to make the first phrase into a four-bar phrase rather than a three-bar phrase.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why Jared Diamond doesn't interest me

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel some years ago, but don't remember much from it. I thought is was interesting and entertaining, but Diamond didn't have anything particularly interesting to say about his core question: How did the West came to dominate the rest? Here's how Oliver Burkeman characterizes Diamond's argument in The Guardian:
Guns, Germs and Steel began by repudiating the obvious, racist answer: that Eurasian peoples won out because they were smarter and more vigorous, down to their genes. Instead, it was a matter of geography. Europe and the Middle East had good soil, plenty of easily domesticable animals and plants, and a main axis running east-west, instead of north-south – meaning that crops, livestock and tools could spread easily, without confronting big changes in climate or day length. The world’s first farming societies emerged, leading to bigger settlements and concentrations of political power. Meanwhile, humans living among farm animals developed immunity to the diseases they carried. By the time they encountered other societies, their military power, metal tools and, above all, their deadly germs gave them the decisive advantage. Diamond’s books feature few intrepid explorers or brutal colonisers; rather, there are just accidents of geography, and their after-effects.

The fact is, in a sense, the Eurasians were smarter. But not through superior genes. It was a matter of culture, as I argue in The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD. Diamond has nothing comparable to propose. His argument amounts to saying that geography gave Westerners more time to think. But it says nothing about what made that thinking so devastatingly effective. 

He's assuming that, given enough time, more effective ideas inevitably show up. Not only do we need to see an argument on that point, rather than tacit assumption, but Diamond needs to say something about just what makes for more effective thought. He says nothing about that.

Which is to say, he managed to write a big entertaining book that simply failed to address the question he set out to answer. The anthropologists are right to say that geography isn't much of an answer. Alas, I rather doubt that they'd like the answer I propose any better than they liked Diamond's.

Vygotsky Tutorial (for Connected Courses)

Howard Rheingold recently mentioned Vygotsky in a Connected Courses discussion:
And student-centric pedagogy in which learners attempt to make meaning of texts together isn't as new as social media. Dewey, Freire, Vygotsky and others pointed in that direction.
I’m not sure what he had in mind with that reference to Vygotsky, but Vygotsky is one of the seminal 20th century thinkers about language and mind and has had a strong influence on me.

Vygotsky argued, in effect, that thinking – considered as a quasi-verbal voice in the mind – is just internalized speech. The young child learns to speak to herself as others speak to her and thereby gains a mechanism affording some control over her mind. We can contrast Vygotsky’s view with the somewhat later view of Noam Chomsky, the linguist, who regarded language as primarily an instrument of thought and only incidentally an instrument of communication. On the contrary, Vygostkians argue, we can think (in the sense of talking to ourselves) because we can communicate.

I’ve already got a relatively brief post on this elsewhere on New Savanna: Thought as Inner Speech. In this post I excerpt a long article published in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts: First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction. When reading this excerpt keep two things in mind. First, there is no deliberate instruction going on. For the most part we acquire language without being deliberately taught; we just “breath it in.” The child is not, in this process, imitating the adult (or other speakers). She’s internalizing.

Think of the process Vygotsky describes in terms of the scaffolding metaphor that's currently all over the place. The adult's speech scaffold's the child's behavior, both in action and perception. Then the child learns to use her own speech to scaffold. Finally there's no need for external scaffolding, that is, no speech either from an adult or from the child herself.

Vygotsky on the Emergence of Thought as Inner Speech

Given this conception of self and language I now want to turn to Vygotsky's conception of thought as inner speech. The general idea is that as others direct the child's actions and perceptions through language, so the child learns to use language in controlling herself (Vygotsky, 1962; Luria, 1959). In effect, the child peoples her brain with an other and uses that other as a mechanism to control her own mind.

Vygotsky bunny 1
Figure 1: Adult directing child's attention to a bunny.

When a young child is requested to do something, the linguistic channel in the child's brain analyzes the acoustic input and activates the appropriate cognitive and perceptual schemas. The command "come here" will activate a plan for locomotion while the command "look at the bunny" (see Figure 1 for an informal representation) will activate a plan for seeing. The child knows that she is to execute the command because of the intonation pattern (Jakobson's conative function, 1960), which, presumably, is grounded in the various neural systems subserving social interaction. Upon receipt of that intonation pattern, the child's motor system is prepared to execute a pattern. As the content of the utterance is decoded the motor schema, whether for moving her body or looking in a certain direction, is executed. This sounds as though the infant is helpless in the face of intelligible commands from others, that she has no choice but to execute them. Initially, I believe, this is the case. The motor control center has no way of distinguishing between a command originating in the brain of another and a command originating within the child's own brain. Once the ability to make the distinction is learned, the word "no" enters the child's vocabulary as a means of marking autonomy (Church, 1966, p. 101).

Delicate bouquet


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Collective Creativity vs. the Lone Genius in the Discovery of the Higgs

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a major scientific achievement, writes Neal Hartman in Nautilus. But who did it?
An obvious candidate is Peter Higgs, who postulated the Higgs boson, as a consequence of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, in 1964. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013 along with Francois Englert (Englert and his deceased colleague Robert Brout arrived at the same result independently). But does this mean that Higgs was a genius? Peter Jenni, one of the founders and the first “spokesperson” of the ATLAS Experiment Collaboration (one of the two experiments at CERN that discovered the Higgs particle), hesitates when I ask him the question.

“They [Higgs, Brout and Englert] didn’t think they [were working] on something as grandiose as [Einstein’s relativity],” he states cautiously. The spontaneous symmetry breaking leading to the Higgs “was a challenging question, but [Einstein] saw something new and solved a whole field. Peter Higgs would tell you, he worked a few weeks on this.”

What, then, of the leaders of the experimental effort, those who directed billions of dollars in investment and thousands of physicists, engineers, and students from almost 40 countries for over three decades? Surely there must have been a genius mastermind directing this legion of workers, someone we can single out for his or her extraordinary contribution.

“No,” says [Fabiola] Gianotti unequivocally, which is rare for a physicist, “it’s completely different. The instruments we have built are so complex that inventiveness and creativity manifests itself in the day-by-day work. There are an enormous amount of problems that require genius and creativity to be spread over time and over many people, and all at the same level.”

Scientific breakthroughs often seem to be driven by individual genius, but this perception belies the increasingly collaborative nature of modern science. Perhaps nothing captures this dichotomy better than the story of the Higgs discovery, which presents a stark contrast between the fame awarded to a few on the one hand, and the institutionalized anonymity of the experiments that made the discovery possible on the other.

Struttin' in Hoboken