Monday, June 25, 2018

McCulloch, computers, and new forms of abstraction

Leif Weatherby, Digital Metaphysics: The Cybernetic Idealism of Warren McCulloch, The Hedgehog Review, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring 2018)
McCulloch never thought the real would yield to data; nor did he ever think humans would defer to their machines. Instead, he saw that the machines would make new principles of abstraction—new kinds of cognition—available. It was a kind of mutated Kantian question. Kant had wanted to know how much mind is in the world, and McCulloch thought the sum might shift. That is, the shape of the relation between abstraction and the real might change with the new machines.

Oh woe are the humanities, or, What becomes of moral education in an age of intellectual specialization?

Pual Reitter and Chad Wellmon, Melancholy Mandarins: Bloom, Weber, and Moral Education, The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2017. I've snipped from paragraphs from the article here and there.
Relying mostly on anecdotal evidence, and writing in accessible, simplifying prose, an insider-outsider figure—almost always a male humanities professor with solid academic credentials—condemns the culture of specialized research. He tells readers that as a result of this and other ills, alma mater has lost her way. Our once great institutions of higher learning have strayed from their mission of guiding young people through the process of building a soul, a failure that is both a symptom and a cause of a broader decline in our system of values. The lament culminates in a call for colleges and universities to rededicate themselves to the humanities in the right way. Pushing them to do so is the best chance we have to save ourselves from our malaise.
Institutional imperatives:
Despite their differing views on the fate of the humanities in the modern age, Bloom and the more recent melancholy mandarins agree that the research university has undermined the kind of education they deem so essential. It compartmentalizes inquiry into ever more specialized domains and thus makes “knowledge of the whole man,” Bloom’s formula for the end of education, impossible. Delbanco, in laying out what college should be, distinguished the purpose of research universities from that of the undergraduate colleges they house. Whereas the former produces new knowledge, the latter enables “self-discovery” or the formation of “a new soul,” he wrote, citing the German sociologist Max Weber, the man credited with first using the term “mandarin,” which had referred to Confucian scholar-bureaucrats, to describe Western intellectuals not lacking in self-importance.
And yet:
But there is also a great irony to the melancholy mandarins’ position. It was the modern research university, after all, that sacralized the humanities, accorded them prestige, and made the study of humanities an end in itself, providing a foundation for the academic freedom that, according to the mandarins, “real education” requires. The modern research university created the humanities as we know them today. Despite their differences in context and disposition, Bloom and Weber understood both this and the profound contradictions that followed. Even more reason, on the thirtieth anniversary of Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind and the centennial of Weber’s Science as a Vocation, that we return to those texts in order to make sense of the permanent crisis of the humanities in the modern age.
The old system subordinated the humanities–philosophy, philology, history, rhetoric, and literature–to professional education in law, Theology, or medicine. Reformers set out to change that at the beginning of the 19th century.
During the nineteenth century, the reformers’ dreams were, in one sense, largely realized. Humanistic inquiry was liberated from law, medicine, and theology, and humanities scholarship flourished. Universities in Berlin, Göttingen, and Heidelberg established the standards of systematic scholarship for everything from philosophy and classics to history and literature. New mechanisms for promotion were institutionalized. Research seminars were founded. Professional journals and societies were created. The modern principle of faculty self-governance was put into practice. And though its dependence on German state governments made for complications, the research university moved toward giving scholars academic freedom—the institutional space and support to teach and write what they wanted. As the Prussian constitution of 1850 codified it, “Scholarship and its teachings are free.”

But as humanities scholarship advanced, scholars within the university, as well as critics outside it, began to worry that the success of the research university had ushered in a fragmented and ever narrower kind of knowledge. The modern university and its ideals of pure research and academic autonomy may have helped free the humanities, but they also paved the way for another master: specialization.

Electric Elephants @3QD, Disney’s Dumbo

Dumbo LECTRIC 11

Disney’s been doing live-action remakes of many of its animated features. It released its second remake of The Jungle Book in 2016 and will be releasing a remake of Dumbo next year.

I’ve put up a post at 3 Quarks Daily where I examine the symbolic penumbra elephants have taken on in that film: Disney’s Dumbo, Tripping The Elephants Electric.


You might be interesting in my working paper, Walt Disney’s Dumbo, a Myth of Modernity.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Nationalist narcissism

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Yikes! Credit card debt in China is ridiculous

What's coming up in AI in 10 years?

An interview with Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle.

On the limitations of AI:
AI systems can make limited black and white distinctions. Understanding is more difficult. Allen asked me at first, “Is it possible to give an artificial intelligence a reference book to read and then ask it questions?” It is presumably a simple activity, but the answer was no. We have been working on it and there’s progress but it is still a difficult problem.
The problem of common sense reasoning is one aspect, and a very important one, of this limitation. In the near term:
Q: Okay, so without being overly optimistic or pessimistic: Where are we going in ten years?

A: The best way to think ten years ahead is to look ten years back. During this time, in the micro, things changed like we have moved past the iPhone 3. But on the macro scale, not much has changed. In ten years, we are still going to be building AI systems that are narrow, that can play Go, for example, and win. Maybe they will also recognize faces and diagnose certain diseases. AI will be able to carry out those tasks in a superhuman way. But wider capabilities, the ones we think of as intelligence, such as understanding a situation or context, will be much harder to achieve. In 1996, the computer system Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in a game of chess. It can play the best chess game in the world, all the while the room is on fire, and not notice a thing. Today we have a program that can be the world champion of Go, which is a much more complicated game, while the room is on fire.

Q: Meaning that AI still cannot tell what is happening around it.

A: Yes. There has been no progress in its ability to understand what is happening around it. I expect that ten years from now, maybe there will be a program that beat the best Minecraft player in the world but it still won’t notice that the room is on fire. That’s where it needs us. That is why we need to aim for intelligence that enhances human capabilities, that works in tandem with people. [...] There’s a paradox that people tend to miss: things that are difficult for people are easy for machines and things that are difficult for machines are easy for people. The real world, real people, real speech, books—these are a lot harder than Go.

Friday Fotos: Five glimpses of strange in black and white



IMGP8012rd - V2bw


IMGP8262rd - V3bw

Fishy Business – A mathophobe constructs a straw man [#DH]

Stanley Fish has just published a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities”, (June 17 2018). As the title indicates, it’s mostly about what he regards as futile efforts to justify the ways of humanist to the populace. He may well be right about the futility of those appeals, and he may be right, as well, that they are deeply mistaken about the value of the humanities, but those are not my concerns in this post. Near the end of the piece he makes a drive-by hit on that digital humanities. That’s what interests me.
Here’s a paragraph:
But there is an even deeper problem with the digital humanities: It is an anti-humanistic project, for the hope of the project is that a machine, unaided by anything but its immense computational powers, can decode texts produced by human beings. For it to work, the project requires a digital dictionary — a set of fixed correlations between formal patterns and the significances they regularly convey. There is no such dictionary, although if there were one the acts of readers and interpreter could be dispensed with and bypassed; one could just count things and go directly from the result to a statement of what Paradise Lost means. That is the holy grail of the digital-humanities project, at least with respect to interpretation: It wants to get rid of the inconvenience of partial, limited human beings by removing from the patterns they produce all traces of the human. It is an old game forever being renewed, but in whatever form it takes, it’s a sure loser.
As far as I know, no one has made such a proposal–though there’s much beyond my knowledge so it’s possible that somewhere out there such a proposal has been entertained. It’s a straw man.

He’s been stalking that straw man, or a close relative, since the 1970s. In “What Is Stylistics and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” [1] he berates several scholars, Louis Milic in particular, for being bewitched (my terms) with “the promise of an automatic interpretive procedure.” It’s not at all clear to me that any of those thinkers had such a creature explicitly in mind, though they may have had such longings. It is, in a way, an attractive prospect, especially when you consider the contemporary context, where critics were warring over the disconcerting fact that critical agreement is impossible to come by (a way, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t been won, but has mostly been abandoned). Mostly, however, it is an Other that Fish can set in opposition to his own position, whatever it might.

Let me suggest that “mathophobia” is at the heart of that Other, its skeleton, heart, stomach, and brain, all in one. In today’s edition of the Humanist newsletter (32.103 Fish’ing for fatal flaws) Willard McCarthy asserts, in response to the Chronicle piece:
I suspect there's another problem here as well: the fear of, and so inability to see work tinged with or involving, mathematics (mathophobia?). We’ve run into his "extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by" (OED) mathematically involved analysis of literary style before. What he and others are missing as a result! Note that it is not necessary at all to be mathematically competent to see what's happening and appreciate the importance of current work in statistically sophisticated computational stylistics, for example. It helps to observe that sorting and counting are mathematical operations, then to investigate what happens when these are powered by the digital machine over large quantities of data.

As I have found more than once, it is a mistake to assume that the old fears are a thing of the past or will be any time soon. Fearful reactions, such as Fish's, are valuable. They point to the depth and breadth, if you will, of the cognitive changes at work, slow though they may be.
I think, no, I’m sure, that McCarthy is right in this.

Fish’s mathophobia was in full force in the Q&A after “If You Count It, They Will Come: The Promise of the Digital Humanities”, an address he gave before the School of Criticism and Theory in the summer of 2015–a video and a transcript are online.

In the course of answering a question he mentions Literary Lab, Pamphlet 4: A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 19th Century British Novels: the semantic cohort method. He asks: “Now what is the semantic cohort method? Well, it turns out to be a method-- by the way, just as a piece, I don’t know, something that's almost, if you pardon the word, aesthetic. When I come upon an essay that has a page in it like that, I want to reach for my gun.” As he utters that last phrase (in a rising tone of voice) he’s holding up a page from the pamphlet, a page given over to a graph. And everyone knows that graphs consist of math wrapped in visible clothing.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

WTF? Melania's jacket–who's the audience and what's she saying to them?

Apes with 'language' skills, Koko has died

Here's a post where I talk about other linguistic apes, Taboo, abstraction, and living with animals.

Koko had pet cats.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Trophy on the Hudson


Facial recognition in humans and chimps

Kret ME, Tomonaga M (2016) Getting to the Bottom of Face Processing. Species-Specific Inversion Effects for Faces and Behinds in Humans and Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes). PLoS ONE 11(11): e0165357.


For social species such as primates, the recognition of conspecifics is crucial for their survival. As demonstrated by the ‘face inversion effect’, humans are experts in recognizing faces and unlike objects, recognize their identity by processing it configurally. The human face, with its distinct features such as eye-whites, eyebrows, red lips and cheeks signals emotions, intentions, health and sexual attraction and, as we will show here, shares important features with the primate behind. Chimpanzee females show a swelling and reddening of the anogenital region around the time of ovulation. This provides an important socio-sexual signal for group members, who can identify individuals by their behinds. We hypothesized that chimpanzees process behinds configurally in a way humans process faces. In four different delayed matching-to-sample tasks with upright and inverted body parts, we show that humans demonstrate a face, but not a behind inversion effect and that chimpanzees show a behind, but no clear face inversion effect. The findings suggest an evolutionary shift in socio-sexual signalling function from behinds to faces, two hairless, symmetrical and attractive body parts, which might have attuned the human brain to process faces, and the human face to become more behind-like.


For group-living animals, primates included, the recognition of conspecifics is crucial for their survival. Humans have specialized brain areas to recognize faces[1] and whole bodies[2–5] and their expertise in face recognition is demonstrated by the ‘inversion effect’, showing that faces and whole bodies, but not objects, are recognized configurally rather than by their parts[6–8]. Importantly, their recognition is disproportionally impaired, relative to objects such as houses or cars, when they are seen inverted rather than upright[6]. Conclusive evidence has shown that this effect is primarily due to a disruption in the processing of configural, rather than featural, information in faces [e.g., [9–13]. The face inversion effect has been observed in chimpanzees too, and although not all chimpanzees show this effect at all times[14, 15], overall there is evidence that configural processing is a critical element of efficient face detection in chimpanzees as well[16, 17]. Thus, effects of inversion have been observed for faces and whole bodies, but are generally not found for individual body parts[18]. Intriguingly, previous studies included almost all body parts, except the most obvious one, which is the behind, as we will outline below.

Previous research has shown that in recognizing each other, chimpanzees do not rely on the face alone[14], but also easily recognize each other by their behinds[19]. Most non-human female primates, chimpanzees included, show a swelling and reddening of the anogenital region around the time of ovulation[20]. At some point during human evolution, these changes in size and color along the menstrual cycle have disappeared, and large quantities of ‘permanent’ adipose tissue on the behind emerged[21, 22]. Possibly, this became more adaptive when our species started to walk upright, or to hide oestrus as to be attractive for males throughout the menstrual cycle and foster pair bond formation and shared caring for offspring. To date, it is not known how behinds as compared to faces are recognized in humans and their closest relatives, but this knowledge can enhance our understanding of the evolution of face processing, as we will argue below.

Face recognition plays an incredibly important role in the survival of animals living in social groups, including humans and chimpanzees. The changeable properties of faces like expression and gaze, display emotions and intentions and are used by observers to predict behavior[23]. The more or less invariant properties of faces are used for identification and display physical characteristics, including sex, age and attractiveness[1].

* * * * *

Note: Configural recognition means that something is recognized as a whole (as a gestalt), rather than recognizing parts and assembling them into a whole. David Hays and I discuss this in Metaphor, Recognition, and Neural Process (1987). The Wikipedia entry on the Thatcher effect is about configural processing of faces.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners

Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by language scientist Asifa Majid of Radboud University shows that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.

Scholars have for centuries pointed out that smell is impossible to put into words. Dutch, like English, seems to support this view. Perhaps the only really clear example of a smell word in Dutch is "muf." The Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, appear to be special in that they have developed an exquisite lexicon of words for smell, like other hunter-gatherers. Earlier work of Majid and colleagues already showed that hunter-gatherers seem to be especially good at talking about smell.

In a new study, the researchers tested 30 Jahai speakers and 30 Dutch speakers and asked them to name odors. At the same time they also videoed their faces so they could measure their facial expressions to the different odors after the experiment. The researchers replicated the finding that Jahai speakers use special odor words to talk about smells (e.g., cŋεs used to refer to stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke, and various insects and plants, plʔeŋ used for bloody, fishy, meaty sorts of smells), while Dutch speakers referred to concrete sources (e.g., 'if you ride along or stand behind a garbage truck, but not right on top of it').
Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Time for some flower friendliness


Top 100 jazz albums according to 2000 on reddit

The r/jazz top 100 album results! from r/Jazz
I own, or have owned, maybe 50 or so of them. & the list is obviously heavily biased toward newer music.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A real city, not SF noir