Monday, April 27, 2015

The Green Villain at Work, Pep Boys, 25 Apr. 2015, #GVM004




On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel

I've got another working paper available (title above):

Most of the material in this document was in an earlier working paper, Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh, which also has a great deal of material that isn’t in this paper. I’ve created this version so that I can focus on the issue of directionality and so I’ve dropped all the material that didn’t related to that issue. The last section, The Universe and Time, is new, as is this introduction.

* * * * *

Abstract: Matthew Jockers has analyzed a corpus of 19th century American and British novels (Macroanalysis 2013). Using standard techniques from natural language processing (NLP) Jockers created a 600-dimensional design space for a corpus of 3300 novels. There is no temporal information in that space, but when the novels are grouped according to close similarity that grouping generates a diagonal through the space that, upon inspection, is aligned with the direction of time. That implies that the process that created those novels is a directional one. Certain (kinds of) novels are necessarily earlier than others because that is how the causal mechanism (whatever they are) work. This result has implications for our understanding of cultural evolution in general and of the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution.

1. Introduction: Direction in Design Space, Telos? 2
2. The Direction of Cultural Evolution: The Child is Father or the Man 6
3. Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels 9
4. Macroanalysis: Styles 10
5. Macroanalysis: Themes 13
6. Influence and Large Scale Direction 15
7. The 19th Century Anglophone Novel 18
8. Why Did Jockers Get That Result? 20
9. What Remains to be Done? 21
10. Literary History, Temporal Orders, and Many Worlds 22
11. The Universe and Time 30

Introduction: Evolving Along a Direction in Design Space

In 2013 Matthew Jockers published Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013). I devoted considerable blogging effort to it 2014, including most, but not all, of the material in this working paper. In Jockers’ final study he operationalized the idea of influence by calculating the similarity between each pair of texts in his corpus of roughly 3300 19th century English-language novels. The rationale is obvious enough: If novelist K was influenced by novelist F, then you would expect her novels to resemble those of F more than those of C, who K had never even read.

Jockers examined this data by creating a directed graph in which each text was represented by a node and each text (node) was connected only to those texts to which it had a high degree of resemblance. This is the resulting graph:


It is, alas, almost impossible to read this graph as represented here. But Jockers, of course, had interactive access to it and to all the data and calculations behind it. What is particularly interesting, though, is that the graph lays out the novels more or less in chronological order, from left to right (notice the coloring of the graph), though there was no temporal information in the underlying data. Much of the material in the rest of this working paper deals with that most interesting result (in particular, sections 2, 6, 7, 8, and 10).

What I want to do here is, first of all, reframe my treatment of Jockers’ analysis in terms of something we might call a design space (a phrase I take from Dan Dennett, though I believe it is a common one in certain intellectual circles). Then I emphasize the broader metaphysical implications of Jockers’ analysis.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ian Morris on Why Societies Collapse

Stanford's Ian Morris, a classicist by training, is one of 32 fellows in the inaugural class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows in the humanities and social sciences. Here's a passage from a recent interview published on the Stanford website:
A few years ago I designed a quantitative index of social development, allowing us to measure the ability of different societies to master their physical, intellectual and political environments. This suggested that social development has been rising for most of the 15,000 years since the end of the last ice age, but also showed that there have been several great collapses, plunging societies into dark ages that last for centuries.

The same five factors recur in all the major collapses: uncontrollable migrations, new epidemic diseases, state failures, famine and – always involved, but never in quite the same way – climate change. All five of these factors, of course, seem to be pressing on us in the early 21st century. The greatest past collapses began in Song-dynasty China about 1,000 years ago, and all the way from the Roman Empire to Han China 2,000 years ago. In both cases, the societies in question seem to have developed about as far as was possible in a purely agricultural system.

The only way to go further was by having an industrial revolution; but because neither the Romans nor the Song managed this, both stagnated and then fell apart. The lesson of past collapses seems to be that every economic system has its limits, and we may now be approaching the boundaries of what is possible in a fossil-fuel, industrial world. If that is right, then the 21st century will be a race between innovation, transforming our fossil-fuel economies into something entirely new, and stagnation, leading us into a new dark age.

Energy and the origin of life

The Financial Times reviews Nick Lane, The Vital Question:
The key moment for the evolution of life on Earth, Lane says, came at some point between 2bn and 1.5bn years ago. Then, in a rare and remarkable act of “endosymbiosis”, an archaean absorbed a bacterium — and this combination survived to divide into a rapidly evolving chain of descendants. All eukaryotic creatures, including ourselves, come from this once-in-4bn-years union.

Lane puts energy at the centre of his story, deploying thermodynamic and chemical arguments that will be challenging but not incomprehensible for the general reader. Although all living creatures generate energy by pumping protons across a membrane, the combined cell could deploy energy resources far beyond the scope of bacteria or archaea on their own. The absorbed bacteria multiplied within their archaean host cells, losing their independent identity and evolving into the minute power packs that we know as mitochondria. In the process they lost most of their DNA but retained a tiny genome critical for energy processing. 
This internal specialisation enabled eukaryotic cells to generate many thousands of times more energy per gene than prokaryotes.
I'm wondering about the informatics of this. Years ago Dave Hays and I argued that evolution produces complexity by using a relatively small amount of energy to buy information that in turn allows the purchase of more energy than the cost of the information increment plus the energetic cost of the purchase. Is that what's going on here?

H/t 3QD.

The basics of graffiti culture #GVM004

These photos were taken on Saturday, 25 April, 2015, at the Green Villain Pep Boys Invitational Greffiti Jam and Building Farewall.

The Writer


The Photographer


The Image


Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Fotos: Pep Boys, Newport, Jersey City: #GVM004

The Pep Boys in Newport in Jersey City has closed and the building's been sold. Next month it will be demolished to make way for new construction. My amigo, the Green Villain, has secured permission to paint the whole thing before it goes. That's happening tomorrow. Earlier today I went by to get a few shots before the fun begins. Well, actually, it's already begun. But tomorrow it's party time.







Thursday, April 23, 2015

Neural Recognizers: Some notes based on a TV tube metaphor

Introduction: Raw Notes

A fair number of my mosts here at New Savanna and edited from my personal intellectual notes. In this post the notes are unedited. This is an idea that dates back to my graduate school days in English at SUNY Buffalo. Since I keep my notes in Courier – a font that harks back to the days of manual typewriters – I’ve decided to retain that font for these posts and to drop justification.

Since these notes are “raw” you’re pretty much on your own. Sorry and good luck.

* * * * *

1.26.2002 – 1.27.2002

This is the latest version of an idea I first explored at Buffalo back in the late 1970s. It was jointly inspired by William Powers’ notion of a zero reference level at the top of his servo stack and by D’Arcy Thompson. I’ve transcribed some of those notes into the next section. A version of this appeared in the paper DGH (David Hays) and I wrote on natural intelligence, where we talked in terms of Pribram’s neural holography and Spinelli’s OCCAM model for the cortical column:
  • W. Benzon and D. Hays. Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 293 - 322, 1988.
  • Powers, W.T. (1973). Behavior: The Control of Perception. Chicago: Aldine.
  • Pribram, K. H. (1971). Languages of the Brain. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  • Spinelli, D. N. (1970). Occam, a content addressable memory model for the brain. In (K. H. Pribram & D. Broadbent, Eds): The Biology of Memory. New York: Academic Press, pp. 293-306.

“TV Tube Recognizer”


Imagine a TV screen with a circle painted on it and with controls which allow you to operate on and manipulate the projection system in various useful ways. We’re going to use this to conduct an active analysis of the input to the screen.

Assume that the object to be analyzed is projected onto the screen in such a way that its largest dimension doesn’t extend beyond the circle painted on it. The analysis consists of twiddling the [control] dials until the area between the outer border of the object and the inner border of the circle is as small as possible. That is “minimize area between object and circle” is the reference signal for this servo-mechanical procedure, while “twiddle the dials” is the output function. (Notice that we are not operating on the input signal to the TV screen.)


Purple Blossoms


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Communicating with Yourself, Some Data Points in the Contemporary Intellectual Situation

But first, not so contemporary: E. M. (“only connect”) Forster is known for various things, including the assertion, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s about why he writes.

Think about if for a moment, considering the fact the Forster is one of the great writers of the 20th century. And that’s not a casual remark. What’s it mean? I mean, writing is hard, often very hard; why should it be necessary to write in order to know what you think? Can’t you just, you know, sit and take thought?

Well, yes, you can, and it won’t get you as far as the labor of writing. I could likely say quite a bit about just why that is so; but I have no reason to believe that, in so doing, I’d nail it to the wall. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. But that’s not the point. I just want you to think about it, the labor of making marks on paper as being a way of thinking about what’s in your own mind. If it’s in your mind, why do you need to put marks on paper in order to know it?

Just what is a mind and what does it mean for something to be IN a mind?

Sender-Receiver Systems

Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has been interested in what he calls a Sender-Receiver Configuration model of communication, which owes fundamental debts to philosopher David Lewis and mathematician Claude Shannon. You can find papers on this HERE. One of the most recent is a lecture he gave at George Washington University in 2012: The Evolution of Meaning (PDF). It builds the idea from (a fairly sophisticated) ground zero.

He ends with a nod to one of my favorite and seminal thinkers, Lev Vygotsky. Here’s what he says (pp. 14-15):

Photos and Forsythia

When I was young I looked to the blossoming of forsythia as a sign of Spring. I still do. But this isn’t a post about forsythias or Spring. It’s about photos, such as this:


I’m in fairly close, so you don’t see the whole bush. That, of course, is deliberate. Much of the image is in focus, but by no means all of it. There seems to be more in focus on the left than on the right. How deliberate is that.

For deliberation is an important issue. I take these photos while walking out and about. Many are taken quickly, some with a bit more deliberation and care. I suspect that that first photo was taken rather quickly. That’s likely the case with this rather different one:


Compositionally, this is very different. To a first approximation, that first photo was (almost) all yellow. This is not. I’m sure that’s what caught my eye as I was scanning the bush with the camera (I sorta’ remember taking this shot), looking for images. We’ve got right, bottom, and left yellow around a deep darkish background. Yes.

And almost none of this image is in focus, just some petals and leaves below center. The rest of the shot is out of focus, often very much so. How deliberate is that?

There’s two kinds of deliberation. My choosing to upload this photo can’t help but be deliberate. I don’t have a policy of posting everything. Even before I can upload an image, however, I have to get it from the camera and realize it through Photoshop’s Lightroom. That is generally not a long-involved process, but it does take a minute or two for me to adjust this or that, and perhaps to crop. No cropping here, but some adjusting of shadows, brightness and contrast, and saturation.

In that process I certainly saw that most of the image was out of focus, and that didn’t bother me. In fact, I rather like it. It’s something I play around with, though in a somewhat constrained way.

The point is that I’ve spent enough time with the image to be fully aware that most of it is out of focus. Yet I choose to render it and then to upload it (my basic policy is to upload any image I take time to render).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scientia Salon on Sperber’s Cultural Attraction

Scientia Salon recently had a discussion of Nicolas Claidière, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber, How Darwinian is cultural evolution? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Series B, Biological Sciences), 31 March 2014.

Both Scott-Phillips and Sperber showed up, as well as their colleague, Olivier Morin. The discussion was lively and intelligent and highlights some of the difficulties that crop up in thinking about cultural evolution. Alas, no one spoke to my particular hobbyhorse about this approach – that the notion of attractor seems a bit distorted from its source in complex dynamics – so no clarification has been achieved on that score. There was a useful discussion of Morin’s work on eye gaze in portraits, which is one of the examples cited in the article.

Here’s fragments of two comments that do speak to my hobbyhorses, though they are not specifically directed to attractor theory. Helga Vierich noted:
Cultures are not designed by human host populations, but rather represent a replicator best compared to the kind of quorum sensing mechanisms that exist in bacteria and insects, an analogy to other species’ behavioural algorithms also suggested by E.O. Wilson.
It’s the quorum sensing that I like. SocraticGadfly remarked:
Philip I know what an algorithm, is. My eye roll is at the idea that evolution can be reduced to an algorithm, and my bigger eye roll is that, per “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” all Darwin-like, or quasi-Darwinian evolution, is algorithmic. It’s exactly why I also do an eye roll whenever Dennett talks about “greedy reductionism” and fails to include himself.
I too roll my eyes at Dennett’s notion of the Darwinian algorithm. I know very well that various kinds of evolutionary algorithms have been in used in computing for decades, but that quite different from Dennett’s claim that biological evolution is an algorithmic process. That claim strikes me as somewhere between problematic and incoherent.

Molecular Storms and the Subtleties of Matter

First, links to other New Savanna posts bearing on the relationship of mind to matter:
• Galen Strawson on consciousness: the problem we face is simple, we underestimate the subtleties of matter
• Has Dennett Undercut His Own Position on Words as Memes? – In which Dennett discovers that metabolism is real
Peter Godfrey-Smith has posted a work in progress, Mind, Matter, and Metabolism (PDF), that bears directly on the issues in play in those two posts. Strawson argues that consciousness presents a problem to materialism only if we have much too simple a view of matter. Our understanding of "brute" matter has changed a great deal since the days of Descartes and Newton. Dennett doesn't express himself in those terms, but his recent reservations about computation are similar in effect. Here PGS speaks to computation (p. 2)
...with the rise of computers and AI. This work seemed to show that some aspects of cognition are mechanizable in principle, and in a non-living system. There's no question of life being present in a classical AI system, or a familiar sort of robot, and given that there seems a real possibility that such a system might capture of all of mentality, there can't apparently be too close a link between life and mind. Computation, rather than life, became the crucial bridging concept between mental and physical.
That's what Dennett thought. But he's now, sorta, realized that we've got to have life in there. PGS on "matter at the scale of metabolism" (p. 4):
Metabolic processes in actual cells occur at a particular spatial scale, the scale measured in nanometers – millionths of a millimeter. They also take place in a particular context, surrounded by water. In that context and at that scale, matter behaves differently from how it behaves elsewhere. In a phrase due to Hoffman, what we find is a molecular storm. There is unending spontaneous motion, which does not need to be powered by anything external. Larger molecules rearrange themselves spontaneously and vibrate, and everything is bombarded by water molecules, with the larger molecules being hit by a water molecule trillions of times per second. Electical charge also plays a ubiquitous role, through ions dissolved in the water and charged regions of larger molecules. The parts of a cell that do things in the usual sense – making proteins, for example – are subject to forces that are much stronger than the forces they can exert. The way things get done is by biasing tendencies in the storm, nudging random walks in useful directions, thereby getting a consistent upshot out of vast numbers of mostly meaningless changes. Moore, though not Hoffman, thinks we should conclude from all this that "Macromolecular Devices Are Not Machines." Moore thinks that a machine is a quite definite sort of thing, where low-level interactions are predictable and parts are tightly coupled. A storm-like collection of random walks influenced by friction, charge, and thermal effects, in contrast, is non-mechanistic.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The New Whitney in the Meat-Packing District: Blood Guts and 21st Century Art

The building was designed by Renzo Piano, a starchitect up there with Nouvel and Gehry (Flickr album). From the NYTimes, by Michael Kimmelman:
From the west, along the Hudson River, it looks ungainly and a little odd, vaguely nautical, bulging where the shoreline jogs, a ship on blocks perhaps, alluding to one of New York’s bedrock industries from long ago. It’s a glittery emblem of new urban capital, shipping now having gone the way of so much else in the neighborhood.


The move confirms a definitive shift in the city’s social geography, which has been decades coming.

It ratifies Chelsea and the once-funky far West Village as something closer to what the Upper East Side used to be, say, circa 1966, the year Marcel Breuer’s Whitney building opened at 75th Street. Those neighborhoods serve up the same cocktail of money, real estate, fashion and art — except that the financiers, Hollywood stars and other haute bourgeois bohemians stand in for the old Social Register crowd.
Take that, Met and MOMA! 

Continuing on:
The museum’s arrival signals another shift, too. When Breuer’s Whitney opened, New York City was a much dicier proposition. His fortress, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum several blocks north — which contrived its own enclosed, spiral version of a vertical city — reflected ambivalence about what was outside the front door.

Now New York is a safe, glamorous tourist mecca and 24-hour, family-friendly spectacle, and the new $422 million Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, opening May 1, lets the city pour in. Grand, columnless, rectangular galleries spill onto large, stepped terraces linked by an outdoor stairway, mimicking the neighborhood’s jumble of low- and mid-rise black-tar rooftops and aging fire escapes. The museum becomes an implicit extension of the High Line: an outdoor perch to see and be seen.

Pulp Fiction as Ring From

I watched Pulp Fiction last night – streamed it on Netflix. I couldn’t help but notice that something was funky about the timing of events. I tried to sort it out in my head, but gave up and consulted the Wikipedia entry (linked above). And there I found out that it exhibited ring-composition, more or less.

What made sorting things out so difficult is that the film involves three or four interlinked stories (depending on how you count them) and the episodes are not told in order. I’m not going to attempt a plot summary here; for that you should consult the Wikipedia entry. But here’s how the Wikipedia lays the story out:
1. "Prologue—The Diner" (i)
2. Prelude to "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"
3. "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"
4. Prelude to "The Gold Watch" (a—flashback, b—present)
5. "The Gold Watch"
6. "The Bonnie Situation"
7. "Epilogue—The Diner" (ii)
The film opens in a coffee shop where a young couple decides to rob the place and its customers. They begin the robbery and then that segment stops. The robbery finishes in the seventh and last segment. Similarly the 6th segment completes the story begun in the 2nd.

The 5th segment completes, shall we say, an aspect of the story that we have in the 3rd segment. In the 3rd segment Vincent Vega takes his boss’s wife to dinner, but is worried about how to treat her; he’s afraid of earning his boss’s displeasure and thereby getting killed. In the 5th segment he’s killed, though that has nothing to do with his treatment of his boss’s wife. As the Wikipedia listing makes clear, the 5th segment involves a different story line from the 3rd segment.

The 4th segment is in the middle, though its story continues into the 5th segment. The flashback sequence in “The Gold Watch” is the oldest incident in the whole film, predating all the other events (which happen in the space of a few days) but two or three decades.

Here’s the chronological order of the film segments (again from the Wikipedia):
4a, 2, 6, 1, 7, 3, 4b, 5
Wikipedia also notes: “Sequences 1 and 7 partially overlap and are presented from different points of view; the same is true of sequences 2 and 6.” Note also that the segments that frame the film, 1 and 7, are at the chronological middle.

Clever film. Interestingly enough the Wikipedia article quote Tarrantino as saying, "I wanted it to look like an epic. It's an epic in everything—in invention, in ambition, in length, in scope, in everything except the price tag." Hence the slippery ordering of things.

The Universe and Time

Some more on the recent book, Roberto Mangabeira Unger (a philosopher) and Lee Smolin (a physicist), The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy.

Here are some passages from Massimo Pigliucci’s review, mostly of Unger’s portion of the book. Smolin and Unger think of this project as natural philosophy. Pigliucci quotes them on this:
Today, natural philosophy has not disappeared completely. It lives under disguise. Scientists write popular books, for the general educated public, professing to make their ideas about the science that they practice accessible to non-scientists. They use these books to speculate about the larger meaning of their discoveries for our understanding of the universe and of our place within it. They also have another audience, however: their colleagues in science, addressed under the disguise of popularization. (The Singular Universe, p. 82)
I’m interested in the argument about time. Here’s a passage from Pigliucci:
Time is, if I understand U&S correctly, simply the succession of causal connections between events. This succession can locally take place at a different pace, but this does not invalidate the universally true fact that certain things (like, most obviously, the Big Bang) happened before (meaning that they were causally antecedent to) others.

There are two crucial consequences of this way of looking at things: to begin with, that the laws of nature themselves can change over “time.” Indeed, they already have. U&S think that the universe has gone through at the least two phases, and possibly many more before those. One phase was the Big Bang and what happened immediately before and after. During this sequence of causal events (i.e., “time”) things were happening that did not abide to anything like the predictable regularity we see operating today, because the causal processes themselves were changing. The second phase is the one of the cooled down universe, which has gone on for billions of years now, and which can (to a good approximation, as Cartwright would say) be described as law-abiding, because the nature of the causal interactions that characterize it is either not changing or not changing appreciably. But this state of affairs may not last forever, and the universe may go through yet another period of upheaval, and so on and so forth, indefinitely.
I can go along with this. Back in my pluralist explorations I argued that the universe has evolved in several Realms of Abundance. One could see the emergence of a new Realm as requiring new “laws of nature.” I imagined three such Realms so far: Matter, Life, and Culture. As I understand Pigliucci’s exposition of U&S, those three Realms belong to their second phase, but I note that they seem to allow for “possibly many more before those.” So perhaps they could be convinced to differentiate their second into my three. In any event, I’d be inclined to add their Big Bang-centric first phase as another Realm, giving me four so far: 1) Primordial (that is, Big Bang, etc.) , 2) Matter, 3) Life, and 4) Culture. I’ve conjectured that we’re entering a fifth, which I’ve not named.

Pigliucci continues:
The second crucial consequence is that physicists should take cosmology seriously as a fundamentally historical science, to be modeled after some of the “special” sciences like geology and biology, not in the increasingly singular way in which fundamental physics proceeds. Indeed, the idea that the very regularities governing the universe change with the causal conditions appears odd only in fundamental physics, because it has been so influenced by abstract (and necessarily time invariant!) mathematics.
That’s fine with me. Historicity is very important. That, in effect, is why I treat Life and Culture as Realms differentiated from Matter. They involve different orders of temporality, different kinds of causal processes.