Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Seems that Deresiewicz got it wrong

Like many embattled humanists, Deresiewicz is eager to explain why he is not a scientist. “We ask of a scientific proposition, ‘Is it true?,’ but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, ‘Is it true for me?’ ” he writes. “The highest function of art, and of literature in particular, is to bring us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us.” He later drives the point home: “ ‘That’s me!’: the essential experience of art.”
That, of course, is complete and utter crap. And I don't know where the poor boy got that idea, though I seemed to utter such thoughts in my youth. Fortunately Heller knows this:
This is a stunning definition, and not just because it is plainly untrue. (Do we appreciate Borges’s “The Library of Babel” because we see ourselves in it? Is familiarity the essential experience of “Blue Velvet” or, for that matter, “Spaceballs”?) Reading for self-recognition is the default factory setting in most people’s minds. It is precisely the approach to literature that you don’t need to attend college to learn. When Deresiewicz insists that an objective of literary study, and the multiple perspectives it admits, is ultimately to give kids “models” and “values” that may inform their self-understanding, he’s embracing a pretty solipsistic measure of virtue—something closer to therapy than to scholarship.

Robots lack the human touch; will they ever have it?

Since the first robotic arm was designed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s, robots have learned to perform repetitive factory work, but they can barely open a door, pick themselves up if they fall, pull a coin out of a pocket or twirl a pencil.

The correlation between highly evolved artificial intelligence and physical ineptness even has a name: Moravec’s paradox, after the robotics pioneer Hans Moravec, who wrote in 1988, “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a 1-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

Advances in haptics and kinematics, the study of motion control in jointed bodies, are essential if robots are ever to collaborate with humans in hoped-for roles like food service worker, medical orderly, office secretary and health care assistant.
Back in the Fall of 1981 I think it was, after I'd spent a summer with NASA, I told Dave Hays, who'd been my teacher, about some "blue sky" plans for self-reproducing factories on the moon. You haul a bunch of gear and computers to the moon, everything you need to build a factory that builds robots. It then proceeds to mind the moon for necessary materials and starts cranking out replicas of itself. Hays remarked to me that the problem was not the intelligence end of the business, it was the physical end, things like screwing bolts into holes and rotating and arranging things just so.

Shooting into the sun

floods the camera's sensors, almost blinding it.


You have to really 'dig' to recover a pleasing image from the captured bits.


But digging's fun. The result's unnatural.


As if there could be anything 'natural' about a photograph.

Dance of the Genes, in three species, a insect, a worm, and us

For the past five years, hundreds of biologists have been recording DNA activity in flies and worms, and systematically comparing the results to what they see in humans.

Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
To study genes in humans, the scientists focused on a wide variety of cells, like neurons, blood cells and liver cells. In the experiments on flies and worms, the scientists examined the entire bodies of the animals as they matured from eggs.

The scientists cataloged the parts of the genome that cells were using. They also mapped the histone marks and located the transcription factors latching onto the DNA. Because the scientists used the same methods to gather data from all three species, they were able to compare them on a scale never before attempted.

Flies, worms and humans come from distant branches on the evolutionary tree. The last common ancestor lived 700 million years ago. Despite the tremendous differences among the three species, the modENCODE team found some striking parallels in the workings of their DNA.

In all three, it turned out, many genes tended to turn on and off in the same pattern, following a predictable rhythm. All told, the researchers found 16 such sets of genes, each containing hundreds of genes working together.
And again, patterns, this time across gene deployment in development in three different species.

Monday, September 1, 2014

When Penn Met Teller

Running along with the musical numbers in an Othmar Schoeck concert were various “bits of business”— often, Chrisemer cheerfully admits, based on jokes that were not immediately comprehensible to most of those in the audience. In the final year of the concerts, when Chrisemer had graduated and was working in a stereo store in nearby Greenfield, Massachusetts, the bits included an extremely tall teenager riding across the stage on a unicycle as part of Chrisemer’s interpretation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The unicyclist was someone Chrisemer had met at the stereo store —a recent graduate of Greenfield High School named Penn Jillette, who had completed his higher education at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum  Bailey Clown College. Jillette also participated in the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by juggling some balls above a large bass drum and letting one drop onto the drum on the appropriate beat: “Oh, say can you see [BOOM] by the dawn’s early light [BOOM] . . .”

One of the people who had helped with the staging of that concert was a close Amherst friend of Chrisemer’s who was by then teaching high-school Latin in New Jersey. Even as a college magician doing a silent and rather arty act at fraternity parties, he had taken to using only his last name—Teller. (The act was silent partly as a means of deflecting hecklers and partly as a means of increasing its artiness.) In the lobby at intermission, the silent Teller, outfitted with a cane and dark glasses, sold Othmar Schoeck pencils.

Blind from birth, but can now see

What happens when someone who was blind from birth gains the power of sight?
Sinha showed me a video in which a teen-age boy, blind since birth because of opaque cataracts, sees for the first time. The boy sits still and blinks silently, the room around him reflecting in his eyes as a kind of proof of their new transparency. Sinha believes these first moments for the newly sighted are blurry, incoherent, and saturated by brightness—like walking into daylight with dilated pupils—and swirls of colors that do not make sense as shapes or faces or any kind of object. “The moments immediately following bandage removal are not quite as ‘magical’ as Hollywood movies would have us believe,” Sinha told me. To answer Molyneux, then: No. A cube and a sphere are both lost in this confusion.

Stephen Kosslyn, a pioneer in the field of vision and mental imagery, told me that he was not surprised by Sinha’s results—many of the seemingly natural qualities in everyday vision are not innate but are instead learned through experience.

Graffiti, even birds do it


[8] From Macroanalysis to Cultural Evolution

The purpose of this post is to recast the work reported in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History in terms appropriate to cultural evolution. The idea is to propose a model of cultural evolution and assign objects from Jockerss analysis to play roles in that model. I will leave Jockers’ work untouched. All I’m doing is reframing it.

Before doing that, however, I should note that in the last quarter of a century or so there has been quite a lot of work on cultural evolution in a variety of discipline including linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, and biology. Though it must be done at some time, I have no intention of even attempting to review that work here and so to place the scheme I propose in relation to it. That’s a job for another time and another venue. I note, however, that I have done quite a bit of work on cultural evolution myself and that some of that discussion can be found in documents I list at the end of this post.

Why Evolution?

First of all, why bother to recast the processes of literary history in evolutionary terms at all? Jockers wrote an excellent book without creating an evolutionary model, though he mentioned evolution here and there. What’s to be gained by this recasting?

As far as I can tell, much of the work that has been done on cultural evolution has been undertaken simply to exercise and extend the range of evolutionary discourse. It has not, as yet, resulted in an understanding of cultural process that is deeper than more conventional forms of historical discourse. Much of my own work has been undertaken in this spirit. I believe that, yes, at some point, evolutionary explanation will prove more robust that other forms of explanation, but we’re not there yet.

This work in effect is looking to evolutionary accounts as exhibiting something like formal cause in Aristotle’s sense. Evolutionary accounts are about distribution of traits across populations. In biology such accounts have a characteristic formal appearance so that, e.g. phylogenetic analysis of a population of entities tends to “look” a certain way. So, in the cultural sphere, let’s conduct a similar analysis and see how things look even if we don’t have our entities embedded in the kind of causal framework that genetics and population biology, molecular biology, and developmental biology provide the biologist.

That’s fine, as long as we remind ourselves periodically that that’s what we’re doing. But we must keep looking for the terms in which to construct a causal model.

What I specifically want from an evolutionary approach to culture is
  • a way to think about Said’s autonomous aesthetic realm,
  • a way to prove out Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,”
  • a way of restoring agency to writers and readers rather than casting them as puppets of various vast and impersonal forces, and
  • a way of thinking about the canon in relation to the whole of literary culture.
That’s what I want. Those requirements imply having a causal model. Whether or not I’ll get it, that’s another matter.

Current critical approaches, however, in which individual humans are but nodal points in the machinations of vast and impersonal hegemonic forces, have trouble on all these points. Individual human beings are deprived of agency thus turning readers into zombies watching the ghosts of dead authors flicker on the remaining walls of Plato’s cave. The canon is captive to those same hegemonic forces, which have promulgated Shelley’s defense as an opiate for the masses, which R’ us.

The critical machine is broken. It’s time to start over. Before we do that, however, I need to dispense with one objection to seeking an evolutionary account of cultural phenomena.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Follow the money, anti-marijuana edition

People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.

So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.

Reading Macroanalysis 7.3: Style, Genre, Time, and Influence

In this post I suggest some studies I’d like to be done. I begin by recalling Moretti’s account of genre succession from Maps, Graphs, Trees in the context of Jockers’ massive graph of literary influence. Then I revisit the “Style” chapter and look at some of the work I passed over when I first posted on that chapter, the work related to Moretti’s generational observation. I then make some suggestions about how we could infer quasi-genres in the data assembled to build the influence graph and thereby extend Jockers’ work on style from his limited corpus of 106 texts to the larger corpus of 3346 texts. I conclude with some vague and tentative remarks about the pattern of reader interest betrayed in the record we’ve been examining, that of book publication.

Influence and Genre Succession

I’ve been thinking a lot about two things: 1) Moretti’s argument in Graphs, Maps, Trees that genres tend to cluster into 30 year cycles, and 2) Jockers’ massive graph in which all 3346 texts in his corpus are linked by relations of similarity, producing a graph that looks like this (which is Figure 9.3, p. 165; color version from the web):


As Jockers points out, what’s remarkable about this graph is that the nodes are ordered in time from left (oldest) to right, but there is no temporal information in the data from which it was derived: “Books are being pulled together (and pushed apart) based on the similarity of their computed stylistic and thematic distances from each other” (p. 164).

That temporal ordering is a side effect of ordering by thematic and stylistic similarity. But, in the abstract, it could have been otherwise, no? Why should positioning texts near similar texts result in temporal ordering? (Would the same thing be true of 20th Century texts?) This ordering implies that the evolution of literary culture IS directional, but Jockers himself hasn’t posited any telos, nor do I see any need to do so. That directionality stems from the internal dynamics of the system. Authors, and I assume audiences as well, want to stick with what they know, and what they know was published in the previous years.

It seemed to me that Moretti’s cycles must somehow be in that graph, for all the texts in a given cycle are close together in time, by definition, as well as similarity. Alas, the whole corpus has not been coded for genre (p. 158). Is there some way we can back into genre since we’ve got this massive graph based on similarity relations among texts along 578 dimensions? Aren’t texts within the same genre more likely to resemble one another than texts in different genres?

The other thing on my mind is the fact that what really interests me is what’s on people’s minds and how that evolves over time. Some books will attract few readers, some books many readers; but the mere fact that a book has been published doesn’t speak to that. Moreover, books can be read long after they’ve been published. In the case of Moby Dick, it would seem that, for the most part it was read only long after it was published. Publication history is, at best, an indirect proxy measure of that.

And yet that history IS a history. Assuming that publishers are for the most part rational economic actors who want to turn a profit, their decisions on what to publish must take into account their sense of what people are reading and therefore what they’re buying. And the kinds of books that got published changed from one decade to the next. That record of  changes must reflect changes of reading taste.

Back to Basics: Green, Yellow, and Wet

After all the recent shaky-cam theatrics I figured it was a time for some of the basics. I shot these yesterday in Liberty State Park in Jersey city, NJ.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Innovation and Hype

Over at The Economist, Babbage has been looking at the hype driving cycles of innovation & focuses on work done by the Gartner Group.
Back in the late 1990s, Babbage noticed that the waves of innovation had begun to speed up (see “Catch the wave”, February 18th 1999). The industrial waves Kondratieff observed in the 1920s came every 50-60 years or so. By the late 1990s, fresh ones were arriving twice as often. Fifteen years on, their frequency appears to have doubled yet again. Waves of new innovations now seem to be rolling in every 10 to 15 years.

It is not hard to see why. Rather than leave things to chance, all the big industrial countries nowadays have legions of engineers and scientists scanning the literature for ideas that portend blockbuster innovations capable of carving out new markets. Meanwhile, social networking has made it easier than ever for money and talent to join forces in order to hustle the innovation process along. In addition, today’s far broader channels of communication ensure that any new way of doing things becomes instantly known to everyone interested.

Sometimes too well-known. Indeed, the hyperbole surrounding many fledgling technologies, especially those in their early stages of development, can prove a costly distraction for the unwary. Firms on the fringe of some new development may have difficulty filtering the message from the hubbub, allowing expectations to lose touch with reality. Believing some emerging technology (say, 3D printing) is about to transform their industry, they may make aggressive investments that will prove disastrous if the technology’s impact turns out to be less than anticipated.

Gone Fishin'

You should too.

Lyrics, some spoken, but most sung:

Bing Crosby: I'll tell you why I can't find you Every time I go out to your place (singing starts) you've gone fishin'
Louis Armstrong: How do you know
Bing Crosby: Well there's a sign upon your door
Louis Armstrong: Uh-huh
Bing Crosby: Gone fishin'
Louis Armstrong: I'm real gone man
Bing Crosby: You ain't workin' anymore
Louis Armstrong: Could be
Bing Crosby: There's your hoe out in the sun/ Where you left a row half done/ You claim that hoein' ain't no fun
Louis Armstrong: Well I can prove it
Bing Crosby: You ain't got no ambition/ Gone fishin'.../ by a shady wady pool
Louis Armstrong: Shangrila, really la
Bing Crosby: I'm wishin' I could be that kind of fool
Louis Armstrong: Should I twist your arm?
Bing Crosby: I'd say no more work for mine
Louis Armstrong: Welcome to the club
Bing Crosby: On my door I'd hang a sign Gone fishin'/... instead of just a-wishin'

Three electric birds went into a bar...

Friday, August 29, 2014

Hello, Connected Courses!

My name’s Bill Benzon and I’m an independent scholar. I’ve decided to get back into teaching with a course/workshop on graffiti which I’m tentatively calling The Academy of the Wall.

I’ve been online since before the web and have developed a fairly sophisticated online ecosystem. Oh, the technology is all OTS (off the shelf), nothing fancy. But I’ve been working it for a while and have a feel for how things flow. When there’s a disturbance in the force, I feel it–; everyone does, but not every one is mindful of what they sense.

I’ve been blogging here at New Savanna since April of 2010 and hit my 2500th post on 14 July, when I posted a rough guide to New Savanna. I’ve also made it more directly accessible as a page linked at the top of the blog.

You might be particularly interested in two posts in which I tell about my publishing history:
The first starts back in the previous millennium with my first academic publications, runs though an experiment in microfiche publication undertaken by the Association for Computational Linguistics, and ends up with a refereed journal started online, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, where I’ve published a number of papers. The second is about listserves and the blogosphere.

My experience at The Valve was crucial. Though it’s still online, it’s no longer functioning; it’s simply a repository. The Valve was a group blog that centered on literature and literary culture. There were a dozen or so writers with publication privileges at any one time, though the roster changed from time to time. Some of the discussions got quite lively, and some of those fell into hopeless dispute. On the whole it was a floating seminar in literature and culture studies with a wide variety of participants of varying backgrounds.

Here’s a passage about those conversations that’s worth keeping in mind:
...much of the discussion took place between people of very different intellectual backgrounds and experience, with only a few of us being card-carrying academics—and, of course, though I may carry a card, I do so only as an independent scholar not as a member of this or that faculty. That makes for an interesting and often challenging environment, as it’s very difficult to carry the day by pulling rank. In that environment the only rank you have is what people give you. Institutions don’t much matter, unless of course, you grant them status.
I look forward to chatting and learning with you in the next few months.

Friday Fotos: Sparkychan and Gojochan Retrospective!

Back in 2006, when I first started photographing graffiti, I thought it would be interesting to get some kid's toys and photograph them amid the gritty territory I was exploring. So I bought two, a plastic model of Gojira (Godzilla in America), which promptly became Gojochan, and a hot-pink plush bear, Sparkychan. Here's some stories about their life: The Collected Adventures of Sparkychan & Gojochan (Thus Far). I've posted some photos of them below.

* * * * *

Oh me oh my
Sparkychan meditating on the awesomeness of existence.

sparky in the hole.jpg
Gojochan raging against the dying of the night.

Ah yes
Gogochan is attracted to Sparkychan's inner peace.