Monday, February 24, 2020

Wynton Marsalis on the difference between African rhythm and jazz rhythm

Ethan Iverson [EI] is interviewing Wynton Marsalis [WM] about his composition Congo Square, which combines the Lincoln Center Jazz Archestra with Odadaa!, a West African drum ensemble led by Yacub Addy. At various points in the interview Iverson plays a short clip for Marsalis. He did so just before this passage:
EI: Now, what is that break?

WM: Carlos Henriquez showed me that one. If you hear it in 4, it’s easy, but if you hear it in 6, it’s hard. But in 4 it is square, right on the beat, but maybe we “place” them a little bit. We have to adjust to the 6 Odadaa! is playing, especially since they are in the middle of a phrase. As conductor, I adjust to the bell.

EI: That’s a mysterious moment; that’s why I like it so much.

WM: The hardest thing is to get us to play with the bell pattern.

EI: The up-and-down of the beat is not American.

WM: No, it’s not, it’s more like a clave. And like Yacub told me: “In order for us all to play together, y’all will have to play with us.” For me, it was a blessing to have Carlos and Ali [Jackson], who spent a lot of time at night working it out; a real labor of love. They would sit up with me and go through rhythm patterns and say, “No, that’s not it.” Then, eventually, “This is it.”
YES! to this:  "The up-and-down of the beat is not American." I learned that from years of playing with the late Ade Knowles when I was living in Troy, New York. Early in his career Ade had toured as a drummer and percussionist with Gil Scott-Heron. I met him when he was an administrator at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and I was on the faculty. "The Magic of the Bell" is a piece I wrote about a particularly magical rehearsal with Ade.

Abstract words in prose fiction [#DH]

Friday, February 21, 2020

Of telomeres, senescence, cancer, laboratory mice, evolutionary biology, and institutional failure: From the life of Bret Weinstein

This is a long podcast (over two hours), and it takes awhile to get off the ground, but it's worth your attention.

About the podcast:
All of our Mice are Broken.

On this episode of The Portal, Bret and Eric sit down alone with each other for the first time in public. There was no plan.

There was however, a remarkable story of science at its both best and worst that had not been told in years. After an initial tussle, we dusted off the cobwebs and decided to reconstruct it raw and share it with you, our Portal audience, for the first time. I don't think it will be the last as we are now again looking for our old notes to tighten it up for the next telling. We hope you find it interesting, and that it inspires you younger and less established scientists to tell your stories using this new medium of long form podcasting. We hope the next place you hear this story will be in a biology department seminar room in perhaps Cambridge, Chicago, Princeton, the Bay Area or elsewhere. Until then, be well and have a listen to this initial and raw version.

Louis Armstrong on the cover of Time Magazine

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The egalitarian proclivities of Louis Armstrong

M.H, Miller, Louis Armstrong, The King of Queens, NYTimes, 20 Feb 2020:
Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901, dropped out of school as a child and was a successful touring musician in his early 20s. By 1929, he was living in Harlem, though as one of the most popular recording artists in the country, he traveled about 300 nights a year. In 1939, he met his fourth and final wife, Lucille Wilson, a dancer at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Lucille, who spent part of her childhood in Corona, decided it was time for her husband to settle down in a house, a real house, instead of living out of hotel rooms. (Even their wedding took place on the road, in St. Louis, at the home of the singer Velma Middleton.) One day, when Armstrong was away at a gig, she put a down payment of $8,000 (around $119,000 in today’s money) on 34-56 107th Street. She didn’t tell him she’d done this until eight months later, during which time she made the mortgage payments herself. [...]

From the outside, the two-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot house looks just like any other on the block, which was deliberate. Armstrong often referred to himself as “a salary man” and felt at ease alongside the telephone operators, schoolteachers and janitors of Corona, a neighborhood that, in a testament to how much of his life was spent in jazz clubs, he referred to affectionately as “that good ol’ country life.” One of the earliest integrated areas of New York, Corona was mostly home to middle-class African-Americans and Italian immigrants when the Armstrongs moved in. The demographics would change in the coming decades — Latin Americans began replacing the Italians in the ’60s, and now make up most of the neighborhood — but not much else. There was never a mass wave of gentrification or development here, and Armstrong himself was so concerned with blending in with his working-class neighbors that when his wife decided to give the house a brick facade, Armstrong went door-to-door down the block asking the other residents if they wanted him to pay for their houses to receive the same upgrade. (A few of his neighbors took him upon the offer, which accounts for the scattered presence of brick homes on the street to this day.) [...]

He played behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and in the Democratic Republic of Congo during decolonization in 1960, during which both sides of a civil war called a truce to watch him perform, then picked up fighting again once his plane took off. There are few American figures as legendary and beloved, and yet, as Harris told me, a common reaction people have upon entering his home is, “This reminds me of my grandmother’s house.” Certainly the living room recalls a ’60s vision of Modernism with a vaguely minimalist formality.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Illustrated Japanese books from 1600-1912

Surveillance tech is deeply flawed [[Surprise! Surprise!]]

Charlie Warzel, All This Dystopia, and for What?, NYTimes 20 Feb 2020.
The above examples all represent a different, equally troubling brand of dystopia — one full of false positives, confusion and waste. In these examples the technology is no less invasive. Your face is still scanned in public, your online information is still leveraged against you to manipulate your behavior and your financial data is collected to compile a score that may determine if you can own a home or a car. Your privacy is still invaded, only now you’re left to wonder if the insights were accurate.

As lawmakers ponder facial recognition bans and comprehensive privacy laws, they’d do well to consider this fundamental question: Setting aside even the ethical concerns, are the technologies that are slowly eroding our ability to live a private life actually delivering on their promises? Companies like NEC and others argue that outright bans on technology like facial recognition “stifle innovation.” Though I’m personally not convinced, there may be kernels of truth to that. But before giving these companies the benefit of the doubt, we should look deeper at the so-called innovation to see what we’re really gaining as a result of our larger privacy sacrifice.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Romantic kissing is not universal

From pop culture to evolutionary psychology, we have come to take kissing for granted as universally desirable among humans and inseparable from other aspects of affection and intimacy. However, a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America.

In addition, cross-cultural ethnographic data was used to analyze the relationship between any presence of romantic kissing and a culture’s complexity of social stratification. The report finds that complex societies with distinct social classes (e.g. industrialized societies) have a much more frequent occurrence of this type of kissing than egalitarian societies (e.g. foragers).
More at the link (H/t Tyler Cowen).

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Conjunctions: transportation and graffiti [Jersey City]

Bernie Sanders isn't a socialist

The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.

But if Sanders becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, his misleading self-description will be a gift to the Trump campaign. So will his policy proposals. Single-payer health care is (a) a good idea in principle and (b) very unlikely to happen in practice, but by making Medicare for All the centerpiece of his campaign, Sanders would take the focus off the Trump administration’s determination to take away the social safety net we already have.

Has "civilization" entered a phase of decadence?

That's what Ross Douthat argues in his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, which Damon Linker reviews in The Week, February 13, 2020. Decadence?
By calling us "decadent," Douthat doesn't mean that we're succumbing to imminent decline and collapse. Following esteemed cultural critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat instead defines decadence as a time when art and life seem exhausted, when institutions creak, the sensations of "repetition and frustration" are endemic, "boredom and fatigue are great historical forces," and "people accept futility and the absurd as normal."

Douthat goes on to refine the definition:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development: the decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.
Douthat certainly isn't a favorite of mine, and I've got problems with the word "decadent", but that description is consistent with my own view, based on the theory of cultural ranks that David Hays and I developed,  that we're exhausting the cultural resources we've inherited but have not yet managed to invent new modes of thinking, feeling, living, and exploring.

Near the end Linker observes:
Interestingly, one way to describe the populist insurgencies taking place around us is to say that they're a rebellion against the decadence of the post-Cold War world — the sense that history came to an end in 1989, with all significant ideological disputes resolved and politics reduced to the fine-tuning of liberal democratic government. Francis Fukuyama's own high-level punditry on the subject was actually far more ambivalent than it's usually credited with being. Although Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy triumphed over communism because it was more capable of fulfilling humanity's material and spiritual needs than any other political and economic system, he also worried with uncanny prescience that a world in which liberal democracy was the only available option could be marked by boredom, repetition, and sterility — and that the intolerable character of such decadence could inspire anti-liberal movements that aimed to restart history once again.

Douthat's book can be read as a melancholy sequel to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that confirms the author's darkest predictions but without endorsing (or seriously wrestling with) any of the concrete efforts going on around us to overcome our own malaise by breaking away from decadent liberalism — whether it's Donald Trump's MAGA presidency, the Catholic conservatism of Poland's Law and Justice Party, Marion Maréchal's National Rally in France, the National Conservatism spearheaded by Yoram Hazony, or Viktor Orban's anti-liberal and pro-natalist populism in Hungary. Given that Douthat is a conservative who longs for renewal, rebirth, and revitalization — for an end to the decadence he thinks plagues us — it's surprising that he has so little to say about these efforts in the book. [...]

Douthat sees a lot, and far more than most of our less profoundly discontented commentators. That makes him an excellent pundit — maybe the best of our moment. But in his new book he also avoids a forthright confrontation with the political correlates of his own moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dissatisfactions. In its place we find idle speculations about alternative realities. Which may mean that, for all its strengths, Douthat's book about decadence is more than a little decadent itself.
That is to say that Douthat is himself trapped in the same exhausted cultural forms. 

Who among us isn't?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Pandemics and cooperation between nation-states

Thomas Bollyky and Samantha Kiernan, No Nation Can Fight Coronavirus on Its Own, Lawfare, February 12, 2020: "Infectious diseases were the first global problem that nation-states realized they could not solve without international cooperation." This came about in the mid-19th century:
For most of human history, plagues, parasites and pests were a domestic affair. Quarantine was the principal means by which nations contained the microbes that were brought by invading armies and the passengers, both human and vermin, on trading ships and caravans.

Those isolation measures proved ineffective, however, against the six pandemics of cholera that swept the United States, the Middle East, Russia and Europe in the 19th century. A terrifying disease that struck seemingly healthy people, cholera killed tens of thousands in the cities of Europe and the United States—and, very likely, many more in India, where the pandemics originated. The economic costs of uncoordinated quarantines hurt nations and merchants alike.

In 1851, European states gathered for the first International Sanitary Conference to discuss cooperation on cholera, plague and yellow fever. That convention, and those that followed, led to the first treaties on international infectious disease control and—in 1902—the International Sanitary Bureau, which later became the Pan American Health Organization. These international initiatives were the early models for later agreements and agencies on other transnational concerns, such as pollution, the opium trade and unsafe labor practices.

Microbes have continued to inspire episodes of cooperation among even bitter rivals. The WHO, the United Nation’s first specialized agency, was created in 1946 in response to the horrors of World War II. Its early days were devoted to international campaigns against the great scourges of that era, such as malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis. At the height of the Cold War, the smallpox immunization campaign motivated the United States and the Soviet Union to join forces in an effort that succeeded in eradicating the disease in 1980. In El Salvador, an international vaccination campaign against pediatric infections led to a pause in the country’s 14-year civil war for the sole purpose of immunizing children.
And the current coronavirus epidemic?
There is much we do not know yet about how easily the virus spreads or its severity. But there is reason to think that the scale of this coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood of epidemics of the virus occurring outside China may inspire more cooperation than even the five previous occasions that the WHO designated as international public health emergencies: the H1N1 influenza pandemic (2009), the re-emergence of polio in several nations (2014), the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), the Zika virus outbreak (2016) and the Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019).

In a little over one month, the coronavirus has more than five times the number of laboratory-confirmed cases (43,114 as of Feb. 11) than the outbreak of SARS did in four months (8,096). The novel coronavirus has already spread to at least 26 countries, far more than the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its predecessor in West Africa in 2013-2015, or during the resurgence of polio in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan in 2014. The mortality rate for known cases of the novel coronavirus has been about 2-3 percent, deadlier than the Zika virus or the 2009 H1N1 swine flu. [...]

Perhaps a pandemic of novel coronavirus, if it occurs, would be a sufficiently frightening antagonist to force international cooperation, even at a moment that otherwise has proved inhospitable to global governance. If so, this novel coronavirus will do what climate change, tariff threats and the prospect of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula could not: force nations to work together.

Bird in red and black (flooded by light)

Rodney Brooks on AI and robotics

As you may know, Rodney Brooks is a pioneering robotics researcher and entrepreneur (his company markets the Roomba) who once headed the AI lab at MIT. He has a blog where he's been commenting on AI. Here's a post where he has links to eight posts on the future of AI and robotics that he posted between August of 2017 and July of 2018, Future of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. This post is from July, 2018, where he gives a capsule overview of the history of AI, Steps Toward Super Intelligence I, How We Got Here. He lists for main approaches, with approximate start dates:
1. Symbolic (1956)
2. Neural networks (1954, 1960, 1969, 1986, 2006, …)
3. Traditional robotics (1968)
4. Behavior-based robotics (1985)
Neural networks, as you see, has a spotty history. The basic idea is relatively old (as work in AI goes). 1986 marks the advent of back-propagation along with multilayered networks while the 2006 dates marks some new techniques ("deep learning"), much more computing power, and huge sets of training data. I found this discussion particularly useful. He shows us the following photo:

A Google program was able to generate this caption, “A group of young people playing a game of Frisbee”, and goes on to note:
I think this is when people really started to take notice of Deep Learning. It seemed miraculous, even to AI researchers, and perhaps especially to researchers in symbolic AI, that a program could do this well. But I also think that people confused performance with competence (referring again to my seven deadly sins post). If a person had this level of performance, and could say this about that photo, then one would naturally expect that the person had enough competence in understanding the world, that they could probably answer each of the following questions:
  • what is the shape of a Frisbee?
  • roughly how far can a person throw a Frisbee?
  • can a person eat a Frisbee?
  • roughly how many people play Frisbee at once?
  • can a 3 month old person play Frisbee?
  • is today’s weather suitable for playing Frisbee?
But the Deep Learning neural network that produced the caption above can not answer these questions. It certainly has no idea what a question is, and can only output words, not take them in, but it doesn’t even have any of the knowledge that would be needed to answer these questions buried anywhere inside what it has learned.
Brooks' own work has been in the fourth approach, behavior-based robotics, where he is a pioneer. He remarks:
...I started to reflect on how well insects were able to navigate in the real world, and how they were doing so with very few neurons (certainly less that the number of artificial neurons in modern Deep Learning networks). In thinking about how this could be I realized that the evolutionary path that had lead to simple creatures probably had not started out by building a symbolic or three dimensional modeling system for the world. Rather it must have begun by very simple connections between perceptions and actions.

In the behavior-based approach that this thinking has lead to, there are many parallel behaviors running all at once, trying to make sense of little slices of perception, and using them to drive simple actions in the world. Often behaviors propose conflicting commands for the robot’s actuators and there has to be a some sort of conflict resolution. But not wanting to get stuck going back to the need for a full model of the world, the conflict resolution mechanism is necessarily heuristic in nature. Just as one might guess, the sort of thing that evolution would produce.

Behavior-based systems work because the demands of physics on a body embedded in the world force the ultimate conflict resolution between behaviors, and the interactions. Furthermore by being embedded in a physical world, as a system moves about it detects new physical constraints, or constraints from other agents in the world.
Finally, Brooks has created a predictions scorecard in three areas, self-driving cars, AI and machine learning, and space industry. He first posted it on January 1, 2018 and has updated it on Jan. 1 of 2019 and again, Jan. 1 2020.  The list contains (I would guess) over 50 specific items distributed over those categories with specific dates attached. It makes for very interesting reading.

Spain is now the world's healthiest country

Music versus algorithms

Alexis Petridis reviews Ted Gioia's current book, Music: A Subversive History:
In terms of scope, well, put it this way: it starts out talking about a bear’s thighbone that Neanderthal hunters apparently turned into a primitive flute somewhere between 43,000 and 82,000 years ago and ends up, 450 pages later, discussing K-pop and EDM. His central theory: music is a kind of magical, ungovernable force that connects us to ancient shamanistic rituals, it’s primarily fuelled by sex and violence – anyone horrified by the lyrics of drill or death metal should consider that the first instruments were made from body parts and would once have literally dripped with blood – and all attempts to reduce it to mathematical formulae or “quasi-science”, while useful, go against its intrinsic nature. He’s really not keen on Pythagoras, whose mathematical theories about tuning underpin “music as it is taught in every university and conservatory in the world today”.

I didn’t agree with everything Gioia had to say, but something about that central theory stuck with me. For one thing, there is something magical and ungovernable about music: that weird tingling sensation you get when you hear something you love - a friend of mine calls it the Holy Shiver - is involuntary. It just happens. And we live in an era when music has never been more governed by mathematics. Algorithms are supposed to be able to predict everything, from what you want to hear next to whether or not a song’s going to be a hit: the digital strategist who developed the software behind the AI record label that’s just launched was also “involved in the development and marketing of stars such as Avicii, Logic, Mike Posner and Swedish House Mafia”.
For a series of anecdotes illustrating music's power, see my working paper,  Emotion & Magic in Musical Performance.