Friday, May 25, 2018





Two notes on psychedelic experience (Michael Pollan on Joe Rogan)

Michael Pollan’s just published a book about psychedelic experiences, How to Change Your Mind, and Joe Rogan just had him on his podcast. It’s an interesting and far-ranging conversation. I want to look at two little bits of what Pollan said.

Psychedelics, dreams, and metaphysics

Michael Pollan at about 27:09:
Where do you get the idea of a beyond? Where do you get the idea of a heaven or a hell, if not from some altered state of consciousness? You know, people talk about visiting the underworld in Homer’s time, so how did they do that? Was it dreams? Dreams don’t have the authority that psychedelic experience has. There’s something about psychedelic experience that has this, it’s not just an opinion, it’s not a fantasy. It’s something real, it’s objective truth. William James called this the noetic quality of the mystical experience. And that certitude comes from psychedelics. It seems totally plausible to me that at the earliest stages of humanity if people were indeed taking psychedelics, this might explain how they came up with these ideas.
I want to push back just a little. While Pollan’s right about the noetic quality of (at least some) psychedelic experience, I think he short-changes dreams.

I take my cue from an observation that Weston La Barre made in The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (p. 60):
... the Australian Bushman themselves equate dream-time with the myth-time that is mysteriously brought back in ritual; myth is as timeless as the unconscious mind. It is the delectability of dreams that makes them desirable, and it is their desirability that (along with lowered critical threshold) that gives them their intense “reality” and conviction. The fact that he dreams first force on man the need to epistemologize.
Our own view of dreams is so thoroughly psychologized that we can easily think of them as just something the mind/brain does. How do dreams appear to people who, lacking the explanatory and theoretical machinery of modern psychology and neuroscience, cannot psychologize them? Why think about dreams at all; why not simply forget about them? What structures and processes must a brain have if it is to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences? It seems to me that people lacking the interpretive buffering of this psychologized view of the world might well see dreams as genuine journeys to another realm. When were our ancestors able to do this?

And if they also had the benefit of psychedelics, those experiences would reinforce the metaphysical imperatives of dream experience. The two experiential realms would supplement one another.

The social construction of reality

At about 34:24 ff. Pollan observes:
One of the really striking things, I’ve been on the road now, this is my second week out talking about this book, and I have been struck by how many people have had powerful psychedelic experiences they don’t talk to anybody about. And I come along as a kind of, I don’t know, kind of a credible person who’s interested. And, this is journalists too. They turn of the tape recorder and the say ‘can I tell you a story?’

Something happened to them. It might have been in their twenties, or earlier, that changed the course of their life; and, either because there was a stigma attached to it, or it was kind of had this 60’s woo woo thing about it, or there were kids around, they didn’t feel comfortable. So they kept it in a box labeled ‘weird drug experience’.

But it’s not just a drug experience. This is your mind. The drug may have started the process, but everything you see in this experience – those are real psychological facts, from your unconscious or your interpretation of your environment. It’s not the molecule that fore-ordained this experience....

So you have this big experience and you put it in this box, saying ‘weird drug experience’. But when you take it out sometimes you find that there’s real gold there. There’s fool’s gold too...
It’s become a cliché that reality is a social construction. Crudely put, if we can’t talk about it or otherwise share it with others (thought art, for example), then it doesn’t exist. It’s not real.

Now, once again, we may be talking about these things. We had the counter-cultural 60s, which got quick down pretty quickly. And back in the 19th century we had the fascination that opium held for the British romantics – e.g. Coleridge and “Kubla Khan”.  It’s not obvious where this conversation will go.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Hands, drum


Joe Rogan talks with Howard Bloom, Zoooommm!

I couple days ago I was making my regular online rounds when I discovered that Joe Rogan was talking with Howard Bloom THIS VERY MOMENT on The Joe Rogan Experience. “Yeowieee!” said I to myself, “I gotta’ check it out.” Why? Because Bloom is a trip and a half, a force of nature, though just what that nature is, well, that’s not at all clear.

I know Howard. I was in his Paleopsychology Project, corresponded with him for a couple of years and visited him at his Brooklyn apartment a couple of times. He played a crucial role in setting up my book deal, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. But I’m ambivalent about him. He’s very well read, imaginative, and brilliant. But, as my teacher Dave Hays was fond of saying, a great talent requires a great discipline. And Howard lacks discipline. Oh, he works hard–in his own way as hard as James “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” Brown–but hard work is not the point. It’s how you do that work, the craft and care you put into it, that counts.

Howard lavishes his craft and care on words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, on slogans and catch phrases – a number of them turn up in his conversation with Rogan – but he’s not so careful with the underlying ideas. My sense is that Howard has a few underlying themes and ideas that are important to him – everything’s connected; it’s a social world from quarks through galaxies; we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves – and uses those to paper over everything. Or, to switch metaphors, those are his hammers and he uses them to turn everything else into nails. Quarks, Dave Barry, toxoplasmosis, the Yanomami, biological evolution, the 86 billion neurons of the human brain, entropy, the excitement of the crowd at a rock and roll concert (or one of Hitler’s elaborately staged rallies), galaxies, the Big Bang–they’re all nails that Bloom pounds into his grand unified theory of everything. And, at least to some observers, everything turns out to look like the mind of Howard Bloom, a very skillful and industrious Howard Bloom.

Thus, if you look through the comments on his discussion with Rogan–which has almost 580,000 views as I write this and is approaching 4000 comments–you’ll find that a lot of listeners are, shall we say, skeptical, a skepticism often expressed in blunt and nasty terms – as these things go “a narcissistic egomaniac that thinks he’s the modern day Einstein” is rather mild. But you’ll also find some people who are fascinated by Bloom–after all, he drips with fascinating stories, facts, and numbers–and who like him quite a lot. And if you read closely, here and there you’ll find some folks of both minds.

It’s not Bloom that I’m interested in, however, it’s Rogan. But I had to set things up. Like Bloom, Rogan’s an intellectual omnivore, though with a different style and purpose. Bloom is convinced he knows how the world works. Rogan is trying to figure it out. That’s why he talks to all these different folks in his podcasts.

This post is about two points in this long conversation, almost three hours, where Rogan pushes Bloom.

In the Moment

At this point we’re well over an hour into the conversation. Bloom has been talking about how PG Wodehouse and Dave Barry inspired him to write a book about the 60s, then off to quantum physics in Moscow, and then to the “universal brain”–a biggie for Bloom. At roughly 1:23:40 Rogan asks:
JR: “Are you thinking of this while you’re saying it, are you thinking of the vast numbers of people that are listening and watching? Or are you just relaying the information; like are you cognizant?”
HB: “Yeah, both.”
JR: “Both.”
HB: “Because I want...[bit about Einstein giving him is marching orders]... to make good radio for your audience.”
JR: “But once you, what I’m trying to get at is once you’ve got it established in your head that nothing is isolated, that everything is connected, when you speak, are you aware when you’re speaking, that everything is connected? I mean are you actually, consciously thinking of all of these different minds, taking into account of all these different mind-blowing things that you’re saying, and then applying them out in the world.”
HB: “I think so.”
JR: “Yeah.”
HB: “I mean, if you hear it coming out of my mouth, that’s what’s churning around in my brain.”
JR: “You’re such a bright guy, I’m just tryin’ to understand if you’re in the moment, or if you’re in the moment as well as being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”
HB: “Well my obligation is to do both simultaneously.”
“In the moment”, that’s the key phrase. What’s it mean?

Remember, Rogan is a life-long martial arts practitioner and he’s got a decade and a half of experience as a commenter on mixed martial arts. As far as I can tell, MMA is the bedrock of The Joe Rogan Experience, a world of experience Rogan returns to time and again, with many of his guests coming from the MMA world. When Joe Rogan wants to know “What is real?” that’s where he goes.

Being in the moment is the core of that reality. Pure action and sensation, without thought. In the moment.

Music is like that too. I’m a musician, I’ve been there. You aren’t making the music; rather, it manifests through you. Countless other musicians, and listeners too, have been there – I’ve collected a variety of anecdotes in Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance. Bloom also knows it; when he was a publicist in the music business he worked with some of the top acts in the world.

But just what does that have to do with Bloom’s state of mind/being as he talking with Rogan? It’s not clear to me just what Rogan is asking of Bloom, and I don’t think it was clear to Bloom either. No matter. He asked.


It sometimes happens when writing. I wrote one paper, about Shelley, in such a state when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. It’s certainly not something I set out to do. I didn’t even know it was possible. But, there I was, late at night, with the paper due at noon the next. I was beat–I’m not at all a night person. I sat down at the typewrite and WHAM! It happened. The paper wrote itself over the course of, I don’t know, three, four, five hours or more. I finished it at dawn. And it was a good one.

Never again.

Is that what Rogan was asking of Bloom? Is he asking if Bloom was in some kind of transcendent state as well as “being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”?

Who knows.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Red light at night


The expression of gratitude across cultures

Simeon Floyd, Giovanni Rossi, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin H. Kendrick, Jörg Zinken, N. J. Enfield, Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude, R. Soc. open sci. 2018 5 180391; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180391. Published 23 May 2018

Abstract: Gratitude is argued to have evolved to motivate and maintain social reciprocity among people, and to be linked to a wide range of positive effects—social, psychological and even physical. But is socially reciprocal behaviour dependent on the expression of gratitude, for example by saying ‘thank you’ as in English? Current research has not included cross-cultural elements, and has tended to conflate gratitude as an emotion with gratitude as a linguistic practice, as might appear to be the case in English. Here, we ask to what extent people express gratitude in different societies by focusing on episodes of everyday life where someone seeks and obtains a good, service or support from another, comparing these episodes across eight languages from five continents. We find that expressions of gratitude in these episodes are remarkably rare, suggesting that social reciprocity in everyday life relies on tacit understandings of rights and duties surrounding mutual assistance and collaboration. At the same time, we also find minor cross-cultural variation, with slightly higher rates in Western European languages English and Italian, showing that universal tendencies of social reciprocity should not be equated with more culturally variable practices of expressing gratitude. Our study complements previous experimental and culture-specific research on gratitude with a systematic comparison of audiovisual corpora of naturally occurring social interaction from different cultures from around the world.

* * * * *

A NYTimes article reporting this research.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mad Men

Back when I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s I noted that “hey! that’s the Mad Men era.” That is, the film was made in and about the world depicted in Mad Men. “How interesting”, thought I, “How interesting.” But I didn’t go beyond that.

Now I’ve got a couple of quick observations.

Obviously they’ve very different. For one thing Breakfast is a movie that runs a bit under two hours while Mad Men unfolded in 92 one-hour episodes over seven seasons. Breakfast is a light comedy while Mad Men is basically a drama.

Given those differences however, both feature a central character who isn’t what they seem to be. Neither Don Draper (MM) nor Holly Golightly (BaT) is the urban sophisticate they appear to be. Both have a working class rural background, though it takes awhile for us to learn that. What’s that about? Given that a somewhat older fictional character, Jay Gatsby, also has hidden past, it’s not a 1960s thing. Perhaps it’s American?

Both seem to be struggling with a transactional view of the world, in particular, with transactional relationships between men and women. While it’s not clear whether Holly is a (high class) call girl or merely a paid companion, she supports herself at the arms of wealthy men. Her friend and neighbor, Paul Varjak, is kept by a wealthy woman. Everyone in Mad Men is using relationships to get ahead, but the most obviously single example occurs in season five when Joan, who had started the series as the head of the secretarial pool, is made partner in return for sleeping is the potential client (and thereby landing the account).

Beyond this, I note that there’s a party in Holly’s apartment that seems very Mad Men.

Finally, both end with a wistful look at the future for their protagonists: Just what WILL the future have for them? We can imagine something better, something wonderful, but it’s not a lock. We HAVE to own our imaginings.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Dali Lama says

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Joe Rogan's interview "secrets"

Alex Berman
Published on Jun 16, 2017

In this video we’re going to delve into Joe Rogan's interview style and how his singular way of posing a question has catapulted The Joe Rogan Experience into the history books as one of the most successful and profitable podcasts of all time.

Three Against Two the Tambuka Way

Western music is based on so-called duple rhythms, patterns of two or multiples of two. There are triple rhythms as well, the waltz for example, but they aren't as prominent. What Western rhythm rarely does is superimpose the two.

Not so in much of the third world, where three against two is a way of life. Here's a passage from Beethoven's Anvil (pp. 116-117) that describes a technique for learning three-against-two that is ascribed to an origin myth. Imagine that, a culture that makes rhythm part of it's origin myth.

* * * * *

The Tumbuka of Malawi, in southeastern Africa, have an origin myth that is coupled with a thigh slapping routine. The myth concerns Mupa, who discovered the rhythms used in vimbuza music, the music played for the trance dancing central to Tumbuka healing. Mupa discovered the rhythms while slapping his thighs. He began with a simple alternation—slap the right thigh with the right hand, left thigh with the left hand, in even alternating strokes—but that quickly grew boring. So he began figuring out more interesting ways to generate rhythms. I won’t recite the whole story—you can find it in Steven Friedson’s book, Dancing Prophets—but I will briefly describe the thigh-slapping routine that Mupa developed.

First, take a comfortable seat with your feet resting on the floor. Gently slap one thigh (say, the right thigh with the right hand) and then the other; do this repeatedly with an even rhythm at a comfortable tempo. Now, group your strokes into groups of three by slapping your knee on the first of each group of three. You will probably have to count to do this. You could use number names and say “one two three” but any three syllables will do. Just repeat the sequence over and over and slap your knee on the first syllable in the series. Not only is the physical gesture a little different from before, so is the sound. Notice that the initial stroke in your groups—set in bold type—will alternate between your right and left knees:

(1) R knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh (1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh

A full cycle is thus six strokes long, divided into two groups marked by initial knee slaps. Emphasize the knee slaps so that they are just a little louder, thus strengthening the triple grouping. Practice this at a comfortable pace until you can do it with little or no thought. then you may want to pick up the pace and see how fast you can go.

Next we are going to superimpose THREE (two-stroke groupings) on the TWO groupings that consist of three strokes each. We will do this merely by thinking. Continue the same pattern but now concentrate on only one hand at a time, perhaps your right. I find it helps simply to look at the appropriate thigh. In the following representation the right strokes have been set in bold type while the initial strokes of the two groups of three have been set in italics:

(1) R knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh (1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh

One could also choose to concentrate on the left-hand strokes:

(1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh (1) R Knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh

Either way, get six beats in two different ways. When you use knee slaps as your marker, the six beats are divided into two groups or three beats each. When you use left or right side as your marker, they are divided into three groups of two beats each. Further, you can switch your concentration back and forth from the right-hand strokes to the left-hand ones.

If you are not already practiced in this sort of thing, you should be slow and deliberate. As you become comfortable, pick up the pace. You will reach a point where you no longer explicitly think in six, with overlays about how each stroke must be executed, and think instead in three/two.

The pattern of physical gestures you establish by practicing this exercise can then be applied to playing the ng’oma drum, the lead or master drum of Tumbuka music. The thigh stroke and knee stroke of the exercise become two different ways of striking the drum. But the basic pattern the Mupa left his people forms the core pattern of Tumbuka drumming; all other patterns derive from it.

* * * * *

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Bird, plane, and the Standard Hotel in the early morning sky


Intelligence requires causal reasoning, which is more than fancy curve fitting

Kevin Hartnett interviews AI pioneer Judea Pearl on occasion of his new book, The Book of Why (Quanta, May 15, 2017): To Build Truly Intelligent Machines, Teach Them Cause and Effect. Pearl is skeptical that current techniques are the basis of a viable way ahead. Here’s a portion of that interview, followed a brief comment of my own.

* * * * *

Pearl: I can give you an example. All the machine-learning work that we see today is conducted in diagnostic mode — say, labeling objects as “cat” or “tiger.” They don’t care about intervention; they just want to recognize an object and to predict how it’s going to evolve in time.

I felt an apostate when I developed powerful tools for prediction and diagnosis knowing already that this is merely the tip of human intelligence. If we want machines to reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had finished high school?”), we must invoke causal models. Associations are not enough — and this is a mathematical fact, not opinion.

Hartnett: People are excited about the possibilities for AI. You’re not?

Pearl: As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial.

Hartnett: The way you talk about curve fitting, it sounds like you’re not very impressed with machine learning.

Pearl: No, I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future — what next? ...

Hartnett: What are the prospects for having machines that share our intuition about cause and effect?

Pearl: We have to equip machines with a model of the environment. If a machine does not have a model of reality, you cannot expect the machine to behave intelligently in that reality. The first step, one that will take place in maybe 10 years, is that conceptual models of reality will be programmed by humans.

The next step will be that machines will postulate such models on their own and will verify and refine them based on empirical evidence. That is what happened to science; we started with a geocentric model, with circles and epicycles, and ended up with a heliocentric model with its ellipses.

Robots, too, will communicate with each other and will translate this hypothetical world, this wild world, of metaphorical models.

Hartnett: When you share these ideas with people working in AI today, how do they react?

Pearl: AI is currently split. First, there are those who are intoxicated by the success of machine learning and deep learning and neural nets. They don’t understand what I’m talking about. They want to continue to fit curves. But when you talk to people who have done any work in AI outside statistical learning, they get it immediately. I have read several papers written in the past two months about the limitations of machine learning.

Hartnett: Are you suggesting there’s a trend developing away from machine learning?

Pearl: Not a trend, but a serious soul-searching effort that involves asking: Where are we going? What’s the next step?

* * * * *

Just what does it mean, “to equip machines with a model of the environment”? Are we talking about a 3D model like those used for video games and special effects CGI in movies? Probably not, but what? And isn’t there a sense in which we build a model of the world through our perceptual and cognitive activity? Why don’t we just program that perceptual/cognitive model (and call it common sense)?

Success in contemporary pop songs

Myra Interiano, Kamyar Kazemi, Lijia Wang, Jienian Yang, Zhaoxia Yu, Natalia L. Komarova, Musical trends and predictability of success in contemporary songs in and out of the top charts, Royal Society Open Science, 5: 171274, 16 May 2018, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171274.

Abstract: We analyse more than 500 000 songs released in the UK between 1985 and 2015 to understand the dynamics of success (defined as ‘making it’ into the top charts), correlate success with acoustic features and explore the predictability of success. Several multi-decadal trends have been uncovered. For example, there is a clear downward trend in ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, as well as a slight upward trend in ‘sadness’. Furthermore, songs are becoming less ‘male’. Interestingly, successful songs exhibit their own distinct dynamics. In particular, they tend to be ‘happier’, more ‘party-like’, less ‘relaxed’ and more ‘female’ than most. The difference between successful and average songs is not straightforward. In the context of some features, successful songs pre-empt the dynamics of all songs, and in others they tend to reflect the past. We used random forests to predict the success of songs, first based on their acoustic features, and then adding the ‘superstar’ variable (informing us whether the song’s artist had appeared in the top charts in the near past). This allowed quantification of the contribution of purely musical characteristics in the songs’ success, and suggested the time scale of fashion dynamics in popular music.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Man Godfrey

This is another classic American film that I’m just now getting around to watching. My Man Godfrey came out in 1936, during the Great Depression. It’s a so-called screwball comedy – which is wacky in a specific way.

The film opens with a slow left-to-right pan, with the opening credits superimposed on a nocturnal Art Deco city skyline. As the skyline disappears the shot zooms in on a dump, where we see some homeless men chatting among themselves. Seconds after camera comes to rest on one called “Duke” two cars come up and two socialites get out, one with boyfriend in tow.

One of them (the one with the boyfriend, who is names Cornelia) asks Duke if he want to make a quick $5. She’s on a scavenger hunt and has to find a “forgotten man”. He fills the bill. He may be poor, but he’s got enough dignity to turn her down. She and her boyfriend leave and the other young woman (Irene) approaches he, with the same request. But her manner is different and, for whatever reason (the plot requires it), he assents to her request.

Before you know it he’s become the butler in the home where this woman lives with her sister (the first woman), mother, father, and a high-class moocher (the mother’s “protégé”). Godfrey–the man’s name–is so very good at being a butler that one suspects he’s got an interesting history. In time we learn that, yes he does, he from a wealthy Boston family and...well, does it really matter just how he ended up in a dump in New York City? The Bullock family is disorganized and dysfunctional and Godfrey does his best shape them up, with some success.

The film works its way to an utterly implausible happy ending, more or less, with Irene all set to marry Godfrey, who’s 10 or 15 years order than she is. Godfrey does a good job of hiding his attraction from Irene while the film does just as good a job of betraying it to us. He ends up as manager to a swanking nightclub called The Dump, which is on the site of the dump that opened the movie.

As for why this is a screwball comedy, it’s because a ditzy blond, Irene, manages to snare an uptight man, Godfrey. Irene was played by Carole Lombard and Godfrey way played William Powell. In real life they’d been married for a few years but had gotten divorced by the time this film was made.

What’s striking is that the film is set in high society at the height of the Depression. But of course it’s also quite aware of the poverty on which that (rather dysfunctional) high society rests.

None of this makes much sense, but it’s an excellent film.

A screwball comedy.

* * * * *

Further reading:

  • The late Norman Holland was a (psychoanalytic) literary critic by day: “As I see it, this screwball comedy asks, What is a man? And by its occasionally surreal style, it also asks, What is real? The answer is: what you don't throw away; what you value. This is a film about valuing.”
  • Roger Ebert, four-star review, 2008: “A couple of reviewers on the Web complain that the plot is implausible. What are we going to do with these people? They've obviously never buttled a day in their lives. What you have to observe and admire is how gently the film offers its moments of genius.”
  • James Bowman: “The earliest days of the Talkies coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and during that era, especially during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the problem of how to be rich — that is, how to live the good life as Americans had always conceived it — became politically problematical for the first time.”
  • Kimberly Truhler, Cinema Style File–The Art (Deco) of Comedy in 1936's MY MAN GODFREY: “As chief designer, Banton would most often be responsible for the leading ladies alone. Thus, in Godfrey he created Carole's gowns and her many other looks. He was blissfully indulgent in styling her socialite character Irene. At one point, he has her waking up in a bedroom jacket made entirely of ostrich feathers.” (Has lots of stills from the film.)

6000 years of world history