Monday, July 27, 2015

Red Surprise


@3QD: Obama’s Pinckney Eulogy, Ta-Nehisi Coates as “Priest”, Laudato Si’

The topic: The place of religious discourse in civic life.

Initially prompted by some remarks by Glenn Loury and John McWhorter from June 29, I took a close look at Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney and was stunned. The particular question that attracted my attention was the issue of Obama’s ‘authenticity’ as he enacted the role of a black preacher and transformed the eulogy into a sermon on race relations in the USA. So I transcribed part of their conversation and started thinking.

And I thought that I really ought to write a blog post addressing the authenticity issue. I ended up writing four posts. I devoted two posts to a close analysis of Obama’s eulogy, discovering – to my delight and surprise – that is exhibited ring-composition, one of my particular interests. Another post consists of transcribed conversation, the Loury-McWhorter conversation that got me started, a conversation between Pres. Obama and Marc Maron, and one between Ike Turner and Sam Phillips (the producer who discovered Elvis Presley). And my final post took up the authenticity issue, with a look into the past through Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and 19th Century camp meetings, and concluding with some remarks on the quasi-political quasi-religious nature of the President’s remarks.

As I was working into, through, and beyond that last post I began to think of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudo Si’, a religious document with tremendous political implications. That put it in the same place, in my mind, that I had just created for Obama’s eulogy. And these two statements came within a month of one another.

Is something afoot, I wondered, something between and around religion and politics?

As I was thinking about that, and thinking about what I’d write for my up-coming 3 Quarks Daily column, I listened to another Loury-McWhorter discussion, this one was about Ta-Nehisi Coates as a quasi-religious figure. I’ve read a few pieces by Coates, but nothing in the last year or so. But their remarks struck me as being reasonable. What’s more, it seems to me that they were defining this liminal space where we find Obama’s eulogy and Laudato Si’.

And that became my 3QD column, where I place those documents in evidence for a discussion of the role of religious discourse in public life. You can find that colunn HERE. Below the asterisks I've placed my transcription of Loury and McWhorter on Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Here’s the conversation:

Sunday, July 26, 2015

On Laudato Si’ as a political document

Where Al Gore and Pope Francis part company is over the relation of the climate crisis to contemporary industrial civilisation.

For Gore the fundaments of this civilisation are unquestioned. For Pope Francis the climate crisis is only the most extreme expression of a destructive tendency that has become increasingly dominant through the course of industrialisation. Judaeo-Christian thought “demythologised” nature, breaking with an earlier worldview that regarded nature as “divine”. But as the industrial age advanced, by ceasing to regard the Earth, our common home, with the proper “awe and wonder”, humans have come to behave as “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits to our immediate needs.” “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the past two hundred years.” The vision of the encyclical is not straightforwardly anti-modernist, although I have no doubt that it will be mischaracterised in this way. The advances in the fields of medicine, engineering and communications are welcomed. “Who,” Francis exclaims at one point in the encyclical, “can deny the beauty of an aircraft or a skyscraper?” But for him, in the end, the treatment of the Earth as a resource to be mastered and exploited; the limitless appetite for consumption that has accelerated during the past 200 years of the industrial age and has culminated in our “throwaway culture”; and the most extreme consequence of the contemporary crisis of post-industrial society, the climate emergency – are inseparable phenomena, part of a general and profound civilisational malaise. “Doomsday predictions,” the encyclical claims, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophe.”

Why has this come to pass? The encyclical argues that we have become slaves both to what is called the “technological paradigm” and the theory of market fundamentalism. […]

But “everything is related” has another meaning. In the contemporary world there exist not “two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but … one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” The most important connection between the twin social and environmental crises is expressed in these words. “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings.” The human family is disfigured by radical inequality. This inequality should arouse our “indignation”. It rarely does.

Moon Series

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Black Preaching, the Church, and Civic Life

I can’t say that I’ve even thought of that topic until a couple of year ago when I visisted a church in Jersey City, when I was living at the time (I'm now in Hoboken, just a bit north). Most recently, of cousre, I've been reflecting on President Obama's recent eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. Where I’m going is that, if we’re going to make substantial changes in how this country, these United States of America, goes about its business, if we’re going to forge a more just and more sustainable union, we’ve got to be grounded in something, something that doesn’t quite exist. Perhaps black preaching has a role to play in that something.

Civics 101: Legitimizing the State

Let’s start with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
In Jefferson’s formulation the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from God and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.

In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, I suggest, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends.
The rest of that post elaborates on that last paragraph and its implications. I assume that argument for the rest of THIS post, but I have something different in mind.

What has happened in this country is that, while we the people retain the nominal power of legitimizing the national government through our votes, both for the President and for congressmen, that power has become only nominal. Whoever we vote for we get a government that’s run by the corporations, for the corporations, and over we the people.

The Church in 21st Century America

How do we reverse that? Where do we get the power to wrestle the government away from the corporations? What I’m wondering is whether or the church is where we’re going to have to find that power.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Religion in America, Going Forward

In view of my current inquiry in the Reverend President's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney I thought I'd bump this to the top of the pile.
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A couple years ago I wrote a post about a church service I’d recently attended, remarking both on the power of the pastor’s preaching, its effect on his congregation, and on his responsibility to them. It was clear to me that he was energizing them to go out a face the world in a constructive frame of mind.

A friend of mine, a man I’ve known for almost 40 years, replied by indicating that he’d been lurking on a list of Unitarian ministers that was currently discussing Black Preaching: The Recovery Of A Powerful Tool by Henry H. Mitchell. This paragraph seems to have been particularly provocative:
As has been noted, worship among Whites and Blacks was similar during the Great Awakenings. It might now be asked why audible response or dialogue disappeared from mainline Protestant patterns of worship. One guess is that the preaching material soared beyond the intellectual reach of the congregation. This occurred, perhaps, because Protestant seminaries had engaged in a contest of one-upmanship with the graduate divisions of the liberal arts colleges, creating scholars instead of professionals skilled in reaching people. With such standard conditioning in the theological schools, the preacher might well be expected to be intellectual in concerns rather than interested in the day-to-day issues of ordinary people. It follows that in such a school-conditioned, abstract atmosphere, answering back would soon be considered by the preaching scholar as impolite and disruptive. This attitude would increase the inhibitions of an audience eager to please. Modern-day experiments in the middle-class church, in which dialogue takes place during and after the sermon, seem clearly to support this hypothesis. In the planning of the talk-back after the service, great care is taken to pitch the dialogue within the intellectual reach of the laity involved. It is encouraging to speculate that the middle-class model may now be drifting away from the graduate classroom and back to the pattern once shared by Blacks and Whites in the preaching event.

Stop Light, Go Light

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 4: To Redeem a Nation

Barack Obama: The red, the blue and the United States of America.
Barack Obama: The red, the blue and the United States of America by Charis Tsevis

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I know what I’m doin’ and I’m fearless.

– Barack Obama, June 22, 2015
One of my regular stops on the Internet is, a series of online discussions produced and curated by Robert Wright, author of Nonzero, and several other books. The format is simple: two people talk about this that and the other. The people are not in the same physical location, so their conversation is mediated by appropriate web-tech.

While Wright himself is a party to many of these conversations, most of them feature others. My favorite host is Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University, and his most frequent, though not only, interlocutor is John McWhorter, a linguistic at Columbia. On June 29, 2015, they had a conversation that started with the terrorist murders in Charlston, moved onto the Confederate flag, to Al Sharpton, and then to Obama’s Eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Loury initiates that discussion at roughly 38:14:

Loury’s point was that not only was Obama eloquent, as one would expect of a President (who, after all, has speech writers, though Loury didn’t say this), but that Obama delivered his eulogy in the voice and persona of a black preacher working in the vernacular tradition (and he mostly re-wrote the speech he was handed by his chief writer, though Loury didn’t say this either). His whole presentation was recognizeably African-American, which was certainly appropriate for the occasion and the audience. But when was the last time an American President ever did that?

McWhorter agreed, pointing out that we have seen “a browning of the culture […] America's all about vernacular […] He really was, in that setting, a national spokesman in a way that many other people could not be, and that he would not have been as recently as 30 years ago. We're a very different place than we used to be.” Nor could a black man have been elected to the Presidency 30 years ago, though McWhorter didn’t say that.

Friday Fotos: Hoboken at Night, North End




Do colleges and universities exist?

Well, sure they do. But the question is what holds them together beyond the physical plant and payment arrangements for students, faculty, and staff. Are they bound together by educational philosophy and practice that's consistent across departments and individual faculty? Writing in the NYTimes, Kevin Carey says that, no, they don't exit. It's a shell game:
This goes a long way toward explaining why colleges spend so much time and effort creating a sense of tribal solidarity among students and alumni. Think of the chant that Joe Paterno and students cried out together at the height of their university’s pedophilia scandal: “We are! Penn State!” The costumes, rituals and gladiatorial contests with rival colleges are all designed to portray the university as united and indivisible. Newer colleges that lack such deeply rooted identities spend millions of dollars on branding consultants in order to create them. […]

People can learn a lot in college, and many do. But which college matters much less than everyone assumes. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini explain, the real differences exist at the departmental level, or within the classrooms of individual professors, who teach with a great deal of autonomy under the principles of academic freedom. The illusory university pretends that all professors are guided by a shared sense of educational excellence specific to their institution. In truth, as the former University of California president Clark Kerr observed long ago, professors are “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”

The problem for students is that it is all but impossible to know ahead of time which part of the disunified university is which. Consumers of higher education have been taught that their main choice lies between whole institutions that are qualitatively different from one another. Because this is wrong, the higher education market often fails, which is probably one reason that a third of students who enroll in four-year colleges transfer or drop out within three years.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Is Slavery the Original Sin of Capitalism and Modernity?

Greg Grandin, Capitalism and Slavery, in The Nation:
Slavery created the modern world, and the modern world’s divisions (both abstract and concrete) are the product of slavery. Slavery is both the thing that can’t be transcended but also what can never be remembered. That Catch- 22—can’t forget, can’t remember—is the motor contradiction of public discourse, from exalted discussions of American Exceptionalism to the everyday idiocy found on cable, in its coverage, for example, of Baltimore and Ferguson.

PowerPoint Assistant: Augmenting End-User Software through Natural Language Interaction

Another working paper at

Abstract, contents, and introduction below, as usual.

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Abstract: This document sketches a natural language interface for end user software, such as PowerPoint. Such programs are basically worlds that exist entirely within a computer. Thus the interface is dealing with a world constructed with a finite number of primitive elements. You hand-code a basic language capability into the system, then give it the ability to ‘learn’ from its interactions with the user, and you have your basic PPA.


Introduction: Powerpoint Assistant, 12 Years Later 1
Metagramming Revisited 3
PowerPoint Assistant 5
Plausibiity 5
PPA In Action 6
The User Community 12
Generalization: A new Paradigm for Computing 13
Appendix: Time Line Calibrated against Space Exploration 15

Introduction: Powerpoint Assistant, 12 Years Later

I drafted this document over a decade ago, after I’d been through an intense period in which I re-visited work I’d done in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s and reconstructed it in new terms derived jointly from Sydney Lamb’s stratificational linguistics and Walter Freeman’s neurodynamics. The point of that work was to provide a framework – I called it “attractor nets” – that would accommodate both the propositional operations of ‘good old artificial intelligence’ (aka GOAFI) and the more recent statistical style. Whether or not or just how attractor nets would do that, well, I don’t really know.

But I was excited about it and wondered what the practical benefit might be. So I ran up a sketch of a natural language front-end for Microsoft PowerPoint, a program I use quite a bit. That sketch took the form of a set of hypothetical interactions between a use, named Jasmine, and the PowerPoint Assistant (PPA) along with some discussion.

The important point is that software programs like PowerPoint are basically closed worlds that exist entirely within a computer. Your ‘intelligent’ system is dealing with a world constructed with a finite number of primitive elements. So you hand-code a basic language capability into the system, then give it the ability to ‘learn’ from its interactions with the user, and you have your basic PPA.

That’s what’s in this sketch, along with some remarks about networked PPAs sharing capabilities with one another. And that’s as far as I took matters. That is to say, that is all I had the capability to do.

For what it’s worth, I showed the document to Syd Lamb in 2003 or 2004 and he agreed with me that something like that should be possible. We were stumped as to just why no one had done it. Perhaps it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone with the means to do the work. Attention was focused elsewhere.

Since then a lot has changed. IBM’s Watson won at Jeopardy and more importantly is being rolled out in commercial use. Siri ‘chats’ with you on your iPhone.

And some things haven’t changed. Still no PPA, nor a Photoshop Assistant either. Is it really that hard to do? Are the Big Boys and Girls just distracted by other things? It’s not as though programs like PowerPoint and Photoshop serve niche markets too small to support the recoupment of development costs.

Am I missing something, or are they?

So I’m putting this document out there on the web. Maybe someone will see it and do something about it. Gimme’ a call when you’re ready.

The Fashion Doctor is Available by Appointment


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Obama’s Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney 3: The Technics of Grace

The Eulogy was not merely a text, but a performance: what does it do? How does it work?

My purpose here is not to engage in the job of hunting for hidden meaning in Obama’s text, for everything is there for us to see. Rather, I only wish to call attention to the obvious and therefore to highlight patterns that may not be so obvious.

Here’s the major sections of Obama’s speech as I laid them out in my first post:
1. Prologue: Address to his audience, quoting of a passage from the Bible.

2. Phase 1: Moves from the Clementa Pinckney’s life to the significance of the black church in history.

3. Phase 2: The murder itself and presence of God’s grace.

4. Phase 3: Looks to the nation, the role racism has played, and the need to move beyond it.

5. Closing: Amazing Grace.
As before, I’ve attached a copy of Obama’s text to the end of this post, with the paragraphs numbered; you can also access an analytical table of the text HERE. You can view the complete performance HERE.

The Beginning and the End

Let’s start with the beginning, which is simple and straight forward:
1. Giving all praise and honor to God.

2. The Bible calls us to hope. To persevere, and have faith in things not seen.

3. “They were still living by faith when they died,” Scripture tells us. “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on Earth.”

4. We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.

5. To Jennifer, his beloved wife; to Eliana and Malana, his beautiful, wonderful daughters; to the Mother Emanuel family and the people of Charleston, the people of South Carolina.
Note that while paragraphs 2 and 3 are connected by a logical progression, as are 3 and 4. That is not the case between 1 and 2 nor between 4 and 5.

What’s going on?

Obama opens with a straightforward assertion: “Giving all praise and honor to God.” Right away he is telling us that this is not going to be an ordinary Presidential speech: Presidential speeches do not ordinarily begin that way. Moreover, while as President he is the highest authority in the land – note that he has the power to pardon people of crimes and (in practice) the power to commit the nation to war (if not in Constitutional law) – he is here acknowledging a higher power than even he possesses.

Not only is there a higher power, but there is a higher order. And that order is not visible to us. That is our (hidden) link from the first to the second paragraph, where we are enjoined to “have faith in things not seen.” That in turn takes us to the third paragraph, a Bible verse (Hebrews 11:13) telling us to have faith and that we are “strangers on Earth.”

Only then does Obama introduce Pinckney, though not by name, and he introduces him in terms he set out in paragraphs 1, 2 and 3. He is “a man of God” (1) who “lived by faith” (2 & 3). Obama picks up the theme of distance – “better days ahead, off in the distance” – and closes on perseverance. These connections, of course, are crucial, for Obama will spin out his sermon in the space between the Biblical verse – which is the key to the hidden order, the sacred order – and the now deceased man who followed its promptings.

Foolin' w/ Photoshop, the galaxy spinner

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Music moves us

2. Movement: Music Moves You, Even If You Refuse to Dance

Humans are one of the extremely few species that can synchronize their body movement to music (even babies do it - take a look at this popular video clip of 11-month-old infants trying to sync to the beat!). Brain imaging studies have shown that the motor areas of the brain are active even during passive listening to musical rhythms without any movement (11). It has been said that music prepares people for movement. But how is this special property of music connected to the experience of emotions?

It has been proposed (12) that the aforementioned human mirror neuron system could in fact also encode the movements conveyed by melodies. This would mean that the system might process movement in music like physical movement. In other words, an upward going melody would be processed in the brain as upward movement. And as upward movement is typically related to experiences like jumping for joy, this mirroring in the brain (however, without overt movement) would contribute to the recognition and experience of the emotion conveyed by the music.

It also seems that acoustic features of music as well as characteristics of physical movement may be universally interpreted to represent specific emotions. An intriguing study (13) compared how subjects from the US and from an isolated tribe in Cambodia that had never been exposed to Western music, experienced the emotion expressed by acoustic properties of melodies and the movement characteristics of an animated ball. Subjects were asked to manipulate the melodies and the movement of the animated ball for their tempo or rate of bouncing, direction of movement and so on (to best match a specific basic emotion like fear, happiness, sadness and anger). The study found that similar physical movement of the ball and similar movements in music represented the same emotions regardless of the subjects’ exposure to Western music (for example, up either as movement or as a melody increasing in pitch would tend to be related to happy instead of sad).

In summary, movement, be it in musical or physical form, is one important way of conveying emotions. Thus, people who say that they are moved by music are more right than they realize!
The article has a bunch of useful references.

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What's the Synch Project up to?
We are creating a platform to scientifically measure and harness music to improve health.

Our platform maps music characteristics to real-time biometrics gathered from an exploding variety of sensors. We hope to understand and decode the personalized therapeutic effect of music.

We are at the beginning of our journey, we don’t have all the answers, and we can't do it alone. To achieve our vision, we created The Sync Project as a global collaboration with some of the most passionate and visionary minds in science, music, health and technology. We need scientists, music lovers, engineers, musicians, patients and patient advocacy groups, everyone, to take part in this ambitious project. Only together can we decode music for health. In time, we hope this can help the lives of millions.