Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two photos

This is the third most popular photo over the past half day or so (the top two were in my most recent Friday Fotos):


I'd almost forgotten about this one (from a set of discarded toys):


Replication of experimental results and cultural evolution

Replication of experimental results has become a hot issue in the behavioral sciences and medicine. While some some of this reflects fraud, its mostly about "sloppy" science. Some results may be flukes, but even valid results can present problems. I tend to think replication is needed because the observations are often obtained through procedures that are so complex that it is not clear what's central to the procedure and what's not. Mark Liberman at Language Log has a post on "Reliability" that speaks to these issues. Here's a passage (emphasis mine):
Some of the reasons for the problems are well known. There's the "file drawer effect", where you try many experiments and only publish the ones that produce the results you want. There's p-hacking, data-dredging, model-shopping, etc., where you torture the data until it yields a "statistically significant" result of an agreeable kind. There are mistakes in data analysis, often simple ones like using the wrong set of column labels. (And there are less innocent problems in data analysis, like those described in this article about cancer research, where some practices amount essentially to fraud, such as performing cross-validation while removing examples that don't fit the prediction.) There are uncontrolled covariates — at the workshop, we heard anecdotes about effects that depend on humidity, on the gender of experimenters, and on whether animal cages are lined with cedar or pine shavings. There's a famous case in psycholinguistics where the difference between egocentric and geocentric coordinate choice depends on whether the experimental environment has salient asymmetries in visual landmarks (Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman, "Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning", Cognition 2002).
The general idea is that meaning is always negotiated and that experimental replication is an aspect of the negotiations.

Machine Translation and Artificial Intelligence, a quick and dirty view

The folks at Language Log have been having an interesting discussion about machine translation, "They called for more structure", that was started by a passage from Donald Barthleme. Down in that discussion Jason Eisner has a useful remark:
The field of AI includes both neat and scruffy approaches. A neat system for MT would be a faithful implementation of some linguistic theory. Current leading MT systems are somewhat scruffy. They contain various hacks and shortcuts that help to produce a decent translation quickly.

Researchers with a scruffy-AI mindset may think that's just fine. Either they suspect that brains themselves are much scruffier than linguists admit, or they have no opinion about brains and simply want to engineer a working product.

A scruffy-AI researcher may want to enrich the current system to make more use of syntax, but will be perfectly happy to use a "big hairy four-by-four" approximation of syntax that is nailed onto the rest of the system with railroad spikes. The goal is to improve the end results by any expedient method.

Other researchers working on the same system may be true believers in neat AI. They really wish that the system had been designed on clean linguistic and statistical principles from the ground up. Unfortunately such systems would be hard to build and have not worked as well in the past, so these neat-AI researchers settle for helping to nail syntax onto an existing scruffy system. They feel proud of themselves for using (more) linguistics. But does this route really lead toward the utopian system they dream of? Can the hybrid system be gradually made more principled, as the old hacks are gradually phased out? Or is that just a comforting fantasy that sustains them, as it sustains Barthelme's construction workers? "The exercise of our skills, and the promise of the city, were enough."

Friday, February 27, 2015

Jersey City Gets $25K from Tony Hawk Foundation for a SK8 Park

Frank Foster burns it up in front of the Basie Band

I went to graduate school at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-1970s. I was getting a degree in English, but I hung out in the Music Department studying jazz improvisation with Frank Foster, who'd been with Count Basie as a player and arranger in the 1950s. Sometime in the 1990s I believe it was, Frank took over leadership of the Basie Band. This video is the first of five from a Basie concert in 1994. It opens featuring Frank on "After You've Gone". The whole thing is worth a listen.

Myth-Logic and a Lady Librarian in The Rockford Files

I’ve been working my way through The Rockford Files on Netflix. As many of you know the show originally aired in the later 1970s and is about a private investigator, Jim Rockford, who lives in a trailer at the beach in Malibu. Rockford’s basically a good guy who has to bend the rules to make ends meet.

I’m coming to the end of the run and yesterday watched an episode entitled “The Return of the Black Shadow”. The episode is more focused on one of Rockford’s friends and associates, John Cooper, than on Rockford himself. Cooper has a sister Gail, who is a librarian, and Rockford has agreed to take her on a date (deep sea fishing). The date gets hijacked by a motorcycle gang that gang rapes Gail and beats Rockford up.

The question that’s on my mind is: Why is it that it’s a librarian who is raped? If you are going to tell a half-way interesting story about rape, the victim has to be something other than a rape victim, no? But why not an interior decorator, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, an engineer, or a model, all of whom have appeared in episodes of the show and many of them were dated by Rockford?

Obviously, this isn’t a question about the real world, it’s a question about story craft, about myth-logic.

When the episode opens Rockford and Gail are driving along in his car having a conversation, an awkward conversation. She’s thanking Rockford for taking her out; she knows he’s only doing this as a favor to her brother, John; and Rockford’s protesting that, no, he’s taking her out because he wants to and she’s a nice woman; and she’s telling him about a major cataloguing project she’s working on, physics; and he’s laughing at her jokes and; on the whole, they’re managing to put a pleasant face on an awkward situation. As they’re driving along they’re passed by a gang of bikers, The Rattlers, who hassle them a bit as they pass around them.

When the bikers have finally passed them Gail mentions that her brother, John, had been a biker in his youth; he belonged to The Black Shadows. But he grew out of it and went to law school. They continue driving.

When they stop for gas, the bikers show up at the gas station and start hassling Rockford. One of them gets in his car (Rockford had stepped out for some reason which I forget) and starts hassling Gail. The net result is that they take her up into the hills and rape her; Rockford follows and gets beaten up; and the police arrive just in time.

When brother John finds out he is, of course, very angry. He decides that he’s not going to leave things to the police. He gets his bike out, puts on his old Black Shadow clothes, and manages to work his way into the gang that did it. And so forth. The gang’s caught and, at the end, Gail seems to have recovered, at least physically.

And I’m still wondering: why a librarian? Maybe no reason at all, maybe that’s merely a contingent fact about the character. However, the maiden librarian IS a minor stock figure and Gail fits the bill.

Friday Fotos: Current Flickr Favorites

Generally I've opted for some kind of thematic order for my Friday Fotos. Not so this Friday. Today I'm letting visitors to my Flickr page pick the photos. These are the photos that have been viewed most often since last evening.

Graffiti in a back alley in Jersey City, now gone, taken in August, 2013:


A photo of the Hudson River I took on February 10, but posted only yesterday:


Looking across the Hudson at Manhattan, taken on February 11, posted yesterday:


We've seen a lot of these little guys. I took the photo in August of 2012 and its now been viewed 1672 times:


I took this in September of 2012:


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A reminder of things to come


The Hottest Man in Siam

Another working paper on a classic Walter Lantz cartoon from the 1940s. Download from:
Abstract and Introduction below:
Abstract: The Greatest Man in Siam is a Walter Lantz cartoon from 1943. It has a pseudo-Oriental setting and depicts a contest to win the hand of a young princess. The losers present themselves as intelligent, rich, and athletic, respectively, while the winner is a good musician and dancer. He’s also the only one who plays attention to the princess and doesn’t insult the king. The cartoon ends with everyone dancing, thus affirming communal values over individual accomplishment. Just before the end there is a virtuoso dance sequence between the couple; it was superbly animated by Pat Matthews.


Introduction: What Fun! Learning to See 1
The Hottest Man in Siam 4
The Greatest Social Contract in Siam 18
Why Siam? The Contest Motif 32
The Phallus in the Palace 34
Eyes, Electricity, and a Contest 38
In Praise of Cartoons: Lantz Does Conceptual Integration 45
The Siam Paradox 54
Shamus Culhane of the Avant-Garde 55

Introduction: What Fun! Learning to See

siam 1 cityscape

This cartoon gave me a great deal of pleasure. Above all, there is the dance sequence, which is flat-out joyous wonderful. Then there is the anonymous solo trumpeter on the sound track, who just kills it! I’ve rarely heard such heart-felt and enthusiastic playing on the sound track of any film. As I’m a trumpet player myself, I suppose I get more of a kick out of the trumpeting that most would, but the player’s passion is evident.

Then there is the chase, the intellectual chase. I didn’t start out to write a series of posts on The Greatest Man in Siam. At this point I don’t really remember just what I set out to do – though now that I’ve looked, I notice I’ve got some remarks about that in my initial post. About all I can remember is that, when I first decided to blog about it, I didn’t intend to write so very much about that dance sequence. But once I actually started planning the post, that was when I figured that I really needed to devote a whole post to nothing more than the dance sequence. I figured I could take care of the rest of the cartoon in another post.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Once I started digging I had to dig for more. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on in this cartoon. And then, when I was pretty much done The New York Times published an article about the cartoon’s director, Shamus Cullhane, pointing out that he consciously and deliberately slathered this cartoon in phallic symbolism.

What fun!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A case of biased technology: photographing black skin

In a NYTimes article on the photography of Roy DeCarava, Teju Cole makes this observation:
All technology arises out of specific social circumstances. In our time, as in previous generations, cameras and the mechanical tools of photography have rarely made it easy to photograph black skin. The dynamic range of film emulsions, for example, were generally calibrated for white skin and had limited sensitivity to brown, red or yellow skin tones. Light meters had similar limitations, with a tendency to underexpose dark skin. And for many years, beginning in the mid-1940s, the smaller film-developing units manufactured by Kodak came with Shirley cards, so-named after the white model who was featured on them and whose whiteness was marked on the cards as “normal.” Some of these instruments improved with time. In the age of digital photography, for instance, Shirley cards are hardly used anymore. But even now, there are reminders that photographic technology is neither value-free nor ethnically neutral. In 2009, the face-recognition technology on HP webcams had difficulty recognizing black faces, suggesting, again, that the process of calibration had favored lighter skin.

An artist tries to elicit from unfriendly tools the best they can manage. A black photographer of black skin can adjust his or her light meters; or make the necessary exposure compensations while shooting; or correct the image at the printing stage. These small adjustments would have been necessary for most photographers who worked with black subjects, from James Van Der Zee at the beginning of the century to DeCarava’s best-known contemporary, Gordon Parks, who was on the staff of Life magazine....

DeCarava, on the other hand, insisted on finding a way into the inner life of his scenes. He worked without assistants and did his own developing, and almost all his work bore the mark of his idiosyncrasies. The chiaroscuro effects came from technical choices: a combination of underexposure, darkroom virtuosity and occasionally printing on soft paper. And yet there’s also a sense that he gave the pictures what they wanted, instead of imposing an agenda on them.

Sunflower seeds, my most popular Flickr photo today


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Bodies of Literary Knowledge: The texts themselves and commentary on them

This post is an elaboration I made on a comment in my session on my open letter to Steven Pinker.
From my point of view it is all but perceptually obvious that one can comment on literary texts in a way intended to advance, or critique, the (ethical) project embodied in the text or one can take up a position outside that (ethical) project and comment on the text as a phenomenon in the world, perhaps as from the point of view of a Martian ethologist. One can imagine that ethologist is merely curious about what Earthlings are up to, or perhaps the ethologist is thinking of Martian expeditions to Earth for purposes of trade or conquest. Whatever the purpose, that ethologist no more has trouble objectifying our literary works than Lévi-Strauss had trouble objectifying the myths of South American tribespeople.

The distinction between criticism and scholarship seems obvious and secure enough. But that, I suspect, is because scholarship typically works at some “distance” from the text – to use the standard trope in these matters, that of distance. But if one proposes a mode of commentary that is both “close” to the text and disinterested in the text’s (ethical) project, then things get difficult.

So let’s forget about literature for a moment and think about language and linguistics. Linguistics has become a fairly technical discipline in the last half century. Becoming fluent in any of the versions of contemporary linguistics is not easy. But it isn’t required in order to speak or write in an intelligible way. Just as you don’t need to know physics and engineering to drive a car, so you don’t need to know linguistics in order to speak and write. And if you want to improve your speaking and writing, the best thing to do is practice using good models and, of course, find a tutor. But that tutor is not going to lecture you on phrase structure grammar, dependency theory, functional grammar, construction grammar, stratificational grammar or any of the other contemporary forms of syntactic theory. Those forms of grammar are about language in the way that thermodynamics is about what happens in an automobile engine. But a thorough knowledge of thermodynamics is not going to improve your driving and a mastery of the minimalist program in generative grammar is not going to improve your prose.

THAT’s the distinction I want to make for literature. There’s an extensive body of models and theories about the mind, and a bit about culture, that didn’t exist 40 years ago and that’s what I have in mind when I talk about knowing how the mind works and how culture works. I don’t see that understanding, in effect, the thermodynamics of the mind is going to be of much use in teaching Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, The Prelude, Faust, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, and so forth.

Now let’s push things one step farther. Driving a car is one thing. Being able to do engine repair is another. And understanding the physics and chemistry of combustion and energy conversion and transfer, that’s still a third thing. These bodies of knowledge are related in that they have to do with automobiles. But they don’t imply one another.

A splash of color


Friday, February 20, 2015

Finding Patterns

is perhaps the most important skill of a literary critic. The trouble with Theory, then, is not so much the terms in which interpretations are couched, but the fact that it privileges creating those accounts over the finding of patterns. Right now we need better descriptions of our texts and that requires that we find the patterns which are the “joints” of the textual body, to use Plato’s metaphor.

This, incidentally, is why digital criticism is so very important. But its very nature it foregrounds the discovery patterns. It is because the patterns are so very strange that the fact of their "patternhood" is foregrounded. 

Of course, the discovery of patterns is not the ultimate end of literary study. But the meanings and mechanisms we seek are there in the patterns. Without those, we have nothing to understand and explain. Simply cranking out more propositions from the Theory Engine is, at this point, a waste of time.

Classical improvisation by a Danish American Jewish comedian, Victor Borge

Victor Borge never got the memo saying that classical musicians stopped improvising sometime during the middle of the 19th century. So, when a fiddle player wanted to perform a tune that Borge had heard, but never played, Borge simply improvised an accompaniment. It's a bit over the top at points, but then Borge is a comedian. Watch how the two men interact act with one another. There are points where one or the other doesn't quite know what's coming up, so they have to look and listen.

Pay attention at about 3:13, in a slow section (stuck in the middle of all the fast stuff). It's supposed to return to the up-tempo romp, but the fiddle player strings out a note (which registers on Borge's face) and repeats the slow material, w/ Borge following, of course. At about 3:43 Borge starts a nice counter melody; from 3:54 to the end it's nuts, with a nice counter melody in octaves at about 4:02. Notice the nice hesitation for the very last note, a skillful touch.

Escape from Flat Earth: J. Hillis Miller and the evolution of a critic’s mind

I am, of course, speaking metaphorically, when I talk of a flat Earth, and, for that matter, when I talk of escape as well. By flat Earth I mean a set of default assumptions. In this case, the assumptions about the study of English literature in America that were in place at the beginning of J. Hillis Miller’s career.

As many of you know, Miller is one of the most eminent literary critics in the American academy and played a major role in the development of deconstructive and post-structuralism criticism. But that’s not where he started, obviously. When he started, interpretive criticism was relatively rare in academia, and didn’t exist at Harvard, where he did his graduate work. But let’s set that aside.

What interests me now is simply that there were assumptions in place. As Miller states in this passage from a 2003 article in the ADE Bulletin, “My Fifty Years in the Profession” (PDF):
The discipline of English studies was certainly well in place when I entered graduate school in 1948 and when I began full-time teaching in 1952. In those days we knew what we were doing. All sorts of disciplinary rules, boundaries, and taken-for-granted assumptions were firmly in place. We knew what the canon was, what were the main periods of English literary history, and what constituted good scholarship in the field.... In those days “we” were mostly men, all men in the English department at Hopkins, and all the works we studied, with some exceptions, were by men. American literature was pretty marginal. It all made perfect sense.
Whatever those assumptions were, that’s what I’m calling flat earth.

Flat Earth

As for the flat Earth, no doubt that’s how I thought of the earth when I was a child, if I thought about such things at all. I mean, why would I think otherwise? And if there was no reason to think otherwise, then why would I bother to note that the Earth appeared to be flat? The Earth was just the world around me and it was what it was.

At some point, though, I learned that the Earth was round. I don’t remember just when, or how, or what I learned at the same time. No doubt I learned in some time in primary school. But for all I know, I may have learned it first at home. I know at some point we had a globe, but just when we got it, I don’t know.

My point, though, is that it didn’t make much sense to think of the possibility of a flat Earth until I learned that, no, the Earth wasn’t flat. It was round. Then, of course, someone had to explain how it was that the Earth appeared to be flat through it really wasn’t. I figure that explanation would have gotten nowhere if I hadn’t been willing to take it on authority. Because it simply wouldn’t have made sense according to any scheme I was capable to conjuring up at the time.

The Wikipedia entry on Flat Earth tells me that various ancient peoples believed the Earth to be flat under a domed firmament. Some of these peoples further believed the Earth to be floating in an ocean, while others had no such belief. How could they have believed otherwise?

It took a good deal of deliberate observation and analysis to think otherwise. I have little knowledge of how some thinkers began to believe the Earth was round. But the idea seems to have originated with the ancient Greeks and spread from there. And it seems to me that it is only in that context, when another idea about the Earth was in play, that the notion of the Earth as “flat” had any “bite” and, by that time, of course it was on the way out.