Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Culture will have Arrived as an Area of Serious Study when

... things like truth, love, beauty, and justice are widely recognized as core human needs and motivators, as important as the need for food, water, shelter, and sex. Oh, I know, there are those who already recognize the importance of those motivations. But they’re “fuzzy humanists” who aren’t taken seriously by more “realistic” thinkers like biologists, evolutionary psychologists, economists, and bankers.

To the extent that those “rigorous” thinkers – think rigor mortis – recognize truth, love, beauty and justice, they try to reduce them to some variety of rational self-interest in service of genes and power.

Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. Alas, they run the world, or are attempting to do so. In the end the world will defeat them, but they make take the rest of us down with them.

And Scotty said, "Computer, tell us a story"

And so the computer did. Sorta.

November is NaNoGenMo (National Novel Generation Month), started last year by Darius Kazemi, says The Verge.
Nick Montfort’s World Clock was the breakout hit of last year. A poet and professor of digital media at MIT, Montfort used 165 lines of Python code to arrange a new sequence of characters, locations, and actions for each minute in a day. He gave readings, and the book was later printed by the Harvard Book Store’s press. Still, Kazemi says reading an entire generated novel is more a feat of endurance than a testament to the quality of the story, which tends to be choppy, flat, or incoherent by the standards of human writing.

"Even Nick expects you to maybe read a chapter of it or flip to a random page," Kazemi says.

Narrative is one of the great challenges of artificial intelligence. Companies and researchers are working to create programs that can generate intelligible narratives, but most of them are restricted to short snippets of text.
And a good thing, too. 

Threshold Blues



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, An Approach for a New Era

Roughly three decades ago, in my final year on the faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I participated in an exercise to rethink the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I took that as an opportunity to, you know, actually rethink how education was done. So I designed a modular approach to structuring an introductory interdisciplinary course in the humanities and social sciences.

At that time online learning didn't exist. But the modular approach I developed back then could certainly be applied to connected learning and co-learning could certainly be incorporated into course design as well. It is in that spirit that I direct you to that document, Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, An Approach for a New Era. I've appended the 21st century introduction I wrote for that 20th century document.

* * * * *

Remarks from the 21st Century

My first and only faculty appointed was in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, a very good engineering school, the oldest in the country. During the summer of 1985 the school of Humanities and Social Sciences embarked on one of those periodic soul-searching exercises academic units undertake in order to revitalize their mission and–hope! hope!–increase the budget. Accordingly, the school offered a number of faculty small stipends to develop innovative brand-spanking new courses that they would present at a faculty retreat.

I took one of those stipends despite the fact that I would not be returning in the Fall and developed, not a course, but an approach to curriculum design which is camouflaged as a strategy for designing a large lecture-based introductory course. I understand that such courses have been getting a bad rap, and I even understand why, I think. Nonetheless if I had to do it again in this new millennium I would. But that’s neither here nor there.

What’s important is the method I used. It’s a method that could be used in designing any course in the human sciences whatsoever, though its interdisciplinary nature is particularly suited to the large introductory course as that’s the kind of course the could most readily command the participation of faculty from a half-dozen or more disciplines. But the method could also be used in planning a suite of modules to be offered online and which individual students could organize into individualized programs that nonetheless met a coherent set of overall curricular goals.

The scheme is designed to organize materials according to three high-level criteria:
  • interpretive (hermeneutic), social and behavioral scientific, and structural (in the style of linguistics) approaches are all represented,
  • historical (diachronic) and structural/functional (synchronic) approaches are represented,
  • material from other, preferably non-Western, cultures is presented.
Thus each module would employ either an interpretive, a social scientific, or a structural methodology and would be either historical or structural/functional in character. A student’s suite of modules would have to represent each of the three methodological styles, include both diachronic and functional topics and include materials from a range of different cultures.

This, I know, is all rather abstract. But I flesh it out in the full report by designing two versions of a course, Signs and Symbols, having 12 modules. I call one-version of the course “top-down” because it is organized in a fairly conventional way as a selection of different topics under the general rubric of sign systems and communications. That is, it proceeds from some conception of how knowledge is structured and generates topics from that, top-down. Obviously there are a zillion ways of designing such a course and no double half of them have already been offered at one time or another. What’s important is the overall distribution of topics, not the specific topics themselves.

The other version of the course is rather different. I selected a specific text, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and generated the 12 modules from that text. The modules are somewhat different from those in the top-down version of the course but they satisfy the same distribution requirements, covering the three methodologies (interpretive, social scientific, structural), both diachronic and functional topics, and a variety of cultures. Were I to redesign that course today I’d be inclined to swap Disney’s Fantasia for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The collection of different topics would change, of course, but the same design criteria would be met.

Some Basic Solid Forms, Natural Geometry




Formal Citation for Blog Entries

How do you cite a blog post in formal academic writing? Martin Fenner at PLOS tells how (from 2011, ancient times in web-years). APA, MLA, Chicago, BibTeX. H/t Richard at Replicated Typo.

Addendum: APA style, for websites in general. H/t Laura Ritchie.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pedagogical Styles 3: Courses I have taught (or taken)

Now that I’ve put some ideas on the table – Vygotsky, coaching, lecturing – I want to describe four different courses, three of which I’ve taught, one that I took. All of that took place in the ancient days before personal computing and the web. My objective is simply to get four different kinds of courses together in one document.

What affordances to these course have for co-learning?

Freshman Comp

I was trained in English literature, which means that, like just about everyone with such training, I also had to teach composition – first, to earn my tuition while getting the degree and then when I got my first (and only) teaching job. The fact is that Ph. D. training in literature doesn’t even train you to teach literature – at least it didn’t back in those days – much less train you to teach writing, with is an entirely different kind of activity. The two have only one thing in common: the written language.

One consequence of this disparity is that many a freshman comp course has been taught as a “content” course that just happens to have a lot of writing assignments, generally weekly. Between graduate school and my faculty job at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) I taught freshman comp, say, a half dozen or more times. I doubt that I taught it the same way twice and I forget what I did most of the times I taught the course.

But, one time at RPI I taught the course using a reader – a common thing to do. I forget which of the many such readers I used, but, like all of them, it had a large selection of pieces, both fictional and not, which you could use as the basis of a writing assignment. The weekly assignment, then, is simple: Read such and such a selection and write such and such a piece based on what you read. I’m sure I had some strategy with which I selected the weekly assignments, and I’m sure I allowed various alternatives as well, but I don’t remember that.

As I recall, the major difficulty was in making useful comments about student writing, where the problems ranged from grammar and spelling to theme, organization, and logic. I often thought that it would have been easier for me simply to re-write a sentence or paragraph than to explain what was wrong, why it was wrong, and how to do better. I note in passing that this was before the days of personal computers, much less before the time when every student had one.

I came away from this experience with two general impressions: First, what you need to do to learn to write is, above all, to write, a lot. More than you do in a one-semester composition course. Writing a lot may even be more important and useful than having an instructor make sometimes helpful sometimes obscure remarks on your paper. Second, this really would go better with weekly one-hour one-on-one tutorial sessions, like music lessons.

From Multiple Personalities to Dissociative Identity Disorder

Below the asterisks I've copied some remarks about this disorder from my article, First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts, August 21, 2000.

* * * * *

There is another aspect of the neural self, one that has to do with the continuity and coherence of the representation. We can approach this issue by considering dissociative identity disorder (DID), an extreme pathology in which the neural self is fractured. In DID, also known as multiple personality disorder, one biological individual exhibits several different identities, each having different memories and personal style. In Thigpen and Cleckley's (1957) classic study Eve had three personalities; Schreiber's (1973) Sybil had sixteen (see also Rappaport 1971, Stoller 1973). Although there has been some controversy over whether or not DID is real or simply the effect of zealous therapeutic invention and intervention, there is no doubt that at least some cases are genuine (Schachter 1996, 236-242, Spiegel 1995, 135-138).

These different identities have different personal histories. The events in one personal history typically are unknown to the other histories. Each identity will have blank periods in its history, intervals, obviously, where another identity was being enacted. And the different "persons" are often unaware of one another. Further, the different identities seem to have different personal styles, different modes of speech, of movement, of dress, and so forth. Thus both the core and autobiographical selves seem to be riven. Using the conventions we employed above, Figure 7 is a simple depiction of DID:

Fig 7 DID

Figure 7: Dissociative Identity Disorder

Notice that we now have two neural selves, NS1 and NS2, corresponding to two different identities. Of course, these two selves exist in the same body, so we have only one corresponding body in the external world.

We do not, so far as I know, understand why or how DID happens. It is not, however, the result of the sort of gross destruction of brain tissue that underlies anosognosia. One might imagine, for example, that the different selves reside in distinctly different patches of neural tissue, a speculation that Damasio (1999b, 355) himself has suggested for the autobiographical self (though he presents no evidence). This suggestion, however, has at least one problem: How does the nervous system switch from one identity to another? There is another way of explaining DID, equally speculative and equally without specific evidence, that eliminates this particular problem.

Robert Boyd on Cooperation

Why do humans cooperate in ways that other mammals don't? In the non-human world almost all cooperation can be explained in terms of genetic relatedness between the cooperators (via kin selection or reciprocal altruism). Humans are different. There is a great deal of cooperation between people who aren't genetically related.

H/t Tim Tyler.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Extraordinary Borrowed Luminosity


Street Aesthetics: Why Jerkface is Killin’ It



Three things are distinctly odd about these images, both by Jerkface – as you see, Bugs Bunny is on canvas; Sylvester is on a wall. Neither face has eyes, and both pictures appear to be “pierced” by a pattern of squares, and Bugs has multiple ears and Sylvester has multiple paws. Note that the pattern of squares doesn’t respect the distinction between foreground and background – well, in the Bugs Bunny it almost does, but it definitely doesn’t in the Sylvester.

Let’s start with the squares. As a comparison, let’s look at this graffiti piece:


In typical fashion the name dominates the image. What interests me are those rectilinear forms walking over the surface. The name-form is bordered in orange and we orange rectilinears merging into that outline, with a few free of it. The blue and green rectilinears within the name-form work a bit differently. Some of them respect the letter-form boundaries, but some extend beneath those boundaries while others go over it.

The overall effect is similar to that of the square’s in the Jerkface images. In all three cases we’ve got to quasi-independent image “logics” that intersect one another in the image plane. One is figural – cartoon characters for Jerkface, a name for the graffiti piece – and the other is a relatively simple geometric pattern.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Stairs, light, shadow


Interdisciplinarity is the Utopian Dream of an academic culture whose time is rapidly running out

I was looking around over at danah boyd’s joint, apophenia, and came across an old post: identity crisis: the curse/joy of being interdisciplinary and the future of academia. Ah yes, by all means interdisciplinary, what’s not to like?

The Romance of Interdisciplinarity

Here’s the penultimate sentence of her first paragraph: “The last big explosion was really the French scholars circling around in 1968.” Well for me the year is 1966, that’s when much the same group of French scholars landed at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore at the (in)famous structuralism conference. While I didn’t attend the conference – wouldn’t have done me any good, as I don’t speak French – I was at Hopkins at the time and one of the conference organizers, Dick Macksey – though in those days it was “Dr. Macksey” – was my mentor.

And here’s the opening sentence of boyd’s last paragraph: “So, if i think about what the next revolution in academia will be, it will have to be interdisciplinary.” But, you see, that 1966 structuralism conference was sponsored by Ford Foundation money and that money was specifically interested in interdisciplinarity. That’s what that conference was about. And that’s what the newly-founded Humanities Center, which hosted those Frenchmen, was about.

How is it, then, that forty years after that conference danah boyd is looking to the ever-lovin’ future for interdisciplinarity? If interdisciplinarity really was the future, as seen from 1966, why is it still the future, both in 2005 (when boyd published that post) and even near the end of 2014 as I sit here at 6AM writing this post?
Question: What happened to the interdisciplinary future?

Answer: It’s floated down the river Styx into the 19th century past.
There has in fact been a great deal of interdisciplinary work since 1966, but it’s just not reflected in the names of academic departments. What you have are interdisciplinary centers of all kinds. Each draws on faculty from several departments and picks up funding wherever spare change drops off departmental tables here and there. But these “centers” don’t have the power to confer degrees. That power still remains with the academic departments, and they’re a legacy of 19th century academia.

What we have, then, is departments that are still committed to traditional avenues of investigation and still, for the most part, cranking out scholars most of whom see little choice but to color within those lines. But you also have folks like boyd, or Mark Changizi, or even a Steven Pinker who don’t play by those rules and consequently are frustrated. Boyd’s not in academia – or only marginally so – Changizi left a couple of years ago; and Pinker spends half his time writing for the general educated public.

Of course, boyd knows this.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Fotos: New York's Times Square from the Jersey Side



Obviously you can't see Times Square from across the Hudson River in Hoboken, New Jersey. But you can see the tops of buildings around it.

Why Cultural Evolution Needs a Distinction Between “Genes” and “Phenotypes”

I’m thinking I’m about to burn out on cultural evolution, so this will be relatively short and informal.
* * * * *

Ever since I began thinking about a Darwinian process for cultural evolution back in the mid-1990s I’ve insisted on making a distinction between phenotypic entities (which I’m now calling “phantasms”) and genotypic entities (which I’m now calling “coordinators”). Why? My basic reason was to preserve the analogy between the cultural evolutionary process and biological.

That’s understandable, and it was a reasonable thing to do – back then. But there’s been a great deal of discussion about whether or not such a distinction needs to be made for cultural evolution, and if so: how do we make it? Some thinkers, like Dennett and Blackmore don’t make such a distinction at all, being content to theorize about memes, which are thus more like viruses than genes. To be sure, they’ve not gotten very far, nor for that matter has anyone else. But still, the issue must be faced, for there needs to be a better reason for such a distinction than the mere logic of analogy.

After all, what if the underlying logic of cultural evolution is different from that of biological evolution? What if there is no distinction comparable to the genotype-phenotype distinction?

My contention is that there is such a distinction and I’m now prepared to offer a reason for it:
Culture resides in people’s minds and the mind is in the head. We cannot read one another’s minds.
The environment to which cultural entities must adapt is the collective human mind. That’s been clear to me for a long time. And, of course, various conceptions of collective minds have been around for a long time as well. The problem is to formulate a conception in contemporary terms, terms which admit of no mystification.

I did that in the second and third chapters of Beethoven’s Anvil (2001) where I argued that when people make music together, and dance as well, their actions and perceptions are so closely coupled that we can think of a collective mind existing for the duration of that coupling. There are no mystical emanations engulfing the group. It’s all done through physical signals, electro-chemical signals inside brains, visual and auditory signals between individuals.

In this model the genetic elements of culture are the physical coordinators that support this interpersonal coupling. These coordinators are the properties of physical things – streams of sound, visual configurations, whatever – and as such are in the public sphere where everyone has access to them. Correspondingly, the phenotypic elements are the mental phantasms that arise within individual brains during the coupling. These phantasms are necessarily private though, in the case of music making, each person’s phantasm is coordinated with those of others.

If those phantasms are pleasurable – I defined pleasure in terms of neural flow in chapter four of Beethoven’s Anvil – then people will be motivated to repeat the activity and those phantasms will thus be repeated. One of the factors that lead to pleasure is precisely the capacity to share the experience with others. The function of coordinators is to support the sharing of activities and experiences. Just as genes survive only if the phenotypes carrying them are able to reproduce, so coordinators survive only if they give rise to sharable phantasms.

Culture is sharable. That’s the point. If it weren’t sharable it couldn’t be able to function as a storehouse of knowledge and values.

* * * * *

That, briefly and informally, is it. Obviously more needs to be done, a lot more. I can do some of it, though not now. But much of the heavy lifting is going to have to be done by people with technical skills that I don’t have.