Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chaos in the Movie Biz: A Review of Hollywood Economics [#DH]

I'm bumping this to the top of the queue for my friends in computational criticism (aka distant reading). When the analyze a corpus, they tread all books in the corpus alike. All are linked to their publication date and all are treated as though they had the same sales and readership. Yet some were read by a few and forgotten a year or two after they were published while others were read by thousands and tens of thousands over many years. DeVany tracks movies that came out in the 1990s. Most all but disappear within weeks of release. But some go on to make a profit and a few of these become blockbusters. (And who knows how many of those 1990s movies will be watched in 2030?)

* * * * *

Arthur De Vany, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry, Routledge, 2004.

De Vany presents a profound and imaginative treatment of the economics of the movie business, one that has implications, not only for similar businesses such as publishing and music (and even pharmaceuticals), but for our understanding of the dynamics of culture. When Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" he unwittingly paved the way for tons and tons of sexy but shallow commentary on human culture. Though that is not what he set out to do – "meme" never shows up in the book – De Vany has given mathematical form to the behavior of movie memes and has demonstrated that it is the people who are in charge, not the memes.

I want to underscore this point as many of my humanist colleagues have spent the last several decades castigating Hollywood for its hegemonic hold over the subject masses who have little choice but to submit to having their brains scrambled by Hollywood nonsense. It’s not that simple. Hollywood would dearly love to have such control over the audience, for it would make for a much more profitable business. Alas, as De Vany demonstrates, the Hollywood suits and moguls don’t have that kind of power. The oppressed masses do, in fact, have quite a bit of autonomy in their actions. No movie can succeed without word-of-mouth recommendations, and those words cannot be dictated from on high.

Nobody Knows

In the words of screen writer William Goldman, “nobody knows anything” about what happens to movies once they are released to the theatres. Most movies don't even break even, much less make a profit – not in theatrical release, which is what De Vany investigates. (These days, movies make money on DVDs and TV, but that's another story, told by Jay Epstein.) That's no way to run a business, but the problems are inherent in the nature of movies as a business venture. The deep and ineradicable condition of the business is that there is no reliable way to estimate the market appeal of a movie short of putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch.

Origins?

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The Physics of Life's Origins(?)

The biophysicist Jeremy England made waves in 2013 with a new theory that cast the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics. His equations suggested that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of “entropy” or disorder in the universe. England said this restructuring effect, which he calls dissipation-driven adaptation, fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things. The existence of life is no mystery or lucky break, he told Quanta in 2014, but rather follows from general physical principles and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

Concerning the PNAS study:
The paper strips away the nitty-gritty details of cells and biology and describes a simpler, simulated system of chemicals in which it is nonetheless possible for exceptional structure to spontaneously arise — the phenomenon that England sees as the driving force behind the origin of life. “That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to acquire that structure,” England explained. The dynamics of the system are too complicated and nonlinear to predict what will happen.

The simulation involved a soup of 25 chemicals that react with one another in myriad ways. Energy sources in the soup’s environment facilitate or “force” some of these chemical reactions, just as sunlight triggers the production of ozone in the atmosphere and the chemical fuel ATP drives processes in the cell. Starting with random initial chemical concentrations, reaction rates and “forcing landscapes” — rules that dictate which reactions get a boost from outside forces and by how much — the simulated chemical reaction network evolves until it reaches its final, steady state, or “fixed point.”

Often, the system settles into an equilibrium state, where it has a balanced concentration of chemicals and reactions that just as often go one way as the reverse. This tendency to equilibrate, like a cup of coffee cooling to room temperature, is the most familiar outcome of the second law of thermodynamics, which says that energy constantly spreads and the entropy of the universe always increases. [...]

But for some initial settings, the chemical reaction network in the simulation goes in a wildly different direction: In these cases, it evolves to fixed points far from equilibrium, where it vigorously cycles through reactions by harvesting the maximum energy possible from the environment.
Of the PRL paper:
In the PRL paper, England and his coauthors Tal Kachman and Jeremy Owen of MIT simulated a system of interacting particles. They found that the system increases its energy absorption over time by forming and breaking bonds in order to better resonate with a driving frequency. “This is in some sense a little bit more basic as a result” than the PNAS findings involving the chemical reaction network, England said.
However:
But even if the fine-tuned fixed points can be observed in settings that are increasingly evocative of life and its putative beginnings, some researchers see England’s overarching thesis as “necessary but not sufficient” to explain life, as Walker put it, because it cannot account for what many see as the true hallmark of biological systems: their information-processing capacity. From simple chemotaxis (the ability of bacteria to move toward nutrient concentrations or away from poisons) to human communication, life-forms take in and respond to information about their environment.

To Walker’s mind, this distinguishes us from other systems that fall under the umbrella of England’s dissipation-driven adaptation theory, such as Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. “That’s a highly non-equilibrium dissipative structure that’s existed for at least 300 years, and it’s quite different from the non-equilibrium dissipative structures that are existing on Earth right now that have been evolving for billions of years,” she said. Understanding what distinguishes life, she added, “requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process.” In her view, the ability to respond to information is key: “We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Four-square brightness

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Computational Thinking and the Digital Critic: Part 1, Four Good Books

This is about computational thinking. But computational thinking is not one thing. It is many, some as yet undefined. What can it become for students of the humanities?

How, you might ask, are we to engage a computational understanding of literary process, if computation isn’t well-defined?

With care, I say, with care. We have to make it up.

* * * * *

As Stephen Ramsay pointed out in a post, DH and CS (where DH = digital humanities and CS = computer science), computer scientists are mostly interested in abstract matters of computability and data structures while programmers are mostly concerned with the techniques of programming certain kinds of capabilities in this or that language. Those are different, though related, undertakings.

Further, the practical craft has two somewhat different aspects. One faces toward the end user and is concerned with capturing that user’s world in the overall design of the program. This design process is, in effect, applied cognitive anthropology. The other aspect faces toward the computer itself and is concerned with implementing that design through the means available in the appropriate programming language. This is writing, but in a very specialized dialect. But it’s all computational thinking in some meaningful sense.

Though I have written a computer program or three, that was long ago. I have, however, spent a fair amount of time working with programmers. At one period in my life I documented software; at a different time I participated in product design.

But I also spent several years in graduate school studying the computational semantics of natural language with the late David Hays. That’s an abstract and theoretical enterprise. Though he is one of the founders of computational linguistics, Hays did no programming until relatively late in his career, after he’d left academia. He was interested in how the mind works and computation was one of his conceptual strategies. I studied with Hays because I wanted to figure out how poetry worked. All the members of his research group were interested in the human mind in one way or another; some of them were also programmers of appreciable skill.

Computational Thinking and the Digital Critic: Part 2, An Ant Walks on the Beach and a Pilot is Alone

Simon’s ant is a well-known thought experiment from Chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature,” in Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1981. It’s a parable about computation, about how computational requirements depend on the problem to be solved. Stated that way, it is an obvious truism. But Simon’s thought experiment invites you to consider this truism where the “problem to be solved” is an environment external to the computer – it is thus reminiscent of Braitenberg’s primitive vehicles (which I discussed in Part 1).

Think of it like this: the nervous system requires environmental support if it is to maintain its physical stability and operational coherence. Note that Simon was not at all interested in the physical requirements of the nervous system. Rather, he was interested in suggesting that we can get complex behavior from relatively simple devices, and simplicity translates into design requirements for a nervous system.

Simon asks us to imagine an ant moving about on a beach:
We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dunelet, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. Thus he makes his weaving, halting way back to his home. So as not to anthropomorphize about his purposes, I sketch the path on a piece of paper. It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments--not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal.

Monday, July 24, 2017

More synch: Firewalking (performers and spectators), Romantic partners (& empathy for pain)

Pavel Goldstein, Irit Weissman-Fogel, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory. The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7
Abstract: The human ability to synchronize with other individuals is critical for the development of social behavior. Recent research has shown that physiological inter-personal synchronization may underlie behavioral synchrony. Nevertheless, the factors that modulate physiological coupling are still largely unknown. Here we suggest that social touch and empathy for pain may enhance interpersonal physiological coupling. Twenty-two romantic couples were assigned the roles of target (pain receiver) and observer (pain observer) under pain/no-pain and touch/no-touch conditions, and their ECG and respiration rates were recorded. The results indicate that the partner touch increased interpersonal respiration coupling under both pain and no-pain conditions and increased heart rate coupling under pain conditions. In addition, physiological coupling was diminished by pain in the absence of the partner’s touch. Critically, we found that high partner’s empathy and high levels of analgesia enhanced coupling during the partner’s touch. Collectively, the evidence indicates that social touch increases interpersonal physiological coupling during pain. Furthermore, the effects of touch on cardio-respiratory inter-partner coupling may contribute to the analgesic effects of touch via the autonomic nervous system.

Ivana Konvalinkaa, Dimitris Xygalatas, Joseph Bulbulia, Uffe Schjødt, Else-Marie Jegindø, Sebastian Wallot, Guy Van Orden, and Andreas Roepstorff. Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. PNAS, May 17, 2011 vol. 108 no. 20 8514-8519, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016955108
Abstract: Collective rituals are present in all known societies, but their function is a matter of long-standing debates. Field observations suggest that they may enhance social cohesion and that their effects are not limited to those actively performing but affect the audience as well. Here we show physiological effects of synchronized arousal in a Spanish fire-walking ritual, between active participants and related spectators, but not participants and other members of the audience. We assessed arousal by heart rate dynamics and applied nonlinear mathematical analysis to heart rate data obtained from 38 participants. We compared synchronized arousal between fire-walkers and spectators. For this comparison, we used recurrence quantification analysis on individual data and cross-recurrence quantification analysis on pairs of participants' data. These methods identified fine-grained commonalities of arousal during the 30-min ritual between fire-walkers and related spectators but not unrelated spectators. This indicates that the mediating mechanism may be informational, because participants and related observers had very different bodily behavior. This study demonstrates that a collective ritual may evoke synchronized arousal over time between active participants and bystanders. It links field observations to a physiological basis and offers a unique approach for the quantification of social effects on human physiology during real-world interactions.

How's this for enlightenment?

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Remembrance of Christmas past

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Computational Psychiatry?

Psychiatry, the study and prevention of mental disorders, is currently undergoing a quiet revolution. For decades, even centuries, this discipline has been based largely on subjective observation. Large-scale studies have been hampered by the difficulty of objectively assessing human behavior and comparing it with a well-established norm. Just as tricky, there are few well-founded models of neural circuitry or brain biochemistry, and it is difficult to link this science with real-world behavior.

That has begun to change thanks to the emerging discipline of computational psychiatry, which uses powerful data analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to tease apart the underlying factors behind extreme and unusual behaviors.

Computational psychiatry has suddenly made it possible to mine data from long-standing observations and link it to mathematical theories of cognition. It’s also become possible to develop computer-based experiments that carefully control environments so that specific behaviors can be studied in detail.
The article then goes on to discuss research reported in:

Sarah K Fineberg (MD PhD), Dylan Stahl (BA), Philip Corlett (PhD), Computational Psychiatry in Borderline Personality Disorder, Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, March 2017, Vol 4, Issue 1, pp31-40: arXiv:1707.03354v1 [q-bio.NC]
Purpose of review: We review the literature on the use and potential use of computational psychiatry methods in Borderline Personality Disorder.

Recent findings: Computational approaches have been used in psychiatry to increase our understanding of the molecular, circuit, and behavioral basis of mental illness. This is of particular interest in BPD, where the collection of ecologically valid data, especially in interpersonal settings, is becoming more common and more often subject to quantification. Methods that test learning and memory in social contexts, collect data from real-world settings, and relate behavior to molecular and circuit networks are yielding data of particular interest.

Summary: Research in BPD should focus on collaborative efforts to design and interpret experiments with direct relevance to core BPD symptoms and potential for translation to the clinic.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Language boundaries & surface tension

In his new study, Burridge presents a deliberately minimal model of language change, which focuses on explaining dialect distribution solely in terms of topographical features and speaker interaction. The model assumes the existence of multiple linguistic variants for multiple linguistic variables, which effectively define different dialects. In determining whether a given speaker adopts a specific variant, the model does not consider “social value” factors. Instead, it assumes that speakers interact predominantly with people living in their local environment (defined by some radius around their home), and that they will conform to the speech patterns of the majority of people in that geographic vicinity. Such local linguistic alignment favors the emergence of distinct dialect areas, with dialect boundaries tending to shorten in length in a way that mimics how surface tension minimizes the surface area of a water droplet (see Fig. 1). In a region with uniform population density, this language-based surface tension will cause the boundary between two dialects to form straight lines. Densely populated areas, however, interfere with boundary straightening by repelling boundaries and effectively creating new dialect areas around themselves. Furthermore, topography can have an imprint on dialect spatial distributions. In systems with irregular perimeters, Burridge shows that boundary lines tend to migrate to places where they emerge perpendicular from the edge of the system, such as indentations in coastlines.
Original research HERE (PDF).

Monday, July 17, 2017

Organic sphere of latticework

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Where is the never ending (medieval) text? [#DH]

I checked in at Academia.edu today and found another article by medievalist Stephen Nichols. I've not finished it, but wanted to blog a passage or two anyhow.
Stephen G. Nichols, Dynamic Reading of Medieval Manuscripts, Florilegium, vol. 32 (2015): 19-57 DOI: 10.3138/ or.32.002 download at Academia.edu. https://www.academia.edu/33907842/Nichols_Dynamic_Reading_flor_32_002
Here's the abstract:
Abstract: Digital manuscript and text representation provides such a wealth of information that it is now possible to see the incessant versioning of works like the Roman de la Rose. Using Rose manuscripts of the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon MS 763 and BM de Dijon MS 525 as examples and drawing on Aristotelian concepts such as energeia, dynamis, and entelecheia, the copiously illustrated article demonstrates how pluripotent circulation allows for “dynamic reading” of such manuscript texts, which takes into consideration the interplay between image, text, and the context of other texts transmitted in the same manuscript.
What caught my attention was his statement about the unexpected impact of digital technology. It made it possible, for the first time, to examine a number of different codices of the same title and to compare them. And THAT led to a sea-change in understanding of what a text is. The normative concept of the Urtext as the author's original version is in trouble. What happens to the so-called critical edition? Thus (p. 22):
that the critical edition represents a construct based on selected evidence is neither exceptional nor particularly shocking. More problematic is the fact that expediency decrees that manuscript mass be accorded short shrift. Not all manuscripts are equal in this scenario. Indeed, the purpose of manuscript selection—the choice by the editor of a small number of manuscripts deemed reliable — lay precisely in minimizing the number of manuscripts. The more versions an editor could eliminate as defective or uninteresting, the greater the probability that one had located the few copies closest to an original or early version of a work. The select copies could then be closely scrutinized for variant readings. And ‘variant’ meant precisely that: readings of lines or passages differing from what the editor determined to be the normative text. It was in reaction to such a restrictive treatment of manuscript variation that New Philology emerged. Initially, we argued that manuscript copies bore witness to a dialectical process of transmission where individual versions might have the same historical authority as that represented by the critical edition.
And so (pp. 24-25):
Perhaps the most startling question posed by the specular confrontation of manuscripts concerns the status of textuality itself. With unerring perspicuity, Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet pinpoints the issue by asking the simple, but trenchant question: “what, exactly, is ‘a text’ in the Middle Ages, and how do we locate it in a manuscript culture where each codex is unique? [. . .] More radically still,” she continues, “we might legitimately ask just where we’re supposed to nd the text in the manuscript. How does it come to instantiate itself materially as object? And how is its literary identity realized?”

If such questions seem disorienting, it is because they underline how much print editions of medieval works have shaped our expectations. We have grown accustomed to finding the ‘text’ of a medieval work before our eyes whenever we open an edition. In the critical edition, the text is a given; that is why the work is called ‘textual scholarship.’ The editor works hard to establish a text on the basis of painstaking study of the manuscripts that he or she determines to be authoritative. The point, of course, is to circumscribe or close the text to from continuing to generate additions or variants. As we know, that is a modern practice grounded in concepts of scientific text editing.

But as Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet observes, the very concept of a definitive text, a text incapable of generating new versions, is an illusion propagated by its own methodology. Authentic medieval texts, she observes, are never closed, nor, I would add, would their mode of transmission allow them to remain static. And, as a corollary, she observes: “Where are the boundaries?” How do we “identify the borders of a text”? She means that the manuscript folio has a very different ecology from the page of a printed edition. Textual space on a folio is not exclusive, but shared with other systems of representation, or — why not? — other kinds of ‘texts.’ These include rubrics, miniature paintings, decorated or historiated initials, bas-de-page images, marginal glosses, decorative programmes, and so on. In other words, the medieval manuscript page is not simply complex but, above all, an inter-artistic space navigated by visual cues.
We are far from the world of "distant reading" a large corpus of texts and thereby beginning to see patterns in literary history that had been but dimly envisioned before. But the change is equally profound. For example (26-27):
To understand the astonishing virtuosity and variety we find in manuscript versions of the ‘same’ work — such as the Roman de la Rose, for example, for which we have some 250 extant manuscripts produced between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century — we need to identify imminent factors responsible for generating multiple versions of a given work throughout the period. Here again, digital manuscript study offers reasons to move beyond conventional explanations.

Whereas increased manuscript production might intuitively be explained by such external causes as rising literacy among the merchant and artisan classes and the growth in the number of booksellers, the great variation we see in manuscripts, even those contemporaneous with one another, suggests the possibility of inherent forces of variation at work. Put another way, whereas the increase in literacy and leisure certainly contributed to the growing market for manuscripts to which Parisian booksellers responded, the efficient cause generating multiple manuscripts of a given work lay in the nature of the manuscript matrix itself.

It is not by chance that versions of a given work vary. Literary prestige derived in part from a work’s ability to renew itself from generation to generation by a dynamic process of differential repetition.
And so it goes. And we bring in Artistotle (p. 30): "But whereas we might think of striving for perfection as linear and directed, Aristotle sees it as continuous and open-ended." Is Nichols going to be arguing, then, that the production of version after version is a "striving for perfection" the extends through a population of scribes and readers? I suppose that's what I'll find out as I continue reading.

Thus, p. 32: "In other words, manuscripts are, by their very nature as eidos, ergon, and energeia, predisposed towards actualizing the works they convey not as invariant but as versions in an ever-evolving process of representation.  Against those who would see manuscript copies as regressions from an authoritative original to ever fainter avatars of that primal moment, we must recall Aristotle’s notion of form as atemporal actuality. "

* * * * *

Here's an earlier post about Nichols: Mutable stability in the transmission of medieval texts. And here's a post about the three texts of Hamlet that's relevant: Journey into Shakespeare, a tedious adventure – Will the real Hamlet stand up?

Early history of digital creativity (James Ryan)


And so he's been digging up all sorts of interesting things, not just computer storytelling. Here's some recent stuff he's dug up.



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Luxury real estate & Trump: International networks of power crossing public and private boundaries


Bloggingheads.tv – Published on Jul 14, 2017
00:26 Alex’s book Dictators Without Borders
04:29 Oligarchs and autocrats and kleptocrats, oh my!
10:52 Luxury real estate’s illicit money problem
22:11 The globalization of money laundering
30:12 Trump and networks of power
45:28 How Trump is blurring lines between business and politics
56:07 The slippery slope to kleptocracy

Daniel Nexon (The Duck of Minerva, Georgetown University) and Alexander Cooley (Columbia Harriman Institute, Barnard College, Dictators Without Borders)

Recorded on July 14, 2017

A most interesting discussion about how luxury real estate is a vehicle for money laundering & Trump's network extends into this world. "The lines between business and politics are not how we think about them."

Friday, July 14, 2017

"Lawfare" comes of age [@lawfareblog]

I first became aware of Lawfare through a wonderful March 3 post by Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic, What Happens When We Don’t Believe the President’s Oath? It seems that a lot of people discovered Lawfare about the same time and its readership has blossomed until
Obviously it is the Presidency of Donald Trump that made Lawfare's commentary so salient. Trump's bull-in-a-china-shop style begged for informed legal analysis, and Lawfare was there to provide it.

Congratulations Ben Wittes, Robert Chesney, Jack Goldsmith and the rest of the team!