Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Fotos: The Hallucinated City

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Geriatric Genius, or: Age Before Beauty

Some years ago the late Kenneth Boulding had created an organization had created an organization for retired academics who were still lively of mind. I forget what he called it, but as things worked out he was at a cybernetics conference I was attending and I bumped into him in line for a breakfast table. "So how's your organization for geriatric genius?" I asked him. He was amused and we had breakfast together.

The New York Times is running a piece about old people who're still active and creative: Old Masters at the Top of Their Game. It has an introductory essay by Lewis Lapham:
The portraits here are of men and women in their 80s and 90s, rich in the rewards of substantial and celebrated careers, and although I know none of them except by name and reputation, I’m asked why their love’s labor is not lost but still to be found. Why do they persist, the old masters? To what end the unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not rest on the laurels and the oars?

The short answer is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s, in a letter to James Boswell in 1777: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” A longer answer is that of the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, who at 75 added a postscript to the first printing of his “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”:

“From the time that I was 6 years old I had the mania of drawing the form of objects. As I came to be 50 I had published an infinity of designs; but all that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be instinct with life — and I ask all those who shall live as long as I do to see if I have not kept my word.”
Hokusai got it right. Of course, though, it depends on your field. Not all endeavors can benefit from accumulated knowledge and experience. It depends.

• • the people featured • •

Frederick Wiseman, filmmaker, 84. Wiseman’s documentary ‘‘National Gallery’’ had its premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year.

T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management, 86.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, of the Supreme Court.

Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and author, 85. Wilson published a book, ‘‘The Meaning of Human Existence,’’ this year. It is the second in a trilogy.

Roy Haynes, jazz drummer and bandleader, 89. Haynes’s latest album was ‘‘Roy-Alty,’’ released in 2011.

Carmen Herrera, painter, 99. Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Today her work is in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern.

Ginette Bedard, long-distance runner, 81. Bedard will run in her 12th consecutive New York City Marathon this year.

Tony Bennett, singer, 88, released ‘‘Cheek to Cheek,’’ an album of duets with Lady Gaga, this year. It debuted at No. 1 in Billboard.

Ellsworth Kelly, artist, 91. Last year, President Obama presented Kelly with the National Medal of Arts.

Christopher Plummer, actor, 84. In 2012, Plummer won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in ‘‘Beginners,’’ making him the oldest actor to win the award.

R. O. Blechman, illustrator and author, 84. In 2009, Blechman published the book ‘‘Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator.’’

Carl Reiner, actor, 92. Reiner published his second memoir, ‘‘I Just Remembered,’’ this year.

Frank Gehry, architect, 85. Gehry’s latest project was the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, an arts center sponsored by the LVMH Fashion Group.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, 81. Feinstein has been a member of the United States Senate since 1992.

Betty White, actress, 92. White currently stars in the TV Land original sitcom ‘‘Hot in Cleveland.’’

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Emergence in Gray Scale Outdoors

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Whoops! There goes the driverless car

A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can't. Case in point: Google's self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can't do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow. Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved—or is on the verge of solving—all of the major issues involved with robotic driving....

But what Google is working on may instead result in the automotive equivalent of the Apple Newton, what one Web commenter called a "timid, skittish robot car whose inferior level of intelligence becomes a daily annoyance." To be able to handle the everyday stresses and strains of the real driving world, the Google car will require a computer with a level of intelligence that machines won't have for many years, if ever.
For one thing, it requires carefully crafted maps:
...Google admitted to me that the process it currently uses to make the maps are too inefficient to work in the country as a whole.

To create them, a dedicated vehicle outfitted with a bank of sensors first makes repeated passes scanning the roadway to be mapped. The data is then downloaded, with every square foot of the landscape pored over by both humans and computers to make sure that all-important real-world objects have been captured. This complete map gets loaded into the car's memory before a journey, and because it knows from the map about the location of many stationary objects, its computer—essentially a generic PC running Ubuntu Linux—can devote more of its energies to tracking moving objects, like other cars.

But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. Since maps are one of the engineering foundations of the Google car, before the company's vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you'd ever want to take the car.
Details, details. How about we create some technology that will allow us to reduce the number of bugs in software by a factor of 10.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

We are Neanderthals, just a tad

And, finally, there’s what we learn about the interbreeding between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. As Jerry, John Hawks, and I have all argued before (and as I recently summarized at The Dish– see the update at end of Andrew’s post), Neanderthals and early non-African anatomically modern humans (along with Denisovans), were all parts of a group of interbreeding populations in nature, and thus were all members of the species Homo sapiens. Ust’-Ishim Man’s genome is about 2% Neanderthal, just like modern Europeans and East Asians. This means that the level of admixture characterizing modern populations was already in place by 45,000 years ago. This is not too surprising. Neanderthals were going or gone by about then, so whatever interbreeding occurred should have (mostly) occurred by then. So Neanderthals are us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars

When I signed up with the course I did so without much investigation or thought. To be sure, I’ve been online and active for two decades and know the web fairly well, and I’d even taught an online course way back in the pre-web era. But I figured I should get up to speed on this that and the other. So, I took a quick look at the description, saw that Howard Rheingold was on board, and I signed up.

How could I miss? I’d learn about some technology, learn what other folks are up to, and meet some interesting people. It was a no-brainer.

But, I didn’t realize something that I might have picked up if I’d read the “fine print” more carefully:
In 2013, the DML Hub, as part of the MacArthur Foundation supported Digital Media and Learning Initiative, launched Reclaim Open Learning, an effort to explore the intersections between higher education, open learning, and the connected learning model in the midst of MOOC mania. The effort focused on returning to core pedagogical and learning principles, the ethos of the open web, and end-to-end faculty and student innovation when attention was shifting to large institutionalized initiatives and old-school top-down pedagogical and learning models...
It’s the implications of “MOOC mania” and “returning to core pedagogical and learning principles” that I either didn’t notice or didn’t think about. And if I’d thought about them it’s not clear whether or not that would have gotten me to where I am now.

It’s not, mind you, that I’m particularly interested in MOOCs. I think “MOOC mania” is a reasonable characterization of the phenomenon that, for example, lead one University of Virginia board member to go nuts – though as I recall, they don’t call them “board members” at UVA. MOOCs are a certain kind of pedagogical system and they have a place, but you can’t base a whole college curriculum on MOOCs and MOOCs aren’t appropriate for the things I’ve got in mind for myself.

But it’s not at all clear to me that the creators of MOOCs had lost touch with “core pedagogical and learning principles.” Perhaps they’d just focused on one set of principles to the exclusion of others.

Let’s continue with the Connected Courses fine print:
One of the outcomes of this effort was a set of innovation prize winners – phonar, ds106, and FemTechNet – that exemplified core principles and approaches that shared a family resemblance both philosophically and in their implementation. These courses were anchored in a university course that stressed critical thinking in the context of creative production, and which had created infrastructures and modes of participation that lived on the open web. Over time, these projects have built a strong online community and brand that has a life outside of the university course. Together, they provide a set of models and learning that we felt could inform the development of more open courses that are highly participatory and aligned with the principles of connected learning.
OK. “Critical thinking in the context of creative production” – sounds good, but what does it mean in practice?

Three Exemplars

So I went to the web sites for the three courses that are mentioned and snatched a bit of prose from each.

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Why I’d Abandoned Chomskian Linguistics before I Got to Graduate School and Where I am Now

It wasn’t a matter of deep and well-thought princple. It was simpler than that. Chomsky's approach to linguistics didn’t have the tools I was looking for. Let me explain.

* * * * *
Dan Everett’s kicked off two discussions on Facebook about Chomksy. This one takes Christina Behme’s recent review article, A ‘Galilean’ science of language, as its starting point. And this one’s about nativism, sparked by Vyv Evans’ The Language Myth.
* * * * *

I learned about Chomsky during my second year as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I took a course in psycholinguistics taught by James Deese, known for his empirical work on word associations. We read and wrote summaries of classic articles, including Lee’s review of Syntactic Structures and Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. My summary of one of them, I forget which, prompted Deese to remark that my summary was an “unnecessarily original” recasting of my argument.

That’s how I worked. I tried to get inside the author’s argument and then to restate it in my own words.

In any event I was hooked. But Hopkins didn’t have any courses in linguistics let alone a linguistics department. So I had to pursue Chomsky and related thinkers on my own. Which I did over the next few years. I read Aspects, Syntatic Structures, Sound Patterns of English (well, more like I read at that one), Lenneberg’s superb book on biological foundations (with an appendix by Chomsky), found my way to generative semantics, and other stuff. By the time I headed off to graduate school in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo I was mostly interested in that other stuff.

I became interested in Chomsky because I was interested in language. While I was interested in language as such, I was a bit more interested in literature and much of my interest in linguistics followed from that. Literature is made of language, hence some knowledge of linguistics should be useful. Trouble is, it was semantics that I needed. Chomsky had no semantics and generative semantics looked more like syntax.

So that other stuff looked more promising. Somehow I’d found my way to Syd Lamb’s stratificational linguistics. I liked that for the diagrams, as I think diagrammatically, and for the elegance. Lamb used the same vocabulary of structural elements to deal with phonology, morphology, and syntax. That made sense to me. And the s work within his system actually looked like semantics, rather than souped up syntax, though there wasn’t enough of it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sad Music, Why We Listen to It

Liila Taruffi, Stefan Koelsch. The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey. PLOS One.

Published: October 20, 2014
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110490

Abstract: This study explores listeners’ experience of music-evoked sadness. Sadness is typically assumed to be undesirable and is therefore usually avoided in everyday life. Yet the question remains: Why do people seek and appreciate sadness in music? We present findings from an online survey with both Western and Eastern participants (N = 772). The survey investigates the rewarding aspects of music-evoked sadness, as well as the relative contribution of listener characteristics and situational factors to the appreciation of sad music. The survey also examines the different principles through which sadness is evoked by music, and their interaction with personality traits. Results show 4 different rewards of music-evoked sadness: reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no “real-life” implications. Moreover, appreciation of sad music follows a mood-congruent fashion and is greater among individuals with high empathy and low emotional stability. Surprisingly, nostalgia rather than sadness is the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music. Correspondingly, memory was rated as the most important principle through which sadness is evoked. Finally, the trait empathy contributes to the evocation of sadness via contagion, appraisal, and by engaging social functions. The present findings indicate that emotional responses to sad music are multifaceted, are modulated by empathy, and are linked with a multidimensional experience of pleasure. These results were corroborated by a follow-up survey on happy music, which indicated differences between the emotional experiences resulting from listening to sad versus happy music. This is the first comprehensive survey of music-evoked sadness, revealing that listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation. Such beneficial emotional effects constitute the prime motivations for engaging with sad music in everyday life.

Sex, Talk, and the Future

Sex has bedeviled humankind ever since there WAS humankind, and perhaps a bit before. Who knows? California has just passed a new law governing sexual conduct among college students that is likely to have who knows what effects on actual conduct. What interests me is whether or not and how the law alters the relationship between conscious deliberation and intuitive action in sexual (and other?) interactions.

Are we learning new ways to behave? I don’t know.

As California's colleges and universities adjust to a new state law mandating a standard of "affirmative consent" in sexual assault and rape cases—as well as campus judicial proceedings with a "preponderance of the evidence" standard of guilt—observers are trying to anticipate how these policy changes will affect the lived culture of sexual acts among students, most in their late teens or early 20s. The law's effect on campus culture will determine whether it advances the ends sought by supporters, who hope to reduce the incidence of sex crimes. Yet there is broad disagreement about whether and how sexual culture will adapt to the new regime. Even those who agree that the law is good or bad disagree about its likely effects.

What follows are some of the wildly divergent forecasts, some hopeful, others cautionary. Taken together, they illuminate different notions of human nature, the reach of public policy, and what life on California's many college campuses is actually like. The scenarios that they anticipate are not always mutually exclusive.
He introduces each scenario with a brief title phrase, which I’ve collected below:
It Will Be Harder to Get Away With Rape

Sex Will Be Hotter and More Enjoyable

Sex Will Be Scary and Anxiety-Inducing

Hookup Culture Will Wither Under Neo-Victorianism

Misogyny on Campus Will Increase

Sexual Harassment Will Change

Women Will Face Charges More Often Than Expected

Sexual Assault Will Become a Sometimes Less Serious Charge

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Cataphiles: The Cave people of Paris

PARIS — On a recent evening, a 31-year-old street artist led a small group through a dark tunnel off a disused train track in the south of Paris. After crouching, crawling and sometimes wading through water, using headlamps to light their way, they finally arrived in a chamber with vaulted ceilings about 10 feet high.

The space was once used by a brewery to store bottles. It is now part of a sprawling network of abandoned galleries below this city, where a secretive community of street artists, history buffs and other Parisians regularly prowl. They are sometimes called cataphiles: lovers of the catacombs, as the subterranean network is commonly known.

Some seek peace and quiet from the bustling city, others an unusual canvas for their art, still others a place to party with friends at a lower cost and in a more jovial atmosphere than in the clubs and bars above. Many cherish the secrecy and, to some extent, exclusivity of their endeavors.

“My creations have a lot more value here, because they are intended for a limited audience that deserves to see them,” said the artist who led the group and declined to give his name, but went by Nobad. “They went through the trouble of coming here.”

Nobad stencils European paintings with a twist, like Gustave Courbet’s “Desperate Man” in glow-in-the-dark paint. But the walls are covered with art, including paintings in the style of Egyptian tomb murals, grimacing black and orange devil faces, a giant multicolored parrot, and an abundance of graffiti. In one room, the walls are encrusted with mirror shards, and a glittering disco ball hangs from the ceiling.
The egalitarian ethos is like that of Japanese aesthetic circles from the Tokugawa era, where people from different stations in life meet on an equal basis:
“You can’t be judged on your appearance because we are all dirty with mud and wearing boots,” said a 45-year-old pastel artist who gave her name only as Misti, on another outing. “So the banker and the punk, they party together.”
The 3 minute video with the Times article captures that ethos: "There is a lot of graffiti here and not enough classical masterpieces."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Separating Culture and Identity from One Another

This post is the introduction to a set of five posts I've collected as a working paper: Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century, which you may download from my SSRN page: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2180925. I first posted it almost two years ago, but I'm re-posting now as it is relevant to my current 3QD post and the New Savanna pointer to it.

* * * * *
 Abstract: These five essays deal are about separating the concept of culture from that of geo-political identity. They make two points: 1) Such terms as "French culture", "Egyptian culture", "Oriental culture", and so forth are geo-political concepts that no more identify KINDS of culture than such terms as "African wildlife", "Pennsylvanian wildlife", and "Japanese wildlife" identify KINDS of animals. 2) Social groups have systems of identification that are parts of the group culture, but that the identification systems of nation-states and religions tend to appropriate all of culture to themselves and thus obsure our thinking on these issues.
* * * * *
We are a nation primarily because we think we are a nation. This ground we have buried our dead in for so long is the only ground most of us have ever stood upon. . . . Most of our people are remarkably merciful to Africa, when you consider how Africa has used us.

--Hannah Nelson, in J. L. Gwaltney, Drylongso

My intellectual life has been dominated by an interest in culture, an interest I have pursued through the study of certain kinds of expressive culture—literary texts, music, films, graffiti, the close examination of a few examples, e.g. “Kubla Khan,” and Apoclaypse Now, and the study of cultural evolution. The question of culture’s nature—what it is and how it works—is a deep and curious one and one that has now become particularly acute for me. On the one hand, my investigation of metaphysical pluralism has brought culture to the fore through the most preliminary of essays into aesthetics and ethics. It has become clear to me, as I will explain in another essay, that cultural relativism is central to a pluralistic ethics.

A bit more concretely, I am considering writing a book on animated feature films that will include considerable discussion of Disney’s Fantasia. I have already argued that that film is an expression of a transnational cultural formation that has emerged in the 20th Century. To the extent that we identify the notion of culture with that of nation—an identification that is quite common in even the most sophisticated of circles—that transnational culture can’t be anything other than American capitalism and its transnational extension must therefore be cultural imperialism, including jazz, rock and roll, blue jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers. If, however, the identification of cultures with nations is deeply problematic, then my argument can take a different turn. Maybe Fantasia, with its European music and imagery derived from European painting, really IS transnational. Maybe.

I’m not going to argue these two matters—pluralistic ethics and Fantasia as cultural expression—here and now. I bring them up only to indicate why I find it important to cut the almost reflexive link we make between nations and cultures, a link that treats American culture, Western culture, Swiss culture, Philippine culture, Indian culture, and African culture all as distinct kinds of culture.

Death of the Firstborn Egyptians: Nina Paley takes it up a notch

Here's a kick-ass scene from Nina Paley's work-in-progress, Seder-Masochism:


I think her artistry's gone up a notch with this piece. The coloring is more subtle, and the overall rhythm and movement seems to be heading out to parts unknown.

Based on Exodus 12:
21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your families, and kill the passover.
22 And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
24 And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever.
25 And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service.
26 And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?
27 That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped.
28 And the children of Israel went away, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they.
29 And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

For those who are new to New Savanna, I've got a ton of stuff about Nina's previous feature, Sita Sings the Blues (the SSTB page); this link takes you to the individual SSTB posts.

The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD

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Posted at 3 Quarks Daily: Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture
Europeans had been trading with Asian peoples since ancient times. But things began to change in the 15th Century when the Spanish and Portuguese sent ships across the oceans, followed by Northern Europeans in the 17th Century. By the late 19th Century Europeans had colonized most of the rest of the globe and, on the whole, held themselves superior to other peoples.

And why not?

How else would you account for their success? After all, the Europeans were vastly out-numbered by the peoples they’d subjugated and the subjugated territories were far away from the European homelands. Military technology of all sorts gave Europeans decisive advantage in armed conflicts of all types. Technologies for travel, transport, and communication were important as well. And, I suspect, modes of social organization played a role too. Isn’t capitalism, after all, a mode of social organization?

We can argue the details in many ways, but there’s no getting around European superiority. But how do we account for that superiority? That’s the question.

The obvious account is to declare innate superiority, and that’s what our ancestors did. The white race was superior to other races and that’s that, so they believed. As such, they were destined to rule the world. Not only that, but it was their responsibility to bring the benefits of their superiority to other peoples.

We no longer believe in racial superiority, and the idea of human races is in trouble as well. Whatever it is that accounts for Europe’s superior capacity for conquest and governance, it is not biology. It isn’t in the genes.

Which means that it must be in culture, for what else is there? And now things get tricky, for culture is poorly understood. All too often we talk about culture as though it were a homogeneous essence that flows through nations like water between the banks of a river. For all practical purposes, the way this conception of culture accounts for European conquest differs little from chalking it up to superior genes.

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Recaps – How do people use them?

Note to self: What about all these recaps? Are they as old as the web? When did the NYTimes start publishing recaps? – I just noticed a Boardwalk Empire recap this AM, which is what got me thinking about this. 

Some digital humanist ought to be harvesting these things, if only for later reference. I wonder how people use recaps? Sure, you can use them to fill in the gaps if you've missed an episode or three. But you can also use a recap to remind you of the ep and fans can use them in conversations.

Is someone looking into this? Is this an opportunity for the citizen scholar squad?