Monday, October 20, 2014

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?

Fantasia Redux?

From today's NYTimes, the "paper of record":
“It’s a continuation of the spirit of ‘Fantasia’ in a different medium,” Mr. Battilana said.

The original “Fantasia” is a feature-length animated film intended to popularize classical music. It features eight shorts, each pairing compositions by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and others with mind-bending visual representations.

While there is no central story in the new game, it includes 10 realms with original art and musical personalities. The soundtrack features 32 songs in a range of styles, from works in the film (“Night on Bald Mountain,” “The Nutcracker Suite”) to classic rock and pop (David Bowie, Queen, Elton John) to songs by current stars (Bruno Mars, Lorde, the White Stripes). The original versions are accompanied by remixes, like a ska version of Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” or a Caribbean vibe for Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.”

There is a sense of progression from realm to realm. 
Good, I think. I've argued that Disney's original Fantasia had progressive order.

Under the hood:
In creating Fantasia, the company tapped the musical expertise of its own employees, some of whom moonlight as musicians in local bands. The studio also hired the London Symphony Orchestra to rerecord the classical tracks, section by section, to allow players to swap out separate “stems” — woodwind, percussion, violins — and replace them with instruments from the remixes. One remix features Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” with honky-tonk piano and harmonizing vocals; another mashes up Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

The game’s lead music developer, Eric Brosius, who plays guitar in two bands, said having musicians working at the studio brings “an air of authenticity.”

“Our games aim to give normal listeners a look under the hood,” Mr. Brosius said.
Oh, crap! Not "authenticity," the most hyped aesthetic virtue in the book. And so easily faked. But who knows. Still, why not just make your own music?

The game is for the Kinect platform, which I've never seen. Here's a Lorde preview on YouTube and if you look to the side you'll see lots of videos related to the game.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday riddle

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Genes and culture: black death, pogroms, slavery and trust

Kenneally describes a study by the economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, which found persistent differences in anti-Semitism among towns in Germany. Communities that reacted to the Black Death some 600 years ago by blaming and massacring Jews were far more likely to lead pogroms against Jews in the 1920s and to turn Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.

In a separate series of studies, the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard and Leonard Wantchekon of Princeton found a similar cultural legacy that shaped trust — a trait some presume to vary according to genetic makeup. Nunn and Wantchekon noticed that the poorest regions of Africa were the regions most exploited by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. These areas suffered decades of raiding in which any stranger might prove a kidnapper, and in which slavers often gained access to their victims by bribing or blackmailing relatives or village authorities.

Clearly such behaviors may have eroded trust at the time, but could the effect last? Nunn and Wantchekon found that it does. The more a population was exposed to slave raiding generations ago, the lower its measures of trust and economic activity today. The specter of slavery, they concluded, had done long-term damage to the social bonds necessary for efficient trade. The economies and people continue to suffer accordingly.

It’s a far more plausible and evidence-based explanation for Africa’s economic troubles than the one offered by Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” which, with vaporous evidence, attributes weak African economies to African-­specific genetic profiles that purportedly discourage trust. Genetics gives all humans the power to create culture. Yet it appears most likely that it is not genetics but culture’s manifestations, some lovely, some horrific, that distinguish and divide us.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Does Heart of Darkness Engage with Africa?

I’ve been thinking about an essay Gregory Jusdanis recently posted at Arcade, Looking at Africa, Looking at Ourselves. He frames it with Chinua Achebe’s well-known essay on the text, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Thus:
Achebe revealed new landscapes. He showed that Conrad, though critical of colonialism, relied on formulaic portrayals of Africa that ended up dehumanizing the continent. He used Africa as a symbol of darkness devoid of real people working, living, and dying, while he employed Africa as a backdrop for the exploration of European metaphysical problems. As he argues, “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.” Achebe calls Conrad a racist and concludes his essay by referring to the novel “as an offensive and deplorable book,” so despicable that he can’t understand why it is celebrated in the West as a masterpiece in the English language.
Jusdanis begins his reply:
As much as I learned from this essay, I was troubled by the easy association Achebe makes between the narrator in the novel and the author of the novel. Although Achebe acknowledges the double narration in the text and subtle ironies at play, he shows insufficient sensitivity to the ambivalence and contradictions at work in literature. The virtue of literary language is that it cannot be frozen in its signification. Novels – Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Passage to India, have a way of deconstructing what they are representing and cannot be easily reduced to racist tracts.
Well, yeah, but...

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all but a ballet between Huck and Jim and Jim has a major speaking role. The same with A Passage to India; Aziz and his friends and associates have major speaking roles. If we and to the extent that we frame these books as encounters with the Other, it’s an Other that speaks. Does the Other speak in Heart of Darkness? The only line spoken by an African that I remember is “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.” There may be others, but there aren’t many. Marlow certainly had to talk with Africans, his crew, and so did Kurtz, but those conversations aren’t reported in the book.

Friday Fotos; A Confluence of Light

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Scholarpedia – another online reference work

I just discovered the Scholarpedia ("the peer-reviewed open-access encyclopedia, where knowledge is curated by communities of experts") through an article by Michael Arbib (a neuroscientist & something of a polymath). Haven't had time to investigate. Here's a section from the "about" page:
Scholarpedia is a peer-reviewed open-access encyclopedia written and maintained by scholarly experts from around the world. Scholarpedia is inspired by Wikipedia and aims to complement it by providing in-depth scholarly treatments of academic topics.

Scholarpedia and Wikipedia are alike in many respects:
  • both allow anyone to propose revisions to almost any article
  • both are "wikis" and use the familiar MediaWiki software designed for Wikipedia
  • both allow considerable freedom within each article's "Talk" pages
  • both are committed to the goal of making the world's knowledge freely available to all
Nonetheless, Scholarpedia is best understood by how it is unlike most wikis, differences arising from Scholarpedia's academic origins, goals, and audience. The most significant is Scholarpedia's process of peer-reviewed publication: all articles in Scholarpedia are either in the process of being written by a team of authors, or have already been published and are subject to expert curation.

Prior to publication,
  • all new articles must first receive sponsorship to validate the identity, authority, and ability of the authors who propose to write it
  • each article undergoes scholarly peer-review, requiring public approval from at least two scholarly experts
After publication,
  • articles appear within the Scholarpedia Journal and can be cited like any other scholarly article
  • the visibility of future revisions to an article is controlled by the article's Curator, usually the article's (most) established expert at time of publication
  • as soon as any individual's revision to an article is accepted, the individual joins a community of recognized (non-author) article contributors
  • the team of article contributors may from time to time act in the Curator's stead
  • when an article curator resigns or is otherwise unable to serve, a new Curator is elected
This hybrid model allows Scholarpedia articles to serve as a bridge between traditional peer-reviewed journals and more dynamic and up-to-date wikis without compromising quality or trustworthiness. It aims to remove the disincentives that discourage academics from participating in online publication and productive discussion on the topics they know best.
Current emphasis seems to be on the sciences rather than the arts and humanities. I don't know whether that's a matter of deliberate policy or an artifact of who the prime organizers are and thus of what they're interested in and who they know. I'd guess the latter.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“I Have a Dream” – Remembrance of “Nuggets” Past

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The phrase “I have a dream” is, of course, the refrain from Martin Luther King’s best known speech. “Nugget” is a term of art in the Connected Courses world that designates a bit of text that’s been tricked out and amplified by at least some of the wonders available on the web (scan down this page for a fuller explanation). Our assignment for this week is to create a nugget.

I’ve decided to substitute some old not-quite nuggets for making a new one. Back in the old days of the web, when you had to hand-code your html, I coupled up with Bill Berry to create a site that was first called “Meanderings” (after an email newsletter Bill had been circulating) but then became “Gravity” – a persistent black object to which everything was attracted, or at least that was the idea. One of the things we did was to create a tribute to Martin Luther King based on that famous speech. The idea was to pick words and phrases in the speech and use them as anchors for hyperlinks that would take you to some web page relevant to that topic, either directly or tangentially.

David Byrne on contemporary visual art

The market and the disparity of wealth taints everything. The art world has increasingly become like one of those party magazines: you flip though the pages and see other people frolicking and living the glamorous life. In this case, we see the oligarchs and Wall Street dudes buying and selling art, going to art fairs and all the rest—the artists tagging along. I can’t see how this can be sustainable—how the work can maintain it’s value if the rest are losing interest as I am—but then, as long as the perceived value persists (there is no real value in artwork) and if these works maintain their status, there’s no reason for the bubble to burst. Like jewelry, artwork might be able to maintain its value (or even increase its value depending on rarity) and it can be displayed with pride every so often.

2-dimensional interaction of 1-dimensional objects in an implied space of 3 dimensions | what a mouthfull

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Disaster Narrowly Escaped, or Why Computers Suck and Worries about Superintelligence are Effing Crazy

Not too long ago I wrote a long-form post in which I argued that we are in no danger of having a superintelligent computer mysteriously emerge from the computational woodwork and take over the world, sending humanity permanently to the freakin’ showers – which, by the way, might not be a bad thing if the water temperature is right. Could we have hot tubs and high-def TV in there while we’re at it? Since then the following thought, in one form or another, has been rolling through my brain:
Software, for the most part, is buggy as all get-out; many a major software project gets stopped because the software just doesn’t work, and these folks are prattling on about a superintelligent computer!?! Gimme a break!
I mean, if the software substrate for this superintelligent computer is like the software in use on billions of computers around the world, that superintelligent computer wouldn’t even be able to tie its own shoelaces let alone rule the world.

Um, err, you’ve just made a category mistake.

Category mistake?

Yeah. Computers don’t have shoes, and so our Superintelligent Lord and Master wouldn’t have shoelaces to worry about.

My very point, Grasshopper. If your Computer Lord and Master is made from standard-issue buggy software it wouldn’t know that it didn’t have shoes or shoelaces...

...and My Computer Overlord would get stuck in an infinite loop looking for its non-existent shoelaces. Whoops!

You got it.

* * * * *

Why am I saying these things? Well, it’s been on my mind – I’ve got a computer, how can bugs not be on my mind? – but specifically, I just managed to escape a software disaster that was potentially devastating. At first it looked like some bug had trashed 90% of my intellectual work and my professional life. After 15 or 30 minutes of nervous trouble-shooting, however, I’d tentatively decided the worst I faced was hours and hours and hours of extra fiddling around over the next months and years.

* * * * *

Here’s what happened, more or less, as best I can reconstruct it without getting really picky.

I got up early this AM and starting browsing the web, checking things out here and there. My usual routine. And then I decided to write a post. Also standard. I went to open a text document and it wouldn’t open.

MSWord told me, unhelpfully, that the file I wanted to work on was locked or in use by another user. Now, there is no other user on this computer and I never locked that Word doc. This behavior occurs every once in awhile – monthly, maybe weekly – and it’s no big deal. I simply unlocked this file that I’d never locked and proceeded to open it. This had always worked in the past so I fully expected it to work now.

Wrong!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Separate Spheres: Motherhood and Raising Children || Sexuality

In the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China lives a small ethnic group called the Mosuo. Among the Mosuo, romantic and family life are separated into different spheres by design. Children are usually raised in the home of their maternal grandmother with the help of their mother. She may maintain a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship with the father but, unlike in the West, this is considered separate from her role as a mother.

The role of the biological father is discretionary. There is no word in their language, in fact, for husband or father. A father is allowed, but not required to provide financial support and he is usually permitted to visit the mother and their child(ren) only at night. They call it “Axia” or “walking marriage.” The children’s primary male role models are usually their uncles, who remain under the authority of the children’s grandmother as they live under her roof.

From the Mosuo point of view, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Nor can the father wield power over the mother by threatening to withdraw from the marriage.
H/t Dan Everett.

An interesting example of vocal coaching

As you watch, think about  what the coach is telling the student and how she responds. When he tells her to sing from her toes, think about that, and empathize. Feel it in your toes. How could THAT change the way you sing? What's going on with the mind/body?

The video's roughly nine minutes long and worth watching:



Here's a post from last year where I talk about a video of a trombone master class. The coach is helping the student give a more convincing performance of a trombone part from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sex, Teleology, Cultural Evolution, and the Novel

Note: I revised this on 15 October to add several paragraphs to the final section.
After a couple of posts on music as a force in history it’s time to return to the main line, literature, in this current series on direction in cultural evolution.

For a long time historical direction was attributed to teleology. In the case of the British novel that could be taken to imply that, in Tristram Shandy, Laurence Stern was trying for Pride and Prejudice, but just couldn’t get there. And Jane Austen was trying for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but didn’t know how to pull it off. Hardy, in turn, was really going for a Lady Chatterly's Lover, but missed by a mile, for some unknown reason.

Put that way, the notion of history as having a direction, of culture as evolving in a specific direction, seems absurd. And so the notion of teleology in history (and certainly in biological evolution) has been abandoned. And rightly so. I have no intention of trying to resurrect it.

And yet, in a long post at 3 Quarks Daily, Macroanalysis and the Directional Evolution of Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels, I argued that Matthew Jocker’s analysis of influence in 19th century novels shows clear sense of directedness. It’s not merely that earlier novelists influenced later ones – how else could influence operate? – but that the overall pattern of influence has the look of direction. Something, some cultural problematic, is being worked on in a coherent way over time. What is it?

Note that I have no intention of answering that question. Rather, I’m attempting to get a better understanding of what the issues are.

Sex in the Novel (?)

I want to look at the treatment of sex as I think that will give us some clues – and, of course, it links to my previous post in this series, Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues, where I examined the force of sexual expressiveness in American popular music. Sexuality figures in all of the following novels in some way:

1759-1777 Tristram Shandy
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1847 Wuthering Heights
1859 Adam Bede
1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles
1899-1903 Heart of Darkness
1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately published)

But it is one thing for sexuality to play a role in the plot, as it must, if only by implication, in any plot that ends in marriage. It is something else again for sexual activity to be directly depicted in the novel. That doesn’t happen until the 20th Century, and then it’s accompanied by obscenity trials. The 19th Century was rife with pornography, both in images and writing, but that was separate from polite letters.

Why? What’s going on? That’s certainly more than I can cover in a brief blog post, nor do I think a book or three would be adequate, not to get to the bottom of things. But I can offer some remarks on some of the novels to end this section. Then I’ll take a look at the 20th Century, starting with Heart of Darkness, and close with some more general observations.