Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Cities on the backs of hermit crabs



At Wired:
Ducks, eagles, and dolphins have all been the beneficiaries of 3-D printed prostheses, and now Japanese artist Aki Inomata is using the power of rapid prototyping to enhance the appearance of the humble hermit crab. Using a high accuracy 3-D printer, Inomata created a series of crystalline shells that put the skylines of New York, Thailand, and Greece on the backs of the ocean’s most famous homebodies.
With photos. H/t Tyler Cowen.

Wonderland by Night

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Cultural Evolution by the Word on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I've been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can't Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:
The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory... The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.
Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule as the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture.

King Tut in Hoboken

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Monday, July 29, 2013

Old Skool

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Abu Simbel: Two Modes of Thought

These days I've got two things on my mind: 1) my current series of posts on cultural evolution, memes, and the thought of Dan Dennett, and 2) murals, Mana Contemporary, and current events in Jersey City, where I live. These are both big sprawling messes and meshes of ideas, very difficult to get a hold of. It is in THAT context that I re-post this note from 2011 on conceptual styles, particularistic and holistic. How do you combine them, because that's what I'm now wrestling with, the need to combine these two styles into a single synthetic act–actually, two synthetic acts, one about cultural evolution and the other about civic life in Jersey City.
Once upon a time the two temples of Abu Simbel sat on the western bank of the Nile River in Nubia, that is, southern Egypt. Then it was decided to dam the Nile at Aswan, creating a large lake. And that lake, it was realized, would, in time, submerge those temples.

What to do? The temples must be saved.

A number of plans were devised, and sometime during the process National Geographic did an article on the problem, and the proposed solutions. I read that article in my youth – I was, maybe, 12, 13, somewhere in there – and was quite impressed. Not so much with the temples, but with the proposed solutions. And not so much with them directly, but because two of them seemed to embody different ways of thinking about problems and working toward solutions.

One proposal was to cut the temple in cubes roughly two meters on a side. The cubes would then be moved, one by one, to higher ground, where they would be reassembled. This is what was done.

Another proposal was to cut the temple free from its matrix in one huge block. Then you place thousands of hydraulic jacks under that block and jack it up, fractions of a millimeter at a time. As I recall, it was estimated that it would take a year or more to raise the temple at the rate of, say, an inch a day.

This is the proposal that grabbed my imagination. It seemed so impossible and fantastic at the same time. How do you make that first cut? How do you slip the jacks under the bottom surface? How do you coordinate the jacks? How do you . . . ?

I suspect, though, that it mostly it grabbed my imagination because it seemed to me that’s how I thought about complex problems, and, as such, it contrasted with a different way of thinking about complex problems, a way represented by the cut-it-into-chunks approach. Though I couldn’t do so then, now I could assign labels to these two modes of thinking. Heck, I could probably supply several different pairs of labels.

But I won’t. Because that would reduce this story to those labels. And that’s not how the story exists in my mind, and that’s not how I use it as an object to think with. To this day.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Mind is What the Brain Does, and Very Strange

Having now clearly established memes as properties of objects and events in the external world, properties that provide crucial data for the operation of mental “machines,” I want to step aside from thinking about memes and cultural evolution as such and think a bit about the mind. I want to set this conversation up by, once again, quoting from Dennett’s recent interview, The Well-Tempered Mind, at The Edge:
The question is, what happens to your ideas about computational architecture when you think of individual neurons not as dutiful slaves or as simple machines but as agents that have to be kept in line and that have to be properly rewarded and that can form coalitions and cabals and organizations and alliances? This vision of the brain as a sort of social arena of politically warring forces seems like sort of an amusing fantasy at first, but is now becoming something that I take more and more seriously, and it's fed by a lot of different currents.
A bit later:
It's going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who's in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.
That’s the problem David Hays and I set ourselves in Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence (Journal of Social and Biological Systems 11, 293 – 322, 1988). While we had something to say about control in our discussion of the modal principle, we addressed the broader question of how to construct a mind from neurons that aren’t simple logical switches.

It is by no means clear to me how Dennett, and others of his mind-set, think about the mind. Yes, it’s computational. I can deal with that. But not, as I’ve said, if it’s taken to mean that the primitive operations of the nervous system are like the operations in digital computers, not if it’s taken to imply that the mind is constituted by ‘programs’ written in the ‘mentalese’ version of Fortran, Lisp, or C++. THAT was never a very plausible idea and the more we’ve come to know about the nervous system, the less plausible it becomes.

The upshot is that we need a much more fluid, a much more dynamic, conception of the mind. In Beethoven’s Anvil I talked of neural weather. Here’s how I set-up that metaphor (pp. 71-72):

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sky Being

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Dennett’s Preformationist Memetics

In thinking about my previous post I realized that my criticism of Dennett’s meme doctrine–that memes are mental entities that move from brain to brain like software viruses or Java apps–amounts to asserting that he’s a preformationist. What’s that? Here’s what the Wikipedia says:
In the history of biology, preformationism (or preform) is the idea that organisms develop from miniature versions of themselves.

Instead of assembly from parts, preformationists believe that the form of living things exist, in real terms, prior to their development.
The Wikipedia article comes with this illustration, which is a 1695 drawing of a sperm by Nicolaas Hartsoeker.

Preformation

There you see it on the left, the little human-form homunculus. And there, on the right, the form gets larger and larger during prenatal development.

How, you might ask, could Dennett possibly be a preformationist? After all, ideas don’t have physical shape? Well, no, I suppose they don’t. Here’s what I have in mind (I’m quoting from the end of my previous post):
While I define the ideotype as the cultural analog of the biological phenotype, the objects and processes that I identify as ideotypes are much like Dennett’s memes. They exist inside people’s head, in their minds, as do Dennettian memes, for the most part.

I AM DOG

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Page Turner to the Starz, Part 3

This is the last of my three-part series on a recording session involving Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, John Cerminaro, and Cecil Licad. I'm the page turner, WLB. Part 1 is HERE, Part 2 HERE. Today there's a bit of drama in the session and some brass-player solidarity at lunch.
Day Two: Prelude

Thursday, Jan 6. What to wear? Well, Diz had died. (Dizzy Gillespie, jazz trumpet player and a major hero of mine.) So I ought to wear black out of respect for Diz. (Conveniently, black is also artistically cool.) Now, my black shirt is flannel, but rather light. It might be a bit cool in the Music Hall. So I need to wear my black sweater with the cool red and blue and green accents. Now, if I wear my down jacket I'll be too warm on the walk – it's not that cold out. So that means I'll wear my chocolate-colored suede jacket, even though it might not be warm enough. And my so-cool prescription shades. All of a sudden I'm looking pretty cool. All just to pay my respects to Diz.

I arrive at 10. Everyone is dressed much the same (for all I remember, maybe exactly the same), except Nadia's wearing darker jeans. I ask John how his chops are. OK? And your throat? Better than yesterday, he says.

I was being sly with that question. He hadn't said anything about his throat. However, a good brass player works the throat to start molding the sound inside the vocal cavity. To get an open liquid sound you have to keep the throat open. That takes work and you can feel it in your throat muscles if you've done it for awhile. In extreme cases you get hoarse & a sore throat. In asking the question I was showing that I'm a good enough brass player to know about the throat and tone production.

I also mention that I've been mourning a bit over the death of a musician (oh, I'm so subtle aren't I?).

John: You mean Phil Farkas? (French horn player he'd mentioned yesterday.)
WLB: No, Dizzy Gillespie.
John: Oh, yeah, I heard.
WLB: I heard him about two years ago when he played on this very stage. His chops were gone, had been going for 15 years. But in his prime he was something.
John: Yeah, Miles is dead too.

Wandering On Course: Converting to Bangladesh

By Victoria, daughter of an old friend...

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Wandering On Course: Converting to Bangladesh: In the Jewish tradition, when you want to convert to Judaism, you must ask a rabbi three times before he will agree to begin your conversion...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators

While these posts have been quite critical of Dennett’s use of the concept of information, that should not be taken to mean that I see no use for such a concept. There is, of course, the technical usage established by Shannon and Weaver, but that is of limited use in these discussions. The challenge is to make use a less specialized, indeed an informal, concept. I intend to do so by identifying memetic information with the formal concept of data, as employed in computer science, and in particular with the concept of a parameter.

The Wikipedia defines parameter in this way:
In computer programming, a parameter is a special kind of variable, used in a subroutine to refer to one of the pieces of data provided as input to the subroutine. These pieces of data are called arguments. An ordered list of parameters is usually included in the definition of a subroutine, so that, each time the subroutine is called, its arguments for that call can be assigned to the corresponding parameters.
Memes are arguments in the sense of that definition. The parameters for which they are values are components of “subroutines” in the mind, where, for the purposes of this discussion, the mind is considered to be a rich and sophisticated computational device whose characteristics are unspecified.

Exotic Greenery

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Page Turner to the Starz, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series (of three posts) we met our dramatis personae, the Page Turner (WLB, aka me), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, the fiddler, John Cerminaro, the horn players, Cecile Licad, the pianist, and others. We followed their activities during the morning and early afternoon of Wednesday, January 6, 1993, while recording the first movement of the Brahams Horn Trio. We rejoin them as they break for lunch.
Day One, Lunch

The piano tech suggests we eat at Holmes and Watson. WLB leads the way since he lives in Troy. It's a bright day so I put on my so-cool prescription shades. Now, once we get there, how to jockey so I'm sitting near Nadja – they're six of us. On the way over Karen (producer) serves up some remark making reference to KY jelly.

We get to Holmes and pull two tables together near the entrance. I'm sitting across from Nadja (fiddler) and Cecile (pianist) and next to John (horn player). "It's a Wonderful World" is playing on the sound system. Nadja remarks: Louis Armstrong. Miscellaneous chatter, including talk about all the beers available at Holmes and their world tour of beers. Nadja wonders whether they have San Miguel, the most popular beer in the Philippines. They don't. Nadja remarks that the roaches in the palace in the Manila were huge. WLB mentions the large roaches in the steam tunnels under the Johns Hopkins campus (says nothing about sitting in the bathtub in Baltimore and killing roaches with his fingers as they crawled out of the wall for a swim).

I'm asked what I'd recommend since I've eaten her before. Though I do have definite preferences I quickly decline making recommendations, "Oh, I don't know. Haven't eaten here in awhile" even as I'm debating whether to get a Forbidden Problem, a Scrower's Special or perhaps a Baskerville (the sandwiches are named after Holmes stories). John orders a "Forbidden Problem" – ahah! – and so do I. Karen orders a Reuben (I forget what H&W calls it). Cecile considers the chili, but Nadja suggests that the after-effects might interfere with recording. Cecile orders something less reactive. After some worry over whether it will be good, Nadja orders a Baskerville (roast pork). She mentions that Pat's in Philadelphia has the best Philly steak sandwiches and that it's in her contract that, when she performs in Philadelphia, she gets as many Philly steaks from Pat's as she wants. (I don't know whether this is whenever she's in Philly in general or specific to her current series of dates with the Philadelphia Symphony.) There's some place in South Philly that makes the best Italian sausage and she's gonna bring back ten pounds of it and put it in her freezer, which is pretty big. It'll last awhile, unless she has guests. At Nadja's suggestion we order a plate of appetizers to share around. The piano tech, but no one else, orders beer. John takes a Tylenol to reduce the swelling in his lips.

Appetizers arrive. We eat. Sandwiches arrive. We eat. Nadja is quite pleased about her roast pork. I'm asked about the contents of my sandwich: turkey, bacon, cheese, tomato. Some chat about where're they're staying – Karen & the musicians at the Marriot Residence Inn, the piano tech at the Super 66 – and what to do after the recording. My fantasy is that, tomorrow, Thursday, I can somehow get them interested in coming to a local jam session where, surprise surprise, I star every once in awhile. Aside from the fact that they're probably leaving right after the recording session, I haven't the foggiest idea about how to bring this about.

A good meal was had by all. Cecile resists desert. John notes that he has some wonderful truffles back in the hall. Cecile smiles.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The United States of the Blues

I have a long-standing interest in African-American music and a not quite so long-standing belief culture is a driving force in history. Back in the mid-1990s I decided to conjoin that interest and that belief in an article where I argue that African-American music has been a driving force in 20th Century American culture. The result was a very long article, The United States of the Blues: On the Crossing of African and European Cultures in the Twentieth Century.

Starting about two-thirds of the way through (section 4.5) I start alluding to cultural evolution, because that’s what I had in mind. Though it would have been easy enough for me to talk about memes moving along cultural gradients from African- to European-American, such talk would have been gratuitous, the mere use of a fashionable term that adds only the appearance of insight, but not the substance.

I published that article in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(4), 401-438, 1993. I subsequently revised the piece and published the revision in Nikongo Ba'Nikongo, ed., Leading Issues in Afro-American Studies, Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 1997, pp. 189-233.

That’s the version I’ve placed on my SSRN page. Here’s the abstract and the table of contents.

* * * * *

Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues

Abstract: European-American racism has used African America as a screen on which to project repressed emotion, particularly sex and aggression. One aspect of this projection is that whites are attracted to black music as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express through music from European roots. Thus twentieth century expressive culture in the United States has been dominated by an evolving socio-cultural system in which blacks create musical forms and whites imitate them. It happened first with jazz, and then with rock and roll. The sexual revolution and the recent floresence of blacks in television and movies suggests that white America has had some success in using black American expressive forms to cure its affective ills. The emergence of rap, from African America, and minimalism, from European America, indicates that this system is at a point where it is ready to leave Western expressive culture behind as history moves to the next millenium.

1. Introduction: Music in Society and Culture
2. Improvisation and Composition in Cultural Style
3. Society, Psyche, and Culture in North America
3.1 The Cultural Psychodynamics of Racism
3.2 Tertium Quid: The Artist and Negative European Identity
3.3 Africa in America
4. Music in the Making of History: Blues Train to the Future
4.1 The Blues: "Trouble In Mind"
4.2 Jazz: "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"
4.3 Rock: "Roll Over Beethoven"
4.4 Rap: "U Can't Touch This"
4.5 The Pattern So Far: "Freedom Over Me"
5. Conclusion: Stepping Out on a New Savanna

Page Turner to the Starz, Part 1

Twenty years ago or so I spent two days as a page-turner on a classical recording session. Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, John Cerminaro, and Cecil Licad were recording the Brahms Horn Trio (recording on Amazon HERE) and I was hired to turn pages for Licad.

Scholar that I am, I kept extensive notes on that session, figuring that one day I’d base a polished bit of writing on them, perhaps fiction.

Well, that’s not happened. So I’ve decided to publish the notes. I’ve cleaned them up a bit, but not much. They’re still pretty messy. But that’s how recording sessions are, messy.

I’ll post these notes in three segments. The first post covers the first day into early afternoon. The second post finishes that day. I cover the second day in the third post.
Dramatis Personae

WLB, aka The Page Turner: Frustrated Renaissance man. Theorist of mind & brain and cultural evolution etc. Jazz musician & performer.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Violinist. Born in Rome on Jan 15, 1960 & raised by mother and grandparents. Came to USA when 8 to study at Curtis Institute. Went to Julliard in early teens to study with Dorothy DeLay. Won the 1981 Naumberg competition, the youngest to ever win it; they didn't give 2nd and 3rd that year. This was her recording session, though that wasn't obvious to me at the start.

John Cerminaro: French Horn. Spent 10 years as 1st horn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 10 years as 1st horn with New York Philharmonic. Now working as a horn soloist based out of Chicago. Middle-age. Gorgeous tone. Brass player's chip on his shoulder.

Cecile Licad: Piano. From Philippines. Small, but has a deep near-masculine voice (baritone). Has known Nadja since they were teenagers at Curtis. Has a small rubber figure of the Beast from the Walt Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast.

Karen Chester: Producer. Was engineer for Nadja's recording of the Barber and Shostakovitch concertos.

Tom: Recording Engineer.

Bob: Piano technician. Lives in Vermont with wife and kids. Used his piano for the session, a Steinway D (7 ft.). How'd he get it into the hall, which has no elevator?

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall: Built in late 19th C. atop the Troy Savings Bank. Acoustically, one of the finest in the world. There’d been several recording sessions here in the past few years. The hall seats c. 1200. Worn but not seedy.

Getting the Gig

Mon Jan 4: Peter Lesser, director of Troy Music Hall, calls WLB saying he needs someone to turn pages at a recording session from 10-4 on Wed and Thur. (The connection runs through Eddie Knowles, member of the Music Hall board and playing compatriot of WLB in the New African Music Collective.) WLB initially declines, using a 10:30 Thur appointment with NYS unemployment as the excuse (though he doesn't tell Peter that his 10:30 meeting is with unemployment). But, WLB thinks. The unemployment notice said that, if unable to make the appointed time, then come as soon after as possible. So there's nothing imperative about that appointment – though those folks can be a pain. And what else does he have to do? Sit around and read another bit of trash fiction? Spend more time squeezing dead cells & oil from facial pores? Watch some more "Days of Our Lives"? No telling what the recording session will be like, and there is the embarrassing possibility that he'll miss a page turn or two, but it's definitely more interesting than staying home. It's two days with Other People, and it'd be interesting to see what the inside of a classical recording session is like and the musicians will probably be first rate.

So, WLB called back on Tue 5 Jan and told Peter that he's available. Peter said the pay would be $8-10/hour but WLB'd have to negotiate that with Karen Chester, the producer. That's fine.

The Gig, Day One

Wed 6 Jan: WLB goes through usual morning routine. Into bathtub at c. 7:00 and watch Today Show. Out of tub c. 8:30 to shave and dress. Eat breakfast while watching Regis and Kathy Lee. Should I take some paper clips so I can mark turning points in the music? Nah. Walk to Music Hall at 9:50 to meet Peter at State St. (side) entrance. Meets Peter at 10, who takes him up into the hall, entering through the stage entrance. Piano immediately to left as walk onto stage; piled with coat and French Horn gig bag. Other piano in middle of stage, with other chairs and mikes hanging from booms. A video camera on tripod aimed at the stage. Two young women on stage – are these the musicians?

Continue across the stage and off through the dress circle and up two flights to room that's doing duty as the control room. Speakers, mixing board, recorders, electronic gear. Video monitor showing the stage – no direct line of sight between stage and "control room."

Three people, Karen, Tom (recording technician), Bob (piano technician). WLB introduced around. Peter leaves. Karen asks if $10/hr is OK.

WLB: Sure.
Karen: You'll have to submit an invoice to get paid, I'll give you the information later.
WLB: Fine.
Karen: They're pretty good at paying. You can have them mail it to you or I could bring your check with me next time.
WLB thinking (what next time?): Oh that's OK. I'll wait for the mail. What're you recording?
Karen: The Brahms Horn Trio, with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin, John Cerminaro on horn, and Cecile Licad on piano.

Fwitt! the light goes on in WLB's head when he hears "Salerno-Sonnenberg" (but assumes absolutely cool and composed facial expression, matching Karen's delivery of names). WLB is mainly into jazz, hasn't followed classical for 20 years. But, a few years ago he was watching Johnny Carson and saw this impish violinist who played with great intensity and passion, though it was only the Carson show. She carried a picture of a baseball player in her violin case. Had a long name. Then only a few months ago, late 92, CBS did a 2-hour special on performers which had been featured on 60-minutes. There was that same violin player with the long last name, again. And now he was going to be turning pages at her recording session. What a delight.

Abundance

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A poem by Sally Benzon

The sounds of trees
Who fail to be nowhere
If they are not heard

Humor into sounds
Of all leaps and sizes.
The voice unspoken

Ages the weathered tongue
To compose an echoing body.
Elates from the heartbeat

Into zero-minus gravity
Where impulse conveys
The stars of night to guide

The toil of a dung beetle’s trail.
Life here. Life now.
Measures of action

Seen and unseen,
Tone on tone
The gist of orbits

Tide with the pine trees
And their wingless whispers.
Contrary hearsay on the horizon

Is quickened with decay
Sweetened by moonlight.
An ending looms at shoreline.

This, then: a woman of the immortals
Whose rogue wave is conceived
To peak scale; improbably, delicate in listening

For all the lone Earth to resound
Within her, free float, the Eternal:
Again! Lasts to open pitch.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Samurai Champloo Episode 23

That episode is entitled Baseball Blues and it depicts a vicious baseball game between an American team captained by Admiral Joey Cartwright and a Japanese team that includes a 15 year-old girl, an 80+ year-old man, a dog, and a squirrel. The Japanese win. Perhaps this is why:
Take the infamous 1,000 Fungo Drill. For one day at Japanese spring training, professional players take a deep breath and begin fielding grounders. At first, fielding grounders is largely a mental exercise. You think about the process, about the careful placement of your feet, hands and head. Left. Right. Left. Right. After a few hundred grounders, however, your brain will pack up and leave town for the beach. Your body will start acting automatically, without central systemic guidance, and in turn a mental exercise will become a more purely physical one. Left, right, left, right. But after another few hundred grounders, your body too will stop working the way it normally might. It is no longer yours, and you are no longer you. Now you will have reached that very particular departure lounge where what was once a physical exercise becomes spiritual. Now it's your soul at work. Leftrightleftright. And there is no axon or muscle fiber that remembers anything the way your soul remembers everything. That is the purpose of nagekomi: to open your soul as wide as a prairie, allowing it to swallow those secrets you have learned about yourself and lock them away inside the deepest parts of you, where they will survive long after your body dies. Nagekomi is that moment of clarity that comes in the last hundred yards of a marathon; it is that instant your throat closes and tears begin to run down your face. It is not a pursuit of a temporary, earthly glory. It is not gravity bound. Nagekomi is weightless, and it is forever.

Hierophants of Unacknowledged Inspiration

For my sister, on the day before her birthday.

I’ve been thinking of Shelley’s famous essay, A Defence of Poetry (1821), which I have read in full, but only many years ago. What I remember of the essay is what everyone remembers, the last line. Indeed, for many that is all they know or have ever known of the essay.

But I misremembered the line as “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the earth.” I got that last word wrong, it is “world” not “earth”: Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. “Earth” “world” what’s the difference? That’s a little thing, no?

No.

My dictionary glosses earth (also Earth) as: “the planet on which we live; the world.” The term “earth” thus implies a division between the so-called natural world, the earth proper, and the human world, which is excluded from the scope of that term.

Thus that same dictionary glosses “world” as: “the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features.” See, “world” IS a more inclusive term than “earth.”

Shelley’s use of the word “world” thus encompasses the natural and the human in an enfolding whole. It is within THAT that poets pass their laws without acknowledgement.

Now let’s look at the penultimate line:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves.
Speak it aloud. Can you say it smoothly and fluently? If not, you know what to do: practice.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Urban Pastoral with Green and Other Materials

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Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons from Marching Band

Like many musicians, I was in a marching band in middle school and high school, the Marching Rams of Richland Township in Western Pennsylvania. We were a very good band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. in 1965.

That experience was a rich one. But it was also complicated and fraught with anxiety and ambivalence.

These lessons are about the lizard brain and its problematic relationship with civilization. Not merely Western Civ, mind you, but any civilization whatsoever.

Lesson the First: It’s the Groove, Baby

Those aren’t the words he used, but that’s what he meant. It’s the groove that tells the story; it’s the groove that moves the feet.

I’m talking about something told to me, though not to me personally, by Richard Cuppett, director of my high school marching band. Cuppett was something of a taskmaster and worked us hard. Because he did so, the band was an excellent one, so good, rumor had it, that some people came to football games—we’re talking Steeler country, folks, the coal mines and steel mills that fed the fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers—as much to see the band as to watch the football game.

Cuppett was talking to the band about excellence. How can you tell that a band is really good? If kids march alongside the band when it is on parade, the band is a good one. He passed that on to us as a lesson, though I forget to whom he attributed it. Perhaps some bandleader he’d worked with, or perhaps some legendary figure, like John Philips Sousa hisownbadself.

It sounded strange when I first heard it, gathered there in the band room along with the other bandsmen. It didn’t quite make sense to let little kids be the judges of band quality. But Cuppett was the director, so it must be true—I was just a kid then, and so inclined to believe things told to me by someone in authority.

His point, of course, is that when music is really grooving, it’s infectious. It will attract those little kids and get their fidgety feed to move in time with the music. For that to happen, two things are necessary: the musicians have to play together, and they have to play with passion. Not just one, or the other, but both at the same time.

Everyone, together, passion.

That’s not easy to do, not for a band with 72 or more members. It’s one thing for a small group of a half-dozen or so musicians to lock into a deep groove. And it’s not so difficult for a small village to get locked if the music is relatively simple. When you haves 10s of musicians playing a dozen or more different kinds of instrument with four or five different kinds of musical action going on at one time, getting that bunch to groove is tough.

And that’s why we had to practice so much.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?

First, in asking THAT question I do not intend a bit of cutesy intellectual cleverness: Oh Wow! Let’s get the meme meme to examine it’s own history. My purpose would be just as well served by examining, say, the history of the term “algorithm” or the term “deconstruction,” both originally technical terms that have more or less entered the general realm. I’m looking at the history of the meme concept because I’ve just been reading Jeremy Burman’s most interesting 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (PDF).

Intentional Change

Second, as far as I can tell, no version of cultural evolution is ready to provide an account of that history that is appreciably better than the one Burman himself supplies, and that account is straight-up intellectual history. In Burman’s account (p. 75) Dawkins introduced the meme concept in 1976
as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.
That’s a considerable change in meaning. To account for that change Burman examines several texts in which various people explicate the meme concept and attributes the changes in meaning to their intentions. Thus he says (p. 94):
To be clear: I am not suggesting that the making of the active meme was the result of a misunderstanding. No one individual made a copying mistake; there was no “mutation” following continued replication. Rather, the active meaning came as a result of the idea’s reconstruction: actions taken by individuals working in their own contexts. Thus: what was Dennett’s context?
And later (p. 98):
The brain is active, not the meme. What’s important in this conception is the function of structures, in context, not the structures themselves as innate essences. This even follows from the original argument of 1976: if there is such a thing as a meme, then it cannot exist as a replicator separately from its medium of replication.
Burman’s core argument thus is a relatively simple one. Dawkins proposed the meme concept in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, but the concept didn’t take hold in the public mind. That didn’t happen until Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett recast the concept in their 1982 collection, The Mind’s I. They took a bunch of excerpts from The Selfish Gene, most of them from earlier sections of the book rather than the late chapter on memes, and edited them together and (pp. 81-82)
presented them as a coherent single work. Although a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.
It’s this re-presentation of the meme concept that began to catch-on with the public. Subsequently a variety of journalist accounts further spread the concept of the meme as a virus of the mind.

Why? On the face of it it would seem that the virus of the mind was a more attractive and intriguing concept than Dawkins’s original more metaphorical conception. Just why that should have been the case is beside the point. It was.

All I wish to do in this note is take that observation and push it a bit further. When people read written texts they do so with the word meanings existing in their minds, which aren’t necessarily the meanings that exist in the minds of the authors of those texts. In the case of the meme concept, the people reading The Selfish Gene didn’t even have a pre-existing meaning for the term, as Dawkins introduced and defined it in that book. The same would be true for the people who first encountered the term in The Mind’s I and subsequent journalistic accounts.

Physical Symbol System Hypothesis

The intellectual partnership of Allen Newell and Herbert Simon began at the RAND corporation in the early 1950s and became one of the most fruitful collaborations in the cognitive sciences. In 1975 the Assocition for Computing Machinery (aka the ACM) awarded them the A. M Turing Award, which is "given for major contributions of lasting importance to computing." Here's the full text of their acceptance speech: Computer Science as Empirical Inquiry: Symbols and Search (PDF).

And here's one of the core assertions of that paper (p. 116):
The Physical Symbol System Hypothesis. A physical symbol system has the necessary and sufficient means for general intelligent action.
The paper is important and influential. You should read it. (I've not done so yet, but it's on my stack).

A great deal of work in the cognitive sciences has been done under the assumption, sometimes explicit, sometimes tacit, that symbol processing is a primitive (or fairly primitive) process of nervous systems. For my part, I do not think symbol processing is primitive to nervous systems. Jellyfish have neurons, but those neurons don't process symbols. Nor do fish, bears and monkeys process symbols. I suspect that natural language is the simplest existing physical symbol system created without the deliberate design by human agents.

Near the end of their lecture, Newell and Simon state (p. 125):
Symbol systems are collections of patterns and processes, the latter being capable of producing, destroying and modifying the former. The most important properties of patterns is that they can designate objects, processes, or other patterns, and that, when they designate processes, they can be interpreted. Interpretation means carrying out the designated process. The two most significant classes of symbol systems with which we are acquainted are human beings and computers.
I note that human beings have created computers through deliberate design and, further, that it took millennia of cultural evolution to produce both the conceptual and physical devices equal to the task.

Friday, July 19, 2013

It's time for a Malick Friday

Do you want your Malick with fennel?

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Or tomato?

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Perhaps birches in Winter are more your style:

Japanese Robots in Space

As I've explained in previous posts the Japanese have a different take on robots than we do: The Japanese and Robots, The Robot as Subaltern. They're not so much worried about a super-robot going nuts and attempting to rule the world as they are concerned about fostering harmonious social relations between humans and robots. Here's a vido of a robot companion the Japanese will be sending to the International Space Station in August (story HERE):
During its 16-month stay there, it will engage in “discussions” with astronaut Koichi Wakata, marking the first time conversations have occurred between a robot and a human in space.

H/t Tim Perper.

Green, so Zen

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Corpus Linguistics for the Humanist: Notes of an Old Hand on Encountering New Tech

I've published another working paper, this one on "digital humanities." Specifically, corpus linguistics. Here's the abstract and the introduction:
Abstract: Corpus linguistics offers literary scholars a way of investigating large bodies of texts, but these tools require new modes of thinking. Literary scholars will have to recover a kind of interest in linguistics that was lost when the discipline abandoned philology. Scholars will need to think statistically and will have to start thinking about cultural evolution in all but Darwinian terms. This working paper develops these ideas in the context of a topic analysis of PMLA undertaken by Ted Underwood and Andrew Goldstone.
Introduction: Theory in a Digital Age

In reading about so-called “digital humanities” over the last year or two I kept coming up against the question: What about Theory? In the context of academic humanities over the last three or four decades the term “theory” does not mean quite what it means elsewhere. In particular, in literary studies it does not mean what “literary theory” once meant: a body of theory about literature, its texts, writers, readers, history, and social influence. Rather, Theory (often capitalized) is a body of techniques for interpreting texts, for explicating their meanings in terms of some body of thinking about the mind, society, history, or general comport of the cosmos.

What about Theory, then, is a plea to link these new techniques to older concerns, to the concerns of ethical criticism, as broadly construed by Wayne Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Ethical criticism is a worthy, indeed a necessary enterprise, but it is not the only worthy enterprise one can imagine. It is not the only form of knowing.

And it is not one the follows naturally from these new computer-enabled modes of inquiry. Hence the question: What about Theory? In the short-term my answer is: Forget about it! There’s nothing there at the moment. Perhaps later on, but not now.

Moon Kisses Weed, from afar, of course

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How I Found a Home in Jersey City and Got Steve Fulop Elected Mayor, Part 3

When the second installment ended I was photographing graffiti and had started volunteering in the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association. There I found out that Janice Monson, who taught in the Jersey City schools and was a hardcore activist, used to take her students up on the Newport Wall and take their pictures upon graduation.

Back in November of 2006, before I’d shown up at an HPNA meeting, I was walking around, or perhaps I was in the car on the way back from my Sunday AM grocery run. One or the other, it doesn’t much matter. Anyhow, I spotted some color:

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That’s the stuff, says I, that’s the stuff. When I got closer, I noticed a ramp against a wall:

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And then this:

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Someone was obviously using this site—the floor slab of an abandoned industrial building of some sort—as a park for skateboarding and BMX bike riding. See:

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I took that one in July of 2007. Notice that the art on the walls has changed. It seems that some local, and not so local, graffiti writers used this site as something of an experimental gallery even as the skateboarders and BMXers used it to hone their athletic skills.

All off the books, so to speak. They were trespassing on this land. But no one cared. The cops certainly knew what was going on. Sure, it was a little off the beaten path, but only a little. The site’s not particularly remote or hidden. Oh, they knew, the cops. But why hassle the kids? They weren’t hurting anyone; the land wasn’t being used for anything. Let ‘em use it; keeps ‘em outa’ trouble.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How I Found a Home in Jersey City and Got Steve Fulop Elected Mayor, Part 2

By the end of the first part of this essay I’d made my way to Jersey City and bought a point-and-shoot camera. Jersey City was where I lived, but not my home. I had no home, unless it would be the virtual world of intellectual activity.

What that camera allowed me to do was to connect my intellectual world to Jersey City itself. It’s not merely that Jersey City is where I live and so where I conduct that intellectual activity, but that Jersey City itself became the subject of that intellectual activity. And more.

It’s 2004 and I return from my conference in Chicago with a camera full of photographs of Millennium Park. I turned them into an online exhibit that my friend (and one-time teacher) Bruce Jackson put online as a working paper. And I shelved the camera. Except every now and then I’d get it out and walk around taking photos, mostly of this and that.

In the Fall of 2006 I decided to photograph signs: street signs, billboards, signs on cars, storefronts, and, of course, graffiti tags, which were plentiful.

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I decided they might be particularly interesting. After all, this mural was just across the street from my apartment:

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What if there were more like that?

Graffiti, Flix, the Web, and Beyond, or: Why a Graffiti Museum is Beside the Point

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Various people have been thinking about a graffiti museum for awhile. Graff’s now in galleries, has been for some time, and in museum collections. The graff and street art show at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art back in 2011 set attendance records. But there’s no permanent museum for graffiti, and that despite the fact that graffiti’s up on walls around the world. Not a one.

And a good thing too.

Because museum’s are beside the point.

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Let’s review: The institutional structure of the art world as we know it was set in place by the 19th century. First, of course, is the artist, often lionized as a tortured genius, or at least as a randy imp. Also first: the collector and patron, both individual and institutional (all those public monuments). They pay for the whole show. And then we have galleries and museums.

That’s it. For the last 30 or even 40 years people have been trying to shove graffiti (and street art) into those boxes. And it doesn’t fit.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

You Know You Want to See It: The World-Wide Wall

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Writers are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. 
– Percy Bysshe Shelley*

There’s been some famous walls in the world. The wall at Jericho that Joshua trashed with his mighty music. The Great Wall of China. Hadrian’s Wall. The Berlin Wall. And others.

I’m not talking about them. All of those walls have one thing in common: they’re meant to separate; to divide and defend, to keep the barbarians and marauders out. The wall I have in mind is different. It’s a wall that connects: the World-Wide graffiti Wall, or just the World-Wide Wall (WWW).

This wall is both real and virtual. It’s real because graffiti’s gone round the world in the last 40 years. It’s virtual because all those 10s of thousands of walls are not physically connected to each other, and never will be.

But conceptually they’re all connected by the same impulse, to reclaim the world from the mess created by industrial war-mongering polluting civilization. Aerosol the industrial waste and thereby create a New Savanna on which new civilizations can band the earth in this, the 21st century, a world of images cast by futurity on the present.

And Google Street View can be the basis of making this WWW visible to all. Much of the world’s graffiti is already there in its images. If Google’s image-processing software isn’t up to the job of finding it in the already collected imagery, well then crowd-source the job. Make it so that anyone with GPS info on their graffiti flix can index them to the WWW, that way we can keep the WWW up to date and incorporate all the graffiti that isn’t visible from the street.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How I Found a Home in Jersey City and Got Steve Fulop Elected Mayor, Part 1

On that last, not really. I voted for him and made a small contribution to his campaign and I did one or two others things. But I didn’t spend 10, 20 or more hours a week volunteering for the campaign nor did I bundle big bucks for his campaign war chest. Still...

* * * * *

What is home? That’s a tricky one. I think of Johnstown, Pa. as my hometown. I was born in Pittsburgh, but that’s only where the hospital was located. I spent the first three or four years of my life in Ellsworth, Pa., but I don’t remember those years at all. Johnstown is the place I remember. Actually, a suburb in Richland, Twp. just outside Johnstown proper.

That’s where I went to primary and secondary school and that’s where I returned during summers when I was at college in Baltimore (Johns Hopkins). When I graduated with my BA I remained in Baltimore, summers too, getting a master’s degree and working out my alternative service (those were the Vietnam years) in the Chaplain’s Office at Hopkins. At the same time my father’s job moved the family to Allentown, Pa. No more returning to Johnstown. My hometown could no longer serve as my home.

From Baltimore I moved to Buffalo to pursue a Ph.D. I was as comfortable living there as I’d been since living in Johnstown, and it’s only recently that I’ve felt that kind of comfort here in Jersey City.

Why? There’s an easy and obvious explanation for my comfort in Buffalo. Though I was studying in the English Department at SUNY (the State University of New York), and liked the department, my real intellectual home was in a running seminar hosted by Prof. David G. Hays, in linguistics. Hays and I clicked as I’ve never clicked with any other thinker.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beyond All Stylz

Revok, Pose, and MSK go deep and cast wide on the Houston St. Wall:
In fact it appears that Revok and Pose are metaphorically and technically casting aside once and for all the artificial divisions on the streets when it comes to styles and methods. Whether its the joint gallery shows, collaborative outdoor art festivals, or institutional venues like the sweeping "Art in the Streets" exhibit at MoCA a couple of years ago, it looks like graffiti and street art have been put into a room and encouraged to work out their differences. Now of course they're copying off each others exam paper in the back row of class, but at least they're not fighting so much. Okay, true, that announcement is still premature, but you can see the horizon ahead. Naturally in a city like New York that often typifies global diversity and routinely gives wide latitude for freedom of expression, the creative spirit as expressed with such technical skill and this kind of whole-hearted passion is invariably afforded a welcome. At least for a minute.


Fading Light

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

For the love, that's why

Some of NYC's finest brass players gather a Emile Charlap's office once a week on Wednesday afternoons to jam.
They opened with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. The conductor was Roger Blanc, the guitarist for the jazz session. What did he do to prepare?

“Nothing,” he said.

They began to play, music suffusing the room, horns blaring, creating an entrancing joy.

Stealing in late was Jim Saporito, the drummer-percussionist, who plays with the New York City Ballet.

The group is downright quirky. There are no clarinets. No oboes. No violins. The only stringed instrument is the solitary bass. Otherwise, it’s all brass — three trumpets, three trombones, two French horns — and the drums and percussion. Thus, Mr. Charlap spends the week reorchestrating classical compositions meant for symphony orchestras so the parts for absent instruments can be assumed by horns. The musicians like it. It’s different. It’s challenging.

“If it’s a real shipwreck, we stop,” Mr. Charlap said. “But usually no one wants to stop.”

Why do they come? “It’s like if you ask someone why do they go to church on Sunday,” Mr. Blanc, the guitarist, said. “You’d get different answers. Some say they’re going to save their souls, and some go for the cookies afterward. This office was the hub of New York recording activity for many years, and the proprietor is a sort of unsung hero of the music world. So why do I come? Love. I guess that’s the answer.”

Constructing Spirits: An Exercise in Pluralist Composition

This working paper is available at my SSN site, HERE (PDF).
Abstract: It is well known that music can engender altered states of consciousness that are difficult to interpret scientifically except is odd malfunctions in the nervous system. In this paper I report on a phenomenon known among some musicians as “the magic of the bell,” the apparent emergence of spirits while a groups is playing bells with passion and precision. I argue those sounds arise through interpersonal coupling among the musicians and that those twittering “spirits” should be considered as embodiments of non-mysterious and physically coherent group consciousness.
This working paper is grounded in an experience I had some years ago while rehearsing with three friends. We were each of us playing bells and, at some point, we heard high-pitched twittering sounds that none of us were playing. Where did they come from? What were they?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Jersey City: A 21st Century Florence?

THAT role is up for grabs. Maybe it will be taken by a scrappy Asian or African city. But who knows, maybe Jersey City can work some civic magic. One can only dream. And, the world is bigger now than it was then. There's room for more than one Florence on the New Savanna of the 21st Century.

Triceratops Dawn
Don't weep for me, Jersey City.
Jersey City has just elected a new mayor, Steven Fulop, who won by defeating a long-entrenched machine. The Fulop administration has just released a 155-page transition report that urges the City to "rebrand" itself and that talks about the need to give more prominence to culture and the arts. In that spirit I'm republishing this review of a Michael Gross book that I did for The Valve in 2009. While Gross and his publisher present the book as high class celebrity gossip, I argue that Gross, in fact, tells the story of an institutionalized artistic culture on the edge of self-destruction. If so, then Jersey City had best get out of the way of these collapsing dinosaurs. But maybe there's some scrappy little creatures flitting around on walls and underbrush that Jersey City can nurture to artistic splendor. I mean, the folks at Mana Contemporary are ambitious and visionary. Who knows what they can accomplish in cooperation with a sympathetic City administration?

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Sharks in Formaldehyde: New York’s Met and the People Who Made It

Michael Gross. Rogue’s Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum. New York: Broadway Books, 2009.
Full Disclosure: After I’d published a piece analyzing the literary style of David Patrick Columbia, Michael Gross contacted me, thanking me for mentioning his book in that piece. He indicated that the book had angered some influential people and, as a result, the book wasn’t being reviewed. I did some digging around on the web, had a bit more correspondence with Gross, and ended up asking him to get me a review copy, which he did. Here’s my review.
There are two ways to read Michael Gross’s latest book, Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum. The title and subtitle offer a tell-much extravaganza – over 500 pages worth – of juicy gossip about the rich and powerful folks behind New York City’s Met, one of the finest art museums in the world. Stick this Rogues’ Gallery in your weekend bag or on your night stand and read it at your leisure. It won’t disappoint, and you have the added frisson of knowing that you’re displeasuring the socialite who hired white-shoe lawyers to write threatening letters in an attempt to curtail, shall we say, the book’s circulation, or, at least to produce changes in a subsequent printings and editions.

I mean, if such a letter isn’t a roguish stamp of disapproval, I don’t know what is. How can you resist the urge to find out what was so deep, dark, and dastardly that someone spent real money to protect keep you from wallowing in reading the dirt? Well, not all of it, just some of it, near the end, the stuff that bears on the question: Who will deserves to replace Brooke Astor as the doyenne of New York City philanthropy?

With only a little more effort, however, and perhaps a little thought here and there, you can read a more substantial book, one that raises a serious question: Is the social web that created and sustained the Met about to disappear, leaving the Met with the life prospects of a beached whale?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Thinking About Language Evolution in the 21st Century

With Some Remarks on Memes, or Dennett Upside Down Cake

About two years ago Wintz placed a comment on Replicated Typo’s About page in which he lists several papers that make good background reading for someone new to the study of linguistic and cultural evolution. I’ve just blitzed my way through one of them, Language is a Complex Adaptive System (PDF) by Beckner et al (2009)*, and have selected some excerpts for comment.

The point of this exercise is contrast the way things look a young scholar starting out now with the way they would have looked to a scholar starting out back in the ancient days of the 1960s, which is when both Dennett and I started out (though he’s a few years older than I am). The obvious difference is that, for all practical purposes, there was no evolutionary study of language at the time. Historical linguistics, yes; evolutionary, no. So what I’m really contrasting is the way language looks now in view of evolutionary considerations and the way it looked back then in the wake of the so-called Chomsky revolution—which, of course, is still reverberating.

Dennett’s thinking about cultural evolution, and memetics, is still grounded in the way things looked back then, the era of top-down, rule-based, hand-coded AI systems, also known as Good Old-Fashioned AI (GOFAI). In a recent interview he’s admitted that something was fundamentally wrong with that approach. He’s realized that individual neurons really cannot be treated as simple logical switches, but rather must be treated as quasi-autonomous sources of agency with some internal complexity. Alas, he doesn’t quite know what to do about it (I discuss this interview in Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!). I’m certainly not going to claim that I’ve got it figured out, I don’t. Nor am I aware of anyone that makes such a claim. But a number of us have been operating from assumptions quite different from those embodied in GOFAI and Language is a Complex Adaptive System gives a good précis of how the world looks from those different assumptions.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

black white organic disseminators

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Kickstarter Funds more Art than the National Endowment

Washington Post, Wonkblog:
Indeed, people have been saying since last year that Kickstarter funds more art-related projects than the NEA. And it’s true! For 2012, the NEA had a total federal appropriation of $146 million, of which 80 percent went toward grants. Kickstarter funded roughly $323.6 million of art-related projects if you include all design and video-related projects, which make up $200 million of the total.
It looks like a shocking disparity between government grants and a technology start up, but here’s why it isn’t surprising.
Individuals have always been the backbone of arts funding. The NEA has never tried to compete with individual donors, and that’s the premise of Kickstarter—it’s a platform that allows individual donors to fund projects. In 2011, individuals contributed $13 billion to arts and cultural charities. According to the NEA, individuals make up 75 percent of all private giving, much more than corporations or foundations. Kickstarter, in essence, simplifies the long-held American tradition of individual private donors giving to the arts.