Saturday, November 30, 2013

Victor Mair at Language Log

One of the reasons I check Language Log regularly is to see posts by Victor Mair, a sinologist at U Penn. Half or perhaps more of his posts are devoted to the quirks of Chinglish (Chinese English), most of which seem to be the result of less than expert translation, but he posts on other matters as well. I don't read a bit of Chinese and I have no more than nodding acquaintance with Chinese culture – and I do own a small Chinese wooden box and a somewhat larger 19th Century Chinese cabinet – but I'm interested in China in the way that any reasonably awake adult is: it's there and it's terribly important in the world. Mair's columns are an interesting way of reminding me of that fact. 

And they keep bumping me into stuff I would't otherwise encounter, something that's very important in my overall mental economy.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What’s Photography About, Anyhow?


That’s something I think about a lot, though much of that thinking is in the form of the photographs themselves. I suppose the thinking began when I got my Canon point-and-shoot to photograph Millennium Park in Chicago. At that time I had no intention of becoming a serious photographer, but I nonetheless thought about what I was doing.

Things turned serious when I decided to pursue graffiti and got my trusty Pentax SLR. There the issue was: how do I photograph graffiti? I read advice that said to photograph it straight-on and four-square, no fancy stuff. That is, photograph it as though it were a painting hanging on a wall, any wall, somewhere. The focus is on the graffiti, not on what you as a photographer can do with a camera.

Fair enough. The trouble, though, is that graffiti isn’t hanging on any just wall. It’s not hanging at all; it’s painted directly on this or that particular wall. So that particular space becomes part of the experience of the graffiti. Context is important. Further, graffiti is often quite large so that moving back and forth, in and out, is part of your experience. All of this calls for context shots, and not just one or two, and detail shots of various scales. And what about time of day and season of the year?

At this point photographing graffiti is no longer so simple. It now calls on one’s powers of imagination and invention, one’s skills as a maker of images. That is, there is the graffiti writer’s skills, and there are your skills. What’s the (proper) relationship between the two?

Not obvious.

Meanwhile, I began photographing other subjects and I began experimenting with Photoshop. At first I was only interested in an accurate rending of what I saw. But just what does THAT mean? In some sense that’s physically impossible. There’s no way any photograph can match the light one sees with one’s eyes. Exact color fidelity is somewhere between impossible and meaningless. So just how do I handle color when rendering an image? Is it appropriate to boost the saturation and contrast? Why or why not? How much?

There’s no absolute answer to such questions.



From Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now

Montage AN 9 Willard+stoneguy

We know that Apocalypse Now was conceived as a film in which the story of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness would be not re-created but more like re-imagined with materials from the war in Vietnam. Signs of the kinship are obvious, from the idea of a trip up the river into the deep jungle, thought the death of the boat’s helmsman, to Kurtz’s final words in both texts, “The horror, the horror!”

Beyond such borrowings is there a deep structural similarity between the two? Neither story has much of a plot. There’s a mission. It starts at the mouth of a river, goes up the river, things happen, the mission is accomplished, end of story. Is there something deeper than that?

I think so. But we’re going to have to do a bit of work to find it.

As I’ve said many times on this blog, I was much taken with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss early in my career, especially The Raw and the Cooked. There he undertook a form of analysis that can be parodied as follows: We have two myths that are much alike, M23 and M78. Where we have the grandfather in M23, we have a second cousin in M78. It follows from that that, as the grandfather in M23 must go up the mountain to start a fire, so the second cousin in M78 must go down the river to fish for salmon.

That is, Lévi-Strauss had the idea that these stories exist inside a closed economy (which he likened to an algebraic group), such that if you changed one item in a myth, that will force correlative and compensating changes. That closed economy is at least one of the constraints on form.

The differences between Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are legion, as are the similarities, not to mention the outright repurposing (aka aesthetic theft) of material from the former to the latter. So doing that kind of Lévi-Straussian analysis is ultimately futile. Still, that’s what I’m going to attempt.

Cardinal Points: Heart of Darkness

Let’s start by aligning cardinal points, if you will. We’ve got the beginning, the middle, and the end. I’ve already said quite a bit about the structural center, which I’ve called the nexus, of Heart of Darkness in an earlier post, The Heart of Heart of Darkness (downloadable version HERE), so I won’t repeat that analysis. But, while I’ve said a great deal about the beginning of Apocalypse Now in a post on the opening montage, I’ve not discussed the opening of Heart of Darkness. So let’s start there, then look at the middle and the end and then move on to Apocalypse Now, starting in the middle. Once we’ve got that staked out we can step back and take a look at things.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A tree in winter

bristle tree.jpg

brush patterns.jpg


The History of Modern Linguistic Theory: Seuren on Chomsky

For those interested in the history of modern linguistic theory, Noam Chomsky is a major figure, though one whose influence is rapidly waning. I recommend the recent series of blog posts by Pieter Seuren. I quoted from his first post in Chomsky's Linguistics, a Passing Fancy?, but you can go directly to Seuren's first post: Chomsky in Retrospect – 1. What's particularly interesting to me at this moment is that Chomsky had been associated with machine translation:
While at Harvard during the early 1950s, and later at the MIT department of machine translation, he engaged—as an amateur—in some intensive mathematical work regarding the formal properties of natural language grammars, whereby the notion that a natural language should be seen as a recursively definable infinite set of sentences took a central position. One notable and impressive result of this work was the so-called Chomsky hierarchy of algorithmic grammars, original work indeed, as far as we know, but which has now, unfortunately, lost all relevance..
I of course have known about the Chomsky hierarchy for decades, but hadn't realized that Chomsky was that close to people actually working in computational linguistics. For Chomsky computation obviously was a purely abstract activity. Real computation, computation that starts somewhere, goes through a succession of states, and then produces a result, that is NEVER an abstract activity. It may be arcane, complex, and almost impossible to follow, but it is always a PHYSICAL process taking place in time and consuming resources (memory space and energy).

That sense of the physical is completely missing in the Chomsky tradition, and in its offshoots – I'm thinking particularly of the Lakoff line of work on embodied cognition. There is embodiment and there is embodiment. It is one thing to assert that the meanings of words and phrases are to be found in human perception and action, which is what Lakoff asserts, and quite something else to figure out how to get a physical device – whether a bunch of cranks and gears, a huge vacuum-tube  based electrical contraption, a modern silicon-based digital computer, or an animal brain – to undertake computation.

But that's a distraction from the main object of this note, which is to list the further posts in Seuren's Chomsky retrospect.

* * * * *

Hearing the Text Changes the Experience

Gregory Jusdanis, one of the more astute bloggers at Stanford's Arcade, has an interesting post on the experience of listening to an audiobook of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had his doubts about the experience – he listened to the audiobook while driving – but it seems to have transformed his sense of what a book, a text, is.
As the waves of the story reverberated through the car, I felt myself pulled into Twain’s world, incapable of maintaining the critical distance permitted by writing. When reading you gain perspective by closing your eyes, even for a second, moving them up or down, daydreaming perhaps, or concentrating on the distinction between your universe and that imagined one.
Ah, critical distance, lost. That's the curse of reading as a professional critic, you're always looking out for the critical opportunity, having thoughts of your own, and so pulling away from the text itself.

Moretti's Periodization

Anyone who's read Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees with care is likely to wonder about the periodizations of the novels in the first section, "Graphs." As Allen Beye Riddell puts it in a blog post from over two years ago
Moretti examines the history of arrival and disappearance of "novelistic genres" in Britain between 1740 and 1900. Examples of these genres include historical, gothic, and epistolary novels, as well as less familiar categories, such as silver fork novels and Newgate novels. Over the 160 year period, Moretti identifies 44 genres. And he detects a unexpected pattern: genres seem to arrive and depart in clusters.
Riddell is interested in verifying Moretti's periodization. He finds that it's not a straight forward process – and who's surprised about that?

I'm not going to attempt to summarize what Riddell's done; you'll have to read the post for yourself. He ends up checking the periodization for two genres, silver-fork novels and gothic novels, by identifying the intervals in which 95% of the novels appeared. He found that Moretti's periodization matched that fairly closely. He also notes that checking all 44 genres would be difficult because the relevant bibliographic resources aren't always adequate. He also notes in passing that "none of the genres are so mysterious that an interested student with some knowledge of British history and a handful of exemplars could not evaluate the case for the inclusion of a novel in a particular category."

Needless to say, this sort of work is essential if the project of "distant" reading is to go forward. It's brutal unglamorous work, but necessary.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sun, Clouds, Tassles


Down to the Bay: A Jersey City Photo Essay


I’ve been to the southern end of Liberty State Park many times, and taken many shots of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from there, and Port Liberté too. But I’d never walked along the Hudson River Walkway past Liberty National and down to the bay.


Heck, I’d never really known that walk was there until one day, after having breakfast at the Liberty Café, I decided to take a look. I didn’t walk very far; I just walked past the clubhouse for Liberty National and then returned to my car. But I came back early the next morning with my camera and had a ball.

Here I’m well past that clubhouse and am looking back at it, the merged Jersey City and Manhattan skylines, and those lovely weeds:


Now the path heads out over the marsh, anywhere from a foot to five feet or so above it. I’m pretty sure this walkway was submerged by Sandy:


JC Future 3: Art Surge

A couple of weeks ago Dale “Bright Moments” Hardman had a link on his Facebook page to something called Art Surge, and indicated that he thought it was pretty cool. So I decided to check it out.

The link took me to an article in the Jersey City Independent:
Downtown resident Yvonne Roen–a local theater artist, writer, director and actress who is organizing the event with Olivia Harris–says they first got the idea while studying the historical use of pageantry as candidates in the Masters Applied Theater program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.

“I thought, Why not have a procession that places you back by walking you through it, engaging with the city in an artistic way, and with each other?” she says, noting that the storm had an interesting way of getting people together. “I remember the first time the city got together after the hurricane was the election. Most people were in their pajamas and looked like they had just left the most shell-shocking slumber party ever. They were all checking in with each other…all those people being close together, that is where this idea came from.”
Cool, thought I to myself, way cool.

You gotta’ understand, I love a parade. And there’s nothing like a good procession to keep a community together. And the anniversary of Sandy seemed just the thing. We needed this, that is, we-the-citizens-of-Jersey-City, we need it. Yes, Sandy was a disaster, worse for some than others, but bad for all of us. Plus, I’d made this crazy argument that Sandy actually helped pull us together be forcing us to rely on one another.

Welcome to Wayquay's


This is an interesting environment to work in. I do most of my shooting outdoors. This space – a second-hand store a friend runs on weekends – is thus very different from what I'm used to. The light is different, often poor, mostly artificial (the windows are small) and the space is cramped and cluttered. And full of stuff, big stuff, little stuff, in-between stuff.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Stages in the Evolution of Music

This essay originally appeared in Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems 16(3): 273-296, 1993. You can now download it from my SSRN page.

ABSTRACT: Culture elaborates expressive forms by developing ever more differentiated control over patterns in the expressive medium. In Rank 1 culture (preliterate) music evolves through control over rhythm. Rank 2 culture (literacy) gains control over melodic structure while Rank 3 culture (Renaissance and after) adds harmonic elaboration to rhythm and melody. Within the twentieth century jazz has followed a similar course, with rhythmic elaboration coming first with traditional jazz, then melodic control emerging with swing, and harmonic control with bop. Both classical and jazz have much music straining beyond the limits of Rank 3 harmonic control, but no clear Rank 4 forms have yet evolved.

Primer on Neural Nets

Michael Nielsen is writing a book on neural nets and deep learning and he's posting chapters to the web. You can access the first chapter here, which uses the recognition of hand-written numerals as its problem domain. You can get access to the rest of the chapters by contributing to his Indigogo campaign.

My work is motivated by the creation of tools to help people think better, either individually or in groups. Put another way, I’m interested in cognitive tools and in collective intelligence. 
Open science 
I believe that publicly funded science should be open science, and from 2008-2012 I worked as an advocate for open science. You can get the flavour of my work on open science from my talk at, or in my op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve developed these ideas at length in my essay on The Future of Science and in other essays. I’ve also written a book about collective intelligence and open science. It was named one of the best books of 2011 by the Financial Times and by the Boston Globe...

Platonic Philosophical Ascent for Dummies

When I first saw this lady I thought she was real. I also wondered what she was doing and why she stood so still for so long.


Then I wised up. "She's not real," said I to myself, "she's a photo." Clever folks these construction guys.


By then, however, I was more interested in the blazing early morning sun, and wondering what that light would do when it started bouncing around inside my camera.

The Hays Tradition in Cognition

In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery–the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.
– R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path, 229

...the field of cognitive full of people profoundly misinterpreting each other's phrases and images, unconsciously sliding and slipping between different meanings of words, making sloppy analogies and fundamental mistakes in reasoning, drawing meaningless or incomprehensible diagrams, and so on. Yet almost everyone puts on a no-nonsense face of scientific rigor, often displaying impressive tables and graphs and so on, trying to prove how realistic and indisputable their results. This is fine, even necessary...but the problem is that this facade is never lowered, so that one never is allowed to see the ill-founded swamps of intuition on which all this "rigor" is based.
– Douglas Hofstadter, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, 375-375

David G. Hays headed the RAND Corporations work on machine translation in the 1950s an 1960s. In 1969 he became the founding chairman of the Department of Linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. I entered the English Department as a Ph. D. student in the fall of 1973 and was introduced to Hays in the spring of 1974 by Ralph Henry Reese, a fellow graduate student in English. I joined Hays’ research group that year. This is a partial list of the documents that came out of the research Hays initiated at Buffalo.

* * * * *

While I have divided the work into three phases to mark major shifts in thinking, there is overlap between these phases and that overlap shows up in the documents attributed to each phase.

Note: This information will be permanently accessible from the top of the blog as a page.

WLB = William L. Benzon
DGH = David G. Hays

Phase 1: Mechanisms of Language

This work is more or less “standard issue” for a certain kind of computational work being done in cognition and semantics during the mid-1970s. Similar work was being done at Yale, UCal San Diego, Carnegie Mellon, BBN, MIT, and SRI International. Features of interest include Hays’ account of metalingual definition, Phillips’ concept of manifestation, the use of modality and episodic structure as a mechanism for gathering heterogeneous information into a compact “bundle”, and use introduction of ontological relations (via the Great Chain of Being) in an unpublished manuscript.

Hays’ unpublished Mechanisms of Language is the major systematic treatment of this phase. It treats cognition as the foundation of language and includes treatments of lexical semantics, morphology, syntax, and phonology as well.



Monday, November 25, 2013

Crisis in a High-Tech Start-Up: A Case of Collective Action

I’m interested in collective creativity, in how creative activity in lodged in groups. I’ve explored this topic in a number of recent posts, perhaps most explicitly in a post that ranges from Shakespeare through the temporary village that made Apocalypse Now. This post is about a high-tech startup I worked for two decades ago. It tells a story of mounting stress and its release.

* * * * *

MapInfo started as a student project in a course on entrepreneurship at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Some students prepared a business plan that was so good the instructor told them they might be able to make a business of this if they so desired. They desired so and availed themselves of the university’s mechanisms for turning student projects into businesses.

Mike Marvin, an administrator with an interest in business staked our guys for a year while they developed the software described in their proposal. When, a year later, they had the software described in the plan, Mike quit the university and joined MapInfo as CEO as one of the Founders along with the four students, Sean O’Sullivan, John Haller, Andy Dressel, and Laszlo Bardos. The business became successful and a few years later they decided they needed a full-time technical writer. This would have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

I applied for the job and was granted an interview. I arrived at noon on a Saturday in full business dress, knowing full-well that it would be extraneous. I was met by one of the student founders, the company President, Sean O’Sullivan, in jogging shorts and T-shirt. We clicked and I got the job. I was employee number 66 (or 67, somewhere in the upper 60s). This puts the company at the upper margin of the size of a typical band, the day-to-day living unit among hunter-gatherer peoples.

At that time the company was way behind schedule on a major software release, having already missed a year's worth of ship dates. I had to learn their (software) product and produce a user's manual in less than two months in order to meet their absolute drop-dead ship date. I did my job and the product shipped at that time.

But the software was buggy, the manual was quixotic, and customers were not at all happy. A company that had been under stress for a year took bad hits from its customers. The developers began the difficult job of cleaning up software that never should have shipped in the first place while the salesmen and company executives set out to appease disappointed customers.

This stress continued for several months when another major release came due. At this time I, as tech writer, made a major mistake that ordinarily would have gotten me fired – I'd messed up in getting the manuals printed. However, other things had been going wrong and Mike saw that my error, however costly, was not an isolated problem.

Diane Disney Miller, RIP

From Mike Barrier's site:
She died yesterday [Nov. 19] at the age of 79, as everyone knows by now, after suffering a fall in late September that left her in a coma. This is a terrible loss. Two great institutions—the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles—speak very clearly about the remarkable person she was, about her strength of character and her dedication to honoring her parents' memory as splendidly as possible. She left too soon, with much accomplished but with important work still to do. There is on the museum's website a full and admirably sensitive account of her life.

Free Jazz: A William Parker Workshop

On Wednesday 13 February 2002 I attended a workshop conducted by William Parker. It was held in downtown Manhattan at 228 W. Broadway. The participants included two guitarists (electric), a vocalist, a trumpeter (me) and, of course, Parker himself, playing tuba for this occasion (he’s best known for his work on stand-up bass). Not your standard jazz ensemble.

Free jazz was the idiom. Of course “free jazz” is a big territory, but it doesn’t much matter just where in that territory we were located.

Parker made some general statements about this and that, and had variously wry, witty, and informative comments about the working methods of many of the folks he’s played with – Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Muhal Abrams, and so forth. But mostly we made music. And it really was music that we made. And pretty good music at that. The kind of music where, when it’s over, you don’t want to talk. You just remain silent for a moment, collecting yourself, deploying your parachute so as to slow down your descent into lower Manhattan.

We started with something Parker called “Number 14” — which he concocted on the spot. As he said, it starts with four fours. “What’s that?” you ask. You play four notes at a rapid clip, and do that four times in a row. “What four notes?” you ask. “He didn’t tell us, and none of us asked.” We all picked the notes we wanted when it came time to play the piece. But there’s more to “Number 14” than four fours. After four fours there’s a pause, that’s so, just like that, long. After the pause everyone picks a high note and does a long descending gliss(ando) to some low note. “What high note to what low note?” you ask. “Do you really think there’s a specific answer to that question?” says I. And then we play a long trill. “On notes of your choice,” you remark. “ Yes, that’s it.” After that, guitar one plays a simple one two figure and repeats it four times. Then the ensemble does another high to low gliss to trill. That’s the “head” to “Number 14.” After the head, it was up to us and the music to negotiate the flow.

So we went through the head a couple of times and then played it down. It must have gone for twenty or thirty minutes. It started out pretty raggedy, but then things started to settle in—though “settle “ is not a particularly good word to use here. There’s no easy way to describe the music that evolved. Sometimes there was a pulse, sometimes there wasn’t. Even when there was a pulse, there where times when some people didn’t follow it. Sometimes everyone was playing, sometimes only one or two were. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always shifting. Sometimes full-tilt bozo, sometimes approaching serene.

Light and Relationships, an Ontology




Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Poverty of Conceptual Blending for Literary Analysis

Not so long ago I critiqued Lakoff and Turner’s analysis of “To a Solitary Disciple” in terms of conceptual metaphor. I now want to do the same for conceptual metaphor’s intellectual descendent, conceptual blending. My basic problem is one that Tony Jackson voiced over a decade ago, “Issues and Problems in the Blending of Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology, and Literary Study”, Poetics Today (23:1 Spring 2002 pp. 161-179).

Thus (p. 173): “Too often it seems that the vocabulary of cognitive rhetoric is simply being plugged into the interpretation.” And later (p. 174)”
But the key consideration must be whether or not the new perspective actually causes specifiable elements to show up differently than before. I would argue that so far blending theory has failed to do this. Again, the cognitive understanding of blending may have led to a useful method of unpacking metaphor, but it does not really reveal much that would not be revealed by a fine-tuned rhetorical analysis.
In a word, old wine in new bottles.

And that, I fear, is much of its appeal. Critics who long for pre-structuralist innocence can have it while at the same time appearing to take a Great Critical Leap Forward through the simple expedient of adopting some new terms under which to practice good old New Critical close reading.

But enough snark. Before looking at a relatively recent article by Turner, however, I want to present a simple example of blending.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

Here’s Shakespeare’s well known Sonnet 129, “Th expence of Spirit.”
Th' expence of Spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action, and till action, lust
Is perjurd, murdrous, blouddy full of blame,
Savage, extreame, rude, cruell, not to trust,
Injoy'd no sooner but dispised straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swollowed bayt,
On purpose layd to make the taker mad.
Made In pursut and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest, to have extreame,
A blisse in proofe and provd and very wo,
Before a joy proposd behind a dreame,
       All this the world well knowes yet none knowes well,
       To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
One might well see a blend, or is it a metaphor? in the opening lines where there is a play on faculty psychology and sexual intercourse. In this blend the ejaculation of semen during sex runs parallel to the loss of Rational Spirits which, in depriving the individual of reasoned control over one’s actions, is responsible for the headlong drive toward sexual intercourse by any means necessary. But that’s not what interests me.

Another Nail in the Coffin of the Idea of Lone Genius

From "A Little Society", by Casey N. Cep, boldface mine:
Despite Charlotte Brontë’s insistence that her sister Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, the rumor that their brother Branwell penned the novel has persisted. ...

The persistence of the rumor reflects the curious, cloistered upbringing of the Brontës, but also the more universal experience of siblings. Collaboration and competition between brothers and sisters exists no matter their vocations, but literary siblings challenge our assumptions of lonely genius, isolated writers alone at their desks. Patrick Brontë, father to the four artists, who raised them himself after their mother died, wrote: “As they had few opportunities of being in learned and polished society, in their retired country situation, they formed a little society amongst themselves—with which they seem’d content and happy.”

“A little society” is the perfect description of siblings. Brothers and sisters have long encouraged one another’s literary careers: letters and drafts change hands; carefully chosen words of praise and criticism pass between lips; scraps of paper, coveted notebooks, and particular pens move between writing desks.


This conjunction spans, what? 240,000 miles and the ontological gap between the living and the non-living.


This one spans the distance between Hoboken and Midtown Manhattan and the ontological gap between New York City and the rest of the world. That gap exists mostly in the minds of New Yorkers.


The Origin of Golf, a Just-So Story Involving Shepherds and Pebbles

‘Pleasures are more beneficial than duties, because, like the quality of mercy, they are not strained, and they are twice blessed.’ – R. L. S.
I'm in the process of working up a post about Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, wondering just what my father, who'd been an avid golfer, would think of the place and its place in the world. To that end I've been looking through some of my father's golf stuff, including score cards from two rounds he played on the old course at St. Andrews, the mecca of the golf world, and his copy of the first edition of The Art of Golf by Sir W. G. Simpson, Bart. (baronet).


Sir Walter was a gentleman golfer, with all the weight of class and privilege "gentleman" carried in 19th Century Britain, and a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson. The book has some 140 pages plus of instruction, including photos, which are precded by 40 pages of upper class British learning and dry humor.

Here's what Sir Walter has to say about the game's origins. Note the opening geological reference. Why? And, of course, the shepherds, how classical! The true story, we know, is somewhat different.

* * * * *

Golf, besides being a royal game, is also a very ancient one. Although it cannot be determined when it was first played, there seems little doubt that it had its origin in the present geological period, golf links being, we are informed, of Pleistocene formation.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tip: Create a Your Own Randomizer

Whoever you are, whatever you do, if you’re serious about it, then you need a RANDOMIZER, some routine that regularly bumps you into unexpected stuff.

In the days before the internet, for example, I would go into bookstores and just look around. I’d browse through the new books to see if there was anything interesting. Of course, at any given time I’ve got my current projects. Anything relevant to a current project would be interesting. But other things might just jump out at me and proclaim, “I too am interesting.” So I’d take a look.

The point is that I don’t plan what’s on the new books shelves. Someone else does that. I just browse them. Same with the magazine racks. In particular, I’d look through the contents of business magazines like Fortune, Forbes, and Business Weekly (does it still exist?). And, often enough, I buy an issue.

I still do that, but not so much as before. For one thing, there aren’t so many bookstores around. For another, I’m not buying so many books.

So I’ve developed ways to get surprised on the web. I’m on an evolutionary psychology list, for example, that sends 10s of links to current literature everyday. Most are of little or no interest, but a few are, and some among those come as surprises. 

The Rise and Fall of Steven Fitzhugh Regensburg, Horn Maker to the ADA

As you know, Steve Regensburg was a drop-out from Harvard business school when he got the idea of combining bits and pieces of used plumbing with military surplus ordinance to make odd-looking trumpets that he then sold at a premium price. What made it all possible was a marketing gimmick that preyed on the insecurity and residual guilt that afflicts so many of us, especially those of us who don’t practice. He simply presented the ability to play his horns as a moral test. If you straighten-up and fly right, you’ll sound great on a Regensburg horn. If you don’t, then the Regensburg horn and mouthpiece won’t do anything for you. It turns out that just enough folks were willing to pay big bucks to prove themselves worthy that before you know it Steve was piloting his own private plane and developing a very nice collection of vintage Strads.

The trouble is, Steve started believing all this stuff himself. So he gave up gambling and drinking, canceled his annual pilgrimage to the fleshpots of Thailand – not to mention swearing off primo Thai-stick forever – and became a yoga devotee himself. He signed up for the program with Swami Ai’WannaDoYa Daddy O and rose through the ranks to become a teacher himself. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

The change in Steve’s moral outlook started one day when he was looking through one of his mouthpiece brochures and he was struck by the following sentence: “The sophisticated player will note that the improvements our mouthpieces afford depend on a relaxed physical approach to tone production. It is only though this relaxed approach that the Regensburg mouthpiece becomes a key to unlocking the trumpet player’s natural inner Wuh’P’Ahss.” When he first wrote that copy Steve had wondered whether players would actually buy into the hype, after all, if you change your way of playing, why attribute your success to the mouthpiece? Why not take credit yourself? Yet, wonder of wonders, players were more than willing to give credit to their mortgage-payment Regensburg mouthpieces.

Steve had a jivometric mind jolt. What, he thought to himself, if the mouthpiece could sense how the player was holding his body and then respond appropriately? Thus was born the first truly high-tech interactive mouthpiece.

It was relatively easy to figure out to make the mouthpiece responsive. The basic idea is to embed several hundred small heating units and cooling units at critical Kinetic Energy Nodes (KENs) arranged in a special Nodal Array Distribution (aka NADs) inside a mouthpiece made of a special high-tech ceramic. The Komputer Instrumentation Sonic Simulator (KISS) would activate the appropriate KENs causing the ceramic to expand or contract. The global pattern of expansion and contraction would alter the mouthpiece configuration in any way necessary – increasing or decreasing cup depth and diameter, sloping or cupping the throat, expanding or contracting the bore, tightening or opening the backbone, etc.

Things get old, they ripen, then rot



Friday, November 22, 2013

Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable

I published this in The Valve in March of 2010. It's a guide on how to get on board with the computational thinking that's the driver in the so-called "cognitive revolution" — which, BTW, has peaked and is now deep into routinization. Computational thinking is a style of thought, a way of looking at the world. Alas, the most familiar example of computation, arithmetic, is not a very good way to get a feel for the style, not as you need it to investigate literature, the arts, or even the human mind. This post is a brief guide to THAT style. 
Note that the first book I recommend is a comic about comics. Forget about MLA-authorized easings into literary cognitivism and similar things and forget about Turner and Lakoff, More than Cool Reason. Move them down on your list. Put McCloud first. Why? Because cognitivism is in fact about building things, about how the mind builds  perceptual and conceptual structures. McCloud is about how comics are built. And, in one way or another, the other books give you a sense of construction as well. The Braitenberg constructs a mind, mechanism by mechanism. There's NO sense of mechanism in Turner and Lakoff. See also Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing.
It has long been obvious to me that the cognitive sciences are what happened when the computation and the computer hit the behavioral sciences as a source of models and metaphors. And that is what is missing from almost all of the work I’ve seen in cognitive approaches to literature. In this post I list and annotate four modest books that can help restore the sense of computation, and the constructive, that’s otherwise absent. I list them in order of suggested reading, starting with a comic book about comic books. After that we have a bonus section, a parable about computation based on passages from Simon about a drunken ant walking on the beach.

(1) Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It's not an academic book; there's no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they're constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences.

(2) Valentine Braitenberg (1999). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This is a cumulative series of thought experiments, 14 of them in the first 83 pages. Braitenberg asks us to imagine a simple (artificial) creature in a simple environment. Here’s how he begins to describe the first one: “Vehicle 1 is equipped with one sensor and one motor. The connection is a very simple one. The more there is of the quality to which the sensor is tuned, the faster the motor goes” (p. 3). He then works out the consequences of this very simple creature, how it moves about. In the second chapter he gives the vehicle two sensors and two motors and from that constructs primitive fear and aggression. And so it goes for the rest of these 14 chapters. In each chapter he adds a little bit to the vehicle from the previous chapter and explores the behavior consequences, e.g.: love (vehicle 3), concepts (#7), getting ideas (#10), egotism and optimism (#14). The last 50 pages contain biological notes on the vehicles, thus relating to the real nervous systems of real animals. Like the McCloud, it conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction that is essential to the cognitive science.

Intensities, light at the threshold of pain

This series was in part inspired by Mark Changizi's remarks on visual pain.



Above and Beyond, from Golf to Blues

I was rummaging around on my hard-drive, looking for something I know is there, someplace, or at least it was, some time long ago – I mean, there’s stuff on this drive that goes back to 1984, when I bought my first MacIntosh – and not finding it. But I bumped into some stuff I’d forgotten was there. Here’s some passages that didn’t make the final cut for Beethoven’s Anvil, my book on music. The first is about a golfer who rose above his usual level while playing against Tiger Woods.

Then we go to music and end up with a band from upstate New York, The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band. I played with them for a few years and two gigs stand out in my mind as being a cut above the others and, believe me, there are some very find gigs among those others. 
What, you might ask, do golf and the blues have to do with one another? Simple, you do them with your body.
Bob May Rises to Woods

Let us, for a moment, return to athletics. During the period in which I have written this book [I was working on the book in 1999-2000], Tiger Woods established himself as arguably the greatest golfer in history, and he is not yet thirty, which is a prime time for golfers, though other athletes are often on the decline by that time. In particular, Woods became the youngest golfer ever to complete a so-called Grand Slam, winning the four most prestigious tournaments in the game – the British Open (open meaning that both professionals and amateurs compete), the United States Open, the Master’s, and the PGA (Progessional Golfer’s Association) – and, beyond that, winning three of them in a single season.

However, it’s not Tiger Wood who interests me. Yes, he may well be the greatest golfer in history. And whatever role natural athletic endowment plays in that greatness, one must also consider the amount of time Woods spent playing golf at a very early age. By the time he was five he may well have logged more hours playing golf than any other five-year-old in history. Given what we now know about the brain’s maturation, that implies that Woods’ may be more intimately attuned to the requirements and rhythms of golf than any other player. And that is why he will raise the bar on golfing excellence. But, as I said, the mystery of his excellence is not the mystery I want to think about.

I’m interested in the man he beat to win the 2000 PGA. That man, Bob May, is slightly older than Woods – 31 years old at the time, as against Woods’ 24 – and was, as they say, a journeyman player. No one would have picked him to finish in the top 10, much less to play so well that he was tied with the phenomenal Tiger Woods at the end of regulation play, thereby forcing a play-off. Woods, as we know, won that play-off – oddly enough, by recovering from some spectacularly bad shots – and, in doing so, was simply being Tiger Woods. This was certainly an above average performance from Woods, but it was within what we have to assume is his range.

Bob May played above himself. This was not in his normal performance range; it was an exceptional game. What, physically, does that mean? In a general way it surely means that the muscles in his body and the neurons of his nervous system were coordinated more exactly than they’d ever been before. And this coordination was in effect, not for a minute, or an hour, or even for the five hours it takes to play a round of golf. For golf tournaments are contested in four rounds played over for days. Thus, for four days in late August of 2000, the 31st year of his life, Bob Woods was more synchronized and harmonized than he’d ever been. He was, to use a theological term, inspired.

Granted that, without a deeper understanding of bodily movement that statement doesn’t have much teeth to it; but it will do as a ball-park characterization. Things clicked and, once they got started clicking, they stayed that way.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Some Recent Trends in Continental Thought: A Parable in Flowers



IMGP8611rd - Iris & Cab, Gaudy, Gaudy
The End of Western Metaphysics


What about boxing?

The Liberty Cafe at Dawn



Bleg: Memory for Serial Order

I’m looking for ethnographic evidence about how people recall events. I’ve got my own personal experience, which is just that, and I’ve got accounts in two rather old books: F. C. Bartlett, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (Cambridge 1932); Heinz Werner, Comparative Psychology of Mental Development (International Universities Press, 1948). Does anyone have more recent, and more detailed, evidence?

While the question interests me in general, I also have a specific reason to be interested in it: It seems to me that the (culturally important) narratives of preliterate peoples are always told in event order – in particular, I’m thinking of the many examples Lévi-Strauss recounts in The Raw and the Cooked (and in subsequent volumes of Mythologies) and of the Winnebago Trickster stories as reported by Paul Radin; I have no reason to think that these reports are atypical, but they might be. They certainly don’t constitute a proper random sample.

Serial Memory: Bartlett and Werner

I’m interested in how we remember things that have an inherent temporal order, such as events in life history. One wakes up in the morning, performs one’s morning ritual (turn of the alarm, get out of bed, brews a cup of tea…), you go out the door, to the driveway, get in the car…and then a dog runs out into the street, WHAM!…and so on…“Honey, I’m home! the day sucked”…until you fall asleep. Similarly, pieces of music unfold in time.

How do you recall such sequences at a later date? In particular, how do you “get to” an event that happened in the middle of the sequence? It seems to me that that simplest scheme is simply to record the events in order as they happen. If that’s all you do, then it would seem that, if an when you want to recall the events, you must start at the beginning and replay them.

Unless, of course, you (that is, your mind) have indexed a sequence of events in some other way. But such indexing requires mental machinery above and beyond that required for “raw” recall. And many of us do have such machinery.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Mnozil Bossa

These guys are just wonderful:

Sic transit gloria mundi






5Pointz is Dead! Long Live Graffiti!

It’s been coming for some time now, the death of 5Pointz. The building’s owner, Jerry Wolkoff, decided to cash in on his investment, as is his right, and put up cash cow condos on the site. And thus it came about that some time late on the night of November 18 and early in the morning of November 19 that outside surface of 5Pointz was white-washed. And wouldn’t you know
Less than 12 hours later, however, some of the grieving artists were back, with a new kind of artwork that could be seen glowing on its sides.

In a so-called light writing protest, artists beamed up messages in neon lights.

Some messages criticized the building's destruction as "genocide" and "greed." One message was one of thanks, reading: "For the yrs of love... 2 B continued! Not the End.."
But it is, of course, the end, on that building. Because that building is going the way all buildings eventually do, it’s going to be ground into dust, and new buildings put it its place.

Such is life.

And such is graffiti. First the burner, and then the buff. Burner, buff, burner, buff. The eternal cycle. And, because it IS a cycle, no one gets the last word.

Though, come to think of it, I just watched this Dr. Who episode in which we were shown the death of the earth when the sun, finally, exploded. As all stars must. Someone must have had a last word on that one.

Though it’s just across the river – well, two rivers and an island: Hudson River > Manhattan Island > East River > Queens – I’ve never been there. Never felt the need. 

Lookit this flic:

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Animated Motion, Category: Animals

Nina Paley show how to combine waves to create the illusion of an animal moving: Waves and Locomotion

A touch of red




It Takes a Village…to tell a story, to mount a play, to make a film

For some time now the exemplary situation I bring to mind when I think about literature (and, increasingly over the last decade, film) is that of the tribal storyteller, the one who tells the sacred stories through which the tribe members bind themselves to one another and the tribe to the cosmos.

These stories are traditional. The storyteller doesn’t make them up; he learns them from a storyteller of the previous generation. To be sure, the specific words, vocal inflections, facial expressions, and gestures the storyteller uses are his, and they are specific to a particular occasion. But the characters, story lines, major and minor incidents, these are all passed down through the generations. Just exactly who originally made up a given story, that’s lost information, never again to be recovered.

And it’s probably the wrong question to ask: Who told the story first?

These stories are collective creations, formed in 1000s of performances across 100s of generations. Perhaps they date back to a time when language as we know it was not yet fully formed and the story was told as much in gesture and dance as through the spoken word. But, as the word emerged from the music, the stories began to take form and the storyteller emerged as a figure of some importance in tribal life.

As he told the story before the assembled tribes people, men, women, and children all, he could see their reactions in the expressions and gestures. He could hear them laugh, groan, cough, or fidget, and adjust the ongoing story accordingly. A new bit that went well might be amplified in the next telling and bits that failed to elicit a response would disappear. In time, the stories would change, and this despite the fact that, on each occasion, the storyteller tells it the “same way”, they way his teacher taught to him, and his teacher before him. Each time, the same, faithful to tradition, but nonetheless changing.

And thereby always in synch with the needs of the current tribesman. The story is thus their story, their collective creation. The storyteller is just a mouthpiece.

Thousands of years pass and along comes Shakespeare. It’s a different world, one with writing and books. And the words printed in books stay the same from one day to the next, indeed, from one printing to the next. Yet the same stories keep getting told and retold. And many of them are acted on the stage.

Monday, November 18, 2013

2008 Bailout Biggest Wealth Transfer in History (?)

That's what Ross Levine says in this conversation to Glenn Loury, the biggest transfer of wealth from the many to the few:

From Today's Catch

Here's the dilemma of the American politician. Over there on the far right of the picture you see the Statue of Liberty, given to America by the people of France. It represents  the ideals on which much of American political culture is based. Over the the far left you see the so-called Freedom Tower, built in the wake of 9/11 and costing a ton of money. The office space isn't needed, so how's it being paid for? By raising fares to cross the Hudson River. The 99% are paying of a status toy that makes few developers and construction companies rich. As for the ducks you see in the river, they don't give a damn.




Walter Murch on Collective Creativity

Two summers ago I was working on a series of posts about Apocalypse Now. One day I got an email from one Walter Murch, a man I did not know. But I knew the name.

Could it be him?

The Walter Murch I was thinking of had gone to Johns Hopkins a couple of years before I had and, like me, had associated himself with Professor Richard Macksey. When this Walter Murch left Hopkins he went West and ended up in the film business, where he’d worked on a number of important films, including Apocalypse Now, for which he won an Academy Award (aka an Oscar) for sound.

Was this that Walter Murch? Yes, it was, and he liked what I was saying about Apocalypse Now. Since then we’ve carried on a casual and sporadic email correspondence.

Most recently we’ve been talking about the collective nature of movie making. By convention overall creative responsibility for a film is credited to the director, and for sufficient reason. The problem is, however, that our basic cultural model of creativity is one of individual creativity, and that does not do justice to any number of activities, from scientific laboratories, through basketball teams and ballet companies, the founding team of a high-tech start-up and, yes, a motion-picture production ensemble.

Walter sent me a passage from a 1994 journal entry:
Reading Penrose - the fact that billiards, which is the game usually given as an example of mechanical physics in deterministic practice, is not immune to vanishingly small initial conditions for the outcome of complex sequences • A line of 20 balls may be arranged in a zigzag such that each will hit the next in sequence when tapped by the cue ball. But exactly where the last ball will wind up after it is hit is subject to something as small as an intake of breath in the neighboring town. If there are 26 balls, a molecular disturbance in some neighboring galaxy will influence the outcome • Reminds me of my 'magic light' hypothesis of film: that film is the sensitive receptacle of everything that happens during the filming - what the assistant electrician had for breakfast, etc. - caught somehow, invisibly, in the amber of celluloid. In the future, people will be able to see this complex of interactions directly by shining a special ‘light’ through the film. It will look like some 5-dimensional moiré pattern, endlessly shifting, endlessly fascinating.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Accounting for the great divergence between Europe and Asia

Stephen Broadberry (h/t Tyler Cowen):
...the Great Divergence of living standards between Europe and Asia had late medieval origins and was already well under way during the early modern period...Economic historians can now, therefore, account for the Great Divergence, using the word “accounting” in the sense of measurement – by providing a quantitative picture of when and where the Great Divergence occurred. However, there is a second sense in which the word “accounting” can be used – to provide an explanatory narrative.

Much remains to be done on the measurement of the key explanatory factors, but the framework adopted here is to see the divergences as arising from the differential impact of shocks hitting economies with different structural features. The economic history literature suggests two important shocks coinciding with the turning points identified above around 1348 and 1500.
  • The Black Death – which began in western China before spreading to Europe and reaching England in 1348 – wiped out around one-third of Europe’s population within three years, and more than a half over the following century.
  • Around 1500, new trade routes were opened up between Europe and Asia around the south of Africa, and between Europe and the Americas.
These shocks had asymmetric effects on different economies because of four important structural factors.
  • The type of agriculture.
  • The age of first marriage for women.
  • The flexibility of labour supply.
  • The nature of state institutions.

Living Fossiles

Jared Diamond (The World until Yesterday), and others as well, have argued as though current hunter-gatherer societies are all but direct examples of how our Stone Age ancestors had lived, as though their way of life has been unchanged for 10s of thousands of years. Writing in the London Review of Books, James Scott says he's wrong about that:
The inference of pristine isolation, however, is completely unwarranted for virtually all of the other 35 societies he canvasses. Those societies have, for the last five thousand years, been deeply involved in a world of trade, states and empires and are often now found in undesirable marginal areas to which they have been pushed by more powerful societies. The anthropologist Pierre Clastres argued that the Yanomamo and Siriono, two of Diamond’s prime examples, were originally sedentary cultivators who turned to foraging in order to escape the forced labour and disease associated with Spanish settlements. Like almost all the groups Diamond considers, they have been trading with outside kingdoms and states (and raiding them) for much of the past three thousand years; their beliefs and practices have been shaped by contact, trade goods, travel and intermarriage. So thoroughly have they come to live in a world of powerful kingdoms and states that one might call these societies themselves a ‘state effect’. That is, their location in the landscape is designed to help them evade or trade with larger societies. They forage forest and marine products desired by urban societies; many groups are ‘twinned’ with neighbouring societies, through which they manage their trade and relationship to the larger world.

Contemporary foraging societies, far from being untouched examples of our deep past, are up to their necks in the ‘civilised world’. Those available for Diamond’s inspection are, one might argue, precisely the most successful examples, showing how some hunter-gatherer societies have avoided extinction and assimilation by creatively adapting to the changing world. Taken together, they might make for an interesting study of adaptation, but they are useless as a metric to tell us what our remote ancestors were like.

Disney Goes Meta: Why the Jam Session in Fantasia?

The film takes place in two worlds: the Real World and the Rest. The Deems Taylor interstitials represent the Real World, while all the individual episodes take place in a different subworld of the Rest. The intermission takes place entirely within the Real World, and it has two components, the jam session and the segment about the soundtrack.

The sound-track segment has a clear function. The film as a whole consists of images set to sound. Each episode is based on a piece of music, sound, and each takes place in a different imagined world, images. The soundtrack segment is a lesson on the relationship between sight and sound. The soundtrack segment clearly takes place in the Real World. Taylor is right there coaxing the soundtrack into performing for us.

The soundtrack segment is preceded by the jam session. The intermission segment opens on a stage, I believe, with musicians in place. The clarinet and bass start it off and the others join in.. When Deems Taylor comes on stage, he coughs and thereby shuts it down. We are thus being explicitly told that the jam session doesn’t come from Taylor; on the contrary, there is some kind of (possibly mild) opposition between the two.

That, in effect, establishes music as the spontaneous foundation of the imaginative worlds we see in the rest of the film. Once that has been done, THEN Deems Taylor gives us his little demonstration of the relationship between sound and image. Taken together these two segments anchor the rest of the segments in here-and-now reality. They establish the imagination, and art, as being central to the Real World.

Thus goes Disney’s lesson in metaphysics.

* * * * *

This little argument should be applied to the arguments in these longer posts:

Photo Ontology 1

Five photos, each distinctly different from the others, together they suggest a world.

after the snow, lonnngggg after.jpg





Friday, November 15, 2013

Music: Ride the Lizard, Valkyrie, Ride It!

Years ago, when I was working as a program assistant in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins, we got word that a new gospel singer was in town. Would we audition her, see if we wanted to sponsor her in performance? The Chaplain passed that job to me.

So I arranged an audition. At the appointed time she arrived at Hopkins with her. She changed into performance dress – a billowing white gown – and took her place near the piano. Her accompanist started, she joined in, and seconds later I had made my decision. That is to say, I made my decision before she finished her first selection. I felt no need to hear more.

I really don't recall just how long it took me to decide. Let's say it was 30 seconds – though it might have been a little less, or somewhat more, but not much more. Of that time, I figure most of it was taken up by my left-brain figuring out what my right-brain had decided after, say, only 5 or 10 seconds.

What was it that I had decided so very quickly? That she was a VERY musical woman. Nothing more, and certainly, certainly nothing less. That is, I had assigned her to a very high level of competence, and that was all I needed to know in order to recommend that we present her – which we did. Just where she was within that upper league was irrelevant to my purpose. And, I suspect, that if I hadn't placed her in that league so quickly, I would have had her audition longer. She might have put herself in that league later on, and she might not have. If not, then I may well have had a much more difficult decision to make.


But what, you ask, has that to do with lizards and Valkyries?

The Valkyries are in this clip, a segment from a master class in which player Thomas Leyendecker, principal trombone with the Berlin Philharmonic, coaches Carson King-Fournier on Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.

King-Fournier is the one who plays first. He’s an excellent player, but his playing lacks “guts” and “soul”. Leyendecker tell him that in those terms, but that’s what he’s getting at. There’s the notes, the music, and the deep music, the soul. You don’t get into a master class like this unless you’ve got the notes and music down cold. This coaching is about soul.