Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Creativity comes from the margins: A lesson for graffiti here?

Costica Bradatan has an interesting piece in the NYtimes today, which begins and ends with the Dadaists: Change Comes From the Margins. His thesis is well-known, but nonetheless worth thinking about. So, he tells us:
By definition, any center is a site of concentration and intensity — after all, it’s the place toward which everybody is attracted in some way or another. That’s also what makes it so formidable. The center possesses a wealth of prospects, opportunities and resources, but also anxieties — it is the place where the possibility of collapse, disintegration or descent into chaos figure prominently. To keep such dangers at bay, life at the center has to be regulated in every detail, its energy well managed, impulses properly channeled and spontaneity standardized. Sophisticated and expensive bureaucracies are developed to make sure that the pursuit of happiness does not turn into a stampede.
He then goes on to point out that the center inevitably becomes stale and needs reinvigorating. And so it tries to co-opt the margins:
The biggest irony, however, is that all these attempts at derision and subversion, all the marginals’ mockery, usually end up making the center stronger; they are needed in the same vital way an organism needs antibodies. If the center manages to recruit the marginals to work for its own purposes, then it is saved.
And the marginals know the game:
Marginals know only too well that, by subverting the center, they risk becoming part of it; those who challenge the canons or ideological foundations of the mainstream most vehemently can turn one day into canonic figures themselves — think Picasso, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan.
The interesting thing about graffiti is that it's been dancing with legitimacy since the early 70s and it's still managed to hang on to its marginality.

I explore these issues in my series on the MacArthur Fellows program.

Visual Thinking

Sigma 128.67 red lips2-nosig.jpg

* * * * *

During the late 1980s I collaborated with Richard Friedhoff on a coffee-table book on computer graphics and image processing: Visualizationi: The Second Computer Revolution. Given that the book was targeted at a general audience, though it has found some favor among scholars, a lot of ideas didn't make it in. I took a number of those and gathered them together into and article on visual thinking for the Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology. You can download it at the usual places:
Abstract and table of contents below.

* * * * *

Abstract: Its ability to deal with visual information is one of the mind's most powerful capacities. Visual thinking, high-level manipulation of visual information, is important to computer science because, with the flowering of computer graphics and image processing, it provides the basis for a rich and intuitively satisfying channel of man-machine interaction. Just as writing evolved to help the verbal mind, so various media have evolved to help the visual mind. I propose that visual thinking involves the internalization of visuo-manipulative activity and of movement through the environment. We move through the physical environment, sometimes in a familiar place, sometimes in a strange place; we handle objects, sometimes to accomplish a specific task, sometimes simply to inspect the object. Visual thinking involves imagined locomotion in imagined settings, imagined manipulation of imagined objects. The settings and objects may be real, but not present, or they may exist only in imagination.

Published in Allen Kent and James G. Williams, Eds. Encyclopedia of Computer Science and Technology. Volume 23, Supplement 8. New York; Basel: Marcel Dekker, Inc. (1990) 411-427.

Introduction: Visual Thinking in Computing 2
The Method of Loci 2
Understanding Molecular Structure: The Work of Irving Geis 3
Visual Thinking in Art 4
Visual Thinking: A Speculative Proposal 5
The Controversy over Mental Images 7
Some Evidence from Neuropsychology 8
Visual Thinking, Science, and Creativity 10
Images As Tools for Thought 12
The Graphics Interface 13
The Visual Nature of the World of Computing 14
Back to the Future 15

Three Attitudes Toward Light




Love evolves?

In the 2012 survey, people were asked a version of the famous question in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century poem: “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?”

A great many, it turns out. In the survey, 33 percent of men and 43 percent of women answered yes when asked if they had ever fallen in love with someone they did not initially find attractive. Dr. Fisher terms this process “slow love,” and says it is becoming more common as people take longer to marry.

“Everyone is terrified that online dating is reducing mate value to just a few superficial things like beauty — whether you swipe left or right on Tinder,” she said in an interview. “But that’s just the start of the process. Once you meet someone and get to know them, their mate value keeps changing.”

When the survey respondents were asked what had changed their feelings, the chief reasons they gave were “great conversations,” “common interests,” and “came to appreciate his/her sense of humor.”
H/t 3QD.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Three for the Festival #GVM004 Demolition Exhibition

Mission Control

Rocky 184-188 WC

Push for Help

Laudato Si' @3QD: Bridging the Gaps

This month I've decided to turn my 3QD slot over to my good friend Charles Cameron so that he can comment on Pope Francis' remarkable encyclical, Laudato Se'.

Charles is a poet and a student of many things, most recently religious fundamentalism and its contemporary manifestations in terrorism. He characterizes himself as a vagabond monk and he blogs at Zenpundit and at Sembl. When he was eleven he applied to join an Anglican monestery and, while they didn't take him in, that act did bring him to the attention of the remarkable Fr. Trevor Huddleston, who became his mentor for the next decade. Thereafter Cameron explored Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu mysticism, and Native American shamanism. He's been around.

But it's his connection with Trevor Huddleston that got my attention, for Huddleston managed to broker a gift between two trumpet-player heroes of mine. At one point in his career he was in South African, where a young Hugh "Grazin in the Grass" Masekela was one of his students. On a trip to America, Fr. Huddleston met Louis Armstrong and got him to give Masekela a trumpet.

Charles chose bridging as his theme, noting that "pontiff" ultimately derives from the Latin: pons, pont- ‘bridge’ + -fex from facere ‘make.’ The Pontiff is thus a maker of bridges. But what is being bridged? Here's an early passage from Charles' commentary:
It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.

The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.

Addendum [29 June 2015 3:41 PM]: It has just occurred to me that Charles is explicating Laudato Si' as a plea and prescription for what I have, in various posts, been calling Unity of Being.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Computational Brain?

Gary Marcus (NYU) thinks that field programmable gate arrays might be our best bet for thinking about neural computation (NYTimes):
FIELD programmable gate arrays consist of a large number of “logic block” programs that can be configured, and reconfigured, individually, to do a wide range of tasks. One logic block might do arithmetic, another signal processing, and yet another look things up in a table. The computation of the whole is a function of how the individual parts are configured. Much of the logic can be executed in parallel, much like what happens in a brain.

Although my colleagues and I don’t literally think that the brain is a field programmable gate array, our suggestion is that the brain might similarly consist of highly orchestrated sets of fundamental building blocks, such as “computational primitives” for constructing sequences, retrieving information from memory, and routing information between different locations in the brain. Identifying those building blocks, we believe, could be the Rosetta stone that unlocks the brain.

To put this differently, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to directly connect the language of neurons and synapses to the diversity of human behavior, as many neuroscientists seem to hope. The chasm between brains and behavior is just too vast. […] 
If neurons are akin to computer hardware, and behaviors are akin to the actions that a computer performs, computation is likely to be the glue that binds the two.
Here's a link to a perspectives piece published in Science, The atoms of neural computation,  and to a FAQ about that piece.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

On the theology of "Laudato Si"

Pope Francis uses theology to foreground nature, with God being the force of eminence that shoots through and connects all things: “the universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul. But also to discover God in all things.” This isn’t simply rehabilitating something outside of man that man has destroyed.

The pope’s method of thinking about nature by bringing humans back into it, has a lot in common with Morton’s idea of a “dark ecology,” or “ecology without nature.” Morton considers a separation between man and nature detrimental to environmental thought: “Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration.” Morton’s ecology is “dark” because humans are already bound up in its “irony, ugliness, and horror,” and so lack objective ground from which to theorize.
H/t Tim Morton.

Iris petal in your face and on your tongue


The Hologram Metaphor in Mind and Culture

From some old notes:

Finally, I'd like to suggest cultures encode their master patterns like holograms encode images. If you rip a hologram of, for example, a coin, in half, you can still use it to view the entire coin. If you rip one of those halves in half, you can use either of the resulting quarters to view the entire coin. This is quite different from an ordinary photograph where, if you rip it in half, you get one half of the coin on one piece of photograph and the other half on the other piece. If you rip one of those pieces in half you will be down to photographic fragments showing a quarter of the coin. A piece of a photograph contains a piece of the image.

A piece of a hologram, however, still contains the entire image. The resolution of the image, that is, its sharpness, will be somewhat reduced—the smaller the piece, the lower the resolution—but the entire image is there. A hologram is thus a way of distributing the entire image throughout the representing medium (the piece of photographic film). Similarly, the pattern of a culture is distributed throughout all the artifacts and practices of the people who live that culture. Each piece and aspect reflects the pattern of the whole.

My use of the hologram metaphor is not accidental. There is a considerable body of research and theory which indicates that the brain stores information holographically (Karl Pribram is perhaps the most vigorous proponent of this; see Languages of the Brain, 1971). Thus it may be no accident that a man's essence shows in everything he is or does or touches. That is so because that's how the brain works. The brain also encodes culture.

For culture ultimately resides in the brains of those who carry the culture. If those brains store information so that each physical part reflects the pattern of the whole, then that is how they will organize culture. It is thus no accident that students of culture from Ruth Benedict through Claude Levi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz and Erik Erikson find correspondences, for example, between the pattern of a wedding ceremony and the layout of a dwelling, between patterns of infant weaning and adult aggression, and so forth. Cultures form coherent patterns because the brains of culture-bearers seek to impose coherence everywhere.

Similarly, each individual carries a low-res version of the entire culture. Oh, each person is an expert (high res) in this or that aspect of culture; but has only a nodding acquaintance with most of it. And there is some body of knowledge and practice all hold more or less in common in some reasonable detail. But the full culture in all its richness exists only in the interactions among all the individuals.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Fotos: Some Styles at the Demolition Exhibition [#GVM004]

AIDS crew
Tomorrow (Saturday, June 28, 2015) marks the official opening of Green Villain’s Demolition Exhibition, a show of graffti installed (good Art Word, that) on 30,000 sq. feet of walls in the Newport area of Jersey City. Of course artists and others have been in and out of the building for the last two months, so the boundary between official opening hours and the rest of time and space is somewhat porous. But that will all come to an end sometime in July, when the building is demolished and returned to dust.

With all that in mind, I thought I’d offer a few comments on some of the styles in view. As far as I know graffiti styles have not been subject to classification and analysis beyond the standard distinction between wild style, in which the letters and cut up, confused, and disguised, and all the rest. So there is no official nomenclature. Nor do I intend to introduce any here.

But I do think it’s useful/helpful to note that it’s not all alike, especially if you’re not familiar with graffiti.

* * * * *

These pieces exhibit a ‘flat’ style, which may be the most common style in the show. There may be some 3D cues here and there, but they’re minimal. There’s no attempt to imply and overall 3D space. Notice the way patterns are deployed across the surfaces of the letters:

This, in some ways, is flat. But the 3D cues (drop shadows) are very strong, though there is no overall 3D space:


Thursday, June 25, 2015

On the Direction of 19th Century Poetic Style, Underwood and Sellers 2015

Another working paper (title above). Download at:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below:

Abstract: Underwood and Sellers have discovered that over the course of roughly a century (1820-1919) Anglo-American poetry has undergone a consistent change in style in a direction favored by editors and reviewers of elite journals. This directional shift aligns with the one Matthew Jockers found in Angophone novels during roughly the same period (from the beginning of the 19th century to its end). I argue that this change is characteristic of a cultural evolutionary process and sketch a way to simulate such a process as an interaction between a population of texts and a population of writers where texts and writers. I suggest that such directionality is a sign of autonomy in the aesthetic system, that it is not completely coupled to and subsumed by surrounding historical events.


0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not 2
1. Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction 8
2. Beyond Whig History to Evolutionary Thinking 14
3. Could Heart of Darkness have been published in 1813? – a digression 19
4. Beyond narrative we have simulation 22

0. Introduction: Looking at Cultural Evolution whether You Like It or Not

I was of course thrilled to read How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015). Why? Because they provide preliminary evidence that 19th century Anglophone poetic culture has a direction. Just what that direction, and how to characterize it, that’s something else. But there does appear to be a direction. And just why is that exciting? Because Matthew Jockers made the same discovery about the 19th century Anglophone novel. To be sure, that’s not what he claimed – I’ve had to reinterpret his work (see my working paper, On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel) – but that’s what he has in fact done.

So we’ve got two investigations making the same observation: there is a long-term direction 19th century literary culture. But not the same, as Jockers looked at novels and Underwood and Sellers looked at poetry. Moreover their observational methods are quite different. Jockers uncovered direction by looking for similarity between texts where similarity judgments are based on a variety of stylistic measures and on topic analysis. Underwood and Smalls bumped into directionality by looking for differences between the general run of literary texts and texts selected for review by elite publications. Jockers’ work, almost by design, uncovered continuity between successive cohorts of texts, but simply ignored elite culture. Underwood and Smalls had no explicit interest in local continuity but, by looking at elite choice, uncovered a possible factor in directional cultural change: the “pressure” of elite preference on the system as a whole.

Can psychoanalysis survive neuroscience? In search of transference

The NYTimes has an interesting article about research attempting to reconstruct psychoanalytic ideas with neuroscientific support.

While working on his Ph.D., Gerber began a research project that tried to make sense of this mysterious process. He recruited psychoanalysts to fill out an extensive weekly questionnaire, documenting what was happening inside their offices, in as much detail as possible, including patient outcomes. Over the decade it took to complete this study, Gerber saw a pattern in the patients who progressed the most. They didn’t move in a linear way from worse to better, from neurotic to not neurotic, as Gerber had supposed at the outset. Rather, roughly in the middle of their treatment, they went through a period of intense flux, oscillating between extremes of behavior, before they began to improve. Gerber uses a term from chemistry to capture what he saw: ‘‘annealing,’’ the act of heating something so that all its molecules dance around wildly and then slowly cooling it back down so that it assumes a new and more stable state.

‘‘But it also left me with a question,’’ he said. ‘‘Where do you go with this next?’’ He decided to attend medical school and in 1997 enrolled at Harvard. Throughout the 2000s, after he graduated, a spate of brain-­imaging studies was published, demonstrating that a course of psychotherapy — even without medication — had measurable, physical consequences in the brain.
In Anderson’s joint project with Gerber and Peterson, the subjects lie in an M.R.I. machine while they are given descriptions of fictional characters. Unknown to the subjects, some characters are designed to evoke their particular significant other, in order to simulate a transference effect. Some of the descriptive language that the subjects supplied during the earlier interviews is used.

After the learning phase, the subjects are asked to remember the descriptions of all the fictional characters. The subjects tended to attribute traits to the significant-­other characters that they had not been told, but that they had earlier used to describe their own real-life significant other. […] So far, Gerber has identified areas of the brain — the left and right insula, the motor cortex and the right caudate — that react differently when subjects are learning about fictional significant-other characters instead of the other more neutral ones. With the proviso that it is still very early in the research, Gerber speculates that these brain regions, which are known to be integral to the brain’s "error circuitry," are galvanized by the effort to make sense of this partly intimate new character. She is so familiar — and yet, the brain notices, in some ways she is not. Gerber speculates that it may require more of an effort to engage with the idea of her than it does with the others.
Revising Freud in major ways?

Orange Profusion


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rampage Killers, Suicide Bombers, and the Difficulty of Killing People Face-to-Face

In a discussion over at Crooked Timber, Rich Puchalsky posted a link to a long post by Randall Collins, a sociology professor at U Penn: Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement. Among other things it develops a sharp contrast between rampage killers and suicide bombers and has some very interesting remarks on the psychological difficulty of killing people face-to-face and what rampage killers do to overcome that difficulty.

On motivation:
In mass rampage killings, the killers are not aiming at particular individuals at all. The victims are anonymous, representatives of a collective identity that is being attacked. Hence mass attacks generally take place in institutional settings: mainly in schools, or work places, although recently also in exercise gyms and in churches. The Aurora, Colorado attack in July 2012 was unusual (or the harbinger of new settings), in a movie theatre; the Norway shooting attack of July 2011 was on a youth camp of a political party. The number actually killed is misleading; the attack is an effort to destroy an institution through the people who belong to it. In that sense it is a symbolic attack-- a deadly symbolic attack. The motivation and tactics of the mass killer are very different from most homicides; here it is not a matter of a personal grudge coming from ongoing conflict with a particular individual, as in the nearly half of all homicides which are among personal acquaintances; nor the targeted killing between gangs; nor the instrumental or accidental killings which take place in the course of another crime such as a robbery or rape. Most other types of homicides are impulsive or emerge from escalated situations; mass rampage killings are elaborately planned in advance.
The psychological difficulty of killing:
Any kind of violent confrontation is emotionally difficult; the situation of facing another person whom one wants to harm produces confrontational tension/fear (ct/f); and its effect most of the time is to make violence abort, or to become inaccurate and ineffective. The usual micro-sociological patterns that allow violence to succeed are not present in a rampage killing; group support does not exist, because one or two killers confront a much larger crowd: in contrast, most violence in riots takes place in little clumps where the attackers have an advantage of around 6-to-1.

Another major pathway around ct/f is attacking a weak victim. But in almost all violence, the weakness is emotional rather than physical-- even an armed attacker has to establish emotional dominance, before he can carry out effective violence. One might think this is simply a matter of using a gun or displaying a weapon, which automatically puts the armed person in the position of strength, the others in a position of weakness. Nevertheless, detailed analysis of incidents and photos of armed confrontations show that groups without guns can emotionally paralyze an armed opponent, preventing him from using his weapon.

Guns provide emotional dominance when an armed individual threatens a peaceful group and they try to hide or run away. This depends on the style of the victims. When rival street gangs clash, they do not turn their backs; they are used to gesturing, with and without guns, and most such face-to-face confrontations wind down. Running away has the effect of confirming emotional dominance; it is easier to shoot a person in the back than in the front; and turning away or attempting to hide one's face has the effect of removing one's greatest deterrent-- eye-contact with the opponent. Thus the hundreds who piled on the floor in the theatre at Aurora, or who ran from the attacker on the Norwegian island, may have saved some percentage of themselves; but they collectively could have saved more than ended up being killed or wounded, if they had used their superior numbers to confront the attacker. I don't mean just the possibility of physically overcoming him, but taking advantage of the fact that groups are always emotionally stronger than individuals, if they can keep themselves together and put up an emotionally united front: they could probably have made him stop shooting.

If this sounds implausible, consider how rampage shootings usually end: in a 1997 school shooting at Paducah, Kentucky, the solo killer, a 14-year-old boy who opened fire on a prayer group in the school hall, allowed a teacher and the prayer leader to come up to him and take his gun away as soon as he had shot 8 girls and boys (who were facing away from him).
How rampage killers differ from suicide bombers:
The suicide bomber kills him/herself at the same moment as the victims; this has the advantage of not seeing the carnage one has made. Suicide bombers are usually idealistic individuals who believe in a cause, and have never engaged in violence before; so the tactic is ideal for keeping any notion of violence out of their mind-- the most successful pathway is to keep one's mind focused on the normal details of routine activity, or on one's ideological message .... But rampage killers are obsessed with their attack; they want to see the token representations of the hated institution die. A minority of rampage killers commit suicide, but only after they have experienced the process of killing that they have fantasized about for so long.

Motives and rituals of confrontation also affect the weapons they use. A remote bombing attack-- where the attacker places a bomb at the target and detonates it later from a safe distance-- does not fit the psychological scenario the rampage killer seeks. Disgruntled students often fantasize about blowing up the school, and this is perhaps their most common form of rebellious rhetoric; but it is entirely verbal ritualism (and circulation of a cultural cliché), since virtually all mass killings in schools have been carried out by shooting rather than bombs. And this is so even though many of the killers collect an arsenal which includes bombs; for instance the two killers at Columbine High School in 1999 brought nearly 100 explosive devices, and managed to explode 8-to-10 of them, but caused all their casualties by shooting. It appears that bombing is not sufficiently confrontational for the psychological scenario that a mass institutional killer seeks.

Suicide bombers belong to an organized group, a movement with a long-term goal that they hope to advance, beyond the deaths of individual contributors; whereas rampage killers engage in purely personal revenge. Why this should affect the scenarios they choose? Suicide bombers have an abstract agenda; rampage killers are persons who have been personally humiliated. What they want is to reverse the scenario that has dominated their lives-- being looked down upon by others in that institution; the habitually dominated seek a moment of dominating others. This fills their horizon; the rampage killer rarely plans what happens next. In all his elaborate planning, he has made no plans for escape. The mass killing is the final, overwhelming symbolic event of his life.
There's much more.

See also this post Administering torture to others does "moral injury" to the torturer.

Corona Extra • Malibu Diner • ONE WAY: 14th Street, Hoboken, NJ


Official Nazi Policy Regarding Jazz

You may well know that Nazi Germany did not approve of jazz and took efforts to suppress it. This was depicted in a 1993 movie, Swing Kids. You may not know that they had an official policy that dictated what could and could not be done in the name of dance music. The following document is the official policy on jazz c. 1938 and is reprinted from Dave Dexter, Jr., Jazz Cavalcade: The Inside Story of Jazz, Criterion Music Corp, 1946.

* * * * *

Conditions Governing the Grant of Licenses for Dance Music.

NEGROID: Belonging to a Negro race. This includes the African Negroes (and also those living outside of Africa), also Pygmies, Bushmen and Hottentots. NEGRITO: In the wider sense of the term, the short-statured, curly or frizzy-haired, darkskinned inhabitants of Southeastern Asia, Melanesia and Central Africa.

1. Music: The Embargo on Negroid and Negrito Factors in dance Music and Music for Entertainments.

2. Introduction: The following regulations are intended to indicate the revival of the European spirit in the music played in this country for dances and amusements, by freeing the latter from the elements of that primitive Negroid and/or Negrito music, which may be justly regarded as being in flagrant conflict with the Europeon conception of music. These regulations constitute a transitory measure born of practical considerations and which must of necessity precede a general revival.

3. Prohibition: It is forbidden to play in public music which possesses to a marked degree characteristic features of the method of improvisation, execution, composition and arrangement adopted by Negroes and colored people. It is forbidden in publications, reports, programs, printed or verbal announcements, etc.: (a) to describe music played or to be played with the words "jazz" or "jazz music." (b) to use the technical jargon described below, except in reference to or as a description of the instrumental and vocal dance music of the North American Negroes. Exceptions may Be permitted where such music is intended for a strictly scientific or strictly educational purpose and where such music is interpreted by persons having two or more Negroid or Negritic grandparents.

4. Descripton of The Main Characteristic Features of the Above-Mentioned Music which Differ from the European Conception of Music: The use of tonally undefined mordents, Ostentatious trills, double-stopping or ascendant glissandi, obtained in the Negro style by excessive vibrato, lip technique and/or shaking of the musical instrument. In jazz terminology, the effects known as "dinge," "smear" and "whip." Also the use of intentional vocalization of an instrumental tone by imitating a throaty sound. In jazz terminology, the adoption of the "growl" on brass wind instruments, and also the "scratchy" clarinet tone. Also the use of any intentional instrumentalization of the singing voice by substituting senseless syllables for the words in the text by "metalizing" the voice. In jazz terminology, so-called "scat" singing and the vocal imitation of brass wind instruments.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Which of your languages do you use for what purpose?

...a loyal Language Log reader sent in the following observation this morning:
While in high school in England, I had a Swedish girlfriend who used to switch back & forth between Swedish, English, and French when talking with her sister. I asked her “Why do you do that???” and she said, “it’s just easier to say something in one language than another.” Notably, she got the best grade in our English class.
I would simply like to say that often my thoughts will be in different languages, depending what it is that I'm thinking about. Or I'll be talking in English and want to say something in Mandarin or in Japanese. Or I'll be speaking Mandarin and it will seem more suitable to say something in another language, such as Cantonese or Taiwanese. As to why I do that, my best guess is that it feels better to say something in one language than in another. With effort, I can probably say just about anything I want to get across in any of the languages I know, but it is easier and more efficient to say certain things in one language than in another.
There are eleven comments so far, some quite interesting. Code switching seems common among multilinguals. One HomerM offers this amusing observation that speaks to the power of context:
Just an added thought. I learned to ski in French. When I returned to the U.S., I was totally unable to communicate in an American ski shop.

Ornamental Plant


Monday, June 22, 2015

Demolition Exhibition @ #GVM004: Graffiti at the Transition from Industrial to Informatic Culture

While the human act of marking walls goes back 10s of thousands of years, aerosol graffiti is quite recent and, in its current form, is often propagated around the world through digital images residing on the web. With that in mind, consider the following photo, taken at the site of Green Villain’s Demolition Exhibition in the Newport area of Jersey City:


The man is Omar, and he works for Google Street View. The contraption on his back is a Trekker camera, which Google developed for photographing streets. While the camera was originally development for deployment on top of an automobile which drives the streets and photographs the scene, this version allows access to off-street areas. In this case Omar is walking around a building that is covered with graffiti. Omar’s compatriot, whose name I forget, went inside the building with a slightly different version of the camera, one mounted on a frame you can push along the floor.

The building used to be a Pep Boys store. Pep Boys, as you know, services automobiles and sells parts, accessories, and supplies. Pep Boys is thus about the automobile, a technology which dominated American life in the second half of the 20th century, though it originated in the 19th century.

Street View is also about the automobile, but it’s 21st century technology based on computers. Google itself arose in the last decade of the 20th century as a search engine for the web; and that is still the center of its business. At some point, though I forget just when, it also started serving up street maps, and it created Street View to augment that business.

Street View images live online. They don’t come bundled up with paper maps you buy at a gas station or from AAA. The camera is itself 19th century technology, with antecedents going back a century or three before that, but the Trekker system combines lasers and GPS and digital computing, all late 20th century tech.

Graffiti of the sort on and inside this building originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is based mostly, though not entirely, on paint delivered by aerosol cans. The aerosol can originated in the mid-20th century. During the 1970s and 1980s the subway system of New York City was the most important site of graffiti development. Subways are, of course, train technology, which dates back to the early 19th century, with electrification coming at the end of the century.

So, graffiti originated with the application of paint using 20th century technology to trains based in 19th century technology. When the web bootstrapped onto the Internet in the mid-1990s graffiti followed almost immediately. It will be six months or more before the images Omar took will go live on the web. But when that happens, we will be taking another step into a new era in graffiti culture.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Salvation, Legitimacy, and Democratic Government

I've got a long-standing interest in the question of why, given that American culture has been so heavily European, Americans are more religious than Europeans? I've never found an explanation that I find satisfactory. But there's a direction worth pursuing in this piece, which is revised from an article I originally published in the now-defunct Buffalo Report in March 2005. Except for the short addendum, I published this revised version in Truth and Traditions.


Salvation and Democracy, or How One's Personal Relationship with Christ Underwrites Governmental Legitimacy

In the immediate wake of the 2004 Presidential election there was a lot of earnest talk about the role of religion and morality in the election and more generally in contemporary American political life. The early word was that unless the Democrats get religion, they’re finished. While that talk has abated somewhat, the issue of religion in our political life remains with us.

What makes this particularly perplexing is that, while American culture is largely derived from Europe, Europeans are not nearly so religious. Thus a 1993 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans attended church weekly as compared to 14 percent for the British, 12 percent French, and 4 percent Swedes. Not only is America more religious than Europe, but revivalism has been important throughout American history from the Colonial period through the present.

This question interests me, in the first place, because, in some measure I am a standard issue secular humanist who finds the European situation more compatible with a simple, perhaps naive, belief that human progress involves the advance of reason. I find the question a pressing one because of the current political situation. It is not simply that fundamentalism has been on the rise for the past two or three decades, but that it seems captive to some of the most destructive forces in contemporary American politics. And yet . . .


An Anthropologist Takes a Look

I have assumed the traditional posture of the Martian anthropologist in an effort to understand why religious belief remains central to American culture and politics: What would our political culture look like to an outsider, someone WAY outside the ordinary, like a Martian? This Martian might look at political doctrine. Consider the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
So, the Martian observes, the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from some god and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson who crafted this Declaration, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.

In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. But, seriously, it’s a matter of logic: How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, our Martian tells his fellows, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends. To understand this, however, we need to push beyond political doctrine, which is mere abstract theory, perhaps not even that. It is ideology. We need a sense of concrete social practices that make such ideology real.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Synchronized movement promotes cooperation

Paul Reddish, Ronald Fischer, Joseph Bulbulia. Let’s Dance Together: Synchrony, Shared Intentionality and Cooperation. PLoS ONE. 8(8) August 7, 2013.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071182

Abstract: Previous research has shown that the matching of rhythmic behaviour between individuals (synchrony) increases cooperation. Such synchrony is most noticeable in music, dance and collective rituals. As well as the matching of behaviour, such collective performances typically involve shared intentionality: performers actively collaborate to produce joint actions. Over three experiments we examined the importance of shared intentionality in promoting cooperation from group synchrony. Experiment 1 compared a condition in which group synchrony was produced through shared intentionality to conditions in which synchrony or asynchrony were created as a by-product of hearing the same or different rhythmic beats. We found that synchrony combined with shared intentionality produced the greatest level of cooperation. To examine the importance of synchrony when shared intentionality is present, Experiment 2 compared a condition in which participants deliberately worked together to produce synchrony with a condition in which participants deliberately worked together to produce asynchrony. We found that synchrony combined with shared intentionality produced the greatest level of cooperation. Experiment 3 manipulated both the presence of synchrony and shared intentionality and found significantly greater cooperation with synchrony and shared intentionality combined. Path analysis supported a reinforcement of cooperation model according to which perceiving synchrony when there is a shared goal to produce synchrony provides immediate feedback for successful cooperation so reinforcing the group’s cooperative tendencies. The reinforcement of cooperation model helps to explain the evolutionary conservation of traditional music and dance performances, and furthermore suggests that the collectivist values of such cultures may be an essential part of the mechanisms by which synchrony galvanises cooperative behaviours.

Hello there, Sweet Thing!


Friday, June 19, 2015

Pixar’s Inside Out is Confused, Alas, But who Knows what the Future May Bring

A new Pixar film is an event, like it or not. Some are better (e.g. Ratatouille) than others. Advance word suggested Inside Out was one of the better ones, the best in the past few years. Alas, I fear it’s no more than middling Pixar, though there’s promise here.

The plot is simple: Family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Young daughter, Riley, age 11, is upset – where are my friends! – depressed, and tries to run away. But doesn’t. The end.

Common enough. But hardly the stuff of a feature-length film. There is, however, more to Inside Out than the bare bones story. The conceit of this film is an old convention, sometimes known as psychomachia, in which a person’s mind is allegorized as the interaction between competing agents. You’ve seen it in cartoons before – a devil will appear over one shoulder of a character and an angel over the other shoulder. Pinocchio’s conscience, Jiminy Cricket, and Dumbo’s friend and motivational coach, Timothy Mouse, are in this tradition. So is Remy’s Gasteau from Ratatouille, which I’ve discussed in Psychomachia Modern, with a Digression into Shakespeare.

So, most of Inside Out’s action takes place in Riley’s mind, which is peopled with Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Bing-Bong, an imaginary friend from childhood. Each is characterized by a different dominant color and a different shape. While Fear, Anger, and Disgust remain at the control center of Riley’s mind, Joy and Sadness go on a journey into the unconscious to retrieve a lost memory. In this they’re helped by Bing-Bong, who leads them in an effort to recover an imaginary rocket-wagon. There’s danger, of course; they get lost and get into trouble. But things work out in the end.

On the one hand, this is wonderful. This is what animation is for, to go where live action cannot go. Pixar takes advantage of the freedom animation affords and steps away from the annoying photorealism all too common in CGI animation as it has evolved. We need more of this, lots more.

But it doesn’t quite work – though I note that when I saw the film the audience did break out in applause at the end. One problem is that the merely mental characters, the agents of Riley’s mind – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger – seemed too much like “real” characters. They seem to have motivations and desires of their own and each seemed richer and more inherently diverse than implied by the one-dimensionality of their assignments in Riley’s mind. Because the drama of these inner agents gets more screen time than Riley herself, she almost gets lost and becomes a one-dimensional puppet to a handful of bickering masters, each as interesting and compelling as she is.

Friday Fotos: Laudato Si, Pond Scum

In honor of the Pope Francis' environmental encyclical I give you photos of phosphate run-off at work.  You can find commentary on the encyclical and a link to the document HERE.

IMGP8813rd graffiti connection II.jpg

The green is pretty, no? We have to own it before we can clean it up or prevent it.


You  can find larger versions of these images, and more like them, at my Pond Scum set on Flickr.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is post WWII Japanese literature mostly brainless crap?

That seems to be what Minae Mizumura thinks. Her book, The Fall of Language in the Age of English, is reviewed by Jay Rubin, emeritus at Harvard, in The Times Literary Supplement. The review is itself a fascinating document which I will not attempt to summarize.

But, way back when, a long time ago, the Japanese adopted the Chinese writing system. The Chinese writing system is one of the most complex in the world and not very well suited to Japanese. So the Japanese supplemented it with, not one, but two phonetic systems (and now the English alphabet is creeping in as well). So, written Japanese is very difficult, but Japan nonetheless managed to produce fine literature. But with this and that culture change bla bla contemporary Japanese are moving farther and farther from their literary heritage. As far as Mizumura is concerned, contemporary Japanese literature is being produced by “brainless writers of crap”.

So, even if The Fall of Language in the Age of English is true, it is also an example of the traditional lament that things were better in the past. It's not clear to me just what Rubin thinks of Mizumi's argument. He seems both sympathetic and bemused. But one should note that he IS a translator of modern Japanese literature, including Haruki Murakami.

Here's a passage from the review:
The wonder of this book is that it exists at all. The author tells us of her native language: “What a bizarre and amusing language Japanese is . . . Fast and loose in its logic . . . ” and “As unbelievable as this may sound to the users of Western languages, Japanese sentences do not require a grammatical subject”. She says that having an “orderly brain” is “a trait common among American intellectuals but rare among speakers of Japanese, a language that doesn’t even require a clear distinction between ‘and’ and ‘but’”.

And yet, despite the language’s many deficits, this book actually was written in Japanese, and it very often seems to make perfect sense in English. Take this passage, for example:

“Seated in the back of the bus were several buff East Asian men at the peak of their manhood, Chinese or Korean or both. In the middle of the bus was a woman with the air of a girl. The line from cheekbone to chin, as keen as if carved with a knife, reminded me of the women in the film The Scent of Green Papaya, which I had seen about ten years earlier. She must be Vietnamese, I thought, or some other Southeast Asian nationality”.

Mizumura is, after all, a novelist, and she often appears to be describing people and places with the eye of a seasoned observer, even though she is writing in Japanese. If we examine the original Japanese text, however, we find that much of the graceful style and linguistic precision of the English are due to the translators. A more literal rendering of this paragraph would look like this:

“Large rickshaw back floating, Middle Kingdom Han Country full crotch muscles bulge. Large rickshaw middle floating girl woman. Skull bottom sharp like Green Melon Smell 120 lunar cycles. My brain Vietnamese? Something else? Not know”.

No, as we American hayseeds like to say, “I’m just funnin’ with ya”. But be honest: did you, if only for a second or two, think that my “literal rendering” might be a true representation of the Japanese? There is so much nonsense circulating about the ineffable mysteries of the Japanese language that it’s hard to know what to believe. That old red herring Mizumura cites about Japanese sentences not having subjects, for example, is a myth. All Japanese sentences have subjects.
Cool, no?

FWIW, I've been told by a native Japanese that my book on music, Beethoven's Anvil, has been translated into fine literary Japanese.

Pope Francis on the Environmental Crisis

Pope Francis on Thursday called for a radical transformation of politics, economics and individual lifestyles to confront environmental degradation and climate change, as his much-awaited papal encyclical blended a biting critique of consumerism and irresponsible development with a plea for swift and unified global action.

The vision that Francis outlined in the 184-page encyclical is sweeping in ambition and scope: He described a relentless exploitation and destruction of the environment, for which he blamed apathy, the reckless pursuit of profits, excessive faith in technology and political shortsightedness. The most vulnerable victims are the world’s poorest people, he declared, who are being dislocated and disregarded.
It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this encyclical will have on world affairs. The Pope, of course, is not the first public figure to speak out on climate, and it takes more than words to change the world.

But a papal encyclical is not a speech or a white paper, it is the official expression of an institution whose history stretches back two millennia and whose constitutions live on every continent and speak a multitude of tongues. It is thus transnational in scope in a way that perhaps no other document is. And it is a teaching document (emphasis mine):
Francis has made clear that he hopes the encyclical will influence energy and economic policy and stir a global movement. He calls on ordinary people to pressure politicians for change. Bishops and priests around the world are expected to lead discussions on the encyclical in services on Sunday. But Francis is also reaching for a wider audience when in the first pages of the document he asks “to address every person living on this planet.”
Will that happen? And not just on this Sunday, but on many Sundays after, Saturdays too, and Wednesday evenings.

In part we can measure the impact of Laudato Si (Praise Be to You) by the opposition it provokes.
Yet Francis has also been sharply criticized by those who question or deny the established science of human-caused climate change and also by some conservative Roman Catholics, who have interpreted the document as an attack on capitalism and as unwanted political meddling at a moment when climate change is high on the global agenda.

Tower of Flower


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Dennett's Astonishing Hypothesis: We're Symbionts! – Apes with infected brains

Note: I've added some new material at the end, hence I'm bumping this post to the top of the list.
It's hard to know the proper attitude to take toward this idea. Daniel Dennett, after all, is a brilliant and much honored thinker. But I can't take the idea seriously. He's running on fumes. The noises he makes are those of engine failure, not forward motion.

At around 53:00 into this video ("Cultural Evolution and the Architecture of Human Minds") he tells us that human culture is the "second great endosymbiotic revolution" in the history of life on earth, and, he assures us, he means the "literally." The first endosymbiotic revolution, of course, was the emergence of eukaryotic cells from the pairwise incorporation of one prokaryote within another. The couple then operated as a single organism and of course reproduced as such.

At 53:13 he informs us:
In other words we are apes with infected brains. Our brains have been invaded by evolving symbionts which have then rearranged our brains, harnessing them to do work that no other brain can do. How did these brilliant invaders do this? Do they reason themselves? No, they're stupid, they're clueless. But they have talents the permit them to redesign human brains and turn them into human minds. [...] Cultural evolution evolved virtual machines which can then be installed on the chaotic hardware of all those neurons.
Dennett is, of course, talking about memes. Apes and memes hooked up and we're the result.

In the case of the eukaryotic revolution the prokaryots that merged had evolved independently and prior to the merging. Did the memes evolve independently and prior to hooking up with us? If so, do we know where and how this happened? Did they come from meme wells in East Africa? Dennett doesn't get around to explaining that in this lecture as he'd run out of time. But I'm not holding my breath until he coughs up an account.

But I'm wondering if he's yet figured out how many memes can dance on the head of a pin.

More seriously, how is it that he's unable to see how silly this is? What is his system of thought like that such thoughts are acceptable?

Pink and Silver


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stars and stickers


Underwood and Sellers 2015: Beyond narrative we have simulation

It is one thing to use computers to crunch data. It’s something else to use computers to simulate a phenomenon. Simulation is common in many disciplines, including physics, sociology, biology, engineering, and computer graphics (CGI special effects generally involve simulation of the underlying physical phenomena). Could we simulate large-scale literary processes?

In principal, of course. Why not? In practice, not yet. To be sure, I’ve seen the possibility mentioned here and there, and I’ve seen an example or two. But it’s not something many are thinking about, much less doing.

Nonetheless, as I was thinking about How Quickly Do Literary Standards Change? (Underwood and Sellers 2015) I found myself thinking about simulation. The object of such a simulation would be to demonstrate the principle result of that work, as illustrated in this figure:

19C Direction

Each dot, regardless of color or shape, represents the position of a volume of poetry in a one-dimensional abstraction over 3200 dimensional space – though that’s not how Underwood and Sellers explain it (for further remarks see “Drifting in Space” in my post, Underwood and Sellers 2015: Cosmic Background Radiation, an Aesthetic Realm, and the Direction of 19thC Poetic Diction). The trend line indicates that poetry is shifting in that space along a uniform direction over the course of the 19th century. Thus there seems to be a large-scale direction to that literary system. Could we create a simulation that achieves that result through ‘local’ means, without building a telos into the system?

The only way to find out would be to construct such a system. I’m not in a position to do that, but I can offer some remarks about how we might go about doing it.

* * * * *

I note that this post began as something I figured I could knock out in two or three afternoons. We’ve got a bunch of texts, a bunch of people, and the people choose to read texts, cycle after cycle after cycle. How complicated could it be to make a sketch of that? Pretty complicated.

What follows is no more than a sketch. There’s a bunch of places where I could say more and more places where things need to be said, but I don’t know how to say them. Still, if I can get this far in the course of a week or so, others can certainly take it further. It’s by no means a proof of concept, but it’s enough to convince me that at some time in the future we will be running simulations of large scale literary processes.

I don’t know whether or not I would create such a simulation given a budget and appropriate collaborators. But I’m inclined to think that, if not now, then within the next ten years we’re going to have to attempt something like this, if for no other reason than to see whether or not it can tell us anything at all. The fact is, at some point, simulation is the only way we’re going to get a feel for the dynamics of literary process.

* * * * *

It’s a long way through this post, almost 5000 words. I begin with a quick look at an overall approach to simulating a literary system. Then I add some details, starting with stand-ins (simulations of) texts and people. Next we have processes involving those objects. That’s the basic simulation, but it’s not the end of my post. I have some discussion of things we might do with this system followed with suggestions about extending it. I conclude with a short discussion of the E-word.

The death of fine art in the West over the last century

Writing in The Smart Set, Michael Lind observes: "As far as I can tell, very few college-educated people under the age of 50 pay any attention to the old fine arts at all." This, he says, is how and why it happened, capitalism:
The truth is that the evolution (or if you like the degeneration) from Cezanne to Warhol was inevitable from the moment that royal, aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage was replaced by the market.

Having lost their royal and aristocratic patrons, and finding little in the way of public patronage in modern states, artists from the 19th century to the 21st have sought new patrons among the wealthy people and institutions who have formed the tiny art market. It was not the mockery of Pop artists but the capitalist art market itself which, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, trivialized and marginalized the arts.

The dynamic is clearest in the case of painting and allied visual arts. Markets tend to prize fashionable novelty over continuity. The shocking and sensational get more attention than subtle variations on traditional conventions and themes. Capitalism, applied to the fine arts, created the arms race that led to increasingly drastic departures from premodern artistic tradition, until finally, by the late 20th century, “art” could be everything and therefore nothing.
Perhaps. Lind continues on:
The textbooks in my college art history classes lied about this. The texts treated the sequence from Cezanne to Picasso to Pollock as purely formal developments within a tradition unaffected by vulgar commercial considerations, like fads and branding and bids for attention — unlike, say, the rise and fall of fins on cars.

In fact Picasso, like Warhol and Koons after him, Picasso was rewarded by the market for pushing the boundaries a bit further for a progressively-jaded audience of rich individual and institutional collectors. The novelty-driven art they produced for private purchasers was and is different in kind from the traditional art commissioned for church and state.
On the first paragraph, no, "not formal developments within a tradition" – do the textbooks really say this? – but the dissolution of the old tradition, the one birthed in the Renaissance (aka the Early Modern Era), and the search for new modes of aesthetic expression. That is to say, with that first paragraph I believe Lind is going off the rails and the derailment continues. He's not taking a long enough, and deep enough, view of the cultural process.

He continues:
The process of escalating sensationalism ultimately reaches its reductio ab absurdum in any fashion-based industry. In the case of painting and sculpture the point of exhaustion was reached by the 1970s with Pop Art and minimalist art and earth art and conceptual art. Can a row of cars be art? Sure. Can an empty canvas be art? Sure. Does anybody care? No.
Yes, it's confusing, and there's a lot of crap being marketed as art. Much of it isn't art at all, not in the old sense, and much of it is crap as well. But some of it is aesthetically valid, and thus not crap, but not art either. It's something else. And the future holds more Something Else.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The sky is falling in computer land!

Every once in awhile I read something that demonstrates, at some length, how crazy and dysfunctional the world of computer software is. Not hardware, but software. Hardware World may not in fact be paradise, but, compared to Software World, it might as well be.

The first such text I read is a book called The Mythical-Man Month by Frederick Brooks. It was first published in 1975 and I read it within a year or three of publication at the urging of my friend, and fellow student, Bill Doyle. Brooks told stories of how, when time was running out on a project, adding more people to the team just made things even worse. The general message I took from the book is something like we really don't know jack about developing software.

Every few years, or anyhow, at least once a decade since then, that message would be driven home by some other text or by discussions with pros in the business. While this goes on I'm also hearing about how we're getting closer to developing intelligent computers. I wonder: will they be intelligent enough not to write crappy software?

I'm currently nearing the end of another such text. It's called What is Code? and it's by Paul Ford in BusinessWeek, at least I think that's the name of the publication. It's one of those Bloomberg imprints. It's quite different from Brooks' book. 

Which is appropriate, as the world of practical computing is different from what it was back then. Back then it was still mainframes and minis, though personal computers were about to be hatched. Now days hardware almost doesn't matter; it's all the web and the cloud. And Ford's text is much more along the lines of "how works software" than Brooks' "we don't know how to manage the beast". But still, the latter message gets through. Software is still a problem and problematic.

Meanwhile, the other guys are still promising us intelligent computers, even super-intelligent computers. It's not clear to me just how we're going to do this. Can we really build intelligent computers from crappy software? Oh, sure, once the software's passed into the land to super-intelligence, it'll be able to clean itself up. But how do we get there?

And yet IBM's Watson wasn't possible back in Brooks' day, nor (sorta' useful) machine translation for everyone, nor self-parking cars. So crappy software isn't necessarily an impediment to the development of new areas of computational cleverness.

Mostly what I think is that it's a brave new world and we don't understand it very well.

Computing with magnetized water droplets

Engineers at Stanford have figured out how to compute with water droplets containing magnetized nanoparticles.
Because of its universal nature, the droplet computer can theoretically perform any operation that a conventional electronic computer can crunch, although at significantly slower rates. Prakash and his colleagues, however, have a more ambitious application in mind.

"We already have digital computers to process information. Our goal is not to compete with electronic computers or to operate word processors on this," Prakash said. "Our goal is to build a completely new class of computers that can precisely control and manipulate physical matter. Imagine if when you run a set of computations that not only information is processed but physical matter is algorithmically manipulated as well. We have just made this possible at the mesoscale."

The ability to precisely control droplets using fluidic computation could have a number of applications in high-throughput biology and chemistry, and possibly new applications in scalable digital manufacturing.