Sunday, January 31, 2016

El Sistema isn't the feel-good progressive program you think it is

Lawrence Cripp, "All that Matters is How Good It Sounds: An Interview with the Former El Sistema Violinist Luigi Mazzocchi," VAN Magazine:
Despite my positive first impression, however, I soon became aware that evidence for the impact of El Sistema had not been systematically gathered and empirically verified. It struck me as unlikely that a large-scale national system of extremely intensive out-of-school youth orchestra training could simultaneously provide free or low-cost instruction, instruments, and community núcleos (music schools) open to all youth; elevate families from poverty and communities from drug addiction and gang warfare; and render exquisite and passionate performances of the most difficult pieces in the classical repertoire.

As an independent researcher, I was disappointed in the lack of evidence for El Sistema’s validity as a model for 21st-century music education in service of broader social goals. As a music educator, I had difficulty understanding how a nationalized orchestra training system based solely on classical music and serving only a self-selected 6-8% of Venezuela’s youth could possibly be considered comprehensive education in music for all. It just didn’t add up.

In 2014, the researcher and musicologist Geoff Baker published a book entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. His account challenged idealized views of El Sistema as an engine of positive social action and focused on the testimony of practitioners who were not directly involved in promoting the program. His interview sources, who were only willing to speak anonymously, portrayed El Sistema as a secretive, autocratic organization that has not been held accountable for its management practices, its treatment of teachers and students, and for gathering objective evidence of its social impact beyond anecdotes and musical performances.
In an effort to check what Baker reported Cripp interviewed "Luigi Mazzocchi, concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and associate concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony, who studied for 15 years in El Sistema starting at age nine, and rose to become a member of its top orchestras and a soloist in Venezuela." Mazzocchi has been in the United States for 20 year and had just finished reading Baker's book when Cripp contacted him.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Take Five – East and West

Performed at The Marciac Jazz Festival, July 2013. The very first collaboration between Sachal Jazz and Wynton/Jazz at Lincoln Centre. For all things Sachal follow me (Hassan Khan) at either or Sachal Includes Baqir Abbas (flute, bansuri), Nijat Ali (conductor), Ustad Ballu Khan (tabla), Nafees Ahmed (sitar), Asad Ali (guitar), Najaf Ali (dholak), Rafiq Ahmed (dholak).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Fotos: Back to basics, some graffiti

These are the five most popular of my graffiti photos over the last 20 hours or so. All were taken in Jersey City. The first and last are gone; the structures on which they're painted have been destroyed. The second is several layers from the top. The third and fourth are on freight cars and are most likely gone by now.

eye sore / trak am7





Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sound and music: emotion tracks changes in the acoustic environment

Weiyi Maa and William Forde Thompsona, Human emotions track changes in the acoustic environment, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112 no. 47 > Weiyi Ma, 14563–14568, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1515087112


Emotions function to optimize adaptive responses to biologically significant events. In the auditory channel, humans are highly attuned to emotional signals in speech and music that arise from shifts in the frequency spectrum, intensity, and rate of acoustic information. We found that changes in acoustic attributes that evoke emotional responses in speech and music also trigger emotions when perceived in environmental sounds, including sounds arising from human actions, animal calls, machinery, or natural phenomena, such as wind and rain. The findings align with Darwin’s hypothesis that speech and music originated from a common emotional signal system based on the imitation and modification of sounds in the environment.


Emotional responses to biologically significant events are essential for human survival. Do human emotions lawfully track changes in the acoustic environment? Here we report that changes in acoustic attributes that are well known to interact with human emotions in speech and music also trigger systematic emotional responses when they occur in environmental sounds, including sounds of human actions, animal calls, machinery, or natural phenomena, such as wind and rain. Three changes in acoustic attributes known to signal emotional states in speech and music were imposed upon 24 environmental sounds. Evaluations of stimuli indicated that human emotions track such changes in environmental sounds just as they do for speech and music. Such changes not only influenced evaluations of the sounds themselves, they also affected the way accompanying facial expressions were interpreted emotionally. The findings illustrate that human emotions are highly attuned to changes in the acoustic environment, and reignite a discussion of Charles Darwin’s hypothesis that speech and music originated from a common emotional signal system based on the imitation and modification of environmental sounds.

Time and the hippocampus

Emily Singer in Quantum:
Over the last few years, a handful of researchers have compiled growing evidence that the same cells that monitor an individual’s location in space also mark the passage of time. This suggests that two brain regions — the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, both famous for their role in memory and navigation — can also act as a sort of timer.

In research published in November, Howard Eichenbaum, a neuroscientist at Boston University, and collaborators showed that cells in rats that form the brain’s internal GPS system, known as grid cells, are more malleable than had been anticipated. Typically these cells act like a dead-reckoning system, with certain neurons firing when an animal is in a specific place. (The researchers who discovered this shared the Nobel Prize in 2014.) Eichenbaum found that when an animal is kept in place — such as when it runs on a treadmill — the cells keep track of both distance and time. The work suggests that the brain’s sense of space and time are intertwined.

The findings help to broaden our understanding of how the brain’s memory and navigation systems work. Perhaps both grid cells and other GPS-like cells aren’t tuned only to space but are capable of encoding any relevant property: time, smell or even taste. “It probably points to a broad thing the hippocampus does,” said Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies memory and the hippocampus. “It figures out the relevant axis for encoding experiences and then uses the cells to map those experiences.”
Learning intervals:
In Eichenbaum’s experiments, a rat runs on the treadmill for a set period — say, 15 seconds — and then gets a reward. As the animal repeats the cycle over and over, its brain learns to track that 15-second interval. Some neurons fire at one second, others at two seconds, and so forth, until the 15 seconds have elapsed. “Each cell will fire at a different moment in time until they fill out the entire time interval,” Eichenbaum said. The code is so accurate that researchers can predict how long an animal has been on the treadmill just by observing which cells are active. Eichenbaum’s team has also repeated the experiment, varying the treadmill’s speed, to make sure the cells aren’t simply marking distance. (Some of the cells do track distance, but some seem linked solely to time.)

Although these neurons, dubbed “time cells,” are clearly capable of marking time, it’s still not clear how they do it. The cells behave rather like a stopwatch — the same pattern of neural activity repeats every time you start the clock. But they are more adaptable than a stopwatch. When researchers change the conditions of the experiment, for instance by extending the running duration from 15 to 30 seconds, cells in the hippocampus create a new firing pattern to span the new interval. It’s like programming the stopwatch to follow a different time scale altogether.
What's going on?
György Buzsáki, a neuroscientist at New York University’s Neuroscience Institute whose lab did some of the first experiments exploring how the hippocampus tracks time, proposes that rather than monitoring time itself, these cells are doing something else — remembering a path through a maze or plotting the animal’s next move. Both memories and future plans unfold in time, so time cells may simply reflect this mental activity.

“That’s the number-one problem for me: Are there dedicated neurons in the brain doing nothing else but keeping track of time?” Buzsáki said. “Or do all neurons have functions that happen in sequential order, which for the experimenter can be translated into time?”

Buzsáki points out that it may not even make sense to think of hippocampal cells as independently coding for space or time. The human brain often considers time and distance interchangeably. “If one asks how far New York is from LA, the answers you get vary: 3,000 miles, six hours by flight,” he said. “In older language, distances were typically given by time — the days it takes to go from one valley to another — since it was not distance but the number of sunsets that was easy to calculate.”
I was exploring this general territory in my book on music, where I ended up looking at the brain's navigation system in connection with time. See Beethoven's Anvil (2001), pp. 135 ff. 

Narrative order and attention

Anna-Lisa Cohen, Elliot Shavalian, Moshe Rube.


Published: December 10, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0144493

Narrative transportation is described as a state of detachment that arises when one becomes immersed in the narrative of a story. Participants viewed either an intact version of an engaging 20 min film, “Bang You’re Dead!,” (1961) by Alfred Hitchcock (contiguous condition), or a version of the same film with scenes presented out of order (noncontiguous condition). In this latter condition, the individual scenes were intact but were presented out of chronological order. Participants were told a cover story that we were interested in the amount of gun violence depicted in films. Both groups were given the goal to remember to lift their hand every time they heard the word “gun” spoken during the film. Results revealed that participants were significantly less likely to remember to execute their goal in the contiguous condition, presumably because this narrative transported viewers’ attention and thereby “hijacked” processing resources away from internal goals.

The power of stories to transport the audience represents a fundamental part of human experience. Gerrig [1] was the first to coin the term narrative transportation in the context of written literature. Narrative transportation occurs when an individual experiences the feeling of entering the world evoked by a narrative because of empathy for story characters and imagination of the story plot [2]. It is described as a state of detachment from the world, as though one is being carried away by the story. Much has been written in film literature about how techniques of cinema function to engage the viewer. Only quite recently [3] have scientists considered cinema as a topic for empirical investigation. Researchers describe narrative transportation as a state of simulation [4]. For example, they suggest that readers of novels, filmgoers, and theatergoers all undergo a simulation of events when they experience what feels like genuine sorrow when a beloved hero dies, despite the fact that events depicted in the narrative are not real.

Not all stories are equivalent in their ability to transport the reader or viewer. For example, researchers have explored the extent to which brain activity differs across participants during film viewing and found that films varied substantially in their ability to engage the viewer [5]. Participants viewed films while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Intersubject correlation (ISC) measures the similarities in brain activity across viewers. Movies with a high ISC are highly engaging and trigger similar emotional and cognitive responses from viewers leading to higher intersubject synchronization. Results of this study revealed especially high levels of inter-subject correlations in certain films (e.g., a film by Alfred Hitchcock) compared to others [5]. These results provided neuroscientific evidence for Hitchcock’s reputed ability to artfully engage and control viewers’ attention. As Shimamura and colleagues observed, when filmmakers are successful they are able to guide the viewers’ attention to points in a scene [6]. Work by other researchers [7] showed consistency in gaze patterns in individuals while they watched clips of feature films. At certain points during film viewing, eyetracking data showed that virtually all participants were fixated at the same point on the screen at the same time. This phenomenon of gaze attraction has been termed attentional synchrony [8]. Results from eyetracking and fMRI studies show how narrative films can guide our attention so effectively that virtually everyone in the theater is attuned to the same perceptual features [6].

The experience of narrative transportation is similar to other engaging experiences such as absorption [9] and flow [10]. However, there are subtle but critical differences between narrative transportation and these other experiences [2]. For example, absorption refers to a dispositional trait that can be low or high in individuals and describes a general tendency to become immersed in experiences such as fantasy and mental imagery. Transportation, by contrast, is an engaging experience that is temporary and occurs only in response to a story narrative. Flow is a more general construct in which an individual experiences complete and total focus on a specific activity. Narrative transportation involves empathy with story characters and mental imagery, which do not necessarily occur in flow experiences [2].

A consumer of these narrative experiences constructs a mental model by incorporating information from the narrative along with knowledge that he or she already possesses from personal experience [11]. The concept of mental models [12] is similar to situation models [13] [14] which is the term used in the reading comprehension literature. A situation model refers to the mental representation that a reader constructs of the events described in a narrative. This idea of narrative processing places the audience member as an active participant because he/she is dynamically creating the story as the narrative unfolds [15] [1]. Research shows that as we construct situation models we infer causality and the goals of the protagonist [14]. Thus, if a protagonist has a goal that has not yet been accomplished, that goal is more accessible to the reader than a goal that was just accomplished by the protagonist. In line with this prediction, goals yet to be accomplished by the protagonist were recognized more quickly than goals that were just accomplished [16]. One can think of suspense in films as situations in which the goal of a protagonist takes on a more heightened value. That is, it may be that suspense heightens the importance of a perceived goal. Indeed, Bezdek and colleagues [17] tested the hypothesis that, in moments when suspense increases, narrative transportation will produce a changing pattern of activity in brain regions involved in early visual processing. They used fMRI to show that spatially peripheral stimuli received suppressed early visual processing when suspense increased in narrative film scenes. Participants viewed film excerpts that incorporated high suspense scenes while checkerboards flashed continuously in the visual periphery. Results supported their hypothesis that in moments of increased threats to characters, there was a corresponding increase in activity to central visual regions and suppression of activity in peripheral visual regions [17].

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The Atlantic reports on this research.

Let's not forget graffiti – a study in blue

blue on blue with green and red.jpg

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Apple, it's a matter of scale

Frahad Manjoo, in the NYTimes, assuring us that Apple is doing fine:
Apple’s iPhone business is now so huge it sounds almost fantastical — Apple books more revenue from the iPhone (about $154 billion in its last fiscal year) than Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard or IBM generate from all of their operations. Two-thirds of the world’s countries have gross domestic products smaller than annual sales of the iPhone.

Yet the very dominance of Apple’s aging mobile empire inspires doubts about its future. The bigger the iPhone gets, the harder Apple has to work to beat its previous milestones, and the more vulnerable it appears to some fatal technological surprise.

The primary criticism of Apple’s recent performance is that it’s doing too much, and as a result, the general quality of its products has slipped. Related to that is the notion that Apple has lost some of its innovative and design magic. It has put out a larger-than-usual number of features and products that have failed to thrill reviewers. As Gizmodo put it in a headline summing up 2015, “Everything Apple Introduced This Year Kinda Sucked.”
I have no serious opinion on the future of Apple.

Monday, January 25, 2016

So much for unbounded progress

Paul Krugman reviewing The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War:
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective: Developments in information and communication technology, he has insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.

In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.

Is he right? My answer is a definite maybe. But whether or not you end up agreeing with Gordon’s thesis, this is a book well worth reading — a magisterial combination of deep technological history, vivid portraits of daily life over the past six generations and careful economic analysis. Non-economists may find some of the charts and tables heavy going, but Gordon never loses sight of the real people and real lives behind those charts. This book will challenge your views about the future; it will definitely transform how you see the past. [...] 
As he says, “Except in the rural South, daily life for every American changed beyond recognition between 1870 and 1940.” Electric lights replaced candles and whale oil, flush toilets replaced outhouses, cars and electric trains replaced horses. (In the 1880s, parts of New York’s financial district were seven feet deep in manure.)
And the future?
So what does this say about the future? Gordon suggests that the future is all too likely to be marked by stagnant living standards for most Americans, because the effects of slowing technological progress will be reinforced by a set of “headwinds”: rising inequality, a plateau in education levels, an aging population and more.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

More Snow



Is Interpreting a Literary Text Like Giving a Non-Technical Account of a Technical Idea?

I think so. Not completely, of course, but the similarities are worth thinking about.

There are two basic similarities: 1) Neither activity is well-defined. There is no explicit procedure to follow and not certifiably correct result. 2) Neither the non-technical account nor the interpretation can do the cultural, intellectual, and symbolic work done by the text or material from which they are derived.

The problems of literary interpretation are well-known and have been extensively discussed off and one over the last half-century. As a practical matter, critics do not come to agreement on the interpretation of texts. Some of this difference has to do with intellectual tools – one wouldn’t expect a Marxist and a Freudian to come up with the same interpretive results. But no one believes that sort of thing accounts for all the differences among interpretations.

Literary texts are complex objects existing in one type of discourse. There simply is not well-defined procedure for translating literary discourse into expository discourse.

Similarly, subtle technical ideas – for example, quantum indeterminacy, entropy, or fractal dimensionality – exist in one kind of discourse, one generally requiring mathematical expression, and they cannot readily be translated into expository prose. Metaphor and analogy are important in the process. Some non-technical accounts are better than others, and some attempts may well be flat-out wrong. But none can be exactly correct, for such correctness requires technical discourse. And you cannot use even the best non-technical accounts to do the work of the technical idea itself. But then no interpretation of a text, or set of interpretation, does the same imaginative and emotional work as the text itself.

There are, of course, differences between the two activities. Informal accounts of technical ideas are created for the benefit of people who do not have the conceptual background necessary to master the technical concepts. But interpretations of texts are not intended for people who cannot read the texts themselves. Interpretations presuppose that one has read the understood – in some robust sense – the text. It is not unusual for interpretations to be unintelligible to people who have read and enjoyed the original texts.

Interpretations of texts thus have a somewhat different relationship to the text than informal accounts have to technical accounts. Interpretations, in some sense, seek to explain the texts they interpretation where explain is understood to imply some kind of causal account. Informal accounts of technical ideas do not attempt provide causal accounts of those ideas.

Still, in both cases, we are dealing with two different types of discourse. Translating between them is somewhat different from translating from one natural language to another. But I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

Friday, January 22, 2016

What's in all the syllabuses?

The Open Syllabus Project has a database of over a million syllabuses gathered from university websites. What books are assigned most often?
The traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s “Republic” at No. 2, “The Communist Manifesto” at No. 3, and “Frankenstein” at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet.”

“The Communist Manifesto” ranks as high as it does (for those wondering) because, like “The Republic,” it is frequently taught in multiple fields — notably in history, sociology and political science. Writing guides are also well represented, with “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White at No. 1, as are major textbooks, led by Neil Campbell’s “Biology” at No. 4.

What about fiction from the past 50 years? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” ranks first, at No. 43, followed by William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Ms. Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street,” Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”

Top articles? Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” And so on. Altogether, the Syllabus Explorer tracks about 933,000 works. Nearly half of these are assigned only once.

Friday Fotos: Snow from winters past






Thursday, January 21, 2016

The phylogeny of European folk tales

Royal Society Open Science

Sara Graça da Silva, Jamshid J. Tehrani
Published 20 January 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150645


Ancient population expansions and dispersals often leave enduring signatures in the cultural traditions of their descendants, as well as in their genes and languages. The international folktale record has long been regarded as a rich context in which to explore these legacies. To date, investigations in this area have been complicated by a lack of historical data and the impact of more recent waves of diffusion. In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies. We find strong correlations between the distributions of a number of folktales and phylogenetic, but not spatial, associations among populations that are consistent with vertical processes of cultural inheritance. Moreover, we show that these oral traditions probably originated long before the emergence of the literary record, and find evidence that one tale (‘The Smith and the Devil’) can be traced back to the Bronze Age. On a broader level, the kinds of stories told in ancestral societies can provide important insights into their culture, furnishing new perspectives on linguistic, genetic and archaeological reconstructions of human prehistory.

The sun's stern discipline


Kamasi Washington on the Groove

Adam Schatz has an article about Kamasi Washington in the NY Times Magazine. Here's some passages.

Playing in church:
When Kamasi first expressed a desire to play, his father sent him to church. ‘‘It’s the best place to learn,’’ Rickey said. ‘‘You play every week, and you’ve got to play a groove. It doesn’t come any other way but with a groove. They’re clapping on two and four, and you’re moving to the music. If you listen to Kamasi, you know what the groove is, because it’s right in his body.’’
On working with Snoop Dogg:
At the point when Washington got the call, he had been spending most of his time trying to master harmonically demanding songs like Coltrane’s ‘‘Giant Steps.’’ Now his job was to play apparently simple riffs to ‘‘line up with the groove.’’ Playing those riffs, however, was tougher than it looked: Hip-hop was a miniaturist art of deceptive simplicity. ‘‘When you play jazz in school, you talk about articulation, but it’s a very light conversation,’’ he said. ‘‘The question was about what you were playing, not how you were playing it. But when I was playing with Snoop, what I was playing was pretty obvious — anyone with ears could figure it out. The question was how to play it, with the right articulation and timing and tone.’’ Snoop didn’t come to rehearsals or even really explain what he wanted. ‘‘It was all very unspoken. You had to use your intuition to figure out why it didn’t sound right. We had to have it right before he got there, because if it was wrong, he’d veto it, and we’d have to just sit there.’’

Snoop was particularly demanding when it came to the placement of notes in relation to the beat, and Washington struggled at first to hear the beat the way Snoop did. After a while, though, he began to discern what he calls ‘‘the little subtleties,’’ the way, for example, ‘‘the drummer D-Loc would lock into the bass line.’’ He continued: ‘‘It wasn’t like the compositional elements in Stravinsky. It wasn’t about counterpoint or thick harmonies. It was more about the relationships and the timing, the one little cool thing you could play in that little space. It might just be one little thing in a four-minute song, but it was the perfect thing you could play in it. I started to hear music in a different way, and it changed the way I played jazz. Just playing the notes didn’t do it for me anymore.’’ He came to see hip-hop as a relative of jazz. ‘‘All forms are complex once you get to a really high level, and jazz and hip-hop are so connected,’’ he said. ‘‘In hip-hop you sample, while in jazz you take Broadway tunes and turn them into something different. They’re both forms that repurpose other forms of music.’’
Wynton Marsalis and James Brown:
That mellow, West Coast inclusiveness is another pointed contrast between Washington and the young Wynton Marsalis, who once declared, ‘‘There is nothing sadder than a jazz musician playing funk.’’ When Washington and his trombonist, Ryan Porter, trade riffs, they make no secret of their love of Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley, two of the horn men in the James Brown band. ‘‘It wasn’t a mistake to call James Brown’s music funk, but I’m not sure it was good for jazz,’’ Washington told me. Jazz, as he sees it, is not so much a genre as a way of styling music. Which means that if he is playing Debussy’s ‘‘Clair de Lune’’ — as he does in a languorous, brazenly sentimental arrangement on ‘‘The Epic’’ — it’s jazz.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The curse of parking

Clive Thompson in Mother Jones:
The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place. People buy cars because they need to move around, but the amount of time they actually do move around is tiny. So the cars are parked, and in multiple spaces: A car owner needs a spot near home, but also spots near other places he or she might go—the office, a shopping mall, Epcot.

A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the United States has somewhere close to a billion parking spots. Since there are only 253 million passenger cars and light trucks in the country, that means we have roughly four times more parking spaces than vehicles. If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it'd be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.
And finding one of the parking spaces is a PITA:
And worst of all may be the emissions that parking causes. Studies have found that anywhere from about 30 to 60 percent of the cars you see driving around a downtown core are just circling, looking for an open space to claim. (An IBM survey found that worldwide, urban drivers spend an average of 20 minutes per trip looking for parking.)
We are, [some experts] say, on the cusp of a new era, when cities can begin dramatically reducing the amount of parking spaces they offer. This shift is being driven by a one-two punch of social and technological change. On the social side, people are increasingly opting to live in urban centers, where they don't need—or want—to own a car. They're ride-sharing or using public transit instead.

And technologically, we're seeing the rapid emergence of self-driving cars. Google's models have traveled more than a million miles with almost no accidents, and experts expect that fully autonomous vehicles will hit the consumer market as early as a decade from now. [...]

One study suggests a single self-driving car could replace up to 12 regular vehicles. Indeed, many urbanists predict that fleets of robocars could become so reliable that many, many people would choose not to own automobiles, causing the amount of parking needed to drop through the floor.

"Parking has been this sacred cow that we couldn't touch—and now we can touch it," says Gabe Klein, who has headed the transportation departments in Chicago and Washington, DC. He sees enormous potential—all that paved-over space suddenly freed up for houses and schools, plazas and playgrounds, or just about anything. "All that parking could go away, and then what happens?" he asks. "You unlock a tremendous amount of value."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Does the 6-part Lucas Star Wars series constitute a ring?

That's what Mike Klimo argued back in October of 2014. After noting all sorts of relationships among different episodes he asserts:
Because here’s the thing: The “intertextual patternings,” while critical to reading the films the way Lucas intended, are actually small pieces of a much larger, more complex puzzle. And while many have unknowingly stumbled upon some of the pieces over the years, no one has discovered the underlying pattern and discussed how all of the pieces fit together and what the completed picture looks like (and possibly represents)—until now.

And it starts with a little-known ancient literary form that scholars have identified as “ring composition.”

From millennia-old Chinese writings to the epic poetry of Homer to the Bible, ring composition is a structure commonly found in ancient texts all over the globe—transcending time, culture, and geography. Social anthropologist Mary Douglas explains the technique in her book Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition. And for starters, she writes that the form “comes in many sizes, from a few lines to a whole book.”
That's less than a quarter of the way into the first of eight essays.

I've not read them, nor do I know the Star Wars films well enough to judge the plausibility of the argument.

Note that John Granger has argued that the Harry Potter books form a ring.



Monday, January 18, 2016

Where dogs come from

James Gorman has an article about the origins of dogs in the NYTimes. The idea that humans bred them from wolves is now out of favor. Instead:
Imagine that some ancient wolves were slightly less timid around nomadic hunters and scavenged regularly from their kills and camps, and gradually evolved to become tamer and tamer, producing lots of offspring because of the relatively easy pickings. At some point, they became the tail-wagging beggar now celebrated as man’s best friend.

Some researchers question whether dogs experience feelings like love and loyalty, or whether their winning ways are just a matter of instincts that evolved because being a hanger-on is an easier way to make a living than running down elk. Raymond Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, noted in his landmark 2001 book, “Dogs,” that “best friend” is not an “ecological definition.” And he suggested that “the domestic house dog may have evolved into a parasite.”

Researchers also point out that of the estimated one billion dogs in the world, only a quarter of them are pets. The vast majority of dogs run free in villages, scavenge food at dumps, cadge the odd handout and cause tens of thousands of human deaths each year from rabies. They are sometimes friendly, but not really friends.
When and where:
If current divisions between species are murky, the past lies in deep darkness. Scientists generally agree that there is good evidence that dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago. By 14,000 years ago, people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans. But some biologists argue, based on DNA evidence and the shape of ancient skulls, that dog domestication occurred well over 30,000 years ago.

And as to where the process occurred, researchers studying dog and wolf DNA — most of it modern but some from ancient sources — have argued in recent years that dogs originated in East Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, Europe and Africa.
What's at stake?
“Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment,” he* added. “I don’t think that’s outlandish.”
*"... Greger Larson, a biologist in the archaeology department at the University of Oxford..."

American Paranoia

A major part of the American condition is fear. Paranoia in America stretches from fright of drugs to panic over Islamic invaders seeking to transform Las Vegas into Kabul. It seems that America cannot psychologically function without believing that it is under constant threat; teetering on the edge of destruction from the comic book menace of apocalyptic villains. The escapist plots of “Mission Impossible” movies are now equal to mainstream American political discourse in their unrealistic depiction of geopolitics and international affairs.

For several decades, America was able to fulfill its psychic need for a gigantic evil with the Cold War. The Pentagon, along with successive presidents, was able to take advantage of the everlasting red scare by continually transferring wealth from the taxpayer to the defense contractor and military; increasing “defense” budgets, and building the national security state.

The fall of the Berlin Wall made the 1990s something of a lost decade, but the horror of 9/11 changed all of that by giving Americans a new enemy – an enemy that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Islamic terrorists now pose the existential threat to America that can justify perpetual war, bloated military budgets, and violation of constitutional liberties.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Fotos: Interior Monologue




Art in the Brain and the Default Mode Network (DMN)

I've got abstracts and links to two articles on art and something called the default mode network, which Wikipedia defines as follows:
In neuroscience, the default mode network (DMN), (also default network, or default state network), is a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain. The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering, but it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The network activates "by default" when a person is not involved in a task. Though the DMN was originally noticed to be deactivated in certain goal-oriented tasks and is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, it can be active in other goal-oriented tasks such as social working memory or autobiographical tasks. The DMN has been shown to be negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks.
So, the DMN is focussed on the self, but not the external world. Art, of course, exists in the external world. The two studies below report that when people are particularly moved by a piece of art (visual art in these experiments), the DMN is activated, despite the fact that the art work exists in the external world. It thus seems that art that "reaches" us, that "moves" us is functionally "inside" us, rather than outside. Which makes sense, no?

See my post, Emotion Recollected in Tranquility, for some remarks on literature and the self. There I suggest that literature helps lay the neurochemical groundwork necessary to being able to recall events that evoke different emotions. What I'm in effect suggesting is that art may be important in making effective use of the DMN for organizing personal experience. That post is one of several in a working paper, Literature, Emotion, and Unity of Being. Here's the abstract:
Unity of being is both an aesthetic and an ethical ideal and it is about organizing desire, action, and emotion into a pattern of overall coherence. Such patterns are necessarily culture specific and somewhat arbitrary in their disposition of underlying biological materials. Stories involving often painful and embarrassing aspects of human behavior provide a means of publicly acknowledging and affirming the bewildering diversity of our behavior. Thus publically affirmed, these nonfictions are the means of constructing the neural 'scaffolding' on which we recall and organize the events of our lives.

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Front. Hum. Neurosci., 20 April 2012 |

The brain on art: intense aesthetic experience activates the default mode network

Aesthetic responses to visual art comprise multiple types of experiences, from sensation and perception to emotion and self-reflection. Moreover, aesthetic experience is highly individual, with observers varying significantly in their responses to the same artwork. Combining fMRI and behavioral analysis of individual differences in aesthetic response, we identify two distinct patterns of neural activity exhibited by different sub-networks. Activity increased linearly with observers' ratings (4-level scale) in sensory (occipito-temporal) regions. Activity in the striatum (STR) also varied linearly with ratings, with below-baseline activations for low-rated artworks. In contrast, a network of frontal regions showed a step-like increase only for the most moving artworks (“4” ratings) and non-differential activity for all others. This included several regions belonging to the “default mode network” (DMN) previously associated with self-referential mentation. Our results suggest that aesthetic experience involves the integration of sensory and emotional reactions in a manner linked with their personal relevance.

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Front. Neurosci., 30 December 2013 |

Art reaches within: aesthetic experience, the self and the default mode network

Edward A. VesselG. Gabrielle Starr and Nava Rubin

In a task of rating images of artworks in an fMRI scanner, regions in the medial prefrontal cortex that are known to be part of the default mode network (DMN) were positively activated on the highest-rated trials. This is surprising given the DMN's original characterization as the set of brain regions that show greater fMRI activity during rest periods than during performance of tasks requiring focus on external stimuli. But further research showed that DMN regions could be positively activated also in structured tasks, if those tasks involved self-referential thought or self-relevant information. How may our findings be understood in this context? Although our task had no explicit self-referential aspect and the stimuli had no a priori self-relevance to the observers, the experimental design we employed emphasized the personal aspects of aesthetic experience. Observers were told that we were interested in their individual tastes, and asked to base their ratings on how much each artwork “moved” them. Moreover, we used little-known artworks that covered a wide range of styles, which led to high individual variability: each artwork was rated highly by some observers and poorly by others. This means that rating-specific neural responses cannot be attributed to the features of any particular artworks, but rather to the aesthetic experience itself. The DMN activity therefore suggests that certain artworks, albeit unfamiliar, may be so well-matched to an individual's unique makeup that they obtain access to the neural substrates concerned with the self—access which other external stimuli normally do not get. This mediates a sense of being “moved,” or “touched from within.” This account is consistent with the modern notion that individuals' taste in art is linked with their sense of identity, and suggests that DMN activity may serve to signal “self-relevance” in a broader sense than has been thought so far.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Attridge and Staten 5: Dickinson started early, turned a figure with the sea

For their second exercise in dialogic minimal interpretation Attridge and Staten (The Craft of Poetry, 2015) chose Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early.” Attridge Remarks (p. 21): “It’s a poem that has produced many examples of the kind of unmoored readings you and I are keen to combat.” Their discussion is fascinating, especially toward the end, where they credit Dickson with proto-modernist technique (pp. 35-37). I think they are right to see the poem as a challenge to their objective of a minimal interpretation, which has them searching for a more specific and conventional narrative than the poem willingly supports.

Consequently I’m going to skip much of that commentary. After presenting the poem itself I’ll present some of their remarks about the overarching narrative and then enter into my own investigation of the poem’s techne.

The Poem: I started Early

Here is the text, which they’ve taken from R. W. Franklin’s edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Harvard 2001).
1     I started Early – Took my Dog –
2     And visited the Sea –
3     The Mermaids in the Basement
4     Came out to look at me –

5     And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
6     Extended Hempen Hands –
7     Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
8     Aground – upon the Sands –

9     But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
10   Went past my simple Shoe –
11   And past my Apron – and my Belt
12   And past my Boddice – too –

13   And made as He would eat me up –
14   As wholly as a Dew
15   Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve –
16   And then – I started – too –

17   And He – He followed – close behind –
18   I felt His Silver Heel
19   Upon my Ankle – Then My Shoes
20   Would overflow with Pearl –

21   Until We met the Solid Town –
22   No One He seemed to know –
23   And bowing – with a Mighty look –
24   At me – The Sea withdrew –
For what it’s worth, it was the fifth stanza that first took hold of me: What’s this about heel, ankle, shoes, and pearls all jammed into a single stanza? I managed to come up with an answer, an unexpected one, but only late in my own investigation.

A Minimal Narrative

Attridge leads off the discussion (p. 22):
As with “The Sick Rose” the poem presents a little narrative, and the most minimal reading of all would be to treat it as the story of a woman’s visit to the seaside, and of her hurrying back as the tide advances and threatens to engulf her – just as we might read Blake’s poem as the story of a flower and bug.
He wonders about possible sexual undertones in the sea’s progression from Shoe to Apron over Belt and Bodice (p. 23) and then points out (p. 24): “...the oddness of a woman wading into the ocean fully clothed until the sea is up to her neck? Perhaps this part of the poem represents a fantasy, while the rest is a somewhat simple event told in fantastic terms.”

Staten wonders whether or not suicide is the underling motivation (p. 26):
No one can get covered by the tide unintentionally, unless they’re unconscious. So if the tide is rising up her body, item by item (again indicating slowness), she must must at least semi-purposely be allowing it to happen. […] the speaker has come close to suicide, in a dreamlike mode that at times verges on whimsy.
And he notes that human society frames the poem, fore and aft (p. 27):
The ship and town evoke human society, to which the speaker returns at the end of the poem, but from which she had become momentarily attached or alienated. And in that case, “Man” in “no Man moved Me” sounds more like a reference to humanity than virility. It’s only the solidity of human society that dissipates the last of the sea’s threat – a threat that was never anything other than the woman’s own willingness to be engulfed.
After worrying a bit about just how long it takes the tide to come in Attridge gets around to a sensible suggestion about what’s going on (p. 30):
Now one doesn’t have to read the desired experience of being moved as a sexual one; it could be some other form of bodily and emotional rapture, some other way of being carried away, swept off your feet, inundated with feeling. One of Dickinson’s favored words in “transport,” which nicely captures both senses of “moved.” The various interpretations critics have come up with – not only sexual attraction but the force of nature, or the imagination, or the unconscious, or death – are not alternatives among which one has to make a choice but various manifestations of the same general narrative of desire, a near overwhelming, an escape, and pleasure.
Yes. Such narrative as the poem presents is rather abstract and general in character despite being floated on imagery so specific one can almost imagine the scene unfolding in the mind’s theater as you read the poem. Abstract, yet concrete–that’s worth thinking about, no?

Glimpse of a vegetable world


Sunday, January 10, 2016

It's the kids, and their parents, and, yes, their teachers

How to fix the nation's schools, in the NYTimes:
Today Union City, which opted for homegrown gradualism, is regarded as a poster child for good urban education. Newark, despite huge infusions of money and outside talent, has struggled by comparison. In 2014, Union City’s graduation rate was 81 percent, exceeding the national average; Newark’s was 69 percent.

What explains this difference? The experience of Union City, as well as other districts, like Montgomery County, Md., and Long Beach, Calif., that have beaten the demographic odds, show that there’s no miracle cure for what ails public education. What business gurus label “continuous improvement,” and the rest of us call slow-and-steady, wins the race.

Slow-and-steady was anathema to Mr. Booker and Mr. Christie, who had big dreams for Newark. But as Dale Russakoff writes in her absorbing account “The Prize,” the politicians’ optimism proved misplaced. What went wrong had as much to do with their top-down approach as with the proposals themselves.
In Newark:
In 2011, Mr. Christie appointed 39-year-old Cami Anderson — a Teach for America alumna — superintendent. She introduced some solid ideas, like replacing the weakest performers with “renew schools” and persuading charters to enroll more poor kids. But she ran into trouble with parents when she did away with neighborhood schools and laid off hundreds of workers to pay for her initiatives.

Her hurry-up style made matters worse. “She didn’t listen,” contends Ms. Russakoff. “She said her plan — ‘16-dimensional chess’ — was too complex for parents.” After repeated heckling by teachers and parents, Ms. Anderson stopped attending board meetings.
In Union City:
In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged. Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method. So the district junked its old approach. Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English. The system started hiring more teachers who spoke Spanish or had E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) training.

The bilingual approach went beyond the classroom. Even though many parents speak only Spanish, meetings had been conducted and written information prepared only in English. In the new era, bilingualism quickly became the norm. Parents, made to feel welcome in the schools, were conscripted to help with their children’s homework and reinforce the schools’ high expectations for them.
Newark’s big mistake was not so much that the school officials embraced one solution or another but that they placed their faith in the idea of disruptive change and charismatic leaders. Union City adopted the opposite approach, embracing the idea of gradual change and working within existing structures.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Friday Fotos: A little of this and that

IMGP2553rd Take me to the future.





The Age of Stupid Machines

Joel Achenbach has an article in The Washington Post about AI voodoo, The AI Anxiety. He’s properly skeptical about the possibility of superintelligence, as I am. But he starts out, as is reasonable in such articles, by stating some of the ideas of Nick Bostrom, whom he dubs “the world’s spookiest philosopher”. Here’s one of those ideas:
Bostrom’s favorite apocalyptic hypothetical involves a machine that has been programmed to make paper clips (although any mundane product will do). This machine keeps getting smarter and more powerful, but never develops human values. It achieves “superintelligence.” It begins to convert all kinds of ordinary materials into paper clips. Eventually it decides to turn everything on Earth — including the human race (!!!) — into paper clips.
I’ve read this scenario before, though I’ve not read Bostrom’s own presentation.

This time around I wondered: In what universe is a machine that does such a boneheaded thing worthy of being called intelligent? Yes, I read that loophole, “but never develops human values”, but in what sort of value system could that action be reasonable? We start out with an “intelligent” machine programmed to crank out paperclips. It gets smarter and smarter, etc. So it has to make lots of decisions; it’s got to have decision procedures of some kind. Those procedures embody its “values”. What sort of decision procedures would, on the one hand, allow this machine to procure the resources and construct the devices necessary to make more and more paperclips, and, on the other hand, not realize that making paperclips, and only paperclips, is stupid and so not worthy of its intelligence?

It doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone dream up such malarkey? It’s like those Nigerian letter scams, the ones that inform you that millions of dollars are waiting for you, just for you, in an abandoned account in The Royal Democratic AIPost-Colonial Bank in Lagos and all you have to do is fork over your information. Such letters are obviously intended to weed out anyone with a lick of sense so that the scammers don’t waste time dealing with reasonable people. Is that why Bostrom offers up such examples?

Later in the article Achenbach gives two more examples of Bostrom’s wisdom:
Imagine, Bostrom says, that human engineers programmed the machines to never harm humans — an echo of the first of Asimov’s robot laws. But the machines might decide that the best way to obey the harm-no-humans command would be to prevent any humans from ever being born.

Or imagine, Bostrom says, that superintelligent machines are programmed to ensure that whatever they do will make humans smile. They may then decide that they should implant electrodes into the facial muscles of all people to keep us smiling.
Really? Does Bostrom really think that machines with the capacity to do such things would nonetheless be unable to realize how stupid those things are?

It doesn’t make sense.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Most Cited Articles in Literary Studies

Jonathan Goodwin has some graphs depicting the most-cited articles in literary studies by the decade for four decades: 1974-2014. He looked at five journals: PMLA, Critical Inquiry, American Literature, New Literary History, and Representations. Links to his graphs:

Urban pastoral, a sample


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Attridge and Staten 4: Langston Hughes Crafts a Ring

I received The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation little less than a week ago and have been reading around in it, off and on, since then. I will not comment on every one of their discussions – my plan when I first began blogging about the book – but will have a word or two to say about some of the poems they cover and some more general words about their project. In no particular order.

Situated Subjects

Their fifth dialogue is about Langston Hughes and has “situated subjects” as its theme. Hughes, of course, was an African-American writing in the first half of the 20th Century. How does that (cultural) situation underlie his poetry? How does one’s knowledge (of lack thereof) of his blackness influence one’s reading of his poetry? What about one’s own knowledge of his historical situation: Harlem, 20th Century? These are the issues that float round and about their discussion of two of his poems, “Lenox Avenue: Midnight” and “Song for a Dark Girl”.

The second poem, with its invocation of minstrelsy and with lynching as its subject, bears obvious marks of Hughes’s socio-cultural situation, but the first does not. Beyond the street, Lenox Avenue, there’s little in the poem to mark it as African-American and even that works only if you know that Lenox Avenue was and is the central street in Harlem, knowledge that is common enough but by no means universal – but then, just what knowledge really is universal? On the whole, I’m sympathetic to Staten’s remark (p. 84):
[…] I want to insist on the fact that the poet has intentionally not provided the details that would particularize the scene in the way that contextualizing readers insist on doing, and that in that case, providing the missing contextualization turns it into a different poem from the one the poet composed. […] “The Song for a Dark Girl” is an excellent example of the other kind of poem, which makes the particulars of a definite African-American experience the substance of its lyricism. I completely agree with you that “its power as a poem and its power as an ethico-political intervention are inseparable.”
With that I want to leave situatedness behind and examine one of the two poems.

Harlem Symmetry

Here’s the text of “Lenox Avenue: Midnight.”
The rhythm of life
Is a jazz rhythm,
The gods are laughing at us.

The broken heart of love,
The weary, weary heart of pain,-
To the rumble of street cars,
To the swish of rain.

Lenox Avenue,
And the gods are laughing at us.
Take a good look at how it lays on the page. Count the number of lines. We’ll return to that in a bit.

Staten begins the discussion with some observations about the opening stanza. The first is about the rhythm of the opening two lines, with the repetition of “rhythm” and the “way I have to hold ‘jazz’ longer than an ordinary syllable to make it come out right” (75). He then notes how “one falls off the edge on the second line” into the single-word third line, “Honey.” What starts as a programmatic assertion about the nature of things now becomes intimate address. (For what it’s worth, in my mind’s ear I hear the lines being spoken by Geoffrey Holder.) And then we have that fourth line, the poem’s second sentence, which “reveals a gnomic dimension” (76). I’m not sure about “gnomic” though perhaps so, but Staten is certainly right to observe that the “space between the poem’s first sentence and its second is huge, and it is deep” (76). I would suggest that the rest of the poem bridges that gap.

The Hudson River, looking south from Hoboken


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Metaphor and Neural Processing


Front. Hum. Neurosci., 05 January 2016 |

Editorial: The Metaphorical Brain

  • 1Cognitive Science Department, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
  • 2Department of Psychology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, USA
The Editorial on the Research Topic

Long considered a peripheral topic in linguistics, metaphor is increasingly viewed as a central feature of higher cognition and abstract thought. Investigation of the neural substrate of metaphor has, similarly, become more sophisticated, involving increasingly specific suggestions about the processes involved in its comprehension. This Frontiers Research Topic brings together contributions from a diverse array of cognitive neuroscience to offer a snapshot of current research on the neural substrate of figurative language, and present a number of avenues for future research. The result is an interdisciplinary perspective on the differences between literal and figurative language and how the underlying neurobiological processes can be investigated.
Indeed, most investigations into the neural substrate of metaphor ultimately concern the relationship between literal and metaphorical meanings. In their excellent review paper, Vulchanova and colleagues outline the arguments for and against the continuity thesis that literal and metaphorical language comprehension recruits essentially the same processing mechanisms. Using autism as a lens through which to consider the issue, they review data that indicate dissociations in the comprehension of literal and figurative language within individuals with ASD. Ultimately, they suggest figurative language deficits in ASD stem from the difficulty these individuals have integrating contextual information to build the situation model.
One source of support for the idea that literal and metaphorical comprehension processes recruit distinct neural substrates is the increasingly contentious claim that the right cerebral hemisphere (RH) plays a crucial role in the comprehension of metaphor, but not literal language. Ianni and colleagues note that much of the data supporting this claim comes from the study of brain-injured patients that have employed sub-optimal tasks for assessing metaphor comprehension. They present a novel test with fine-grained sensitivity to participants' ability to understand both literal and metaphorical language. They present data from three patients to demonstrate (i) comparable impairment on literal and metaphorical language, (ii) greater impairment for metaphorical than literal language, and (iii) selective impairment on metaphorical language.
Addressing the issue of hemispheric specialization in healthy adults, Lai and colleagues examine functional neuroimaging data as participants read literal and metaphorical sentences with varying degrees of familiarity. They found that decreasing familiarity (i.e., increasing novelty) of both literal and metaphorical language led to greater activation bilaterally, with more extensive recruitment of LH brain regions overall. However, the relativecontribution of the RH was greater for novel metaphors, as a result of reduced LH activation for novel literal language.
Faust and colleagues utilize network theory in their discussion of hemispheric specialization for metaphor comprehension. In particular, they suggest that the LH exhibits semantic rigidity, manifested by networks in which each node is connected to a small number of other nodes. Rigid networks are well suited for the rapid retrieval of conventional meanings, but ill-suited for creating meanings needed for novel metaphors. The RH exhibits semantic chaos, manifested by highly inter-connected networks that enable fast connections between semantically distant concepts. Although inter-connectivity facilitates the comprehension of novel metaphors, its pathological extreme can be seen in schizophrenia and accompanying thought disorder.
Mashal and colleagues examined brain activity as schizophrenics and age-matched controls read literal phrases, conventional metaphors, and novel metaphors. They find novel metaphors elicited greater activity in the RH precuneus and superior parietal lobule (SPL) among schizophrenics than controls, and that greater activation in this brain region was correlated with better comprehension. In keeping with Faust and Kennet's suggestion that schizophrenia is associated with greater inter-connectivity in the semantic network, Mashal and colleagues found patients showed a greater degree of functional coupling between the precuneus/SPL and other language regions.
As is typical of studies of metaphor comprehension in schizophrenia, Mashal and colleagues found evidence for reduced comprehension in patients relative to controls. However, figurative language is diverse, and requires multiple mechanisms for its comprehension. Cognizant of this fact, Pesciarelli and colleagues investigated whether patients with schizophrenia can utilize both combinatorial mechanisms and the retrieval of stored meanings in their comprehension of idioms. They report evidence suggesting that the difficulty schizophrenic patients have understanding metaphors is less pronounced in the case of idioms for which they can rely on the retrieval of stored meanings.
Differences between the processing of metaphors and idioms are also supported by studies of healthy adults. Columbus and colleagues asked whether domain-general aspects of executive control influenced reading times for familiar and unfamiliar metaphorical sentences and idioms. They found that individuals with high executive control utilized context more efficiently than those with low executive control to commit to a metaphorical or literal reading of a target word. While executive control led to advantages for both familiar and unfamiliar metaphors, all participants read idioms efficiently, reinforcing the importance of retrieval mechanisms for idiom comprehension.