Thursday, May 25, 2017

Five epochs of energy and evolution

Olivia P. Judson, The energy expansions of evolution, Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, Article number: 0138 (2017)
doi:10.1038/s41559-017-0138

Abstract: The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change. Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Free energy is a universal requirement for life. It drives mechanical motion and chemical reactions—which in biology can change a cell or an organism1,2. Over the course of Earth history, the harnessing of free energy by organisms has had a dramatic impact on the planetary environment3,​4,​5,​6,​7. Yet the variety of free-energy sources available to living organisms has expanded over time. These expansions are consequences of events in the evolution of life, and they have mediated the transformation of the planet from an anoxic world that could support only microbial life, to one that boasts the rich geology and diversity of life present today. Here, I review these energy expansions, discuss how they map onto the biological and geological development of Earth, and consider what this could mean for the trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere.

Sapolsky on good and evil (sorta’)

Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford biologist who’s just published an 800-page book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Sean Illing interviews him in Vox.

On violence:
Sean Illing: You write that “our species has problems with violence.” Can you explain this complicated relationship? 
Robert Sapolsky: The easiest answer is that we're really violent. The much more important one, the much more challenging one, is that we don't hate violence as such — we hate the wrong kind of violence, and when it's the right kind of violence, we absolutely do cartwheels to reinforce it and reward it and hand out medals and mate with such people because of it. And that’s part of the reason why the worst kinds of violence are so viscerally awful to experience, to bear witness to. But the right kinds of violence are just as visceral, only in the opposite direction. 
The truth is that this is the hardest realm of human behavior to understand, but it’s also the most important one to try to.
Sean Illing: What is the wrong kind of violence? What is the right kind of violence?

Robert Sapolsky: Of course that tends to be in the eye of the beholder. Far too often, the right kind is one that fosters the fortunes of people just like us in group favoritism, and the worst kinds are the ones that do the opposite.

Sean Illing: Violence is a fact of nature — all species engage in it one way or other. Are humans the only species that ritualizes it, that makes a sport of it?

Robert Sapolsky: That does seem pretty much the case. Certainly you see the hints of it in chimps, for example, where you see order patrols by male chimps in one group, where if they encounter a male from another group, they will kill him. They have now been shown in a number of circumstances to have systematically killed all the males in the neighboring group, which certainly fits a rough definition of genocide, which is to say killing an individual not because of what they did but simply because of what group they belong to.

What's striking with the chimps is that you can tell beforehand that this is where they are heading. They do something vaguely ritualistic, which is they do a whole bunch of emotional contagion stuff. One male gets very agitated, very aroused, manages to get others like that, and then off they go to look for somebody to attack. So in that regard, there is a ritualistic feel to it, but that's easily framed along the conventional lines of nonhuman animal violence. By that, I mean when male chimps do this, when they eradicate all of the other males in a neighboring territory, they expand their own; it increases their reproductive success.

I believe it is really only humans that do violence for purely ritualistic purposes.
And the future?
Sean Illing: Has civilization made us better?

Robert Sapolsky: Absolutely. The big question is which of the following two scenarios are more correct: a) Civilization has made us the most peaceful, cooperative, emphatic we've ever been as a species, versus b) civilization is finally inching us back to the level of all those good things that characterized most of hominin hunter-gatherer history, preceding the invention of agriculture. Amid mostly being an academic outsider to the huge debates over this one, I find the latter view much more convincing.

Sean Illing: You say you incline to pessimism but that this book gave you reasons to be optimistic. Why?

Robert Sapolsky: Because there's very little about our behaviors that are inevitable, including our worst behaviors. And we’re learning more and more about the biological underpinnings of our behavior, and that can help us produce better outcomes. As long as you have a ridiculously long view of things, things are getting better.

It’s much nicer to be alive today than it was 100 or 200 years ago, and that’s because we’ve progressed. But nothing is certain, and we have to continue moving forward if we want to preserve what progress we’ve made.

The true nature of reality is strange

I’m a regular reader of Tyler Cowen’s blog, Marginal Revolution (which he runs along with Alex Tabarrok). As some of you know, Cowen is a libertarian economist with various and capacious reading habits, a foodie, and a collector of Haitian art. He’s just published a post entitled “Why I don’t believe in God”. I’m sympathetic with some of his points.

Thus:
2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings. That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief. I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.” It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs. I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated. Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

I would especially mention that first clause, “The true nature of reality is so strange…” We do almost all our thinking within circumcised boundaries. Those boundaries may be more or less well defined of they may be fuzzy, but they are boundaries and most of the world is outside them. But when we try to think about it all, things just go wonky.

Coming to the end:
6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period. But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong. Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!” We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims. In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.
Personal experience, that too is strange. Music is friendly to such experience. Drugs too.

Will those post-singularity computers have such experiences? Is that what we are, a mystical experience in the mind of a post-singularity computer?

How strange.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. One of my all time favorites.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This happened when I was living in upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Crumpled Irises

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Can't we all get along? Russia and the USofA

Bottom Line: Perhaps we should reset our relationship with Russia. Alas, 45 and company are more interested in oil money than peace and they're incompetent at governance. But what we're seeing in the news – Comey  etc. – is a distracting sideshow of bureaucratic and partisan infighting.

Here's the beginning of a 22 minute interview posted at Naked Capitalism:
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that a memo written by James Comey states that President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into General Flynn. Now, this was all about Flynn’s contacts with the Russians. [...]

Now joining us to talk about the Comey affair, the Trump affair, and just what is the issues in terms of the US-Russia relationship, is Robert English. Robert is a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California. He specializes in Russian and post-Soviet politics, US-Russian relations, and national security policy. He formerly worked for the US Department of Defense and the Committee for National Security, and has published widely in both academic and policy journals. Thanks very much for joining us, Robert.

ROBERT ENGLISH: Happy to be here.

PAUL JAY: Okay, so every day another storm, another drama. First of all, what do you make of … Maybe the most interesting thing in all of this Comey thing today isn’t Trump asking him to stop the investigation; that’s not a great shocker. The more interesting thing is somebody at the FBI who has access to the Comey memo reads it to a journalist at the New York Times. There’s a lot of people out to get Trump here.

ROBERT ENGLISH: Yeah, you’re pointing to this larger problem, which is this chaos, this infighting, and not just in a sort of careerist bureaucratic way, but a kind of serious pitched battle between different factions — in this case, between those in the Trump administration who seem to want a fresh start with Russia, to try to begin cooperation on things like Syria, terrorism, and so forth, and those dead set against it, who are now using leaks and so forth to … In part, to fight their battles. And so the bureaucratic, the nasty, the backstabbing, the leaking, is one area of issues, but you’re pointing to this larger fundamental. Can we get along with Russia? Is it worth trying to reset relations? And even if he’s not the best executor so far — and he’s not — is Trump’s basic idea of “We can get along with Russia, let’s give it a try” a good one? And I happen to think it is; it’s just being carried out awfully clumsily.

PAUL JAY: Yeah, I think one needs to separate the intent of Trump for wanting better relation with Russia, which one can analyze, and the policy itself. The policy of having a détente, although why there even needs to be a détente is kind of a question mark … But why is so much of the American foreign policy establishment, the political class, the military leadership, the vast majority of that whole stratum wants to maintain a very antagonistic position towards Russia, and why?

ROBERT ENGLISH: You know, four or five reasons that all come together, pushing in this Russophobic direction. We’ve always had sort of unreconstructed Cold Warriors, people who never were easy with the new Russia, right? Zbigniew Brzezinski and people of that ilk, who wanted to just push Russia in a corner, take advantage of its weakness, never give it a chance. Then you have people in the military-industrial complex, for lack of a better term, whose vested interests lie in a continued rivalry, and continued arms-racing, and continued threat inflation. You have other people who normally would be liberal progressive, but they’re so angry at Hillary Clinton’s loss, they’re so uncomprehending of how someone they see as vulgar and unqualified as Trump could get elected, that they’re naturally unwilling to let go of this “the Russians hacked our election, the Russians got Trump elected” theme, and therefore, Russia is even bigger enemy than they would be otherwise. These and other strains all come together in a strange way. Some of this is the hard right, all right? Some of it is from the left, some is from the center. And across the board, we have ignorance. Ignorance of Russia. [...]

You don’t have to go back to the ’50s or ’40s. You can go back just to the ’90s, when we interfered in Russia, when we foisted dysfunctional economic policies on them, when we meddled in their elections repeatedly, and basically for an entire decade, we were handmaidens to a catastrophe — economic, political, social — that sowed the seeds of this resentment that continues to this day.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A history of the world in 20 entertaining minutes


H/t Vox:
Thankfully, you don’t have to be around for billions of years to understand how that happened and how you got here. In a new video, YouTube creator Bill Wurtz manages to capture the history of the world in a bizarre but highly entertaining 20 minutes.

Wurtz starts with a simple observation: “Hi. You’re on a rock, floating in space. Pretty cool, huh?” From there, he goes into a deep dive of world history: the formation of the universe; the development of our solar system and Earth; the evolution of species, including humans; the dawn of civilization; the creation of religions; wars; the explosion of technology — and the global population — in the past two centuries; and much, much more.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is Trump Out of Control?

I don’t know. I simply don’t know what to make of events for the last week so.

The Comey firing was a debacle. While I have no love for the man, it seemed pretty clear that when the announcement came last Tuesday that Comey was being fired because over the FBI’s investigation into the interaction between the Trump campaign and the Russians. The pretext given, that it was about his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, was laughable. No one bought it and the firing blew us in Trump’s face. So what does Trump do? He admits that, yes, he fired Comey over the Russia investigation – thus making his subordinates looking like fools for covering for him.

Meanwhile, the day after the Comey firing Trump met with Russian officials, Lavrov (foreign minister) and Kislyak (ambassador to the US), and gave them highly sensitive intelligence information about ISIS, information that had been supplied to the United States by a third party (now known to be Israel) with the understanding that the US would be very circumspect about sharing it. While such an action is within the authority of the President, it is, for reasons laid-out in full in this post at Lawfare, a stupid and foolish thing to do. We only learned about this yesterday (Monday 15 May).

We’re still processing this. By “we” I mean you, me, and anyone else. But also Trump, and those who serve him and must cover for him. What’s it all mean?

David Brooks, by no means a favorite of mine, argues that Trump is a child:
But Trump’s statements don’t necessarily come from anywhere, lead anywhere or have a permanent reality beyond his wish to be liked at any given instant.

We’ve got this perverse situation in which the vast analytic powers of the entire world are being spent trying to understand a guy whose thoughts are often just six fireflies beeping randomly in a jar.
Trump himself or the people around him or his loyal base of supporters [will] continue to insist on his retention of authority despite the fact that he’s impaired. We lurch from crisis to crisis, descending every day deeper into shared delirium. That happens too in history, is happening right now here and there around the world: people closest to the void at the heart of political power decide that they themselves are safest if they embrace that void, and amplify its capricious, random perturbations in all directions. We the People, already both mad and slightly maddened ourselves, become caregivers and captives of a mad king.
Is this what we’ve got, a mad king leading the most powerful nation on earth?

Redefining the Coming Singularity – It’s not what you think

“The interests of humanity may change, the present curiosities in science may cease, and entirely different things may occupy the human mind in the future.” One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

–Stanislaw Ulam, from a tribute to John von Neumann



Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

–Arthur C. Clarke

imagine_that.jpg
Superintelligence in the Upload

I’m neither worried nor pleased at the prospect of superintelligent computers. Why? Because they aren’t going to happen in the foreseeable future, if ever. I figure the future is going to be more interesting than that. Why? Because: the next singularity.

Singularities – in the sense of a new regime “beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue” – are not new in human history. Nor are they hard-edged. They are most easily seen in retrospect. Our nineteenth century predecessors could not have imagined the Internet or microsurgery, nor could our ninth century predecessors have imagined the steam locomotive or the telephone.

I’m sure that future developments in computing will be amazing, and many of them likely will be amazing in ways we cannot imagine, but I doubt that our successors will see superintelligent computers, not in the foreseeable future and perhaps even not ever. Yes, there will be a time in the future when technology changes so drastically that we cannot now imagine, and thus predict, what will happen. No, that change is not likely to take the form of superintelligent computing.

Why do I hold these views? On the one hand there is ignorance. I am not aware of any concept of intelligence that is so well articulated that we could plan to achieve it in a machine in a way comparable to planning a manned mission to Mars. In the later case we have accomplished relevant projects – manned flight to the moon, unmanned flight to the Martian surface – and have reason to believe that our basic grasp of the relevant underlying physical principles is robust. In the case of intelligent machines, yes, we do have a lot of interesting technology, none of which approximates intelligence as closely as a manned mission to the moon approximates a manned mission to Mars. More tellingly, we are not in possession of a robust understanding of the underlying mechanisms of intelligent perception, thought, and action.

And yet we do know a great deal about how human minds work and about, for example, how we have achieved the knowledge that allows us to build DNA sequencing devices, smart phones, or to support humans in near-earth orbit for weeks at a time. This knowledge suggests that super-intelligent computing is unlikely, at least if “super-intelligence” is defined to mean surpassing human intelligence in a broad and fundamental way.

Human Intelligence and Its Cultural Elaboration

When the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget finally made its way into the American academy in the middle of the last century the developmental question became: Is the difference between children’s thought and adult thought simply a matter of accumulated facts or is it about fundamental conceptual structures? Piaget, of course, argued for the latter. In his view the mind was constructed in “layers” where the structures of higher layers were constructed over and presupposed those of lower layers. It’s not simply that 10-year olds knew more facts than 5-year olds, but that they reasoned about the world in a more sophisticated way. No matter how many specific facts a 5-year old masters, he or she cannot think like a 10-year old because he or she lacks the appropriate logical forms. Similarly, the thought of 5-year olds is more sophisticated than that of 2-year olds and that of 15-year olds is more sophisticated than that of 10-year olds.

This is, by now, quite well known and not controversial in broad outline, though Piaget’s specific proposals have been modified in many ways. What’s not so well known is that Piaget extended his ideas to the development of scientific and mathematical ideas in history in the study of genetic epistemology. In his view later ideas developed over earlier ones through a process of reflective abstraction in which the mechanisms of earlier ideas become objects manipulated by newer emerging ideas. In a series of studies published in the 1980s and 1990s the late David Hays and I developed similar ideas about the long-term cultural evolution of ideas.

We theorized about cognitive ranks, where later ranks developed over earlier ones through reflective abstraction (see Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society). Our fundamental paper is The Evolution of Cognition (Journal of Social and Biological Structures 13(4): 297-320, 1990) and the remainder of this section is adapted from it as is the next section. You will find full citations in that article.

The basic idea of cognitive rank was suggested by Walter Wiora’s work on the history of music, The Four Ages of Music (1965). He argued that music history be divided into four ages. The first age was that of music in preliterate societies and the second age was that of the ancient high civilizations. The third age is that which Western music entered during and after the Renaissance. The fourth age began with this century. (For a similar four-stage theory based on estimates of informatic capacity, see for example D. S. Robertson, The Information Revolution. Communication Research 17, 235-254.)

This scheme is simple enough. What was so striking to us was that so many facets of culture and society could be organized into these same historical strata. It is a commonplace that all aspects of Western culture and society underwent a profound change during the Renaissance. The modern nation state was born, the scientific revolution happened, art adopted new forms of realistic depiction, attitudes toward children underwent a major change, as did the nature of marriage and family, new forms of commerce were adopted, and so forth. If we look at the early part of our own century we see major changes in all realms of symbolic activity—mathematics, the sciences, the arts—while many of our social and political forms remain structured on older models.

Friday, May 12, 2017

David Ferrucci on AI and Natural Language



Ben Lorica of O'Reilly interviews David Ferrucci. These days Ferrucci is working on a natural language understanding at a Elemental Cognition, a company he's founded. He emphasizes that systems like Watson, which he helmed when he was at IBM, don't actually understand anything. At Elemental Cognition Ferrucci want the machine to attain understanding through conversation with humans, who will "teach" the machine.

A Fourth Constitutional Crisis?

Over at Down with Tyranny Gaius Publius argues that we're having a fourth constitutional crisis. He sets things up by arguing that Trump will not be impeached:
I'll lay decent odds the administration will appoint no special prosecutor, and if they do, no independent special prosecutor. It would take a revolt from congressional Republicans to prove me wrong. That could happen, but odds that it will? Less than 50-50 as I see it now.

Which means the country stays in its current state, ruled by a man and a party actively perverting the Constitution to enable obvious corruption and — finally, what the Democrats alleged all along on no evidence — apparent collusion by that man with a foreign power to gain domestic power. Whether that collusion was decisive or not in his victory, matters not at all. [...]

All of which means that if Trump's Russia doings aren't formally investigated, either by a special investigator or by Congress, elites who want him gone will have to force him out by extra-constitutional means.
Extra-constitutional means?
• Relentless, damaging leaks and innuendo from all quarters aimed at turning public opinion against him.

• Privately issued threats and rewards — sticks and carrots — to induce him to step down. Remember, intelligence agencies of various stripes likely have almost all the goods on almost all officials who matter to them. Imagine what's hoarded in NSA databases, or what FBI background checks reveal. Imagine what secrets angry CIA field agents might dig up. [...]

• Threats amounting to blackmail and, if not physical violence, violence to his wealth, business interests, and "brand." ("We will destroy your brand forever, you will never do business again, if you don't get out. Here's how we'll do it. First...")

And that leads us to the fourth Constitutional crisis:
• 1789, the Revolutionary War and transition from colony to slave-holding republic.

• 1865, the Civil War and transition from divided slave-holding nation with two competing economies to united freed-slave state. This change took down the Southern agricultural aristocracy (by depriving it of the nearly free labor it depended on); made the Northern industrial economy nationally ascendant; and put us firmly on the path to first-world industrial powerhouse.

• 1933, the Great Depression and transition from a light-handed pro-business government to a heavy-handed regulatory state.

• And now, this.

What will the next American Constitution look like? Turkey's and Hungary's, with their dictators and single-party governments wrapped in the old constitutional forms? A naked kleptocracy, where constitutional forms are simply ignored, like those in many third-world countries? A state in which forms are observed but the hand with real power belongs mainly to the "security" apparatus? In many countries, coups by segments of the elite, blatant or covert, are welcomed as correctives and tacitly approved (another way constitutions are revised without being rewritten).

If Trump is not successfully impeached, and it looks for now like he won't be, our government as practiced will once more dramatically change, as it did when Bush's crimes were not addressed, and Obama's after him (never forget that targeted assassination is an innovation Obama made lawful).

But whatever happens next, whether Trump is impeached or not, I think we've already been changed as a nation forever by what's already led to this moment. After all, in 2016 the nation wanted someone like Sanders to be president, wanted an agent of change, and look what it got. This is in fact our second failed attempt this century at change that makes our lives better.

I don't think that point's been lost on anyone. We're in transition no matter what happens to Trump. Transition to what, we'll have to find out later.

And something else to consider. The last three times the government fundamentally changed, we got lucky. We found leaders — Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt — up to the task, in chaotic and troubling times, of steering an altered ship to calmer water and a safer port.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

3 Notes on Miyazaki: Becoming

From late 2010.
I’ve been thinking about Hayao Miyazaki a lot. Here are three notes about his films. There’s a connection between them, but not an argument.

The screen shots are from Ponyo, depicting her in three phases in her being.

Ponyo-A-1 fish in bubble

The Miyazaki Canon

When we think of Miyazaki, we think of a series of animated feature films started with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. But that’s not his first film; The Castle of Cagliostro is, and Miyazaki also did lots of TV work earlier in his career. Why do we set that work aside when thinking of Miyazaki?

The answer is intuitively obvious when one looks at the pre-Nausicaä work. If you look at Cagliostro, which I know fairly well (but I’ve not seen any of the TV work), it’s obvious that it’s in a different world from Nausicaä and subsequent films. It’s a well-make action-adventure film, as are, for the matter, the later Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso. But it lacks something that the later films have.

What is it? We can use works like subtlety, richness, or complexity, all of which seem apt. And yet they’re just words. What do they mean? How do we find them in the films?

However we approach those questions, I note that Nausicaä signals its difference from Cagliostro in obvious ways. From the opening frames of the film (see this post at Acephalous), we know we’re in a strange world, a dying post-apocalyptic world. In contrast Cagliostro looks bright and sunny. Both are full of adventure, but Cagliostro is a crime caper while Nausicaä is a save-the-world quest in a post apocalyptic world. The hero of Cagliostro is male, Lupin III, and he saves a princess. Nausicaä’s hero is, of course, Princess Nausicaä herself.

Ponyo-A-2 arms and legs

Instability: Man and Nature in Nausicaä

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is widely regarded as an ecological fable, and obviously so. And yet that doesn’t quite get it right. It seems clear that, in a general way, the world is looking bleak for humans, and I emphasis that, for humans, because of a firestorm wrought by humans 1000 years ago. There’s a poisonous jungle that’s growing larger and land suitable for human habitation is shrinking. The war between the Pegites and the Tolmekians is linked to their (mistaken) efforts to deal with this problem. Nausicaä and her people are caught between these two greater powers, whose war threatens them more than the jungle.

Now, consider a passage from interview Miyazaki gave the day after the film opened in 1984 [Hayao Miyazaki. Starting Point: 1979-1996. San Francisco: Viz Media 2009, p. 335]:
— About the depiction of the Sea of Decay: in the early scenes, such as the village where Yupa ends up, it’s rather eerie. At the end, the Sea of Decay where Yupa and Asbel are traveling appears very bright.

Miyazaki: We see birds that harm humans as harmful and those that are useful to humans as useful. It’s all arbitrary. The impression we have of a landscape changes depending on the emotions of the person view the landscape. Nature that is generous is, at the same time, nature that is ferocious. This is why humans feel humbled in the face of nature and why they are able to realize its true abundance. In The Dark Crystal, they talk about the earth’s surface being damaged for thousands of years. And at the end, what happens is that something like a golf course is shown. [laughs] Compared to that, the original jungle, with its multitude of inhabitants, was much livelier. I think that’s fine. So I think it’s a very strange story.
In such a world humans do not have a privileged place. How do you center a movie on humans – and this movie is surely centered on humans – in such a world? What makes their impending extinction a matter of central concern?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Cartoon Metaphysics: OOO and Animation

More cartoons on the mind – bumping this post from 2011 to the top of the queue.
[Some time ago] ago when I blogged about Animation and the Sentient Text I speculated
about object-oriented ontology in the age of animation: Is there a connection? Animated films have been with us since the early 1920s, and animation itself extends back into the 19th Century, with flip books, kinoscopes and such. In its cinematic guise animation has been aware of itself and its tech and has depicted that in many and various of its works. From this it follows that animation is aware of the apparent ontological difference between its materials, static images, and its effects, living beings (and others) on the screen and into the minds of viewers.
Let me continue that speculation.

Early in his career Walt Disney did a series of films known as the Alice films. They were short subjects in which a girl named Alice—who owes little to Lewis Carroll’s Alice that I can see—does this that and the other. Alice, however, is a live action girl, while the world in which she does this that and the other is an animated one. Here’s a frame grab:

walt & alice

That’s Walt Disney standing over her shoulder and, of course, an animated scene in front of her. In this shot we see an animated mouse attempt to annoy a live action cat:

Friday, May 5, 2017

Sacred Things

From six years ago....
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… that still roaring dell, of which I told;
The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;--that branchless ash,
Unsunn'd and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fann'd by the water-fall! and there my friends
Behold the dark green file of long lank weeds,
That all at once (a most fantastic sight!)
Still nod and drip beneath the dripping edge
Of the blue clay-stone.

-- Coleridge, This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison
This post began, I suppose, when, upon reading Charles Cameron’s post, Sacred space and the imagination, the “graffiti!” light went off in my brain. Not just any graffiti light, but this one:

westward ho.jpg

Well, not that exact one, but it was a photograph of that same arch, a different photograph. This one shows the graffiti a little more clearly, but it’s not the same graffiti, as graffiti often changes over time, in some places more rapidly than others.

If you look back over Cameron’s images, you’ll see that it’s of a piece with them. And I’ve got dozens of photos of that arch: different times of the day, different seasons, different years, different graffiti, different angles. And that’s not all.

Graffiti and the sacred is a natural, one that hadn’t quite hit me full-on until I’d read Cameron’s post. You see, my first post about graffiti (the images, alas, are gone) was about this piece, which I called the Shrine of the Triceratops:

dino_train_872

It’s not that I believe, mind you, that there’s a triceratops cult in Jersey City and that this is where they meet. Nothing like that. Rather, that that image seemed to embody of the spirit of the place, the Japanese word is kami. (That triceratops is now gone. First, eroded by the weather, then other writers went over it.)

I could go on and on about graffiti, but I won’t, because this post isn’t just about graffiti. But I’ll leave you with one last graffiti thought. Graffiti is often likened to cave art. Well, cave art, some of it, perhaps all of it, is sacred art. Not mere pictures, but spirits bodied forth on walls.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Disney and Tezuka at 3 Quarks Daily

My most recent posts at 3 Quarks Daily are about two pop culture figures, Osamu Tezuka and Walt Disney:

Fantasia came out at the end of 1940, but, alas, failed at the box office, in part because by that time Disney had become dependent on foreign markets but those were closed to him because of the outbreak of WWII. Tezuka would have been aware of Disney by the time he began drawing manga in the middle and late 1940s, but he wouldn’t have seen any of Disney’s feature length cartoons until the 1950s, at which time they fascinated him. Both men have had tremendous influence on popular culture.

Desire and Causality in Road Runner Cartoons

An old one from 2011 that I'm bumping to the top in general principle.
What’s the Road Runner series about?

The cartoons adhere to a formula: They’re set in a desert landscape in the southwestern US and have just two characters, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Coyote is hungry; Road Runner is a (potential) meal. Coyote concocts schemes to catch Road Runner; some of these are elaborate; and some use equipment procured from the Acme Corp. All the schemes fail. Coyote has no particular animosity toward the Road Runner; nor Road Runner toward Coyote, though he does taunt him. The end.

Simple. But what’s it about? Take Coyote as a figure for human desire and Road Runner as a figure for the world at large. Desire wishes to bend the world toward its ends. All those elaborate, but failed, schemes are a figure for causality. Conclusion: causality operates according to laws that are independent of human desire. Ergo, there is a world out there, and it is independent of us.

Let’s consider an early example in the series, Beep, Beep (1951). Chuck Jones, the director, invokes a scientific frame of mind at the very beginning by giving us the scientific designations of the protagonists:

BB 1 accelerati

BB 2 carnivorous

Jones enforces the sense of “science” by first presenting us with a blueprint for one of Coyote’s schemes:

BB 3 blueprints 1

We, of course, occupy the Coyote’s point of view; he’s a stand-in for us, and our desires. Notice the three-part explication of the plan. There’s a bit of a gap between steps two and three as a number of unnamed things must happen to transform a (presumably) squashed Road Runner into a burger. We might think of that gap as a figure for the gap between desire and reality.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The State is in Question: What's happening to the idea of state sovereignty?

J. Dana Stuster, writing at Lawfare:
In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.
The books: Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle.

A bit of history:
Each author identifies to the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 as a critical point of reference. To Haass, it is the foundation of the modern world order, establishing the basic principles of international relations as they are understood today. At the heart of this framework is the concept of sovereignty: the right of governments to manage their affairs of state within their borders without foreign interference. Sovereignty has always been an artificial concept, and states have never abided by it perfectly. The Treaty of Westphalia failed to prevent various upheavals across Europe, but it succeeded in establishing a framework that would persist through revisions after the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.

Brooks places Westphalia in the context of the development of the law of armed conflict and, later, human rights law. “Even after this symbolic starting point,” she writes, “it took centuries of conquest and many more wars before anything truly resembling today’s state system.” While Haass tracks the integration of relations between states, notably the consultative structure of the Concert of Europe and economic ties that served as a check against aggression, Brooks follows the development of legal traditions for conflict, from their origins in antiquity through the Lieber Code, the first Geneva Convention, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

Haass and Brooks’ histories intersect again at the point when the global order diverged from its Westphalian traditions. The cataclysm of World War II prompted the development of new innovations in law and multilateral institutions that have undermined that fundamental concept of sovereignty. The reasons for this were well-intentioned: The founders of the United Nations sincerely wanted to prevent repeating the atrocities of the war they had just witnessed. But by setting down principles barring certain conduct by governments against their own citizens, they opened the door to all manner of justifications for foreign intervention. This has been exacerbated by globalization and the accompanying devolution of power that has allowed small states, corporations, terrorist groups, humanitarian organizations, and individuals to influence events across borders. Both Brooks and Haass argue that now, seventy years later, sovereignty is eroding to its breaking point.

Kennedy, like Brooks, focuses on legal developments, but he approaches this history differently as a constructivist. “[O]rigin myths are as important for world building as they are for religions, families, or cultures,” he writes. Nonetheless, he reaches a similar conclusion: “This proliferation of legally framed activity has made war and sovereign power into legal institutions even as the experience of legal pluralism and fluidity has unhinged the idea of a law which, out there, somehow distinguishes.” The basic tenets of the Westphalian order “have become far too spongy to permit clear resolution—or became [sic] spongy enough to undergird the experience of self-confident outrage by parties on all sides of a conflict.”
The nation-state, after all, is not given in the nature of things. It is a contingent form of social organization, arising in certain historical to serve certain ends. The contemporary world is very different from the Europe of the 17th century.

Near and not-so-far mist

20150919-_IGP5948

Synchrony, Dance, and Cultural Evolution

Kevin Laland has an interesting article on cultural evolution over at This View of Life, "Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind". I'm not going to try to summarize it beyond noting that he comes to focus on dance as an example, arguing that dance is necessarily learned through imitation and that the tricky aspect of imitation is what he calls the correspondence problem. What's the correspondence between movements you observe in others and the actions you must take so that your movements imitate them? Your observations consist of visual information, but your actions are motor and kinesthetic.

Here's a passage that speaks to my hobby horse, synchronization:
This ability to move in rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat by nodding our head or tapping our feet, for instance, is a universal characteristic of humans,[42] but is rarely observed in other species.[43] The most prominent explanation for why this should be, known as the “vocal learning and rhythmic synchronization” hypothesis,[44] is broadly in accord with the arguments presented here.[45] This hypothesis suggests that moving in time to the rhythm (known as “entrainment”) relies on the neural circuitry for complex vocal learning; it is an ability that requires a tight link between auditory and motor circuits in the brain.[46] The hypothesis predicts that only species of animal capable of vocal imitation, such as humans, parrots and songbirds, cetaceans, and pinnipeds, but not nonhuman primates and not those birds that do not learn their songs, will be capable of synchronizing movements to music. [...]

Thus far, evidence for spontaneous motor entrainment to music has been reported in at least nine species of birds including several types of parrot, and the Asian elephant, all of whom are vocal imitators,[51] and several of which show motor imitation.[52] Entrainment has also been shown in a chimpanzee,[53] a renowned motor imitator.[54] The sole exception to this association is the California sea lion,[55] which is not known to exhibit vocal learning. However, the fact that related species show vocal learning, including several seals and the walrus,[56] raises the possibility that this capability or a relevant precursor may yet be demonstrated. Lyrebirds have not been subject to entrainment experiments, but males are famous for their ability to imitate virtually any sounds, including dog barks, chainsaws, and car alarms. They can match subsets of songs from their extensive vocal repertoire with tail, wing, and leg movements to devise their own “dance” choreography.[57] Clearly, there is more to dance, at least social or collective dance, than entrainment to music. There must also be coordination with others’ movements, which would seemingly draw on the neural circuitry that underlies motor, rather than vocal, imitation.[58] However, a recent analysis of the avian brain suggests that vocal learning evolved through exploitation of pre-existing motor pathways,[59] implying that vocal and motor imitation are reliant on similar circuitry. The animal data provide compelling support for a causal link between the capabilities for imitation and dance. Whether this is because imitation is necessary for entrainment, or merely facilitates it through reinforcing relevant neural circuitry, remains to be established.