Thursday, April 19, 2018

Purple Flowers


Machine-learning can predict the evolution of chaotic systems

The findings come from veteran chaos theorist Edward Ott and four collaborators at the University of Maryland. They employed a machine-learning algorithm called reservoir computing to “learn” the dynamics of an archetypal chaotic system called the Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equation. The evolving solution to this equation behaves like a flame front, flickering as it advances through a combustible medium. The equation also describes drift waves in plasmas and other phenomena, and serves as “a test bed for studying turbulence and spatiotemporal chaos,” said Jaideep Pathak, Ott’s graduate student and the lead author of the new papers. [...]

The algorithm knows nothing about the Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equation itself; it only sees data recorded about the evolving solution to the equation. This makes the machine-learning approach powerful; in many cases, the equations describing a chaotic system aren’t known, crippling dynamicists’ efforts to model and predict them. Ott and company’s results suggest you don’t need the equations — only data. “This paper suggests that one day we might be able perhaps to predict weather by machine-learning algorithms and not by sophisticated models of the atmosphere,” Kantz said.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (at Howard’s Party)

I'd originally posted this on April 3, 2011. Last night, April 14, 2018, I attended Howard's jam, again. And we played “Knocking on Heaven's Door", just like we had that time almost 20 years ago that I wrote up in my book. Another good version. Some of the same people were there, I'm sure. And some new ones. A good time was had by all.

* * * * *

Last night was Howard’s Annual Jam and Birthday Bash. He’s been doing this for twenty-five years, though I’ve only been going for about ten or so. As always, a good time was had by all.

And this year was especially good, perhaps the best I remember – though I don’t remember everything that happened this time, so it may have been even better than I think it was. Here’s a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil, my book about music, that recounts an incident from ten about years ago (pp. 69-70):
A couple I know threw a big party to celebrate their new house and her pregnancy. As he is deep into the Hoboken folk-music scene, about a dozen guitars were there, and some other instruments as well: a flautist, a few pianists, a woman who brought a dozen or so shakers that folks could play, a soprano saxophonist, and me, on flugelhorn and clavé. We played one or two songs as old as dirt, but also lots of Beatles, van Morrison, Bob Dylan—very Sixties.

The front room on the ground floor served as the music room. The music would start and stop, musicians of all levels of ability came and went, and the boundary between players and others was wonderfully fluid. The music was ragged and rambling and occasionally confused and the rhythm would get lost every now and then and all that. From an evolutionary point of view it was just a bunch of apes hanging out and grooming one another while munching on some choice leaves and termites.

But there was at least one moment quite unlike anything exhibited by bands of apes. It was 1:30 or 2 in the morning and we were jamming on Bob Dylan's “Knocking on Heaven's Door.” I took a flugelhorn solo early in this long jam and then, when I was done, went to the bottom register of the horn and started a simple repetitive swelling figure which I played more or less continuously to the end. The soprano sax played harmony to my line, and I to his, and sometimes did a little obbligato, and a guitar solo floated up here, a piano solo there, vocal choruses and refrains happened as needed. At some point I decided to see how much I could drive this train by leaning on my simple line and bearing down. A half minute or so later, four or five or six voices chimed in on the refrain at the same time. A lump came to my throat. There we were, knocking on heaven's door.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh!

Netflix is currently streaming a 6-part documentary about how central Oregon was "invaded" by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers, intent upon establishing a small city devoted to his teachings. These events happened in the early 1980s. Here's the trailer:

The documentary is constituted by news and documentary footage from the 1980s and by current-day interviews with followers of Rajneesh who were there, local people involved in events, and government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. 

In brief, the Rajneeshees bought a 64,000 acre ranch, arrived by the 100s and low 1000s in the early 1980s, got into conflict with the locals over land use as they proceeded on construct their city, which included a small airport, and had left by the mid-1980s after Rajneesh had been deported for immigration fraud. It's a strange and rich story, well worth your attention. I found it a bit unsettling, in part because I'd never looked at anything quite like this, this closely. This is one of those cases where, as the cliche has it, truth is stranger than fiction – assuming we can figure out just what the truth is.

Some links:

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A small mechanical device that plays a simple tune


Common Sense in Artificial Intelligence

Sometime back in the 1970s, I believe it was, David Marr observed something of a paradox (I believed he used that word) in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Much of the early work, which did meet with some success, involved modeling fairly sophisticated forms of knowledge, mathematics and science, but when researchers started working in simple domain, like ordinary narrative, things got more difficult. That is, it seemed easier to model the specialized knowledge of a highly trained scientist than the general knowledge of a six year old. That problem has come to be known in AI as the problem of common sense, and its intractability has was one reason that old school research programs grounded in symbolic reasoning fell apart in the mid-1980s. During the 1990s and continuing on to the present various machine learning techniques have become quite successful in domains that had eluded symbolic AI. But common sense reasoning has continued to elude researchers.

Earlier this year Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that he was giving $125 million to his nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) to study common sense reasoning. Here's a short paper from that lab that gives and overview of the problem.
Niket Tandon, Aparna S. Varde, Gerard de Melo, Commonsense Knowledge in Machine Intelligence, SIGMOD Records 2018.

Abstract: There is growing conviction that the future of computing depends on our ability to exploit big data on the Web to enhance intelligent systems. This includes encyclopedic knowledge for factual details, common sense for human-like reasoning and natural language generation for smarter communication. With recent chatbots conceivably at the verge of passing the Turing Test, there are calls for more common sense oriented alternatives, e.g., the Winograd Schema Challenge. The Aristo QA system demonstrates the lack of common sense in cur- rent systems in answering fourth-grade science exam questions. On the language generation front, despite the progress in deep learning, current models are easily confused by subtle distinctions that may require linguistic common sense, e.g. quick food vs. fast food. These issues bear on tasks such as machine translation and should be addressed using common sense acquired from text. Mining common sense from massive amounts of data and applying it in intelligent systems, in several respects, appears to be the next frontier in computing. Our brief overview of the state of Commonsense Knowledge (CSK) in Machine Intelligence provides insights into CSK acquisition, CSK in natural language, applications of CSK and discussion of open issues. This paper provides a report of a tutorial at a recent conference with a brief survey of topics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pagoda forms



Why should humanists adopt evolutionary concepts in thinking about culture?

From three years ago. More timely than ever.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

I started working on this post a month or two ago. I’ve written a number of long and complicated posts in the last year or so where I’ve ended up asserting that humanists really need to think about cultural evolution because it provides us with a way to think about that (quasi)autonomous realm that Ed Said believed in, but couldn’t justify on the basis of the literary theory that had developed during his career. I figured some scholars probably never read those arguments because they didn’t want to plough through longs posts making strange arguments.

I figured that the thing to do, then, was to make the assertion, with perhaps a bit of argumentation, in a relatively short post where THAT’s the whole point. So I started drafted that post, and it started growing, and I kept on thinking and before I knew it I’d decided I needed to gather a bunch of stuff together and write a book. So I’ve started on that project – Mind-Culture Co-Evolution is my provisional title – and abandoned that post.

Well, this is that post, resurrected, and relatively short. Why do humanists need to think about cultural evolution? Because
1) it is a way to think about how expressive culture plays a causal role in history, and

2) it is way to put macroscale and microscale work within the same conceptual framework.
Note that when I say cultural evolution I mean just that, cultural evolution, not biological evolution, not evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is neither here nor there with respect to cultural evolution. Biological evolution, of course, is the ground from which cultural evolution springs, but it operates in a different realm. Culture does exist in the pre-human world, but it’s thin stuff.

There’s been a fair amount of work on cultural evolution in the past two or three decades or so, but it’s rather scattered. There’s no off-the-shelf model that’s ready to go for students of literature, or the arts in general, and there’s a fair amount of nonsense. So we’re going to have to make it up ourselves, and that’s not easy.

The remarks in the rest of this post do not constitute an argument on those points. Such an argument is way beyond the scope of a blog post. That’s why I’ve decided to write a book. The purpose of these remarks is to indicate what I regard as the intellectual scope of a robust approach to cultural evolution.

Expressive culture is a causal force in history

That, I take it, is what Shelley had in mind when he asserted, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And you can’t legislate unless you’ve got a place to stand, unless you aren’t merely a puppet of historical forces.

But what, pray tell, are historical forces? I’d hoped that a trip to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy would have a helpful article on the philosophy of history. It didn’t. What the article said is that inferring historical causes is difficult. Well, yes, I know that. But are there distinct kinds of causes that have been investigated? No luck there.

Massive Human Entrainment

Fusaroli R, Perlman M, Mislove A, Paxton A, Matlock T, Dale R (2015) Timescales of Massive Human Entrainment. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122742. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122742

Published: April 16, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122742
Abstract: The past two decades have seen an upsurge of interest in the collective behaviors of complex systems composed of many agents entrained to each other and to external events. In this paper, we extend the concept of entrainment to the dynamics of human collective attention. We conducted a detailed investigation of the unfolding of human entrainment—as expressed by the content and patterns of hundreds of thousands of messages on Twitter—during the 2012 US presidential debates. By time-locking these data sources, we quantify the impact of the unfolding debate on human attention at three time scales. We show that collective social behavior covaries second-by-second to the interactional dynamics of the debates: A candidate speaking induces rapid increases in mentions of his name on social media and decreases in mentions of the other candidate. Moreover, interruptions by an interlocutor increase the attention received. We also highlight a distinct time scale for the impact of salient content during the debates: Across well-known remarks in each debate, mentions in social media start within 5–10 seconds after it occurs; peak at approximately one minute; and slowly decay in a consistent fashion across well-known events during the debates. Finally, we show that public attention after an initial burst slowly decays through the course of the debates. Thus we demonstrate that large-scale human entrainment may hold across a number of distinct scales, in an exquisitely time-locked fashion. The methods and results pave the way for careful study of the dynamics and mechanisms of large-scale human entrainment.

Interest in the collective behaviors of complex systems composed of many agents has dramatically increased over the past couple of decades. This interest may stem in no small part from a new ability to measure and model collective behaviors. In a canonical case, Strogatz and Stewart [1] highlight firefly behavior as illustrative of fundamental principles underlying entrained systems [2, 3]. In parts of Southeast Asia, one may happen upon a sea of fireflies, in which each firefly’s intrinsic oscillatory dynamics have become entrained to others around it. The result is a large-scale collective behavior: The fireflies fire in sync in an impressive display brought on by subtle mutual influences. They are entrained in that they match their behavior to the temporal structure of events in the environment [4–6]. This process might involve elements of reciprocal influence between individual agents as in the case of the fireflies, or it might depend predominantly on external environmental events. The firefly model has inspired the investigation of entrainment across many physiological and technological phenomena, from neuronal firing to electric power networks [7]. However, it is still unclear how complex cognitive agents, such as human beings, might also exhibit patterns of large-scale entrainment.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Row upon row of seeds


John Horgan asks: "Is Science Hitting a Wall?"

Back in 1996 John Horgan kicked up a mighty fuss with The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, which was recently reissued. Put rather crudely, Horgan argued that in field after field, science seems to be spinning its wheels. Perhaps we've run up against limits to our knowledge? In a review-essay I published in 1997 I suggested that perhaps the limits are imposed by our current systems of thought, but that other systems are possible. "What has come to an end, I argue, is a certain view of the world which sees reality as reducible to simple laws about simple systems underpinning the superficial complexity of phenomenal experience. On the contrary, reality is fundamentally complex and reductionism is doomed. The universe is fecund in that it has evolved multiple Realms of Being, with the later ones being implemented in the former."

Be that as it may, he's at it again.  He opens a recent post with some observations:
In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature--is bumping into limits.
He continues with a grab-bag of observations he made at recent on the subject of whether or not science is slowing down. Here's one of them:
How much are “pure” discoveries like the big bang or out-of-Africa hypothesis worth? I’d like to say they are priceless, but that answer won’t suffice when we’re talking about government funding. Should we spend billions of tax dollars on a next-generation particle accelerator, gravitational-wave detector or manned mission to Mars when millions of people lack decent health care, housing and education?

I call this the Whitey-on-the-Moon Problem in honor of rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron. In his 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” Scott-Heron says, “A rat done bit my sister Nell/(with Whitey on the Moon)./…The man just upped my rent last night/('cause Whitey's on the moon)./No hot water, no toilets, no lights/(but Whitey's on the moon).”

Winsor McCay: The Pet

This post from 2012 is about one of the creepiest films I've ever seen and a classic of early animation.
Winsor McCay was a cartoonist and a pioneering animator who did most of his work in the second decade or so of the 20th Century. He was a skilled and fluent draftsman and, as far as I can tell, had relatively little stylistic influence on subsequent animators, possibly because his style would have been impossible in the commercial animation world as it emerged.

This post consists mostly of notes I made on his next to the last film, The Pet, which is also one of the creepiest films I’ve EVER seen. EVER. This little gem is not kid stuff.

Point of reference: The Pet was made in 1921 while King Kong was made in 1933.

Running Time: c. 10 min 30 sec

Now, let's take a closer look at one of McCay's 1921 films, "The Pet." This is one of those dream films. In this case the dream is the husband's dream and it is about a stray animal that his wife takes in as a pet.

There are two defining characteristics of this creature:
1.) It just grows and grows and eats and eats and grows and grows.
2.) In both its being and its actions it violates boundary after boundary.
These are both obvious enough, but the first could be pointed out by a six-year old while the latter requires some considerable sophistication to formulate explicitly. The six-year old can easily tell you that it both is and is not a cat – and be puzzled by this, that it eats things it shouldn’t – like a coffee pot and a pile of coal; a twenty-six year old could tell you these things as well. But summing it all up as a succession of boundary violations, that would require an article-length piece of academic analysis.

The eating and eating and growing and growing are perfectly visible, concrete events. Each and every one of the boundary violations is also concrete and visible; but the characterization of all those events as “boundary violation” is abstract. One easily notices all those violations, they seem odd, strange, unsettling, and so forth. So, what’s the relationship between that abstract pattern and the “primary process” thinking of the Freudian unconscious?

Friday, April 6, 2018

The demise of the nation state

I've been reading about this for several years now. Rana Dasguta has an article of that title in The Guardian for April 5, 2018. Here's some excerpts:
The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. But the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.

Why is this happening? In brief, 20th-century political structures are drowning in a 21st-century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry. Meanwhile, the suppressed consequences of 20th-century recklessness in the once-colonised world are erupting, cracking nations into fragments and forcing populations into post-national solidarities: roving tribal militias, ethnic and religious sub-states and super-states. Finally, the old superpowers’ demolition of old ideas of international society – ideas of the “society of nations” that were essential to the way the new world order was envisioned after 1918 – has turned the nation-state system into a lawless gangland; and this is now producing a nihilistic backlash from the ones who have been most terrorised and despoiled.
Once upon a time...
The reason the nation state was able to deliver what achievements it did – and in some places they were spectacular – was that there was, for much of the 20th century, an authentic “fit” between politics, economy and information, all of which were organised at a national scale. National governments possessed actual powers to manage modern economic and ideological energies, and to turn them towards human – sometimes almost utopian – ends. But that era is over. After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism.

But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. And if we continue to think the administrative system we inherited from our ancestors allows for no innovation, we condemn ourselves to a long period of dwindling political and moral hope. Half a century has been spent building the global system on which we all now depend, and it is here to stay. Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans.
Can we change?
It will be objected, inevitably, that any alternative to the nation-state system is a utopian impossibility. But even the technological accomplishments of the last few decades seemed implausible before they arrived, and there are good reasons to be suspicious of those incumbent authorities who tell us that human beings are incapable of similar grandeur in the political realm. In fact, there have been many moments in history when politics was suddenly expanded to a new, previously inconceivable scale – including the creation of the nation state itself. And – as is becoming clearer every day – the real delusion is the belief that things can carry on as they are.

The first step will be ceasing to pretend that there is no alternative. So let us begin by considering the scale of the current crisis.
Dasgupta then recounts how we got here, starting with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, moving through the 19th century, to the decolonization that followed WWII, leaving us with:
There is every reason to believe that the next stage of the techno-financial revolution will be even more disastrous for national political authority. This will arise as the natural continuation of existing technological processes, which promise new, algorithmic kinds of governance to further undermine the political variety.[...] Governments controlled by outside forces and possessing only partial influence over national affairs: this has always been so in the world’s poorest countries. But in the west, it feels like a terrifying return to primitive vulnerability. The assault on political authority is not a merely “economic” or “technological” event. It is an epochal upheaval, which leaves western populations shattered and bereft. There are outbreaks of irrational rage, especially against immigrants, the appointed scapegoats for much deeper forms of national contamination. The idea of the western nation as a universal home collapses, and transnational tribal identities grow up as a refuge: white supremacists and radical Islamists alike take up arms against contamination and corruption.

The stakes could not be higher. So it is easy to see why western governments are so desperate to prove what everyone doubts: that they are still in control. It is not merely Donald Trump’s personality that causes him to act like a sociopathic CEO. The era of globalisation has seen consistent attempts by US presidents to enhance the authority of the executive, but they are never enough. Trump’s office can never have the level of mastery over American life that Kennedy’s did, so he is obliged to fake it.

Sales dynamics of best-selling books

Burcu Yucesoy, Xindi Wang, Junming Huang and Albert-László Barabási, Success in books: a big data approach to bestsellers, EPJ Data Science 2018 7:7.

Abstract: Reading remains the preferred leisure activity for most individuals, continuing to offer a unique path to knowledge and learning. As such, books remain an important cultural product, consumed widely. Yet, while over 3 million books are published each year, very few are read widely and less than 500 make it to the New York Times bestseller lists. And once there, only a handful of authors can command the lists for more than a few weeks. Here we bring a big data approach to book success by investigating the properties and sales trajectories of bestsellers. We find that there are seasonal patterns to book sales with more books being sold during holidays, and even among bestsellers, fiction books sell more copies than nonfiction books. General fiction and biographies make the list more often than any other genre books, and the higher a book’s initial place in the rankings, the longer the book stays on the list as well. Looking at patterns characterizing authors, we find that fiction writers are more productive than nonfiction writers, commonly achieving bestseller status with multiple books. Additionally, there is no gender disparity among bestselling fiction authors but nonfiction, most bestsellers are written by male authors. Finally we find that there is a universal pattern to book sales. Using this universality we introduce a statistical model to explain the time evolution of sales. This model not only reproduces the entire sales trajectory of a book but also predicts the total number of copies it will sell in its lifetime, based on its early sales numbers. The analysis of the bestseller characteristics and the discovery of the universal nature of sales patterns with its driving forces are crucial for our understanding of the book industry, and more generally, of how we as a society interact with cultural products.

* * * * *

"Reading remains the preferred leisure activity for most individuals"–really?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Three for the sky




Boomers, America's last common culture?

Ross Douthat writing in the NYTimes about the (unexpected) popularity of the Roseanne reboot:
So let’s try to analyze the return of the Conner family in strictly cultural terms, without directly referencing the present occupant of the White House. The show’s sky-high ratings probably owe something to Roseanne’s political views and blue-collar goddess reputation, but above all they are a case study in the power the baby boom generation still wields, even as it begins to enter old age, over our collective cultural imagination. And not only that: They testify to the extent to which the boomers, for all the destruction trailing in their wake, might be the only thing holding American culture together at this point.

That’s because if the boomers were destructive, they were also creative. Indeed, you can make a reasonable case that theirs was the last great burst of creativity in Western history, the last great surge of mass cultural invention. The boomers were the last generation to come of age with some traditional edifices still standing, the old bourgeois norms and Christian(ish) religion and patriotic history, which gave them something powerful to wrestle with, to rework and react against and attempt to overthrow. And because they came of age within a stable-seeming (though not for long) common culture, their revolution was experienced as a communal experience itself, something that united millions of people simply by virtue of their being young and Western in 1965 or 1969 or 1975.
I'm a boomer, but "the last great burst of creativity in Western history"? Really? What does that mean?

And the recent era of "quality" TV?
What we often think of as two golden ages — the auteur years in 1970s Hollywood, and then the more recent golden age of television — are really part of the same generational takeover; it just took longer for boomer influence to work itself out on the small screen. But it did eventually: what David Chase did with “The Sopranos” and David Simon with “The Wire,” and before them figures like the just-passed Steven Bochco and Matt Groening and yes, Roseanne Barr, was all an extension and an echo of the era-defining pop cultural ferment that began in the 1960s and took off in 1970s.

But now we are in the twilight of that era — and it is not at all clear that the boomers’ successors are prepared to react against boomer hegemony with anything like the same creativity and vigor. In part that’s because technological and social change has left the rising cohorts of Americans fragmented, polarized, alienated from one another, too divided by belief and taste and language to build something new together. And in part it’s because the boomers themselves contributed mightily to fragmentation, leaving too little standing when they tore things down and rebuilding haphazardly and self-interestedly, bequeathing a spirit of transgression and permanent revolution that’s run out of things to deconstruct and is either feeding on itself, lapsing into torpor, or generating niche forms of radicalism on the further left and right that are too weak as yet to produce revolution or renewal.

Generative Adversarial Networks

How do you get neural networks to crate stuff rather than simply recognizing existing stuff?
The approach, known as a generative adversarial network, or GAN, takes two neural networks—the simplified mathematical models of the human brain that underpin most modern machine learning—and pits them against each other in a digital cat-and-mouse game.

Both networks are trained on the same data set. One, known as the generator, is tasked with creating variations on images it’s already seen—perhaps a picture of a pedestrian with an extra arm. The second, known as the discriminator, is asked to identify whether the example it sees is like the images it has been trained on or a fake produced by the generator—basically, is that three-armed person likely to be real?

Over time, the generator can become so good at producing images that the discriminator can’t spot fakes. Essentially, the generator has been taught to recognize, and then create, realistic-looking images of pedestrians.

The technology has become one of the most promising advances in AI in the past decade, able to help machines produce results that fool even humans.

GANs have been put to use creating realistic-sounding speech and photorealistic fake imagery. In one compelling example, researchers from chipmaker Nvidia primed a GAN with celebrity photographs to create hundreds of credible faces of people who don’t exist. Another research group made not-unconvincing fake paintings that look like the works of van Gogh. Pushed further, GANs can reimagine images in different ways—making a sunny road appear snowy, or turning horses into zebras.

The results aren’t always perfect: GANs can conjure up bicycles with two sets of handlebars, say, or faces with eyebrows in the wrong place.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

November in Liberty State Park




Family Problems: From Greene to Shakespeare

This is revised and adapted, from a post I first published at The Valve and have since republished in a working paper which is available at my SSRN page HERE and also at  
I want to examine two literary texts, a familiar one and a strange one. The familiar text I have in mind is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The strange one is Robert Greene’s Pandosto. While they are very different at the level of language—words, phrases, and sentences—at the level of plot and character they are much alike. That’s what makes the comparison interesting. You can line them up, character for character, and incident for incident, and they match pretty well. But not completely. It’s those few differences that made the comparison an interesting one.

Family Problems in the Early Modern Era

Greene first published Pandosto: The Triumph of Time in 1592 while The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611, almost twenty years later. The similarities between the two are so striking that it is all but certain that Shakespeare derived his plot from Greene’s. But they are not quite the same. In fact, since The Winter’s Tale ends in happy triumph while Pandosto’s ending is, at best, bittersweet – Pandosto commits suicide even though the young lovers are united – one might reasonably judge them to be quite different. That is what makes these two texts so interesting. 

This table lays out the correspondence between the characters in the two texts:
Neutral           Pandosto       Winter’s  Tale
King              Pandosto       Leonates
Queen             Bellaria       Hermione
King’s son        Garinter       Mamillius
King’s daughter   Fawnia         Perdita
King’s Friend     Egistus        Polixenes
Friend’s son      Dorastus       Florizel
Shepherd          Porrus         Old shepherd
The first part of the story goes like this: The King and Queen have been married for a number of years and have a son. The King’s childhood friend is visiting and the King decides that his wife, the Queen, has been having an affair with this Friend, who is also a king. The Queen denies it as does his kingly friend, but the King is convinced they’re lying. The Friend leaves and the Queen is imprisoned. A messenger is sent to consult an oracle on whether or not the Queen is guilty. In Pandosto, it is the Queen who requests this; in Winter's it is the King. Meanwhile, the Queen gives birth to a daughter who is brought before the King. The King denies his daughter. The infant daughter is set adrift in the ocean. Meanwhile, the messenger returns from the oracle and declares the Queen to be innocent. The son dies and, upon hearing that news, the Queen faints. In Pandosto Bellaria, the Queen, dies. In Winter’s Hermione does not, she hides away. The audience knows this but Leontes, the King, does not.

In Greene, the oracle says:
[Para. 29] The Oracle.
 Suspition is no proofe: Jealousie is an unequall judge: Bellaria is chast: Egistus blameless: Franion a true subject: Pandosto threacherous: his babe an innocent, and the King shall live without an heire: if that which is lost be not founde.
In Shakespeare, this:

[Reads] Hermione is chaste;
Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that
which is lost be not found.
Notice that Shakespeare retained the phrase, “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” This seems quite important, both for its import—the continuity of the King’s bloodline—and for its form, the phraseology is the same. If the King is without heir, then his family is at an end.

In both stories the daughter miraculously ends up in the country of the King’s childhood friend where she’s raised by an old Shepherd and his wife. In time the daughter matures and falls in love with a prince, who returns her love. The prince is none other than son to the King’s childhood friend. The prince’s father finds out about his beloved and forbids them to marry; after all, she is but a shepherd’s daughter. So the prince and the daughter decide to flee the country. They end up back in the King’s land where the daughter’s true identity is discovered. Now that she is known to be of noble birth, the marriage can proceed. 

In Pandosto, the King commits suicide. The Winter’s Tale ends quite differently. Paulina has Hermione mount a pedestal and brings her out of hiding as a mere statue. And then the statue comes alive. And all are amazed. The King is thus reunited with his Queen and his daughter is about to marry her prince.

That’s most, but not all, of the pattern that interests me. Obviously, Pandosto cannot be reunited with Bellaria because she is dead. That is, when Shakespeare allowed the queen to live, but in hiding, he created an option not open to Greene. When Greene had Belleria die he blocked any possibility of Pandosto being reunited with her.

Collaboration and hierarchy

Alberto Antonioni, María Pereda, Katherine A. Cronin, Marco Tomassini & Angel Sánchez, Collaborative hierarchy maintains cooperation in asymmetric games, Scientific Reports, Volume 8, Article number: 5375 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-23681-z

Abstract: The interplay of social structure and cooperative behavior is under much scrutiny lately as behavior in social contexts becomes increasingly relevant for everyday life. Earlier experimental work showed that the existence of a social hierarchy, earned through competition, was detrimental for the evolution of cooperative behaviors. Here, we study the case in which individuals are ranked in a hierarchical structure based on their performance in a collective effort by having them play a Public Goods Game. In the first treatment, participants are ranked according to group earnings while, in the second treatment, their rankings are based on individual earnings. Subsequently, participants play asymmetric Prisoner’s Dilemma games where higher-ranked players gain more than lower ones. Our experiments show that there are no detrimental effects of the hierarchy formed based on group performance, yet when ranking is assigned individually we observe a decrease in cooperation. Our results show that different levels of cooperation arise from the fact that subjects are interpreting rankings as a reputation which carries information about which subjects were cooperators in the previous phase. Our results demonstrate that noting the manner in which a hierarchy is established is essential for understanding its effects on cooperation.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Wishful thinking on a snowy April 2?


The uses of narratology for the study of interactive stories

A couple of weeks ago Mark Nelson posted some tweets that caught my attention:

I’m not sure where that’s going and, as it seems to have been a quick spur-of-the-moment comment, it’s probably not the sort of thing that’s going anywhere in particular. It’s just a quick probe to “mark” a region in conceptual space. But I thought a bit and made a short response, to which Mark replied:

The fact is, I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t think of anything. I’m still thinking and have a quick comment or two.

Narratology has been within my since the late 1970s and I’ve read a bit, some articles and book-length expositions, but it never really got me hooked. I became aware of Marie-Laure Ryan's work in the late-1990s when I picked up her Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991), which, as far I know, is one of the few (only?) books of literary criticism that utilizes some of the technical concepts AI. By that time I had long since made my own peace with computational work on narrative and story-telling and didn’t find much of use to me, which is neither here nor there. But, as I recall, she did note that computational models are so complex that it is difficult to apply them to literary texts; the amount of resulting detail is too difficult to follow. That, I suspect, speaks to the need for “translational work”, and LOTS of it.

But that–level of detail–isn’t all. Early in Pathways of the Brain: The neurocognitive basis of language (1999), Sydney Lamb discusses various types of grammar. One of them he calls analytical. The object of analytical grammar is to describe language products, typically sentences. Chomsky’s approach is typical of analytic grammars. Lamb contrasts this with the neurocognitive grammar he’s been developing, which aims to characterize the computational mechanisms by which language is enacted and understood. As Lamb conceives these matters, neurocognitive grammar is necessarily computational while analytic grammar is not.

My teacher, David Hays (also a friend of Lamb’s), made a similar point by talking about bicycles. One the one hand, we have the blueprints for a bicycle, which detail all the parts and how they fit together. But the blueprints don’t tell you how to assemble a bicycle from its parts. Assembly instructions are quite different.

Well, literary criticism in general, including narratology, is analytic in Lamb’s sense–though informal by the standards of contemporary linguistics. It attempts to provide blueprints for texts, not assembly instructions. And Ryan's work in Possible Worlds seemed pretty much like that despite her uses of computation. This is not simply about detail. It’s about kinds of detail and kinds of intellectual strategy. This is where the real translational work is going to have to be done.

My impression is that narratology has absorbed Propp, but not Levi-Strauss, and the same for computational work on stories.

Recent posts at 3QD: Marching Band and New York 2140

Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons from Marching Band (April 2)

One lesson is about what makes a good marching band: the groove. Another is about the balance between the individual and the group. The third is about, well, authority. These last two lessons are ambivalent.

A post-apocalyptic heist: Commentary on a passage from New York 2140 (February 5)

This is a close analysis of a few paragraphs from more or less the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and more or less shows how the whole narrative is implicit in its various parts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018



Patterns and Literature

From four years ago.
So, patterns. Some patterns operate on the time and scale of sensory perception; we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things in the course of everyday life. But other patterns require more time and deliberation. That our solar system consists of planets and asteroids in transit about the sun is a pattern, but it’s not one given in sensory perception. Rather, it’s one that can be inscribed on a surface (where on can see it at human scale) and that emerged through thousands upon thousands of observations made by hundreds of individuals conversing over the course of centuries.

Literary texts (and films) are a bit like that. They are devices for capturing patterns of (mostly, generally) human life. Depending on the text, the reading may take only minutes or hours, perhaps over the course of days, but the writing likely took longer. Each text rests on a history of texts from which it draws and against which it reacts, and a body of texts requires a community to keep it in circulation.

Lifeways and Literature

Susan Langer (Feeling and Form) would say that these textual patterns embody virtual experience. Wayne Booth (The Company We Keep) talks of literature as a way of “trying out” modes of life, while more recently, Keith Oatley (Such Stuff as Dreams) writes of literary experience as simulation. We can say that these patterns are meant to be taken up by one’s whole psyche, one’s whole being – even that they are meant to facilitate unity of being.

Kenneth Burke writes of this in “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Finally, it is not, after all, as though life happens OVER THERE, while literature takes place in a separate space IN HERE such that literature is completely external to life. It’s not that simple. Literature takes place in and reacts on life.

Interpretive Criticism

Provisionally, we can say that a text represents certain states of affairs in the world; call that content. Texts use various devices to organize their contents; call that form. In Oatley’s terms the content is the world simulated while the form is the “machinery” used to run the simulation.

In critical practice, distinguishing form and content can be difficult. Ordinary literary criticism, mainstream literary criticism, is focused on interpretation. As far as I can tell, that seems to be an exercise in re-stating the lifeways captured in a text in a different kind of language. Such interpretations are always partial; they always leave some aspects of a text untouched. And while hermeneutic criticism takes note of textual devices, of formal matters, that is not its focus. It attends to form as a way of explicating meaning, of retracing the lifeways originally traced in the text.

I would further say that such criticism strives to keep in touch with the “ordinary” practice of reading and “taking up” literature. Hence it is common to talk of an interpretation as a reading of the text. The introduction of technical and quasi-technical concepts and vocabulary tends to get in the way of such reading and hence is problematic. On the one hand we hear calls for critics to drop the scientism, as this is thought to be, and write in ordinary language. On the other hand, critics themselves feel and express anxiety about their activity, thinking of it as somehow parasitic on primary texts and not an activity unto itself–I’m thinking here of the anxieties Geoffrey Hartman expresses in The Fate of Reading.

But it can be parasitic only if it is (seen as) doing the same thing as literature; it the aim is to do something different, well then, it’s no longer parasitic. Biology, for example, needs living things as its objects of investigation; but no one would think of biology as parasitic upon life. And so literary criticism needs texts as objects of investigation. It is only to the extent that criticism aims, not at the texts, but through the texts to life itself, that it can be parasitic.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Things to come




Population is the main driver of war group size and conflict casualties

Rahul C. Oka, Marc Kissel, Mark Golitko, Susan Guise Sheridan, Nam C. Kim and Agustín Fuentes, Population is the main driver of war group size and conflict casualties, PNAS December 11, 2017. 201713972; published ahead of print December 11, 2017.

Significance: Recent views on violence emphasize the decline in proportions of war groups and casualties to populations over time and conclude that past small-scale societies were more violent than contemporary states. In this paper, we argue that these trends are better explained through scaling relationships between population and war group size and between war group size and conflict casualties. We test these relationships and develop measures of conflict investment and lethality that are applicable to societies across space and time. When scaling is accounted for, we find no difference in conflict investment or lethality between small-scale and state societies. Given the lack of population data for past societies, we caution against using archaeological cases of episodic conflicts to measure past violence.

Abstract: The proportions of individuals involved in intergroup coalitional conflict, measured by war group size (W), conflict casualties (C), and overall group conflict deaths (G), have declined with respect to growing populations, implying that states are less violent than small-scale societies. We argue that these trends are better explained by scaling laws shared by both past and contemporary societies regardless of social organization, where group population (P) directly determines W and indirectly determines C and G. W is shown to be a power law function of P with scaling exponent X [demographic conflict investment (DCI)]. C is shown to be a power law function of W with scaling exponent Y [conflict lethality (CL)]. G is shown to be a power law function of P with scaling exponent Z [group conflict mortality (GCM)]. Results show that, while W/P and G/P decrease as expected with increasing P, C/W increases with growing W. Small-scale societies show higher but more variance in DCI and CL than contemporary states. We find no significant differences in DCI or CL between small-scale societies and contemporary states undergoing drafts or conflict, after accounting for variance and scale. We calculate relative measures of DCI and CL applicable to all societies that can be tracked over time for one or multiple actors. In light of the recent global emergence of populist, nationalist, and sectarian violence, our comparison-focused approach to DCI and CL will enable better models and analysis of the landscapes of violence in the 21st century.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Analytic and/vs Continental Philosophy

The false consciousness of the elite American university(?)

Here's a paragraph from the essay:
Like so many similar demonstrations against inequality at elite college campuses, the protest against Murray was an echo of resistance of the ruling class to the noble lie. The ruling class denies that they really are a self-perpetuating elite that has not only inherited certain advantages but also seeks to pass them on. To mask this fact, they describe themselves as the vanguard of equality, in effect denying the very fact of their elevated status and the deleterious consequences of their perpetuation of a class divide that has left their less fortunate countrymen in a dire and perilous condition. Indeed, one is tempted to conclude that their insistent defense of equality is a way of freeing themselves from any real duties to the lower classes that are increasingly out of geographical sight and mind. Because they repudiate inequality, they need not consciously consider themselves to be a ruling class. Denying that they are deeply self-interested in maintaining their elite position, they easily assume that they believe in common kinship—so long as their position is unthreatened. The part of the “noble lie” that once would have horrified the elites—the claim of common kinship—is irrelevant; instead, they resist the inegalitarian part of the myth that would then, as now, have seemed self-evident to the elites as well as the underclass. Today’s underclass is as likely to recognize its unequal position as Plato’s. It is elites that seem most prone to the condition of “false consciousness.”
A bit later, this:
Campaigns for equality that focus on the inclusion of identity groups rather than examinations of the class divide permit an extraordinary lack of curiosity about complicity in a system that secures elite status across generations. Concern for diversity and inclusion on the basis of “ascriptive” features—race, gender, disability, or sexual orientation—allows the ruling class to overlook class while focusing on unchosen forms of identity. Diversity and inclusion fit neatly into the meritocratic structure, leaving the structure of the new aristocratic order firmly in place.

This helps explain the strange and often hysterical insistence upon equality emanating from our nation’s most elite and exclusive institutions. The most absurd recent instance was Harvard University’s official effort to eliminate social clubs due to their role in “enacting forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values,” in the words of its president. Harvard’s opposition to exclusion sits comfortably with its admissions rate of 5 percent (2,056 out of 40,000 applicants in 2017). The denial of privilege and exclusion seems to increase in proportion to an institution’s exclusivity.
Moving toward the end:
For as long as our nation has been in existence, confused and diverging streams have fed into the American creed. The first of these was political liberalism. It puts a stress upon individual rights and liberty, promising that if we commit to a common project of building a liberal society, our distinct and often irreconcilable differences will be protected. Liberalism affirms political unity as a means to ­securing our private differences.

Christianity has been the other stream. It approaches the question from the opposite perspective, understanding our differences to serve a deeper unity. This is the resounding message of St. Paul in chapters 12–13 of 1 Corinthians. There, Paul calls upon the squabbling Christians of Corinth to understand that their gifts are not for the glory of any particular person or class of people, but for the body as a whole. John Winthrop echoed this teaching in his seldom-read, oft-misquoted sermon aboard the Arbella, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop begins his speech with the observation that people have in all times and places been born or placed into low and high stations; the poor are always with us, as Christ observed. But this differentiation was not permitted and ordained for the purpose of the degradation of the former and glory of the latter, but for the greater glory of God, that all might know that they have need of each other and a responsibility to share particular gifts for the sake of the common. Differences of talent and circumstance exist to promote a deeper unity.

So long as liberalism was not fully itself—so long as liberalism was corrected and even governed by Christianity—a working social contract was possible. For Christianity, difference is ordered toward unity. For liberalism, unity is valued insofar as it promotes difference. The American experiment blended and confused these two understandings, but just enough to make it a going concern. The balance was always imperfect, leaving out too many, always ­unstably oscillating between quasi-theological evocation of unity and deracinated individualism. But it seemed viable for nearly 250 years. The recent steep decline of religious faith and Christian moral norms is regarded by many as marking the triumph of liberalism, and so, in a sense, it is. Today our unity is understood almost entirely in the light of our differences. We come together—to celebrate diversity. And today, the celebration of diversity ends up serving as a mask for power and inequality.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Near and far



Enlightenment how? Pinker on progress: Impressive evidence, not so impressive argument why

Nick Spencer reviews Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking 2018).
... Pinker presents graphs on life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases, calorie intake, food availability, wealth, poverty, extreme poverty, deforestation, oil spills, protected areas, war, violence, homicides, battle deaths, famine deaths, pedestrian deaths, plane crash deaths, occupational accident deaths, natural disaster deaths, deaths by lightning, human rights, state executions, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, violence against women, liberal values, child labour, literacy, education, IQ, hours worked, years in retirement, utilities and homework, the price of light, disposable spending, leisure time, travel, tourism… and much else besides.

All of these, he shows, are travelling in the right direction. It’s an impressive and invigorating story...Is he convincing? For the most part: yes, very. His charts are as persuasive as they are fascinating and should make even the most ardent “progressophobe” think again. Life really is better today for most people than it has been in the past, and not just when their teeth ache. Pinker admits that “any dataset is an imperfect reflection of reality” and one can’t help but wondering how solid some of the more historical data are, but no amount of footnoted data points would change his overall argument, or even do much to dent its strength.
But Spencer has doubts about Pinker's account of this, the Englightenment, for one thing:
The Enlightenment wasn’t one single thing, or even one clearly delimited period, and its thinkers did not all want the same thing, in the same way, for the same reasons. Moreover, Pinker’s vagueness about the Enlightenment is not simply a cause of his brevity. He is also ahistorical and at times verges on caricature.

The brainchildren of the Enlightenment, we are told, included “free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgement of human fallibility, and among [its] institutions are science, education, media, democratic government”. Peace was “another Enlightenment ideal”. So was “mutually beneficial co–operation [and] voluntary exchange”. “The institutions of modernity” include “schools, hospitals, charities [and] international organisations”. The Enlightenment “imagined humanity could makes intellectual and moral progress”.

The idea that human co–operation, natural rights, or international peace were undreamt of before 1750 is not tenable. Schools, hospitals and charities are hardly “institutions of modernity”.
Racism, for example:
Lest we forget, the late 18th century was the time par excellence for slave trading, a commerce that was finally abolished due to the efforts of Quakers and Evangelicals rather more than Enlightenment philosophes and deists. Pinker rightly cavils at the idea that 19th century science was intrinsically racist, or that it wasn’t coloured by the racist cultures of the time. But 19th century science did not dismantle the racist cultures in which it found itself, and sometimes spent considerable time and energy fortifying them. There was such a thing as “scientific racism” and plenty of ‘enlightened’ people believed in it. Overall, it is hard to disagree with John Gray’s judgement of a previous Pinker book, to the effect that “Pinker’s response when confronted with such evidence is to define the dark side of the Enlightenment out of existence. How could a philosophy of reason and toleration be implicated in mass murder?”
Moreover (after a bit of argumentation):
In short, Pinker’s progress ex nihilo from the Enlightenment doesn’t add up. Had he been more attentive to the historical peculiarities and details of what happened in England in 1688, the rest of Europe after it, and the rest of the world after that, he might have seen the 18th century as the period not of a new and unprecedented start, but one in which Enlightenment philosophers, politicians, investors, and inventors picked up and built on the existing institutions of European order, which had been slowly crafted over centuries.
What about Christianity?
Like it or not – and Pinker clearly doesn’t – many of those cultural conditions were Christian in formulation, as the list above will have indicated. To forestall the inevitable objection, this is not to claim all the glories of the Enlightenment for Christianity. Just as the Enlightenment gave us the calculated ‘treatment’ of workhouses alongside greater political accountability, so Christianity gave us Crusades, Inquisition, and Wars of Religion, alongside the rule of law, the invention of the individual (to use Siedentop’s title) and the notion of ineradicable human dignity and equality. History is messy and no one’s biddable slave.

The problem is, from reading Pinker’s book you would imagine that Christianity’s legacy to the world comprised only the former. Just as he is wilfully blind about the Enlightenment’s failings, he is wilfully blind about Christianity’s positive contribution. Most of his references to Christianity, Bible and Church are casual, sometimes snide, asides usually, indeed, about the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Wars of Religion. When he does engage with the topic, it is disappointingly thin or a little disingenuous.
Spencer's conclusion:
The final result, therefore, is a book whose punctilious, readable and important attention to detail and data in one regard (progress) is marred by its casual, vague and sometimes lazy inattention in another.

What Pinker says deserves to be heard and Enlightenment Now, in spite of its historical and philosophical weaknesses, merits a wide audience. Sadly, I am not convinced that being better informed about how rich, comfortable, clever and safe we are compared to our grandparents’ generation will make us happier and more grateful (Pinker is alert to the data on unhappiness and ingratitude and discusses them at length). Nor am I as sanguine as him that all this progress has improved the quality of our relationships.

However, Pinker does show that there is far more room for hope than we have in our current culture, and his take on some of the big issues that vex us, like terrorism, bio–hazards, AI, Armageddon, nuclear war, and other existential threats is a model of common sense, without slipping into complacency. Enlightenment Now deserves to be read and appreciated, but more for what it says about our future than what it does about our past.

Visual word form - "written words invaded a sector of visual cortex that was initially weakly specialized, slightly responsive to pictures of tools, and that lay next to a face-selective region"

Dehaene-Lambertz G, Monzalvo K, Dehaene S (2018) The emergence of the visual word form: Longitudinal evolution of category-specific ventral visual areas during reading acquisition. PLoS Biol 16(3): e2004103.


How does education affect cortical organization? All literate adults possess a region specialized for letter strings, the visual word form area (VWFA), within the mosaic of ventral regions involved in processing other visual categories such as objects, places, faces, or body parts. Therefore, the acquisition of literacy may induce a reorientation of cortical maps towards letters at the expense of other categories such as faces. To test this cortical recycling hypothesis, we studied how the visual cortex of individual children changes during the first months of reading acquisition. Ten 6-year-old children were scanned longitudinally 6 or 7 times with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and throughout the first year of school. Subjects were exposed to a variety of pictures (words, numbers, tools, houses, faces, and bodies) while performing an unrelated target-detection task. Behavioral assessment indicated a sharp rise in grapheme–phoneme knowledge and reading speed in the first trimester of school. Concurrently, voxels specific to written words and digits emerged at the VWFA location. The responses to other categories remained largely stable, although right-hemispheric face-related activity increased in proportion to reading scores. Retrospective examination of the VWFA voxels prior to reading acquisition showed that reading encroaches on voxels that are initially weakly specialized for tools and close to but distinct from those responsive to faces. Remarkably, those voxels appear to keep their initial category selectivity while acquiring an additional and stronger responsivity to words. We propose a revised model of the neuronal recycling process in which new visual categories invade weakly specified cortex while leaving previously stabilized cortical responses unchanged.

Author summary

Reading acquisition is a major landmark in child development. We examined how it changes the child’s brain. Ten young children were scanned repeatedly, once every 2 months, before, during, and after their first year of school. In the scanner, they watched images of faces, tools, bodies, houses, numbers, and letters while searching for a picture of “Waldo.” As soon as they started to acquire reading skills, a specific region of the visual cortex of the left hemisphere—called the visual word form area (VWFA)—started to selectively respond to written words. In every child, it was then possible to go backward in time and ask what this region was doing prior to reading. We found that written words invaded a sector of visual cortex that was initially weakly specialized, slightly responsive to pictures of tools, and that lay next to a face-selective region. Reading acquisition did not displace those initial responses but blocked their development, such that face-selective responses became stronger in the right hemisphere. Those results provide direct evidence for how education recycles the human brain by repurposing some visual regions towards the shapes of letters.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A little yellow wild flower


Talk to the Wood: Animism is Natural

I'm bumping this 2011 post to the top of the queue.

At a certain point her recent OOOIII talk, “Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter”, Jane Bennett broached the topic of animism, albeit with a little embarrassment. I understand, on both matters. As someone who writes about graffiti as being an expression of the spirit of the site, the kami, I feel the necessity of animist talk. As a card-carrying PhD intellectual I understand the embarrassment as well; don’t want people to think I’m nuts.

But, it’s 2011 and we’re slipping rapidly past post-modernity in a world that’s in the early phases of a global ecotastrophy. Perhaps going nuts with deliberation is a prudent move. It’s good for the circulation.


In Beethoven’s Anvil I’ve argued that primitive proto-music created a new arena for human sociality. At the beginning of “Chapter IX, Musicking the World”, I suggest that animism is what happens when non-humans are assimilated into this new social space. It is their spirits that anchor them in this new community. Here’s that passage (pp. 195-198).

* * * * *

According to Fannie Berry, an ex-slave, Virginia slaves in the late 1850s would sing the following song as they felled pine trees:
A col' frosty mo'nin'
De niggers feelin' good
Take you ax upon yo' shoulder
Nigger, talk to de wood.
She went on to report that:
Dey be paired up to a tree, an’ dey mark de blows by de song. Fus’ one chop, den his partner, an’ when dey sing TALK dey all chop togedder; an’ purty soon dey git de tree ready for to fall an’ dey yell “Hi” an‘ de slaves all scramble out de way quick.
The song thus helped the men to pace and coordinate their efforts. Beyond that, Bruce Jackson notes of such songs, “the songs change the nature of the work by putting the work into the worker’s framework...By incorporating the work with their song, by in effect, co-opting something they are forced to do anyway, they make it theirs in a way it otherwise is not.” In the act of singing the workers linked their minds and brains into a single dynamical system, a community of sympathy. By bringing their work into that same dynamic field, they incorporate it into that form of society created through synchronization of interacting brains.

What is the tree’s role in this social process? It cannot be active: it cannot synchronize its activities with those of the wood choppers. But, I suggest, “putting the work into the worker’s framework” means assimilating the trees, and the axes as well, into social neurodynamics. The workers are not only coupled to one another; by default, that coupling extends to the rest of the world. What does it mean to treat a tree or an ax as a social being? It means, I suggest, that you treat them as animate and hence must pay proper respect to their spirits.

Thus we have arrived at a conception of animism, perhaps mankind’s simplest and most basic form of religious belief. In this view animistic belief is a natural consequence of coupled sociality. In effect, the non-human world enters human society as spirits and, consequently, humans perform rituals to honor the spirits of the animals they eat, or the trees they carve into drums, and so forth. With that in mind let’s consider a passage from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, an intellectual and spiritual journey into Australia’s Aboriginal outback. In this passage Chatwin is talking with Arkady Volchok, an Australian of Russian descent who was mapping Aboriginal sacred sites for the railroad. Much of the outback is relatively featureless dessert, and navigation is a problem if you don’t have maps and instruments, which, of course, didn’t exist until relatively recently. The Aborigines used song to measure and map the land:
[Arkady] went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while traveling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints ... as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.
‘A song’, he said, ‘was both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country.’
‘And would a man on “Walkabout” always be travelling down one of the Songlines?”
‘In the old days, yes,’ he agreed. ‘Nowadays, they go by train or car.’
‘Suppose the man strayed from his Songline?’
‘He was trespassing. He might get speared for it.’
‘But as long as he stuck to the track, he’d always find people who ... were, in fact, his brothers?’
. . . .
In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology.
. . . .
‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and ask the Aboriginal with you, “What’s the story there?” or “Who’s that?” The chances are he’ll answer “Kangaroo” or “Budgerigar” or “Jew Lizard”, depending on which Ancestor walked that way.”
‘And the distance between two such sites can be measured as a stretch of song?’
We are now prepared to answer that question in the affirmative, as Arkady Volchok did. Given the nature of navigation by dead reckoning—that it requires accurate estimates of elapsed time—and the temporal precision of musical performance, it makes sense that one would use song to measure one’s path in a desert with few discernible features. Given our further speculation that music’s narrative stream is regulated by the brain’s navigation equipment, this Aboriginal Song-as-Map seems like a natural development.