Monday, June 18, 2018

Odors are perceived the same way by hunter-gatherers and Westerners

Previous research has shown the hunter-gatherer Jahai are much better at naming odors than Westerners. They even have a more elaborate lexicon for it. New research by language scientist Asifa Majid of Radboud University shows that despite these linguistic differences, the Jahai and Dutch find the same odors pleasant and unpleasant.

Scholars have for centuries pointed out that smell is impossible to put into words. Dutch, like English, seems to support this view. Perhaps the only really clear example of a smell word in Dutch is "muf." The Jahai, a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Malay Peninsula, appear to be special in that they have developed an exquisite lexicon of words for smell, like other hunter-gatherers. Earlier work of Majid and colleagues already showed that hunter-gatherers seem to be especially good at talking about smell.

In a new study, the researchers tested 30 Jahai speakers and 30 Dutch speakers and asked them to name odors. At the same time they also videoed their faces so they could measure their facial expressions to the different odors after the experiment. The researchers replicated the finding that Jahai speakers use special odor words to talk about smells (e.g., cŋεs used to refer to stinging sorts of smells associated with petrol, smoke, and various insects and plants, plʔeŋ used for bloody, fishy, meaty sorts of smells), while Dutch speakers referred to concrete sources (e.g., 'if you ride along or stand behind a garbage truck, but not right on top of it').
Asifa Majid et al. Olfactory language and abstraction across cultures, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0139

Time for some flower friendliness


Top 100 jazz albums according to 2000 on reddit

The r/jazz top 100 album results! from r/Jazz
I own, or have owned, maybe 50 or so of them. & the list is obviously heavily biased toward newer music.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

A real city, not SF noir

Creative thinking – Did you ever wonder where 'brainstorming' and 'thinking beyond the box' came from?

Bregje van Eekelen, Discipline and Creativity, Institute for Advanced Study, 2018.
On April 6, 1960, Institute for Advanced Study Director Robert Oppenheimer received a letter from psychologist John E. Drevdahl, requesting his support in setting up a study among IAS Members to assess the factors that made them creative. Thus far, Miami University-based Drevdahl wrote, most studies were “based upon Air Force captains and industrial chemists,” noting understatedly that “I do not feel that [this]… resulted in the identification of those personality factors which are most characteristic of a truly creative and productive researcher.” While it is easy to relate to Drevdahl’s intuition that the military and industry were not the most suitable places to capture creative thinking, it was in those very places that creativity theories and techniques were flourishing in the United States at the time.

My research project on the social history of creativity shows that in the decade preceding the correspondence, processes to garner new ideas and techniques to think “beyond” existing bodies of knowledge became an object of professional interest in a contact zone of industry, the military, and academia. Various elements of the military were early sites for the introduction of creative ideation techniques. Imagine for instance a psychologist (Abraham Maslow no less) imploring military officers in 1957 to get in touch with their unconscious: “out of this unconscious, out of this deeper self, out of this portion of ourselves of which we generally are afraid and therefore try to keep under control, out of this comes the ability to play—to enjoy, to fantasy, to laugh, to loaf, to be spontaneous.” By 1964, at least 50,000 Air Force members had taken creative problem-solving courses. U.S. Steel, Reynolds Metals, Ethyl Corp, GE Motors, New York Telephone Company, and Boeing Airplane were some of the earliest industrial places where free-wheeling buzz sessions, brainstorms, and group thinks emerged.

The scientific study of creativity, as carried out by Drevdahl and numerous others at the time, can be regarded as a legitimating element in this professionalization process. The field of creativity studies drew on a motley set of practitioners from military and industrial settings, engineers, philosophers, anthropologists, and psychologists. Many of their research endeavors were generously supported by military funding. The Cold War provided a generative backdrop for much of the interest in creative ideation, as it highlighted numerous pressing situations that necessitated a move beyond existing knowledge. [...] As befitted the Cold War atmosphere, Drevdahl’s creativity study was also framed as a matter of national security. “[T]he survival of this nation, and perhaps, even of Western civilization,” he argued, depended on future creators. His thesis was that the most creative people were “of only moderately superior intelligence” (which does beg the question why he was keen to study IAS Members). Rather than intelligence, he hypothesized, “personality” might be the deciding factor in creativity, and personality was amenable to change, in that it was “produced by a person’s environment.” If his hypothesis that creativity was a matter of nurture rather than nature was correct, the United States government could step in by fostering an educational and institutional ecosystem that would “create more creative people.”
And so on.

Saturday, June 16, 2018



Friday, June 15, 2018

Blue Note Records

Majorie Ingall reviews Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, a documentary about Blue Note Records, a record label that was extraordinarly important in the jazz world of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. From the review:
The film is full of photos (Wolff was a passionate photographer), musical snippets, and footage of black jazz artists from the 1940s to the ’60s doing their thing. Blue Note’s most important behind-the-scenes hire was Van Gelder, another Jew, who was associated with it for decades; for almost seven years in the 1950s, the label’s albums were recorded in Van Gelder’s parents’ living room. Van Gelder, Donaldson, Hancock, Shorter, and jazz historian Michael Cuscuna—a consultant for Blue Note since 1984—talk about how much artists loved Lion and Wolff, how they never took advantage of the musicians who recorded for them, how they were directed by a pure love of the music. Which is probably true! But anyone who pays attention to contemporary music should be clued in to the oft-contentious relationship between African-Americans and Jews in the music business. Were Lion and Wolff extraordinary? How do they fit into the narrative of African-American art forms being capitalized on, popularized, and monetized by Jewish composers from Berlin to Jolson to Gershwin to Bernstein? Black artists have spoken of feeling exploited by white management; Jews have pointed to anti-Semitism in hip hop. Jazz in particular feels like a complex petri dish of cultural anxiety; hip hop has seemingly taken on much of the urgency jazz once had, and jazz audiences today feel heavy on wannabe-down white dudes in fedoras.... As its fans age, does an art form get less relevant?

These are big questions. But this movie doesn’t go there. It’s purely a celebration of one label, which may be sufficient for informed jazz fans and lovers of classic jazz, but isn’t enough for viewers who seek to understand jazz’s place in the world now. Young and young-ish Blue Note artists like drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist and educator Robert Glasper, and bassist Derrick Hodge talk eloquently about why jazz mattered back in the day. The film shows footage of civil-rights protests and the musicians reflect on how the music reflected the social upheaval of the era. “Never at any point do I hear the music and hear them being defeated,” Hodge reflects. “Somehow, regardless of what they were fighting with, they’re going down in history, creating something … in a way that I felt freedom, in a way that brought me joy, in a way that made me want to write music that gave people hope.”

The film doesn’t effectively convey the fury and grief of the civil-rights movement. It’s not until hip-hop producer Terrace Martin shows up that we feel the immediacy and high stakes that jazz must have conveyed in the 1960s. “When I was a kid, the ghettos wasn’t used to seeing motherfuckers with instruments no more,” he says intently. “Because at that point they’d killed all the music programs in the schools.”


On the difference between Black society and culture in Jamaica and in America

With a bonus about why Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer impersonation is superior to Alec Baldwin's Trump.

From Conversations with Tyler, Malcolm Gladwell Wants to Make the World Safe for Mediocrity:
GLADWELL: Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.

And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.

I was just reading for one of my podcasts; I’ve been reading all these oral history transcripts from the civil rights movement. I was reading one today and I’m halfway through. And I had that completely unbidden thing, “Oh, this guy’s a West Indian.” He was an African-American attorney and a civil rights lawyer in Virginia in the ’60s. I got a 30-page transcript. I got to page 15, I’m like, “He’s West Indian.” And then, literally page 16, “My father came from Trinidad and Tobago with my mother and me.”

COWEN: [laughs]

GLADWELL: There is something very, very real there that’s not, I feel, fully appreciated.

COWEN: Another difference that struck me — tell me what you think of this — is that the notion of freedom for much of the Caribbean, it’s in some way more celebratory, and it’s more rooted in history, and it may be because these are mostly majority black societies. History is in a sense controlled; it’s much more commemorative. Does that make sense to you? It’s not a struggle to control the narration of history at a national level.

GLADWELL: Yes. You’re in charge of the narrative —


GLADWELL: . . . which is huge. I thought of this because I wanted to do — sorry, my podcast is on my mind — I wanted to do and I haven’t managed to figure out how to do it, but there’s a Jamaican poet called Louise Bennett. If you are Jamaican, you know exactly who this person is. She’s probably the most important colloquial poet. I think that’s the wrong word. Popular poet. And she wrote poetry in dialect. So for a generation of Jamaicans, she was an assertion of Jamaican identity and culture. My mother was a scholarship student at a predominantly white boarding school in Jamaica. She and the other black students of the school, as an act of protest, read Louise Bennett poetry at the school function when she was 12 years old.

If you read Louise Bennett’s poetry, much of it is about race. It’s about race where the Jamaican, the black Jamaican often has the upper hand. The black Jamaican is always telling some sly joke at the expense of the white minority. So it’s poetry that doesn’t make the same kind of sense in a society where you’re a relatively powerless minority. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense if you’re not in control of major institutions and such, but you are 95 percent of the population and you feel like you’re going to win pretty soon.
My mother used to read this poem to me as a child where Louise Bennett is . . . the poem is all about sitting in a beauty parlor, getting her hair straightened, sitting next to a white woman who’s getting her hair curled.


GLADWELL: And the joke is that the white woman’s paying a lot more to get her hair curled than Louise Bennett is to get her hair straightened. That’s the point. It’s all this subtle one-upmanship. But that’s very Jamaican.
Special bonus:
GLADWELL: Well, I don’t like the Alec Baldwin Donald Trump, I don’t think, actually, if you compare it to the Sean Spicer . . .


GLADWELL: It’s not as good, and it’s not as good because the truly effective satirical impersonation is one that finds something essential about the character and magnifies it, something buried that you wouldn’t ordinarily have seen or have glimpsed in that person.

With the Spicer impersonation, why that’s so brilliant is, it draws out his anger. He’s angry at being put in this impossible position. That is the essence of that character. So how does a person respond to this, it’s almost an absurd position he’s in. And he has this kind of — it’s not sublimated — it’s there, this rage. In every one of his utterances is, “I can’t fucking believe that I am in this . . .”


GLADWELL: And so that Saturday Night Live impersonation gets beautifully at that thing, it satirizes that. I’ve forgotten the name of the woman who does it
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Melissa McCarthy.

GLADWELL: Yes, when Melissa McCarthy, when she picks up the podium . . .


GLADWELL: That’s an absurd illustration of that fundamental point. But the Alec Baldwin Trump doesn’t get at something essential about Trump. It simply takes his mannerisms and exaggerates them slightly. But he hasn’t mined Trump.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

See, lit crit isn't the only displine packed with researchers having trouble with reality

Reflection and transmission of light on a night train


The comparative vocabulary of smell, some languages have more words than others

Every sense has its own “lexical field,” a vast palette of dedicated descriptive words for colors, sounds, tastes, and textures. But smell? In English, there are only three dedicated smell words—stinky, fragrant, and musty—and the first two are more about the smeller's subjective experience than about the smelly thing itself.

All of our other scent descriptors are really descriptions of sources: We say that things smell like cinnamon, or roses, or teen spirit, or napalm in the morning. The other senses don't need these linguistic workarounds. We don't need to say that a banana “looks like lemon;” we can just say that it's yellow. Experts who work in perfume or wine-tasting industries may use more metaphorical terms like decadent or unctuous, but good luck explaining them to a non-expert who's not familiar with the jargon.
In contrast, "the Jahai of Malaysia and the Maniq of Thailand use between 12 and 15 dedicated smell words":
“These terms are really very salient to them,” she says. “They turn up all the time. Young children know them. They're basic vocabulary. They're not used for taste, or general ideas of edibility. They're really dedicated to smell.”

For example, ltpit describes the smell of a binturong or bearcat—a two-meter-long animal that looks like a shaggy, black-furred otter, and that famously smells of popcorn. But ltpit doesn't mean popcorn—it's not a source-based term. The same word is also used for soap, flowers, and the intense-smelling durian fruit, referring to some fragrant quality that Western noses can’t parse.

Another word is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings, some species of millipede, the root of wild ginger, the wood of wild mango, and more. One seems specific to roasted foods. And one refers to things like squirrel blood, rodents, crushed head lice, and other “bloody smells that attract tigers.”
H/t Dan Everett.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A comparative perspective on turn-taking

Pika S, Wilkinson R, Kendrick KH, Vernes SC. 2018 Taking turns: bridging the gap between human and animal communication. Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20180598.

Language, humans’ most distinctive trait, still remains a ‘mystery’ for evolutionary theory. It is underpinned by a universal infrastructure—cooperative turn-taking—which has been suggested as an ancient mechanism bridging the existing gap between the articulate human species and their inarticulate primate cousins. However, we know remarkably little about turn-taking systems of non-human animals, and methodological confounds have often prevented meaningful cross-species comparisons. Thus, the extent to which cooperative turn-taking is uniquely human or represents a homologous and/or analogous trait is currently unknown. The present paper draws attention to this promising research avenue by providing an overview of the state of the art of turn-taking in four animal taxa—birds, mammals, insects and anurans. It concludes with a new comparative framework to spur more research into this research domain and to test which elements of the human turn-taking system are shared across species and taxa.
9. The comparative turn-taking framework
The new framework enabling comparative, systematic, quantitative assessments of turn-taking abilities centres on four key elements characterizing human social action during conversation:
(A) Flexibility of turn-taking organization
(B) Who is taking the next turn?
(C) When do response turns occur?
(D) What should the next turn do?
The first element—flexibility of turn-taking organization (A)—refers to the phenomena of varying size and ordering of turns and intentionality involved in human turn-taking sequences [9]. The element mirrors the ability to voluntarily change and adjust signals/actions and thus the degree of underlying cognitive flexibility. It can be operationalized by quantifying the number, frequency and degree of repetition of signals and actions produced in turn-taking events, their combination (e.g. A-B-A; A-B-C), distribution of roles between participants (e.g. role reversal), and intentionality involved (e.g. goal persistence, sensitivity to the social context) [34,112,113].

The second element—who is taking the next turn (B)—concerns who can or should produce the next signal and includes techniques for allocating turns to individuals or parties [9]. Parameters should involve (i) body orientation towards recipient(s), (ii) gaze direction of signaller, (iii) response waiting, and (iv) whether recipient(s) can perceive the signal (e.g. being in the visual or auditory field).

The third element—when do response turns occur (C)—addresses the time window or temporal relationship between an initiating turn and the response turn [10,24]. Since the normative timing of signal exchanges may differ across species, modalities, and transmission medium, a first mandatory step should be to establish typical time windows for a given species (see [34] for ideas to operationlize this element).

The fourth element—what should the next turn do? (D)—concerns one of the most fundamental structures in the organization of human conversation: adjacency pairs [114]. An adjacency pair can be recursively reproduced [115] and expanded in conversation and—in its minimal, unexpanded form—is composed of two turns, by different participants, that are adjacently placed, and are relatively ordered into first pair parts (actions that initiate some exchange, e.g. requests), and second pair parts (responsive actions, e.g. grants) [114]. This element can be operationalized by testing whether subsequent turns qualify as adjacency pairs involving predictable signal-response sequences (e.g. a request gesture is typically responded with a granting signal; a call is typically responded with the same call type, e.g. common marmosets) [74,116].

Cumulative Cultural Evolution (CCE)

Mesoudi A, Thornton A. 2018 What is cumulative cultural evolution? Proc. R. Soc. B 285: 20180712.

Abstract: In recent years, the phenomenon of cumulative cultural evolution (CCE) has become the focus of major research interest in biology, psychology and anthropology. Some researchers argue that CCE is unique to humans and underlies our extraordinary evolutionary success as a species. Others claim to have found CCE in non-human species. Yet others remain sceptical that CCE is even important for explaining human behavioural diversity and complexity. These debates are hampered by multiple and often ambiguous definitions of CCE. Here, we review how researchers define, use and test CCE. We identify a core set of criteria for CCE which are both necessary and sufficient, and may be found in non-human species. We also identify a set of extended criteria that are observed in human CCE but not, to date, in other species. Different socio-cognitive mechanisms may underlie these different criteria. We reinterpret previous theoretical models and observational and experimental studies of both human and non-human species in light of these more fine-grained criteria. Finally, we discuss key issues surrounding information, fitness and cognition. We recommend that researchers are more explicit about what components of CCE they are testing and claiming to demonstrate.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Zig-zag on the Hudson


Empathy and music

Original Research

Wallmark Z, Deblieck C, and Iacoboni M
Neurophysiological Effects of Trait Empathy in Music Listening
Front. Behav. Neurosci., 06 April 2018
The social cognitive basis of music processing has long been noted, and recent research has shown that trait empathy is linked to musical preferences and listening style. Does empathy modulate neural responses to musical sounds? We designed two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) experiments to address this question. In Experiment 1, subjects listened to brief isolated musical timbres while being scanned. In Experiment 2, subjects listened to excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked (FL)/disliked and unfamiliar liked (UL)/disliked). For both types of musical stimuli, emotional and cognitive forms of trait empathy modulated activity in sensorimotor and cognitive areas: in the first experiment, empathy was primarily correlated with activity in supplementary motor area (SMA), inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and insula; in Experiment 2, empathy was mainly correlated with activity in prefrontal, temporo-parietal and reward areas. Taken together, these findings reveal the interactions between bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of empathy in response to musical sounds, in line with recent findings from other cognitive domains.

Music is a portal into the interior lives of others. By disclosing the affective and cognitive states of actual or imagined human actors, musical engagement can function as a mediated form of social encounter, even when listening by ourselves. It is commonplace for us to imagine music as a kind of virtual “persona,” with intentions and emotions of its own (Watt and Ash, 1998; Levinson, 2006): we resonate with certain songs just as we would with other people, while we struggle to identify with other music. Arguing from an evolutionary perspective, it has been proposed that the efficacy of music as a technology of social affiliation and bonding may have contributed to its adaptive value (Cross, 2001; Huron, 2001). As Leman (2007) indicates: “Music can be conceived as a virtual social agent … listening to music can be seen as a socializing activity in the sense that it may train the listener’s self in social attuning and empathic relationships.” In short, musical experience and empathy are psychological neighbors.

The concept of empathy has generated sustained interest in recent years among researchers seeking to better account for the social and affective valence of musical experience (for recent reviews see Clarke et al., 2015; Miu and Vuoskoski, 2017); it is also a popular topic of research in social neuroscience (Decety and Ickes, 2009; Coplan and Goldie, 2011). However, the precise neurophysiological relationship between music processing and empathy remains unexplored. Individual differences in trait empathy modulate how we process social stimuli—does empathy modulate music processing as well? If we consider music through a social-psychological lens (North and Hargreaves, 2008; Livingstone and Thompson, 2009; Aucouturier and Canonne, 2017), it is plausible that individuals with a greater dispositional capacity to empathize with others might also respond to music-as-social-stimulus differently on a neurophysiological level by preferentially engaging brain networks previously found to be involved in trait empathy (Preston and de Waal, 2002; Decety and Lamm, 2006; Singer and Lamm, 2009). In this article, we test this hypothesis in two experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In Experiment 1, we explore the neural correlates of trait empathy (as measured using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index) as participants listened to isolated instrument and vocal tones. In Experiment 2, excerpts of music in four conditions (familiar liked/disliked, unfamiliar liked/disliked) were used as stimuli, allowing us to examine correlations of neural activity with trait empathy in naturalistic listening contexts.
News Article Reporting the Research

Milla Bengtsson, People With Higher Empathy Process Music Differently In The Brain, Reliaware, June 12, 2018. From the article:
Individuals who deeply grasp the pain or happiness of others also differ from others in the way their brains process music, a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and UCLA suggests.

The researchers found that compared to low empathy people, those with higher empathy process familiar music with greater involvement of the reward system of the brain, as well as in areas responsible for processing social information.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Pre-industrial states

Philip Carl Salzman, Tribes and States, Inference, Vol. 2, No. 1.
A basic fact of pre-industrial life is that it is easier to take wealth away from others than to produce it oneself. This also applies collectively. It is easier to take wealth from other societies than to extract a sufficient amount from your own. For this reason, agrarian societies turn to expansion, sending military expeditions beyond their boundaries to strip wealth from other populations. Armies have to be paid with the spoils of conquest. Further expansion and conquest is thus necessary. It is a positive feedback cycle. Obvious examples are the Roman Empire and the Arab Muslim Empire.

A key element is the taking of slaves. The wealth gained is long-term labor that requires only the most minimal compensation. A society that can produce little needs to import labor that does not need to be compensated, or to be compensated only at very low levels. This transfers the wealth of its production to the elite and its apparatus. In ancient Athens and Rome, slaves counted for more than half the population. Indian civilization solved the production problem slightly differently, with uncompensated labor performed by the so-called untouchables.

Agrarian states were thus hierarchical, centralized, and authoritarian, and the means of coercion were limited to the elite and its army as much as possible. But while the reach of the elite was strong, its scope was narrow. They wanted only two things from their subjects: crops and manpower. They controlled little else, and cared about little else. The welfare of their subjects was of no interest, except that they must be protected from predation by other states or tribes. And, to be sustainable, their own predation of their subjects had to be limited.

These pre-industrial, agrarian states were not large stable blocks of territory with effective state control and sharp boundaries. They were centers of power claiming control and authority over surrounding regions and populations. Over time, these states could vary in economic, political, and military power. Partly in response to the strength of their leadership, they waxed and waned, increasing their effective reach or seeing their control contract.

On the margins of their effective power, these states might make alliances with quasi-independent or independent populations, in most cases tribes. The priority of tribes would have been to remain independent and predatory. Failing that, they would have striven to remain independent, perhaps entering into some lucrative alliance with the state. In the case of an expanding state, the tribes in the path of that expansion would retreat, something fairly easy for pastoral nomads with mobile housing and capital. When a state was weak and began to contract, the tribes would reclaim their independence and return to predation.

This picture of states is accurate up to the eighteenth century, even in Britain. Until then, Britain and the states of Western Europe were ruled by autocrats or absolute monarchs, and their polities experienced constant attempted coups, civil wars, and invasions. It was only in the eighteenth century, not coincidentally the period in Western Europe of the modern agricultural and industrial revolutions, that the state changed. Its structure moved from top-down rule toward more general participation in decision making, and from tyrants toward governments based on law.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

SARK in Hoboken


Memory technologies in worlds without writing

Cultures without writing are referred to as ‘non-literate’, but their identity should not be associated with what they don’t do, but rather with what they do from necessity when there is no writing to record their knowledge. Cultures without writing employ the most intriguing range of memory technologies often linked under the academic term ‘primary orality’, including song, dance, rhyme and rhythm, and story and mythology. Physical memory devices, though, are less often included in this list. The most universal of these is the landscape itself.

Australian Aboriginal memory palaces are spread across the land, structured by sung pathways referred to as songlines. The songlines of the Yanyuwa people from Carpentaria in Australia’s far north have been recorded over 800 kilometres. A songline is a sequence of locations, that might, for example, include the rocks that provide the best materials for tools, to a significant tree or a waterhole. They are far more than a navigation aid. At each location, a song or story, dance or ceremony is performed that will always be associated with that particular location, physically and in memory. A songline, then, provides a table of contents to the entire knowledge system, one that can be traversed in memory as well as physically.

Enmeshed with the vitalised landscape, some indigenous cultures also use the skyscape as a memory device; the stories of the characters associated with the stars, planets and dark spaces recall invaluable practical knowledge such as seasonal variations, navigation, timekeeping and much of the ethical framework for their culture. The stories associated with the location in the sky or across the landscape provide a grounded structure to add ever more complexity with levels of initiation. Typically, only a fully initiated elder would know and understand the entire knowledge system of the community. By keeping critical information sacred and restricted, the so-called ‘Chinese whispers effect’ could be avoided, protecting information from corruption.

Rock art and decorated posts are also familiar aids to indigenous memory, but far less known is the range of portable memory devices. Incised stones and boards, collections of objects in bags, bark paintings, birchbark scrolls, decorations on skins and the knotted cords of the Inca khipu have all been used to aid the recall of memorised information. The food-carrying dish used by Australian Aboriginal cultures, the coolamon, can be incised on the back, providing a sophisticated mnemonic device without adding anything more to the load to be carried when moving around their landscape. Similarly, the tjuringa, a stone or wooden object up to a metre long decorated with abstract motifs, is a highly restricted device for Aboriginal men. As the owner of the coolamon or the elder with his tjuringa touched each marking, he or she would recall the appropriate story or sing the related song.
And so on.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Telephone pole and sky


Anthony Bourdain, R.I.P.

When I got up this morning I thought I’d be writing a post about Joe Rogan. And in that post I figured I’d mention his conversation with Anthony Bourdain. Instead wake to find that Bourdain is dead, an apparent suicide at 61.

I don’t know what to say. You never know, do you?

Bourdain was one of the good ones. Muhammad Ali took boxing beyond boxing into politics. Anthony took food TV beyond food. He took food into adventure and, above all, into culture and society. Food became a way to explore the variety of human life, to explore the multiplicity and richness of human nature.

Food as philosophy?

* * * * *

Thinking about it, for some odd reason I sort of thought about Bourdain as my own secret discovery. He’s mine, mine, mine! And so it’s just a little – but only that, just a little – surprising to see the coverage of his death all over the place, including top of the ‘front page’ of the (digital edition) of The New York Times (did he make that front page of the print edition?). He meant a lot to a lot of people.

Of course, it’s absurd that I should have thought of Anthony Bourdain as my own personal discovery. For one thing, I didn’t know about him until last year, which is rather late in the game. Once I’d discovered him I watched a bunch of his shows on Netflix (mostly the early A Cook's Tour and the more recent Parts Unknown). And I watched scads of interview clips on YouTube. I knew perfectly well that lots of people had discovered him and obviously valued and were touched by his work.

It’s in spite of that knowledge that I thought of him as mine, mine, mine! I wonder of others felt that way as well?

* * * * * *

I suppose my favorite episode of Parts Unknown is the Congo episode. Here’s a brief post on it. If you’ve got Netflix, here’s a link to it.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Life on Mars?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Christmas Songs with Girl Scouts

A couple of years ago, 2014 I believe, a troop of Girl Scouts visited the building where I live and sang Christmas songs in the lobby–I’m told they’d done this before, but 2014 was my first year in the building. When they were done, one of my neighbors urged me to get my trumpet and return the gift. I did it, and the girls appreciated it.

Next year they came back. This time I was ready. I had my trumpet with me. When they were done singing, I got it out and played some songs for them. After I played, oh, three or four, I decided to play “My Favorite Things”–which John Coltrane had made into a jazz standard.

As I made that decision–I didn’t have a set list, but simply decided what to play song by son–I had some misgivings. Why? “My Favorite Things” is a little more complicated than most Christmas carols and I wasn’t quite sure I’d remember it correctly. Still, I wasn’t very worried. I’m a jazz musician. If things got sketchy I could make something up and things would work out.

As things worked out, the Girl Scouts had a surprise for me. It wasn’t anything I’d planned or that they’d planned. It just happened.

As soon as I started playing they started singing along. Cool! But also, Oh oh! Now the pressure was on, just a bit. Because if I wandered away from the song-as-written, I’d mess them up. And I didn’t want to do that.

Things worked out fine.

Stuck in a fence


The Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Moral Behavior

Purzycki, B. G., Pisor, A., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q., Cohen, E., Henrich, J., McElreath, R., et al. (2018). The Cognitive and Cultural Foundations of Moral Behavior. Evolution and Human Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2018.04.004.

Abstract: Does moral culture contribute to the evolution of cooperation? Here, we examine individuals' and communities' models of what it means to be good and bad and how they correspond to corollary behavior across a variety of socioecological contexts. Our sample includes over 600 people from eight different field sites that include foragers, horticulturalists, herders, and the fully market-reliant. We first examine the universals and particulars of explicit moral models. We then use these moral models to assess their role in the outcome of an economic experiment designed to detect systematic, dishonest rule-breaking favoritism. We show that individuals are slightly more inclined to play by the rules when their moral models include the task-relevant virtues of “honesty” and “dishonesty.” We also find that religious beliefs are better predictors of honest play than these virtues. The predictive power of these values' and beliefs' local prevalence, however, remains inconclusive. In summary, we find that religious beliefs and moral models may help promote honest behavior that may widen the breadth of human cooperation.

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Non-paywalled version.

Quantum mechanics and visualization

Tim Mauldin has a double book review in the Boston Review, "The Defeat of Reason". One book is about quantum mechanics and the other is about Thomas Kuhn. I found the quantum mechanics section more interesting. Here's a few paragraphs:
In 1925 Werner Heisenberg had invented matrix mechanics. Heisenberg’s mathematical formalism got the predictions that Bohr had been seeking. But the central mathematical objects used in his theory were matrices, rectangular arrays of numbers. The predictions came out with wonderful accuracy, but that still left the old puzzle in place: how does the electron get from one orbit to another? You can stare at a matrix from morning to night, but you will not get a clue.

Bohr took an unexpected approach to this question: instead of asking if the theory was too young to be fully understood, he declared that the theory was complete; you cannot visualize what the electron is doing because the microworld of the electron is not, in principle, visualizable (anschaulich). It is unvisualizable (unanschaulich). In other words, the fault lay not in the theory, it lay in us. Bohr took to calling any visualizable object classical. Quantum theory had passed beyond the bounds of classical physics: there is no further classical story to tell. This became a central tenet of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory.

Imagine Bohr’s motivation to adopt this extreme conclusion. For over a decade, he had been seeking exact, visualizable electron trajectories and failed. He concluded that his failure was rooted in the impossibility of the task.

But in 1926 Erwin Schrödinger produced a mathematically different theory, wave mechanics. Schrödinger’s mathematics was essentially just the classical mathematics of waves. The atomic system was not designated by a matrix, it was described by a wavefunction. And waves may not be particles, but they are certainly visualizable objects from everyday life...

So the situation in 1926 was rather confused. Matrix mechanics and wave mechanics were, in some sense, thought to be the same theory, differently expressed. But if you use the mathematics to derive a certain matrix yet have no notion of how the physical situation associated with the matrix would appear, how do you get a prediction about what you will observe? And wave mechanics is not much better off. Waves are certainly visualizable, but the world we live in, the world of laboratory experiments, does not present itself as made of waves. It presents itself, if anything, as made of particles. How do we get from waves to recognizable everyday stuff?

This, in a nutshell, is the central conundrum of quantum mechanics: how does the mathematical formalism used to represent a quantum system make contact with the world as given in experience? This is commonly called the measurement problem, although the name is misleading. It might better be called the where-in-the-theory-is-the-world-we-live-in problem.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Ted Nelson speaks up

Dan Dennett on Patterns (and Ontology)

From three years ago. Patterns are always timely.
I want to look at what Dennett has to say about patterns because 1) I introduced the term in an earlier  discussion, In Search of Dennett’s Free-Floating Rationales [1], and 2) it is interesting for what it says about his philosophy generally.

You’ll recall that, in that earlier discussion, I pointed out talk of “free-floating rationales” (FFRs) was authorized by the presence of a certain state of affairs, a certain pattern of relationships among, in Dennett’s particular example, an adult bird, (vulnerable) chicks, and a predator. Does postulating talk of FFRs add anything to the pattern? Does it make anything more predictable? No. Those FFRs are entirely redundant upon the pattern that authorizes them. By Occam’s Razor, they’re unnecessary.

With that, let’s take a quick look at Dennett’s treatment of the role of patterns in his philosophy. First I quote some passages from Dennett, with a bit of commentary, and then I make a few remarks on my somewhat different treatment of patterns. In a third post I’ll be talking about the computational capacities of the mind/brain.

Patterns and the Intentional Stance

Let’s start with a very useful piece Dennett wrote in 1994, “Self-Portrait” [2] – incidentally, I found this quite useful in getting a better sense of what Dennett’s up to. As the title suggests, it’s his account of his intellectual concerns up to that point (his intellectual life goes back to the early 1960s at Harvard and then later at Oxford). The piece doesn’t contain technical arguments for his positions, but rather states what they were and gives their context in his evolving system of thought. For my purposes in this inquiry that’s fine.

He begins by noting, “the two main topics in the philosophy of mind are CONTENT and CONSCIOUSNESS” (p. 236). Intentionality belongs to the theory of content. It was and I presume still is Dennett’s view that the theory of intentionality/content is the more fundamental of the two. Later on he explains that (p. 239):
... I introduced the idea that an intentional system was, by definition, anything that was amenable to analysis by a certain tactic, which I called the intentional stance. This is the tactic of interpreting an entity by adopting the presupposition that it is an approximation of the ideal of an optimally designed (i.e. rational) self-regarding agent. No attempt is made to confirm or disconfirm this presupposition, nor is it necessary to try to specify, in advance of specific analyses, wherein consists RATIONALITY. Rather, the presupposition provides leverage for generating specific predictions of behaviour, via defeasible hypotheses about the content of the control states of the entity.
This represents a position Dennett will call “mild realism” later in the article. We’ll return to that in a bit. But at the moment I want to continue just a bit later on p. 239:
In particular, I have held that since any attributions of function necessarily invoke optimality or rationality assumptions, the attributions of intentionality that depend on them are interpretations of the phenomena - a ‘heuristic overlay’ (1969), describing an inescapably idealized ‘real pattern’ (1991d). Like such abstracta as centres of gravity and parallelograms of force, the BELIEFS and DESIRES posited by the highest stance have no independent and concrete existence, and since this is the case, there would be no deeper facts that could settle the issue if - most improbably - rival intentional interpretations arose that did equally well at rationalizing the history of behaviour of an entity.
Hence his interest in patterns. When one adopts the intentional stance (or the design stance, or the physical stance) one is looking for characteristic patterns.

Two irises in Hoboken



Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Rogan is going to have Roseanne Barr on his podcast this coming Friday (June 1)

Friday, June 1: The Roseanne Barr podcast has been cancelled.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Goliath (Amazon Video), a quick note

I watched the first four episodes of Goliath last night.

I detected echoes of Better Call Saul. Both shows are about lawyers, and both involve one lawyer who spends most of his time relatively isolated and in the dark. What’s up with that? And both involve another lawyer who’s trying to prove something. This other lawyer is the center of the show, Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) for Saul and Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) for Goliath. And–wouldn’t you know?–there’s a conflict between these two lawyers that drives much of the plot.

What’s up with that?

Of course, the shows differ in many ways as well. In Saul the two lawyers are brothers whereas in Goliath they aren’t, they’re ex-partners. Odenkirk is a slick operator who seems to be trying to prove that he could be legit. He feels unjustly dismissed by his older brother. It’s not clear to me at this point (four episodes in) just what’s going on between the two guys in Goliath other than the fact that they were once partners.

One other thing. The dark lawyer, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), in Goliath is disfigured and runs his firm from a penthouse at the top of the firm’s suite of offices and has the entire suite bugged with video cameras that allow him to spy on people at will. He’s assigned a junior associate to be lead on a major (like ‘break the firm’ major) case. He does this via email (and creepy-cam). In the fourth episode he manipulates the security system late at night so that this late-working associate ends up coming to the penthouse for the first time. When he shows himself to her, he’s naked.

Shades of Harvey Weinstein–though this series got going before the Weinstein case broke all over the news.

Stay tuned.

Coltrane performs A Love Supreme

Is the future being charted by the conflict between wizards and prophets?

Writing in Quillette John Faithful Hamer reviews The Wizard and the Prophet (2018) by Charles C. Mann.
In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.

At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Like most Wizards, Pinker thinks that our ancestors were for the most part benighted idiots: “an average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards, while if Joe and Jane Average made the reverse journey, they would outsmart 98 percent of the befrocked and bewhiskered Edwardians who greeted them as they emerged.”

Like most Prophets, Harari assumes that our ancestors were in certain respects better than us: “Twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today. Modern schools and employers may test our aptitudes from time to time but, no matter how badly we do, the welfare state always guarantees our basic needs. In the Stone Age natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests you were pushing up the daisies in no time.”
The final paragraph is peculiar and interesting:
If Pinker and Harari debated each other, I’ve no doubt that Pinker would win. Because Harari argues like a self-doubting intellectual, whilst Pinker argues like a ruthless debate club president. His certainty is at times annoying, as is his preachy style. You want an argument but feel like you’re getting a sermon. I doubt that he’s actually an ideologue (in real life); but he sure does write like one. Be that as it may, I suspect that these men agree on most matters and want the same things of the future. If Pinker paints a rosy picture of human progress and its achievements in the hope that both will continue, Harari sketches a dystopian future in the hopes that doing so will prevent it. Like all prophets, he prophesies to prevent the prophecy, not to predict it.
H/t 3QD.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Louis Armstrong performs for the troops

The world according to jiujitsu, Joe Rogan on 3QD

I’ve got a piece about The Joe Rogan Experience on 3 Quarks Daily, Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan, in which I argue the show is fundamentally a metaphysical journey. Jiujitsu is Rogan’s “home base” in this journey.

Here’s a clip in which Rogan is awarded a black belt by Eddie Bravo of 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. Starting at about 4:22 Rogan tells us what jiujitsu means to him:

Becoming really good at jiujitsu is probably one of the most difficult things a person can do and I think it helps me with everything I do. I think the more I train and the more I meet people who are into jiujutsu...People who are in jiujutsu and train on a regular basis, they’re healthier people. Their egos are healthier, especially men. They’re easier to talk to, they’re easier to hang out with, because they’re facing reality on a regular basis.

There’s something my taekwondo teacher told me when I was a little kid, that I never forgot, was that martial arts are a vehicle for developing your human potential. And nothing in my life has ever put me in face with reality better than jiujitsu. In life we can all distort our perception of things in order to make ourselves more comfortable, in order to make ourselves accept where we are. And there’s a lot of people out there that run around full of shit. You can’t be full of shit when you do jiujitsu.

When you do jiujitsu it’s impossible to be full of shit, because reality comes at you in the purest form possible. Life or death struggle using your determination, your focus, your technique, your mind, and your training. Over and over and over again. And it’s reality and if you fuck up and get caught in a triangle you gotta’ tap. End of story.

It’s as real as it can get. And THAT has made me a better person. It’s made me a better man, made me understand myself, my weaknesses, my strengths, the shit I should work on. Jiujitsu has been one of the most valuable tools that I’ve ever had in my life.
Now, jiujitsu bouts happen in real time. How does one extend the virtues learned in such bouts to life in general, in which you are necessarily engaged in many lines of activity stretching over days, months, years, and decades?

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed

This is the second most-popular post on the blog. That, I assume, is because it's about an amazing and enigmatic bit of animation. Some day I'll return to it and take a deeper look. For now, I'm reposting it at the top of the blog. Enjoy.
“Pink Elephants on Parade,” from Walt Disney’s Dumbo, is one of the best known, and strangest, animated sequences that Disney, or any studio, has ever done (see clip below). It’s strange on two counts. In the first place, it doesn’t seem to advance the Dumbo story in any way. As the sequence begins Dumbo and Timothy Mouse are pleasantly drunk; when it ends they’re sleeping high in a tree. The sequence tells us nothing about how they got from one state to the other, nor does it tell us anything that’s otherwise going on in the movie. The movie is about elephants, the sequence is about elephants, pink ones; and that elephant connection seems to be all that links the sequence to the larger plot.

Putting that aside, is there any order within the sequence itself or is it just a collection of strange gags? This is the question that interests me. And my answer is that, yes, there is some order there. There is a progression.

1. Elephants from Elephants

Let’s start at the beginning. Dumbo and Timothy have drunk water that was accidentally laced with booze. They get drunk and Dumbo starts blowing rather surprising bubbles through his trunk. Timothy asks him to blow a large bubble, which he does. That bubble assumes elephant form, turns pink, and proceeds to blow a second pink elephant from its trunk. The second blows a third, and now we see four pink elephants. Their trunks become trumpet-like, playing a fanfare which we hear on the sound-track. They merge their trunks

pink elephants 3 four in one

and the merged bell expands, bursts, and becomes a portal for a parade of marching elephants.

pink elephants 4 parade from one

Each elephant in the parade is playing a musical instrument, which is a deformed part of its body.

There are three things to note so far. 1) The parade of elephants has now become effectively detached from Dumbo. He blew the first bubble, but it became an elephant on its own. The rest followed from that. 2) The purely instrumental music we’re hearing is, in effect, being created by the elephants themselves. 3) At various points in this opening segment we see reactions from both Dumbo and Timothy; they’re on-screen characters.

We get a series of gags emphasizing that the elephants are making the music, and then we see a parade of small elephants march around (notice Dumbo and Timothy watching them):

pink elephants 8 round it

There is no structure in the film-space itself on which those elephants are marching. They’re walking on the border of the frame. This is the sort of self-conscious gag that’s as old as animation itself – such trickery was fundamental to Winsor McCay’s work, but also to Disney’s Alice shorts. Those elephants will parade around the entire perimeter of the frame and then they’ll start expanding until they burst.

pink elephants 9 filled

2. An Elephant State of Mind

With that we move to new phase. We no longer see Dumbo or Timothy on screen; they’re out for the rest of the sequence. The elephants are no longer depicted as being the source of the music. They’re just elephants. And the music gets a vocal that comments on the rather creepy things happening on screen.

How the West was stolen (USA vs. First Nations)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

"One pill makes you..." – Contrasts on a psychedelic theme

Charlotte Shane reviews two recent books about psychedelics, Tao Lin, Trip, and Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind. Here's a passage from the end of the review:
White families make millions from selling huge quantities of marijuana, while people of color are incarcerated for possession of minor amounts. Young white people broadcast paeans to microdosing on their podcasts, and wealthy white moms write about it in books, but there’s no national conversation about meaningfully reconsidering the incoherent and murderous “war on drugs.” (LSD and psilocybin are Schedule 1 substances, alongside heroin, cannabis, and MDMA, meaning the government regards them among the most addictive and the least medicinally useful.) How to Change Your Mind is steeped in the belief that drugs might be OK in institutionally circumscribed contexts, when overseen and administered by professionals, but that they should not be left in the hands of the pleasure-seeking masses. (“[Do] I think these drugs should simply be legalized? Not exactly,” Pollan writes in his conclusion.) Take a moment to picture the populations best positioned to benefit from an arrangement like that, and imagine how much opportunity for mismanagement, price gouging, and general abuse it might allow.

Lin regards psychedelics as subversive, and powerfully pure, because they can make people happy and healthy. (Overwhelmingly, this is the case, and even terrifying trips rarely result in lasting damage—though the drugs can have disastrous results in schizophrenics.) But Pollan looks at an aspect of the psychedelics trend that Lin doesn’t: Its role in Silicon Valley. He mentions Steve Jobs’s claim that dropping LSD was “one of his two or three most important life experiences,” and name-checks Stewart Brand, who thinks that “LSD was a critical ingredient in nourishing the spirit of collaborative experiment . . . that distinguish[es] the computer culture of the West Coast.” As a further endorsement, he adds, “I know of one Bay Area tech company today that uses psychedelics in its management training. A handful of others have instituted ‘microdosing Fridays.’”

While some drugs can guide a user toward enduring openness or empathy, no drug will instantly render a selfish man selfless, or a cruel woman kind. And if psychedelics are becoming somewhat ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, it’s proof that they can’t automatically instill ethics in a community used to operating without them. (Would you take a drug that made you as a creative as Steve Jobs, if it also made you just as much of an asshole? Don’t answer that.)

Peace in our time?

Friday, May 25, 2018





Two notes on psychedelic experience (Michael Pollan on Joe Rogan)

Michael Pollan’s just published a book about psychedelic experiences, How to Change Your Mind, and Joe Rogan just had him on his podcast. It’s an interesting and far-ranging conversation. I want to look at two little bits of what Pollan said.

Psychedelics, dreams, and metaphysics

Michael Pollan at about 27:09:
Where do you get the idea of a beyond? Where do you get the idea of a heaven or a hell, if not from some altered state of consciousness? You know, people talk about visiting the underworld in Homer’s time, so how did they do that? Was it dreams? Dreams don’t have the authority that psychedelic experience has. There’s something about psychedelic experience that has this, it’s not just an opinion, it’s not a fantasy. It’s something real, it’s objective truth. William James called this the noetic quality of the mystical experience. And that certitude comes from psychedelics. It seems totally plausible to me that at the earliest stages of humanity if people were indeed taking psychedelics, this might explain how they came up with these ideas.
I want to push back just a little. While Pollan’s right about the noetic quality of (at least some) psychedelic experience, I think he short-changes dreams.

I take my cue from an observation that Weston La Barre made in The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (p. 60):
... the Australian Bushman themselves equate dream-time with the myth-time that is mysteriously brought back in ritual; myth is as timeless as the unconscious mind. It is the delectability of dreams that makes them desirable, and it is their desirability that (along with lowered critical threshold) that gives them their intense “reality” and conviction. The fact that he dreams first force on man the need to epistemologize.
Our own view of dreams is so thoroughly psychologized that we can easily think of them as just something the mind/brain does. How do dreams appear to people who, lacking the explanatory and theoretical machinery of modern psychology and neuroscience, cannot psychologize them? Why think about dreams at all; why not simply forget about them? What structures and processes must a brain have if it is to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences? It seems to me that people lacking the interpretive buffering of this psychologized view of the world might well see dreams as genuine journeys to another realm. When were our ancestors able to do this?

And if they also had the benefit of psychedelics, those experiences would reinforce the metaphysical imperatives of dream experience. The two experiential realms would supplement one another.

The social construction of reality

At about 34:24 ff. Pollan observes:
One of the really striking things, I’ve been on the road now, this is my second week out talking about this book, and I have been struck by how many people have had powerful psychedelic experiences they don’t talk to anybody about. And I come along as a kind of, I don’t know, kind of a credible person who’s interested. And, this is journalists too. They turn of the tape recorder and the say ‘can I tell you a story?’

Something happened to them. It might have been in their twenties, or earlier, that changed the course of their life; and, either because there was a stigma attached to it, or it was kind of had this 60’s woo woo thing about it, or there were kids around, they didn’t feel comfortable. So they kept it in a box labeled ‘weird drug experience’.

But it’s not just a drug experience. This is your mind. The drug may have started the process, but everything you see in this experience – those are real psychological facts, from your unconscious or your interpretation of your environment. It’s not the molecule that fore-ordained this experience....

So you have this big experience and you put it in this box, saying ‘weird drug experience’. But when you take it out sometimes you find that there’s real gold there. There’s fool’s gold too...
It’s become a cliché that reality is a social construction. Crudely put, if we can’t talk about it or otherwise share it with others (thought art, for example), then it doesn’t exist. It’s not real.

Now, once again, we may be talking about these things. We had the counter-cultural 60s, which got quick down pretty quickly. And back in the 19th century we had the fascination that opium held for the British romantics – e.g. Coleridge and “Kubla Khan”.  It’s not obvious where this conversation will go.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Hands, drum


Joe Rogan talks with Howard Bloom, Zoooommm!

I couple days ago I was making my regular online rounds when I discovered that Joe Rogan was talking with Howard Bloom THIS VERY MOMENT on The Joe Rogan Experience. “Yeowieee!” said I to myself, “I gotta’ check it out.” Why? Because Bloom is a trip and a half, a force of nature, though just what that nature is, well, that’s not at all clear.

I know Howard. I was in his Paleopsychology Project, corresponded with him for a couple of years and visited him at his Brooklyn apartment a couple of times. He played a crucial role in setting up my book deal, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. But I’m ambivalent about him. He’s very well read, imaginative, and brilliant. But, as my teacher Dave Hays was fond of saying, a great talent requires a great discipline. And Howard lacks discipline. Oh, he works hard–in his own way as hard as James “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” Brown–but hard work is not the point. It’s how you do that work, the craft and care you put into it, that counts.

Howard lavishes his craft and care on words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, on slogans and catch phrases – a number of them turn up in his conversation with Rogan – but he’s not so careful with the underlying ideas. My sense is that Howard has a few underlying themes and ideas that are important to him – everything’s connected; it’s a social world from quarks through galaxies; we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves – and uses those to paper over everything. Or, to switch metaphors, those are his hammers and he uses them to turn everything else into nails. Quarks, Dave Barry, toxoplasmosis, the Yanomami, biological evolution, the 86 billion neurons of the human brain, entropy, the excitement of the crowd at a rock and roll concert (or one of Hitler’s elaborately staged rallies), galaxies, the Big Bang–they’re all nails that Bloom pounds into his grand unified theory of everything. And, at least to some observers, everything turns out to look like the mind of Howard Bloom, a very skillful and industrious Howard Bloom.

Thus, if you look through the comments on his discussion with Rogan–which has almost 580,000 views as I write this and is approaching 4000 comments–you’ll find that a lot of listeners are, shall we say, skeptical, a skepticism often expressed in blunt and nasty terms – as these things go “a narcissistic egomaniac that thinks he’s the modern day Einstein” is rather mild. But you’ll also find some people who are fascinated by Bloom–after all, he drips with fascinating stories, facts, and numbers–and who like him quite a lot. And if you read closely, here and there you’ll find some folks of both minds.

It’s not Bloom that I’m interested in, however, it’s Rogan. But I had to set things up. Like Bloom, Rogan’s an intellectual omnivore, though with a different style and purpose. Bloom is convinced he knows how the world works. Rogan is trying to figure it out. That’s why he talks to all these different folks in his podcasts.

This post is about two points in this long conversation, almost three hours, where Rogan pushes Bloom.

In the Moment

At this point we’re well over an hour into the conversation. Bloom has been talking about how PG Wodehouse and Dave Barry inspired him to write a book about the 60s, then off to quantum physics in Moscow, and then to the “universal brain”–a biggie for Bloom. At roughly 1:23:40 Rogan asks:
JR: “Are you thinking of this while you’re saying it, are you thinking of the vast numbers of people that are listening and watching? Or are you just relaying the information; like are you cognizant?”
HB: “Yeah, both.”
JR: “Both.”
HB: “Because I want...[bit about Einstein giving him is marching orders]... to make good radio for your audience.”
JR: “But once you, what I’m trying to get at is once you’ve got it established in your head that nothing is isolated, that everything is connected, when you speak, are you aware when you’re speaking, that everything is connected? I mean are you actually, consciously thinking of all of these different minds, taking into account of all these different mind-blowing things that you’re saying, and then applying them out in the world.”
HB: “I think so.”
JR: “Yeah.”
HB: “I mean, if you hear it coming out of my mouth, that’s what’s churning around in my brain.”
JR: “You’re such a bright guy, I’m just tryin’ to understand if you’re in the moment, or if you’re in the moment as well as being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”
HB: “Well my obligation is to do both simultaneously.”
“In the moment”, that’s the key phrase. What’s it mean?

Remember, Rogan is a life-long martial arts practitioner and he’s got a decade and a half of experience as a commenter on mixed martial arts. As far as I can tell, MMA is the bedrock of The Joe Rogan Experience, a world of experience Rogan returns to time and again, with many of his guests coming from the MMA world. When Joe Rogan wants to know “What is real?” that’s where he goes.

Being in the moment is the core of that reality. Pure action and sensation, without thought. In the moment.

Music is like that too. I’m a musician, I’ve been there. You aren’t making the music; rather, it manifests through you. Countless other musicians, and listeners too, have been there – I’ve collected a variety of anecdotes in Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance. Bloom also knows it; when he was a publicist in the music business he worked with some of the top acts in the world.

But just what does that have to do with Bloom’s state of mind/being as he talking with Rogan? It’s not clear to me just what Rogan is asking of Bloom, and I don’t think it was clear to Bloom either. No matter. He asked.


It sometimes happens when writing. I wrote one paper, about Shelley, in such a state when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. It’s certainly not something I set out to do. I didn’t even know it was possible. But, there I was, late at night, with the paper due at noon the next. I was beat–I’m not at all a night person. I sat down at the typewrite and WHAM! It happened. The paper wrote itself over the course of, I don’t know, three, four, five hours or more. I finished it at dawn. And it was a good one.

Never again.

Is that what Rogan was asking of Bloom? Is he asking if Bloom was in some kind of transcendent state as well as “being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”?

Who knows.