Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Our planet has a fever

Our planet has a fever,
an infection from greed and ignorance
is spreading like a plague far worse
than when rats infested Europe's towns.

Our world is nauseous from the toxic air
that fills the atmosphere with its bad breath
and vomits vicious hurricanes Into the sky
and brutal rains that won’t stop coming.

Damn, it's hard to see this lovely earth,
the mother of us all,
infected, its fever getting higher,
rivers flooding cities like never before,
rising seas taking back the shore,
people running from their burning homes.
leaving photographs and memories behind.

What is there to say to our children
who won't know the cool summer nights
or crisp autumn mornings we remember?
What will they think of us
when they read of other times
and ask how could you let this happen
to our planet?

I don't know what to say or do
to take away this ache and ask
is it too late to cure our fevered world,
slow down the pestilence of greed,
stop wanting more and more than is needed,
learn to live a simple life,
find a way to make our children's lives
less harsh before it's too late.

It's not knowing what will be
when worse convulsions come,
and our children and theirs are living
with extremes of heat and droughts,
fires and floods, tornadoes and hurricanes
like none known before.
It's this that breaks my heart
and knows it didn't have to be this way. 
— Arnold Greenberg 

Monday, October 15, 2018

Three views of the southern tip of Manhattan as seen from Governors Island




A world’s fair for a world that’s permanently fair @3QD

I’ve got a new piece up at 3 Quarks Daily: World Island: Zeal Means Hope [The World’s Got Talent]. It’s about my friend, Jerry Greenberg, who now goes by “Zeal”, and his project to create a World Island, as he calls it, “a world’s fair for a world that’s permanently fair.” It was a wonderful quixotic idea, a $25 billion dollar city-within-a-city dedicated to peace and human flourishing. It was to be located on Governors Island, 172 acres in New York Harbor a quarter of a mill off the tip of Manhattan and only 100s of yards from Red Hook, Brooklyn.

The article tells the story of what happened between the time we meet in 2003 or 2004 and the time we had to deliver a proposal to locate World Island on Governors Island. The agency in charge of the island, GIPEC (Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation) was holding a competition for proposals. The proposals were due May 10, 2010. We made the deadline, with 5 minutes to spare.

Our proposal wasn’t accepted. No proposals were. I continued to work with Jerry on other locations for the project, Sierra Leone, and Athens, Greece were looking good at various times, and with other projects, such as WISE, World Investment Summit/Exposition. But this isn’t about that.

It’s about something else, about Jerry’s influence on others. He’s worked with a handful of people quite closely on these various projects, a very large handful. But he’s met 1000s of others and worked with some of them for a bit. How’d he change their lives?

Zeal's database system
In my own case, in November of 2007, a year and a half after the Governors Island proposal, I wrote a document, Jersey City: From a Skate Park to the World, and posted it to the web. I told that story in a post, How I Found a Home in Jersey City and Got Steve Fulop Elected Mayor, Part 3. That part about electing the mayor, that’s a bit tongue in cheek; but I did give a copy of that report to Fulop. It was about a park project, a two-and-a-half mile cultural corridor, through the middle of Jersey City. I figured it would cost a quarter to half a billion dollars, much cheaper than World Island, and would transform the city. Here’s the executive summary.
Jersey City has an unparalleled opportunity for developing park space and cultural amenities in a two-mile corridor running from the Powerhouse Arts District in the East, along the Sixth Street Embankment to the Palisades, then up the River Line to the Bergen Tunnel, and west through the Erie Cut-Bergen Arches to JFK Boulevard. What is unique about this strategy is that is builds on both abandoned railroad properties and on Jersey City’s status as a center for graffiti art of the highest caliber. By capitalizing on its graffiti heritage, Jersey City can attract tourists from around the world and establish itself as an international center of cutting-edge art.

This development strategy includes three park-garden areas: 1) Sixth Street Embankment, 2) River Line Walk, and 3) Erie Cut. A skate park is already being planned for the River Line Walk area. At full development the Erie Cut would have a series of small gardens in various national styles – Indian, Chinese, Spanish, etc. – and a conservatory linking the bottom of the cut to the street-level surface(Route 139). There would also be two modest museum complexes: 1) a graffiti museum at 12th and Monmouth, and 2) a railroad museum nearby at the Bergen Tunnel. These complexes would include restaurants and shops.

A thumbnail calculation indicates that these developments could bring new tourist revenue to the city in the amount $36 to $90 million (or more) annually. Other benefits include increased property values along the corridor and new businesses.
Crazy a way – where’s the quarter to half billion construction costs going to come from? – but not so crazy. It was a vision for the future, not a concrete plan. Visions work indirectly.

A couple years later I gave a copy of that report to Greg Edgell. Since then he and I, along with dozens of others, have been working on it in one way or another. We worked with June Jones (Morris Canal CDC) and skateboarders to get the city to agree to build a skate park, albeit in a different place from the one proposed in that report. More recently we started The Bergen Arches Project, which aims to complete another aspect of that proposal, and at a much lower cost.

The vision I projected in that report is thus coming to life. I wouldn’t have written it if I hadn’t spent two or three years working on the World Island project with Zeal.

Ideas have influences. Visions have consequences. Such is the way of the world.

The Whole Earth Catalog evolves

Sunday, October 14, 2018

How Science works

H/t Mark Liberman.

The latest tech: do it yourself mixed reality (thx Bryan)

Words, from "abysmal" to "incredible"

Optical Character Recognition for Japanese manuscript text

Saturday, October 13, 2018

In my first post (back in 2013) about the MacArthur Fellowships I quoted a 1997 New York Times article:
There are at least a few observers who question the very concept of the fellows program. Some of them, including Waldemar Nielsen, a consultant to foundations and a former foundation official, maintain that its primary job is to generate publicity for the foundation.
I went on to observe:
The late Waldemar Nielsen (he died in 2005) had directed major programs for the Ford Foundation, had been president of the African-American Institute, had written extensively about foundations, and “deemed them generally timid, inert and unimaginative”.

I don’t know what Nielsen was thinking that he made that remark, what his reasoning was, but I find it interesting and plausible. First, we need to remember that the MacArthur Foundation is a large foundation and that the fellows program is only one of its many programs, a relatively small one. In 2012 the foundation’s total budget was $212.2 million of which the fellows program was $11.8 million, or just under 6%. The program is small enough that the foundation can treat it as an overhead expense, as publicity if you will.
Of course, thing haven’t changed, how could they? The MacArthur Foundation currently notes:
In 2017, the Foundation paid out $255.7 million in grants and impact investments to organizations and individuals in the United States and around the world. Actual cash paid out varies from year to year and will differ from the amounts budgeted because of the timing of the payment of grants, including large grants and those involving multiyear funding. MacArthur's charitable administrative expenses totaled $49 million in 2017, about 14 percent of total charitable expenses.
The fellows program cost $13.8 million for 2017, which is about 5.4% of that $255.7 and is equal to 28% of administrative costs. We subtract it from the grants amount without affecting it very much, though it would make a noticeable increase in administrative expense if we were to add it there as overhead, increasing that amount by 28%. Which is probably not the thing to do from an accounting point of view, but that’s OK. The Foundation’s overhead remains relatively small.

My original point still holds:
The Fellows Program is small enough that we could easily treat it as publicity without much affect on the overall finances of the Foundation.
Let’s continue with that first post:
Note that Nielsen’s reading is plausible even if no one at the MacArthur Foundation asserts, believes, or even thinks that publicity is the point. It does generate publicity, lots of it. I’d guess the foundation gets more publicity for that program than for all of its other programs combined. How many people who know about the fellows program can name even one of the other programs? And, I would argue, it’s the publicity that keeps the process going. That publicity is the latent goal of the program, not its manifest goal, which is to fund exceptional individuals, to fund “geniuses”.

Now, let’s move beyond thinking of the program simply as publicity for the MacArthur Foundation itself. Surely some of that public relations glow accrues to The Elito-Meritocracy in general, to the whole network of individuals and institutions that coughs up this list [of Fellows] once a year. The list is produced in the name of The Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, but it validates the philanthropic activities of [the Elito-Meritocracy] as a whole simply because it’s the single most visible foundation program in the country. In rhetorical terms, it’s a synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole.

Think of the MacArthur Fellows Program as a tax imposed on this brash young foundation by the older and more established members of [philanthropic world].
Nielson was right two decades ago. The Fellows program is publicity stunt disguised as a grants program. And it generates publicity, not just for the MacArthur Foundation, for the whole philanthropic world and the elite one-percenters who fund it.

Today's lesson



Friday, October 12, 2018

Tesla exists to help reduce risk of catastrophic climate change,

Friday Fotos: Wonderland by Night [JC back to the future]

It's Jersey City day at new Savanna, so I'm bumping this to the top. It's from almost exactly four years ago.

a little night grass.jpg

commercial traffic prohibited.jpg

Night-Digging Monster




Precision and Recall in TALENT SEARCH [+ leads qualifying closing]

First, a quick review of yesterday’s post, TALENT SEARCH: Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing [#EmergentVentures]. Second, a remark about the relevance of measures of precision and recall in text retrieval are relevant to the problem.

Generating leads, qualifying them, closing the deal (LQC)

Yesterday I argued that sales and searching for talent are alike in that both involve the search through a large population for a few items. In the case of sales you’re looking to close deals, to find people who will buy what you’re selling. In the case of talent search you’re looking to find people who can do something you value, whatever that is.

Given that, I suggested we examine talent search through the lens of sales process: generating leads, qualifying them, closing the deal (LQC). I then explored this suggestion by considering three cases: 1) finding the best sprinters in a city. 2) finding the best athletes in a city, 3) finding “breakthrough individuals”, if you will, in any discipline in the United States (the MacArthur Fellows program). I ended with an exercise for the reader: Examine the Emergent Ventures program in these terms.

What emerged from this exercise, at least I think that’ what emerged (I’m still thinking about it), is that as the criterion for judging a winner becomes more complex and subtle the time and effort devoted to applying the criterion tends to take over the whole process (not quite how I stated it yesterday). In the first case (sprinters) we can all-but ignore judging in generating leads and use and quick proxy for qualification. There is no ‘real’ judging until closing (running them through heats) and the criterion for judgment is simple and straight-forward (best time over distance). In the second case (best athletes) we have a problem specifying the relevant population at the leads phase, proxy measures are more complex (requiring more skilled judges), and the criteria for final judgment (closing) are deeply problematic.

In the last case (MacArthur Fellows) more or less the full suite of judgment criteria are in play through the whole process. There really is no explicit process for generating leads, but we can think of it as being implicit in the choice of anonymous nominators for a given year. Those nominators then find candidates that they nominate to the foundation, supplying the foundation with preliminary information about them. The nominators applying their own criteria for “breakthrough individual” in making their selection and the foundation then devotes most of its efforts to applying the foundation’s current sense of things to the candidates.

If I were to undertake an economic analysis of this process, I’d want to know the proportion of search resources that are devoted to each of lead generation, qualifying candidates, and closing on winners in each of those three cases. In the case of the MacArthur Fellows program, I note that, in effect, the foundation devotes ALL of its resources to the applying judgment criteria in the closing phase. How does it manage this? They externalize the costs of generating leads and qualifying them: the nominators are not paid.

An exercise for the reader: How does Emergent Ventures distribute its resources over the phases of LQC?

Precision and recall in document search

What can library science contribute to thinking about this problem? A central problem goes like this: We have a large, even a VAST collection of documents. Users of the collection want to find documents relevant to some particular interest. What’s the most efficient way of doing this?

That’s the same problem we’ve seen in sales and in talent search: searching a large collection of items (documents or people) for a few items of interest.

In the old days, before computers, we had card catalogues. Card catalogues had scads of small narrow drawers filled with cards, each listing an individual document along with some basic information about that document, including its location in the library. Typically one would find catalogues where items are listed alphabetically by: 1) author (last) name, 2) title of the item, and 3) subject (according to some standard system). In our LQC model, think of the catalogue as a tool for generating leads. If you know a specific title or titles you are seeking, that knowledge serves to qualify items. The same with author names. You then consult the relevant catalogue drawers to close in on their locations in the library stacks. This kind of search is relatively efficient.

Chilltown 2.0: Is Jersey City Ready for the World Stage?

JC_Rising BPA 5
I'm feeling feisty. This is from five years ago & I'm bumping it to the top of the queue.
* * * * *

For one thing, with immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific, Jersey City is already ON the world stage. But is it ready to PLAY on the world stage, that’s the question?

The most obvious response is that the question is pointless. Jersey City is a mid-size city on the west bank of the Hudson River in the shadow of New York City. New York City, of course, is a major player on the world stage. But why should Jersey City aspire to be anything more than an appendage to New York City? And even if it aspires to be more, how could it do that?


Good questions, questions I’ll be thinking about in the coming days, weeks, and months. You should do so as well.

My basic conviction–and I’m just going to state it, not argue it–is that Jersey City’s long-term survival depends on it’s ability to actively take a role on the world stage.

In a recent column, I Want to Be Mayor, New York Times pundit Thomas Friedman argued that cities are where the action is:
In fact, if you want to be an optimist about America today, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up — from its major metropolitan areas — than from the top down. Washington is tied in knots by Republican-led hyperpartisanship, lobbyists and budget constraints. Ditto most state legislatures. So the great laboratories and engines of our economy are now our cities. This is the conclusion of an important new book by the Brookings Institution scholars Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, entitled: “The Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros Are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.” ...
exit from manhattan.jpg

Jersey City’s Mayor Steven Fulop agrees:
I really think that the opportunity today is not really at the federal level or even at the state level to make change. It’s really on the local level. You have all this gridlock at different levels of government and the most meaningful opportunity is at the local level,” Fulop said. “I saw Jersey City as a really special place that was under-achieving and a unique opportunity to really turn it into kind of the best mid-size city in the country.”
My point is that Jersey City can ONLY do that if it plays on the world stage. Returning to Friedman’s piece:
First, [Katz and Bradley] argue, the Great Recession blew up the deformed growth model we had settled into — one “that exalted consumption over production, speculation over investment, and waste over sustainability.” The new growth model ... focuses on creating networks that combine skilled laborers and knowledge workers, with universities and technical schools, with quality infrastructure and high-speed Internet, to do manufacturing, innovation, technology development and advanced services — with an eye to exporting all of them. That’s how we build a 21st-century middle class. “The best cities now understand that you need to a have a sector of your economy that is world class” in order to thrive, the authors argue.
What’s the world-class sector of Jersey City’s economy going to be?

That’s what we have to figure out.

* * * * *

As food for thought, look at these posts where I argue, in one way or another, the general point that the action is shifting away from (large) nation states and towards smaller regions: cities, municipalities, and small nations. And then there's my recent piece, Jersey City: A 21st Century Florence? Don't forget, back in the 15th Century, when Florence was on the rise, nations as we know them didn't exist. The action in Europe was in city-states. Finally, there's my report, Jersey City: From a Skate Park to the World, where I lay out a plan that will make Chilltown 2.0 a world destination.

misty morning graffs.jpg

Thursday, October 11, 2018



TALENT SEARCH: Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing [#EmergentVentures]

Generating leads, qualifying them, and closing the deal, what do they have to with finding talent? Aren’t they sales processes?

Same kind of process, I think. In any case, I want to see what, if anything, we can learn about searching for talent by thinking of it in sales terms. In both cases we’re looking through a relatively large population for a relatively small number of “deals”.

This is going to be quick and dirty. I’m keeping links and citations to a minimum. I want to get to the end as fast as I can.

I’m headed toward the MacArthur Fellows Program. But I’m not going to start there. I want to build up to it by stages, to establish a conceptual framework (LQC: leads, qualification, close) we can employ once we get there. Once we get there we’ll take a look at the new Emergent Ventures program by way of comparison.

Find the fastest sprinters in your town

Let’s start with a relatively simple talent search: Find the ten fastest sprinters in the town where you live. I live in Hoboken, NJ., though it doesn’t make much difference what the town is. We’re looking for broad-strokes principles, not details.

What’s a lead? For starters, let’s say anyone who can run. Once we’ve found a lead we have to qualify them: Is it worthwhile seeing how fast this person can run? If the answer is yes, they pass into the closing round and we run them through heats until we close on the top ten.

Assuming that we really do want the top ten fastest, the major problem we face in generating leads is making sure that we’ve searched the whole population. Hoboken is a city of 50,000 living in roughly 1.28 square miles. What we want is a list of the people living in Hoboken. The Census Bureau will have such a list, but it won’t be current, and even in those few years where it is more or less current, some people will not have been counted. Do we care? How much effort are we willing to exert to find the rest? You can answer those questions in what ever level of detail pleases you. All that interests me is raising the issue.

Now, how do we qualify a lead? I’ve said that anyone who can run is a potential lead. That’s a pretty low bar. We want a quick and easy way to eliminate a large majority of the population. If you look at me, for example, you’ll see that my hair is gray and that I’m fairly overweight. There’s no point in having me run heats. Can we eliminate, say, 95% of the population by a quick and crude perceptual test? What is it? Is there anything else we can do that’s quick, cheap, and reasonably accurate?

Once we’ve narrowed things down then, and only then, can we start running heats to close in on the best. I don’t know what’s the best (or at least a good) way to do that, but surely there are people who do.

Now, perhaps you’re thinking, this is stupid. There are already organized athletic programs in Hoboken. Use them.

Right, we should take advantage of them. What’s the best way to do that? Can we assume that, if we identify the ten fastest sprinters in those programs, we will have found the ten fastest sprinters in Hoboken? Why or why not? If not, how do we find the others? Hint, we’ve already been through that, no?

Find the ten best athletes

We’ll have the same three processes, generating leads, qualifying them, and closing on the best. But, within that framework, it’s a more difficult process.

Generating leads: Who’s an athlete? Of course, many people are athletes in several disciplines. That’s OK, though it brings its own problems. Anyone who participates in at least one discipline is a potential lead, but what disciplines count.

Does gold count? My father thought so, Tiger Woods thinks so. But a lot of people don’t. What about arm wrestling? Skate boarding? Base jumping? Ping-pong? Three cushion billiards? Shuffle-board? I assume we’re going to include team sports. Are there any “oddball” possibilities we have to consider? We have to define what activities count for the purposes of this competition. Or do we?

Given a possibly open-ended list of eligible disciplines, how do we qualify leads? The criteria will vary from discipline to discipline. In the case of team sports, do we qualify the team, or individuals? Do we need more sophisticated judges than we had for sprinting? More training?

Given a set of qualified leads, how do we close on the ten best athletes? What are the criteria of judgment for comparing, say, skateboarders with football line-backers? Where we can it seems like a good idea to look at peoples records. We’ll have such records for the high school football team, but not for the kids who frequent the skate park. The fact our search is confined to Hoboken means that we can use regional, national, and even international rankings where we have them. The fact that, say, a Hoboken diver is nationally ranked is important, as is playing on a state-wide soccer team.

My point is simple: Determining the top ten in this arena is much more difficult than in the case of sprinters.

Do the Most Important Artists Make the Most Expensive Paintings?

Galenson, David W., Do the Most Important Artists Make the Most Expensive Paintings? (October 2, 2018). University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2018-73. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3259208 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3259208.

Abstract: Art experts have disagreed about whether art markets accurately reflect artistic importance. This paper uses published surveys of art history to construct a critical ranking of the 30 most important American painters of the last century, then uses auction records to identify the most expensive paintings by these artists. The results show a strong positive association between critical rankings and auction prices: there is a high rank correlation between the critical ranking of artists and a ranking of the artists by their single highest auction price, and the top artists in the critical ranking are highly disproportionately represented among auction sales over $10 million, $30 million, and $50 million. Auction markets do recognize artistic importance: the greatest artists produce the most expensive paintings, and it is their most important works that sell for the highest prices.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

How do we know that climate change is real and happening now?

Glenn Loury (Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University) discusses climate change with Patrick T. Brown (Stanford University). Early on in the conversation Brown makes that point that climate models are simulations of physical processes, not statistical extensions of past activity into the future. Somewhat later in the conversation Glenn asks how we know climate change is implicated in the year to year changes in climate and weather events. 

Brown responds (c. 40:27):
Essentially the one degree [Celsius] of warming that we've seen so far has not caused any huge signals to emerge from the noise of natural variability when it comes to a lot of these weather events. So when it comes to global average temperature, like I said before, the signal to noise ratio is much larger. We basically see a hockey-stick. We see a situation where global average temperature is far outside the envelope of natural variability.

But when you start getting down to weather events like, say, hurricanes, or landfalling hurricanes, or most intense hurricanes, then you have a situation where there's decade to decade variability and year to year variability. And that variability so far is larger than any climate change signal.

So you don't see any long-term huge trends. But the models that project increases in hurricane activity, they tell us that we shouldn't see the trend yet. So they're not yet being proved wrong. They accurately simulate this year to year variability and this decade to decade variability. They say the signal will emerge from the noise later in the century. But it shouldn't be observable yet necessarily.

You know what I need to day? Flowers, that's what I need.


Walter Murch on Collective Creativity [TALENT SEARCH]

When I decided that this week would be Talent Search Week I was hoping to have a new article for today. But I've gotten broadsided by other matters and have spent most of the day  putting out fires.  So I've decided to bump this up to the top of the queue. Walter Murch has won three Oscars, one for sound on Apocalypse Now and two for The English Patient, sound and editing.
Two summers ago I was working on a series of posts about Apocalypse Now. One day I got an email from one Walter Murch, a man I did not know. But I knew the name.

Could it be him?

The Walter Murch I was thinking of had gone to Johns Hopkins a couple of years before I had and, like me, had associated himself with Professor Richard Macksey. When this Walter Murch left Hopkins he went West and ended up in the film business, where he’d worked on a number of important films, including Apocalypse Now, for which he won an Academy Award (aka an Oscar) for sound.

Was this that Walter Murch? Yes, it was, and he liked what I was saying about Apocalypse Now. Since then we’ve carried on a casual and sporadic email correspondence.

Most recently we’ve been talking about the collective nature of movie making. By convention overall creative responsibility for a film is credited to the director, and for sufficient reason. The problem is, however, that our basic cultural model of creativity is one of individual creativity, and that does not do justice to any number of activities, from scientific laboratories, through basketball teams and ballet companies, the founding team of a high-tech start-up and, yes, a motion-picture production ensemble.

Walter sent me a passage from a 1994 journal entry:
Reading Penrose - the fact that billiards, which is the game usually given as an example of mechanical physics in deterministic practice, is not immune to vanishingly small initial conditions for the outcome of complex sequences • A line of 20 balls may be arranged in a zigzag such that each will hit the next in sequence when tapped by the cue ball. But exactly where the last ball will wind up after it is hit is subject to something as small as an intake of breath in the neighboring town. If there are 26 balls, a molecular disturbance in some neighboring galaxy will influence the outcome • Reminds me of my 'magic light' hypothesis of film: that film is the sensitive receptacle of everything that happens during the filming - what the assistant electrician had for breakfast, etc. - caught somehow, invisibly, in the amber of celluloid. In the future, people will be able to see this complex of interactions directly by shining a special ‘light’ through the film. It will look like some 5-dimensional moiré pattern, endlessly shifting, endlessly fascinating.
By Penrose I assume he meant Roger Penrose, a mathematician who had published a number of general interest books in the 1990s. You can find images of moiré patterns all over the place on the internet, or you can look below for some simple examples I ran up on my “classic” Mac back in 1985 or 86:

moire demo

Walter then went on to comment on his old journal entry:
What I meant by "Magic Light" is the discovery of some new force (Force 5) of nature, which has been with us all along but of which we are presently as ignorant as Newton was of electromagnetism. Using this new “force” as a beam, these hypothetical people of the future will transect our films and see - not the images which we see - but some fascinating interaction of all the people who worked on the film, in all its unexpected contingency, and this will be much more satisfying (to them) than the film itself. And it will be a wonder, to those future people, that we could accomplish this filmmaking without any knowledge of “Force 5”, which will be as crucial to them in their society as electromagnetism is to us today. As wondrous as is the construction of Gothic cathedrals to us today: we can hardly believe that our ancestors achieved these miracles with only human and (literal) horse power, and with no engineering textbooks.
And you could add: Duke Ellington and Shakespeare and the Egyptian Pyramids and many other things to this list.
Combining these two passages we get a sense of a film as a very compact “distillation“ of the diverse events surrounding and accompanying it. One might hazard the word “essence” but I fear it has too much of the wrong baggage associated with it. I’m a bit reminded of the JPEG compression for still images and the MPEG compression for video images. You “squeeze out” the redundancy and get a much more compact encapsulation of the information. Then, at playback, the redundancy is added back in and you see the full photograph or video image.

Walter goes on:
I think part of the mystery is that occasionally there is a balance of forces - what Koestler called the autonomy of the part and the wisdom of the whole - where the “part” (whatever it is) makes autonomous decisions that would be impossible for the theoretically guiding force (whatever that may be) to make. And that these decisions miraculously further the higher goal of the “organism” (Duke Ellington's sound, for instance: Duke did not have to tell each of his musicians exactly what to do at every moment) Similarly, if everything that is done on a film had to be expressed in “machine code” (e.g. “turn thirty degrees to the left and cock your right eyebrow”) the film would never get off the ground. People talk about this happening in sports, in battle, in every communal undertaking in fact. It is the human equivalent of the miraculous (to us) ability of fishes and birds to swim/fly in formation and all turn, repeatedly, at exactly the same moment, as if the school/flock were a single organism.
And when we've understood –mathematically, neurally–the nature of that coupling that makes of many ONE, then we will be on the threshold of a deeper understanding of  not only OUR nature, but perhaps of life itself.

Some time ago I read an interview with Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, who talked about how he and his colleagues in the executive suite could communicate in “code.” Through years of working together they could speak volumes in very terse ways because their shared experience gave them, well, a code that was meaningful among them but not necessarily to anyone else.

Yes, there are lone creative “geniuses” but I suspect there are fewer of those than we imagine. Creativity needs community and communities breed creativity, or can do so under the right circumstances. We have only just begun to understand such matters.

How humans evolved, a new story

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The view from here


Five Extraordinarily Creative Communities, But Maybe Six [TALENT SEARCH]

I'm bumping this to the top for Talent Search Week. Here I look at some creative communities, for, often as not (more often?), genius thrives among genius. And genius can only spread among friends and allies. This is about to be added to, The Genius Chronicles: Going Boldly Where None Have Gone Before? to give us Version 7, which you may download here: 

* * * * *

Shakespeare, Ellington, Disney, Apocalypse Now, English at SUNY Buffalo, Mana Contemporary (?)

I was thinking about Apocalypse Now, an extraordinary film, as I often do. But not about the film itself, rather about how it was made, the production spread halfway across the Western Hemisphere (Hollywood to the Philippines), several years, a typhoon, a heart attack, and miles and miles of footage – well, not miles and miles, but you get the idea. Basically, Coppola was riding herd on a small town of talented people devoted to making this one film.

From there my mind drifted to the Department of English at SUNY Buffalo in its glory years, then to Duke Ellington, Shakespeare, and Disney – the glory years of the five early features, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Extraordinarily creative communities all, organized at different times and places and to different ends. Now there’s Mana Contemporary, right here in my own backyard, a unique for-profit non-profit art complex on the West Side of Jersey City. In this context it’s a question mark: Will it spawn an extraordinarily creative community??

Let’s start with Ellington and work our way through the list and back to Mana.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington was an American composer and bandleader whose career spanned the middle half of the 20th Century. During the latter part of that period he maintained his band at a financial loss. It was his instrument and he needed it as such; by that time his royalty income was sufficient to cover his costs.

First, Ellington did not write music in the abstract. He wrote specifically for the personnel in his band at the time. When the personnel changed, he changed the arrangements if needed. The band’s roster was unusually stable. Harry Carney, his baritone sax player, stayed with him for his entire career. Other key musicians had long tenures – Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart on trumpet; Juan Tizol and Sam Nanton on trombone; Sam Woodyard on drums; Paul Gonsalves, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard on woodwinds, and many others. And then there’s his alter ego, Billy Strayhorn, who contributed much of the band’s repertoire – including its theme song, “Take the A Train” – once he joined up in 1939.

Ellington was open to ideas from his men. Many of the lines and riffs, not to mention a tune or three, in his music came from them. So many, in fact, that when Lincoln Collier published his Ellington biography in 1987 he decided to cast doubt on Duke’s genius because of that. He was right to emphasize Ellington’s permeability to ideas from those very talented musicians he gathered specifically for that reason, but as for genius, who knows what THAT is, anyhow? Keeping those folks together and pointed in the same direction was no small task. Surely we must give Ellington credit for having the good taste needed to dream it up, and for having the wile and guile needed to pull it off.

The fact is we have been so besotted with the Romantic idea of the genius as a solitary creative figure pissing in the wind of stale bourgeois conformity that we have no effective way of talking about how people work together in groups. And that’s what Ellington’s band was, a very creative group, with Ellington as cat-herder in chief and front man.

William Shakespeare

And I’ll bet Shakespeare was much the same. Of course we don’t know much about the man, so little in fact that nominating others for the honor of having written those plays has been a minor academic sport for over a century. But, like Ellington, he didn’t write in a vacuum, he didn’t write for some distant audience. He wrote for a specific company, his company. He knew who would speak those lines, what resources of gait, gesture and posture, of facial expression and vocal nuance – a raise of the brow, the twitch of a lip, a stutter coughed up on the fly – they commanded. Did they suggest lines to him? I wouldn’t be surprised. Did he accept their suggestions? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Did they get pissed-off at him for hogging the credit? I suppose, but they’re the ones who took the bows, no?

Just as we know little about the man, we know little about the process by which his plays came to be published in the form we have them – two different sets of texts, most plays in two different versions, some with significant differences between the two versions. Were they based strictly on Shakespeare’s original scripts or did they reflect improvisations and inspirations that happened in performance? We don’t know. But I rather suspect that Shakespeare’s working methods were more like Ellington’s than our prejudices in these matters can accommodate.

So, Ellington and Shakespeare, individual men who surrounded themselves with bands of brothers, channeling and shaping their creativity so they spoke with one voice.



Cross cultural expression of pain and pleasure

Chaona Chen, Carlos Crivelli, Oliver G. B. Garrod, Philippe G. Schyns, José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, and Rachael E. Jack, Distinct facial expressions represent pain and pleasure across cultures, PNAS published ahead of print October 8, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807862115.


Humans often use facial expressions to communicate social messages. However, observational studies report that people experiencing pain or orgasm produce facial expressions that are indistinguishable, which questions their role as an effective tool for communication. Here, we investigate this counterintuitive finding using a new data-driven approach to model the mental representations of facial expressions of pain and orgasm in individuals from two different cultures. Using complementary analyses, we show that representations of pain and orgasm are distinct in each culture. We also show that pain is represented with similar face movements across cultures, whereas orgasm shows differences. Our findings therefore inform understanding of the possible communicative role of facial expressions of pain and orgasm, and how culture could shape their representation.


Real-world studies show that the facial expressions produced during pain and orgasm—two different and intense affective experiences—are virtually indistinguishable. However, this finding is counterintuitive, because facial expressions are widely considered to be a powerful tool for social interaction. Consequently, debate continues as to whether the facial expressions of these extreme positive and negative affective states serve a communicative function. Here, we address this debate from a novel angle by modeling the mental representations of dynamic facial expressions of pain and orgasm in 40 observers in each of two cultures (Western, East Asian) using a data-driven method. Using a complementary approach of machine learning, an information-theoretic analysis, and a human perceptual discrimination task, we show that mental representations of pain and orgasm are physically and perceptually distinct in each culture. Cross-cultural comparisons also revealed that pain is represented by similar face movements across cultures, whereas orgasm showed distinct cultural accents. Together, our data show that mental representations of the facial expressions of pain and orgasm are distinct, which questions their nondiagnosticity and instead suggests they could be used for communicative purposes. Our results also highlight the potential role of cultural and perceptual factors in shaping the mental representation of these facial expressions. We discuss new research directions to further explore their relationship to the production of facial expressions.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Can you get rich, and do good, by giving away 50% of your top line revenue?

I was looking through the archives and WHAM! this jumped out at me. On point for TALENT SEARCH WEEK at New Savanna. Crazy? I suppose so. But we need this kind of crazy right now.
Sometime last year – late Summer or early Fall – my friend Zeal handed me a roll of papers, telling me it was the business plan for the World Tourism Foundation & World Tourism Network (alas, the link is now dead). It was the darnedest business plan I’d ever seen, large-format pages (perhaps 18 inches by 24 inches), lots of prose in columns and boxes, boxes connected by arrows so they looked like flow charts, but nowhere an executive summary. Looked like I’d have to go through the whole thing just to get a flavor for it.

I was not a happy camper. But Zeal wanted me to do read through it. So I scratched my head, rolled up my sleeves, and unrolled the WTF/WTN business plan.

It turned out to be crazy, but also freakin’ brilliant. So I ended up helping the founders of the WTF/WTN, [the late] Ed Beauchamp and C. J. Duffy, write an executive summary for their plan. The general idea is to give travel intermediaries, such as Expedia and Orbitz, some serious competition while making a healthy profit and goosing the world-wide tourist industry. The key to the whole plan is to take 50% off the top-line revenue and put it into a non-profit foundation – the World Tourism Foundation.

Whoa there, son! You said 50% off the top? They’re going to give it away? There’s no profit in that, no sir!

That’s what I said, 50% off the top. My reaction was like yours at first. I didn’t believe it. Sure, I saw the numbers in the business plan . . .

Now, son, I’ve seen lots of business plans. Everyone knows those numbers aren’t real. Why . . .

I know, I know. Those pro forma financials aren’t about predicting the future. They’re there to show that the entrepreneur can add, subtract, multiply, and divide and that they know what a profitable business looks like on paper. If you can’t show a profit when you’re allowed to make the numbers up, you sure as heck aren’t going to show a profit when reality has a say in the numbers.

As I was sayin’, 50% off the top. To understand why that works you have to understand a thing or two about the intermediary segment of travel business. First, advertising costs are high. Beauchamp tells me that Expedia, for example, spent 44% of their revenue on advertising in 2006 on advertising and 34% in 2009. What if you could drop that to zero?

What, no advertising! Are you nuts, son? Are you outa’ your ever lovin’ mind?

Hold on old man, hold on. We’ll get there in a minute. A few more facts. Here’s what Beauchamp tells me about the deals Expedia cuts with suppliers (airlines, hotels, etc.):

I’ve decided that it’s TALENT SEARCH week at New Savanna

that decorator touch.jpg

I’m slated to post another column at 3 Quarks Daily this coming Monday, October 15. Over the weekend I decided that I would devote it to the MacArthur Fellows program, and perhaps more generally to the problem of identifying talented people. So I yesterday I downloaded the foundation’s summary of the 2012-2013 review of the program and looked through it today and sat down to write up some notes toward that up-coming column.

As you may know, I’ve already given this a bit of thought starting in 2013 and ongoing. Back then I started with the simple thought that they could improve the program by not giving any fellowships to people with tenure at elite universities – which I explained at some length over the years, most recently here. So I decided that I’d do a bit of digging in a different direction for that upcoming 3QD piece.

And you know what? It’s tough! It really is. So I’ve decided to write some post each day this week toward that end. I’m not going to go for polished in these preliminaries, quick, rude, and crude will do. Thinking out loud.

And I may throw in a few words about a new, and somewhat smaller, talent search, the Emergent Ventures program just announced by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This is a much smaller program, with no track record to speak of, thought it’s already given out two awards. And one of them sure looks like a winner to me:

What’s not to like? You know I’m all over graffiti here at New Savanna, and I’m interested in machine learning as well.

And you know what, I might as well take another look at Zeal’s World Island project. And Sabine Hossenfelder’s been calling out theoretical physics for being out to lunch. I might as well work her into the mix. Maybe I’ll give a shout out to Charlie Keil. [Zeal: Yeah, I know, interesting name, he picked it himself.]

Who knows what other mischief I’ll get up to.


Oh, PS and for the record, what got me stumped as I was thinking about this was getting more precise, moving to the next layer of detail, about just why I thought that the Fellows program would improve by cutting out tenured faculty at elite schools. Moving to that next layer of detail, that’s going to be tough. I mean, maybe that’ll require a 10-fold expansion or more, plus call on expertise that I don’t have.


We do it all for you



What’s it mean, this nursery rhyme with the diddle fiddle moon spoon?


You know, of course, that that’s (meaning) not quite what I’m after. It’s not that I don’t do meaning at all, but I tend to treat meaning as secondary. Form and construction, that’s my game. Still, meaning is what literary criticism is about – and this IS a literary text, albeit one of modest scope and wide renown and dating back at least to the sixteenth century (Wikipedia) – so let’s start there.

A minimal reading

Let’s start with what Attridge and Staton call a minimal reading (The Craft of Poetry, 2015). Set aside symbolic and hidden meanings. What’s this poem conjure up before the mind’s eyes and ears?
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
The first line consists of the exclamation, “hey”, which is often used as a greeting, followed by two repetitions of “diddle”. What’s “diddle” mean? That’s tricky. According to the Oxford online dictionary it can mean cheat or swindle, but that requires an object. It can also mean “pass time aimlessly or unproductively”, but that’s North American usage, and we’ve got an earlier version of this rhyme 1765 in London (Wikipedia). It is also slang for “have intercourse with”, but that requires an object. Fortunately the Wiktionary tells us that it can also be “a meaningless word used when singing a tune or indicating a rhythm.” Bingo! That’s what I thought.

So, our first line would seem to be just a greeting. To whom? No one is references. Perhaps to anyone listening.

On the second line, why the cat and the fiddle? My first thought was that fiddles are strung with catgut. Which is true, but apparently catgut in that sense doesn’t come from cats; it’s generally made from sheep or goat intestines (Wikipedia). “Cat and Fiddle” is also a common name for inns and is a common image in early medieval illuminated manuscripts (Wikipedia). But why? My best guess would be that unskilled fiddle playing sounds a bit like meowing. Let’s go with that.

But how do we get from the first line to the second, what’s the connection? Well, yes, there’s the rhyme, but that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just, you know, sound.

And where’d the cow and the moon come from in the third line? And what’s the literal meaning? Are we being asked to imagine a cow jumping a quarter million miles into space, rounding the moon, and returning back to earth? I suppose we could note that the image was in use a long time before anyone knew the distance, but even when they didn’t know the distance they knew perfectly well that the moon was so far away that no cow could possibly jump that high.

On the other hand, one can imagine that if you were very close to the ground while the moon was low in the sky, well then it’s just barely conceivable that an energetic and athletic cow might appear to rise above the moon in a mad dash of some sort. That’s certainly the kind of visual image the line conjures up (though without the mad dash) and that’s what you (more or less) see if you google “cow jumped over the moon” and look at the images. Moreover the fourth and fifth lines inform us that a little dog (therefore low to the ground) got a chuckle out seeing that, that is, a cow over the moon.

So, that’s what it is. I don’t see that pose any particular problems – yeah! a laughing dog, right – which leaves us with the last line. It’s perfectly straight forward. One can imagine it easily enough – the folks who made animated cartoons for the rhyme certainly did. It just doesn’t make any sense. Dishes and spoons are inanimate objects. They can’t run anywhere, either alone or together. To assert as much is to make a category mistake. Dishes and spoons can’t run and ideas can’t be green, much less colorless green, nor can they sleep, much less sleep furiously.

So, what have we got? The opening line greets someone and the marks time for four syllables. Then we have a cat and a fiddle, together, perhaps screeching in (dis)harmony. What that has to do with the delicious image of a cow jumping over the moon, I surely don’t know. But the dog thought it was funny enough. Perhaps the moon was a distraction so the dish and the spoon could run off without being observed by the dog.

Perhaps they’re running off to, you know, canoodle, perhaps as a prelude to diddling, in the vulgar sense. But this is a nursery rhyme, though there’s no reason a nursery rhyme can’t have meaning for the nurse that’s invisible to the child. But we’re looking for a minimal reading here, and that rules out hidden meanings.

On the resistance to literature

Dizzy Gillespie on the origins of bebop, heard Stravinsky in Fantasia

Once again Twitter comes through. I saw this tweet and linked on over to check out the interviews.

There they were, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes, Thelonious Monk...Wait! Dizzy Gillespie? He’s my man.

So I checked it out (at 3 in the effing AM). Started off with his early career, playing with Teddy Hill, admiration for Roy Eldridge, Rex Stewart, Sweets Edison. The night Rex played so beautifully it made Roy cry. Stuff like that.

And then at about 11:32 Kidd asked about the origins of bebop.

* * * * *

David Kidd: How did you devise your bop style?

Dizzy Gillespie: Who knows? (laughs) I don’t.

DK: You and Charlie Parker are definitely the ones that invented or started the modern trend in jazz. And it’s so completely removed from what happened before, that as Marshall [Stearns] said when we first heard it we didn’t know what was happening. I mean people said that there was wrong notes and a everything else, but now that our ears are attuned to it we know that they’re not wrong notes. Did you study classical harmonies or something to get those..

DG: Oh, no no. I know very little about classical music. I was reading in some magazine that Charlie was familiar with Hindemith and Bartok and all those guys. But actually I don’t know one from the other. All I know, let’s see, I know The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. I know when I hear it, when it begins, you know that part with, uh. One of the reasons that I know that is I saw the picture Fantasia, Fantasia [different pronunciation], whatever it is, and I saw the birds and the thing fly and the horses fly with it and I remember the music along with it.

Note: Diz is conflating at least two episodes in the film. There were pterodactyls in The Rite of Spring episode, but no birds. Perhaps that’s what Diz was referring to. There were no flying horses either. They were in The Pastoral Symphony episode.

DK: Well so many of these modern musicians today depend upon classical training so much for modern sounds and yet your sound has very modern intricate chord structures and everything else. You must have heard even though you didn’t, uh, weren’t aware of specific things, because you created the most marvelous original jazz form all by yourself, practically.

DG: Oh, no no nobody creates anything by himself.

DK: Well maybe that elements [?] showed up first in you but nevertheless...

DG: Nobody takes anything out of the air and just get it, just walk of to the air and say “OK here I got something different.” It has evolved from something. I think.

DK: OK. I’ll buy that, but I give you a lot of credit.

DG: [garbled] invented the electric light bulb, he must have had some kind of an experience of something that helped him, some kind of an experience that put him on that track. You just don’t get it out of the air.

DK: That’s right. I agree with you on that. Nevertheless it showed up first in you and I personally give you a lot of credit for it.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Behold! Through the trees, a city rises


Cultural Evolution and Human Progress

This is an old one, from the early days of New Savanna, April 21, 2010. I'm bumping it to the top because, 1) Steven Pinker has, for better or worse, given the idea of progress new life, and 2) the recent creation of the Cultural Evolution Society has given that topic new life as well. It is my guess, however, that many members of that society are likely to have no truck with the idea of progress, but some may. Who knows?
Thank you Robert Wright.
Why am I thanking Robert Wright? Because he wrote Nonzero, a book that unambiguously says that we, humankind, have advanced since the early days when we were little more than clever apes who’d figured out how to talk. We’ve made progress. No less a figure that Bill Clinton has praised the book (YouTube video clip) – yeah, I know, he’s not a scholar, but he’s smart, which  counts for A LOT at his level of smart.

Now, you may have thought, “But isn’t progress obvious?” The answer: not quite. The terrible wars of the 20th Century have, for some, taken the shine off any notion of progress. And then there’s the ethnocentric and racist underpinnings of 19th century notions of progress, in which the lifeways of upper-class Europe are the pinnacle toward which humankind has been evolving lo these many centuries. Is this so-obvious progress real, or just cultural narcissism?

Nonzero argues that the progress is real and has occurred because ever more sophisticated forms of social organization have increased the “density” (not Wright’s word) of cooperative relationships among people, and thus allowed more people to live better lives. I believe Wright is correct and that human progress has been real. Since the late 1970s I have worked with the late David Hays to articulate a model of cultural evolution that explicates the psycho-cultural terms of that progress. Our audience, however, has been largely academic and, thus, largely deaf to our work. They don’t want to hear it. Wright has put an argument before the larger intellectual culture, and it is for that that I thank him.

But, if progress is still anathema in the academy, the notion of cultural evolution itself is not. Inspired by the neo-Darwinian revival, a number of thinkers have been writing about cultural selection, memes, gene-culture coevolution, and such things (see Tim Lewens’ article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for an overview.) And these thinkers have avoided any intimation of progress, any notion that culture is evolving in some direction.

I understand the caution, but I don’t sympathize with it. These thinkers are wrong to be so cautious; they’re missing the big picture. Direction doesn’t imply a director, nor does it imply some ultimate telos or goal (though Wright is confused on this point). It only implies that there’s no more room at the bottom (I forget who coined that phrase), that culture becomes more complex and sophisticated through bootstrapping. With its infinite capacities and cleverness the human mind can always invent something new by reconfiguring the old and the already-existing. When you’ve done that, you can move up and over.

But . . . enough of that. The story is a rich and complicated one, more than I can cram into a single post. All I want to do now is put the issue on the table, that human culture is evolutionary, and that it has, over the long haul, progressed. Further progress is not, however, inevitable. That’s why it is so important that we gain a deeper understanding of what has already happened. This will be one of my central concerns at New Savanna.

* * * * *

David Hays and I have written extensively on cultural evolution. One of Dave’s former students, Paul Kelly, hosts a website where you can read many of our papers (some of those papers are available in downloadable versions here). You can start with this brief introduction, “Mind-Culture Coevolution,” then move on to our central paper, “The Evolution of Cognition” (read online or download the PDF). For a brief statement of directedness, read “A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity” (read online or download the PDF). If you’re interested in politics and government, I recommend “Politics, Cognition, and Personality,” which is the fifth chapter in Hays’ The Evolution of Technology through Four Cognitive Ranks (which is available only online, though you can print the files to PDFs). If you want to immerse yourself in the literature on cultural complexity (which is where Wright got started in Nonzero), read Hays’ review and synthesis of the relevant anthropological, archaeological, and historical literature, The Measurement of Cultural Evolution in the Non-Literate World.

Finally, I’m gearing up for an online discussion on cultural evolution and so I’ll be workshopping some ideas both here and at The Valve. The discussion is being hosted by the National Humanities Center and will start on July 5, 2010, in the Forum at On the Human.

Addendum, October 7, 2018: You can now download that paper, Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities. Here are some accompanying background notes, The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center (Version 2).