Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard: Bolton on Iran must be shut down

Yeah, I know it may be creepy. But it's life, or death. Whatever. A cemetary. With a touch of red / life?

Some thoughts about Wikipedia

I subscribe to a listserve devoted to the digital humanities. Recently another subscriber asked us for our thoughts about Wikipedia. Here's my response.

* * * * *

I’ve got three core comments on Wikipedia: 1) I’ve been using it happily for years and am, for the most part, satisfied. 2) I think it’s important to note that it covers a much wider range of topics than traditional encyclopedias. 3) If I were teaching, I would probably have graduate students, and perhaps advanced undergraduates as well, involved in editing Wikipedia.

On the first point, Wikipedia is my default reference work on a wide range or topics (though not philosophy, where I first go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This seems to be the case for many people. Depending on what I’m interested in at the moment I may consult other sources as well, some referenced in a Wikipedia article, others from a general search. I have seen Wikipedia used a source in scholarly publications that have been peer reviewed though I don’t know, off hand, whether or not I’ve done so in any of my publications in the academic literature. But I certainly reference Wikipedia in my blog posts and in the working papers derived from them.

Depending on this and that I may consult the “Talk” page for an article and/or its edit history as well, the former more likely than the latter. For example, I have a particular interest in computational linguistics. Wikipedia has an entry for computational linguistics, but also one for natural language processing (NLP). The last time I checked (several months ago) the “Talk” pages for both articles raised the issue of the relationship between the two articles. Should they in fact be consolidated into one article or is it best to leave them as two? How do we handle the historical relationship between the two? I have no particular opinion on that issue, but I can see that it’s an important issue. Sophisticated users of Wikipedia need to know that such issues exist. Such issues also exist in more traditional reference works, but there’s no way to know about them as there is no way to “look under the hood”, so to speak, to see how the entry came about.

I’ve written one Wikipedia entry from scratch, the one for David G. Hays, the computational linguist. I hesitated about writing the article as I’m a student of his and so can hardly claim to be an unbiased source. But, he was an important figure in the development of the discipline and there was no article about him. So I wrote one. I did that several years ago and so far no one has questioned the article (I haven’t checked it in a month or three). Now maybe that’s an indication that I did a good job, but I figure it’s just as likely an indication that few people are interested in the biography of a dead founder of a rapidly changing technical subject.

I also helped the late Tim Perper on some articles about manga and anime – pervasive in Japanese popular culture and important in the wider world as well. In particular, I’m thinking about the main entry for manga. Tim was an expert on manga, the sort of person you’d want to write the main article. Manga, however, is the kind of topic that attractions legions of enthusiastic fans and, alas, enthusiasm is not an adequate substitute for intellectual sophistication and wide-ranging knowledge and experience. So I got to see a bit of what’s sometimes called “edit wars” in Wikipedia. In this case it was more like edit skirmishes. But it was annoying.

After all, anyone can become an editor at Wikipedia; there’s no a priori test of knowledge. You just create an account and go to work on entries that interest you. An enthusiastic fan can question and countermand the judgement of an expert (like Tim Perper). If editing disputes become bad enough there are mechanisms for adjudicating them, though I don’t know how good they are. For all I know the current entries for, say, Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are current battle grounds. Maybe they’re on lockdown because the fighting over the entries had been so intense. Or maybe everyone with a strong interest in those entries is in agreement. (Ha!)

On the second issue, breadth of coverage, would a traditional encyclopedia have an entry for manga? At this point, mostly likely yes (I don’t really know as I don’t consult traditional reference works any more, except for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). But not only does Wikipedia have an entry for manga, but it has entries for various genres of manga, important creators, and important titles. The same for anime. And film. And TV.

At the moment I’m watching “Battlestar Galactica” (the new millennium remake) and “Friday Night Lights”, two very different TV series that are available for streaming. “Galactica” has a large fan base and en extensive set of Wikipedia articles which includes a substantial entry for each episode in the four-year run as well as entries for the series as a whole, an entry that covers the characters, and one that covers the space craft. There may be more entries as well. Judging from Wikipedia entries, the fan base for “Friday Night Lights” is not so large. There is an entry for each season (of four), but not entries for individual episodes. But, just as the entry for the newer version of “Battlestar Galactica” links back to the original series (from the previous millennium), so the entry for “Friday Night Lights” links back to the movie and to the book on which the movie is based.

Beyond this, I note that I watch A LOT of streaming video, both movies and TV. And I frequently consult Wikipedia and other online resources. One observation I have is that plot summaries vary from very good to not very reliable. Writing good plot summaries is not easy. It may not require original thinking, but still, it’s not easy. This is particularly true when you’re dealing with an episode in an ongoing series that follows two or three strands of action. When you write the summary, do you summarize each strand of action in a single ‘lump’ or do you interleave the strands in the say they are presented in the episode? Off hand I’d prefer to see the latter, but I don’t know what I’d think if I actually got that – nor have I kept notes on just how it’s done in case after case after case (I’ve followed 10s of them in the past decade or so).

Which brings me to the third point, if I were still teaching I’d involve students in editing Wikipedia. I know that others have done this, I’m thinking in particular of feminists who are concerned about entries for women, though, alas, I can offer no citations. Still, I’m thinking that writing plot summaries for this that or the other would be a useful thing to do, and something within the capacities of graduate students and advanced undergraduates. Not only could they do it, but doing it would be a good way of teaching them to focus on just what happens in a story. But how would you do it?

For example, I’d like to see plot summaries for each episode of “Friday Night Lights”. What kind of course would provide a rationale for doing that? Obviously a course devoted to the series. Would I want to teach such a course? I don’t know. At the moment I’ve finished watching the first of four seasons; that’s 22 episodes. I find it hard to justify teaching a course, at whatever level, devoted entirely to that series, though I have no trouble imagining a detailed discussion of each episode. But how do you discuss some 80 or 90 episodes of one TV series in a course with, say, 12 to 30 sessions? Does that make any kind of sense at all? And you can repeat the question for any number of TV series, anime series, whatever?

What about the Harry Potter novels, or Stephen King? Of course, one can dismiss these materials as mere popular culture. I’m not sure that is wise.

There’s some kind of opportunity here, but I’m not at all sure of what it is, in detail.

"Everything is subjective? – Really? Do we want to do down that rabbit hole?

No, I don't think we do, though it's all to 'ready at hand' for many humanists.

One thing we should do is read John Searle on objectivity and subjectivity. Alas, that's likely to make things a bit complicated. But the issue is an important one, so we should be willing to shoulder the complexity. See, e.g., these posts:

Monday, January 14, 2019

Some interesting throw-ups that no longer exist because the "canvas" on which thye've been painted has been demolished [Jersey City]

On the primacy of music

As chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (2003–2009), he created the largest programs in the endowment’s history, several of which, including the Big Read, Operation Homecoming, and Poetry Out Loud, continue as major presences in American cultural life. For many years, Gioia served on Image’s editorial advisory board, and he has been a guest lecturer for the Seattle Pacific University MFA program in creative writing. In 2010 he won the prestigious Laetare Medal from Notre Dame. Last year, he was appointed the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California—his first regular teaching post.
What he says about music:
Image: I once heard you say that if you could only have one art form, it would be music. Why?

Dana Gioia: I could give you reasons, but that would suggest that my response is rational. It isn’t. My choice of music is simply a deep emotional preference. I like the physicality of music. It is a strange art—not only profoundly beautiful, but also communal, portable, invisible, and repeatable. Its most common form is song, a universal human art that also includes poetry.

Image: As a young man, you intended to be a composer. What led to your discovery of poetry as your vocation?

DG: I started taking piano lessons at six, and I eventually also learned to play the clarinet and saxophone. During my teenage years, music was my ruling passion. At nineteen I went to Vienna to study music and German. But living abroad for the first time, I changed direction. I reluctantly realized that I lacked the passion to be a truly fine composer. I was also out of sympathy with the dull and academic twelve-tone aesthetic then still dominant. Meanwhile, I became fascinated with poetry. I found myself spending most of my time reading and writing. Poetry chose me. I couldn’t resist it.

Image: What does it mean to be a poet in a post-literate world? Or to be a librettist in an age where opera is a struggling art form?

DG: It doesn’t bother me much. I wasn’t drawn to poetry or opera because of their popularity. It was their beauty and excitement that drew me. Of course, I would like these arts to have larger audiences, but the value of an art isn’t in the size of its audience. It’s in the truth and splendor of its existence.

All that being said, let me observe that a post-print world is not a bad place for poetry. Poetry is an art that predates writing. It’s essentially an auditory art. A poet today has the potential to speak directly to an audience—through public readings, radio broadcasts, recordings, and the internet. Most people may not want to read poetry, but they do like to hear good poems recited well. I’ve always written mostly for the ear, and I find large and responsive audiences all over the country. The current cultural situation is tough on novelists and critics, but it isn’t all that bad for poets.

Image: Duke Ellington objected to his music being labeled jazz, since he just considered it music. This led me to wonder if you are bothered by the term “New Formalism” being applied to your poetry.

DG: I have never liked the term “New Formalism.” It was coined in the 1980s as a criticism of the new poetry being written by younger poets that employed rhyme, meter, and narrative. I understand the necessity of labels in a crowded and complex culture, but labels always entail an element of simplification, especially when the terms offer an easy dichotomy.

I have always written both in form and free verse. It seems self-evident to me that a poet should be free to use whatever techniques the poem demands. My work falls almost evenly into thirds—one third of it is written in free verse, one third in rhyme and meter, and one third in meter without rhyme. I do believe that all good art is in some sense formal. Every element in a work of art should contribute to its overall expressive effect. That is what form means. Whether the form is regular or irregular, symmetrical or asymmetrical is merely a means of achieving the necessary integrity of the work.
Do I go with music? Can't say, but obviously I'm sympathetic.

Fashion and art cycles

Peter Klimek, Robert Kreuzbauer, Stefan Thurner, Fashion and art cycles are driven by counter-dominance signals of elite competition: quantitative evidence from music styles, 10 Jan 2019, arXiv:1901.03114v1 [physics.soc-ph]
Abstract: Human symbol systems such as art and fashion styles emerge from complex social processes that govern the continuous re-organization of modern societies. They provide a signaling scheme that allows members of an elite to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. Efforts to understand the dynamics of art and fashion cycles have been based on 'bottom-up' and 'top down' theories. According to 'top down' theories, elite members signal their superior status by introducing new symbols (e.g., fashion styles), which are adopted by low-status groups. In response to this adoption, elite members would need to introduce new symbols to signal their status. According to many 'bottom-up' theories, style cycles evolve from lower classes and follow an essentially random pattern. We propose an alternative explanation based on counter-dominance signaling. There, elite members want others to imitate their symbols; changes only occur when outsider groups successfully challenge the elite by introducing signals that contrast those endorsed by the elite. We investigate these mechanisms using a dynamic network approach on data containing almost 8 million musical albums released between 1956 and 2015. The network systematically quantifies artistic similarities of competing musical styles and their changes over time. We formulate empirical tests for whether new symbols are introduced by current elite members (top-down), randomness (bottom-up) or by peripheral groups through counter-dominance signals. We find clear evidence that counter-dominance-signaling drives changes in musical styles. This provides a quantitative, completely data-driven answer to a century-old debate about the nature of the underlying social dynamics of fashion cycles.
A note on their method:
Empirical tests are then needed to determine which model mechanism best describe s the actual evolution of musical styles. To this end we developed a method to quantify musical styles by determining each style’s typical instrumentation. From a dataset containing almost eight million albums that have been released since 1950, we extracted information about a user - created taxonomy of fifteen musical genres, 422 musical styles, and 570 different instruments. The instruments that are typically associated with a given genre (or style) were shown to be a suitable approximation to formally describe the characteristics of a style [ 29 ]. Therefore, the similarity between styles can be quantified through the similarity of their instrumentation. For instance, in Figure 1A we show an example of four different musical styles (blue circles) that are linked to five instruments (green squares). Here a link indicates that the instrument is (typically) featured in a release belonging to that style. The higher the overlap in instruments between two styles, the higher is their similarity and the thicker is the line that connects the styles in Figure 1A.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

From the diary of a (graffiti) writer in Moscow


11 a.m. Walk to Red Square, passing by the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral. Then to the new Zaryadye Park, designed by a New York-based architecture firm. It’s a totally different design aesthetic than the rest of Moscow.

1:30 p.m. Meet with local graffiti artist Cozek, who I consider to have the best style in Moscow. His crew, ADED (All Day Every Day), has been tapped for a collaboration with the fashion label Off-White that’s scheduled to release next week at KM20, a fashion-forward shop in town. We discuss how artists can leverage working with designer brands to benefit their careers. Cozek also has a collaboration with a furniture company debuting next week at the Cosmoscow art fair, and he was hired as the curator for Social Club, a new restaurant and private club opening next week in Patriarch Ponds. He wants to commission me to paint a mural at the restaurant while I’m in town.

2:30 p.m. Cozek gives me a tour of the space. The venue is beautifully designed and he invites me to choose any wall I want. All of the walls are exposed concrete, and if you paint it, there’s no going back. I seem more concerned about that than he does. I’m drawn to a horizontal wall that would be perfect for my work, but also recognize I have an 80-foot mural to paint and have my return flight scheduled for the end of the week. It would be great real estate, as this place will cater to Moscow society, but I’m reluctant to bite off more than I can chew with my limited time in town. [...]


12 p.m. Return to Winzavod to work on the mural. Many of today’s well-known street artists travel with an assistant, if not a team, to help bring their vision to life. Some artists are hands-on, while others don’t even touch the wall themselves. You can call me a perfectionist, or perhaps a masochist, but I typically travel alone, and create my works solely with my own two hands from start to finish. Which, admittedly, is not always most efficient. [...]


10 a.m. After breakfast, head to Winzavod intent on finishing my mural. After all of the letters are filled in, I repaint the background with a fresh coat of black, cleaning up all of the over-spray and dust that accumulated on the wall over the past few days. Once that’s done, it takes hours to refine the edges of the letters, pushing and pulling lines a quarter of an inch — making straight lines straighter and freehanding curves that could easily be mistaken for computer vectors.

Modern art [FDR]

Saturday, January 12, 2019

What do her Democratic colleagues in the House think of AOC?

Obviously, some don't like her anti-establishment ways. From Politico:
Democratic leaders are upset that she railed against their new set of House rules on Twitter the first week of the new Congress. Rank and file are peeved that there’s a grassroots movement to try to win her a top committee post they feel she doesn’t deserve.

Even some progressives who admire AOC, as she’s nicknamed, told POLITICO that they worry she’s not using her notoriety effectively.

“She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said one House Democrat who’s in lockstep with Ocasio Cortez’s ideology. “There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”

It’s an open question whether Ocasio-Cortez can be checked. She’s barely been in Congress a week and is better known than almost any other House member other than Nancy Pelosi and John Lewis. A media throng follows her every move, and she can command a national audience practically at will.

None of that came playing by the usual rules: Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to take on her party establishment with unconventional guerrilla tactics is what got her here. It’s earned her icon status on the progressive left, it’s where the 29-year-old freshman derives her power — and, by every indication, it’s how she thinks she can pull the Democratic Party in her direction.
See this twitter thread for commentary on that article:

Come on in

AI in China

Read the whole thread.

Benjamin Wittes on collusion and obstruction of justice centered on Trump

The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be reexamined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of “collusion” and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.

These premises are deeply embedded throughout the public discussion. When Bill Barr challenges what he imagines to be the predicate for the obstruction investigation, he is reflecting one of them. When any number of commentators (including Mikhaila Fogel and me on Lawfare last month) describe separate investigative cones for obstruction and collusion, they are reflecting it. When the president’s lawyers agree to have their client answer questions on collusion but draw a line at obstruction, they are reflecting it too.

But I think, and the Times’s story certainly suggests, that the story may be more complicated than that, the lines fuzzier, and the internal understanding of the investigation very different along all three of these axes from the ones the public has imbibed.
Yada yada yada... And in conclusion:
First, if this analysis is correct, it mostly—though not entirely—answers the question of the legal basis of the obstruction investigation. The president’s lawyers, Barr in his memo, and any number of conservative commentators have all argued that Mueller cannot reasonably be investigating obstruction offenses based on the president’s actions within his Article II powers in firing Comey; such actions, they contend, cannot possibly violate the obstruction laws. While this position is disputed, a great many other commentators, including me, have scratched their heads about Mueller’s obstruction theory.

But if the predicate for the investigation was rooted in substantial part in counterintelligence authorities—that is, if the theory was not just that the president may have violated the criminal law but also that he acted in a fashion that may constitute a threat to national security—that particular legal puzzle goes away. After all, the FBI doesn’t need a possible criminal violation to open a national security investigation.

The problem does not entirely go away, because as the Times reports, the probe was partly predicated as a criminal matter as well. So the question of Mueller’s criminal theory is still there. But the weight on it is dramatically less. [...]

Second, if it is correct that the FBI’s principle interest in obstruction was not as a discrete criminal fact pattern but as a national security threat, this significantly blurs the distinction between the obstruction and collusion aspects of the investigation. In this construction, obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined. Rather, in this construction, obstruction was the collusion, or at least part of it. The obstruction of justice statutes become, in this understanding, merely one set of statutes investigators might think about using to deal with a national security risk—specifically, the risk of a person on the U.S. side coordinating with or supporting Russian activity by shutting down the investigation.

It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The VC wisdom of funding undergraduate education in creative industries

Daniel Davis on Creative arts and investing in systems at Crooked Timber:
The thing about the arts industries is that they’re very hits-driven; talking about what happens to the median person going into them is always going to massively underestimate the value of the system as a whole. They share this characteristic with pharmaceuticals and, famously, the oil industry (as the wildcatter proverb has it, “part of the cost of a gusher is the dry holes you drilled”). You can’t tell ex ante which spotty undergraduate is going to turn into a claymation genius and retrospectively justify the last decade of investment. Importantly, nor can they. As far as I can see, if you were to set it up without subsidy, you would most likely get too few people going into the creative arts, as they would rationally decide that they were more likely to be one of the ones that didn’t make it than one of the Nick Parks.

This is really not all that unorthodox; it’s just the application of venture capital thinking to what people are (wrongly in my opinion) analysing as a debt problem. The undergraduate education subsidy system ought to be thought of as one where the government makes loads and loads of smallish VC investments, effectively buying a roughly 30% shareholding for a five figure investment, with diversification across an entire undergraduate cohort every year. If you’re given that sort of an opportunity, then obviously you go for some moonshots, particularly when you’re the government of a country that famously does very well in creative industries compared to its peers.

But it’s actually possible to push this line of thinking somewhat further into a general point about arts funding, making use of the fact noted two paragraphs ago that not only is it impossible for an outsider to pick winners, it’s usually very difficult for the artists themselves. Where I think that leads to is the conclusion that when you’re looking at the rate of return on arts subsidies, there is no coherent way to measure ROI at any level more disaggregated than the entire system.
Check out my post, Chaos in the Movie Biz: A Review of Hollywood Economics.

Friday Fotos: Miscellany from the current stack

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Will AOC win the internets?

Kara Swisher, NYTimes:
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has done live conversations that include both cooking tips and policy pronouncements, has posted stories of her congressional experience the way others post vacation or holiday or food photos and has clapped back expertly in pithy tweets at whatever gets dished out at her by the right.

What she is doing is significant for politics, because of one key thing: She has made digital depictions of herself seem very analog. In other words, she is perfectly human online.

The ability to take your message and yourself directly to people is perhaps one of this era’s most important talents. In this, as much as she’d hate to admit it, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is following in the footsteps of President Trump.
In contrast:
What’s interesting about Mr. Trump’s digital efforts is that even though he is always online, he is not Extremely Online. Rather than fully engaging with the platforms and employing their nifty audio and video tools, he has stuck to text, using his own set of locutions and his own distinctive voice. While at first this made him seem, to many supporters at least, more authentic than the average politician, it is now making him look more and more like a giant cartoon bobblehead. The internet is not making him more of a person.

And while he spouts outward, turning into an online megaphone, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez listens, takes everything in and reacts. Both methods work. And she is the only one who can keep up with him online. The joint response by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer to Mr. Trump’s wall speech turned into a very funny mom-and-dad-sure-are-mad meme, while Senator Lindsey Graham looked like a feckless spinning top as he pinged from faux indignation at some of Mr. Trump’s acts to adulation.
A lot's been written about the internet and communication and politics and, in particular, about Twitter, especially since 45 has proven so devastatingly effective in his use of Twitter. I've not read much of that because, well, there's lots to read, and not much time. But this op-ed is hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in this general area.
It would be a mistake to dismiss their practices as just noise. Because, as Mr. Warzel noted correctly, they are controlling the narrative by doing this so effectively. “It’s agenda-setting,” he wrote, whether we’re talking about the wall (Mr. Trump) or taxing the rich (Ms. Ocasio-Cortez). “Constant content creation forces your opponent to respond to you.” It means you are creating the news.

While there is a danger in that, it’s probably the way it’s going to be from here on out, and those who can do it well are more likely to get the attention in this very dissonant world.

Where have all the monarchs gone?


They arrive in California each winter, an undulating ribbon of orange and black. [...] This year, though, the monarchs’ flight seems more perilous than ever. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group that conducts a yearly census of the western monarch, said the population reached historic lows in 2018, an estimated 86 percent decline from the previous year.

That in itself would be troubling news. But, combined with a 97 percent decline in the total population since the 1980s, this year’s count is “potentially catastrophic,” according to the biologist Emma Pelton.
Why should we care?
Butterflies are important because they quickly respond to ecological changes and serve as a warning about an ecosystem’s health, Ms. Pelton said. They pollinate flowers, too.

Monarchs require milkweed, a herbaceous plant that grows throughout the United States and Mexico, for breeding and migration. Acreage of milkweed, though, has been declining in recent years because of pesticide use and urban development, Ms. Pelton said.
Therefore, planting milkweed will help support the surviving monarchs.

Skateboarding as a way of life

They grew up together in Rockford, Ill., three boys united by their love of skateboarding. At a certain point — around middle school, it seems — one of them, Bing Liu, began videotaping their exploits.

A pleasure of “Minding the Gap,” his astonishing debut feature, is to observe how skating and filmmaking flow together. As the young men get stronger, bolder and more dexterous, Mr. Liu’s camera skills keep pace, and he captures the sense of risk, freedom and creativity that makes their pastime more than just a hobby.

It’s not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a life saver. “Minding the Gap” is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Mr. Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Criticism and theory

Visualizing algorithms

Mike Bostok wrote an interesting post about visualizing algorithms back in 2014. Here's the opening paragraphs:
Algorithms are a fascinating use case for visualization. To visualize an algorithm, we don’t merely fit data to a chart; there is no primary dataset. Instead there are logical rules that describe behavior. This may be why algorithm visualizations are so unusual, as designers experiment with novel forms to better communicate. This is reason enough to study them.

But algorithms are also a reminder that visualization is more than a tool for finding patterns in data. Visualization leverages the human visual system to augment human intellect: we can use it to better understand these important abstract processes, and perhaps other things, too.
Even if you have no particular interest in the algorithms, it's worth your time to spend a few minutes looking at some of the visualizations.

Moghul-style elephant at FDR

A quick note: "Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse"

I went to see it last night. It was a lot of fun. A.O. Scott in the NYTimes:
My point here is that this animated reworking of the Spidey mythos is fresh and exhilarating in a way that very few of its live-action counterparts — including the last couple of “Spider-Man” chapters — have been. Its jaunty, brightly colored inventiveness and its kid-in-the-candy-store appetite for pop culture ephemera give “Into the Spider-Verse” some of the kick of the first “Lego Movie.”

It's that "brightly colored inventiveness" that grabbed me, the look of the film. Make that "looks", plural. There are bright colors, lots of them, of the sorts one sees in crayons and Lifesavers. But we also see textures from comic books, Ben Day dots, not to mention complete pages and covers flashing by. There are any number of sequences that could have come from 1960s & 1970s psychedelia, perhaps as transmuted through comics. And the whole thing has a kind of joyful self-consciousness about it.

Something I wrote a decade ago, a review of the anime series Samurai Champloo, seems relevant:
Samurai Champloo thus goes beyond subverting postmodern interventions into culture, identity, anti-hegemonic subalterns, and so forth. Watanabe renders such critical expostulation irrelevant, not by ignoring the various systems his protagonists must negotiate, but by recognizing that their imaginative agency is ultimately more powerful than those systems.
Into the Spider-Verse felt like that.

Even on the issue of identity. Samurai Champloo played on the issue of national identity. It was set at a time in Japan when national identity as we know it didn't exist, but has anachronistic intrusions from baseball and Andy Warholl. Into the Spider-Verse played on contemporary discussions of racial and ethnic identity by introducing a Latino Spidey without comment and giving him a variety of companion Spikeys from other universes (thus the Spider-Verse), including other cartoon/comic worlds (anime, funny animal comics). At one point the funny-animal pig even asked "Do animals talk in this universe"? This is all obvious and upfront.

It's just, you know, the world.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

How about a bit of hot pink and green?

Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature

I've bumped this to the top of the queue in recognition of AOC's advocacy of a 70% tax rate on income above $10M. Tyler Cowen thinks this is a mistake. He's got a point. But what if Christopher Boehm is correct about the underlying (biological) psychology on the issue of egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, that we've inherited proclivities for both? What determines the balance between the two? I'd say it's culture, and that the balance is inherently unstable.
* * * * *
I'd originally published a longer version of this essay on The Valve in 2010, where it accumulated various comments and addenda. I first republshed it here specifically in connection with my work on The Greatest Man in Siam. It's the section, Egalitarianism and Hierarchy, that's directly relevant, but you may want to read the sections on Shakespeare and Greene as well. I'm now bumping it to top top of the cue as I'm thinking about literary morphology.
The purpose of this essay is to consider some recent developments in, shall we evolutionary psychology, as it's called, and to argue that these developments indicate that human nature contains within it an essential tension that may well be one of the drivers of history. I begin with the psychology and then move to literature, first Much Ado About Nothing, and then a comparison between Greene’s Pandosto and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I conclude with a modest gesture toward Marx.

Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

Let us consider Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), which speaks to issues of class and equality. Boehm is interested in accounting for the apparent egalitarian behavior of hunter-gatherer bands, the most basic form of human social organization. While individuals can assume a leadership role for specific occasions, e.g. a hunt, there are no permanent leaders in such bands. Boehm does not argue that such bands are egalitarian utopias; on the contrary, primitive egalitarianism is uneasy and fraught with tension. But it is real.

Boehm finds this puzzling because, in all likelihood, our immediate primate ancestors had well-developed status hierarchies. Boehm ends up adopting the notion that the hierarchical behavioral patterns of our primate heritage are overlain, but not eradicated or replaced, by a more recent egalitarian social regime. Other than suggesting that this more recent regime is genetic Boehm has little to say about it.

Independently, Alan Fiske has been arguing that that humans have four different modes of social behavior (The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations. Psychological Review, 99, 689-723, 1992, PDF; here’s a briefer online presentation). In communal sharing, all members of a social group are treated as being equivalent. For example, if one member of a family is honored, the honor accrues to the whole family. Authority ranking is what the name implies; individual with different ranks in a hierarchy have different rights and obligations. In equality matching people work to maintain some kind of balance among them. Finally, there is market pricing, in which interactions are mediated by quantitative market mechanisms (p. 692) and which, on that account does not seem as basic as the other three (cf. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2008, p. 409) and which will, accordingly, play no role in my analysis. In Fiske’s analysis not only are relationships between different people mediated by different modes, but different aspects of a relationship between two individuals can be mediated by different modes.

It is not entirely clear to me just how these two conceptions are aligned. Boehm’s phylogenetically older system seems to be Fiske’s authority ranking mode, while his newer system seems to encompass communal sharing and equality matching as well. Market pricing has no obvious place in Boehm’s analysis. In any event, this is not the place to examine the relationship between these two conceptions. What is important for our purposes is that both Boehm and Fiske argue that human social interaction is mediated by distinctly different behavioral systems and that there is at least an approximate alignment between their conceptions.
Much Ado about Hierarchy and Equality

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which weaves two intertwined comic stories into a single, if a bit loose, complex plot (on the interlinking, see Richard Levin, Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, 1971, pp. 90-93). The play gets its overall dramatic shape from the Claudio-Hero plot, in which Claudio wrongly suspects Hero of being unfaithful to him just as Leontes wrongly suspected Hermione. I have argued elsewhere that Claudio’s ambivalence stems from his difficulty in assimilating Hero to both to a behavioral system for attachment and one for sexuality (see my “At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation?” for a complete argument).

The play’s other story, however, is quite different in texture. It involves Beatrice and Benedick and their virtuoso wit combats. Their relationship is quite different from that between Claudio and Hero. It is clear that, as the play opens, they have already established a relationship; they know one another and talk freely. In contrast Claudio and Hero barely interact, and when they do Claudio does all the talking. He has more lines in the play than Hero does, and most of hers are spoken to someone other than Claudio, such as her father, Leonato, or her attendants, Margaret and Ursula. Claudio initiates the relationship and she responds. But he does not initiate the relationship directly with her. Rather he calls on the authority relationships of aristocratic hierarchy and has his feudal lord and military commander, Don Pedro, make contact with her father, who is Don Pedro’s peer.

That is all we need to argue that the Claudio-Hero relationship embodies one mode of social interaction, a phylogenetically older (Boehm) authority ranking (Fiske) system while the Beatrice-Benedick relationship embodies a phylogenetically newer and uniquely human (Boehm) equality-matching (Fiske) system. Just as the Claudio-Hero relationship founders on the problem of establishing both an attachment and a sexual relationship with the same person, so does the Beatrice-Benedick relationship. Benedick regards cuckoldry as the inevitable fruit of marriage (Act I, scene 1, ll. 229-236 in the 1964 Signet edition):
That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise giver her most humble thanks. But that I will have a rechate winded in my forehead, or hand my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.
Beatrice is of a similar mind, as is clear from her exchange with Antonio and Leonato at the beginning of Act 2.

Thus, we have two parallel plots in which sexual ambivalence stands in the way of marriage. The two relationships are organized according to two different principles, one hierarchical, the other egalitarian. The play ends with the full expectation that both couples will be married. Shakespeare has intertwined the two plots in such a way that each one plays a significant causal role in advancing the other. The double plot thus insists that both modes of organization are important, that they support and complement one another. Yet neither relationship embodies both.

But, the theater-goer, or the reader, follows and imaginatively re-enacts both of these relationships, intertwined as Shakespeare has presented them. From that it follows that the reader’s experience brings, not only hierarchy and equality together, but sexuality and attachment as well. Four for the price of one! And all within the relatively brief compass of a few hours in the library or at the theater. Could the theater-goer use this experience as a tool for psychological integration? (Cf. my remarks on Kenneth Burke)

From Greene to Shakespeare

Now let us consider two other texts, one by Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, and the other by one of his immediate predecessors, Richard Greene, Pandosto: The Triumph of Time. Shakespeare’s play follows Greene’s novella quite closely. there are, however, some critical differences, which I have detailed in a recent longish post (second section, “Family Problems”). These differences involve a father’s incestuous desire for his daughter, which is present in Greene, but not Shakespeare. Why did Shakespeare change that element of the story, and only that element?

Both stories are set in a world where there is a strong class difference between the nobility and the peasantry. One consequence of this difference is that marriage between the two classes is all but forbidden. Let us postulate that this class difference is a cultural expression of the older hierarchical system of primate social interaction. If that is so, then, it would seem that the attraction between the young adults, Perdita and Florizel in Shakespeare, Fawnia and Dorastus in Greene, is not being governed by that older system or that it is not being governed only by that system. Those young adults believe themselves to be of different classes and are prepared to leave their local society rather than give up their relationship. The fact that they are, in fact, social equals puts theater-goers readers at ease (otherwise known as defense) and authorizes their relationship when their identities become known, but has no bearing on how they originated their relationship or on why they want to maintain it. Theirs is a relationship that fuses the egalitarian mutuality of phylogenetically newer system with the sexual desire of the phylogenetically older system.

Or perhaps it uses the newer system to stabilize the relationship between the two phylogenetically older systems, attachment and sexuality. There’s no obvious way to tell from the text what the underlying neuro-physiological configuration might be. Nor is it clear that it makes much difference.

When Pandosto is sexually attracted to Fawnia and, in consequence, proposes to her, his relationship to her is obviously regulated by the phylogenetically older sexual system, a fact the Greene fixes in our minds by devoting six paragraphs to it (see my earlier post). That he drops his pursuit when he learns the truth does not erase that association in reader’s minds. In contrast, Leontes hardly attends to Perdita’s sexual beauty, thus leaving us the option of interpreting his interaction with her, and her companion, as being regulated, not by any of the phylogenetically old (Boehm) authority ranking (Fiske) systems, but by the newer and more egalitarian (Boehm) equality-matching (Fiske) system. I further suggest that Leontes’ relationship to his wife, once she is revealed to be alive, is now under the auspices of this newer system as well. When he had believed her to be dead, he mourned her, and thus extirpated his old bond with her, a bond that required her strict subordination to his authority. Now that she is alive, he can forge a new bond with her, on a new psychological basis, one that no longer requires wifely subordination.

My argument about the difference between these two narratives, then, is that Shakespeare’s Leontes has become comfortable with the phylogenetically newer social system while Greene’s Pandosto has not. That is why, in terms of drama-craft, of how Shakespeare crafts his plot, Leontes doesn’t make any sexual overture to Perdita and that is why he can joyfully accept the emergence of his wife. Had Leontes made such an overture, the anxiety it would have created in his audience would have interfered with the particular happy ending that Shakespeare wanted for this play.

* * * * *

Do I really believe this argument? Frankly, I do not know. I fully acknowledge its speculative and tentative character. The question is whether or not such a speculative argument is worth making. I believe it is and I offer it in the hope that others will construct other arguments speaking to the strategic differences between Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale and that we can then examine the various proposals and learn something about how these texts work.

Given that these two modes of social organization are inherent in human nature—as both Boehm and Fiske argue — it is not surprising that we find both in these two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale. One would expect to find them in many stories, if not all. It is thus heartening that a large-scale study of 19th Century British novels concludes that a tension between these two modes is central to those novels (Johnson et al., Hierarchy in the library: Egalitarian dynamics in Victorian novels, Evolutionary Psychology 2008 6(4): 715-738, PDF). What’s important for close textual analysis is how, specifically, the two modes are deployed, relationship by relationship. Shakespeare has deployed them in these two plays in such a way that the final resolution of each play depends on the complementary interaction of the two modes.

A digital edition of Jean Toomer's "Cane"

Monday, January 7, 2019

Video clip of young child drawing cats(?)

This is fascinating. Look how the child grips the pen with the whole hand. Drawing motion is controlled by forearm for short strokes and by whole arm for larger strokes.

Orange net in a gray city-scape

Further thoughts on mind and corpus in digital criticism [DH]

There is my recent working paper:
William Benzon, Toward a Theory of the Corpus, Working Paper, December 31, 2018, 46 pp. Academia, https://www.academia.edu/38066424/Toward_a_Theory_of_the_Corpus_Toward_a_Theory_of_the_Corpus_-by;
SSRN, https://ssrn.com/abstract=3308601.
Calling my topic “theory of the corpus” has always seemed a bit strange to me, but I couldn’t quite think of anything better. Still can’t.

But I’m not interested in corpus linguistics in general, though some of my thoughts may germane, but in the context of literary analysis and description (aka literary criticism). In that context I’ve got three concerns:
1.) The relationship between digital criticism on the one hand and standard “close reading” for meaning on the other.

2.) The lack of interest in old-school computational linguistics based on symbolic computation rather than statistical techniques.

3.) The failure – though “failure” is probably not the right word – to realize just might be possible through analysis based on a corpus.
It seems to me that knowledge of #2 would help with #1 and #3.

Caveat: This is one of those posts where I’m basically thinking out loud.

The problem of meaning

More traditional literary critics see a real mismatch between digital or computational criticism and literary subject matter. In one form it’s mostly a desire to see how meaning fits into the general program (I’m thinking here of Alan Liu). In a somewhat less sympathetic form issue is akin to the objection Geoffrey Hartman registered against linguistics and “technical structuralism” in The Fate of Reading (1975). For many, though, I fear it is just flat-out antipathy toward anything the looks like math and science.

The digital critics see no problem, except that they are constantly facing this objection. They’re not interested in supplanting or replacing interpretive criticism. They’re just doing something different. That’s find, as far as it goes.

To some extent they see themselves as sociologists and their use of technical analytic machinery is much like sociologists use. Sociologists are interested in human social behavior at a variety of scales. They make observations, many of which can be quantified. And they uses statistics to analyze the data. Just tools. The tools are in one conceptual world while the phenomena under examination are in a different conceptual world. No problem. Boundaries and relationships are clear.

But texts as an object domain are somewhat different from social behavior as an object domain. When corpus techniques like topic analysis and vector semantics are being used they are, in some way, of a piece with the object domain. They are not so thoroughly outside that object domain. That becomes more apparent though knowledge of old-school computational linguistics (#2 above).

So, convention critics see computational criticism as being in an alien world, and that’s a problem. Computational critics don’t see a problem because the see literary texts as an object domain for the use of statistical tools, just like sociologists see social behavior. I’m saying something like: Not only is it NOT an alien domain (because language itself is a computational phenomenon), it’s the same domain; and because of that we can do even more.

That last paragraph is poorly put and I don’t know how to fix it. But the direction is good. Digital critics fail to see language itself as a computational phenomenon and that hampers the “depth” to which they’re able to employ their tools. It truncates their field of potential inference.

Closure (on mind)?

From my post of 4 January 2018, What is the mind (and what can we know of it)?
As for minds and brains, well, there we have my metaphor of the mind as neural weather. That harks back to Walter Freeman’s work on the complex dynamics of the nervous system. And, of course, Freeman talks the brain’s high-dimensional state space, which is some kind of relative of the high-dimensional semantic space that I talk about above. Just how close a relative, that’s hard to say. Each point in Freeman’s space is a state of the brain. Each point in a corpus model is a word meaning. Those are very different things. Though we might bring them together by thinking of each point in a corpus model as the target of focal attention.
That’s what I wrote when I first posted. But then I got to thinking about the work I’d done 15 years ago on attractor nets [1, 2], which I thought of as networks in which the nodes were basis of attraction in an assemblage of dynamical systems, such as the human brain.

In THAT context – which, alas, defies easy summary – it seemed to me that we could think of each word meaning (signified in Saussure’s terminology) as a basin of attraction. That would provide a way of linking a fundamentally dynamic account of the brain with a basically static model of semantic relationships. The network of relationships among the attractor basins is relatively stable and THAT’s what we can recover/approximate through statistical analysis of word distribution in texts. Words that co-occur do so because their meanings a coupled in a local attractor net.

More later.


[1] William Benzon, Attractor Nets, Series I: Notes Toward a New Theory of Mind, Logic and Dynamics in Relational Networks, Working Paper, 2011, 52 pp., Academia, https://www.academia.edu/9012847/Attractor_Nets_Series_I_Notes_Toward_a_New_Theory_of_Mind_Logic_and_Dynamics_in_Relational_Networks.

[2] William Benzon, Attractor Nets 2011: Diagrams for a New Theory of Mind, Working Paper, 55 pp., Academia, https://www.academia.edu/9012810/Attractor_Nets_2011_Diagrams_for_a_New_Theory_of_Mind.

FDR Skatepark at 3QD

I’ve gathered some of my recent FDR material together and crafted a post for 3 Quarks Daily, Is FDR the capital of the SK8board nation?

What are we to make of this?

It’s crudely rendered, which is neither here nor there, but should be noted as there is some superb work at FDR. What do we make of the imagery? At the center we have a skull and partial skeleton topped by a crown and bordered a black-edged pattern in red and yellow. Feathers, flames? What of the flames at the bottom and the upper corners? The black birds? There’s a caption at the top: “RIDE INTO THE HOLY LAND”. What’s that about? What of the red, yellow, and blue color scheme?

Maybe it wasn't an asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs

Bianca Bosker, The Nastiest Feud in Science, The Atlantic, September 2018:
But [Prof. Gerta] Keller doesn’t buy any of it. “It’s like a fairy tale: ‘Big rock from sky hits the dinosaurs, and boom they go.’ And it has all the aspects of a really nice story,” she said. “It’s just not true.”

While the majority of her peers embraced the Chicxulub asteroid as the cause of the extinction, Keller remained a maligned and, until recently, lonely voice contesting it. She argues that the mass extinction was caused not by a wrong-place-wrong-time asteroid collision but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in a part of western India known as the Deccan Traps—a theory that was first proposed in 1978 and then abandoned by all but a small number of scientists. Her research, undertaken with specialists around the world and featured in leading scientific journals, has forced other scientists to take a second look at their data. “Gerta uncovered many things through the years that just don’t sit with the nice, simple impact story that Alvarez put together,” Andrew Kerr, a geochemist at Cardiff University, told me. “She’s made people think about a previously near-uniformly accepted model.”

Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.” Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”
The now more or less standard account of the the extinction, an asteroid impacting the Yucatan Peninsular 65 million years ago, was proposed by a "rock star" physicist, Luis Alvarez:
His numerous scientific exploits—winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, flying alongside the crew that bombed Hiroshima, “X-raying” Egypt’s pyramids in search of secret chambers—had earned him renown far beyond academia, and he had wielded his star power to mock, malign, and discredit opponents who dared to contradict him. In The New York Times, Alvarez branded one skeptic “not a very good scientist,” chided dissenters for “publishing scientific nonsense,” suggested ignoring another scientist’s work because of his “general incompetence,” and wrote off the entire discipline of paleontology when specialists protested that the fossil record contradicted his theory. “I don’t like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they’re really not very good scientists,” Alvarez told The Times. “They’re more like stamp collectors.”
Do we have a case of physicists cashing on their general intellectual prestige (see my recent post, The rise of condensed matter physics [Is particle physics over?]:
That the dinosaur wars drew in scientists from multiple disciplines only added to the bad blood. Paleontologists resented arriviste physicists, like Alvarez, for ignoring their data; physicists figured the stamp collectors were just bitter because they hadn’t cracked the mystery themselves. Differing methods and standards of proof failed to translate across fields. Where the physicists trusted models, for example, geologists demanded observations from fieldwork.
Hmmm... There is certainly an interesting history of researchers trained as physicists doing important work in other fields – Francis Crick in biology, Christof Koch in neuroscience, and, in another direction, any number of 'quants' in finance. But this is a digression from the main flow of the article.

A grim lesson?
The asteroid theory has ingrained in the public’s imagination the idea that mass extinction will be quick and sensational—that we will go out in a great, momentous ball of fire. Big rock from sky hits the humans, and boom they go. But Keller’s vision of the sixth extinction, given what she sees as its parallels with Deccan volcanism, suggests that the end will be drawn out and difficult to recognize as such within humans’ brief conception of time. “We are living in the middle of a mass extinction today,” Keller told me. “But none of us feel that urgency, or that it really is so.”

Sunday, January 6, 2019

It's time for a splash of red, no?

Feynman on physics (and more generally, intellectual exploration): Maybe it's not wheels within wheels, but clouds

To someone looking at high-energy physics from the outside, its goal seems to be to find the ultimate constituents of matter. It seems a quest we can trace back to the Greeks’ atom, the “indivisible” particle. But with the big accelerators, you get fragments that are more massive than the particles you started with and maybe quarks that can never be separated. What does that do to the quest?

I don’t think that ever was the quest. Physicists are trying to find out how nature behaves; they may talk carelessly about some “ultimate particle” because that’s the way nature looks at a given moment, but…Suppose people are exploring a new continent, okay? They see water coming along the ground — they’ve seen that before — and they call it river. So they say they’re exploring to find the headwaters, they go upriver, and sure enough, there they are, it’s all going very well. But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system’s different: There’s a great big lake, or springs, or the rivers run in a circle. You might say, “Aha! They’ve failed!” but not at all! The real reason they were doing it was to explore the land. If it turned out not to be headwaters, they might be slightly embarrassed at their carelessness in explaining themselves, but no more than that. As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you’re looking for the innermost wheel — but it might not be that way, in which case you’re looking for whatever the hell it is that you find!

But surely you must have some guess about what you’ll find; there are bound to be ridges and valleys and so on?

Yeah. But what if when you get there it’s all clouds? You can expect certain things, you can work out theorems about the topology of watersheds, but what if you find a kind of mist, maybe, with things coagulating out of it, with no way to distinguish the land from the air? The whole idea you started with is gone! That’s the kind of exciting thing that happens from time to time. One is presumptuous if one says, “We’re going to find the ultimate particle or the unified field laws” or the anything. If it turns out surprising, the scientist is even more delighted. You think he’s going to say, “Oh, it’s not like I expected, there’s no ultimate particle, I don’t want to explore it”? No, he’s going to say, “What the hell is it, then?”

You’d rather see that happen?

Rather doesn’t make any difference: I get what I get. You can’t say it’s always going to be surprising, either...
I’ve learned how to live without knowing. I don’t have to be sure I’m succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m delighted with the width of the world!
On math:
I don’t believe in the idea that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it’s no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, “What one fool can do, another fool can.” What we’ve been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn’t studied it, but it was fools who did it.
On philosophy:
It isn’t the philosophy that gets me, it’s the pomposity. If they’d just laugh at themselves! If they’d just say, “I think it’s like this, but Von Leipzig thought it was like that, and he had a good shot at it too.” If they’d explain that this is their best guess . . . But so few of them do; instead, they seize on the possibility that there may not be any ultimate fundamental particle and say that you should stop work and ponder with great profundity. “You haven’t thought deeply enough; first let me define the world for you.” Well, I’m going to investigate it without defining it!
And then there's this, which followed immediately:
How do you know which problem is the right size to attack?

When I was in high school, I had this notion that you could take the importance of the problem and multiply by your chance of solving it. You know how a technically minded kid is; he likes the idea of optimizing everything. Anyway, if you can get the right combination of those factors, you don’t spend your life getting nowhere with a profound problem or solving lots of small problems that others could do just as well.
I suppose in a way I've done a bit of "getting nowhere with a profound problem", though I'm managed to avoid messing around with small problems. That is to say, figuring our the mechanisms behind "Kubla Khan" is a profound problem, one I set for myself back in the early 1970s, and one that is, as far as I can tell, still substantially beyond reach. Yet, once it became clear that it would take awhile, I busied myself with various other things, while every once in awhile taking a look at "Kubla Khan." And last year I more or less declared KK solved. More or less. Let's say I've narrowed the search space considerably. I've reached a decision about the kind of problem it is and have decided on at least some of the terms of the answer. (Of course, I could be wrong....)

On preconceptions:
Earlier, you didn’t ask whether I thought that there’s a fundamental particle, or whether it’s all mist; I would have told you that I haven’t the slightest idea. Now, in order to work hard on something, you have to get yourself believing that the answer’s over there, so you’ll dig hard there, right? So you temporarily prejudice or predispose yourself — but all the time, in the back of your mind, you’re laughing. Forget what you hear about science without prejudice. Here, in an interview, talking about the big bang, I have no prejudices — but when I’m working, I have a lot of them.

Prejudices in favor of…what? Symmetry, simplicity…?

In favor of my mood of the day. One day I’ll be convinced there’s a certain type of symmetry that everybody believes in, the next day I’ll try to figure out the consequences if it’s not, and everybody’s crazy but me. But the thing that’s unusual about good scientists is that while they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think “maybe it’s so” and act on that, all the time knowing it’s only “maybe.” Many people find that difficult; they think it means detachment or coldness. It’s not coldness! It’s a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you’re temporarily convinced you’ll find the answer, and somebody comes up and says, “Have you seen what they’re coming up with over there?” and you look up and say “Jeez! I’m in the wrong place!” It happens all the time.
Different realms?
One more question from your lectures: You say there that “the next great era of awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations.” What do you mean by that?

In that passage I was talking about the Schrödinger equation. Now, you can get from that equation to atoms bonding in molecules, chemical valences — but when you look at the equation, you can see nothing of the wealth of phenomena that the chemists know about. Or the idea that quarks are permanently bound so you can’t get a free quark — maybe you can and maybe you can’t, but the point is that when you look at the equations that supposedly describe quark behavior, you can’t see why it should be so. Look at the equations for the atomic and molecular forces in water, and you can’t see the way water behaves; you can’t see turbulence.

Sun Ra: Space is the place