Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Surveillance tech is deeply flawed [[Surprise! Surprise!]]

Charlie Warzel, All This Dystopia, and for What?, NYTimes 20 Feb 2020.
The above examples all represent a different, equally troubling brand of dystopia — one full of false positives, confusion and waste. In these examples the technology is no less invasive. Your face is still scanned in public, your online information is still leveraged against you to manipulate your behavior and your financial data is collected to compile a score that may determine if you can own a home or a car. Your privacy is still invaded, only now you’re left to wonder if the insights were accurate.

As lawmakers ponder facial recognition bans and comprehensive privacy laws, they’d do well to consider this fundamental question: Setting aside even the ethical concerns, are the technologies that are slowly eroding our ability to live a private life actually delivering on their promises? Companies like NEC and others argue that outright bans on technology like facial recognition “stifle innovation.” Though I’m personally not convinced, there may be kernels of truth to that. But before giving these companies the benefit of the doubt, we should look deeper at the so-called innovation to see what we’re really gaining as a result of our larger privacy sacrifice.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Romantic kissing is not universal

From pop culture to evolutionary psychology, we have come to take kissing for granted as universally desirable among humans and inseparable from other aspects of affection and intimacy. However, a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America.

In addition, cross-cultural ethnographic data was used to analyze the relationship between any presence of romantic kissing and a culture’s complexity of social stratification. The report finds that complex societies with distinct social classes (e.g. industrialized societies) have a much more frequent occurrence of this type of kissing than egalitarian societies (e.g. foragers).
More at the link (H/t Tyler Cowen).

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Conjunctions: transportation and graffiti [Jersey City]

Bernie Sanders isn't a socialist

The thing is, Bernie Sanders isn’t actually a socialist in any normal sense of the term. He doesn’t want to nationalize our major industries and replace markets with central planning; he has expressed admiration, not for Venezuela, but for Denmark. He’s basically what Europeans would call a social democrat — and social democracies like Denmark are, in fact, quite nice places to live, with societies that are, if anything, freer than our own.

So why does Sanders call himself a socialist? I’d say that it’s mainly about personal branding, with a dash of glee at shocking the bourgeoisie. And this self-indulgence did no harm as long as he was just a senator from a very liberal state.

But if Sanders becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, his misleading self-description will be a gift to the Trump campaign. So will his policy proposals. Single-payer health care is (a) a good idea in principle and (b) very unlikely to happen in practice, but by making Medicare for All the centerpiece of his campaign, Sanders would take the focus off the Trump administration’s determination to take away the social safety net we already have.

Has "civilization" entered a phase of decadence?

That's what Ross Douthat argues in his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, which Damon Linker reviews in The Week, February 13, 2020. Decadence?
By calling us "decadent," Douthat doesn't mean that we're succumbing to imminent decline and collapse. Following esteemed cultural critic Jacques Barzun, Douthat instead defines decadence as a time when art and life seem exhausted, when institutions creak, the sensations of "repetition and frustration" are endemic, "boredom and fatigue are great historical forces," and "people accept futility and the absurd as normal."

Douthat goes on to refine the definition:
Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. It describes a situation in which repetition is more the norm than innovation; in which sclerosis afflicts public institutions and private enterprises alike; in which intellectual life seems to go in circles; in which new developments in science, new exploratory projects, underdeliver compared with what people recently expected. And crucially, the stagnation and decay are often a direct consequence of previous development: the decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own significant success.
Douthat certainly isn't a favorite of mine, and I've got problems with the word "decadent", but that description is consistent with my own view, based on the theory of cultural ranks that David Hays and I developed,  that we're exhausting the cultural resources we've inherited but have not yet managed to invent new modes of thinking, feeling, living, and exploring.

Near the end Linker observes:
Interestingly, one way to describe the populist insurgencies taking place around us is to say that they're a rebellion against the decadence of the post-Cold War world — the sense that history came to an end in 1989, with all significant ideological disputes resolved and politics reduced to the fine-tuning of liberal democratic government. Francis Fukuyama's own high-level punditry on the subject was actually far more ambivalent than it's usually credited with being. Although Fukuyama argued that liberal democracy triumphed over communism because it was more capable of fulfilling humanity's material and spiritual needs than any other political and economic system, he also worried with uncanny prescience that a world in which liberal democracy was the only available option could be marked by boredom, repetition, and sterility — and that the intolerable character of such decadence could inspire anti-liberal movements that aimed to restart history once again.

Douthat's book can be read as a melancholy sequel to Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man that confirms the author's darkest predictions but without endorsing (or seriously wrestling with) any of the concrete efforts going on around us to overcome our own malaise by breaking away from decadent liberalism — whether it's Donald Trump's MAGA presidency, the Catholic conservatism of Poland's Law and Justice Party, Marion Maréchal's National Rally in France, the National Conservatism spearheaded by Yoram Hazony, or Viktor Orban's anti-liberal and pro-natalist populism in Hungary. Given that Douthat is a conservative who longs for renewal, rebirth, and revitalization — for an end to the decadence he thinks plagues us — it's surprising that he has so little to say about these efforts in the book. [...]

Douthat sees a lot, and far more than most of our less profoundly discontented commentators. That makes him an excellent pundit — maybe the best of our moment. But in his new book he also avoids a forthright confrontation with the political correlates of his own moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual dissatisfactions. In its place we find idle speculations about alternative realities. Which may mean that, for all its strengths, Douthat's book about decadence is more than a little decadent itself.
That is to say that Douthat is himself trapped in the same exhausted cultural forms. 

Who among us isn't?

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Pandemics and cooperation between nation-states

Thomas Bollyky and Samantha Kiernan, No Nation Can Fight Coronavirus on Its Own, Lawfare, February 12, 2020: "Infectious diseases were the first global problem that nation-states realized they could not solve without international cooperation." This came about in the mid-19th century:
For most of human history, plagues, parasites and pests were a domestic affair. Quarantine was the principal means by which nations contained the microbes that were brought by invading armies and the passengers, both human and vermin, on trading ships and caravans.

Those isolation measures proved ineffective, however, against the six pandemics of cholera that swept the United States, the Middle East, Russia and Europe in the 19th century. A terrifying disease that struck seemingly healthy people, cholera killed tens of thousands in the cities of Europe and the United States—and, very likely, many more in India, where the pandemics originated. The economic costs of uncoordinated quarantines hurt nations and merchants alike.

In 1851, European states gathered for the first International Sanitary Conference to discuss cooperation on cholera, plague and yellow fever. That convention, and those that followed, led to the first treaties on international infectious disease control and—in 1902—the International Sanitary Bureau, which later became the Pan American Health Organization. These international initiatives were the early models for later agreements and agencies on other transnational concerns, such as pollution, the opium trade and unsafe labor practices.

Microbes have continued to inspire episodes of cooperation among even bitter rivals. The WHO, the United Nation’s first specialized agency, was created in 1946 in response to the horrors of World War II. Its early days were devoted to international campaigns against the great scourges of that era, such as malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis. At the height of the Cold War, the smallpox immunization campaign motivated the United States and the Soviet Union to join forces in an effort that succeeded in eradicating the disease in 1980. In El Salvador, an international vaccination campaign against pediatric infections led to a pause in the country’s 14-year civil war for the sole purpose of immunizing children.
And the current coronavirus epidemic?
There is much we do not know yet about how easily the virus spreads or its severity. But there is reason to think that the scale of this coronavirus outbreak and the likelihood of epidemics of the virus occurring outside China may inspire more cooperation than even the five previous occasions that the WHO designated as international public health emergencies: the H1N1 influenza pandemic (2009), the re-emergence of polio in several nations (2014), the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), the Zika virus outbreak (2016) and the Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2019).

In a little over one month, the coronavirus has more than five times the number of laboratory-confirmed cases (43,114 as of Feb. 11) than the outbreak of SARS did in four months (8,096). The novel coronavirus has already spread to at least 26 countries, far more than the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, its predecessor in West Africa in 2013-2015, or during the resurgence of polio in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan in 2014. The mortality rate for known cases of the novel coronavirus has been about 2-3 percent, deadlier than the Zika virus or the 2009 H1N1 swine flu. [...]

Perhaps a pandemic of novel coronavirus, if it occurs, would be a sufficiently frightening antagonist to force international cooperation, even at a moment that otherwise has proved inhospitable to global governance. If so, this novel coronavirus will do what climate change, tariff threats and the prospect of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula could not: force nations to work together.

Bird in red and black (flooded by light)

Rodney Brooks on AI and robotics

As you may know, Rodney Brooks is a pioneering robotics researcher and entrepreneur (his company markets the Roomba) who once headed the AI lab at MIT. He has a blog where he's been commenting on AI. Here's a post where he has links to eight posts on the future of AI and robotics that he posted between August of 2017 and July of 2018, Future of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. This post is from July, 2018, where he gives a capsule overview of the history of AI, Steps Toward Super Intelligence I, How We Got Here. He lists for main approaches, with approximate start dates:
1. Symbolic (1956)
2. Neural networks (1954, 1960, 1969, 1986, 2006, …)
3. Traditional robotics (1968)
4. Behavior-based robotics (1985)
Neural networks, as you see, has a spotty history. The basic idea is relatively old (as work in AI goes). 1986 marks the advent of back-propagation along with multilayered networks while the 2006 dates marks some new techniques ("deep learning"), much more computing power, and huge sets of training data. I found this discussion particularly useful. He shows us the following photo:

A Google program was able to generate this caption, “A group of young people playing a game of Frisbee”, and goes on to note:
I think this is when people really started to take notice of Deep Learning. It seemed miraculous, even to AI researchers, and perhaps especially to researchers in symbolic AI, that a program could do this well. But I also think that people confused performance with competence (referring again to my seven deadly sins post). If a person had this level of performance, and could say this about that photo, then one would naturally expect that the person had enough competence in understanding the world, that they could probably answer each of the following questions:
  • what is the shape of a Frisbee?
  • roughly how far can a person throw a Frisbee?
  • can a person eat a Frisbee?
  • roughly how many people play Frisbee at once?
  • can a 3 month old person play Frisbee?
  • is today’s weather suitable for playing Frisbee?
But the Deep Learning neural network that produced the caption above can not answer these questions. It certainly has no idea what a question is, and can only output words, not take them in, but it doesn’t even have any of the knowledge that would be needed to answer these questions buried anywhere inside what it has learned.
Brooks' own work has been in the fourth approach, behavior-based robotics, where he is a pioneer. He remarks:
...I started to reflect on how well insects were able to navigate in the real world, and how they were doing so with very few neurons (certainly less that the number of artificial neurons in modern Deep Learning networks). In thinking about how this could be I realized that the evolutionary path that had lead to simple creatures probably had not started out by building a symbolic or three dimensional modeling system for the world. Rather it must have begun by very simple connections between perceptions and actions.

In the behavior-based approach that this thinking has lead to, there are many parallel behaviors running all at once, trying to make sense of little slices of perception, and using them to drive simple actions in the world. Often behaviors propose conflicting commands for the robot’s actuators and there has to be a some sort of conflict resolution. But not wanting to get stuck going back to the need for a full model of the world, the conflict resolution mechanism is necessarily heuristic in nature. Just as one might guess, the sort of thing that evolution would produce.

Behavior-based systems work because the demands of physics on a body embedded in the world force the ultimate conflict resolution between behaviors, and the interactions. Furthermore by being embedded in a physical world, as a system moves about it detects new physical constraints, or constraints from other agents in the world.
Finally, Brooks has created a predictions scorecard in three areas, self-driving cars, AI and machine learning, and space industry. He first posted it on January 1, 2018 and has updated it on Jan. 1 of 2019 and again, Jan. 1 2020.  The list contains (I would guess) over 50 specific items distributed over those categories with specific dates attached. It makes for very interesting reading.

Spain is now the world's healthiest country

Music versus algorithms

Alexis Petridis reviews Ted Gioia's current book, Music: A Subversive History:
In terms of scope, well, put it this way: it starts out talking about a bear’s thighbone that Neanderthal hunters apparently turned into a primitive flute somewhere between 43,000 and 82,000 years ago and ends up, 450 pages later, discussing K-pop and EDM. His central theory: music is a kind of magical, ungovernable force that connects us to ancient shamanistic rituals, it’s primarily fuelled by sex and violence – anyone horrified by the lyrics of drill or death metal should consider that the first instruments were made from body parts and would once have literally dripped with blood – and all attempts to reduce it to mathematical formulae or “quasi-science”, while useful, go against its intrinsic nature. He’s really not keen on Pythagoras, whose mathematical theories about tuning underpin “music as it is taught in every university and conservatory in the world today”.

I didn’t agree with everything Gioia had to say, but something about that central theory stuck with me. For one thing, there is something magical and ungovernable about music: that weird tingling sensation you get when you hear something you love - a friend of mine calls it the Holy Shiver - is involuntary. It just happens. And we live in an era when music has never been more governed by mathematics. Algorithms are supposed to be able to predict everything, from what you want to hear next to whether or not a song’s going to be a hit: the digital strategist who developed the software behind the AI record label that’s just launched was also “involved in the development and marketing of stars such as Avicii, Logic, Mike Posner and Swedish House Mafia”.
For a series of anecdotes illustrating music's power, see my working paper,  Emotion & Magic in Musical Performance.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

This is your brain on art

Monday, February 10, 2020

Fallen angel

When I saw this at night I wondered what it was, perhaps some strange art project?

When I came back the next day I realized that it was simply a decorative angel that had fallen down.

Howard Rheingold on democracy and online media

Howard Rheingold, Democracy is losing the online arms race, February 4, 2020. Opening paragraphs:
Democracy is threatened by an arms race that the forces of deception are winning. While microtargeted computational propaganda, organized troll brigades, coordinated networks of bots, malware, scams, epidemic misinformation, miscreant communities such as 4chan and 8chan, and professionally crafted rivers of disinformation continue to evolve, infest, and pollute the public sphere, the potential educational antidotes – widespread training in critical thinking, media literacies, and crap detection – are moving at a leisurely pace, if at all.

When I started writing about the potential for computer-mediated communication, decades before online communication became widely known as “social media,” my inquiries about where the largely benign online culture of the 1980s might go terribly wrong led me to the concept of the “public sphere,” most notably explicated by the German political philosopher Jurgen Habermas. “What is the most important critical uncertainty about mass adoption of computer mediated communication?” was the question I asked myself, and I decided that the most serious outcome of this emerging medium would have to do with whether citizens gain or lose liberty with the rising adoption of digital media and networks. It didn’t take a lot of seeking to find Habermas’ work when I started pursuing this question.

Although Habermas’ prose is dense, the notion is simple: Democracies are not just about voting for leaders and policy-makers; democratic societies can only take root in populations that are educated enough and free enough to communicate about issues of concern and to form public opinion that influences policy.
Five skillsets for online life:
When I set out to write Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, I decided that five essential skillsets/bodies of lore/skills were necessary to thrive online – and by way of individual thriving, to enhance the value of the commons: literacies of attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness:

· Attention because it is the foundation of thought and communication, and even a decade ago it was clear that computer and smartphone screens were capturing more and more of our attention.

· Crap detection because we live in an age where it is possible to ask any question, any time, anywhere, and get a million answers in a couple seconds – but where it is now up to the consumer of information to determine whether the information is authentic or phony.

· Participation because the birth and the health of the Web did not come about because and should not depend upon the decisions of five digital monopolies, but was built by millions of people who put their cultural creations and their inventions online, nurtured their own communities, invented search engines in their dorm rooms and the Web itself in a physics lab.

· Collaboration because of the immense power of social production, virtual communities, collective intelligence, smart mobs afforded by access to tools and knowledge of how to use them.

· Network awareness because we live in an age of social, political, and technological networks that affect our lives, whether we understand them or not.

In an ideal world, the social and political malignancies of today’s online culture could be radically reduced, although not eliminated, if a significant enough portion of the online population was fluent or at least basically conversant in these literacies – in particular, while it seems impossible to stem the rising tide of crap at its sources, its impact could be significantly reduced if most of the online population was educated in crap detection.
On attention:
I confronted issues of attention in the classroom during my decade of teaching at UC Berkeley and Stanford – as does any instructor who faces a classroom of students who are looking at their laptops and phones in class. Because I was teaching social media issues and social media literacies, it seemed to me to be escaping the issue by simply banning screentime in class – so we made our attention one of our regular activities. I asked my co-teaching teams (I asked teams of three learners to take responsibility for driving conversation during one-third of our class time) to make up “attention probes” that tested our beliefs and behavior. When I researched attentional discipline for Net Smart, I found an abundance of evidence from millennia-old contemplative traditions to contemporary neuroscience for the plasticity of attention. Simply paying attention to one’s attention – the methodology at the root of mindfulness meditation – can be an important first step to control. It doesn’t seem that attention engineers, despite their wild success, have the overwhelming advantage in the arms race with attention education that surveillance capitalists and computational propagandists deploy with their big data, bots, and troll armies.
The lopsided arms race is what leads me to conclude that education in crap detection, attention control, media literacy, and critical thinking are important, but are not sufficient. Regulation of the companies who wield these new and potentially destructive powers will also be necessary.
There's more at the link.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Wild Child

The hill was covered with strange grassy mounds about the size of molehills. The adults had no idea what they were — which was very exciting to me, realizing that there were things in the world that not even the adults understood. So I filled in the blanks for myself and decided they must be burial mounds for fairies. This was the magical landscape that inspired my book “The Wizards of Once.”

For the wildwood in that book, I took particular inspiration from the ancient wood of Kingley Vale in Sussex. Its trees have gnarled, expressive faces, and roots that embed into the earth with an almost visceral power. The more you learn about trees, the more magical you realize they are. Did you know, for example, that trees can communicate with each other through their roots, even when they are many miles apart?

Trees grow throughout children’s books. From “Peter Pan” to “A Monster Calls,” “The Lord of the Rings” to “Harry Potter,” trees are refuges, prisons and symbols of nature’s potency. They can be a friendly home, like the Hundred Acre Wood in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” or give a sense of menace, like the snowy forest in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They can also be symbolic, like the cement-filled dying tree in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The writers I loved when I was a child were similarly inspired by magical landscapes and nature: Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum, Diana Wynne Jones, Lloyd Alexander, Robert Louis Stevenson, T.H. White — and so many others.

Today, children have much less unsupervised access to the countryside. I worry that they may never know the magic of the wilderness, the power of trees and the thrilling excitement of exploring nature without an adult hovering behind them. And so I write books for children who will never know what the freedom of my childhood was like.

Friday, February 7, 2020


“Undecidability, Uncomputability and the Unity of Physics. Part 1.”

That's the title of a post by Tim Palmer at Backreaction. Here's the opening:
Our three great theories of 20th Century physics – general relativity theory, quantum theory and chaos theory – seem incompatible with each other.

The difficulty combining general relativity and quantum theory to a common theory of “quantum gravity” is legendary; some of our greatest minds have despaired – and still despair – over it.

Superficially, the links between quantum theory and chaos appear to be a little stronger, since both are characterised by unpredictability (in measurement and prediction outcomes respectively). However, the Schrödinger equation is linear and the dynamical equations of chaos are nonlinear. Moreover, in the common interpretation of Bell’s inequality, a chaotic model of quantum physics, since it is deterministic, would be incompatible with Einstein’s notion of relativistic causality.

Finally, although the dynamics of general relativity and chaos theory are both nonlinear and deterministic, it is difficult to even make sense of chaos in the space-time of general relativity. This is because the usual definition of chaos is based on the notion that nearby initial states can diverge exponentially in time. However, speaking of an exponential divergence in time depends on a choice of time-coordinate. If we logarithmically rescale the time coordinate, the defining feature of chaos disappears. Trouble is, in general relativity, the underlying physics must not depend on the space-time coordinates.

So, do we simply have to accept that, “What God hath put asunder, let no man join together”? I don’t think so. A few weeks ago, the Foundational Questions Institute put out a call for essays on the topic of “Undecidability, Uncomputability and Unpredictability”. I have submitted an essay in which I argue that undecidability and uncomputability may provide a new framework for unifying these theories of 20th Century physics. I want to summarize my argument in this and a follow-on guest post.
What interests me is simply the conjunction mentioned in the opening line,  general relativity theory, quantum theory and chaos theory, which featured in a post in January, The third 20th-century revolution in physics [non-linear dynamics]. Here are two (of three) observations I made at the end of that post:
  • It seems to me that quantum mechanics and relativity are focused on explanatory principles whereas non-linear dynamics tends more toward description, description of a wide variety of phenomena. Moreover quantum mechanics and relativity are most strongly operative in different domains, the microscopic and macroscopic respectively.
  • Computation: many cases there are various computational paths from the initial state to the completion of the computation. As a simple example, when adding a group of numbers, the order of the numbers doesn't matter; the sum will be the same in each case. In the case of non-linear systems successive states in the computation 'mirror' successive states in the system being modeled so the temporal evolution of the computation is intrinsic to the model rather than extrinsic.
Does that second observation imply that (something like) computation is inherent in the physical nature of the universe and is not merely an intellectual operation carried out by various artificial means?

Life in the ocean depths, minerals too

Wil S. Hylton, History's Largest Mining Operation Is About to Begin, The Atlantic, January/February 2020. As the title indicates, the article is primarily about mining the ocean depths, but this passage struck me:
Until recently, marine biologists paid little attention to the deep sea. They believed its craggy knolls and bluffs were essentially barren. The traditional model of life on Earth relies on photosynthesis: plants on land and in shallow water harness sunlight to grow biomass, which is devoured by creatures small and large, up the food chain to Sunday dinner. By this account, every animal on the planet would depend on plants to capture solar energy. Since plants disappear a few hundred feet below sea level, and everything goes dark a little farther down, there was no reason to expect a thriving ecosystem in the deep. Maybe a light snow of organic debris would trickle from the surface, but it would be enough to sustain only a few wayward aquatic drifters.

That theory capsized in 1977, when a pair of oceanographers began poking around the Pacific in a submersible vehicle. While exploring a range of underwater mountains near the Galápagos Islands, they spotted a hydrothermal vent about 8,000 feet deep. No one had ever seen an underwater hot spring before, though geologists suspected they might exist. As the oceanographers drew close to the vent, they made an even more startling discovery: A large congregation of animals was camped around the vent opening. These were not the feeble scavengers that one expected so far down. They were giant clams, purple octopuses, white crabs, and 10-foot tube worms, whose food chain began not with plants but with organic chemicals floating in the warm vent water.

For biologists, this was more than curious. It shook the foundation of their field. If a complex ecosystem could emerge in a landscape devoid of plants, evolution must be more than a heliological affair. Life could appear in perfect darkness, in blistering heat and a broth of noxious compounds—an environment that would extinguish every known creature on Earth. “That was the discovery event,” an evolutionary biologist named Timothy Shank told me. “It changed our view about the boundaries of life. Now we know that the methane lakes on one of Jupiter’s moons are probably laden with species, and there is no doubt life on other planetary bodies.”
As for mining:
Deepwater plains are also home to the polymetallic nodules that explorers first discovered a century and a half ago. Mineral companies believe that nodules will be easier to mine than other seabed deposits. To remove the metal from a hydrothermal vent or an underwater mountain, they will have to shatter rock in a manner similar to land-based extraction. Nodules are isolated chunks of rocks on the seabed that typically range from the size of a golf ball to that of a grapefruit, so they can be lifted from the sediment with relative ease. Nodules also contain a distinct combination of minerals. While vents and ridges are flecked with precious metal, such as silver and gold, the primary metals in nodules are copper, manganese, nickel, and cobalt—crucial materials in modern batteries. As iPhones and laptops and electric vehicles spike demand for those metals, many people believe that nodules are the best way to migrate from fossil fuels to battery power.

The ISA has issued more mining licenses for nodules than for any other seabed deposit. Most of these licenses authorize contractors to exploit a single deepwater plain. Known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, it extends across 1.7 million square miles between Hawaii and Mexico—wider than the continental United States. When the Mining Code is approved, more than a dozen companies will accelerate their explorations in the CCZ to industrial-scale extraction. Their ships and robots will use vacuum hoses to suck nodules and sediment from the seafloor, extracting the metal and dumping the rest into the water. How many ecosystems will be covered by that sediment is impossible to predict. Ocean currents fluctuate regularly in speed and direction, so identical plumes of slurry will travel different distances, in different directions, on different days. The impact of a sediment plume also depends on how it is released. Slurry that is dumped near the surface will drift farther than slurry pumped back to the bottom. The circulating draft of the Mining Code does not specify a depth of discharge. The ISA has adopted an estimate that sediment dumped near the surface will travel no more than 62 miles from the point of release, but many experts believe the slurry could travel farther. A recent survey of academic research compiled by Greenpeace concluded that mining waste “could travel hundreds or even thousands of kilometers.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sofa in the wild with graffiti

Ezra Klein on the deep problem posed by social media

I think that social media and the way we deal with it — and this is true in a lot of places — we end up focusing on, one, the easy cases rather than the hard cases, like fake news as opposed to real news. Everybody agrees that fake news is bad, and you shouldn’t have it. Real news can also be very bad in terms of what it emphasizes, or the quality of the work, and so on. But the question of how to handle it is much, much harder, and it’s not going to be something that a Facebook supreme court handles.

I think the underlying and very deep problem with Facebook, with Twitter, with a bunch of them, is building the future of our communication commons atop a business model that is about engagement mediated through the intensity of the viewers’ or audiences’ emotional reaction. I don’t think that’s something the Facebook supreme court can solve, and I also don’t think it is a good thing for the future. But nobody really seems to want to fight it.

The questions about privacy — I think they’re important. The questions about fake news are important. All the questions people bring up in these cases are important. But I think all of them are also less important than the question of, is the future of how we will communicate with each other, of how politicians will communicate with the public, of how, basically, all important communication will be structured and incentivized — is it what gives you the strongest emotional countercharge?

If so, I think that we are in for this period where a lot of energy is going to go towards the most outrageous and most offensive players because they both get the energy of the people they inspire and the people who hate them. And it’s the combination of the energy and counter-energy that gives them so much control of the conversation.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Trump and TV: They grew up together

In this episode of Aryeh Cohen-Wade interviews James Poniewozik, chief TV critic with The New York Times. Poniewozik has just published Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, in which he traces the parallel development of Trump's career and the development of television.

From the book's jacket copy:
Audience of One shows how American media have shaped American society and politics, by interweaving two crucial stories. The first story follows the evolution of television from the three-network era of the 20th century, which joined millions of Americans in a shared monoculture, into today’s zillion-channel, Internet-atomized universe, which sliced and diced them into fractious, alienated subcultures. The second story is a cultural critique of Donald Trump, the chameleonic celebrity who courted fame, achieved a mind-meld with the media beast, and rode it to ultimate power.

Braiding together these disparate threads, Poniewozik combines a cultural history of modern America with a revelatory portrait of the most public American who has ever lived. Reaching back to the 1940s, when Trump and commercial television were born, Poniewozik illustrates how Donald became “a character that wrote itself, a brand mascot that jumped off the cereal box and entered the world, a simulacrum that replaced the thing it represented.” Viscerally attuned to the media, Trump shape-shifted into a boastful tabloid playboy in the 1980s; a self-parodic sitcom fixture in the 1990s; a reality-TV “You’re Fired” machine in the 2000s; and finally, the biggest role of his career, a Fox News–obsessed, Twitter-mad, culture-warring demagogue in the White House.
The hour+ discussion covers that full story. Trump used his early real-estate career to become known in local and regional media. From there he went national and made himself into the paradigmatic contemporary example of a modern business tycoon and, in turn, used the reputation radiating from that image to pull himself out of business reverses. By the time The Apprentice came to a close he had become a creature of the media. The smooth operator of his earliest TV appearances had become the crude opportunistic populist firebrand whose campaign rallies where such good TV that cable channels were happy to broadcast them to take up airtime.

Aligned in the crosshairs [a metaphor, of course]

The current coronavirus pandemic is one in a continuing series [biology is bigger than we are]

David Quammen, We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic, NYTimes, Jan 28, 2020.
...this Wuhan emergency is no novel event. It’s part of a sequence of related contingencies that stretches back into the past and will stretch forward into the future, as long as current circumstances persist.

So when you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next one. Or do something about the current circumstances.

Current circumstances include a perilous trade in wildlife for food, with supply chains stretching through Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent, the United States and elsewhere. That trade has now been outlawed in China, on a temporary basis; but it was outlawed also during SARS, then allowed to resume — with bats, civets, porcupines, turtles, bamboo rats, many kinds of birds and other animals piled together in markets such as the one in Wuhan.

Current circumstances also include 7.6 billion hungry humans: some of them impoverished and desperate for protein; some affluent and wasteful and empowered to travel every which way by airplane. These factors are unprecedented on planet Earth: We know from the fossil record, by absence of evidence, that no large-bodied animal has ever been nearly so abundant as humans are now, let alone so effective at arrogating resources. And one consequence of that abundance, that power, and the consequent ecological disturbances is increasing viral exchanges — first from animal to human, then from human to human, sometimes on a pandemic scale.

We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.

The list of such viruses emerging into humans sounds like a grim drumbeat: Machupo, Bolivia, 1961; Marburg, Germany, 1967; Ebola, Zaire and Sudan, 1976; H.I.V., recognized in New York and California, 1981; a form of Hanta (now known as Sin Nombre), southwestern United States, 1993; Hendra, Australia, 1994; bird flu, Hong Kong, 1997; Nipah, Malaysia, 1998; West Nile, New York, 1999; SARS, China, 2002-3; MERS, Saudi Arabia, 2012; Ebola again, West Africa, 2014. And that’s just a selection. Now we have nCoV-2019, the latest thump on the drum.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Two modes of religious expression and organization

R.I.M. Dunbar, Religion, the Social Brain and the Mystical Stance, forthcoming in Archive for the Psychology of Religion.
Abstract: This paper explores the implications of the social brain and the endorphin-based bonding mechanism that underpins it for the evolution of religion. I argue that religion evolved as one of the behavioural mechanisms designed to facilitate community bonding when humans first evolved the larger social groups of ~150 that now characterise our species. This is not a matter of facilitating cooperation, but of engineering social cohesion – a very different problem. Analysis of the size of C19th utopian communities suggests that a religious basis both allowed larger groups to form and greatly enhanced their longevity. I suggest that religion evolved in two stages: an early immersive form with no formal structure based on trance-dancing (a form still evident in the rituals and practices of many huntergatherers) and a later form which had more formal structures and gave rise to our modern doctrinal religions. I argue that the modern doctrinal religions did not replace ancestral immersive religions but rather that the doctrinal component was overlain on the ancient immersive form, thereby giving rise to the mystical stance that underlies all world religions. I suggest that it is this mystical stance that causes the constant upwelling of cults and sects within world religions.
The general argument seems similar to that in Harvey Whitehouse, Arguments and Icons: Divergent Modes of Religiosity, Oxford UP 2000.  Whitehouse argued that doctrinal religion (arguments) comes with literacy, which allows for doctrines that remain relatively stable across time and space. In contrast, an earlier form of religion prevailed in preliterate societies, where everything depended on oral tradition and immersive ritual.

Utility pole with birds on wires, and clouds

Friday, January 24, 2020

Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable

I published this in The Valve in March of 2010. It's a guide on how to get on board with the computational thinking that's the driver in the so-called "cognitive revolution" — which, BTW, has peaked and is now deep into routinization. Computational thinking is a style of thought, a way of looking at the world. Alas, the most familiar example of computation, arithmetic, is not a very good way to get a feel for the style, not as you need it to investigate literature, the arts, or even the human mind. This post is a brief guide to THAT style. 
Note that the first book I recommend is a comic about comics. Forget about MLA-authorized easings into literary cognitivism and similar things and forget about Turner and Lakoff, More than Cool Reason. Move them down on your list. Put McCloud first. Why? Because cognitivism is in fact about building things, about how the mind builds  perceptual and conceptual structures. McCloud is about how comics are built. And, in one way or another, the other books give you a sense of construction as well. The Braitenberg constructs a mind, mechanism by mechanism. There's NO sense of mechanism in Turner and Lakoff. See also Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing.
It has long been obvious to me that the cognitive sciences are what happened when the computation and the computer hit the behavioral sciences as a source of models and metaphors. And that is what is missing from almost all of the work I’ve seen in cognitive approaches to literature. In this post I list and annotate four modest books that can help restore the sense of computation, and the constructive, that’s otherwise absent. I list them in order of suggested reading, starting with a comic book about comic books. After that we have a bonus section, a parable about computation based on passages from Simon about a drunken ant walking on the beach.

(1) Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It's not an academic book; there's no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they're constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences.

(2) Valentine Braitenberg (1999). Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

This is a cumulative series of thought experiments, 14 of them in the first 83 pages. Braitenberg asks us to imagine a simple (artificial) creature in a simple environment. Here’s how he begins to describe the first one: “Vehicle 1 is equipped with one sensor and one motor. The connection is a very simple one. The more there is of the quality to which the sensor is tuned, the faster the motor goes” (p. 3). He then works out the consequences of this very simple creature, how it moves about. In the second chapter he gives the vehicle two sensors and two motors and from that constructs primitive fear and aggression. And so it goes for the rest of these 14 chapters. In each chapter he adds a little bit to the vehicle from the previous chapter and explores the behavior consequences, e.g.: love (vehicle 3), concepts (#7), getting ideas (#10), egotism and optimism (#14). The last 50 pages contain biological notes on the vehicles, thus relating to the real nervous systems of real animals. Like the McCloud, it conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction that is essential to the cognitive science.

(3) Herbert A Simon (1981). The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Trained in political science, Simon became one of the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, computing, and cognitive science during the 1950s and 60s. This is a relatively informal collection of essays that has been widely, and justly, influential. From the preface (xi): “Engineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned, not with how things are but with how they might be—in short, with design. . . . These essays then attempt to explain how a science of the artificial is possible and to illustrate its nature. I have taken as my main examples the fields of economics (chapter 2), the psychology of cognition (chapters 3 and 4), and planning and engineering design (chapters 5 and 6).” Chapter 7 is entitled “The Architecture of Complexity” (originally published in 1962) and takes up the problem of biological evolution. The bonus section of this post is based on a thought experiment or parable from chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature.”

(4) John von Neumann (1958). The Computer and the Brain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Von Neumann was an mathematician who made contributions in many fields. But he is best known for his work in computing. This slender volume (82 pages) is the last project he worked on and is incomplete. Brain cancer took him before he could finish. It is about two ways a computing process can be embodied in physical matter, the analog and the digital, and addresses, among other things, the limitations these modes impose on the process. Though the book contains no math, it is quite abstract, its details at some remove from all the complex details about existing computers (then and now) or the messy wetware of the brain. That is to say, it is about the essential. Forget about the fact that computers are now quite different from those von Neumann knew, and forget about the fact that most of what we know about the brain was discovered since von Neumann’s death. In this book first class mind grappls with deep questions in simple, if abstract, terms. Reading it is a good work out.

Bonus: Simon’s Ant and Slocum’s Pilot

Think of this as a parable about computation, about how computational requirements depend on the problem to be solved. Stated that way, it is an obvious truism. But Simon’s thought experiment invites you to consider this truism where the “problem to be solved” is an environment external to the computer – it is thus reminiscent of Braitenberg’s primitive vehicles.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Sun showers

The third 20th-century revolution in physics [non-linear dynamics]

Ashutosh Jogalekar has an interesting article, The Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem: A foray into the beautifully simple and the simply beautiful (3 Quarks Daily, Jan 20, 2020) about an important foundational result in non-linear dynamics. From the conclusion:
Fermi’s sense of having made a “little discovery” has to be one of the great understatements of 20th century physics. The results that he, Ulam, Pasta and Tsingou obtained went beyond harmonic systems and the MANIAC. Until then there had been two revolutions in 20th century physics that changed our view of the universe – the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. The third revolution was quieter and started with French mathematician Henri Poincare who studied non-linear problems at the beginning of the century. It kicked into high gear in the 1960s and 70s but still evolved under the radar, partly because it spanned several different fields and did not have the flashy reputation that the then-popular fields of cosmology and particle physics had. The field went by several names, including “non-linear dynamics”, but the one we are most familiar with is chaos theory.

As James Gleick who gets the credit for popularizing the field in his 1987 book says, “Where chaos begins, classical science stops.” Classical science was the science of pen and pencil and linear systems. Chaos was the science of computers and non-linear systems. Fermi, Ulam, Pasta and Tsingou’s 1955 paper left little reverberations, but in hindsight it is seminal and signals the beginning of studies of chaotic systems in their most essential form. Not only did it bring non-linear physics which also happens to be the physics of real world problems to the forefront, but it signaled a new way of doing science by computer, a paradigm that is the forerunner of modeling and simulation in fields as varied as climatology, ecology, chemistry and nuclear studies. Gleick does not mention the report in his book, and he begins the story of chaos with Edward Lorenz’s famous meteorology experiment in 1963 where Lorenz discovered the basic characteristic of chaotic systems – acute sensitivity to initial conditions. His work led to the iconic figure of the Lorenz attractor where a system seems to hover in a complicated and yet simple way around one or two basins of attraction. But the 1955 Los Alamos work got there first. Fermi and his colleagues certainly demonstrated the pull of physical systems toward certain favored behavior, but the graphs also showed how dramatically the behavior would change if the coefficients for the quadratic and other non-linear terms were changed. The paper is beautiful. It is beautiful because it is simple.

It is also beautiful because it points to another, potentially profound ramification of the universe that could extend from the non-living to the living. The behavior that the system demonstrated was non-ergodic or quasiergodic. In simple terms, an ergodic system is one which visits all its states given enough time. A non-ergodic system is one which will gravitate toward certain states at the expense of others. This was certainly something Fermi and the others observed. Another system that as far as we know is non-ergodic is biological evolution. It is non-ergodic because of historical contingency which plays a crucial role in natural selection. At least on earth, we know that the human species evolved only once, and so did many other species. In fact the world of butterflies, bats, humans and whales bears some eerie resemblances to the chaotic world of pendulums and vibrating strings. Just like these seemingly simple systems, biological systems demonstrate a bewitching mix of the simple and the complex. Evolution seems to descend on the same body plans for instance, fashioning bilateral symmetry and aerodynamic shapes from the same abstract designs, but it does not produce the final product twice. Given enough time, would evolution be ergodic and visit the same state multiple times? We don’t know the answer to this question, and finding life elsewhere in the universe would certainly shed light on the problem, but the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem points to the non-ergodic behavior exhibited by complex systems that arise from simple rules. Biological evolution with its own simple rules of random variation, natural selection and neutral drift may well be a Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou problem waiting to be unraveled.
I'd like to add some observations:

1. It seems to me that quantum mechanics and relativity are focused on explanatory principles whereas non-linear dynamics tends more toward description, description of a wide variety of phenomena. Moreover quantum mechanics and relativity are most strongly operative in different domains, the microscopic and macroscopic respectively.

2. Back in the 1970s and 1980s Ilya Prigogine observed that living organisms are relatively large objects operating in the macroscopic domain, but the internal processes of individual cells are in touch with the microscopic quantum domain. So life exists in the overlap between those two domains.

3. And then we've got computation. In many cases there are various computational paths from the initial state to the completion of the computation. As a simple example, when adding a group of numbers, the order of the numbers doesn't matter; the sum will be the same in each case. In the case of non-linear systems successive states in the computation 'mirror' successive states in the system being modeled so the temporal evolution of the computation is intrinsic to the model rather than extrinsic.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sticker on a reflective sign in Hobken, photographed at night

Yuval Levin on the collapse of institutions in contemporary America

"Collapse" may not be quite the right word, but read these paragraphs from his current article in the NYTimes, How Did Americans Lose Faith in Everything?:
What stands out about our era in particular is a distinct kind of institutional dereliction — a failure even to attempt to form trustworthy people, and a tendency to think of institutions not as molds of character and behavior but as platforms for performance and prominence.

In one arena after another, we find people who should be insiders formed by institutions acting like outsiders performing on institutions. Many members of Congress now use their positions not to advance legislation but to express and act out the frustrations of their core constituencies. Rather than work through the institution, they use it as a stage to elevate themselves, raise their profiles and perform for the cameras in the reality show of our unceasing culture war.

President Trump clearly does the same thing. Rather than embodying the presidency and acting from within it, he sees it as the latest, highest stage for his lifelong one-man show. And he frequently uses it as he used some of the stages he commanded before he was elected: to complain about the government, as if he were not its chief executive.

The pattern is rampant in the professional world. Check in on Twitter right now, and you’ll find countless journalists, for instance, leveraging the hard-earned reputations of the institutions they work for to build their personal brands outside of those institutions’ structures of editing and verification — leaving the public unsure of just why professional reporters should be trusted. The same too often happens in the sciences, in law and in other professions meant to offer expertise.
And so forth with the academic world, religious institutions, artists, and athletes.

A very interesting formulation. Just how true it is, I can't say, but interesting to think about.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Fotos: Random one

TwoSet Violin – In synch and holding it in

I’ve been watching a lot of TwoSet Violin recently and wanted to bring two rather different videos to your attention. The title of the first is self-explanatory as, I suppose, the title of the second as well.

2 Boys 1 Violin

The premise is simple. One plays the violin with two hands, but do both hands have to belong to the same violinist? Not necessarily. In this video Brett and Eddy divide the execution chores between: one of them fingers the violin while the other wields the bow. They switch tasks back and forth between them from one composition to the next. The result is surprisingly good?

But what’s surprising about it? They’re both excellent musicians and, as such, have had a great deal of experience making music with other musicians. That requires close coordination. When playing in the violin section of an orchestra, all violinists in the section must necessarily play the same notes at the same time and with the same phrasing. That requires, among other things, that their left hands move along the fingerboards in the same way and that their right hands execute bowing motions in the same way. From that point of view it is an accident of physical circumstance that, for each violin, the fingering hand and the bowing hand happen to be attached to the same violinist. But that’s not a matter of logical necessity, only physical structure.

From my notes:
A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how the Jabba the Hutt puppet was manipulated. There were, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators for the puppet, one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just their little chunk of Jabba. So each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Of course, each had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. So each needed to see the whole to do that. That seems to me a very concrete analogy to what musicians have to do. Each plays only a part in the whole, but can hear the whole. [Here’s an old post spun out of this observation.]
In the case of these TwoSet performances we have, 1) a single violin instead of an elaborate electromechanical special effects puppet, and 2) Brett and Eddy instead of a team of half a dozen puppet operators. But the underlying principle is much the same.

In this video TwoSet in effect takes us behind the scenes two show us how this puppet (that is, the violin) is operated. What we see is, in effect, a single mind operating this strange double-body. Well, not quite. Their coordination isn’t perfect. For one thing, they aren’t the same height, and that causes problems here and there. And it seems that in at least one passage, they didn’t use the same fingering so bowing and fingering went haywire for awhile. Still, if they worked at it 40 hours a day, like Ling Ling, who doubts that they could blend the motions seamlessly?


Here they did violin covers suggested fans. They begin with a medley of Mary Had a Little Lamb and Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, with elaborations, and then onto BTS’ Mic Drop, which I’m not at all familiar with; Eddie dances, and both of them fiddle around, throwing in some classical references. And then they arrive at the MOST DIFFICULT JOHN CAGE at 07:00. You can imagine what that is.

Yes, 4’33”. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
4′33″ (pronounced "four minutes, thirty-three seconds" or just "four thirty-three")[1] is a three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence". The title of the piece refers to the total length in minutes and seconds of a given performance, 4′33″ being the total length of the first public performance.

Conceived around 1947–48, while the composer was working on Sonatas and Interludes, 4′33″ became for Cage the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music. It was also a reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism, which Cage had studied since the late 1940s. In a 1982 interview, and on numerous other occasions, Cage stated that 4′33″ was, in his opinion, his most important work.[9] The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes 4′33″ as Cage's "most famous and controversial creation".
And that it is, but it is not difficult in the sense that the word ordinarily has in reference to music, where it indicates technical difficulty. On the contrary, this piece is very easy to execute. The performers just sit or stand there doing nothing. It has a fairly extensive performance history.

Brett and Eddy make an elaborate show of not making any music (in the ordinary sense of the word). While they’re not making music – though Eddie does take violin in hand and is clearly fighting the temptation to play it while Brett stares at the ceiling – we see a digital clock counting out the minutes and seconds. Are they really going to stretch this nonsense out the whole four minutes and thirty-three seconds? Yes, it seems, they are. And they do. From about 04:15 to the end they are visibly suppressing the sounds of laughter, which breaks out at 04:33.

At this point I’m not sure what to say. I’ve known about this piece for decades. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a live performance of it, nor, for that matter, do I recall watching any other version on YouTube, though I’ve certainly come across them. Cage’s first book of essays, Silence, was very important to me in my undergraduate years, so I’ve got some understanding of and appreciation of the milieu surrounding Cage. A family friend, Jon Barlow, taught at Wesleyan University, where Cage had an affiliation. In the late 1990s when I was researching my book on music I visited Jon at Wesleyan and we performed one of Cage’s compositions. While it was only scored for piano, it was fundamentally improvisational in character and I was quite happy to play it with Jon (I play trumpet).

But all that’s incidental. It’s just my personal history, which now includes watching this video. I suppose there’s something to be said about the cultural trajectory that led from John Cage conceptualizing that piece in 1952 to TwoSet’s 2018 YouTube video. But that trajectory is a very diffuse one. It’s not as though there’s a single line of musical development that connects these two. In fact, one could reasonably say that there is no line of musical development between them at all. 4’33” is simply one piece of cultural material available to TwoSet, like Mary Had a Little Lamb, or Mic Drop.

Thomas Chatterton Williams on living in the muddle [abundance]

Thomas Chatterton Williams, An Incoherent Truth, Harper's Magazine, February 2020.
Like Nietzsche (and Schmitt), Hannah Arendt argued forcefully that life is perspectival: reality appears different from different angles. It is made most legible through an abundance of views. It is only “guaranteed by the presence of others.” Depending on one’s standpoint, progress can seem like regress just as stasis can look like motion. The rapid demographic shifts of our society—and the increasing visibility and audibility of many identities and voices—may appear to one American as a threat, while to another they are a form of hope and even deliverance. This is to be expected, and it is the duty of the thoughtful person not to proscribe, ignore, or “cancel,” but to take measure, persuade, and engage. Of course, edifying sermons about a moderate and compromising consensus will never pierce as deep as the primal and particular certainties and grievances that animate our politics.

An inconvenient fact of human life is that we cannot and never have been able to neatly add it up. To do so would be a distortion of what it means to be alive. “Something in the soul . . . seeks release in transgression or transcendence,” wrote Mark Lilla about the life and work of Daniel Bell, himself an erstwhile adherent who demonstrated that modern societies could never be interpreted through a single set of laws. “Every orthodoxy brings in its train heterodoxies and heresies that would destroy it. The more rigid the orthodoxy, the more likely they are to prevail.” What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity. Yet we must also acknowledge that one of the more frightening lessons of the Trump victory has to do with the implacability of tribalism and extremism in our society. A total reconciliation may never come about, and this lamentable enmity may be a permanent fact of our lives.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Eat what you love, love what you eat, in Midtown Manhattan

Nina Paley on sex and life

Nina Paley reflects on sex and her complex experience of it in, My Sex-Positive Memoirs, 4W, January 14, 2020. It's mostly about her years in San Francisco in the 1990s. Near the beginning:
A horny, childfree, sex-loving, non-monogamous (that’s another story) heterosexual young woman should have had no trouble finding sex partners, yet this was not the case. I did find a few men to have sex with—once. They would have sex once, then I’d never hear from them again. Even finding such men was difficult.

Why was I pursuing non-committal, “empty” sex anyway? Sure I loved sex, but I didn’t understand it.

I had received plenty of sex education: my mother worked for Planned Parenthood, and my childhood was filled with earnest Liberal sex-education books like “How Babies Are Made” and “What’s Happening to Me?” Throughout my teens and young adulthood, I was encouraged to talk about sex, to “communicate,” so I would be spared the repressive hang-ups of my mother’s generation. I was naturally drawn to the Sex-Positive circles of San Francisco, where we talked and talked and talked about sex. But this “sex education” - all the Liberal discourse around sex - unwittingly encouraged dissociation: we could only talk about the body as a thing that does acts. Much of our intellectualism was a defense against vulnerability and what we dreaded most: shame. We separated sex from love and relationships; we thought that was progressive and empowering.

Overall, I wish we had shut up about sex more, and mediated it less. Mechanics aside, sex is a mystery, to be experienced directly and personally. Talking about sex is as useful as talking about God. Mediating spiritual experience does nothing to enhance such experience, but it does allow manipulation of seekers, giving rise to cults.
Toward the middle:
Was I supposed to save myself for Love? I’d already been in love, several times, and my lovers imploded and left me. Men found me “too intense.” No one wanted my love, not even me. The idea of men loving me for who I actually was was long gone. No one wanted my soul, but some wanted my body, which was thin at last, and with makeup, a wig, and high heels was literally a hot commodity.

I was well aware I was supposed to be cautious, and took precautions; I only responded to solicitations specifying “no nudity” and “no sex” (both of which turned out to be laughable, and are tactics still used to this day to recruit young, vulnerable women). I was also aware that I was supposed to feel ashamed. I spent a lot of time considering shame, and rejecting it: I wasn’t harming anyone (ha!), my choices were informed, my eyes were open. Sex was nothing to be ashamed of. Objectifying my own body was nothing to be ashamed of: all the strippers, prostitutes, and porn models/directors who spoke at SFSI made that clear. It was work, it was art, it was expression. No shame in objectification: we are all objects, we live in a material world. Nothing wrong with exchange for money, either; we exchange all kinds of goods and services for money, why are bodies and sex any different?

Now-me knows sex is different, and bodies are not commodities. Then-me simply wouldn’t have believed it. The body is sacred? Nothing is sacred in this world. Was I supposed to just cloister myself, be abstinent until Mr. Right came along? There is no Mr. Right, there was no one who would understand and respect and love me the way I needed to be loved, and time was ticking away while my very temporal body was at its peak of beauty and my hormones were screaming “fuck! fuck! fuck!” [...]

A hot body is often the biggest asset many young women have. We are lucky if we have hot, conventionally attractive bodies. All my years developing my mind and talents meant nothing compared to my brief moment of hot-boddedness. Men who were never impressed by my art would fall over themselves to buy me drinks and otherwise attend to me when I went out in a wig and makeup. I actually felt sorry for these men, so helplessly conditioned they were to respond to stupid gender cues, their feeble minds taken over by mediated programming. Do I pity them still? As much as I pity anyone who surrenders personal responsibility and critical thinking in favor of unexamined social programming. Such people are pathetic—and authoritarian, dangerous enablers.

For about a year, I enabled them myself, by dressing up as the male idea of a sexy woman: drag.
Toward the end:
My 20’s were hard. So was my childhood. So is right now. I’m not entitled to a do-over of childhood, youth, or last week. Do I regret the choices I’ve made? Yes, in the sense I wouldn’t make those same choices again. But no in the sense that all of those choices made me who I am, and I like myself. I did stupid things because I didn’t know any better, and the only way for me to learn was to do the stupid things I did. It’s not like “sex work will hurt you” was any secret. Warnings against it were plentiful but not persuasive, and besides, I’d found my way into a kind of cult. The herd I homed to was all about sex work, porn, objectification, and “non-judgement”; who was I gonna listen to, them or a bunch of repressed prudes?

Now I’m in menopause, and have hardly any libido anyway. Whether that’s due to the permanent scars of my “sex-positive” 20’s, or the natural exhaustion of my ovaries, I do not know. Many or most women slow down a lot sexually in their 50’s, yet sex is still worshiped throughout our culture. Much of our population couldn’t care less about sex, even while it permeates all media as the be-all and end-all of life. Sex in advertising, sex in novels, sex in movies, sex on television, sex, sex, sex — and most women over 50 don’t give a damn. Many women under 50 do, but we have to see sex from the male perspective all the damn time, because men still make most media. We objectify ourselves.

It is a relief to not be horny all the time any more. It’s also unnerving, because in this society we’re supposed to be horny. Except when I was horny, men didn’t like that either. Women are either out-of-control nymphomaniacs, or dried-up prudes.

Or maybe, just maybe, women’s sexuality doesn’t exist to please men.

I just wish it had pleased me.

Of Music and Roller Coasters

Last in the video in Sunday's post on the TwoSet Violin interview with Hilary Hahn she makes a number of comments using an analogy between music and riding a roller coaster (at about 1:07:09). Yes! Some thoughts:
This is from my notes, about 10 years ago or so. I’m using a roller coaster ride as an analogy for the subjective experience of listening (and even dancing) to music.

Basic Analogy

One thing you frequently find when reading about music, especially musicological material about Western art music in the so-called classical tradition, are discussions of large-scale structure. Some of these are relatively informal, but others may be quite detailed and rigorous, even formal (in a logical or mathematical sense). In any case, these discussions purport to be about something that really exists in the music.

This brings up a problem (which has been discussed at least since the late 19th century, see Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment, Cornell UP, 1997): we don’t seem hear or experience music that way. It’s easy enough to take in a whole painting, for example, in a single glance. But we never take in music that way. Music arrives note by note. We can anticipate some ways into the future, we can recall what we heard, and we have the sense that we’ve heard something like this before, but we never grasp it all at once. Various psychological experiments indicate that the present extends about 3 or 4 seconds; that is to say, our conscious awareness covers that much time, but no more.

Given that, what are we to make of the large-scale structures revealed by analysts and often consciously constructed by composers? Ultimately I think the issue can only be resolved by understanding how the brain works, but short of that, I propose an analogy: the roller coaster.

Even as we’re approaching the amusement park we can see the roller coaster snaking around high in the air. We can take it all in at a single glance and we can focus our attention its various parts. But no matter how much we visually inspect the form, how much we think about it, that’s not going to give us the sensations we get from riding the roller coaster.

Things begin to change once we’re strapped in and it starts moving. We can no longer see the whole structure, but only what’s in front and to the side (though, with some effort, we can turn our heads so that we’re looking directly behind us). Some part of the roller coaster is very very close while other parts are more distant.

But that’s secondary to the vigorous vestibular, haptic, and kinesthetic sensations we experience while riding. We may also be anticipating what’s about to happen -- especially during the long and relatively slow ride up the first “rise.” These sensations are what the ride is about; these sensations are, in the physical nature of things, closely linked to the over all form we observed from a distance, but they do not in any way depend on our knowledge of that form. If, when we first approached the amusement park, we had been blindfolded so that we never saw the roller coaster, and thus had no knowledge of its form, we would still get the vestibular, haptic, and kinesthetic sensations that are the object of the ride.

And this, in some sense, is how music works. It is a device for producing sensations. Those sensations are a function of the device’s form, but we don’t need to know that form in order to experience the sensations.