Sunday, December 10, 2017

Bicycles in the snow


On the binding of word forms to structures of meaning: A quick note on computing in the mind

The basic linguistic process is the binding of word forms to structures of meaning. I think that is an irreducibly computational process. Just how that computation works, that’s unknown. I note that the semantic system is richly structured and that much of syntax derives from that.

It is not necessarily the case that all the processes involved are themselves computational. The fact that we can simulate a neural net, at various levels of detail, on a digital computer does not mean that the neural net is itself computational, any more than simulating an atomic explosion implies that such explosions are computational.

Finally, I note that, when David Hays and I wrote “Principles and development of natural intelligence” (abstract below), we asserted that indexing is what transformed apes into humans. It was indexing that gave us language as we now know it.

More later.

* * * * *

William L. Benzon and David G. Hays. Principles and development of natural intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 1988, pp. 293-322.

Abstract: The phenomena of natural intelligence can be grouped into five classes, and a specific principle of information processing, implemented in neural tissue, produces each class of phenomena. (1) The modal principle subserves feeling and is implemented in the reticular formation. (2) The diagonalization principle subserves coherence and is the basic principle, implemented in neocortex. (3) Action is subserved by the decision principle, which involves interlinked positive and negative feedback loops, and resides in modally differentiated cortex. (4) The problem of finitization resolves into a figural principle, implemented in secondary cortical areas; figurality resolves the conflict between pro-positional and Gestalt accounts of mental representations. (5) Finally, the phenomena of analysis reflect the action of the indexing principle, which is implemented through the neural mechanisms of language.

These principles have an intrinsic ordering (as given above) such that implementation of each principle presupposes the prior implementation of its predecessor. This ordering is preserved in phylogeny: (1) mode, vertebrates; (2) diagonalization, reptiles; (3) decision, mammals; (4) figural, primates; (5) indexing. Homo sapiens sapiens. The same ordering appears in human ontogeny and corresponds to Piaget's stages of intellectual development, and to stages of language acquisition.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Trees and branches


Don Giovanni on the front page

Writing in Musicology Now, the blog of the American Musicological Society, Kristi Brown-Montesano takes a look at Mozart's Don Giovanni, an opera about a sexual predator and rapist. She concludes:
Many of the acclaimed men who are now facing serious consequences for sexual harassment and assault have long operated in a culture that preferred to look the other way, not least because corporate employers and board members saw these men as too big to fail. Their brand was more important than the rights of alleged victims. The classical music world is no less implicated in this gentleman’s agreement. There have long been rumors and “open secrets” around conductors and applied teachers, who are often gatekeepers to major career opportunities. And few such secrets have been more open than those around James Levine, operating at the very heart of opera culture in this country. The self-interested and institutional protections around these men are finally--finally--toppling under the broad societal pressure for serious investigation.

Don Giovanni falls into a parallel category: an art product whose aesthetic value and guaranteed box-office receipts have deflected critical charges against the main character. My program note for Bilbao drew a hard line: the only way to make Don Giovanni worthy of our time, if indeed that is possible at all, is to listen more closely to the women. And if we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Friday Fotos: From yesterday's shoot






Calculating meaning in “Kubla Khan” – a rough cut

KK in Arches

In the spring of 1969 I became interested in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan". In the fall of 1970 I began drafting a master's thesis on the poem, hoping to create the kind of theory necessary to make sense out of its underlying logic. The theory didn't happen, but I discovered that the poem had an elaborate structure, one that (extensive) prior criticism had utterly failed to notice. In the fall of 1973 I went off to graduate school, hoping to create the theory I had been unable to create for my master's thesis. While the work I did with David Hays in linguistics was deeply satisfying, it wasn't the theory "Kubla Khan" required.

But that time the poem had become the touchstone of my intellectual life. I returned to it from time to time, thinking about it often and publishing on it in the the late 1980s and then again in the early 2000s. That last article was an advance over the previous one, but still not what the poem required.

I now believe I know what the poem requires and have posted a sketch under the title of this post. Here's the abstract:
Abstract: "Kubla Khan" and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" are constructed on utterly different schemes, though they share some of the same underlying components. "Kubla Khan" is ontological and impersonal in character and makes extensive use of convolution in calculating meanings. It reveals the structure of Being. "Lime-Tree Bower" is narrative and personal and makes little or no use of convolution. It reveals the unfolding of subjectivity in Time. The two poems also differ in their versification, a differences which is related to their different strategies of meaning.

If you're interested in discussing it, you can do so here:

When I say, I know what the poem requires, what does that mean? It means that, as far as I can tell, the conceptual space we need for understanding that poem is now "closed". The article outlines the nature of that closure. It will require a book to do significantly better, a book that integrates the ideas in this article with my previous work. The task of actually constructing a deep and satisfying account of the poem within that conceptual space will require the work of investigators having intellectual skills that I lack.

Is the study of English Lit going to implode in the next quarter century?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

All the fine grasses




Small groups and long memories make for cooperation

In a new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, University of Pennsylvania researchers use game theory to demonstrate the complex set of traits that can promote the evolution of cooperation. Their analysis showed that smaller groups in which actors had longer memories of their fellow group members' actions were more likely to evolve cooperative strategies.

The work suggests one possible advantage of the human's powerful memory capacity: it has fed our ability as a society to cooperate.

"In the past we've looked at the interactions of two players to determine the most robust evolutionary strategies," said Joshua B. Plotkin, a professor in Penn's Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences. "Our new analysis allows for scenarios in which players can react to the behaviors and strategies of multiple other players at once. It gives us a picture of a much richer set of social interactions, a picture that is likely more representative of the complexities of human behavior."
For the original researh: Alexander J. Stewart et al, Small groups and long memories promote cooperation, Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep26889
Abstract: Complex social behaviors lie at the heart of many of the challenges facing evolutionary biology, sociology, economics, and beyond. For evolutionary biologists the question is often how group behaviors such as collective action, or decision making that accounts for memories of past experience, can emerge and persist in an evolving system. Evolutionary game theory provides a framework for formalizing these questions and admitting them to rigorous study. Here we develop such a framework to study the evolution of sustained collective action in multi-player public-goods games, in which players have arbitrarily long memories of prior rounds of play and can react to their experience in an arbitrary way. We construct a coordinate system for memory-m strategies in iterated n-player games that permits us to characterize all cooperative strategies that resist invasion by any mutant strategy, and stabilize cooperative behavior. We show that, especially when groups are small, longer-memory strategies make cooperation easier to evolve, by increasing the number of ways to stabilize cooperation. We also explore the co-evolution of behavior and memory. We find that even when memory has a cost, longer-memory strategies often evolve, which in turn drives the evolution of cooperation, even when the benefits for cooperation are low. 

Night vision



Tweet of the Day: Dance to Despacito

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

How the peculiar power of Ta-Nehisi Coates feeds on white guilt and despair

Brendan O'Neill, in Spiked:
His insights are bleak; they are for the most part an intellectualised version of the 21st-century politics of identity and victimhood, so that, in the words of one of his growing number of black critics, in Coates’ moral universe ‘whiteness and wrongness… become interchangeable’. Indeed, Coates’ obsession with whiteness ends up displacing black agency and autonomy — as the victim-oriented new politics of identity is wont to do — because in his ‘whiteness-as-talisman’ worldview, ‘those deemed white remain [America’s] primary actors’. So ironically — but logically, too, given that the politics of identity in its current incarnation is devoted largely to the diminution of the individual and the folding of him and her into victimised groups to which things happen, rather than the treatment of him or her as an individual who can make things happen — Coates’ anti-whiteness centres white people, makes them the adults of the story, gives them all the potential action — to observe themselves, correct themselves, better themselves — while blacks are mere ‘bodies’ for whom history is a violent act upon themselves rather than something they act upon. (Coates continually uses the term ‘black bodies’ to refer to black people.)

No, it isn’t his style and certainly not his optimism — there is none — that endears Coates to the liberal establishment, and most passionately to the white sections of it. Rather, this increasingly spiritual and needy celebration of Coates speaks to one of the darker, more socially destructive elements of the latest manifestation of the politics of identity: the use of historic black suffering to justify the self-loathing and fear of the future of the late, decadent bourgeoisie; the privileging, indeed, of the painful black experience as a means not of ensuring historic clarity about past events but as a key prop, the starring role, in fact, in the contemporary political establishment’s turning against its founding values and loss of faith in its project.

Coates plays a very important role for today’s American elites: he provides them with an intellectual justification for their growing dearth of belief in their republic and its values; he is an external expression of their internal crisis of historic legitimacy and purpose. He is less an independent thinker, in the mould of WEB Du Bois or James Baldwin, than a literary manifestation of the American establishment’s own turn against itself and its search for a proof that makes sense as to why it is right to do that.
The birth of 'black privilege':
In recent years, particularly from the 1960s, many thinkers have observed the shift of the left’s focus away from class to identity, from social relations and questions of economic power towards narrower, though of course legitimate concerns about inequality among people of different backgrounds. In more recent years, there has been a further shift in the post-1960s rehabilitation of the politics of identity by those who profess to be left — a move away even from the tangible if limited question of inequality towards more therapeutic notions of pain and recognition; of the right of identity groups not merely to have equal access to public life but to feel validated in their self-professed suffering and to be accorded resources or respect on that basis. As Christopher Lasch argued in his 1985 book, The Minimal Self, ‘the victim has come to enjoy a certain moral superiority in our society’; we have witnessed the ‘moral elevation of the victim’. Competing groups now ‘vie for the privileged status of victims’, as Lasch said.

And this creates a situation where they increasingly ‘appeal not to to the universal rights of citizenship but to a special experience of persecution’, Lasch argued. In short, where a society organised around democratic ideals, around the idea of the self-willed individual and his freedom to shape his life and even political life as he saw fit, naturally encouraged people to appeal to the ideal of citizenship — to demonstrate their capacity for citizenship — a society organised around the victim, around the sanctification of having experienced suffering, naturally invites people to disavow their capacity for citizenship and instead to accentuate their frailty, their insufficiency, their helplessness. This ‘moral elevation of the victim’ has intensified, enormously, since 1985, so that the demand and the living of the universal rights of citizenship have now almost entirely given way to the project of cultivating self-weakness and dismantling one’s citizenship. And these shifts in the modern politics of identity have had a particularly profound impact on black politics, and on the cultural privileging of the black experience. [...]

Coates represents, in many ways, the pinnacle of these developments, the embodiment of the privileging of the black experience by those who have experienced a profound and existential ‘loss of faith in the future’, in Lasch’s words. This is why white liberals venerate him and need him like they need air and water: he provides the story for their crisis of belief; his biographical experience gives coherence to their jettisoning of faith in universal values and the project of the American republic; his often pornographic focus on America’s alleged disgust with and ongoing torture of ‘black bodies’ titillates their own sense of self-loathing, and complicity, and guilt. The guilt of the republics, the shame of the Enlightenment — key themes of our misanthropic era.

And so white liberals actively welcome Coates’ chastising of them and their culture and history. Writing in Elle, the white liberal broadcaster Sally Kohn said all white people, especially white women, should read Coates because his ‘sharp edges’ and ‘hard truths’ will force whites to face ‘brutal reality’. It is ‘impossible to read [him] without wincing’, she says, ‘and it should be’. Because ‘discomfort is progress’. ‘Get even more uncomfortable’, she tells her fellow wealthy, well-connected white liberals, and then ‘spend the rest of your life’ thinking about what Coates says. This is not reading for intellectual expansion or pleasure — it is reading as self-punishment, the use of black pain to justify white self-loathing and liberal self-doubt. A perversely symbiotic relationship has developed between Coates and his largely white liberal readership, the former dutifully providing horror stories about ‘black bodies’, the latter dutifully lapping them up and feeling disgusted with themselves for their part in it all. This isn’t intellectualism — it’s a public performance of identitarian S&M.
H/t Glenn Loury.

On the beach: nature, culture




Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Dizzy Gillespie, “21st-century Gabriel”

Writing in The American Scholar David Grogan has given us what is perhaps the best short introduction to the life and achievement of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie. Some excepts follow:
October 21, 2017, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Dizzy was a consummate showman: a trumpet virtuoso with blowfish cheeks and horn bent heavenward who in his prime played faster and higher than anyone before or since. In the popular imagination, he was typecast as the steadfast sidekick to saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, whose meteoric ascent into the jazz firmament and descent into heroin addiction fit the romantic archetype of an artistic genius doomed to die young. The late jazz critic Leonard Feather’s characterization of Dizzy as a “21st-century Gabriel” was more astute. Dizzy sounded a clarion call for the bebop revolution with his dazzling pyrotechnics on trumpet and harmonic innovations as a composer and arranger; expanded the ranks of the jazz vanguard by translating what Bird, Thelonious Monk, and other visionaries were doing into a language aspiring musical insurgents could understand; and then unleashed a host of ancestral spirits from the African diaspora by adding Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian polyrhythms to the mix. He exuded a spirit of joy both on and off stage that reflected his faith in the disarming power of music and laughter to promote racial harmony and world peace, and he was unabashedly “dizzy,” a scatterbrained genius, full of boundless kinetic energy, who left a trail of madcap mayhem behind him.
“In traditional African societies, they say there are times when the creator sends down musical prophets to lift up our spirits,” says pianist Randy Weston. “Dizzy was one of those prophets.” In the late 1940s, Weston was helping his father run a soul food restaurant in their Brooklyn brownstone and met Dizzy around the corner at drummer Max Roach’s house, a favorite hangout for beboppers. What left the most indelible impression on Weston was seeing Dizzy onstage with his Afro-Cuban orchestra, which featured the conga player Chano Pozo. “During the slave era,” Weston says, “the African drum was outlawed in America because our ancestors still remembered how you talk with the drum. They couald take a drum and send a message 20 miles away. When Dizzy had this jet-black Cuban propel his entire orchestra with one drum—bom de bop shoo bop shoo bam—that was a revolution.” Pozo’s style of percussion on “Manteca” and “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” echoed the rhythms of Dizzy’s Yoruba ancestors. “The pulse of Mother Africa, which connects us as a global people, was at the heart of all his music,” says Weston.
The contradictions of genius:
“People didn’t recognize the full scope of Dizzy’s musical genius,” Schifrin says. “They thought he played too many notes. But like Mozart, he played exactly the notes he needed. He was a master of both harmony and melody. And no matter how fast he played, not one note was out of place.”

“He had an IQ of a million, but he couldn’t walk across a room without dropping something,” says Charles “Whale” Lake, who was Dizzy’s road manager for nearly a quarter century. “Every time we got into a limo to leave a hotel, I’d say, ‘Wait a second, John, I think I forgot something.’ Then I’d go back up to his room and find a trail of clothes, books, money, rolls of film, his passport. He was very unkempt.”
Clap your hands:
One evening, in his basement rec room, Dizzy gave me an impromptu lesson in rhythm. “White people clap their hands one two one two, but this goes one and two and one and two and,” he said. Then he began demonstrating a polyrhythmic pattern with his hands and feet while chanting, “Way down south in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten.” He chuckled as I struggled to match the dancelike movements of his limbs and keep a steady pulse by stomping on the downbeat with the heel of my right foot. “Whooee, our music is spiritually inspired,” he said.
Diz and Bird:
In 1947, Bird surprised Dizzy when he showed up at his first major concert at Car-negie Hall. “He walked out on stage with a rose,” Dizzy said. “It probably cost him his last 75 cents.” Even though the two teamed up for several historic concerts and recordings in the years that followed, Bird’s erratic behavior gradually tore them apart. Dizzy was forever haunted by his last encounter with Bird, a week before his death in March 1955. “I ran into him at a club called the Embers, on 52nd Street in New York, and he looked so sad. He said, ‘Save me.’ I said, ‘Man, nobody can save you. You have to save yourself.’ When I heard he died, it broke me up. I thought I would never get over it.”
His wife, Lorraine:
Dizzy credited one person with making sure he didn’t get sucked into a vortex of self-destruction like Bird. “My wife, Lorraine, is my Rock of Gibraltar,” he said. When they met in 1937, paying gigs were scarce for Dizzy and she was a petite young widow earning subsistence wages as a member of a traveling troupe of chorus girls. Dizzy was attracted by her lissome beauty and wicked sense of humor, as well as her moral rectitude. “While the rest of the chorus girls were up in the wings looking for musicians who would take them to after-hours joints, she’d be down in the dressing room, knitting or crocheting or reading.” At first she ignored the mash notes Dizzy sent her. But their romance blossomed after she saw him begging outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem for 15 cents to buy a bowl a soup. Lorraine curbed Dizzy’s reckless spending, helped him negotiate with shady booking agents, and brought a sense of emotional stability to his life.
His woman on the side and the mother of his only child:
Bryson’s affair with Dizzy continued for several years while she struggled to raise Jeanie on a paltry income from a variety of temporary jobs. “The money I got from Dizzy was irregular, and only when I saw him in person,” she says. Everything changed after she pressed for steady child support and Lorraine found out about Jeanie. “All hell broke loose. Lorraine had to deal with three really hurtful things. One: I was 20 years younger than her. Two: I was white. But the real kicker: I had the baby. Dizzy later told me, ‘She never lets me forget it. She just sits in the house and doesn’t say anything.’ ” Dizzy formally agreed to make monthly child support payments of $125. Bryson’s relationship with Dizzy unraveled after that. “I never had any illusions that he and I were going to ride off into the sunset together,” she says. “But I was madly in love with this man, madly in love. And he loved Jeanie.”
There's more – the article goes on through his conversion to Baha'i to his death, but these excerpts will have to do. It's an excellent article.

I met Gillespie twice, once in Baltimore after a concert he gave at Morgan State in the early 1970s, and once in Buffalo at a club in the mid-1970s, where I was introduced to him by Frank Foster, who was teaching at SUNY Buffalo at the time. I opened for him once, in Albany in 1984.

Tim Burke on contemporary politics in the USofA

Hand style found in Hoboken