Monday, May 31, 2010

New Savanna Status Report 2

At roughly 6:30 AM on Friday 28 May 2010 New Savanna had it’s 2000th unique visitor. As I draft this post, a bit after 6 PM on 31 May 2010 we have had 2133 unique visitors. Here’s the count for the last 30 days:

The striking thing, of course, is that spike in 19 May. I haven’t got the foggiest idea what that’s about. I did some goggling that day to see if NS got mentioned somewhere that would have driven some traffic here, but I couldn’t find anything. So it’s a mystery.

Things settled down quickly after that spike, with a mild uptake late last week. Was that in anticipation of the holiday weekend in the USA? That is, people began spending more time cruising the web as they pull mental energy from work and sink it into the weekend barbeque, or whatever.

I’ve concluded the series on race in the symbolic universe with a post that links that material to the topic of cultural evolution, which is a major one for New Savanna – it’s what NS is all about. The current series on cultural evolution, which is aimed at formulating a useful conception of the distinction between the cultural meme and the cultural phenotype, will continue through the end of June. And the series on Mark Moffett’s Adventures Among Ants will continue until I’ve finished reading the book, which will be in another week or three – I read these things slowly these days, as I’m more interesting in writing.

I’ve decided to work up a post on the “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence from Disney’s Dumbo, but don’t know whether than will happen in a week or a month. I’d also like to publish some old notes in which I argue that W. E. B. Du Bois’ Dusk of Dawn has an overall ritual structure similar to that in, e.g. Shakespearean comedy, and that despite the fact that DD is non-fiction (it’s du Bois’ intellectual autobiography). There’s the passage of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” that I’d like to play around with, and some more work on anime. And then there’s the 50/50 business model that Ed Beauchamp and C. J. Duffy have come up with for their travel biz; you donate 50% of gross revenues to a non-profit foundation and thereby rake in a bundle. Sounds crazy? It is, but it just might work.

And so it goes.

Phone Home

In graffiti-speak, these are known as characters. Characters could be human or animal, or even robotic. They can be borrowed from some other source, or they could be made-up by the graffiti writer. "Classically," characters appear as elements in a larger composition. In this case, the characters are the whole deal. These are by Kid Zoom and are along Rt. 139 in Jersey City, NJ, about a mile west of the Holland Tunnel. If you jump over that wall, you'll fall 70 or 80 feet down into the Erie Cut, aka the Bergen Arches.

Moffett on Ants 2: Photography as thinking and Conceptual calibration

Another in my series of notes on Mark Moffett’s Adventures Among Ants.
In the first note, written before I began reading the book, I set up an analogy between a swarm of bees and the human brain. In my second note, I continued with the brain analogy, specifically the reticular formation, and considered Marks thoughts about the emergence of coordinated collective behavior in the ant colony. Now I want to go “meta,” first with a note on photography, and then with some thoughts about conceptual calibration.

Photography as thinking

On page 41 Moffett has this nice little paragraph:
Such thoughts reflect how caught up I was in the drama of the moment, pressing the button of my camera each time a surprising event happened. I saw that the minor workers were able to stretch the legs of the termite soldier until she was spread-eagled (click). By this time the raid front had advanced beyond the victim, who was now deep within the swarm. Here the media and major workers roamed in numbers (click). The large ants were as plucky as the minors, and they had the size and mandibular power to be worthy of the designation “soldier”: but by dint of their location, most of them joined the fray at the termite only after the prey was felled (click).
Taking photographs, of course, is a way of documenting what you see. But, as this paragraph makes clear, it’s not necessarily the case that one first sees, then one goes out and searches for the appropriate shot to illustrate what one has seen. Rather, the act of taking photographs is deeply embedded in the basic process of observing and thinking.

Remember, ants are small and cameras have lenses that magnify small things. Looking through the camera is one of the ways Moffett sees what’s going on. He observes through the camera and must, perforce, think about what it is that he is seeing. What’s going on now? Do I need a photo? And I rather suspect that clicking the shutter does two things: 1) it causes the photograph to be taken and 2) it helps register the scene in Moffett’s mind.

Conceptual Calibration

What do I mean by conceptual calibration? There was a time when we believed that only humans made and used tools. And then someone observed chimps stripping twigs of leaves and poking the twigs into termite nests to fish out the termites. Tool use, no longer exclusively human. Well, there’s language, right? Then chimps learned to sign in American sign language. Language, no longer exclusively human. But, culture, there’s culture, no? Then a band of macaques learned to wash potatoes and the adults taught the young how to do this. Whoops, now monkeys have culture. We have elephants making paintings. And birdsong is learned, not genetic. Culture, no longer exclusively human.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Shooting Space

I keep telling myself that one of the things that interests me as a photographer is space, I want to shoot space. How do you shoot space? No, you can’t shoot space itself, you can only shoot objects in space. But I’m interested in images where the visible objects somehow strongly imply the existence of the space in which they exist, sometimes by all-but denying that space. This shot is a case in point:

The image has at least six more or less distinct planes, starting from the front:

1) The bush at the lower right is within, say, 50 yards of where I’m standing, which is on the lower part of the Jersey Palisades in an area of Jersey City, NJ, known as the Heights.

2) The apartment building to the left is in Hoboken, NJ, which is, shall we say, “carved out” of the northeast corner of Jersey City.

3) The large building dominating the middle of the image is in Jersey City at the northern end of the Downtown area. It’s two blocks long and used to be a freight terminal for the Erie Lackawanna Railroad. Now it serves various purposes.

4) The building above the right end of the Erie-Lackawanna building is the top of an apartment building on 10th St. in Jersey city.

5) The more distant buildings left of center near the top are also in Jersey City – they don’t look like NYC office buildings.

6) Finally, in the far distance we see the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which goes across the mouth of New York harbor.

The camera “squeezes out” all the space between those objects and puts the on the same image plane. Nonetheless, various visual clues (which are spelled out in any elementary text on visual perception) tell that these objects are not in the same plane, that they are separated by some noticeable distances. Those distances, they’re the space that I’m shooting.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Natural Geometry 2: fractal meshwork

Up there we have something clearly in the foreground in the center of the image. The center is empty in the next image. It's just space. Notice the blurred weed sticking in from the lower right.

Now we see a wall of weeds, lots of strong verticals:

In this last image we step back to see the forest behind the weeds:

Compare this series with the cityscapes in Urban Geometry 2: chaos and repose. The scale is very different. Those cityscapes depict a relatively large area, a large volume of space; while these plantscapes are on a much smaller scale. Yet the differences of scale are irrelevant to my photographic purpose, which his about geometry and space. The two geometries are very different. The cityscapes are about straight lines and right angles while the plant scapes are many-angled and lines vary from fairly straight to variously curved and bent. But, in both cases, what really interests me are volumes, the 3D space carved out by the objects and, in particular, the voids between objects.

These photos are from my Natural Geometry set at Flickr.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Solo Gigs

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes

n the first post in this series I showed that, while Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll apparently differ on the importance of cultural evolution in relation to biological, their common acceptance of gene-cultural evolution gives them no “sharp” way of defining their difference – a problem that’s worse for Richerson than Carroll, as his is the more subtle position. My second post expressed dissatisfaction with Richerson’s position on informal intuitive grounds – I called it a phenomenological gut-check – similar to those Carroll used to dismiss Miller and Pinker on the adaptiveness of the arts, and Dawkins used to dismiss a purely biological approach to human behavior. Now I’m ready to begin laying out my own views on cultural evolution, views which are very much in flux.

But first, some preliminary throat-clearing.

Thoughts on where Dawkins went wrong

While I don’t by any means dismiss biology as being relevant to the study of human behavior – I’ve got too heavy an investment in brain-based approaches – I do think that the evolution of culture needs to be approached as a phenomenon more or less “within” culture itself, much as Martindale or Dawkins approach it. Though on the whole he seems a bit muddled on this point, Dawkins’ key insight is that, in the cultural evolutionary process, selection operates on cultural entities and not on human phenotypes. That is to say, the evolutionary costs and benefits accrue directly to cultural entities, not to the human beings who create and consume them. There are cases where cultural entities seem to thrive at the expense of humans, but this is a secondary matter and, in the large scope, not worth the attention that’s been lavished on them in popular discussions.

In the biological realm, of course, it is phenotypes, bodies, that are the object of selection. But Dawkins says otherwise with respect to culture (The Selfish Gene, p. 199, using his standard anthropomorphic language): “Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected.” Some confusion arises because Dawkins thinks of memes as the cultural analog to genes, and genes are not the direct target of biological selection. Selection works directly on phenotypes, and only indirectly on genes. It is the phenotypes that thrive or die through interaction with the environment. Dawkins has no clear conception of what the cultural analogy to the phenotype might be – nor do his followers. Better, perhaps, they have no clear conception of how to draw a distinction between a cultural phenotype and cultural gene and so tend to use memes in both roles as seems locally expeditious. In fact, Dawkins often abandons the meme-gene analogy and thinks of the meme as a virus, thus obviating the need for a phenotype analog.

I suspect one thing that’s throwing Dawkins off is his (and everyone else’s it would seem) implicit theoretical imagery. Considered as physical entities, phenotypes are relatively large while genes are relatively small. Further, genes are physically contained within phenotypes, not vice versa. When we transfer this implicit imagery into the cultural realm we are led to think of memes as relatively little things that must be enclosed in some relatively large thing, such as the human brain. Hence, we have the common notion of memes as quasi-autonomous agents hopping around from brain to brain, taking over mental real estate, and often driving their “hosts” to irrational acts, like believe in God, psychoanalysis, or Marxism.

This kind of thinking has led nowhere. It’s time to hit the resent button. We need cultural analogs for both the gene and the phenotype, and individual human phenotypes are not going to play either role. How can we do this?

Musical performance as a cultural analog to the phenotype

What’s important are the causal relations among our theoretical entities. As reconceived in the 20th century, the basic Darwinian process is one of random variation among gene entities and selective retention of phenotype entities. Thus it is the phenotypical entity that interacts with the environment. The gene entity plays a different role.

On this point Martindale (1990) has it right. People like certain cultural things and not others. Those they prefer get passed around while the others are forgotten. So the cultural entities (practices or objects) must be our phenotypical entities and the social group is the environment in which they must survive. Why do I say this? Because this seems to me the most obvious fit between cultural process as we observe it and the causal roles available in the Darwinian paradigm. That doesn’t make it correct, however, but why not start there and see where it leads?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Take me to your leader

Some Links

Mark Changizi on art & brain: the brain evolved to track the environment, therefore one can do neuroaesthetics by showing how art too tracks the environment. An interesting post.

Raymond Mar (OnFiction) on imagination engendering empathy.

Wikipedia on the world’s best-selling books: the Bible is tops (with between 2.5 & 6 billion copies out there), Mao’s Little Red Book is second (under a billion), A Tale of Two Cities is the highest ranked novel (200M), then Lord of the Rings, The Da Vince Code is a just ahead of The Catcher in the Rye, and so it goes.

Michael Barrier on Brad Bird’s move to live-action film (he’s slated to direct Mission Impossible IV) and how Pixar, like its parent company, has jumped the shark.

Nature Precedings: A place where scientists can upload papers without peer review and have others read, rate and comment on them.

Race in the Symbolic Universe 6: Cultural Evolution?

Cross-posted at The Valve.
As I’d originally planned it, this series of posts ended with the one on The Cosby Show (where you can find links to the earlier posts). However, I’ve decided to add one last post in which I briefly think about what it would mean to consider this succession of texts – The Winter’s Tale, Huckleberry Finn, A Passage to India, Light in August, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Cosby Show – as being the product of cultural evolution. That, of course, links this post with my ongoing series on cultural evolution (here, here, and here).

Let me begin by noting that, in a private email, Jeb suggested that we consider Caliban as an instance of the Medieval trope of the Wild Man. That makes sense to me. Now consider my last comment in that discussion, which loosely follows from a conception of cultural evolution:
Let’s think of literary texts as indicators of the cultural psycho-social dynamics existing in the population in which the texts circulate. Other dynamics may also be circulating in those populations. And, of course, it’s quite possible that there are similar dynamics in populations which pay no attention to these particular texts of interest.

So, on the one hand there’s a certain dynamic of projection in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban in The Tempest, a text that is known to a certain population which we’ll call X. Just what this population X might be, that’s a tricky question, as that particular text has been read far and wide (and acted on the stage) for four centuries or so. Are we interested in that whole population, smeared as it is all over geographical space and historical time? Well, I don’t want to try to come up with a precise answer to that, not here and now. Not so much because this is merely a comment to a blog post, but because I simply don’t know how to do it. Let’s say that we’re particularly interested in the subpopulation of X that existed in early modern England in the early 17th century.

Imagine, then, that we find a similar dynamic in some other text or texts, texts that circulate in some different population Y. Under what circumstances does it make sense to argue for a historical and causal connection between the underlying psycho-social dynamics of population X and population Y? I think, for example, that there is a projective psycho-social dynamic in A Light in August that is similar (but not the same) to the one in The Tempest. Is there some kind of causal connection between the cultural psychodynamics operating in that early modern English population X (in the case of the Shakespeare) and the cultural psychodynamics operating in that mid-20th century American population Y (in the case of the Faulkner)?

Consider a similar, but different question. That early modern population X spoke some version of English. That language is similar, but not the same, as the version of English spoken by the mid-century American population Y. Those versions of English are similar enough that people in the two populations could converse with one another and have some degree of mutual understanding, though there certainly would be difficulties. Is there some causal connection between the English spoken by X and that spoken by Y? If so, how does that causal connection work? There certainly isn’t any direct influence (there’s that word) between early modern England and mid-20th century America. But there is something. What is it and how does it work?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Moffett & the Ants: Mode, Embedding & Emergent Complexity

Rather than read Mark Moffet, Adventures Among Ants, from beginning to end and only then write a review, I thought I’d post notes in the process of reading. Why? To see how it goes, that’s why.

As Moffett’s title tells us, the book’s about ants. I understand that ants are quite important in the world, and I have no problem understanding why someone would be fascinated by them, or, for that matter, by many other things as well. But I’m not myself fascinated by them.

I’m interested in human behavior and culture. So, what do ants have to tell us about ourselves? Moffett promises a lot on that score: the dust jacket copy talks of them “displaying behaviors strikingly like those of humans – yet on a different scale and at a faster tempo . . . warriors, builders, big-game hunters, and slave owners.” We’ll see.

Mode and the Reticular Formation

Let’s start with a passage on page 18:
Regardless of species, once an ant detects food, her searching behavior stops and is replaced by a series of very different harvesting activities: tracking, killing, dissecting, carrying and defending. In the majority of species, an ant can mobilize others to assist her. This communication practice is known as recruitment and usually involves chemical signals called pheromones. Often a wayfaring ant releases a scent from one of a battery of glands in her body, a mixture that serves to stimulate or guide her nestmates.
This reminds of Warren McCulloch’s concept of behavioral mode. The idea is that an animal must always be in one of several mutually exclusive modes of behavior. In a classic paper* McCulloch lists 15 different modes, including, for example, sleeping, eating, fighting, hunting and grooming. That seems roughly in the same ball park as Moffett’s list: searching, tracking, killing, dissecting, carrying, defending, and recruitment. Is ant behavior modal in the sense the McCulloch was arguing for vertebrate behavior? Perhaps.

McCulloch was specifically arguing about one of the most primitive structures in the vertebrate nervous system, the reticular formation, which is at the central core of the nervous system. The reticular formation has reciprocal connections with the rest of the brain, giving it a broad and pervasive influence on the global state of the nervous system. It’s that pervasive influence that McCulloch is thinking of as modal control. The ant’s nervous system is considerably smaller than that of even the most primitive vertebrate, so it’s not clear to me just how applicable McCulloch’s concept of control is, but . . . let’s not worry to much about that. Let’s just note the issue and press on.

Moffett tells us that ants use pheromones – bioactive chemical signals – to recruit the help of other ants to the cause. So reticular system uses biochemical signals to recruit the rest of the nervous system to a behavioral mode. It’s not just that neural transmission is electro-chemical in nature, but that specific neurotransmitters are keyed to specific behavioral modes and that those neurotransmitters are chemically the same as hormones that circulate through the blood system and are associated with specific behaviors.** Just as ants use chemical signals to recruit other ants, so the reticular formation uses chemicals to recruit the rest of the brain. Now consider the notion that the human brain is, in effect, 600,000 busy bees buzzing around inside the cranium. So, we have the reticular bees using pheromonal “trails” (“laid” in axons) to signal bees elsewhere in the brain.

Mere analogy? Perhaps. Let us continue on.

Bird and Contrail

Sunday, May 23, 2010

They’re at it again, hacking the human mind, NOT

I’m referring to a recent post by John Horgan, which opens thus:
Scientists are on the verge of building an artificial brain! How do I know? Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute said so right here on He wrote that the goal of reverse-engineering the brain—which the National Academy of Engineering recently posed as one of its "grand challenges"—is "becoming increasingly plausible." Scientists are learning more and more about the brain, and computers are becoming more and more powerful. So naturally computers will soon be able to mimic the brain's workings. So says Sejnowski.
Horgan then registers his extreme skepticism and ends by pointing out that if you “go back a decade or two—or five or six—and you will find artificial intelligence pioneers like Marvin Minsky and Herbert Simon proclaiming, because of exciting advances in brain and computer science: Artificial brains are coming!”

This brand of technophilic wishful thinking has a sibling in natural language processing. Starting in the middle 1950s the U.S. Department of Defense funded research in machine translation – having a computer translate from one language to another. Early results were encouraging – they always are, no? – hopes were high, promises were made, and money was invested. But later results proved disappointed and the money people in the DoD began to wonder whether their money had been well-used. In the mid-60s a committee was established to assess the field and make recommendations. This committee – the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee (my teacher, David Hays, headed up machine translation research at the RAND Corporation and was on the committee) – issued its report in 1966. The ALPAC report (downloadable PDF), as it’s called, said that practical results were not likely in the near term, but that money should be invested in basic research. Congress and the DoD understood the first part of that, but not the second. The money dried up.

Meanwhile the AI boys were still seeing Great Things in the not too distant future. They kept on seeing them, the research got better and better, and by the late 1970s commercial spin-offs were engendering dreams of an AI-driven perpetual money machine. Hotcha! The dreams didn’t work out and the mid 1980s saw the advent of the so-called AI Winter. The commercial money dried up and the field was in disgrace.

Now, according to Horgan, the brain boys are going to take their whacks at the Artificial Supermind Piñata, aka ASP. We all know what an asp is, it’s a poisonous snake. So why do the folks keep chasing the same deadly snake?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

From Today's Catch

Classifying music by rhythmic patterns

I forget where I got this reference, but the article is about the use of automated techniques to classify recorded music into genres according to rhythmic patterns. It is well, if perhaps only informally, known that we can recognize familiar tunes even if we only here the melody's rhythm.

New J. Phys. 12 (2010) 053030

Debora C Correa1, Jose H Saito and Luciano da F Costa

E-mail: and

Published 20 May 2010
Abstract. Online music databases have increased significantly as a consequence of the rapid growth of the Internet and digital audio, requiring the development of faster and more efficient tools for music content analysis. Musical genres are widely used to organize music collections. In this paper, the problem of automatic single and multi-label music genre classification is addressed by exploring rhythm-based features obtained from a respective complex network representation. A Markov model is built in order to analyse the temporal sequence of rhythmic notation events. Feature analysis is performed by using two multivariate statistical approaches: principal components analysis (unsupervised) and linear discriminant analysis (supervised). Similarly, two classifiers are applied in order to identify the category of rhythms: parametric Bayesian classifier under the Gaussian hypothesis (supervised) and agglomerative hierarchical clustering (unsupervised). Qualitative results obtained by using the kappa coefficient and the obtained clusters corroborated the effectiveness of the proposed method.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Queen Mary 2 Putting Out to Sea

She was docked on the West Side of Manhattan above mid-town and so she had to sail down the Hudson. I was shooting from Hoboken (across the river from Midtown) and photographed her as she went down the river. What REALLY struck me as I was working on the photos is HOW MUCH CRAP THERE IS IN THE ATMOSPHERE. The colors in the Queen Mary 2 were so much brighter than those in the buildings on Manhattan only a couple of hundred yards to a half mile further away.

I took these photographs today 21 May 2010. You can find more from this set, as well as other photos of the Queen Mary 2 and the QE2 that I took in October of 2008, at my Flickr site.

Gimme Shelter: Some Urban Homesteads

Taken at various times and places in Jersey City, NJ, across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

You can see more photos in this series in my Urban Homesteads set on Flickr.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dumbo Festival on the Web

There's a lot of web action about Disney's Dumbo. Hans Perk has been posting script drafts and Mark Mayerson has been posting mosaics of frame-grabs (one, two, and three) -- h/t Michael Sporn. Michael Sporn has a post of frame-grabs from the tent-raising, story boards for the same sequence (in pastels), and a re-cap of the first. I couple of years ago I published an essay about Dumbo at Mike Barrier's site. The essay focused on social relations in the film and, in particular, on the relationship between Dumbo and those crows, obviously modeled on black Americans (which puts that post in the same arena as my series of race symbolism, in particular the posts on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Huck Finn). Here's my concluding paragraph:
The emphasis is certainly on Dumbo as an individual. But, by establishing a contemporary setting, an egalitarian sentiment, middle-brow snobbery, and those African-American crows, Disney embraces a wider social context. This leaves me with the odd feeling that, in some ways Dumbo is a more ambitious film than, say, Pinocchio. The Pinocchio story seems strongly self-contained within the relationships between the three central characters; it’s an entirely personal story. Dumbo, though intensely focused on a very important relationship—that between mother and child—embeds that relationship in the larger world in a fairly open-ended way. Disney was reaching for more than he had in Pinocchio. Is it too much to see in Dumbo the first step down a path that Disney chose not to explore?
* * * * *
EDIT: Michael Sporn has just published a variety of materials related to the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence, one of the most staggeringly awesome pieces of animation ever done. One of these days I'll work up a post on it.

Why I Love Antony and Cleopatra

I am talking, of course, of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare presents us with two mature adults, world-wise and at the height of their powers, who are as head-over-heels in love with one another as Romeo and Juliet, callow youths in their mid-teens. That those youngsters should defy family and custom, what’s surprising about that? They know little of the hard business of making a life, they’re still under parental care. But Antony and Cleopatra, they’re different. She’s the ruler of Egypt and has had lovers both for pleasure and for politics, the great Julius Caesar among them. Antony’s a skilled general and a triumvir, one of three rulers of the Roman Empire.

Here’s how Antony’s friend, Enobarbus, described Cleopatra (Act 2, scene 2):
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne,
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar'd all description: she did lie
In her pavilion--cloth-of-gold of tissue--
O'er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour'd fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.
And then, one of the most famous passages in the play:
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her: that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish.
“Riggish,” what a word, riggish. My copy of the play glosses it as lewd. And I suppose Cleopatra was. But I like the sound of the word, two syllables to lewd’s one, and the sibilant ending that just flows away rather than the hard thud of lewd’s “d.” A woman who could dance like Josephine Baker and yet had the political craft and steel of Margaret Thatcher. Could such a creature exist?

And here’s Cleopatra on Anthony, after he’s died and she’s been seized by the minions of Octavius Caesar (Act 5, scene 2):
His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear'd arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in't; an autumn 'twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show'd his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk'd crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp'd from his pocket.
Yes, “his legs bestrid the ocean,” a mighty man indeed. But “his delights were dolphin-like,” what is that? If you want to see it on film, go see Miyazki’s Ponyo, it’s there, I kid you not. Miyazaki knows that joy. To couple such joy with the power to shake the world, what was Cleo thinking?

International Disarmamaent Labs

Writing in Nature, Sir Martin Rees (president of the UK Royal Society), Ben Koppelman, and Neil Davison call for an international advisory group and for an international network of disarmament laboratories:
These labs could take forward the recommendations of the advisory group, and ensure that nations work together to create internationally acceptable solutions. The trust built through such international cooperation would also aid wider political negotiations. The scientific community's well-established international networks can reach into countries where political links are tense or weak, enabling collaboration even with those countries outside the NPT that have nuclear weapons (India, Israel and Pakistan).
They go on to say:
Two key challenges are building confidence and detecting cheating during the dismantlement process, especially when inspectors will need to authenticate the presence of genuine warheads....The basic scientific understanding of these processes is well established. What is needed is a truly international approach to the design, testing and implementation of these techniques so that all stakeholders are confident in their use for disarmament verification. A central challenge is to develop 'information barrier' technologies. These confirm the presence of a nuclear warhead without disclosing sensitive details about its design, the revelation of which is prohibited under the NPT. Such details may also be classified by national laws.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Funkified Standard Version of the American Dream: The Cosby Show

This is the fifth in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban; the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; the third dealt with A Passage to India and Light in August; and the fourth was about Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Cross-posted at The Valve.

The works we've examined so far—Shakespeare's The Tempest, Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Forster's A Passage to India, Faulkner's Light in August, and Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit—differ in many ways. What they share is a common division within their symbolic universe. In each case we have the world of white people, who dominate the action, and the world of some non-white Others, who play a critical role in the emotional lives of the dominant whites. This split is at the heart of the social interaction which has, in the United States, given us a twentieth century expressive culture which is, in music and other spheres, driven by the expressive achievements of African Americans. In the twentieth century, many white Americans have, with Eddie Valiant, decided to reclaim their projected desires by learning to act like those Others they had formerly despised.

I now want to consider the The Cosby Show, one of the most successful television shows in recent history. In this show the Others have moved front and center. This is their show, they are the characters we must identify with.

This program created by a stand-up comedian and actor, Bill Cosby, centered on a thoroughly middle class black family, the Huxtables. This family embodied widely shared values and aspirations which we might as well call The American Dream — interesting and remunerative careers for mother (lawyer) and father (physician), attractive children, familial harmony, an elegant home and nice clothes all around. Previous African-American families on prime-time television had been quite different. Fred Sanford (& Son) was a junkman living in the ghetto. George Jefferson (& family) was very successful, but also very insecure in the status attendant upon his material success. He was constantly on the lookout for racial slights. His insecurity may well be closer to reality than the Huxtables’ easy self-assurance, but, remember, TV is mythology, not sociology. The myth is that everyone has a right to what the Huxtables had. That, by the way, these particular people are black, simply puts African-Americans at the center of this myth.

As a statement of the situation of black America The Cosby Show was certainly inadequate, and was criticized on that account. But it is quite clear that Cosby never intended a full sociological treatment of contemporary African America. He was interested in mythologizing and, as mythologist, he was brilliant. As an example, consider the scene where, as a present to Cliff's (played by Cosby) parents on their forty-ninth anniversary, the whole family performs to a record of Ray Charles’ "Night Time is the Right Time."

Mysterious Ways

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

New Savanna Status Report

As of 8:06 AM, Eastern Time, 19 May 2010, New Savanna has had 1424 “Unique Visitors.” More importantly, the trend seems to be up. Here’s the record for the last 30 days, the orange bars are “hits,” while the blue indicate “unique visitors”:
Notice that increase in traffic on 21 April; that’s when I announced New Savanna over at The Valve. By that time I’d built up enough content at NS that people cruising on by would find a dozen or so posts waiting for them. By the 24th that action had pretty much quieted down. What’s got me really curious is the increase on 18 May. As far as I know, I didn’t do anything to generate that.

But I’ll take it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Very young children think animals are just like us

Douglas Medina, Sandra Waxman, Jennie Woodringa and Karen Washinawatokb, Human-centeredness is not a universal feature of young children's reasoning: Culture and experience matter when reasoning about biological entities, Cognitive Development, in press. Available online 29 March 2010.

Abstract: We consider young children's construals of biological phenomena and the forces that shape them, using Carey's (1985) category-based induction task that demonstrated anthropocentric reasoning in young urban children. Follow-up studies (including our own) have questioned the generality of her results, but they have employed quite different procedures and either have not included urban children or, when urban samples were included, have failed to reproduce her original findings. In the present study of 4–10-year-olds from three cultural communities, our procedures followed Carey's more closely and replicated her findings with young urban children. However, they yielded quite different results for young rural European American and young rural Native American children. These results underscore the importance of a complex interaction of culture and experience – including both day-to-day interactions with the natural world and sensitivity to the belief systems of the communities – in children's reasoning about the natural world.

You can download a PDF here. Press release here.

The Japanese and Robots

Any one who’s spent much time reading through manga and watching anime will soon realize that, while the Japanese are fascinated by robots, their fascination has a different character from the Western sci-fi fear of the robot that becomes destructive through hyper-rationality, such as HAL in 2001. They’re more concerned about robots as social beings, a concern one find’s, for example, in Tezuka’s Astro Boy stories, many of which are, in effect, about civil rights for robots.

Frederik Schodt has written an informal history of Japanese robots, Inside the Robot Kingdom (Kodansha America 1990). He traces the story back to dolls and automata and then tells of how, for example, robots were treated in the early days of industrial robotics. A new robot would be welcomed to the production line by a blessing ceremony officiated by a Shinto priest.

The newest manifestation of this fascination is called I-Fairy, a four-foot high robot that officiates at weddings (stories here and here, but sure to check out some of the related stories linked to the right at both sites). I’m not sure whether this is a commentary on the capabilities of robots or the nature of fixed rituals, or both.

Monday, May 17, 2010

They Killed This Tree Three Days Ago

Trees being what they are, I suppose it isn’t really dead yet. The leaves are still green. Sap still flows. But the tree won’t survive. No one’s going to sit it upright, no one’s going tend to it.

The killing wasn’t personal. I’m sure they didn’t have any special animus toward this particular tree, nor toward any other tree, or plant, or animal that was killed, nor even for discarded trash that got moved around when they came through. They had a job to do, clear a path to the construction site, and they did it. This tree just happened to be in the way and so it was uprooted.

Seeing the tree like that made me sad. Though I had no deep attachment to the tree, I was attached. I knew it as a specific tree, an individual. I thought of it as the “Y” tree because of the way it branches. This is my oldest photo of the tree, taken on 6 July 2007:

You can just barely see the “Y” tree on the right, just beyond the mouth of the tunnel, all but hidden among the foliage. You can see its form more distinctly in this photo, taken on 9 December 2007:

Here’s what it looked like on 7 October 2007:

There’s some graffiti on the rock wall just behind the tree:

If you look to the left, just below the center, you’ll see some white marking on the rocks. It says “Free Werds”:

I know nothing about Werds except that he’s a graffiti writer, and a good one, who’s respected among his peers. There’s a fair amount of his work in this area – in and around the Bergen Arches in Jersey city – and much of it has been left untouched in the three or four years I’ve been photographing local graffiti. That other writers do no go over Werds’ work is a sign of respect. As for why Werds was in prison, I heard it had something to do with drugs, which is plausible.

World Music Still Thriving After All Those Years of Rock and Roll Imperialism

Fernando Ferreira & Joel Waldfogel have published "Pop Internationalism: Has A Half Century of World Music Trade Displaced Local Culture?" through the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER Working Paper No. 15964, Issued in May 2010):
Advances in communication technologies over the past half century have made the cultural goods of one country more readily available to consumers in another, raising concerns that cultural products from large economies – in particular the US – will displace the indigenous cultural products of smaller economies. In this paper we provide stylized facts about the global music consumption and trade since 1960, using a unique data on popular music charts from 22 countries, corresponding to over 98% of the global music market. We find that trade volumes are higher between countries that are geographically closer and between those that share a language. Contrary to growing fears about large- country dominance, trade shares are roughly proportional to country GDP shares; and relative to GDP, the US music share is substantially below the shares of other smaller countries. We find a substantial bias toward domestic music which has, perhaps surprisingly, increased sharply in the past decade. We find no evidence that new communications channels – such as the growth of country-specific MTV channels and Internet penetration – reduce the consumption of domestic music. National policies aimed at preventing the death of local culture, such as radio airplay quotas, may explain part of the increasing consumption of local music.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution

In my previous post in this series I argued that, while Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll disagree on the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution, the nature of that disagreement is obscure, limited as it is by the conceptual “affordances” (to borrow a term from J. J. Gibson) inherent in gene-culture coevolution theory. I now want to take a look at those limitations, albeit a deliberately naïve look. I’m pursuing, not a strong argument, but a weak one. I’ll end with a similarly weak motivation for Dawkins’ concept of the meme.

First, however, I want to introduce the notion of a phenomenological gut-check by considering an argument on a related matter that Carroll offered in his recent theoretical article in Style, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” (2008). Carroll is discussing the adaptive function of literature. After considering an argument advanced by Steven Pinker, Carroll takes an the idea put forward by Geoffrey Miller (pp. 119-120):
Miller argues that all displays of mental power, including those of the arts, might have had no adaptive value but might have served, like the peacock’s tail, as costly signals indicating the general fitness of the person sending the signal. Miller’s hypothesis identifies virtuosity in overcoming technical difficulty as the central defining characteristic of art (281). Since Miller grants that the arts and other forms of mental activity, once they got started, might have been co-opted or “exapted” for adaptively functional purposes, his argument reduces itself to an argument about the original function of the arts. Miller’s wider argument about the origin of all higher cognitive powers has an obvious and, to my mind, decisive weakness: it requires us to suppose that the enlarged human brain—so costly, so complex and functionally structured, and so obviously useful for so many practical purposes in life—evolved primarily as a useless ornament for the purposes of sexual display.
I agree with Carroll on this. It seems to me that the purposes of competitive sexual display could have been achieved though a much simpler and lest costly means than the development of a large and metabolically expensive brain. I don’t, however, regard this as a strong argument. The point is implicitly a quantitative one, but no actual measurements are being offered. Just how large is “too large”? How complex is “too complex”? Just what are the necessary and sufficient requirements of effective sexual signaling?

Carroll goes on to advance a more interesting objection: “Even if we overlook the weakness in Miller’s broader hypothesis about the adaptive utility of the higher cognitive powers, his hypothesis about the arts says so little about the qualities and features that are specific to art that it has little explanatory value.” He is now focusing our attention, not on whether or not Miller is correct, but whether being correct is useful for some intellectual purpose. I agree with this as well.

Carroll then recalls Pinker (p. 120):
Pinker’s hypothesis is more challenging. He might be right that humanists object to his arguments at least in part because those arguments seem to diminish the dignity of the arts, but I think many of these objections come from a deeper and more serious level—from a feeling that Pinker’s hypothesis, like Miller’s, fails to give an adequate account of his subject. Those who have sought to counter Pinker’s hypothesis have a strong personal sense of what art and literature mean for them, and they have an intuitive conviction that their own experience of the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.
Again, I’m inclined to agree with Carroll. What of it, however, if many of us “have an intuitive conviction that their own experience of the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.” What kind of an argument is that? An argument from strong personal conviction? This is an intuitive judgment; call it a phenomenological gut-check.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reality Anyone?

Roland Greene has now posted the second in a series of posts at ARCADE about the current state and future of literary criticism, A Quantum of the Real. His penultimate paragraph:
I don't believe in the educated general reader. I think that such a label names a purely imaginary figure not grounded in any actual knowledge, interests, or passions. I believe only in real readers, who choose what to read out of their unpredictable inclinations; and I'm convinced that if we expect to write for real readers, we have to start by renegotiating our contract with reality, which means writing again for historians, philosophers, and other humanists. This means writing not attenuated history or philosophy, but a literary criticism that speaks again to culture in the broadest terms. The rest of the humanities tethers us to the only version of the real we can rely on—the realities with which most of them have continued to negotiate, while we have turned inward to talk with ourselves.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Urban Geometry 2: chaos and repose

All photos are of the lower West Side of Manhattan, roughly just below mid-town, and were taken from Hoboken, NJ. All are available in the Urban Geometry set at my Flickr site.

The Hollywood Version: Who Framed Roger Rabbit

This is the fourth in a series of five posts dealing with the symbolic deployment of racial difference. The first was about Shakespeare’s Caliban; the second was about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the third dealt with A Passage to India and Light in August.

Cross-posted at The Valve.
Robert Zemeckis's 1989 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit uses cartoon characters in roles which Hollywood had assigned to blacks back in the thirties and forties--suggesting that Disneyland is basically the Cotton Club in which black performers have been replaced by mice, ducks, dogs and other cartoon characters. The basic technical gambit, and triumph, of the film is to mix animated characters with live actors. This technical wizardry is thematically important.

In the film's Los Angeles there are two worlds, that of people, and that of Toons, classic cartoon characters from Betty Boop through Dumbo to Elmer Fudd. The Toons and their world are consciously modeled on white stereotypes of blacks. That is to say, they enact the symbolic role which whites have developed for blacks. The Toons are born entertainers: they sing, they dance, they tell jokes—the few positive roles which American popular culture has, until recently, allowed to blacks. One of the settings for the action is a night club where the entertainers and staff are Toons, but the clientele is strictly human, a setting modeled after those clubs, such as Harlem's Cotton Club, where the performers and staff were black while the patrons (and owners) where white.

One could imagine the same story being made using blacks instead of Toons. However, that film would surely, and properly, have been attacked for its blatent racism. While racism is alive, and altogether too well, in contemporary American society, sensitivities have changed. Hollywood no longer allows itself to indulge in stereotyping as blatent as it once enjoyed. The film Zemeckis made replaces racism with the technical virtuosity needed to mix animated characters with live actors. Instead of reviling the film for its racism, we can revel in its virtuosity. This basic structural device allows Zemeckis to create a film which shows that there are things the human characters need to do to live their lives, or, at least, to live them well, which those humans cannot do for themselves. They depend on Toons to complete their emotional lives.

Nothing like grit and determination to keep worry stoked

Notice how Paley constructed Mimi's mouth in the right-most panel. She made the outline with a single stroke that started just to the left of Mimi's left leg, then went up and over to the left, around down and under, moving back to the right and then up, to rejoin itself and terminate. Then she added three strokes for the teeth. Were they downward strokes? And notice the changing eyes, from left to right. Nice.

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cultural Evolution 1: How “Thick” is Culture?

This is the first in a set of posts in which I take up the nature of cultural evolution. I’m using these posts as a medium to think-through my ideas in preparation for a presentation on cultural evolution at the Forum in On the Human, a project of the National Humanities Center. That is presently scheduled for 5 July 2010.
There is no more pressing area of inquiry in the human sciences than those having to do with the relationship between biology and culture. One issue is whether or not culture itself constitutes an evolutionary arena and, if so, how does it work? Specifically, what is the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution?

I believe that culture does constitute an evolutionary arena and have published on the subject for almost two decades (cf. Benzon 1996). But I do not want to start there, not quite. Rather, I want to start with a discussion between Peter Richerson and Joseph Carroll in a recent issue of Politics and Culture (an online journal). Richerson (2010a) presented a short essay, “Culture is an Active Part of Human Biology” to which Joseph Carroll (2010) responded. Richerson then wrote a rejoinder (2010b). (Diana Kornbrot also participated in this conversation, but not in a way that bears on the issues that interest me.)

Both Richerson and Carroll are proponents of gene-culture coevolution – in fact, Richerson is one of the major developers of the model. Gene-culture evolution is grounded in the observation that cultural generation and transmission of traits from one generation to another can be more rapid than genetic origination and transmission. What gives the model its “teeth” is the further assertion that culture provides an environment for genetic evolution and can, indeed, influence it. Lactose tolerance is a standard example. While human infants can drink cows’ milk without difficulty, adults differ widely in their ability to do so. Adults from a population with a long history of dairy farming are much more likely to be able to digest cows milk than adults in populations lacking such traditions, suggesting that dairy-farming constitutes an environment that has influenced population biology (Laland and Brown 2002, 260-262).

While both Richerson and Carroll are proponents of gene-culture coevolution, they differ in how they think of the relationship between biology and culture. But, precisely because both are adherents of gene-culture coevolution, characterizing their difference is difficult. To re-purpose a metaphor from Clifford Geertz, who famously talked of thick description of culture (1973), Richerson clearly views culture as being thicker than Carroll does. On this I agree with Richerson. But I don’t believe that the gene-culture coevolution model contains adequate means for justifying that difference. Thus, their dialogue is beside the point.

Eat right, be active, have fun

Bits about Biology, Brains, and Us

1. Artificial computation on an organic substrate

From the article in XXI Century:
Researchers from Japan and the Michigan Technological University have succeeded in building a molecular computer that, more than any previous project of its kind, can replicate the inner mechanisms of the human brain, repairing itself and mimicking the massive parallelism that allows our brains to process information like no silicon-based computer can.

A relatively new technology, molecular electronics is an interdisciplinary pursuit that may very well prove the long-term solution to validate Moore’s law well into the next century. A molecular computer is made of organic molecules instead of silicon. Chips built this way are not only potentially much smaller but also, because of the way they can be networked, able to do things that no other traditional computer, regardless of its speed, can do.
The original article: Anirban Bandyopadhyay, Ranjit Pati, Satyajit Sahu1, Ferdinand Peper & Daisuke Fujita, Massively parallel computing on an organic molecular layer, Nature Physics 6, 369 - 375 (2010):
Modern computers operate at enormous speeds—capable of executing in excess of 1013 instructions per second—but their sequential approach to processing, by which logical operations are performed one after another, has remained unchanged since the 1950s. In contrast, although individual neurons of the human brain fire at around just 103 times per second, the simultaneous collective action of millions of neurons enables them to complete certain tasks more efficiently than even the fastest supercomputer. Here we demonstrate an assembly of molecular switches that simultaneously interact to perform a variety of computational tasks including conventional digital logic, calculating Voronoi diagrams, and simulating natural phenomena such as heat diffusion and cancer growth. As well as representing a conceptual shift from serial-processing with static architectures, our parallel, dynamically reconfigurable approach could provide a means to solve otherwise intractable computational problems.
A woman's touch is all it takes for people to throw caution to the wind. That's the conclusion of a new study published online in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. If a female experimenter patted a participant on the back, they'd risk more money than if she just talked to them, or if a man did the patting. The researchers think this comes from the way that mothers use touch to make their babies feel secure.
I think that "explanation" needs a bit more work.

3. British Indian children have substantially better mental health than British Whites
Anna Goodman, Vikram Patel, and David A. Leon, Why do British Indian children have an apparent mental health advantage? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online 26 April 2010. Abstract:
Background: Previous studies document a mental health advantage in British Indian children, particularly for externalising problems. The causes of this advantage are unknown.

Methods: Subjects were 13,836 White children and 361 Indian children aged 5–16 years from the English subsample of the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys. The primary mental health outcome was the parent Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). Mental health was also assessed using the teacher and child SDQs; diagnostic interviews with parents, teachers and children; and multi-informant clinician-rated diagnoses. Multiple child, family, school and area factors were examined as possible mediators or confounders in explaining observed ethnic differences.

Results: Indian children had a large advantage for externalising problems and disorders, and little or no difference for internalising problems and disorders. This was observed across all mental health outcomes, including teacher-reported and diagnostic interview measures. Detailed psychometric analyses provided no suggestion of information bias. The Indian advantage for externalising problems was partly mediated by Indian children being more likely to live in two-parent families and less likely to have academic difficulties. Yet after adjusting for these and all other covariates, the unexplained Indian advantage only reduced by about a quarter (from 1.08 to .71 parent SDQ points) and remained highly significant (p < .001). This Indian advantage was largely confined to families of low socio-economic position.
Conclusion: The Indian mental health advantage is real and is specific to externalising problems. Family type and academic abilities mediate part of the advantage, but most is not explained by major risk factors. Likewise unexplained is the absence in Indian children of a socio-economic gradient in mental health. Further investigation of the Indian advantage may yield insights into novel ways to promote child mental health and child mental health equity in all ethnic groups.
4. Top 10 Visual Illusions of 2010

From the 6th annual Best Illusion of the Year contest at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples. Have fun looking at the videos.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Musician’s Journal: Awareness and Balance

I’ve been a musician most of my life. Though I’ve never made my living as a musician, there have been times when it’s put food on the table, though not paid the rent. And there have been times when I’ve hardly picked up the horn.

That’s how it’s been for the past three or four years. I’ve jammed every week or three with some friends, and maybe play the horn for a minute or three every other day. But I’ve not played enough to keep my chops in shape – and the trumpet is a physically demanding instrument.

I’m now getting back to a routine of daily practice. And I’m finding, almost for the first time in my life, that technical exercises are no longer quite so boring. You know, the same scales and arpeggios, repeated time and again, and again, and ... again. Same old same old.

Nothing like it to get the fingers and lips moving in concert. But, it’s not like a hot blues in the early morning when the lights are low and spirits high. No sirree, not like that at all. The exercises are necessary, but ...

If you pay attention, those repetitive exercises can be interesting too. It’s about awareness, mindfulness. What you’ve got to pay attention to is what’s not so repetitive. You must pay attention to your body, while also hearing the sound. What you’re attending to, above all else, is the relationship between what you’re hearing and what you’re doing.

Sounds simple, no? Not so simple.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

"This is the end, my only friend, the end . . . "

Mimi does Jim(my)? Channeling 60s rock! Yeah. Check it out (the history, I mean).
Paley's visuals sure take the piss out of the metaphysical pretensions of Morrison's Lizard King poetics.

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Under the Bergen Arches

Jersey City was a bustling port in the early 20th Century. To facilitate rail access to the waterfront a mile-long trench was cut into the southern end of the Jersey Palisades through the heart of Jersey City. It was called the Erie Cut and was between, say, 50 and 80 feet deep and 70 to 100 feet wide at the bottom. In three places the cut became short tunnels so that roads and buildings could go atop it; short bridges were built at two points. Collectively these are the Bergen Arches, the name by which this feature is known today.

Four railroad tracks were laid in it. They went to the Hudson river just yards south of the Holland Tunnel. Then, in the third quarter of the century, container ships were introduced and the freight facilities shifted to Elizabeth, NJ. Jersey City's docks were useless, and so were the railroad lines that fed them. So, three of the four tracks were ripped out of the Erie Cut and the eastern end was filled with dirt and rock.

The cut is all but abandoned. People throw trash over the edge, homeless people build huts under the arches, and graffiti writers paint on the walls. It is a strange urban paradise. When you're down there you feel profoundly isolated from the city, more so than, for example, when you are in New York City's Central Park. There's trash everywhere, but much of it is obscured by lush greenery. The western end of the cut is water-logged; I've never been down there when I wasn't walking though an inch or two of water & mud, except for the winter, when it's iced over.

And the graffiti, the graffiti tells of strange tribes and ancient civilizations. Except that they're not strange. They're my neighbors, some of them at least. 

Above: Looking through the last arch at the western end of the Erie Cut.

You can see some of the graffiti in this post, this one, and at my Flickr site.

Speech Recognition, with a theological coda

Machine translation, using a computer to translate from one natural language to another, is one of the earliest problems tackled by computer scientists in the decade after WWII. That effort was largely abandoned in the United States in the mid-1960s, but a variety of computational investigations into language did continue. By the 1970s two of them, among others, were going strong: speech recognition and speech understanding.

Speech understanding implies some underlying intelligence, some ability to reason about what is being said. For example, during the late 1970s ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, now DARPA for Defense ... ) sponsored a project in which computers would take a spoken query as input and then return an answer. To answer the query the computer had to: 1) figure out what words were being said, 2) parse the sentence structure, 3) analyze the meaning, 4) formulate that meaning as a database query (about warships in this case), 5) run the query against the database to determine the answer, and 6) formulate the answer in English. A big problem.

Taken alone, that first step, determining what words were said, is speech recognition. Consider medical transcription, for example. The physician dictates notes orally into a recorder. Now we need to transcribe those notes into a written record. It would be nice to have that done by a computer. We don’t care whether or not the computer understands what the physician has said; we’re not going to ask the computer to do anything with or about what’s in the record. We just want it in written form. That turned out to be a difficult problem. But significant breakthroughs were made in the early 1980s that lead to an increasingly robust range of practical speech recognition technologies. This technology makes no attempt at “intelligence,” just lots of number crunching to conduct statistical analysis of large masses of speech data and, from that, to derive recognition "signatures" for words.

A couple of years ago I attended a seminar at Columbia University in which an IBM researcher, whose name I forget, reported that speech recognition technology was about to bottom out without, however, reaching human levels of performance. I was thus not surprised to read Robert Fortner’s recent article making that same point (h/t Tyler Cowen) – though, if you read the article, you should also read the comment by Jeff Foley. The current technology is “dumb.” This is, after all, speech recognition, not speech understanding.

Of course, we would like to know just why mere speech recognition is so difficult. That speech understanding should be difficult, that’s obvious, for understanding implies intelligence, and the construction of artificial intelligence has proven to be quite difficult. But we’re not talking about understanding, we’re talking about mere dumb recognition. Why is that difficult?