Monday, June 28, 2010

Light Blogging

Blogging's going to be light for awhile. I'm busy preparing my post for The National Humanities Center's Forum. Once that's done I've got supporting material to get ready. And then, when the post goes live on July 5, I'll have to spend time replying to comments. I will, however, find time to do some more posting here. For one thing, I've got the Mind Hacks series to finish. And I'd like to post some more flix from the Gordys concert and say a word or two about photographing people. It's not the same as shooting graffiti, landscapes, or cityscapes.

'Till next time, here's a shot of the moon over Manhattan.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gordys Concert 1

This is where I live, Hoboken, NJ. Some of these people are friends. All are neighbors.

Where's the line between the band and the audience?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Evolution 9: Language Games 2, Story Telling

Let me begin by recalling an analogy I offered in one of my comments on the CE8, the first post on language games. I originally used this analogy to think about a group of music-makers. Now I offer it as a way of thinking about story-telling. For that purposes, as you will see, it offers distinct disadvantages, for the analogy is about a situation where everyone has a hand in the action, where story-telling typically involves an author telling the story to an audience. With that caveat in mind, let’s begin.

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 operators gave motion to the puppet for the Jabba the Hut, a rather large, corpulent character. Jabba never moved about, but his face had to be animated, as did his tail and his arms and hands. The puppet required, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators: 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 the operator’s particular segment.

Each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Each operator had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. Thus each needed to see all of the puppet.

It is easy to see how this analogy applies to, for example, a group of jazz musicians, where each musicians hears the sound of the entire group and must shape their contribution to complement that sound. It is not so easy to see, as I’ve already indicated, to see how it could be applied to story-telling. I’ll get to that a bit later.

For the moment I want to you reconceptualize the story a bit, do a gestalt switch, and see it as being about how a group of people use the Jabba puppet as a vehicle for coordinating their behavior. For that is close to the role I see stories playing in society, not all stories, though, just certain ones. These certain stories are a way individuals coordinate their norms and values. In the language of game-theory, these stories serve as focal points or coordination devices (see previous post) is a group-wide coordination game (cf. Pinker 2007, pp. 418 ff.). And with that observation, I want to turn to Steven Pinker’s recent work on indirect speech.

Indirect Speech

Pinker devotes the penultimate chapter of The Stuff of Thought to indirect speech. As an example, there’s that traditional sexual come on, “would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Nothing is said about sex, but that meaning is understood to be implicit in the language. Or there’s the driver who offers a bribe to a traffic officer, not by baldly saying “will you let me off for $50” but by suggesting he’d like to take care of the matter “here, rather than having to go to the trouble of writing a check.” Given that both parties know what is in fact being said, why use such indirection?

Pinker’s answer is complex, subtle, and resists easy summary, involving, as it does, both game theory and Alan Fiske’s relational models theory of social relationships. So I’m not going to try. But it hinges of the fact that speaker doesn’t know the values of the hearer and so cannot anticipate the response to an overt statement. In the event that the hearer’s values aren’t consistent with the implicit request – the woman doesn’t want to have sex, the officer is honest – the indirection allows the speaker to save face in the case of the sexual overture and to deny intent to bribe in the case of the traffic ticket.

In the course of making his argument Pinker introduces a distinction between shared knowledge and mutual knowledge. Shared knowledge is knowledge that each of several parties has. But they may not know that each has the knowledge. Mutual knowledge is shared knowledge plus the knowledge that everyone knows that they share the same bit of knowledge. He illustrates the difference by reference to the well-known tale of the emperor who has no clothes. Everyone can see that the emperor is naked. That is knowledge they share. But that knowledge is not mutual. No one knows that everyone else is aware of the emperor’s nakedness. Once the little boy blurts it out, however, the situation changes drastically. Now that shared knowledge has become mutual knowledge. And in that mutual knowledge there is potentially dangerous social power. So the difference between shared and mutual knowledge is crucial.

As I thought about Pinker’s account, I began to wonder whether or not stories can be a vehicle for providing members of a social group with mutual knowledge (cf. Chwe 2001). Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo – as in excretory, sexual, and sacred matters – or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances.


Let us then consider oral story-telling in traditional cultures. People, of course, tell stories of various kinds on many occasions. I’m only interested in those stories that a group considers to be especially important, sometimes even sacred. And I’m interested in oral story telling because it must have preceded written story stories in the evolution of human culture. The situation is therefore a more basic one.

These stories are handed down from one generation to another. They are thus well-known in the group. On any given occasion most audience members will have heard a story before, perhaps many times. While the teller will have his individual style, he will endeavor to tell the story the same way every time, as it was told to him. Of course, in an oral culture, the same doesn’t mean what it does in a literate culture, where texts can be compared with one another, character for character. It means only that the same characters participate in the same incidents. No more, no less. Further, because speaker and audience are in one another’s presence, the speaker knows how well things are going and can modulate the details of his performance in order more effectively to hold the audience’s interest.

The upshot of these considerations is that, for all practical purposes, we may consider the group itself to be the author of the story, not the individual story-teller. The tell is merely the social device through which the group tells the important stories.

Now let’s consider some example stories from the Winnebago trickster cycle as recounted by Paul Radin (The Trickster, 1956).
Note: the next few paragraphs are from an old paper of mine on the evolution of narrative form.
The trickster cycle has many episodes and not all episodes are told in each telling, nor are all episodes present in all cultural groups. Indeed, Radin asserts that the trickster
is admittedly the oldest of all figures in American Indian mythology, probably in all mythologies. It is not accidental that he is so frequently connected with what was regarded in all American Indian cosmologies as the oldest of all natural phenomena, rock and sun. Thus he was a figure that could not be forgotten, one that had to be recognized by all aboriginal theological systematizers. [1956: 164]
Among the Winnebago the trickster stories are sacred, with trickster being presented as the giver of culture. The story can be narrated only by those who have a right to do so, and only under the proper conditions.

The basic action of the story is simple. Trickster, the tribal chief, is preparing for war. This preparation violates tribal tradition, for the tribal chief is not permitted to go to war. While there is no explicit retribution for this, no character who says something like, "Because you have failed to observe the proper rituals, you are going to be punished," the preparations fail and Trickster ends up in the wilderness, completely stripped of culture. He then undergoes a series of adventures in which, in effect, he learns how to operate his body and his culture. These episodes are a catalog of behavioral modes, with hunger and sexuality being prominent. For example, there is one incident (Episodes 12, 13, and 14) where Trickster learns that his anus is part of his body. He had killed some ducks and started roasting them overnight. When he went to sleep, he instructed his anus to ward off any intruders. Some foxes came and his anus did the best it could, but the foxes ignored the flatulence and ate the ducks anyhow. So, to punish his anus he burns it with a piece of burning wood. Naturally he feels pain. Only then does he realize that his anus is a part of himself.

Cultural Evolution 8A: Addendum on Language as Game

I did my graduate work at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where I was enrolled in the English Department, which, at that time, had the most innovative graduate program in the nation. I got my training in cognitive science from the late David Hays, who was in the SUNY Linguistics Department, indeed, he founded the department. Hays had been educated at Harvard, spent a year at the Stanford Institute for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, and the went off to the RAND corporation, where he became one of the founders of the discipline of computational linguistics.

I first learned about Hays in the summer of 1973 ¬– the summer before I entered graduate school at SUNY Buffalo – when he published at article in an issue of Dædalus devoted to language:

Hays, D. G. (1973). "Language and Interpersonal Relationships." Dædalus 102(3): 203-216.

In that article Hays reports the following experiment, which is directly relevant to the game theory approach to language that I outlined in the previous post (pp. 204-205)
The experiment strips conversation down to its barest essentials by depriving the subject of all language except for two pushbuttons and two lights, and by suggesting to him that he is attempting to reach an accord with a mere machine. We brought two students into our building through different doors and led them separately to adjoining rooms. We told each that he was working with a machine, and showed him lights and pushbuttons. Over and over again, at a signal, he would press one or the other of the two buttons, and then one of two lights would come on. If the light that appeared corresponded to the button he pressed, he was right; otherwise, wrong. The students faced identical displays, but their feedback was reversed: if student A pressed the red button, then a moment later student B would see the red light go on, and if student B pressed the red button, then student A would see the red light. On any trial, therefore, if the two students pressed matching buttons they would both be correct, and if they chose opposite buttons they would both be wrong.

We used a few pairs of RAND mathematicians; but they would quickly settle on one color, say red, and choose it every time. Always correct, they soon grew bored. The students began with difficulty, but after enough experience they would generally hit on something. . . . The students, although they were sometimes wrong, were rarely bored. They were busy figuring out the complex patterns of the machine.

But where did the patterns come from? Although neither student knew it, they arose out of the interaction of two students.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mind Hacks 4: 1968 – The Crazy Computer Trips the Light Fantastic, 2001

From the origins of man to the trip leading us to a new world, Stanley Kramer’s Kubrick's 2001 was both a counter-cultural and a mass cultural event. Based on a story by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clark, 2001 features HAL, a computer that goes crazy through being rigorously rational. The film’s final sequence utilizes abstract color imagery – reminiscent of Fantasia, but also of acid trips – ending in an enigmatic image of a cosmic infant. Many of the counter-cultural young were prepared to see that sequence as the Ultimate Trip. It was as though that Final Trip were the only antidote to a computer-induced madness that brings one human epoch to a close and places us at the brink of another one. 2001 was an attempt to create a new mythology of humankind, one thoroughly grounded in the science and technology of the late twentieth century.

 On the moon with the Monollith.

Psychedelic drugs broke free of the laboratory and the elite clinic and became available on the street. Many young people experimented freely with these drugs and not a few adopted a lifestyle featuring drug use. Eastern religion, rock and roll, colorful clothes, and back-to-nature utopianism were all part of the formula. However superficial much of this turned out to be, it was quite sufficient to shock and scare people into wondering what was happening in the world. One concrete effect was that psychedelic use and experimentation was made illegal. By that time, however, the cultural cat was out of the middle-class bag. If anything, the prohibition increased the attractiveness of psychedelics as agents of adolescent and generational rebellion and both popular and elite culture in all spheres felt the influence of psychedelia.

HAL speaks and blinks.

This same generation was the first in which many individuals got their hands on computers at a relatively young age. Courses in computer programming entered the college curriculum and departments of computer science were formed. Computers were still large and expensive, but the invention of time-sharing – an outgrowth of the AI movement – made terminals available to many.

HAL sees and observes.

Computer culture began to spawn imaginative forms of its own. MIT gave birth to the first video game, Space War, in the 1960s. It ran on a mainframe computer of the time and was the progenitor of those point-and-shoot games that would soon replace pinball machines and invade television sets. In the mid-1970s Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Lab gave birth to Adventure, a computer game in which players entered Colossal Cave and went from room to room in search of treasure. This game was played by typing and reading text. There were no graphics; one had to imagine the cave in one’s mind. Adventure became the prototype of the role-playing games which blossomed into elaborate fictional worlds with meticulously constructed visual settings and multiple characters the players could assume. As personal computers became more powerful and graphics techniques advanced, both types of games – and hybrids of the two – became ubiquitous and, when the web emerged, they went online and became communal.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

JC Wall of Fame

Jersey City’s Wall of Fame is about half a mile from the western end of the Holland Tunnel. It’s a block long, stretching from Coles St. to Jersey Avenue between 10th and, well 12th, since 11th no longer exists. You can’t see it from the street because it’s up on an embankment. Fifty years ago there were railroad tracks and a freight station on the embankment, but those are gone. This particular block is slated to have apartment buildings on it, but the stagnant economy as put those plans on hold.

Because the wall is hidden from the street, it is ideal for graffiti writers, who paint for one another, not for members of the general public, some of whom would surely complain to the authorities and they, in turn, would have the wall “buffed” (that is, be painted over). Also, because the walls are semi-hidden (they’re visible to people living in the upper stories of nearby apartment buildings), the writers can work without fear of interruption.

This is by Jersey Joe, who also writes as Rime and who has (or had, some have been painted over) two or three other pieces on or near the wall. He has a world-wide reputation and, in fact, makes a living as a graffiti writer. But he still does “illegals” in addition to his legit work so as to keep up his street cred.

This is in a style that’s distinctly different from anything else on the wall. It’s one of several pieces by a crew from the UK – notice the “UK” to the right. Notice, as well, that fragments of older graffiti are visible around the edges of this piece.

This is one of several pieces that was done on a black background. Sometimes, but not always (see the previous photo), a crew of writers will paint the surface a single color in order to completely cover-over older graffiti on the surface. Notice the dirt and junk piled in from of this piece. Site preparation work had begun for an apartment complex before the bottom dropped out of the economy. As a result a lot of perfectly fine graffiti was damaged or destroyed for no good reason.

This is by Taboo, a writer with Brooklyn’s DYM crew. As far as I know this piece is still up, though it’s been well over a year since I’ve been up on the embankment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Where're you gonna’ be when the asteroid hits?

I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. And the asteroid is a mega-change in culture that’s coming.

Of course, we’ve all been seeing something coming since when? the 60s? Whenever. The Information Age, the age of Aquarius, globalization, post-industrial capitalism, whatever. It’s been heading at us at a mighty clip.

I don’t think the current asteroid is something else. Is it the Big Tipping point coming? The one where we can’t go back? Heck, we already can’t go back.

What’s the pattern? I don’t know how to connect the dots. But here’s some of them, in no particular order.

OTW: Organization for Transformative Works – A non-profit dedicated to preserving fan culture, with archiving projects, legal advocacy, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, and a blog.

Fan culture, yes. But the institutionalization of fan culture in this way, yes, that’s new.

QCO: Question Copyright Organization – A non-profit dedicated to free culture (on the model of open software, another dot in the pattern). Restrictive copyright laws are harming culture, taking private would should be public.

When copyright disappears, what happens to the difference between fan culture and professional culture?

Face-o-Matic: A deck of cards created by cartoonist and animator, Nina Paley. Half of them are the upper parts of (cartoon) heads, half are the lower parts of heads. The idea is to mix them up and see what you get. She created them to get people into drawing faces depicting emotion. Could you use them in a game? Think of them as a metaphor for all of culture. (I bet Nina’s got a million ideas like this.)

Graffiti: The stuff that started on walls and subway cars in Philadelphia and New York City. Since then it’s spread around the world. The interesting thing is that most of it is done for free and some of the best stuff is in little known places where only other graffiti artists can see. Them and the homeless people who live there.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

True Colors?

This is another exploration of color in photography.

I took this photograph at about 8 in the morning on a sunny. I was standing on the short of the Hudson River on the New Jersey side (in Hoboken) and was shooting east across the Hudson  River and, ipso facto, into the sun. In this particular shot I was pointed almost directly in the sun's direction, though the sun was above the focal point of the shot, though still relatively low on the horizon. Thus the visual field, and the camera, was flooded with light. The buildings appeared as ghostly forms behind a luminous gauze; they did not appear solid.

The above image is what came out of the camera. I converted from RAW (the camera's native format) to JPG without any manipulation of the image. As best I can recall, the scene didn't actually look like that. The scene was far more luminous, while the photo is dull. Yet, it does convey the sense of immateriality of the buildings. The next image is my first rendering of the scene.

The rest of the images are other renderings of the scene. Is any truer than the others? By what criterion?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mike!

It's not often that one gets to work with a genuine pioneer, even if only in a small way. I'm talking of animation historian, Michael Barrier, who turned 70 yesterday, 16 June 2010. I feel honored for his generous correspondence over the past several years and for the fact he has published some of my thoughts at his website.

From Amid Amidi's tribute at Cartoon Brew:
Barrier began interviewing animation artists in the late-1960s, and by the 1980s, he (along with his Los Angeles-based research partner Milt Gray) had recorded the most comprehensive collection of interviews with artists from the Golden Age of theatrical animation. To put his work into perspective, when he started chronicling the lives of these artists, few film critics took animation seriously, and even fewer regarded the classic Hollywood cartoons as a field worthy of study. In the face of such indifference, Michael had the audacity to not only interview the famous directors but hundreds of little known artists who contributed to the success of Hollywood theatrical cartoons ranging from animators and layout artists to cameramen and composers.
The spade work Barrier's done will serve us for generations. It's a real contribution to the study of cartoons and animation and, through that, to the crafts themselves. Without a sure knowledge of the past, we cannot advance with confidence into the future.

One-point stance × 3

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

From Yesterday's Catch: Visions of Xanadu


Xanadu didn't happen. It was built. The building left/leaves scars/traces. A state of mind.  On the real tip.

Mind Hacks 2: Adventures in Fantasia

Frame grabs from "The Nutcracker Suite" segment of Fantasia. Is this the seed of the glowing pastoral utopia in Cameron's Avatar?


Adventures in Wonderland

When, in her 1967 hit song, “White Rabbit,” Gracie Slick sang that “one pill makes you large and one pill makes you small” she was alluding to the contemporary use of LSD to explore altered states of consciousness. But she was specifically invoking words from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll’s Alice books are that sort of children’s book that are also, albeit perhaps secretly, aimed at adults. In the guise of providing charming entertainment for children, Carroll wrote metaphysical fables for adults in which the most fundamental aspects of reality – the conformation and behavior of objects in space and time, their identity from moment to moment – are curiously and marvelously fluid. There is some suspicion that Carroll himself experimented with hallucinogenic drugs – the caterpillar in the famous Tenniel illustration is sitting on a hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Whether or not that is so, drug use and its hallucinogenic effects was not exactly a secret among educated Europeans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To name only a few obvious examples:
  • Samuel T. Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” was supposed to have been composed under the influence of opium .
  • Charles Dickens’ last, and unfinished, novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, features an opium den among its settings.
  • Sigmund Freud experimented with cocaine.
  • William James wrote about his experiences with nitrous oxide.
  • Drug use (cocaine and morphine) was part of the cerebral mystery of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, known best as a paragon of deductive rationality.
For Alice’s author, an instructor in mathematics and logic, and the adults in his audience, a child’s book was a way to escape the reality-based thinking demanded of Victorian adults. This trio – a dreamland, childhood, and mathematical logic – is the mental venue which hosted the late 20th century dance of drugs and computers.

1940 – Fantasia

First released in 1940, Fantasia was the third animated feature produced by Walt Disney and was a tour de force in the century’s new aesthetic and entertainment medium, film. Disney wanted to break new cinematic ground, to present moving images of a kind that had never been seen before. His animators set non-narrative and even abstract imagery to music, packaging avant-garde visual material as new form of family entertainment. Animation freed image-makers from the bounds of ordinary reality allowing Disney to create worlds beholding only to the idealized patterns and rhythms of the human nervous system. The public, however, was not ready for Disney’s vision and it failed at the box office; it did not find a large audience until the counter-cultural 60s, hardly the audience Disney had originally imagined.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cultural Evolution 7: Where Are We At?

I’ve got three more posts planned before I write the post that’ll go up at the Forum of the “On the Human” project of National Humanities Center. But this isn’t one of those three. Rather, I want to step back and take a look around. That’s first. Then I’m going to describe what I’m planning for the last three posts. And I’ll conclude with a note on design.

What’s Up? Two cultures, again

The general website for “On the Human” describes the project thus:
On the Human (OTH) is an online community of humanists and scientists dedicated to improving our understanding of persons and the quasi-persons who surround us. As persons are biological, psychological, historical, moral, and autobiographical beings, we employ modes of inquiry from the sciences and humanities. Contributors explore issues in metaphysics and biology, ethics and neuroscience, experimental philosophy and evolutionary psychology.
Thus it is one of those “hands across the two cultures divide” enterprises, of which I tend to be skeptical despite the fact that I’ve been crossing that pseudo-divide my whole career. But enough of my skepticism.

Let’s take the divide at face value. In those terms, what’ve we got?

Scientists and cultural evolution

We have a great deal of work on human cultural evolution over the past two decades or so, and most of it has been done by people who are trained as or think of themselves as scientists. For the most part these thinkers have cultural evolution without reference to 1) human psychology, including perceptual and cognitive, and 2) without out detailed descriptions of cultural objects and artifacts. On one, Colin Martindale is an exception. On two, linguistics is an exception.

Thus studied, human cultural evolution is a bit like the study of biological evolution without molecular biology and without plant and animal physiology and anatomy. Without those things, how could you study biological evolution at all? Where would Darwin have been if he didn’t have three or four centuries worth of natural history on which to build his thinking? How can one understand comparative morphology in ecological context if you don’t have detailed accounts of morphologies and lifeways? And yet that’s how the study of cultural evolution is proceeding.

Well, it’s not that bad. But as a first approximation, that will do.

As I’ve said, Martindale is an exception. His account of cultural evolution, unlike other accounts, is grounded in perceptual, cognitive, and affective psychology. His empirical work, of course, rests on characterizations of cultural artifacts – poems, musical compositions, tombstones, and the like – though they are not detailed descriptions comparable to standard descriptive work on flora and fauna. For what he wants to do, such detailed descriptions aren’t necessary.

By contrast, memetics, especially at its popularizing extremes, seems like an attempt to replace psychology entirely. Just dump the entire set of disciplines and think deep thought about the mind by talking of memes.

This won’t do, not at all. My own thinking makes perceptual and cognitive psychology essential (see Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes). Memes, as I have defined them, are perceptual entities and so one must call on perceptual and cognitive psychology to understand them. Similarly, the cultural analog to a phenotype is a performance, understand as the mental events through which one apprehends cultural products. The trick is to understand these things as collective phenomena, not just individual ones.

Correlatively, one also needs detailed descriptive control of cultural artifacts. My two posts on Rhythm Changes give an indication of what’s entailed. Studies of language evolution entail that level of descriptive detail, but most work doesn’t seem to be aware of that level of description – which is, by the way, only a crude indicator of whats necessary and possible.

Thus, the contemporary study of cultural evolution, on the whole, does not seem like it arose as an attempt to solve problems that have arisen through close analysis and description of human culture. Rather, it is something that has been imported from biology and applied to human culture in ways that, for the most part, don’t require detailed understanding of cultural morphologies and processes. In some cases, the thinking is mostly theoretical speculation. While I am in no position to object to speculation on point of principle, I am a bit skeptical about the possible success of a speculative enterprise that betrays so little interest in the properties of the objects and processes which are the objects of speculation. Where would biology have gotten if those naturalists had been indifferent as to whether or not the creature had three legs or four, or, indeed, whether or not it had any legs at all?

Humanists on Cultural Evolution

That, in crude caricature, is the scientific side of the ledger. What about the humanists?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mind Hacks R Us: The Psychedelic Computer

In scientific prognostication we have a condition analogous to a fact of archery – the farther back you are able to draw your longbow, the farther ahead you can shoot.
– R. Buckminster Fuller

The child is father to the man.
– William Wordsworth

A bit earlier in this millennium I thought it would be interesting to write a book on the parallel evolution of computer culture and psychedelic culture in the United States from mid-century to the end of the millennium. I wrote up a proposal, called it Dreams of Perfection, and it went nowhere. Subsequently John Markoff and Fred Turner each published parts of the story:
John Markoff, What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Computer Industry, 2005.

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, 2006.
So, now I’m publishing a slightly revised portion of that old book proposal as a series of posts. I’ve cut the marketing portions of the proposal, leaving only the conceptual overview and the chapter summaries. I’d envisioned five longish chapters, one for each decade. Each chapter was to have been named after a thematically relevant mass-market movie that showed (more or less) during that decade. I’ve retained that structure in this series of posts.

The rest of this post consists of the conceptual overview, slightly revised. The next post will have a short prelude and the chapter summary for first chapter, which used Disney’s Fantasia as its point of departure. That will be followed by posts taking off from Forbidden Planet, 2001, Tron, and The Matrix.

Graffiti by Plasma Slugs, with saturation and contrast boost from Photoshop.

The Dance of Drugs and Computers

During the last half of the 20th century various groups of insiders and outsiders adopted mind-altering drugs and computer technology to create cultural spaces in which we imagined and realized new venues for the human mind. These spaces engaged fundamental issues of freedom and control, of emotion and reason, which have bedeviled humans everywhere, and elaborates them in the through modern science and technology. The psychoactive drugs which, in some sense, free us, have been synthesized through laboratory techniques we have invented, but only recently. The computers which extend our powers of control and order in often surprising ways embody logical forms that date back to Aristotle but where only recently brought to fruition in the late nineteenth century work of George Boole and others. Science and technology thus provide us with objective physical touchstones for the otherwise abstract powers and activities of our hearts and minds.

Taken together with that great Victorian invention, childhood innocence, the technologies of drugs and computers would constitute a cultural arena which served as incubator, nursery, and playground for some of the major lines of development in late twentieth century culture. For, if a society is to progress it needs cultural playgrounds where new ideas can be conceived, tested and developed. Psychedelic drugs and computing – and their associated cultures – functioned as such playgrounds in the latter half of the 20th century. They were, in fact, among the most important cultural playgrounds in America. 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The B’s Have It: Bordwell and Boyd

In his most recent post, Glancing backward, mostly at critics, David Bordwell praises Gilbert Seldes “as a worthy critic not because of one-off reviews but in virtue of his pointed, sometimes daring ideas, his knowledge, and the zest they arouse in the reader.” He also quotes him generously. From The Great Audience:
The movies live on children from the ages of ten to nineteen, who go steadily and frequently and almost automatically to the pictures; from the age of twenty to twenty-five people still go, but less often; after thirty, the audience begins to vanish from the movie houses. Checks made by different researchers at different times and places turn up minor variations in percentages; but it works out that between the ages of thirty and fifty, more than half of the men and women in the Unites States, steady patrons of the movies in their earlier years, do not bother to see more than one picture a month; after fifty, more than half see virtually no pictures at all.

This is the ultimate, essential, overriding fact about the movies. . . .
Bordwell then observes that “what we’ve been told for years was characteristic of our Now—the infantilization of the audience—has been in force for at least sixty years.” In view of my recent remarks on universal kid space I find these observations most interesting. Most interesting. A bit later Bordwell quotes from Seldes’ best-known book (which I’m going to have to read one of these days), The 7 Lively Arts: “The daily comic strip of George Herriman (Krazy Kat) is easily the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today.” Think about that one, folks, and think about cartoons and universal kid space. And, while you’re at it, dig out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is, I believe, the best introduction we’ve got to an understanding of cognition and story-telling, by which I mean story-telling in general, not just cartoons.

Meanwhile, now that my review of Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories is well in the past, two passages from the book stand out. The first speaks for itself (pp. 16-17):
An evolutionary view of human nature, far from threatening freedom, offers a reason to resist the molding of our minds by those who think they know best for us. The cultural constructivist’s view of the mind as a blank slate is “a dictator’s dream.” If we were entirely socially constructed, our “society” could mold us into slaves and masters, and there would be no reason to object, since those would henceforth be our socially constructed natures.
The second provides a useful qualification to the notion that religion is one of the things that happened when this or that evolutionarily adapted mental module went wrong and started seeing things that aren’t there (pp. 202-203):
Science has improved immensely on the fictive agential explanations of the past—although even scientists find they cannot help anthropomorphizing causal factors; but science could not have begun without our persistent inclination and ability to think beyond the here and now, to invent agents and scenarios not limited to the actual or the probable but exploring also the merely possible or the eerily improbable.
Could it be that science has the same evolutionary roots as religion? (Pssst. Don't tell Richard Dawkins.)

Dusk/Sunset 21 May 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

Links: Origins of Language and the Problem of Design

So, I get an email informing me of a link post at John Wilkins' Evolving Thoughts. I go there where I click through to James Winters's A Replicated Typo, which has a post, Answering Wallace's challenge: Relaxed Selection and Language Evolution. I start reading and find out that it's mostly about a recent article by Terrence Deacon in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. So I click through to the paper, A role for relaxed selection in the evolution of language capacity. And, naturally, I start reading that, not too much, just a little to get the flavor.

Then I start poking around in the immediate neighborhood, as Winters had indicated that Pinker, too, had a recent paper on language evolution. As indeed he does: The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. So I read a little of that and did some more poking.

And what do I find? PNAS has a whole pile of articles on human evolution in that issue, and you can read them all online. For free, though, if you wish, you can pony up $25 and spend a week downloading PDFs to your heart's content. I might just do that. Douglas Wallace has a paper, Bioenergetics, the origins of complexity, and the ascent of man, which looks particularly interesting. It's the energetics and complexty stuff that has my attention. Here's the abstract:
Complex structures are generated and maintained through energy flux. Structures embody information, and biological information is stored in nucleic acids. The progressive increase in biological complexity over geologic time is thus the consequence of the information-generating power of energy flow plus the information-accumulating capacity of DNA, winnowed by natural selection. Consequently, the most important component of the biological environment is energy flow: the availability of calories and their use for growth, survival, and reproduction. Animals can exploit and adapt to available energy resources at three levels. They can evolve different anatomical forms through nuclear DNA (nDNA) mutations permitting exploitation of alternative energy reservoirs, resulting in new species. They can evolve modified bioenergetic physiologies within a species, primarily through the high mutation rate of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)–encoded bioenergetic genes, permitting adjustment to regional energetic environments. They can alter the epigenomic regulation of the thousands of dispersed bioenergetic genes via mitochondrially generated high-energy intermediates permitting individual accommodation to short-term environmental energetic fluctuations. Because medicine pertains to a single species, Homo sapiens, functional human variation often involves sequence changes in bioenergetic genes, most commonly mtDNA mutations, plus changes in the expression of bioenergetic genes mediated by the epigenome. Consequently, common nDNA polymorphisms in anatomical genes may represent only a fraction of the genetic variation associated with the common “complex” diseases, and the ascent of man has been the product of 3.5 billion years of information generation by energy flow, accumulated and preserved in DNA and edited by natural selection.
That third sentence is the one that got me: "The progressive increase in biological complexity over geologic time is thus the consequence of the information-generating power of energy flow plus the information-accumulating capacity of DNA, winnowed by natural selection." Sweet. What's especially sweet is the casual assertion of "biological complexity over geologic time." That's certainly how I see it, but I was under the impression that biologists bridle at the notion of increasing complexity over time. Has that notion become more acceptible while I was looking the other way? I surely hope so. In any event, David Hays and I wrote a little article on the subject, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity, which you may download here.

But let's get back Winters' post at A Replicated Typo. Here's a passage that get me thinking a bit:
The first aspect we need to appreciate is how Darwinian-like processes operate at the developmental-level. Deacon cites many instances, such as the fine-tuning of axonal connection patterns in the developing nervous system, where developmental processes are achieved through selection-like operations. Importantly, though, the logic differs from natural selection in one respect: “selection of this sort is confined to differential preservation only, not differential reproduction. In this respect, it is like one generation of the operation of natural selection”.The point he’s trying to get across is that these intraselection processes are taking place right across nature.
That fine-tuning of axonal connections, that, of course, has been known for some time, and Gerald Edelman has built his own theories of the brain around such phenomena, talking of neural Darwinism. What happens is this: At some relatively early stage in ontogenetic development a population of neurons sprouts dendrites like mad, forming random connections all over the place. These connections are then "pruned back" through use. Those connections that are used become stronger; those that are not, weaken and the dendrites die away. In this way the pattern of neural connectivity is "sculpted" to "match" the affordances (to use J.J. Gibson's term) offered by the environment.

It's the problem of design all over again. The brain's got billions of neurons, each of which has thousands of connections. All of these must be wired up just right. How's the brain to do this? That is to say, how do you cram all the necessary wiring information into the genome? You don't, because you don't have to. You just set up a process of random variation and selective retention, one that operates inside the organism.

One must keep in mind, of course, that those neurons that constitute the brain are each living entities and, as such, are trying to survive and thrive in their environment, which is filled with other neurons (not to mention the glial cells which surround them). The neurons don't "know" that they're "strapped" together in an organism such that they ALL survive or die according to the fate of that organism. And, there was a time when all life on earth consisted of single-celled organisms, each trying to survive, and variously cooperating and competing with their fellows.

And I've recently been making the same argument with respect to culture, especially in my recent post on design. What I haven't talked about, and what may prove a tricky little business, is where we get random variation among memes. Recall that I've defined memes as physical properties of cultural artifacts and processes, namely those properties that allow individuals to cooperate through those artifacts and processes. Certainly there will be variations in the way those memetic properties are expressed in individual performances. Indeed, there may be downright errors.

That's certainly the case in improvisation. You intend the line to go that way, but it doesn't. Maybe a finger slipped, causing a wrong note to come out, or one of the other musicians did something that changed the "valence" of your intended line. Whatever. Things got off track. So you've got to scramble to get them back on track. If you're successful, and your invention is particularly felicitous, you'll repeat it, and others will copy it, and before you know it, another meme is born.

But enough of this. I'm rambling. More later.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Relationship Advice

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

What’s the true color of this scene?

There’s no way of knowing, certainly not for you, as – I assume – you weren’t there that day. But not for me either, but not only because I don’t remember the scene independently of the photograph. But because the notion of “true color” doesn’t make sense, not quite.

I did a post on this at The Valve some time ago, so I won’t repeat that in full. But, in brief, wavelength is physically real, but perceived color is not. The color you see is not a direct function of the wavelengths that enter your eye from (through and/or reflected by) an object. If it were, the color of objects would vary more widely than it does. Perceptual psychologists call that color constancy (which is one of several perceptual constancies). Perceived color is relatively constant because the eye/brain makes context sensitive adjustments. There isn’t anything such thing as non-perceived color; there’s wavelength, but that’s not color.

There are, for example, these demonstrations where a patch that reflects some wavelength will appear as color X in one context and color Y in a different context (see examples here). Same wavelength, different colors.

What this means, then, for the photographer sitting in front of a computer intent on “developing” a digital image, is that “true color” is rather evasive. To make things worse, neither the monitor nor any photographic paper is capable of displaying the dynamic range that the eye can see. The eye can see light brighter than any reflected off of paper or transmitted from a monitor and no monitor or paper can be as black as a room sealed from all light.

So, when you’re developing an image, you have considerable discretion about just how to render the colors so they look real. These colors are obviously not real:

But what about these?

Or these?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design

To this point I have been taking it as obvious that a theory of cultural evolution would be a good thing to have. The only thing at issue is just what that theory would be like. Now, let’s step back for a minute and ask: Do we really need a theory of cultural evolution? Historians have been doing fine without such a theory, so why go to the trouble of creating one just because we can?

That is to say, what’s a theory of cultural evolution supposed to do? Saying that, well, it’s supposed to explain how culture evolves is no answer, because it simply assumes that culture does evolve. That’s what I want to question, if only rhetorically.

In comparison, when Darwin elaborated his account of biological evolution, he was trying to solve a particular problem. Living things appeared to be designed. Unless we’re going to posit the existence of a Divine Designer, how can we account for that appearance?

So, specifically, what are we trying to account for with a theory of cultural evolution? As near as I can tell, the gene-culture coevolution folks are trying to account for the rate of cultural change in human history. It’s too fast for biological inheritance mechanisms, so the mechanism must be cultural. It’s not at all clear to just what, specifically, Dawkins was up to. He wasn’t happy with other accounts of human culture, but he seems to have mostly been interested in memes as an example of another kind of replicator (a term he coined I believe). He wasn’t trying to solve any particular problem about human culture.

And for the most part, much of my own thinking about cultural evolution has proceeded without any specific problem in view. But I’m no longer willing to proceed with this enterprise simply because it is intrinsically interesting. We need a fairly specific problem that needs solved. What problem could that be?

I note that I’ve worked rather hard to produce an account of human cultural evolution that meets two criteria:
  1. it’s consistent with what we know about human psychology and neuropsychology and with some body of thinking about at least one major aspect of human culture (music), and
  2. it has the same logical and causal form as biological evolution, selection on phenotype elements and variation among genotype elements.
Since, in biology, the purpose of that logical and causal form is to account for design, I propose that it play the same role in the study of culture: to account for the design of human culture.

The Paradox of Human Design

The most obvious objection to this proposal is one that John Lawler raised to the third post in this series and that others have raised as well: “. . . whatever else may be true about it, any real evolution in language (and this goes pretty much for any other cultural phenomena as well), is that evolution of language (and culture) does not follow Mendelian rules, but rather Lamarckian.” Everything about human culture is designed, by human beings, not by some Divine Designer. So the idea that we need an account of human cultural evolution to account for culture’s design, that would appear to be a non-starter.

Not so fast. Let me repeat the response I made to Lawler:

Links: Imagining Genji + 5

Over at onFiction Keith Oatley reports brain imaging research indicating that only three descriptive phrases are necessary for effectively building a the scene in the mind.

The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are sponsoring a group reading of The Tale of Genji (Royall Tyler translation). Schedule here. Discussion starts on June 15 with Chapters 1 – 4.

Tim Burke has posted remarks on five “big tent” problems that would benefit from multi-disciplinary discussion: 1) SETI, 2) Artificial Intelligence, 3) Economic Development, 4) Education, and 5) Cultural creation.

Monday, June 7, 2010

History Lessons: Ancient Blogs, Tea Party in the Far East

Over at OnFiction Keith Oatley tells us that, in the days of Erasmus, private letters were passed around from person to person and so functioned a bit like blogs:
Until I read Johan Huizinga's biography of Erasmus, I had not realized that, before the coming of print culture which Erasmus was one of the first to use, although people would address handwritten letters to particular people they often intended them to be read more widely. Alongside formal readings at churches and synagogues, and lectures in universities, and before the emergence of magazines and newspapers, letters were means by which ideas could circulate. People would pass them around. You can see a vestige of this practice in some scientific reports called "Letters" to the journal Nature. In the nineteenth century, letters became more exclusively personal and intimate. Sealing wax, and subsequently envelopes, became normal. The purpose of letters had narrowed to become the continuation of conversation of the kind that functions to maintain close relationships.

The blog, therefore, is the perfect descendant of the kinds of letters that circulated before the age of print. No longer tied to the physical, thoughts in the form of electronic words can now be passed around more widely than previously.
James Fichter’s wonderful and important book suggests that the Atlanticists may be far less cosmopolitan than they presume. Fichter tells a story of war, empire, trade, smuggling, capital accumulation, and enormous transformations in political economy between the last decade of the eighteenth century and the third decade of the nineteenth. And the main actors would be familiar to anyone interested in the Atlantic world of the time: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States. But in Fichter’s telling, their world is the Pacific and Indian Oceans; and if he is right, they may have played a far more significant role there than we have previously thought. Indeed, Fichter finds in the East India trade both the reconfiguring of British empire and an enormous stimulus to American economic development.

Americans have had a much longer history in the Pacific and Indian Oceans than we usually recognize. In the early eighteenth century, as British subjects, they either engaged in smuggling and piracy or worked in more legitimate ways with the British East India Company, which was chartered by Parliament and the Crown. Almost within moments of American independence, they were then coursing and trading in the East Indies on their own. The first American merchant vessels reached Asia in 1784 and struck up relations in a number of ports, even in India where the East India Company permitted access.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

FR8s: Graffiti on the Move

My friend John Emerson reminds me that graffiti on freight cars travels all over the country, not just in urban areas. And so it does. Graffiti on fr8s is probably as old as fr8 trains, which isn’t all that old. But the contemporary practice derives from the graffiti that went on subway cars in New York City back in the day. That ended in the early 1990s, I believe, when the officials figured out how to come down hard and successfully on graffiti writers. Since then, most graffiti has gone up walls, both legal and not.

But the mobile art continues on freight cars. Here are a few photos from my collection. All were shot on the Bergen line in Jersey City and in almost all cases the trains were moving, albeit slowly. Let’s start with some characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force:

Here’s a simple throwie (throw-up):

Here’s an elegant tag on a tank car (the curvature seems to discourage piece work):

And simple, but elegant, piece:

This one is a bit different:

It’s a straight-forward statement, rare for such graffiti. Note, however, that shadowed lettering, indicating a writer with some skill. While I took the photo in November of 2008, I assume, but don’t know, the statement was made shortly after 9/11/2001.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cultural Evolution 5: Rhythm Changes 2

In the previous post I took a look at Rhythm Changes, a memetic entity that has played an important role in jazz and, in particular, in bebop. FWIW, Rhythm Changes has also been used in the theme song for well-known some well-known cartoons, Woody Woodpecker and The Flintstones. In this post I want to do several things:
  • consider all the elements of “I Got Rhythm,” rather than just the chord changes,
  • think briefly about how pools of memetic elements function in defining musical styles, and
  • look briefly at how the chord changes to Gershwin’s tune became memetically active.
Taken together those discussions flesh out the role of memetic elements in music systems in the large. I conclude by
  • examining this discussion of memes in music in the context of a recent article by Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel, Beyond the Gene, and not some broad thematic similarities between their discussion and mine.

I Got Rhythm, Whole

As I’ve indicated, Rhythm Changes is derived from, abstracted from, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Now let’s think about the whole tune, not just its harmonic trajectory, i.e. Rhythm Changes. In addition to that trajectory we also have a specific melody, the lyrics, the rhythmic framework, and the arrangement. The lyrics are optional; the tune can be performed without them, and among jazz musicians that is the typical, if not universal, performance practice. Note, however, that any consideration of the lyrics brings a whole other memetic field into consideration, that of language.

On the melody, Gershwin provided a specific melody, constructed on specific principles. We need not discuss those principles here. When others write tunes based on Rhythm Changes (e.g. Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity”) they must provide melodies as well. Not only are these melodies different from Gershwin’s, but they may be constructed on different principles as well. Thus we have another body of memetic entities to deal with, albeit one that interacts quite closely with those governing the tonal trajectory.

And so it goes with rhythmic framework as well. Gershwin wrote his tune in 4/4 time and that is how it (and tunes derived from it) is generally performed, usually at a medium or fast tempo. The tune could, however, be performed in other meters (e.g. 3/4, 5/4), though I’ve never heard it done so. Beyond this we have to consider the particular rhythmic style. Gershwin wrote it in the swing style and most performances are in a swing style or a closely related bebop style. But it could also be performed as a bossa nova, or a rumba, etc. Another bunch of memes to consider.

As for the arrangement, I mean such things as whether or not a performance involves just a vocalist and piano, or a big band; what’s the introduction going to be? how many choruses, and so forth. In order to have a performance specific musicians must perform specific parts on specific instruments. These details are constrained by harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic matters, but not dictated by them.

My first point, then, is that in order to have a musical performance a great many details must be specified. While I don’t think all of these details have memetic status – in fact, I’m sure they don’t – a good many of them do. That is to say, a good many of them function broadly in musical culture and appear in many different performance. If Rhythm Changes, as abstracted from Gershwin’s tune, entails some 100s of memes, then a complete performance will entail an order of magnitude more memes – though whether that order of magnitude is a factor of 2, 10, or some other multiplier is anyone’s guess.

Styles and Meme Pools

An entire musical style, such as swing jazz or bebop jazz, is likely to have still an order of magnitude more memes. So, we could say that bebop performances are based on memes chosen from a pool of 10,000. That’s just a number and certainly not an accurate one. But I rather doubt that the bebop meme pool has as few as 1000 or 2000 memes nor do I believe it has as many as 1,000,000. Perhaps it has on the order of 100,000s, but I’m a little more comfortable thinking of it has having on the order of 10,000.

Whatever the number is, the meme pool is structured. You can’t create a performance simply by drawing 1,000 memes at random. You need memes distributed over various categories – rhythm, melody, etc. – and you need memes that are mutually compatible.

Whether or not memes persist in the repertoire depends on whether or not they are regularly used in performances,* the phenotypic entity of culture. It is performances that people create and listen to – and they do so intentionally, I might add. This is not a theory about how people are pushed around willy-nilly by pesky brain-hopping memes. If a given performance is particularly pleasing the musicians or audience may attempt to repeat it. The memes that facilitated the pleasurable performance are likely to appear in derived performances and so, over time, become entrenched in the musical system.

Some performances may be considerably more elaborate than others, but even the simplest performance is going to involve a multiplicity of memes. Thus memes almost never appear individually, but generally in the company of other memes. We can identify individual memes only by analyzing performances and the brains and bodies that construct them.

Now let’s think about the relationship between various musical styles. Let’s say that bebop performances are based on a repertoire of 10,000 or so memes. Let us agree that two similar styles, swing and cool, are based on repertoires having roughly the same number of memes. Given that these are closely related jazz styles I would expect there to be considerable overlap between their meme pools. So, let’s say that in each paring of styles from among these three, each member of the pair shares 9000 memes with the other. Taken together the three might share, say, 8600 memes.

In a similar fashion I’ll assert that baroque music performances are based on a pool of 10,000 memes. How many memes are likely to be shared between bebop and baroque? These are moderately distant styles, but not utterly foreign. So let’s say they share 7000 memes. What about South Indian classical music (karnatic music)? I wouldn’t be surprised if, of its 10,000 memes, it shares, say, 5000 with bebop and 5000 with baroque, but not necessarily the same 5000.

Nor, for that matter, would I be all that surprised if the numbers in this section have to by multiplied by 10 to get in the appropriate order of magnitude. These numbers are simply crude guesses. However, if the notion of memes as units of cultural evolution is at all sensible, then it should one day be possible to make real estimates of these things. I don’t see this happening any time in the near future.

What’s a Meme (Two)?

Let’s return to Rhythm Changes. I’ve indicated why it interests me – it’s a fairly abstract and complex memetic entity – but I haven’t really explained why I think it’s a memetic entity. Could I, for example, have talked of Tunisia Changes as a memetic entity?

Suburban Graffiti

Graffiti started in cities and that’s where most of it is. Cities, after all, are where most of the walls are, and graffiti is painted on walls. Still, some graff happens in the suburbs. This piece by Rime (aka Jersey Joe), for example, is in suburban New Jersey:

It’s painted on a wall that supports the Garden State Parkway. When I turned around and pointed my camera the other way, this is what I saw, forest:

It’s not very deep, only a hundred yards or so. But it’s deep enough that the people living on the other side can’t see the graffiti, not even in winter, when the trees are bare. They’re too many, they’re too thick. The kids probably know about the graffiti, because they play in those woods. But their parents, not a clue, not unless someone tells them.

So, no one knows about this graffiti – Rime isn’t the only writer at this site, there must be a dozen others. Why put your art where no one can see it, no one except other graffiti writers and the neighborhood kids?

Here’s some details from the Rime:

Notice all the visual cues about 3D space. If this graff where a 3D object, what would it be like?

You can see more flix from this site in my Suburban NJ set on Flickr.