Thursday, October 31, 2013
David Hays introduced me to Takeshi Utsumi sometime back in the 1980s. Both of them were members of an on-going seminar convened at Columbia University by Seth Neugroschel on the topic of Computers, Man, and Society. This was one in a series of seminars that Columbia has run since the middle of the 20th Century. The seminars are housed at and funded by Columbia University, but are open to participation by the general public.
Neugroschel’s seminar featured wide-ranging discussions of the social impact of computing technology. I often timed my visits to Hays so that I could attend the seminar. Those visits came to an end in the mid-1990s when Hays died. But I reconnected with Neugroschel’s seminar when I moved to Jersey City in late 1997 or 98.
Utsumi was born in Japan in, I believe, in the mid-1920s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s. For the past several decades he has been traveling in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to meet with people and groups seeking funding for projects in distance learning, telemedicine and the like. He then directs them to an appropriate place in the Japanese government where they can obtain funding for their work.
All this is in service of his idea of a Global University System (GUS), “a worldwide initiative to create advanced telecom infrastructure for accessing educational resources around the world. The aim is to achieve ‘education and healthcare for all,’ anywhere, anytime and at any pace.” You can find a 2004 interview with Utsumi HERE.
He is particularly interested in peace gaming, and has included an essay on it in the collection, Global Peace Through The Global University System. Here is an abstract of and link to his contribution.
(A Personal Recollection on Its Inception and Development)
Abstract: As a computer simulationist, I conceived in 1972 an idea of establishing a Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming (GCEPG) with a globally distributed computer simulation system through a global grid computer network, with a focus on the issue of environment and sustainable development in developing countries. This is a computerized gaming/simulation to help decision makers construct a globally distributed decision-support system for positive sum/win-win alternatives to conflict and war. It can also be used to train would-be decision makers in crisis management, conflict resolution, and negotiation techniques. This gaming approach is to devise a way for conflict resolution with rational analysis and critical thinking basing on "facts and figures."
Over the past three decades I played a major pioneering role in extending U.S. data communication networks to other countries, particularly to Japan, and deregulating Japanese telecommunication policies for the use of Internet e-mail. I also contributed by conducting innovative distance teaching trials with "Global Lecture Hall (GLH)"tm videoconferences using hybrid delivery technologies, which spanned from Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Italy, France, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, etc.
Using this background, we are now creating a Global University System (GUS) with colleagues in major regions of the world, which will be interconnected with Global Broadband Internet (GBI). The GCEPG is one of the proposed ways to utilize the GUS and GBI in integrative fashion. A similar scheme with globally distributed computer simulation system can be applied to various subjects as creating a new paradigm of joint research and development on a global scale. This will foster not only wisdom by collaborative interaction on knowledge but also true friendship among people around the world with mutual understanding and lasting peace. This paper briefly describes the history of the GCEPG project since its inception in 1972 and its future direction. It is a companion to the opening chapter “Creating Global University System” of the book “Global Peace Through The Global University System.”
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
It’s just occurred to me that something’s happened to me like what happened with Coleridge (aka STC: Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and “Kubla Khan.” As you’ll recall, he was in an opium revere and this poem came to him, “in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions.” But that’s not quite what I’m talking about, not that exact same thing.
But there’s something else as well. It’s not simply that Coleridge couldn’t get the whole vision down on paper, but that he never again wrote a poem like “Kubla Khan”. He couldn’t get into that (kind of) mental space – or perhaps didn’t want to. Perhaps he feared it.
Back in the summer of 1995 I was working with Cuda Brown (a pseudonym) on a webzine he called Meanderings. We leaned toward the sepia side of life, if you catch my drift, and the back-and-forth on Afrocentrism and black cultural nationalism would sometimes get hot and heavy in the discussion forum (alas, no longer visible on the site, which has been dormant for years). One day I sent Cuda an email where I made some satirical remarks about golf being created in ancient Egypt by black folks.
Back then the controversy over Black Athena was still in the air. As you recall, Bernal had argued that Greek culture, art in particular, had significant roots in Egypt. That’s not at all controversial; it’s History of Western Art 101. He also argued that some of those ancient Egyptians were black. More controversial. Had lots of folks in a tizzy.
Anyhow, that’s the background of my remarks to Cuda, who loved playing golf. Knowing Cuda, he probably chuckled and replied in kind (I know longer have those old emails on my hard drive). Fact is, I couldn’t get that idea out of my mind: golf created in ancient Egypt by black folks.
So, over the next two weeks that idea just grew and grew until it became a full-fledged multicultural fantasy in which I spun a tale, Fore Play: A Lesson in Jivometric Drummology, about how gold was indeed created by a black pharaoh, Pharaoh Ramses Golfotep MCXLVII of the `N Baa Dynasty. He had a wife, Cleopatra, and a best buddy and helper, Daniel Louis Satchotep II, also known as King Toot.
Actually, it was a tale within a tale. The outer tale was told by Jefferson Ribonucleic Parker IV (notice, by the way, how the name is formed: 1) US President, 2) scientific term, 3) jazz musician). He began thus:
Tiger Woods is only the most recent in a long line of fine black golfers. In saying that I refer to players other than the moderns such as Charles Sifford, Jim Thorpe, Jim Dent, Lee Elder, Calvin Peete, and Renee Powell. Truth be told, the tradition of sepia swing masters started in ancient Egypt, where the game was invented. In that company Woods would be no more than a middling player.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
I’m going to start with the Bergen Arches, move to Buckminster Fuller and his plan for the industrialization of Brazil, and end with a monument in Journal Square. Well, not quite. I’m going to talk about such a monument. But you’re going to have to build it.
But only if you want to.
The Bergen What?
I first heard about the Bergen Arches back in 2004 or 2005, somewhere in there, when I first started working with the Hamilton Park Neighborhood Association. Janice Monson had placed her records in the Pavonia Branch of the Jersey City Public Library and I was helping some others to sort through the documents and file them away.
One pile concerned the Bergen Arches. Though I’d been living in Jersey City for five or six years by that time, I’d never heard of these Bergen Arches, whatever they were. And since everyone else seemed to know what they were, being rather shy, I didn’t ask. To me the Bergen Arches were just some Mystery Formation of interest to a group of neighborhood activists.
It wasn’t until two or three years later, the summer of 2007, that I actually went down there on a hunt for graffiti – which I found, by the way, in abundance – and then I wondered, for awhile, if this was actually the fabled Bergen Arches. Yes, there are arches, but what’s really there is a cut, 5000 feet long through solid rock. It’s man-made – blasted through the rock in the early 20th Century – and it goes along the border between the Heights and the rest of Jersey City.
It’s the most significant geographic and geological feature of Jersey City. Let me repeat that, with emphasis: It’s the most significant geographic and geological feature of Jersey City.
And yet many people in Jersey City have never heard about the Arches, and most of those don’t know much about them/it much less having gone down there. After all, trains stopped going through there in 1959, over a half-century ago. Since then it’s been dead to the city.
How can we imagine a future if we aren’t even aware of this untapped resource? How can we plan if we don’t even know who and what we are?
In any event, just how does one plan for the future?
Envisioning the Future: A tangible objective
Obviously we’ve got to make things up. Buckminster Fuller was good at that, so let’s turn to him. What can he teach us about planning for Jersey City’s future?
Back in the early 1940s he was working for the Federal Government as an economic planner. At that time the government wanted to do an extensive survey of Brazil – something to do with war planning. Brazil agreed provided that the government would produce a long-term plan for the industrialization of Brazil. The government agreed and Fuller was given the job.
From the NYTimes:
The participants generally rated kissing in casual relationships as most important before sex, less important during sex, even less important after sex and least important “at other times.” (To clarify: researchers defined kissing as “on the lips or open-mouth (French).”)Past research has shown that three types of people tend to be choosier in selecting mates who are genetically fit and compatible: women, those who rate themselves highly attractive, and those favoring casual sex. In this study, these people said that kissing was important mostly at the start of a relationship.That may be because for these individuals, kissing turns out to be a quick, easy way to sample a partner’s suitability — a subconscious stop-go light. For them, “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” might not be far off the mark.After that first kiss, these types are much more likely than other subjects to change their minds about a potential partner, researchers found. If it’s not in his kiss, forget about him.But other people might use different criteria to size up their mates: men, those who rate themselves as less sexually attractive, and people looking for commitment. In the grand search for a partner, these individuals screen for people who seem to have the inclination and resources for the long haul. And for them, this study showed, kissing has a lower priority at the beginning of dating.
Patrick Verel just sent me a link to his Fordham thesis about graffiti:
Verel, Patrick, "New York City Graffiti Murals: Signs of Hope, Marks of Distinction" (2013). Urban Studies Masters Theses. Paper 11.
He found out about me through Dylan Evans, who has coordinated several mural projects in Jersey City over the past few years, including the mural at the Lafayette Community Learning Garden on Pacific Avenue, a project I’ve been involved in.
I’ve not yet had a chance to read it, but I’ve blitzed through it a identified two passages that I’d like to bring to the attention of City Hall.
Verel did a number of case studies, including Philadelphia’s internationally known Mural Arts program, which was originally started to combat graffiti by putting ‘legit’ art on the walls. He interviewed spokesperson Amy Johnson by phone (p. 71):
Because the Mural Arts program has been around for so long and is so well known in Philadelphia, Johnson said the group rarely has to “sell” a mural to a property owner; fully half the murals commissioned are done at the request of the owners. The average mural measures 30 by 35 feet, and takes six months to complete. During that time, the group follows a 144-step process involving meetings and consultations with a sundry of residents, the property owner and the artist. It’s an exhaustive gauntlet, but it’s one that has resulted in only one project failing to materialize after it was started. Perhaps just as important, it insures that caretakers exist (i.e.: block captain, church group) for murals once they’re completed; located as they are outdoors, murals are vulnerable to the elements and require occasional maintenance.This intense style of formalized, grass-roots level negotiation is in marked contrast to the often haphazard, “gentleman’s handshake” agreements that are the hallmark of most of the collaborations that I found in New York City. So too is the variety of murals in the city. Just as there is a gulf between what as acceptable to Stapleton, Staten Island and Hunts Point, so too is there a noticeable difference between How’s and Nosm’s mural in City Center and David Guinn’s The Heart of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. That’s not an accident, as Johnson said they no longer think of themselves as an anti-graffiti program, but rather a pro art program.
He concludes by recommending that New York City change its policy on graffiti (pp. 100-101):
The official position of the City of New York is that penalties for graffiti must be harsh (the sale of spray paint to minors is illegal, and hefty punishments are handed down when perpetrators are caught, including felony charges for multiple arrests of those over 18), as part of a larger strategy of crime fighting that embraces the “Broken Windows Theory.” But I propose that the city would do well to add another arrow to its quiver in its ongoing campaign against vandalism.I envision a scenario in which a building owner of the future receives a notice from the city informing them they have graffiti on their building, and that they have 45 days to A. Respond with a confirmation that they will buff the graffiti themselves. B. Respond with a confirmation that they want the graffiti to remain. C. Ignore the notice, in which case the city buffs it with or without their permission. D. Respond with a request for a referral to a graffiti muralist. Of these four options, only the first three exist today. Artist referrals is something that Groundswell already does, and as the case studies in my paper show, there are plenty of writers who are experienced at collaborating with owners on a project agreeable to both.Instead of lumping graffiti together with offenses such as loitering, fare jumping, public urination, public alcoholic consumption and petty theft—which under the Broken Windows Theory are considered an early warning system for larger, more serious crimes—the city should take a cue from the private property owners who currently support graffiti murals.
Jersey City should adopt Verel’s recommendation and establish a referral registry of qualified street artists.
Monday, October 28, 2013
I've not read his latest book, David and Goliath (I've only read several chapters of The Tipping Point and a New Yorker article or three). Apparently it's promoting the idea that superficially undesirable disadvantages are, on deeper consideration, advantages. The third chapter is devoted to dyslexia. Mark Seiderberg has a guest post at Language Log in which he argues that Gladwell has not done a very good job in his reporting. Gladwell seals the rhetorical deal by offering two case histories of men whom Gladwell believes to be dyslexic, but he doesn't really know:
The personal narratives in this chapter leave the following impression. Two rich and powerful Master of the Universe types relate self-invented, self-serving life stories to a close but credulous listener, a great writer who can embellish them even further in a book that will be read by millions. The writer either doesn’t have the curiosity to verify whether any of the key assertions are true or doesn’t want to ruin a great story.It seems obvious that some professions tend to attract some types of people, and that different cognitive capacities and personality traits can be beneficial in different contexts. You could look it up. Some professions are surely better suited to people with impairments than others. For many years deaf people were overrepresented in the typesetting industry, for example. Some people’s impairments motivate them to excel and to do so by developing other skills. We admire people who succeed despite apparent handicaps.Gladwell's novel contribution was to use superachievers to connect dyslexia with "desirable difficulty." With Boies and the Goldman Sachs guy, the role of their putative dyslexia in their professional success is unknown: the experiment can’t be run again with the relevant control conditions. Gladwell is still dealing with outliers, the subject of his last book. Outlier data can be highly informative but not the basis for generalizing, in this case to the mass of individuals who have to live with dyslexia and find ways to cope with it.My great concern is that the desirable difficulty concept will combine in malevolent ways with the brush-offs that dyslexics already encounter, particularly “They grow out of it.” Both concepts encourage parents and educators to wait and see. That is dangerous advice, because with dyslexia, as with many other developmental disorders for which treatment is available, early identification and intervention offer the best hope of success. Though not at the level of David Boies, to be sure.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
The concept of a species in biology is tricky and controversial. John Wilkins is an expert on the controversies surrounding the term and he rejects the notion that the species concept is a mere verbal convenience or that it is simply a theoretical object. Instead, species are real things in the world:
This brings us to the third alternative: species aren’t theoretical objects at all; they are objects that have phenomenal salience . That is, we do not define species, we see them. Consider an analogous case: mountains. Mountains are hard to define, and they have a multitude of geological causes, ranging from uplift, subduction, vulcanism, differential erosion, and so forth. “Mountain” is not a theoretical object of geology – subduction zones, tectonic plates, and volcanoes are. A mountain is just something you see, although there are no necessary sets of properties (or heights) that mountains have to have, and it is often vague when differentiating between them. A mountain calls for an explanation, and the explanation relies on theory, but equally so do mesas, land bridges, and caves.
So the suggested answer to the question: what is a species? is that a species is something one sees when one realizes that two organisms are in the relevant manner the same. They are natural objects, not mere conveniences, but they are not derived from explanations, but rather they call for them.
I would like to clarify my earlier critique of Lakoff and Turner on “To a Solitary Disciple” (from the third chapter of More Than Cool Reason) by offering a crude account of how I would characterize the relationship between the text of the poem and their global reading.
Consider the following diagram. We have a fragment of a cognitive system above the double line and a sensory system (vision) below it:
The sensory system contains a simple image schema, one in terms of which we can define two metaphor mappings – IMPORTANCE IS CENTRAL; LESS IMPORTANT IS PERIPHERAL – and one metaphorical inference: ESSENCE IS CENTRAL. While Lakoff and Turner discuss image schemas in the book, they don’t explicitly invoke them in their treatment of essence at this point. The cognitive system contains the concepts underlying the text of the poem, and the diagram only explicitly indicates the moon and the edifice (of the church), which are conjoined as elements of some scene. The moon is linked to (mapped to) the center of the image schema while the edifice is linked to the periphery of the schema. The sense of the diagram, then, is that the moon is central while the edifice is peripheral.
Note that those metaphor mappings (IMPORTANCE IS CENTRAL and LESS IMPORTANT IS PERIPHERAL) are not verbally represented in the diagram, nor is the inference, ESSENCE IS CENTRAL. Such verbal representations aren’t needed. I have replaced those verbal statements with diagramming conventions.
The sense of the diagram is that the moon’s centrality is understood directly in terms of the underlying image schema. In effect, the link between the center of the scheme and the moon node IS one mapping while the links between the periphery and the edifice node is the other mapping. The link (notice the arrow head) from edifice to moon asserts that moon is more salient; that is the metaphorical inference.
I’d originally posted these notes to a private online forum back in 2002. This is their first walk out in public. What I say about music pertains to the other temporal arts: literature, film, theatre, and dance.
One thing you frequently find when reading about music, especially musicological material about Western art music in the so-called classical tradition, are discussions of large-scale structure. Some of these are relatively informal, but others may be quite detailed and rigorous, even formal (in a logical or mathematical sense). In any case, these discussions purport to be about something that really exists in the music.
This brings up a problem (which has been discussed at least since the late 19th century, see Jerrold Levinson, Music in the Moment, Cornell UP, 1997): we don’t seem hear or experience music that way. It’s easy enough to take in a whole painting, for example, in a single glance. But we never take in music that way. Music arrives note by note. We can anticipate some ways into the future, we can recall what we heard, and we have the sense that we’ve heard something like this before, but we never grasp it all at once. Various psychological experiments indicate that the present extends about 3 or 4 seconds; that is to say, our conscious awareness covers that much time, but no more.
Given that, what are we to make of the large-scale structures revealed by analysts and often consciously constructed by composers? Ultimately I think the issue can only be resolved by understanding how the brain works, but short of that, I propose an analogy: the roller coaster.
Roller Coasters and Music
Even as we’re approaching the amusement park we can see the roller coaster snaking around high in the air. We can take it all in at a single glance and we can focus our attention its various parts. But no matter how much we visually inspect the form, how much we think about it, that’s not going to give us the sensations we get from riding the roller coaster.
Things begin to change once we’re strapped in and it starts moving. We can no longer see the whole structure, but only what’s in front and to the side (though, with some effort, we can turn our heads so that we’re looking directly behind us). Some part of the roller coaster is very very close while other parts are more distant.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
I've posted quite a bit about Jersey City here on (the) New Savanna. You can find general Jersey City posts by clicking on the Jersey City tag, either directly below a post or in the LABELS area along the right. Many of those posts will just be photos. I've also done a number of photo essays where I gather a bunch of photos and comment on them. Click the JCPhotoEssay tag to find them. Finally, a number of posts are about the future of Jersey City, or seem relevant to Jersey City's future, even if they don't address it directly. I've labeled them with the JC Rising tag.
On the one hand I've been working my way through back episodes of Miami Vice, which I'd also watched when it originally aired on network TV. On the other hand, I was looking through old posts at The Valve and came across this one from July 13, 2006. It's about the movie, Miami Vice. Enjoy, it won't take long.
Though I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I did watch Miami Vice back in the day. So, when the movie racked up some positive reviews (NYTimes, Slate, Salon) I went to see it. True to the reviews, it was a visually stylish action-packed cop show. Not deep, but fun; and rather different from the TV show, darker and short on Crockett-Tubbs banter and camaraderie.
But what’s it about? Sure, cops and drug deals and fast boats, hot babes tropical heat and living at the edge. But what’s driving all that? A. O. Scott observed:
Their private lives don’t take them far from the job. In his spare time Tubbs keeps company with a vice squad co-worker (Naomie Harris), while Crockett pursues a reckless affair with a drug kingpin’s wife and business associate (Gong Li), and these entanglements give the undercover work an extra jolt of intensity. By the time the final showdown with the bad guys comes around, Crockett and Tubbs have long since crossed the line that divides the professional from the personal.But in the world of Michael Mann — a guiding creative force behind the small-screen “Miami Vice” and the writer and director of this movie version — no such line really exists. Whatever their particular jobs, his major characters tend to be men whose commitment to their professions transcends mere workaholism and becomes an all-consuming, almost operatic passion.
Could that be it? I’ll refrain from attempting to translate Scott’s insight into something like “unity of being” or even “unalienated labor,” but I want to nose around the edges.
Friday, October 25, 2013
I’ve been feeling that there’s something afoot in Jersey City, but I don’t know quite what. For example, here’s an empty block in Lafayette as it was two years ago (August 10, 2011):
Here’s the same block earlier this year (September 14, 2013):
Quite a difference.
Two years ago the block was deserted and derelict. This year it’s blooming with plants, art, and people.
What’s Going On?
In the small, that’s easy. Liz Perry and UMMI (Unified Mothers & Men Initiative) got the lot into Jersey City’s Adopt A Lot program in 2012. That summer a few people put plots into the lot and grew some stuff. The lot looked a bit better, but still rather thin.
This summer, UMMI’s Living Village Community Garden really took off. The City fenced it off, more people took plots, and the artists, poets, musicians, and other creatives moved in, the children, too. The garden won a prize for Seed Sowing, and the seeds are just plant seeds. We’re talking about life and friendship and getting along and getting up in the neighborhood.
That’s one neighborhood, and I could name a lot more people here.
But I’ve got the impression that this sort of thing is jumping off all over the city. The most obvious indicator is all the street art. Some of that is City funded, but most is not. There seem to be a lot of Liz Perrys in Jersey City, a lot of UMMIs, and they’re building neighborhoods.
What’s driving that?
There's an interesting piece in Nature about how neuroscientists are learning to "decode" brain activity, that is, to identify, e.g. what a person is looking at by analyzing their brain activity. First they have to "train" the decoder, a computer program, by having a subject, for example, look at pictures of various objects. It then "learns" associations between classes of objects and patterns of brain activity. You then test the decoder by presenting an image to the subject and having the computer guess the visual object:
Anne Hathaway's face appears in a clip from the film Bride Wars, engaged in heated conversation with Kate Hudson. The algorithm confidently labels them with the words 'woman' and 'talk', in large type. Another clip appears — an underwater scene from a wildlife documentary. The program struggles, and eventually offers 'whale' and 'swim' in a small, tentative font.
And so it goes:
Applying their techniques beyond the encoding of pictures and movies will require a vast leap in complexity. “I don't do vision because it's the most interesting part of the brain,” says Gallant. “I do it because it's the easiest part of the brain. It's the part of the brain I have a hope of solving before I'm dead.” But in theory, he says, “you can do basically anything with this”.
Edges became complex pictures in 2008, when Gallant's team developed a decoder that could identify which of 120 pictures a subject was viewing — a much bigger challenge than inferring what general category an image belongs to, or deciphering edges. They then went a step further, developing a decoder that could produce primitive-looking movies of what the participant was viewing based on brain activity5.
But I wouldn't worry about anyone peaking in on my thoughts anytime soon:
Devising a decoding model that can generalize across brains, and even for the same brain across time, is a complex problem. Decoders are generally built on individual brains, unless they're computing something relatively simple such as a binary choice — whether someone was looking at picture A or B. But several groups are now working on building one-size-fits-all models. “Everyone's brain is a little bit different,” says Haxby, who is leading one such effort. At the moment, he says, “you just can't line up these patterns of activity well enough”.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman, Domestic Institutions Beyond the Nation State: Charting the New Interdependence Approach (PDF)
Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli. The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011, 301pp.
Elliot Posner. The Origins of Europe’s New Stock Markets. Cambridge MA: Harvard Univer sity Press, 2009, 240pp.
Kal Raustiala. Does the Constitution Follow the Flag? The Evolution of Territoriality in American Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, 313pp.
Abstract: What is the relationship between domestic and international politics in a world of economic interdependence? This essay discusses and organizes an emerging body of scholarship, which we label the new interdependence a pproach, addressing how transnational interactions shape domestic institutions and global politics in a world of economic interdependence. This literature makes three important contributions.
First, it examine s how domestic institutions affect the ability of political actors to construct the rules and norms governing interdependent relations and thus offer a source of asymmetric power. Second, it explores how interdependence alters domestic political institutions through processes of diffusion, transgovernmental coordination and extraterritorial application and in turn change s the national institutions med iating internal debates on globalization. Third, it studies the shifting boundaries of political contestation through which sub state actors affect decision making in foreign jurisdictions.
Given the importance of institutional change to the new interdependence agenda, we suggest several instances where historical institutionalist tools might be exploited to address these transnational dynamics, in particular mechanisms of cross national sequencing and sub state actor change strategies. As globalization continues, it will be ever more difficult to examine national trajectories of institutional change in isolation from each other. Equally, it will be difficult to understand international institutions without paying attention to the ways in which they both transform and are transformed by domestic institutional politics. While not yet cohering as a single voice, we believe the new interdependence approach offers an innovative agenda that holds tremendous promise for both comparative and International Relations research.
I’ve had problems with cognitive metaphor theory (CMT) since Lakoff and Johnson published Metaphors We Live By (1981) – well, not since then, because I didn’t read the book until a couple of years after original publication. It’s not that I didn’t believe that language and cognition where thick with metaphor, much of it flying below the radar screen of explicit awareness. I had no trouble with that, nor with the idea that metaphor is an important mechanism for abstract thinking.
But it’s not the only mechanism.
During the 1970s I had studied with David Hays in the Linguistics Department of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He had developed a somewhat different account of abstract thought in which abstract ideas are derived from narrative – which I’ll explain below. I was reminded of this yesterday when Per Aage Brandt made the following remark in response to my critique of Lakoff and Turner on “To a Solitary Disciple”:
Instead, the text sketches out a little narrative. The lines run upwards, the ornament tries to stop them, they converge and now guard, contain and protect the flower/moon. This little story can then become a larger story of cult and divinity in the interpretation by a sort of allegorical projection. All narratives can project allegorically in a similar way.
Precisely so, a little narrative. Narratives too support abstraction.
My basic problem with cognitive metaphor theory, then, is that it claims too much. There’s more than one mechanism for constructing abstract concepts. David Hays and I outlined four in The Evolution of Cognition (1990): metaphor, metalingual definition and rationalization, theorization, and model building. There’s no reason to believe that those are the only existing or the only possible mechanisms for constructing abstract concepts.
In the rest of this note I want to sketch out Hays’s old notion of abstraction, point out how it somewhat resembles CMT and then I dig up some old notes that express further reservations about CMT.
Narrative and Metalingual Definition
The fact that various episodes can exhibit highly similar patterns of events and participants is the basis of Hays’s (1973) original approach to abstraction. He called it metalingual definition, after Roman Jakobson’s notion of language’s metalingual function. While Hays’ notion is different from CMT of Lakoff and Johnson, I do not see it as an alternative except in the sense that perhaps some of the cases they handle with conceptual metaphor might better be explicated by Hay’s metalingual account. But that is a secondary matter. Both mechanisms are needed, and, as I’ve indicated above, a few others as well.
In the NYTimes today, Anger Growing Among Allies Over U. S. Surveillance:
The damage to core American relationships continues to mount. Last month, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil postponed a state visit to the United States after Brazilian news media reports — fed by material from Mr. Greenwald — that the N.S.A. had intercepted messages from Ms. Rousseff, her aides and the state oil company, Petrobras. Recently, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which has said it has a stack of Snowden documents, suggested that United States intelligence had gained access to communications to and from President Felipe Calderón of Mexico while he was still in office.Secretary of State John Kerry had barely landed in France on Monday when the newspaper Le Monde disclosed what it said was the mass surveillance of French citizens, as well as spying on French diplomats. Furious, the French summoned the United States ambassador, Charles H. Rivkin, and Mr. Hollande expressed “extreme reprobation” for the reported collection of 70 million digital communications from Dec. 10, 2012, to Jan. 8, 2013.
Over at Crooked Timber Henry Farrell has kicked off an interesting discussion of The Politics of Hypocrisy:
What is interesting is not whether France (or Mexico, or Brazil, or Germany) is being hypocritical in pretending to be shocked at what the US is doing. It’s whether their response (hypocritical as it may be) has real political consequences. And it surely does. The decision of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff to cancel a state visit to the US (and start to disentangle Brazil from what had been an increasingly cooperative relationship) is one example. I have few doubts that if Rousseff had had the option, she would have preferred to have ignored US spying, and gone on with the visit and the burgeoning relationship. But she didn’t have that choice (or at least, it would have been domestically very costly). Similarly, the EU Parliament’s decision on Monday to reinstate rules restricting personal data transfer to the US are a direct response to the Snowden revelations. It is going to be tough for European governments to push back on these rules, even though they would probably like to, because they’re going to face a public outcry if they do. France can’t summon the US ambassador to ream him out about NSA surveillance one day, and effectively accede to NSA surveillance the next. However hypocritical this behavior is, it has consequences.
YES. Here's my contribution to that discussion:
You know, there's a sense in which "WE" all knew that this was going on. But it's one thing to strongly suspect – in a sophisticated, knowing way – that this is going on. It's something else to put it out there.You know that old story about the Emperor's new clothes? Imagine the moment when the Emperor struts out on the street, showing off his new finery, which is completely imaginary. Everyone can see he's naked, but no one says anything until the boy blurts it out. Well, these days that little boy's busy telling Truth to Power, and Power doesn't like it, not one bit.Game theorists talk about this. It's called mutual information. Before the little boy blurted out the truth, the information was shared. Everyone knew the Emperor was naked, but they didn't know that they knew. Once the boy said "he's naked" everyone knew that everyone else knew. Shared information had become mutual information.Steve Pinker talks about this in his book, The Stuff of Thought.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
I've uploaded another working paper to my SSRN site. As this post's title indicates, it's about description. Here's the link. I've appended the abstract and the introduction to the collection.
Abstract: These notes consist of five posts discussing the description of literary texts and films and five appendices containing tables used in describing to manga texts (Lost World, Metropolis) and two films (Sita Sings the Blues, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence). The posts make the point that the point of description is to let the texts speak for themselves. Further, it is through descriptions that the texts enter intellectual discourse.
Introduction: Constructing Descriptions
This collection of posts about description is a bit different from my first collection, Description as Intellectual Craft in the Study of Literature. Those posts leaned toward the abstract and theoretical first ended with a nod to Mark Changizi’s search for the teleome, a catalogue of goals for behavioral systems. I argued that the purpose of works of art was to create a virtual coupling between individuals so that, in a sense, they became individual facets of a distributed him. In THAT context a description of a literary text, or a film, becomes something like the description and specifications for, say, an interface between two computer systems. That description doesn’t tell you how the computers work or what large tasks they’ll be performing through the interface; but it tells you how they connect.
The posts in this collection tend toward the practical, though they don’t begin that way. I end with four appendices, each a working descriptive document concerning a specific text, two manga, and two films.
The cool reason I have in mind is George Lakoff and Mark, More than Cool Reason (1989), one of the founding texts of cognitive poetics. The leak is in the way they reason about their global reading of “To a Solitary Disciple,” by William Carlos Williams.
The poem presents a simple scene, the moon in the sky above the steeple of some building, a church presumably.
Lakoff and Turner set out to discuss the poem on two levels (p. 141). On one level they discuss cognitive metaphors the poem employs laying out that scene. They find a number of cognitive metaphors: SEEING IS TOUCHING, FORM IS MOTION, and EVENTS ARE ACTIONS. They also note that the poem employs “fresh”, metaphor that is novel and has not been precipitated down into the cognitive unconscious as a fragment of mundane working conceptual structure. This much of their analysis corresponds with the work I have done with Sonnet 129 and to the work that has more generally been done in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence on text comprehension and generation. As such these metaphors are directly related to the words in the poem itself and to their underlying meaning.
These metaphors belong to the cognitive base on which the poem is constructed. It is their second level of analysis that interests me here, for it is quite different in character. And its relationship to the poem itself is, if anything, even more problematic than that of a reading in, say, a Freudian, phenomenological, or deconstructive mode.
Of this second level, they assert “the poem as a whole can be given a metaphorical interpretation, in which the disciple to which the poem is addressed is told how to understand the nature of religion in terms of the scene presented to him” (p. 141). They note that the metaphorical global reading they propose is not the only possible global reading. What interests me is not so much the details of how they construct this particular global reading, but the overall relationship they posit between this reading and the poem itself.
So, first they provide an ordinary reading of the poem. It is this reading they are going to analyze, not the poem itself. Hence it is a reading (in the form of cognitive analysis) of a reading of the poem.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
A week ago I’d decided to put an end to my quest to find a poetic grammar centered on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. The intellectual landscape has changed so much since I’d embarked on that quest that I needed to reconceptualize the undertaking and set new goals. Two days later I described some that landscape and ended up suggesting that the binary oppositions so beloved of structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers be reconceptualized as low-dimensional projections of events a very high-dimensional neural space. That’s where we’re going to find “Kubla Khan”, and, of course, other poems as well.
My aim in this post is to explain why understanding “Kubla Khan” in particular is important and thus worthwhile. That question is, of course, a very specific version of a much more general question: Why is literature important? And there are two very different ways of answering that question.
Why Study Poetry?
We could be asking: Why do people care about literature at all? Why does a culture support literary activity? Shelley gave one answer, a grand answer, to that question in his well-known text, A Defense of Poetry. Here’s the last two lines:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
I believe that, or something like it. And whatever justification that statement may give for poetry in general, or indeed for art in any medium, I’m not sure how useful it is as a justification for studying “Kubla Khan” or the handful of other Coleridge poems I’ve put alongside it. After all, those poems are two centuries old. Any unacknowledged legislating they did is long past.
Or we could look to Kenneth Burke’s more modest formulation in his essay, “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term "strategy" (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that:
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”
Through the symbols and strategies of shared stories, members of a culture articulate their desires and feelings to one another thereby making themselves mutually at home in the world.
As Burke imposes no time limitations on a text’s usefulness, this more modest formulation is useful in a way that Shelley’s grander formulation is not. In a desire to “organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images” one is free to seek out any suitable text, including a bit of Romantic verse over two centuries old.
Still, that formulation won’t do for my purposes here, though it would be well to keep it in mind. For I am asking a different question. Why, I am asking, should a student of the human mind, in particular, a student of the newer psychologies, undertake to study “Kubla Khan” or any other literary text? What can students of the cognitive sciences, of evolutionary psychology, or of neuropsychology learn through the study of literature?
That’s a different kind of question from the first, and demands a different kind of answer. Psychological investigation can be very difficult. Understanding how the mind and brain deal with simple visual perceptions, or not so simple ones (such as faces), or the sounds of a human voice or an oboe, or sentences and phrases, such problems as these tax the investigative capacities of modern psychology. What can we possibly learn by investigating poetry?
Monday, October 21, 2013
Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts bills her article thus: The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention. OK. But I take a different lesson from it, one about one of my current hobby horses: description. Roberts focuses on an 18th Century painting by John Singleton Copley, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. Her point is that the more you look at the painting, the more you notice and hence the more you can note in a written description. She asks her students to spend a full three hours with a single painting.
Of her own experience with that painting she observes:
It took me nine minutes to notice that the shape of the boy’s ear precisely echoes that of the ruff along the squirrel’s belly—and that Copley was making some kind of connection between the animal and the human body and the sensory capacities of each. It was 21 minutes before I registered the fact that the fingers holding the chain exactly span the diameter of the water glass beneath them. It took a good 45 minutes before I realized that the seemingly random folds and wrinkles in the background curtain are actually perfect copies of the shapes of the boy’s ear and eye, as if Copley had imagined those sensory organs distributing or imprinting themselves on the surface behind him. And so on.
She begins her next paragraphL "What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it." Just so. And just because you've read a literary text, or seen a movie doesn't mean that you know, in any precise and focused way, what's in it.
Margaret Wilson has a guest post at Language Log that's questioning a recent article arguing that marmoset vocal interactions have a similar style of turn-taking. In the course of that argument she gives the following brief summary of the literature on human conversational turn-taking, which strongly implies that people are entrained to one another's rhythms:
When humans take turns, there is a cyclic structure to the extremely short gaps between speakers' utterances (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974; Wilson & Wilson, 2005; Wilson & Zimmerman, 1986). A between-turn gap of, say, 200 milliseconds is more likely to be broken by the second speaker at certain regular intervals (say, odd multiples of 50 ms) than during the "troughs" between those intervals. That is, short silences are not of arbitrary length, but reflect a cyclic passing back and forth of who has the "right" to speak next (Wilson & Zimmerman, 1986). The troughs represent moments when the right to speak has shifted back to the original speaker, hence the second speaker inhibits speech during those fractions of a second. And this is happening at the order of tens of milliseconds. This "structured silence" can only be explained by extremely tight coupling — entrainment — of some oscillatory mechanism in the brains of the two speakers. (For further research on this framework, see O'Dell, Neiminen & Lennes, 2012; Stivers et al., 2009).
For the purposes of this post I’ll place Carman Moore in the Western classical tradition, since that’s where his training is (Ohio State and Julliard). But his music draws on a wide range of traditions.
Since roughly the beginning of the 20th Century composers in the Western tradition have had the problem of creating music that was new and aesthetically compelling while at the same time accessible to a relatively large audience. Satisfying the last condition has all too often meant sacrificing newness. About a quarter of a century ago the so-called minimalists appeared to have made a breakthrough, Philip Glass in particular.
Moore’s approach is more interesting. His music is readily accessible to a wide range of people. Extensive study is not required, nor do you have to buffer your ears against an assault of aural weirdness, though some of that does show up as a bit of spice in the mix.
But Moore’s music is not at all minimal. He uses whatever means is necessary, melodic, harmonic, rhythmically, or sonically. Further, he restores dignity and control to the performer. The performer is no longer enslaved to the score. Improvisation is important in Moore’s music.
I’d like to hear Moore score a motion picture. And not an art film, though that would be fine as well. I think he’d do a smashing job on a Hollywood feature film. Anyone have Coppola’s phone number?
Here's a review of a recent performance of Moore's music, performed by the Skymusic Ensemble and conducted by Moore.
Can Mana Contemporary make the transition from NYCArt in Jersey City to scene weaver?
It’s time to revisit a question I posed a couple of months ago in the wake of Steven Fulop’s ground-breaking election as Mayor of Jersey City: is Jersey City a 21st Century Florence?
A Time for New Institutions
First let’s once again review a crude little story I’ve been telling for years. It goes like this:
In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.
So, just what are the possibilities for new institutions? Are any emerging?
On the latter question, sure, I guess. But the basic institutions of life in the West, if not the rest, have been inherited from the 19Century and before. This is overlaid by large international corporations and various international treaties, pacts, and NGOs. And the web has emerged in the last 20 years as a vehicle of communication and dissemination, and it’s certainly changing the institutions of higher education.
But the deepest kind cultural work needs to be done face-to-face. What are the prospects there?
Well, of course, I don’t know. But let’s think about the three institutions I’ve been examining recently: Mana Contemporary, the MacArthur Fellows Program, and the SUNY Buffalo Department of English for roughly a decade or so in the 1970s. Can we make something new out of that? What? How?
Sunday, October 20, 2013
We all know these words, from the opening of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
Let's be clear about what's being said in that second sentence. "Governments are instituted among Men" in order to secure the rights enumerated in the first sentence. And such governments get "just powers from the consent of the governed." That is, they get their powers from we the people, on behalf of whom they are to exercise those powers. Ultimately WE rule Them on the basis of "unalienable Rights" endowed to us by our mutual Creator.
And we all know this picture, Michaelangelo's well-known painting of God (on the right) creating Adam (on the left)
Here's a detail of the hands:
There's an article, by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian, about David Birnbaum, a jeweler to the stars turned metaphysician and has written a Big Book entitled Summa Metaphysica.
It is an exhausting read, partly thanks to its length – volume two alone has 90 appendices – but also because much of it is written in a kind of rapturous, mystical prose, liberally peppered with capitals. A typical sentence reads: "The cosmic trajectory is from the bottomless VOID to the limitless EXTRAORDINARY." Birnbaum's big idea is what he calls "the Quest for Potential theory", or Q4P, or occasionally Q4P∞. The sense that he is unveiling hidden, pan-historical connections sometimes gives his work the flavour of Dan Brown.
I've got my doubts. What caught my attention, though, is this:
The science writer Margaret Wertheim has made a specialism of studying people she calls "outsider scientists": obsessive amateurs, usually with little or no university education, who assert that mainstream science has taken a wrong turn, and devote themselves to constructing elaborate alternative theories of reality. The star of her 2011 book on the subject, Physics On The Fringe, is a trailer-park owner from Washington state named Jim Carter, who rejects quantum physics, arguing that the universe is actually composed of minuscule doughnut-shaped particles called circlons. Whatever else may be said about this theory, Carter's painstaking, multicoloured circlon diagrams are gorgeous; Wertheim once curated an exhibition of them at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.Wertheim is unashamedly sympathetic toward her cast of eccentrics, a fact that led some critics to misread her as arguing that their ideas ought to be taken seriously. What she really wants us to take seriously, though, is the motivation behind their efforts: their insistence that the deepest secrets of the universe, as she puts it, "ought to be understandable by an ordinary, thoughtful person, who's willing to do some contemplating". Science is supposed to explain the world to us, turning shimmering mysteries into intelligible truths. But, in practice, few of us will ever understand the cutting edge of a field such as physics, because it requires so much advanced mathematics; we must take it on trust. "What happens to a society when the official cosmology, the official picture of the world, is literally incomprehensible to 99.9% of people?" Wertheim wonders. "On some level, isn't that just a very unhealthy situation for a society to be in?"
H/t Tyler Cowen.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Ornette Coleman says that Carman Moore, a recent Guggenheim Fellow, is “the greatest composer...in the whole world”, and who am I to question Mr. Coleman in such matters? His Skymusic Ensemble is pretty freakin’ good, too! and I’m saying that myownself because I heard them with my own ears last night (Friday 18 October) at the famed West Park Presbyterian Church in New York City.
But I get ahead of myself. I want to ease into it.
I met Carman several years ago when I was working with Zeal Greenberg on his World Island project. A couple years before Zeal had had a dream and the dream gave him a poem, “The Heart of the World is in Your Hands.” And the poem needed a composer. So it arranged for Zeal to bump into Moore in an elevator – maybe that isn’t quite what happened, but whatever it was, it was arranged by those princes of Serendip – and Moore provided Zeal’s poem with the music it had requested.
So I meet Moore at one of Zeal’s parties, or perhaps at the office, who knows. However it went, we ended up in the basement of Jim Papoulis’s house on the Upper West Side recording “The Heart of the World” with a soprano soloist and a small children’s chorus. Things went well, not perfectly, but well. Carman was cool.
Somewhere along the line I heard a recording of some hip-hop he’d written and recorded with his granddaughter, learned about a children’s theatrical work he was scoring, along with other bits and pieces about his musical life. And he played keyboard accompaniment to the Dali Lama? The dude’s been around. So, why hadn’t I heard of him before?
Friday, October 18, 2013
Yesterday, or the day before, I asserted that a lot of new intellectual tools have been created since I first set out to figure out what’s going on in “Kubla Khan” and “This Lime-Tree Bowers My Prison”, but I didn’t say much about those tools or why I believe they will prove more or less to have “turned the corner” on conceptual invention in this new intellectual continent. I want to say a few words about that now.
First of all, what was I really looking for when I set out to discover a one single “grammar” that would encompass both “Kubla Khan” and the very different Conversation Poems, such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”? Well, I want to do more than provide a verbal description of what they have in common; I did that in my 1981 note (Metaphoric and Metonymic Invariance: Two Examples from Coleridge. MLN 96: 1097-1105). The idea is to get at what’s going on behind the scenes, as it were, in the mind that produces those texts.
We need to say something that’s principled and interesting on that score. Principled means that others can understand it and work from it. Interesting is a bit trickier. But in this day and age it certainly implies that what we say should be tangibly linked to and grounded in the newer psychologies, neuro, evolutionary, and cognitive. But it implies more than that. Interesting implies that solving this problem will lead us closer to something deep and fundamental.
I’ll take THAT up in a later post. For now, let’s stick to principled and to the newer psychologies.
Roughly Three Kinds of Formal Models
Consider a paragraph from the penultimate chapter of Conceptual Spaces (2000), by Peter Gärdenfors (p. 253). He’s saying that we need different kinds of computational processes for different kinds of problems:
On the symbolic level, searching, matching, of symbol strings, and rule following are central. On the subconceptual level, pattern recognition, pattern transformation, and dynamic adaptation of values are some examples of typical computational processes. And on the intermediate conceptual level, vector calculations, coordinate transformations, as well as other geometrical operations are in focus. Of course, one type of calculation can be simulated by one of the others (for example, by symbolic methods on a Turing machine). A point that is often forgotten, however, is that the simulations will, in general be computational more complex than the process that is simulated.
The cognitive networks that I explored back in the 1970s and into the ‘80s work at the symbolic level. That’s what failed. But, if Gärdenfors is right – and I think he more or less is – then we’ve got two other families of processes to take into consideration.
Greg and I took another trip out to Mana Contemporary yesterday. There it is, this multi-building complex on the west side of Jersey City, next to the PATH line to Newark, within sight of the Hackensack River and the Pulaski Skyway, and the Meadowlands to the north. Once it was a can factory and tobacco warehouses, now it’s an art complex. One man we talked to, a project manager named Yoav, says there’s nothing else like it in the world.
In the world!
Is that so?
That’s what the man said.
But what does that mean, in the world?
Well certainly means that it’s a unique combination of facilities and institutions.
Well, it has fine-arts storage for major collectors and institutions. You know, Mr. Big Bucks Billionaire has 3482 pieces of art in his collection, but can display on 637 of them in three houses and two condos spread over four continents. What does he do with the other 2845 pieces? Puts them in storage with Mana.
And Mana moves pieces around from storage to house, from condo to storage, and so on, right?
I assume so, yes. But Mana also has viewing galleries where a collector can take some stuff out and look at it.
And where it can be displayed to the public?
Yes. They do that too. That’s another aspect of the place.
OK, so we’ve got art storage and display. Big deal. There must be over a dozen museums within 10 miles of Mana each of which has more art on display than Mana, even if they do keep some of their overage there. Anything else?
Why yes. But Mana's got studios for artists, photographers, sculptors and others. And they've got a cafe where they can gather over a meal or a snack and chat.
OK. Now we’re getting somewhere.
And so it goes. We have art storage, exhibition space, and artists themselves. According to this New York Times article:
Thursday, October 17, 2013
From Medical Xpress, contrary to the common belief that musical preferences are fixed in adolescence, Arielle Bonneville-Roussy from Cambridge's Department of Psychology has led a study that finds otherwise:
Now, a new study suggests that - while our engagement with it may decline - music stays important to us as we get older, but the music we like adapts to the particular 'life challenges' we face at different stages of our lives....One theory put forward by researchers, based on the study, is that we come to music to experiment with identity and define ourselves, and then use it as a social vehicle to establish our group and find a mate, and later as a more solitary expression of our intellect, status and greater emotional understanding....
"Whereas the first musical age [adolescence] is about asserting independence, the next [young adulthood] appears to be more about gaining acceptance from others."
As we settle down and middle age begins to creep in, the last musical age, as identified by the researchers, is dominated by 'sophisticated' – such as jazz and classical – and 'unpretentious' – such as country, folk and blues.
October 18: Added three paragraphs about high school band.My first memory of music is also my first memory of any kind. It is of listening to Burl Ives sing about a romance between a fly and a bumble bee. I loved that record – it was one of those old 45s – and played it over and ever. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time.
Some time after that, but I have no sense of how long, I remember listening to "Tubby the Tuba" and "Peter and the Wolf" and other things for children. I also remember listening to Viennese Waltzes and to Beethoven and Schubert with my father.
My next specific memory is of taking up the trumpet in fourth grade. The school offered group lessons to children free of charge. I was in a group that included at least two clarinet players, and perhaps that is all; I don't really recall. The two clarinet players were good friends of mine and remained so through high school. We played together in the band, and outside as well.
I do remember that, at some point, I fell behind the others in my lessons. At some point I starting taking lessons with a private teacher whom my parents hired. And then another. I did not practice willingly.
During this period I spent some time figuring out how to play simple melodies that I liked – from TV programs, the radio, whatever. I did this without music. I just fumbled around trying this note and that until I got them all. In some cases I would notate the pitches – but not the rhythms – on staff paper. I would also make up my own tunes.
Then, when I was twelve or so, I starting going to another private teacher, Mr. David Dysert. That's when things clicked. Dysert tailored his teaching to my interests and capabilities in a way then other teachers had not. When he discovered I was interested in jazz – remember the "Firehouse Five Plus Seven" from the Mickey Mouse Club? – he wrote out exercises in swing interpretation and taught me to play them (I've still got these). Later I also took piano lessons from him and he taught me the basics of keyboard harmony. That gave me that basic knowledge of musical structure that I needed years later (late in my college years) when I decided to write horn arrangements for a band I played in and when, still later (graduate school), I decided to become at least moderately proficient in improvising in the swing, bebop, and post-bop jazz styles.
In the last installment of my “hunt for genius” series I talked about the English Department at SUNY Buffalo back in the mid-1970s and cited Bruce Jackson’s panegyric to same.
The interesting thing is that deconstruction and postmodernism where alive and well there, and yet the department respected the life of the mind and believed in the search for truth. Whatever individual faculty may have thought about this or that, the department as an institution believed in the search for truth.
Well, the general knock on postmodernism by outsiders is that it’s a free-for-all roll-your-own approach to knowledge, that there are no standards, that it’s relativism gone bad. The place didn’t feel like that at all.
Could it be that academics who yammer on about relativism and truth make the mistake of identifying Truth with current paradigms? That they mistake the existing institutionalization of intellectual life for the on-going Life of the Mind? I think so.
I don’t know what that department is like now, 35 years after I left. It certainly isn’t the place it was then; Jackson says as much in his article. Even then the end of those glory years was visible on the horizon. And no doubt postmodernist modes of thought have become sclerotic, but then, isn’t sclerosis rampant in the academy? Battles between competing ideologies are routine and boring.
But for a moment that department was able to break through the routine, to believe in the ongoing flow, in its necessity, and in its beautiful truth.