Thursday, April 30, 2015

"OK to Destroy" #GVM004


Been thinking about what to call the Green Villain First Annual Jersey City Invitational Graffiti Jam besides the GVFAJCIGJ. "OK to Destroy" seems metaphysically appropriate. The name comes from one of the stickers on a pipe at the rear of the building. There's two of them and they're there to protect a meter. You can see the sticker at the lower left:


You might that "OK to Destroy" is a bit nihilistic. You might think that, but I urge you to reconsider. Compare it with, say, "Rage to Destroy". Very different, no? No, I think it's just right.

What Letterman Thinks about the Mind

As we all know, David Letterman is retiring from the "Late Show" after, well, not forever, but a long time. He gave a long interview to the good folks at The New York Times and they then boiled it down to 11 highlights. I've picked two of them.
On his heart surgery in 2000:

I was concerned that I’ll never be able to run again — that was my big concern. Because I had so relied on running, all my life, to get myself clearheaded. And of course, I was worried that somebody would go on while I was off with my heart surgery, and be good enough that they didn’t want me back. As I’m trying to recover from quintuple bypass surgery, I’m paranoid that my life is ending. And then, six weeks after the surgery, I ran for five miles. So let’s face it, I am a hero. There’s no two ways of looking at it.
The general issue is, of course, we all need ways of keeping in balance. But just what IS that about? What're we trying to balance with what? What is it about brain and body that's getting balanced, what chemicals and connections?
On what he’ll do after his final show:

I will be completely in the hands of my family. I will be going, later in the month, to the Indianapolis 500. And then beyond that, for the first time since Harry’s been alive, our summer schedule will not be dictated by me. It will be entirely dictated by what my son wants to do. And I think that’s pretty good. After you take a good, solid punch to the head, you’re just a little wobbly. I think in that state it would be good to have others making my decisions. That’s how he’s describing his retirement. A good solid punch to the head.
This is about balance as well, but from a different angle. For the last two decades this TV show has dominated his life; it's been one of the things he's been balancing against/with his running. And now it's gone. Whoosh! There's a big hole. How do you fill it?

I remember how, back in my university days, the Spring semester would come to an end and I wasn't teaching anymore. Teaching no longer took up a big chunk of my tine and mind-space. I spent the summer doing research. And it would take me a good two or three weeks to transition to an efficient and focused research mindset. I figured my brain was reorganizing itself around my new regime (I've got some more remarks along these lines at the end of "The Evolution of Narrative and the Self").

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Graffiti: From Art Crimes to Family Day #GVM004


Back in the day, when graffiti was just getting started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a criminal act. A minor crime, to be sure, but still criminal. And it still is, for the most part, vandalism.

But things have changed as well. By the 1990s graffiti had been picked up by hip-hop, extreme sports, and had gone international. It was a crime all over the world.


And now, what happened in downtown Jersey City this past Saturday, April 25, 2015? The Green Villain, aka Greg Edgell, organized a graffiti jam at the Newport Pep Boys store.

In the Spring of 2014 Greg Edgell started his plan to take over walls in Jersey City, where he lives, and New York City, across the river. Find a good wall, contact the owner, get permission to put graff or street art on it. The Newport Pep Boys in Jersey City was the fourth hit: #GVM004.


Why this building? Because the rear wall is big and visible. It faces the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, where it is seen by 1000s of commuters a day. All systems were Go. By November 2014 the AIDS crew had that huge rear wall covered. Five months later word came down that the building had been sold and would be demolished to make way for new construction.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Is knowledge the opiate of intellectuals?

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix. 
The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

The brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.
H/t Dan Everett. 

SP One, What’s he thinking? #GVM004

Look at this flick, taken at 1:17 PM, Saturday 25 April 2015, at the Pep Boys Memorial Graffiti Jam in Jersey City:


SP One’s working on a piece, standing in front of a letter form at the left. But what’s immediately to the left of that letter form?

Now look at this shot, taken at 1:48 PM:


No one’s standing in front of it, so we can see it clearly. Knowing this is by SP One it’s easy to see that letter form at the left as a combination of “S” and “P”. The “One” to the right is obvious enough. Given the way I framed the shot we can’t see much at the far left, but what’s there seems to be pretty much what was there in the previous shot.

Now look at this shot, which I took much later in the day (early evening, 6:49 PM, hence the different light):


There’s a very obvious “S” over there at the left, on top of what appeared to be just background in the previous two shots. Was it part of the original design, of did it insert itself in process?

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Green Villain at Work, Pep Boys, 25 Apr. 2015, #GVM004




On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel

I've got another working paper available (title above):

Most of the material in this document was in an earlier working paper, Cultural Evolution: Literary History, Popular Music, Cultural Beings, Temporality, and the Mesh, which also has a great deal of material that isn’t in this paper. I’ve created this version so that I can focus on the issue of directionality and so I’ve dropped all the material that didn’t related to that issue. The last section, The Universe and Time, is new, as is this introduction.

* * * * *

Abstract: Matthew Jockers has analyzed a corpus of 19th century American and British novels (Macroanalysis 2013). Using standard techniques from natural language processing (NLP) Jockers created a 600-dimensional design space for a corpus of 3300 novels. There is no temporal information in that space, but when the novels are grouped according to close similarity that grouping generates a diagonal through the space that, upon inspection, is aligned with the direction of time. That implies that the process that created those novels is a directional one. Certain (kinds of) novels are necessarily earlier than others because that is how the causal mechanism (whatever they are) work. This result has implications for our understanding of cultural evolution in general and of the relationship between cultural evolution and biological evolution.

1. Introduction: Direction in Design Space, Telos? 2
2. The Direction of Cultural Evolution: The Child is Father or the Man 6
3. Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels 9
4. Macroanalysis: Styles 10
5. Macroanalysis: Themes 13
6. Influence and Large Scale Direction 15
7. The 19th Century Anglophone Novel 18
8. Why Did Jockers Get That Result? 20
9. What Remains to be Done? 21
10. Literary History, Temporal Orders, and Many Worlds 22
11. The Universe and Time 30

Introduction: Evolving Along a Direction in Design Space

In 2013 Matthew Jockers published Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013). I devoted considerable blogging effort to it 2014, including most, but not all, of the material in this working paper. In Jockers’ final study he operationalized the idea of influence by calculating the similarity between each pair of texts in his corpus of roughly 3300 19th century English-language novels. The rationale is obvious enough: If novelist K was influenced by novelist F, then you would expect her novels to resemble those of F more than those of C, who K had never even read.

Jockers examined this data by creating a directed graph in which each text was represented by a node and each text (node) was connected only to those texts to which it had a high degree of resemblance. This is the resulting graph:


It is, alas, almost impossible to read this graph as represented here. But Jockers, of course, had interactive access to it and to all the data and calculations behind it. What is particularly interesting, though, is that the graph lays out the novels more or less in chronological order, from left to right (notice the coloring of the graph), though there was no temporal information in the underlying data. Much of the material in the rest of this working paper deals with that most interesting result (in particular, sections 2, 6, 7, 8, and 10).

What I want to do here is, first of all, reframe my treatment of Jockers’ analysis in terms of something we might call a design space (a phrase I take from Dan Dennett, though I believe it is a common one in certain intellectual circles). Then I emphasize the broader metaphysical implications of Jockers’ analysis.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ian Morris on Why Societies Collapse

Stanford's Ian Morris, a classicist by training, is one of 32 fellows in the inaugural class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows in the humanities and social sciences. Here's a passage from a recent interview published on the Stanford website:
A few years ago I designed a quantitative index of social development, allowing us to measure the ability of different societies to master their physical, intellectual and political environments. This suggested that social development has been rising for most of the 15,000 years since the end of the last ice age, but also showed that there have been several great collapses, plunging societies into dark ages that last for centuries.

The same five factors recur in all the major collapses: uncontrollable migrations, new epidemic diseases, state failures, famine and – always involved, but never in quite the same way – climate change. All five of these factors, of course, seem to be pressing on us in the early 21st century. The greatest past collapses began in Song-dynasty China about 1,000 years ago, and all the way from the Roman Empire to Han China 2,000 years ago. In both cases, the societies in question seem to have developed about as far as was possible in a purely agricultural system.

The only way to go further was by having an industrial revolution; but because neither the Romans nor the Song managed this, both stagnated and then fell apart. The lesson of past collapses seems to be that every economic system has its limits, and we may now be approaching the boundaries of what is possible in a fossil-fuel, industrial world. If that is right, then the 21st century will be a race between innovation, transforming our fossil-fuel economies into something entirely new, and stagnation, leading us into a new dark age.

Energy and the origin of life

The Financial Times reviews Nick Lane, The Vital Question:
The key moment for the evolution of life on Earth, Lane says, came at some point between 2bn and 1.5bn years ago. Then, in a rare and remarkable act of “endosymbiosis”, an archaean absorbed a bacterium — and this combination survived to divide into a rapidly evolving chain of descendants. All eukaryotic creatures, including ourselves, come from this once-in-4bn-years union.

Lane puts energy at the centre of his story, deploying thermodynamic and chemical arguments that will be challenging but not incomprehensible for the general reader. Although all living creatures generate energy by pumping protons across a membrane, the combined cell could deploy energy resources far beyond the scope of bacteria or archaea on their own. The absorbed bacteria multiplied within their archaean host cells, losing their independent identity and evolving into the minute power packs that we know as mitochondria. In the process they lost most of their DNA but retained a tiny genome critical for energy processing. 
This internal specialisation enabled eukaryotic cells to generate many thousands of times more energy per gene than prokaryotes.
I'm wondering about the informatics of this. Years ago Dave Hays and I argued that evolution produces complexity by using a relatively small amount of energy to buy information that in turn allows the purchase of more energy than the cost of the information increment plus the energetic cost of the purchase. Is that what's going on here?

H/t 3QD.

The basics of graffiti culture #GVM004

These photos were taken on Saturday, 25 April, 2015, at the Green Villain Pep Boys Invitational Greffiti Jam and Building Farewall.

The Writer


The Photographer


The Image


Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Fotos: Pep Boys, Newport, Jersey City: #GVM004

The Pep Boys in Newport in Jersey City has closed and the building's been sold. Next month it will be demolished to make way for new construction. My amigo, the Green Villain, has secured permission to paint the whole thing before it goes. That's happening tomorrow. Earlier today I went by to get a few shots before the fun begins. Well, actually, it's already begun. But tomorrow it's party time.







Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Communicating with Yourself, Some Data Points in the Contemporary Intellectual Situation

But first, not so contemporary: E. M. (“only connect”) Forster is known for various things, including the assertion, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s about why he writes.

Think about if for a moment, considering the fact the Forster is one of the great writers of the 20th century. And that’s not a casual remark. What’s it mean? I mean, writing is hard, often very hard; why should it be necessary to write in order to know what you think? Can’t you just, you know, sit and take thought?

Well, yes, you can, and it won’t get you as far as the labor of writing. I could likely say quite a bit about just why that is so; but I have no reason to believe that, in so doing, I’d nail it to the wall. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. But that’s not the point. I just want you to think about it, the labor of making marks on paper as being a way of thinking about what’s in your own mind. If it’s in your mind, why do you need to put marks on paper in order to know it?

Just what is a mind and what does it mean for something to be IN a mind?

Sender-Receiver Systems

Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has been interested in what he calls a Sender-Receiver Configuration model of communication, which owes fundamental debts to philosopher David Lewis and mathematician Claude Shannon. You can find papers on this HERE. One of the most recent is a lecture he gave at George Washington University in 2012: The Evolution of Meaning (PDF). It builds the idea from (a fairly sophisticated) ground zero.

He ends with a nod to one of my favorite and seminal thinkers, Lev Vygotsky. Here’s what he says (pp. 14-15):

Photos and Forsythia

When I was young I looked to the blossoming of forsythia as a sign of Spring. I still do. But this isn’t a post about forsythias or Spring. It’s about photos, such as this:


I’m in fairly close, so you don’t see the whole bush. That, of course, is deliberate. Much of the image is in focus, but by no means all of it. There seems to be more in focus on the left than on the right. How deliberate is that.

For deliberation is an important issue. I take these photos while walking out and about. Many are taken quickly, some with a bit more deliberation and care. I suspect that that first photo was taken rather quickly. That’s likely the case with this rather different one:


Compositionally, this is very different. To a first approximation, that first photo was (almost) all yellow. This is not. I’m sure that’s what caught my eye as I was scanning the bush with the camera (I sorta’ remember taking this shot), looking for images. We’ve got right, bottom, and left yellow around a deep darkish background. Yes.

And almost none of this image is in focus, just some petals and leaves below center. The rest of the shot is out of focus, often very much so. How deliberate is that?

There’s two kinds of deliberation. My choosing to upload this photo can’t help but be deliberate. I don’t have a policy of posting everything. Even before I can upload an image, however, I have to get it from the camera and realize it through Photoshop’s Lightroom. That is generally not a long-involved process, but it does take a minute or two for me to adjust this or that, and perhaps to crop. No cropping here, but some adjusting of shadows, brightness and contrast, and saturation.

In that process I certainly saw that most of the image was out of focus, and that didn’t bother me. In fact, I rather like it. It’s something I play around with, though in a somewhat constrained way.

The point is that I’ve spent enough time with the image to be fully aware that most of it is out of focus. Yet I choose to render it and then to upload it (my basic policy is to upload any image I take time to render).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scientia Salon on Sperber’s Cultural Attraction

Scientia Salon recently had a discussion of Nicolas Claidière, Thomas C. Scott-Phillips and Dan Sperber, How Darwinian is cultural evolution? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Series B, Biological Sciences), 31 March 2014.

Both Scott-Phillips and Sperber showed up, as well as their colleague, Olivier Morin. The discussion was lively and intelligent and highlights some of the difficulties that crop up in thinking about cultural evolution. Alas, no one spoke to my particular hobbyhorse about this approach – that the notion of attractor seems a bit distorted from its source in complex dynamics – so no clarification has been achieved on that score. There was a useful discussion of Morin’s work on eye gaze in portraits, which is one of the examples cited in the article.

Here’s fragments of two comments that do speak to my hobbyhorses, though they are not specifically directed to attractor theory. Helga Vierich noted:
Cultures are not designed by human host populations, but rather represent a replicator best compared to the kind of quorum sensing mechanisms that exist in bacteria and insects, an analogy to other species’ behavioural algorithms also suggested by E.O. Wilson.
It’s the quorum sensing that I like. SocraticGadfly remarked:
Philip I know what an algorithm, is. My eye roll is at the idea that evolution can be reduced to an algorithm, and my bigger eye roll is that, per “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” all Darwin-like, or quasi-Darwinian evolution, is algorithmic. It’s exactly why I also do an eye roll whenever Dennett talks about “greedy reductionism” and fails to include himself.
I too roll my eyes at Dennett’s notion of the Darwinian algorithm. I know very well that various kinds of evolutionary algorithms have been in used in computing for decades, but that quite different from Dennett’s claim that biological evolution is an algorithmic process. That claim strikes me as somewhere between problematic and incoherent.

Molecular Storms and the Subtleties of Matter

First, links to other New Savanna posts bearing on the relationship of mind to matter:
• Galen Strawson on consciousness: the problem we face is simple, we underestimate the subtleties of matter
• Has Dennett Undercut His Own Position on Words as Memes? – In which Dennett discovers that metabolism is real
Peter Godfrey-Smith has posted a work in progress, Mind, Matter, and Metabolism (PDF), that bears directly on the issues in play in those two posts. Strawson argues that consciousness presents a problem to materialism only if we have much too simple a view of matter. Our understanding of "brute" matter has changed a great deal since the days of Descartes and Newton. Dennett doesn't express himself in those terms, but his recent reservations about computation are similar in effect. Here PGS speaks to computation (p. 2)
...with the rise of computers and AI. This work seemed to show that some aspects of cognition are mechanizable in principle, and in a non-living system. There's no question of life being present in a classical AI system, or a familiar sort of robot, and given that there seems a real possibility that such a system might capture of all of mentality, there can't apparently be too close a link between life and mind. Computation, rather than life, became the crucial bridging concept between mental and physical.
That's what Dennett thought. But he's now, sorta, realized that we've got to have life in there. PGS on "matter at the scale of metabolism" (p. 4):
Metabolic processes in actual cells occur at a particular spatial scale, the scale measured in nanometers – millionths of a millimeter. They also take place in a particular context, surrounded by water. In that context and at that scale, matter behaves differently from how it behaves elsewhere. In a phrase due to Hoffman, what we find is a molecular storm. There is unending spontaneous motion, which does not need to be powered by anything external. Larger molecules rearrange themselves spontaneously and vibrate, and everything is bombarded by water molecules, with the larger molecules being hit by a water molecule trillions of times per second. Electical charge also plays a ubiquitous role, through ions dissolved in the water and charged regions of larger molecules. The parts of a cell that do things in the usual sense – making proteins, for example – are subject to forces that are much stronger than the forces they can exert. The way things get done is by biasing tendencies in the storm, nudging random walks in useful directions, thereby getting a consistent upshot out of vast numbers of mostly meaningless changes. Moore, though not Hoffman, thinks we should conclude from all this that "Macromolecular Devices Are Not Machines." Moore thinks that a machine is a quite definite sort of thing, where low-level interactions are predictable and parts are tightly coupled. A storm-like collection of random walks influenced by friction, charge, and thermal effects, in contrast, is non-mechanistic.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The New Whitney in the Meat-Packing District: Blood Guts and 21st Century Art

The building was designed by Renzo Piano, a starchitect up there with Nouvel and Gehry (Flickr album). From the NYTimes, by Michael Kimmelman:
From the west, along the Hudson River, it looks ungainly and a little odd, vaguely nautical, bulging where the shoreline jogs, a ship on blocks perhaps, alluding to one of New York’s bedrock industries from long ago. It’s a glittery emblem of new urban capital, shipping now having gone the way of so much else in the neighborhood.


The move confirms a definitive shift in the city’s social geography, which has been decades coming.

It ratifies Chelsea and the once-funky far West Village as something closer to what the Upper East Side used to be, say, circa 1966, the year Marcel Breuer’s Whitney building opened at 75th Street. Those neighborhoods serve up the same cocktail of money, real estate, fashion and art — except that the financiers, Hollywood stars and other haute bourgeois bohemians stand in for the old Social Register crowd.
Take that, Met and MOMA! 

Continuing on:
The museum’s arrival signals another shift, too. When Breuer’s Whitney opened, New York City was a much dicier proposition. His fortress, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum several blocks north — which contrived its own enclosed, spiral version of a vertical city — reflected ambivalence about what was outside the front door.

Now New York is a safe, glamorous tourist mecca and 24-hour, family-friendly spectacle, and the new $422 million Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, opening May 1, lets the city pour in. Grand, columnless, rectangular galleries spill onto large, stepped terraces linked by an outdoor stairway, mimicking the neighborhood’s jumble of low- and mid-rise black-tar rooftops and aging fire escapes. The museum becomes an implicit extension of the High Line: an outdoor perch to see and be seen.

Pulp Fiction as Ring Form

I watched Pulp Fiction last night – streamed it on Netflix. I couldn’t help but notice that something was funky about the timing of events. I tried to sort it out in my head, but gave up and consulted the Wikipedia entry (linked above). And there I found out that it exhibited ring-composition, more or less.

What made sorting things out so difficult is that the film involves three or four interlinked stories (depending on how you count them) and the episodes are not told in order. I’m not going to attempt a plot summary here; for that you should consult the Wikipedia entry. But here’s how the Wikipedia lays the story out:
1. "Prologue—The Diner" (i)
2. Prelude to "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"
3. "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife"
4. Prelude to "The Gold Watch" (a—flashback, b—present)
5. "The Gold Watch"
6. "The Bonnie Situation"
7. "Epilogue—The Diner" (ii)
The film opens in a coffee shop where a young couple decides to rob the place and its customers. They begin the robbery and then that segment stops. The robbery finishes in the seventh and last segment. Similarly the 6th segment completes the story begun in the 2nd.

The 5th segment completes, shall we say, an aspect of the story that we have in the 3rd segment. In the 3rd segment Vincent Vega takes his boss’s wife to dinner, but is worried about how to treat her; he’s afraid of earning his boss’s displeasure and thereby getting killed. In the 5th segment he’s killed, though that has nothing to do with his treatment of his boss’s wife. As the Wikipedia listing makes clear, the 5th segment involves a different story line from the 3rd segment.

The 4th segment is in the middle, though its story continues into the 5th segment. The flashback sequence in “The Gold Watch” is the oldest incident in the whole film, predating all the other events (which happen in the space of a few days) but two or three decades.

Here’s the chronological order of the film segments (again from the Wikipedia):
4a, 2, 6, 1, 7, 3, 4b, 5
Wikipedia also notes: “Sequences 1 and 7 partially overlap and are presented from different points of view; the same is true of sequences 2 and 6.” Note also that the segments that frame the film, 1 and 7, are at the chronological middle.

Clever film. Interestingly enough the Wikipedia article quote Tarrantino as saying, "I wanted it to look like an epic. It's an epic in everything—in invention, in ambition, in length, in scope, in everything except the price tag." Hence the slippery ordering of things.

The Universe and Time

Some more on the recent book, Roberto Mangabeira Unger (a philosopher) and Lee Smolin (a physicist), The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy.

Here are some passages from Massimo Pigliucci’s review, mostly of Unger’s portion of the book. Smolin and Unger think of this project as natural philosophy. Pigliucci quotes them on this:
Today, natural philosophy has not disappeared completely. It lives under disguise. Scientists write popular books, for the general educated public, professing to make their ideas about the science that they practice accessible to non-scientists. They use these books to speculate about the larger meaning of their discoveries for our understanding of the universe and of our place within it. They also have another audience, however: their colleagues in science, addressed under the disguise of popularization. (The Singular Universe, p. 82)
I’m interested in the argument about time. Here’s a passage from Pigliucci:
Time is, if I understand U&S correctly, simply the succession of causal connections between events. This succession can locally take place at a different pace, but this does not invalidate the universally true fact that certain things (like, most obviously, the Big Bang) happened before (meaning that they were causally antecedent to) others.

There are two crucial consequences of this way of looking at things: to begin with, that the laws of nature themselves can change over “time.” Indeed, they already have. U&S think that the universe has gone through at the least two phases, and possibly many more before those. One phase was the Big Bang and what happened immediately before and after. During this sequence of causal events (i.e., “time”) things were happening that did not abide to anything like the predictable regularity we see operating today, because the causal processes themselves were changing. The second phase is the one of the cooled down universe, which has gone on for billions of years now, and which can (to a good approximation, as Cartwright would say) be described as law-abiding, because the nature of the causal interactions that characterize it is either not changing or not changing appreciably. But this state of affairs may not last forever, and the universe may go through yet another period of upheaval, and so on and so forth, indefinitely.
I can go along with this. Back in my pluralist explorations I argued that the universe has evolved in several Realms of Abundance. One could see the emergence of a new Realm as requiring new “laws of nature.” I imagined three such Realms so far: Matter, Life, and Culture. As I understand Pigliucci’s exposition of U&S, those three Realms belong to their second phase, but I note that they seem to allow for “possibly many more before those.” So perhaps they could be convinced to differentiate their second into my three. In any event, I’d be inclined to add their Big Bang-centric first phase as another Realm, giving me four so far: 1) Primordial (that is, Big Bang, etc.) , 2) Matter, 3) Life, and 4) Culture. I’ve conjectured that we’re entering a fifth, which I’ve not named.

Pigliucci continues:
The second crucial consequence is that physicists should take cosmology seriously as a fundamentally historical science, to be modeled after some of the “special” sciences like geology and biology, not in the increasingly singular way in which fundamental physics proceeds. Indeed, the idea that the very regularities governing the universe change with the causal conditions appears odd only in fundamental physics, because it has been so influenced by abstract (and necessarily time invariant!) mathematics.
That’s fine with me. Historicity is very important. That, in effect, is why I treat Life and Culture as Realms differentiated from Matter. They involve different orders of temporality, different kinds of causal processes.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Theorizing the Web 2015: The Web and the World-Wide Wall #TtW2015


My proposal didn't make the cut for Theorizing the Web 2015 (currently in its 2nd day), so I thought I'd post my abstract anyhow, along with a link to my posts on the subject, something I call the World-Wide Wall.

What is the World-Wide Wall?

It's all the graffiti in the world considered as a single object.

What's that have to do with the Web?

Without the Web, it wouldn't exist as a single object.


The Web and the World-Wide Wall

The ARPANET was created at roughly the same time, 1969-1970, that teenagers were spray-painting their tags on the walls of Philadelphia and New York City. Two decades later the ARPANET had matured into the public Internet while the World-Wide Web and graffiti had become a world-wide artistic phenomenon that had given birth to street art. These two phenomena came together in May 1994 when Susan Farrell began posting graffiti photographs to Art Crimes, the first graffiti site on the web, which is still live today. Many other graffiti sites have followed. Thus the web has become an integral component of graffiti culture. The object of this presentation is to explore the possibility that the web and graffiti/street art have become so intertwined that they function together as a World-Wide Wall, a massive continent-spanning quasi-living manifestation of the human drive to lay claim to the world through artistic expression.

To make the argument I will: 1) review of the role that photography has had in graffiti culture since the early 1980s and continuing on through the contemporary web, 2) consider the recent Underbelly Project, which made worldwide headlines based only on photos (the site itself is inaccessible), and 3) examine the communal nature of graffiti on its own terms and in the terms that danah boyd developed for theorizing networked public spaces in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). Drawing on the ideas of Bruno Latour I will then argue that, while it is easy enough to argue that, yes, the world-wide production of graffiti and street art does constitute a single social being, that it is not clear what kind of social being it would be unless the people who participate in it explicitly conceptualize it as a single socio-cultural entity of a new kind. If and when we start doing that, what kind of entity would THAT be, existing as it does outside any nation-state? It is not simply that the same artists work on walls on several different continents, but that much of this work is illegal, that is, it is done outside the ‘color’ of any governing body.

6am mist on the embankment.jpg

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Fotos: Natural Delicacy

2 blossoms.jpg





Dredging up a forgotten language out of one's past

Julie Sedivy was borm in Czechoslovakia but emigrated to America as a small child. Writing at Language Log, she notes, "Like many immigrants, I’d learned my heritage language as a child within rather constrained domestic spheres and had never used it to negotiate cab fare or discuss existential concerns, let alone describe my professional activities." She goes on to assert:
As it turns out, a language is rarely truly forgotten, merely submerged.

A number of intriguing studies reveal the cognitive remnants of previously-learned languages that have fallen into disuse. “Forgotten” languages appear to make their continued presence known primarily through re-learning; even when initial testing suggests that a language has been lost, those who have been exposed to it earlier in life often show dramatically accelerated re-learning. This has been observed in the domains of grammar, vocabulary, and particularly, phonology.
The rest of the post expands on that, mostly by talking about her own experience – she's currently in Czechoslovakia on a writing project. The comments (20 of them at the moment) are interesting as well.

This is interesting in itself, but also in the context of Dan Dennett's recent realization that, in fundamental ways, human brains are not like digital computers. The phenomenon Sedivy is describing, reactivating a forgotten/unused language, is not the sort to thing that happens with digital computers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The strange workings of community: in the wake of Lincoln's assassination

To Mattie Jackson, a runaway slave, the tidings of Lincoln’s death felt like “an electric shock to my soul.” Many refused to believe it. “I still think we must be the victims of a gigantic street rumor,” a white woman confessed to her mother.

Future disastrous events would bring the disbelieving to radio, television, the telephone and social media, but in the spring of 1865, astounded Americans could confirm reports of catastrophe only by seeking out other human faces.

As soon as Lucy Hedge saw the headlines, she dressed and left her New England home to walk through the streets, where, she wrote later, “gloom and dismay were pictured upon every countenance.” In Louisville, Ky., “distress was visible in every colored person’s face,” said one observer, while in New York, a weeping white man made his way to Wall Street to join “the crowd with sad and horror-stricken faces.”

With so many mourners looking into one another’s eyes, Lincoln’s opponents had to be on guard, for no exhibition of glee among defeated Confederates would be tolerated. In Richmond, Va., the captured Confederate capital that Lincoln had visited a little over a week earlier, “Each man looked sharp at those who passed him,” a Northern missionary wrote to his father.
This is about the transformation of shared information into mutual information. All those people who read about Lincoln's assassination in the newspaper shared that information in common. But they didn't know that each other knew. That only happened when they went out into the street and looked at one another. Then the knowledge of Lincoln's assassination became mutual.



Sunday, April 12, 2015

Art online

Yet most private collections are still in the “Digital Stone Age”; according to the website Larry’s List, in 2014 only 12 percent of collectors around the world were found to have an online presence....

Showing art virtually is not a new concept. Our vision for Dslcollection is greatly inspired by the late French novelist André Malraux, whose concept of musée imaginaire (“the museum without walls”) advocates presenting art outside the traditional confines of a museum setting. The same can be said of the Google Art Project, an online platform where users can access high-resolution images of artworks from partnering museums and institutions. The world’s art is literally at one’s fingertips.

Collections have come to be seen more as vehicles for intellectual, cultural and social exchange than as mere assemblages of objects. Therefore, in their presentation, one must go beyond the traditional white cube. Working online offers opportunities to tailor projects to specific audiences and create content with widespread appeal and accessibility.
Branding is crucial:
We believe that the digital world provides the opportunity to create a “cultural institution without walls” as well as build a sustainable brand identity. The necessity for private collections and cultural institutions to have a branding strategy perfectly highlights the change that is overtaking the art industry today. Branding is a significant step that one must take in order to stand out, make a difference and speak with a unique voice that represents one’s personality and values.
Sylvain and his wife, Dominique, have put (part of) their own collection online as the DSL Collection (though it seems to be down for construction at the moment). There's also a Facebook page.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Glossary of Terms for Cultural Evolution

This is a short list of terms that I have come to treat as terms of art in thinking about cultural evolution. I have no idea how stable these terms and definition will prove to be. I am posting them to a page at New Savanna so that they can be readily referenced. Most of these terms are relatively recent, but my thinking about cultural evolution is broadly scattered aross many posts and working papers and a handfull of formal articles).

Coordinator: The genetic element in cultural processes. Coordinators are physical traits of objects or processes. The emic/etic distinction in linguistics is a useful reference point. Phonetics is the study of language sounds. Phonemics is the study of those sound features, phonemes, that are active in a language.

The notion of a coordinator is, in effect, a generalization of the phoneme. A coordinator is a physical trait that is psychologically active/salient in cultural processes.

If you want to think in terms of computation, observe that computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Coordinators are data of that type. Coordinators supply the values to parameters of mental “software.”

Note that coordinators are not, in this sense, Dawkinsian replicators. Nor is it obvious to me that they form lineages. Finally, where the genetic material of biology exists everywhere in the same substrate – DNA molecules – coordinators can exist on any publically accessible substrate, with most of them being either visible or audible.

Coupler: A kind of coordinator through which the temporal activities of two or more nervous systems are synchronized. When soldiers march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

Cover (paint): Objects, artifacts, actions and processes, that is, actors in the mesh, are said to be covered or to be painted with coordinators.

Cultural Being: A package or envelope of coordinators along with its trajectory in the minds of all who use it. As such, cultural beings are the object on which cultural selection operates. They are thus the phenotypic entities of culture. If participating in a cultural being was pleasant, then one would be motivated to do so again. Otherwise not.

The consequences of this definition are not obvious and will require careful consideration. I’ll give an example from music to give a sense of what I’ve got in mind.

Friday Fotos: Chicago's Millennium Park

I bought my first camera about a decade ago to take photos of Chicago's Millennium Park the summer it opened. Here are some of those photos.

who r u

mother and child

over the rise rise over

inside cloud gate


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

In praise of Apple's new watch

It was only on Day 4 that I began appreciating the ways in which the elegant $650 computer on my wrist was more than just another screen. By notifying me of digital events as soon as they happened, and letting me act on them instantly, without having to fumble for my phone, the Watch became something like a natural extension of my body — a direct link, in a way that I’ve never felt before, from the digital world to my brain. The effect was so powerful that people who’ve previously commented on my addiction to my smartphone started noticing a change in my behavior; my wife told me that I seemed to be getting lost in my phone less than in the past. She found that a blessing.

Dennett on the De-Darwinizing of Culture

This recent video (talk given 19 March 2015) gathers many of Dennett's recent themes and examples. The central thread is worthwhile – Dennett's only idea on culture that's caught my interest – but it is festooned with his typical assembly of brilliant obfuscating rhetorical ornamentation. One has the impression that he's thought more and more deeply about biology than about culture. And so he's using biology as a vehicle for understanding culture. That's not unreasonable providing, of course, that you have a robust understanding of culture than is not piggybacking on biology. Dennett seems rather poor in that sort of understanding of culture.

Dennett's rhetoric would reward a close analysis, but not by me, not at this time. I've already done some of that in my working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett; see the appendix. "Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks: An Essay In Cognitive Rhetoric".

As for De-Darwinizing, the idea seems to be something like this: There are things whose design is the result of what we might call a "full Darwinian" process, what Donald Campbell characterizes as blind variation and selective retention (BVSR). A lot of language seems rather like that, but in the cultural rather than the biological sphere. But there are also words that have been deliberately coined and introduced into the language, such as "meme". So, not "full Darwinian". It's De-Dawinized.

Flower fragments, getting views on Flickr


Monday, April 6, 2015

Lewontin: There is no niche without an organism

David Sloam Wilson (DSL) interviews Richard Lewontin (RL) on adaptation and evolution. They start the conversation with the classic article Lewontin co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme”. And then things get interesting. Wilson brings up cultural evolution and Lewontin says, in effect, what's wrong with cultural history? Wison's reply, more or less, is that it covers too; history is everything. It's in that context that Lewontin makes this remark:
RL: But the problem, here, is that it’s a form of adaptation that hasn’t been studied enough in animals and plants, which is that each change in the species changes what we call the environment, so there is a co-evolution of organism and environment. Historical change in our species has been increasingly the consequence of the organism itself. We’re inventing it all. As the brain grew into what we now have, it became the chief mechanism by which organisms constructed their environment. Look, let me interject here. I think it is extremely important to go to a fundamental issue, which is organisms create their own environments. All organisms make their niches. The whole notion of ecological niche is a very bad notion. There are no niches without organisms. This notion that there is a hole in the world that the organism evolves to fill. The organism by its evolution changes the conditions of its life and changes what surrounds it. Organisms are always creating their own hole in the world, their own niche.

DSW: You pioneered the concept of niche construction, which has become a hot topic.

RL: I think that one mustn’t see niche construction as a special issue. There are niches and then there is reconstruction of the niches. My claim is a very strong one and I could be wrong: there is no niche without an organism.
There is no niche without an organism – that seems right to me, and I'd figured that out back in the 1970s. As I put it in this post about patterns, "a niche was a pattern that some organism “traced” or “inscribed” in an environment." A bit later, at the end of the talk:
RL: Oh no, I’m with you! If I could convince people to use that notion of niche, not as a fixed thing, but as something that is manufactured by the organism, I would be very very happy. But when I talk to biologists about it, they’re always surprised.

DSW: It is still a new idea, in part of course because it’s a complex idea. Complexity is complex, it’s hard to study. We’re always trying to keep things simple, even when we should be embracing complexity in some sense.
Yikes! Still a new idea? If that's so, then biologists aren't so sophisticated as I'd thought/hoped.

Just before that, Wilson said this:
History seems to me too broad. Sure everything is history but we’d like to say something more specific. If there is a process of adaptation going on, even if it’s one of rapid niche construction and coevolution, that’s still a more specific set of ideas than just plain history, which really does encompass everything and therefore nothing. Don’t we want to use some of those more specific ideas about adaptation and coevolution and niche construction? That’s more than just history!
OK, "a more specific set of ideas" is a bit vague. But I'll take it.

Bell Magic and Spirits at 3 Quarks Daily


My intellectual life has tended to revolve around various specific examples that I examine closely and revisit from time to time. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is perhaps the most important literary example but of course there are others, most recently Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

My thinking about music has been strongly influenced by a particular incident that occurred in rehearsal sometime in the 1980s. I was playing bells with three others and “magic” happened: the appearance of high twittering sounds that no one was playing. I used that incident to open the second chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil; I’ve blogged about it; and elaborated it into a 10,000 word working paper: The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings (see below).

I’ve now taken part of the working paper and revised it into my most recent post for 3 Quarks Daily: The Magic of the Bell and a Glimpse of Spirits. I’ve listed the working paper below along with its abstract and table of contents.

* * * * *

The Magic of the Bell: How Networks of Social Actors Create Cultural Beings

Abstract: It is well known that music can engender altered states of consciousness that are difficult to interpret scientifically except as odd malfunctions in the nervous system. In this paper I report a phenomenon known among some musicians as “the magic of the bell”: the emergence of high-pitched twittering sounds when a group is playing interlocking rhythms on different bells. These sounds cannot be attributed to any of the musicians and they emerge only when the group is a group is playing bells with passion and precision. I argue that those sounds arise through interpersonal coupling among the musicians and that the ‘naïve’ temptation to attribute them to a ‘spirit’ or ‘spirits’ can be reconciled with a close description that does not presuppose non-physical entities. Those spirits should be conceived as the embodiment of non-mysterious and physically coherent group process. This argument has ramifications for how we think of time and how we think of longer cycles of group life.

Introduction: Composing Strange Objects
Instrument Matter in the Musician’s Mind
Time and Again, the Curse of Linear Time
How to Compose a Spirit
Explain or Explain Away? Composition and Cultural Beings
Bibliographical References

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Here Comes the Sun



Homeostasis: What's the cultural analogue?

Oliver Sacks has an essay on wellness and dis-ease that ranges over migraines and his recent cancer treatment. His opening paragraph reminded me of Dawkins on stability as being fundamental to the universe and to evolution. Here's Sacks' paragraph (two actually):
Nothing is more crucial to the survival and independence of organisms—be they elephants or protozoa—than the maintenance of a constant internal environment. Claude Bernard, the great French physiologist, said everything on this matter when, in the 1850s, he wrote, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre.” Maintaining such constancy is called homeostasis. The basics of homeostasis are relatively simple but miraculously efficient at the cellular level, where ion pumps in cell membranes allow the chemical interior of cells to remain constant, whatever the vicissitudes of the external environment. More complex monitoring systems are demanded when it comes to ensuring homeostasis in multicellular organisms—animals, and human beings, in particular.

Homeostatic regulation is accomplished by the development of special nerve cells and nerve nets (plexuses) scattered throughout our bodies, as well as by direct chemical means (hormones, etc.). These scattered nerve cells and plexuses become organized into a system or confederation that is largely autonomous in its functioning; hence its name, the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS was only recognized and explored in the early part of the twentieth century, whereas many of the functions of the central nervous system (CNS), especially the brain, had already been mapped in detail in the nineteenth century. This is something of a paradox, for the autonomic nervous system evolved long before the central nervous system.
What's the socio-cultural analogue to physiological homeostasis?

Now,  for good measure, his third paragraph:
They were (and to a considerable extent still are) independent evolutions, extremely different in organization, as well as formation. Central nervous systems, along with muscles and sense organs, evolved to allow animals to get around in the world—forage, hunt, seek mates, avoid or fight enemies, etc. The central nervous system, with its sense organs (including those in the joints, the muscles, the movable parts of the body), tells one who one is and what one is doing. The autonomic nervous system, sleeplessly monitoring every organ and tissue in the body, tells one how one is. Curiously, the brain itself has no sense organs, which is why one can have gross disorders here, yet feel no malaise. Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson, who developed Alzheimer’s disease in his sixties, would say, “I have lost my mental faculties but am perfectly well.”
I note that, from a logical point of view, the internal environment is external to the brain as is the external world, though the brain and the internal environment are encapsulated in the same physical system. This interesting fact seems to me central to any attempt to make sense of human culture. Thus it became on of a handful of named principles in my music book, Beethoven's Anvil:
Two Environments: The central nervous system operates in two environments, the external world and the internal milieu, and it regulates the relationship between the external world and the interior milieu on behalf of that milieu. [p. 33]
And, in turn, it led to another principle a few pages later:
Facing Principle: As a vehicle for expressing emotion, the body presents the inner experience of individuals both to the external world and to higher brain centers. [p. 40]
But, going back to where we started: what's the cultural equivalent of physiological homeostasis? Until we know what that is, and how it works, we're not going to understand how and why culture changes.

On the Sacks article, h/t 3QD.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kids: tickle danger, tinker, learn, and grow

If we want to raise kids to be independent thinkers and change-makers, one of the best things we can do is give them the tools to figure stuff out for themselves. And a terrific manual for that is “50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” by Gever Tulley, a self-taught software engineer.

“There are not enough opportunities in a child’s life to be taken seriously, to be given autonomy and to learn authentically,” says Tulley. “I think they need learning opportunities that respect and incorporate their ideas.”

Tulley’s book presents 50 challenges (with instructions), each utterly at odds with today’s rampant helicopter parenting, such as Stand on a Roof, Taste Electricity (by licking a 9-volt battery), Dam a Creek and (I’ll admit I’m not ready to allow this one yet) Cross Town on Public Transportation.

“50 Dangerous Things” emphasizes the importance of introducing risk, facilitating autonomy and letting kids know that with danger comes discovery. This book comes to life at The Tinkering School, a program Tulley started here in San Francisco in 2000. (There is also a K-12 school, Brightworks, and a sleepaway camp down the coast; the program has recently expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Austin and Buffalo.)
Tulley created a school in San Francisco based on tinkering, The Tinkering School:
This isn’t just a bunch of kids messing around with stuff. Behind the chaos you can see the gears turning. There is no template, no set of instructions (and no screens). They need to be attentive, engaged and curious. As they begin a project, they’re learning how to collaborate, identify the skill sets of their group and deploy those talents accordingly, and problem-solve creatively. “The use of real tools dramatically increases agency,” says the Tinkering School’s manager, Joshua Rothhaas. “It’s like learning Spanish and suddenly realizing you can talk to about 400 million more people in the world than you could before you knew Spanish. It fundamentally changes the way your kid thinks about the world, how it works, and what they are capable of.”

Friday, April 3, 2015

Friday Fotos: Ghosts Along the Hudson

[taken this afternoon]

The building in the middle is the church of St. John the Divine, on NYC's upper West Side:


The George Washington Bridge in the distance:


Near distance, a Hoboken pier; middle distance, Weehawken pier:


In the background, Manhattan's West Side; in the foreground, a pier in Hoboken; between the two, fog on the Hudson:


Buoys associated with Hoboken's Pier 13, a party place more or less, with docking for small pleasure boats and kayaks: