Thursday, March 31, 2016

Donald Trump: The Empty Vessel

Martin Gurri on Donald Trump:
A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy “positions” will reveal no hint of political direction. It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent. He’s ideologically formless. His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies. His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but…”). He’s going to make America great again – yet that’s a wish, not a program. A run at the US presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.

A candidate deprived of direction can only drift on the stream of public opinion. Or to flip that around: the dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public. Trump has been chosen by this public, for reasons I’ll have cause to examine, and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood. To make him into an American Hitler or a world-historical figure of any sort, let me suggest, would be to distort reality as on a funhouse mirror.

The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.

The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements. In Henri Rosanvallon’s term, the democratic nation has devolved into a “society of distrust.” The reasons, Rosanvallon argues, are deep and structural, but we also have available a simple functional explanation: the perception, not always unjustified, that democratic government has failed to deliver on its promises.

The public, I mean to say, cares a lot about outcomes and not so much about the legitimacy of the ballot box or the authority of elected officials. And if the outcomes demanded are a tangle of contradictions that divide the public, the sense of being betrayed and abandoned by “protected classes” is shared across large majorities of mutually hostile persuasions. The landscape in a society of distrust tilts steeply toward repudiation: everyone, at all times, wants to stand against.
H/t Tyler Cowen. 

There's Reading (for pleasure) and There's (critical) Reading

I've decided to bump this to the top of the queue in view of my recent series on posts on Attridge and Staten, The Craft of Poetry. This speaks to the difference between ordinary reading and so-called "close" reading, offering preliminary evidence that these two activities involved different deployment of neural resources. That is, they are different behavioral modes.

* * * * *

A topic that interests me a great deal. It seems that one Natalie Phillips at Michigan State has been looking into the difference between reading for pleasure and reading analytically. It shows up in brain activity according to this article in Slate from a year ago:
One of the things that we saw in the pilot is that it’s not just that close reading is a more advanced form of pleasure reading. Pleasure reading also has distinct regions where it has more blood flow. They have two distinct “neurosignatures,” a term which describes complex patterns of brain activity that cross multiple regions of the brain. Pleasure reading has its own demands and close reading has its own pleasures. The value resides in being able to shift between modes. It’s a training in cognitive flexibility.

Really the biggest surprise to date is just how much the brain is shifting in moving between close reading and pleasure reading. Most people would expect to see pleasure centers activating with the more relaxed style of reading, and the regions associated with work, attention and cognitive load for the literary analysis. But what we’re finding is something else entirely. With pleasure reading, at least in the one subject for whom we have been able to fully evaluate it so far, we did see unique regions activated. That suggests that pleasure reading is not just some more lax or dormant state. And we’re seeing the whole brain activating for the close reading state.
Nor does this surprise me in the least:
One thing we realized immediately in our pilot is that professors are terrible subjects! So many of us have forgotten how to read for pleasure. It was important to find a population who could do both. Literary Ph.D.s turned out to be perfect for that.
You might want to take a look a my recent post on listening to audio books.

Electric slime, with branches and shadows


Is universal mistrust the moral foundation of this stage of capitalist society?

Over at Crooked Timber Corey Robin has a post, The Bernie Sanders Moment: Brought to you by the generation that has no future. Here's the first paragraph:
Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them—not one—had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.
The discussion has been going on a bit, as many discussions do at Crooked Timber. I was particularly struck by this observation by George Scialabba (comment 156):
It would be interesting to know, if one could quantify such things, what proportion of all the communications one receives (or better, perhaps, the stimuli one experiences) in an average day are some form of advertising or marketing. I’d guess a large majority. In which case, a hypothesis presents itself: the nature and function of human communication has altered. Through most of history, the default reaction to any communication was “this is what the speaker believes.” One needed only to judge the credibility of the speaker in order to know how to act. In the 21st century, after generations of saturation advertising, much or most of it deceptive or at least manipulative, the default reaction is “this is what the speaker, for some purpose of his/her own, wants me to believe.” Virtually all public communication may safely be presumed to be aiming at some effect, rather than simply at conveying information or conviction. Finding out what the speaker actually believes, much less what’s actually true or false, is the hearer’s responsibility: caveat auditor. Universal mistrust is the moral foundation of this stage, at least, of capitalist society. Hence, honesty is no longer the best policy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The speech-to-sound illusion and repetition as the basis of music

In fact, repetition is so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song. The psychologist Diana Deutsch, at the University of California, San Diego, discovered a particularly powerful example – the speech-to-song illusion. The illusion begins with an ordinary spoken utterance, the sentence ‘The sounds as they appear to you are not only different from those that are really present, but they sometimes behave so strangely as to seem quite impossible.’ Next, one part of this utterance – just a few words – is looped several times. Finally, the original recording is represented in its entirety, as a spoken utterance. When the listener reaches the phrase that was looped, it seems as if the speaker has broken into song, Disney-style.

The transformation is truly bizarre. You’d think that listening to someone speak and listening to someone sing were separate things, distinguished by the objective characteristics of the sound itself. It seems obvious: I hear someone speak when she’s speaking, and sing when she’s singing. But the speech-to-song illusion reveals that the exact same sequence of sounds can seem either like speech or like music, depending only on whether it has been repeated. Repetition can actually shift your perceptual circuitry such that the segment of sound is heard as music: not thought about as similar to music, or contemplated in reference to music, but actually experienced as if the words were being sung.

This illusion demonstrates what it means to hear something musically. The ‘musicalisation’ shifts your attention from the meaning of the words to the contour of the passage (the patterns of high and low pitches) and its rhythms (the patterns of short and long durations), and even invites you to hum or tap along with it. In fact, part of what it means to listen to something musically is to participate imaginatively.
There's a demonstration over at Aeon.

Ricky Gervais Interviews Garry Shandling

Amy Wallace's GQ profile of Garry Shandling mentions a very awkward interview he did with Ricky Gervais. I bumped onto the interview on YouTube and have linked embedded the segments below. This is how Wallace introduces that discussion:
IIn 2006 the UK's Channel 4 aired a special called Ricky Gervais Meets…Garry Shandling that became an instant sensation among connoisseurs of comedy. The premise, which Gervais had already tried out with Larry David a year earlier, was for the British comedian to pay a visit to one of his heroes. They'd talk about the craft of being funny. Hilarity would ensue.

From the moment the two men meet, in Shandling's kitchen, it's clear something is wrong. Shandling seems put out—irritated, even. "Don't touch me," he says when Gervais puts a hand on his shoulder. Gervais appears nervous, confused by Shandling's disapproval. As Shandling puts his contacts in over the sink, Gervais scolds him for putting the lenses at risk, and Shandling looks so peeved you think he may call the whole thing off. "What are you, controlling?" he asks. "You're giving me advice on how to put my contact lenses in?"
And so on. Yes, awkward. Here's what Shandling had to say about it:
While completing the DVD extras for Sanders, Shandling had been struck by the idea that Gervais would be a great addition. Though he'd never appeared on the show, Gervais had spoken openly about how Sanders inspired him. So Garry called Gervais and asked if he'd do it. The answer was yes, but Gervais also had a request. While he was in Garry's home, could they also shoot his Channel 4 show? Shandling agreed, and all was well until the day of the dueling interviews, when wires got crossed. Garry says he assumed they would shoot the "visit" for the DVD extra first, because "that laid-back, not-on tone is good preparation for saying, 'Let's turn it on'" later, for Gervais's special.

But when Shandling walked into his kitchen, he realized instantly that Gervais thought the Channel 4 special was being shot first. Gervais was on—extremely so—and so were several cameras. Garry could have said something but wanted to see what would happen if he played it out. What if he stayed in the same low-affect head space he was in to do his DVD extras? Could he reach Gervais without explicitly identifying the problem? Could he bring Gervais's energy level down? 
"It's fascinating, really," Garry tells me. "We both became locked into the shows we were each doing, and it became a bit of a boxing match. Because he's trying to get me to do the show that he needs, and I'm trying to get him to do nothing. I was trying to pull Ricky into the moment."
Makes sense. See for yourself.

Part 1:

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Endless vistas in a small world


Musical creativity in the brain

Musical Creativity “Revealed” in Brain Structure: Interplay between Motor, Default Mode, and Limbic Networks

David M. Bashwiner, Christopher J. Wertz, Ranee A. Flores & Rex E. Jung


Received: 16 July 2015
Accepted: 31 December 2015
Published online: 18 February 2016


Creative behaviors are among the most complex that humans engage in, involving not only highly intricate, domain-specific knowledge and skill, but also domain-general processing styles and the affective drive to create. This study presents structural imaging data indicating that musically creative people (as indicated by self-report) have greater cortical surface area or volume in a) regions associated with domain-specific higher-cognitive motor activity and sound processing (dorsal premotor cortex, supplementary and pre-supplementary motor areas, and planum temporale), b) domain-general creative-ideation regions associated with the default mode network (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, middle temporal gyrus, and temporal pole), and c) emotion-related regions (orbitofrontal cortex, temporal pole, and amygdala). These findings suggest that domain-specific musical expertise, default-mode cognitive processing style, and intensity of emotional experience might all coordinate to motivate and facilitate the drive to create music.

* * * * *

From the introduction to  the article:

One brain network that has been proposed to be especially central to creative functioning is the default mode network (DMN)7,8. The DMN is composed of regions such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC), ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC), lateral temporal cortex (LTC), posterior cingulate, and inferior parietal lobule (IPL)—regions which, when a subject is not given an explicit task, tend to increase in activation relative to baseline9. The regions of this network also tend to be implicated in a number of cognitive capacities related to creativity, such as divergent thinking7,8, self-referential thinking10, affective reasoning6, mind wandering11, and mental simulation12. It might be expected, therefore, that creative behavior of a musical nature would also implicate the DMN.

* * * * *

This is your brain on freestylin'

Neural Correlates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap

Siyuan Liu, Ho Ming Chow, Yisheng Xu, Michael G. Erkkinen, Katherine E. Swett, Michael W. Eagle, Daniel A. Rizik-Baer & Allen R. Braun


Received: 20 June 2012
Accepted: 19 October 2012
Published online: 15 November 2012


The neural correlates of creativity are poorly understood. Freestyle rap provides a unique opportunity to study spontaneous lyrical improvisation, a multidimensional form of creativity at the interface of music and language. Here we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to characterize this process. Task contrast analyses indicate that improvised performance is characterized by dissociated activity in medial and dorsolateral prefrontal cortices, providing a context in which stimulus-independent behaviors may unfold in the absence of conscious monitoring and volitional control. Connectivity analyses reveal widespread improvisation-related correlations between medial prefrontal, cingulate motor, perisylvian cortices and amygdala, suggesting the emergence of a network linking motivation, language, affect and movement. Lyrical improvisation appears to be characterized by altered relationships between regions coupling intention and action, in which conventional executive control may be bypassed and motor control directed by cingulate motor mechanisms. These functional reorganizations may facilitate the initial improvisatory phase of creative behavior.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Flower bulbs? Onions? Figs!


Skateboarding as ecosystem

Because of skateboarding’s quirks, the media plays an outsize role in the sport — if you can even call it that. Skateboarding probably has more in common with pornography: Talented people are paid to be filmed doing something they’re good at, or at least insane enough to try. Unlike in most other athletic pursuits, you can’t really win or lose, and, even at the professional level, it doesn’t typically happen at taxpayer-subsidized arenas; it happens wherever, whenever. There are contests, but by and large, skateboarders don’t care about them. There are “teams,” but these are just loose arrangements of dudes paid to ride a certain type of board (or truck or wheel or bearing; any one pro might have several sponsors, one for each part of his board — plus, if he’s lucky, clothes and shoes). You don’t root for skaters; you have taste in skaters. And a professional’s job is to go out and get footage for his sponsors, who put out videos that are both marketing for products and the means by which skateboarding progresses. It’s less a sport than an ad hoc media ecosystem run by, well, a bunch of skateboarders.
At the end:
This punk vision of skate culture occludes an uncomfortable fact about skateboarding: It has so successfully resisted becoming a sport that it is now only a business — a business that loathes business and businesspeople. Phelps is invaluable in this ecosystem because he insists over and over that skateboarding is hideous, irredeemable, and, above all, outside the logic of the rest of the orderly, sanitized world. As he put it to me, staring out at the bay: “I don’t like when people candy-coat skateboarding or make fun and games out of it. It’s sacred to me.”

It was perhaps the most earnest thing I heard him say, and it resonated with me. Society reveres athletes for winning. Skateboarders are losers — they can’t win — so instead they seek perfection of form, expansion of possibility. When they fetishize pain, it’s only because it resides so closely to excellence.

Seriously as an actor: Garry Shandling profile from GQ 2010

by Amy Wallace  – "He’s a boxer, a Buddhist, a hoops junkie, and a kind of Yoda to every funny person born since 1965 (Sandler, Silverman, Apatow, Gervais, Baron Cohen…)." Somewhere in the middle:
Downey likens being with Shandling to watching plates twirling on the tops of sticks that are balanced on the tops of other twirling plates. I know what he means. When I ask Garry why he chose Iron Man 2 as his comeback movie, here are the topics he explores on his way to an answer: the emotional pull of the Olympic Games; a recent boxing match at Madison Square Garden; the Dalai Lama's admission that he dreams about sex; the importance of being aware; the unmarried status of the greatest religious leaders; the appeal of powerful women; the four ulcers he had by 1998, after the sixth and final season of The Larry Sanders Show; how it feels to land a punch; the difficulty some men have expressing emotion; his love of Jerry Seinfeld; his respect for the Coen brothers; his disdain for cynicism; his fondness for the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh; dogs; the familiarity of every noise in his home; and the way his mother answered him when, as a child, he asked what she thought of him. ("'What do you think of me?' is what my mother said. It was a stalemate.")

"I'm coming back to you," he reassures me, sensing that I'm lost. "When I give notes on a script, I say, 'Guys, I may drift, but it's part of the process.' So I'm aware that I'm drifting, but I'm grabbing a lot of stuff." It takes fifty minutes, but eventually he answers. Except that all of it is the answer.

"Favreau called me in Hawaii, and he said, 'I know everything about you, and I have a hunch that I know what you can do as an actor that you haven't done yet.' And he got my attention," he says, his voice suddenly doubling in volume. "Anytime my voice raises like that, it's because I've locked in," he explains, then veers back to his story. "It was that fast. None of this is about 'Oh, I got a part!' It's so much deeper. Jon Favreau called me up and said, 'What are you doing, man? I think you can act, and I don't think this is the time to withdraw. And I'll put you in with Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell and Robert Downey Jr.'"

I mention that Peter Tolan told me that Garry's greatest desire is to be taken seriously as an actor.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

S-bend in the tracks, clouds above

20151017-_IGP6337 adj

Studies in Human-Thing Entanglement

This 2016 book by Ian Hodder, Dunlevie Family Professor and Professor of Anthropology, Stanford University, might have been subtitled, "An Approach to Directionality in Human Affairs". I've not yet had a chance to read it, but I've been looking around in it. Here's how Hodder characterizes it:
This book, published only online (download PDF), explores further the entanglements between humans and things. It contains theoretical and methodological developments including a redefinition of human-thing entanglement and the application of formal network analysis. The book also contains a series of case-studies regarding the formation of settled life in the Middle East, the adoption of agriculture, and the study of power and poverty, creativity and religion. The book ends with a critical dialogue regarding the issues raised by studies of entanglement.
Here's a concluding paragraph from the introduction (p. 9):
Entanglement proves to be a fruitful and productive lens through which to explore a va- riety of contemporary issues in the social sciences and humanities, from archaeology and anthropology to history, philosophy and classics. What entanglement offers is the study of large-scale and long-term issues solidly grounded in the socio-material practices of daily life. While other writers, such as those influenced by Actor Network Theory, have explored how daily practices take place within a heterogeneous mix of human and non-human processes, entanglement adds the notion that the human-thing relationship is fraught and constraining so that directional change is generated. Other approaches to materiality have focused on relationality, ontology, engagement, symmetry (Graves-Brown et al. 2013; Malafouris 2013; Olsen et al. 2012). Entanglement accepts these contributions but argues further that human and things do not just relate to each other. Rather they are dependent on each other in ways that are entrapping and asymmetrical. Entanglement argues that things are so caught up in other things and in other human-thing dependences, that daily practices are directed down specific pathways, that humans are drawn in specific directions that create further entanglements. Entanglement teaches us to look away from whatever is the immediate object of study, to explore the networks of dependencies that constrain and drive the human condition. It invites us to trace the threads that spread out from each action, entangling that action within wider socio-material realms.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Garry Shandling to Jerry Seinfeld on expressing your spirit

Garry Shandling was on Seinfeld's Comedians and Cars Getting Coffee, season 7, episode 4. They war talking about David Brenner, who'd just died. Jerry remarks that all Brenner's comedy material is gone. Standing thought that was an odd remark to make. And then (at c. 10:24):
Shandling: That material and your material is purely a vehicle for you to express you spirit, and your soul, and your being. And that’s why you’re fantastic. So you keep…

Seinfeld: It doesn’t have any value beyond that?

Shandling: It doesn’t have any value beyond you expressing yourself spiritually in a very soulful, spiritual way. It’s why you’re on the planet.

Friday Fotos: Peppers






Thursday, March 24, 2016

Nina Simone, Sinner Man, Insane

New Journal: History of the Humanities

Edited by Rens Bod, Julia Kursell, Jaap Maat, and Thijs Weststeijn, sponsored by the Society for the History of the Humanities, and published by the University of Chicago Press. From the journal blurb:
History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.

The idea for a journal covering the history of humanities disciplines from a genuinely global perspective grew out of a series of conferences organized in Amsterdam and Rome by the Editors over the past four years.The journal fills a conspicuous gap in the market: journals on the history of science have existed for many decades, as have journals on the history of specific humanities disciplines. History of Humanities is the first journal devoted to assembling scholarly studies on the comparative history of the humanities disciplines.

History of Humanities publishes work that transcends the history of specific humanities disciplines by comparing scholarly practices across disciplines, comparing humanistic traditions in different cultures and civilizations, relating the humanities to the natural and social sciences, and studying developments, problems, and transformations within a discipline that have wider significance for the history of knowledge in general.
The inaugural issue is now online and is available free for downloading through May 31, 2016.

The Yellow Spa, for robots only

dr benway's reality spa & psykick reJUVEnation center

State of the Art Robot from Boston Dynamics, watch it recover from a fall

Explanatory copy:
A new version of Atlas, designed to operate outdoors and inside buildings. It is specialized for mobile manipulation. It is electrically powered and hydraulically actuated. It uses sensors in its body and legs to balance and LIDAR and stereo sensors in its head to avoid obstacles, assess the terrain, help with navigation and manipulate objects. This version of Atlas is about 5' 9" tall (about a head shorter than the DRC Atlas) and weighs 180 lbs.
From an interesting  and wide-ranging article in The Atlantic by Adrienne Lafrance:
When the U.S. military promotes video compilations of robots failing—buckling at the knees, bumping into walls, and tumbling over—at DARPA competitions, it is, several roboticists told me, clearly an attempt to make those robots likeable. (It’s also funny, and therefore disarming, like this absurd voiceover someone added to footage of a robot performing a series of tasks.) The same strategy was used in early publicity campaigns for the first computers. “People who had economic interest in computers had economic interest in making them appear as dumb as possible,” said Atkeson, from Carnegie Mellon. “That became the propaganda—that computers are stupid, that they only do what you tell them.”

But the anthropomorphic charm of a lovable robot is itself a threat, some have argued. In 2013, two professors from the University of Washington published a paper explaining what they deem “The Android Fallacy.” Neil Richards, a law professor, and William Smart, a computer science professor, wrote that it’s essential for humans to think of robots as tools, not companions—a tendency they say is “seductive but dangerous.” The problem, as they see it, comes with assigning human features and behaviors to robots—describing robots as being “scared” of obstacles in a lab, or saying a robot is “thinking” about its next move. As autonomous systems become more sophisticated, the connection between input (the programmer’s command) and output (how the robot behaves) will become increasingly opaque to people, and may eventually be misinterpreted as free will.
But just what IS a robot?
“I don’t think it really matters if you get the words right,” said Andrew Moore, the dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. “To me, the most important distinction is whether a technology is designed primarily to be autonomous. To really take care of itself without much guidance from anybody else… The second question—of whether this thing, whatever it is, happens to have legs or eyes or a body—is less important.”

What matters, in other words, is who is in control—and how well humans understand that autonomy occurs along a gradient. Increasingly, people are turning over everyday tasks to machines without necessarily realizing it. “People who are between 20 and 35, basically they’re surrounded by a soup of algorithms telling them everything from where to get Korean barbecue to who to date,” Markoff told me. “That’s a very subtle form of shifting control. It’s sort of soft fascism in a way, all watched over by these machines of loving grace. Why should we trust them to work in our interest? Are they working in our interest? No one thinks about that.”

“A society-wide discussion about autonomy is essential,” he added.
H/t 3QD.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Science Fiction and Muslim Identity

Alif the Unseen, the 2012 debut novel of G. Willow Wilson, takes an inventive approach to the contemporary techno thriller. Its titular hacktivist is a freelance security provider trying to evade the oppressive state censors in the unnamed emirate where he lives. And he's aided in his efforts by a mystical, ancient text titled One Thousand and One Arabian Days. Wilson, a young American woman who converted to Islam after moving to Egypt and falling in love in the early 2000s, seamlessly blends elements of fantasy, dystopian adventure, Islamic literature, and contemporary politics into a genre-defying literary read.

And for Noor Hashem, a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Humanities, Wilson's Alif is a prime example of how a growing number of Muslim fiction writers are turning to genres like science fiction, fantasy, and comics to navigate Muslim identity and aesthetics in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"She's really someone who is taking charge in this field," Hashem says, adding that Wilson is an active comics writer and part of the creative team behind one of the most successful mainstream examples of this trend: Marvel Comics' reboot of Ms. Marvel. In the Marvel universe, three different women characters have gone by the Ms. Marvel name since the late 1960s, and the super-heroine series relaunched last year with Kamala Khan in the title role. Khan is a Pakistani-American teenager living with her parents in New Jersey, the first Muslim character to headline a comic in the publisher's history. [...]

It's not surprising that Muslim writers are exploring the metaphorical freedom that this genre encourages. The 20th century is littered with writers, from Octavia Butler and Angela Carter to Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany, who use fantasy and sci-fi to navigate ideas about gender, politics, race, and sexuality. But where sci-fi writers might allude to Christian spirituality and a secular Western literary tradition, Hashem is seeing Muslim fiction writers explore Islam and its literary culture in their works, such as the comic book series The 99, an allusion to the 99 names or characteristics of God; Helen Wecker's The Golem and the Jinni, Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, and the short-story collection A Mosque Among the Stars.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Conducting "enhanced interrogations" causes moral wounds to those who do it

In my role as a civilian contractor for the Department of Defense, I spent the first three months of 2004 torturing Iraqi prisoners. At the time, we were calling it enhanced interrogation, but that’s a phrase I don’t use anymore. Stress positions, slaps to the face and sleep deprivation were an outrage to the personal dignity of Iraqi prisoners. We humiliated and degraded them, and ourselves.

Ferdinand and I spent the early months of 2004 implementing the country’s interrogation program, we struggled to contain the growing sense that we had shocked our consciences and stained our souls. Our interrogations used approved techniques. We filed paperwork, followed guidelines and obeyed the rules. But with every prisoner forced up against a wall, or made to stand naked in a cold cell, or prevented from falling asleep for significant periods of time, we felt less and less like decent men. And we felt less and less like Americans. [...]

If I had the opportunity to speak to other interrogators and intelligence professionals, I would warn them about men like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. I would warn them that they’ll be told to cross lines by men who would never be asked to do it themselves, and they’ll cross those lines long before they consider anything like waterboarding. And I would warn them that once they do cross the line, those men will not be there to help them find their way back.

Kids in conversation

IMGP3639 – talk

[The 4th most popular photo at my Flickr page.]

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Bayesian reasoning and fictional characters

Last year Stanford's Arcade, Probability and Literary Being, by Hannah Walser and J.D. Porter. Starting from a remark Toni Morrison has made about how characters in her novels seem to take on a life of her own:
Hannah Walser: Cognitive literary studies has an explanation for this phenomenon ready to hand. Blakey Vermeule, for instance, claims that “the illusion of [characters’] independent agency” experienced by novelists has been speculatively linked both to “imaginary play in childhood … and to mind-reading capacities in general” (46-7). The idea is that our brains are evolutionarily primed to attribute mental states and intentions not only to humans themselves, but to humanlike entities—anthropomorphic cartoons, expressive robots, and yes, literary characters. When authors feel their characters directing them or resisting them or talking back, they’re experiencing a side effect of this overattribution of minds, just as readers are when they feel as though characters are real humans with lives outside the boundaries of the story.

JDP: The cognitive piece is crucial here, but I think this actually extends to an ontological question as well. We think of characters and fictional worlds as wholly manipulable just because they were invented; they are mere arrangements of technical features that the author could adjust in any way at all. But the suggestion that Morrison and others have made is that, once some of those technical features are in place, the author loses a little control. The characters attain some sort of actual ontological status related to the epistemological issues you raise. I think the explanation here has to do with probability, specifically Bayesian reasoning and its deployment of priors.

HW: Agreed—our judgment of others’ agency is as much a matter of probabilistic reasoning as it is of imaginative projection. When it comes to contemporary research on how we learn to understand other minds, Hume, not Kant, is the patron saint—sometimes even explicitly credited as such, by the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik for instance (Gopnik 76). “Causal learning,” Gopnik notes, “is a notorious example of the gap between experience and truth” (75), most of all in the case of mental causes—desires, intentions, beliefs, and so on—which are by definition invisible and perhaps little more than hypothetical. But Gopnik’s idea, borne out by research into the learning processes of infants and small children, is that human reasoning about causality can be modeled according to Bayes’s concept of probability, which takes into account both the conditional probability of an event—for instance, the probability that it’s raining outside, given that I’m taking my umbrella to work—and the prior probability of the two events: that it’s raining, and that I would take my umbrella to work on any given day regardless of weather. (Wikipedia has a good breakdown of Bayesian basics.)

I’m going to explain this in detail, because Gopnik’s adaptation of Bayesian probability to social cognition strikes me as a persuasive theory of how we come to see other humans as intending agents with personalities: we notice that variations in behavior are often predictable on the basis of hypothesized individual preferences and beliefs rather than inherent features of the world.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday Fotos: Wet Flowers






Notes on Attridge and Staten: The Craft of Poetry

You can download the complete working paper here:

Abstract, contents, and introduction below.


Abstract: In The Craft of Poetry Attridge and Staten propose a method of minimal interpretation that they illustrate through dialog with one another. In minimal reading one dispenses with theory-driven methods and seeks to come as close to a literal interpretation of the poem as possible. Moreover by dialoguing with one another Attridge and Staten force themselves to justify their interpretations in explicit terms. I offer general methodological commentary and comment on their treatment of five poems: William Blake, The Sick Rose; Langston Hughes, Lennox Avenue: Midnight; Emily Dickinson, I started Early; John Milton, To a Solemn Music; and Wilfred Owen, Futility.


0. Introduction: The Limits of “Reading” 2
1. What is Minimal Reading? 9
2. Figuration: The Sick Rose 14
3. Formal Features of The Sick Rose 25
4. Langston Hughes Crafts a Ring 28
5. Dickinson started early, turned a figure with the sea 31
6. Some Notes on Milton’s Solemn Music 36
7. Wilfred Owen’s Futility and the issue of historical context 42
8. What (do they think) they are up to? 46
9. Reading, Meaning, Techne 51

Introduction: The Limits of “Reading”

This working paper consists of nine posts from my blog, New Savanna, which I’ve recently written about The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (2015), by Derek Attridge and Henry Staten. Three of them, the first one and the last two, are about method and theory – “theory” in the general sense, not in the peculiar sense it assumed in literary studies in recent decades. The other six posts engage Attridge and Staten on five of the poems they examine in the book.

Read it, but…

Just what I think about this book, that is tricky. On the one hand I recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in the analysis of poetry. It exhibits useful analytic skills and delivers fascinating accounts of an interesting range of texts. And it is accessible to those with relatively little experience (such as undergraduates) while also giving the most experienced professionals things to think about. What’s not to like?

And yet, as I ask in my penultimate post: What do they think they’re up to? Yes, they are offering remedial instruction, perhaps even deeply remedial, but they also write as though their method of dialogic poetics, as they call it, offers the profession a new departure, and of that I’m skeptical. I can see some special journal issues being devoted to dialogic poetics. In fact I think it would be a fine idea – can you imagine, say, an issue of ELH in which every article address a text or three, no more, and multiplied authored by critics in conversation with one another? For that is how each chapter of The Craft of Poetry is written; Attridge and Staten address remarks, questions, and responses to one another. I can also imagine some conferences in the same vein, with presentations by two or more critics and perhaps even some “open” sessions where a text is proposed and those present discuss it in real time – I’m thinking of those marvelous sessions that Haj Ross had at his languaging conferences at the University of North Texas back in the 1990s. But I can’t really see much more than that. I can’t see it becoming a way of professional life.

The problem is that Attridge and Staten do not question what is in effect the unstated but foundational assumption of academic literary criticism, the primacy of discursive thinking [1]. This assumption is maintained through the trope of “reading” – the term used to assert continuity between poetry (or any literary text) and the analysis and explication of poetry, as though they are essentially the same mental act. The pull of this trope is so strong that Franco Moretti even adopted it for forms of computational criticism that are obviously discontinuous with reading, as the term is ordinarily understood, by virtue of the fact a critical phase of the analytic procedure is carried out by a digital computer. Distant reading, Moretti’s term, simply is not a form of reading at all [2].

Any form of explication, analysis, or interpretation, by whatever method, even the “minimal” (my scare quotes, not theirs) method Attridge and Staten employ is a secondary, a derivative, activity that is not continuous with poetry itself. Poetry leaves one kind of footprint in the mind and the world, while its analysis does something else. The relationship between these two kinds of work is not at all obvious, hence Archibald’s MacLeish’s assertion that “Poems should not mean/but be.” The trope of reading undermines that assertion through the trope of distance. When we undertake a close reading (a term, by the way, that Attridge and Staten explicitly reject) we are so close to the text and we might as well be reading it. And when we use a computer to crunch over 1000 texts, well, we’re no longer very close to any of them. And so we assert distance, and that enables us to pretend that it is still a kind of reading and so essentially continuous with those texts.

We can see this problematic played out in the title essay of Geoffrey Hartman’s 1975 collection, The Fate of Reading. In that essay Hartman is grappling with the implications of semiotics and linguistics for literary criticism. Complaining that contemporary theorists—mostly French or those under French influence—have come to privilege analytic writing over reading, Hartman asks (p. 272): “To what can we turn now to restore reading, or that conscious and scrupulous form of it we call literary criticism?” That is, how can we make our (necessarily written) critical practice continuous with the experience of reading texts? He then observes: “modern ‘rithmatics’ – semiotics, linguistics, and technical structuralism – are not the solution. They widen, if anything, the rift between reading and writing.” I believe that Hartman is correct but I do not share his nostalgic delusion one can get “closer” to the text through the proper method. Moreover I regard the rejection of the world of linguistics and technical structuralism as a mistake.

Moreover I note that that world is one where discursive thinking is augmented by some other mode – or modes – and that augmentation is essential. It may involve diagrams – think of all the diagrams Lévi-Strauss produced – or mathematical and logical formalism, as in Chomskyian linguistics, or empirical investigation. Whatever it is, it is essential to the enterprise. The investigation must go beyond the bounds of discursive thinking. I suspect, though obviously I cannot prove, that it is the importance of these other modes of thought that bothered Hartman. They intruded on his illusion of closeness.

In search of the “generative system of poetry”

With that in mind let’s take a look at a passage from the introduction to The Craft of Poetry (p. 2):
Our aim in publishing our dialogues on poetry was to make a case for certain skills of poetry reading – including prosody – that we believe constitute basic poem literacy, and which over the past four decades have been shoved aside in many literature departments [...] we wanted to demonstrate how poems can be read based on the assumption that it is not, in the first instance, theories, “interpretive communities,” readerly competence, or historical forces, but poets, and behind poets the techne (art or craft; art considered as craft), or generative system of poetry, that “produces” poems.
That is all well and good, but just what do they mean by “generative system of poetry”?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Trump reviews Homer

H/t Language Log.

Cortical Pathways for Speech and Music

 2015 Dec 16;88(6):1281-96. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.11.035.

Distinct Cortical Pathways for Music and Speech Revealed by Hypothesis-Free Voxel Decomposition.


The organization of human auditory cortex remains unresolved, due in part to the small stimulus sets common to fMRI studies and the overlap of neural populations within voxels. To address these challenges, we measured fMRI responses to 165 natural sounds and inferred canonical response profiles ("components") whose weighted combinations explained voxel responses throughout auditory cortex. This analysis revealed six components, each with interpretable response characteristics despite being unconstrained by prior functional hypotheses. Four components embodied selectivity for particular acoustic features (frequency, spectrotemporal modulation, pitch). Two others exhibited pronounced selectivity for music and speech, respectively, and were not explainable by standard acoustic features. Anatomically, music and speech selectivity concentrated in distinct regions of non-primary auditory cortex. However, music selectivity was weak in raw voxel responses, and its detection required a decomposition method. Voxel decomposition identifies primary dimensions of response variation across natural sounds, revealing distinct cortical pathways for music and speech. 
Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

[PubMed - in process] 
 [Available on 2016-12-16]

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Young Americans have been getting more anxious over the past 80 years

...Ever since the 1930s, young people in America have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed. And no one knows exactly why.

One of the researchers who has done the most work on this subject is Dr. Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University who is the author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before. She’s published a handful of articles on this trajectory, and the underlying story, she thinks, is a rather negative one. “I think the research tells us that modern life is not good for mental health,” she said.
What's going on? Perhaps:
She thinks the primary problem is that “modern life doesn’t give us as many opportunities to spend time with people and connect with them, at least in person, compared to, say, 80 years ago or 100 years ago. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is higher, people get married much later in life.” Smaller families and later marriage, of course, in part reflect societal advancement most of us would view as positive — people, particularly women, have a lot more autonomy over relationships and reproduction. Twenge wanted to be clear that she is for all these different types of societal progress, and that the period when people reported fewer depression and anxiety symptoms was also one where there was widespread racial and gender-based discrimination. She just also thinks we should be “clear-eyed” about the fact that the the “potential tradeoff for our equality and freedom is more anxiety and depression because we’re more isolated.”

In other words, it may simply be the case that many people who lived in less equal, more “traditional” times were forced into close companionship with a lot of other people, and that this shielded them from certain psychological problems, whatever else was going on in their lives. [...]

For whatever reason, the shift away from this sort of life has also brought with it a shift in values, and Twenge thinks that this, too, can account for the increase in anxiety and depression. “There’s clear evidence that the focus on money, fame, and image has gone up,” she said, referring to various surveys that have been conducted over the decades in which young people are asked about their goals and values, “and there’s also clear evidence that people who focus on money, fame, and image are more likely to be depressed and anxious.”

Little Tomatoes


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Morphosis: John Green: the Antecession of Adolescence

A post by my old Valve buddy, Adam Roberts:
Morphosis: John Green: the Antecession of Adolescence: There are only a few more weeks to run of the Children's Literature course that has prompted most of the recent, longer posts on thi...
It seems he's been teaching a course on children's lit, of which I can only approve (cf. my old post on Kiddie Lit). Here's an early paragraph:
It does seem to me that YA writing has latterly achieved a mode of cultural dominance: that Potter, Katniss and the MCU bestride our contemporary cultural production like colossi; that Malorie Blackman and Patrick Ness are more important contemporary UK novelists than Martin Amis and Zadie Smith. But my own bias is towards SF/Fantasy, so perhaps I overestimate the centrality of Fantasy to the contemporary YA phenomenon. I'm not sure I do, but it's possible. It's one thing to talk about Rowling, Collins, Meyers, Blackman, Ness and Pullman (and Lemony Snicket, and Philip Reeve, and Eoin Colfer, and Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and Jonathan Stroud, and Tom Pollock, and Rick Riordan, and Cassandra Clare ... and on and on the list goes) as representing some important culture movement.

But I have to concede that not all today's YA is fantastika. Or put it another way: if my argument is that the key YA texts are all Fantasy, then how do I account for those commercially huge, culturally major YA writers who don't write Fantasy? Two names in particular leap out: the marvelous Jacqueline Wilson, and the mega-selling John Green. Both work in what we could loosely call 'realist' idioms, writing about children and teenagers. Both are very good. What about them?

Take Green. Now, I like Green a great deal: he has a funny, personable and informative online presence as *clears throat* a vlogger, and he writes intelligent, witty and prodigiously successful novels. If those novels don't move me the way they evidently move millions of younger readers, that merely reflects my age. They're not aimed at people like me. Or it would be truer to say: they're not primarily aimed at people like me. And, to speak for myself, I admire and enjoy the charm with which he writes, the cleverly packaged wisdom, the lightness of touch he brings to serious matters.
And off we go to a review & essay.

What interests me is that assertion up there in the first sentence, "YA writing has latterly achieved a mode of cultural dominance..." Is that true? I don't know, but I find it a plausible assertion on the face of it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Children to parents: Don't post about us on social media

...Don’t post anything about me on social media without asking me.

As in, no pictures of them asleep in the back of the car. No posts about their frustration with their homework. That victory picture after the soccer game? Maybe. The frustrated rant about the fight you just had over laundry? No way.

The answers revealed “a really interesting disconnect,” said Alexis Hiniker, a graduate student in human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington who led the research. She, along with researchers at the University of Michigan, studied 249 parent-child pairs distributed across 40 states and found that while children ages 10 to 17 “were really concerned” about the ways parents shared their children’s lives online, their parents were far less worried. About three times more children than parents thought there should be rules about what parents shared on social media.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Friday Fotos: Manhattan Skyline from Jersey






Attridge and Staten 9: Reading, Meaning, Techne

Of course, I can’t help but reading Attridge and Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation (2015) against my own sense of the current state of literary studies. And that sense leaves me with a bifurcated view of their project. On the one hand, I agree we need a criticism that gives detailed attention to the text, which their minimal interpretation certainly does. On the other hand, I don’t think we can get there from here.

They offer minimal interpretation as a way of getting at how poems are made, as a way of unveiling the underlying techne. But just how does it do that? Their project is problematic from their first example, which they assayed in 2008, William Blake’s The Sick Rose. They set out in search of a “bare bones” (my term) and literal account of the rose, the worm, and the storm such that one might embody it in a short film (again, my characterization). But they find that a difficult and problematic project, a difficulty they continue to explore in their second effort, Emily Dickinson’s I started Early. Figurative language seems to resist their desire for interpretive minimalism – but where is the resistance, to minimalism or to interpretation?

In any event, what does this tell us about how poems are made? Surely they are not proposing that (figurative) poets start with some literal situation, such as could be neatly captured in a minimal interpretation, which they then transform, perhaps in stages, perhaps at once, into a poetic text strewn with figures and laid out in meter and rhyme as the aesthetic impulse requires. I would assume that poets work in terms of the kind we see in the final text, that there is no “literal” situation among the tools and materials that constitute poetic craft. Thus it is not clear to me in what way a minimal interpretation reveals poetic techne.

And then we have the various comments on prosody that figure in their accounts. The sound of a poem, its rhythm, the rise and fall of intonation, rhyme and alliteration and so forth, all contribute to one’s experience of the poem, but those things do not “cash out” (my term) in interpretive terms, whether minimal or maximal. But surely they belong to the craft of poetry, the techne.

For the most part, the prosodic effects they pointed out were local, but in my discussions of three of the poems I looked at – Langston Hughes, Lenox Avenue: Midnight, Emily Dickinson, I started Early, and John Milton, At a Solemn Music – I identified prosodic features that were global in scope. They cannot be accounted for by appeals to meaning, yet they must somehow affect our experience of the poems. Is there more to poetic experience than meaning, of whatever degree? Does the craft of poetry exceed categories of meaning?

I am thus suggesting that, even as Attridge and Staten assert that minimal interpretation is a means of revealing techne, that techne is in fact more expansive than, exceeds, and is different from (interpreted) meaning. There is thus an unacknowledged tension between meaning and techne that pervades their work – at least so far as I have surveyed it in these few notes. This tension shows up at the end of their introduction where they invoke cognitive science – Noam Chomsky, the notion of reverse engineering – but implicitly reject the terms in which the cognitive sciences investigate language and the mind.

I have, for years, been of the belief that that is where we are going to have to go if we are to understand how poems, and other literary works, are constructed [1]. And that task, I fear, is one for a generation or two of scholars and will require its own technical language. Some terms of that language no doubt exist in current work in these newer psychologies, but I suspect that many terms, perhaps ultimately the most important one, have yet to be developed.

That discourse will necessarily be a discourse of and for sophisticated intellectual specialists. And it won’t be a kind of “reading”. But then, in what sense is minimal interpretation a kind of reading? Minimal interpretation, like any interpretation governed by the canons of Theory in whatever form, is a secondary activity that takes place at some “distance” from the text. It is neither a reconstruction of nor an extension of one’s direct experience of the text. It is a distinct mental activity, with its own ends and means. Depending on the critic and the occasion it may – I conjecture – play a role in shaping the mind so as to be more receptive to the text in direct reading. But that is different from delineating the craft through which the text. came into existence.

* * * * *

[1] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. URL: Download:

Thursday, March 10, 2016

How do we calibrate machine accomplishments?

A Korean Go master is defeated by a computer for the second time:

And we've got the NYTimes calling a debate, once again, on AI: Does AlphaGo Mean Artificial Intelligence Is the Real Deal? Are we going to rehash this debate every-freakin' time a computer does something interesting? And how can we have a debate about the "real dealness" of AI when we barely know what intelligence is?

Meanwhile my Twitter feed also coughed-up this little clip of humanoid robots failing:

The interesting thing there is that they got far enough to fail.

Whatever it is that makes the human mind so special, it walks, talks, plays Go, and a million other things. These computers, interesting as they are, are specializes, very narrow specialists. So chillax! The Terminator is not around the corner.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Franco Moretti on digital humanities, again...

Melissa Dinsman interviews Franco Moretti in the LA Review of Books. On the humanities in the 20th century:
In the 20th century the natural sciences have produced some amazingly stunning and beautiful theories in physics, and genetics, and in biology. The humanities have produced nothing of this sort. Literature, art, in a sense even political history (mostly in a horrendous way), have produced enormously interesting objects, but the study of these objects, that is to say the disciplines of the humanities — the study of literature, the study of history — have lagged behind. The humanities have lagged behind in conceptual imagination and in boldness.
Whoops! But digital humanities isn't coming to the rescue:
No, to make the humanities relevant you need something much bigger than the digital humanities. What the humanities need are large theories and bold concepts.
Yep. In the value of coding:
It's an intelligence that takes the form of writing a script, but in the writing of the script there is also the beginning of a concept, very often not expressed as a concept, but that you can see that it was there from the results that the coding produces. Perhaps the best example in the case of the Literary Lab was Pamphlet #4,* which was written by two grad students who invented their own script. I envy them that form of intelligence, knowing that I will never have it. And I like it. I think that actually many of the most promising results in the future will come from scripts that are half scripts / half cultural, literary, historical concept.
Yes, of course. I would only add, and now I'm mounting one of my favorite hobby horses, is that literary critics must learn to think about mental and cultural processes as involving computation in some form.

On judgment vs. explanation:
You read reviews that tell you if a book or a film is good or bad. And the same for art shows, and so on. Digital humanities is as non-normative as one can get in the field of literature. It is much more towards the explanatory. So to make it interesting for the general public, a major revolution in the way in which literature is approached by the media would be necessary. Will this revolution happen? No. Should this revolution happen? I'm not even sure. I have devoted my life to explanation rather than value judgment. On the other hand, I am not sure that for society-at-large, for the world-at-large, explanation is more important than value judgment. I think it is more important for people who devote their lives to try to understand how things work.
On this I'll say, unequivocally, that explanation of cultural phenomena (works of art, music, literature, dance, and so forth) is certainly important for society-at-large, for the world-at-large.

Moretti poses his own question for DH: "Leave aside what it can do in the future; has it done anything?" What do you think his answer is:
...the results so far have been below expectations. Now, it's true that the field is at the beginning still. It's true that much of scientific research is so called normal science, and it's certainly true that traditional literary criticism is not sending off sparks every day. All of this is true, but it is also irrelevant because digital humanities are claiming to be the big novelty and so far I think I have produced little evidence about that. I don't want to push it too far. I don't want to say there is not evidence, because it is complicated. Evidence comes in many forms.
I'll go along with those last three sentences.

Thinking of the future


Obama, Seinfeld, and the Astronauts @3QD

I’ve got another post up at 3 Quarks Daily, Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama Have a Meeting of the Minds. Among other things, this post goes into the difference between the Presidency and the occupant of the office, currently Barack Obama; how is that difference staged in the video? And what does any of this have to do with supermarket tabloids?

* * * * *

Here’s a set of clips from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee where Seinfeld talks about a donut-hole bit he’s working on: “A hole does not exist. Words have meaning!” You can see the whole bit at the beginning of this clip:

It doesn’t seem like it opens with the donut-hole bit but believe me, it really does. Sorta. It’s sneaky. Metaphysics.

* * * * *

Seinfeld’s Obama interview touches on the temptations of fame and wealth. Here’s more on the subject from a recent interview Seinfeld gave to The New York Times, Jerry Seinfeld on His New Friend, Wale, and ‘The Album About Nothing’:
Wale is a bit of an underdog in hip-hop, bouncing between the underground and the mainstream and trying on different personas. For this album, he calls you his “conscience” — where did you guide him?

Young people who become successful like that very young — which I wasn’t when I was young — these forces are very potent and challenging to them. I love talking about managing a public image. I was older when it happened to me — I was in my late 30s, so I think it was easier for me to see what was real and what was just perception.

What kind of advice do you give him about fame and success?

That it’s irrelevant. It’s a fantastic byproduct of doing good work, but you have to keep it in its place. It’s like a dog — it’s gotta be trained. You can’t let this thing run all over the house.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Stephen Wolfram on history

Stephen Wolfram has a long ramble over at Edge, AI & The Future Of Civilization. Here's a three-paragraph thought experiment from the end:
Here's one of my scenarios that I'm curious about. Let's say there's a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls. There are a trillion souls in a box, all virtualized. We look at this box. In the box, there will be hopefully nice molecular computing, maybe it'll be derived from biology in some sense, but maybe not, but there will be all kinds of molecules doing things, electrons doing things. The box is doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.

Then we look at the rock sitting next to the box. Inside the rock, there's all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of electrons doing all kinds of things. We say, "What's the difference between the rock and the box of a trillion souls?" The answer will be that the box of trillion souls has this long history. The details of what's happening there were derived from the history of civilization and people watching videos made in 2015 or whatever. Whereas the rock came from its geological history, but it's not the particular history of our civilization.

This question of realizing that there isn't this distinction between intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine the future of civilization ends up being the box of trillion souls, and then what is the purpose of that? From our current point of view, for example, in that scenario, it's like every soul is playing video games basically forever. What's the endpoint of that?
It's the point about history, the contrast between geological and civilizational history, that interests me. Is in physically possible to put THAT kind of history into a  (relatively small) box?

Comedians Sitting on Vibrators Getting Coffee

I have no idea whether or not this is the first parody of Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which, after all, has been around for awhile. But the fact that it exists is a sign that Seinfeld's doing something right.

If the sun where in this picture, where would it be?



House of Cards, Wow! – Part 2

I finished the fourth season last night. Of course, it ends in a cliff-hanger.

But what a cliff hanger. The story of the Underwoods' underhanded dealings has finally begun to make it into the news. They're beginning to fear – in the last  episode of the season – that their political geese are cooked. And then they decided to double-down.

There's a hostage situation. Three Americans have been taken hostage on American soil but members of a group obviously modeled on ISIS. They've successfully negotiated the release of two of them but the third remains hostage and they've not been able to track the terrorists down.

What brutal ugly course of action do you think the Underwoods decide on? At the most general and abstract level, they decided to manipulate public fear and ramp up the action so as to distract people from the news about their past mis-deads. Just how that works for them, that I assume is what next season will be about.

What has my attention, and it's why I've written this post, is the fact that we see these fictional politicians deliberately manipulating people's fears for personal gain. Is that how the game is played?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Authoritarianism in Contemporary America and the Rise of Trump

Vox has a major article on authoritarianism and Donald Trump. Between the (exaggerated) threat of  terrorism and internal social change, authoritarians have emerged as a distinct group within the electorate. They're Trump's followers and they'll affect American politics independently of what happens to Trump's campaign this year.

Here are some bits:
...that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians, with 19 percent as "very high." That's actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare.

The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.

Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as "high" or "very high" authoritarians.

And at the other end of the scale, that pattern reversed. People whose scores were most non-authoritarian — meaning they always chose the non-authoritarian parenting answer — were almost 75 percent Democrats.

But this hasn't always been the case. According to Hetherington and Weiler's research, this is not a story about how Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. It's a story of polarization that increased over time.
The perception of external threat (e.g. terrorists) can tip otherwise non-authoritarian people toward authoritarian attitudes and beliefs.
That's important, because for years now, Republican politicians and Republican-leaning media such as Fox News have been telling viewers nonstop that the world is a terrifying place and that President Obama isn't doing enough to keep Americans safe.

There are a variety of political and media incentives for why this happens. But the point is that, as a result, Republican voters have been continually exposed to messages warning of physical dangers. As the perception of physical threat has risen, this fear appears to have led a number of non-authoritarians to vote like authoritarians — to support Trump.

An irony of this primary is that the Republican establishment has tried to stop Trump by, among other things, co-opting his message. But when establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio try to match Trump's rhetoric on ISIS or on American Muslims, they may end up deepening the fear that can only lead voters back to Trump.