Sunday, April 30, 2017

Bardolatry, Tyler Cowen edition: Is Shakespeare a real person or a mostly mythic being?

Economist and uberblogger Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution is featured in a podcast at Financial Times, Cardiff Garcia’s Alphachat. The podcast mostly about Cowen’s recent manifesto, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, but the final moments take the form of a desert island ‘quiz’ for Cowen. At about 1:09:56 Garcia asks Cowen “Shakespeare or your fifteen favorite novels published in your lifetime?” Cowen’s reply:
Shakespeare beats anything you can come up with, unless it’s Shakespeare or everything else. Shakespeare’s gonna’ win. Anything you’re even tempted [...] Not many [novels] do I need to read five times, but there are easily 20, 25 Shakespeare plays I could just read the rest of my life N number of times and not get sick of them.
Really? Is this a real judgment or is it Cowen’s way of affirming the deeply enshrined and utterly conventional view that Shakespeare is beyond a shadow of a doubt the best writer ever?

Addendum 6.15.2017, TC: "Shakespeare is very likely the deepest thinker the human race has produced, so these are worth careful study!"

It’s not that I don’t think Shakespeare is good. He is surely in the first rank. But that he is so very good that he occupies a pinnacle by himself, that’s different.

I don’t believe that. Nor do I disbelieve it. I simply don’t know how to evaluate it as a judgment about quality. That assertion has more to do with mythology than identifiable excellence.

I mean, think about it for a minute: Has the world never seen other writer’s of Shakespeare’s excellence? Are there no other texts as good as his 20 or 25 best plays? How do you make such a judgment?

Now, we can talk about Shakespeare’s cultural influence, and that discussion will be about what he was doing in the context of his times. But that’s a different kind of discussion from one about his excellence.

Finally, in Shakespeare’s case, we’ve got to consider the fact that Shakespeare is just old enough that his work is a bit foreign to us. He uses words that we no longer use and he uses familiar words in obsolete ways. He’s thus difficult, not because he’s deep (though, yes, he IS deep) but because he’s a bit foreign. Maybe one reason Cowen could read and reread him time and again is because he has to do so to become accustomed to the language. But that’s not about excellence. That’s something else. That’s strangeness.

* * * * *

See also a post from a few years ago, That Shakespeare Thing.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Friday Fotos: Some Flowers

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Four Point Plan to Change the World, or at Least the USofA

In the era of His Highness Lord Trump, this old post seems worth a thought.
Ha!

This is going to be quick and crude.

Some Assumptions

I’m making many assumptions, including: 1) Limits are near, 2) Science and technology cannot change that, and therefore 3) the American Century is over. 4) Recognizing and accepting 3 is the chief stumbling block to major political change. It’s a matter of mythology, symbolism, and emotional investment, not rational principle and reasoned argument.

Until this symbolic problem is overcome the reasoning behind 1 (limits), 2 (tech won’t work), and 3 (hegemony gone) is invisible.

The Hegemony Myth

So, how do we create a new mythology to replace that of American Hegemony? Good question. I don’t know.

I do know that, after Japan was defeated in World World II, some Japanese managed to shed the old imperial mythology which had Japan at the center of the world. One can see that process of mourning in, for example, three manga by Osamu Tezuka: Lost World, Metropolis, and Next World. That the Japanese had lost the war was an inescapable fact, and so many Japanese could find their way to a new mythology. Those Japanese grieved for their lost Japan and, out of that grief, managed to create a new one.

Nothing of comparable finitude has happened to America. The recent financial disaster was a shock, and it has had permanent repercussions, but it isn’t the equivalent of having several major cities incinerated, two by atom bombs, and enduring a military occupation. Before that, there was the terror bombing of 9/11. That too was shocking, but America responded to the shock by doubling down on the old mythology and thereby walking into two unwinnable wars half way around the world.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the beach, nature and culture

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Google Translate and the Wondrous Limits of Deep Learning (AI)

Over at Language Log Mark Liberman has had a series of posts bearing on the limitations of artificial intelligence. They take Google Translate as an example. As you may know, GT has recently switched over to a new system based on so-called “deep learning” technology. The new system gives results that are noticeably better than the older one, based on different technology. Under certain “unnatural” conditions, however, it fails in a rather unusual and flamboyant way, and that’s what Liberman’s posts are.

Here’s the first one: What a tangled web they weave (Apr 15). If you type the following Japanese characters ャス they are translated as:
Us
If you double up, ャスャス, you get:
Chasus
Triple ャスャスャス:
Chasuau
And so on for evermore repetitions of the initial pair of inputs:
Chanusasuasu
Jurasurus
Jurasurasusu
Jurasurasususu
Jurasurasususu
Jurasurasusususu
The sky chase supernatural
Worth seeing is not good. Jasusturus swasher
Soundtracks of the sun
It 's a good thing.
It 's a sort of a sweet sun.
It is a surprisingly good thing.
It is a surreptitious one,
It is a photograph of the photograph taken by a photograph
It is a photograph of the photograph taken by the photographer.
It is a photograph of the photograph taken by a photograph
It is a photograph of the photograph taken by a photograph
It is a photograph taken on the next page
This is a series of photographs of a series of photographs
This is a series of photographs of a series of photographs
This is a series of photographs of a series of photographs
This is a series of photographs of a series of photographs
This is a series of photographs of a series of photographs of a series of photographs
Liberman presents several examples of this phenomenon. In all cases the input consists of two or three characters repeated time and again. Where does all this “hallucinated” (Liberman’s term) come from?

Liberman’s second post, A long short-term memory of Gertrude Stein (Apr 16), contains further examples. Liberman begins his third post, Electric sheep, by quoting a note from another Language Log author, Geoff Pullum:
Ordinary people imagine (wrongly) that Google Translate is approximating the process we call translation. They think that the errors it makes are comparable to a human translator getting the wrong word (or the wrong sense) from a dictionary, or mistaking one syntactic construction for another, or missing an idiom, and thus making a well-intentioned but erroneous translation. The phenomena you have discussed reveal that something wildly, disastrously different is going on.

Something nonlinear: 18 consecutive repetitions of a two-character Thai sequence produce "This is how it is supposed to be", and so do 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, and 24, and then 25 repetitions produces something different, and 26 something different again, and so on. What will come out in response to a given input seems informally to be unpredictable […]

Type "La plume de ma tante est sur la table" into Google Translate and ask for an English translation, and you get something that might incline you, if asked whether you would agree to ride in a self-driving car programmed by the same people, to say yes. But look at the weird shit that comes from inputting Asian language repeated syllable sequences and you not only wouldn't get in the car, you wouldn't want to be in a parking lot where it was driving around on a test run. It's the difference between what might look like a technology nearly ready for prime time and the chaotic behavior of an engineering abortion that should strike fear into the hearts of any rational human.
That’s what’s so interesting. Under ordinary conditions Google Translate does a reasonable job. The translation is not of literary quality, nor would you want to use it for legal documents, but if you’re only after a rough sense of what’s going on, it’s OK. It’s (much) better than nothing. Whatever it is that it’s doing, however, is not at all what humans do when we translate. And that I suppose, makes it all the more remarkable that it does anything at all.

Sky plus flag

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Boat

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RESISTANCE – Resistance to Trump

Over at Blogging Heads, Robert Wright talks with Erica Chenoweth, a student of non-violent resistance who is Professor & Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Along with Maria J. Stephen she’s published Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia UP, 2011).

Early in the discussion she specifies the kind of resistance they studied (c. 3:26):
People that rely on techniques of resistance that don’t physically harm the opponent or threaten to physically harm the opponent can be categorized as nonviolent. And that when people rely on those type of techniques of resistance, whether or not they have a moral commitment to passivism or a moral commitment to non-violence per se, that the accumulation of those non-violent techniques activates a number of different political dynamics in a society that makes them more likely to succeed.
They discussion spends some time on Egypt and Syria, noting that things were going well with primarily non-violent methods in Syria (17:39 ff.) until regional and international actors began interfering (by supplying arms, etc.). Toward the end Chenoweth about current resistence to the Trump administration in America (c. 52:14):

The nice thing about studying nonviolent resistance in dictatorships and in territorial independence movements is that we picked those cases deliberately because they were thought to be the hardest for these campaigns to succeed. And so if there are lessons that can be learned from them that can be applied in cases where there are more freedoms of association and freedom of speech that people enjoy right now, we should expect those lessons to be easily translatable.

And really I’ll just say that the four things that succeed in these difficult situations do, is that first (1) they get large and diverse participation. Second (2) they switch up techniques so that they’re not always protesting, or petitioning, or striking. They’re doing lots of different things that are sort of sequenced in a way that continually puts pressure on the site of oppression in order to dismantle it or transform it. The third thing (3) they do is they remain resilient, even when repression escalates against them. So, meaning they have a plan and they’ve figured out a way to prepare for the repression, they expect it, and they remain disciplined and the stick to the plan even when it starts.

And the fourth thing (4) they do they elicit defections or loyalty shifts from within the opponent’s pillars of support. So in this case it would mean getting a bunch of congress-people who are in the GOP to start coming out more openly and resisting the Trump agenda in Congress. It could mean police that refuse to crack down in certain ways or like deportation officials who refuse to comply with orders they think are unjust, or excessive, or disproportional.

So there are lots or ways we can imagine these taking place in the US and I would argue that many of those have already started, as you mention, the courts for example. I think there are lots of ways that the lessons from the hundreds of other countries that I’ve studied over the last century could apply to our case and there are tried and true methods of nonviolent resistance that apply absolutely in the American context today.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

This post, from February of 2012, speaks to my current concerns.
While cruising the web I came across a 1996 book by Brain Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects. Smith is a computer scientist who was, in fact, in search of a theory of computation but found himself smack in the middle of metaphysics. Interesting, no? Just what computing is, is not exactly clear. And with folks, such a Stephen Wolfram (and he wasn't the first), proposing that the universe is, beneath it all, a giant computer of some sort, well, you can see how chasing down the nature of computation could be interesting.

The publisher's blurb was provocative:
Everything that exists - objects, properties, life, practice - lies Smith claims in the "middle distance," an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world. Patterns of separation and engagement are taken to underlie a single notion unifying representation and ontology: that of subjects' "registration" of the world around them.
That had just a whiff of object-oriented ontology about it, though the book's date puts it before the term was coined.

I found an ontology site that had excerpts from the book, from critics, and from Smith's reply. It had this bit from the book's conclusion:
Overall, the project was to develop what I called a successor metaphysics, one that would honor the following pretheoretic requirements (345-246):
1. Do justice to what is right about:
a. Constructivism: a form of humility, or so at least I characterized it, requiring that we acknowledge our presence in, and influence on, the world around us; and

b. Realism: the view that adds to constructivism's claim that "we are here" an equally profound recognition that we are not all that is here, and that as a result not all of our stories are equally good.
2. Make sense of pluralism: the fact that knowledge is partial, perspectival, and never wholly extricable from its (infinite) embedding historical, cultural, social, material, economic and every other kind of context. The account of pluralism must:
a. Avoid devolving into nihilism or other forms of vacuous relativism, and in particular not be purchased at the price of (successors notions of) excellence, standards, virtue, truth, or significance; and

b. Not license radical incommensurability, provide an excuse to build walls, or in any other way stand in the way of interchange, communion, and struggle for common ends.
Two additional criteria were applied to how these intuitions are met:
3. Be irreductionist -- ideologically, scientifically, and in every other way. No category, from sociality to electron, from political power to brain, from origin myth to rationality to mathematics, including the category "human," may be given a priori pride of place, and thereby be allowed to elude contingency, struggle, and price.

4. Be nevertheless foundational, in such a way as to satisfy our undiminished yearning for metaphysical grounding. That is, or so at least I put it, the account must show how and what it is to be grounded simpliciter - without being grounded in a, for any category a.
Along the way, the account should:
5. Reclaim tenable, lived, work-a-day successor versions of many mainstay notions of the modernist tradition: object, objective, true, formal, mathematical, logical, physical, etc."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Skeletal Indications in an Urban Setting

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Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.2: ‘Cultural Genes’ are Out There in the World

I think the thing to do at this point is post a version of my own view of cultural evolution, but one that skips the terminology that I’ve recently adopted. In this version, which more or less centers on my 1996 article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena, I adopt the term “meme” as the name of the genetic entities of culture. Though I’ve recently dropped the term, I’ll use it in this post.

Gavagai and Conduits

First, though, I want to think a bit about the problem of evolving a communication system.

Some years ago I was engaged in an email conversation with Valerius Geist, a naturalist, who pointed out that biological communication systems are very conservative because they have to evolve two sets of matched traits. They’ve got to evolve a system to emit signals – vocal calls, gestures, postures – and one that understands those signals. These two systems have to match. If they don’t, the communication will fail.

Culture has the same problem, which we can illustrate with a classic thought experiment in the philosophy of language. This is from Willard van Orman Quine, Word and Object (1960). He asks us to consider the problem of radical translation, “translation of the language of a hitherto untouched people” (Quine 1960, 25). Consider a “linguist who, unaided by an interpreter, is out to penetrate and translate a language hitherto unknown. All the objective data he has to go on are the forces that he sees impinging on the native’s surfaces and the observable behavior, focal and otherwise, of the native.” That is to say, he has no direct access to what is going on inside the native’s head, but utterances are available to him. Quine then asks us to imagine that “a rabbit scurries by, the native says ‘Gavagai’, and the linguist notes down the sentence ‘Rabbit’ (of ‘Lo, a rabbit’) as tentative translation, subject to testing in further cases” (p. 25).

Quine goes on to argue that, in thus proposing that initial translation, the linguist is making illegitimate assumptions. He begins his argument by nothing that the native might, in fact, mean “white” or “animal” and later on offers more exotic possibilities, the sort of things only a philosopher would think of–one of the possibilities was “mere stages, or brief temporal segments, of rabbits” (p. 46). Quine also notes that whatever gestures and utterances the native offers as the linguist attempts to clarify and verify will be subject to the same problem. Quine’s argument is thorough and convincing.

This situation, of course, is rather different from that of ordinary speech between people who share a common language. In the common situation both parties would know the meaning of “Gavagai.” Yet, however effective it is, ordinary speech sometimes fails to secure understanding between people and, when such understanding is achieved, that achievement has required back-and-forth speech. The mutual understanding is achieved through a process of negotiation. As William Croft reiterates in chapter 4 of Explaining Language Change, we cannot get inside one another’s heads and so must negotiate meanings in conversation.

That is to say, communication through language is not a matter of sending information through a pipeline. It does not happen according to what Michael Reddy (1993 in Ortony, Metaphor and Thought) has called the conduit metaphor. Reddy’s article is based on 53 example sentences. Here are the first three (p. 166, italics in the original):
1. Try to get your thoughts across better
2. None of Mary’s feelings came through to me with any clarity
3. You still haven’t given me any idea of what you mean
Reddy’s argument is that many of our statements about communication seemed to be based on the notion of sending something (the thought, idea, feeling) through a conduit, hence he calls it the conduit metaphor. He knows that communication doesn’t work that way, but that’s not his central issue. His central concern is to detail the way we use the conduit metaphor to structure our thinking about communication.

Of course, language is not the only medium of human communication and culture. One can craft a wheel that’s just like an existing wheel without having to know what the wheelwright was thinking. As long as your wheel is acceptably like existing wheels, it is OK. How you made it is secondary. Even there, of course, you can observe a master wheelwright at work and imitate his process. One can learn music through imitation as well.

That is, as long as there is a publicly visible physical model, of an object or a process, one can learn how to make the object or perform the process through imitation, hence the emphasis on imitation in the memetics literature. Imitation fails, however, when it comes to the meanings of words. You can learn to imitate sounds, but not meanings. The learning of meaning is different, and it is something that’s been all but ignored in the orthodox memetic literature. That literature assumes that we “transfer information” like sending oil or water through a pipeline. It uses a reified concept of information to dissolve the problem, rather than solve it. It is not well-informed about cognitive science and linguistics and so cannot be considered intellectually serious.

Issues in Cultural Evolution 2.1: Micro Evolution, Dawkins and Memes

It’s time I get back to my attempt to lay out a map of approaches to cultural evolution in a limited number of posts, say a half dozen or even less (in my first post I said three). This is the first of two or three posts in which I look at ideas of the microscale entities and processes. In this post I’ll take a close look at Dawkins’ concept of the meme as he laid it out in The Selfish Gene. In my next post or two I’ll lay out other positions while developing mine in the process.

Dawkins Defines the Meme

I’m going to take a close look at two paragraphs from the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene (Oxford 2006). First I’ll quote the paragraphs without interruption and commentary. Then I’ll repeat them, this time inserting my own comments after passages from Dawkins.

The book, of course, is not primarily about culture. It is about biology and argues a gene-centric view of evolution. In the process Dawkins abstracts from the biology and extracts two roles, that of replicator and that of vehicle. Genes play the replicator role and phenotypes play vehicle role. From a gene-centric point of view, the function of phenotypes is to carry genes from one generation to the next.

Have set this out in ten chapters, Dawkins then turns to culture in the eleventh chapter, where he introduces the meme in the replicator role in cultural evolution. The paragraphs we’re examining are on pages 192-193:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:'... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking—the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent 'mutation'. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that 'survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.
Dawkins says more about memes (the chapter runs from 189 to 201), but I’ll confine my commentary to those two chapters. Before I do that, however, I’d like to quote two short paragraphs from the end of the chapter (pp. 199-200):
However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.

We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.
That I believe is the core of Dawkins’ contribution, that the entity that directly benefits from cultural evolution is some cultural entity, not any individual human being, though the cultural entity is necessarily dependent on individual humans for its existence.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Context and Meaning: A Bull and a Girl

Wall street bull
Wall street bull, by htmvalerio

The Wall Street bull is a well-known icon. I’ve seen many photos of it. On the few occasions that I’ve walked by it I’ve simply noted its presence without thinking about it all that much. Big, powerful, Wall Street – like that.

Earlier this year it was joined by another statue, of a proud little girl:

Wall Street Fearless Girl
Wall Street Fearless Girl, by JJ
When I saw the photos – I’ve not been to Wall Street since it was installed – I thought: YES! Just what we need.

It turns out that Arturo Di Modica, the sculptor of “Charging Bull”, is not so happy. The New York Times reports:
Mr. Di Modica said that “Fearless Girl” was an insult to his work, which he created after the stock market crashes in the late 1980s. “She’s there attacking the bull,” he said.

Even as Mr. Di Modica was denouncing “Fearless Girl” at a news conference in Midtown Manhattan, State Street Global’s home page highlighted the statue for its message about “the power of women in leadership” and urged “greater gender diversity on corporate boards.”

Mr. Di Modica and his lawyers did not disagree with that idea at a news conference — “None of us here are in any way not proponents of gender equality,” said one of Mr. Di Modica’s lawyers, Norman Siegel, a former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. They demanded that “Fearless Girl” be moved somewhere else. […]

The lawyers said that “Fearless Girl” had subverted the bull’s meaning, which Mr. Di Modica defined as “freedom in the world, peace, strength, power and love.”

Because of “Fearless Girl,” Mr. Siegel said, “‘Charging Bull’ no longer carries a positive, optimistic message,” adding that Mr. Di Modica’s work “has been transformed into a negative force and a threat.”
The question of just how art works get their “meaning” has been a matter of some contention for some time and it is by no means obvious that meaning flows solely from the artist’s intention. But I do think that Di Modica and his lawyers are correct in observing that the presence of “Fearless Girl” influences the meaning of “Charging Bull”. The two statues inhabit the same place and so will inevitably be jointly interpreted.

Di Modica’s lawyers also contend that State Street Global “had improperly commercialized Mr. Di Modica’s statue in violation of its copyright” and that the city had improperly issued permits for “Fearless Girl”. They are demanding the removal of “Fearless Girl”. At the moment there is no litigation.

I think this is nonsense. But what do I know, I’m not a lawyer. Things change.

Fearless Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal New York City Wall Street
Fearless Girl Statue by Kristen Visbal New York City Wall Street, by Anthony Quintano

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Comments from readers of the NYTimes. Some favor getting ride of "Fearless Girl", some favor keeping it around as it, and others favor a different solution.

Here's a subtle discussion of the matter.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bird, wires, ladder, wall, shadow

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Issues in Cultural Evolution 1: Cultural Stability in the Mesh

As I'm thinking about cultural evolution these days, I thought I'd bump this post to the top. It's from January of 2015.
This is the first of a series of three posts – I hope it’s only three – in which I explore the relationships between my views on cultural evolution and the views of more orthodox thinkers. The number of thinkers is in fact quite large, but I don’t intended to be exhaustive, just indicative. For the most part I’ll be working with reference to two sources:
1.) Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture & Synthesize the Social Sciences, Chicago: 2011.

2.) An online report of a workshop that Daniel Dennett convened at the Santa Fe Institute that included the following evolutionary thinkers: Susan Blackmore, Robert Boyd, Nicolas Claidière, Peter Godfrey-Smith, Joseph Henrich, Olivier Morin, Peter Richerson, Dan Sperber, Kim Sterelny. Note that while most of these thinkers have special interests in cultural evolution, two of them are more generally interested in evolution, Godfrey-Smith and Sterelny.
In this first post I’m concerned with a general framework in which to think about culture and its evolution. In the second post I’ll examine the micro-scale mechanisms of cultural evolution, the cultural analogues to the biological gene and phenotype. In the third post I’ll look at the large-scale dynamics of cultural evolution. And, who knows, maybe there will be a fourth post to put things together. We’ll see.

Stability in the Mesh

Let me start out with a standard distinction, between culture and society. A society is a group of people and culture is the attitudes, ideas, customs, and practices through which they interact. Thus I will not be using the term “culture” to refer to a society, a common usage.

In the simplest societies people lived in relatively small bands of hunter-gatherers and had relatively few material possessions. Whatever they possessed they had to carry with them from one place to another. Everyone knew everyone else and they were, as well, acquainted with those living in neighboring bands. Those people were, after all, their friends and relatives.

When I talk of the mesh I mean those people and their relationships among one another, among and with their material goods, and with the features and creatures of their environment. That is where human culture arose, in that mesh. Culture provides a means of enriching those relationships, both by introducing new entities into the mesh – whether handcrafted objects, new activities, or various abstract entities, and so forth – and by establishing new kinds of relationships among entities in the mesh.

It is only to the extent that these entities and relationships are stable that the group can be said to have a coherent culture. Dawkins makes that point with respect to biology in the second chapter of The Selfish Gene (p. 12):
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
Dawkins then goes on to argue that stability in the biological world depends on molecules he will call replicators (p. 15). At first these replicators were free-floaters in the primeval biomolecular soup. In time they became (p. 20) “genes, and we are their survival machines.” I understand that there is some controversy within biology as to whether or not Dawkinsian replicators are in fact the source of stability in the biosphere (see Peter Godfrey-Smith, The Replicator in Retrospect, Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000): 403-423), but that is secondary to my current purpose.

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. Without stability there is no chance of accumulating cultural innovations.

With this in mind, let’s go back in time. Here’s a passage from my review of Steven Mithen’s book on music (“Synch, Song, and Society”, Human Nature Review 5, 2005, pp. 66-85):
Obviously we have no record of these utterances, but the archeological record does have indications of cultural conservatism. The repertoire of stone tools was both limited and unchanged between 1.8 and 0.25 million years ago; Mithen gives particular emphasis to the constant form of hand-axes (164). Mithen suggests that, because their finely wrought form exceeds the practical demands of butchery, wood-working, and cutting plants, these hand-axes may have been fitness indicators in the sort of sexual selection regime Geoffrey Miller has advocated.

Beyond this, I note that Ralph Holloway (1969, 1981) long ago suggested that strongly conserved hand-axe form was an indicator of social norms. Those forms could not be conserved from one generation to the next unless there was a deliberate intention to do so. One has to note the significant features of an existing axe and discipline one’s knapping motions to produce that result. That is considerably more exacting than simply producing an axe with a sharp edge and appropriate heft. The motivation behind such exacting form, then, is not practical. Nor can it be merely aesthetic, which would allow for considerable individual variation. That leaves us with a desire to conform to social norms. Given the importance of such norms, that may in itself be a sufficient motivation for their form, to serve as a visible token of social solidarity. In any event, Holloway’s observation does not contradict Miller’s, and now Mithen’s hypothesis. Norms are norms, regardless of their specific purpose and norms that serve multiple ends are likely to be particularly strong.
My point is a simple one: the oldest evidence we have of specifically human cultural norms is of something that can be seen and therefor copied, those stone axes. Of course, we know little of the lifeways that those creatures lived. The oldest, of course, were not human. Since we cannot observe them we do not know exactly how they made those axes, but archaeologists have experimented and so we know something of the likely techniques.

Whatever those techniques were, exactly, those no particular mystery about how they were passed on from one person to another as the crafting would have been fully observable. As they saying goes, hominid, hominid do. What we don’t know is just what neuro-motor advances made this activity possible, nor why they did it. What we see in the fossil record, however, is stability, norms. That’s what we need to get started.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tracks on tracks

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Is the cognitive work of science grounded in tracking?

That's what Louis Liebenberg argues, and he's got a variety of publications and materials at Cybertracker. Here's the associated blog. Here's a blurb for his book, The Origin of Science, which you can download for free:
The Origin of Science addresses one of the great mysteries of human evolution: How did the human mind evolve the ability to develop science?

The art of tracking may well be the origin of science. Science may have evolved more than a hundred thousand years ago with the evolution of modern hunter-gatherers. Scientific reasoning may therefore be an innate ability of the human mind.

The implication of this theory is that anyone, regardless of their level of education, whether or not they can read or write, regardless of their cultural background, can make a contribution to science.

Kalahari trackers have been employed in modern scientific research using GPS-enabled handheld computers and have co-authored scientific papers.

Citizen scientists have made fundamental contributions to science. From a simple observation of a bird captured on a smart phone through to a potential Einstein, some may be better than others, but everyone can participate in science.
And here's a citizen science page.

* * * * *

What it feels like tracking an animal to run it down (push it to exhaustion):
As we followed the tracks I could visualise the whole event unfolding in front of me. The kudu started to show signs of hyperthermia. It was kicking up sand and its stride was getting shorter. As it ran from shade to shade, the distances between its resting periods became shorter and shorter. In visualising the kudu I projected myself into its situation. Concentrating on the spoor I was so caught up in the event that I was completely unaware of my own state of exhaustion. As if in an almost trance-like state I could not only see how the kudu was leaping from one set of tracks to the next, but in my body I could actually feel how the kudu was moving. In a sense it felt as if I myself actually became the kudu, as if I myself was leaping from one set of tracks to the next.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Demolished Exhibition

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5Pointz Writers Sue Building Owner

It was a crushing blow to nearly two dozen established graffiti artists when in 2013 the owner of the Queens building complex known as 5Pointz ordered a surprise nighttime whitewashing of their colorful murals, leaving them with little chance to document or save the spray-painted artwork that had attracted worldwide attention.

But now they will have their chance at payback in a place that many graffiti artists try to avoid: a courtroom.

This is no vandalism case in a criminal courthouse, but rather a federal lawsuit filed in 2013 by the 23 artists who painted regularly at 5Pointz, against its owner, Jerry Wolkoff, who ordered the artwork destroyed.

The artists scored an incremental legal victory on March 31 when Judge Frederic Block of Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled that their case could have a jury trial.
Ephemeral or not?
The judge’s ruling offers the artists a chance to confront Mr. Wolkoff in court and to seek redress for painting over their work, said Jonathan Cohen, an artist who had curated the murals and helped organize the artists at 5Pointz since 2002.

Mr. Cohen said he was hopeful that the suit might become a landmark case to establish street art as legitimate contributions worthy of protection.

Mr. Cohen, known by his artist name Meres1, said he had hoped to photograph the art on the building’s walls and to remove much of it, because many of the murals were painted on siding panels or otherwise removable and “could have filled a museum somewhere.”

In an interview, Mr. Wolkoff called the judge’s decision “mind boggling” because the art was never intended for anything but short-term display.

The 5Pointz artists followed a street graffiti tradition of creating murals knowing full well that they would soon be painted over by other artists, he added.
A legal angle:
In the suit, Mr. Baum contends that the art, created by recognized artists who had secured permission from the building owner, falls under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, which has been used to protect established artists who have created public art that is of “recognized stature” on someone else’s property.

“We will make the jury aware,” he said, “that this was not graffiti, not vandalism, but rather work done with the permission of the owner, by artists of recognized stature, and protected by law.”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hefner Rising: The Playboy Story

Amazon has just released American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story, a ten episode series about Hefner and the magazine he founded in 1953. Playboy was profitable from its first issue and gave birth to one of the most recognizable brands in the world. I encountered Playboy sometime in the early 1960s, during my teen years, and read it regularly for a decade or more and I do mean “read.” Yes, I looked at the pictures, of course I looked at the pictures, but I really did read it, for there was much to read, especially the interviews.

The series has been assembled from documentary materials, including footage, clippings, and photos from Hefner’s archive, testimonials from former executives and associates, including Christie Hefner and Jesse Jackson, and dramatic reenactments. The reenactments are OK, but no more. It’s the story itself that’s fascinating. It’s told from Hefner’s obviously biased point of view, but there’s no secret about that. You might want to counterpoint it with, say, Mad Men, which is set among the men at the center of the Playboy target demographic. Did Don Draper read playboy? What about the one who smoked a pipe (Ken?), did he get the idea from Hef?

The series is densest over the magazine’s first quarter century, which is fine, as that’s where the most action is. Hefner’s original conception was simply a men’s lifestyle magazine, advice to the male consumer: no more, but no less¬–which is to say, pictures of naked women were central. Out of and in addition to that came liberal editorial content. The magazine had to defend itself, editorially and in court. So censorship became an issue.

Hefner the liked jazz. The sophisticated man liked jazz. So Miles Davis became the subject of the first Playboy interview. When Hefner wanted Nat Cole and Ella Fitzgerald on his first television show, TV stations in the South said the wouldn’t air the show. He called their bluff; it turns out they weren’t bluffing, but the show did fine anyhow. Civil Rights entered Playboy’s editorial portfolio, including interviews with Martin Luther King and Malcolm C. Then the war in Vietnam – Playboy was against it, but was happy to entertain the troops – women’s rights, and then AIDS.

Yes, one of the episodes deals with feminist criticism, including footage from a 1970 Dick Cavett show where Susan Brownmiller and Sally Kempton handed him his head. We also learn of Gloria Steinem’s undercover exposé of working conditions at the New York Playboy Club. Obviously, though, if feminist critique is what you want, this series is not the place for it. You might, as an exercise, ask yourself how Mad Men’s Peggy Olson would have fared working at Playboy. That’s a tricky one. To be sure, Christie Hefner took over in 1988 and ran the company until 2009, two decades after the period covered in Mad Men. If she had gone to work for Hef in 1963?

* * * * *

On the whole the series seems a bit long for the material it covers. But that material is worthwhile as social history, for the overview of the phenomena that followed from the desire to read a magazine with picture of naked women. And the archival material is at the center of it all.

Mixed Signals in the Air Over Hoboken

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Sleep in Review

The Fashion and Style section of the NYTimes, of all places, has an article on sleep, "Sleep Is the New Status Symbol", by Penelope Green. It opens:
At M.I.T.’s Media Lab, the digital futurist playground, David Rose is investigating swaddling, bedtime stories and hammocks, as well as lavender oil and cocoons. Mr. Rose, a researcher, an inventor-entrepreneur and the author of “Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire and the Internet of Things,” and his colleagues have been road-testing weighted blankets to induce a swaddling sensation and listening to recordings of Icelandic fairy tales — all research into an ideal sleep environment that may culminate in a nap pod, or, as he said, “some new furniture form.”
And goes on from there, sleep research at UCal Berkeley, a sleep appliance start-up in Paris, a body-clock reset device in Australia, to:
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls sleeplessness a public health concern. Good sleep helps brain plasticity, studies in mice have shown; poor sleep will make you fat and sad, and then will kill you. It is also expensive: Last year, the RAND Corporation published a study that calculated the business loss of poor sleep in the United States at $411 billion — a gross domestic product loss of 2.28 percent.

Companies now fight “presenteeism,” a neologism that describes the lackluster performance of foggy-brained, sleep-deprived employees, with sleep programs like Sleepio, an online sleep coach, and sleep fairs, like the one hosted last month in Manhattan by Nancy H. Rothstein, director of Circadian Corporate Sleep Programs and otherwise known as the Sleep Ambassador, for LinkedIn.
The "sleep space" was a $32B market in 2012.
“I can see sleep being another weapon in competitive parenting and career-building,” Ms. Salzman said. “If you want your child to succeed, do you have to buy them these sleep devices? Sleep is personal, it’s class, not mass, and now the sleep industry is based on technical services, customized for me. It’s a bizarre marriage of high tech and low tech. Chamomile tea is going to have a resurgence, as the antithesis to the whole pharma thing.”
And so it goes.

WTF!

Think of sleep as something done by/for the mind. All this interest in sleep testifies to the difficulty and importance of learning to regulate your mind. It's in the same ballpark as meditation, mindfulness, and the many forms of psychotherapy.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Author, author, who's an author?

Gabrielle Bellot,How Many Shakespeares Were There? On Authorship, Erasure, and the Myth of the Great Solitary Writer, a The Literary Hub. The article opens by noting that that The New oxford Shakespeare gives Shakespeare eight coauthors distributed over 14 plays. Further on:
In many ways, perhaps particularly in the West, there is a desire to put the idea of simple authorship on a pedestal. The author is sacred, singular, reified. There is something monotheistic about this idea of the single author-creator; there is something of the primacy of the individual one may see in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. We write our own work, of course, but writing, and art more broadly, is often collaborative at some level: our all-too-often-unacknowledged editors, our readers who make substantial suggestions, the writers we channel or even borrow from. (It’s fitting that in film, deft editing—meaning editing we do not notice—is called “the invisible art.”) Sometimes, our languages all blur—what I wrote, what I read, what she suggested I write, old diaphanous words from sepia memories. Sometimes, who wrote what, even in a writer’s mind, becomes unclear and dusky because we are always a part of so many conversations as readers, listeners, rememberers, forgetters. Authorship can be obvious, when we don’t have Shakespearean doubts about the identity of a writer, yet it is also often murky, dream-dim, near-far as the words we speak in memories.

It’s no revelation that this model of absolutely sole authorship is an oversimplification, if not a fiction, yet we frequently want to believe in it, all the same. Shakespeare seems lesser if he becomes a co-author. Attributing the Iliad and Odyssey to Homer is problematic; yet we often do, anyway, as it seems to make things simpler and, perhaps subconsciously, more correct: Homer should have composed it, the argument implies, whether or not he did. T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land—but so did Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, and Ezra Pound, whose edits were substantial. Ghostwriters truly become ghosts: Tony Schwartz, not Donald Trump, wrote The Art of the Deal—indeed, Trump’s near-illiteracy almost precludes his writing it—and even has a byline on the cover, yet many people who know it was ghostwritten subconsciously brush aside this fact and assume, with no sign of cognitive dissonance, that Trump is, indeed, still the writer. (Trump himself, as Schwartz has noted, ironically does this himself.) The popular YouTuber Zoella recently became the target of condemnation due to the popularity of her novels, with commentators arguing that the simplicity of her books was causing a “decline in children’s reading age”—yet Zoella’s (whose haul videos I unashamedly watch) novels are ghostwritten, so who, technically, is really being condemned? Many people—and I have been guilty of this—are reluctant to accept the possibility that Shakespeare’s so-called “bad” quartos—simpler, and I would say inferior, versions of certain plays, like Hamlet—may be indications of the Bard having written a bad draft. Instead, we are often more likely to claim the quartos were copied poorly or desirous to believe that “better” versions, like William Henry Ireland’s famous forgery of a trove of manuscripts “by” Shakespeare, are the “real” versions.

Historically, women who substantially edited or even wrote large portions of men’s texts tended to be left out of authorship discussions altogether, while, in the Americas, it was not uncommon for white racialists to argue that black writers could not even be authors at all, simply due to race.
H/t 3QD.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Living light

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Dancing is good for the brain

A new study that compared the neurological effects of country dancing with those of walking and other activities suggests that there may be something unique about learning a social dance. The demands it places on the mind and body could make it unusually potent at slowing some of the changes inside our skulls that seem otherwise inevitable with aging.

Neuroscientists and those in middle age or beyond know that brains alter and slow as we grow older. Processing speed, which is a measure of how rapidly our brains can absorb, assess and respond to new information, seems to be particularly hard hit. Most people who are older than about 40 perform worse on tests of processing speed than those who are younger, with the effects accelerating as the decades pass.

* * * * *

Agnieszka Z. Burzynska, et al., White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older Adults, Front. Aging Neurosci., 16 March 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00059
Degeneration of cerebral white matter (WM), or structural disconnection, is one of the major neural mechanisms driving age-related decline in cognitive functions, such as processing speed. Past cross-sectional studies have demonstrated beneficial effects of greater cardiorespiratory fitness, physical activity, cognitive training, social engagement, and nutrition on cognitive functioning and brain health in aging. Here, we collected diffusion magnetic resonance (MRI) imaging data from 174 older (age 60–79) adults to study the effects of 6-months lifestyle interventions on WM integrity. Healthy but low-active participants were randomized into Dance, Walking, Walking + Nutrition, and Active Control (stretching and toning) intervention groups (NCT01472744 on ClinicalTrials.gov). Only in the fornix there was a time × intervention group interaction of change in WM integrity: integrity declined over 6 months in all groups but increased in the Dance group. Integrity in the fornix at baseline was associated with better processing speed, however, change in fornix integrity did not correlate with change in processing speed. Next, we observed a decline in WM integrity across the majority of brain regions in all participants, regardless of the intervention group. This suggests that the aging of the brain is detectable on the scale of 6-months, which highlights the urgency of finding effective interventions to slow down this process. Magnitude of WM decline increased with age and decline in prefrontal WM was of lesser magnitude in older adults spending less time sedentary and more engaging in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. In addition, our findings support the anterior-to-posterior gradient of greater-to-lesser decline, but only in the in the corpus callosum. Together, our findings suggest that combining physical, cognitive, and social engagement (dance) may help maintain or improve WM health and more physically active lifestyle is associated with slower WM decline. This study emphasizes the importance of a physically active and socially engaging lifestyle among aging adults.

GOOD: Global Organization of Democracies

Here’s a triple, a trifecta, a trinity, from Charlie Keil. It’s about a Global Organization of Democracies (GOOD). Let him explain it.

An Open Letter to Citizens of the World

Dear Citizen:

I think we need a common GOOD, a Global Organization Of Democracies, one nation one vote, (so that a confederation of indigenous peoples up the Amazon can have the same voting power as the USA, Okinawa the same vote power as Japan, etc.) [big so-called democracies may not want to be members at first], to be meeting year round to suggest ways of: stopping "ethnic cleansing" and "administrative massacres," terrorism, and wars; sharing air, water and resources fairly; raising global carbon taxes for local carbon sequestration (planting trees, fostering permacultures) going strong everywhere; planning and fostering a global literacy campaign focused on young women, etc., etc.

For every real problem you can think of, the world needs to hear these discussions, suggestions, planning sessions year round so that hopes can realistically be raised about stopping climate destruction, reducing global storming, etc. Can you give these "self-determination of peoples" and "conserving the speciation" ideas 8 minutes a day? 12 minutes a day on Saturday and Sunday?

Peace is the Way! (to ecological balance) 


Charlie Keil

For the common GOOD

To stop the ecocatastrophe and build world peace processes a Global Organization of Democracies (GOOD) supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC) could coordinate efficient regional police forces to help prevent "administrative massacres" and terrorism, thereby enhancing the security of all peoples and encouraging states to redirect a growing portion of their military budgets to economically sustainable problem-solving over time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Ancient Glories

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Gaming the codes to increase medical profiteering

The American medical system is built on codes, codes to classify illness and procedures. And these codes can be gamed to increase profits; one can even take courses in how to do this. Writing in the NYTimes Magazine, Elisabeth Rosenthal says:
What’s less understood is the extent to which our current medical-billing system itself is responsible for the high prices patients are charged. There are, of course, many factors that have led to the United States’ record-breaking $3 trillion health care bill: runaway drug prices, excessive testing and sky-high charges for even the most basic medical interventions. But all of those individual price increases have been enabled — indeed, aided and abetted — by the complex system of billing and coding that underlies bills like those sent to Wickizer. That system, with its lines of alphanumeric codes and arcane medical abbreviations, has given birth to a gigantic new industry of consultants, armies of back-room experts whom medical providers and insurance companies deploy against each other in an endless war over which medical procedures were undertaken and how much to pay for them. Caught in the crossfire are Americans like Wanda Wickizer, left with huge bills and indecipherable explanations in languages they cannot possibly understand.
Thus:
Seemingly subtle choices about which code to use can have large financial consequences. If after reviewing a hospital chart of, say, a patient who has just had a problem with his heart, a hospital coder indicates the diagnosis code for “heart failure” (ICD-9-CM Code 428) instead of the one for “acute systolic heart failure” (Code 428.21), the difference could mean thousands of dollars. “In order to code for the more lucrative code, you have to know how it is defined and make sure the care described in the chart meets the criterion, the definition, for that higher number,” says one experienced coder in Florida, who helped with Wickizer’s case and declined to be identified because she works for another major hospital. In order to code for “acute systolic heart failure,” the patient’s chart ought to include supporting documentation, for example, that the heart was pumping out less than 25 percent of its blood with each beat and that he was given an echocardiogram and a diuretic to lower blood pressure. Submitting a bill using the higher code without meeting criteria could constitute fraud.

Each billing decision, then, can be seen as a battle of coder versus coder. The coders who work for hospitals and doctors strive to bring in as much revenue as possible from each service, while coders employed by insurers try to deny claims as overreaching. Coders who audit Medicare charts look for abuse to reclaim money or fraud that needs to be punished with fines. Hospital coders teach doctors — and doctors pay to take courses — to learn how they can “upcode” their charts to a more lucrative level with minimal effort. In a doctor’s office, a Level 3 visit (paid, say, at $175) might be legally transformed into a Level 4 (say, $225) by performing one extra maneuver, like weighing the patient or listening to the lungs, whether the patient’s illness required that or not.
When Medicare for All is finally passed, there will still be a place for medical coding, redirected toward its original purpose, to deliver health care. (HR676, at least provides for retraining.) And I can’t help but think that when the medical coders don’t have to screw people over for profit any more, they’ll feel much like the cleansed soul described in The Screwtape Letters:
Just think … what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter, as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment.
But as for the phishers of people who invented “strategic coding,” and did the training, and awarded the credentials, the people who ran the for-profit schools and the professional organizations, and cashed the fat checks, and built the system that tried to take the money Wanda Wickizer had saved for her kids to go to college, what of them? The corruption of this “creative class” is surely of a different order from the coding foot-soldiers; this creative class is not only corrupt, but enables corruption in others (“aid and abet”). If I were to wish that everything that happened to the West Virginia coal-miners happened to them, starting with the loss of their jobs and the savage destruction of their communities, would that make me a bad person? Probably. So instead, I’ll wish that they find continuing useful employment in the medical field: Emptying bedpans, for example.

Rogue's Gallery Revisited

Back in 2009 Michael Gross published a history of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The title tells it all, Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum – see my review. The current president of the Met, Thomas P. Campell, has resigned, effective this June, and the New York Times has a story about the palace intrigue involved. It seems that Campbell had a relationship with someone in the digital media department and that made it difficult for a newly hired directer of digital media, Erin Coburn, to function effectively, forcing her to resign. The relationship between that matter the the Met's budget problems is unclear; rather, that seems to be offered simply as an example of mismanagement at the executive and board levels:
Despite its vaunted collection, prodigious $332 million budget and a board stocked with some of the country’s most powerful donors, the Met is largely run by a dozen or so executives and trustees, interviews show, with little transparency or accountability.

The recent discovery of a looming $40 million deficit that forced the institution to cut staff, trim its exhibition schedule and postpone a heralded $600 million expansion are signs that the system is showing cracks. Now, details about how dysfunction in the digital media department was allowed to continue are revealing additional consequences of the Met’s turning a blind eye to problems.

Ms. Coburn filed a formal complaint in 2012. Met executives investigated her claims but concluded they didn’t warrant action. The board’s chairman, Daniel Brodsky, and several museum executives negotiated Ms. Coburn’s departure and settlement while Mr. Campbell stayed on.

Yet, for many then at the Met, the results of Mr. Campbell’s relationship with a member of Ms. Coburn’s staff were plain. The employee had a direct line to Mr. Campbell and amassed power well beyond her rank, they say, sidelining certain colleagues as well as commanding resources and hiring outside staff members for her projects, which added costs and created infrastructure complications.
And so it goes.

As for the Board of Directors:
As boards go, the Met’s is high end and old school. An international jewel of the art world, the museum sits atop the hierarchy of major New York cultural institutions and a spot on its board has long been considered the pinnacle of prestige.

At 101 members, the board is also unusually large, which means decisions tend to be made in committees, the most important of which are the executive and finance committees. Expectations for most everyone else are relatively simple: deep pockets, attendance at five meetings a year and a willingness to let the Met’s top executives handle the details.

“If you’re not on the executive committee, you don’t know anything,” said a trustee, who insisted on anonymity because board members have been warned against speaking publicly. “You’re expected to work and give, but not to question what goes on.”

Another trustee said, “Few people have spoken up in a meeting for about 40 years.”
In other words, the Met seems to be run by a small in-group mostly for their own mutual grooming and glory and incidentally for the public good.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

One Bridge, Two Days

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Numbers as Cultural Tools, Part 2

Numbers may feel instinctual. They may seem simple and precise. But Everett synthesizes the latest research from archaeology, anthropology, psychology and linguistics to argue that our counting systems are not just vital to human culture but also were invented by that culture. “Numbers are not concepts that come to people naturally and natively,” he writes. “Numbers are a creation of the human mind.”

I spoke to Everett by phone about the book.

Craig Fehrman: Are human beings hardwired to think numerically?

Caleb Everett: We seem to have some kind of innate predisposition to numbers, but it’s smaller than you’d think. At an early age, we have the ability to tell the difference between bigger groups — between, say, eight things and 16 things. We can also tell one thing from two things or two things from three things. But other primates like chimps can do that. And once you get to four things, it starts to get tricky.

CF: That’s where numbers come in, right? In your book, you suggest that our five-fingered hands — and the fact that we walk on our legs and keep those hands free — may have played a big role here.

CE: My suspicion is that there were many, many times in history when people realized in an ephemeral way that this quantity is the same as that quantity — that this five, in terms of their fingers, is the same as that five, in terms of goats or sheep. It’s no coincidence that many unrelated languages have a numerical structure built around 10 or that the word for five is often the same as the word for hand. Once someone else heard you referring to something as a “hand” of things, it became a cognitive tool that could be passed around and preserved within a particular culture.
FWIW, it's not at all clear to me why the interviewer, Craig Fehrman, should remark that numbers may feel instinctual. After all we spent hours upon hours as children learning to count and then to do arithmatic, and this training goes on for half a dozen years.