Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Urban Pastoral

April 1, 2011: Another piece from the old days at The Valve. I figure if we're going to transform our urban environments, we've got to take ownership of them. And that means we've got to find the beauty in them as they are now. Only then will we be prepared to deal with them rather than wishing them away. I've got a bunch of photos that I've posted under the urban pastoral rubric. Note: Still relevant, August 30, 2017.
It was in graduate school, I believe, that I heard someone refer to Hart Crane as a poet of the “urban pastoral,” referring, I believe to his collection “The Bridge” – which I’ve not read. That was the first time I heard the phrase, “urban pastoral,” and it has stuck in my mind. But it hasn’t done much until the past year when I began wandering my Jersey City neighborhood, camera in hand, in search of wild graffiti.

I photographed the graffiti, of course – lot’s of it – but that’s not all. I photographed other things as well, close-ups of bees and flowers, panoramas of this or that neighborhood view, of the Manhattan skyline from Jersey City, and even sunrises and sunsets. Thus a month and a half ago I blogged “This Jersey City My Prison,” in which I set Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” amid photographs taken in Jersey City.

Coleridge wrote the poem while he was confined to the yard in his cottage in Britain’s fabled lake country. He was feeling sorry for himself because he had to miss a nature walk with his friends. Through identifying with his friend “gentle-hearted Charles!” who had “pined/ And hunger’d after nature, many a year,/ In the great City pent” Coleridge had managed to work himself out of a funk. Coming to a close, Coleridge asserts:
Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!

I, however, did not post my blog entry from a cottage in the lake country. I posted it from my apartment in Jersey City, a half dozen blocks from the Holland Tunnel, conduit to one of the largest cities in the world, one of a kind Coleridge could not have imagined.

Hello! Not some exotic location, right there at home


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Twitter is taking potshots at the NYTimes Op-Ed Page

This tweet's from political scientist, Dan Drezner:

Whose's Erik Prince? He's a former Navy Seal who runs Academi, formerly Blackwater USA, a gov't services and security company.  Twitter's come alive with satirical tweets like these:

I love it!

Keeping track of myself – Lit Crit, #DH, Prospero, Metagramming, Cultural Evolution [Ramble 7]

I’ve completed to of the items that entered my to-do list last week:
And that means I’ve now got a new working paper on my to-do list. The working title is: Virtual Reading: The Prospero Project Redux. It will include the two previous posts, plus the one on a small-world net in Heart of Darkness. I’ll need to write an introduction, one that will be based on the old hypothetical Prospero Project which Dave Hays and I introduced in our 1976 paper, Computational Linguistics and the Humanist.

NEW item: I need to do a post on the text as conceived by cognitive science, which would pick up on the drubbing I gave to the spatial metaphorics of the text (inside, outside, surface, hidden, etc.) in my reply. Depending on just when I do this post, it may also be a part of the VR working paper.

OLD item: How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’): But I’m working toward it. This may also be part of the VR working paper.

NEW item: I’d like to do a shortish (I hope!) post explicating Tim Morton’s ethical quartet: 1. You're not guilty. 2. If you can understand it, you're responsible for it. 3. Try increasing pleasures. 4. We're all roughly the same.

* * * * *

I got a nice surprise. I forget just what I was up to, but I decided to do a search for an old tech report that Dave Hays and I did under a small Air Force contract in 1979-80 or so. I found it, posted it to my page, and wrote up a post: Metagram Software - A New Perspective on the Art of Computation.

* * * * *

Old items that are ticking along:
  • Description and Form in Literary Analysis: The Case of Heart of Darkness: This is a major task and will be ongoing until it’s done.
  • Lit Crit, Identity, & the Curriculum in the 21st Century: Perhaps one or two posts here.
  • Open letter to John Lawler about Cultural Evolution: This is my next big push, even before the VR working paper. Hope to knock it out over the Labor Day weekend.
* * * * *

The hit count at New Savanna has plummeted over the weekend, dropping to 996 last Thursday and to a low of 478 on Saturday. Here’s the last week:

Aug-30 week 10-30AM

And the last month:

Aug-30 month 10-20AM

I’m guessing this is an end-of summer slump that may well last through Labor Day as most of my traffic is from the USA. When it comes back up, where will it go, to 4000 hits a day, plus or minus, or, say 8000? Who knows?

What rough beast is this?


Computer-generated stories in the 1960s [#DH]

James Ryan, Grimes' Fairy Tales: A 1960s Story Generator, Expressive Intelligence Studio, University of California, Santa Cruz,
Abstract. We provide the first extensive account of an unknown story generator that was developed by linguist Joseph E. Grimes in the early 1960s. A pioneering system, it was the first to take a grammar-based approach and the first to operationalize Propp’s famous model. This is the opening paper in a series that will aim to reformulate the prevailing history of story generation in light of new findings we have made pertain- ing to several forgotten early projects. Our study here has been made possible by personal communication with the system’s creator, Grimes, and excavation of three obscure contemporaneous sources. While the ac- cepted knowledge in our field is that the earliest story generator was Sheldon Klein’s automatic novel writer, first reported in 1971, we show that Grimes’s system and two others preceded it. In doing this, we reveal a new earliest known system. With this paper, and follow-ups to it that are in progress, we aim to provide a new account of the area of story generation that lends our community insight as to where it came from and where it should go next. We hope others will join us in this mission.
From the article itself: 
But why should we care about old, forgotten work? If we view story gener- ation as a vast design space, we can think of each implemented system as an exploratory vessel that ventures into a previously uncharted sector. If these ex- ploratory missions are successful, they signal directions that future systems may move further into to find greater success. When success is not had, the failed projects tell us which areas to avoid. In this way, we learn about spaces that incrementalist research may push further into, dead sectors that we should not return to, and all the other still uncharted areas that we do not know much about at all. Thus, both good and bad systems generate new knowledge that is useful to contemporary and future practitioners. But when we forget about past systems—novel explorations in design space—we lose the knowledge that was generated by those systems: we forget what has been explored and what has not, and which areas are worth exploring further. As we discuss below, more than fifty years ago, the system we profile here anticipated, and then abandoned, an approach to story generation that is currently in vogue.

Beyond these fundamental practical reasons lies one of principle: as a field and as a community, we owe it to ourselves—and our forebears and our successors—to record an accurate historical record. How would you like your work to be forgot- ten? We, moreover, owe it to ourselves to maintain a record that encompasses not just a series of names and dates, not just a series of system architectures, but also the intellectual through lines that trace our history. Story generation is an applied technical area, but all human endeavor, especially in the area of research, has intellectual underpinnings and emerges out of intellectual contexts. Even in technical areas, there is a history of ideas that undergirds the evolution of systems over time. Returning to practical concerns, good ideas for systems can lead to bad implementations of them, and so we should track ideas too so that we might have another stab at carrying them out well.

LARB interviews Alejandro Jodorowsky: "The work is to live all our years at once."

I saw Jodorowsky's El Topo when it first toured the States, back in the early 1970s. It blew my mind. I had to see it again, and I did. Maybe even a third time.

I watched it a half dozen years ago on DVD. Meh. "Lots of sun and sand and sending the intellectual rubes up the flag pole. With meaning."

Anyhow, Gregg LaGambina interviews him in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here's a snippet:
What is the greatest difference between your 88-year-old self and your eight-year-old self?

That is a beautiful question. In some ways, I am still a little boy of eight years. In another part of my brain, I have 1,000 years. The soul when you are born is always the same. She was the soul before you were born, and she will continue to be when you die. That does not change. You have the same age. The work, in our life, is to live all our years at once. I am a child. I am an adolescent. I am a man of 40 years, or 80 years. At 88, I am starting! I swear I am starting! For me, it is an easy age. When you feel old, you get old. That’s why I don’t get old. Next, I will prepare three pictures. I may not have 100 pictures when I have 100 years, but I will do it, if I don’t die.
Feels about right, though he's got a couple of decades on me.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A biologist talks about race

To begin with, race is not a technical term in biology—it is used loosely for any differentiated subdivision of a species. For example, there is a fruit fly in Wisconsin that feeds on hawthorn and apple, and the flies that feed on the different trees are somewhat different, and so people refer to the “hawthorn race” and the “apple race”. Often, as in fact is true in this case, the term “race” is used because people aren’t quite sure exactly how different the forms are from one another.

In zoology, the term “geographic race” does have a well-defined meaning. It means that if you look at an individual of a species, you can tell where it is from, or conversely, that if you tell me where the individual is from, I can tell you what it looks like. For example, there’s a species of lizard in Jamaica that if you brought one back and showed it to me, I could tell you whether it’s from the vicinity of Kingston, or Montego Bay, or Negril, etc. Lizards from these various places are members of the same species because they interbreed with one another where they are in geographic proximity; they are geographic races because I can tell where they are from by looking at them. Geographic races, if they are given taxonomic names, are called subspecies.

With regard to humans, most of the genetic variability is within populations, not between local populations or races. This was pointed out by Dick Lewontin in 1972 (Dick, of course, was Jerry’s dissertation adviser, and my de jure adviser). However, just because most of the variation is within populations doesn’t mean you can’t tell where someone is from by looking at him. The geneticist Tony Edwards later called the mistaken notion that a majority of variation being within populations precludes identification of population membership “Lewontin’s Fallacy”.

As a former student of Lewontin’s, I’m not especially fond of Edwards’ choice of term, but nonetheless Edwards is entirely correct. It is of crucial importance to note that the scientific questions asked by Lewontin and Edwards were different. Lewontin asked “What proportion of genetic variation (in the analysis of variance sense) in humans is within and among populations?” The answer is that roughly 85% is within populations, the rest among local populations and races. That is the answer Lewontin gave in 1972, and it is entirely correct, confirmed by much more molecular data since that time. Edwards asked “Can individual humans be assigned to races from genetic data?”, or, alternatively, “Can human races be diagnosed (in the taxonomic sense of subspecies)?” The answer is yes, they can.
The whole post is worth reading.





Reply to a traditional critic about computational criticism: Or, It’s time to escape the prison-house of critical language [#DH]

A couple of weeks ago I posted “In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness” [1], which was about a computational procedure for establishing that a phrase we can call the Emblem is ‘central’ to Conrad’s text. Here is the phrase, in one of two slightly different versions: My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—. A colleague asked me, in the person of more traditional critic: If this were true, why would we need computation to prove it? That is, since I’ve already made an argument in more or less traditional terms, what’s the point of the computational exercise?

To a critic for whom such questions are real, I have no response.

But I am not such a critic.

To be sure, my degree is in English literature, from the State University of New York at Buffalo in ancient days of 1978. But my dissertation was, in a large degree, an exercise in knowledge representation of the sort then current in the cognitive sciences. By the time I had completed my degree I ‘spoke’ both literary criticism and cognitive science with native competence. As a literary critic I can read Heart of Darkness, spot Kurtz’s Emblem, note its ‘centrality’, and make a fairly standard kind of case for it. But for my cognitive science side, what does that mean, ‘central’ to the text? The standard critical argument doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Thus I’ve suggested the small-world-net exercise to satisfy the cognitive scientist in me.

But that’s not a reason for a literary critic to pay attention to that kind of argument. From my point of view, such a critic suffers from a limited imagination, an imagination confined to the prison-house of discursive criticism [2].

The standard argumentation I’ve offered about the centrality of the Emblem ultimately rest on intuitions about texts and language. What does it mean to talk of the semantic center of Heart of Darkness, or any other text for that matter? What do we mean by center, anyhow? Certainly not the physical center of the book itself. We mean the center of, well, you know, the ‘meaning space’ of the text. And what is that?

The fact is for years critics have been using loose spatial imagery in talking about texts. Texts have insides and outsides, so that some things are in a text while others are not. The text is capable of hiding meaning. It also has a surface, and that surface can be read. Such a so-called surface reading is of course different from a close reading, which is certainly different from distant reading. Do texts also have semantic edges as well? What about a top and a bottom?

We’re so used to this imagery that we don’t notice that it’s pretty much built on nothing. These vague spatial terms constitute our rock-bottom understanding of texts, not as physical objects, but as mental objects. We’ve agreed on these terms and have arrived at ways of using them but, really, what are we saying? There’s very little there.

It may see strange to think of such language as the bars and walls of a conceptual prison, but that’s what it is. It limits how we allow ourselves to think about our craft. We defend this language, not because it’s perspicuous, but because it’s comfortable – and we’ve grown lazy and complacent.

I've you've of a mind, better pour yourself a drink. This is going take awhile.

Beyond the transcendental homunculus: What’s next for literary criticism?

What kind of a future does this standard spatialized literary criticism have? Forget about current institutional pressures for the moment. In purely intellectual terms, what’s the future of literary criticism? Where is there to go?

For years I’ve been reading that there’s been no substantial new development since Barbara Butler and queer theory. I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Does animal studies count? What about eco criticism? Is Tim Morton a major figure? He’s given the Wellek Lectures (2014); he’s touring the world giving speeches these days; Bjork has endorsed his work and I believe he’s completing a general audience book for Penguin. Sounds pretty major to me. And I think he’s brilliant. But – the future of literary criticism?

What tools does discursive criticism have for thinking about the mind? I submit that the most important tools are the texts themselves – a theme to which I’ll return – along with the critics’ ability to spot interesting patterns in the texts. But when it comes to explaining those patterns, what tools?

As far as I can tell, those tools various kinds of mental faculties operated by invisible homunculi. That’s what psychoanalytic psychology (in its various forms) is like–and, by the way, I actually like psychoanalytic ideas and use them in my work [3]. As far as I can tell that’s the most explicit ‘model’ on offer. Ideology? What’s that but a hegemonic mental faculty operated by an authoritarian homunculus, and a transcendental homunculus at that, though we try hard to pretend that these guys (they’re always guys) are immanent. I’m exaggerating of course, but in comparison with the work that’s been done in the cognitive a neurosciences over the past half-century, the psychologies of literary criticism are pretty ghostly.

No, I believe that what we (in my person as a literary critic) have to offer is the texts themselves, and the patterns we spot and describe in them. Consider these remarks by Tony Jackson [4, p. 202]:
That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed.
That’s obvious enough, isn’t it? An interpretation is coupled to the text, and draws its substance from the text. Certainly it draws its claim to authority from the canonical text, not from the critic, who is merely an academic.

Taken by alone, the conceptual apparatus we use in interpretation is thin. Perhaps that’s one of the problems of critique, the ratio of interpreting theory to object text has tipped too far toward theory, resulting in an intellectually thin and unsatisfying discourse. Is it any coincidence that this era of High Theory has also given rise to the star critic who is granted the authority of that same Theory?

Can academic literary criticism thrive and prosper under a regime where theory works hard to pry itself free of literary texts, rendering them mere examples for displays of critical brilliance?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Red shoes on offer


Maybe they'll step you over flood waters.

Ghost Dancing at 3 Quarks Daily

Jim Culleny’s Monday Poem for Monday, August 28, 2017, is called “Ghost Dancing”. He prefaces it with this brief statement:
Wovoka (named Jack Wilson in English), a Northern Paiute, dreamed he was taken to the spirit world and saw all Native Americans being taken up into the sky and the Earth opening up to swallow all Whites and to revert back to its natural state. He claimed that he was shown that by dancing the round-dance continuously, the dream would become a reality and the participants would enjoy the new Earth. This was also called Ghost Dance.
My post for last week, Monday, August 21, 2017, is called Ghost Dancing in the USA. I too open with Wovoka’s story. But in my third paragraph I return to the political present:
The Ghost Dancing that concerns me is not that of Stone Age people displaced and conquered by iron-mongering and coal-burning industrialists. My concern is the Ghost Dancing that has become a major force in contemporary American cultural and political life. Widespread belief in the impending Rapture – when all good Christians will be taken to heaven and all unbelievers consigned to hell – is the most obvious manifestation of the contemporary Ghost Dance. But it is hardly the only manifestation. Refusal to accept evidence of global warning is another symptom, as was the refusal to attend to ground intelligence in conducting the war and reconstruction in Iraq.

Hurricane Harvey update

Here's a podcast featuring Tim Morton, speaking from the flood. He and his family are OK, though a bit wet. He's discussing the hurricane and philosophy. "But is it a hyperobject, Tim?" Tim gets this question ALL the time now, as though he's adjudicator-in-chief for hyperobects. He is not, and, yes, Hurricane Harvey is a hyperobject.

Hey, Professor Tim? Is this flotilla of fire ants a hyper object?
"You're on your own, Grasshopper."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sunday Special: Madam Wayquay's Words of Wonder






Instrument Matter in the Musician’s Mind: Part 2, How to Construct a Spirit

Culture has produced some strange things. Supernatural spirits is one of them. I'm bumping this post to the top of the queue just to get it on my mind, as I need to think about these things a bit more while I contemplate writing a book on cultural evolution.

* * * * *
Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the sixteenth century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break,” before the odd invention of matter.
—Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”

In lieu of an environment that surrounds culture . . . picture an ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, or mineral.
—Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

About two weeks ago I posted some remarks on how one thinks about and plays very simple percussion instruments, claves and bells, and told a story about some mysterious tones that sometimes arise in bell choirs. I also promised a post in which I “attempt to construe those sounds as spirit voices.” This is that post.

The Magic of the Bell, Recap

The phenomenon that interests me is that of certain high frequency (around 2000 Herz and above) ‘twitters’ that arose during a certain rehearse I attended some years ago. As I explained in that post, there were four of us, each playing a different bell. Three of us play set patterns, time and again, while the fourth improvised freely over those patterns.

At a certain point, when energy was high and the music was rocking, we all heard these high twittering sounds. None of us was playing them. That is, they didn’t coincide with the patterns any of us were playing. Rather, they somehow arose through the interaction of the patterns the four of us played. We’d played together many times before, and many times since, but that was the only time we heard those sounds.

What were they? The purpose of this post is to explore what’s involved in asserting that they were some kind of ‘spirit.’

What phenomenon are we trying to name and explain?

This is a matter of drawing a boundary. Perhaps the easiest play to draw the boundary, dare I say it? the natural place, is around the sound itself. If we had had a recorder playing during that session, bounding the phenomenon in this way would be very easy. What we’re interested in would be what’s on the recording; nothing more, nothing less.

Then we could examine the recording to determine just what those pitches were like, their dominant frequency, just when they happened, and so forth. That is to say, we would be treating those sounds as nothing but mechanical vibrations, which we are examining in the standard ways. This is, of course, an entirely legitimate thing to do. It’s done all the time.

But THAT’s not the phenomenon that interests me. That’s not where I want to draw the boundary. That’s only one aspect of the phenomenon that interests me. It’s the aspect that tells me that THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON.

Remember my description? I said that this happened when the energy was high and the music rocked. That doesn’t always happen. It’s not rare, but it’s not automatic, and for some purposes it’s neither necessary nor desired. So high rocking energy, that’s within the boundary of the phenomenon I’m talking about.

But drawn that way, the boundary isn’t tight enough, it’s not precise enough. For those twitterings didn’t always happen when the music rocked. They happened only that one time, though, as I indicated in the earlier post, Ade (the leader) recognized the phenomenon. He’d experienced it before, but the others of us had not. Ade was (and is) a very experienced percussionist. He’d toured and performed professionally in his youth and has a wide circle of musician friends, including drummers expatriated from West Africa. He knew those sounds, and simply called them “the magic of the bell.”

Other than the sounds themselves, what’s the difference between rocking music and magic music? Whatever that difference it, I’m going to call it spirit.

So, what do I think REALLY happened? Well, I don’t think some ghostly beings from another dimension entered our bodies and guided our playing. But I don’t have a positive account to offer. I think the place to look is in the micro-timings of our movements and in the neural activity in subcortical regions of our brains, perhaps even in the core of the core of the brain, the reticular activity system and, certainly, in the cerebellum. That’s where I think the action is, but that’s no more than an educated guess.

So in saying that those twitterings are manifestations of spirit, I am, in effect, projecting some subtle group-level neuro-muscular activity onto those sounds that serve as a diagnostic indicator of the phenomenon. To say that those twitterings are spirits, or voices of spirits, is to speak figuratively, where the figure is synecdoche, using the part (the twitter sounds) to stand for the whole (group locked in very intense musical activity).

This is pretty much what I’m doing when, in another context I talk of graffiti as manifestations of the spirit, or kami (in Japanese) of the site. When I do that, I’m NOT asserting that some being from another dimension comes through the wall, enters the graffiti writer, and directs his activity. Rather I’m saying that we cannot understand how and why graffiti ends up in this or that particular place without taking into account, not only the nature of the surface itself, but lines of sight and access, general location and neighborhood traffic, legal status (e.g. is it posted as no trespassing) and past history. All of that is important to the sight and I want to treat all of it as an indivisible gestalt. The easiest way to do this is to talk of the spirit of the site.

There are, of course, differences. The spirit of the graffiti site is, by definition, resident at the site. The twitter spirits don’t seem to have any residence at all. They just come and go. But there’s an overall similarity in the mode of construction, both are assemblages of heterogenous components: walls, paints, footpaths, laws, writers and viewers in one case; bells, strikers, and musicians in the other.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Leaves from six autumns ago


Virtual reading as a path through a multidimensional-dimensional semantic space [#DH]

In my post, In search of a small world net, I speculated about analyzing Heart of Darkness with some appropriate vector space semantic model so that we could then construct a directed graph of the word types in the text where the length of the edges would be proportional to the distance between the words in the high-dimensional space constructed in the model. That post was about using this model as a way of investigating the centrality of a critical phrase (“My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—“).

But I ended the post with a short note on “virtual reading”:
Consider the connected graph for the emblem phrase. It should be easy enough to calculate a central point for the phrase, no? But then, couldn’t we do that for any sentence or phrase? So, start at the beginning of the text and move sequentially through the text with a moving window of suitable length. Calculate the central point for the phrase within the window and trace the movement of successive centers through the text from beginning to end.

Such a “reading” would not, of course, yield the computer anything like an understanding of the text. That’s not why it interests me. I’m interested in the form the trajectory traces through the space. For example, how does it move with respect to the center of the emblem? What about the volume spanned by the subgraph within this moving window? How does it expand and contract. And so forth.
In looking around on my hard-drive I came across a 2010 article on more or less just that. In the next section of this post I take a quick look at that paper. Then I return to Heart of Darkness, offer some more general remarks, and conclude with remarks about feasibility and intellectual imagination.

It’s gonna’ be another long one.

Hierarchy and dynamical correlations

Here’s that article:
E. Alvarez-Lacalle, B. Dorow, J.-P. Eckmann, and E. Moses. Hierarchical structures induce long-range dynamical correlations in written texts. PNAS Vol. 103 no. 21. May 23, 2006: 7956–7961. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0510673103
I’m sure I hadn’t read it, but I certainly must have skimmed it. Here’s the abstract:
Thoughts and ideas are multidimensional and often concurrent, yet they can be expressed surprisingly well sequentially by the translation into language. This reduction of dimensions occurs naturally but requires memory and necessitates the existence of correlations, e.g., in written text. However, correlations in word appearance decay quickly, while previous observations of long-range correlations using random walk approaches yield little insight on memory or on semantic context. Instead, we study combinations of words that a reader is exposed to within a “window of attention,” spanning about 100 words. We define a vector space of such word combinations by looking at words that co-occur within the window of attention, and analyze its structure. Singular value decomposition of the co-occurrence matrix identifies a basis whose vectors correspond to specific topics, or “concepts” that are relevant to the text. As the reader follows a text, the “vector of attention” traces out a trajectory of directions in this “concept space.” We find that memory of the direction is retained over long times, forming power-law correlations. The appearance of power laws hints at the existence of an underlying hierarchical network. Indeed, imposing a hierarchy similar to that defined by volumes, chapters, paragraphs, etc. succeeds in creating correlations in a surrogate random text that are identical to those of the original text. We conclude that hierarchical structures in text serve to create long-range correlations, and use the reader’s memory in reenacting some of the multidimensionality of the thoughts being expressed.
That “window” they mention is the key. They move the window through a text from beginning to end. That is pretty much what I’ve called virtual reading. The computer doesn’t do anything remotely like understand the text, but it reveals statistical features that the authors of the study attribute jointly to the structure of the text and the attention and memory of a reader.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Friday Fotos: Look, up in the sky...






Metagram Software - A New Perspective on the Art of Computation

Back in the ancient days of 1980 or thereabouts my teacher, the late David Hays, got a small grant from the Air Force to study metagramming. What, you may ask, is metagramming? Why, I replay, as the report says, it’s a new perspective on the art of computation.

* * * * *

The construction of reliable software is difficult, more difficult, it would seem, than the building of reliable computational hardware. Software projects are notorious for being late, over budget, and, all too often, for failing. The most public example in recent memory is the roll-out of Obamacare (aka the Affordable Care Act). That snafu is as much a matter of bureaucratic and administrative incompetence as technical weakness, but in practice it is hard to disentangle the two. For a classic statement of the problem dating back to the Jurassic Era of computing, we have Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering (1975). We are now several generations of software development methodology down the road from Brooks, but, so far as I know, the problem persists.

The problem is not whether superb programmers can develop high quality (that is, [relatively] bug-free) software. They can. But can teams populated by ordinary developers do so. Alas, it would seem, that’s a dicier proposition.

That’s the problem Hays set out to tackle. Hays was not himself a programmer. He was a theorist of computation and language who had, early in his career, run a machine translation project for the RAND Corporation. But he worked with programmers and allied practitioners through much of his career and so he did on this project.

So, what sort of thing did Hays have in mind? Something like the difference between calculating with Roman numerals and computing with Arabic numerals. Consider this passage from our article, The Evolution of Cognition:
Marrou, in describing education in the Hellenistic period, writes
Strange though it may seem at first, it is nevertheless quite clear that addition, subtraction, multiplication and division ... were, in antiquity, far beyond the horizon of any primary school. The widespread use of calculating-tables and counting-machines shows that not many people could add up--and this goes on being true to a much later date, even in educated circles. (1956: 158)
In an additional note (p. 410), Marrou remarks that adults would often write out multiplication tables for themselves, presumably because they could not obtain answers out of their heads. Without a good system of notation the formulation of algorithms is so difficult that a complete set wasn't created for any number system other than the Indo-Arabic. Before these procedures were gathered and codified the calculations our children routinely make required the full attention of educated adults, who solved them on a case-by-case basis:
The mathematical texts are simply concrete examples of different problems worked out in full. They illustrate to the reader how to do sums of various kinds. But by themselves such series of examples could hardly suffice to enlighten a novice as to new methods nor impart to him fresh knowledge. They must have been intended as supplements to oral instruction. (Childe 1936/1951, 152-153)
But Childe has no evidence about the oral instruction, and Marrou seems to believe that there was none. In the twentieth century we have taught psychiatry, business management, and the law by the method of case study. What has to be accepted as fact, however "Strange though it may seem at first," is that up to the Renaissance elementary arithmetic was taught in just that way, and, we hold, for the same reason: The kind of thinking that was available in the culture could just manage the substance of the matter but could not rise above it to abstract and rationalize the principles.
Hays believed that computer programming was in a phase comparable to calculation before it had been rationalized through the use of place notation and zero in the Arabic notation system.

Was he, is he, right? I don’t know. I must admit that, in retrospect, I find the confidence expressed in the report to be rather breath-taking. Still, why try if you aren’t confident? In any event, the objective of the metagram project was to point the way toward that kind of change in programming methodology.

Hays wrote the body of the report while I wrote a long appendix discussing the analysis of strategic intelligence in terms of the theoretical framework used in the report (and, a bit later, in that article on cognition).

I’ve reproduced the reports abstract, and two summaries (one for the body, one for the appendix) below.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Donald the Loser: Ben Wittes on Trump as a security threat

In March of 2016 Lawfare's Ben Wittes wrote a post in which he evaluated seven liabilities the candidate seemed to have. He's now written a post evaluating 45's perfornance.

1. Willful ignorance in foreign policy
Whether in his interactions with foreign leaders or in public talk about North Korea, or about his predecessor’s alleged spying on him, or about white supremacist rallies and Confederate statues, ignorant bombast has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration. And we are paying for it every day.
2. Anti-Muslim stance
This problem has, in some ways, proven less bad than I expected—or, at least, the consequences of Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry have so far have been muted. Trump has, indeed, larded his administration with certain people who harbor deep animus for Muslims. His rhetoric has been horrid. And the travel ban executive order sent a terrible signal of irrational anti-Muslim exclusion. [... yet] And at least to date, we have not seen a deep backlash from Islamic countries or Muslims worldwide resulting from the president’s distaste—some recruiting bonanza for ISIS or al-Qaeda, for example, or a refusal of Muslims domestically to work with law enforcement. ...
3. Professed willingness to commit war crimes
This problem has definitely proven less severe than I worried. The reason is simple: Trump has backed off of these promises and has put in charge of the military a leader, James Mattis, who has no interest in committing war crimes. Put this one in the category of Trump’s bark being worse than his bite.
4. Trump-Russia scandal
The Trump-Russia scandal is only secondarily about whatever covert activity may have taken place. It is primarily a scandal of legality that took place in plain view. That Trump had a profound Putin problem was eminently knowable based on the public record of what Trump was saying about Putin in real time.
5. Trump is a chump for manipulative racists
Again, many people professed surprise at the president’s reaction to what happened in Charlottesville. They shouldn’t be. He showed this aspect of his character only too clearly during the campaign. And the danger of that feature—that he would prove unable to provide moral or security leadership in the face of white supremacist violence—was naked at the time to anyone willing to see it.
6. "Not a psychologicaly normal person..."
Trump’s clinical portait turns out to be the defining national security threat he poses—indeed, the defining feature of his presidency. He is unable to restrain himself from tweeting. He is impulsive with sensitive, even classified, information. He focuses obsessively on enemies to the point of gravely warping his judgment. While I’m still not a clinician, I’m entirely comfortable saying that this is not a psychologically normal person. ...
7. Magical thinking and executive incompetence
So far, tyranny has not resulted from Trump’s magical thinking. Instead, its consequences have been that Trump has been almost entirely ineffective in the national security space. One problem with magic, after all, is that it doesn’t work. As it turns out, the national security threat associated with Trump’s belief in magic, and in the magic of his own will in particular, has been that he’s been unable to run a competent executive branch capable of responding effectively to security issues foreign and domestic. This is a huge problem, but it’s not the problem I had imagined in 2016.

Kayaks and sailboards, all stacked up


Free audio version of Heart of Darkness online, and it is excellent

"Reading" and "interpretation" have common meanings that are, at best, secondary or even tertiary to academic literary criticism. Authors sometimes give readings from their work before a live audience. Audio books have been common for years. Such a reading requires that the lifeless text be interpreted if the reading is to sound at all natural, if it is to be listenable. And that's how I first became acquainted with some of our canonical texts. My father read them to me at bedtime – Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Moby Dick (I bet he skipped the whale taxonomy), plus a ripping good yarn or two, such as King Soloman's Mines. I marveled at how natural his voice sounded.

For better or worse, however, aural reading doesn't have much presence in literary criticism, not even among critics of drama.


Which brings me to Heart of Darkness. Jeb and I have been having a little discussion in the comments to one of yesterday's posts and he starting talking about how one would interprete, that is read aloud, that crucial line from the text: "My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—" And that sent me off in search of an audio version. And I found one, one that's free on the web, courtesy of, which offers other texts as well.

It's been uploaded in 10 segments, 1-4 for chapter one, 5-7, for chapter 2, and 8-10 for chapter 3. The Nexus paragraph, as I've been calling it, is about a quarter of the way into segment 7. As you may recall, that paragraph enters the text in the course of an attack. We get that attack at the end of segment 6, so you might want to start at, say, 17:53, which is just before the attack.

There's a brief pause at c. 2:24 in segment 7 and we shift from Marlow to the (unnamed) frame narrator; back to Marlow at 2:56; frame narrator at 4:30 for a short remark ("He was silent for a long time."), then back to Marlow at 4:36. That begins paragraph 103, The Nexus. This paragraph is the structural center of the text. Our phrase is at 6:42.

There's lots to say about what's going on here. In that interval between the two interruptions by the frame narrator, Marlow talks about Kurtz and says this:
Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense.
The voice, and that's what this story is, a succession of voices.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Deck: Getting Organized (as always) – Lit Crit, #DH, Identity, Cultural Evolution [Ramble 6]

When I did this a week-and-a-half ago I listed five to-do items. I’ve done three of them:
Two are not yet done:
  • How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’): But I’m working toward it. I want to get some other things posted first.
  • An article with the working title, Description and Form in Literary Analysis: The Case of Heart of Darkness: This is a major task and will be ongoing until it’s done.
I’ve added the following items to the agenda:

Virtual reading: This is a development from the post, In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]. I’d tacked these short paragraphs onto the end of that post a day or two after I’d originally posted it:
Consider the connected graph for the emblem phrase. It should be easy enough to calculate a central point for the phrase, no? But then, couldn’t we do that for any sentence or phrase? So, start at the beginning of the text and move sequentially through the text with a moving window of suitable length. Calculate the central point for the phrase within the window and trace the movement of successive centers through the text from beginning to end.

Such a “reading” would not, of course, yield the computer anything like an understanding of the text. That’s not why it interests me. I’m interested in the form the trajectory traces through the space. For example, how does it move with respect to the center of the emblem? What about the volume spanned by the subgraph within this moving window? How does it expand and contract. And so forth.
In looking around on my hard-drive I came across a 2010 article on more or less just that: E. Alvarez-Lacalle, B. Dorow, J.-P. Eckmann, and E. Moses. Hierarchical structures induce long-range dynamical correlations in written texts. PNAS Vol. 103 no. 21. May 23, 2006: 7956–7961. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0510673103

I’m sure I hadn’t read the article, but I certainly must have skimmed it. The idea for this post is to say something about this article and then elaborate on the idea of virtual reading.

Reply to a ‘traditional’ critic: I’d sent the small world post to a number of critics. One of them, a digital critical, asked: What would you say to a critic who asserts that, after all, the centrality of that emblematic phrase ('My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘) is “accessible to direct inspection by a reader?” After all, that’s how identified it and argued centrality in that post. My basic response: There’s really nothing to say to such a critic. But...from my point of view such critics suffer from an impoverished intellectual imagination and so cannot see beyond literary criticism as it currently exists. There are, in fact, other issues to be investigated, emerging from a different intellectual background. And then I elaborate. The post on virtual reading would contribute to this.

Lit Crit, Identity, & the Curriculum in the 21st Century: Perhaps one or two posts here. One of the reasons given for ‘close reading’ in the middle of the last century is that it could be taught to students with relatively little background. That in turn was important because we’re teaching literature to undergraduates in order to inculcate in them what they need to be good citizens. Three decades after that, what had happened? With the development of feminist criticism and African-American studies identity had emerged as a major issue. And this led to the so-called canon wars and the Culture War. That is, an intellectual regime that had been introduced to help promulgate a sense of uniform American identity and led to the opposite, a splintering of identity. What’s going to come of that?

Open letter to John Lawler about Cultural Evolution: Lawler is a linguist I met almost two decades ago at one of Haj Ross’s conferences in Denton, Texas. He’s been hearing that folks are interested in studying cultural change using biological evolution as a model. And he’s skeptical, in part because some Procrustean work has been done on language change. I want to convince him that things aren’t quite so bad. This is an opportunity for me to think through my current ideas about cultural evolution in a quick and dirty way. While I’ll publish this is a blog post, I expect it to be a bit longer than most of my blog posts, as my open letters have been in the past.

Photographing the Eclipse and the Problematics of Color [#Eclipse2017]

20170821-_IGP9927 3final

This isn’t particularly about yesterday’s eclipse. That’s just a particularly extreme example of something face by every photographer working in color: Color is (deeply) problematic. For physical reasons it’s impossible to exactly reproduce natural or real color in a photograph, or any printed medium. Pigment on a surface simply cannot reproduce the dynamic range (contrast between light and dark) the eye can handle in a real setting. The reduced range means that compromises must be made.

The problem is particularly acute, and thus interesting, when shooting the sun, which, obviously, is what you’re doing when you photograph the sun. The sun is bright, so bright that you cannot/should not look directly at it (for more than a few seconds). It floods the camera with light, overloading the censor (I’m shooting digital). You can deal with the problem by using a neutral density filter to cut down the light entering the camera, but I don’t have one. Just my Pentax 7-D and a Tamron 75-300 mm lens.

Here’s an eclipse shot as it came out of the camera:

20170821-_IGP9927 from camera

Very dark, and very blue. That’s NOT what I saw, standing there looking at the eclipse. I saw (mostly) white clouds, with a bit of blue peeking through here and there, and the crescent sun shining through. That sun show’s up as white on the screen (printed surface). As bright as you can physically get. And the clouds are black. The difference in brightness may well approximate that in the scene (the camera’s sensors can record a wider range than can be displayed), but when mapped onto the viewable spectrum that difference forces the clouds to be all but black so that the sun can be merely white (rather than radiating light so intense that it hurts your eyes).

Here’s the first step I took toward producing a more satisfactory image:

20170821-_IGP9927 WB

I reset the white balance to get rid of most of the blue. What’s white balance? You tell the software, this is the shade that I want to appear as white, and it recalibrates the image so that everything else is consistent with that.

But it’s still rather dark. He’s an attempt to deal with that:

20170821-_IGP9927 1

Overall, it’s lighter. There’s more definition in the clouds. But it’s still pretty dark and the sun-disk is loosing its definition. A couple clicks more in that direction and the sun will become an undefined mass of light. Like this:


I DO like it. It’s a nice image, it’s lighter, though still darkish. But the sun disk has disappeared.

How about this?

20170821-_IGP9927 2

Not quite so light as the previous image. Yet the's still definition and differentiation in the clouds. And the sun disk is (more or less) preserved.

But it’s still not what I saw out doors with the naked eye. It is not physically possible to produce that. You’ve got to make compromises.

In any event, just what DOES it mean to see the sun with your naked eye? The sun is not something you can look at in a more than glancing fashion. It a sense, it doesn’t have a (fully) ‘natural’ appearance.

For us, the sun is always, in a sense, a bit human.

* * * * *

The image at the top of this post is a cropped version of the bottom image.

And here's another post on the same topic, the problematics of color.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Finding a New Photographic Subject: Water

20170819-_IGP9803 Eq HrdMx

That’s right, water. Oh sure, I’ve got lots of photographs that have water in them, puddles and ponds, the Hudson River, droplets on flowers, but I never thought of those as photos OF water. They’re photos of the river or of the flower (when wet), but not specifically of the water.

Now that’s what I’m thinking of, water.

The idea came to me when I was walking the neighborhood with my camera, mostly to shoot the waterfront, and started walking toward this ornamental fountain:


“Why don’t I shoot the cascading water”, thought I to myself. And so I approached closer, turned, and shot toward Manhattan across the river.


See the water droplets curtaining the scene? That’s what I’m after. Move in and get an arc:


Substance abuse crisis in food service

According to a 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the food services and accommodations industry is among the top fields for alcohol and illicit drug use, alongside construction and mining. [...]

According to the report, the industry currently has the highest rates of substance use disorder, at nearly 17 percent of its workers. That percentage is especially jarring when you consider that the restaurant industry is the second-largest private-sector employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in food service will soon outnumber those in manufacturing.

But without union representation, these jobs are usually accompanied by poor pay, inconsistent schedules and no medical insurance. High turnover means that when substance abuse behaviors do interfere with job performance, workers can be easily, and immediately, replaced.

Plus, the problem goes all the way to the top. The same report on substance abuse found that across all industries, one in 10 managers is abusing controlled substances. Middle management is arguably the most overworked in food service; in high-end bars and restaurants, managers often make less than their service staff, while working longer hours with no overtime pay.

Because food service jobs are increasingly a foundational part of our economy, it is even more crucial to think about what happens to the people who work them.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Color term salience in cultural evolution

David G. Hays, Enid Margolis, Raoul Naroll, Dale Revere Perkins, Color Term Salience. American Anthropologist, 74:1107-1121, 1972. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00050
Abstract: Eleven focal colors are named by basic color terms in many languages. The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution; with brevity of expression, as measured by phonemic length of basic color terms; with frequency of use, as measured by frequency of basic color terms in literary languages; and with frequency of mention in ethnographic literature. None of these correlations are established in the pioneer study of Berlin and Kay (1969), a study whose defects are well exposed by Durbin (1972) and Wescott (1970). The first two were documented respectively in Naroll (1970) and Durbin (1972); the last two are documented here. These four correlations independently support the Berlin-Kay color salience theory. They furnish a sound basis for further research on color term salience in particular and indeed on salience phenomena in general. We speculate that salience may be an important general principle of cultural evolution.
Consider this finding: "Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution". What that means is that less complex societies (as measured by one of the standard indexes, Marsh's socially complexity scale) have fewer basic color terms than more complex ones. Why?

Urban periodicity, with shadows


New Savanna: How're we doing?

Last week I reported that New Savanna broke 10K hits per day for the first time. Was that a fluke, or an emerging trend? It's too early to tell.

Here's how traffic looked for the past month:

Aug-19-17-month 8PM

That peak was Friday a week ago, at 11,109 hits. From there it's steadily downhill to this last Friday, at 4,411. But yesterday it went up to 8,039. At the moment, 8:07 AM Sunday the 20th, the count's at 4,305, which is high for this time of day. How high will it go? How will the count track over the next week?

Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Water: There's an image of the sun in every drop



Creativity through the life cycle

Writing in the NYTimes, Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths, report the results of a study involve people of various ages: 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers; 6- to 11-year-olds; 12- to 14-year-old teenagers; and adults. They presented these groups with two problems, one involving a physical machine and one involving a social situation.
When it came to explaining the physical machine, the pattern was straightforward. The preschoolers were most likely to come up with the creative, unusual explanation. The school-age children were somewhat less creative. And there was a dramatic drop at adolescence. Both the teenagers and the adults were the most likely to stick with the obvious explanation even when it didn’t fit the data.

But there was a different pattern when it came to the social problems. Once again the preschoolers were more likely to give the creative explanation than were the 6-year-olds or adults. Now, however, the teenagers were the most creative group of all. They were more likely to choose the unusual explanation than were either the 6-year-olds or the adults.
In explaining these results the introduce a distinction between exploitation and exploration:
When we face a new problem, we adults usually exploit the knowledge about the world we have acquired so far. We try to quickly find a pretty good solution that is close to the solutions we already have. On the other hand, exploration — trying something new — may lead us to a more unusual idea, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it may also mean that we waste time considering crazy possibilities that will never work, something both preschoolers and teenagers have been known to do.
This leads to:
Childhood and adolescence may, at least in part, be designed to resolve the tension between exploration and exploitation. Those periods of our life give us time to explore before we have to face the stern and earnest realities of grown-up life. Teenagers may no longer care all that much about how the physical world works. But they care a lot about exploring all the ways that the social world can be organized. And that may help each new generation change the world.
About the idea that each new generation sets out to change the world, isn't that a relatively recent idea?

Here's the original research paper: Alison Gopnik, Shaun O’Grady, Christopher G. Lucas et al. Changes in cognitive flexibility and hypothesis search across human life history from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Published online before print July 25, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1700811114. PNAS July 25, 2017 vol. 114 no. 30 7892-7899.
Abstract: How was the evolution of our unique biological life history related to distinctive human developments in cognition and culture? We suggest that the extended human childhood and adolescence allows a balance between exploration and exploitation, between wider and narrower hypothesis search, and between innovation and imitation in cultural learning. In particular, different developmental periods may be associated with different learning strategies. This relation between biology and culture was probably coevolutionary and bidirectional: life-history changes allowed changes in learning, which in turn both allowed and rewarded extended life histories. In two studies, we test how easily people learn an unusual physical or social causal relation from a pattern of evidence. We track the development of this ability from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood. In the physical domain, preschoolers, counterintuitively, perform better than school-aged children, who in turn perform better than adolescents and adults. As they grow older learners are less flexible: they are less likely to adopt an initially unfamiliar hypothesis that is consistent with new evidence. Instead, learners prefer a familiar hypothesis that is less consistent with the evidence. In the social domain, both preschoolers and adolescents are actually the most flexible learners, adopting an unusual hypothesis more easily than either 6-y-olds or adults. There may be important developmental transitions in flexibility at the entry into middle childhood and in adolescence, which differ across domains.

Deliberate cultural engineering?

Anthony Biglan and Dennis D. Embry. A Framework for Intentional Cultural Change. Published in final edited form as: J Contextual Behav Sci. 2013 October 15; 2(3-4): . doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2013.06.001.
Abstract: We present a framework for a pragmatic science of cultural evolution. It is now possible for behavioral science to systematically influence the further evolution of cultural practices. As this science develops, it may become possible to prevent many of the problems affecting human wellbeing. By cultural practices, we refer to everything that humans do, above and beyond instinctual or unconditioned behaviors: not only art and literature, but also agriculture, manufacturing, recreation, war making, childrearing, science—everything. We can analyze cultural practices usefully in terms of the incidence and prevalence of individual behavior and group and organization actions. An effective science of intentional cultural evolution must guide efforts to influence the incidence and prevalence of individuals’ behaviors and the actions of groups and organizations. In this paper, we briefly sketch advances in scientific understanding of the influences on individual behavior. Then we describe principles that could guide efforts to influence groups and organizations. Finally, we discuss legitimate concerns about the use and misuse of a science for intentional cultural change.

Red, white, and green




Trump is a Nazi in spirit...

if not in historical fact.

Timothy Snyder, "The Test of Nazism That Trump Failed", The New York Times:
“No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person.” So the president said at a news conference in February. These words left me uneasy. A moment ago, as I was looking at photographs of young men in Charlottesville, Va., who were from my home state, Ohio, and thinking about the message “Heil Hitler” on the T-shirt that one wore, it dawned on me why.

I spent years studying the testimonies of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and the recollections of their rescuers. When the rescuers were asked why they did what they did, they usually avoided the question. If they ventured a reply, it was simply to say that they did what anyone would have done. Historians who read sources develop intuitions about the material. The intuition I developed was that people who bragged about rescuing Jews had generally not done so; they were, in fact, more likely to be anti-Semites and racists. Rescuers almost never boast. [...]

Until we have been tested, there is no sense in boasting of our goodness; afterward, there is no need. After Charlottesville, President Trump faced an easy test, and failed.