Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Visual and auditory brain areas share a neural code for perceived emotion

Beau Sievers, Thalia Wheatley, Visual and auditory brain areas share a neural code for perceived emotion, bioRxiv,
Abstract: Emotion communication must be robust to interference from a noisy environment. One safeguard against interference is crossmodal redundancy--for example, conveying the same information using both sound and movement. Emotion perceivers should therefore be adapted to efficiently detect crossmodal correspondences, increasing the likelihood that emotion signals will be understood. One possible such adaptation is the use of a single neural code for both auditory and visual information. To investigate this, we tested two hypotheses: (1) that distinct auditory and visual brain areas represent emotion expressions using the same parameters, and (2) that auditory and visual expressions of emotion are represented together in one brain area using a supramodal neural code. We presented emotion expressions during functional magnetic resonance imaging (N=20, 3 scan hrs/participant) and tested these hypotheses using representational similarity analysis (Kriegeskorte & Kievit, 2013). A single model of stimulus features and emotion content fit brain activity in both auditory and visual areas, supporting hypothesis (1), and posterior superior temporal gyrus represented both auditory and visual emotion expressions, supporting hypothesis (2). These results hold for both discrete and mixed (e.g., Happy-Sad) emotional expressions. Surprisingly, further exploratory analysis showed auditory and visual areas represent stimulus features and emotion content even when stimuli are presented in each area's non-preferred modality.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

I've got my eye on you


Descartes in the 'hood

"How do you get from here to the rest of the world?"
– Dukie, The Wire, S5 E5, 19:09

Whoops! Deep learning is easily fooled (Surprise! Surprise?)

Max Little at Language Log, Adversarial attacks on modern speech-to-text:
Accumulated evidence over the last few years shows that empirically, methods (such as the Mozilla DeepSpeech architecture in the example above) based on deep learning and massive amounts of labelled data ("thousands of hours of labeled audio"), seem to outperform earlier methods, when compared on the test set. In fact, the performance on the test set can be quite extraordinary, e.g. word error rates (WERs) as low as 6.5% (which comes close to human performance, around 5.8% on their training dataset). These algorithms often have 100's of millions of parameters (Mozilla DeepSpeech has 120 million) and model training can take hundreds of hours on massive amounts of hardware (usually GPUs, which have dedicated arrays of co-processors). So, these algorithms are clearly exquisitely tuned to the STT task for the particular distribution of the given dataset.

The crucial weakness here — what the adversarial attack exploits — is their manifest success, i.e. very low WER on the given dataset distribution. But because they are so effective at this task, they have what might best be described as huge "blind spots". Adversarial attacks work by learning how to change the input in tiny steps such as to force the algorithm into any desired classification output. This turns out to be surprisingly easy and has been demonstrated to work for just about every kind of deep learning classifier.

Current machine learning systems, even sophisticated deep learning methods, are only able to solve the problem they are set up to solve, and that can be a very specific problem. This may seem obvious but the hyperbole that accompanies any deep learning application (coupled with clear lack of analytical understanding how these algorithms actually work) often provokes a lot of what might best be described as "magical thinking" about their extraordinary powers as measured by some single error metric.

So, the basic fact is that if they are set up to map sequences of spectrogram feature vectors to sequences of phoneme labels in such a way as to minimize the WER on that dataset distribution, then that is the only task they can do. It is important not to fall into the magical thinking trap about modern deep learning-based systems. Clearly, these algorithms have not somehow "learned" language in the way that humans understand it. They have no "intelligence" that we would recognize.
That is to say, these systems are as brittle in their own way as old school symbolic AI systers are. Thus, Little  "would not recommend them for scientific or legal annotation applications".

Monday, January 29, 2018

Three marigolds


Stories of good vs. evil: A product of nationalism?

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism – and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.
A bit later:
As part of this new nationalist consciousness, other authors started changing the old stories to make a moral distinction between, for example, Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Before Joseph Ritson’s 1795 retelling of these legends, earlier written stories about the outlaw mostly showed him carousing in the forest with his merry men. He didn’t rob from the rich to give to the poor until Ritson’s version – written to inspire a British populist uprising after the French Revolution. Ritson’s rendering was so popular that modern retellings of Robin Hood, such as Disney’s 1973 cartoon or the film Prince of Thieves (1991) are more centrally about outlaw moral obligations than outlaw hijinks. The Sheriff of Nottingham was transformed from a simple antagonist to someone who symbolised the abuses of power against the powerless. Even within a single nation (Robin Hood), or a single household (Cinderella), every scale of conflict was restaged as a conflict of values.

Or consider the legend of King Arthur. In the 12th century, poets writing about him were often French, like Chrétien de Troyes, because King Arthur wasn’t yet closely associated with the soul of Britain. What’s more, his adversaries were often, literally, monsters, rather than people who symbolised moral weaknesses. By the early 19th century, when Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, King Arthur becomes an ideal of a specifically British manhood, and he battles human characters who represent moral frailties. By the 20th century, the word ‘Camelot’ came to mean a kingdom too idealistic to survive on Earth. ...

Bad guys change their minds and become good in exactly the same way in countless, ostensibly folkloric, modern stories: The Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the Harry Potter series (1997-2007). When a bad character has a change of heart, it’s always a cathartic emotional moment – since what’s at stake for a character is losing the central part of his identity. Another peculiarity in the moral physics of good guys versus bad is that bad guys have no loyalty and routinely punish their own; whether it’s the Sheriff of Nottingham starving his own people or Darth Vader killing his subordinates, bad guys are cavalier with human life, and they rebuke their allies for petty transgressions. This has been true since the earliest modern bad guys, though it scarcely exists among older adversaries who might be hungry for human flesh, but don’t kill their own.

Good guys, on the other hand, accept all applicants into the fold, and prove their loyalty even when their teammates transgress. Consider Friar Tuck getting drunk on ale while Robin Hood looks the other way. Or Luke Skywalker welcoming the roguish Han Solo on side. Good guys work with rogues, oddballs and ex-bad guys, plus their battles often hinge on someone who was treated badly by the bad guys crossing over and becoming a good guy. Forgiving characters their wicked deeds is an emotional climax in many good guy/bad guy stories. Indeed, it’s essential that the good side is a motley crew that will never, ever reject a fellow footsoldier.
The political usefulness of good guy/bad guy stories:
Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.
So, what does this suggest about our current era? On the one hand, we've got lots of pop culture good vs. evil stories, Stars Wars, the super hero franchises, etc. But we've also got the rise of "quality TV", The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, etc., where all is murk.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Goddess rising

Two versions of the sky on the same day



TO WAR! Part 1: War and America's National Psyche

As part of a special WAR EDITION of New Savanna I'm reproducing a set of notes I wrote up during the 2000 Presidential Election. I first published them on NS back in November of 2011 and I'm republishing them now in recognition of yet another turn in the long-spinning wheel of American mythology. Yet another bump to the top, as I'm thinking of this stuff, this time in connection with the relationship between war and nationalism.
Everything is connected to everything else and the causal forces meeting in the historical present stretch back into the past without end. Figuring out where to start is not easy. My sense is that we need to focus our attention on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. That left the nation without a national scapegoat, thus radically altering the nation’s psycho-cultural landscape. We no longer had Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire to kick around.

As some of you may know, my thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by an essay Talcott Parsons published in 1947 on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy. I suspect, in fact, that this dynamic is inherent in nationalism as a psycho-cultural phenomenon.

For the most part I have used Parsons, and others as well, in arguing about the nature of racism in the USA. While Africans were brought to this country for economic reasons it seems to me that during, say, the 19th century African Americans increasingly assumed a dual psychological role in the white psyche. On the one hand, they were a source of entertainment. On the other, they were convenient scapegoats, as became evident with the lynchings that emerged during Reconstruction and continued well into the last century. That is to say, African America served as a geographically internal target for the ethnic and nationalist antipathy Parsons discussed.

Thus we have the thesis in Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999). They argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. From my point of view, they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony. Beyond this, of course, it becomes necessary to recruit from the colony to fight the external enemy, both physically and propagandistically - be kind to your black citizens when you fight the Nazis, etc.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Friday, January 26, 2018

Music universals?

Even without unlimited resources and an omniversal traveling machine, they managed to amass songs from 86 cultures around the world—all small-scale societies, like hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Their collection—the Natural History of Song discography—represents music of four types: dances; lullabies; expressions of love; and healing songs intended to cure the sick in ceremonies.

The team then played these songs to 750 volunteers recruited through the internet—a third from the United States, a third from India, and another third from a mix of 58 other countries. Every participant listened to 36 recordings, and rated how likely each one was to be, say, a dance song or healing song.

They were surprisingly accurate, for every category except love songs. Dance songs and lullabies, in particular, share enough features around the world that naïve listeners can identify them with no experience of the cultures from which they arise. The three groups of volunteers were also surprisingly consistent. “Some random person from Texas who’s doing our survey is expected to have a similar conception of what a healing song should be to someone at her computer in India,” says Singh.
Color me not surprised.

Is the 3D transportation geometry of New York 2140 feasible?

One of the problems that was in the back of my mind as I read New York 2140 was: Is the transportation system geometrically feasible? The story is set in a future New York City where the city below 50th street is under 50 feet of water. People got around by boat, as street ways had become transformed into canals, and by walking on sky bridges directly between buildings. The image on the book’s cover shows a city where most of the people have to live, work, and play in the same building because there isn’t enough transportation to move millions of people around the city on a daily basis. The image looks good, but that’s it. Set the image aside. Is the city KSR describes physically possible?

I live in Jersey City, across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Transportation to and from Manhattan is a big problem, as I described in this post, The Story of Civilization: Stuck in Traffic. Two and a half years ago someone proposed a pedestrian bridge as a partial solution and got some architects to draw up renderings. Lots of people were excited because, of course, it would be very cool to walk over the Hudson River between Manhattan and Jersey City. And there were going to be bike lanes too! WhooHoo! My response (as stc4blues) ?
But what's the capacity of the bridge? For example – and I'm just spit-balling this – if we have four people walking abreast, with groups of four spaced 10 feet apart over a span of 5000 feet, and it takes them 20 minutes to walk the mile, that's 6000 people an hour, ONE-way (4*500*3). If people start walking at 6AM the first cohort will arrive at Battery Park at 6:20 AM. By 9:20 AM 18,000 will have walked across. Is that a meaningful number? What kind of dent will that make in daily transportation?
If 400,000 people cross between the two cities every day (see the story I linked above), a bridge with that capacity is not going to make much of a difference. As far as I know, no one made that simple calculation.

What brought this to mind is a recent interview with Jarrett Walker, a public transportation expert. Here’s a bit from the interview:
We need to keep returning to the wisdom of the pre-World War II European and American city, which was resilient, which you could get around by several different means. And, one of the way you built that city was to be mindful, first, of the pedestrian/the cyclist, second, of public transport and the fundamental need to organise the city around quality pubic transport once it’s too big to walk across and the need to let those things rather than the automobile guide your urban structure. I think, Europe is mostly good at this. Continental Europe is best at this. Britain is, kind of, in between and America is, obviously, not very good at this at all, in terms of the average American now living in a place that’s utterly car-dependent and really can’t be lived in any other way. 
And that is one of the great dangers of this attempt to fix the car, that it’s fixing certain problems with the car but it is not fixing the fact that it is an incredibly inefficient use of space and so one of the real nightmares, of course, is the vast new expansion of urban sprawl. So, here’s a typical example: like a lot of people who live in Portland, Oregon, I like the forests and mountains near the city and if I could have a little cabin in the forest where I could be all by myself with nature, I’d like that. The reason I don’t own that cabin is that it would be a horrible experience trying to drive there every weekend, and so I don’t. But if it were easy to drive there every weekend, if I had someone who would drive me there or if I could ride in a driverless car, I would buy that cabin in the woods and so would everybody else and so we would chop down the woods. That’s, to some degree, what suburbia originally was and so we have to be careful about how much we do that and it’s fairly clear that a free-market approach to this produces all kinds of outcomes that we ultimately don’t like. And we know that because it’s not that different from what we actually tried in the late 20th century.
It goes on like that, example after example.

I don’t recall any public transport in KSR’s book at all, though I have a vague sense that maybe subways were still running. But public transportation didn't play much of a role in the story. Two sets of characters moved over the water in small boats. They present the same problem as cars; they’re an incredibly inefficient use of space. Others walked through the city over sky bridges. What kind of sky bridge infrastructure would you need to service the Empire State Building (at 34th St.)? And remember, sky bridges are necessarily point-to-point; each bridge would have one terminus at the Empire State Building and the other at some other building. And when you’ve walked to that other building, chances are it’s not your final destination, nor the one after that, many transfers?

No, my guess is that KSR’s New York in 2140 is not physically possible. Is that a problem? I don’t know. Lots of science fiction presents us with future worlds that are somewhere between physically improbable to extravagantly impossible. It’s in the nature of the beast. And New York 2140 is not a gee-whiz tech kind of book. It’s a people and politics kind of book. But then, transportation is a people and politics kind of problem. At any given level of technology, you still have people moving about to live their lives. Getting that done requires money, and the collection and allocation of that money is a political problem.

Where does that leave New York 2140? I don’t know. As I said up top, the issue was in the back of my mind when I read the book. Most likely it would have stayed there if I hadn’t chanced upon that Jarrett Walker interview.

But I did.

And aren’t such chance encounters integral to the plot of New York 2140?

Friday Fotos: Some mechanisms






One thing all of these devices have in common is some kind of rotary motion. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The effects of population size on language structure and vocabulary size

Florencia Reali, Nick Chater, Morten H. Christiansen, Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Published 24 January 2018. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2586.
Abstract: Languages with many speakers tend to be structurally simple while small communities sometimes develop languages with great structural complexity. Paradoxically, the opposite pattern appears to be observed for non-structural properties of language such as vocabulary size. These apparently opposite patterns pose a challenge for theories of language change and evolution. We use computational simulations to show that this inverse pattern can depend on a single factor: ease of diffusion through the population. A population of interacting agents was arranged on a network, passing linguistic conventions to one another along network links. Agents can invent new conventions, or replicate conventions that they have previously generated themselves or learned from other agents. Linguistic conventions are either Easy or Hard to diffuse, depending on how many times an agent needs to encounter a convention to learn it. In large groups, only linguistic conventions that are easy to learn, such as words, tend to proliferate, whereas small groups where everyone talks to everyone else allow for more complex conventions, like grammatical regularities, to be maintained. Our simulations thus suggest that language, and possibly other aspects of culture, may become simpler at the structural level as our world becomes increasingly interconnected.

A small mercy


"Black box" AI, feature or bug?

In 'old school' symbolic AI, the system reasoned using rules and structures 'hand-coded' by humans and often derived from protocols where human experts would recorded their reasoning about something. In the current regime of machine learning, the system is programmed with a general strategy for learning from examples. Just how it leans to classify those examples, its internal strategies, that's NOT programmed, and it's not easy to open the system up and examine its strategies. Hence, it's sometimes referred to as 'black box' AI. We know what goes in and we know what comes out, but what happens in between, that's a mystery.

Do we really want medical diagnosis, and so forth, being done by black box machines? That's the question. Writing in the NYTimes, Vijay Pande, a general partner in Andreessen Horowitz, suggests our fears are exaggerated:
But we make decisions in areas that we don’t fully understand every day — often very successfully — from the predicted economic impacts of policies to weather forecasts to the ways in which we approach much of science in the first place. We either oversimplify things or accept that they’re too complex for us to break down linearly, let alone explain fully. It’s just like the black box of A.I.: Human intelligence can reason and make arguments for a given conclusion, but it can’t explain the complex, underlying basis for how we arrived at a particular conclusion. Think of what happens when a couple get divorced because of one stated cause — say, infidelity — when in reality there’s an entire unseen universe of intertwined causes, forces and events that contributed to that outcome. Why did they choose to split up when another couple in a similar situation didn’t? Even those in the relationship can’t fully explain it. It’s a black box.

The irony is that compared with human intelligence, A.I. is actually the more transparent of intelligences. Unlike the human mind, A.I. can — and should — be interrogated and interpreted. Like the ability to audit and refine models and expose knowledge gaps in deep neural nets and the debugging tools that will inevitably be built and the potential ability to augment human intelligence via brain-computer interfaces, there are many technologies that could help interpret artificial intelligence in a way we can’t interpret the human brain. In the process, we may even learn more about how human intelligence itself works.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Pittsburgh, a mid-20th century African-American Florence

That story of Pittsburgh is well documented. Far less chronicled but just as extraordinary is the confluence of forces that made the black population of the city, for a brief but glorious stretch of the twentieth century, one of the most vibrant and consequential communities of color in U.S. history. Like millions of other black people, they came north before and during the Great Migration, many of them from the upper parts of the old South, from states such as Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. As likely as not to have been descendants of house slaves or free men of color, these migrants arrived with high degrees of literacy, musical fluency, and religious discipline—as well as a tendency toward light skin that betrayed their history of mixing with white masters and with one another. Once they settled in Pittsburgh, they had educational opportunities that were rare for black people of the era, thanks to abolitionist-sponsored university scholarships and integrated public high schools with lavish Gilded Age funding. Whether or not they succeeded in finding jobs in Pittsburgh’s steel mills—and often they did not—they inhaled a spirit of commerce that hung, quite literally, in the dark, sulfurous air.

The result was a black version of the story of fifteenth-century Florence and early-twentieth-century Vienna: a miraculous flowering of social and cultural achievement all at once, in one small city. In its heyday, from the twenties until the late fifties, Pittsburgh’s black population was less than a quarter of the size of New York City’s and a third of the size of Chicago’s, those two much-larger metropolises that have been associated with the phenomenon of a black renaissance. Yet during those decades, it was Pittsburgh that produced the best-written, widest-selling, and most influential black newspaper in America, the Pittsburgh Courier. From a four-page pamphlet of poetry and local oddities, its leader, Robert L. Vann, built the Courier into a publication with fourteen regional editions, a circulation of almost half a million at its zenith, and an avid following in black homes, barbershops, and beauty salons across the country. ...

In the realm of the arts, Pittsburgh produced three of the most electrifying and influential jazz pianists of the era: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Mary Lou Williams, and the dazzling Erroll Garner. It was in Pittsburgh that Billy Strayhorn grew up and met Duke Ellington, beginning a partnership that would yield the finest orchestral jazz of all time. Another Pittsburgh native, Billy Eckstine, became the most popular black singer of the forties and early fifties and played a less remembered but equally groundbreaking role in uniting Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sarah Vaughan on the swing-era bandstands that helped give rise to bebop. Then, in the midforties, in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a black maid born in North Carolina who had taken up with a white German baker gave birth to a boy who grew up to become America’s greatest black playwright.
August Wilson, of course. An excerpt from the forthcoming Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance, by Mark Whitaker.

H/t 3QD

How does your garden grow



Monday, January 22, 2018

After dark, two forty-nine and nine tenths a gallon



The Story of Civilization: Stuck in Traffic

Are things too big and out of hand? I'm bumping this one from September 2012 to the top of the queue.
One day I waited an hour in traffic to go a quarter of a mile so I could enter the Holland Tunnel and cross under the Hudson River to my home in Jersey City. While sitting in the cue and kept thinking why why why? Why?

In answer the question with a boiling-frog story, a parable about Happy Island. I conclude by suggesting that the world is happy island and we’re stuck in traffic.

Tunnel Traffic

I live in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan. Whenever I go to Manhattan I use public transportation, which is reasonably good, though just a bit inconvenient from my present location. Driving my car through a tunnel or over a bridge and parking it on Manhattan, that’s VERY inconvenient. And so I avoid doing it.

But I had to go to rural Connecticut to meet Charlie for a trip up to Vermont. I could have taken public transportion to a point where Charlie could pick me up. But that’s a longish walk and four trains, or a longish walk and three trains and a long walk or a cab. Which was a hassle. So I decided to drive. Yes, I’d have to cross the Hudson River, but the Holland Tunnel’s nearby and I could avoid rush-hour traffic on both trips, too and from. And driving on Manhattan was a bit of a hassle, but not too bad on this trip because I’d be mostly on the West Side Highway.

So I drove. I left on Thursday morning at, say, 9:45 AM. By 11:30 I’d crossed off the northern end of Manhattan and was headed toward Connecticut. That’s an hour and forty-five minutes to go the first 15 miles, and probably an hour to go the first four miles, from my place in Jersey City through the Holland Tunnel and onto the West Side Highway headed North.

And that wasn’t rush-hour.

Nor was it rush-hour mid-afternoon on Saturday when I made the return trip. It took at least 45 minutes to get from West Side Avenue and 12th street into the tunnel, and traffic was unusually slow inside the tunnel, for whatever reason.

I’d be very surprised indeed if tunnel traffic was that bad when the Holland Tunnel first opened early in the 20th century. Nor do I have any idea when traffic began to build-up at the tunnel. It was opened in 1927 and the first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel followed a decade later; the second tube took another eight years. Was it built in response to traffic build-up in the Holland Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge? Seems possible. A third tube was opened in ’57, a response to increased traffic.

These days local news features regular reports on traffic delays at all tunnels and bridges crossing to Manhattan. The information is, of course, readily available on the web. Rush-hour delays run between half an hour and an hour. It’s crazy.

No one would ever design a system to work like that. But that’s how the system’s evolved. And it’s going to get worse.

Two years ago the governor of New Jersey killed a project to build another railroad tunnel under the Hudson. It would have doubled the number of passenger trains at peak hours. Meanwhile the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire, wants to change zoning in Mid-Town so that higher office towers can be built. You know what that means, don’t you? More traffic on the already over-loaded bridges and tunnels.

Of course, that has no direct meaning to Mayor Mike. He can afford to live in Manhattan, along with his executive cronies. When he crosses the Hudson or the East River he can fly his helicopter or he can sit in the back of a nice limo, with his laptop wified to the world, along with a wet bar, pool table, squash court and whatever else he needs to pass the time while the limo waits in traffic, the limo driver twiddling his thumbs while Mayor Mike is reeling in the big ones off the Grand Banks. Bridge and tunnel traffic is just numbers to him; it’s not a reality that hits him directly.

Sure, build taller office buildings in Mid-Town. You know what that means to Mayor Mike, Billionaire? It means more business for his company, that’s what it means. His company and the companies of his buddies. That’s the reality that’s most immediate to him. Not all the hassle more traffic will cause for the people who work in those bigger buildings, but can’t afford to live on Manhattan.

So the problem’s just going to get worse and worse.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Polychrome city


Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek: the Big Three?

A blast from the past, from March 24, 2014. Should I add King Kong into the mix?
This post is very tentative. I’m thinking out-loud, playing around.

As the title suggests, I’m wondering if these three franchises, Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek, with their different themes and agendas, triangulate a certain very large space in the world’s popular culture over the last half century. Each has fans all over the world.

The Godzilla franchise is the oldest. It originates with the 1954 film, Gojira (the Japanese for Godzilla), about a large prehistoric beast that was disturbed by atomic testing and, in consequence, destroyed much of Tokyo before it was destroyed. The Japanese film was Americanized by eliminating some footage, adding new footage, and re-editing. This new film was released in America in 1956 under the title, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The Japanese have so far made 27 more Godzilla films plus spin-off films about other monsters. An American remake is scheduled for release later this year. The franchise also includes animated television programs, comics, and assorted merchandise.

Next comes Doctor Who, a British television series started by the BBC in 1963; it centers on a humanoid alien, the Doctor, who is last of the Time Lords and who travels through time and space in the TARDIS, a time machine. The series ran 26 years until 1989, by which time it had generated enough secondary material – comics, books, and merchandise – to keep the franchise alive until it was restarted in 2005 and remains in production.

Star Trek started on American television in 1966, three years after Doctor Who and 12 years after Gojira. The original series lasted three years on network television but then became firmly established in reruns. The first feature film came out in 1979 and the first of four spin-off programs, Star Trek, the Next Generation, debuted in 1987. The franchise has generated a dozen feature films along with comic books, novels, video games, and animated series, and other materials.

What strikes me about these three franchises is that each is multimedia and each is long-lived, with Godzilla being the longest-running franchise in the movies. The Superman and Batman franchises are also multimedia and are even older, dating back to the late 1930s in comic book form. Which is a way of raising the question of whether these three franchises – Godzilla, Doctor Who, and Star Trek – constitute some analytically coherent group or not. I could eliminate Superman and Batman by specifying a post-WWII starting point, but is that an arbitrary move or not? I suspect it isn’t, but that’s not something I’m interested in pressing hard here and now.

Given these three post-WWII pop-culture franchises, they are distinctly different in character. The significance of their longevity is not simply that they have remained popular, but that they have defined the imaginative space in which other titles must situate themselves. All three fall within science fiction, broadly understood – and that might differentiate them from Superman and Batman. Of course, we also have the Star Wars franchise, which is a decade younger than Star Trek, but arguably as widely spread. Does that matter? Don’t know. Let’s press on.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Hey, Aziz, read any good romance novels lately?

Jennifer Weiner, We Need Bodice-Ripper Sex Ed, NYTimes:
“Romance novels teach readers that all partners are equal participants in a sexual relationship,” said Bea Koch, the 28-year-old co-owner (with her 25-year-old sister, Leah) of the Ripped Bodice, a bookstore in Culver City, Calif., that exclusively sells romance titles. “They highlight conversations about consent, birth control and myriad other topics that people generally find difficult to talk about. In some instances, it can be a literal script for how to bring up difficult topics with a partner. They give a road map to people wanting to experiment with their sexuality, or even just get in touch with what they want and need in a sexual relationship.”

Porn, necessarily, cuts to the chase: a little less conversation, a little more action.

Talking’s not sexy, people complain.
But when you don’t know how to ask, when you can’t bring yourself to tell, when you don’t possess the language with which to talk about desire, that’s when you can end up with crossed wires, missed signals, mixed messages, a guy who goes to sleep thinking, “That was fun!” and a girl who goes home crying in an Uber.

Graffiti zoom on the waterfront



New York 2140, Some notes about form and structure

The novel’s plot unfolds as an opportunistic linking of contingencies. Characters see opportunities and forge links. At first the contingencies and characters are remote from and independent of one another. But as links are made – for example, noticing that they live in the same building – contingencies collide and multiply until their density forces a climax – one that had been desired, envisioned, even planned for, but that is surprising in its realization, thus allowing for the relaxation we call an ending.

This unfolding chaos, with the appearance of emergent self-organization, is set within a novelistic apparatus of almost mechanical exactitude. That’s what I want to look at. New York 2140 is divided into eight main parts, each of which is in turn divided into eight, though in two cases, nine parts. Here’s how the first part lays out:
Part One. The Tyranny of Sunk Costs
a) Mutt and Jeff
b) Inspector Gen
c) Franklin
d) Vlade
e) a citizen
f) Amelia
g) Charlotte
h) Stefan and Roberto
The characters thus named are the central characters in the story, and they come from distinctly different walks of life. Mutt and Jeff – and yes, one rather suspects that KSR is playing off the iconic cartoon strip with those names – are computer programmers in finance. Inspector Gen is just that, a police inspector. She’s a strong tall black woman with an Icelandic (or at least Nordic) last name, Octaviasdottir (Octavia Butler?). Franklin (Goer) is a trader who likes to zip around the canals of Manhattan in his hydrofoil; he’s a protégé of Hector Ramirez, one of the uber-rich financial masters of this universe. Vlade is the superintendent of the Met Life tower, a job requiring the skills of a jack-of-all-trades handyman and a jack-of-all-trades engineer. All these characters live in the Met Life tower – though it takes them awhile to figure that out – except for a citizen, who goes by a different appellation in different parts of the book. The citizen provides Greek chorus commentary and wide-ranging miscellaneous information. Amelia is a media figure who glides around the world in her airship, the Assisted Migration, relocating endangered species; she has a large following, is something of an exhibitionist, but – we learn at the very end – a graceless dancer. Charlotte (Armstrong) is a lawyer and head of something called the Householder’s Union – representing “the renters, the paperless, the homeless, the water rats, the dispossessed”. Her ex-husband is head of the Federal Reserve. [Quick gloss: paperless = without identity documents; water rats = living on, in close proximity to, off of, the water.) Stefan and Roberto, tween-aged water rats who hang out with the old man, Hexter, who has good collection of old maps.

These characters are a quasi-representative sample of the lower 99%, with two connections into the upper 1% (Ramirez, Fed Reserve). They’re the ones who see opportunities among swirling contingencies and make the links out of which KSR constructs his story. That representativeness, along with the KSR’s manifold historical information-drops, gives New York 2140 something of an encyclopedic feel – I’m thinking here of Edward Mendelson, “Encyclopedic Narrative: From Dante to Pynchon”, MLN 91, 1267-1275 [1]. But then, that’s how you build a world, isn’t it? You craft an encyclopedia.

One more thing. The book is full of quotations, which are on pages between the alphabetical sections, and come from various sources. Part One lists Henry James, Frank Ackerman, Ken Thompson, Ambrose Bierce, Valdimir Mayakovsky, Rem Koolhaus, Carl Van Vechten, Abbie Hoffman, Fran Lebowitz, Herman Melville, and several short passages with no attribution.

Each of the book’s eight parts is constructed on the same plan – I’ve outlined the whole book in an appendix. All the subsections are designated alphabetically and named for one of those eight actors, though here and there one actor names two sections and another actor’s name, correspondingly, must dropped. Of course, the actor named in a section-head isn’t the only one who appears in that section, especially as lifelines become linked and intertwined. Quotations between sections.

So, the constructed narrative is contingent, opportunistic, chaotic, and self-organizing, but the framework is highly ordered and mechanical. What are we to make of that? Is that how we operate in the world, individually and collectively? Are those fortuitous links ultimately imposed though a mechanical superstructure? Inquiring minds want to know.

Finally, worlds within worlds within worlds. The story extends across, around, the whole world. But 95-99% of the action takes place in New York City, and a significant part of that action takes place in the Met Life tower. “Denver” becomes  both metaphor and metonymy for the indifferent and ruling 1%, while “the intertidal” is the major growth region, and locus of rebellion as well. Manhattan below 50th belongs to the intertidal while Manhattan above belongs, more or less, to Denver. The coastal region, the intertidal, is legally ambiguous, and physically precarious. The two things, we know, are linked.

Do you know what Benoit Mandelbrot said about the length of coastlines? He said they’re of fractal dimensionality and hence of infinite length. Look it up.

This is a book steeped in statistical order. In distributions and representativeness. I do not know how steeped KSR is in statistical knowledge – though, come to think of it, I believe he does talk of representation in the statistical sense. But then still, yes, he has to be. He’s alive, aware, and curious. In the 21st century.

Pop goes the peek-a-boo, Japanese style

Be sure to play the film clip.

Thursday, January 18, 2018



New York 2140: What IS fiction, anyhow?

I slipped over to Manhattan yesterday for a panel discussion about artificial intelligence that was held – wouldn’t you know? at the New York Yacht Club, an honorable establishment with old money written all over it, not to mention a handsome stash of full and half-hull ship models – and was delighted with the Times Square area at night. It’s like something from the future, all bright and slithering lights. Next time I’ll take my camera.

Would the New York of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140 be like that? Time Square itself, of course, would be under water, but many of the tall buildings would still be sticking around, their middle and upper floors rising above the water. And that’s where a lot of the electronic signage was. That would be quite a sight, to see all those animated lights reflecting in the water.

So, I ask you: Does New York 2140 exhibit a distinctive mode of fictional being? That’s perhaps not the best way to put the question, but there’s no really good way. What I have in mind is the way Robinson combines rich array of details about New York’s past – something Adam Roberts reminded me of on Facebook – with a richly imagined future. We’ve got the real and the imaginary combined into one seamless extended novelistic present. I could almost have said “the real past–as Robinson imagines it–and the future–as Robinson imagines it”, for the imagination is a faculty we use for everything, not just fantasy and fiction. It’s all imaginable, and some is real, some not so real.

What’s real?


Back in the 1960s and 1970s there was something called “the new journalism”, in which writers like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Hunter Thompson wrote about real events using literary techniques. They gave up the conventions of journalistic objectivity and entered into the events they chronicled. At the same time E. L. Doctorow was earning praise for his “fictionalized history”. What about alternate history, for example, P. K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, set in a world where Japan and Germany won World War II? How does New York 2140 fit into that, whatever that is?

This, it seems to me, is something for Latour’s world of modes of existence, where each mode has its own truth conditions. What is the mode for New York 2140, versus, say, The Tale of Genji, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Interpretation of Dreams, or On the Origin of Species, and what are the respective truth conditions for each?

For extra credit: What about Donald Trump’s Twitter stream?

Small yacht in fog in Weehawken Cove


Micro-timing in conversation

Tanya Stivers, et al. Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation, PNAS June 30, 2009 vol. 106 no. 26 10587-10592
Abstract:Informal verbal interaction is the core matrix for human social life. A mechanism for coordinating this basic mode of interaction is a system of turn-taking that regulates who is to speak and when. Yet relatively little is known about how this system varies across cultures. The anthropological literature reports significant cultural differences in the timing of turn-taking in ordinary conversation. We test these claims and show that in fact there are striking universals in the underlying pattern of response latency in conversation. Using a worldwide sample of 10 languages drawn from traditional indigenous communities to major world languages, we show that all of the languages tested provide clear evidence for a general avoidance of overlapping talk and a minimization of silence between conversational turns. In addition, all of the languages show the same factors explaining within-language variation in speed of response. We do, however, find differences across the languages in the average gap between turns, within a range of 250 ms from the cross-language mean. We believe that a natural sensitivity to these tempo differences leads to a subjective perception of dramatic or even fundamental differences as offered in ethnographic reports of conversational style. Our empirical evidence suggests robust human universals in this domain, where local variations are quantitative only, pointing to a single shared infrastructure for language use with likely ethological foundations.

Ross Douthat on Opus Dei and the consecrated life

I remember all the gnashing of teeth, the rending of garments, and the wailing of women, boys, and men when Ross Douthat got the nod as a NYTimes Op-Ed writer. I remember having a vague sympathy with this commotion, weak and vague, but no more. After all, I do not live and die on the Gray Lady Op Ed page. I suppose I read a column or three a weak, and I've read a few by Douthat, even some I've been in sympathy with, which is a bit of a surprise as he writes as a conservative Catholic, which is not my part of the world. Anyhow, he's been interviewed by Tyler Cowen, the ostentatiously well-read libertarian economist at a school in northern Virginia that was once upon a time referred to as a "cow college" but is now a R1 research institution, George Mason University.

Anyhow, I'm reading my way through the interview, skipping much of it, and was struck by this exchange:
COWEN: As you know I come at all of this as very much an outsider, so let me ask a very naive question.

If I look at the Catholic Church, there’s a movement, as you know, called Opus Dei. The priests of that movement, they seem to be less caught up in sex scandals. Parts of the movement seem to have some understanding of what you might broadly call conservative economics. In Spanish politics in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s they were actually considered a liberalizing force, so they don’t have to be seen as reactionary per se.

Why aren’t they simply the good guys? They don’t come up much in your writings. I’m reading you and I think, “Where’s Opus Dei?”

DOUTHAT: I mean, I’m pro–Opus Dei overall. I think that my only . . . It seems to me sometimes that Opus Dei is a particular apostolate, right, and the particular idea of Opus Dei is that it’s not primarily supposed to be a priestly order, even though there are of course priests of Opus Dei.

The central idea, and with apologies to Opus Dei members if I’m getting this at all wrong, but the central idea is that it’s a ministry. It’s an apostolate for laypeople who are at work in the business world, the journalism world, the corporate world, the communications world, and so on. And as such, I think it has an admirable and important vocation in the life of the world and the life of the church. But it seems to me in part that there is a sort of . . . There’s a kind of, not set-apartness exactly, but there’s an element of . . .

Well, I think a big part of the crisis in Catholicism in the last 60 or 70 years can simply be distilled to a collapse in the sense of the importance of religious life, of consecrated life, of the priesthood, religious orders, sisters and brothers, and so on. And it’s as easy for me to say because I did not become a priest and so it’s always easier once you haven’t become a priest to say, “Oh, well, you need more people to become priests.” But to the extent that that’s true, Opus Dei seems like it’s very well tailored in certain ways to secular society as it exists right now.

But I think the ultimate revival of the church is likely to come from a slightly more radical view of the proper relation to the world — that essentially what the church needs now is the equivalent of the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Jesuits, these kind of orders from previous eras that are sort of . . . I mean, Opus Dei asks laypeople to take vows of various kinds; celibate laypeople are part of the Opus Dei structure. And I think that there is . . . Essentially, there is just a straightforward need for a more old-fashioned model of just priests and nuns. The church needs more priests and nuns. Catholicism can’t function without priests and nuns, which doesn’t take anything away from what Opus Dei is doing and, of course, they have many vocations and many priests.

But yeah, to the extent that it doesn’t get the due maybe that it deserves in my writings, that’s probably, maybe, the root of it. Again, you’re teasing out things I haven’t even begun to think about before, which is . . .

There’s no particular reason why. The sacramental life of the church depends on a strong priesthood, depends on men becoming priests; it depends on religious orders and so on. And so full revival in the church would need a priestly center to it, in a way, and not just a focus on sort of apostolates and evangelization within the world. Catholicism has been caught up in the idea that this is the Age of the Laity for the last 50 or 60 years. I think the Age of the Laity has kind of been a disaster for the church in certain ways.
It's that phrase, "consecrated life". Can we have consecrated lives without the Catholic Church? Douthat would likely think that, in asking that question, I reveal that I haven't got the foggiest idea of what "consecrated life" means. Perhaps. Perhaps. Still, I ask the question: Can we have consecrated lives without the Church? Can we have consecrated lives without ... ?

And before too long Douthat is talking in praise of Watership Down, a children's book I've heard of, but not read.’s such a great book and it’s a book about — essentially, it’s about a founding.

It’s connected, in a sense, to the kind of things that the Straussians are always arguing about and so on. What does the founding mean, and so on? But you have a group of rabbits who go forth and encounter different models of political order, different ways of relating to humankind, that shadow over rabbit-kind at any point.

You have a warren that has essentially surrendered itself to humanity and exists as a kind of breeding farm, and you have a warren that’s run as a fascist dictatorship essentially. And then you have this attempt to form a political community that is somewhere in between the two, getting back to the Hegelian synthesis and so on. And you have sort of this primal narrative where the problem is of course that they don’t have any females, and so there’s this competition, this competition for reproductive power that’s carried out between these different warrens where the rabbits from the good warren have to literally — not kidnap, because the does come willingly — but steal women from the fascist dictatorship, which maintains a ruthless control over reproduction.

So there’s just a lot of fascinating stuff there, and then it’s all interspersed with storytelling. There’s the sort of rabbit folktales that Richard —

COWEN: So, narrative again.

DOUTHAT: Narrative again.

— that Richard Adams came up with, that are just brilliant, about El-ahrairah, the great rabbit folk hero, and his relationship. There is actually the rudiments of a rabbit theology in Watership Down.
Rabbit theology indeed.
And then there’s even, right, there’s even a mystical element. The book begins with this rabbit Fiver, who is sort of a runt, who has visions — and the whole founding is based on various prophecies and visions that he has throughout the beginnings of this rabbit warren, that these rabbits go out and found. So he has a vision of apocalypse, so there’s an Aeneid element, clearly, where — probably he uses quotes from the Aeneid; he has quotes before every chapter — where the city falls and you have to go found a new city and there’s religious visions along the way that relate to the legitimacy of the founding.
Hey, Ross, my man. I wouldn't get too uppity about secular consecration if I were you.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

How about a splash of red?

20180102-IMGP2152 flipR

20180102-IMGP2152 flip ΩVrt

Getting from HERE to THERE: New York 2140

Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.
– Samuel Delaney
As I began reading Kim Stanley Robin’s latest book, New York 2140, I was thinking about that old cliché:

Science fiction’s not about the future, it’s about the present.

But then isn’t all fiction like that? No matter when and where it’s set, it is necessarily about the authorial present, because that’s what the author lives, day in and day out. The rest is window dressing.

That’s what I was thinking. But I was also thinking that THAT’s not why I’m reading New York 2140, not at all. It’s about NYC after the climate apocalypse, and that’s why it interests me: How do we get through it? How do we live afterward? Not, mind you, that I think KSR actually knows, not, mind you, that I somehow think KSR is a prophet. He isn’t (a prophet) and he doesn’t (know the future). But he’s a smart guy with a good imagination and really, that’s the best we can do under the circumstances, no?

And I kept thinking that as I read the book. It’s as though I was almost looking for a how-to-do-it book. I say “almost” because when you put it that baldly it seems silly and I wasn’t really thinking that. But sorta, kinda’, almost.

As I read through the book – which is both complex (lots of interacting characters) and simple (little in the say of intricate scheming, but some) – I read about the financial collapse of 2008. That’s something very real to me, as it depressed my $$ net worth and hence my wellbeing. Hurricane Sandy – again, very real, I was without power for four or five days (I forget which), but others were without power for two or more weeks–not to mention flooding and homes destroyed, and the effects ripple out from there. They’re still rippling.

By the time I got to the end I was telling myself, whoa! this isn’t about the future, it’s about the present! Financial collapse, massive debilitating storm crushing New York City, those may well happen in the future, but I’ve already lived through them. And as for a spontaneous uprising of people in protest, that’s Occupy Wall Street: I marched in that!

Trapped by a cliché!

But just what is THE PRESENT? That’s a very tricky question.

What time scale do we use to measure the present? There’s a body of research in psychology that pegs the perceptual present at about three to four seconds. That’s certainly not the appropriate scale. But what is? A year, a decade, a century? There’s a reasonable sense in which the financial crash of 2008 and the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 are nonetheless part of my present. They’re certainly in the time horizon Stanley invokes/evokes in his book. And, if I’m going to extend my present a decade into the past, then perhaps I can also extend it a decade into the future, call it 2030. That’s still over a century short of Robinson’s D-Days. But then climate change looms large in his imagination and surely we can push that back to the beginning of the carbon-spewing Industrial Revolution. Now we’re going two centuries back to the beginning of the 19th century, and that entitles us to push two centuries into the future, to the end of the 22nd century. Our imaginative present, Robinson’s novelistic present? now runs roughly from 1800 to 2200, leaving him a little wiggle room after the imaginary events he’s detailed for us.

In his penultimate chapter, attributed merely to ‘the citizen’–who functions a bit like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action–he tells us:
Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces, so even as the intertidal emerges from the surf like Venus, capitalism will be flattening itself like the octopus it biomimics, sliding between the glass walls of law that try to keep it contained, and no one should be surprised to find it can squeeze itself to the width of its beak, the only part of it that it can’t squish flatter, the hard part that tears our flesh when it is free to do so. No, the glass walls of justice will have to be placed together closer than the width of an octopus’s beak–now there’s a fortune cookie for you! And even then the octopus may think of some new ways to bite the world. A hinged beak, some super suckers, who knows what these people will try.
For you see, capitalism had just suffered a crushing defeat. But the book’s gone on for 604 pages at this point, so it really must come to an end – though I note that KSR’s Mars adventure extended over three volumes. But we mustn’t think that the end of the book is also the end of the causal forces it cast into wicked struggle.
So no, no, no, no! Don’t be naïve! There are no happy endings! Because there are no endings! And possibly there is no happiness either!
Though there a few more sentences in this chapter and then, yes, there's one final chapter. It takes place in “some submarine speakeasy” called “Mezzrow’s” – named, we presume, after a mid-20th century jazz musician and scenester who hung with the cats and supplied them with joints (aka mezzes) – where we dance to West African rhythms.

And the take-home? The lesson, what does it tell us about, I suppose, radical historical change? That’s tricky. Perhaps I should write another post about that. Or perhaps not. Whatever it is, it would be about chance favoring the prepared mind and how in this case, in KSR’s New York City and the world of 2140, there were lots of minds prepared by decades upon decades of subservience to the 1% (which, we know, is actually a tiny fraction of the 1%) in which 100s of millions managed to eek out a more or less self-sufficient existence in the tidal boondocks created by massive coastal flooding.

• • • • • S P O I L E R • • • • •

                                                                                                                           Not so long after the storm hit, displacing millions of New Yorkers, the message went out and a massive world-wide rent and mortgage strike brought capitalism to its knees.

For awhile.

What's up with the extended evolutionary synthesis (ESS) in biology?

Despite the excitement of all the new data, it’s unlikely to trigger an evolution revolution for the simple reason that science doesn’t work that way – at least, not evolutionary science. Kuhnian paradigm shifts, like Popper’s critical experiments, are closer to myths than reality. Look back at the history of evolutionary biology, and you will see nothing that resembles a revolution. Even Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection took approximately 70 years to become widely accepted by the scientific community, and at the turn of the 20th century was viewed with considerable skepticism. Over the following decades, new ideas appeared, they were critically evaluated by the scientific community, and gradually became integrated with pre-existing knowledge. By and large, evolutionary biology was updated without experiencing great periods of ‘crisis’.

The same holds for the present. Epigenetic inheritance does not disprove genetic inheritance, but shows it to be just one of several mechanisms through which traits are inherited. I know of no biologist who wants to rip up the textbooks, or throw out natural selection. The debate in evolutionary biology concerns whether we want to extend our understanding of the causes of evolution, and whether that changes how we think about the process as a whole. In this respect, what is going on is ‘normal science’.

Why, then, are traditionally minded evolutionary biologists complaining about the misguided evolutionary radicals that lobby for paradigm shift? Why are journalists writing articles about scientists calling for a ‘revolution’ in evolutionary biology? If nobody actually wants a revolution, and scientific revolutions rarely happen anyway, what’s all the fuss about? The answer to these questions provides a fascinating insight into the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Revolution in evolution is a misattribution – a myth propagated by an unlikely alliance of conservative-minded evolutionists, creationists and the press. I don’t doubt that there are a small number of genuine, revolutionarily minded evolutionary radicals out there, but the vast majority of researchers working towards an extended evolutionary synthesis are simply ordinary, hardworking evolutionary biologists.

We all know that sensationalism sells newspapers, and articles that portend a major upheaval make for better copy. Creationists and advocates of ‘intelligent design’ also feed this impression, with propaganda that exaggerates differences of opinion among evolutionists and gives a false impression that the field of evolutionary biology is in turmoil. What’s more surprising is how commonly conservative-minded biologists play the ‘We’re under attack!’ card against their fellow evolutionists. Portraying intellectual opponents as extremist, and telling people that they are being attacked, are age-old rhetorical tricks to win debate or allegiance.
If the extended evolutionary synthesis is not a call for revolution in evolution, then what is it, and why do we need it? To answer these questions, we need to recognise what Kuhn got right – namely, that every scientific field possesses shared ways of thinking, or ‘conceptual frameworks’. Evolutionary biology is no different, and our shared values and assumptions influence what data is collected, how that data is interpreted, and what factors are built into explanations for how evolution works.

That is why pluralism in science is healthy. Lakatos stressed that alternative conceptual frameworks – what he called different ‘research programmes’ – can be valuable to the extent that they encourage new hypotheses to be generated and tested, or lead to novel insights. That is the primary function of the EES: to nurture, or even open up, new lines of enquiry, and new productive ways of thinking.
And so:
The EES, at least as my collaborators and I frame it, is best viewed as an alternative research programme for evolutionary biology. Inspired by recent findings emerging within evolutionary biology and adjacent fields, the EES starts from the assumption that developmental processes play important roles as causes of novel (and potentially beneficial) phenotypic variation, causes of differences in fitness of those variants, and causes of inheritance. In contrast to how evolution has traditionally been conceived, in the EES the burden of creativity in evolution does not rest on natural selection alone. This alternative way of thinking is being used to generate fresh hypotheses and establish new research agendas. It’s early days, but there are already signs that this research is starting to yield dividends.

If evolution is not to be explained solely in terms of changes in gene frequencies; if previously rejected mechanisms such as the inheritance of acquired characteristics turn out to be important after all; and if organisms are acknowledged to bias evolution through development, learning and other forms of plasticity – does all this mean a radically different and profoundly richer account of evolution is emerging? No one knows: but from the perspective of our adapting dog-walker, evolution is looking less like a gentle genetic stroll, and more like a frantic struggle by genes to keep up with strident developmental processes.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

First snow (I think), December 9, 2017


Barbie, Bratz, IP, and #MeToo

Jill Lepore has a fascinating article in The New Yorker about an IP (intellectual property) squabble over Barbie and Bratz dolls, which do billions of dollars in business. Yes, tells us a bit about the history of copyright, which is at issue in several law suits she discusses. But the article also discusses sexual harassment and feminism. Here's two paragraphs near the end:
Empowerment feminism is a cynical sham. As Margaret Talbot once noted in these pages, “To change a Bratz doll’s shoes, you have to snap off its feet at the ankles.” That is pretty much what girlhood feels like. In a 2014 study, girls between four and seven were asked about possible careers for boys and girls after playing with either Fashion Barbie, Doctor Barbie, or, as a control, Mrs. Potato Head. The girls who had played with Mrs. Potato Head were significantly more likely to answer yes to the question “Could you do this job when you grow up?” when shown a picture of the workplaces of a construction worker, a firefighter, a pilot, a doctor, and a police officer. The study had a tiny sample size, and, like most slightly nutty research in the field of social psychology, has never been replicated, or scaled up, except that, since nearly all American girls own a Barbie, the population of American girls has been the subject of the scaled-up version of that experiment for nearly six decades.

#MeToo arises from the failure of empowerment feminism. Women have uncannily similar and all too often harrowing and even devastating stories about things that have happened to them at work because men do very similar things to women; leaning in doesn’t help. There’s more copying going on, too: pornography and accounts of sexual harassment follow the same script. Nobody writes anything from scratch. Abandoning structural remedies and legislative reform for the politics of personal charm—leaning in, dressing for success, being Doctor Barbie—left women in the workplace with few choices but to shut up and lean in more and to dress better. It’s no accident that #MeToo started in the entertainment and television-news businesses, where women are required to look as much like Barbie and Bratz dolls as possible, with the help of personal trainers, makeup artists, hair stylists, personal shoppers, and surgeons. Unfortunately, an extrajudicial crusade of public shaming of men accused of “sexual misconduct” is no solution, and a poor kind of justice, not least because it brooks no dissent, as if all that women are allowed to say about #MeToo is “Me, too!” The pull string wriggles.
The final sentence: "Mattel owns Barbie. MGA owns Bratz. And corporations still own the imaginations of little girls."

A fascinating visual illusion

Look carefully at the coloring on the lines. On one set of pairs the coloring alternates between peaks and troughs; on the other set it alternates between the slopes. Though the wave forms are exactly the same for these pairs, they're perceived differently against the medium gray background.


Monday, January 15, 2018

Lest we forget...Cleo



Language, Computation, and Literary Form

I’ve been making a lot of posts over the past year or so about language, computation, and literary form, with a particular flurry in the last month or two linking Jakobson’s poetic function into the mix. This is going to be another one of those posts. I figure I’ve got to keep going over it until I feel that I’ve got it right, whatever that means.

What I’m NOT saying

I’m not saying that the human mind, or brain, is essentially computational, or digital. Those may or may not be true, but my assertion is more limited.

It limited to language and, within language, to the process whereby word forms are linked to semantic objects and structure (informally, to meaning). Let me emphasize process. It is something the mind does rather than something the mind is – to put it rather sketchily.

Other processes may or may not be fundamentally computational – sensation, perception, movement, pattern recognition, feeling, whatever. Off hand I’d think there’s computation in the sense that word-form-binding is computation, but I also think there are non-computational processes.

Moreover, I’m NOT saying that word-form-binding can be modeled by or usefully thought of as computation. I’m saying that it IS computation. And linguistic form is computational form. Linguistic form guides the binding process.

In what sense computation?

In the sense that we say the earth is a planet that revolves around the sun, and the moon revolves around the earth. Neither of those assertions can be verified by direct perception. Direct perception tells us that the earth is stationary and that both the sun and the moon move over the earth’s surface. Where does the sun go at night? Direct observation doesn’t tell us. Where does the moon go during the day? Direct observation doesn’t tell us.

The heliocentric model of the solar system is an abstract idea. It’s based on a wide range of observations by many observers at many times and places. But not simply observations. Reasoning, physical reasoning and mathematical reasoning.

It’s model subject to revision as needed. Thus Pluto has recently been demoted from planet status, a relatively minor matter of definition. More consequentially, the advent of complexity theory and digital simulation has allowed us to realize that, over the long term, the system is chaotic. The bodies in the system are constantly influencing one another and, consequently, orbits are gradually changing.

Well, that language involves computation is like that, irreducibly so. We don’t understand the system nearly so well. And, to some extent the argument has to be a negative one: What else could it be? As far as I know there simply are no other proposals on the table.

Alan Turing has defined computation in a way that’s independent of any particular physical realization, and THAT’s the kind of thing that can perform the binding task. We know that primarily because we have built artificial system that perform the binding task in limited domains. We have no reason to think that the limitations of those systems can be attributed to computation itself.


In looking over my posts I realized that back in August of 2016 I’d posted, Words, Binding, and Conversation as Computation, and What’s Computation? What’s Literary Computation? YES. The back and forth of computation strikes me as being inherently computational (read those two posts).

That, of course, involves the interaction of autonomous agents, which is not something we ordinarily think of in conjunction with computation, which has been characterized as something done by a single agent. I don’t see that as a problem, however. In fact, that may be how computation (in this sense) got started. And through a process perhaps first described by Vygotsky (in his account of language learning) the process that had been distributed across two agents becomes internalized in one.


Anaphoric reference and duality of patterning – but I’m not going to remark on these here and now. I note, however, that duality of patterning pretty much implies the binding problem. And it is, of course, related to indexing as Hays and I discussed it in Principles and development of natural intelligence [1].

Form on a string

Language is manifest as a string of word forms, one after the other. In the case of some but not all written language the word-forms are sharply separated from one another. They are not sharply separated in spoken form nor, I believe, in the gestures of signing. Where the string does not naturally exist in discrete forms the perceptual system must do the job of segmenting; sometimes there are failures.

In a way and somehow I want to say that computation is somehow necessitated by the fact that semantic structures (meaning) are inherently multi-dimensional and cotemporaneous while language takes the material form of one-dimensional strings. It takes computation to go back and forth between these two – not, alas, a very felicitious formulation.

Literary form and description

It is because literature is made of language that literary form is, like linguistic form, computational in nature [2]. Note that the literary string may be subject to quasi-independent sources of ordering (as in verse, where sound may be ordered independently of sense).

I’m thinking – pace yesterday’s discussion of ring composition – the routine description of literary form is only possible in the context of the explicit recognition of the computational nature of linguistic and therefore literary form. The ring composition literature seems to me a bit ‘spotty’ and in a way ‘opportunistic’. It’s a bunch of local accommodations and fixes without any overall system. Also, in some forms it is overly reliant on spatial metaphors and references to oral practice, both of which are beside the point (and the spatial metaphors are misleading).

Routinization requires systematic thought and description. In the case of literary form we must explicitly recognize that literary texts ARE strings. It’s not that anyone doesn’t know that, but it’s not something that’s thought about and theorized. And we must recognize that literary form words outside the bounds of conscious thought and deliberation (as, indeed, does linguistic form as well).

Literary form is necessarily about restrictions on the structure of literary strings. That’s what Jakobson’s poetic function is about. It remains to be seen whether the poetic function is absolutely general, providing a ‘complete’ account.

More later.


[1] William L. Benzon and David G. Hays. Principles and development of natural intelligence. Journal of Social and Biological Structures 11, 1988, pp. 293-322.

[2] My 2006 article on literary morphology is my major systematic statement about literary form, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2006, Article 060608.