Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Turning schools into prisons is not a good idea

Here's a note that Alex Tabarrok (Marginal Revolution) sent to the principal of his son's high school before the Parkland shooting:
Dear Principal _____,

Thank you for requesting feedback about the installation of interior cameras at the high school. I am against the use of cameras. I visited the school recently to pick up my son and it was like visiting a prison. A police car often sits outside the school and upon entry a security guard directs visitors to the main office where the visitor’s drivers license is scanned and information including date of birth is collected (is this information checked against other records and kept in a database for future reference? It’s unclear). The visitor is then photographed and issued a photo pass. I found the experience oppressive. Adding cameras will only add to the prison-like atmosphere. The response, of course, will be that these measures are necessary for “safety.” As with security measures at the airports I doubt that these measures increase actual safety, instead they are security theater, a play that we put on that looks like security but really is not.

Moreover, the truth is that American children have never been safer than they are today. Overall youth mortality (ages 5-14) has fallen from 60 per 100,000 in 1950 to 13.1 per 100,000 today (CDC, Vital Statistics). Yet we hide in gated communities, homes and schools as never before.

When we surround our students with security we are implicitly telling them that the world is dangerous; we are whispering in their ear, ‘be afraid, do not venture out, take no risks.’ When going to school requires police, security guards and cameras how can I encourage my child to travel to foreign countries, to seek new experiences, to meet people of different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds? When my child leaves school how will the atmosphere of fear that he has grown up in affect his view of the world and the choices he will make as a citizen in our democracy? School teaches more than words in books.

Yours sincerely,

Alex Tabarrok

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Tree and fog


A computational perspective on mood

Clark JE, Watson S, Friston KJ. What is mood? A computational perspective. Psychological Medicine, February 2018.
Abstract: The neurobiological understanding of mood, and by extension mood disorders, remains elusive despite decades of research implicating several neuromodulator systems. This review considers a new approach based on existing theories of functional brain organisation. The free energy principle (a.k.a. active inference), and its instantiation in the Bayesian brain, offers a complete and simple formulation of mood. It has been proposed that emotions reflect the precision of – or certainty about – the predicted sensorimotor/interoceptive consequences of action. By extending this reasoning, in a hierarchical setting, we suggest mood states act as (hyper) priors over uncertainty (i.e. emotions). Here, we consider the same computational pathology in the proprioceptive and interoceptive (behavioural and autonomic) domain in order to furnish an explanation for mood disorders. This formulation reconciles several strands of research at multiple levels of enquiry.

Are we approaching a tipping point on gun control?

Tyler Cowen seems to think so. His latest column for Bloomberg View is entitled "Why Gun Laws May Finally Change: Kids Are Leading". A few paragraphs:
Today, President Donald Trump dominates media cycles in an unprecedented manner. It’s thus not surprising that two of the social movements that seem to be breaking through -- #NeverAgain and the immigration reform pleas from the Dreamers -- have children in prominent roles. Young people, like our president, are somewhat fresh and unfiltered, albeit with different content. They are harder to mock than, say, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Emma González, an attack survivor, only joined Twitter this month (@Emma4Change), and she already has more followers than does the National Rifle Association.

The involvement of children also indicates that their elders see the situation as somewhat desperate. Adults are willing to take some chances by allowing their children to be so publicly exposed and so vulnerable to criticism, and even death threats. That too is a sign that the social movement is ready to succeed. The U.S. is coming off a phase of “helicopter parenting,” in which parents try to remove their children from as much risk as possible, even if it’s only the risk of getting a B+ in a class and damaging one’s chances of going to a top college. The rise of a children’s movement during such a time is a sign that social momentum is shifting.

Some critics of #NeverAgain are charging that parents or external activists are “putting up” the children to acts of protest and social media activism. I don’t know how much that is true, but because parents are usually more risk-averse than their children, a coordinated parent-child campaign is not a possibility the NRA should take much comfort in.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Political Economy of Black Panther's Wakanda

Subrick, J. Robert, The Political Economy of Black Panther's Wakanda (February 25, 2018). Available at SSRN:

Abstract: Black Panther is the hereditary leader of the African nation of Wakanda, a small, natural resource rich country, which lacks access to the sea. Historically the political leadership has tried to hide Wakanda ‘s existence from other countries which has limited its eco-nomic integration with the rest of the world. In spite of its geographic endowments, nota-bly the incredibly rare ore vibranium, Wakanda has attained unprecedented technological development. This chapter explores the political economy of Wakanda and its leader, Black Panther. After explaining the origins of Black Panther, the chapter turns to the economic puzzle of Wakanda by exploring the geographic and economic implications of isolation. This is followed by an investigation into the way Wakanda has avoided the re-source curse that has plagued so many other countries. Next, a comparison is made be-tween Wakanda and the nation of Botswana. While there are some telling similarities, the lack of democracy in Wakanda is a glaring difference. It will discuss how it has de-veloped high-levels of technology that help advance the Black Panther’s dictatorship. Fi-nally, it will address the potential for democracy to emerge in Wakanda. Black Panther offers an opportunity to understand the role of political institutions in affecting the long-run economic, political, and technological development of a country. 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

FR8 train in green


Free Jazz: A William Parker Workshop

On Wednesday 13 February 2002 I attended a workshop conducted by William Parker. It was held in downtown Manhattan at 228 W. Broadway. The participants included two guitarists (electric), a vocalist, a trumpeter (me) and, of course, Parker himself, playing tuba for this occasion (he’s best known for his work on stand-up bass). Not your standard jazz ensemble.

Free jazz was the idiom. Of course “free jazz” is a big territory, but it doesn’t much matter just where in that territory we were located.

Parker made some general statements about this and that, and had variously wry, witty, and informative comments about the working methods of many of the folks he’s played with – Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Muhal Abrams, and so forth. But mostly we made music. And it really was music that we made. And pretty good music at that. The kind of music where, when it’s over, you don’t want to talk. You just remain silent for a moment, collecting yourself, deploying your parachute so as to slow down your descent into lower Manhattan.

We started with something Parker called “Number 14” — which he concocted on the spot. As he said, it starts with four fours. “What’s that?” you ask. You play four notes at a rapid clip, and do that four times in a row. “What four notes?” you ask. “He didn’t tell us, and none of us asked.” We all picked the notes we wanted when it came time to play the piece. But there’s more to “Number 14” than four fours. After four fours there’s a pause, that’s so, just like that, long. After the pause everyone picks a high note and does a long descending gliss(ando) to some low note. “What high note to what low note?” you ask. “Do you really think there’s a specific answer to that question?” says I. And then we play a long trill. “On notes of your choice,” you remark. “Yes, that’s it.” After that, guitar one plays a simple one two figure and repeats it four times. Then the ensemble does another high to low gliss to trill. That’s the “head” to “Number 14.” After the head, it was up to us and the music to negotiate the flow.

So we went through the head a couple of times and then played it down. It must have gone for twenty or thirty minutes. It started out pretty raggedy, but then things started to settle in—though “settle “ is not a particularly good word to use here. There’s no easy way to describe the music that evolved. Sometimes there was a pulse, sometimes there wasn’t. Even when there was a pulse, there where times when some people didn’t follow it. Sometimes everyone was playing, sometimes only one or two were. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always shifting. Sometimes full-tilt bozo, sometimes approaching serene.

You need to understand that this is different from, say, your standard mainstream jazz quintet (there were five of us) in various ways. For one thing, the head wasn’t particularly definite; and there were no set chord changes or modes, no set back-up figures or ensemble passages. But, major though that may seem, those differences from the mainstream are, in fact, secondary. More profoundly, the traditional instrumental roles were gone. Traditionally there’s a rhythm section (piano and/or guitar, drums, and bass) and a front line (horns, vocal, guitar). The front line players do the head and then they play solos; meanwhile the rhythm section provides support (and gets a bit of solo action as well, depending on the format). Within the rhythm section, the drums, bass, and piano each has a role to play.

Well, in our music, all that disappeared. There’s no distinction between front line and rhythm section, and no fixed division of rhythm section responsibilities. It’s all up in the air, to be negotiated and reconfigured moment by moment. What this implies is that the old head-solos-head format disappears as well. There are no solos as such. This is collective improvisation, a conversation among equals, true democracy (to put a Ken Burns twist on the proceedings). Now, at this or that moment, one player might be more out front — either because she stepped out there or the others stepped back — but this is not dictated by any plan. It just happens. So we’ve got a floating mélange of quasi-solos, duos, trios and quartets all within the framework of the overall quintet.

How do you cope with a situation like that? I can’t answer the question in general, but I can say a little about how I approached it: With my ears. I’m always aware of what’s going on. Now sometimes I’m focused on what I’m doing and not so much on anyone or everything else. But I’m aware of it nonetheless. And when I’m focused on my own playing I might be doing complex stuff, or I might be repeating a simple three-note riff, or even a long tone. But I also make it a practice to spend some time explicitly focusing on what each other player is doing and to orient myself to those sounds in some way. Perhaps I’ll imitate them, or play an answer to them, or support them, or create a counter line. There are lots of ways to orient yourself to what other people are doing and it’s very important that you do so with each player, one at a time. It’s part of your responsibility as a citizen in this improvisatory democracy.

To return to traditional ways of thinking, what this means for me is that some of the time I’m thinking and playing like a soloist — my instrument’s traditional role in mainstream jazz — but that I spend more time thinking and playing like a bass player (though the trumpet is a soprano instrument, but that’s no reason I can’t provide an anchoring ostinato) or pianist (playing arpeggios) or even like a drummer (playing staccato hits). And when the vocalist would sing long tones, I might support her by playing long tones (more or less) with her.

It’s like going into a theatrical costume shop and trying on all the different costumes. Everyone else is doing the same thing. You meet in various configurations and improvise a little skit that’s consistent with your costumes. Then you change costumes and do it again, and again.

Until it’s over. And that’s the interesting thing. How do you know it’s over? Since there’s no set plan, no check list of things to accomplish (as in the head-solos-head format), you need some other way to end it. You might think that, since William Parker was leading this workshop, that he ‘d end it. But he didn’t. We all ended it, and at the same time.

That was the first time through “Number 14.” We did it a second time. Then we worked on some conceptions from other workshoppers. And then it was over. We didn’t have time for “Number 15.”

A most satisfying experience.

Addendum: Check out this interview with Steve Swell, a  trombonist who knows the drill.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Kids dancing





Dance to the Music: the Kids Owned the Day

You've seen Dancing with the Stars, and such? Well that's the top of a pyramid. This post from five years ago is about what's more or less at the base of that pyramid. Fun. Yes, fun!

It IS, after all, about them, no?

Here’s the scene: A middle school auditorium in suburban New Jersey. It’s late Saturday afternoon on the second day of a dance competition. The auditorium is filled—but only loosely—with young dancers and their parents, other family, and friends. They’re all waiting for the last performance of the competition.

Some hip hop comes up on the sound system and a few of the dancers begin moving to the music. Some of them are standing up from their positions in the audience and are dancing in place. A couple others, at the far-left and far-right down front, are dancing in the outside aisles. More start joining in.

Down front, in the center, the action photographer—the guy who’s there to shoot photos of each dance number so they can then be sold to parents—is sitting down front on his high swivel chair. He’s smiling, swiveling in the chair to survey the scene, and he starts clapping on the back-beat.

That’s me.

Now another hip hop number comes up and, in a whooshhh! dancers get up out of their seats, rush to the aisles, and the aisles are jammed with kids joyously dancing. Five, six, eight, eleven, fifteen years old, a few older. Even the dancers waiting in the wings on stage for the final number, they danced too.

All dancing. 100, 200, maybe more. Dancing.

It was wonderful.

It made the day

How so?

Competitive dance.

What’s that?

What it is is an industry. There are some 200 companies in the USA that hold dance competitions, regional and then, in some cases, national.

Oh, You Mean Like Dancing with the Stars, only for kids?

Something like that. I don’t really know how it works because I’ve only seen this one day’s worth. What was going on that afternoon is that various dance studios would enter students in the competition as solos, duets or trios, small groups and so on, and they’re divided into a bunch of age groups so you don’t have four year olds competing against fourteen year olds.

And they dance in various styles too: lyrical, ballet, hip hop, jazz, tap, flamenco, and so forth. I must have seen dance moves from three or four continents up there, not to mention costumes.

I mean I was there as a photographer. I had to take 50+ pictures of every single dance number. Maybe 150 dances in 10 hours or so. It was pretty intense. But every once in awhile I saw something so joyful that I just had to laugh a little, even as I kept snapping the shutter.

You just wanted to hug those kids.

But what about the competition?

Oh, yeah, the competition. There were three judges, sitting down in front, right in front of me as a matter of fact. They had scoring sheets and microphones they talked into. I assume they were making oral notes for the kid’s dance teachers.

What’d the kids win in the competition?

To be honest, I’m not really sure. There WAS one awards ceremony early in the afternoon, but I took that as an opportunity to eat some lunch. I did catch a bit of it though. There were plaques, for kids and teachers, and trophies. Some of the trophies were almost as big as the kids. There was another ceremony at the end of the day, after the last dance. By that time, though, I was anxious to get on the road and get home, so I didn’t stick around for it.

What I think about the competition is mostly that the kids got to stand up in front of their friends and get a prize. What mattered was having fun dancing and just having people see that you did good.

What David Said

A couple days later I talked to my friend David about it. He has a daughter who was a serious competitive gymnast in her youth. She eventually made it to the state championships in New York and, I believe, won in this or that event.

He said it was great for her poise and self-confidence and he can see what it did for her even today, when she’s just become a mother herself and is running a small non-profit.

Of course, at the root of it, whether gymnastics or dance, is fun, physical fun. And for very young children physical fun is mostly what there is. Because they’re all body. Sure, they can talk and draw pictures and dream and tell stories. Sorta. But what they do best is move around.

So in gymnastics and in dance they get to move around all they want. And they learn to do so with grace and they learn that there is a special pleasure in being graceful. That’s a valuable and important lesson.

Plus, they get to dress up in a colorful costume! They get to put on an act.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sensorimotor Transition in Three Modes (vocal production, dance, drumming)

A post from four and a half years ago that I'm bumping to the top because it interests me. It's about physical movement; more specifically, about the need to practice transitions between physical movements. I'm particularly interested in the physical movements required to make music, or to dance.
Just yesterday I reported research indicating that both birds and human infants devote considerable time to learning how to switch between one sound and another. Here’s a passage from the abstract published in Nature:
We find a common, stepwise pattern of acquiring vocal transitions across species. In our first study, juvenile zebra finches were trained to perform one song and then the training target was altered, prompting the birds to swap syllable order, or insert a new syllable into a string. All birds solved these permutation tasks in a series of steps, gradually approximating the target sequence by acquiring new pairwise syllable transitions, sometimes too slowly to accomplish the task fully. … The babbling of pre-lingual human infants showed a similar pattern: instead of a single developmental shift from reduplicated to variegated babbling (that is, from repetitive to diverse sequences), we observed multiple shifts, where each new syllable type slowly acquired a diversity of pairwise transitions, asynchronously over development. Collectively, these results point to a common generative process that is conserved across species, suggesting that the long-noted gap between perceptual versus motor combinatorial capabilities in human infants may arise partly from the challenges in constructing new pairwise vocal transitions.
Compare that to this passage in an article by David Hays, The Evolution of Expressive Culture:
Balanchine's working career was long (Taper 1963/1984): born in 1904, he began making ballets in Russia in 1920, and made ballets in New York until 1982; he died in 1983. During that time, techniques for training the body advanced remarkably: In athletics (Mandell 1984), gymnastics, circus, and also in dance. Around 1900, I have heard, ballet dancers took several musical beats to move into a position, which they then held in tableau. Taper (p. 360) quotes Balanchine: "If present-day critics and audiences could actually see Apollo as it was performed in 1928, 'they would laugh their heads off at how it used to be.'" At the peak of his career, Balanchine made dances in which there was no time between steps for preparation; other choreographers still allowed a pause between movements so that the dancer could shift from the end pose of one movement to the start pose of the next, but not he. Reynolds (p. 98) quotes Maria Tallchief on Firebird (1949): "it was practically impossible. The variation contained many low, fast jumps, near the floor, lots of quick footwork, sudden changes of direction, off-balance turns, turns from pointe to pointe, turned-in, turned-out positions, one after another. It was another way of moving . . . There was no time."
There’s nothing in there about the practice required to learn these smooth pose-to-pose transitions but making such transitions is clearly a problem–not the least because they involve keeping the entire body in balance–and it took time for dancers to arrive at practice regimes that allowed for such transitions.

I have had some experience with the transition problem in teaching myself to play a tongue drum, which I discuss a bit in this post on free drumming.


Let’s say I’m learning some particular pattern, one that involves four strokes, left-hand right-hand left right, using, say, three particular keys on the drum, which each key is given a different letter identification, thus:
1) L(A) R(B) L(C) R(B) . . .
I begin by playing the pattern slowly and gradually pick up the pace. Now I decide that I want to hit the E key rather than the B key with the right hand. So I practice that:
2) L(A) R(E) L(C) R(E) . . .
That comes up to speed very quickly because the pattern of alternation between hands remains the same. All that’s changed is the target for the right hand stroke.

Imagine, now, that I want to alternate between patterns 1 and 2, thus:
L(A) R(B) L(C) R(B) L(A) R(E) L(C) R(E) . . .
Getting that to happen will not be easy. I’m going to have to start it slow and consciously think about the transition. As the transition becomes more comfortable I can pick up speed and, at some point, I will no longer have to think about the transition. It will happen smoothly and easily, without thought.

What’s going on? I don’t know, of course. The most obvious suggestion, however, is that, when one has to make a transition from one pattern to another, you have to (mentally) prepare the second transition while the first is being executed. And each pairwise transition requires different preparation, so each must be learning individually.

I would further speculate that this is a general problem in motor learning.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Clouds sun branches and twigs


What are the implications of the 5Pointz decision?

Last week, a federal judge, Frederic Block, may have established legal precedent to the unwritten code. Jerry Wolkoff, the developer who owns the building known as 5Pointz in Long Island City, Queens, was fined $6.7 million for painting over the works of 21 graffiti artists. Even though Mr. Wolkoff owned the building that was painted, a jury found that under the Visual Arts Rights Act, the art was protected.

It was an odd and belated sense of validation for the graffiti artists, even though they sensed that Mr. Wolkoff’s legal team underestimated the art form. [...]

Still, the artists were stunned by the size of the award issued by Judge Block. The $6.7 million was the maximum penalty, based on $150,000 for each of the 45 works the judge deemed worthy of protection.
Here's the interesting part:
The way the art was destroyed, however, was most upsetting. Mr. Wolkoff, intending to raze the building to build condominiums, hired a team to whitewash the building at night. But the warehouse remained standing for nearly a year after the graffiti had been destroyed. It seemed to the artists to be a deliberate insult to the thousands of hours of work put into the murals. Judge Block thought so as well.

“If not for Wolkoff’s insolence, these damages would not have been assessed,” the judge said at the ruling. “If he did not destroy 5Pointz until he received his permits and demolished it 10 months later, the court would not have found that he had acted willfully.”

It was the fact that galvanized the artists as well. “It gave the vibe to everyone that our art was worthless,” Mr. Tramontozzi said.
Dean Nicyper, a New York-based lawyer specializing in art law, considers Monday’s ruling to be a landmark decision.

“But I do think the breadth of the decision might be somewhat limited,” he said. “It’s limited to cases where people have created their art on a structure with permission.”

Mr. Nicyper said he believes the decision may have been different if Mr. Wolkoff had not granted the artists permission. It could also hinder graffiti artists in the future. “Does this create a chilling effect?” Mr. Nicyper asked. “Building owners are going to be reluctant to give permission.”

Monday, February 19, 2018

Straying into Mnozil territory?

From the accompanying article in the NYTimes:
Michael Landers and Ariel Hsing, table tennis champions in their early 20s, are featured as the Ping-Pong-playing soloists in Andy Akiho’s energetic concerto “Ricochet,” which will have its American premiere on Tuesday as part of the Philharmonic’s Lunar New Year gala. And yes, this is the first time a Ping-Pong table has been onstage at David Geffen Hall.

As staged in New York, the concerto will showcase two soloists — a violinist, Elizabeth Zeltser of the Philharmonic, and a percussionist, David Cossin — at the front of the stage. The Ping-Pong players are elevated at the back, like opera singers performing above an orchestra pit.

Separating the athlete-soloists from the rest of the ensemble is a tall net that protects the musicians (and the audience) from wayward balls. Not that there should be so many of those: The table-tennis parts, which sometimes involve playing with objects like wine glasses and drums in lieu of paddles, require no less skill than the ones for the traditional instruments. Summer-camp amateurs need not apply. [...]

But Mr. Akiho, an imaginative composer and percussionist known for playing the steel pan and found instruments, said his concerto shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Kiddie Lit

Back in the middle of 2006 I’d blogged about Kiddie Lit. I’m republishing that post because it’s  relevant to my interest in Disney’s Fantasia and, in particular, to the issues of cuteness and family presented by the Pastoral episode. I note also that I’ve been looking through Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).

* * * * *

A few years ago I read Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark (2003). I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, and graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, America’s) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children's literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either). Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children's books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

As one case study, Clark considers Mark Twain, in particular, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These days we think of Huckleberry Finn as an adult book and Tom Sawyer as a boy's book. But that distinction was not a firm one for Twain and his contemporaries. In his own statements on both books Twain vacillated in his sense of his audience and so did his reviewers. Similarly, Louisa May Alcott and her audience did not think of Little Women as a specifically girl's book. It was a book that could be read with pleasure and edification by both children and adults. In fact, at the time, some considered it a mark of excellence that a book was accessible to children as well as to adults.

The move to differentiate the adult from the children's audience came in the first and second quarters of the 20th century and succeeded so well that we now assume it without question. And children's literature has been, for the most part, marginalized.

Clark devotes her final chapter to Disney. She makes the point that prior to the 40s Disney and his work was quite highly regarded in intellectual circles. Some even thought his cartoons were more aesthetically significant than contemporary live-action films. She also points out that anyone going to the movies assumed they would see cartoons before the feature. It didn't make any difference whether the feature was a light-hearted comedy or a serious drama, you'd see cartoons first. Cartoons became children's fare, she argues, after WWII and as a side-effect of TV, which made it easier to develop niche audiences. Families went to the movies, but it was easy to let kids watch cartoons on TV while mother went about her duties elsewhere in the house. As for Disney, Clark argues that opinion turned on him when he introduced human figures into his cartoons (with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the later 1930s, his first feature-length film).

One issue looms large: How can we properly value children’s literature? Is the study of children’s literature a proper part of the general study of literature or should it remain the province of schools of education and developmental psychologists?

* * * * *

That’s not the issue that faces me now, however, though it’s important, not simply to literary culture, but to film culture as well. There IS Disney, of course, but also Hayao Miyazaki and a host of others.

Two views of a crane and a look out the windows of an empty room




Friday, February 16, 2018

First CAD drawings at Boeing were scratched on aluminum sheets by 3D milling machines

Think about that the next time you read about how computers are rotting our brains because this that and the other oh for the days of hardcopy books yada yada!!

"Lolita" – in life and in fiction

Bindu Bansinath writes about how Nabokov's Lolita gave her a script which she followed to escape her molester. A few paragraphs:
Over time it became harder to deny the reality of the abuse, but still I felt I could tell no one. Exposing my uncle would ruin him, and I considered myself too unimportant to upend a grown man’s life. So I endured, pushing my family away and pulling my uncle close, and, I hoped, past suspicion.

I felt as if I were growing into two identities, the woman I was and the woman-as-object eclipsing her. And in “Lolita” I found a strange validation: that there was glamour to be had as an object of desire. If a pedophile’s gaze could be normalized and even beautified, then perhaps I could normalize and beautify my own situation. It was easier to digest an image of myself as a nymphet than to confront the reality of my victimhood.

Over time, the novel became more than a coping mechanism; it became a guide. I came to see how Lolita uses Humbert’s obsession with her as a means to gain power over him. In the blue kidnapping car in which the two travel cross-country, she uses this power to accuse him of rape, of being a “dirty man.” While Humbert fumbles to justify booking one hotel room for them both, she names their situation for the incest it is. She knows she is Humbert’s vulnerability and learns how to use herself against him.

Eventually, so did I.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Some Notes on the Inspired Insanity of Mnozil Brass

I don’t know when I first discovered the Mnozil Brass, but I’ve been listening to them for a number of years now. They’re brilliant, but just what they do, that’s a bit tough to characterize. Sure, they make music, but what kind of music? – nor is it only music that they make.

Here’s a short clip entitled “Remixes Concerto of Arutiunian”. When it opens we see four musicians on stage, three trombone players and a tuba player (in the rear) and we hear trumpet playing off stage. If you’re familiar with the Arutiunian Trumpet Concerto you know that the music you’re listening to isn’t that, nor anything like it. For all I know it’s some traditional Tyrolean tune – Mnozil is an Austrian outfit.

The three trombone players engage in some stage business to the music – perhaps they’re imitating some mechanical figures dancing on the lid of a wind-up music box. They look at the tuba player, he looks at them, they look at one another, making faces and gesturing. They up with something. By about 35 seconds in they’ve ready to make their move. At the same time the music has switched into a minor key. Our musicians are prancing around, gesturing with their horns, and are oriented toward the left side of the stage. Obviously that’s where the trumpeters are.

At about 49 seconds in they unload with a blast of music. It’s a line from the Arutiunian trumpet concerto. As soon as they finish that line the offstage trumpeters let go with a short fanfare as our onstage musicians prance around in triumph while the audience claps. There’s even a bit of armpit sniffing.

But their victory is short-lived. At about 1:10 or so the trumpeters start up again, this time with “The Mexican Hat Dance.” So the lower brass starts up again with the gesturing, setting up to deliver another blast of sound to the trumpeters. At about 1:33 they deliver the same line from the Arutiunian; the trumpeters answer with the same little fanfare; and the lower brass continue on this time.

At 1:45 the trumpeters come prancing out on to the stage, making gestures like they’re on horseback. One of them, the last one (Thomas Gansch), is playing the trumpet solo line from the Arutiunian. Now we’ve got seven musicians on stage prancing around like they’re on horseback, one of them playing the solo line, the lower brass playing back-up figures, and then another melody appears. I don’t recognize it; maybe it was composed for this piece, maybe it’s from a music score, who knows? It’s not clear what’s going on, but they manage to work themselves into a V formation, prancing all the while, and then work their way to a straight line facing the audience. At 2:30 the music converges on the theme song from Bonanza. They play a few bars of that and they’re done. They make gestures suggesting they’re bringing their horses to a halt so they can dismount. As some of you may know, Bonanza was a hit Western that was on American TV in the 1960s. That, presumably, provides a rationale for the horse riding.

But what’s the rationale for the whole performance, which I find rather convincing? The stage business is not incidental, it’s essential, as is the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of source music. In the end I suppose that the Arutiunian is the dominant voice, but still, what’s the point? It seems to me that the stage business is required to make the whole thing hold together. It gives us just a bit of a story, some kind of conflict between the trumpets and the low brass that is somehow resolved through horsing around at the end.

Here’s another somewhat longer bit, “Cirque - toot toot”. It opens with a lone trombone player on stage standing on a chair. He blows a whistle and the other musicians enter from both sides of the stage playing something that I don’t recognize. They march around a bit and then our ‘conductor’, the trombonist we started with, whistles them to a halt and then starts them up again.

They continue playing – the piece they were playing at the beginning – and work their way to a line across the stage. And then...I’m not going to try to describe what happens as it’s best to see it. But there’s a bunch of stage business, the music stops, the trombonist gets everyone positioned just right and then, at about three minutes in, they start up again. At about 3:11 we realize they’re playing “In the Navy”, a song that was a hit for The Village People some years ago. They get through one line of that, put down their instruments, and start singing another Village People hit, “Y.M.C.A.” That falls apart at about 3:40 and they start up again with the piece they opened with, marching around on stage.

The trombonist whistles them to a halt at 4:29. Two of the trombones start up with a line from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while the opening guy puts on a mask and then joins in. We’re midway through the performance. They move around and so forth, their motions in one way or another reflecting what’s going on in the music. But from here to the end the music is from The Rite of Spring. They bring it to a unified and satisfying, albeit a bit abrupt, conclusion at about 9:17.

What’s it all about? As with the first piece we have the juxtaposition of distinctly different kinds of music in a single performance. This is characteristic of their repertoire as a whole. And we have the use of stage business to hold things together. There’s a sense in which they’re “meta” to the music they performing, but not very. They’re certainly not disengaged. Ironic? Maybe.

Basically, it works. I can describe something of what they’re doing. But what it all means, what holds it together, that’s beyond me. I’m not sure we’ve got the language needed to deal with it.

Let me leave you with one last clip. It’s called “Ballad”, and that’s what it is. It’s one piece of music from start to finish, with no funny stage business. It’s ‘ordinary’ music, played extraordinarily well.

* * * * *

More commentary on Mnozil:

Sunday, February 11, 2018

State-dependent cognition and its relevance to cultural evolution

Daniel Nettle, State-dependent cognition and its relevance to cultural evolution, Behavioural Processes, Available online 5 February 2018:
Abstract: Individuals cope with their worlds by using information. In humans in particular, an important potential source of information is cultural tradition. Evolutionary models have examined when it is advantageous to use cultural information, and psychological studies have examined the cognitive biases and priorities that may transform cultural traditions over time. However, these studies have not generally incorporated the idea that individuals vary in state. I argue that variation in state is likely to influence the relative payoffs of using cultural information versus gathering personal information; and also that people in different states will have different cognitive biases and priorities, leading them to transform cultural information in different ways. I explore hunger as one example of state variable likely to have consequences for cultural evolution. Variation in state has the potential to explain why cultural traditions and dynamics are so variable between individuals and populations. It offers evolutionarily-grounded links between the ecology in which individuals live, individual-level cognitive processes, and patterns of culture. However, incorporating heterogeneity of state also makes the modelling of cultural evolution more complex, particularly if the distribution of states is itself influenced by the distribution of cultural beliefs and practices.
You might want to look at this post from 2012, Latour's Modes of Existence Tart's State-Specific Sciences, and a Note on Work, Love, Play, and Adventure. More generally, you might want to browse through things I's posted on behavioral mode.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Dalai Lama: Prayer isn't enough, we must act

The Rebirth of Mind and Society: Jaynes and Nietzsche

The passage that follows is from the opening of Chapter 10: “Music and Civilization” of my book, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (pp. 222-226). It is about how the Greeks reconceived themselves through a process that Jean Piaget has called reflective abstraction. I look at this, first in the domain of emotion (Julian Jaynes) and then in that of drama (Nietzsche). Note that here and there I refer to the mind as “neural weather,” a metaphor I develop early in the book. The idea is simply that the mind is a constantly shifting mass of neural firings as the weather is a constantly shifting mass of molecular collisions.

* * * * *

In 1967, a book with an ungainly title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, created a minor sensation with an astonishingly quixotic and original thesis: human consciousness originated in ancient Greece sometime between Homer and an Athenian Golden Age. That is to say, Homer was a Hellenic zombie telling heroic tales about older zombies. Night of the Living Dead had opened in Athens and was playing to a packed house.

The author, Julian Jaynes, stages this argument by noting that Iliad and Odyssey contain many episodes in which humans receive direction from gods and goddesses, and do not contain many words referring to mental states and actions. He takes the first observation at face value and concludes that the Homeric Greeks heard inner voices and acted on what they heard. From the fact that mental words had become common by the time of the Athenian Golden Age, he concludes that by that time, human consciousness had emerged. The inner voices were no longer necessary as their function was subsumed by consciousness; Jaynes would thus have us believe that the creation of concepts about mental states and acts gave rise to consciousness.

However skeptical I am about aspects of Jaynes's theory—for example, the idea that Sophocles was conscious while Homer was not is deeply odd—something very important clearly happened in the period he surveys. Jaynes seems to have assumed that the absence of words about mental states means there was no consciousness. I see no reason to accept such an assumption. If one thinks of consciousness they way Walter Freeman does, then rabbits and dogs are conscious. But they have no words for mental states either.

If we reject Jaynes’ claim about consciousness, however, we can still accept some of the reasoning that accompanies it. The important observation is that mental terms were scarce in Homeric times, but not in Sophoclean and later times. If one has few or no mental terms, one can hardly attribute much to the mind. Similarly, Sophocles' Oedipus the King would not have been possible in Homer's time precisely because it takes place in a mental realm. It is about mental events, acts of knowing or denial.

I submit that this change is about the emergence, not of consciousness itself, but of a whole range of new modes of consciousness, new ways to use the mind, new patterns of neural weather. Another way of talking about this change is to use Jean Piaget’s concept of reflective abstraction. In his studies of child development, Piaget proposed that conceptual development proceeds through a series of stages in which the mental mechanisms of later stages objectify those that were used in earlier stages. The conceptual development that Jaynes has identified is like this.

Jaynes’ analysis centers on a handful of terms. As used in the Iliad these words refer to bodily symptoms, but they later come to have mental referents, such as mind or spirit. One of these terms is thumos:
It refers to a mass of internal sensations in response to environmental crises. ... This includes the dilation of the blood vessels in striate muscles and in the heart, an increase in tremor of striate muscles, a burst of blood pressure, the constriction of blood vessels in the abdominal viscera and in the skin, the relaxing of smooth muscles, and the sudden increased energy from the sugar released into the blood from the liver, and possible perceptual changes with the dilation of the pupil of the eye. This complex was, then, the internal pattern of sensation that preceded particularly violent activity in a critical situation. And by doing so repeatedly, the pattern of sensation begins to take on the term for the activity itself. Thereafter, it is the thumos which gives strength to a warrior in battle. ...
The next step is to conceptualize thumos as a container of various psychological substances such as vigor, and as an agent responsible for some class of psychological acts. Once Jaynes has made similar arguments for the other terms, it seems obvious that the conceptualization of mind we find in classical Greek thinkers is constructed over sets of bodily symptoms we now recognize as being regulated by the brain centers most directly responsible for motivation and emotion.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Which neoliberalism do you mean?

"Neoliberal" has become the catch-all curse-world of the political left. But it has a complex genealogy dating back to the late 19th century, which is sketched in by Daniel Rodgers in Dissent. A paragraph:
But the problem with neoliberalism is neither that it has no meaning nor that it has an infinite number of them. It is that the term has been applied to four distinctly different phenomena. “Neoliberalism” stands, first, for the late capitalist economy of our times; second, for a strand of ideas; third, for a globally circulating bundle of policy measures; and fourth, for the hegemonic force of the culture that surrounds and entraps us. These four neoliberalisms are intricately related, of course. But the very act of bundling them together, tucking their differences, loose ends, and a clear sense of their actually existing relations under the fabric of a single word, may, perversely, obscure what we need to see most clearly.

Hiding in plain sight


Ritual in Apocalypse Now

This is one of a number of old posts on Apocalypse Now (which I've listed at the end of the post). I've collected them into a single downloadable PDF: Apocalypse Now: Working Papers.
Now that I’ve come to terms with the film’s ending, I’ve seen a pattern in Apocalypse Now that’s been staring me in the face the whole time. The pattern is that of a rite of passage as described by Arnold van Gennep and Emile Durkheim. The final sacrifice of the caribao is part of this pattern, but only part. The pattern, in fact, governs the whole film.

First, let’s consider ritual pattern (using prose I’ve lifted from one of my essays on Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues). Then we can follow it through Apocalypse Now and conclude, symmetrically, with more prose lifted from that Sita essay.

Ritual Pattern

The pattern I have in mind are an abstraction from structures anthropologists have found in rituals around the world. Here’s how I characterized that structure in my essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (find downloadable PDF here):
In “Two Essays Concerning the Symbolic Representation of Time” Edmund Leach has described the ritual structure of Durkheim's “states of the moral person.” They are: 1) secular life, 2) separation from the secular world and transition to 3) the marginal state where the ‘moral person’ is in a world discontinuous from the ordinary world, often being regarded as being dead, and from which a return to the secular is made by a process of 4) aggregation or desacralization, often symbolized by rebirth. Arnold van Gennep talks of separation, transition, and incorporation in The Rites of Passage. The ritual sequence involves two realms of being, the secular and the sacred, and is designed to order the transition of initiates between these two realms.
As a simple example, consider the bride’s role in the now standard Christian wedding ceremony, a ceremony in which she will loose the surname she was born with and assume her husband’s surname, thereby changing her social identity. She enters the church with a veil over her face. She is thus faceless; symbolically, she has no social identity and is now separated from the secular world. Accompanied by her father, she walks to the altar where she is met by the groom; she is in a transitional state. She and the groom exchange vows and the priest pronounces them to be married. Now that she has her new social identity, and a new name, the veil can be lifted and the new woman can be incorporated into society in that new identity.

This ritual is a relatively short, but anthropologists have recorded rituals that last for hours and days and even longer. Adolescent initiation rites, for example, can last for months. There is an initial rite of separation where the young men, shall we say, are stripped on their ordinary identity. They may have to wear special dress and have special markings on their bodies. They may be given a different name as well. Once they have thus been separated from society, they’ll go live in some other place reserved for them and they’ll be taught things needful to be an adult man in their society. This process can easily last several months and may involve arduous physical tasks or a vision quest. During this period their friends and family may well treat them as being dead, which they are, socially. They are in transition, without an identity in their society. Once the proper things have been done another ceremony will be performed and the young men will be given new names, perhaps new body make-up, and will be incorporated into society as adults.

What’s important about the ritual pattern is not how elaborate it is, or how long it takes for the full ritual to run to completion. What’s important is the pattern itself: separation, transition, and incorporation. That’s the pattern we’re going to look for in Apocalypse Now.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

On the deceptive nature of visual geometry