Monday, April 30, 2018

Fire boat


Beauty and the Beast: King Kong as ring composition, plus myth logic

Since I've just republished an old Gojira post at 3 Quarks Daily I thought I'd bump this King Kong post to the top of the queue.

Almost four years ago I’d done a post about the possibility that King Kong (1933) has ring-from composition [1]. In that post I mentioned that David Bordwell had tipped me off to the possibility, following a presentation he’d seen by Thierry Kuntzel and I appended a passage from a 1976 article by Judith Mayne in which she remarked upon the symmetries in the film [2]:
And yet the structure of King Kong is a paragon of symmetry. The center of the film, occurring on Skull Island, is enclosed by two sequences occurring in New York, and these two sequences in their turn are enclosed by the references to Beauty and the Beast. (377)
I have now, at long last, taken a look myself and have tentatively concluded that, yes, King Kong is a ring form text. The symmetry is certainly very strong and my reservations are details, though worth thinking about.

First things first. As far as I know there’s only one DVD reissue, by Warner Home Video (2005) and that’s what I’m working from. All timings are from that DVD.

Preliminary ring-composition analysis

The original 1933 King Kong, directed and produced by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, entered the National Film Registry in 1991 and has been remade twice, in 1976 and 2005 [3]. It received rave reviews at its original release. The review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes, has ranked it the fifth greatest horror film of all time [4] and the 29th greatest film of all time [5]. I rather imagine that the Rotten Tomatoes rankings fluctuate quite a bit – the film was rated higher in both lists in the Wikipedia article, which accessed them on March 17, 2010 (horror, when Kong was 1st) and October 14, 2016 (all time greatest, when Kong was 20th) – so we should take those rankings with a grain of salt, but only a grain. The film certainly merits careful examination.

King Kong is something of a film-within-a-film. Carl Denham, a maker of adventure films, has the idea for the film of a lifetime. He recruits Ann Darrow, whom he’d found stealing a piece of fruit at a street side stall, to star in it. They travel to Skull Island, where the filming is to take place, and does. During the voyage Darrow falls in love with Jack Driscoll, the first mate on the ship. The natives on the island offer Darrow to Kong, who takes her into the interior of the island. She’s rescued, and Kong himself is brought back to New York where he’s exhibited on Broadway. He escapes, takes Darrow up the Empire State Building, where he’s killed. Darrow, presumably, lives happily ever after with Driscoll.

Here’s the basic form of the action:

Start in New York City where Carl Denham recruits Ann Darrow for his film.
We journey to Skull Island and land near a village where the inhabitants worship Kong.
Then we move through the village into Kong’s territory, where Kong takes Darrow.
Darrow is rescued and we return to the village, followed by Kong who goes on a rampage and is finally subdued on the beach by gas.
We return to New York City where Kong is put on display, escapes, takes Darrow up the Empire State Building, and is killed.

That seems symmetrical enough, which is the main requirement for ring-composition. However, in the first half we spend eight minutes on board the ship traveling from New York City to Skull Island. But in the second movement we cut directly from Skull Island to New York. Do we count that as a failure of symmetry, and is that failure bad enough that we cannot count King Kong as a ring-form text? I’m not sure, but for the moment I want to set that question aside. I’ll return to it at the end.

There’s a more pressing issue, one that takes us deeper into the film. The film runs roughly an hour and 43 minutes from the opening to the final display of credits, though the first four minutes is given over to an overture with nothing on the screen but a card that says “Overture”. The central section, when we’re in Kong’s territory, is a bit over 28 minutes long, which strikes me as being a bit long to be the turning point in a film that runs almost one and three quarter hours. Is there, within that section, a shorter segment that serves as the turning point?

I believe there is, and it’s a battle between King Kong and a T-Rex. It is almost four minutes long and is, I believe, the longest and most complex single fight sequence in the film. (I haven’t actually checked the timing on the others. I’m just guessing about this.) Given that, at this point in the film, the goal is to rescue Darrow from Kong, you’d think that the moment of rescue would be the center point. But I don’t think that’s right. The timing’s off.

The film is roughly 01:43 long and the T-Rex fight starts at c. 1:01:51, well over half-way through. The rescue sequence starts at roughly 1:14:03, which is over two-thirds of the way through the film, and it only lasts for about two-and-a-half minutes (1:14:03-1:16:38 or so), making it shorter. For those reasons, position in the film and relative length (and thus prominence) of the two sequences, I think the T-Rex fight is the center point.

That gives us:

Start in New York City where Carl Denham recruits Ann Darrow for his film.
We journey to Skull Island and land near a village where the inhabitants worship Kong.
Then we move through the village into Kong’s territory, where Kong takes Darrow.
Kong battles T-Rex.
Driscoll (ship’s mate) finally frees Darrow from Kong.
Darrow is rescued and we return to the village, followed by Kong who goes on a rampage and is finally subdued on the beach by gas.
We return to New York City where Kong is put on display, escapes, takes Darrow up the Empire State Building, and is killed.

What is Kong? Who is Kong?

And it also gives us much to think about. Darrow’s rescuer, Jack Driscoll, the ship's mate and husband-to-be, is nowhere to be seen in that central sequence. He’s in a shallow cave beneath the edge of a cliff where he’d gone to escape Kong, and where he’d wounded Kong in the hand with his knife.

Notes on Place and Narrative Order in Three Texts

In the course of a recent session (about the nature of stories and the discipline of literary criticism) Per Aage Brandt brought my attention to his paper, Forces and Spaces – Maupassant, Borges, Hemingway. Toward a Semio-Cognitive Narratology, in which he outlines (to quote from his abstract) “a model of the constitutive architecture of narrative meaning as manifested by ‘good stories’, stories that make sense by conveying a vie& of the human condition.” In this model he proposes that actions move back and forth between “a canonical set of narrative spaces, each encompassing and contributing a significant part of the meaning of a story” and that these narrative spaces are typically “staged as distinct locations” in the physical space depicted in the narrative. He labeled these four spaces: Condition, Catastrophe, Consequence, and Conclusion.

That something like this is going on seems plausible on the face of it. As Brandt noted in a comment over at the session, “spaces and behaviors are regularly linked, in human cultures as in many animal behaviors.” Thus humans and animals typically has a nesting space or den where they sleep and a daily routine the moves through the same spaces in a regular circuit where they satisfy their various needs. I note further that, as all animals have to navigate through the physical world, the neural machinery for guiding us through space is phylogenetically very old, reliable, and sophisticated.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to set the abstract narratology aside and simply concentrate on the physical places in a small set of narratives. Furthermore, those narratives share a common narrative form, known as ring composition. In the next section I describe that form with a simple example and then, in successive sections, consider three texts: Tezuka’s Metropolis, Honda’s Gojira, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A final section has links to other materials.

Let’s Take a Journey

Let us start with a very simple narrative, one with no remarkable features. It is a story about how I leave my apartment to get a quart of milk at the local King’s grocery store and then return to my apartment by the same route. This story, as you will quickly see, had the canonical form of a ring; that’s why I’m telling it.

Here is that story, told in a telegraphic way.

A: Leave Apartment
B: Exit Building, turn left to 13th St.
C: Walk East on 13th St. for a block, cross Hudson
D: Turn right, walk so many yards to the door of King’s
E: Enter King’s and purchase milk
D’: Exit King’s, turn right and walk so many yards to 13th St.
C’: Cross Hudson and walk one block on 13th to Washington St.
B’: Turn right and walk to the door of 1301 Washington St.
A’: Enter building and return to my apartment

This story has a center point, my purchase of milk, and the events in the story, such as they are, are arranged symmetrically around that central event.

That story interests me because the ring-form is incidental to my intentions in telling the story. In telling the story I didn’t intend it to have a ring form. All I intended was to tell the events as they happened or, to be more precise, as I remembered them happening. My memory stream has the events ordered one after the other and that’s how I told them.

Where, then, did the narrative symmetry come from? It came from the material conditions of the narrated events. The story was simple. I started at one place, when to another to do something, and then I returned to my starting point. Because returned by the same route I used when going to the goal place, the symmetry was a natural consequence of geography. Had I returned by a different route, the symmetry would have been broken.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Evolution and Thermodynamics

Thermodynamics of Evolutionary Games
Christoph Adami, Arend Hintze (Michigan State University)
(Submitted on 9 Jun 2017)

How cooperation can evolve between players is an unsolved problem of biology. Here we use Hamiltonian dynamics of models of the Ising type to describe populations of cooperating and defecting players to show that the equilibrium fraction of cooperators is given by the expectation value of a thermal observable akin to a magnetization. We apply the formalism to the Public Goods game with three players, and show that a phase transition between cooperation and defection occurs that is equivalent to a transition in one-dimensional Ising crystals with long-range interactions. We also investigate the effect of punishment on cooperation and find that punishment acts like a magnetic field that leads to an "alignment" between players, thus encouraging cooperation. We suggest that a thermal Hamiltonian picture of the evolution of cooperation can generate other insights about the dynamics of evolving groups by mining the rich literature of critical dynamics in low-dimensional spin systems.

Subjects: Populations and Evolution (q-bio.PE); Statistical Mechanics (cond-mat.stat-mech); Biological Physics (
Cite as: arXiv:1706.03058 [q-bio.PE]
(or arXiv:1706.03058v1 [q-bio.PE] for this version)

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

White blossoms


Family life: I don’t understand Japanese culture

I was looking through the video offerings on Amazon Prime and say that they had a number of Japanese programs. So I picked one, Happy Marriage!?, a live TV program based on a manga series from a few years back.

In the first episode we are introduced to Chiwa Takanashi, a young woman in her early twenties who works as a retail clerk during the day and at a hostess bar several evenings. She lives with her father, who lost his business to gambling and who continues to gamble. As far as I can tell, she’s now supporting him.

One night at the hostess bar she meets Hokuto Mamiya, a wealthy bachelor in his late twenties. He offers to marry her and she refuses. However, upon returning home she finds that two thugs have come to collect on her father’s gambling debts. One possibility is for her to work in a brothel until the debt is paid, and they offer her a contract to that effect. At this point I forget just what happened, but she doesn’t do it. Instead she takes Mr. Mamiya up on his offer; she’ll marry him.

Why’d he make the offer? It turns out that his grandfather, a wealthy industrialist, put him up to it as a condition for entering the family business. Why’d the old may do it – we may have passed into the second episode by now? Because Miss Takanashi is the granddaughter of a woman he’d loved in his youth but couldn’t marry because she wasn’t of a proper family.

And so it goes. I’m now five episodes in and it is, well, interesting. My point, though, is simply that you would have this kind of story originating in America. That’s not how our culture works.

That’s one example. Here’s another, from an article by Elif Batuman in The New Yorker. Kazushige Nishida is in his late sixties and his wife has just died. He’s also had an argument with his 22 year old daughter who subsequently left home. He’s feeling lonely. So he contracted with a company called Family Romance to rent wife and daughter surrogates with whom he’s had dinner several times and a rental fee of roughly $370 per evening.

Some paragraphs:
Nishida said that, although he still calls them by the names of his wife and daughter, and the meetings still take the form of family dinners, the women have, to some extent, stopped acting and “turned into their own selves.” The rental wife sometimes “breaks out of the shell of the rental family” enough to complain about her real husband, and Nishida gives her advice. With this loosening of the roles, he realized that he, too, had been acting, playing the part of “a good husband and father,” trying not to seem too miserable, telling his daughter how to hold her rice bowl. Now he felt lighter, able for the first time to talk about his real daughter, about how shocked he had been when she announced her decision to move in with a boyfriend he had never met, and how they had argued and broken off contact.

On the subject of the real daughter, the rental daughter had a lot to say: as someone in her early twenties, she could tell that Nishida hadn’t spoken correctly, or expressed himself in the right way. He’d made it hard for his daughter to apologize and it was up to him to create an opening. “Your daughter is waiting for you to call her,” she told him. To me, this sentence had the eerie ring of something uttered at a séance. Nishida himself seemed uncertain about how and for whom the rental daughter had spoken. “She was acting as a rental daughter, but at the same time she was telling me how she felt as a real daughter,” he said. “And yet, if it was a real father-daughter relationship, maybe she wouldn’t have spoken this honestly.”

Eventually, Nishida called his daughter—something he says he wouldn’t have done if the rental substitute hadn’t helped him see her point of view. It took a few tries to get through, but they were eventually able to talk. One day, he came home from work to find fresh flowers for his wife on the family altar, and he understood that his daughter had been at the house while he was gone.

“I’ve been telling her to come home,” he said carefully, folding and refolding a hand towel that the waitress had brought him. “I’m hoping to meet her again soon.”

Yūichi Ishii, the founder of Family Romance, told me that he and his “cast” actively strategize in order to engineer outcomes like Nishida’s, in which the rental family makes itself redundant in the client’s life. His goal, he said, is “to bring about a society where no one needs our service.”
Very interesting. The article is surprising and worth reading in full. Toward the end:
I’d started off assuming that the rental schema somehow undercut the idea of unconditional love. Now I found myself wondering whether it was even possible to get unconditional love without paying. The questions I’d been asking myself about what Ishii really felt for Reiko and her daughter made more sense when I thought about them in these terms. A person can do things professionally—for a set time, in exchange for money and recognition—that she can’t do indefinitely for free. I knew that Ishii had put a lot of preparation into his job, watching family movies to learn how “a kind father” would walk, talk, and eat. Likewise, I had read about a host-club worker who studied romance novels in order to be able to anticipate and fulfill his clients’ every need, and consequently had no time left for a personal life. “Women’s ideal romance entails hard work,” he said, “and that is nearly impossible in the real world.” He said he could never have worked so hard for a real girlfriend.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Katherine Switzer, marathoner, then and now

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Purple Flowers


Machine-learning can predict the evolution of chaotic systems

The findings come from veteran chaos theorist Edward Ott and four collaborators at the University of Maryland. They employed a machine-learning algorithm called reservoir computing to “learn” the dynamics of an archetypal chaotic system called the Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equation. The evolving solution to this equation behaves like a flame front, flickering as it advances through a combustible medium. The equation also describes drift waves in plasmas and other phenomena, and serves as “a test bed for studying turbulence and spatiotemporal chaos,” said Jaideep Pathak, Ott’s graduate student and the lead author of the new papers. [...]

The algorithm knows nothing about the Kuramoto-Sivashinsky equation itself; it only sees data recorded about the evolving solution to the equation. This makes the machine-learning approach powerful; in many cases, the equations describing a chaotic system aren’t known, crippling dynamicists’ efforts to model and predict them. Ott and company’s results suggest you don’t need the equations — only data. “This paper suggests that one day we might be able perhaps to predict weather by machine-learning algorithms and not by sophisticated models of the atmosphere,” Kantz said.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh!

Netflix is currently streaming a 6-part documentary about how central Oregon was "invaded" by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers, intent upon establishing a small city devoted to his teachings. These events happened in the early 1980s. Here's the trailer:

The documentary is constituted by news and documentary footage from the 1980s and by current-day interviews with followers of Rajneesh who were there, local people involved in events, and government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. 

In brief, the Rajneeshees bought a 64,000 acre ranch, arrived by the 100s and low 1000s in the early 1980s, got into conflict with the locals over land use as they proceeded on construct their city, which included a small airport, and had left by the mid-1980s after Rajneesh had been deported for immigration fraud. It's a strange and rich story, well worth your attention. I found it a bit unsettling, in part because I'd never looked at anything quite like this, this closely. This is one of those cases where, as the cliche has it, truth is stranger than fiction – assuming we can figure out just what the truth is.

Some links:

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A small mechanical device that plays a simple tune


Common Sense in Artificial Intelligence

Sometime back in the 1970s, I believe it was, David Marr observed something of a paradox (I believed he used that word) in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). Much of the early work, which did meet with some success, involved modeling fairly sophisticated forms of knowledge, mathematics and science, but when researchers started working in simple domain, like ordinary narrative, things got more difficult. That is, it seemed easier to model the specialized knowledge of a highly trained scientist than the general knowledge of a six year old. That problem has come to be known in AI as the problem of common sense, and its intractability has was one reason that old school research programs grounded in symbolic reasoning fell apart in the mid-1980s. During the 1990s and continuing on to the present various machine learning techniques have become quite successful in domains that had eluded symbolic AI. But common sense reasoning has continued to elude researchers.

Earlier this year Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that he was giving $125 million to his nonprofit Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2) to study common sense reasoning. Here's a short paper from that lab that gives and overview of the problem.
Niket Tandon, Aparna S. Varde, Gerard de Melo, Commonsense Knowledge in Machine Intelligence, SIGMOD Records 2018.

Abstract: There is growing conviction that the future of computing depends on our ability to exploit big data on the Web to enhance intelligent systems. This includes encyclopedic knowledge for factual details, common sense for human-like reasoning and natural language generation for smarter communication. With recent chatbots conceivably at the verge of passing the Turing Test, there are calls for more common sense oriented alternatives, e.g., the Winograd Schema Challenge. The Aristo QA system demonstrates the lack of common sense in cur- rent systems in answering fourth-grade science exam questions. On the language generation front, despite the progress in deep learning, current models are easily confused by subtle distinctions that may require linguistic common sense, e.g. quick food vs. fast food. These issues bear on tasks such as machine translation and should be addressed using common sense acquired from text. Mining common sense from massive amounts of data and applying it in intelligent systems, in several respects, appears to be the next frontier in computing. Our brief overview of the state of Commonsense Knowledge (CSK) in Machine Intelligence provides insights into CSK acquisition, CSK in natural language, applications of CSK and discussion of open issues. This paper provides a report of a tutorial at a recent conference with a brief survey of topics.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Pagoda forms



Why should humanists adopt evolutionary concepts in thinking about culture?

From three years ago. More timely than ever.
Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

I started working on this post a month or two ago. I’ve written a number of long and complicated posts in the last year or so where I’ve ended up asserting that humanists really need to think about cultural evolution because it provides us with a way to think about that (quasi)autonomous realm that Ed Said believed in, but couldn’t justify on the basis of the literary theory that had developed during his career. I figured some scholars probably never read those arguments because they didn’t want to plough through longs posts making strange arguments.

I figured that the thing to do, then, was to make the assertion, with perhaps a bit of argumentation, in a relatively short post where THAT’s the whole point. So I started drafted that post, and it started growing, and I kept on thinking and before I knew it I’d decided I needed to gather a bunch of stuff together and write a book. So I’ve started on that project – Mind-Culture Co-Evolution is my provisional title – and abandoned that post.

Well, this is that post, resurrected, and relatively short. Why do humanists need to think about cultural evolution? Because
1) it is a way to think about how expressive culture plays a causal role in history, and

2) it is way to put macroscale and microscale work within the same conceptual framework.
Note that when I say cultural evolution I mean just that, cultural evolution, not biological evolution, not evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is neither here nor there with respect to cultural evolution. Biological evolution, of course, is the ground from which cultural evolution springs, but it operates in a different realm. Culture does exist in the pre-human world, but it’s thin stuff.

There’s been a fair amount of work on cultural evolution in the past two or three decades or so, but it’s rather scattered. There’s no off-the-shelf model that’s ready to go for students of literature, or the arts in general, and there’s a fair amount of nonsense. So we’re going to have to make it up ourselves, and that’s not easy.

The remarks in the rest of this post do not constitute an argument on those points. Such an argument is way beyond the scope of a blog post. That’s why I’ve decided to write a book. The purpose of these remarks is to indicate what I regard as the intellectual scope of a robust approach to cultural evolution.

Expressive culture is a causal force in history

That, I take it, is what Shelley had in mind when he asserted, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” And you can’t legislate unless you’ve got a place to stand, unless you aren’t merely a puppet of historical forces.

But what, pray tell, are historical forces? I’d hoped that a trip to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy would have a helpful article on the philosophy of history. It didn’t. What the article said is that inferring historical causes is difficult. Well, yes, I know that. But are there distinct kinds of causes that have been investigated? No luck there.

Massive Human Entrainment

Fusaroli R, Perlman M, Mislove A, Paxton A, Matlock T, Dale R (2015) Timescales of Massive Human Entrainment. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122742. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122742

Published: April 16, 2015DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0122742
Abstract: The past two decades have seen an upsurge of interest in the collective behaviors of complex systems composed of many agents entrained to each other and to external events. In this paper, we extend the concept of entrainment to the dynamics of human collective attention. We conducted a detailed investigation of the unfolding of human entrainment—as expressed by the content and patterns of hundreds of thousands of messages on Twitter—during the 2012 US presidential debates. By time-locking these data sources, we quantify the impact of the unfolding debate on human attention at three time scales. We show that collective social behavior covaries second-by-second to the interactional dynamics of the debates: A candidate speaking induces rapid increases in mentions of his name on social media and decreases in mentions of the other candidate. Moreover, interruptions by an interlocutor increase the attention received. We also highlight a distinct time scale for the impact of salient content during the debates: Across well-known remarks in each debate, mentions in social media start within 5–10 seconds after it occurs; peak at approximately one minute; and slowly decay in a consistent fashion across well-known events during the debates. Finally, we show that public attention after an initial burst slowly decays through the course of the debates. Thus we demonstrate that large-scale human entrainment may hold across a number of distinct scales, in an exquisitely time-locked fashion. The methods and results pave the way for careful study of the dynamics and mechanisms of large-scale human entrainment.

Interest in the collective behaviors of complex systems composed of many agents has dramatically increased over the past couple of decades. This interest may stem in no small part from a new ability to measure and model collective behaviors. In a canonical case, Strogatz and Stewart [1] highlight firefly behavior as illustrative of fundamental principles underlying entrained systems [2, 3]. In parts of Southeast Asia, one may happen upon a sea of fireflies, in which each firefly’s intrinsic oscillatory dynamics have become entrained to others around it. The result is a large-scale collective behavior: The fireflies fire in sync in an impressive display brought on by subtle mutual influences. They are entrained in that they match their behavior to the temporal structure of events in the environment [4–6]. This process might involve elements of reciprocal influence between individual agents as in the case of the fireflies, or it might depend predominantly on external environmental events. The firefly model has inspired the investigation of entrainment across many physiological and technological phenomena, from neuronal firing to electric power networks [7]. However, it is still unclear how complex cognitive agents, such as human beings, might also exhibit patterns of large-scale entrainment.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Row upon row of seeds


John Horgan asks: "Is Science Hitting a Wall?"

Back in 1996 John Horgan kicked up a mighty fuss with The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, which was recently reissued. Put rather crudely, Horgan argued that in field after field, science seems to be spinning its wheels. Perhaps we've run up against limits to our knowledge? In a review-essay I published in 1997 I suggested that perhaps the limits are imposed by our current systems of thought, but that other systems are possible. "What has come to an end, I argue, is a certain view of the world which sees reality as reducible to simple laws about simple systems underpinning the superficial complexity of phenomenal experience. On the contrary, reality is fundamentally complex and reductionism is doomed. The universe is fecund in that it has evolved multiple Realms of Being, with the later ones being implemented in the former."

Be that as it may, he's at it again.  He opens a recent post with some observations:
In “Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?”, four economists claim that “a wide range of evidence from various industries, products, and firms show[s] that research effort is rising substantially while research productivity is declining sharply.” The economists are Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones and Michael Webb of Stanford and John Van Reenen of MIT.

As an counter-intuitive example, they cite Moore’s Law, noting that the “number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.” The researchers found similar trends in research related to agriculture and medicine. More and more research on cancer and other illnesses has produced fewer and fewer lives saved.

These findings corroborate analyses presented by economists Robert Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth and Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation. Bloom, Jones, Webb and Van Reenen also cite “The Burden of Knowledge and the ‘Death of the Renaissance Man’: Is Innovation Getting Harder?”, a 2009 paper by Benjamin Jones. He presents evidence that would-be innovators require more training and specialization to reach the frontier of a given field. Research teams are also getting bigger, and the number of patents per researcher has declined.

The economists are concerned primarily with what I would call applied science, the kind that fuels economic growth and increases wealth, health and living standards. Advances in medicine, transportation, agriculture, communication, manufacturing and so on. But their findings resonate with my claim in The End of Science that “pure” science—the effort simply to understand rather than manipulate nature--is bumping into limits.
He continues with a grab-bag of observations he made at recent on the subject of whether or not science is slowing down. Here's one of them:
How much are “pure” discoveries like the big bang or out-of-Africa hypothesis worth? I’d like to say they are priceless, but that answer won’t suffice when we’re talking about government funding. Should we spend billions of tax dollars on a next-generation particle accelerator, gravitational-wave detector or manned mission to Mars when millions of people lack decent health care, housing and education?

I call this the Whitey-on-the-Moon Problem in honor of rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron. In his 1970 song “Whitey on the Moon” Scott-Heron says, “A rat done bit my sister Nell/(with Whitey on the Moon)./…The man just upped my rent last night/('cause Whitey's on the moon)./No hot water, no toilets, no lights/(but Whitey's on the moon).”
Here's part 2 of Horgan's 2-parter: Is Science Hitting a Wall?, Part 2.

Winsor McCay: The Pet

This post from 2012 is about one of the creepiest films I've ever seen and a classic of early animation.
Winsor McCay was a cartoonist and a pioneering animator who did most of his work in the second decade or so of the 20th Century. He was a skilled and fluent draftsman and, as far as I can tell, had relatively little stylistic influence on subsequent animators, possibly because his style would have been impossible in the commercial animation world as it emerged.

This post consists mostly of notes I made on his next to the last film, The Pet, which is also one of the creepiest films I’ve EVER seen. EVER. This little gem is not kid stuff.

Point of reference: The Pet was made in 1921 while King Kong was made in 1933.

Running Time: c. 10 min 30 sec

Now, let's take a closer look at one of McCay's 1921 films, "The Pet." This is one of those dream films. In this case the dream is the husband's dream and it is about a stray animal that his wife takes in as a pet.

There are two defining characteristics of this creature:
1.) It just grows and grows and eats and eats and grows and grows.
2.) In both its being and its actions it violates boundary after boundary.
These are both obvious enough, but the first could be pointed out by a six-year old while the latter requires some considerable sophistication to formulate explicitly. The six-year old can easily tell you that it both is and is not a cat – and be puzzled by this, that it eats things it shouldn’t – like a coffee pot and a pile of coal; a twenty-six year old could tell you these things as well. But summing it all up as a succession of boundary violations, that would require an article-length piece of academic analysis.

The eating and eating and growing and growing are perfectly visible, concrete events. Each and every one of the boundary violations is also concrete and visible; but the characterization of all those events as “boundary violation” is abstract. One easily notices all those violations, they seem odd, strange, unsettling, and so forth. So, what’s the relationship between that abstract pattern and the “primary process” thinking of the Freudian unconscious?

Friday, April 6, 2018

The demise of the nation state

I've been reading about this for several years now. Rana Dasguta has an article of that title in The Guardian for April 5, 2018. Here's some excerpts:
The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world. This is why a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism is so widely in vogue. But the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration – these are not cures, but symptoms of what is slowly revealing itself to all: nation states everywhere are in an advanced state of political and moral decay from which they cannot individually extricate themselves.

Why is this happening? In brief, 20th-century political structures are drowning in a 21st-century ocean of deregulated finance, autonomous technology, religious militancy and great-power rivalry. Meanwhile, the suppressed consequences of 20th-century recklessness in the once-colonised world are erupting, cracking nations into fragments and forcing populations into post-national solidarities: roving tribal militias, ethnic and religious sub-states and super-states. Finally, the old superpowers’ demolition of old ideas of international society – ideas of the “society of nations” that were essential to the way the new world order was envisioned after 1918 – has turned the nation-state system into a lawless gangland; and this is now producing a nihilistic backlash from the ones who have been most terrorised and despoiled.
Once upon a time...
The reason the nation state was able to deliver what achievements it did – and in some places they were spectacular – was that there was, for much of the 20th century, an authentic “fit” between politics, economy and information, all of which were organised at a national scale. National governments possessed actual powers to manage modern economic and ideological energies, and to turn them towards human – sometimes almost utopian – ends. But that era is over. After so many decades of globalisation, economics and information have successfully grown beyond the authority of national governments. Today, the distribution of planetary wealth and resources is largely uncontested by any political mechanism.

But to acknowledge this is to acknowledge the end of politics itself. And if we continue to think the administrative system we inherited from our ancestors allows for no innovation, we condemn ourselves to a long period of dwindling political and moral hope. Half a century has been spent building the global system on which we all now depend, and it is here to stay. Without political innovation, global capital and technology will rule us without any kind of democratic consultation, as naturally and indubitably as the rising oceans.
Can we change?
It will be objected, inevitably, that any alternative to the nation-state system is a utopian impossibility. But even the technological accomplishments of the last few decades seemed implausible before they arrived, and there are good reasons to be suspicious of those incumbent authorities who tell us that human beings are incapable of similar grandeur in the political realm. In fact, there have been many moments in history when politics was suddenly expanded to a new, previously inconceivable scale – including the creation of the nation state itself. And – as is becoming clearer every day – the real delusion is the belief that things can carry on as they are.

The first step will be ceasing to pretend that there is no alternative. So let us begin by considering the scale of the current crisis.
Dasgupta then recounts how we got here, starting with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, moving through the 19th century, to the decolonization that followed WWII, leaving us with:
There is every reason to believe that the next stage of the techno-financial revolution will be even more disastrous for national political authority. This will arise as the natural continuation of existing technological processes, which promise new, algorithmic kinds of governance to further undermine the political variety.[...] Governments controlled by outside forces and possessing only partial influence over national affairs: this has always been so in the world’s poorest countries. But in the west, it feels like a terrifying return to primitive vulnerability. The assault on political authority is not a merely “economic” or “technological” event. It is an epochal upheaval, which leaves western populations shattered and bereft. There are outbreaks of irrational rage, especially against immigrants, the appointed scapegoats for much deeper forms of national contamination. The idea of the western nation as a universal home collapses, and transnational tribal identities grow up as a refuge: white supremacists and radical Islamists alike take up arms against contamination and corruption.

The stakes could not be higher. So it is easy to see why western governments are so desperate to prove what everyone doubts: that they are still in control. It is not merely Donald Trump’s personality that causes him to act like a sociopathic CEO. The era of globalisation has seen consistent attempts by US presidents to enhance the authority of the executive, but they are never enough. Trump’s office can never have the level of mastery over American life that Kennedy’s did, so he is obliged to fake it.

Sales dynamics of best-selling books

Burcu Yucesoy, Xindi Wang, Junming Huang and Albert-László Barabási, Success in books: a big data approach to bestsellers, EPJ Data Science 2018 7:7.

Abstract: Reading remains the preferred leisure activity for most individuals, continuing to offer a unique path to knowledge and learning. As such, books remain an important cultural product, consumed widely. Yet, while over 3 million books are published each year, very few are read widely and less than 500 make it to the New York Times bestseller lists. And once there, only a handful of authors can command the lists for more than a few weeks. Here we bring a big data approach to book success by investigating the properties and sales trajectories of bestsellers. We find that there are seasonal patterns to book sales with more books being sold during holidays, and even among bestsellers, fiction books sell more copies than nonfiction books. General fiction and biographies make the list more often than any other genre books, and the higher a book’s initial place in the rankings, the longer the book stays on the list as well. Looking at patterns characterizing authors, we find that fiction writers are more productive than nonfiction writers, commonly achieving bestseller status with multiple books. Additionally, there is no gender disparity among bestselling fiction authors but nonfiction, most bestsellers are written by male authors. Finally we find that there is a universal pattern to book sales. Using this universality we introduce a statistical model to explain the time evolution of sales. This model not only reproduces the entire sales trajectory of a book but also predicts the total number of copies it will sell in its lifetime, based on its early sales numbers. The analysis of the bestseller characteristics and the discovery of the universal nature of sales patterns with its driving forces are crucial for our understanding of the book industry, and more generally, of how we as a society interact with cultural products.

* * * * *

"Reading remains the preferred leisure activity for most individuals"–really?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Three for the sky




Boomers, America's last common culture?

Ross Douthat writing in the NYTimes about the (unexpected) popularity of the Roseanne reboot:
So let’s try to analyze the return of the Conner family in strictly cultural terms, without directly referencing the present occupant of the White House. The show’s sky-high ratings probably owe something to Roseanne’s political views and blue-collar goddess reputation, but above all they are a case study in the power the baby boom generation still wields, even as it begins to enter old age, over our collective cultural imagination. And not only that: They testify to the extent to which the boomers, for all the destruction trailing in their wake, might be the only thing holding American culture together at this point.

That’s because if the boomers were destructive, they were also creative. Indeed, you can make a reasonable case that theirs was the last great burst of creativity in Western history, the last great surge of mass cultural invention. The boomers were the last generation to come of age with some traditional edifices still standing, the old bourgeois norms and Christian(ish) religion and patriotic history, which gave them something powerful to wrestle with, to rework and react against and attempt to overthrow. And because they came of age within a stable-seeming (though not for long) common culture, their revolution was experienced as a communal experience itself, something that united millions of people simply by virtue of their being young and Western in 1965 or 1969 or 1975.
I'm a boomer, but "the last great burst of creativity in Western history"? Really? What does that mean?

And the recent era of "quality" TV?
What we often think of as two golden ages — the auteur years in 1970s Hollywood, and then the more recent golden age of television — are really part of the same generational takeover; it just took longer for boomer influence to work itself out on the small screen. But it did eventually: what David Chase did with “The Sopranos” and David Simon with “The Wire,” and before them figures like the just-passed Steven Bochco and Matt Groening and yes, Roseanne Barr, was all an extension and an echo of the era-defining pop cultural ferment that began in the 1960s and took off in 1970s.

But now we are in the twilight of that era — and it is not at all clear that the boomers’ successors are prepared to react against boomer hegemony with anything like the same creativity and vigor. In part that’s because technological and social change has left the rising cohorts of Americans fragmented, polarized, alienated from one another, too divided by belief and taste and language to build something new together. And in part it’s because the boomers themselves contributed mightily to fragmentation, leaving too little standing when they tore things down and rebuilding haphazardly and self-interestedly, bequeathing a spirit of transgression and permanent revolution that’s run out of things to deconstruct and is either feeding on itself, lapsing into torpor, or generating niche forms of radicalism on the further left and right that are too weak as yet to produce revolution or renewal.

Generative Adversarial Networks

How do you get neural networks to crate stuff rather than simply recognizing existing stuff?
The approach, known as a generative adversarial network, or GAN, takes two neural networks—the simplified mathematical models of the human brain that underpin most modern machine learning—and pits them against each other in a digital cat-and-mouse game.

Both networks are trained on the same data set. One, known as the generator, is tasked with creating variations on images it’s already seen—perhaps a picture of a pedestrian with an extra arm. The second, known as the discriminator, is asked to identify whether the example it sees is like the images it has been trained on or a fake produced by the generator—basically, is that three-armed person likely to be real?

Over time, the generator can become so good at producing images that the discriminator can’t spot fakes. Essentially, the generator has been taught to recognize, and then create, realistic-looking images of pedestrians.

The technology has become one of the most promising advances in AI in the past decade, able to help machines produce results that fool even humans.

GANs have been put to use creating realistic-sounding speech and photorealistic fake imagery. In one compelling example, researchers from chipmaker Nvidia primed a GAN with celebrity photographs to create hundreds of credible faces of people who don’t exist. Another research group made not-unconvincing fake paintings that look like the works of van Gogh. Pushed further, GANs can reimagine images in different ways—making a sunny road appear snowy, or turning horses into zebras.

The results aren’t always perfect: GANs can conjure up bicycles with two sets of handlebars, say, or faces with eyebrows in the wrong place.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

November in Liberty State Park




Family Problems: From Greene to Shakespeare

This is revised and adapted, from a post I first published at The Valve and have since republished in a working paper which is available at my SSRN page HERE and also at  
I want to examine two literary texts, a familiar one and a strange one. The familiar text I have in mind is Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The strange one is Robert Greene’s Pandosto. While they are very different at the level of language—words, phrases, and sentences—at the level of plot and character they are much alike. That’s what makes the comparison interesting. You can line them up, character for character, and incident for incident, and they match pretty well. But not completely. It’s those few differences that made the comparison an interesting one.

Family Problems in the Early Modern Era

Greene first published Pandosto: The Triumph of Time in 1592 while The Winter’s Tale was written in 1611, almost twenty years later. The similarities between the two are so striking that it is all but certain that Shakespeare derived his plot from Greene’s. But they are not quite the same. In fact, since The Winter’s Tale ends in happy triumph while Pandosto’s ending is, at best, bittersweet – Pandosto commits suicide even though the young lovers are united – one might reasonably judge them to be quite different. That is what makes these two texts so interesting. 

This table lays out the correspondence between the characters in the two texts:
Neutral           Pandosto       Winter’s  Tale
King              Pandosto       Leonates
Queen             Bellaria       Hermione
King’s son        Garinter       Mamillius
King’s daughter   Fawnia         Perdita
King’s Friend     Egistus        Polixenes
Friend’s son      Dorastus       Florizel
Shepherd          Porrus         Old shepherd
The first part of the story goes like this: The King and Queen have been married for a number of years and have a son. The King’s childhood friend is visiting and the King decides that his wife, the Queen, has been having an affair with this Friend, who is also a king. The Queen denies it as does his kingly friend, but the King is convinced they’re lying. The Friend leaves and the Queen is imprisoned. A messenger is sent to consult an oracle on whether or not the Queen is guilty. In Pandosto, it is the Queen who requests this; in Winter's it is the King. Meanwhile, the Queen gives birth to a daughter who is brought before the King. The King denies his daughter. The infant daughter is set adrift in the ocean. Meanwhile, the messenger returns from the oracle and declares the Queen to be innocent. The son dies and, upon hearing that news, the Queen faints. In Pandosto Bellaria, the Queen, dies. In Winter’s Hermione does not, she hides away. The audience knows this but Leontes, the King, does not.

In Greene, the oracle says:
[Para. 29] The Oracle.
 Suspition is no proofe: Jealousie is an unequall judge: Bellaria is chast: Egistus blameless: Franion a true subject: Pandosto threacherous: his babe an innocent, and the King shall live without an heire: if that which is lost be not founde.
In Shakespeare, this:

[Reads] Hermione is chaste;
Polixenes blameless; Camillo a true subject; Leontes
a jealous tyrant; his innocent babe truly begotten;
and the king shall live without an heir, if that
which is lost be not found.
Notice that Shakespeare retained the phrase, “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.” This seems quite important, both for its import—the continuity of the King’s bloodline—and for its form, the phraseology is the same. If the King is without heir, then his family is at an end.

In both stories the daughter miraculously ends up in the country of the King’s childhood friend where she’s raised by an old Shepherd and his wife. In time the daughter matures and falls in love with a prince, who returns her love. The prince is none other than son to the King’s childhood friend. The prince’s father finds out about his beloved and forbids them to marry; after all, she is but a shepherd’s daughter. So the prince and the daughter decide to flee the country. They end up back in the King’s land where the daughter’s true identity is discovered. Now that she is known to be of noble birth, the marriage can proceed. 

In Pandosto, the King commits suicide. The Winter’s Tale ends quite differently. Paulina has Hermione mount a pedestal and brings her out of hiding as a mere statue. And then the statue comes alive. And all are amazed. The King is thus reunited with his Queen and his daughter is about to marry her prince.

That’s most, but not all, of the pattern that interests me. Obviously, Pandosto cannot be reunited with Bellaria because she is dead. That is, when Shakespeare allowed the queen to live, but in hiding, he created an option not open to Greene. When Greene had Belleria die he blocked any possibility of Pandosto being reunited with her.

Collaboration and hierarchy

Alberto Antonioni, María Pereda, Katherine A. Cronin, Marco Tomassini & Angel Sánchez, Collaborative hierarchy maintains cooperation in asymmetric games, Scientific Reports, Volume 8, Article number: 5375 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41598-018-23681-z

Abstract: The interplay of social structure and cooperative behavior is under much scrutiny lately as behavior in social contexts becomes increasingly relevant for everyday life. Earlier experimental work showed that the existence of a social hierarchy, earned through competition, was detrimental for the evolution of cooperative behaviors. Here, we study the case in which individuals are ranked in a hierarchical structure based on their performance in a collective effort by having them play a Public Goods Game. In the first treatment, participants are ranked according to group earnings while, in the second treatment, their rankings are based on individual earnings. Subsequently, participants play asymmetric Prisoner’s Dilemma games where higher-ranked players gain more than lower ones. Our experiments show that there are no detrimental effects of the hierarchy formed based on group performance, yet when ranking is assigned individually we observe a decrease in cooperation. Our results show that different levels of cooperation arise from the fact that subjects are interpreting rankings as a reputation which carries information about which subjects were cooperators in the previous phase. Our results demonstrate that noting the manner in which a hierarchy is established is essential for understanding its effects on cooperation.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Wishful thinking on a snowy April 2?


The uses of narratology for the study of interactive stories

A couple of weeks ago Mark Nelson posted some tweets that caught my attention:

I’m not sure where that’s going and, as it seems to have been a quick spur-of-the-moment comment, it’s probably not the sort of thing that’s going anywhere in particular. It’s just a quick probe to “mark” a region in conceptual space. But I thought a bit and made a short response, to which Mark replied:

The fact is, I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t think of anything. I’m still thinking and have a quick comment or two.

Narratology has been within my field of interests since the late 1970s and I’ve read a bit, some articles and book-length expositions, but it never really got me hooked. I became aware of Marie-Laure Ryan's work in the late-1990s when I picked up her Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991), which, as far I know, is one of the few (only?) books of literary criticism that utilizes some of the technical concepts AI. By that time I had long since made my own peace with computational work on narrative and story-telling and didn’t find much of use to me, which is neither here nor there. But, as I recall, she did note that computational models are so complex that it is difficult to apply them to literary texts; the amount of resulting detail is too difficult to follow. That, I suspect, speaks to the need for “translational work”, and LOTS of it.

But that–level of detail–isn’t all. Early in Pathways of the Brain: The neurocognitive basis of language (1999), Sydney Lamb discusses various types of grammar. One of them he calls analytical. The object of analytical grammar is to describe language products, typically sentences. Chomsky’s approach is typical of analytic grammars. Lamb contrasts this with the neurocognitive grammar he’s been developing, which aims to characterize the computational mechanisms by which language is enacted and understood. As Lamb conceives these matters, neurocognitive grammar is necessarily computational while analytic grammar is not.

My teacher, David Hays (also a friend of Lamb’s), made a similar point by talking about bicycles. One the one hand, we have the blueprints for a bicycle, which detail all the parts and how they fit together. But the blueprints don’t tell you how to assemble a bicycle from its parts. Assembly instructions are quite different.

Well, literary criticism in general, including narratology, is analytic in Lamb’s sense–though informal by the standards of contemporary linguistics. It attempts to provide blueprints for texts, not assembly instructions. And Ryan's work in Possible Worlds seemed pretty much like that despite her uses of computation. This is not simply about detail. It’s about kinds of detail and kinds of intellectual strategy. This is where the real translational work is going to have to be done.

My impression is that narratology has absorbed Propp, but not Levi-Strauss, and the same for computational work on stories.

Recent posts at 3QD: Marching Band and New York 2140

Leapin’ Lizards: Three Lessons from Marching Band (April 2)

One lesson is about what makes a good marching band: the groove. Another is about the balance between the individual and the group. The third is about, well, authority. These last two lessons are ambivalent.

A post-apocalyptic heist: Commentary on a passage from New York 2140 (February 5)

This is a close analysis of a few paragraphs from more or less the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and more or less shows how the whole narrative is implicit in its various parts.