Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Rogan is going to have Roseanne Barr on his podcast this coming Friday (June 1)

Friday, June 1: The Roseanne Barr podcast has been cancelled.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Goliath (Amazon Video), a quick note

I watched the first four episodes of Goliath last night.

I detected echoes of Better Call Saul. Both shows are about lawyers, and both involve one lawyer who spends most of his time relatively isolated and in the dark. What’s up with that? And both involve another lawyer who’s trying to prove something. This other lawyer is the center of the show, Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk) for Saul and Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton) for Goliath. And–wouldn’t you know?–there’s a conflict between these two lawyers that drives much of the plot.

What’s up with that?

Of course, the shows differ in many ways as well. In Saul the two lawyers are brothers whereas in Goliath they aren’t, they’re ex-partners. Odenkirk is a slick operator who seems to be trying to prove that he could be legit. He feels unjustly dismissed by his older brother. It’s not clear to me at this point (four episodes in) just what’s going on between the two guys in Goliath other than the fact that they were once partners.

One other thing. The dark lawyer, Donald Cooperman (William Hurt), in Goliath is disfigured and runs his firm from a penthouse at the top of the firm’s suite of offices and has the entire suite bugged with video cameras that allow him to spy on people at will. He’s assigned a junior associate to be lead on a major (like ‘break the firm’ major) case. He does this via email (and creepy-cam). In the fourth episode he manipulates the security system late at night so that this late-working associate ends up coming to the penthouse for the first time. When he shows himself to her, he’s naked.

Shades of Harvey Weinstein–though this series got going before the Weinstein case broke all over the news.

Stay tuned.

Coltrane performs A Love Supreme

Is the future being charted by the conflict between wizards and prophets?

Writing in Quillette John Faithful Hamer reviews The Wizard and the Prophet (2018) by Charles C. Mann.
In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.

At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Like most Wizards, Pinker thinks that our ancestors were for the most part benighted idiots: “an average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards, while if Joe and Jane Average made the reverse journey, they would outsmart 98 percent of the befrocked and bewhiskered Edwardians who greeted them as they emerged.”

Like most Prophets, Harari assumes that our ancestors were in certain respects better than us: “Twenty thousand years ago, the average Sapiens probably had higher intelligence and better toolmaking skills than the average Sapiens of today. Modern schools and employers may test our aptitudes from time to time but, no matter how badly we do, the welfare state always guarantees our basic needs. In the Stone Age natural selection tested you every single moment of every single day, and if you flunked any of its numerous tests you were pushing up the daisies in no time.”
The final paragraph is peculiar and interesting:
If Pinker and Harari debated each other, I’ve no doubt that Pinker would win. Because Harari argues like a self-doubting intellectual, whilst Pinker argues like a ruthless debate club president. His certainty is at times annoying, as is his preachy style. You want an argument but feel like you’re getting a sermon. I doubt that he’s actually an ideologue (in real life); but he sure does write like one. Be that as it may, I suspect that these men agree on most matters and want the same things of the future. If Pinker paints a rosy picture of human progress and its achievements in the hope that both will continue, Harari sketches a dystopian future in the hopes that doing so will prevent it. Like all prophets, he prophesies to prevent the prophecy, not to predict it.
H/t 3QD.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Louis Armstrong performs for the troops

The world according to jiujitsu, Joe Rogan on 3QD

I’ve got a piece about The Joe Rogan Experience on 3 Quarks Daily, Grappling at the edges of reality with Joe Rogan, in which I argue the show is fundamentally a metaphysical journey. Jiujitsu is Rogan’s “home base” in this journey.

Here’s a clip in which Rogan is awarded a black belt by Eddie Bravo of 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu. Starting at about 4:22 Rogan tells us what jiujitsu means to him:

Becoming really good at jiujitsu is probably one of the most difficult things a person can do and I think it helps me with everything I do. I think the more I train and the more I meet people who are into jiujutsu...People who are in jiujutsu and train on a regular basis, they’re healthier people. Their egos are healthier, especially men. They’re easier to talk to, they’re easier to hang out with, because they’re facing reality on a regular basis.

There’s something my taekwondo teacher told me when I was a little kid, that I never forgot, was that martial arts are a vehicle for developing your human potential. And nothing in my life has ever put me in face with reality better than jiujitsu. In life we can all distort our perception of things in order to make ourselves more comfortable, in order to make ourselves accept where we are. And there’s a lot of people out there that run around full of shit. You can’t be full of shit when you do jiujitsu.

When you do jiujitsu it’s impossible to be full of shit, because reality comes at you in the purest form possible. Life or death struggle using your determination, your focus, your technique, your mind, and your training. Over and over and over again. And it’s reality and if you fuck up and get caught in a triangle you gotta’ tap. End of story.

It’s as real as it can get. And THAT has made me a better person. It’s made me a better man, made me understand myself, my weaknesses, my strengths, the shit I should work on. Jiujitsu has been one of the most valuable tools that I’ve ever had in my life.
Now, jiujitsu bouts happen in real time. How does one extend the virtues learned in such bouts to life in general, in which you are necessarily engaged in many lines of activity stretching over days, months, years, and decades?

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Secrets of Pink Elephants Revealed

This is the second most-popular post on the blog. That, I assume, is because it's about an amazing and enigmatic bit of animation. Some day I'll return to it and take a deeper look. For now, I'm reposting it at the top of the blog. Enjoy.
“Pink Elephants on Parade,” from Walt Disney’s Dumbo, is one of the best known, and strangest, animated sequences that Disney, or any studio, has ever done (see clip below). It’s strange on two counts. In the first place, it doesn’t seem to advance the Dumbo story in any way. As the sequence begins Dumbo and Timothy Mouse are pleasantly drunk; when it ends they’re sleeping high in a tree. The sequence tells us nothing about how they got from one state to the other, nor does it tell us anything that’s otherwise going on in the movie. The movie is about elephants, the sequence is about elephants, pink ones; and that elephant connection seems to be all that links the sequence to the larger plot.

Putting that aside, is there any order within the sequence itself or is it just a collection of strange gags? This is the question that interests me. And my answer is that, yes, there is some order there. There is a progression.

1. Elephants from Elephants

Let’s start at the beginning. Dumbo and Timothy have drunk water that was accidentally laced with booze. They get drunk and Dumbo starts blowing rather surprising bubbles through his trunk. Timothy asks him to blow a large bubble, which he does. That bubble assumes elephant form, turns pink, and proceeds to blow a second pink elephant from its trunk. The second blows a third, and now we see four pink elephants. Their trunks become trumpet-like, playing a fanfare which we hear on the sound-track. They merge their trunks

pink elephants 3 four in one

and the merged bell expands, bursts, and becomes a portal for a parade of marching elephants.

pink elephants 4 parade from one

Each elephant in the parade is playing a musical instrument, which is a deformed part of its body.

There are three things to note so far. 1) The parade of elephants has now become effectively detached from Dumbo. He blew the first bubble, but it became an elephant on its own. The rest followed from that. 2) The purely instrumental music we’re hearing is, in effect, being created by the elephants themselves. 3) At various points in this opening segment we see reactions from both Dumbo and Timothy; they’re on-screen characters.

We get a series of gags emphasizing that the elephants are making the music, and then we see a parade of small elephants march around (notice Dumbo and Timothy watching them):

pink elephants 8 round it

There is no structure in the film-space itself on which those elephants are marching. They’re walking on the border of the frame. This is the sort of self-conscious gag that’s as old as animation itself – such trickery was fundamental to Winsor McCay’s work, but also to Disney’s Alice shorts. Those elephants will parade around the entire perimeter of the frame and then they’ll start expanding until they burst.

pink elephants 9 filled

2. An Elephant State of Mind

With that we move to new phase. We no longer see Dumbo or Timothy on screen; they’re out for the rest of the sequence. The elephants are no longer depicted as being the source of the music. They’re just elephants. And the music gets a vocal that comments on the rather creepy things happening on screen.

How the West was stolen (USA vs. First Nations)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

"One pill makes you..." – Contrasts on a psychedelic theme

Charlotte Shane reviews two recent books about psychedelics, Tao Lin, Trip, and Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind. Here's a passage from the end of the review:
White families make millions from selling huge quantities of marijuana, while people of color are incarcerated for possession of minor amounts. Young white people broadcast paeans to microdosing on their podcasts, and wealthy white moms write about it in books, but there’s no national conversation about meaningfully reconsidering the incoherent and murderous “war on drugs.” (LSD and psilocybin are Schedule 1 substances, alongside heroin, cannabis, and MDMA, meaning the government regards them among the most addictive and the least medicinally useful.) How to Change Your Mind is steeped in the belief that drugs might be OK in institutionally circumscribed contexts, when overseen and administered by professionals, but that they should not be left in the hands of the pleasure-seeking masses. (“[Do] I think these drugs should simply be legalized? Not exactly,” Pollan writes in his conclusion.) Take a moment to picture the populations best positioned to benefit from an arrangement like that, and imagine how much opportunity for mismanagement, price gouging, and general abuse it might allow.

Lin regards psychedelics as subversive, and powerfully pure, because they can make people happy and healthy. (Overwhelmingly, this is the case, and even terrifying trips rarely result in lasting damage—though the drugs can have disastrous results in schizophrenics.) But Pollan looks at an aspect of the psychedelics trend that Lin doesn’t: Its role in Silicon Valley. He mentions Steve Jobs’s claim that dropping LSD was “one of his two or three most important life experiences,” and name-checks Stewart Brand, who thinks that “LSD was a critical ingredient in nourishing the spirit of collaborative experiment . . . that distinguish[es] the computer culture of the West Coast.” As a further endorsement, he adds, “I know of one Bay Area tech company today that uses psychedelics in its management training. A handful of others have instituted ‘microdosing Fridays.’”

While some drugs can guide a user toward enduring openness or empathy, no drug will instantly render a selfish man selfless, or a cruel woman kind. And if psychedelics are becoming somewhat ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, it’s proof that they can’t automatically instill ethics in a community used to operating without them. (Would you take a drug that made you as a creative as Steve Jobs, if it also made you just as much of an asshole? Don’t answer that.)

Peace in our time?

Friday, May 25, 2018





Two notes on psychedelic experience (Michael Pollan on Joe Rogan)

Michael Pollan’s just published a book about psychedelic experiences, How to Change Your Mind, and Joe Rogan just had him on his podcast. It’s an interesting and far-ranging conversation. I want to look at two little bits of what Pollan said.

Psychedelics, dreams, and metaphysics

Michael Pollan at about 27:09:
Where do you get the idea of a beyond? Where do you get the idea of a heaven or a hell, if not from some altered state of consciousness? You know, people talk about visiting the underworld in Homer’s time, so how did they do that? Was it dreams? Dreams don’t have the authority that psychedelic experience has. There’s something about psychedelic experience that has this, it’s not just an opinion, it’s not a fantasy. It’s something real, it’s objective truth. William James called this the noetic quality of the mystical experience. And that certitude comes from psychedelics. It seems totally plausible to me that at the earliest stages of humanity if people were indeed taking psychedelics, this might explain how they came up with these ideas.
I want to push back just a little. While Pollan’s right about the noetic quality of (at least some) psychedelic experience, I think he short-changes dreams.

I take my cue from an observation that Weston La Barre made in The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion (p. 60):
... the Australian Bushman themselves equate dream-time with the myth-time that is mysteriously brought back in ritual; myth is as timeless as the unconscious mind. It is the delectability of dreams that makes them desirable, and it is their desirability that (along with lowered critical threshold) that gives them their intense “reality” and conviction. The fact that he dreams first forces on man the need to epistemologize.
Our own view of dreams is so thoroughly psychologized that we can easily think of them as just something the mind/brain does. How do dreams appear to people who, lacking the explanatory and theoretical machinery of modern psychology and neuroscience, cannot psychologize them? Why think about dreams at all; why not simply forget about them? What structures and processes must a brain have if it is to remember both dream events and real events, to compare them, note the differences, and wonder about those differences? It seems to me that people lacking the interpretive buffering of this psychologized view of the world might well see dreams as genuine journeys to another realm. When were our ancestors able to do this?

And if they also had the benefit of psychedelics, those experiences would reinforce the metaphysical imperatives of dream experience. The two experiential realms would supplement one another.

The social construction of reality

At about 34:24 ff. Pollan observes:
One of the really striking things, I’ve been on the road now, this is my second week out talking about this book, and I have been struck by how many people have had powerful psychedelic experiences they don’t talk to anybody about. And I come along as a kind of, I don’t know, kind of a credible person who’s interested. And, this is journalists too. They turn of the tape recorder and the say ‘can I tell you a story?’

Something happened to them. It might have been in their twenties, or earlier, that changed the course of their life; and, either because there was a stigma attached to it, or it was kind of had this 60’s woo woo thing about it, or there were kids around, they didn’t feel comfortable. So they kept it in a box labeled ‘weird drug experience’.

But it’s not just a drug experience. This is your mind. The drug may have started the process, but everything you see in this experience – those are real psychological facts, from your unconscious or your interpretation of your environment. It’s not the molecule that fore-ordained this experience....

So you have this big experience and you put it in this box, saying ‘weird drug experience’. But when you take it out sometimes you find that there’s real gold there. There’s fool’s gold too...
It’s become a cliché that reality is a social construction. Crudely put, if we can’t talk about it or otherwise share it with others (thought art, for example), then it doesn’t exist. It’s not real.

Now, once again, we may be talking about these things. We had the counter-cultural 60s, which got quick down pretty quickly. And back in the 19th century we had the fascination that opium held for the British romantics – e.g. Coleridge and “Kubla Khan”.  It’s not obvious where this conversation will go.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Hands, drum


Joe Rogan talks with Howard Bloom, Zoooommm!

I couple days ago I was making my regular online rounds when I discovered that Joe Rogan was talking with Howard Bloom THIS VERY MOMENT on The Joe Rogan Experience. “Yeowieee!” said I to myself, “I gotta’ check it out.” Why? Because Bloom is a trip and a half, a force of nature, though just what that nature is, well, that’s not at all clear.

I know Howard. I was in his Paleopsychology Project, corresponded with him for a couple of years and visited him at his Brooklyn apartment a couple of times. He played a crucial role in setting up my book deal, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. But I’m ambivalent about him. He’s very well read, imaginative, and brilliant. But, as my teacher Dave Hays was fond of saying, a great talent requires a great discipline. And Howard lacks discipline. Oh, he works hard–in his own way as hard as James “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” Brown–but hard work is not the point. It’s how you do that work, the craft and care you put into it, that counts.

Howard lavishes his craft and care on words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs, on slogans and catch phrases – a number of them turn up in his conversation with Rogan – but he’s not so careful with the underlying ideas. My sense is that Howard has a few underlying themes and ideas that are important to him – everything’s connected; it’s a social world from quarks through galaxies; we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves – and uses those to paper over everything. Or, to switch metaphors, those are his hammers and he uses them to turn everything else into nails. Quarks, Dave Barry, toxoplasmosis, the Yanomami, biological evolution, the 86 billion neurons of the human brain, entropy, the excitement of the crowd at a rock and roll concert (or one of Hitler’s elaborately staged rallies), galaxies, the Big Bang–they’re all nails that Bloom pounds into his grand unified theory of everything. And, at least to some observers, everything turns out to look like the mind of Howard Bloom, a very skillful and industrious Howard Bloom.

Thus, if you look through the comments on his discussion with Rogan–which has almost 580,000 views as I write this and is approaching 4000 comments–you’ll find that a lot of listeners are, shall we say, skeptical, a skepticism often expressed in blunt and nasty terms – as these things go “a narcissistic egomaniac that thinks he’s the modern day Einstein” is rather mild. But you’ll also find some people who are fascinated by Bloom–after all, he drips with fascinating stories, facts, and numbers–and who like him quite a lot. And if you read closely, here and there you’ll find some folks of both minds.

It’s not Bloom that I’m interested in, however, it’s Rogan. But I had to set things up. Like Bloom, Rogan’s an intellectual omnivore, though with a different style and purpose. Bloom is convinced he knows how the world works. Rogan is trying to figure it out. That’s why he talks to all these different folks in his podcasts.

This post is about two points in this long conversation, almost three hours, where Rogan pushes Bloom.

In the Moment

At this point we’re well over an hour into the conversation. Bloom has been talking about how PG Wodehouse and Dave Barry inspired him to write a book about the 60s, then off to quantum physics in Moscow, and then to the “universal brain”–a biggie for Bloom. At roughly 1:23:40 Rogan asks:
JR: “Are you thinking of this while you’re saying it, are you thinking of the vast numbers of people that are listening and watching? Or are you just relaying the information; like are you cognizant?”
HB: “Yeah, both.”
JR: “Both.”
HB: “Because I want...[bit about Einstein giving him is marching orders]... to make good radio for your audience.”
JR: “But once you, what I’m trying to get at is once you’ve got it established in your head that nothing is isolated, that everything is connected, when you speak, are you aware when you’re speaking, that everything is connected? I mean are you actually, consciously thinking of all of these different minds, taking into account of all these different mind-blowing things that you’re saying, and then applying them out in the world.”
HB: “I think so.”
JR: “Yeah.”
HB: “I mean, if you hear it coming out of my mouth, that’s what’s churning around in my brain.”
JR: “You’re such a bright guy, I’m just tryin’ to understand if you’re in the moment, or if you’re in the moment as well as being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”
HB: “Well my obligation is to do both simultaneously.”
“In the moment”, that’s the key phrase. What’s it mean?

Remember, Rogan is a life-long martial arts practitioner and he’s got a decade and a half of experience as a commenter on mixed martial arts. As far as I can tell, MMA is the bedrock of The Joe Rogan Experience, a world of experience Rogan returns to time and again, with many of his guests coming from the MMA world. When Joe Rogan wants to know “What is real?” that’s where he goes.

Being in the moment is the core of that reality. Pure action and sensation, without thought. In the moment.

Music is like that too. I’m a musician, I’ve been there. You aren’t making the music; rather, it manifests through you. Countless other musicians, and listeners too, have been there – I’ve collected a variety of anecdotes in Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance. Bloom also knows it; when he was a publicist in the music business he worked with some of the top acts in the world.

But just what does that have to do with Bloom’s state of mind/being as he talking with Rogan? It’s not clear to me just what Rogan is asking of Bloom, and I don’t think it was clear to Bloom either. No matter. He asked.


It sometimes happens when writing. I wrote one paper, about Shelley, in such a state when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. It’s certainly not something I set out to do. I didn’t even know it was possible. But, there I was, late at night, with the paper due at noon the next. I was beat–I’m not at all a night person. I sat down at the typewrite and WHAM! It happened. The paper wrote itself over the course of, I don’t know, three, four, five hours or more. I finished it at dawn. And it was a good one.

Never again.

Is that what Rogan was asking of Bloom? Is he asking if Bloom was in some kind of transcendent state as well as “being consciously aware of the spread of information that you’re...”?

Who knows.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Red light at night


The expression of gratitude across cultures

Simeon Floyd, Giovanni Rossi, Julija Baranova, Joe Blythe, Mark Dingemanse, Kobin H. Kendrick, Jörg Zinken, N. J. Enfield, Universals and cultural diversity in the expression of gratitude, R. Soc. open sci. 2018 5 180391; DOI: 10.1098/rsos.180391. Published 23 May 2018

Abstract: Gratitude is argued to have evolved to motivate and maintain social reciprocity among people, and to be linked to a wide range of positive effects—social, psychological and even physical. But is socially reciprocal behaviour dependent on the expression of gratitude, for example by saying ‘thank you’ as in English? Current research has not included cross-cultural elements, and has tended to conflate gratitude as an emotion with gratitude as a linguistic practice, as might appear to be the case in English. Here, we ask to what extent people express gratitude in different societies by focusing on episodes of everyday life where someone seeks and obtains a good, service or support from another, comparing these episodes across eight languages from five continents. We find that expressions of gratitude in these episodes are remarkably rare, suggesting that social reciprocity in everyday life relies on tacit understandings of rights and duties surrounding mutual assistance and collaboration. At the same time, we also find minor cross-cultural variation, with slightly higher rates in Western European languages English and Italian, showing that universal tendencies of social reciprocity should not be equated with more culturally variable practices of expressing gratitude. Our study complements previous experimental and culture-specific research on gratitude with a systematic comparison of audiovisual corpora of naturally occurring social interaction from different cultures from around the world.

* * * * *

A NYTimes article reporting this research.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mad Men

Back when I was watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s I noted that “hey! that’s the Mad Men era.” That is, the film was made in and about the world depicted in Mad Men. “How interesting”, thought I, “How interesting.” But I didn’t go beyond that.

Now I’ve got a couple of quick observations.

Obviously they’ve very different. For one thing Breakfast is a movie that runs a bit under two hours while Mad Men unfolded in 92 one-hour episodes over seven seasons. Breakfast is a light comedy while Mad Men is basically a drama.

Given those differences however, both feature a central character who isn’t what they seem to be. Neither Don Draper (MM) nor Holly Golightly (BaT) is the urban sophisticate they appear to be. Both have a working class rural background, though it takes awhile for us to learn that. What’s that about? Given that a somewhat older fictional character, Jay Gatsby, also has hidden past, it’s not a 1960s thing. Perhaps it’s American?

Both seem to be struggling with a transactional view of the world, in particular, with transactional relationships between men and women. While it’s not clear whether Holly is a (high class) call girl or merely a paid companion, she supports herself at the arms of wealthy men. Her friend and neighbor, Paul Varjak, is kept by a wealthy woman. Everyone in Mad Men is using relationships to get ahead, but the most obviously single example occurs in season five when Joan, who had started the series as the head of the secretarial pool, is made partner in return for sleeping is the potential client (and thereby landing the account).

Beyond this, I note that there’s a party in Holly’s apartment that seems very Mad Men.

Finally, both end with a wistful look at the future for their protagonists: Just what WILL the future have for them? We can imagine something better, something wonderful, but it’s not a lock. We HAVE to own our imaginings.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Dali Lama says

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Joe Rogan's interview "secrets"

Alex Berman
Published on Jun 16, 2017

In this video we’re going to delve into Joe Rogan's interview style and how his singular way of posing a question has catapulted The Joe Rogan Experience into the history books as one of the most successful and profitable podcasts of all time.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Bird, plane, and the Standard Hotel in the early morning sky


Intelligence requires causal reasoning, which is more than fancy curve fitting

Kevin Hartnett interviews AI pioneer Judea Pearl on occasion of his new book, The Book of Why (Quanta, May 15, 2017): To Build Truly Intelligent Machines, Teach Them Cause and Effect. Pearl is skeptical that current techniques are the basis of a viable way ahead. Here’s a portion of that interview, followed a brief comment of my own.

* * * * *

Pearl: I can give you an example. All the machine-learning work that we see today is conducted in diagnostic mode — say, labeling objects as “cat” or “tiger.” They don’t care about intervention; they just want to recognize an object and to predict how it’s going to evolve in time.

I felt an apostate when I developed powerful tools for prediction and diagnosis knowing already that this is merely the tip of human intelligence. If we want machines to reason about interventions (“What if we ban cigarettes?”) and introspection (“What if I had finished high school?”), we must invoke causal models. Associations are not enough — and this is a mathematical fact, not opinion.

Hartnett: People are excited about the possibilities for AI. You’re not?

Pearl: As much as I look into what’s being done with deep learning, I see they’re all stuck there on the level of associations. Curve fitting. That sounds like sacrilege, to say that all the impressive achievements of deep learning amount to just fitting a curve to data. From the point of view of the mathematical hierarchy, no matter how skillfully you manipulate the data and what you read into the data when you manipulate it, it’s still a curve-fitting exercise, albeit complex and nontrivial.

Hartnett: The way you talk about curve fitting, it sounds like you’re not very impressed with machine learning.

Pearl: No, I’m very impressed, because we did not expect that so many problems could be solved by pure curve fitting. It turns out they can. But I’m asking about the future — what next? ...

Hartnett: What are the prospects for having machines that share our intuition about cause and effect?

Pearl: We have to equip machines with a model of the environment. If a machine does not have a model of reality, you cannot expect the machine to behave intelligently in that reality. The first step, one that will take place in maybe 10 years, is that conceptual models of reality will be programmed by humans.

The next step will be that machines will postulate such models on their own and will verify and refine them based on empirical evidence. That is what happened to science; we started with a geocentric model, with circles and epicycles, and ended up with a heliocentric model with its ellipses.

Robots, too, will communicate with each other and will translate this hypothetical world, this wild world, of metaphorical models.

Hartnett: When you share these ideas with people working in AI today, how do they react?

Pearl: AI is currently split. First, there are those who are intoxicated by the success of machine learning and deep learning and neural nets. They don’t understand what I’m talking about. They want to continue to fit curves. But when you talk to people who have done any work in AI outside statistical learning, they get it immediately. I have read several papers written in the past two months about the limitations of machine learning.

Hartnett: Are you suggesting there’s a trend developing away from machine learning?

Pearl: Not a trend, but a serious soul-searching effort that involves asking: Where are we going? What’s the next step?

* * * * *

Just what does it mean, “to equip machines with a model of the environment”? Are we talking about a 3D model like those used for video games and special effects CGI in movies? Probably not, but what? And isn’t there a sense in which we build a model of the world through our perceptual and cognitive activity? Why don’t we just program that perceptual/cognitive model (and call it common sense)?

Success in contemporary pop songs

Myra Interiano, Kamyar Kazemi, Lijia Wang, Jienian Yang, Zhaoxia Yu, Natalia L. Komarova, Musical trends and predictability of success in contemporary songs in and out of the top charts, Royal Society Open Science, 5: 171274, 16 May 2018, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171274.

Abstract: We analyse more than 500 000 songs released in the UK between 1985 and 2015 to understand the dynamics of success (defined as ‘making it’ into the top charts), correlate success with acoustic features and explore the predictability of success. Several multi-decadal trends have been uncovered. For example, there is a clear downward trend in ‘happiness’ and ‘brightness’, as well as a slight upward trend in ‘sadness’. Furthermore, songs are becoming less ‘male’. Interestingly, successful songs exhibit their own distinct dynamics. In particular, they tend to be ‘happier’, more ‘party-like’, less ‘relaxed’ and more ‘female’ than most. The difference between successful and average songs is not straightforward. In the context of some features, successful songs pre-empt the dynamics of all songs, and in others they tend to reflect the past. We used random forests to predict the success of songs, first based on their acoustic features, and then adding the ‘superstar’ variable (informing us whether the song’s artist had appeared in the top charts in the near past). This allowed quantification of the contribution of purely musical characteristics in the songs’ success, and suggested the time scale of fashion dynamics in popular music.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

My Man Godfrey

This is another classic American film that I’m just now getting around to watching. My Man Godfrey came out in 1936, during the Great Depression. It’s a so-called screwball comedy – which is wacky in a specific way.

The film opens with a slow left-to-right pan, with the opening credits superimposed on a nocturnal Art Deco city skyline. As the skyline disappears the shot zooms in on a dump, where we see some homeless men chatting among themselves. Seconds after camera comes to rest on one called “Duke” two cars come up and two socialites get out, one with boyfriend in tow.

One of them (the one with the boyfriend, who is names Cornelia) asks Duke if he want to make a quick $5. She’s on a scavenger hunt and has to find a “forgotten man”. He fills the bill. He may be poor, but he’s got enough dignity to turn her down. She and her boyfriend leave and the other young woman (Irene) approaches he, with the same request. But her manner is different and, for whatever reason (the plot requires it), he assents to her request.

Before you know it he’s become the butler in the home where this woman lives with her sister (the first woman), mother, father, and a high-class moocher (the mother’s “protégé”). Godfrey–the man’s name–is so very good at being a butler that one suspects he’s got an interesting history. In time we learn that, yes he does, he from a wealthy Boston family and...well, does it really matter just how he ended up in a dump in New York City? The Bullock family is disorganized and dysfunctional and Godfrey does his best shape them up, with some success.

The film works its way to an utterly implausible happy ending, more or less, with Irene all set to marry Godfrey, who’s 10 or 15 years order than she is. Godfrey does a good job of hiding his attraction from Irene while the film does just as good a job of betraying it to us. He ends up as manager to a swanking nightclub called The Dump, which is on the site of the dump that opened the movie.

As for why this is a screwball comedy, it’s because a ditzy blond, Irene, manages to snare an uptight man, Godfrey. Irene was played by Carole Lombard and Godfrey way played William Powell. In real life they’d been married for a few years but had gotten divorced by the time this film was made.

What’s striking is that the film is set in high society at the height of the Depression. But of course it’s also quite aware of the poverty on which that (rather dysfunctional) high society rests.

None of this makes much sense, but it’s an excellent film.

A screwball comedy.

* * * * *

Further reading:

  • The late Norman Holland was a (psychoanalytic) literary critic by day: “As I see it, this screwball comedy asks, What is a man? And by its occasionally surreal style, it also asks, What is real? The answer is: what you don't throw away; what you value. This is a film about valuing.”
  • Roger Ebert, four-star review, 2008: “A couple of reviewers on the Web complain that the plot is implausible. What are we going to do with these people? They've obviously never buttled a day in their lives. What you have to observe and admire is how gently the film offers its moments of genius.”
  • James Bowman: “The earliest days of the Talkies coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and during that era, especially during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the problem of how to be rich — that is, how to live the good life as Americans had always conceived it — became politically problematical for the first time.”
  • Kimberly Truhler, Cinema Style File–The Art (Deco) of Comedy in 1936's MY MAN GODFREY: “As chief designer, Banton would most often be responsible for the leading ladies alone. Thus, in Godfrey he created Carole's gowns and her many other looks. He was blissfully indulgent in styling her socialite character Irene. At one point, he has her waking up in a bedroom jacket made entirely of ostrich feathers.” (Has lots of stills from the film.)

6000 years of world history

Nouns slow down speech

Nouns slow down speech across structurally and culturally diverse languages

Frank Seifart, Jan Strunk, Swintha Danielsen, Iren Hartmann, Brigitte Pakendorf, Søren Wichmann, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Nivja H. de Jong, and Balthasar Bickel

PNAS May 14, 2018. 201800708; published ahead of print May 14, 2018.


When we speak, we unconsciously pronounce some words more slowly than others and sometimes pause. Such slowdown effects provide key evidence for human cognitive processes, reflecting increased planning load in speech production. Here, we study naturalistic speech from linguistically and culturally diverse populations from around the world. We show a robust tendency for slower speech before nouns as compared with verbs. Even though verbs may be more complex than nouns, nouns thus appear to require more planning, probably due to the new information they usually represent. This finding points to strong universals in how humans process language and manage referential information when communicating linguistically.


By force of nature, every bit of spoken language is produced at a particular speed. However, this speed is not constant—speakers regularly speed up and slow down. Variation in speech rate is influenced by a complex combination of factors, including the frequency and predictability of words, their information status, and their position within an utterance. Here, we use speech rate as an index of word-planning effort and focus on the time window during which speakers prepare the production of words from the two major lexical classes, nouns and verbs. We show that, when naturalistic speech is sampled from languages all over the world, there is a robust cross-linguistic tendency for slower speech before nouns compared with verbs, both in terms of slower articulation and more pauses. We attribute this slowdown effect to the increased amount of planning that nouns require compared with verbs. Unlike verbs, nouns can typically only be used when they represent new or unexpected information; otherwise, they have to be replaced by pronouns or be omitted. These conditions on noun use appear to outweigh potential advantages stemming from differences in internal complexity between nouns and verbs. Our findings suggest that, beneath the staggering diversity of grammatical structures and cultural settings, there are robust universals of language processing that are intimately tied to how speakers manage referential information when they communicate with one another.

Not a beached whale, but something like it




What do elite chess players have in common with LeBron James?

Eyebrows and speculation rose after James gave a scarily precise account of what had happened in the fourth quarter of a game between his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Boston Celtics.

The answer was so good that the jaded sports hacks who witnessed it responded with a round of applause.

Twitter observers marvelled at the b-ball behemoth's play-by-play description, calling him "a brilliant basketball mind".
But does James really have a genius-level memory, or is something else in play here?

Joe Stone is a senior lecturer in skill acquisition and performance analysis at Sheffield Hallam University's academy of sport and physical activity. He told the BBC James's incredible recall is actually "quite normal" for elite sports players - and amounts to fine-tuning of the brain.

"The original research was with master chess players in the 70s, looking at how they can recall or recognise patterns of play," he says." And then sports expertise researchers caught on to that and moved it into the sporting domain to see if sportspeople can do that. So that was first done in the 1980s in basketball.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Why read old philosophy?

We read old physicists if we want to do original research on the history of physics. Or maybe if we are studying an aspect of physics so obscure that nobody has covered it in hundreds of years. If we want to learn physics we read a physics textbook. As far as I know, the story is similar in math, chemistry, engineering, economics, and business (though maybe some other subjects that I know less about are more like philosophy).

Yet go to philosophy grad school, and you will read original papers and books by historical philosophers. Research projects explore in great detail what it is that Aristotle actually said, thought, and meant.

After some exploration, she proposes this:
Reading Aristotle describe his thoughts about the world is like watching Aristotle ride a skateboard if Aristotle were a pro skater. You are not getting value from learning about the streets he is gliding over (or the natural world that he is describing) and you should not be memorizing the set of jumps he chooses (or his particular conceptualizations of the world). You are meant to be learning about how to carry out the activity that he is carrying out: how to be Aristotle. How to do what Aristotle would do, even in a new environment.

An old work of philosophy does not describe the thing you are meant to be learning about. It was created by the thing you are meant to be learning about, much like watching a video from skater-Aristotle’s GoPro. And the value proposition is that with this high resolution Aristotle’s-eye-view, you can infer the motions.

Psychedelics and the default mode network (DMN)

If the ego can be said to have an address, it would probably be in something called the default mode network, a high-level hub in the brain linking the frontal cortex to older centers of memory and emotion. The D.M.N. appears to be involved in a range of operations related to our sense of self, like rumination, time travel (contemplating the past and future), theory of mind (the ability to impute mental states to others) and the so-called autobiographical self: It helps us integrate whatever’s happening to us now with the story of who we are, thereby giving us an abiding sense of a self that is consistent over time. Neuroscientists recently began imaging the brains of people on psilocybin or LSD, and they were surprised to find that, rather than increasing brain activity, as you might expect, the drugs radically quieted traffic in the D.M.N. In particular, when volunteers report the experience of ego dissolution, their brain imaging shows a precipitous drop in D.M.N. activity.

Taking this network temporarily offline may allow the whole system to “reboot,” in the words of Robin Carhart-Harris, a pioneering neuroscientist who has done extensive work imaging tripping brains at Imperial College London. The “loosening of cognition” that results, he says, is especially helpful to people suffering from the varieties of mental stuckness, including depression, addiction, anxiety and obsession.

All these conditions, as Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at Berkeley, points out, may share an etiology. “There are a range of difficulties and pathologies in adults, like depression, that are connected with the phenomenology of rumination, and an excessively narrow, ego-based focus,” says Gopnik, whose research explores the consciousness of children, which she believes bears a similarity to psychedelic consciousness. “You get stuck on the same thing, you can’t escape, you become obsessive, perhaps addictive. It seems plausible to me that psychedelic experience could help get us out of those states, create an opportunity in which the old stories of who we are might be rewritten.”

Saturday, May 12, 2018

London, 1866, as seen by a Japanese artist

Friday, May 11, 2018

Universals in human music

Patrick E. Savage, Steven Brown, Emi Sakai, and Thomas E. Currie, Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music, PNAS, July 21, 2015, vol. 112, no. 29, 8987-8992.

Significance: Which features of music are universal and which are culture-specific? Why? These questions are important for understand- ing why humans make music but have rarely been scientifically tested. We used musical classification techniques and statistical tools to analyze a global set of 304 music recordings, finding no absolute universals but dozens of statistical universals. These include not only commonly cited features related to pitch and rhythm but also domains such as social context and interrelationships between musical features. We speculate that group coordination is the common aspect unifying the cross-cultural structural regularities of human music, with implications for the study of music evolution.

Abstract: Music has been called “the universal language of mankind.” Although contemporary theories of music evolution often invoke various musical universals, the existence of such universals has been disputed for decades and has never been empirically demonstrated. Here we combine a music-classification scheme with statistical analyses, including phylogenetic comparative methods, to examine a well-sampled global set of 304 music recordings. Our analyses reveal no absolute universals but strong support for many statistical universals that are consistent across all nine geographic regions sampled. These universals include 18 musical features that are common individually as well as a network of 10 features that are commonly associated with one another. They span not only features related to pitch and rhythm that are often cited as putative universals but also rarely cited domains including performance style and social context. These cross-cultural structural regularities of human music may relate to roles in facilitating group coordination and cohesion, as exemplified by the universal tendency to sing, play percussion instruments, and dance to simple, repetitive music in groups. Our findings highlight the need for scientists studying music evolution to expand the range of musical cultures and musical features under consideration. The statistical universals we identified represent important candidates for future investigation.

Friday Fotos: Flowers, 11th Street in Hoboken, NJ






Google Duplex: Naturalistic conversational AI

Google's AI Blog has an interesting post about its new Google Duplex technology:
Today we announce Google Duplex, a new technology for conducting natural conversations to carry out “real world” tasks over the phone. The technology is directed towards completing specific tasks, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. For such tasks, the system makes the conversational experience as natural as possible, allowing people to speak normally, like they would to another person, without having to adapt to a machine.

One of the key research insights was to constrain Duplex to closed domains, which are narrow enough to explore extensively. Duplex can only carry out natural conversations after being deeply trained in such domains. It cannot carry out general conversations.
That key research insight is in fact rather old, going back to the middle of the previous century. Chess, for example, is by definition a closed domain. Duplex is currently specialized for booking hair appointments and making restaurant reservations.
There are several challenges in conducting natural conversations: natural language is hard to understand, natural behavior is tricky to model, latency expectations require fast processing, and generating natural sounding speech, with the appropriate intonations, is difficult.

When people talk to each other, they use more complex sentences than when talking to computers. They often correct themselves mid-sentence, are more verbose than necessary, or omit words and rely on context instead; they also express a wide range of intents, sometimes in the same sentence, e.g., “So umm Tuesday through Thursday we are open 11 to 2, and then reopen 4 to 9, and then Friday, Saturday, Sunday we... or Friday, Saturday we're open 11 to 9 and then Sunday we're open 1 to 9.”

In natural spontaneous speech people talk faster and less clearly than they do when they speak to a machine, so speech recognition is harder and we see higher word error rates. The problem is aggravated during phone calls, which often have loud background noises and sound quality issues.
The post has brief accounts of the technology involved. This paragraph about response latency is typical:
Also, it’s important for latency to match people’s expectations. For example, after people say something simple, e.g., “hello?”, they expect an instant response, and are more sensitive to latency. When we detect that low latency is required, we use faster, low-confidence models (e.g. speech recognition or endpointing). In extreme cases, we don’t even wait for our RNN, and instead use faster approximations (usually coupled with more hesitant responses, as a person would do if they didn’t fully understand their counterpart). This allows us to have less than 100ms of response latency in these situations. Interestingly, in some situations, we found it was actually helpful to introduce more latency to make the conversation feel more natural — for example, when replying to a really complex sentence.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Animals have culture too, don't appropriate it

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, very strange

A couple of weeks ago I posted about a Japanese TV program based on a premise that I found a bit strange, a young woman supporting her father marries a rich man so she doesn’t have to sell herself into prostitution to cover her father’s gambling debts. I’ve just watched a classic American movie that I found almost as strange. I wonder what the Japanese would think of it?

The movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from 1961, with Audrey Hepburn in her best-known role (& Henry Mancini’s theme song, “Moon River”, has long since entered “the American songbook”). Holly Golightly is a young woman-about-town who lives off the spending money of rich men. She also has a regular Thursday ‘date’ at Sing Sing prison. She gets $100 a visit for chatting with a mob boss doing time there; the man gives her a “weather report” which she then delivers to the man’s “lawyer”.

We learn this within 10 or 15 minutes after the film opens. She tells it to her new neighbor, Paul Varjak (played by George Peppard). He’s a writer who hasn’t had anything published in five years. He’s being supported by a slightly older matron.

What kind of premise is that? And yet it seems to be an “all American” film. Strange.

* * * * *

P.S. Mickey Rooney has a small recurring role as a Japanese photographer and landlord of the building. He’s outfitted with bucktooth prosthetics and plays the role rather broadly, shall we say, offensively so. Very offensively, like he was doing anti-Japanese propaganda for World War II.

What happened to economics?

Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, "How Economists Became So Timid", The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Self-styled American and European radicals, for example, helped end monarchy and expand the franchise. The free-labor ideology of European radicals and American Radical Republicans helped abolish serfdom and slavery and establish a new basis for industrial labor relations. The late 18th and 19th centuries also witnessed the liberal reformism of Jeremy Bentham, Smith, James and John Stuart Mill, and the Marquis de Condorcet; the socialist revolutionary ideologies of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Marx; the labor unionism of Beatrice and Sydney Webb; and, influential at the time but now mostly forgotten, the competitive common ownership ideology of Henry George and Léon Walras. This ideology shaped the Progressive movement in the United States, the "New Liberalism" of David Lloyd George in Britain, the radicalism of Georges Clemenceau in France, even the agenda of the Nationalist Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen. The Keynesian and welfare-state reforms of the early 20th century set the stage for the longest and most broadly shared period of growth in human history.
The upshot is that economics has played virtually no role in all the major political movements of the past half-century, including civil rights, feminism, anticolonialism, the rights of sexual minorities, gun rights, antiabortion politics, and "family values" debates. It has been completely unprepared for Trumpism and other varieties of populism, having failed to predict those developments just as it failed to predict the financial crisis of 2008. And, until very recently, it has shrugged at one of the most politically charged and morally troubling issues of our time — the rise in inequality.

Even the recent attempts of the field to live up to its heritage have fallen flat. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while widely perceived as a successor to Marx’s Capital, ends by half-heartedly proposing a modest global tax on capital. Where is the modern Smith, Marx, George, or Keynes? Other fields have not stepped up to fill the void left by political economy’s collapse. Sociologists and political scientists largely eschew specific policy proposals. And political philosophers, while offering bold visions of ideal societies, usually avoid dirtying their hands with the details of feasible policy design.


Saturday, May 5, 2018



Is science spinning its wheels?

Back in 1996 John Horgan published The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (see my review), in which he argued that, in field after field, science seems to have become unproductive, producing papers and research, but little knowledge. Have we reached the end of our knowledge? Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, is about to publish a book in which she sings a similar song, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray. She's got a talk online in which she explains

Here's a few paragraphs from the end, where, having talked about physics, she offers a more general conclusion:
The problems that I see in my own community worry me a lot. Not so much because I’m so terribly worried about quantum gravity. On a certain level, even though it’s my personal interest, I realize that for most of the people on the planet making progress in quantum gravity is not that terribly important. It worries me because I have to question how well science itself is working.

The problems that I was speaking about in my own community—that people work on certain topics just because the money is there, because it’s something that is popular and that their colleagues appreciate—are problems that almost certainly exist in most scientific communities. My extrapolation from my own field would tell me that I should be very skeptical about whatever comes out of the scientific community. And that’s not good. Clearly that’s not good.

I’ve been thinking for a lot of time how we could go about and try to solve these problems. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. We need science to solve the problems on this planet, problems that we have caused ourselves. For this we need science to work properly. First of all, to get this done will require that we understand better how science works. I find it ironic that we have models for how political systems work. We have voting models. We have certain understanding for how these things go about.

We also have a variety of models for the economic system and for the interaction with the political system. But we pretty much know nothing about the dynamics of knowledge discovery. We don’t know how the academic system works, for how people develop their ideas, for how these ideas get selected, for how these ideas proliferate. We don’t have any good understanding of how that works. That will be necessary to solve these problems. We will also have to get this knowledge about how science works closer to the people who do the science. To work in this field, you need to have an education for how knowledge discovery works and what it takes to make it work properly. And that is currently missing.
As you may know, I see similar problems in the fields where I work, literary criticism, cognitive science, and so forth.

* * * * * *

 A recent post in which I note that Horgan's still at it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Two ducks on the beach


Why the outrage over Michelle Wolf's performance and the W.H.C.A. Dinner?

After all, she was hired to provide satire, and that's what she provided. James Poniewozik in the NYTimes:
Was Ms. Wolf’s set vicious? Absolutely. (She called Ivanka Trump, for instance, “about as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons.”)

But was it gratuitous? Not at all. It drove mercilessly toward its themes: that this administration lies; that its female members are covering for a sexist president; and that journalists have enabled it all with breathless coverage.

Those are points of view, and not ones that anyone needs to agree with. But comedy’s job is to have a point of view, to pick a hill to die on and defend it with furiously thrown pies. Comedy is not a Page A1 news analysis. It is not its job to call the other side for comment or throw in a “to be sure” paragraph for balance.
If Trump were mentally or physically disabled and Wolf had mocked him for that, then, yes, that would be over the line. But he isn't and she didn't. He may be enormously insecure, narcissistic, megalomaniac, and have problems with the truth, and she got him for those.

Jack Goldsmith has a piece in the Weekly Standard that's meandering in the right direction. It's about norms, norms of the Presidency and of the press that covers it. Trump, of course, has shattered the norms of the office, and so the press, in response, has broken its norms in covering it:
The media’s relationship with the president has also been marked by norm changes. Its chummy and largely protective rapport with JFK has changed to a more adversarial posture over the decades, culminating in the Trump era with a historically oppositional attitude toward the president.
And so, by stages, we arrive at:
It is part of Trump’s evil genius that he elevates himself by inducing his critics to behave like him . “In lots of reporting, particularly on television commentary, there’s a kind of self-righteousness and smugness and people kind of ridiculing the president,” Bob Woodward correctly noted earlier this year. Woodward later added that many reporters covering Trump had "become emotionally unhinged." In the context of the Trump presidency, an unusually strident comedy routine at the marquee journalist event, followed by claims that Trump deserved it, furthers the perception that the press hates Trump and is out to get him. It lends credence to Trump’s attacks on the bias and shortcomings of what he calls the “fake-news media.”
 The context has changed so that it's hard (for some) to tell that, after all, she's joking.