Thursday, February 28, 2019

Some purple flowers

Goodwill runs the world's 2nd largest MOOC

In 2018, more than 31 million people took virtual courses offered through GCFGlobal – a Goodwill Community Foundation initiative – and their online portal, offered in English, Spanish and Portuguese. This is an astounding number that would rank it just behind Coursera’s reported 37 million registered users in 2018 and more than both Udacity (10 million) and edX (18 million) combined. Goodwill, with very little fanfare, is already the 2nd biggest MOOC in the world, running neck-and-neck with Coursera – a fast-charging, venture-backed company that has raised over $210 million. And there’s good reason to believe it could quickly surpass all MOOCs in total users. Why? It’s simple. Goodwill got the premise right. And that premise is all about jobs. It’s providing the education and skills that help move people from unemployed to employed, from a low-paying job to a higher-paying one, from a bad or average job to a good job.

Gallup’s World Poll data is clear on what the whole world wants most: a good job. People around the world highly value health, safety and family – but they see a good job as key to accomplishing these things. Demand for this tangible asset is sky-high: there are some 1.8 billion people in the world who want a good job and don’t have one. The Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey reports that the top reason U.S. adults value higher education is to get a good job. Certainly, people value education for other reasons – including an interest in lifelong learning, intellectual interests and personal development – but these reasons are far down the list compared to their motivation to improve their standing in today’s job market. This is where Goodwill separates itself from the others.

In looking at the courses and topics offered at, you can quickly understand why it is such a highly utilized resource. It ranges from reading, math and understanding money and personal finance to computer, email and Internet basics to digital skills and mastering widely-used tools such as Microsoft Office and QuickBooks. Goodwill’s MOOC offerings serve as an extension of their robust job training and placement efforts on the ground where they serve 2.1 million people through face-to-face offerings including job placement services, career coaches and even rehabilitation programs for those recovering from physical injuries. Goodwill understands that the world of work now requires a commitment to lifelong learning.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture. One of my all time favorites.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This happened when I was living in upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.


The Craft

However, before getting to the magic, you need to understand a little about the craft. Few physical tasks are easier than getting a sound from a bell by hitting it with a stick. But that doesn’t mean that you can play your bell in a mood of casual somnambulance. No, you must be sensitive to small details, for nuance matters.

Generally you hold the bell in your left hand and the stick in your right—if you are right-handed. When you hit the bell with a stick the stick will bounce back. You need to learn to work with the rebound, not against it. If you hold the stick too firmly your grip will damp out the rebound and you will thereby waste the energy the bell has imparted to the stick. Rather, you want to hold the stick lightly and learn simply to redirect the stick’s energy back to the bell. You want to “cooperate” with the stick and the bell rather than “dominate” them.

Further, you need to attend to just where you hit the bell. The sound of a bell is complex and varies depending on just where you hit it. Thus, by hitting a bell in different places you can get several distinctly different sounds from a single bell. The different sounds you get from the bell will blend with other bell sounds in different ways. You have to be conscious of these blending possibilities when playing your bell.

By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the elastic properties of stick and bell you become one with the bell. By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the way your bell tones blend with other bell tones you become one with the group. While thus “becoming one with” has a mystical aura about it, you need to understand that this mystical aura is grounded in the subtleties of physical technique.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Four pilars of the community

Moby Dick, the Oil Industry, and America

That’s right, Moby Dick, the 19th century novel by Herman Melville, one of the great novels. Of course we’re beyond it, it was published in 1851. Whales were hunted for their oil, which was used for lubrication, and, above all, lighting. Though whaling began to die out a decade after Moby Dick was published—oil was discovered in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859—it was big business when Moby Dick was published, and America’s whaling fleet was the largest in the world.

Rather than continuing on with my own observations, however, I thought I give you a Martian interpretation of the book. Well, not real Martians, a fictional ones, a pair invented by Margaret Atwood and plopped into a New York Times op-ed in April, 2012:
“‘Moby-Dick’ is about the oil industry,” they said. “And the Ship of American State. The owners of the Pequod are rapacious and stingy religious hypocrites. The ship’s business is to butcher whales and turn them into an industrial energy product. The mates are the middle management. The harpooners, who are from races colonized by America one way or another, are supplying the expert tech labor. Elijah the prophet — from the American artist caste — foretells the Pequod’s doom, which comes about because the chief executive, Ahab, is a megalomaniac who wants to annihilate nature.

“Nature is symbolized by a big white whale, which has interfered with Ahab’s personal freedom by biting off his leg and refusing to be slaughtered and boiled. The narrator, Ishmael, represents journalists; his job is to warn America that it’s controlled by psychotics who will destroy it, because they hate the natural world and don’t grasp the fact that without it they will die. That’s enough literature for now. Can we have popcorn?”
Seems about right.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The broom returns

Structural inequality in the Wikimedia universe

Jinhyuk Yun, Sang Hoon Lee & Hawoong Jeong, Early onset of structural inequality in the formation of collaborative knowledge in all Wikimedia projects, Nature Human Behaviour, volume 3, pages 155–163 (2019)
Abstract: The Wikimedia project, including Wikipedia, is one of the largest communal data sets and has served as a representative medium to convey collective knowledge in the twenty-first century. Researchers have believed that the analysis of these collaborative digital data sets provides a unique window into the processes of collaborative knowledge formation; yet, in reality, most previous studies have usually focused on its narrow subsets. Here, by analysing all 863 Wikimedia projects (various types and in different languages), we find evidence for a universal growth pattern in communal data formation. We observe that inequality arises early in the development of Wikimedia projects and stabilizes at high levels. To understand the mechanism behind the observed structural inequality, we develop an agent-based model that considers the characteristics of the editors and successfully reproduces the empirical results. Our findings from the Wikimedia projects data, along with other types of collaboration data, such as patents and academic papers, show that a small number of editors have a disproportionately large influence on the formation of collective knowledge. This analysis offers insights into how various collaboration environments can be sustained in the future.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

First Man, a remark or two on how it achieves its effects

I saw First Man last fall when it came out. Last night I saw it again, on a large TV. I find it impressive, still. As I argued last year, the film reaches for a sense of the sacred. It’s not an action-adventure film, though there is adventure in it, and action too. It’s more contemplative.

How does it work? That’s what my few remarks are about.

The film opens on Neil Armstrong, the protagonist, in a test flight of an airplane. While we do have some shots of the plane from the outside and at a distance, most of the shots are of the planes cockpit, either from Armstrong’s point-of-view has he looks about the cockpit, often at his hands activating controls, or through the window at the sky. There’s trouble, the image vibrates, a reflection of the plane’s motions. We hear voices (I think). We know Armstrong’s going to pull out of it because, well, after all, he did go to the moon and that’s not yet happened. There’s a strong sense of being enclosed, being trapped, of being at the edge of desperation.

No sense of wide open spaces, no wild blue yonder.

And then it’s over. Armstrong lands the plane, gets out, and the film moves to a different register.

Now we see Armstrong and his wife dealing with Karen’s cancer (his young daughter) – I assume it was cancer, perhaps we’re told, but there’s radiation treatment. We see Neil playing with Karen; we see her playing. And then we hear the sound of a winching lowering a small casket into a grave; we see Armstrong, his wife, and so at the funeral.

And then it’s over. The film moves to a different register. We see Armstrong at work, in his office. His boss offers him time off, which he declines. He wants/needs to work. He scans his desktop, see a NASA newsletter with a story about the Gemini program. He decides to apply.

Was that decision a response to, a way of coping with, his daughter’s death? Who knows – and the scope of that question is strictly within the film itself and has nothing to do with the real Neil Armstrong, though, of course, this is a biopic about him. Armstrong doesn’t say that he’s applying to Gemini because his daughter has died. He says nothing at all about why he applied. He just does.

But the film creates a connection by virtue of its narrative strategy. First we see a dicey test flight. And then we cut to Karen’s illness. No causal connection is asserted or implied there, nor would I think that anyone infers cause. All we have is sequence, juxtaposition.

That’s all we have. Which is the point. Within the imaginative space that is First Man, that’s what we’ve got. Two things: a test flight, a death in the family. And then a third: Armstrong applies to Gemini.

Let’s skip over most of the film. What’s the last thing we see Armstrong do on the moon? He drops Karen’s identity bracelet into a crater. That action asserts a connection between his daughter’s death and his decision to enter the astronaut program. And that connection is how this film asserts the sacred quality of walking on the moon. The next shot has him safely back on earth. And then he’s in quarantine, where he meets his wife. They cannot touch, directly, but they touch the window separating them in the same spot. No talk.

And the film ends.

I skipped a lot, but I don’t intend to fill that in, not here, though I’m inclined to think that there is value in describing what happens all the way through, scene by scene, perhaps even shot by shot. But this is not the place to attempt that.

To a first approximation we see the juxtaposition of Armstrong’s professional life as an astronaut and his private life as husband and father, of (now) two sons. These narrative strands move in parallel.

And they collide just before Armstrong is to go to the moon. He’s packing his bags and hopes to slip out of the house without talking to his sons. His wife won’t allow this. She knows that he might not return, as does he, and wants him to acknowledge that to his sons. He talks with them and acknowledges that, yes, he might not return.

But he does return, after he’s left his daughter’s identity bracelet on the moon. Does he tell anyone about that? Who knows? But likely not.

And that’s how Chazelle, the director, creates a sense of the sacred – where I’m using Chazelle as a figure for the collective entity that created this film. Just why that creates the effect that it does, that’s worth thinking about. But not here, not now.

* * * * *

My other posts on First Man:

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Will in the Nervous System, and Its Consequences

This is a passage that didn’t make the cut for Beethoven’s Anvil. It’s about the will, its footprint in the nervous system, and what that means about our relationship to our nervous system. Notice that peculiar locution, which implies that we are something other than the nervous system that thinks us. We are and we aren’t, aren’t we?
Willfulness is a subjective experience and, accordingly, psychology and neuroscience have banned talk of will and volition for most of this century. However, such language is embedded in neuroscientific terminology, a fact noted by Bernard Baars. The division of the peripheral nervous system that regulates the viscera is called the autonomic nervous system, indicating its capacity to operate autonomously, one cannot will one’s heart rate to go up or down, or will that digestion cease or commence. At the same time, talk of voluntary actions is routine. The neural pathways for voluntary action, which tend to be those that control the skeletal muscles, are separate from the autonomic nervous system.

However, we must note that this distinction is made from the point of view of the actor and not from that of an external observer. That is to say, the distinction is subjective. It is true that neural systems indicated by Baars are physically distinct, a matter visible to numerous investigators. What is peculiar is that one of these systems is thought of as being voluntary while the other is involuntary. Whether or not an action is voluntary is something one can ascertain only by asking the actor. One can’t ask such questions of rats, cats, and monkeys and expect meaningful answers. Does this mean that animals do not have wills?

This distinction that seems so obvious on a phenomenal level, is not quite so obvious when one begins looking for the relevant neural structures. For one thing, given appropriate feedback, autonomic functions can be subject to voluntary control. Thus, in one experiment, it proved easy for subjects to raise or lower their blood pressure when given a flashing light to indicate success. On the other hand the motor system does not divide neatly into voluntary and involuntary divisions, though it does seem that voluntary actions do seem to be those that are mediated by frontal cortex. For these reasons we need to be cautious when talking about what we can and cannot will. With that in mind, let us continue on, thinking strictly in terms of subjective experience.

Disobedient Organs

The dance between that which we can will and that which we cannot is, of course, both ancient and basic. As an example, us consider a brief passage by one of the greatest Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, whose career straddled the third and fourth centuries. In his master work, The City of God, Augustine observes:
There are, then, many kinds of lusts for this or that, but when the word is used by itself without specification it suggests to most people the lust for sexual excitement. Such lust does not merely invade the whole body and outward members; it takes such complete and passionate possession of the whole man, both physically and emotionally, that what results is the keenest of all pleasures on the level of sensation; and, at the crisis of excitement, it practically paralyzes all power of deliberate thought.

This is so true that it creates a problem for every lover of wisdom and holy joys...Any such person would prefer, if this were possible, to beget his children without suffering this passion. He could wish that, just as all his other members obey his reason in the performance of their appointed tasks, so the organs of parenthood, too, might function in obedience to the orders of will and not be excited by the ardors of lust.
What Augustine is asserting of sexuality is in fact true for emotion and motivation in general. Tenderness, anger and thirst are no more subject to will than is sexual desire.

However, one can attempt to manipulate one’s emotional and motivational state through indirect means. That is why we have pornography, romance novels, and military music. Those things can be apprehended at will and they may well produce the desired effect. But they may not. Even if they do we might get stuck with more of an effect than we wanted. Such indirect manipulations are not always reliable.

Seductive Sounds

Given Augustine’s abhorrence of anything that threatens the “power of deliberate thought” the following passage from his Confessions is interesting:
But if I am not to turn a deaf ear to music...I must allow it a position of some honour in my heart, and I find it difficult to assign it to its proper place. For sometimes I feel that I treat it with more honour than it deserves. I realize that when they are sung these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervour and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung...But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of the senses, which often leads it astray.
When he asserts that the singing stirs his mind he is, of course, acknowledging that there is something going on beyond will and reason, something that he finds potentially dangerous. While he would like to deal with the words alone he cannot bring himself entirely to forgo the stirrings of music. He is ambivalent, and ambivalence that stems from the fact that music is a willed activity that can easily stir the passions, thus producing results beyond the will and perhaps even capable of superseding the will.

And one of those passions that seems peculiarly responsive to music is sexual passion. One wills the music and before you know it, the music is willing those “other members” to dance. When they dance, there goes the will.

It’s paper / rock / scissors round and round.

It’s also Shakespeare 129.

It’s us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Ferry and destination

Oral transmission of folksongs

Daniel Shanahan, Joshua Albrecht, Examining the Effect of Oral Transmission on Folksongs, Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 36 No. 3, February 2019; (pp. 273-288) DOI: 10.1525/mp.2019.36.3.273
Abstract: Sociolinguists frequently examine the nature of gradual, internal shifts in languages and dialects over time, arguing for both cognitive and cultural factors, as well as those that might be somehow internal to the language itself. Similarly, musicologists have often argued that musical genres and even specific songs can be examined through gradual diachronic shifts, which seem to be especially accelerated in traditions that rely on oral transmission. For example, Spitzer (1994) examined the stemma of “Oh! Susanna” and noticed that it tended to become more pentatonicized at cadence points by dropping scale degree seven, and suggested that this might be true with folk songs in general. To test this, we employed both experimental and corpus-based paradigms. The experimental approach attempted to simulate oral transmission in a compressed timeframe by involving singers who heard and replicated short musical excerpts, and then would teach a colleague, who in turn passed it on to another participant. Similarly, we conducted a corpus analysis that examined the prevalence of descending stepwise endings in styles of music primarily transmitted orally compared with those transmitted primarily through notation. The experimental results suggest that cadence points in Western folk music are more likely to lose scale degree seven through the act of oral transmission, and the corpus study suggests that, although stylistic constraints play a large role in folk music, there might also be a relationship between transmission and physical affordances.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Chinese and U.S. economies, Brexit

Yngve Slyngstad is CEO of Norway's sovereign wealth fund, the worlds largest at $1 trillion. Jonas O Bergman and Sree Vidya Bhaktavatsalam of Bloomberg Markets interviewed him on a wide range of topics pertaining to the fund. Here are some remarks on the relationship between China and the U.S.:
BM: The other risk is obviously what’s going on with the trade disputes with the U.S. You have said that you see a potential risk of two global supply chains emerging from this dispute. Who do you think would be the biggest losers or winners from a disruption of the system that we’ve had?

YS: Currently, the Chinese economy and the U.S. economy are very intertwined. It is hard to see how it can be unwound, which I think is a very positive thing in the bigger scheme of things. But if even on a smaller scale companies start to diversify their production—which already is happening—and that is combined with the move toward more automation, that will mean quite a lot of new investments for all of the companies. Which, of course, will affect their profitability. It’s not necessarily easy to see what is the short-term and the long-term effect of all those things.

BM: What are you anticipating?

YS: In November I had a trip to China to look into the specific issue with regards to the production chain. We visited companies such as Foxconn and many other semiconductor producers. There’s a division of labor between the U.S. and China and benefits from the global production chain in key components that I think will lead, more or less by economic logic and necessity, to a mutually beneficial relationship between those two large economies. The thought of disintegration to regional production chains I think is less likely.

From our perspective, as a long-term-oriented fund, the big driver of the economy and of our investment results is development in technology more than political decisions. Most of the people in the market will now typically say the biggest risks will be trade disputes between China and the U.S., the status of the EU and Brexit, and the fiscal strength of some of the countries. But in a longer-term perspective, I don’t think any of those risks are high on our agenda.
On Brexit:
BM: You have large investments in the U.K., so how concerned are you about the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit deadline at the end of March?

YS: We should have expected two years ago that the peak of this uncertainty would be in March 2019. The longer perspective in our view is still that we are invested in the U.K. with a long-term horizon. How much we will invest will not be changed depending on the result of this development. If we look past this—10, 20, 30 years—the U.K. will be an important economy in Europe, and it will remain in Europe. We expect business on that timeline to develop positively no matter the outcome.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Is Lake Erie a juridical person? The voters will decide.

The failing health of Lake Erie, the world’s 11th largest lake, is at the heart of one of the most unusual questions to appear on an American ballot: Should a body of water be given rights normally associated with those granted to a person?

Voters in Toledo, Ohio, will be asked this month to decide whether Lake Erie, which supports the economies of four states, one Canadian province and the cities of Toledo, Cleveland and Buffalo, has the legal right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”

The peculiar ballot question comes amid a string of environmental calamities at the lake — poisonous algal blooms in summer, runoff containing fertilizer and animal manure, and a constant threat from invasive fish. But this special election is not merely symbolic. It is legal strategy: If the lake gets legal rights, the theory goes, people can sue polluters on its behalf.

The proposed Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of a growing number of efforts to carve out legal status for elements of nature, including rivers, forests, mountains and even wild rice. The efforts, which began decades ago but have gathered momentum in recent years, seek to show that existing laws are insufficient to protect nature against environmental harm. Under current law, lakes and deserts do not have legal standing, so people cannot sue on their behalf. [...]

Tamaqua Borough, Pa., in the center of the state’s historic coal-mining region, was the first place in the nation to approve a rights-of-nature ordinance in 2006 after it banned companies from dumping dredged minerals and sewage sludge into open pit mines.

The bill approved by the borough council included language that said corporations could not “interfere with the existence and flourishing of natural communities or ecosystems, or to cause damage” to them within the township.

Four years later, Pittsburgh approved a rights-of-nature ordinance that prohibited fracking in city limits.

Santa Monica, Calif., has since passed an ordinance that requires the city to “recognize the rights of people, natural communities and ecosystems to exist, regenerate and flourish.”

And earlier this year, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota announced that it had granted wild rice its own legal rights, including “the right to pure water.”
Shades of object-oriented ontology (OOO)!

Red white and green

Climate change, from panic to politics

David Wallace-Wells, Time to Panic, NYTimes, 16 Feb 2019.
The number of “good news” scientific papers that I’ve encountered in that time I could probably count on my two hands. The “bad news” papers number probably in the thousands — each day seeming to bring a new, distressing revision to our understanding of the environmental trauma already unfolding.

I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency. We are all living in delusion, unable to really process the news from science that climate change amounts to an all-encompassing threat. Indeed, a threat the size of life itself. [...]

We build our view of the universe outward from our own experience, a reflexive tendency that surely shapes our ability to comprehend genuinely existential threats to the species. We have a tendency to wait for others to act, rather than acting ourselves; a preference for the present situation; a disinclination to change things; and an excess of confidence that we can change things easily, should we need to, no matter the scale. We can’t see anything but through cataracts of self-deception.

The sum total of these biases is what makes climate change something the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” — a conceptual fact so large and complex that it can never be properly comprehended. In his book “Worst-Case Scenarios,” the legal scholar Cass Sunstein wrote that in general, we have a problem considering unlikely but potential risks, which we run from either into complacency or paranoia. His solution is a wonky one: We should all be more rigorous in our cost-benefit analysis.

That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing is one of its many paradoxes. That climate change touches so many of our cognitive biases is a mark of just how big it is and how much about human life it touches, which is to say, nearly everything. [...]

But conscious consumption is a cop-out, a neoliberal diversion from collective action, which is what is necessary. People should try to live by their own values, about climate as with everything else, but the effects of individual lifestyle choices are ultimately trivial compared with what politics can achieve.

Buying an electric car is a drop in the bucket compared with raising fuel-efficiency standards sharply. Conscientiously flying less is a lot easier if there’s more high-speed rail around. And if I eat fewer hamburgers a year, so what? But if cattle farmers were required to feed their cattle seaweed, which might reduce methane emissions by nearly 60 percent according to one study, that would make an enormous difference.

That is what is meant when politics is called a “moral multiplier.” It is also an exit from the personal, emotional burden of climate change and from what can feel like hypocrisy about living in the world as it is and simultaneously worrying about its future. We don’t ask people who pay taxes to support a social safety net to also demonstrate that commitment through philanthropic action, and similarly we shouldn’t ask anyone — and certainly not everyone — to manage his or her own carbon footprint before we even really try to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions.

That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.

Gay priests in America

Elizabeth Dias, ‘It Is Not a Closet. It Is a Cage.’ Gay Catholic Priests Speak Out, NYTimes, February 17, 2019:
Fewer than about 10 priests in the United States have dared to come out publicly. But gay men likely make up at least 30 to 40 percent of the American Catholic clergy, according to dozens of estimates from gay priests themselves and researchers. Some priests say the number is closer to 75 percent. One priest in Wisconsin said he assumed every priest is gay unless he knows for a fact he is not. A priest in Florida put it this way: “A third are gay, a third are straight, and a third don’t know what the hell they are.”

Two dozen gay priests and seminarians from 13 states shared intimate details of their lives in the Catholic closet with The New York Times over the past two months. They were interviewed in their churches before Mass, from art museums on the weekend, in their apartments decorated with rainbow neon lights, and between classes at seminary. Some agreed to be photographed if their identities were concealed.

Almost all of them required strict confidentiality to speak without fear of retribution from their bishops or superiors. A few had been expressly forbidden to come out or even to speak about homosexuality. Most are in active ministry, and could lose more than their jobs if they are outed. The church almost always controls a priest’s housing, health insurance and retirement pension. He could lose all three if his bishop finds his sexuality disqualifying, even if he is faithful to his vows of celibacy.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

The rise of the black market in North Korea

Travis Jeppesen, Shopping in Pyongyang, and Other Adventures in North Korean Capitalism, NYTimes Magazine, 14 Feb 2019.
Jangmadang! Jangmadang!” I echoed playfully. My minders ceased their laughter and looked down at the ground. They had forgotten for a moment that I was a language student; jangmadang was one word I was not supposed to know.

Usually translated as “market grounds,” jangmadang is the word for the unofficial markets that emerged during the Arduous March, which is the regime’s official name for the famine that blighted the country throughout the middle and late 1990s. These were illegal markets, to begin with, that sprang up as a result of the collapse of the public food-distribution system that all North Koreans had previously relied on for their monthly rations. During the later years of Kim Jong-il’s reign, the government began to grudgingly accept their existence and took steps toward regulating them: charging rent for stalls, controlling prices and monitoring what goods were for sale. Under Kim Jong-un, the restrictions against this form of private enterprise have been all but lifted, and jangmadang has transcended the cramped market stalls of its birth to refer to the vast array of legal, illegal and semi-legal markets that exist for all sorts of goods in North Korea. Among recent defectors and expat residents, it is said that now, as long as you have money, you can buy anything you want in North Korea. But since the government still hasn’t figured out a way of publicly reconciling with this nascent form of capitalism, it was considered taboo to discuss the jangmadang with foreigners.

Which is a shame, because the rise of the jangmadang is arguably the most significant milestone in North Korea’s recent history. It lies at the root of all the country’s economic development over the past few years. They might not be permitted to speak about it with outsiders, but North Koreans are no longer shy about flaunting their consumption habits, as anyone who has witnessed the displays on the streets of Pyongyang in recent years can attest. Montblanc watches, Ray-Ban sunglasses and Burberry couture hardly fit the stereotype of a half-starved populace completely cut off from the outside world. And while extreme poverty continues to afflict large swaths of the population, North Korean society no longer conforms to a simplistic picture of haves and have-nots, but is home to an increasingly diverse and complex array of socioeconomic classes. While the presence of a rising upper middle class is most apparent in Pyongyang, a nouveau riche strata has been observed in other parts of the country, such as the port city of Chongjin and in many places along the border with China, where licit and illicit trade continues to flourish. [...]

Today there are more than 400 sanctioned markets in the country, representing about 600,000 vendors. After the currency reform wiped out the wealth and savings of a number of merchants, the preferred currencies in business became the United States dollar and the Chinese renminbi. According to one survey, some 90 percent of all household expenditures are said to take place in these markets; they are so pervasive that people speak of a Jangmadang Generation that grew up knowing nothing else. Under Kim Jong-un, market activities have not only been tolerated; they have slowly crept into the official sector, as I witnessed firsthand in my visits to the country.

How the Chinese Communist Party is using digital tech to promulgate ideology

David Bandurski, The Dawn of the Little Red Phone, China Media Project, Feb 15, 2019:
How can, and how will, the Party leverage digital technology to re-program propaganda in the 21st century?

Already this year we have witnessed one product that provides at least part of the answer, a prime example of how the Party can leverage digital media products to reshape the whole process of ideological control in ways that are far more personal, and far more effective, than anything we have witnessed in the reform era. As the People’s Daily reported on January 15: “On New Year’s Day, many Party members and cadres found to their delight that ‘Xi Study Strong Nation,’ an authoritative and content-rich platform especially for theoretical study, had formally been launched,” the official People’s Daily reported on January 15.

Skirting past this questionable assertion about the delight Party members have derived from this new app, what exactly are we talking about here?

Available at the website, the “Xi Study Strong Nation” app is tool by means of which, once installed, the Party can assert its ideological and intellectual authority over Party members and employees of Party-run institutions, including schools and media. Beyond making Party messages passively available, as Party newspapers and state controlled media have done for decades, the app commands engagement, by which users can earn “Xi Study Points” (学习积分). Once engagement with the app is enforced by administrative demands that it be installed and used, something that is already happening, the messages of the Party become inescapable. [...]

The platform has been designed with a built-in “Xi Study Points” system (学习积分系统) that allows users to accumulate points on the basis of habitual use of the platform, from reading and viewing of content to the posting of comments and other forms of engagement. It has been widely promoted by local governments and ministries and departments across China, and there have also been reports that some work units have ordered employees to attain specified point levels, with disciplinary measures to be imposed for those who fail to comply. [...]

Consider how the “Xi Study Strong Nation” point system is engineered and you realise that the advancement of the platform is about the real and measurable engagement, and thereby domination, of the individual within the broader Party-led system.

The app defines several periods of activity as “lively intervals,” or huoyue shiduan (活跃时段), during which users engaging with the platform can earn double points — 0.2 for each article or video, 2 points for a full 30 minutes of use, and so on. The intervals are Monday through Friday from 8:30 PM to 10 PM, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 AM to 10:30 AM, and 3:30 PM to 4:30 PM. The system, then, incentivises Party members, once home from the office and done with family dinner, to spend golden hours of otherwise discretionary personal time engaging with “Xi Jinping Thought.”
H/t Tyler Cowen.


Friday, February 15, 2019

The efficacy of nonviolent resistance

Michelle Nicholason, Nonviolent resistance proves potent weapon, The Harvard Gazette, February 4, 2019:
Recent research suggests that nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful in creating broad-based change than violent campaigns are, a somewhat surprising finding with a story behind it.

When Erica Chenoweth started her predoctoral fellowship at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in 2006, she believed in the strategic logic of armed resistance. She had studied terrorism, civil war, and major revolutions — Russian, French, Algerian, and American — and suspected that only violent force had achieved major social and political change. But then a workshop led her to consider proving that violent resistance was more successful than the nonviolent kind. Since the question had never been addressed systematically, she and colleague Maria J. Stephan began a research project.

For the next two years, Chenoweth and Stephan collected data on all violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 that resulted in the overthrow of a government or in territorial liberation. They created a data set of 323 mass actions. Chenoweth analyzed nearly 160 variables related to success criteria, participant categories, state capacity, and more. The results turned her earlier paradigm on its head — in the aggregate, nonviolent civil resistance was far more effective in producing change.

The Weatherhead Center for International Affairs (WCFIA) sat down with Chenoweth, a new faculty associate who returned to the Harvard Kennedy School this year as professor of public policy, and asked her to explain her findings and share her goals for future research. Chenoweth is also the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. [...]

Based on the cases you have studied, what are the key elements necessary for a successful nonviolent campaign?

CHENOWETH: I think it really boils down to four different things. The first is a large and diverse participation that’s sustained.

The second thing is that [the movement] needs to elicit loyalty shifts among security forces in particular, but also other elites. Security forces are important because they ultimately are the agents of repression, and their actions largely decide how violent the confrontation with — and reaction to — the nonviolent campaign is going to be in the end. But there are other security elites, economic and business elites, state media. There are lots of different pillars that support the status quo, and if they can be disrupted or coerced into noncooperation, then that’s a decisive factor.

The third thing is that the campaigns need to be able to have more than just protests; there needs to be a lot of variation in the methods they use.

The fourth thing is that when campaigns are repressed — which is basically inevitable for those calling for major changes — they don’t either descend into chaos or opt for using violence themselves. If campaigns allow their repression to throw the movement into total disarray or they use it as a pretext to militarize their campaign, then they’re essentially co-signing what the regime wants — for the resisters to play on its own playing field. And they’re probably going to get totally crushed.

Emotional expression in Anglophone fiction declines over two centures

Oliver Morin and Alberto Acerbi, Birth of the cool: a two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction, Cognition and Emotion, Volume 31, 2017 - Issue 8,
Abstract: The presence of emotional words and content in stories has been shown to enhance a story’s memorability, and its cultural success. Yet, recent cultural trends run in the opposite direction. Using the Google Books corpus, coupled with two metadata-rich corpora of Anglophone fiction books, we show a decrease in emotionality in English-speaking literature starting plausibly in the nineteenth century. We show that this decrease cannot be explained by changes unrelated to emotionality (such as demographic dynamics concerning age or gender balance, changes in vocabulary richness, or changes in the prevalence of literary genres), and that, in our three corpora, the decrease is driven almost entirely by a decline in the proportion of positive emotion-related words, while the frequency of negative emotion-related words shows little if any decline. Consistently with previous studies, we also find a link between ageing and negative emotionality at the individual level.
From the introduction:
In this paper, we attempt to provide a better grounding for the hypothesis that the decreasing in emotion-related words is a real linguistic and cultural phenomenon, and to contextualise it in a wider cognitive and cultural framework. First, we ran a new analysis on the Google Books corpus, focusing on the English Fiction sample from the second version (2012) of the corpus, in which the influx of the increase of technical literature seems to be absent or strongly limited (Pechenick et al., 2015). Second, we replicated this analysis on two “small data” corpora: collections of books that we built ourselves, and for which we have all the relevant metadata needed to control for a variety of factors (the author’s age, gender, and vocabulary size, to cite the most important).

We report four main findings. (i) Our data confirm that the decrease in emotionality in English-speaking literature is no artifact of the Google Books corpus, and that it pre-dates the twentieth century, plausibly beginning in the early nineteenth century; (ii) this general decline cannot be explained by changes unrelated to emotionality (such as demographic dynamics concerning age or gender balance, changes in vocabulary richness, or changes in the prevalence of literary genres); (iii) in our three corpora, this decrease in the proportion of emotion-related words in literary texts is driven almost entirely by a decline in the proportion of positive emotion-related words, while the frequency of negative emotion-related words shows little decline (if any), and (iv) author’s age, consistently with previous studies (Pennebaker & Stone, 2003), covaries with negative emotionality, with older authors using proportionally fewer negative emotion-related words.

In the discussion, we consider several possible explanations for the birth of a “cool”, detached emotional style that avoids positive emotional expression. A dynamic of “regression to the mean” following the domination, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, of the exuberant Romantic style, is one possibility. Overall, we take our work as showing the importance of the combined use of “big data” (abundant, but lacking in metadata, datasets) and “small” data (datasets more restricted, but metadata-rich) to investigate cultural changes. In addition, our results suggest that the “Pollyanna effect” (the predominance of positively valenced words over negatively valenced ones – (Boucher & Osgood, 1969; Kloumann, Danforth, Harris, Bliss, & Dodds, 2012) may not be an invariant feature of language, but is subject to historical fluctuations.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Speed Limit 25

Christianity is spreading to China via Africa

Christopher Rhodes, How Africa is converting China, Unherd, 13 feb 2019:
Much has been made of the influx of Chinese money and workers into Africa over the past two decades, as China has become the primary economic partner for the continent. Both the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company have compiled the numbers – and they’re staggering. China-Africa trade reached a high of $215 billion in 2014; $143 billion in Chinese loans have poured in to Africa between 2000 and 2017, and annual inflows of foreign direct investment have exceeded $3 billion in recent years.
As a result there are many Chinese workers in Africa, far from home.
Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have gone to work in Africa, where they have encountered foreign cultures that leave many of them feeling alienated. For some of these disaffected Chinese workers, a source of comfort has come from religion, most notably the Evangelical Christianity that pervades much of sub-Saharan Africa. Evangelicalism prioritises conversion of non-believers, and the Chinese, heavily discouraged from practicing religion at home, are attractive potential converts.

Many local African churches have reached out to Chinese workers, including incorporating Mandarin into services. A number of Chinese, in turn, have welcomed the sense of community and belonging that these Christian churches offer. And a small but growing number of ethnically Chinese missionaries from Taiwan and other countries are specifically targeting Chinese nationals in Africa, preaching to them with a freedom they’d never be allowed in the People’s Republic.

Many of these Chinese workers are returning home, and they’re bringing their newfound religion with them. Visitors to the coastal province of Fujian, for example, now hear South African accented English and see houses adorned with crosses. African migrants are also moving to China in larger numbers, many of them practitioners of very evangelistic forms of Pentecostal Christianity who are willing to flout the rules placed on religious activity in China.

This new dynamic is creating a headache for the Communist Party, which heavily regulates state-recognised religious bodies and considers non-sanctioned religious activity illegal. The CCP has always been anti-religion, but after Xi Jinping assumed Party control in 2012, China enacted a level of religious persecution not seen since Mao attempted to eliminate religion and other sources of dissent during the bloody Cultural Revolution.
It's not working.
And yet, to the dismay and confusion of the CCP, Christianity keeps growing; many Christians take persecution as a sign that they are doing something right. If US State Department numbers are to be believed, there are nearly as many Chinese Christians (70 million) as the 90 million CCP members reported by Chinese state media, and at current growth rates, China will soon have more Christians than any country in the world. Despite its best efforts, China is losing its fight against Christianity, and the growing influx of citizens returning from Africa is shaping up to be another hopeless front in that war.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

Computing had lots of woman programmers in the early days

From an article in the NYTimes Magazine(Clive Thompson, The Secret History of Women in Coding):
Elsie Shutt learned to code during her college summers while working for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army facility in Maryland. In 1953, while taking time off from graduate school, she was hired to code for Raytheon, where the programmer work force “was about 50 percent men and 50 percent women,” she told Janet Abbate, a Virginia Tech historian and author of the 2012 book “Recoding Gender.” “And it really amazed me that these men were programmers, because I thought it was women’s work!”

When Shutt had a child in 1957, state law required her to leave her job; the ’50s and ’60s may have been welcoming to full-time female coders, but firms were unwilling to offer part-time work, even to superb coders. So Shutt founded Computations Inc., a consultancy that produced code for corporations. She hired stay-at-home mothers as part-time employees; if they didn’t already know how to code, she trained them. They cared for their kids during the day, then coded at night, renting time on local computers. “What it turned into was a feeling of mission,” Shutt told Abbate, “in providing work for women who were talented and did good work and couldn’t get part-time jobs.” Business Week called the Computations work force the “pregnant programmers” in a 1963 article illustrated with a picture of a baby in a bassinet in a home hallway, with the mother in the background, hard at work writing software. (The article’s title: “Mixing Math and Motherhood.”)

By 1967, there were so many female programmers that Cosmopolitan magazine published an article about “The Computer Girls,” accompanied by pictures of beehived women at work on computers that evoked the control deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The story noted that women could make $20,000 a year doing this work (or more than $150,000 in today’s money). It was the rare white-collar occupation in which women could thrive. Nearly every other highly trained professional field admitted few women; even women with math degrees had limited options: teaching high school math or doing rote calculations at insurance firms.
But, as we know, things changed. And then there is culture:
If biology limited women’s ability to code, then the ratio of women to men in programming ought to be similar in other countries. It isn’t. In India, roughly 40 percent of the students studying computer science and related fields are women. This is despite even greater barriers to becoming a female coder there; India has such rigid gender roles that female college students often have an 8 p.m. curfew, meaning they can’t work late in the computer lab, as the social scientist Roli Varma learned when she studied them in 2015. The Indian women had one big cultural advantage over their American peers, though: They were far more likely to be encouraged by their parents to go into the field, Varma says. What’s more, the women regarded coding as a safer job because it kept them indoors, lessening their exposure to street-level sexual harassment. It was, in other words, considered normal in India that women would code. The picture has been similar in Malaysia, where in 2001 — precisely when the share of American women in computer science had slid into a trough — women represented 52 percent of the undergraduate computer-science majors and 39 percent of the Ph.D. candidates at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The nostalgia angle

When do students in elementary school have agency?

Not very often.

Jordan Peterson on education

Tyler Cowen has interviewed Peterson on a variety of topics. Education is one of them. Peterson's started an online education project and Cowen quizzed him on it.
I can tell you the problems that we’re trying to solve. The first problem we ran into was that — because the original idea was to build an online university — but as soon as we started thinking about that deeply, we thought, “Well, that’s like building a horseless carriage.” Because when cars first came out, that’s how people conceptualized them, but they weren’t horseless carriages. They were something else. Right?

And whatever you do online to educate people isn’t going to be a university because you don’t know what a university is. And it isn’t obvious that it can be duplicated in the virtual world. One of the things we immediately ran into was the problem of, “Okay, well, what does the university do?” And the answer to that was, “Well, we don’t know.”

You might say, “University educates people and accredits people.” It’s not that obvious that it educates people. It is obvious that it accredits and that the accreditation has some value, and it might be that the primary goal of university is, in fact, accreditation.

But universities give young people a four-year, socially sanctioned identity that they can adopt while they’re experimenting and trying to mature. That’s a big function. Universities give students, young people something to do when they leave home first while they grow up. Right? Universities give people a chance to reconstitute their peer network and emerge as different people.

Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.

So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?

Then we’re trying to figure out how we could bring content to the largest number of people in the most efficient manner possible, so one of the projects that we’re working on right now is, we’d like to do an introductory overview. We’re going to start by concentrating on humanities courses.

Our vision at the moment is that we’re going to make a history humanities timeline, something like that. Maybe that might encompass somewhere between 50 and 100 topics. We start 10,000 years ago, and move forward up to the present time. And we’re going to commission contests, to have people generate three- to five-minute videos for all 500 topics, and that would give people a walk through the entire course of Western civilization.

The people that we’re aiming at — my target market — would be intelligent, working-class people. That’s the target market. That’s the right level of focus, as far as I’m concerned.
On personal tutors:
COWEN: Will the role of personal tutors go up or down in your vision?

PETERSON: Oh, I think it’ll go up.

COWEN: It’ll go up?

PETERSON: I think so. One of the things that we want to do is accredit people for serving as tutors because part of the process of getting educated in our online system will be educating other people. So we want to give people credit for doing things like grading and for peer assessment. What we envision is that your power as an operator in the online education system will increase in proportion to the amount of the material that you’ve mastered.

We want to make people responsible for the education of others as rapidly as possible. Now, that happens in the universities too, right? It’s slightly slower. Once you’re an undergraduate, you’re a graduate student, and then you’re immediately involved in teaching. We’d like to speed that process along.

Globalism, the fall of the USSR, and the rise of an international kleptocracy storing wealth in high-end real estate [among other things]

Franklin Foer, Russian-Style Kleptocracy Is Infiltrating America, The Atlantic, March 2019.
The collapse of communism in the other post-Soviet states, along with China’s turn toward capitalism, only added to the kleptocratic fortunes that were hustled abroad for secret safekeeping. Officials around the world have always looted their countries’ coffers and accumulated bribes. But the globalization of banking made the export of their ill-gotten money far more convenient than it had been—which, of course, inspired more theft. By one estimate, more than $1 trillion now exits the world’s developing countries each year in the forms of laundered money and evaded taxes.

As in the Russian case, much of this plundered wealth finds its way to the United States. New York, Los Angeles, and Miami have joined London as the world’s most desired destinations for laundered money. This boom has enriched the American elites who have enabled it—and it has degraded the nation’s political and social mores in the process. While everyone else was heralding an emergent globalist world that would take on the best values of America, Palmer had glimpsed the dire risk of the opposite: that the values of the kleptocrats would become America’s own. This grim vision is now nearing fruition.
However, in the wake of 9/11
Title III of the patriot Act, the International Money Laundering Abatement and Anti-terrorist Financing Act, was signed into law little more than a month after September 11.

This section of the bill was a monumental legislative achievement. Undeterred by the smoke clouds of crisis, representatives of the big banks had stalked the Senate, trying to quash the measure. Citibank officials reportedly got into shouting matches with congressional staffers in the hall. This anger reflected the force of the patriot Act. If a bank came across suspicious money transferred from abroad, it was now required to report the transfer to the government. A bank could face criminal charges for failing to establish sufficient safeguards against the flow of corrupt cash. Little wonder that banks fought fiercely against the imposition of so many new rules, which required them to bulk up their compliance divisions—and, more to the point, subjected them to expensive penalties for laxity.
There is, alas, another "however":
But nestled in the patriot Act lay the handiwork of another industry’s lobbyists. Every House district in the country has real estate, and lobbyists for that business had pleaded for relief from the patriot Act’s monitoring of dubious foreign transactions. They all but conjured up images of suburban moms staking for sale signs on lawns, ill-equipped to vet every buyer. And they persuaded Congress to grant the industry a temporary exemption from having to enforce the new law.

The exemption was a gaping loophole—and an extraordinary growth opportunity for high-end real estate. For all the new fastidiousness of the financial system, foreigners could still buy penthouse apartments or mansions anonymously and with ease, by hiding behind shell companies set up in states such as Delaware and Nevada. [...] Much of the money that might have snuck into banks before the patriot Act became law was now used to purchase property.
And so:
Nationwide, nearly half of homes worth at least $5 million, the Times found, were bought using shell companies. The proportion was even greater in Los Angeles and Manhattan (where more than 80 percent of Time Warner Center sales fit that description). As the Treasury Department put it in 2017, nearly one in three high-end real-estate purchases that it monitors involves an individual whom the government has been tracking as “suspicious.” Yet somehow the presence of so many shady buyers has never especially troubled the real-estate industry or, for that matter, politicians. In 2013, New York City’s then-mayor, Michael Bloomberg, asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get all the Russian billionaires to move here?”
Naturally enough there's more, lots more, in the article.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Map of nuclear explosions since 1945

What psychology needs is theory

Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich, A problem in theory, Nature Human Behavior,
Abstract: The replication crisis facing the psychological sciences is widely regarded as rooted in methodological or statistical shortcomings. We argue that a large part of the problem is the lack of a cumulative theoretical framework or frameworks. Without an overarching theoretical framework that generates hypotheses across diverse domains, empirical programs spawn and grow from personal intuitions and culturally-biased folk theories. By providing ways to develop clear predictions, including through the use of formal modelling, theoretical frameworks set expectations that determine whether a new finding is confirmatory, nicely integrating with existing lines of research, or surprising, and therefore requiring further replication and scrutiny. Such frameworks also prioritize certain research foci, motivate the use diverse empirical approaches and, often, provide a natural means to integrate across the sciences. Thus, overarching theoretical frameworks pave the way toward a more general theory of human behaviour. We illustrate one such a theoretical framework: dual inheritance theory.

Yes, psychology needs robust theory. While I'm in favor of dual inheritance theory, I'm not sure how much it gets us. It's no more than a start.

Two kinds of drammatic light at FDR SK8park

Reframing 1619 and enslaved Africans at Jamestown

Michael Guasco, The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History, Smithsonian, Sept. 13, 2017:
In 1619, “20. and odd Negroes” arrived off the coast of Virginia, where they were “bought for victualle” by labor-hungry English colonists. The story of these captive Africans has set the stage for countless scholars and teachers interested in telling the story of slavery in English North America. Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America. Certainly, there is a story to be told that begins in 1619, but it is neither well-suited to help us understand slavery as an institution nor to help us better grasp the complicated place of African peoples in the early modern Atlantic world. For too long, the focus on 1619 has led the general public and scholars alike to ignore more important issues and, worse, to silently accept unquestioned assumptions that continue to impact us in remarkably consequential ways. As a historical signifier, 1619 may be more insidious than instructive.
And so, after various revision and problems we arrive at:
...the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.
And of course there's more.

Finnegan's Wake into Latin: The (ultimate) deformed reading of the (ultimate) deformed text? [#DH]

I know that Deformed; a' has been a vile
thief this seven year; a' goes up and down like a
gentleman: I remember his name.
Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
Adam Roberts has teamed up with Google Translate to render Finnegan's Wake into Latin. Sounds crazy, no? And he's written a blog post to explain why and how.
Somebody needs to engage critically/theoretically with Google Translate. It's a fascinating programme in many ways. It doesn't ‘translate’. It compares source text with a triaged selection of already existing online translations and spits out the result. It's the world's most voracious and least discriminating ‘reader’ of texts. Puts professors to shame.

Anyway: at odd moments over a couple of weeks, and depending on my time and inclination, I would prep chapters of the Wake and feed them to the machine. Then I would work through the raw quasi-Latin that came out the other side. This involved sieving the text through various filters: sometimes search-and-replacing specific things throughout the whole text, sometimes going through line by line and altering bits of the finished project. Quite a lot of Latin is included in Joyce's original Wake actually, and in those cases I had to translate into English, obviously. And there were lots of other fiddly things that proved needful, or so it seemed to me. Indeed, I could easily have spent many months going through the text, titivating it in various ways, Latinising the myriad unrefined (or uncontaminated, depending in your point of view) nuggets that had passed through the filter of Google Translate unLatinised. But I had neither the free time, nor anything like the requisite motivation, to do that. Instead I mucked about with the text in various ways and then just walked away, leaving some parts of the Pervigilium Finneganis worked by me, some Latinspattered by unrevised Google Translate, and a few spots of the original Wake-y canvas visible between the application of the paint, like a Pollock painting. I worked quickly, until I reached a point where the book looked texturally interesting when I, as it were, stepped back and squeezed up my eyes. The judgment becomes whether its scribbled and scratchy texture approximates to the scribbled and scratchy texture of the Joycean original.
Still sounds crazy. 

We might want, instead of engaging in the process of making the Wake easier to read, to explore the ways it resists being comprehended, even to the extent of producing a midrash upon it that moves comprehension markedly further away from us. That seems like it might be an interesting thing to do, don't you think? At any rate, that's what I did. My partner G.T. and I rustled up the text.
All of which reminds me of that (perhaps) strangest form of digital humanities, deformative reading, in which one uses a computer to rearrange a text in more or less arbitrary ways in hopes of stimulating the critic to interesting flights of interpretive fancy. It also reminds of the (inspired?) weirdness that ensues when one feeds Google Translate with nonsense strings. Language Logs has a number of posts on this subject. You can find them collected under "Elephant semifics", which gathers in some other nonsense as well.

Monday, February 11, 2019


Home socialization and gender preferences in math

Gaia Dossi, David N. Figlio, Paola Giuliano, Paola Sapienza, Born in the Family: Preferences for Boys and the Gender Gap in Math, NBER Working Paper, No. 25535
Issued in February 2019:
Abstract: We study the correlation between parental gender attitudes and the performance in mathematics of girls using two different approaches and data. First, we identify families with a preference for boys by using fertility stopping rules in a population of households whose children attend public schools in Florida. Girls growing up in a boy-biased family score 3 percentage points lower on math tests when compared to girls raised in other families. Second, we find similar strong effects when we study the correlations between girls’ performance in mathematics and maternal gender role attitudes, using evidence from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. We conclude that socialization at home can explain a non-trivial part of the observed gender disparities in mathematics performance and document that maternal gender attitudes correlate with those of their children, supporting the hypothesis that preferences transmitted through the family impact children behavior.

Meat production as a climate problem

The brain likes movement, rock-a-by baby, doodling

Richard A. Friedman, The Neuroscience of ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby, NYTimes, 10 Feb 2019:
Want to fall effortlessly into profound slumber and sleep like a baby? Everyone knows that infants can be lulled to sleep by gentle rocking. Well, now it seems that what works for babies works for adults, too.

New research shows that a slow rocking motion not only improves sleep but also can help people consolidate memories overnight. And this, in turn, tells us something interesting about how much the brain is affected by what seem to be purely physical interventions.
The researchers found that rocking induced a kind of synchrony in brain wave activity that varied in tandem with the external motion. Rocking also increased the number of brain oscillations specific to sleep, which are critical for memory consolidation and learning. Though the exact mechanism is unclear, the researchers hypothesize that rocking activates motion-sensitive neurons in the inner ear, which then leads to modulation of brain activity.

All this made me wonder: How does physical movement affect the brain more broadly? It’s well known that exercise enhances cognitive functioning, but what about movements like rocking that involve minimal exertion? What effect on the brain do our seemingly purposeless everyday physical movements have — like fidgeting, foot shaking and doodling, among others?

A 2016 study showed that children with A.D.H.D. who were allowed to fidget — bouncing around and moving gently in place — performed better on a concentration task the more they moved.

Another study focused on doodling. Researchers had 40 participants monitor a boring telephone message for the names of people attending a party. Half the group was randomly assigned to doodle — they shaded printed shapes — while listening to the message. The study found that the “doodling group performed better on the monitoring task and recalled 29 percent more information on a surprise memory test.”