Friday, April 30, 2021

Replication collides with "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow"

Over at Ulrich Schimmack's Replicability-Index, A Meta-Scientific Perspective on “Thinking: Fast and Slow”, December 20, 2020.

It is likely that Kahneman’s book, or at least some of his chapters, would be very different from the actual book, if it had been written just a few years later. However, in 2011 most psychologists believed that most published results in their journals can be trusted. This changed when Bem (2011) was able to provide seemingly credible scientific evidence for paranormal phenomena nobody was willing to believe. It became apparent that even articles with several significant statistical results could not be trusted.

Kahneman also started to wonder whether some of the results that he used in his book were real. A major concern was that implicit priming results might not be replicable. Implicit priming assumes that stimuli that are presented outside of awareness can still influence behavior (e.g., you may have heard the fake story that a movie theater owner flashed a picture of a Coke bottle on the screen and that everybody rushed to the concession stand to buy a Coke without knowing why they suddenly wanted one). In 2012, Kahneman wrote a letter to the leading researcher of implicit priming studies, expressing his doubts about priming results, that attracted a lot of attention (Young, 2012).

Several years later, it has become clear that the implicit priming literature is not trustworthy and that many of the claims in Kahneman’s Chapter 4 are not based on solid empirical foundations (Schimmack, Heene, & Kesavan, 2017). Kahneman acknowledged this in a comment on our work (Kahneman, 2017).

We initially planned to present our findings for all chapters in more detail, but we got busy with other things. However, once in a while I am getting inquires about the other chapters (Engber). So, I am using some free time over the holidays to give a brief overview of the results for all chapters.

The conclusion:

In conclusion, Daniel Kahneman is a distinguished psychologist who has made valuable contributions to the study of human decision making. His work with Amos Tversky was recognized with a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (APA). It is surely interesting to read what he has to say about psychological topics that range from cognition to well-being. However, his thoughts are based on a scientific literature with shaky foundations. Like everybody else in 2011, Kahneman trusted individual studies to be robust and replicable because they presented a statistically significant result. In hindsight it is clear that this is not the case. Narrative literature reviews of individual studies reflect scientists’ intuitions (Fast Thinking, System 1) as much or more than empirical findings. Readers of “Thinking: Fast and Slow” should read the book as a subjective account by an eminent psychologists, rather than an objective summary of scientific evidence. Moreover, ten years have passed and if Kahneman wrote a second edition, it would be very different from the first one. Chapters 3 and 4 would probably just be scrubbed from the book. But that is science. It does make progress, even if progress is often painfully slow in the softer sciences.

There's more at the link. H/t Tyler Cowen.

Friday Fotos: Things that exist [Hallucinated City]

Economics takes a hit

Analyze this! – “A hole, a hole does not exist. Words have meaning.”

I'm bumping this to the top, and with a new title, for obvious reasons. It's Seinfeld time!
In a conversation with Howard Stern (at c. 20:46) Seinfled characterized his type of comedy as “heady, wordy, phrasey, thinky” as opposed to “crazy guy” comedy (such as Jeff Altman). Let’s take a look at one of these heady, wordy, phrase, thinky bits. It’s about donut holes.

You can see fragments while it’s developing in one of the Single Shots from Comedians in Cars yada yada. The whole thing is in this clip from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert starting at about 0:41:

It runs to about 3:14, making it roughly two-and-a-half minutes long. But you don’t hear anything about donuts until a minute into the bit.

The Basic Bit

I’ve transcribed the whole thing below, but you should watch it first. A transcription can’t capture rhythm and pace, nor vocal pitch and quality – e.g. when Seinfeld gets intense, his voice rises in pitch, thins out a bit, and gets scratchy. Nor can a transcription capture audience response. There’s intermittent laughter throughout, but we only get applause about halfway through (which I’ve indicated), and at the very end.
I heard backstage, that one of the changes made to the theater, bigger seats – Why? A lot of people think we have a weight problem in this country. I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe we have a weight problem until we’re all physically touching each other, all the time. When it is solid human flesh. From coast to coast. A jar of olives just … [squeezes his head between his hands] … Someone’s gotta’ lose some weight; I can’t move.

A lot of reports, investigative reports on TV, weight problem in America. Always start the same: sidewalk shot, regular people, right? Carefully angled, cutting them off at the head; we don’t want to see who it is. Aren’t some of those people at home later go, “Hey, that’s my ass on CCN! That’s not fair. Just got up to get some donut holes.”

The donut hole. The donut hole. Let’s stop right there. What a horrible little snack. If you want a donut, have a donut. Why are you eating the hole?

It’s such a freaky metaphysical concept to begin with. You can’t sell people holes. They… A hole, a hole does not exist. Words have meaning.


A hole is the absence of whatever is surrounding it. OK? If they were really donut holes, the bag would be empty. OK? And the donuts that you got the holes from wouldn’t have holes, because you took ‘em. Now if you want, you could take what they’re calling donut holes, but they are not. They are donut plugs.

You could take the plug, and shove it in the hole which, I don’t even feel comfortable saying, for some reason. But that would eliminate the donut, the hole, and the plug, but, you still have a fat ass and people shoot’n you with a camera as you’re walking down the street. So it doesn’t work.

From my point of view the single most interesting thing about this is that it starts out talking a weight problem in the country. And that’s how Seinfeld puts it, a weight problem; he doesn’t talk about fat people. Then he segues to donut holes about a minute in. The link, presumably, is that when you eat too many snacks you put on weight
That’s obvious. Nothing deep there. I just want to point out what Seinfeld’s doing.

Once he’s taken the bit into the donut hole he works it in various ways. Before long we’ve forgotten completely about the national weight problem. Then, at the very end he comes back to it.

Surprise! Didn’t know the weight thing was still ticking, did you?

Well, not quite. It’s not the national weight problem. Seinfeld HAS left that behind. It’s one person with a fat ass getting shot with a camera.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Deep in the arches, a hidden civilization

Analyze this! Another Seinfeld bit: The arrogance of Life cereal

It’s time to look at another bit from Jerry Seinfeld’s new book, Is This Anything? (Simon & Schuster, 2020). I am going to use a different format from the one I used for “The Left Bit.” First I want to say a little about priming, which is very important in comedy. Then I present Seinfeld's bit straight, without commentary. Finally I present it again, this time inserting comments.

When reading my comments, which do go on, remember Seinfeld’s assertion that jokes are intricate well-crafted little machines. It’s not easy to describe machines, especially machines you can’t observe directly. I’m doing the best I can.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that my commentary is about what the bit really means. It means what it means. I’m interested in the machinery behind the meaning.


From Wikipedia:

Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. For example, the word NURSE is recognized more quickly following the word DOCTOR than following the word BREAD. Priming can be perceptual, associative, repetitive, positive, negative, affective, semantic, or conceptual. Research, however, has yet to firmly establish the duration of priming effects, yet their onset can be almost instantaneous.

We’ll be looking at two cases where Seinfeld’s particular word choice primes us – sets us up – to react in a certain way to subsequent material. Notice that word “duration,” which is about time. Timing is crucial in comedy. Too soon, or too late, and there’s no laugh.

The Bit: Life Cereal

Too much arrogance.


Even the food industry.

Where in the world do you get your balls

to call a breakfast cereal LIFE?

What do they see in their little square oat cereal

that makes them think that it should be named after our very existence?

“How about Oaties, Squaries, Brownies?”

“Oh no, this is much bigger than that.

This is LIFE, I tell you.

It’s LIFE.”

What other names you think they considered?

How about “Almighty God”?

Was that in the running?

Who wouldn’t want to wake up in the morning to a nice big bowl of “Almighty God”?

Or New, “Almighty God With Raisins.”

And if you don’t like it,

you can go to hell.

Analysis and Comments: Life Cereal

Too much arrogance.


Even the food industry.

“Arrogance,” that’s our topic. What’s it mean? Roughly, claiming something you have no right to. “Everywhere” – What work is that doing? Why “even” the food industry; is there some reason we might think them exempt? Likely not, but in allowing the suggestion Seinfeld is already undermining them.

Where in the world do you get your balls

to call a breakfast cereal LIFE?

He’s asking a question, directed at the food industry. And that question has some serious priming: “balls.” That word is what got my attention when I was reading through these bits. That word is what told me there's something going on here. It sets up a background resonance that’s there for exploitation. Jerry could have said “gumption,” “guts,” or even “chutzpah.” He could have used “cajones,” but that’s just “balls” in a different language. They all mean the same thing: “You have a lotta’ nerve.” Well, that’s not quite right, but you get the idea. “Balls” refers specifically to testicles, male sexual organs. We’re now out of the innocent world of breakfast cereal. How’s Seinfeld going to redeem, if you will, this priming? Where’s it leading?

What do they see in their little square oat cereal

that makes them think that it should be named after our very existence?

“How about Oaties, Squaries, Brownies?”

“Oh no, this is much bigger than that.

This is LIFE, I tell you.

It’s LIFE.”

The first two lines, they’re a question. He’s asking us to think, but also implying that he’s going to give us an answer. Perhaps “square” resonates just a bit with balls. Both are shapes, but contrasting. And “little”? Of course it’s little, it’s a chunk of breakfast cereal, but Seinfeld needs to get that on the table so he can use it a couple of lines later. It plays off the “arrogance” theme; for Seinfeld continues, “that makes them think.” There it is, that’s the charge of arrogance. How do the captains of the food industry go from “little square” to “our very existence”?

Now he changes his tone and voice. He suggests other possible names. And he’s in effect, making these suggestions to those very captains – on our behalf? The first two suggestions are just silly – implying a judgment on this whole business – and aren’t real words. The last IS a real word, and it has two senses. Brownies are little chocolate cakes, but they’re also the junior division of the Girl Scouts. Are those little oat squares actually brown? No.

Seinfeld is playing the familiar game, “which of these don’t belong?” To use a linguistic term, “Oaties” and “Squaries” are unmarked terms, while “Brownies” is marked. It’s the one that doesn’t belong. Why is he doing that? More priming.

Jerry changes voice and tone again. Now he’s giving voice to those captains of the food industry as they explain themselves. They do so, not through any reasoning, but though mere assertion. That takes, you know it, balls. Notice the repetition of “LIFE” and the short concluding line. Timing.

Now we head off in a different direction.

What other names you think they considered?

How about “Almighty God”?

Was that in the running?

More questions, directed to us, including a suggestion wrapped in a question. That suggestion is every bit as arrogant as “LIFE,” if not more so. LIFE is secular, but “Almighty God” brings a whole different range of resonance. We’ve left the secular. Seinfeld’s raised the stakes.

Who wouldn’t want to wake up in the morning to a nice big bowl of “Almighty God”?

This, of course, is ridiculous. Notice that it takes the form of a question directed, once again, at the audience. And, he's picking up the pace.

Or New, “Almighty God With Raisins.”

Even more ridiculous. We have cereal with raisins all the time; they’re just added in to the mix. But “Almighty God” is such a strong phrase, with religious resonance we cannot sidestep, that we absolutely cannot think of it as merely the name of little oat squares. We have to think of some anthropomorphic being of immense proportions and powers. And just what is this Being doing with raisins? Tossing them in the air and catching them in his mouth?

And if you don’t like it,

you can go to hell.

Who’s speaking here? Sounds like a religious scold, a prophet bringing fire and brimstone down on a straying flock. Yet it has to be those captains of industry, perhaps conflated with that immense anthropomorphic being. But why do we deserve to go to hell? Isn’t that a bit much for merely not liking their cereal?

And now we can see the fruits of that priming, balls and brownies. If you do a web search on “eating brownies” you get pictures of kids eating little chocolate cakes and helpful information about those cakes. What do you get when you search on “eating brownies joke” (don’t use the quotation marks)?

You know what you get, don’t you? You don’t even have to do the search. You get a joke that puns on two senses of “eat” and two senses of “brownie.” It’s a nasty joke. Why are you consigned to hell? Because you already know the joke.

But, but, you object, that’s not what Seinfeld said. It’s not really there. I know that. That’s what that priming is about. It’s sets up the resonance from which that laughter erupts.

I ask you, why did Seinfeld use “balls” with its sexual connotations when other words would have done just as well? Seinfeld is known for NOT doing “blue” material, and while this is not flagrantly and obviously blue, there’s no talk of sex anywhere in the joke, still the resonance of that particular term is unavoidable. And why suggest “Brownies” as an alternative name for the serial when those little squares are not brown? Tan, maybe light brown, but not brown. Now, there is a chocolate flavored version of the cereal, and those little squares ARE brown. But Seinfeld didn’t say anything about them. 

Still not buying it? Imagine a product meeting within the company where they’re kicking around possible names – as Seinfeld asks us to do. I find it hard to imagine that someone wouldn’t have thought of the pun and brought it up in the meeting. That would have killed it. But, on the chance that it got through and that became the name, surely once the cereal was on the market someone would make the connection, maybe a comedian would put it in their act, but the connection would be made and what then? The Quaker Oats people would have had trouble, no?

Seinfeld has said, time and again, that jokes are intricately crafted and finely tuned machines. Everything matters. I have no reason to think that he had the brownie joke in his mind while crafting this bit; but it may have had him in its grasp. His choice of words is not haphazard or accidental. His reasons my not be obvious, even to him, but there is a logic here. 

Finally, in the days when Freudianism was riding high, the Freudians wouldn’t have had any problems with that reading. But those days are gone, though I still retain some psychoanalytic ideas. But that’s really what’s not on my mind. What I’m thinking is the brain. Let’s say I’m right – and how the hell do we get empirical evidence? – isn’t it a marvel that the brain can do things like that?

Note: More Seinfeld commentary.

* * * * *

Seinfeld delivers a somewhat different (I assume more recent) version of this bit.

Except for last line she added, Angela Zoiss delivers it.

Types of neuroscience papers

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Why is AI so damn hard?

Wet Seal + Philiip Glass

Kids and Music 4: Born to Groove @3QD [a three step plan]

My most recent 3 Quarks Daily piece is up: Born to Groove: Up from Mud and Back to Our Roots.

It’s about music, more specifically, children and music. I’ve been watching lots of YouTube clips about kids and music – there are tons of them, of all kinds – and decided to build a 3QD piece around them.

The piece opens with, shall we say, ordinary kids, then has a central section about prodigies, and ends with formats where children and adults can me music together on an equal basis. The central section is the longest one for various reasons, but mostly because I wanted to deal with our cultural ambivalence about musical prodigies (but, by implication, all gifted children). We admire them for their talents but we also fear and resent them for those same talents.

Prodigious Ambivalence

I deal with the issue by using two videos by TwoSetViolin, one in which they comment on videos posted of five violin prodigies and one where they perform a Paganini caprice, with virtuoso Hilary Hahn (who had been a prodigy), while they were all spinning hula hoops. I suggested that what TwoSet was able to do in this videos is, in effect, distinguish between musical skill, which the prodigies had in abundance, and moral worth. In a fiercely competitive society like ours (by which I mean primarily the United States of America, but the problem is all over the place) ability tends to collapse into moral worth. In the face of prodigies it is all too easy for people of more modest abilities to feel themselves unworthy and to then resent prodigies for that. That’s very destructive to all.

This is an issue that’s very close to me. Though I turned out to be a fairly talented musician, I certainly wasn’t a prodigy. But I was intellectually brilliant, and that was a problem, one I didn’t know how to handle. I remember when, sometime in middle school, one kid called me “Einstein.” My immediate (unvoiced) reaction was, yippie, I’m recognized. But the next day I realized it was a trap. The nickname stuck.

Years later, in my first year in graduate school at SUNY Buffalo, I had my master’s thesis on “Kubla Khan” with me. That, plus my teachers’ recommendations, is what got me in. I’d analyzed the poem in a way no one had done before – I tell the story here. My teachers at Johns Hopkins recognized it as a brilliant piece of work. So did those to whom I showed it at Buffalo. During my second year I signed up for a course in modern poetry and asked the professor to read the thesis, which he was glad to do. Next week, when he returned it to me just before class began, he got down on his knees and bowed before me. 

It was embarrassing for him, embarrassing for me. It didn't do anyone any good. I didn’t ask for that, certainly didn’t want it. I just wanted him to like the work I'd done and perhaps say something useful about it.

That’s one thing, talent. But talent isn't moral worth.

All Together Now

Then, once I posted the piece and I looked over it, I realized something else. In the first segment I’d posted a video of one Colt Clark, a professional musician, making music with his kids, something they’d been doing since the pandemic lockdown began. That’s one setting for music-making, one that must have been much more common in the many years before sound recordings became available.

The last segment started off with Charlie Keil and his passion for getting kids dancing and making music. What he’d really like to bring about is that every daycare center and every kindergarten devoted devote time every day for kids to dance and make music. The idea is that would blossom into self-sustaining music and dance in each local community. That’s another thing.

The third, which is very much on my mind as I wrote that piece, is what Henry Lau is doing with prodigies in Korea. I didn’t mention that in the piece itself – you can’t do everything – but my sister, Sally, introduced it into the comments. Henry Lau is a K-pop star who is a skilled pianist and violinist – he saw himself headed for a career as a classical violinist before he got tapped to become a member of a boy group. Now he’s doing videos where he works with one prodigy at a time. In effect, he becomes a performance coach. He accepts them for what they are, and then gently nudges them in new directions. He produced twelve set of videos (two with each child) in his first season (the second season had just started). Here’s a video that some of them did for him at the end of the first season:

The music was arranged by the guitarist, Sean Song.

So, we’ve got these three things: 1) music in the family, 2) music in the school and community, and 3) nurturing talented young musicians. Somehow we’ve got to get these three circles of activity connected with one another: Colt Clark, meet Charlie Keil; Charlie Keil, meet Henry Lau; Henry Lau, meet Colt Clark. Now get busy, as Arsenio Hall used to say.

Framed in pink [carwash & blossoms]

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Horgan’s The End of Science, a reconsideration, Part 6: A million points of light along the via negativa

Twenty-five years ago, in The End of Science, John Horgan argued that science is spinning its wheels, that there are no more “cataclysmic” insights to be had, though incremental advances will continue. He also suggested that we are up against biological limits to thought. As far as I know, his views on these issues have not changed.

I believe the foundation of physics is Horgan’s best case for his argument. I am in fundamental agreement with him on this, as I’ve said in the second post in this series, Has the study of the foundations of physics bottomed out? In the fourth post, Mind-culture coevolution, I explained why I don’t believe that we are up against biological limits, not in physics or anywhere else. Whatever is going on in physics, it’s limits set by human biology. In my third post, “Meat that thinks,” my personal quest, I reviewed much of my own intellectual history and indicated that, though I have failed in some of my early aspirations, I see no reason that the quest for deeper understanding of the mind is at an end.

I’d like to say a little more about that. Take one of my early dreams, that of a computer system that could read a Shakespeare play. That one fell through and I see no prospects that we will be able to create such a machine in the future. Hundreds of years from now? Who knows? I don’t know. Why? Because things that did happen changed my imagination.

In the second decade of this century I began reading work in machine learning and neural networks. That led me to the idea of a virtual reading. Just what that might be is too complex to go into here; but it should be possible with current technology.[1] The point is that I couldn’t have imagined that back in 1976. As long as I keep seeing new possibilities I remain optimistic.

Given that Horgan believes that we will continue to learn more about the world, I wonder how far apart we really are. Yes, he’s holding out for “cataclysmic” insights. But what ARE they? He’s given examples of past such insights, “heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, relativity, [and] the big bang.”

Consider the problem I’ve been investigating in one way or another, how “a chunk of meat make(s) a mind.” It is clear that that one problem involves many little, non-cataclysmic, problems. Let me offer a crude analogy.

Do you remember those Christmas tree lights that are wired in serial? When one bulb goes out the whole string goes out. To fix it you have to remove the bulbs one by one and test each one. If a bulb is OK you place it back in the string. If it isn’t you replace it with a new one. The string will light – provided, of course, that that was the only defective bulb.

Here’s the analogy: Think of our problem – meat that thinks – as a string of a million lights wired in serial. A thousand of them are defective. The defective ones are scattered randomly on the string and you don’t know where any of them are nor do you know how many are defective. You problem is to find the defective ones and replace them with a new ones. It will take a long time to test and replace bulbs until all the defective ones. And since you don’t know how many are defective, you don’t have any effective way of estimating your progress. When you’ve replaced 500 bulbs you’re halfway to the finish, but you don’t know that. When you’ve replaced 999 bulbs you’re almost done. but you don’t know that. When you’ve found 1000th bulb, you won’t know you’re done until you place a good bulb in the string.

Then, shazammm! A million lights all at once. Now there’s a cataclysmic insight. Yes, it’s crude. But I do think it captures something of our current situation.

I’ve given a little thought to elaborating that analogy in various ways, but I don’t see any need. The basic point is obvious, we need to get a lot of things – observations, models, theories – together in one framework. That is not easy, especially in an academic environment that favors specialization.

This brings me to philosophy. What is it? Back in 2013 I came across an essay by Peter Godfrey-Smith, On the Relation Between Philosophy.[2] He argued that it is about intellectual integration:

The best one-sentence account of what philosophy is up to was given by Wilfrid Sellars in 1963: philosophy is concerned with “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Philosophy aims at an overall picture of what the world is like and how we fit into it.

It’s not at all clear how much academic philosophy contributes to such an “overall picture of what the world.” It certainly doesn’t seem much devoted to “how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together.” If we’re looking for intellectual integration, perhaps we need to look outside the academy.

More recently I came across an essay by Eric Schlisser [3] in which he argued:

By ‘synthetic philosophy’ I mean a style of philosophy that brings together insights, knowledge, and arguments from the special sciences with the aim to offer a coherent account of complex systems and connect these to a wider culture or other philosophical projects (or both). Synthetic philosophy may, in turn, generate new research in the special sciences, a new science connected to the framework adopted in the synthetic philosophy, or new projects in philosophy. So, one useful way to conceive of synthetic philosophy is to discern in it the construction of a scientific image that may influence the development of the special sciences, philosophy, public policy, or the manifest image. [...]

Synthetic philosophy, which shares kinship with what was once known as ‘natural philosophy’ or (later) ‘philosophy of nature’ is made possible by, and a response to, the intellectual division of labor within and among the scientific disciplines.

Schlisser had two examples in mind, Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, and Godfrey Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus and The Evolution of Intelligent Life. While both are academics, those are not academic books. They have been published as trade books for a general audience. I can think of other such books, Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, Stephen Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals, and Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. These books have been written by academics, but for a general audience.

There are at least two reasons why an intellectual specialist writes for a general audience, including intellectual specialists from other disciplines. One is to contribute to civic life by explaining difficult but important subjects in a way that makes them accessible to the citizen who is curious about the world. There are, however, important problems that cannot be handled within confines of a single intellectual discipline. No matter which facet of such a problem interests you, you inevitably find yourself looking at everything – or so it seems. You wander through the technical literature of half a dozen disciplines or more, gathering observations and ideas, putting them together, trying to see how it all fits into a coherent picture of the world. Such work entails a level of speculation that is incompatible with the publication demands of the specialist literature. When done well, however, such a book contributes to specialist investigations by establishing a framework within which more detailed work can be done.

That is to say, academics undertake such projects, not just out of a sense of civic duty, but to satisfy their own curiosity about the world. Their intellectual impulse is thus fundamentally philosophical. Perhaps they are searching for cataclysmic insights in an intellectual culture that denies such satisfactions.

I believe that Horgan’s The End of Science is fundamentally philosophical in that sense. Had he written the book he’d originally intended, a collection of interviews with a wide range sciences where he simply presents the interviews, it would have been a work of journalism. Once he decided to give us his own point of view, though, the book became a work of philosophy. Not academic philosophy, certainly not. But philosophy in the deepest sense.

But, you object, where’s the integration? Ah, you forget, Horgan has strong mystical proclivities. I submit that, in limning the boundaries of science, Horgan has taken the via negativa. He is indicating WHAT IS by pointing out what IS NOT. The effect of Horgan’s ironic framing – which I discussed in my third post, A close reading of Horgan’s text – is to hold his argument in suspension.

Question and Answer.
It is neither true nor false.
It is simply there.


[1] I’ve written a working paper in which I argue, among other things, that some digital humanists have already done virtual readings, though they don’t realize it: Virtual Reading: The Prospero Project Redux, Working Paper, Version 2, October 2018, 37 pp.,

[2] Peter Godfrey-Smith, On the Relation Between Philosophy and Science, For the first Gesellschaft für Wissenschaftsphilosophie (GWP) 2013,

[3] Schliesser, E. Synthetic philosophy. Biology & Philosophy 34, 19 (2019).

NOTE: Other posts in this series, End of Science.

Purple dialectics, the urban pastoral [Matisse]

Origins of the alphabet in the Levant, a recent discovery at Tel Lachish

From Victor Mair in Language Log.

Candida Moss, Archaeologists Think They’ve Found Missing Link in Origin of the Alphabet, The Daily Beast, Updated Apr. 25, 2021 8:18AM ET / Published Apr. 25, 2021 8:17AM ET.

From the article:

In a recently published article in Antiquity, a research team led by Felix Höflmayer, an archaeologist at the Austrian Archaeological Institute, describes the discovery of three and a half millennia old milk jar fragment unearthed at Tel Lachish in Israel. The pottery fragment includes a partial inscription that dates to the fifteenth century BCE. Höflmayer said that the “inscription is currently the oldest securely dated alphabetic inscription from the Southern Levant.”

General scholarly agreement maintains that our oldest examples of alphabetic writing comes from the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt and can be dated to the nineteenth century BCE. These important inscriptions were discovered in 1998 in western Egypt and were published by a team led by Yale Egyptologist John Darnell. It’s clear that at some point alphabetic writing moved from Egypt to ancient Palestine but—until now—the earliest examples of alphabetic writing from the Levant were dated to the thirteenth or twelfth century BCE, some six hundred years after the Egyptian examples. How and under what circumstances the alphabet was moved from Egypt to Israel was anyone’s best guess.

More at Language Log.

Whatever infrastructure is, we want more [and we want it now]

Eric Klinenberg, Infrastructure Isn’t Really About Roads. It’s About the Society We Want. NYTimes, April 26, 2021.

The Republican criticism is disingenuous: Politicians of both parties have long used the term “infrastructure” broadly, to refer to the basic systems, physical and otherwise, needed for the proper operation of society.

The only puzzling question about Mr. Biden’s proposal is not whether, say, health, energy and communications networks should count as infrastructure. (They should.) It’s why, when the United States is struggling with problems of social distrust, division and isolation, the proposal includes so little direct investment in civic and social infrastructure — things like voting systems and community organizations, which can support political participation and civil society, and public spaces and gathering places, which can help foster human interaction and collective life.

The word “infrastructure” is relatively new. It entered the English language in the late 19th century or early 20th century from France, where it referred to the engineering systems that supported new railways. It emerged in American policy discourse during the Cold War as a term for investments in modernization projects. But its full embrace in our popular vocabulary occurred only in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan declared his intent to help developing nations build “the infrastructure of democracy,” by which he meant “the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way.”

Political officials and corporate leaders now use the concept of infrastructure capaciously, as Mr. Reagan did.

More at the link.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Flowers red yellow purple orange white

Oh why Oh why don’t critics describe the text itself? [deaf, dumb, and blind, where’s the pinball?]

I was looking through the most recent volume of NLH and came across an essay that had description in the title, not once, but twice. Asked I of myself: Is this article going to talk about describing literary texts or is it going to do the usual and talk about how literary texts use description? The latter of course.

The problem seems to be that literary critics are interested in meaning and, in pursuit of that interest, see literary texts as commentary on the world. Their interpretive job, then, is to examine what texts have to say about the world. They are interested in the texts as such only to the text that this or that textual feature tells us something about what the text says about the world. Irony, for example, is a mode of textual being, but if we fail to note the textual indices of irony, we will fail in understanding how the text relates to the world.

But still, you’d think that a discipline that talks so much about form and formalism would be more interested in examining form. No such luck. In its blindness to the texts themselves, these critics of description betray their allegiance to one of the foundational conceits of modern interpretive criticism, that (interpretive) reading is but (ordinary) reading (for comprehension).

In any event, here’s the article I’d found:

Heather Houser, Shimmering Description and Descriptive Criticism, New Literary History, Volume 51, Number 1, Winter 2020, pp. 1-22

Abstract: What can studying novelistic description teach us about the allure of modes of reading falling within the descriptive turn, specifically, surface reading, new materialist ecocriticism, and computational analysis? This article's analysis of the paradoxes of description—specifically, its ability to evoke while revoking—in McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), Sinha's Animal's People (2007), and Smith's White Teeth (2000) explains an apparent tension between data and materiality in these trending literary critical approaches. It details the evoke-revoke paradox of description and offers it as an analytic for understanding the ontological status of the reader and more-than-human things in methods captured by the descriptive turn. Ultimately, it shows how literary form and critical practices together give us traction on the demands fiction makes on readers and how the ascendancy of Web 2.0 mirrors those demands through its pull between materiality and data.

Ah, so now it’s “the descriptive turn.” It’s an identifiable movement within the literary academy. Let’s take a quick look at some passages in the article.

From p. 2:

I open with three contemporary authors rather than with the traditional ABCs of description studies—Jane Austen, Honoré de Balzac, Miguel de Cervantes, Charles Dickens, Émile Zola, Gustave Flaubert—because they demonstrate that what is paradigmatic of description also constrains it. McCarthy, Sinha, and Smith offer compelling tutor texts because they all take a maximalist approach to detailing their fictional worlds, to the point of inviting accusations of excess.

See, a movement: “the ABCs of description studies.” Later on the page:

Detailing the constraints, even failings, of description is not new to thought on the device. Georg Lukács’s “Narrate or Describe?” (1936) has attained its outsized status in description theory for its vehement condemnation of the latter act. His censure is overt; he deals blows such as “the descriptive method lacks humanity. Its transformation of men into still lives is only the artistic manifestation of its inhumanity.”

I must confess I’ve never read Lukács. I’ve known about him since my undergraduate years and have his slender volume theorizing the novel. But every time I open it I loose interest.

So sue me.

Moving on (p. 3):

Coming at description decades later and from a poetic perspective, Mark Doty could not contrast Lukács more sharply. “Description is a mode of thinking,” he proclaims. Through the device the world’s “contradictory dynamics” take form in the crucible of individual creativity. Description can hardly be mere not only because it is a conduit to perception and thought but also because it shows the imprint of how “we feel impressed upon by things” (AD 9).

If description is indeed a mode of thinking, which it is, why not put it systematically to use in investigating literary texts as texts? Or have these critics willing to take Fish’s Jurassic Era verdict at face value and regard critic’s claims about doing description as a way to evade the problematics of interpretation? [On Fish, see my 2018 post, The Problematic of Description.]

And so forth and so on.

Coming attractions: Our future AI overlords, NOT

Cece’s Jam

This gets a bump because it's music and kids time on New Savanna. Also, check out Cece's Drum Lesson.

* * * * *


That’s Cece looking straight at the camera. The photo was taken a year ago, when she was eight. That’s her dad, Wymie, with his head turned.

It wasn’t quite Cece’s jam. But it wasn’t not her jam, either. Let me explain.

This is Wymie:


He’s a local musician. He’d called a rehearsal for Sunday’s gig at Grace Church. We were gonna’ do “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “The Christmas Song.” Which we’d never played before. Heck, we’d never even played together, not all of us – Wymie, vocals; Wendelin, spoken word and percussion; Greg, guitar; Mitch, drums; and me, trumpet and flugelhorn. And Cece, who was along just to check out the scene.

So we had some work to do. First up, “The Christmas Song,” sometimes known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”, which Nat King Cole recorded four times between 1946 and 1961. Not only had we not played this song together, I seemed to be the only one really familiar with the musical idiom, at least as a player, and so I had to guide things along.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Take 5 [tabla]

Safe harbor [Hoboken]

Empaths & Gangstas: On the psycho-sociology of race in America [Media notes, Star Trek S3 E12]

An old post about an episode from the original Star Trek–"The Empath" (S 3, E 12) –and what it tells us about the cultural psychodynamics of racism. I'm bumping this to the top of the cue on grounds of continuing contemporary relevance.
Back in 1988 Jesse Jackson decided it was time for a name change. Not his name. The name of, well, black people taken collectively in American society. Here’s a New York Times editorial speaking to the issue:
There's healthy archeology in the Rev. Jesse Jackson's belief that blacks now want to be called African-Americans. The term has ''cultural integrity,'' Mr. Jackson said after a meeting with other prominent African-Americans in Chicago on Monday. ''Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.''

The archeology is dramatically plain to older adults who, in one lifetime, have already heard preferred usage shift from colored to Negro to black. The four lingual layers provide an abbreviated history of civil rights in this century.

If the new name catches on, it will challenge headline writers and disconcert citizens only recently accustomed to black. But people ought to be able to call themselves whatever they wish. The desire to choose one's label is as American as apple pie, and as political as other recent progressions.
What interests me here is the way in which nationwide attitudes toward race got focused through this one issue -- the name to be used for Americans of African descent -- by this one man.

A Deadly Balance, A Delicate Balance

In reading about race in America, I have the impression that, back in the day (roughly the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th), the frequency of lynching was sensitive to changes in the overall climate of relationships between African Americans and European Americans. I believe we see a similar process at work here. The political behavior is much less violent – a name change versus lynching and burning – and the valence of the behavior is different, African Americans are demanding action rather than being victimized by it, but it seems to me that the overall social mechanisms are the similar.

African America and European America have coevolved and maintain a delicate balance of energy and anxiety between them. Whenever the balance is disturbed, balance must be restored. If something happens to cause anxiety to increase among whites, then something must be done to lower that anxiety.
Violence against blacks has been one standard response.

Similarly, when something happens that anxiety goes up among blacks, then something must be done to lower that anxiety. While violence against whites is common enough, it is a response which has been more dangerous for blacks to take than it is for whites. There are more whites and they have more power. Hence blacks cannot get away with violence as easily as whites can.

So, how have blacks dealt with this problem? There is a measure of self-hate. More constructively, I would guess that religion is another mechanism, in particular, passionate (trance inducing religion). This is, of course, a form of sublimation (in the psychoanalytic sense). And so is art -- music and dance. That is, if we take a given community and chart the course of racial tension in that community, we will see an increase in religious and artistic activity in times of increased tension. These are mechanisms though which African America absorbs and, in some sense, dissipates the violence directed at it by European Americans.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Queen of the Night on theramin

Analyze this! The first bit from Seinfeld’s book “Is This Anything?”

Jerry Seinfeld’s published a new book, Is this Anything?, in which he publishes every joke he’s ever written, from first to last. As you may know. Seinfeld first works out his material on yellow, eight-and-a-half by eleven, legal pads. Then he takes them on stage, gets feedback, back to the pad. Etc. He’s saved everyone of those pads.

Well, Amazon kindly allows you to download samples of new books to Kindle, so I’ve done that. I figure I’ll analyze some of these jokes from time to time. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe not. We’ll see.

From the front matter

It was my agent Christian Carino that convinced me people would like to see all this stuff and that we should put it out as a book.

A lot of people I’ve talked to seemed surprised that I’ve kept all these notes.

I don’t understand why they think that.

I don’t understand why I’ve kept anything else. What could possibly be of more value?

I understand. I’ve got notes on this computer going back to 1984 when I bought my first Macintosh and started keeping my notes on those little 3.25 floppy disks. I used a different disk for each general area of investigation. I also wrote my papers on the Mac. Had boxes and boxes of those little disks. And I’ve got paper files going back to my undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins in the 1960s ¬– class notes, term papers, research notes of various kinds, diagrams too. I’ve kept it all.

Seinfeld goes on:

In the sixties and seventies they would say on TV about certain comedians, “And he writes all his own stuff.” Because that was a new thing.

Comedians like Bob Hope and Jack Benny would actually joke about their writers as part of their act.

Stand-up comedy in the sixties made the same turn that music did with singer-songwriters becoming the way it was done.

I’ve never done anything else.

There was an episode about this in The Rockford Files, Season 4, Episode 6, “Requiem for a Funny Box.” A washed up comedian tried to pin a murder on his buddy Rockford; meanwhile he’d lost his funny box, his collection of material. I believe that sometime back in the 30s, perhaps, Disney paid some guy, I believe he was a professor somewhere, good money for his gag file.

The Joke

This is the first joke in the book. That makes it the first joke Seinfeld ever worked out. I’ve heard him deliver it on various YouTube clips. Perhaps his first Carson gig is one of them?

I’m producing it just like it’s laid out in the book, short lines and double spaced. I’m guessing that the line-length is about timing and phrasing. I’ve inserted numbers corresponding to comments I make after the joke. I’m not pretending that there’s anything particularly deep about my comments. There isn’t. It’s pretty obvious. Still, worth attending to.

The Left Bit

I’m left-handed.[1]

Left-handed people do not like that the word “left”

is so often associated

with negative things.[2]

Two left feet.[3]

Left-handed compliment.[4]

Bad ideas are always “out of left field.”[5]

What are we having for dinner?


You go to a party, nobody’s there. [7]

“Where’d everybody go?” [8]

“They left.” [9]

The Analytic Description

I suppose we can call 1 the topic while 2 is the comment. Notice the progression, though, from “left-handed”, to naming the word, left, to associating the word with negative things. Notice the pacing, the emphasis and tone of voice implied in the spacing.

Back to the body, 3, but not Jerry’s body, not his feet, but anyone’s body, the body in general. At 4 we’re pretty abstract, a complement is left-handed. What can that possibly mean? Do complements have feet as well? Staying abstract at 5, but a bit more abstract. A compliment is something you say; it’s a chunk of language. But an idea, what’s that? A thing in a light bulb handing over a character’s head in a cartoon?

[6] And now he switches up. He asks a question – rising tone of voice. He’s not asking it directly of anyone. He’s just asking you to imagine the question. It’s a question about food, something utterly simply and basic for life. Can’t life without it. He pauses, giving you time to register the fact that an answer is needed, and then he answers the question, “leftovers.” There’s that word again, left.

Now it’s conjoined with two more syllables so that it means something that didn’t quite make it to someone's mouth the first time. What a very peculiar property that is, being leftover. Being short, green, fast, or loud, these are straightforward kinds of properties. But leftover, that’s a role in a little story about people sitting around a table, having a good time, eating food, and then finishing up, walking away, and leaving some food on the table. That food is leftover. It’s not any particular kind of food – meat, vegetable (root or leafy), fruit, drink, dessert – it’s not even tasty or bland or downright awful. It could be any of those things. All that it is is that it isn’t eaten.

What I’m saying is that all that is there hanging in a little light-bulb over your head in that pause after the word leftovers.

Seinfeld gives us another scene, a party, 7. Notice that he doesn’t say, “but no one was there.” He asks a question, 8. He asks a question, which puts you just a little deeper into the scene. Maybe you even half imagine the room, the furniture, the lights, the leftovers scattered about on tables, maybe even some streamers or confetti the floor. The remains of the festivities. He gives you a split second to think about the answer to the question. And then he tells you, 9: “They left.”

That word again. We started at 1 with a very concrete thing, Jerry’s left hand. We end with an empty room. Not merely empty because no one is there. It’s empty because people once were there but now they’ve gone somewhere else. But one and the same word form, left, designates both those things, the particular left hand you see before you on Jerry Seinfeld, and the emptiness you feel because you were late to the damn party.

In fact, we have two different words wearing identical clothing. They have different histories. One (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) derives from Old English lyft, left ‘weak’ (the left-hand side being regarded as the weaker side of the body), of West Germanic origin. The other (6 and 8) derives from Old English Old English lǣfan ‘bequeath’, also ‘allow to remain, leave in place’ of Germanic origin; related to German bleiben ‘remain’. You don’t need to know this in order to appreciate the joke – I didn’t until, out of curiosity, I looked them up in the dictionary. But it’s worth noting that Seinfeld switches from one to the other in the middle of the joke.

This is verbal slight-of hand. Seinfeld presents you with an adjective at the beginning and switches it for an unrelated verb in mid-stream. Since they sound the same we bite. And then he springs the trap.

Like a finely-tuned machine

But this is all so obvious, you say, and, frankly, a bit tiresome. Well, yeah, I didn’t promise you anything deep and profound. As for the tedium, look at what it takes to explain the obvious, all those words. Seinfeld talks of jokes as finely tuned machines. He’s right. I want to understand how these machines work. And the tedium of my description is a crude, very crude, measure of the subtlety of that machine.

Look, if I could, I’d draw you a diagram of some machine. And each of those numbers in that joke up there, and in that description would point to mechanisms in that machine. But a drawing wouldn’t been good enough. Maybe an animation, of an actual little machine. Probably not a machine though, but some kind of circuit, with lots of wires and lights and stuff. Lots of blinking.

And there’d be more than nine mechanisms to point out. How many more? you ask. Haven’t figured it out yet.

* * * * *

An exercise for the reader: This is Seinfeld’s first joke. His bit about the donut hole is much more recent. But these two bits have a deep kinship? What is it? And what does it have in common with the oft-repeated, but not entirely accurate, characterization about his TV show: a show about nothing?

For extra credit: What does the style of these two bits have in common with deconstruction? And I don't mean deconstruction in the degraded sense it's come to have where it just means to unmask or expose. Think about how Seinfeld exploits the relationship between signifier and signified.

Hoboken, on the north side of town

Once again, time to sort things out [music, phil of science, jokes, description]

Thinking is tough. And when you are interested in a variety of things, it gets confusing. How do you keep all the balls in the air? You can’t really, but it’s sometimes helpful to get them up there so you can see them spinning around, get their measure, and then put them down to then take them up one by one.

It’s that time again. Gotta’ ramble.

Born to Groove, Music and Kids

This is my most pressing project. I’m due to post at 3 Quarks Daily this coming Monday, which means that I’ve got to have an article written by mid- or at the latest late-afternoon on Sunday (that is, tomorrow). I’m in pretty good shape. My general topic is children and music. I’ve recently posted three pieces under the born-to-groove rubric. I’m going to use the first two in my 3QD piece and add another to it, though I may not load that one as a separate post here at New Savanna. That segment will be about Charlie Keil’s “born to groove” mission, his 12/8 band concept, and more generally, about musical formats in which experts and novices, children and adults, can participate on a more-or-less equal basis. I figure I can end that with an account of the Sage City Symphony.

But there’s more to do. I want to do a series of Born to Groove posts. There’s one on a young Korean trumpeter, Kwak DaKyoung, who, at the age of 11 or 12 seems ready to take her improvisation up a level. I want to say more about Henry Lau’s work with prodigies. And then there’s a post to be written about “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And then, and much to do.

Horgan’s The End of Science, reconsidered

I’ve now written five posts in my reconsideration of John Horgan’s The End of Science. I figure I’ve got one more post to do there and then I can wrap them together into a single document and post it as a working paper. This is one of those things that started out as an idea for two, maybe three posts, and that’s it. But it just grew and grew. And it could easily grow some more.

For one thing I could tie it in with last year’s work on stagnation and GPT-3. And then there’s my work on pluralism and abundance from the early 2010s. And so it goes.

Seinfeld’s finely tuned machines

And then there’s Jerry Seinfeld. He’s published a new book, Is this Anything?, in which he publishes every joke he’s ever written, from first to last. As you may know. Seinfeld first works out his material on yellow, eight-and-a-half by eleven, legal pads. Then he takes them on stage, gets feedback, back to the pad. Etc. He’s saved everyone of thos pads. And why not? I’ve got notes going back to 1984 on those computer and paper files going back to my undergraduate days at Johns Hopkins.

Well, Amazon kindly allows you to download samples of new books to Kindle, so I’ve done that. I figure I’ll analyze some of these jokes from time to time. Maybe it’ll go somewhere, maybe not. We’ll see.

Perhaps I’ll do one of these posts later today. I don’t feel like doing the kind of heavy lifting another Horgan post would require and maybe I’d like to save the Keil stuff for tomorrow. We’ll see.

Description in literary criticism

Finally, another post about one of my hobby horses, description in literary criticism. Heather Houser has an article, “Shimmering Description and Descriptive Criticism,” in a recent issue of New Literary History. Once again, a critic theorizes description, and examines description in some texts. But heaven forbid she actually turn her descriptive eye on the text itself. It’s maddening.


Looking at my previous ramble, from April 8, I see there’s an entry for The Word Illusion and one for Progress Studies. Haven’t done those yet, though I’ve gotten to the other on the list. I should probably keep these on the To-Do list.

So much for the competitive marketplace [it took a woman to call the bluff]

Zachary D. Carter, The Woman Who Shattered the Myth of the Free Market, NYTimes, April 24, 2021.

Back in the old days, before World War II:

Marshallian economics was a realm of beautiful symmetries. Supply and demand naturally reached an equilibrium, and workers were paid the precise value of what they contributed to production. So long as companies had to compete on the price and quality of their goods, consumers could force producers to make improvements by purchasing cheaper, superior goods from their competitors. The market would respond to consumers and the wealth of society would increase.

The snake to this Eden was monopoly. If a single producer captured enough market share, it could immunize itself from competition and force consumers to respond to its preferences — higher prices, inferior quality, suppressed innovation. Marshall recognized that most markets were not perfectly competitive. But like other thinkers of his day, he believed that these were passing flaws and that markets had a natural tendency toward competition. The market was almost always improving itself of its own accord; only conditions of pure monopoly could impede this progressive trend.

Robinson turned Marshall’s framework on its head. Competition, she argued in her landmark 1933 book, “The Economics of Imperfect Competition,” wasn’t an on-off switch between pure monopoly and pure competition. A competitive market was not the normal state of affairs — it was a rare “special case.” Markets typically reached a state of “equilibrium” in which Marshall’s progressive improvements halted while exhibiting many of the flaws of a monopoly regime. [...]

The most potent arrow in Robinson’s conceptual quiver was a new idea she called “monopsony.” A monopoly had always been understood to involve a single seller forcing its prices on powerless buyers, like the U.S. oil industry at the turn of the century. But buyers, Robinson observed, could enjoy the forbidden fruits of imperfect competition as well: If only one buyer for a good existed, then that buyer could dictate its price, no matter how many sellers might be competing for its purchases. This was monopsony.

Crucially, Robinson argued that workers, as sellers of their own labor, almost always faced monopsonistic exploitation from employers, the buyers of their labor. This technical point had a political edge: According to Robinson, workers were being chronically underpaid, even by the standards of fairness devised by the high priests of the free market.

There's more at the link.