Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ramble into 2021, it’s about time [graffiti, music, words, science, progress]

It’s April, it’s Spring, it’s 2021, a new year, and it’s about time. I haven’t done one of these in awhile.

I do these “ramble” posts as a way of organizing my thoughts and prioritizing my writing. It sometimes happens that I’m thinking about a number of things, thinking fruitfully, and I want to write about them but. So they all bunch up in my mind, nothing comes out, and I get frustrated.

Solution? Write about them all. But carefully. Rather, quick and dirty. Just get things out there where you can see them. So here it is, some things that are currently on my mind.


In particular, I’ve been thinking about the 5Pointz decision. As you may call, 5Pointz is a 200,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Queens where the owner gave graffiti writers permission to paint. And so they did, for over a decade. And then the owner decided it wise time to make money (by demolishing the warehouse and building condos on the property). So, wham! one night he brought painters in and whitewashed the exterior. Overnight thousands upon thousands of square feet of art disappeared, forever [but pictures of it all surely exists in photos scattered about the web and elsewhere, no?].

The artists sued under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 and won a multi-million dollar judgement. The owner appealed, and lost. What’s this get us? A legal decision say graffiti is now “a major category of contemporary art.” It’s now legit, at least, in the eyes of the law, at least as legit as a shark carcass floating in formaldehyde, if not so attractive to hedge fund billionaires with more money than sense.

So, we start there, more on to think about the property issues raised by sites such as FDR skate park in Philadelphia, which exists on public land, but has been and is being built by private parties, for public use, is covered with graffiti, and as far as I can tell no contracts exist anywhere saying who owns what and has what rights. It exists because everyone thinks it’s more or less a good thing. It’s informal social norms all the way down – well, not all the way down. Someone owns the land, though whether it’s the City, or perhaps the feds (it’s beneath an interstate highway), I don’t know. But the structures of the skate park itself, and the graffiti, norms.

Kids and Music: Born to Groove

It’s all over YouTube, kids making music, some are (more or less) ordinary kids, some are virtuosi, but kids. I want to look at a bunch of kids, comment on them, say something about prodigies and our attitudes toward them, and see where it goes. At the moment I’ve got five posts scheduled. In the fourth I want to cover Charlie Keil’s concept of the 12/8 path band as it is a format that accommodates musicians of all ages and levels of skill and the Sage City Symphony, a community symphony in Vermont that did the same.

The Word Illusion

This is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. What you’re looking at as you’re reading this is a string of words, right? Well, yes, but if you want to get picky, no. And I want to get picky.

Words as we ordinarily understand the term have meaning and syntactic affordances (that is, they are “parts of speech”), and take auditory, graphic, and gestural form. All you see on the screen are the graphic forms of words, the auditory and gestural forms aren’t there, and the meanings and syntactic affordances exist in your mind. The graphic forms elicit those meanings and syntactic affordances from you and so you understand what I’m putting before you. The meanings you infer may or may not be a good match for the one’s I have/had in mind.

A word form is no more the word in full than a photograph of, say, a flower is the flower in full.

These days various investigators (in AI, NLP, digital humanities, social science) are doing remarkable things with computing over collections, often extremely large collections, of words. But they aren’t words in the full sense, but only digital encodings of word forms. These computational allow the investigators to infer interesting things about the meanings inherent in those collections. Where did those meanings come from? They certainly aren’t IN THERE in the collections of word forms. Rather, the investigators infer them to be there because, well, they know that ultimately each of those word forms is attached to or associated with one or more meanings.

That’s what I mean by the word illusion, the whole (damned) story. In pointing our that those are only word forms I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know, but they don’t think about it enough. In their eagerness to see meaning they don’t think nearly enough about how computation over the structure of those texts produces such interesting results.

And I can see from how this is going, that teasing this one out is going to be tough. And it surely intersects with my thinking about intuition. The word illusion results from taking intuitions arising from our knowledge of words in their fullness and applying them to results obtained by computing over word forms only. Until we think explicitly in terms of word forms (only) [that is, telling ourselves over and over that we're only computing over (empty) word forms, there's nothing else there] we're not going to know what we're doing. [For example, see my working paper on GPT-3.]

I think literary criticism suffers from what we can think of as the obverse of this illusion. Critics are interested in interpreting the meaning of texts, but they lack explicit accounts of meaning. That’s OK as far as it goes. But they also talk about form and formalism, which is surely about those word forms. Yet they display little interest in actually describing form or in figuring out how to describe it. Do I want to call this the form illusion

For that matter, while computational critics – the ones who use computational techniques to examine texts and large collections of texts – are prone to the word illusion, they would benefit from thinking a bit further about the implications of their work. Those texts, after all, were produced by the human mind (that is, by the minds of authors). Can the patterns they find in those texts then be interpreted as telling us something about the mind? Why not? I indication the implications of this idea by reanalyzing some recent studies in my working paper, Toward a Theory of the Corpus.

The End of Science

Back in 1996 John Horgan published The End of Science in which he argued that, in many areas, science has gone as far as it can go. There isn’t anymore. I published an essay-review in which I argued that new methods of thought are likely to transform our understanding in many areas. He still thinks his argument holds (see this column from 2015) and I of course think that my argument still holds.

Some potential topics: the foundations of physics, mind, neuroscience linguistics, and AI. We’ll see.

Progress Studies

I want to think a bit about how Progress Studies seems to be coming along. My impression is that it hasn’t thought deeply enough about culture in general and that it seems caught on Disney-style techno-scientific optimism from the 50s. Science and technology are important, essential, but there’s more to progress. We’re born to groove, no?

I note that Tony Morley is working on a book about progress for 6 to 12 year olds and is seeking funding.

More later.

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