Monday, February 28, 2022

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws @3QD [plus further notes]

It’s time to finish my work on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws with a piece in 3 Quarks Daily:

Shark City Sacrifice: A Girardian reading of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws,

As the title suggests, it is a revision of my original post – a different, tighter, ending, a sharp observation in the middle, and a revised order.

But am I finished? I like the 3QD piece. I think it’s better than my original post. Does it fully satisfy my curiosity, my interest, in Jaws? I don’t think so, but I have no specific plans to continuing working on the film. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.

The problem: death in a pattern

What I’m seeding to understand is a pattern. Let’s say the pattern has three elements: 1) the film has two distinct parts (one set in Amity, the other on the ocean), 2) an obsessive shark hunter, 3) who is killed by a shark in the second part. For lack of a better term, let’s say that pattern is sacrifice, where sacrifice is understood as a kind of religious ritual. This is where Girard comes in, as he is a theorist of religious sacrifice. 

The problem, of course, is that there is no explicit religious ritual in Jaws. Rather, I’m reading it that way. Critics do this kind of thing all the time. What authorizes it? The pattern, no?

Jaws the film is also very much about death. Death came come as the natural end of a life well-lived; the body just wears out and one dies. But that’s not what happens in Jaws. The deaths in the first part are unexpected and brutal and happen in youth and middle age. They are “answered” by two deaths in the second part, both brutal. The shark kills Quint, Brody kills the shark. The pattern in the previous paragraph is organized around these deaths.

Quint shows up in the first part, abrasive, arrogant, but offering to kill the shark, for a price. He’s made his living hunting sharks, and everyone knows it. He’s identified with and obsessed by them. There is thus a coherence, an order, in the second part when the shark kills him and is, in turn, killed by the Chief. This is in stark contrast to the four deaths in the first part, which exhibit no human logic.

And so forth and so on. I could continue in this way and so once again work through the whole argument. I can see little point in doing that now. Perhaps I would fare better if I took some time to build some conceptual apparatus. But what would that apparatus be?

What of religion?

Here’s the original 1975 trailer for Jaws:

This is the opening voiceover:

There is a creature alive today, who has survived millions of years of evolution, without change, without passion, and without logic. It lives to kill, a mindless eating machine, it will attack, and devour, anything. It is as if God created the devil, and gave him, JAWS.

I don’t recall God being mentioned in the film at all. How’d God make it into the trailer? I suppose it’s nothing more than a conventionalized gesture, but still, it’s there. What of the reference to “millions of years of evolution”? The reference is secular, but it evokes a context stretching far beyond the small town of Amity. The shark, those JAWS, is not merely a hungry animal. It is a force of Nature.

Spielberg is pushing beyond the bounds of naturalistic realism, as he would do two years later in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and then again in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Why? What need does he thereby satisfy? Whatever it is, that’s what underlies the sacrificial plot in Jaws.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Red iris

Being the Ricardos is wonderful in its virtuoso juggling of recollection, life, and fiction [Media Notes 68]

With Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnez, Being the Ricardos (2021) does a delightful job of telescoping events though three time scales. As the film opens we see and hear three writers from the TV show, I Love Lucy. I would guess that the present for those writers is sometime in the last quarter of the previous century, though no date is specified. They are telling as about past events, in particular, events during one week in 1953.

Then we shift back in time to Sunday evening of that week. Lucy and Desi are at home. They argue about his infidelities and then begin to engage in make-up sex. They stop when they hear Walter Winchell (a very influential purveyor of gossip) announce, at the end of his television broadcast, that “the most popular actress in America” is a Communist. He’s talking about Lucy. Back in 1953 such an accusation could have career-ending consequences.

Then we shift to the next day, with these words appearing on the screen:

Table Read

The cast, writers, director, and show-runner are seated around a table, chatting about Winchell’s announcement. Lucy and Desi are not there. They’re in a meeting with executives having the same conversation. Will they still have a show for taping on Friday night? Back to the table read; Lucy and Desi enter; Desi explains that Winchell got it wrong; they sit down.

They begin reading through the script. She starts critiquing the script. Chatting. We see that shot as it will appear in the show, in black and white. More chatting and critiquing, Kidman’s Lucille Ball voice is different from her Lucy Arnez voice.

Those writers reappear in their interviews, telling us how Lucy and Desi met. We shift further into the past and see their initial courtship. Arnez sings a tender ballad in Spanish. (Bardem does this beautifully.) They dance in a crowded nightclub. At one point he observes that she’s “kinetically gifted,” and important observation about what will become her comedic technique.

Back to the table read. Bill (the actor who portrays Fred Mertz in the TV show) and Desi talk about the accusation hanging over Lucy’s head. Desi and Lucy talk, about Winchell, about infidelity.

Blocking Rehearsal

And so the movie goes, flowing between the writers in the present, rehearsal, shots from the show (in black and white) events during that week, back into the early days of Lucy’s and Desi’s relationship.

Lucy and Desi drop a bomb: Lucy’s pregnant.

Camera Blocking

Continuing as before, interweaving the past, rehearsals (the show itself), artistry and tradecraft, crisis management.

Lucy and Desi tell the executives that they do not want to hide her pregnancy from the audience, though that has been done, but instead want to work it into the show. The executives do not like this. Remember, 1953.


What interests me is that the film-makers – Aaron Sorkin wrote and directed – expect us to follow these events, to assemble them in our minds into a coherent story.

On Wednesday Desi had sent a telegram to the Chairman of Phillip Morris, which sponsored I Love Lucy, asking him how he wanted Lucy’s pregnancy handled. His reply came back: “Don’t fuck with the Cuban.”

Of course we dip into the deep past as well, ever advancing on the moment Lucy leaves movies for I Love Lucy.

Now we hear the band playing the “I Love Lucy” theme off camera and then, five or six seconds later:

Show Night

It all comes together.* There’s no mystery about the commie-scandal collapsing. We all know that I Love Lucy continued for seven more years.

But just how these various streams come together, well, that’s the magic of film, no? Hollywood, speaking metaphorically and generically, had to learn how to do such things. Equally, we, the audience, had to learn as well. What cues do they offer us and what do we have to know about the world, and about movies, to pick up on them and assemble them into a coherent narrative.

This IS, after all, a film ABOUT film, and yet it doesn’t seem META, it doesn’t feel intellectual or self-conscious. It feels natural. 

How did we arrive here? 

Follow the word “home.”

* * * * *

*Note: This is the only time that the action moves from one day (in 1953) to the next BEFORE we are cued by labels on the screen. Something similar happens in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a medieval epic.

On the overlap between cognition and emotion

Abstract for linked article:

The tendency to reflect on the emotions of self and others is a key aspect of emotional awareness (EA)—a trait widely recognized as relevant to mental health. However, the degree to which EA draws on general reflective cognition vs. specialized socio-emotional mechanisms remains unclear. Based on a synthesis of work in neuroscience and psychology, we recently proposed that EA is best understood as a learned application of domain-general cognitive processes to socio-emotional information. In this paper, we report a study in which we tested this hypothesis in 448 (125 male) individuals who completed measures of EA and both general reflective cognition and socio-emotional performance. As predicted, we observed a significant relationship between EA measures and both general reflectiveness and socio-emotional measures, with the strongest contribution from measures of the general tendency to engage in effortful, reflective cognition. This is consistent with the hypothesis that EA corresponds to the application of general reflective cognitive processes to socio-emotional signals.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Neuromophic computing: electrochemical and optical

Shells, sand, with holes

Jaws: misogyny and violence

Dan Rubey’s reading of Jaws is the most interesting one that I’ve read:

Dan Rubey, The Jaws in the mirror, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 10-11, 1976, 2004 pp. 20-23,

His thesis:

In JAWS the shark reflects a disguised hatred of women and the preoccupation of our society with sadistic sexuality, a view of business as predatory and irresponsible in human terms, and a fear of retribution for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The film resolves these issues and fears by externalizing them from the protagonists and solving them in a macho fantasy, fear-and-bravery ending which denies any possibility of concerted social action, excludes women as weak and ineffectual, and erases the past and its guilts.

Though he doesn’t use the word, Rubey is in effect arguing that, in the second part of the film (set in Amity), the shark, but also Quint, are used as scapegoats for phenomena on display in the first part (in the hunt).

His argument about the movie’s presentation of business is relatively straight-forward. Yes, business interests in Amity are presented negatively, but the focus is in individuals, not “rather than the system itself, blaming them for being weak rather than examining the pressures placed on them by the system or making alternate forms of behavior possible.”

The argument about misogyny is more interesting. The movie opens with the death of Crissie Watkins, “a young, long haired woman swimming naked at night, a ‘skinny dipping adolescent, in Time’s contemptuous and hostile phrase.”

The shark’s-eye camera view watches from below as the woman swims acrobatically above. Then it rises up under her toward her crotch as she scissorkicks vertically in the water. The camera quickly switches to the surface of the water. Here the close up of the woman’s agonized face as the unseen shark tears her body under the water is a frightening imitation of orgasm, the cliché of the equivalence of pleasure and pain used almost from the first portrayal of female orgasm in film.

This juxtaposition of images, the erotic swimming sequence and the shark attack, appeals to a sadism and hatred of women which must be assumed to be a part of the consciousness of the film’s audience. However, the sadism is disguised [...] so that it can be enjoyed by people who would not admit to having sadistic impulses or tastes.

While Watkins is the only female victim, her death sets up the entire film.

Rubey goes on to point out that

Quint is also a woman hater. His dislike for women is treated as a natural counterpart of the manliness which makes him an effective shark killer. [...] The song Quint sings several times, “Farewell and adieu, you fair Spanish ladies,” portrays women as whores to be left behind as men sail off to the serious business of war and death. The men compare scars at night on the boat in a warmly treated scene of male camaraderie. Quint shows one he got arm wrestling in a bar celebrating his “third wife’s demise.” Hooper shows his own woman-related mark, an invisible scar on his chest placed there by “Mary Ellen Moffitt: she broke my heart.” The scene is amusing, and Hooper’s line is very funny in context. But the humor and distancing technique make Quint carry the weight of the film’s aggression against women in the same way that he carries the macho fantasy, externalizing then from Brody and Hooper (and thus from the audience), and finally denying them totally when he is killed by the shark.

That is a very telling set of observations.

And then we have the “fear of retribution for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.” Rubey starts with an interesting historical aside, noting that “interest of people in the United States in sharks, documented by countless magazine articles, books, and films, dates from WWII and the encounters with sharks of downed airmen and sailors in tropical waters.” He then goes on to ask, but why the Indianapolis and the bomb?

But it would be naive to claim that no meaning is inherent in the juxtaposition in the film, that Spielberg or Benchley or Gottlieb (or whoever added it to the screenplay) simply picked the Indianapolis sinking to motivate Quint because it was the worst shark disaster he knew, and that reference to the bombing was included only because it was part of the story. Even if a meaning for the connection was not consciously worked out in the writer’s mind, it is the nature of film as a narrative medium to suggest that causal relationships exist between narratively related acts, and such relationships create the film’s meaning.

The last is interesting and requires a bit more discussion than I am prepared to give it at the moment. Here’s what Rubey is suggesting:

On the most simplistically causal level then, the men of the Indianapolis were killed by the sharks in retribution for the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the deaths of 70,000 Japanese civilians. But if this is punishment, who is the punisher? The only possible answer is something like Nature, natural forces anthropomorphized, punishing the savagery of man with the savagery of the sharks.

I’ll raise the same issue I raised with Jameson, just how is that “meaning” registered by the audience? That’s certainly not something I consciously thought about (until I read Rubey’s article). To be sure I am just one person, but I would be surprised if many people consciously thought the sharks were attacking the sailors from the Indianapolis as punishment for dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima. Did we think about it unconsciously? How would any of us know?

(Moreover, there is a problem with chronology as the Indianapolis was sunk on July 30, 1945 and the bomb was dropped on August 6. Were the sharks prophetic?)

No, the idea that the sharks were (symbolically) punishing the sailors seems to me a stretch. Rubey is on stronger ground when he notes:

JAWS does treat the great white shark as something larger and more mysterious than a hungry fish. It develops from a mindless eating-machine into a malevolent force—intelligent, vengeful, unnaturally powerful, perhaps thousands of years old.


On another level of interpretation, the shark represents our own voracity and savagery in war. Chennault’s Flying Tigers painted teeth on the front of their planes, and some of the helicopters in HEARTS AND MINDS displayed similar markings. The shark is an image of the viciousness of our own society in war. There’s a savagery we want to identify with when it seems justified in moral terms as protection of ourselves or others. But we also want to deny and externalize it when there is no such justification because we have unconscious fears of retribution in kind. In this context, the shark represents fears of retribution for the bombing of Hiroshima (and perhaps for our role in Vietnam as well) growing out of feelings of guilt and doubts about the justifiability of our actions. Here it is not a question of being punished for our actions by some superhuman agency. Rather, it is that we have somehow made ourselves vulnerable to the savagery of nature by our own participation in that savagery.

Yes, he sticks “fears of retribution” into the middle, but I like how he comes out of it in that last sentence.

The shark kills Quint, removing his violence, his misogyny as well, and Brody kills the shark, removing its violence. Brody and Hooper are now free to swim ashore on a deserted beach.

Rubey doesn’t stop here, and I recommend the rest of his analysis to you, but this is sufficient for my purposes. 

* * * * *

More posts about Jaws.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Behind bars

From Grandfather’s Diary: WWII, Ulysses, and Proust

I bumping this to the top of the queue as Putin marches on Ukrania.  This post contains some excerpts from my Grandfather's diary as he writes about news of the growing war in Europe and then reports the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
* * * * *
My paternal grandfather, Axel Benzon, was a Dane. He and his wife, Louise, immigrated to America early in the 20th Century. He was educated as an engineer and knew Greek sufficiently well that he wrote poetry in Greek. He ended his professional career as chief engineer, I believe, of the main US Post Office in Manhattan.

And he kept a diary, the pages of which are generically entitled: “Leaves from my diary.” It’s not a handwritten affair, kept in one of those blank books one can buy at a stationary store. It’s typed on ordinary 8.5 by 11 paper. I’ve got a photocopy of much or most of it, but, judging by his index, not all.

Here’s the opening paragraphs from the entry for 14 April 1940:
Sunday and cloudy with occasionally a little snow-a good day to remain indoors and listen to the war news from Europe. These news are coming in frequently but are most confusing and it is difficult from the british and german dispatches to a form a true picture about the situation in all parts of Norway.

The Danish goose is cooked – there the germans are in possession of all parts and are now fortifying points of vantage, especially the northernmost part of Jutland from where they can dominate a great port of Skagerak and Kartegat.

The invasion of Norway was a masterstroke, no matter how it turns out. It gave evidence of the usual german thoroughness and precision and coupled with the fact that the german navy is so much inferior to that of the English it has been most successful and must have taken the English by surprise.
As you can imagine, his reflections are much occupied by the war. But not entirely so. For example, he also talks of his fondness for the game of golf and playing it on public courses in New York City—he lived in Jackson Heights at the time. I rather imagine that THAT land has long since been given over to building of one sort or another. In fact, at one point he mentions exactly that.
But that’s not what I’m after here, nor his enumeration of Christmas gifts. Though as I did not mark those specific passages I have to do a bit of looking around in order to find them, which may take awhile. And, of course, in looking around, I spot things. For example, this paragraph from a letter to one of his daughters, Karen, on 20 April 1940:
You are affected by the insensate sacrifice to the voracious Moloch of the flower of youth driven to the slaughter by monsters whose greed can never be sated and by the senseless destruction of the fruits of toilers whose only earthly desire is to be permitted peacefully to toil as long as they can labor.

How are your aunts and cousins in Denmark, and how is aunt Kate in Oslo with her two boys? Pity for they have toiled and suffered for many years until lately they all felt reasonably secure to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Well-I often ask myself this question – and we cannot help, cannot even communicate with them.

But let these blows not deprive you of the desire to continue your own life as happily and peacefully as you are privileged to do. You are born in an age different from that in which your parents were born and in a country different from the little pastoral Denmark. The premature invasion into your time of an unbridled science which as a colt breathlessly has galloped over your era will in time be curbed and led into the field of anthropology where it will either destroy or make useful the parasitic growth that now is the cause of our folly and inhumanity.
I wonder what he would think of “shock and awe” or of drones?

From a letter of 19 May 1940, talking about one of is fellow expatriate Danes:
Some time ago when Bang from Baltimore visited us he lamented about the poor condition in which Denmark was situated with respect to defend herself against an aggressor. The Finnish war was on at that time and we were filled with reports about the bravery of the Finns. The Danes could do as well and it would be better to go down in glory than to give in without a fight.

Poor Bang, he still lives in a world of illusion. He did not see that the news we received from Finland were all highly colored and that Finland was doomed. And still, he wanted Denmark to defend herself from german invasion.
I wonder what he’d think about The New York Times reporting on Iraq, or Afghanistan. Would he think that Tom Friedman is as lost in illusion as his countryman Bang?

From 8 June 1940:
With all this misery in Europe things are quiet at the Post Office. Mail is not heavy and we can take our vacations knowing that there are hard times ahead of us so far as money is concerned. We must be glad is [sic] our salaries are not cut, for that in addition to increased taxation will be hard to bear.
He was waiting for the war to get worse. What are we waiting for? The war in Afghanistan to end? For climate chaos to get worse, and worse? I rather suspect that Grandfather would have been had little trouble accepting the data on climate change.

From 14 August 1940:
At the Post office we are preparing for registering the aliens. This gives me more work for we have to build a number for typewrite desks and other things that have to be used. We do much work in the Post Office other than handling mail.
2 December 1940:
Incidentally I listened to [H.G.] Wells the other day over the radio and was shocked to hear how feeble was his voice – hardly distinguishable – but the old radical spirit was there undaunted – he really sounded as were he speaking from one of the many and deep shell holes dug by the barbaric german bombers in the relics from the old Londinium.
There's that late 19th Century education for you, and he was educated as an engineer, not a preacher or a diplomat.

7 December 1941:
It is cold today on this Sunday but the wires or rather the air is hot with reports about the attack of the Japanese air forces upon Hawaii this morning when five civilians and apparently three hundred fifty soldiers were killed. It is also reported that a large battleship was set afire and two others sunk...

The Dutch East Indies and the republic of Costa Rica have declared war on Japan.

10 pm. Canada has declared war on Japan.
Ah, at last, one of the two passages I’ve been looking for. This entry is mostly personal and family stuff. 8 September 1941:
From Billy we finally got words today. They have moved and are now settled in the town. It was not all good news in his letter for Betty’s mother is bedridden with a bad heart and his former landlady presumably has cancer.

He has further more lost his nice golf clubs – they were mislaid by a caddie in a wrong automobile when he went in for a drink and now after ten days he has not gotten them yet. That is a serious loss and I sympathize with him for he had a very good set of clubs.
Billy is my father and Betty, his wife, my mother. Grandfather goes on to report on a book he’s been reading, The Managerial Revolution by Burnham (whoever he was), that offers “another alternative to capitalism than socialism namely the ruling of the country by a new class of managers.” He says a bit more about the book and then: “I agree with him in most of his points, but if that is not socialism as I understand it then I do not know what it is. Socialism as he defines it is the Utopia which, if we should try to establish it now would be anarchism and chaos.” I don’t think Grandfather had much objection to socialism, though I rather suspect he wouldn’t think too much of the financial managers who run the world these days.

At last, as he continues talking about his reading, he closes with this:
Also a book by Frank Buck, the animal dealer and a novel by Storm “Count Ten” which I should read at least twice in order to understand it properly. The style is somewhat like that of Ulysses and it deals with a man who does not know what he should do by tries his utmost to live a life of decenty wherein he can retain his selfrespect [sic].
Never heard of this Storm or his novel, though the Wikipedia has, but that’s not what caught my eye. You see, when I went off to college I thought of myself as a fairly literate young chap and so was taken aback a bit to hear these people raving on about some book called Ulysses that I’d never heard of. And here I am, leafing through my grandfather’s diary and I come upon a mention of that very book as though any well-read person would know it. By the time I got to college, well, that’s where you’d find Ulysses, in the literature curriculum. But Grandfather was well out of college by the time the book had been published. He must have read it because that’s what he did.

As for the mention of Proust, I’ve done a bit of searching and can’t find it. Grandfather was talking, not about his own reading, but about his wife’s. I forget just what she was reading, though I don’t think it was Proust. But it must have been something French, which gave him a reason to bring up Proust. Judging from his comment I don’t think he’d read him. What he said was that he’d been told the English translation was so much better than the original that a re-translation back into French would have been a considerable improvement.

Other than his wife, just who did this man talk too in his daily life? He doesn’t mention any New York friends who share his interests.

And then there’s the fuss over the appointment of Bertrand Russell to a position at City College.

And so on.

All during the run-up to World War II.

Addendum: The Proust passage, 22 November 1938:
Talking about books I think mama [his wife] is on the way to become literary. She was interested in Anatole France some time ago and read some of his books, and now she is buried in Marcel Proust. Whether she is enjoying their language or their outpourings of both I do no know for she does not say much about it. Anatole France’s language is of course concise, clear and classically French and is therefore enjoyable...

...As to Proust it is said that the translation into english is so much better than the french edition that if it were retranslated into french it would be a much better book. The french language is not adapted to the outpourings of the quickly decaying spirit departing disillusioned from the splendor that was nothing less than a stinking dungheap as was the fate of Proust. He longed for what he thought was the highest he could think of on this earth; he found it discovered is was rottenness. But just the same his description is more worth than Dos Passos’ description of the world as he found it in the twenties, to take an example.

Mama enjoys her reading more than she enjoys bringing up flowers or plants.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Cruise ship on the Hudson with a seagull in the foreground

Using AI (reinforcement learning) to train a magnetic controller for tokamak plasmas

Degrave, J., Felici, F., Buchli, J. et al. Magnetic control of tokamak plasmas through deep reinforcement learning. Nature 602, 414–419 (2022).


Nuclear fusion using magnetic confinement, in particular in the tokamak configuration, is a promising path towards sustainable energy. A core challenge is to shape and maintain a high-temperature plasma within the tokamak vessel. This requires high-dimensional, high-frequency, closed-loop control using magnetic actuator coils, further complicated by the diverse requirements across a wide range of plasma configurations. In this work, we introduce a previously undescribed architecture for tokamak magnetic controller design that autonomously learns to command the full set of control coils. This architecture meets control objectives specified at a high level, at the same time satisfying physical and operational constraints. This approach has unprecedented flexibility and generality in problem specification and yields a notable reduction in design effort to produce new plasma configurations. We successfully produce and control a diverse set of plasma configurations on the Tokamak à Configuration Variable including elongated, conventional shapes, as well as advanced configurations, such as negative triangularity and ‘snowflake’ configurations. Our approach achieves accurate tracking of the location, current and shape for these configurations. We also demonstrate sustained ‘droplets’ on TCV, in which two separate plasmas are maintained simultaneously within the vessel. This represents a notable advance for tokamak feedback control, showing the potential of reinforcement learning to accelerate research in the fusion domain, and is one of the most challenging real-world systems to which reinforcement learning has been applied.

From the beginning of the article:

Tokamaks are torus-shaped devices for nuclear fusion research and are a leading candidate for the generation of sustainable electric power. A main direction of research is to study the effects of shaping the distribution of the plasma into different configurations3,4,5 to optimize the stability, confinement and energy exhaust, and, in particular, to inform the first burning-plasma experiment, ITER. Confining each configuration within the tokamak requires designing a feedback controller that can manipulate the magnetic field6 through precise control of several coils that are magnetically coupled to the plasma to achieve the desired plasma current, position and shape, a problem known as the tokamak magnetic control problem.

The conventional approach to this time-varying, non-linear, multivariate control problem is to first solve an inverse problem to precompute a set of feedforward coil currents and voltages7,8. Then, a set of independent, single-input single-output PID controllers is designed to stabilize the plasma vertical position and control the radial position and plasma current, all of which must be designed to not mutually interfere6. Most control architectures are further augmented by an outer control loop for the plasma shape, which involves implementing a real-time estimate of the plasma equilibrium9,10 to modulate the feedforward coil currents8. The controllers are designed on the basis of linearized model dynamics, and gain scheduling is required to track time-varying control targets. Although these controllers are usually effective, they require substantial engineering effort, design effort and expertise whenever the target plasma configuration is changed, together with complex, real-time calculations for equilibrium estimation.

A radically new approach to controller design is made possible by using reinforcement learning (RL) to generate non-linear feedback controllers. The RL approach, already used successfully in several challenging applications in other domains11,12,13, enables intuitive setting of performance objectives, shifting the focus towards what should be achieved, rather than how. Furthermore, RL greatly simplifies the control system. A single computationally inexpensive controller replaces the nested control architecture, and an internalized state reconstruction removes the requirement for independent equilibrium reconstruction. These combined benefits reduce the controller development cycle and accelerate the study of alternative plasma configurations. Indeed, artificial intelligence has recently been identified as a ‘Priority Research Opportunity’ for fusion control14, building on demonstrated successes in reconstructing plasma-shape parameters15,16, accelerating simulations using surrogate models17,18 and detecting impending plasma disruptions19. RL has not, however, been used for magnetic controller design, which is challenging due to high-dimensional measurements and actuation, long time horizons, rapid instability growth rates and the need to infer the plasma shape through indirect measurements.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Kung Fu Yoga: Jackie Chan does Belt and Road [Media Notes 67]

I was looking over Amazon Prime Video and spotted Kung Fu Yoga. “Strange title,” I thought, but it’s a Jackie Chan film and relatively recent, 2017. It’s certainly not prime Jackie Chan, but it’s fun.

It opens with the cheesiest CGI I’ve seen in a long time, and totally unnecessary. It’s set in the ancient past and shows how a treasure got lost. Who cares how an ancient treasure got lost?

When then shift to the present where Jackie Chan is “the greatest archaeologist” in China. He’s approached by a delegation from India, headed a beautiful young woman, to help them recover a treasure lost in Tibet (that’s what we saw in the cheesy CGI). He agrees. At about this time I was thinking that this China-India collab looks like a bit of Belt and Road diplomacy. And, wouldn’t you know, Chan mentions Belt and Road.

Anyhow, it’s off to Tibet. Lots of snow. Lowered into underground cave. They find the treasure, are accosted by bad guys from India, and escape.

Meanwhile, one of Jackie’s compatriots steals the diamond, takes it to Dubai and puts it up for sale. Bad guys. Mad chase through Dubai involving luxury SUVs, brightly colored exotic super cars, and one Bugatti Veyron in police livery. Beautiful young woman from India snatches it away on a motorcycle.

Off to India. Beautiful young woman turns out to be a descendant of those guys we saw in the awful CGI at the beginning. Once again, those bad guys snatch the diamond. Strange fight sequence involving three Chinese and four hyenas in an enclosure. Good guys escape, retrieve diamonds, and make their way into an underground temple, followed naturally by bad guys.

At last we all make it to the ancient lost temple of gold. More fighting, some quite amusing (as Jackie Chan fight scenes can often be). It turns out the real treasure is not the gold and gems, but ancient wisdom books. Everyone is happy. The film ends with a wonderful Bollywood dance sequence with Chan in the lead.

Just cut everything but the fight sequences, the car chase, and the final dance. In a pinch, just skip right to the dance.

* * * * *

FWIW, this is Chan’s highest-grossing film in China but was a flop in India.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Beethoven and Jazz


 We start with Beethoven's last piano sonata, No. 32, Op. 111, which was considered all but unplayable for a long time. See this post, Beethoven in Memphis [on the limits of civilization and sexuality in music].

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Small doll sitting on a shelf of cookbooks

Mental speed slows down after 60

von Krause, M., Radev, S.T. & Voss, A. Mental speed is high until age 60 as revealed by analysis of over a million participants. Nat Hum Behav (2022).

Abstract: Response speeds in simple decision-making tasks begin to decline from early and middle adulthood. However, response times are not pure measures of mental speed but instead represent the sum of multiple processes. Here we apply a Bayesian diffusion model to extract interpretable cognitive components from raw response time data. We apply our model to cross-sectional data from 1.2 million participants to examine age differences in cognitive parameters. To efficiently parse this large dataset, we apply a Bayesian inference method for efficient parameter estimation using specialized neural networks. Our results indicate that response time slowing begins as early as age 20, but this slowing was attributable to increases in decision caution and to slower non-decisional processes, rather than to differences in mental speed. Slowing of mental speed was observed only after approximately age 60. Our research thus challenges widespread beliefs about the relationship between age and mental speed.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

The problematic of Jaws in a nutshell

I’ve been thinking about how to revise my original post about Jaws. I think the content will be much the same, but I’m considering one major restructuring. In the original article the penultimate section was entitled, “Speculative interlude – Questions.” I’m considering moving that to the top, right after the introduction and before I introduce Girard. Why? Primarily to motivate the introduction of Girard, but I also like the idea of giving a quick quasi-analytic synopsis of the film up-front.

Here goes.

* * * * *

When you’re watching Jaws, it moves along seamlessly. But when you’ve watched it through and through and are thinking about it, you realize that it falls into two very different parts. The first part is in the thick of society: the town of Amity, its harbor, and its beach. It has many scenes with small, medium, and large groups of people. The second part takes place at sea and has only three people (Quint, Brody, and Hooper) and the shark. The first is jammed with people bustling all over the place. The second moves rapidly in a line, though not necessarily straight, and is set apart from society.

What connects the two? The obvious connection is through the shark, which killed four people in the first and is being hunted in the second. But there is a second connection. It’s not really hidden, but its nature is not obvious.

In the first part the shark kills a teenaged young woman, a young boy, and two adult men. Those four exist in the film only as victims. The shark kills one person in the second part of the film, Quint, the shark hunter. Though Quint only appeared briefly in the first part, when he set his price for killing the shark ($10,000), he is an almost continuous presence in the second part. By the time the shark kills him, we have come to know him.

There are several moments in the first part of the film where the mayor refuses to close the beaches because doing so would hurt tourism. He argues that we don’t actually know that there is a shark in the ocean and so it would be imprudent to close the beaches. Each time he did that I found myself getting angry at him. I doubt that my reaction is unique. I watched half a dozen “reaction” videos about Jaws on YouTube. In each case the reactor expressed anger at the mayor [1].

What does the film do with that accumulating anger? How does it resolve it? The film seems to drop it in the second part. The mayor and Amity don’t play any explicit role in that part of the film; they are not onscreen.

Is there anything in the second part that is somehow parallel to our anger with the mayor in the first part? What balances that out? I’m thinking of balance as a matter of aesthetics. Without it the film wouldn’t feel right, would be somehow diminished.

I am thinking that Quint’s obsession with the shark provides that balance. It is scary and off-putting and, when he destroys the radio and hence the possibility of calling for help, we realize that his obsession threatens the lives of all three hunters, Hooper, Brody, and Quint himself. I suggest that Quint’s self-destructive obsession gives his death an ‘aura’ of sacrifice.

Let’s think about that death for a moment, not in terms of real-world cause and effect, but in terms of myth-logic, in aesthetic terms. Why do we have anyone at all die in the course of the hunt? That’s not a causally necessary feature of shark hunts. But it enhances the thrill we the audience get from the chase. Why have one of the hunters be an Ahab-like obsessive? Yes, the hunters need to be skilled and determined, but that kind of obsession is not a causal requirement. It’s an aesthetic requirement. It’s necessity is that of myth-logic.

That’s why we need some help from René Girard, to explain the logic of sacrifice.

* * * * *

[1] Here’s a reaction video entitled “Mr. Mayor, You Can Choke! JAWS Movie Reaction, First Time Watching.” Listen to the commentary starting at about 16:15.

* * * * *

More posts about Jaws.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Is the Ottawa trucker's protest a bit of the Metaverse that has leaked into the physical world?

James McLeod, The Ottawa protest is an online subculture flexing in the physical world, The Line, Feb. 18, 2022.

Forget about the Metaverse that Silicon Valley marketing execs are trying to sell you. The metaverse is already here and we are already living in it.

We don’t think of the internet as “the metaverse” because we don’t wear a headset and experience it as a three-dimensional environment, but the internet is already a fully realized world. It’s hard to describe but those of us who live our lives online can feel the geography of it, understand the borders and cultural groups, the complex weave of networks, communities and spaces.

What we are seeing in Ottawa is what happens when an online subculture flexes its muscles and starts exerting pressure in the physical world. These people are an online fandom meeting up in physical space, like BronyCon or The Gathering of the Juggalos.

The convoy occupation of Ottawa began online and still exists to a large extent on Facebook and Twitter and Telegram and other online spaces. Much has been written about the financing of the movement through crowdfunding sites and perhaps cryptocurrencies, and that’s an important dimension too.

The livestreamers represent an important connective tissue between the physical and digital world, and what they’re doing makes sense even if they couldn’t fully articulate why they're doing it. Some of it is just chasing clout; on livestreams you often hear the host marveling at the number of viewers tuning in. And online, metrics can be monetized, and many of these people are not ideologues, they’re just hustlers trying to wring some money out of a dramatic situation.

But I think there’s something deeper, too. People stream themselves online because online is where they feel most at home. If your existence is primarily bound up in your online identity sharing memes and posting commentary in an online network, it’s cool to show up to a convention and maybe meet some new people, but you don’t want to leave that online community behind.

There's more at the link.

Is the Ottawa trucker's protest a bit of the Metaverse that has leaked into the physical world?

Friday Fotos: I love a parade [Hallucinated City]

Jameson offers a Marxist reading of Jaws

Fredric Jameson is perhaps the premier American Marxist literary and cultural critic of the last half century. Let’s take a look at what he said about Jaws in 1979, four years after the film appeared.

Fredric Jameson, Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture, Social Text, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp, 130-148,

The first half of the article consists of apparatus building: How are we to properly discuss popular culture in capitalist society? Then he considers two movies, Jaws, and The Godfather.

For the most part I want to set theory aside. But I’ll quote one brief passage (p. 140):

The only authentic cultural production today has seemed to be that which can draw on the collective experience of marginal pockets of the social life of the world system: black literature and blues, British working-class rock, women’s literature, gay literature, the roman québécois, the literature of the Third World; and this production is possible to the degree to which these forms of collective life or collective solidarity have not yet fully penetrated by the market and by the commodity system.

Jameson isn’t going to be looking to Jaws for “authentic cultural production.”

He begins with a quick précis of various interpretations which have been offered for the shark (p. 142):

Thus critics from Gore Vidal and Pravda all the way to Stephen Heath have tended to emphasize the problem of the shark itself and what it “represents”: such speculation ranges from the psychoanalytic to historic anxieties about the Other that menaces American society-whether it be the Communist conspiracy or the Third World-and even to internal fears about the unreality of daily life in American today, and in particular the haunting and unmentionable persistence of the organic–of birth, copulation, and death-which the cellophane society of consumer capitalism desperately recontains in hospitals and old age homes, and sanitizes by means of a whole strategy of linguistic euphemisms which enlarge the older, purely sexual ones: on this view, the Nantucket beaches “represent” consumer society itself, with its glossy and commodified images of gratification, and its scandalous and fragile, ever suppressed, sense of its own possible mortality.

Which of these is valid? Interpretive multiplicity emerged as a major problem for literary criticism in the mid-1960s, was investigated for a decade or two, and was then dropped, without resolution. Jameson takes a clever approach to this particular case of interpretive multiplicity:

Now none of these readings can be said to be wrong or aberrant, but their very multiplicity suggests that the vocation of the symbol–the killer shark–lies less in any single message or meaning than in its very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together. As a symbolic vehicle, then, the shark must be understood in terms of its essentially polysemous function rather than any particular content attributable to it by this or that spectator. Yet it is precisely this polysemousness which is profoundly ideological, insofar as it allows essentially social and historical anxieties to be folded back into apparently “natural” ones, to be both expressed and recontained in what looks like a conflict with other forms of biological existence.

Whatever he is doing, he is not taking the shark to be just that, a shark.

Interpretive emphasis on the shark, indeed, tends to drive all these quite varied readings in the direction of myth criticism, where the shark is naturally enough taken to be the most recent embodiment of Leviathan, so that the struggle with it effortlessly folds back into one of the fundamental paradigms or archetypes of Professor Frye's storehouse of myth. To rewrite the film in these terms is thus to emphasize what I will shortly call its Utopian dimension, that is, its ritual celebration of the renewal of the social order and its salvation, not merely from divine wrath, but also from unworthy leadership.

But to put it this way is to begin to shift our attention from the shark itself to the emergence of the hero-or heroes–whose mythic task it is to rid the civilized world of the archetypal monster. This is, however, precisely the issue-the nature and the specification of the “mythic” hero–about which the discrepancies between the film and the novel have something instructive to tell us.

The account I’ve recently offered, Crisis in Shark City: A Girardian reading of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, would seem to be Utopian, though I emphasize, not the hero, but the sacrificial victim.

In his interpretation Jameson compares the movie to the book on which it based (by Peter Benchley) and notes a number of interesting differences. In the book both Sheriff Brody and his wife are natives of Amity, though the wife is upper class, rather than being new arrivals. Hooper is more important in the novel and has an affair with the Chief’s wife, one that emphasizes class tensions, tensions that are minimized in the movie. Finally, Quint is not so important in the novel as he is in the film.

Jameson’s interpretation turns on his reading of those three men. Concerning Quint he observes (pp. 143-144):

Quint’s determinations in the film seem to be of two kinds: first, unlike the bureaucracies of law enforcement and science-&-technology (Brody and Hooper), but also in distinction to the corrupt island Mayor with his tourist investments and big business interests, Quint is defined as the locus of old-fashioned private enterprise, of the individual entrepreneurship not merely of small business, but also of local business–hence the insistence on his salty Down-East typicality. Meanwhile–¬but this feature is also a new addition to the very schematic treatment of the figure of Quint in the novel–he also strongly associates himself with a now distant American past by way of his otherwise gratuitous reminiscences about World War II and the campaign in the Pacific. We are thus authorized to read the death of Quint in the film as the two-fold symbolic destruction of an older America–the America of small business and individual private enterprise of a now outmoded kind, but also the America of the New Deal and the crusade against Nazism, the older America of the depression and the war and of the heyday of classical liberalism.

Note that Jameson seems blind to the insight Quint’s WWII story gives into his character. While he has previously acknowledged that Quint is an Ahab-like figure, Quint’s character and motivation are of no interest to him.

Moreover, he treats Quint, not so much as an individual, but as a representative of a class of people, local small business America in the 1930s and 1940s, “the heyday of classical liberalism.” Do people somehow register that when watching the film? Jameson is writing as a critic who is, when writing, at a distance from the film itself. He is able to think about it in a way that is impossible when you are immersed in the film as it unfolds. Everything you see and hear in the moment implies things you don’t see and hear. Yes, Quint is old enough to have been alive during the final years of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” Presidency, but does that impress itself on you in any way while watching the film, or as you chat with friends about it a day or two later? Interpretive criticism, not just Marxist criticism, but any kind, is like that.

Jameson continues with Hooper and Brody (p. 144):

Now the content of the partnership between Hooper and Brody projected by the film may be specified socially and politically, as the allegory of an alliance between the forces of law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations: an alliance which must be cemented, not merely by its fantasized triumph over the ill-defined menace of the shark itself, but above all by the indispensable precondition of the effacement of the more traditional image of an older America which must be eliminated from historical consciousness and social memory before the new power system takes its place.

Note the word “allegory.” Characters are not treated as individuals, but as figures for populations and institutions. Jameson continues (p. 144):

This operation may continue to be read in terms of mythic archetypes if one likes, but then in that case it is a Utopian and ritual vision which is also a whole–and very alarming–political and social program. It touches on present-day social contradictions and anxieties only to use them for its new task of ideological resolution, symbolically urging us to bury the older populisms and to respond to an image of political partnership which projects a whole new strategy of legitimation; and it effectively displaces the class antagonisms between rich and poor which persist in consumer society (and in the novel from which the film was adapted) by substituting for them a new and spurious kind of fraternity in which the viewer rejoices without understanding that he or she is excluded from it.

What happened to the actual conflict that actually emerged in the town? Do we shut down the beaches to protect people’s lives or do we protect the town’s economic life? But then Jameson seems to have characterized that life in terms of “the corrupt island Mayor with his tourist investments and big business interests.” Yes, the Mayor certainly has his interests, but I don’t see big business anywhere, unless you think of motels and gift shops as big business, which they surely are not. And just who does Jameson think the audience is that they are excluded from the ”fraternity” of “law-and-order and the new technocracy of the multinational corporations”? Does he think the audience consists entirely of Quint’s friends, acquaintances and relatives?

Jameson concludes (p. 144):

Jaws is therefore an excellent example, not merely of ideological manipulation, but also of the way in which genuine social and historical content must be first tapped and given some initial expression if it is subsequently to be the object of successful manipulation and containment. [...] At this point in the argument, then, the hypothesis is that the works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well; they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be manipulated.

Color me skeptical, but not completely dismissive. As I have indicated above, I am bothered that he does not pay more attention to what he calls the Utopian aspect of the film, in part because it really isn’t what he seems to think it is. Jameson had remarked (p. 142):

To rewrite the film in these terms is thus to emphasize what I will shortly call its Utopian dimension, that is, its ritual celebration of the renewal of the social order and its salvation, not merely from divine wrath, but also from unworthy leadership.

As I remarked in my original post, that is not how the film ends. There is no ritual celebration of renewal. The idea that there should be such a celebration, however, seems to exert a strong pull on the imagination.

Consider the opening to Michael Walker’s essay, “Steven Spielberg and the Rhetoric of an Ending”:

The opening of Christopher Booker’s monumental book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, refers to the ending of Jaws: “There is a tremendous climactic fight, with much severing of limbs and threshing about under water, until at last the shark is slain. The community comes together in universal jubilation. The great threat has been lifted. Life in Amity can begin again” (2004, 1). Unfortunately, that is not what the film shows.

Indeed, it is not. But the pull of the standard template is so strong that it is easy to imagine it when it is not in fact there. The film ends with two men wading ashore as the end credits roll. Of course, as Jameson points out, one of those men can be said to represent law-and-order while the other represents science-&-technology. I’m just not sure that will carry the weight Jameson asks it to.

I need to think about it some more.

* * * * *

[1] Michael Walker, “Steven Spielberg and the Rhetoric of an Ending,” in Nigel Morris, Ed. A Companion to Steven Spielberg, First Edition: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2017, pp. 137-158.

More posts about Jaws.

Nina Paley does the Apocalypse

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Brownstone on a pillar in JC

Sean Carroll interviews Gary Marcus about AI and common sense

As you may know, Marcus is skeptical about the ability of (deep) learning approaches to go all the way. Here's one bit of the conversation:

0:11:58.7 Sean Carroll: And maybe it’s good to… We’re able to get into details a little bit. The audience likes the details. So let’s try to understand why there has been this progress. And as far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of recent progress in AI has been driven by neural networks and deep learning algorithms. Is that fair? And what does that mean?

0:12:18.9 Gary Marcus: It’s true, but with some caveats. So, first of all, there are older techniques that everybody takes for granted but are real and are already out there. Second of all, there are things like AlphaGo, they’re actually hybrid models that use classical tree search techniques enhanced with Monte Carlo techniques in order to do what they’re doing. So they’re not just straight multi-layer perception is a kind of stereotype that people have with neural networks. We have some inputs, they feed into a hidden layer that does some summation and activation function goes to an output. They’re not just that. They actually borrow some important ideas about search, for example, and symbols from classical AI. And so they’re actually hybrid systems and people don’t acknowledge that. So this is the second caveat I would give you. The third caveat I would give you… We can come back to the second, but the third caveat I’ll give you is, yeah, most of the progress has been with deep learning lately, but most of the money has been there too, and it was really interesting to see… And I don’t just mean like 60% versus 40%. I mean, like 99.9% of the investment right now literally is in deep learning and classic symbol manipulation AI is really out of favor, and people like Geoff Hinton don’t spend any money on it at all. And so it was really interesting.

0:13:42.7 GM: There was this competition presented at the NeurIPS Conference which is the biggest conference these days in the AI field just a month or so ago, on a game called NetHack, it has various complications in it, and a symbolic system actually won in an upset victory over all this deep learning stuff. And so if you look back at the history of AI, in the history of science more generally, sometimes things get counted out too soon. It is true the deep learning has made a bunch of progress, but the question is, what follows from there?

0:14:13.9 SC: No, I’m not actually trying to make any value judgements. I would like to explain for our audience what the options are. What do you mean by deep learning? What is that and what is that in comparison to symbolic manipulation?

0:14:25.2 GM: So deep learning is fundamentally a way of doing statistical analysis on large quantities of data, at least that’s… It’s Forte. You can actually use it in a bunch of different ways, but most of the progress has come from that. And what’s impressive about the recent work is it allows us to learn from very large quantities of data. The classical AI system really didn’t do a lot of learning at all. They’re mostly hand-coded and sometimes that’s the right thing to do. So we don’t need to learn how to do navigation. We need to learn some details, but we don’t need to learn how to do navigation for the purpose of one of the most useful AI things out there, which is route planning, telling you how to get home from whatever crazy place you wound up in. Right? That’s not a deep learning-driven system. But there are other systems where if you can glom on to all the data that’s out there, you can solve certain problems very effectively, and that’s what deep learning has been good for.

The way forward:

0:20:35.4 GM: Yeah, well let me, before I do that, let me say that I think that we need elements of the symbolic approach, I think we need elements of the deep learning approach or something like it, but the… Neither by itself is sufficient. And so, I’m a big fan of what I call hybrid systems that bring together in ways that we haven’t really even figured out yet, the best of both worlds, but with that preface, ’cause people often in the field like to misrepresent me as that symbolic guy, and I’m more like the guy who said, Don’t forget about the symbolic stuff, we need it to be part of the answer. Okay, so the symbolic stuff is basically the essence of computer programming your algebra or something like that, what’s really about is having functions where you have variables that you bind to particular instances and calculate the values out, so simplest example would be an equation in Algebra, Y equals X plus 2, I tell you what X is, you can figure out what y is… And there it doesn’t matter, which Xs you have seen before, you have this thing that is defined universally is the way a logician might put it, universally for everything in some domain, any physicist would grasp that immediately or any program or any logician.

Note: Marcus remarks here and there that some systems that are presented as deep learning systems, such as AlphaGo (chess playing), Rubik's cube, or protein-folding, are actually hybrid systems, employing aspects of symbolic technology.

There's more at the link.

H/t 3QD.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

A beast in the machine

Some problems with Angus Fletcher’s account of neurons, logic, and narrative

A week or so ago a conversation on Twitter led me to this article:

Angus Fletcher, Why Computers Will Never Read (or Write) Literature: A Logical Proof and a Narrative, Narrative, Volume 29, Number 1, January 2021, pp. 1-28 DOI:

I read it with some care, highlighting, underlining, and even commenting in the margins, as one does.

I don’t know what expectations the title conjures up for you, but if you expect a lot of prose about computers, you’ll be disappointed. There is some, running in tandem with prose about nervous systems, but that’s only the last third of the article. The article’s initial sections sketch out a historical account of how academic literary studies reached their current state. It ranges over I. A. Richards, Aristotle, Francis Bacon, C. S. Pierce and various others and concludes that interpretive criticism is allied with semiotics, if not an actual species of it, and joins logic in the world of computers. I suspect that most literary critics will find this account rather inventive.

Fletcher hitches his wagon to Bacon and Eric Kandel (a Nobelist in neuroscience) to proclaim a science of literature. That’s where computers come in. Computers, being logical engines, will never be adequate to narrative. Narrative is about causality, which comes naturally to neurons. This is the part of Fletcher’s argument that interests me.

Nervous systems

Let’s jump right in (p. 16):

But there’s one feature of human learning that computers are incapable of copying: the power of our synapses to control the direction of our ideas. That control is made possible by the fact that our neurons fire in only one direction, from dendrite to synapse. So when our c synapse creates a connection between neuron A and neuron C, the connection is a one-way A → C route that establishes neuron A as a (past) cause and neuron C as a (future) effect. It’s our brain thinking: “A causes C.”

First, there’s the question of direction. Which direction is it? Earlier he had said (p. 15):

And when the synapse is triggered (typically by an electrical signal from the neuron’s axon), it carries a signal across the juncture, becoming the “middle” that connects the two neurons together.

Which direction is it, from axon through synapse to dendrite, or from dendrite to synapse? (For what it’s worth, Wikipedia’s entry about synapses says it’s the first.)

However, while Fletcher’s confusion on this matter is unfortunate, it is a relatively minor matter. What’s important is the fact of direction. Whether the direction is from axon through synapse to dendrite on the opposite, that doesn’t matter for his argument.

But just what does that get us? While the night, for example, infallibly follows the day, is that a causal relationship? Does night cause day, or, for that matter, day cause night? Is temporal order sufficient for causality? David Hume didn’t think so. All we actually have is correlation, reliable correlation to be sure, but still, it is only correlation. It is all well and good to assert (p. 16), “Cause-and-effect encodes the why of causation, while if-then encodes the that-without-why of correlation.” But Fletcher hasn’t told us how that is done. He just asserts, without further argument, that temporal order is sufficient to encode the why.

There is, however, a more fundamental problem with Fletcher’s argument. He seems to be assuming that the only way a brain (or a computer) can deal with causal relations in the world is if the causal process in the brain (or computer) is like the process in the world. Thus, since causes are prior to effects, the neural representation of the cause must be prior to the effect: “neuron A as a (past) cause and neuron C as a (future) effect”). A bit later Fletcher will assert (p. 17): “And since the human neocortex contains over 20 billion neurons (far more than any other species), our brains each possess tens of trillions of neocortical connections that can be stretched into long and branching chains of cause-and-effect.”

Is that so? Consider this well-known causal chain:

This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crow’d in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tatter’d and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milk’d the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt,
That lay in the house that Jack built.

Is Fletcher telling us that this sequence (with its mixture of causal and quasi-causal links between episodes) is carried in the brain by eleven neurons linked in order? What evidence does he offer that narratives are encoded in such a simple and direct fashion? Or is he merely suggesting that things might be so? Well, then, they might not. For what it’s worth, my own thinking has been strongly influenced by thinkers who see even relatively simple sensations, objects, and events as being encoded in populations of neurons (e.g. Walter Freeman). I do not believe that the nervous system encodes any narrative as a chain of neurons that mirrors the cause-and-effect chain in the narrative.


What does he say about computers? Here he is talking about the Arithmetic Logic Unit of a digital computers central processor (p. 16):

That unit (as we saw above) is composed of syllogistic logic gates that run mathematical equations of the form of “A = C.” And unlike the A → C connections of our synapses, the A = C connections of the Arithmetic Logic Unit are not one-way routes. They can be reversed without altering their meaning: “A = C” means exactly the same as “C = A,” just as “2 + 2 = 4” means exactly the same as “4 = 2 + 2,” or “Bob is that man over there” means exactly the same as “That man over there is Bob.”

Well, yes, it is true that “A = C” and “C = A” are equivalent. But Fletcher is talking about physical signals traveling in physical circuits. Here’s a stylized conceptual diagram of the circuitry of an Arithmetic Logic Unit that I got from Wikipedia. 

The OpCode indicates the logical operation to be performed on the operands coming in at the top to yield the result at the bottom. That’s a one-way circuit: A, B to Y. If direction of signal flow is all you need to for causal modeling, then it would seem that a computer’s ALU satisfies that condition.

Alas, now things get complicated. The hardware, the ALU, switches simple electrical signals. What those signals represent, however, is a function of the software the computer is running at the time. This distinction between hardware and software doesn’t exist for nervous systems. Nervous systems consist of living cells more or less fixed in place but which, as Fletcher noted, can modify the way each interacts with the others.

Digital computers are very versatile and have been programmed to function in many domains. The domain is encoded in the software and the data drawn upon and generated through the software. Whether or not a computer is simulating the causal interactions of light photons in a CGI rendering package, of atoms in protein folding, or the more modest ordering of alphanumeric characters in a word processor, the logic gates of the ALU switch the signals on which the software depends.

Yes, the ability of computers to generate coherent narrative is limited, though researchers have been working on it half a century. They’ve been working on reading narrative – for various senses of “read” – as long, with limited results. Will computers ever be able to deal with narrative as fluently as humans do? I doubt it, but I’m not inclined the blame the limitations on the operations of ALUs.