Friday, October 21, 2016

Sean Carroll on Entropy and the Earth

See Tim Perper's remarks on entropy in this primer on self-organization.

Light Rail, Liberty State Park






Neural basis of auditory entrainment

In PsyPost:
The auditory brainstem responds more consistently to regular sound sequences than irregular sound sequences, according to a recent study published this September in Neuroscience. The study adds to our understanding of how the brain processes regular sound patterns. [...]

The study, by Alexandre Lehmann (University of Montreal and McGill University), Diana Jimena Arias (University of Quebec at Montreal) and Marc Schönwiesner of (University of Montreal), traced entrainment-related processes along the auditory pathway. They simultaneously recorded the EEG (electrical activity in the brain) responses of 15 normal-hearing participants in their brainstem and cortex whilst regular and irregular sequences of a sound were played. There were then random omissions during the sequences.

The results revealed that the auditory cortex responded strongly to omissions whereas the auditory brainstem did not. However, auditory brainstem responses in the regular sound sequence were more consistent across trials than in the irregular sequence. They also found stronger adaptation in the cortex and brainstem of responses to stimuli that preceded omissions than those that followed omissions.
This makes sense. I'm thinking in particular of the observations that William Condon made about neonatal entrainment. That implied brain stem mediation as the auditory cortex is not mature at birth.

Here's the original article:
Lehmann A, Jimena Arias D, Schönwiesner M. Tracing the Neural Basis of Auditory Entrainment. Neuroscience. PMID 27667358 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2016.09.011

Abstract: Neurons in the auditory cortex synchronize their responses to temporal regularities in sound input. This coupling or "entrainment" is thought to facilitate beat extraction and rhythm perception in temporally structured sounds, such as music. As a consequence of such entrainment, the auditory cortex responds to an omitted (silent) sound in a regular sequence. Although previous studies suggest that the auditory brainstem frequency-following response (FFR) exhibits some of the beat-related effects found in the cortex, it is unknown whether omissions of sounds evoke a brainstem response. We simultaneously recorded cortical and brainstem responses to isochronous and irregular sequences of consonant-vowel syllable /da/ that contained sporadic omissions. The auditory cortex responded strongly to omissions, but we found no evidence of evoked responses to omitted stimuli from the auditory brainstem. However, auditory brainstem responses in the isochronous sound sequence were more consistent across trials than in the irregular sequence. These results indicate that the auditory brainstem faithfully encodes short-term acoustic properties of a stimulus and is sensitive to sequence regularity, but does not entrain to isochronous sequences sufficiently to generate overt omission responses, even for sequences that evoke such responses in the cortex. These findings add to our understanding of the processing of sound regularities, which is an important aspect of human cognitive abilities like rhythm, music and speech perception 
KEYWORDS: auditory cortex; electro-encephalography; human brainstem; rhythmic entrainment; stimulus omissions; temporal regularity

Laughter, real and fake

Kate Murphy, The Science of the Fake Laugh, The NYTimes:
Laughter at its purest and most spontaneous is affiliative and bonding. To our forebears it meant, “We’re not going to kill each other! What a relief!” But as we’ve developed as humans so has our repertoire of laughter, unleashed to achieve ends quite apart from its original function of telling friend from foe. Some of it is social lubrication — the warm chuckles we give one another to be amiable and polite. Darker manifestations include dismissive laughter, which makes light of something someone said sincerely, and derisive laughter, which shames.

The thing is, we still have the instinct to laugh when we hear laughter, no matter the circumstances or intent. Witness the contagion of mirthless, forced laughter at cocktail parties. Or the uncomfortable laughter that follows a mean-spirited or off-color joke. Sexual harassers can elicit nervous laughter from victims, which can later be used against them.
Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that people mistake fake for genuine laughter a third of the time, which is probably a low estimate as the fake laughter that subjects heard in the experiment was not produced in natural social situations. While laughing on command is rarely convincing (think of sitcom laugh tracks), “your average person is pretty good at fake laughing in certain circumstances,” said the study’s lead author, Greg Bryant, a cognitive psychologist who studies laughter vocalization and interpretation. “It’s like when people say, ‘I’m not a good liar,’ but everyone is a good liar if they have to be.”
The real deal:
Genuine laughter, real eruptions of joy, are generated by different neural pathways and musculature than so-called volitional laughter. Contrast the sound of someone’s helpless belly laugh in response to something truly amusing to a more throaty “ah-ha-ha,” that might signify agreement or a nasal “eh-heh-heh” when someone might be feeling uneasy. “A fake laugh is produced more from areas used for speech so it has speech sounds in it,” Dr. Bryant said.

There is also a big difference in how you feel after a genuine laugh. It produces a mild euphoria thanks to endorphins released into your system, which research indicates increases our tolerance to pain. Feigned laughter doesn’t have the same feel-good result. In fact, you probably feel sort of drained from having to pretend. Recall your worst blind date.

Thursday, October 20, 2016



More Blues: The British Get Invaded and Uncle Clint Talks Piano

A few days ago I republished my review of segments 1, 2, & 3 of Martin Scorsese’s blues series. Here’s my account of 6 and 7, plus a conclusion in which I point out why this series about the blues, with all its flaws, is preferable to Ken Burns’ fabled series about jazz.

* * * * *

No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you.
— Franz Kafka, “Before the Law”

With “Red, White, and Blues,” in which Mike Figgis tells the story of British blues, and “Piano Blues,” by Clint Eastwood, Scorsese’s series came to an ending that is as strong at its beginning was weak. Eastwood was more generous with the music itself than any of the other directors, though some of his own comments were more sentimental than sage, while Figgis gave us the most artful collection of interviews in the series and some disarmingly powerful blues from one of the masters of the Las Vegas supper circuit.

British Blues Cruise

Figgis anchored his story in a jam session that included Jeff Beck, a logical choice, along with Van “Moondance” Morrison, Lulu (“To Sir With Love”), and Tom “What’s New Pussycat” Jones. The segment opened and closed on this session and returned to it between sequences of interviews and of archival footage.

Figgis began sly and dramatic. Here you are in front of the TV ready for a documentary on the British blues scene. You’ve read the story a thousand times, young British lads listen to blues records, fall in love with the music and BAM!, The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Cream and all invade the USofA in the 1960s and change the history of rock and roll. So who does Figgis put in the first shot, all big and beefy in his leather jacket? Tom Jones. We get a few seconds of him singing along with a recording and Figgis cuts to Van Morrison, who sings a few good choruses and hands it to Peter King, an alto player. That alto did not come floating up the Thames by way of the Mississippi Delta. It came by way of Kansas City and New York City, from the school of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.

We’re into it. Whatever preconceptions were spinning in your brain when the film opened have now been shattered and you’re wondering whether or not Tom Jones can sing the blues. It turns out that he can sing the blues like Sean Connery can act James Bond. But Figgis makes us wait to find that out.

It was all good. All those talking heads. Well framed, expressive faces saying interesting things. Lots of music. And well edited.

I liked the sense of being in the thick of it all. All this music flowed through and into and around Britain in the 1950s, big band, traditional jazz, skiffle, folk and music hall. Then those blues recordings come ashore. Figgis presents the scene through archival footage and through interviews with musicians who were there at the time. The material is edited so as to create the sense of a conversation between the musicians, a feel for how they found the music and one another back in the fifties. Figgis shows us a community at work, gathering itself into being through music.

Imagine for a minute, now, that none of these musicians were around any more and that we’d lost all the relevant recordings of British pop made before 1960 and all the American blues before then. But we have recordings of the Stones and Cream and the Beatles. Where did THAT music come from? It would be a mystery.

That is the situation we face with the blues itself. A great variety of music circulated in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, high culture, low culture, middle culture, horns, guitars, vocals, strings, and piano, big groups, small groups, and soloists. Things didn’t move as fast as they did in Britain in the fifties because we didn't have recordings back then, nor airplanes and radios and TV. But the music nonetheless got around; here and there things fell along certain lines; W. C. Handy heard it and transcribed and published some of it, scholars and journalists heard it and wrote it up, and so forth. Though the time, pace, and place were different, the process was similar to what Figgis shows us in this episode.

I particularly liked the footage showing jammers listening to recordings and playing along. That has been happening ever since recordings have been cheap and plentiful. The literature is full of anecdotes about it, but it was good to see and hear it. It is one thing to hear Tom Jones deliver a full-throated blues, and another to see him work the words along with a recoding while Jeff Beck picks up guitar lines.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Yikes! This is post number 4072


And I hadn't even noticed I'd passed 4000.

2500 is he last milestone I noted, and that was back on July 14, 2014, when I wrote a brief analysis to what I've been posting. Won't do that now. But I don't think my overall range of subjects has changed much since then.

Life as Jamie Knows It @3QD, with some remarks about intelligence

I was half-considering tacking “aka writing about a retard” to the end of my title, right after “3QD”, but the word “retard” is just too ugly and there’s no way of indicating that I’m not serious about it. And yet in a way I am, almost.

Jamie, as you likely know by know, is Jamie Bérubé, who has Down syndrome. His father, Michael, has just written a book about him, Life as Jamie Knows It, and I’ve reviewed the book for 3 Quarks Daily. Writing this review is the first time I have had to actively think about mental disability.

The word is “actively.” Sure, back in secondary school there were “special ed.” classes, and the students in them had educational difficulties. But those classes were somewhere “over there”, so those kids weren’t really a part of my daily life. Beyond that, I am generally aware of the Special Olympics and this that and the other.

Moreover I was already somewhat familiar with Jamie’s story. Michael ran a blog between 2004 and 2010, which I started following late in 2005. Jamie was a frequent topic of conversation. There are stories in Life as Jamie Knows It that I first read on Michael’s blog.

Still, all that is just background. To review Michael’s book I was going to have to think seriously about Jamie, about Down syndrome, and about disability more generally. And then I would have to write words which would appear in public and which I would therefor have to own, as they say. When I asked Michael to have a copy sent to me I didn’t anticipate any problems at all. I knew he was an intelligent man, an incisive thinker, a good writer, and a bit of a wiseguy. I was looking forward to reading the book and writing about it.

But, I hadn’t anticipated Jamie’s art. I noticed that Michael had posted a lot of it online and I started looking through it. Pretty interesting, thought I to myself, why don’t I write a series of posts here at New Savanna as a lead up to the review over there at 3QD? And that’s what I did. The penultimate (aka next to the last) post was about work that Michael termed “geometrics” and I had decided to call “biomorphics.” I concluded that those biomorphic images were interesting indeed. And so I found myself writing:
Does this make Jamie a topologist? No, not really. But it makes it clear that he’s an intelligent human being actively exploring and making sense of the world.
That word “intelligent” brought me up short once I’d typed it. Did I really want to use that word? I asked myself. Yes, I replied, without thinking about it.

And THEN I started thinking.

Ngoma kids perform

Performance @Afro Club (Kasangati)

Click the arrows at the left and right to scroll through the photos.

Kids these days...need to have sword fights




Kids these days...need a place to play

When I was a kid I lived in a suburban neighborhood that was on the border of a semi-rural area. A neighbor up the road had a small wheat field. If I walked a quarter of a mile in one direction I cam to a small wooded ares, but large enough so we could go in there and get lost, build hide-outs and stuff. A mile in another direction there was a much larger and more mysterious wooded area, right next to the mink farm. And I was allowed to roam the neighborhood freely. We all were.

Yes, there were rules. I had to be home for dinner, get my homework done, and get into bed at the proper time. And there were restrictions as to where I could go, restrictions that got loosed as I grew older. And that was true for my friends as well.

I keep reading, though, that that's over, that kids these days are scheduled and regulated in a way I find, well, borderline pathological. Anyhow, the NYTimes addresses this in an interesting story:
The Anti-Helicopter Parent’s Plea: Let Kids Play! 
A Silicon Valley dad decided to test his theories about parenting
by turning his yard into a playground where children can take
physical risks without supervision. Not all of his neighbors were thrilled. 
The whole thing's worth reading. Here's one representative passage:
As part of Mike’s quest for a playborhood, he began doing research and visiting neighborhoods in different parts of the country that he thought might fit his vision. The first place he visited was N Street in Davis, Calif., a cluster of around 20 houses that share land and hold regular dinners together. Children wander around freely, crossing backyards and playing in the collective spaces: Ping-Pong table, pizza oven and community garden. Mike told me the story of Lucy, a toddler adopted from China by a single mom who lived on N Street. When Lucy was 3, her mother died of cancer. But before she died, her mother gave every house a refrigerator magnet with a picture of Lucy on it. While the founders of N Street formally adopted Lucy, the entire community supported her. Mike pointed out that the childhood Lucy was having on N Street may be akin to one she might have enjoyed in a village in rural China, but it was extraordinary in suburban America. Lucy could wander around fearlessly, knowing she had 19 other houses where she could walk right in and expect a snack.

Mike spent some time in the Lyman Place neighborhood in the Bronx, where grandmothers and other residents organized to watch the streets — so dangerous that children were afraid to play outside — and block them off in the summer to create a neighborhood camp, staffed by local teenagers and volunteers. Mike also found his way to Share-It Square in Southeast Portland, Ore., a random intersection that became a community when a local architect mobilized neighbors to convert a condemned house on one corner into a “Kids’ Klubhouse”: a funky open-air structure that features a couch, a message board, a book-exchange box, a solar-powered tea station and toys.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Universality of facial experssions is being questioned

For or more than a century, scientists have wondered whether all humans experience the same basic range of emotions—and if they do, whether they express them in the same way. In the 1870s, it was the central question Charles Darwin explored in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. By the 1960s, emeritus psychologist Paul Ekman, then at the University of California (UC) in San Francisco, had come up with an accepted methodology to explore this question. He showed pictures of Westerners with different facial expressions to people living in isolated cultures, including in Papua New Guinea, and then asked them what emotion was being conveyed. Ekman’s early experiments appeared conclusive. From anger to happiness to sadness to surprise, facial expressions seemed to be universally understood around the world, a biologically innate response to emotion.

That conclusion went virtually unchallenged for 50 years, and it still features prominently in many psychology and anthropology textbooks, says James Russell, a psychologist at Boston College and corresponding author of the recent study. But over the last few decades, scientists have begun questioning the methodologies and assumptions of the earlier studies. [...]

Based on his research, Russell champions an idea he calls “minimal universality.” In it, the finite number of ways that facial muscles can move creates a basic template of expressions that are then filtered through culture to gain meaning. If this is indeed the case, such cultural diversity in facial expressions will prove challenging to emerging technologies that aspire to decode and react to human emotion, he says, such as emotion recognition software being designed to recognize when people are lying or plotting violence.

“This is novel work and an interesting challenge to a tenet of the so-called universality thesis,” wrote Disa Sauter, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, in an email. She adds that she’d like to see the research replicated with adult participants, as well as with experiments that ask people to produce a threatening or angry face, not just interpret photos of expressions. “It will be crucial to test whether this pattern of ‘fear’ expressions being associated with anger/threat is found in the production of facial expressions, since the universality thesis is primarily focused on production rather than perception.”

Late Fall in Liberty State Park




Ethical Criticism and “Darwinian” Literary Study

Angus Fletcher, Another Literary Darwinism, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 40, No. 2, Winter 2014, 450-469.

It opens (450):
There are, Jonathan Kramnick has remarked, just two problems with literary Darwinism: it isn’t literary and it isn’t Darwinism. By allying itself with Evolutionary Psychology, it has not only eliminated most of the nuance from contemporary neo-Darwinism but reduced all literature to stories, taking so little account of literary form that it equates “Pleistocene campfire” tales with Mrs. Dalloway (“ALD,” p. 327).
Most of the article is intellectual history: Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells and the “New Biographers” in the early 20th century. From my point of view it’s all preliminary throat-clearing until very near the end.

What has caught Fletcher’s attention is the interest in behavior (p. 467):
There are no religious commandments or categorical imperatives or natural rights or anything else to give a spine to human life. This state of absence, as the Victorians discovered (and more recent thinkers such as Thomas Nagel have lamented), is unlivable. Because we are participants in a physical world, we must do something, and rather than surrendering us to the blind impulses of nature or the idols of moral idealism Huxley’s literary Darwinism reminds us of a neglected source of practical ethics: behavior. Over the past fifty years, the traditional place of behavior in ethics has been diminished by new trends in both the biological sciences and literary criticism.
Continuing on (p. 468):
To begin with, behavior is purely physical, and so it survives Darwinism’s metaphysical purge untouched. Moreover, as the New Biography demonstrates, the behaviors (or to use a more literary term, the practices) encouraged by literature can foster a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope that Darwin’s theory cannot. Such practices are not absolute or prescriptive — the more we explore the diversity of our literary traditions, the more we recover a library of different possibilities — but they do allow us to transition from a theoretical existentialism into a practical experimentalism. Where raw Darwinism carries us to a state of general tolerance, literature can help us seek the practices that allow us to thrive in our own particular fashion.
And now we get the payoff, ethical criticism (468):
If Darwinism leads toward a negative approach to ethics, and if literature’s role in this ethics is behavioral, then a major focus of literary Darwinism will be to identify literary forms that increase our ethical range by inhibiting intolerant behaviors. Many such behaviors originate in what seem to be permanent features of our brains: our emotional egoism, for example, or our diminished empathy for people of a different phenotype. Nevertheless, these behaviors can be reined in by other areas of our cortex, and if literature could uniquely facilitate such reining in, then it could be claimed as a Darwinian remedy for some of the antipluralist outcomes of natural selection.
And (469):
Where existing cognitive studies of literature have suggested that literature can exploit or improve our existing mental faculties, this behavioral approach to literary Darwinism thus opens the possibility that literary form might liberate us from certain aspects of our evolved nature. That is, instead of being a biological adaptation, literature could help us adapt our biology. This possibility is, of course, speculative. To test it would require intensive collaboration between literary scholars and biologists, and, as Kramnick points out, recent literary Darwinists have done little to foster the mutual respect necessary for such cooperation to occur. Yet here again, Huxley can offer us hope. Rather than displaying a “literary . . . resistance to biology,”84 his version of literary Darwinism clears away Lamarckism, vitalism, and other forms of pseudoscience. And rather than reducing literature to Pleistocene stories, it shows that works such as Eminent Victorians can encourage original ways to respond to our natural condition. Huxley, in short, makes evolution more Darwinian and life more literary, so, unlike the literary Darwinism that inspires Kramnick’s critique, Huxley’s version does not imply a zero-sum contest between aesthetic and biological value. Instead, it does for Darwinism and literature what it did for the warring subfields of evolutionary biology in the 1940s. Revealing them as partners, it urges them to embrace the comic opportunity of life.
Just what this means in practical detail is not at all obvious to me, nor is it to Fletcher. He seems to have some idea that, yes, evolution has bequeathed us a human nature, but we’re not necessarily stuck with it.

I’m with him. My preferred metaphor for thinking about this is that of board games, such as checkers, chess, or Go. Biology provides the board, the game pieces, and the basic rules of the game. But to play a competitive game you need to know much more than those rules. The rules tell you whether or not a move is legal, but they don’t tell you whether or not a move is a good one. That’s a higher kind of knowledge. Call it culture. Culture is the tactics and strategy of the game.

Literature, among other cultural practices, is a compendium of tactical and strategic practices. But a psychology that is going to tell us how those practices are constituted out of, constructed over, the raw stuff of biology will have to be more robust than any psychology currently being employed either by the Darwinians or the cognitivists. It will need the constructive capacities inherent in computational approaches, a matter which I’ve discussed often enough, see e.g. my working paper On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form, or these posts.

Monday, October 17, 2016

High tech partnership to ease public anxiety about computers and robots talking all the jobs

From the NYTimes, Sept 28:
The Partnership on AI, unites Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft in an effort to ease public fears of machines that are learning to think for themselves and perhaps ease corporate anxiety over the prospect of government regulation of this new technology.

The organization has been created at a time of significant public debate about artificial intelligence technologies that are built into a variety of robots and other intelligent systems, including self-driving cars and workplace automation. [...]

The group released eight tenets that are evocative of Isaac Asimov’s original “Three Laws of Robotics,” which appeared in a science fiction story in 1942. The new principles include high-level ideals such as, “We will seek to ensure that A.I. technologies benefit and empower as many people as possible.”

Michelle Obama and the Stealth Transition: Gardens Across America

Just a reminder about the out-going First Lady. Originally posted on 8.31.12.

The way I see it, the smart money is on First Lady Michelle Obama, not to do a Hillary and go for the Big One in a later Presidential Ritual Contest (aka election). No, to do an Eleanor (Roosevelt) and have a major effect on the nation while her husband does the military strut.

How, pray tell, will she do this? you ask. With her garden, says I, with her garden.

Veggies for Health

As you may know, she’s very much interested in gardening, in particular, growing vegetables. She’s set up a garden on the Whitehouse lawn, grown veggies, had them served in the Whitehouse and has recently published a book on gardening and nutrition.

That’s her angle on gardening. Vegetables are good and good for you. They’re essential to a proper diet, and a proper diet is necessary to prevent childhood obesity.

Her interest in and commitment to gardening is deep, predating her husband’s nomination:
"Back then, it was really just the concept of, I wonder if you could grow a garden on the South Lawn?" Michelle Obama says. "If you could grow a garden, it would be pretty visible and maybe that would be the way that we could begin a conversation about childhood health, and we could actually get kids from the community to help us plant and help us harvest and see how their habits changed."

She was a city kid from Chicago's South Side who had never had a garden herself, though her mother recalls a local victory garden created to produce vegetables during World War II. One childhood photo included in the book shows Michelle as an infant in her mother's arms — the resemblance between Marian Robinson in the picture and Michelle as an adult is striking — and another depicts a young Michelle practicing a headstand in the backyard.

... After the election, she broached her idea to start the first vegetable garden on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden in the 1940s.

Since the garden's groundbreaking in 2009 — just two months after the inauguration — she has hosted seasonal waves of students from local elementary schools that help plant the seeds. Groundskeepers and dozens of volunteers weed and tend the garden. Charlie Brandts, a White House carpenter who is a hobbyist beekeeper, has built a beehive a few feet away to pollinate the plants and provide honey that Michelle Obama says "tastes like sunshine."
So, the First Lady has a garden on the Whitehouse lawn and she’s preaching the garden gospel. Good enough.

Gardens in the Transition

The thing is, regardless of why a family or a community decides to grow a vegetable garden, the moment they start doing so, they’re also participating in the Transition Movement. By that I mean the movement started by Rob Hopkins in England and that now has groups all over the world:
The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and "environmental" groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience. They succeed by regeneratively using their local assets, innovating, networking, collaborating, replicating proven strategies, and respecting the deep patterns of nature and diverse cultures in their place. Transition Initiatives work with deliberation and good cheer to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.