Saturday, March 25, 2017

Documentary about Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan is one of my favorite trumpet players. When he was in his early thirties he was shot by his common-law wife. A. O. Scott reviews Kasper Collin's documentary in the NYTimes:
“I Called Him Morgan,” a suave and poignant documentary by Kasper Collin, dusts off the details of Morgan’s life and death and brushes away the sensationalism, too. This is not a lurid true-crime tale of jealousy and drug addiction, but a delicate human drama about love, ambition and the glories of music. Edged with blues and graced with that elusive quality called swing, the film makes generous and judicious use of Morgan’s recordings. The scarcity of film clips and audio of Morgan’s voice is made up for by vivid black-and-white photographs and immortal tracks from the Blue Note catalog.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Department of WTF! Mysteries of memetics edition

Yesterday, with 5,725 vies, this was the most viewed photo at my Flickr site:


I'd uploaded it on August 18, 2012, so it's been online for 4 and a half years, though it reached to top some time ago, I forget just when. It's a good photo. I like it. But I don't really know why it's so popular.

But it's no longer top-dog. At 5730 views, this one is:


I uploaded it on January 14, 2017, a little over two months ago. Obviously enough, it's not a photo, nor is it mine. I forget just where I found it, but I'd uploaded it so I could link it elsewhere on the web.

Of course, there's little mystery about why it's so popular. It's a topical political cartoon that's very relevant to the current situation.

How many more views will it get? Will any of my photos ever get more views than this one? Who knows.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Green Anrky

green anarky2.jpg

Working for 45

Jack Goldsmith has an interesting article at Lawfare: How Hard Is It to Work for President Trump? The problem arises, of course, because Trump spews forth an endless stream of lies, bull shit, and mere exaggerations. Goldsmith notes, "Most senior Executive branch officials see themselves to work for both the President and the nation (or the American people)." With a man like Trump, just how does that go?

Of Comey (FBI) and Rogers (NSA) Goldsmith notes:
...they are both non-political appointees who lead agencies with missions largely independent of the White House. They likely see their jobs as detached from the goings-on in the White House, except to the extent that the White House becomes caught up in the FBI investigation of Russian interference in the election. I also expect that Comey and Rogers believe it is important to stay in their jobs out of commitment to the agencies they serve, and in order to minimize our unconventional President’s damage to their agencies and to national security more generally.
Mattis (Defense) and Kelley (Homeland) are likely similar.

And then we have 45's staff, such as Priebus (Chief of Staff) and McGahn (WH Counsel):
... much of the work of these officials amounts to little more than enabling and protecting the President, personally and politically. That becomes a problem when the enabling and protecting comes in the service of mendacity or in a way inextricable from mendacity.

A good deal of the daily work by these officials in the White House, in other words, is a lower-key version of the work of Sean Spicer, who compromises himself daily in order to prop up the president’s lies and destructive actions. I imagine that these officials have the hardest time telling themselves (and others) a story about why their services are needed to minimize the damage Trump is causing, for these are the officials whose jobs are largely devoted to empowering the President...These jobs will likely grow harder and harder if the Trump presidency continues to accomplish so little, especially if the FBI investigations begin to absorb White House political and legal attention. And these are the jobs about which it will be harder to explain later why one continued in the job after it was clear that the President one worked so hard to support was so unworthy of his office.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Outrageous red

green plants orange mix.jpg

On the nature of biology as an intellectual enterprise

Ashutosh Jogalekar, Why Technology Won't Save Biology, over at 3 Quarks Daily:
There have been roughly six revolutions in biology during the last five hundred years or so that brought us to this stage. The first one was the classification of organisms into binomial nomenclature by Linneaus. The second was the invention of the microscope by Hooke, Leeuwenhoek and others. The third was the discovery of the composition of cells, in health and disease, by Schwann and Schleiden, a direct beneficiary of the use of the microscope. The fourth was the formulation of evolution by natural selection by Darwin. The fifth was the discovery of the laws of heredity by Mendel. And the sixth was the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson, Crick and others. The sixth [seventh?], ongoing revolution could be said to be the mapping of genomes and its implications for disease and ecology. Two other minor revolutions should be added to this list; one was the weaving of statistics into modern genetics, and the second was the development of new imaging techniques like MRI and CT scans.

These six revolutions in biology resulted from a combination of new ideas and new tools.
However, today:
In one way biology has become a victim of its success. Today we can sequence genomes much faster than we can understand them. We can measure electrochemical signals from neurons much more efficiently than we can understand their function. We can model the spread of populations of viruses and populations much more rapidly than we can understand their origins or interactions. Moore's Law may apply to computer chips and sequencing speeds, but it does not apply to human comprehension. In the words of the geneticist Sydney Brenner, biology in the heyday of the 50s used to be "low input, low throughput, high output"; these days it's "low input, high throughput, no output". What Brenner is saying is that compared to the speed with which we can now gather and process biological data, the theoretical framework which goes into understanding data as well as the understanding which come out from the other end are severely impoverished. What is more serious is a misguided belief that data equals understanding. The philosopher of technology Evgeny Morozow calls this belief "technological solutionism", the urge to use a certain technology to address a problem simply because you can.
Reductionism worked well for physics and chemistry, but not so effectively for biology.
Emergence is what thwarts the understanding of biological systems through technology, because most technology used in the biological sciences is geared toward the reductionist paradigm. Technology has largely turned biology into an engineering discipline, and engineering tells us how to build something using its constituent parts, but it doesn't always tell us why that thing exists and what relationship it has to the wider world. The microscope observes cells, x-ray diffraction observes single DNA molecules, sequencing observes single nucleotides, and advanced MRI observes single neurons. As valuable as these techniques are, they will not help us understand the top-down pressures on biological systems that lead to changes in their fundamental structures.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tracery and the city


Style Matters: Intellectual Style

This is another repost from The Valve (check out the discussion), lightly revised. The difference between Continental and Anglo-American philosophy is, in part, sylistic in the sense of this post, which is about how an individual thinker likes to think. I originally posted this to New Savanna in June of 2012 and I'm bumping it to the top in view of my recent discussion of critical cognitivism (See second addendum).
March 18, 2017: And yet again. These matters are much on my mind these days, cf. my recent post on Derrida and Writerly Criticism.
When, some 35 years ago, I turned toward the cognitive sciences and away from structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction, and the rest, the turn was driven as much by intellectual style as by epistemological conviction. No, I didn’t have much affection for the predicate calculus, which I learned in a course in symbolic logic (it fulfilled my math requirement), but I did like the intellectual style I found in linguistics books, the sense of rigor and explicit order. I also liked the diagrams. A lot.

There were large sections in my dissertation—"Cognitive Science and Literary Theory"—where the major burden of the argument was in the diagrams. I’d work out the diagrams first and then write prose commentary on them. That modus operandi pleases me a great deal. In the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil (the book had some diagrams, but not many) I refer to my thinking in that book as speculative engineering. I like that term: speculative engineering.

There are other intellectual styles, obviously. Some very different from my diagrammatic and speculative engineering style.

Take New Historicism (in literary criticism) for instance. I’ve not read much in that vein, but I’ve read some, and some of that I’ve found quite interesting and delightful. If New Historicism is, as I’ve been told, the closest thing literary studies currently has to a dominant methodological practice, I can’t help but thinking that is as much about intellectual style as about epistemological conviction.

It is, or can be, a very writerly style. One gathers a pile of stories, vignettes, and passages from various writers, literary and not, and arranges them more according to rhythm, surprise, and repose than for logical progression and finality — though such matters come into play as well. It is a style that can be a bit like literature itself, at least prose fiction, though one can sneak in some lyrical passages here and there, and maybe even a bit of insistent rhythm.

* * * * *

I’ve got two suspicions about style matters:

1.) In anyone’s intellectual ecology, style preferences are deeper and have more inertia than explicit epistemological beliefs.

2.) Some of the pigheadedness that often crops up in discussions about humanities vs. science is grounded in stylistic preference that gets rationalized as epistemological belief.

* * * * *

Diagrams (Addendum 2012)

On the importance of diagrams it is worth recalling a remark by the linguist Sydney Lamb about the importance of visual notation (Pathways of the Brain, 1999, p. 274): “. . . it is precisely because we are talking about ordinary language that we need to adopt a notation as different from ordinary language as possible, to keep us from getting lost in confusion between the object of description and the means of description.”

Note that Franco Moretti has made a similar remark with respect to "distant" reading, where one frequently deals with charts and diagrams.

Discursive Thought (Addendum 2015)

I believe that one reason that literary critics have been assimilating the newer psychologies in the way that they have, which is discursively, is that that is how they like to think. It's not merely that they haven't been trained in the experimental or computational conceptual ways of the newer psychologies, but that they have no real desire for such training because they don't particularly like those conceptual styles. They are thus between a rock and a hard place.

They went into literary studies because they liked to think discursively and had little or no interest in thinking in diagrams, computer simulations, or experimental design. Literary critics of an older generation didn't have that problem when the turned to psychoanalysis, Marxism, phenomenology, and so forth. Those are discursive disciplines. But these newer psychologies, NOT.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Red Lights at 12th Street in Hoboken


Numbers as cultural tools

Caleb Everett: My suspicion is that there were many, many times in history when people realized in an ephemeral way that this quantity is the same as that quantity — that this five, in terms of their fingers, is the same as that five, in terms of goats or sheep. It’s no coincidence that many unrelated languages have a numerical structure built around 10 or that the word for five is often the same as the word for hand. Once someone else heard you referring to something as a “hand” of things, it became a cognitive tool that could be passed around and preserved within a particular culture.

Craig Fehrman: Once a particular culture has numbers, what does that allow?

CE: The way our cultures look, and the kinds of technology we have, would be radically different without numbers. Large nation-states aren’t really possible without numbers. Large agricultural societies aren’t possible, either.

Let’s say that two agricultural states in Mesopotamia, more than 5,000 and maybe as many as 8,000 years ago, wanted to trade with each other. To trade precisely, and we can see this in the archaeological record, they needed to quantify. So they cooked up these small clay tokens, with each token representing a certain quantity of a certain commodity like grain or beer. The tokens were then cooked inside a clay vessel that could be transported and cracked open. It was essentially a contract — you owe me this many whatever.
If a culture lacks a number system:
CE: [...] And a few languages and other communications systems, like the Pirahã’s in Brazil, have only imprecise words like hói [one or a couple] and hoí [a few]. Many experiments have shown that without numbers, the Pirahã struggle with basic quantitative tasks. They have a hard time matching one set of objects to another set of objects — lining up, say, eight spools of thread next to eight balloons. It gets even harder when they have to recall an exact quantity later.

It’s important to stress that these people are totally normal and totally intelligent; if you took a Pirahã person and raised them in a Portuguese home, they would learn numbers just fine. But without recourse to a number system, they struggle with counting. It’s an example of how powerful these cognitive tools can be.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Universal emotions no more?

Lisa Barrett just published a book, How Emotions Are made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Tyler Cowen just published his reactions to to it, including:
2. According to Barrett, the expressions of human emotions are better understood as being socially constructed and filtered through cultural influences: “”Are you saying that in a frustrating, humiliating situation, not everyone will get angry so that their blood boils and their palms sweat and their cheeks flush?” And my answer is yes, that is exactly what I am saying.” (p.15) In reality, you are as an individual an active constructor of your emotions. Imagine winning a big sporting event, and not being sure whether to laugh, cry, scream, jump for joy, pump your fist, or all of the above. No one of these is the “natural response.”

3. Immigrants eventually acculturate emotionally into their new societies, or at least one hopes: “Our colleague Yulia Chentsova Dutton from Russia says that her cheeks ached for an entire year after moving to the United States because she never smiled so much.” (p.149)

3d. From her NYT piece: “My lab analyzed over 200 published studies, covering nearly 22,000 test subjects, and found no consistent and specific fingerprints in the body for any emotion. Instead, the body acts in diverse ways that are tied to the situation.”
So I'm publishing these remarks atop this old post from June 2013.

Here's a link to a website of supplemental information that accompanies Barrett's book.

* * * * *

Paul Ekman became famous for studies showing that humans experience a relatively small number of emotions that are the same across cultures. Psychologist Lisa Barrett thinks he's wrong. From an article about her work in The Boston Magazine:
... my emotions aren’t actually emotions until I’ve taught myself to think of them that way. Without that, I have only a meaningless mishmash of information about what I’m feeling. In other words, as Barrett put it to me, emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.
H/t Daniel Lende, who also published these links:

Lisa Barrett (2006), Are Emotions Natural Kinds? Perspectives in Psychological Science.

Lisa Barrett (2006), Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review.

Kristen A. Lindquist, Tor D. Wager, Hedy Kober, Eliza Bliss-Moreau and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2012), The brain basis of emotion: A meta-analytic reviewBehavioral and Brain Sciences.
Abstract: Researchers have wondered how the brain creates emotions since the early days of psychological science. With a surge of studies in affective neuroscience in recent decades, scientists are poised to answer this question. In this target article, we present a meta-analytic summary of the neuroimaging literature on human emotion. We compare the locationist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories consistently and specifically correspond to distinct brain regions) with the psychological constructionist approach (i.e., the hypothesis that discrete emotion categories are constructed of more general brain networks not specific to those categories) to better understand the brain basis of emotion. We review both locationist and psychological constructionist hypotheses of brain–emotion correspondence and report meta-analytic findings bearing on these hypotheses. Overall, we found little evidence that discrete emotion categories can be consistently and specifically localized to distinct brain regions. Instead, we found evidence that is consistent with a psychological constructionist approach to the mind: A set of interacting brain regions commonly involved in basic psychological operations of both an emotional and non-emotional nature are active during emotion experience and perception across a range of discrete emotion categories.
Paul Ekman and Daniel Cordaro (2010), What Is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic. Emotion Review.
Abstract: are discrete, automatic responses to universally shared, culture-specific and individual-specific events. The emotion terms, such as anger, fear, etcetera, denote a family of related states sharing at least 12 characteristics, which distinguish one emotion family from another, as well as from other affective states. These affective responses are preprogrammed and involuntary, but are also shaped by life experiences.
Full articles are behind a pay wall.

Comment: I've known of Ekman's work for some time, and liked it But I have no deep investment in it; that is, I'm not committed to any ideas that depend on the existence of a small number of universal emotions (though my advocacy of Manfred Clynes might suggest otherwise). Barrett's work sounds plausible on the face of it, but I've not read her technical papers.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Journey to 3Tops: Indiana SLuGS and the Land that Time Forgot

Here's a piece from several years ago. Now that I'm involved in The Bergen Arches Project I've decided to bump it to the top of the queue. The graffiti 'landscape" has changed since then, and I've made some notations about that. "WAAGNFNP" is, of course, the We Are All Nuclear Fireball Now Party, which I've written about a bit earlier, and 3Tops is the Party's enforcer.
About two weeks ago (I'm writing this on 23 July 2007) I was checking my Flickr account to see if anyone had commented on any of my photos. I hit paydirt. One PLASMA SLuGS (red ribbon for WAR} had made the following comment on one of my graffiti photographs: “please if u dont mind tell me where n how to get here.” Bingo!

As some of you party loyalists may know, I've been photographing local graffiti since last fall. The visage of our fine and noble 3Tops is, in fact, one of the pieces I'd found, not to mention other WAAGNFNP notables, such as Toothy. Graffits, however, is generally illegal, and the people who paint them don't leave contact information on them. Thus, while I now have hundreds, thousands even, of photographs of graffiti within a mile or so of my apartment, I don't know who painted them. And, since I have no roots in the area, I've got no social network through which I can track them down.

That's one of the reason I'd started posting my photos to Flickr. I figured that some of the writers (a term of art) would see them and perhaps, one day, one of them would contact me about them. SLuGS is the first.

Of course, I told him where the picture was taken - in Jersey City, about a mile in from the Holland Tunnel near the old Long Dock Tunnel. I also offered to take him on a tour of the local graffiti. He took me up on my offer and showed up that Sunday afternoon with a woman he introduced as his wife, a backpack full of spray paint, and a Canon single-lens reflex camera. I revved up Google Earth and showed them where we were, where the graffiti is, and off we went, with the intention of going into the Erie Cut.

On the way there SLuGS did a little painting, with both his wife and I snapping pictures:

Still there, though faded a bit.
That's the SLuG, his identifying mark that he uses instead of the name that most writers use. It's painted on the base of one of the columns supporting I78 as it comes down off the Jersey Heights (or the Jersey Palisades) and feeds into the Holland Tunnel. He's done thousands of these here and there, mostly I'd guess in the New York City area, but other places as well. He's been to Amsterdam and he's made cooperative arrangements to get the PLASMA SLuG up all over.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The role of Navajo women in the early semiconductor industry

I learned that from 1965-1975 the Fairchild Corporation’s Semiconductor Division operated a large integrated circuit manufacturing plant in Shiprock, New Mexico, on a Navajo reservation. During this time the corporation was the largest private employer of Indian workers in the U.S. The circuits that the almost entirely female Navajo workers produced were used in devices such as calculators, missile guidance systems, and other early computing devices. [...] How and why did the most advanced semiconductor manufacturer in the world build a state of the art electronics assembly plant on a Navajo reservation in 1965? The short answer is: cheap, plentiful, skillful workers, and tax benefits. A 1969 Fairchild News Release explains that the plant was “the culmination of joint efforts of the Navajo People, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A), and Fairchild.” Navajo leadership helped to push this project forward; Raymond Nakai, chairman of the Navajo Nation from 1963 to 1971, and the self-styled first “modern” Navajo leader, was instrumental in bringing Fairchild to Shiprock. He spoke fervently about the necessity of transforming the Navajo as a “modern” Indian tribe, and what better way to do so than to put its members to work making chips, potent signs of futurity that were no bigger than a person’s fingernail? [...]

The idea that Navajo weavers are ideally suited, indeed hard-wired, to craft circuit designs onto either yarn or metal appeals to a romantic notion of what Indians are and the role that they play in U.S. histories of technology.

This experiment in bringing the high tech electronics industry to the Navajo Reservation at Shiprock ended abruptly. In 1975, protesters associated with the American Indian Movement occupied and shut down the plant, demanding better conditions for workers. Indeed, the industry had experienced a slow down and some workers had been laid off. Though this was part of a national trend and not unique to the Shiprock plant, given the national social context of protest against racism and civil rights violations, it is not surprising that this occupation followed on the heels of AIM’s stand-off at Wounded Knee and the occupation of Alcatraz in California. The protesters viewed the plant as a continuation of the exploitation of native people, and they were correct that the Shiprock area had suffered from economic hardship for many years, hardship that was directly related to the long-standing disempowerment and impoverishment of the Navajo. It was difficult for them to perceive these layoffs as anything but more of the same. The protesters left after a week, but by then Fairchild had already decided to close the plant permanently, focusing instead on its operations in Asia.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why we'll never be able to build technology for Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication

Thought I'd bump this one to the top of the queue. It's from many 2013.

* * * * *

Would it be possible, some time in the unpredictable future, for people to have direct brain-to-brain communication, perhaps using some amazing nanotechnology that would allow massive point-to-point linkage between brains without shredding them? Sounds cool, no? Alas, I don’t think it will be possible, even with that magical nanotech. Here’s some old notes in which I explore the problem.

* * * * *

My basic point, of course, is the brains coupled through music-making are linked as directly and intimately as computers communicating through a network (an argument I made in Chapters 2 and 3 of Beethoven’s Anvil, and variously HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE). And, like networked computers, networked brains are subject to constraints. In the human case the effect of those constrains is that the collective computing space can be no larger than the computing space of a single unconstrained brain. This is true no matter how many brains are so coupled, despite the fact that these coupled brains have many more computing elements (i.e. neurons) than a single brain has.

The explanatory problem, as I see it, is that we tend to think of brains as consisting of a lot of elements. Thus, an effective connection between brains should consist of an element-to-element, neuro-to-neuron, hook-up, no? Compared to that, music seems pretty diffuse, though there’s no doubt that, somehow, it works.

So, let’s take a ploy from science fiction, direct neural coupling. I’ve seen this ploy used for man-machine communication (by e.g. Samuel Delaney) and surely someone has used it for human-to-human communication (perhaps mediated by a machine hub). Let’s try to imagine how this might work.

The first problem is simply one of physical technique. Neurons are very small and very many. How do we build a connector that can hook up with 10,000,000 distinctly different neurons without destroying the brain? We use Magic, that’s what we do. Let’s just assume it’s possible: Shazzaayum! It’s done.

Given our Magic-Mega-Point-to-Point (MMPTP) coupling, how do we match the neurons in one brain to those in another? For each strand in this cable is going to run from one neuron to another. If our nervous system were like that of C. elegans (an all but microscopic worm), there would be no problem. For that nervous system is very small (302 neurons I believe) and each neuron has a unique identity. It would thus be easy to match neurons in different individuals of C. elegans. But human brains are not like that. Individual neurons do not have individual identities. There is no way to create a one-to-one match the neurons in one brain with those in another; two brains don’t even have the same number of neurons much less a scheme allowing for matching identities. In this respect, neurons are like hairs, and unlike fingers and toes, where it’s easy to match big toe to big toe, index finger to index finger, and so forth.

So, that’s one problem, how to match the neurons in two brains. About all I can see to do is to match neurons on the basis of location at, say, the millimeter level of granularity. Perhaps we choose 10M or 100M neurons in the corpus callosum and just link them up. There’s another problem: How does a brain tell whether or not a given neural impulse comes from it or from the other brain? If it can’t make the distinction, how can communication take place?

What, then, happens when we finally couple two people through our wonderful future-tech MMPTP? The neurons are not going to correspond in a rigorous way and they’re not going know what’s coming from within vs. outside. In that situation I would imagine that, at beast, each person would a bunch of noise.