Sunday, August 20, 2017

Color term salience in cultural evolution

David G. Hays, Enid Margolis, Raoul Naroll, Dale Revere Perkins, Color Term Salience. American Anthropologist, 74:1107-1121, 1972. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00050
Abstract: Eleven focal colors are named by basic color terms in many languages. The most salient colors (black, white, and perhaps red) are named in all languages; the least salient of the set are named in fewer languages. Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution; with brevity of expression, as measured by phonemic length of basic color terms; with frequency of use, as measured by frequency of basic color terms in literary languages; and with frequency of mention in ethnographic literature. None of these correlations are established in the pioneer study of Berlin and Kay (1969), a study whose defects are well exposed by Durbin (1972) and Wescott (1970). The first two were documented respectively in Naroll (1970) and Durbin (1972); the last two are documented here. These four correlations independently support the Berlin-Kay color salience theory. They furnish a sound basis for further research on color term salience in particular and indeed on salience phenomena in general. We speculate that salience may be an important general principle of cultural evolution.
Consider this finding: "Salience correlates with earliness of introduction, as measured by a scale of social evolution". What that means is that less complex societies (as measured by one of the standard indexes, Marsh's socially complexity scale) have fewer basic color terms than more complex ones. Why?

Urban periodicity, with shadows

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New Savanna: How're we doing?

Last week I reported that New Savanna broke 10K hits per day for the first time. Was that a fluke, or an emerging trend? It's too early to tell.

Here's how traffic looked for the past month:

Aug-19-17-month 8PM

That peak was Friday a week ago, at 11,109 hits. From there it's steadily downhill to this last Friday, at 4,411. But yesterday it went up to 8,039. At the moment, 8:07 AM Sunday the 20th, the count's at 4,305, which is high for this time of day. How high will it go? How will the count track over the next week?

Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Water: There's an image of the sun in every drop

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Creativity through the life cycle

Writing in the NYTimes, Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths, report the results of a study involve people of various ages: 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers; 6- to 11-year-olds; 12- to 14-year-old teenagers; and adults. They presented these groups with two problems, one involving a physical machine and one involving a social situation.
When it came to explaining the physical machine, the pattern was straightforward. The preschoolers were most likely to come up with the creative, unusual explanation. The school-age children were somewhat less creative. And there was a dramatic drop at adolescence. Both the teenagers and the adults were the most likely to stick with the obvious explanation even when it didn’t fit the data.

But there was a different pattern when it came to the social problems. Once again the preschoolers were more likely to give the creative explanation than were the 6-year-olds or adults. Now, however, the teenagers were the most creative group of all. They were more likely to choose the unusual explanation than were either the 6-year-olds or the adults.
In explaining these results the introduce a distinction between exploitation and exploration:
When we face a new problem, we adults usually exploit the knowledge about the world we have acquired so far. We try to quickly find a pretty good solution that is close to the solutions we already have. On the other hand, exploration — trying something new — may lead us to a more unusual idea, a less obvious solution, a new piece of knowledge. But it may also mean that we waste time considering crazy possibilities that will never work, something both preschoolers and teenagers have been known to do.
This leads to:
Childhood and adolescence may, at least in part, be designed to resolve the tension between exploration and exploitation. Those periods of our life give us time to explore before we have to face the stern and earnest realities of grown-up life. Teenagers may no longer care all that much about how the physical world works. But they care a lot about exploring all the ways that the social world can be organized. And that may help each new generation change the world.
About the idea that each new generation sets out to change the world, isn't that a relatively recent idea?

Here's the original research paper: Alison Gopnik, Shaun O’Grady, Christopher G. Lucas et al. Changes in cognitive flexibility and hypothesis search across human life history from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Published online before print July 25, 2017, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1700811114. PNAS July 25, 2017 vol. 114 no. 30 7892-7899.
Abstract: How was the evolution of our unique biological life history related to distinctive human developments in cognition and culture? We suggest that the extended human childhood and adolescence allows a balance between exploration and exploitation, between wider and narrower hypothesis search, and between innovation and imitation in cultural learning. In particular, different developmental periods may be associated with different learning strategies. This relation between biology and culture was probably coevolutionary and bidirectional: life-history changes allowed changes in learning, which in turn both allowed and rewarded extended life histories. In two studies, we test how easily people learn an unusual physical or social causal relation from a pattern of evidence. We track the development of this ability from early childhood through adolescence and adulthood. In the physical domain, preschoolers, counterintuitively, perform better than school-aged children, who in turn perform better than adolescents and adults. As they grow older learners are less flexible: they are less likely to adopt an initially unfamiliar hypothesis that is consistent with new evidence. Instead, learners prefer a familiar hypothesis that is less consistent with the evidence. In the social domain, both preschoolers and adolescents are actually the most flexible learners, adopting an unusual hypothesis more easily than either 6-y-olds or adults. There may be important developmental transitions in flexibility at the entry into middle childhood and in adolescence, which differ across domains.

Deliberate cultural engineering?

Anthony Biglan and Dennis D. Embry. A Framework for Intentional Cultural Change. Published in final edited form as: J Contextual Behav Sci. 2013 October 15; 2(3-4): . doi:10.1016/j.jcbs.2013.06.001.
Abstract: We present a framework for a pragmatic science of cultural evolution. It is now possible for behavioral science to systematically influence the further evolution of cultural practices. As this science develops, it may become possible to prevent many of the problems affecting human wellbeing. By cultural practices, we refer to everything that humans do, above and beyond instinctual or unconditioned behaviors: not only art and literature, but also agriculture, manufacturing, recreation, war making, childrearing, science—everything. We can analyze cultural practices usefully in terms of the incidence and prevalence of individual behavior and group and organization actions. An effective science of intentional cultural evolution must guide efforts to influence the incidence and prevalence of individuals’ behaviors and the actions of groups and organizations. In this paper, we briefly sketch advances in scientific understanding of the influences on individual behavior. Then we describe principles that could guide efforts to influence groups and organizations. Finally, we discuss legitimate concerns about the use and misuse of a science for intentional cultural change.

Red, white, and green

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Trump is a Nazi in spirit...

if not in historical fact.

Timothy Snyder, "The Test of Nazism That Trump Failed", The New York Times:
“No. 1, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life. No. 2, racism, the least racist person.” So the president said at a news conference in February. These words left me uneasy. A moment ago, as I was looking at photographs of young men in Charlottesville, Va., who were from my home state, Ohio, and thinking about the message “Heil Hitler” on the T-shirt that one wore, it dawned on me why.

I spent years studying the testimonies of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and the recollections of their rescuers. When the rescuers were asked why they did what they did, they usually avoided the question. If they ventured a reply, it was simply to say that they did what anyone would have done. Historians who read sources develop intuitions about the material. The intuition I developed was that people who bragged about rescuing Jews had generally not done so; they were, in fact, more likely to be anti-Semites and racists. Rescuers almost never boast. [...]

Until we have been tested, there is no sense in boasting of our goodness; afterward, there is no need. After Charlottesville, President Trump faced an easy test, and failed.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Mode & Behavior 1: Sonnet 129

I'm bumping this to the top of the queue because it's useful in an argument I want to make about the importance of descriptive literary criticism to the sciences of man. 
* * * * * 
Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called "shameful." Their condition was different before sin. . . . because not yet did lust move those members without the will's consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man. For they were not created blind, as the unenlightened vulgar fancy; . . . Their eyes, therefore were open, but were not open to this, that is to say, were not observant so as to recognize what was conferred upon them by the garment of grace, for they had no consciousness of their members warring against their will. But when they were stripped of this grace, that their disobedience might be punished by fit retribution, there began in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.
— St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 14, Chapter 17.
This is the first in a series of posts about the concept of behavioral mode that David Hays and I adopted (and further developed) from one of the grand old men of neuroscience, Walter McCulloch. Rather than start from McCulloch, I want to motivate the concept by discussing one of the best-known and most discussed sonnets in the English language, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129, “The expense of spirit.” The discussion is revised and adapted from two by now ancient papers of mine, “Lust in Action: An Abstraction” (1981) and “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self” (1993), and from an old post, Emotion Recollected in Tranquility. You might also want to look at my article, First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction, which also talks about the neurochemical dynamic I discuss in this post.

Here’s the sonnet, with modernized spelling:
1 The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
2 Is lust in action, and till action, lust
3 Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
4 Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
5 Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight,
6 Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
7 Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
8 On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
9 Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
10 Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
11 A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,
12 Before, a joy proposed, behind, a dream.
13   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
14   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
Let’s set the final couplet aside for a moment and consider only the first twelve lines. These direct our attention back and forth over the following sequence of actions and mental states:
Desire: Protagonist becomes consumed with sexual desire and purses the object of that desire using whatever means are necessary: "perjur'd, murderous, bloody . . . not to trust" (ll. 3-4).

Consummation: Protagonist gets his way, having "a bliss in proof" (l. 11)

Shame: Desire satisfied, the protagonist is consumed with guilt: "despisèd straight" (l. 5), "no sooner had/ Past reason hated" (ll. 6-7).
Just to solidify the point, let’s look at some lines. Line 4 looks at Desire (“not to trust”), then line 5 evokes Consummation followed by Shame. Line 6 begins in Desire then moves to Consummation, followed by Shame at the beginning of line 7, whose second half begins a simile derived from hunting. Now line 10, which begins by pointing to Shame, then to Consummation, then to Desire, and concludes be characterizing the whole sordid business as “extreme.”

The poem’s final couplet asserts, in effect, that reason is powerless in this situation. Knowing that rancid meat can make you ill will prevent most people from eating rancid meat, but the knowledge that sexual desire will lead you to guilt and disgust is not powerful enough to prevent you from walking to the trap.

The question I want to ask is: Why, why is reason powerless? How could it be that foreknowledge is powerless? One might offer the observation that, when one is in the pursuit of sex, one simply doesn’t think about the guilt-driven aftermath. Accepting that as true, it explains nothing. Why does sexual pursuit make it difficult or even impossible to imagine consequent guilt and recrimination? That’s the question.

Friday Fotos: Some varieties of the horizontal

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The rhetoric of interpretation in literary criticism

This is a follow-up to my post, Description, Interpretation, Explanation, and Evaluation as Rhetorical Roles in Literary Criticism [#DH]. I want to take another crack at characterizing the role of interpretation in literary criticism, and in contrast to the roles of description, explanation, and evaluation. I’m thinking something like this: The purpose of interpretation is to translate one’s sense of a literary text into discursive prose.

Why the word “sense”? I don’t want to use “read” (which is over-used in literary criticism) or “experience”, which doesn’t seem quite right. Encounter? Engagement? No better than “sense” and perhaps not as good.

Notice also the use of “translate”. Literary critics and philosophers have made much of the difference between literary texts and ordinary texts. A great deal of attention has been given over to attempts to define the nature of literary texts as opposed to non-literary texts, not always with obvious success. Yet, the feeling persists that there is a difference and that critics must do something about that difference. What they do is write interpretive criticism. And that is an act of translation, a translation from one mode of being, if you will, to another.

So, we now have:
Description sets the terms in which a phenomenon is introduced into discourse and presented for investigation through any of the other three roles.

Interpretation is the process of translating one’s sense of the text’s meaning into discursive prose.

Explanation links description of texts to psychological, neural, and social mechanisms.

Evaluation is the process of relating literary texts to vital human interests. Typically evaluation is based on interpreted meaning.
The distinction between description and interpretation is often fuzzy. In thinking in terms of roles, however, it isn’t necessary to assign a given statement (of whatever length) to one role or another. It can play both roles.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Alone in the Sky: 432 Park Ave., Manhattan

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In defense of Freud

George Prochnik reviews Frederick Crews, Freud: The Making of an Illusion, in the NYTimes. Crews, as you may know, is a literary critic who was a Freudian early in his career, but then decided that psychoanalysis was deeply mistaken. He has since devoted considerable time and effort to debunking it.

From Prochnik's review:
Here is a fascinating conundrum: The creator of a scientifically delegitimized blueprint of the human mind and of a largely discontinued psychotherapeutic discipline retains the cultural capital of history’s greatest playwright and the erstwhile Son of God.

Crews is right that the matter demands further investigation, but this is not the book he has written. Instead “Freud: The Making of an Illusion” focuses on the man — specifically how a reflective young scientist with high ambitions and gifted mentors lost perspective on his “wild hunches,” covered up his errors and created “an international cult of personality.” In practice, this translates into 700-plus pages of Freud mangling experiments, shafting loved ones, friends, teachers, colleagues, patients and ultimately, God help us, swindling humanity at large. Here we have Freud the liar, cheat, incestuous child molester, woman hater, money-worshiper, chronic plagiarizer and all-around nasty nut job. This Freud doesn’t really develop, he just builds a rap sheet.

There is value in Crews’s having synthesized the full roster of Freud’s blunders between 1884 and 1900, the period his book concentrates on. Almost all of this material has been covered before, but not compiled in one volume — and Crews has brought a new level of detail to some of these accounts.
However:
Crews is so invested in denying Freud primacy for any of the ideas associated with psychoanalysis that have retained a jot of credibility, and offers such a paucity of larger sociohistorical context for a study of this scale, that in reading his account it is easy to imagine humanity’s understanding of sexuality and psychology as such was advancing quite admirably until Freud came along and thrust us all into the lurid dungeon of his own ugly obsessions. Stefan Zweig’s account of sexual life in pre-Freud Vienna provides a different perspective: “The fear of everything physical and natural dominated the whole people, from the highest to the lowest with the violence of an actual neurosis,” Zweig wrote in his autobiography. Young women “were hermetically locked up under the control of the family, hindered in their free bodily as well as intellectual development. The young men were forced to secrecy and reticence by a morality which fundamentally no one believed or obeyed.” The cruelty of this social paradigm was equally pernicious across the Atlantic, contemporary observers noted, where New England’s code of civilized mores was often crippling for women and morbidly confusing for men.

By identifying sexual desire as a universal drive with endlessly idiosyncratic objects determined by individual experiences and memories, Freud, more than anyone, not only made it possible to see female desire as a force no less powerful or valid than male desire; he made all the variants of sexual proclivity dance along a shared erotic continuum. In doing so, Freud articulated basic conceptual premises that reduced the sway of experts who attributed diverse sexual urges to hereditary degeneration or criminal pathology. His work has allowed many people to feel less isolated and freakish in their deepest cravings and fears.
And so:
The idea that large parts of our mental life remain obscure or even entirely mysterious to us; that we benefit from attending to the influence of these depths upon our surface selves, our behaviors, language, dreams and fantasies; that we can sometimes be consumed by our childhood familial roles and even find ourselves re-enacting them as adults; that our sexuality might be as ambiguous and multifaceted as our compendious emotional beings and individual histories — these core conceits, in the forms they circulate among us, are indebted to Freud’s writings. Now that we’ve effectively expelled Freud from the therapeutic clinic, have we become less neurotic? With that baneful “illusion” gone, and with all our psychopharmaceuticals and empirically grounded cognitive therapy techniques firmly in place, can we assert that we’ve advanced toward some more rational state of mental health than that enjoyed by our forebears in the heyday of analysis? Indeed, with a commander in chief who often seems to act entirely out of the depths of a dark unconscious, we might all do better to read more, not less, of Freud.
As you may know, I continue to find psychoanalytic ideas useful, as I assert in Neural Weather, an Informal Defense of Psychoanalytic Ideas. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I read John Bowlby's Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1. Attachment while it was still in typescript. I was guided in this by Mary Ainsworth, who had studied with Bowlby. In that work Bowlby began reconstructing (some) psychoanalytic ideas using ideas from systems theory (Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, Plans and the Structure of Behavior, 1960) and observations from ethology. That seemed to me to be the way to go, and still does: reconstruct the ideas in contemporary terms. That project is on-going.

Zipping along now

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

NCIS, boundary issues: terrorism, sexual harassment, and rambling on

As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been watching a lot of NCIS and wondering why it’s perhaps the most popular show on network TV. It’s a crime show, and crime shows have a long and deep history on television, in the movies, and in fiction. What are such shows about? Abstractly considered, they’re about a boundary, the boundary between actions that legitimate and those that are not. Criminals are those who transgress that boundary in some way and police are those who restore the boundary by catching criminals.

Moreover, NCIS came on the air in September of 2003, two years after 9/11. And 9/11, of course, put terrorism at the top of America’s attention vector. What is terrorism but a specific class of boundary violations. While ordinary criminal activity is mostly undertaken for the private benefit of the criminals, terrorism is done to damage the body politic, to make citizens feel that they are not safe. Moreover, the bombing of the World Trade Center was done by foreign nationals and so violates the nation’s territorial integrity.

A good many NCIS episodes are about terrorists. I don’t have a count, but let’s say it’s a third of them. When the NCIS agents apprehend a terrorist they not only restore the body politic in the way the capture of any criminal does, but they restore the integrity of the nation as well. Surely this part of the show’s appeal.

But there’s something much more subtle and interesting in NCIS, for boundary issues are written into the texture of the show in the way people interact with one another.

Consider one of the central characters, Senior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo. He is a bit of a bully, wise guy, and sexual harasser. He’s real prick, but good at heart (of course). I don’t know how many times I’ve winced at his intrusive and harassing remarks. And I’m certainly not the only one. The Wikipedia article on DiNozzo remarks that “Tony was often criticized by the female audience at the beginning of the show's run for his chauvinism.” What is sexual harassment if not violating someone’s personal boundaries?

But that’s not the only kind of boundary violation in the show. The three characters who are more or less intellectual – the medical examiner, the forensic specialist, and another Special Agent – tend to ramble on about technical matters. Gibbs, head of the team and the show’s central character, will ask one of them what’s going and they’ll start rambling on about this that and the other, mostly technical matters leading up to an eventual conclusion, until Gibbs cuts them off and demands, What’s the point? He’s clearly annoyed and so, I strongly suspect, is the audience. I know I am.

This is a kind of boundary violation. Gibb’s wants know this or that so he can push the investigation further. He trusts their technical competence (very important) and doesn’t care about the detail. It’s his sense of the whole investigation sets the boundaries on these conversation. Technical details violate those boundaries.

Consider Ducky, Dr. Donald Mallard, the Medical Examiner. He’s very good – they all are (this, after all, is TV) – but easily lost in details. Not only that, but he often starts meandering through old cases or even wanders into his army days. He’s British and resembles Higgins, from Magnum P.I., in this respect. His assistant ME (for most of the show’s run), Jimmy Palmer, is also a rambler.

And so it goes with Abby Sciuto, the Forensic Specialist and Timothy McGee, another Special Agent. McGee’s MIT graduate, and expert in computers. This contrasts with DiNozzo, who is an athlete from Ohio State. DiNozzo has his own form of rambling, not on technical matters, but movie references. He’s forever comparing current events to movies he’s seen, to the annoyance of just about everyone.

In contrast, the two female agents, Caitlin Todd (first two seasons) and Ziva David (seasons 3-11), never ramble on. But they are the primary objects of DiNozzo’s sexist remarks.

And of course Gibbs doesn’t ramble, and neither do the two long term NCIS directors, Jenny Shepard (season 3-5) and Leon Vance (season 6 to the present). These are authority figures. It is thus their job to keep things on track. Gibbs, though, doesn’t always do things by the book, which the directors know. Gibbs has a freedom to maneuver that the directors, by virtue of their position, do not.

The analytic trick, it seems to me, is to make sense of collection of characters and their characteristics. While rambling is generally associated to intellectuality and maleness, Abby rambles and is female, while DiNozzo rambles and is male. But DiNozzo’s rambling is about films, not about technical issues pertaining to evidence; that differentiates him from Ducky, McGee, and Abby. Abby has a goth persona, with tattoos (which are mostly just talked about) and funky taste in clothing while Caitlin and Ziva are more, well, standard/mainstream. She is also effusive while the other two women are not.

There is a logic here, myth logic I call it, but it’s not yet clear to me what’s going on.

I think it calls for some more rambling.

More later.

Green Zoom, Vertical Flow

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Swear words in American books

Jean M. Twenge, Hannah VanLandingham, W. Keith Campbell. The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television: Increases in the Use of Swear Words in American Books, 1950-2008. SAGE Open. July-September 2017: 1-8.
Abstract: Evidence is accumulating that American culture has become more individualistic since the 1950s. In the present research, we focused on one plausible manifestation of individualism, the use of swear words in cultural products. We examined trends in the use of the seven words identified by George Carlin in 1972 as the “seven words you can never say on television” in the Google Books corpus of American English books from 1950 to 2008. We find a steady linear increase in the use of swear words, with books published in 2005-2008 twenty-eight times more likely to include swear words than books published in the early 1950s. Increases for individual swear words ranged from 4 to 678 times (ds = 6.58-45.42). These results suggest that American culture has become increasingly accepting of the expression of taboo words, consistent with higher cultural individualism.
Ben  Zimmer tells me this is shoddy scholarship and points to this piece in The New Republic.

In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]

This post is about aesthetics, one bit of Conrad’s craft. What’s the semantic ‘center’ of Heart of Darkness? I think Conrad has indicated that quite clearly and I’m wondering if it can be investigated computationally.

I have called paragraph 103 of Heart of Darkness the Nexus because in encapsulates the story of Kurtz, the central enigma of the story and one of two central characters–the other being Marlow, a boat captain and the main narrator. Some 300 words from the paragraph’s beginning we have the following sentence: “'My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—' everything belonged to him.” [I've appended the opening to the end of this post.] That opening phrase is repeated later, in a slightly different form, in paragraph 148, while the steamer is on its return trip with Kurtz on board: “My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas—these were the subjects for the occasional utterances of elevated sentiments.” So, we have the two versions:
1) My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—
2) My Intended, my station, my career, my ideas
We can consolidate the different terms into a single phrase:
3) My Intended, ivory, station, river, career, ideas
Let’s think of those terms in the context of Kurtz’s life. Briefly:
My Intended: the women he wishes to marry, but her relatives didn’t think him worthy of her because he was too poor.
ivory: The potential source of Kurtz’s wealth, produced by elephants in Africa.
station: Kurtz’s place of business, but also where he took an African mistress.
river: The Congo, connecting the station to the Atlantic Ocean and thereby to Europe.
career: Kurtz went into the ivory trade to make enough money to become worthy of his Intended.
ideas: His schemes for the betterment of the Congo, written up in a 17-page document ending with the phrase, alas, ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’
Now consider them as words, without any context. They cover a wide range of things:
My Intended: fiancé, not merely a woman, but a woman in a specific social relationship.
ivory: physical substance in solid form
station: geographic locus
river: geographical feature, liquid substance
career: from the dictionary, “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person's life”
ideas: immaterial, mental
My hunch is that Conrad’s phrase linking those words together is emblematic of Kurtz’s life and hence of the book. I want to make computational sense of that centrality, that emblematicity (if you will). Selecting those words and then linking them together into a single phrase, that is a product of Conrad’s craft, as is placing the first occurrence of that phrase at the structural center of the text and the second occurrence somewhat later.

Nina Paley's God-Mother, a new animation



Nina says:
Music: Kalimankou Denkou
(Godmother Denkou)
Bulgarian folk song, arranged by Krassimir Kyurkchiysky
Performed by the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir

This is the intro/prologue to my feature film Seder-Masochism. Uploaded at 1080p instead of 4K because I'm sure I'll fuss with it still. Animated in Moho Pro.

It is by far the slowest-paced thing I've ever animated. Be patient. Best at full screen.
 
It's wonderful. Stately and reverent.

Chimps can learn rock-paper-scissors (sorta')

Jie Gao, Yanjie SuMasaki Tomonaga, Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Learning the rules of the rock–paper–scissors game: chimpanzees versus children. Primates (2017) https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-017-0620-0.
Abstract: The present study aimed to investigate whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) could learn a transverse pattern by being trained in the rules of the rock–paper–scissors game in which “paper” beats “rock,” “rock” beats “scissors,” and “scissors” beats “paper.” Additionally, this study compared the learning processes between chimpanzees and children. Seven chimpanzees were tested using a computer-controlled task. They were trained to choose the stronger of two options according to the game rules. The chimpanzees first engaged in the paper–rock sessions until they reached the learning criterion. Subsequently, they engaged in the rock–scissors and scissors–paper sessions, before progressing to sessions with all three pairs mixed. Five of the seven chimpanzees completed training after a mean of 307 sessions, which indicates that they learned the circular pattern. The chimpanzees required more scissors–paper sessions (14.29 ± 6.89), the third learnt pair, than paper–rock (1.71 ± 0.18) and rock–scissors (3.14 ± 0.70) sessions, suggesting they had difficulty finalizing the circularity. The chimpanzees then received generalization tests using new stimuli, which they learned quickly. A similar procedure was performed with children (35–71 months, n = 38) who needed the same number of trials for all three pairs during single-paired sessions. Their accuracy during the mixed-pair sessions improved with age and was better than chance from 50 months of age, which indicates that the ability to solve the transverse patterning problem might develop at around 4 years of age. The present findings show that chimpanzees were able to learn the task but had difficulties with circularity, whereas children learned the task more easily and developed the relevant ability at approximately 4 years of age. Furthermore, the chimpanzees’ performance during the mixed-pair sessions was similar to that of 4-year-old children during the corresponding stage of training.
I took a look at the research paper, and the chimps didn't actually do the manual gestures. They worked at a computer presentation of hand images, choosing the proper one for each move. What the researchers were after was whether or not the chimps could learn transverse patterning (A>B, B>C, C>A), which is fine. But I'd like to know whether or not they could learn the manual gestures and whether or not two chimps could play. I have no intuitions about this, but still, I'd like to know.

The gestures themselves are simple enough, of course. I should think chimps would have no problems But can they manage the interpersonal coordination, the precise synchronization that humans exhibit when playing the game. I'm not so sure chimps could manage that. The experimental set-up doesn't involve the chimps synchronizing with anything.

The game is also known as Rochambeau and had been traced back to early 17th-centrury China. The Wikipedia entry is interesting. Among many other things we learn:
The common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) exhibits a rock–paper–scissors pattern in its mating strategies. Of its three color types of males, "orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, and yellow beats orange" in competition for females, which is similar to the rules of rock-paper-scissors.

On the Waterfront, 2017

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Darwin’s Demon: A thought experiment about complexity in biology

Imagine a large vat containing prebiotic soup. Somewhere outside the vat is a source of free energy, like the sun provides to the earth. The vat is divided into two compartments and the partition has a small hole. There’s a demon in one of the compartments (cousin to Maxwell’s famous demon). Whenever a living creature evolves out of the soup on one side of the wall, say its the left side, the demon captures it and moves it through the hole to the right side. Should any living creature on the right side attempt to go back through the hole to the left side the demon prevents it from doing so.

Over time, what happens?

Nothing happens on the left side. As soon as anything interesting happens (that is, a living creature emerges) the demon hurries it over to the right side of the vat. No evolution at all. The right side, obviously enough is going to become more and more densely populated with living creatures of the simplest kind, the kind that can emerge directly and immediately from prebiotic soup.

I conjecture that, in time, somewhat more complex creatures will emerge on the right side, creatures that depend on and even ‘feed off of’ the simpler ones. Call the simples creatures Order 1 creatures: O1. These new creatures, then, would be Order 2 creatures: O2. The O2 creatures, however, cannot afford to take over completely. They cannot drive the O1 to extinction, for they depend on them for their livelihood. As the right side of the vat approaches the maximum density of O2 and O1 creatures, perhaps a niche* ‘opens up’ for some O3 creatures.

And so on.

There’s always room at the top. And so life becomes ever more complex. But there is no teleology in this little story. All action is local. But that action takes place in a limited space with access to unlimited energy.

Addendum 8.15.2017: I don’t recall when I first thought up this little experiment, but this is the first time I’ve written it up. And writing things, even informally in notes such as this, often forces you to think a bit more. Which I did. Though not immediately.

And hour or two, let’s say, after I’d posted this note I asked myself: “Do we really need the apparatus of the partition and the demon? Really, since the most interesting action is on one side of the vat, why not just have one vat, full of evolving slime?” But, you know, I really liked the idea of the partition and the demon, and not just because that’s the form of the classic Maxwell’s demon. Some work is being done with that, but what?

Here’s my proposal: What you get with the partition and the demon is the idea that evolutionary stasis requires work. That demon is doing work when it spots evolved creatures emerging on the left side and shunts them over to the right. If life can evolve at all, it can’t help but becoming more complex over time. That’s what it means for the universe to be complex.

Do I actually believe that? Hmmm....

Note

*The concept of a niche has subtleties. See these two posts:

Hustle and bustle on the West Side on a cloudy day

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

The emergence of cumulative culture, or: What Dawkins got right

This is a follow up to my post, Gestalt Switch in the Emergence of Human Culture. I want a way to differentiate my version of culture from the current ‘orthodoxy’ (gene-culture coevolution, dual inheritance theory). At the moment I’m thinking that the emergence of cumulative culture is the Rubicon. But why and how?

In orthodox cultural evolution theory fitness is evaluated at the biological phenotype, and only at the phenotype. Dawkins’ insight, I believe, is that, to understand cultural evolution, we need to think of entities where fitness is evaluated with respect to some (purely) cultural entity, rather than and more or less independently of fitness for biological individuals carrying those cultural features.

Here’s what I think: It is the emergence of cumulative culture, however that happened, that created an arena in which purely cultural entities could survive and thrive, or not. What determines fitness for preservation in the domain of cumulative culture?

However it arose, that domain is the coupled nervous systems of interacting humans. And to account for how it operates we need a cultural analog of both the biological gene and the biological phenotype.

Now we have sharability, in effect, as a fitness criterion for cultural entities. They are fit because they afford us opportunities for social interaction (like mutual grooming among infra-human primates?). They may well afford other benefits, but sharability is always a factor.

* * * * *

With this in mind we can take a look at what Dawkins has to say about memes. First, though, I want to start with the second paragraph of The Selfish Gene (p. 12):
Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanation–rocks, galaxies, ocean waves–are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride atoms together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, and were formed in the ‘big bang’ which, according to prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
Dawkins then goes on to argue that stability in the biological world depends on molecules he will call replicators (p. 15). At first these replicators were free-floaters in the primeval biomolecular soup. In time they became (p. 20) “genes, and we are their survival machines.

What’s important is Dawkins’s plea for stability as the necessary precursor to meaningful change. That is as important in culture as in biology. Stability is the foundation of cumulative culture. Without it groups would be continually ‘reinventing the wheel’ because the wheel just wouldn’t stay invented. Just how cumulative culture emerged, that’s obviously an important issue, but let’s shelve it for the purposes of this post and take a look at why Dawkins hypothesized the concept of memes.

He offers these remarks in the course of talking about the god “meme” (193):
Some of my colleagues have suggested to me that this account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question. In the last analysis they wish always to go back to ‘biological advantage’. To them it is not good enough to say that the idea of a god has 'great psychological appeal'. They want to know why it has great psychological appeal. Psychological appeal means appeal to brains, and brains are shaped by natural selection of genes in gene-pools. They want to find some way in which having a brain like that improves gene survival.
“Appeal to brains” is the operative phrase. Later he’ll remark (199):
This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
I find the phrase “advantageous to itself” a bit iffy, though it’s consistent with his arguments about the ‘selfishness’ of genes, which I accept. My point here is that Dawkins is quite clear that, in positing the existence of memes he’s up to more than talking about a way of inheriting behavior from one generation to another. Somehow culture is a different arena for evolutionary processes, though one necessarily coupled with biology.

Orthodox cultural evolution theory doesn’t have much to say about what makes culture “appeal to brains”–though Dan Sperber’s theory of cultural “attraction” is relevant here. Unfortunately, Dawkins was unable to formulate a useful concept of “appeal to brains”, nor was his acolyte in this, Daniel Dennett. To get it right, or at least a plausible first approximation, you need to think seriously about just how brains CAN communicate cultural materials. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to that over the years, so I won’t try to summarize that work here. For the curious, I recommend:
  • Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books 2001). Here I use Walter Freeman’s work on complex neurodynamics to, in effect, define the domain of cumulative culture, at least for music (chapters 2 and 3), which sets the stage for defining attractors in this domain as the cultural analog to the biological phenotype (chapter 8 and 9).
  • “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture. This paper builds on my work in Beethoven’s Anvil and develops the idea of a coordinator as the cultural analog to the biological meme.
The following two working papers are directed at Dennett’s discussions of memes (prior to his most recent book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, which I’ve not read).

Universal Kid Space & Kiddie Lit

I was reminded of what I call “universal kid space” some years ago when I was at one of Nina Paley’s “frunches” – a weekly lunch-gathering of people interested in free culture. Vibha Pinglé and her six year old son Kartik were visiting New York and joined us for the frunch. It turns out that Kartik is a great fan of Paley’s film, Sita Sings the Blues. Which was just a little surprising, but not too.

Sita, as some of you may know, is an animated feature-length film. In America animated films, aka cartoons, have been regarded as kid’s fare since the 1950s. Sita, however, was not made for children. Its subject matter, divorce and the subsequent mourning of the lost relationship, is adult and Paley’s story-telling technique – three intertwined narratives – is quite sophisticated. And yet young Kartik loves the film, as he demonstrated by singing one of the songs from the film, a satiric little ditty about the omniscient goodness of Rama.


Even if much of the story was lost on Kartik, there’s much in the film that would resonate with a lively and intelligent six year old. For one thing, the film is just freakin’ gorgeous, something anyone with a brain, a heart, and a liver, can appreciate. And it’s filled with more or less self-contained musical set pieces that can be enjoyed for their marriage of music and image. And then there’s the cool stuff – purple monsters, a many-headed man, flying eyeballs, arrows and fighting and gore – cartoon gore, of course, but gore nonetheless.

So Kartik can comprehend the film in his way and we can understand it in ours. The visual presentation, I believe, is very important. Verbal presentation, written or spoken, will involve vocabulary problems as there are many words that adults or even older children know, but young children will find mysterious. Where the story is visually present on the screen there’s something that even a young child can see and grasp; the words don’t matter. That’s one aspect of universal kid space, but there’s surely more.

I associate universal kid space with the phrase “for kids of all ages” and with the animated feature films produced by Disney studios starting with Snow White and Pinocchio in the late 1930s. Here are some notes I made some years ago when I was just beginning to discover anime and to think seriously about animation.

September 2003

What I find so interesting an peculiar about those films [the early Disney features and similar films] is that they are intelligible and entertaining both to fairly young children and to their parents and grandparents. That is to say, Grandpa’s grandchildren can enjoy these films on their own terms, but so can Grandpa. Grandpa might take special pleasure in viewing these films with his grandchildren, but he doesn’t need to be with them in order to take pleasure in the films; he doesn’t need to borrow his pleasure from theirs.

I think such films, and the cultural space they inhabit, are a remarkable creation. When and where did it come into existence? What are its characteristics?

Here comes the sun RGB

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

New Savanna cracks 10K hits per day for the first time

Yesterday day New Savanna had over 10,000 page views and already has almost 5,000 as of 7Am this morning:
page views 7AM
Until roughly the beginning of the year I got between 400 and 1000 hits per day, with occasional spikes above that, and then:
All-time May2010-Aug2017
Here's the graph for last week:
spikes 8-5-17-to-8-12-17
The recent up-tick is quite visible. Is it just a transient spike or something more permanent? I'd guess it's the former, but I don't know.

Note also that the page views are fairly periodic. That makes sense, as relatively few people would by causing the web at night.

However, the web wraps around the world. If my viewers were evenly distributed around the globe, then you wouldn't see that periodicity. When people are awake in Japan and cursing the web, they'd be asleep on the East Coast of America, and vice versa. This map and chart confirms that my viewers are overwhelmingly from America:

Views-by-country 8-5-to-8-12
There is, however, a puzzle. According to this article in Wikipedia, Chrome is by far the most popular browser in the world, with Firefox a distant second. This shows all-time stats for browsers cruising New Savanna:
all-time-browser-pref
And this shows the stats for last week:
current week aug-5-12 browser pref
Why the preference for Firefox over Chrome?

Finally, what are people looking at? When I look at hits for individual posts it seems that most of the increase goes to photographs. That, of course, is pleasing. But I didn't start New Savanna to post photos–there's more of them at Flickr. I started it to discuss my intellectual work.

What's out there, anyhow? [#DH]

From deep within a Twitter convo that started I don't know where:
More generally, what KINDS of things are there out there? That's one of the most important questions facing computational criticism.

Last evening in a light drizzle ... the return of shaky-cam & Hopper

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Zipf's Law explained?

Sander Lestrade, Unzipping Zipf's law, PLOS One, August 9, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181987.

Abstract: In spite of decades of theorizing, the origins of Zipf’s law remain elusive. I propose that a Zipfian distribution straightforwardly follows from the interaction of syntax (word classes differing in class size) and semantics (words having to be sufficiently specific to be distinctive and sufficiently general to be reusable). These factors are independently motivated and well-established ingredients of a natural-language system. Using a computational model, it is shown that neither of these ingredients suffices to produce a Zipfian distribution on its own and that the results deviate from the Zipfian ideal only in the same way as natural language itself does.

What’s on my plate. I ramble through NCIS, cultural evolution, description, #DH, and plot another article.

I’ve got a number of posts planned for the near future, perhaps even the very near future. But I’m not sure in just what order I’ll be writing them. Here’s (some of) what I’m currently thinking about.

NCIS, boundary issues: terrorism, sexual harassment, and rambling on: As I mentioned in this post, I’ve been watching a lot of NCIS and wondering why it’s perhaps the most popular show on network TV. It came on the air not too long after 9/11 and a good many shows are about terrorists; I don’t have a count, but let’s say it’s a third of them. That’s part of the appeal. One of the central characters, Sennior Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, is a bit of a bully, wise guy, and sexual harasser. He’s real prick, but good at heart (of course). And the three characters who are more or less intellectual – the medical examiner, the forensic specialist, and another Special Agent – tend to ramble on about technical matters. I’m thinking these are all about more or less the same thing, boundary violations, and that’s part of the show’s appeal. How do we restore those boundaries?

Cumulative culture in the reticulum: This is a follow up to my post, Gestalt Switch in the Emergence of Human Culture. I’m not quite sure just where I’m going with this, but I do want to link up with some of my other thinking on cultural evolution. In particular, I want to connect with my concept of the cultural reticular, which I currently define as:
Reticulum or cultural reticulum: A network of persons and other cultural actors, whether animate or inanimate, that are linked together in a social group at the neural level. A reticulum in this sense is a Latourian actor-network. It is the environment in which cultural beings evolve and to which they must adapt. The actors in a reticulum are covered or painted with coordinators. Formerly mesh, which I may still use informally.
 It is the emergence of the cultural reticulum that affords the emergence of cumulative culture.

And here's a more considered remark on cumulative culture, including some comments on Dawkins.

The rhetoric of interpretation and explanation in literary criticism: This is a follow-up to my post, Description, Interpretation, Explanation, and Evaluation as Rhetorical Roles in Literary Criticism [#DH]. I want to take another crack at characterizing the roles of interpretation and explanation in literary criticism. I think that the purpose of interpretation is to translate one’s engagement with the text into discursive prose. “Engagement” is perhaps an odd word to use, but I don’t want to use “read” (which is over-used in literary criticism) or “experience”, which doesn’t seem quite right. Encounter? Perhaps it would be better to say interpretation is about translating from aesthetic mode (the text) to discursive mode.

But now I’m starting to write the post. Whatever the formulation, this is to be contrasted with explanation, which is about mechanisms (broadly and loosely understood) operating in and through the text.

How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’)? Computational criticism is quite technical, involving statistics and high-dimensional spaces, among other things, to make ‘observations’ about texts. And one needs to think like a social scientist to relate these observations to literary history. Literary critics are not ordinarily trained in these things. I’m particularly concerned about the technical issues.

Islamic Philosophy

Carlos Frankel, Deprovincializing Philosophy, LA Review of Books (July 29, 2017), a review of Peter Adamson, Philosophy in the Islamic World (Oxford UP 2016).
A key lesson from Adamson’s overall project is that the conventional notion of “Western” philosophy (where “Western” essentially means “European”) is useless — a relic of colonial intellectual cartography. To begin with, it arbitrarily disrupts the historical narrative. After antiquity, the second great period in the history of philosophy unfolded in the Islamic world: from Baghdad to Córdoba — that’s where the action was. Besides, “Western” doesn’t pick out a specific region: geographically speaking, about a third of Adamson’s volume is devoted to European philosophy — that of Andalusia or Muslim Spain.
Rather later in the review, after explaining how Islamic thought had been elided from (Western) intellectual history:
Adamson deliberately wrote a book on “philosophy in the Islamic world,” not on “Islamic philosophy.” This points to a further important innovation of his account: he doesn’t divide up the material artificially according to religious affiliation — Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. The intellectual space I’ve outlined above, following al-Ghazālī, is one that Jews and Christians shared. While Christians mainly contributed to kalām and falsafa, Jews were eager to take up the full gamut of emerging new intellectual discourses. Thus, we find Jewish mutakallimūn like Saadia Gaon, Jewish falāsifa like Abraham ibn Daud and Maimonides, Jewish Sufis like Baḥya ibn Paqūda and Abraham ben Maimonides, and Jewish appropriations of Shīʿite concepts — for example in Judah Halevi. Indeed, thinkers in the Islamic world often felt more affinity to members of rival religions who shared their intellectual commitments than to co-religionists who did not.
H/t Kenan Malik:

Friday Fotos: Sunrise, August 9, 2017

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Thursday, August 10, 2017

Reflected glory

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Gestalt Switch in the Emergence of Human Culture

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just published a collection of 18 articles on culture and cultural evolution: Sackler Colloquium on Extension of Biology Through Culture. The articles can be downloaded free. It looks like an excellent collection, including pieces on culture among animals (monkeys, apes, songbirds, whales, dolphins, insects) in addition to humans, with pieces on neuroscience, learning, childhood development, cognition, and language. The conception of culture that runs through the collection is generally known as gene-culture coevolution or dual inheritance theory, which is reviewed by Nicole Creanza, Oren Kolodny, and Marcus W. Feldman, Cultural evolutionary theory: How culture evolves and why it matters. I think of this as the ‘orthodox’ or ‘mainstream’ approach to cultural evolution.

I’ve not had time to read much of the collection, but I’ve looked at a few pieces. I was particularly struck by a passage in the introductory article, The extension of biology through culture, by Andrew Whiten, Francisco J. Ayala, Marcus W. Feldman, and Kevin N. Laland:
Research over the last half-century has led to the revelation that learning from others (social learning) is widespread in the animal kingdom and spans a great range of important functional contexts, including diet, feeding techniques, travel route selection, predator avoidance, vocal communication, migration, and mate and breeding site choices (26, 28). Hundreds of laboratory experimental studies have demonstrated social learning and transmission in a wide variety of animals. Social learning is now extensively documented in mammals (29), with a particular intensity of research studies in primates (30–33) and cetaceans (34–37), in birds (38–41), in fish (42), and in insects (43, 44). The fact that social learning has been shown to play important roles spanning multiple functional contexts (25–28) suggests that many animals are not simply acquiring one or a few behavioral patterns socially, but rather that social learning is central to their acquisition of adaptive behavior.
That explains why seven of the 18 articles are devoted to animal culture.

I’ve known about animal culture ever since I read about sweet-potato washing among macaque monkeys when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1960s. And then we have tool-making among chimpanzees–stripping twigs of leaves and using them to fish for termites; and of course birdsong. But I hadn’t realized that cultural behavior is so widespread among animals. Explaining the emergence of culture is one kind of problem is only humans have it, with perhaps a rare exception or two. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. So we have a different kind of problem.

The question of the emergence of culture now becomes the emergence of fully human culture from animal culture, and not the emergence of culture tout court. I’m thinking it involves a gestalt switch:
duck-rabbit
Is it a duck or a rabbit? The drawing will support either interpretation.

In the case of human culture I’m imagining a hominin that has quite a bit of culture, including the crafting of stone tools, and most likely some kind of proto-language and proto-music. And then something happens that reconfigures those mechanisms so that they function in a new way. That new way is fully human culture, homo sapiens sapiens. That something is, in effect, a gestalt switch.

Wet peppers

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Analyzing the corpus of Trump tweets [#DH]

David Robinson has been analyzing Trump tweets. For example:
A number of different people have clearly tweeted for the \@realDonaldTrump account over time, forming a sort of geological strata. I’d divide it into basically five acts:
  • Early days: All of Trump’s tweets until late 2011 came from the Web Client.
  • Other platforms: There was then a burst of tweets from TweetDeck and TwitLonger Beta, but these disappeared. Some exploration (shown later) indicate these may have been used by publicists promoting his book, though some (like this one from TweetDeck) clearly either came from him or were dictated.
  • Starting the Android: Trump’s first tweet from the Android was in February 2013, and it quickly became his main device.
  • Campaign: The iPhone was introduced only when Trump announced his campaign by 2015. It was clearly used by one or more of his staff, because by the end of the campaign it made up a majority of the tweets coming from the account. (There was also an iPad used occasionally, which was lumped with several other platforms into the “Other” category). The iPhone reduced its activity after the election and before the inauguration.
  • Trump’s switch to iPhone: Trump’s last Android tweet was on March 25th, 2017, and a few days later Trump’s staff confirmed he’d switched to using an iPhone.
Which devices did Trump use himself, and which did other people use to tweet for him? To answer this, we could consider that Trump almost never uses hashtags, pictures or links in his tweets. Thus, the percentage of tweets containing one of those features is a proxy for how much others are tweeting for him.
Topics covered:
  • When did Trump start talking about Barack Obama?
  • Changes in words since the election
  • What words lead to retweets?
Includes the usual charts and graphs, and code for those who want to play around.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

432 Park Ave as seen from Hoboken at 6AM

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Description, Interpretation, Explanation, and Evaluation as Rhetorical Roles in Literary Criticism [#DH]

I’ve been thinking seriously about description for some time now, and in distinguishing it from interpretation and/or explanation. If we then add evaluation to that we have the four methodological roles that Sharon Marcus investigates in “Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis and the Value of Scale” (Modern Language Quarterly 77.3, 2016, 297-319).

As the result of a Twitter conversation initiated yesterday by Ted Underwood, and to which Katherine Bode contributed in an important way (see Appendix 1), I now realize that that’s just what those words designate, roles, roles in a discourse. While that may seem obvious, it’s an important realization (for me). For this line of investigation began with the desire to think of description as a relatively transparent intellectual act, in distinction from interpretation or explanation, which are difficult and often (deeply) problematic.

The purpose of this post is to begin thinking about what those roles are. In the next section I do that briefly. Then I have a section about description where I talk about the point of thinking of these activities as roles in a discourse. Then I quote passages from Marcus’s article and add a bit of light commentary. I conclude with one appendix pointing to the Twitter discussion I’ve already mentioned and another appendix with links to some of my work on description.

Four discourse roles

Description and evaluation seem to me to be the easiest to specify.

Description sets the terms in which a phenomenon is introduced into discourse and presented for investigation through any of the other three roles. As I am particularly interested in literary phenomena I am particularly interested in the description of texts. In particular, I am interested in describing the formal features of texts.

It is through evaluation the phenomena are related to vital human interests. This is the realm of ethics and aesthetics, matters that have been de-emphasized in literary theory, though they pervade the practice of criticism.

Specifying the role or roles of interpretation and explanation seems a bit trickier. For now I think it’s sufficient to think of it as involving something like comprehension or understanding. It is through interpretation or explanation that we link described phenomena to something else. Interpretation is about meaning while explanation is about mechanism. Interpretation is ultimately subjective while explanation aspires to objectivity.

That, I know, is vague, and even problematic. But that’s OK. I’m just trying to get things started, not get them all sorted out.

[Interpretation links description to meaning and evaluation in ethical criticism. Explanation links description of texts to psychological, neural, and social mechanisms.]

I can do better on both interpretation and explanation, and evaluation for that matter, 
but I'll save that for later posts rather than revising this one. For an idea of what I have in mind, see the note,  The rhetoric of interpretation and explanation in literary criticism,  in this post.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Urban pastoral in the Bergen Arches, Jersey City, NJ

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Scale and Context in Computational Criticism [#DH #DH2017 special]

I no longer remember just who started it off, if I ever knew, but the Twitter convo went on and on and branched here and there and covered a lot of territory. Somewhere in there one of Scott Weingart’s tweets led me back to a post by Ryan Cordell and I started thinking. Here’s what I thought. It’s about the difference between macro-scale (a corpus) and micro-scale (individual texts) analysis, how we conceptualize the relations between them, and context.

Tweet and Response

Here’s the tweet where Scott Weingart that got me thinking:
Something about that quote, which is from Cordell’s post, struck me as odd. After more than a little thought scattered over a couple of days I’ve come to conclude that the oddness centers on the phrase “how corpus-scale phenomena make their meaning”. Phenomena MAKE their meaning? Well, yes, if THAT’s what’s going on then it IS a puzzle.

Long before I’d gotten to that, however, I told myself a simple story, starting with the assertion that I think about such phenomena as being evolutionary in kind. Evolutionary phenomena typically involve large populations of entities interacting with one another over some period of time. In this case we’ve got populations of 1) words, tokens of which are organized into 2) books (codices), populations of which circulate among 3) a population of readers. The fate of those books depends on the preferences of readers.

Macro and Micro Scale

With this in mind, let’s take a look at Cordell’s post. Here’s the paragraph the contains the phrase Weingart quoted:
Most incisively, Bode shows how much “distant reading” work reconstitutes the primary assumption of close reading: “the dematerialized and depopulated understanding of literature in Jockers’s work enacts the New Criticism’s neglect of context, in a manner rendered only more abstract by the large number of ‘texts’ under consideration.” The problem may be, in other words, not that computational analysis departs from analog methods, but that we interpret the results of corpus-level analysis too much like we interpret individual texts. To be provocative, I might rephrase to say that we don’t yet as a field understand precisely how corpus-scale phenomena make their meaning, or how those meanings relate back to codex-scale artifacts.
Let’s set Bode’s concerns about context aside.

The central issue is whether or not we should drawing conclusions about corpus-level phenomena in the same way we draw conclusions about individual texts. Let’s take a specific example, Heuser and Le-Khac, A Quantitative Literary History of 2,958 Nineteenth-Century British Novels: The Semantic Cohort Method (2012). Much of the pamphlet is devoted to explaining how they were able to make a series of observations of their corpus indicating a shift from abstract to concrete vocabulary. That's a descriptive statement. For the purposes of this post I'm going to treat that process as a black box and take the description at face value.

What interests me is how they get from that descriptive statement to a (possible) explanation for it. Roughly speaking, very roughly:
1) Over the course of a century England’s population shifts from rural to urban. This is a macro-scale phenomenon.

2) Following Raymond Williams, The Country and the City: At the micro-scale, patterns of social relations depend on local arrangements for living and working, with rural and urban areas having distinctly different patterns. In particular, people living in urban environments spend relatively more time interacting with strangers and casual acquaintances rather than intimates. People in rural environments spend more time with intimates.

3) These different patterns of social arrangements are expressed in different ways of characterizing people, their thoughts, feelings and motives, and their interactions in fiction. This is a micro-scale phenomenon, happening at the level of individual readers and authors. People living among intimates are relatively comfortable with abstractions whereas those living among strangers need concrete language.

4) The effect of these two micro-scale phenomena (2 and 3) in the context of the macro-scale population shift (1) is a macro-scale phenomenon visible at the level of the corpus, a shift from abstract to concrete vocabulary.
This argument thus moves between two scales of phenomenon, macro and micro, and two phenomenal ‘registers’, living arrangements and habits of mind.

That is indeed very different from how we interpret individual texts. There we have the text, on the one hand, and an interpretive scheme on the other, where both are constituted though ideas and affects. We match the text to the interpretive scheme and then employ the interpretive scheme to craft an interpretation.