Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Deck: Getting Organized (as always) – Lit Crit, #DH, Identity, Cultural Evolution

When I did this a week-and-a-half ago I listed five to-do items. I’ve done three of them:
Two are not yet done:
  • How do humanists understand computational criticism (aka ‘distant reading’): But I’m working toward it. I want to get some other things posted first.
  • An article with the working title, Description and Form in Literary Analysis: The Case of Heart of Darkness: This is a major task and will be ongoing until it’s done.
I’ve added the following items to the agenda:

Virtual reading: This is a development from the post, In search of a small world net: Computing an emblem in Heart of Darkness [#DH]. I’d tacked these short paragraphs onto the end of that post a day or two after I’d originally posted it:
Consider the connected graph for the emblem phrase. It should be easy enough to calculate a central point for the phrase, no? But then, couldn’t we do that for any sentence or phrase? So, start at the beginning of the text and move sequentially through the text with a moving window of suitable length. Calculate the central point for the phrase within the window and trace the movement of successive centers through the text from beginning to end.

Such a “reading” would not, of course, yield the computer anything like an understanding of the text. That’s not why it interests me. I’m interested in the form the trajectory traces through the space. For example, how does it move with respect to the center of the emblem? What about the volume spanned by the subgraph within this moving window? How does it expand and contract. And so forth.
In looking around on my hard-drive I came across a 2010 article on more or less just that: E. Alvarez-Lacalle, B. Dorow, J.-P. Eckmann, and E. Moses. Hierarchical structures induce long-range dynamical correlations in written texts. PNAS Vol. 103 no. 21. May 23, 2006: 7956–7961. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0510673103

I’m sure I hadn’t read the article, but I certainly must have skimmed it. The idea for this post is to say something about this article and then elaborate on the idea of virtual reading.

Reply to a ‘traditional’ critic: I’d sent the small world post to a number of critics. One of them, a digital critical, asked: What would you say to a critic who asserts that, after all, the centrality of that emblematic phrase ('My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—‘) is “accessible to direct inspection by a reader?” After all, that’s how identified it and argued centrality in that post. My basic response: There’s really nothing to say to such a critic. But...from my point of view such critics suffer from an impoverished intellectual imagination and so cannot see beyond literary criticism as it currently exists. There are, in fact, other issues to be investigated, emerging from a different intellectual background. And then I elaborate. The post on virtual reading would contribute to this.

Lit Crit, Identity, & the Curriculum in the 21st Century: Perhaps one or two posts here. One of the reasons given for ‘close reading’ in the middle of the last century is that it could be taught to students with relatively little background. That in turn was important because we’re teaching literature to undergraduates in order to inculcate in them what they need to be good citizens. Three decades after that, what had happened? With the development of feminist criticism and African-American studies identity had emerged as a major issue. And this led to the so-called canon wars and the Culture War. That is, an intellectual regime that had been introduced to help promulgate a sense of uniform American identity and led to the opposite, a splintering of identity. What’s going to come of that?

Open letter to John Lawler about Cultural Evolution: Lawler is a linguistic I met almost two decades ago at one of Haj Ross’s conferences in Denton, Texas. He’s heard that folks are interested in studying cultural change using biological evolution as a model. And he’s skeptical, in part because some Procrustean work has been done on language change. I want to convince him that things aren’t quite so bad. This is an opportunity for me to think through my current ideas about cultural evolution in a quick and dirty way. While I’ll publish this is a blog post, I expect it to be a bit longer than most of my blog posts, as my open letters have been in the past.

Photographing the Eclipse and the Problematics of Color [#Eclipse2017]

20170821-_IGP9927 3final

This isn’t particularly about yesterday’s eclipse. That’s just a particularly extreme example of something face by every photographer working in color: Color is (deeply) problematic. For physical reasons it’s impossible to exactly reproduce natural or real color in a photograph, or any printed medium. Pigment on a surface simply cannot reproduce the dynamic range (contrast between light and dark) the eye can handle in a real setting. The reduced range means that compromises must be made.

The problem is particularly acute, and thus interesting, when shooting the sun, which, obviously, is what you’re doing when you photograph the sun. The sun is bright, so bright that you cannot/should not look directly at it (for more than a few seconds). It floods the camera with light, overloading the censor (I’m shooting digital). You can deal with the problem by using a neutral density filter to cut down the light entering the camera, but I don’t have one. Just my Pentax 7-D and a Tamron 75-300 mm lens.

Here’s an eclipse shot as it came out of the camera:

20170821-_IGP9927 from camera

Very dark, and very blue. That’s NOT what I saw, standing there looking at the eclipse. I saw (mostly) white clouds, with a bit of blue peeking through here and there, and the crescent sun shining through. That sun show’s up as white on the screen (printed surface). As bright as you can physically get. And the clouds are black. The difference in brightness may well approximate that in the scene (the camera’s sensors can record a wider range than can be displayed), but when mapped onto the viewable spectrum that difference forces the clouds to be all but black so that the sun can be merely white (rather than radiating light so intense that it hurts your eyes).

Here’s the first step I took toward producing a more satisfactory image:

20170821-_IGP9927 WB

I reset the white balance to get rid of most of the blue. What’s white balance? You tell the software, this is the shade that I want to appear as white, and it recalibrates the image so that everything else is consistent with that.

But it’s still rather dark. He’s an attempt to deal with that:

20170821-_IGP9927 1

Overall, it’s lighter. There’s more definition in the clouds. But it’s still pretty dark and the sun-disk is loosing its definition. A couple clicks more in that direction and the sun will become an undefined mass of light. Like this:


I DO like it. It’s a nice image, it’s lighter, though still darkish. But the sun disk has disappeared.

How about this?

20170821-_IGP9927 2

Not quite so light as the previous image. Yet the's still definition and differentiation in the clouds. And the sun disk is (more or less) preserved.

But it’s still not what I saw out doors with the naked eye. It is not physically possible to produce that. You’ve got to make compromises.

In any event, just what DOES it mean to see the sun with your naked eye? The sun is not something you can look at in a more than glancing fashion. It a sense, it doesn’t have a (fully) ‘natural’ appearance.

For us, the sun is always, in a sense, a bit human.

* * * * *

The image at the top of this post is a cropped version of the bottom image.

And here's another post on the same topic, the problematics of color.

A White Blackman

I published this over a decade and a half ago on a long-gone personal website and then on a now-dormant site called Gravity. I put it on New Savanna on March 15, 2010. In the wake of Jadzia's wonderful party back in 2014 – yes, gathering of the tribes, a meeting of the stylz – I bumped to the head of the queue.  Now, in August of 2017, I'm doing it again, for various reasons, but mostly on general principle: I like it.

* * * * *

The first time I heard the phrase -- "white black man" -- Zola Kobas was talking about me. He paid me that compliment after hearing me play the trumpet at a July 4th party hosted by a mutual friend, Ade Knowles. When, thirty years ago, I had originally become interested in jazz, I was simply pursuing music which moved me. That Zola, a political fugitive from South African apartheid, should see me as a white black man affirmed the African spirit I cultivated in the heart of jazz.

When I was a young boy learning to play the trumpet I looked for musical heroes. Rafael Mendez, a Mexican-American who made his living playing in Hollywood studios, was my first. I admired his virtuosity and expressiveness. I was particularly attracted by the Hispanic part of his repertoire, with its tone colors and rhythms which sounded so exotic, and sensual. Then I discovered jazz.

My first jazz record was A Rare Batch of Satch, which I had urged my parents to get through their record club. I had heard that this Louis Armstrong was an important trumpet player and thought I should check him out. At first I didn't quite understand why this man was so important. But I listened and listened and, gradually, I began to understand his music. There was Armstrong's tone -- by turns jubilant, plaintive, tightly-coiled, tender -- his ability to bend notes, to worry them. And his rhythm, his amazing ability to stretch or compress time, to float phrases over the beat. This rhythmic freedom was quite unlike anything I knew in the military band music which was the staple of my instructional and playing experience. It was exciting.

Above all, there was the blues. There was its emotional provenance, grief, resignation, longing. And there was the sound, the particular notes, those so-called "blue notes." It wasn't until much later that I learned enough about music theory to know which notes these were, to know that these notes didn't exist in any European musical system. But I could hear these notes, I could grasp their expressive power. I wanted to make them mine.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Finding a New Photographic Subject: Water

20170819-_IGP9803 Eq HrdMx

That’s right, water. Oh sure, I’ve got lots of photographs that have water in them, puddles and ponds, the Hudson River, droplets on flowers, but I never thought of those as photos OF water. They’re photos of the river or of the flower (when wet), but not specifically of the water.

Now that’s what I’m thinking of, water.

The idea came to me when I was walking the neighborhood with my camera, mostly to shoot the waterfront, and started walking toward this ornamental fountain:


“Why don’t I shoot the cascading water”, thought I to myself. And so I approached closer, turned, and shot toward Manhattan across the river.


See the water droplets curtaining the scene? That’s what I’m after. Move in and get an arc:


Substance abuse crisis in food service

According to a 2015 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the food services and accommodations industry is among the top fields for alcohol and illicit drug use, alongside construction and mining. [...]

According to the report, the industry currently has the highest rates of substance use disorder, at nearly 17 percent of its workers. That percentage is especially jarring when you consider that the restaurant industry is the second-largest private-sector employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in food service will soon outnumber those in manufacturing.

But without union representation, these jobs are usually accompanied by poor pay, inconsistent schedules and no medical insurance. High turnover means that when substance abuse behaviors do interfere with job performance, workers can be easily, and immediately, replaced.

Plus, the problem goes all the way to the top. The same report on substance abuse found that across all industries, one in 10 managers is abusing controlled substances. Middle management is arguably the most overworked in food service; in high-end bars and restaurants, managers often make less than their service staff, while working longer hours with no overtime pay.

Because food service jobs are increasingly a foundational part of our economy, it is even more crucial to think about what happens to the people who work them.

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


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



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




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






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.