Saturday, August 19, 2017

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.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Alone in the Sky: 432 Park Ave., Manhattan




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.
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


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




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)
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


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....


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