Monday, September 25, 2017

Over the weekend the Nacirema Nationals trounced the Trumptastic Bombers

Sunday was the most important sports day since Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam.
–Richard Lapchick, Director
Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 

The Trumpistas went up against the Nacirema and were creamed. How's this going to work out? What makes the question an interesting one is that many Trumptistas are also partisans of the Nacirema ( = "America" spelled backward). I grew up in Western PA, Trump country, but also football country. It'll be interesting to see how this works out. Will Trump double-down after his defeat by the NFL? Will the players persist? What of the owners, many of whom are Trump partisans?

Across the Nation

On three teams, nearly all the football players skipped the national anthem altogether. Dozens of others, from London to Los Angeles, knelt or locked arms on the sidelines, joined by several team owners in a league normally friendly to President Trump. Some of the sport’s biggest stars joined the kind of demonstration they have steadfastly avoided.

It was an unusual, sweeping wave of protest and defiance on the sidelines of the country’s most popular game, generated by Mr. Trump’s stream of calls to fire players who have declined to stand for the national anthem in order to raise awareness of police brutality and racial injustice.

What had been a modest round of anthem demonstrations this season led by a handful of African-American players mushroomed and morphed into a nationwide, diverse rebuke to Mr. Trump, with even some of his staunchest supporters in the N.F.L., including several owners, joining in or condemning Mr. Trump for divisiveness.
However:
But the acts of defiance received a far more mixed reception from fans, both in the stadiums and on social media, suggesting that what were promoted as acts of unity might have exacerbated a divide and dragged yet another of the country’s institutions into the turbulent cross currents of race and politics.

At Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, videos posted on social media showed some Eagles fans yelling at anti-Trump protesters holding placards. At MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., before the Jets played the Dolphins, many fans, a majority of them white, said they did not support the anthem protests but also did not agree with the president’s view that players should be fired because of them.
Moreover, there is a rule:
The Steelers, along with the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks, who were playing each other and similarly skipped the anthem, broke a league rule requiring athletes to be present for the anthem, though a league executive said they would not be penalized.
In other sports:
In a tweet Friday, Mr. Trump disinvited the Golden State Warriors, the N.B.A. champions, to any traditional White House visit, after members of the team, including its biggest star, Stephen Curry, were critical of him. But on Sunday, the N.H.L. champion Pittsburgh Penguins said they would go to the White House, and declared such visits to be free of politics.
Nascar team owners went a step further, saying they would not tolerate drivers who protested during the anthem.

American Ritual

If you google “football as ritual” you’ll come up with a bunch of hits. It’s a natural. It’s played in special purpose-build facilities and the players wear specialized costumes. The teams have totemic mascots and the spectators will wear team colors and emblems of the totem. Ritual chants are uttered throughout the game and there’s lots of music and spectacle. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. When anthropologists go to faraway places and see people engaging in such activities they call it ritual. We call it entertainment. It’s both.

While not everyone actually plays football, a very large portion (mostly male) of the population has done so at one time in their life. When I was in secondary school touch football was one of the required activities in boys gym class. Those who don’t play the game participate vicariously as spectators. The game is associated with various virtues and so participating contributes to moral development.

Other sports are like this as well and other sports have been involved in anti-Trumpista activity. But let’s stick to football as that’s where most of the action has been so far.

Hoboken Arts & Music Festival Fall 2017, from the Garden St. School of the Performing Arts

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Extended Adolescence – Adulthood Revised?

An analysis by researchers at San Diego State University and Bryn Mawr College reports that today’s teenagers are less likely to engage in adult activities like having sex and drinking alcohol than teens from older generations.

The review, published today in the journal Child Development, looked at data from seven national surveys conducted between 1976 and 2016, including those issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Together, the surveys included over eight million 13- to 19-year-olds from varying racial, economic and regional backgrounds. Participants were asked a variety of questions about how the they spent their time outside of school and responses were tracked over time.

Beyond just a drop in alcohol use and sexual activity, the study authors found that since around 2000, teens have become considerably less likely to drive, have an after-school job and date. By the early 2010s, it also appeared that 12th graders were going out far less frequently than 8th graders did in the 1990s. In 1991 54 percent of high schoolers reported having had sex at least once; in 2015 the number was down to 41 percent. What’s more, the decline in adult activity was consistent across all populations, and not influenced by race, gender or location.
Affluence:
The analysis found adolescents were more likely to take part in adult activities if they came from larger families or those with lower incomes. This mirrors so-called “life history theory,” the idea exposure to an unpredictable, impoverished environment as a kid leads to faster development whereas children who grow up in a stable environment with more resources tend to have a slower developmental course.

In families with means there is often more anticipation of years of schooling and career before one necessarily has to “grow up”—there’s plenty of time for that later. As Twenge and Park conclude, despite growing income disparities, a significant percentage of the U.S. population has on average become more affluent over the past few decades and are living longer. As a result, people are waiting longer to get married and have children. We’re also seeing a higher parental investment in fewer children—or, in the parlance of our times, more “helicopter parenting.”
Erik Erikson talked of adolescence as a “psychosocial moratorium”, however
Yet many child psychologists believe today’s children seem to be idling in this hiatus period more so than ever before. “I'm keenly aware of the shift, as I often see adolescents presenting with some of the same complaints as college graduates,” says Columbia University psychologist Mirjana Domakonda, who was not involved in the new study. “Twenty-five is the new 18, and delayed adolescence is no longer a theory, but a reality. In some ways, we’re all in a ‘psychosocial moratorium,’ experimenting with a society where swipes constitute dating and likes are the equivalent of conversation.”
See these posts for further discussion on extended adolescence:


Is but one aspect of a new mode of life? You may recall that, in Western history, childhood wasn't recognized as a distinct phase of life until the early modern era (Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood) and adolescence itself didn't emerge until the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Contrasts: From yesterday's shoot

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Too good to last, the New Savanna hit streak is over

Back at the end of January 2017 I’d noticed that traffic was up, with some days topping 3K or 4K. On August 11 New Savanna got 11,109 hits and on August 20 hits seemed to be averaging well over 4K per day since then. And then there was a drop

Was it an end of summer slump or more permanent?

It appears to be more permanent. I’ve been logging daily hits for the last month. We’ve averaged 834 hits per day over the last 30 days, with only five days over 1000; the highest was 1369. This is how traffic looks over the life of the blog:

Sept 23 8PM year

The six-month high period is obvious and over there at the right you can see the drop. I expect there will be a visible leveling-off in the graph in a couple of month.

But what was that six-month run about?

The hermeneutics of Ta-Nehisi Coates

The thing is, he seldom makes arguments in the sense I understand that term. There isn’t extended reasoning through assumptions and implications or careful sifting through evidence to see which hypotheses are supported or disconfirmed. No, he offers an articulate, finely honed expression of his worldview, and that’s it. He is obviously a man of vast talents, but he uses them the same way much less refined thinkers simply bloviate.

But that raises the question, why is he so influential? Why does he reach so many people? What’s his secret?

No doubt there are multiple aspects to this, but here’s one that just dawned on me. Those who respond to Coates are not looking for argumentation—they’re looking for interpretation.

The demand for someone like Coates reflects the broad influence that what might be called interpretivism has had on American political culture. This current emerged a few decades ago from literature, cultural studies and related academic home ports. Its method was an application of the interpretive act of criticism. A critic “reads”, which is to say interprets, a work of art or some other cultural product, and readers gravitate toward critics whose interpretations provide a sense of heightened awareness or insight into the object of criticism. There’s nothing wrong with this. I read criticism all the time to deepen my engagement with music, art, film and fiction.

But criticism jumped channel and entered the political realm. Now events like elections, wars, ecological crises and economic disruptions are interpreted according to the same standards developed for portraits and poetry. And maybe there is good in that too, except that theories about why social, economic or political events occur are subject to analytical support or disconfirmation in a way that works of art are not.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Military ontology

Thank you, Ladies of NCIS [#NCIS]

Pete Turner, colors – the world


Richard Sandomir writes his obituary in The New York Times:
Altering reality was nothing new for Mr. Turner. Starting in the pre-Photoshop era, he routinely manipulated colors to bring saturated hues to his work in magazines and advertisements and on album covers.

“The color palette I work with is really intense,” he said in a video produced by the George Eastman House, the photographic museum in Rochester that exhibited his work in 2006 and 2007. “I like to push it to the limit.”

Jerry Uelsmann, a photographer and college classmate who specializes in black-and-white work, said in an email that when he saw Mr. Turner’s intense color images, he once told him, “I felt like I wanted to lick them.”

On the lookout

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I'd be wary of Ken Burns. His jazz documentary stretched the material to fit his myth of America.

Ken Burns has a new Vietnam documentary out. I'd be wary of it. I've only seen one Burns extravaganza, the one on jazz, and that one made me a Ken Burns skeptic. Why? Because I know the history better than Burns. I bought the 10-DVD boxed set to get the archival footage. Otherwise...Here's a note I sent to my old teacher, Bruce Jackson, while I was watching the series on TV.

* * * * *

Dear Bruce,

If you've been watching Ken Burns' Jazz, I'd be interested in your reactions.

Of course, this has come to us with lots of hype and counter hype as well, much of the latter centered on the aesthetically conservative scope and selection of material. I'm quite sympathetic to this line of criticism, but don't want to pursue it here, at least not directly. The following caveats would remain even if he hadn't bought the Marsalis/Crouch/Murray line pretty much wholesale.

I find it to be a somewhat mixed bag. The documentary material is often quite fine -- I'm particularly struck by the scenes of dancers, though I've seen that sort of stuff before. However, he often mixes images, especially stills, from distinctly different eras without really telling you that. If you know the faces well, and even the instruments (e.g. Armstrong played distinctly different horns at different periods) this is obvious. I'm not sure how obvious this would be to someone who's new to the material. I suppose this is a nit-picky issue, but in an overall scheme that's chronological, this tends to lift the major figures out of history and into the eternal ether, which is surely one of the things going on here.

Then there's the talking heads, the authoritative commentators. I'm not quite sure what role these folks and their words play/will play in the overall impact of this work. The images and sounds are quite powerful.

In any event, what I find interesting is that the words we hear, whether in voiceover or from a head we see, are a mixture of things, but, with one exception, not signaled as such. The exception is where, in voiceover, we get a fragment from a contemporary source (newspaper, magazine, biography, etc.). That is always identified, as such, but only after it has been read. The other commentary includes identification of materials, names and dates & other straight history, how-jazz-works (mostly from Marsalis so far), interpretation, exaggeration, and unverified lore. What bugs me is that all this is presented on pretty much the same footing, on pretty much the same authority.

And it takes a pretty sophisticated person to recognize what's going on and to even begin to sort this out; more intellectually sophisticated and knowledgeable about jazz, I'd guess, than Ken Burns. I've never done any serious oral history or ethnography, but I've talked to many musicians and I've read lots of interviews and I know that you simply cannot take their words at face value. While it's possible that they may be deliberately playing you, that's really the least of your problems in dealing with what they say. They can only speak in the categories they know, and if those categories are poor -- and they certainly have been and still are for this music -- then the commentary will be poor as well. Beyond that, memory simply isn't reliable. Etc.

So that's an issue. And I'm not sure how you deal with it. I mean if you're going to interview 90-year-old Milt Hinton about what happened when he was twenty you pretty much have to present what he says. You can't give him a lawyerly grilling nor can you stick a little reliability meter there in the lower left hand corner. Now, if it is your explicit intention to do an oral history, then it's all talking heads and you frame it as an oral history and everyone knows it for what it is. But that's not what Burns is doing. He's presenting....well, just what is he presenting? that's the question. I think it's a nationalist myth, a rather attractive one, but still a myth.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bus in motion

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Deep Learning through the Information Bottleneck

Tishby began contemplating the information bottleneck around the time that other researchers were first mulling over deep neural networks, though neither concept had been named yet. It was the 1980s, and Tishby was thinking about how good humans are at speech recognition — a major challenge for AI at the time. Tishby realized that the crux of the issue was the question of relevance: What are the most relevant features of a spoken word, and how do we tease these out from the variables that accompany them, such as accents, mumbling and intonation? In general, when we face the sea of data that is reality, which signals do we keep?

“This notion of relevant information was mentioned many times in history but never formulated correctly,” Tishby said in an interview last month. “For many years people thought information theory wasn’t the right way to think about relevance, starting with misconceptions that go all the way to Shannon himself.” [...]

Imagine X is a complex data set, like the pixels of a dog photo, and Y is a simpler variable represented by those data, like the word “dog.” You can capture all the “relevant” information in X about Y by compressing X as much as you can without losing the ability to predict Y. In their 1999 paper, Tishby and co-authors Fernando Pereira, now at Google, and William Bialek, now at Princeton University, formulated this as a mathematical optimization problem. It was a fundamental idea with no killer application.
But, you know, the emic/etic distinction is about relevance. What are phonemes, they are "he most relevant features of a spoken word".

To the most recent experiments:
In their experiments, Tishby and Shwartz-Ziv tracked how much information each layer of a deep neural network retained about the input data and how much information each one retained about the output label. The scientists found that, layer by layer, the networks converged to the information bottleneck theoretical bound: a theoretical limit derived in Tishby, Pereira and Bialek’s original paper that represents the absolute best the system can do at extracting relevant information. At the bound, the network has compressed the input as much as possible without sacrificing the ability to accurately predict its label.

Tishby and Shwartz-Ziv also made the intriguing discovery that deep learning proceeds in two phases: a short “fitting” phase, during which the network learns to label its training data, and a much longer “compression” phase, during which it becomes good at generalization, as measured by its performance at labeling new test data.
However:
For instance, Lake said the fitting and compression phases that Tishby identified don’t seem to have analogues in the way children learn handwritten characters, which he studies. Children don’t need to see thousands of examples of a character and compress their mental representation over an extended period of time before they’re able to recognize other instances of that letter and write it themselves. In fact, they can learn from a single example. Lake and his colleagues’ models suggest the brain may deconstruct the new letter into a series of strokes — previously existing mental constructs — allowing the conception of the letter to be tacked onto an edifice of prior knowledge. “Rather than thinking of an image of a letter as a pattern of pixels and learning the concept as mapping those features” as in standard machine-learning algorithms, Lake explained, “instead I aim to build a simple causal model of the letter,” a shorter path to generalization.
On 'deconstructing' letterforms into strokes, see the work of Mark Changizi [1].

For a technical account of this work, see Ravid Schwartz-Ziv and Naftali Tishby, Opening the black box of Deep Neural Networks via Information: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.00810.pdf

[1] Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo, The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes, vol. 167, no. 5, The American Naturalist, May 2006
http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdf/10.1086/502806

Cheap criticism & cheap defense: Can machines think?

Searle’s Chinese room argument is one of the best-known thought experiments in analytic philosophy. The point of the argument as I remember it (you can google it) is that computers can’t think because they lack intentionality. I read it when Searle published in Brain and Behavioral Science back in the Jurassic Era and thought to myself: So what? It’s not that I thought that computers really could thing, someday, maybe – because I didn’t – but that Searle’s argument didn’t so much as hint at any of the techniques used in AI or computational linguistics. It was simply irrelevant to what investigators were actually doing.

That’s what I mean by cheap criticism.

But then it seems to me that, for example, Dan Dennett’s staunch defense of the possibility of computers thinking is cheap in the same way. I’m sure he’s read some of the technical literature, but he doesn’t seem to have taken any of those ideas on board. He’s not internalized them. Whatever his faith in machine thought is based on, it’s not based on the techniques investigators on the matter have been using or on extrapolations from those techniques. That makes his faith as empty as Searle’s doubt.

So, if these guys aren’t arguing about specific techniques, what ARE they arguing about? Inanimate vs. animate matter? Because it sure can’t be spirit vs. matter, or can it?

I think like a Pirahã (What's REAL vs. real)

Something I'd recently posted to Facebook.

I just realized that in one interesting aspect, I think like a Pirahã. I’m thinking about their response to Daniel Everett’s attempts to teach the Christian Gospel: 
Pirahã: “This Jesus fellow, did you ever meet him?” 
Everett: “No.” 

Pirahã: “Do you know someone who did?” 
Everett: “Um, no.” 
Pirahã: “Then you don’t know that he’s real.”
As far as the Pirahã are concerned, if you haven't seen it yourself, or don't know someone who has, then it's not REAL (upper case).

This recognition of the REAL takes a somewhat different form for me, after all, I recognize the reality (lower case) of lots of things of which I have no direct experience and don't know anyone who has. Thus, to give but one example, I've not set foot on the moon and I don't know anyone who has. But I don't believe that the moon landings were faked. Yada yada.

But I’ve been thinking about the REAL for awhile. One example, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the millennium. For someone born in 1990, say, that’s just something they read about in history books. They know it’s real, and they know it’s important. But it just doesn’t have the “bite” that it does for someone, like me, who grew up in the 1950s when the Cold War was raging. It’s not simply events that appeared in newspapers and on TV, it’s seeing Civil Defense markers on buildings designated as fall-out shelters, doing duck-and-cover drills in school, reading about home fall-out shelters in Popular Mechanics and picking a spot in the backyard where we should build one. I fully expected to live in the shadow of the Soviet Union until the day I died. Some when it finally collapsed – after considerable slacking off in the Cold War – that was a very big deal. It’s REAL for me in a way that it can’t be for someone born in 1990 or after (actually, that date’s probably a bit earlier than that).

[Yeah, I know, I didn't see it with my own eyes. But then is something like the Soviet Union something you can see? Sure, you can see the soil and the buildings, etc. But they're not the Soviet Union, nor are the people. The USSR is an abstract entity. And I can reasonably say that I witnessed the collapse of that abstract entity in a way that younger people have not. That makes it REAL. Or should that be REALreal? It's complicated.]

This sense of REALness is intuitive. And I’d think it is in fact quite widespread in the literate world, but mostly overwhelmed by “book learnin’”. 

Another example. Just the other day I read a suite of articles in Critical Inquiry (an initial article, 5 comments in a later issue, and a reply to comments). It was about the concept of form in literary criticism, which is very important, but also very fuzzy and much contested. What struck me is that, as far as I can tell, only one of the people involved is old enough to have been thinking about literary criticism at the time when structuralism (a variety of thinkers including Lévi-Strauss and, of course, Roman Jakobson) and linguistics (Chomsky+) was something people read about and took seriously, as in: “Maybe we ought to use some of this stuff.” That phase ran from roughly the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Any scholar entering their 20s in, say, 1980 and after would think of structuralism as something in the historical past, as something the profession had considered and rejected. Over and done with. 

For those thinkers structuralism and linguistics aren’t REAL in the sense I’m talking about. They know that work was done and that some of it was important; they’re educated in the history of criticism. They know that linguistics continues on, and they’ve probably heard about the recursion debates. But they’ve never even attempted to internalize any of that as a mode of thinking they could employ. It’s just not REAL to them.

Why is this important in the context of that Critical Inquiry debate? Because linguists have a very different sense of form than literary critics do. The spelling’s the same, but the idea is not. Yet literary critics are dealing with language.

A brief note on interpretation as translation

I’ve come to think of interpretation as a kind of translation, and translation doesn’t use description. When you translate from, say, Japanese into English, you don’t first describe the Japanese utterance/text and then make the translation based on that description. You make the translation directly. So it is with interpretation. I’ve come to think of the devices used to make the source text present into the critical text (quotation, summary, paraphrase) as more akin to observations than descriptions. Of course, we also have a descriptive vocabulary, the terms of versification, rhetoric, narratology, poetics, and others, but that’s all secondary.

Hence the longstanding practice of eliding the distinction between “reading” in the ordinary sense of the word and “reading” as a term of art for interpretive commentary. We like to pretend that this often elaborate secondary construction is, after all, but reading. Even after all the debate over not having immediate access to the text we still like to pretend that we’re just reading the text. Do we know what we’re doing? Blindness and insight, or the blind leading the blind?