Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Donald the Loser: Ben Wittes on Trump as a security threat

In March of 2016 Lawfare's Ben Wittes wrote a post in which he evaluated seven liabilities the candidate seemed to have. He's now written a post evaluating 45's perfornance.

1. Willful ignorance in foreign policy
Whether in his interactions with foreign leaders or in public talk about North Korea, or about his predecessor’s alleged spying on him, or about white supremacist rallies and Confederate statues, ignorant bombast has been one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration. And we are paying for it every day.
2. Anti-Muslim stance
This problem has, in some ways, proven less bad than I expected—or, at least, the consequences of Trump’s anti-Muslim bigotry have so far have been muted. Trump has, indeed, larded his administration with certain people who harbor deep animus for Muslims. His rhetoric has been horrid. And the travel ban executive order sent a terrible signal of irrational anti-Muslim exclusion. [... yet] And at least to date, we have not seen a deep backlash from Islamic countries or Muslims worldwide resulting from the president’s distaste—some recruiting bonanza for ISIS or al-Qaeda, for example, or a refusal of Muslims domestically to work with law enforcement. ...
3. Professed willingness to commit war crimes
This problem has definitely proven less severe than I worried. The reason is simple: Trump has backed off of these promises and has put in charge of the military a leader, James Mattis, who has no interest in committing war crimes. Put this one in the category of Trump’s bark being worse than his bite.
4. Trump-Russia scandal
The Trump-Russia scandal is only secondarily about whatever covert activity may have taken place. It is primarily a scandal of legality that took place in plain view. That Trump had a profound Putin problem was eminently knowable based on the public record of what Trump was saying about Putin in real time.
5. Trump is a chump for manipulative racists
Again, many people professed surprise at the president’s reaction to what happened in Charlottesville. They shouldn’t be. He showed this aspect of his character only too clearly during the campaign. And the danger of that feature—that he would prove unable to provide moral or security leadership in the face of white supremacist violence—was naked at the time to anyone willing to see it.
6. "Not a psychologicaly normal person..."
Trump’s clinical portait turns out to be the defining national security threat he poses—indeed, the defining feature of his presidency. He is unable to restrain himself from tweeting. He is impulsive with sensitive, even classified, information. He focuses obsessively on enemies to the point of gravely warping his judgment. While I’m still not a clinician, I’m entirely comfortable saying that this is not a psychologically normal person. ...
7. Magical thinking and executive incompetence
So far, tyranny has not resulted from Trump’s magical thinking. Instead, its consequences have been that Trump has been almost entirely ineffective in the national security space. One problem with magic, after all, is that it doesn’t work. As it turns out, the national security threat associated with Trump’s belief in magic, and in the magic of his own will in particular, has been that he’s been unable to run a competent executive branch capable of responding effectively to security issues foreign and domestic. This is a huge problem, but it’s not the problem I had imagined in 2016.

Kayaks and sailboards, all stacked up


Free audio version of Heart of Darkness online, and it is excellent

"Reading" and "interpretation" have common meanings that are, at best, secondary or even tertiary to academic literary criticism. Authors sometimes give readings from their work before a live audience. Audio books have been common for years. Such a reading requires that the lifeless text be interpreted if the reading is to sound at all natural, if it is to be listenable. And that's how I first became acquainted with some of our canonical texts. My father read them to me at bedtime – Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Moby Dick (I bet he skipped the whale taxonomy), plus a ripping good yarn or two, such as King Soloman's Mines. I marveled at how natural his voice sounded.

For better or worse, however, aural reading doesn't have much presence in literary criticism, not even among critics of drama.


Which brings me to Heart of Darkness. Jeb and I have been having a little discussion in the comments to one of yesterday's posts and he starting talking about how one would interprete, that is read aloud, that crucial line from the text: "My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my—" And that sent me off in search of an audio version. And I found one, one that's free on the web, courtesy of, which offers other texts as well.

It's been uploaded in 10 segments, 1-4 for chapter one, 5-7, for chapter 2, and 8-10 for chapter 3. The Nexus paragraph, as I've been calling it, is about a quarter of the way into segment 7. As you may recall, that paragraph enters the text in the course of an attack. We get that attack at the end of segment 6, so you might want to start at, say, 17:53, which is just before the attack.

There's a brief pause at c. 2:24 in segment 7 and we shift from Marlow to the (unnamed) frame narrator; back to Marlow at 2:56; frame narrator at 4:30 for a short remark ("He was silent for a long time."), then back to Marlow at 4:36. That begins paragraph 103, The Nexus. This paragraph is the structural center of the text. Our phrase is at 6:42.

There's lots to say about what's going on here. In that interval between the two interruptions by the frame narrator, Marlow talks about Kurtz and says this:
Oh yes, I heard more than enough. And I was right, too. A voice. He was very little more than a voice. And I heard—him—it—this voice—other voices—all of them were so little more than voices—and the memory of that time itself lingers around me, impalpable, like a dying vibration of one immense jabber, silly, atrocious, sordid, savage, or simply mean, without any kind of sense.
The voice, and that's what this story is, a succession of voices.

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 linguist I met almost two decades ago at one of Haj Ross’s conferences in Denton, Texas. He’s been hearing 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.