Friday, October 31, 2014

Friday Fotos: Old Trix 3

By "old trix" I mean extensive photoshopping, something I experimented with some years ago, but then slacked off. Anyone how uses Photoshop really ought to play around with it just to see what can be done – and, of course, what really can be done is likely to exceed the interests of any one photographer. I certainly learned alot, but in the end decided I wasn't much interested in fancy filtering and extreme color alteration. What made me give another go – as I've done in Old Trix 1 and Old Trix 2?

Simple, these shots are from my shaky-cam photos. I take these photos at night, with long exposures, and I move the camera and/or zoom the lens during the exposure. Depending on this or that, the resulting image either doesn't look like anything but a bunch of colored lines, or the recognizeable objects are distorted and/or almost obscured by lights. That is, the starting image isn't supposed to be "photo-realistic." Given that, perhaps extensive photoshoppery makes more sense.

Look at the following images. The first is more or less what came out of the camera. I did some photoshopping, but not much. The other three involve more extensive alterations from the original, but are much alike among themselves.

IMGP8006

IMGP8006rd6

IMGP8006rd8

Literary History, Temporal Orders, and Many Worlds

What, you might ask, does many worlds theory have to do with literary history? One is science while the other is, well, humanities I guess. And ne’er the twain shall meet.

Well, that was the 19th and 20th centuries. We’re living in a new world. And I’m just thinking out loud here, making stuff up.

Most of my long-form posts have an element of trying to figure out what I think about a topic. As such I’m not much concerned about the existing literature on the subject. I’ll worry about that if and when I decide to pursue formal (academic) publishing.

This post will be even more so, almost pure thinking out loud. It’s about time, the issues raised by Jockers’ study of literary influence (Macroanalysis, chapter 9), which I’ve reinterpreted as being about the cultural evolution of the 19th century novel and that that evolution has a direction.

As happens every so often, when I started on this post I figured it would take me three or four morning hours. But it just grew and grew. I don’t know how many hours I’ve put in, but I’ve had to spread those hours over four days or so in order to think things thru. And still, it’s very speculative. I start out be reprising Jockers’ account of influence in the 19th century novel and then move onto time. And that – inevitably in retrospect – leads reductionism. That’s what I’ve learned in writing this post, that the questions of temporality and reductionism are intertwined. That culture cannot be reduced to biology, nor biology to chemistry and physics, is about how objects and processes unfold in time. It’s about patterns in time.

Cultural Evolution in 19th Century Novels

As you may recall, at the end of Macroanalysis Jockers argued that, if author A influences author B, then the texts B writes will be like those written by A. So, to study influence in the corpus we’ve got to make a massive comparison among all the texts and list only those pairs that are very much like one another. To that end Jockers measured some 600 characteristics of each novel in a corpus of over 3000 19th century American and British novels. He then calculated the Euclidean distance between these texts in that high-dimensional space.

9dot3

To visualize those measurements Jockers created a graph in which each node was a text and the length of each edge was proportional to the degree of similarity between the two texts connected by the edge. When Jockers visualized the graph, he got the above image. The left to right ordering of nodes in that graph is roughly chronological.

How did that happen? Jockers’ database didn’t contain any temporal data, no publication dates, about those texts, but the order he found by looking for similarity/influence was also temporal. To some degree that’s inevitable. Text A cannot influence Text B unless it pre-exists it. But why should later texts resemble earlier ones at all? And why should the degree of similarity be roughly proportional to the temporal distance between the texts?

It is not too difficult to suggest answers to those questions, and to state those answers in terms of the psycho-social process through which texts arise: Texts are written by authors; people read texts; authors write texts like the texts they like to read – they don’t have to do this, but they do, why? – and this happens year after year. The directional ordering of those texts is an indicator of the nature of the socio-cultural process that produced them.

I thus – and here we leap – find myself thinking about an old distinction, between “clock time” (calendar dates) and “real time” (the psycho-cultural ordering of those texts). That’s what I want to think about first.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why is this photo so popular?



I posted it to Flickr on August 29th and it's gotten 1500 views so far. It's my fourth most popular photo. The most popular photo has 3,663 views and is from 2006. The second and third most popular photos are from 2006 as well. Those three are all graffiti photos. This one is of lights, but the camera was moving when I snapped the shot. I can't for the life of me figure out why it's so popular.

It's a bit interesting, yes. But not THAT interesting.

The Freedoniad: A Tale of Epic Adventure in which Two BFFs Travel the Universe and End up in Dunkirk, New York

And another thing

This is the story of Sparkychan and Gojochan and how they started in Jersey City, New Jersey, traveled the universe, and ended up in Dunkirk in upstate New York. Sparkychan’s the pink one and Gojochan’s the grey one. “Chan”, as I’m sure you know, is a Japanese diminutive and is appended to the names of children, where it has affectionate connotations. “Sparky” is obvious enough, and as for “Gojo,” that’s short for “Gojira,” which became “Godzilla” when rendered into English.

I bought the two toys so I could pose them among some of Jersey City’s grimier spots, as you see them above. I named them when I started using them in stories I told to two young girls I’d recently met.

Except that I didn’t really meet them.

I met their father.

Except that I didn’t really meet him either.

Not in the “real” world.

I met him online, at Bérubé’s joint, where he posted as The Constructivist. Bérubé – that’s Michael Bérubé, formerly president of the Modern Language Association – ran a real sociable place, where The Constructivist and I joined a bunch of others in a major interwebs project/party. And that is how I more or less – the details don’t matter – ended up at Mostly Harmless, one of The Constructivist’s blogs.

These days he mostly posts about women’s golf. But back in those days he would also post about his two young daughters, which he identified as onechan (the older one) and imoto (the younger one). I believe onechan was between three and four at the time.

Graffiti: Then and Now

Graffiti is a curious activity. Existing at the edge of the law, it has to make its own laws. Perhaps the most important of those govern wall protocol: going over some other writer's work. The basic rule is simple: Always improve the wall. That means that, if you go over someone else's work, you should put something better in the spot. If you don't, that's taken as an insult and can lead to war – which happens mostly on walls (see Tales Told on a Wall, A Year in the Life), but can also lead to physical violence among writers should the combatants happen to meet face-to-face.

So, I took this flick on Oct 28, 2006:

Distort Komar Then

That's on one of the stanchions supporting the 14th Street viaduct in Jersey City, and it's one of the first walls I saw when I got serious about flicking graffiti. That boy in the mushroom cloud, by Komar (flanked by Distort on the left and Then on the right), told me there's something serious going on here. It's not just a bunch of kids breaking the law. Here's the middle of the same wall on Oct 26, 2014:

20141026-IMGP1638

The Komar is mostly gone, though you can see a bit of it peaking over the SMEAR throwie. That's definitely NOT a step up. But there may be mitigating circumstances. There's been repair work on the viaduct recently and you can see that a lot of dust and slurry has leaked down over the wall, obscuring the graffiti. It's possible that the Komar was obliterated before SMEAR went over.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Elements of Style: A Short Graffiti Flick

Voices from the Beginning of the World

The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman
by Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 622 pp., $39.95
Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. We take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:
I do not possess old books in which my ancestors’ words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me…. They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them…. They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will still be as new and strong as they are now.
The book was transcribed, translated, and edited from a hundred hours of taped interviews Albert conducted with Kopenawa in the Yanomami language from 1989 through 2001.
What I'm wondering is whether or not it makes sense to think that Kopenawa is, in some non-trivial way, undergoing time-travel when he talks of "renewing" the xapiri's words, the ones set "in the deepest part of me" (cf. the discussion of brain states Time and Again, the Curse of the Linearizing Amulets). His body, yes, it days in the present. but his mind, it does not. It goes outside of time.

Dusk on an overcast day

20141026-IMGP1680

Feminist Scholarship at the Leading Edge of Digital Tech

Signs@40: Feminist Scholarship through Four Decades: Forty years of Signs via topic modeling, editorial curation, and commentaries
To celebrate it's 40th anniversary Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society has put together a special website (link above) using digital techniques of various kinds, thus providing what may well be the most sophisticated deployment humanities scholarship on the web. And check out the Cocitation Network Graph:
Rather than mapping articles published in Signs, the graph provides a way of viewing the broader field of feminist scholarship that is reflected in the sources cited in the articles that the journal publishes. The assumption operative in this type of graph is that scholarship can be viewed as conversations among various participants represented by particular sources; sources that tend to be cited together are being put into conversation with one another and are thus representative of a particular strain or school of thought within a field.
Out in the Twitterverse Andrew Goldstein remarked:
And that comment points up an interesting digital divide, not the one between those who can afford the technology and those who can't, but the one between scholars who understand the intellectual potential of these techniques and those who are blind to that potential. For Goldstone is right about those comments; they're a rich field of ideas for further digital scholarship. Who will take advantage of those opportunities?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On not dancing

There's this interesting and curious article over at Medium, Please respect my decision not to dance, by Henry Reich, though I don't think he's right in characterizing ours as a "dance normative" society. More like dance ambivalent and conflicted.
People seem to be able to respect my other decisions not to do things — they respect my decision not to bungee jump, not eat mustard or drink coffee or beer (all of which I think taste disgusting), not to smoke, even not to eat meat. But the problem is that going to places where there is dancing is at times an unavoidable part of modern socializing — dancing is often the expected entertainment at weddings and concerts, at bars and clubs, and at parties with friends. And unlike how tea or juice or water tend to be available at coffee shops in addition to coffee, it’s quite common for there to be nothing to do at a dancing venue other than not dance.

And I just have no taste for dancing. I don’t enjoy it and it definitely doesn’t make me feel good. When I do dance, I always feel like I’m forcing it, these weird artificial flailing and shaking motions I’m trying to make my body do. This is not what my arms and legs were built for.
He goes on to point out that he's a musician and feels drawn to play music whenever he hears music:
... in fact, I can’t listen to music while doing other things like homework or reading or working the way most people can — I find myself drawn inexorably into music, it distracts me, captures my attention, and even compels me to act. Act, yes. Dance, no.
I understand how he feels. When I'm at dancing occasions I have, for the most part, been like Reich. I stay away from the dance floor and don't like to be approached about dancing. On those occasions when I'm in the band that's supplying the music – which I have been for many years – things are easy. Since I'm in the band, playing music, no one expects me to dance; but I can enjoy (making the) music and watching the others dance.

But there was a time, and a certain scene, when I danced. And enjoyed doing so. We're just not there now.

And I think there's more to Mr. Reich's story than he's telling us or than he even knows.

Consciously.

FR8s: Tankers with ethanol and graffiti

20141026-IMGP1652

20141026-IMGP1655

20141026-IMGP1668

When art meets science

Arthur I. Miller. Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science Is Redefining Contemporary Art. Norton: 2014. 352 pages. $29.95.
Dr. Miller’s encyclopedic survey begins at the dawn of the 20th century, when physicists as well as painters were testing radical new models of space and time. In the vein of his previous book “Einstein, Picasso,” Dr. Miller shows how the discovery of quantum mechanics inspired a generation of avant-garde artists, including Picasso, Kandinsky and Dalí, who said, “It is with pi-mesons and the most gelatinous and indeterminate neutrinos that I want to paint the beauty of the angels and of reality.”

Starting in the 1980s, Dr. Miller began to spend time with artists who have found their muse in science, and has watched as the scene grew. He knows the field like few others, interviewing many of the artists for hours at a stretch and visiting museums, galleries, media labs, and corporate behemoths like Pixar and Google.
This is important stuff. Artists should be making use of scientific imagery, which is often quite astonishing. It's certainly more important than the post-post-modern wanting that fills so many galleries and 'cutting edge' museum shows.
The book brims with an underdog mentality, as the author explains how the establishment art world has turned a cold shoulder to science-driven artists. The tide seems to be turning, as wide-eyed futurism goes mainstream and everyone wants to do a TED talk. “Some people who have been out in the wilderness for years are now getting traction,” as a museum director puts it.

When it comes to the future, Dr. Miller holds a utopian vision that includes young people “working with computers made of not-yet-invented materials” and “producing theories that generate images that can be manipulated like equations.” Tech gurus seem to agree that a discipline-blurring digital renaissance is underway. Some researchers counter that real science will continue to demand ultraspecialization rather than skillful dabbling.

Autopilot and an Old Dutch Song

I’m playing trumpet in an ad hoc trio that’s supporting a local production, A Legend of Communipaw. We supply a variety of simple tunes and sound effects here and there. One of the tunes we play is an old song, Al is ons prinsje – at least I assume it’s old. Here it is on YouTube:



“How could you possibly get it wrong?” you ask, “It’s so simple.”

I know, I know. That’s what’s been bugging me. It’s so simple; how could I possibly get it wrong?

But I figured it out. Here’s a score for one version – there’s a bunch of them out there, all slightly different, but most more or like this one in one crucial way:

Alisonsprinsje

It starts with a three-bar phrase that’s repeated once (the first line). Then we have an eight-bar phrase that’s really two four-bar phrases (line 2, line 3). Most of the half-dozen or so versions I’ve looked at agree that this is the form [3 3][4 4].

Notice the rest at the end of that first phrase. Well, I simply extended that rest a whole bar to make the first phrase into a four-bar phrase rather than a three-bar phrase.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why Jared Diamond doesn't interest me

I read Guns, Germs, and Steel some years ago, but don't remember much from it. I thought is was interesting and entertaining, but Diamond didn't have anything particularly interesting to say about his core question: How did the West came to dominate the rest? Here's how Oliver Burkeman characterizes Diamond's argument in The Guardian:
Guns, Germs and Steel began by repudiating the obvious, racist answer: that Eurasian peoples won out because they were smarter and more vigorous, down to their genes. Instead, it was a matter of geography. Europe and the Middle East had good soil, plenty of easily domesticable animals and plants, and a main axis running east-west, instead of north-south – meaning that crops, livestock and tools could spread easily, without confronting big changes in climate or day length. The world’s first farming societies emerged, leading to bigger settlements and concentrations of political power. Meanwhile, humans living among farm animals developed immunity to the diseases they carried. By the time they encountered other societies, their military power, metal tools and, above all, their deadly germs gave them the decisive advantage. Diamond’s books feature few intrepid explorers or brutal colonisers; rather, there are just accidents of geography, and their after-effects.
And?

The fact is, in a sense, the Eurasians were smarter. But not through superior genes. It was a matter of culture, as I argue in The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD. Diamond has nothing comparable to propose. His argument amounts to saying that geography gave Westerners more time to think. But it says nothing about what made that thinking so devastatingly effective. 

He's assuming that, given enough time, more effective ideas inevitably show up. Not only do we need to see an argument on that point, rather than tacit assumption, but Diamond needs to say something about just what makes for more effective thought. He says nothing about that.

Which is to say, he managed to write a big entertaining book that simply failed to address the question he set out to answer. The anthropologists are right to say that geography isn't much of an answer. Alas, I rather doubt that they'd like the answer I propose any better than they liked Diamond's.

Vygotsky Tutorial (for Connected Courses)

Howard Rheingold recently mentioned Vygotsky in a Connected Courses discussion:
And student-centric pedagogy in which learners attempt to make meaning of texts together isn't as new as social media. Dewey, Freire, Vygotsky and others pointed in that direction.
I’m not sure what he had in mind with that reference to Vygotsky, but Vygotsky is one of the seminal 20th century thinkers about language and mind and has had a strong influence on me.

Vygotsky argued, in effect, that thinking – considered as a quasi-verbal voice in the mind – is just internalized speech. The young child learns to speak to herself as others speak to her and thereby gains a mechanism affording some control over her mind. We can contrast Vygotsky’s view with the somewhat later view of Noam Chomsky, the linguist, who regarded language as primarily an instrument of thought and only incidentally an instrument of communication. On the contrary, Vygostkians argue, we can think (in the sense of talking to ourselves) because we can communicate.

I’ve already got a relatively brief post on this elsewhere on New Savanna: Thought as Inner Speech. In this post I excerpt a long article published in PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts: First Person: Neuro-Cognitive Notes on the Self in Life and in Fiction. When reading this excerpt keep two things in mind. First, there is no deliberate instruction going on. For the most part we acquire language without being deliberately taught; we just “breath it in.” The child is not, in this process, imitating the adult (or other speakers). She’s internalizing.

Think of the process Vygotsky describes in terms of the scaffolding metaphor that's currently all over the place. The adult's speech scaffold's the child's behavior, both in action and perception. Then the child learns to use her own speech to scaffold. Finally there's no need for external scaffolding, that is, no speech either from an adult or from the child herself.

Vygotsky on the Emergence of Thought as Inner Speech

Given this conception of self and language I now want to turn to Vygotsky's conception of thought as inner speech. The general idea is that as others direct the child's actions and perceptions through language, so the child learns to use language in controlling herself (Vygotsky, 1962; Luria, 1959). In effect, the child peoples her brain with an other and uses that other as a mechanism to control her own mind.

Vygotsky bunny 1
Figure 1: Adult directing child's attention to a bunny.

When a young child is requested to do something, the linguistic channel in the child's brain analyzes the acoustic input and activates the appropriate cognitive and perceptual schemas. The command "come here" will activate a plan for locomotion while the command "look at the bunny" (see Figure 1 for an informal representation) will activate a plan for seeing. The child knows that she is to execute the command because of the intonation pattern (Jakobson's conative function, 1960), which, presumably, is grounded in the various neural systems subserving social interaction. Upon receipt of that intonation pattern, the child's motor system is prepared to execute a pattern. As the content of the utterance is decoded the motor schema, whether for moving her body or looking in a certain direction, is executed. This sounds as though the infant is helpless in the face of intelligible commands from others, that she has no choice but to execute them. Initially, I believe, this is the case. The motor control center has no way of distinguishing between a command originating in the brain of another and a command originating within the child's own brain. Once the ability to make the distinction is learned, the word "no" enters the child's vocabulary as a means of marking autonomy (Church, 1966, p. 101).

Delicate bouquet

IMGP8431rd2crt4bw

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Collective Creativity vs. the Lone Genius in the Discovery of the Higgs

The discovery of the Higgs boson was a major scientific achievement, writes Neal Hartman in Nautilus. But who did it?
An obvious candidate is Peter Higgs, who postulated the Higgs boson, as a consequence of the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism, in 1964. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013 along with Francois Englert (Englert and his deceased colleague Robert Brout arrived at the same result independently). But does this mean that Higgs was a genius? Peter Jenni, one of the founders and the first “spokesperson” of the ATLAS Experiment Collaboration (one of the two experiments at CERN that discovered the Higgs particle), hesitates when I ask him the question.

“They [Higgs, Brout and Englert] didn’t think they [were working] on something as grandiose as [Einstein’s relativity],” he states cautiously. The spontaneous symmetry breaking leading to the Higgs “was a challenging question, but [Einstein] saw something new and solved a whole field. Peter Higgs would tell you, he worked a few weeks on this.”

What, then, of the leaders of the experimental effort, those who directed billions of dollars in investment and thousands of physicists, engineers, and students from almost 40 countries for over three decades? Surely there must have been a genius mastermind directing this legion of workers, someone we can single out for his or her extraordinary contribution.

“No,” says [Fabiola] Gianotti unequivocally, which is rare for a physicist, “it’s completely different. The instruments we have built are so complex that inventiveness and creativity manifests itself in the day-by-day work. There are an enormous amount of problems that require genius and creativity to be spread over time and over many people, and all at the same level.”

Scientific breakthroughs often seem to be driven by individual genius, but this perception belies the increasingly collaborative nature of modern science. Perhaps nothing captures this dichotomy better than the story of the Higgs discovery, which presents a stark contrast between the fame awarded to a few on the one hand, and the institutionalized anonymity of the experiments that made the discovery possible on the other.

Struttin' in Hoboken

20141025-IMGP1538

20141025-IMGP1529

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Teaching and Learning: the Internet as Community Technology

As I’ve indicated in two previous posts, Authority, Trust, and Responsibility in Online Education and Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars, I’ve got some misgivings about what we’re being offered in Connected Courses. After a fair amount of discussion in the “meta” discussion I’ve managed to resolve these issues. This post is about that resolution.

As I indicated in the Learning/Teaching Styles post, to exaggerate a bit, the course is presenting itself in universalist terms – as an alternative to MOOC mania – but seems to take its key examples from a restricted “region” of the pedagogical “space.” The question then arises: Will these principles generalize beyond that region? My problem is not so much that we don’t know, but that I hadn’t so far seen or heard an explicit statement of this issue. Once the issue has been explicitly stated, we can set about explicitly facing it in whatever ways are available.

The key insight, I believe, is that the educational dynamic has to change so that much of the learning takes place in interaction directly among the students. That, I believe, is what Howard Rheingold means by a “learning community” in which the participants are therefore “co-learners.” That, in turn, requires that the instructor take a different role, one that includes facilitating student-to-student interaction in addition to setting out the basic guidelines and materials for the course.

Stated in those terms, my misgivings dissolve. Why? Because I now have an explicit recipe to follow: Figure out how the students can help one another most directly and do whatever I can to help them. This seems simple and obvious, and no doubt would have come out later in the course – in the last two sections – but I needed an explicit preview to reassure me that things would work out.

John Lawler on the Current State of Generative Grammar

From a Facebook conversation with Dan Everett (about slide rules, aka slipsticks, no less) and others:
The constant revision and consequent redefining and renaming of concepts – some imaginary and some very obvious – has led to a multi-dimensional spectrum of heresy in generative grammar, so complex that one practically needs chromatography to distinguish variants. Babel comes to mind, and also Windows™ versions. Most of the literature is incomprehensible in consequence – or simply repetitive, except it's too much trouble to tell which.
–John Lawler

Our changing mores: sex on the mind and on campus

“It would be much more gratifying, and in both parties’ best interest, for both the girl and guy to be straightforward — ‘Hey, I’m willing to do this,’ ” a 19-year-old male water-polo player said. “And yet the vocabulary for it is not really there.” Affirmative-consent policies try to address this by recognizing body language as a form of consent. But to most of the men I talked to, this seemed like an invitation to more ambiguity, not less.

One area where the men were more at ease was “bystander intervention.” Universities know that probably the biggest threat to women on campus comes from a small group of serial predators who, research suggests, are responsible for most assaults. Some institutions, like Yale, are training students to watch for warnings signs that someone might be at risk. Sophomores take a workshop in which they watch an eight-minute video of a girl who goes out dancing, drinks to the point of bleary-eyed obliteration and lets a guy take her into a bedroom, where he forebodingly shuts the door. The second half of the video rewinds, noting the points at which a friend, a bartender, a stranger or a roommate could have stepped in to protect her. The interventions mostly aren’t lengthy or heroic. They’re small moments, and students are encouraged to be alert to indications that someone is exerting or feeling sexual pressure and to feel comfortable stepping in.

And they do. Every male student I talked to had a story about intervening on the dance floor or at a party, mostly by just saying hello to someone who looked like a target of unwanted aggressive attention.
This is what's interesting to me:  “And yet the vocabulary for it is not really there.” And it's a "vocabulary," of course, that's both verbal and non-verbal. Switching in and out of verbal mode is tricky, as is switching in and out of sexual mode, or sleep mode. In general, switching from one behavioral mode to another is tricky business.

Remember, this is Sonnet 129 territory.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Fotos: The Hallucinated City

IMGP8747rd

IMGP6444

IMGP8525rd

Geriatric Genius, or: Age Before Beauty

Some years ago the late Kenneth Boulding had created an organization had created an organization for retired academics who were still lively of mind. I forget what he called it, but as things worked out he was at a cybernetics conference I was attending and I bumped into him in line for a breakfast table. "So how's your organization for geriatric genius?" I asked him. He was amused and we had breakfast together.

The New York Times is running a piece about old people who're still active and creative: Old Masters at the Top of Their Game. It has an introductory essay by Lewis Lapham:
The portraits here are of men and women in their 80s and 90s, rich in the rewards of substantial and celebrated careers, and although I know none of them except by name and reputation, I’m asked why their love’s labor is not lost but still to be found. Why do they persist, the old masters? To what end the unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not rest on the laurels and the oars?

The short answer is Dr. Samuel Johnson’s, in a letter to James Boswell in 1777: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” A longer answer is that of the 19th-century Japanese artist Hokusai, who at 75 added a postscript to the first printing of his “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji”:

“From the time that I was 6 years old I had the mania of drawing the form of objects. As I came to be 50 I had published an infinity of designs; but all that I have produced before the age of 70 is not worth being counted. It is at the age of 73 that I have somewhat begun to understand the structure of true nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the mystery of things; at 100 years of age I should have reached decidedly a marvelous degree, and when I shall be 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be instinct with life — and I ask all those who shall live as long as I do to see if I have not kept my word.”
Hokusai got it right. Of course, though, it depends on your field. Not all endeavors can benefit from accumulated knowledge and experience. It depends.

• • the people featured • •

Frederick Wiseman, filmmaker, 84. Wiseman’s documentary ‘‘National Gallery’’ had its premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes this year.

T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital Management, 86.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, of the Supreme Court.

Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and author, 85. Wilson published a book, ‘‘The Meaning of Human Existence,’’ this year. It is the second in a trilogy.

Roy Haynes, jazz drummer and bandleader, 89. Haynes’s latest album was ‘‘Roy-Alty,’’ released in 2011.

Carmen Herrera, painter, 99. Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Today her work is in the permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern.

Ginette Bedard, long-distance runner, 81. Bedard will run in her 12th consecutive New York City Marathon this year.

Tony Bennett, singer, 88, released ‘‘Cheek to Cheek,’’ an album of duets with Lady Gaga, this year. It debuted at No. 1 in Billboard.

Ellsworth Kelly, artist, 91. Last year, President Obama presented Kelly with the National Medal of Arts.

Christopher Plummer, actor, 84. In 2012, Plummer won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in ‘‘Beginners,’’ making him the oldest actor to win the award.

R. O. Blechman, illustrator and author, 84. In 2009, Blechman published the book ‘‘Dear James: Letters to a Young Illustrator.’’

Carl Reiner, actor, 92. Reiner published his second memoir, ‘‘I Just Remembered,’’ this year.

Frank Gehry, architect, 85. Gehry’s latest project was the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, an arts center sponsored by the LVMH Fashion Group.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, 81. Feinstein has been a member of the United States Senate since 1992.

Betty White, actress, 92. White currently stars in the TV Land original sitcom ‘‘Hot in Cleveland.’’

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Emergence in Gray Scale Outdoors

IMGP5257rdBW

IMGP5572rdBW

IMGP3481rdGBW

Whoops! There goes the driverless car

A good technology demonstration so wows you with what the product can do that you might forget to ask about what it can't. Case in point: Google's self-driving car. There is a surprisingly long list of the things the car can't do, like avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow. Yet a consensus has emerged among many technologists, policymakers, and journalists that Google has essentially solved—or is on the verge of solving—all of the major issues involved with robotic driving....

But what Google is working on may instead result in the automotive equivalent of the Apple Newton, what one Web commenter called a "timid, skittish robot car whose inferior level of intelligence becomes a daily annoyance." To be able to handle the everyday stresses and strains of the real driving world, the Google car will require a computer with a level of intelligence that machines won't have for many years, if ever.
For one thing, it requires carefully crafted maps:
...Google admitted to me that the process it currently uses to make the maps are too inefficient to work in the country as a whole.

To create them, a dedicated vehicle outfitted with a bank of sensors first makes repeated passes scanning the roadway to be mapped. The data is then downloaded, with every square foot of the landscape pored over by both humans and computers to make sure that all-important real-world objects have been captured. This complete map gets loaded into the car's memory before a journey, and because it knows from the map about the location of many stationary objects, its computer—essentially a generic PC running Ubuntu Linux—can devote more of its energies to tracking moving objects, like other cars.

But the maps have problems, starting with the fact that the car can’t travel a single inch without one. Since maps are one of the engineering foundations of the Google car, before the company's vision for ubiquitous self-driving cars can be realized, all 4 million miles of U.S. public roads will be need to be mapped, plus driveways, off-road trails, and everywhere else you'd ever want to take the car.
Details, details. How about we create some technology that will allow us to reduce the number of bugs in software by a factor of 10.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

We are Neanderthals, just a tad

And, finally, there’s what we learn about the interbreeding between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. As Jerry, John Hawks, and I have all argued before (and as I recently summarized at The Dish– see the update at end of Andrew’s post), Neanderthals and early non-African anatomically modern humans (along with Denisovans), were all parts of a group of interbreeding populations in nature, and thus were all members of the species Homo sapiens. Ust’-Ishim Man’s genome is about 2% Neanderthal, just like modern Europeans and East Asians. This means that the level of admixture characterizing modern populations was already in place by 45,000 years ago. This is not too surprising. Neanderthals were going or gone by about then, so whatever interbreeding occurred should have (mostly) occurred by then. So Neanderthals are us.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Learning/Teaching Styles: Connected Courses Exemplars

When I signed up with the course I did so without much investigation or thought. To be sure, I’ve been online and active for two decades and know the web fairly well, and I’d even taught an online course way back in the pre-web era. But I figured I should get up to speed on this that and the other. So, I took a quick look at the description, saw that Howard Rheingold was on board, and I signed up.

How could I miss? I’d learn about some technology, learn what other folks are up to, and meet some interesting people. It was a no-brainer.

But, I didn’t realize something that I might have picked up if I’d read the “fine print” more carefully:
In 2013, the DML Hub, as part of the MacArthur Foundation supported Digital Media and Learning Initiative, launched Reclaim Open Learning, an effort to explore the intersections between higher education, open learning, and the connected learning model in the midst of MOOC mania. The effort focused on returning to core pedagogical and learning principles, the ethos of the open web, and end-to-end faculty and student innovation when attention was shifting to large institutionalized initiatives and old-school top-down pedagogical and learning models...
It’s the implications of “MOOC mania” and “returning to core pedagogical and learning principles” that I either didn’t notice or didn’t think about. And if I’d thought about them it’s not clear whether or not that would have gotten me to where I am now.

It’s not, mind you, that I’m particularly interested in MOOCs. I think “MOOC mania” is a reasonable characterization of the phenomenon that, for example, lead one University of Virginia board member to go nuts – though as I recall, they don’t call them “board members” at UVA. MOOCs are a certain kind of pedagogical system and they have a place, but you can’t base a whole college curriculum on MOOCs and MOOCs aren’t appropriate for the things I’ve got in mind for myself.

But it’s not at all clear to me that the creators of MOOCs had lost touch with “core pedagogical and learning principles.” Perhaps they’d just focused on one set of principles to the exclusion of others.

Let’s continue with the Connected Courses fine print:
One of the outcomes of this effort was a set of innovation prize winners – phonar, ds106, and FemTechNet – that exemplified core principles and approaches that shared a family resemblance both philosophically and in their implementation. These courses were anchored in a university course that stressed critical thinking in the context of creative production, and which had created infrastructures and modes of participation that lived on the open web. Over time, these projects have built a strong online community and brand that has a life outside of the university course. Together, they provide a set of models and learning that we felt could inform the development of more open courses that are highly participatory and aligned with the principles of connected learning.
OK. “Critical thinking in the context of creative production” – sounds good, but what does it mean in practice?

Three Exemplars

So I went to the web sites for the three courses that are mentioned and snatched a bit of prose from each.

Old Trix 2

IMGP8152rd1

IMGP8152rd7eq

IMGP8152rd7beVRT

Why I’d Abandoned Chomskian Linguistics before I Got to Graduate School and Where I am Now

It wasn’t a matter of deep and well-thought princple. It was simpler than that. Chomsky's approach to linguistics didn’t have the tools I was looking for. Let me explain.

* * * * *
Dan Everett’s kicked off two discussions on Facebook about Chomksy. This one takes Christina Behme’s recent review article, A ‘Galilean’ science of language, as its starting point. And this one’s about nativism, sparked by Vyv Evans’ The Language Myth.
* * * * *

I learned about Chomsky during my second year as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I took a course in psycholinguistics taught by James Deese, known for his empirical work on word associations. We read and wrote summaries of classic articles, including Lee’s review of Syntactic Structures and Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. My summary of one of them, I forget which, prompted Deese to remark that my summary was an “unnecessarily original” recasting of my argument.

That’s how I worked. I tried to get inside the author’s argument and then to restate it in my own words.

In any event I was hooked. But Hopkins didn’t have any courses in linguistics let alone a linguistics department. So I had to pursue Chomsky and related thinkers on my own. Which I did over the next few years. I read Aspects, Syntatic Structures, Sound Patterns of English (well, more like I read at that one), Lenneberg’s superb book on biological foundations (with an appendix by Chomsky), found my way to generative semantics, and other stuff. By the time I headed off to graduate school in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo I was mostly interested in that other stuff.

I became interested in Chomsky because I was interested in language. While I was interested in language as such, I was a bit more interested in literature and much of my interest in linguistics followed from that. Literature is made of language, hence some knowledge of linguistics should be useful. Trouble is, it was semantics that I needed. Chomsky had no semantics and generative semantics looked more like syntax.

So that other stuff looked more promising. Somehow I’d found my way to Syd Lamb’s stratificational linguistics. I liked that for the diagrams, as I think diagrammatically, and for the elegance. Lamb used the same vocabulary of structural elements to deal with phonology, morphology, and syntax. That made sense to me. And the s work within his system actually looked like semantics, rather than souped up syntax, though there wasn’t enough of it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sad Music, Why We Listen to It

Liila Taruffi, Stefan Koelsch. The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey. PLOS One.

Published: October 20, 2014
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110490

Abstract: This study explores listeners’ experience of music-evoked sadness. Sadness is typically assumed to be undesirable and is therefore usually avoided in everyday life. Yet the question remains: Why do people seek and appreciate sadness in music? We present findings from an online survey with both Western and Eastern participants (N = 772). The survey investigates the rewarding aspects of music-evoked sadness, as well as the relative contribution of listener characteristics and situational factors to the appreciation of sad music. The survey also examines the different principles through which sadness is evoked by music, and their interaction with personality traits. Results show 4 different rewards of music-evoked sadness: reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no “real-life” implications. Moreover, appreciation of sad music follows a mood-congruent fashion and is greater among individuals with high empathy and low emotional stability. Surprisingly, nostalgia rather than sadness is the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music. Correspondingly, memory was rated as the most important principle through which sadness is evoked. Finally, the trait empathy contributes to the evocation of sadness via contagion, appraisal, and by engaging social functions. The present findings indicate that emotional responses to sad music are multifaceted, are modulated by empathy, and are linked with a multidimensional experience of pleasure. These results were corroborated by a follow-up survey on happy music, which indicated differences between the emotional experiences resulting from listening to sad versus happy music. This is the first comprehensive survey of music-evoked sadness, revealing that listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation. Such beneficial emotional effects constitute the prime motivations for engaging with sad music in everyday life.

Sex, Talk, and the Future

Sex has bedeviled humankind ever since there WAS humankind, and perhaps a bit before. Who knows? California has just passed a new law governing sexual conduct among college students that is likely to have who knows what effects on actual conduct. What interests me is whether or not and how the law alters the relationship between conscious deliberation and intuitive action in sexual (and other?) interactions.

Are we learning new ways to behave? I don’t know.

As California's colleges and universities adjust to a new state law mandating a standard of "affirmative consent" in sexual assault and rape cases—as well as campus judicial proceedings with a "preponderance of the evidence" standard of guilt—observers are trying to anticipate how these policy changes will affect the lived culture of sexual acts among students, most in their late teens or early 20s. The law's effect on campus culture will determine whether it advances the ends sought by supporters, who hope to reduce the incidence of sex crimes. Yet there is broad disagreement about whether and how sexual culture will adapt to the new regime. Even those who agree that the law is good or bad disagree about its likely effects.

What follows are some of the wildly divergent forecasts, some hopeful, others cautionary. Taken together, they illuminate different notions of human nature, the reach of public policy, and what life on California's many college campuses is actually like. The scenarios that they anticipate are not always mutually exclusive.
He introduces each scenario with a brief title phrase, which I’ve collected below:
It Will Be Harder to Get Away With Rape

Sex Will Be Hotter and More Enjoyable

Sex Will Be Scary and Anxiety-Inducing

Hookup Culture Will Wither Under Neo-Victorianism

Misogyny on Campus Will Increase

Sexual Harassment Will Change

Women Will Face Charges More Often Than Expected

Sexual Assault Will Become a Sometimes Less Serious Charge

Old Trix

IMGP9487rdXFdEqETC

IMGP9487rdXFdEqETC2

IMGP9487rdXFdEqETC4

Cataphiles: The Cave people of Paris

PARIS — On a recent evening, a 31-year-old street artist led a small group through a dark tunnel off a disused train track in the south of Paris. After crouching, crawling and sometimes wading through water, using headlamps to light their way, they finally arrived in a chamber with vaulted ceilings about 10 feet high.

The space was once used by a brewery to store bottles. It is now part of a sprawling network of abandoned galleries below this city, where a secretive community of street artists, history buffs and other Parisians regularly prowl. They are sometimes called cataphiles: lovers of the catacombs, as the subterranean network is commonly known.

Some seek peace and quiet from the bustling city, others an unusual canvas for their art, still others a place to party with friends at a lower cost and in a more jovial atmosphere than in the clubs and bars above. Many cherish the secrecy and, to some extent, exclusivity of their endeavors.

“My creations have a lot more value here, because they are intended for a limited audience that deserves to see them,” said the artist who led the group and declined to give his name, but went by Nobad. “They went through the trouble of coming here.”

Nobad stencils European paintings with a twist, like Gustave Courbet’s “Desperate Man” in glow-in-the-dark paint. But the walls are covered with art, including paintings in the style of Egyptian tomb murals, grimacing black and orange devil faces, a giant multicolored parrot, and an abundance of graffiti. In one room, the walls are encrusted with mirror shards, and a glittering disco ball hangs from the ceiling.
The egalitarian ethos is like that of Japanese aesthetic circles from the Tokugawa era, where people from different stations in life meet on an equal basis:
“You can’t be judged on your appearance because we are all dirty with mud and wearing boots,” said a 45-year-old pastel artist who gave her name only as Misti, on another outing. “So the banker and the punk, they party together.”
The 3 minute video with the Times article captures that ethos: "There is a lot of graffiti here and not enough classical masterpieces."

Monday, October 20, 2014

Separating Culture and Identity from One Another

This post is the introduction to a set of five posts I've collected as a working paper: Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century, which you may download from my Academia.edu page: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2180925. I first posted it almost two years ago, but I'm re-posting now as it is relevant to my current 3QD post and the New Savanna pointer to it.


* * * * *
 Abstract: These five essays deal are about separating the concept of culture from that of geo-political identity. They make two points: 1) Such terms as "French culture", "Egyptian culture", "Oriental culture", and so forth are geo-political concepts that no more identify KINDS of culture than such terms as "African wildlife", "Pennsylvanian wildlife", and "Japanese wildlife" identify KINDS of animals. 2) Social groups have systems of identification that are parts of the group culture, but that the identification systems of nation-states and religions tend to appropriate all of culture to themselves and thus obsure our thinking on these issues.
* * * * *
We are a nation primarily because we think we are a nation. This ground we have buried our dead in for so long is the only ground most of us have ever stood upon. . . . Most of our people are remarkably merciful to Africa, when you consider how Africa has used us.

--Hannah Nelson, in J. L. Gwaltney, Drylongso

My intellectual life has been dominated by an interest in culture, an interest I have pursued through the study of certain kinds of expressive culture—literary texts, music, films, graffiti, the close examination of a few examples, e.g. “Kubla Khan,” and Apoclaypse Now, and the study of cultural evolution. The question of culture’s nature—what it is and how it works—is a deep and curious one and one that has now become particularly acute for me. On the one hand, my investigation of metaphysical pluralism has brought culture to the fore through the most preliminary of essays into aesthetics and ethics. It has become clear to me, as I will explain in another essay, that cultural relativism is central to a pluralistic ethics.

A bit more concretely, I am considering writing a book on animated feature films that will include considerable discussion of Disney’s Fantasia. I have already argued that that film is an expression of a transnational cultural formation that has emerged in the 20th Century. To the extent that we identify the notion of culture with that of nation—an identification that is quite common in even the most sophisticated of circles—that transnational culture can’t be anything other than American capitalism and its transnational extension must therefore be cultural imperialism, including jazz, rock and roll, blue jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers. If, however, the identification of cultures with nations is deeply problematic, then my argument can take a different turn. Maybe Fantasia, with its European music and imagery derived from European painting, really IS transnational. Maybe.

I’m not going to argue these two matters—pluralistic ethics and Fantasia as cultural expression—here and now. I bring them up only to indicate why I find it important to cut the almost reflexive link we make between nations and cultures, a link that treats American culture, Western culture, Swiss culture, Philippine culture, Indian culture, and African culture all as distinct kinds of culture.

Death of the Firstborn Egyptians: Nina Paley takes it up a notch

Here's a kick-ass scene from Nina Paley's work-in-progress, Seder-Masochism:


I think her artistry's gone up a notch with this piece. The coloring is more subtle, and the overall rhythm and movement seems to be heading out to parts unknown.

Based on Exodus 12:
21 Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel, and said unto them, Draw out and take you a lamb according to your families, and kill the passover.
22 And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the bason, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the bason; and none of you shall go out at the door of his house until the morning.
23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
24 And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever.
25 And it shall come to pass, when ye be come to the land which the Lord will give you, according as he hath promised, that ye shall keep this service.
26 And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?
27 That ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses. And the people bowed the head and worshipped.
28 And the children of Israel went away, and did as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron, so did they.
29 And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
30 And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.

For those who are new to New Savanna, I've got a ton of stuff about Nina's previous feature, Sita Sings the Blues (the SSTB page); this link takes you to the individual SSTB posts.

The Theory of Cultural Ranks at 3QD

abstract principles one v2.jpg

Posted at 3 Quarks Daily: Evolving to the Future, the Web of Culture
Europeans had been trading with Asian peoples since ancient times. But things began to change in the 15th Century when the Spanish and Portuguese sent ships across the oceans, followed by Northern Europeans in the 17th Century. By the late 19th Century Europeans had colonized most of the rest of the globe and, on the whole, held themselves superior to other peoples.

And why not?

How else would you account for their success? After all, the Europeans were vastly out-numbered by the peoples they’d subjugated and the subjugated territories were far away from the European homelands. Military technology of all sorts gave Europeans decisive advantage in armed conflicts of all types. Technologies for travel, transport, and communication were important as well. And, I suspect, modes of social organization played a role too. Isn’t capitalism, after all, a mode of social organization?

We can argue the details in many ways, but there’s no getting around European superiority. But how do we account for that superiority? That’s the question.

The obvious account is to declare innate superiority, and that’s what our ancestors did. The white race was superior to other races and that’s that, so they believed. As such, they were destined to rule the world. Not only that, but it was their responsibility to bring the benefits of their superiority to other peoples.

We no longer believe in racial superiority, and the idea of human races is in trouble as well. Whatever it is that accounts for Europe’s superior capacity for conquest and governance, it is not biology. It isn’t in the genes.

Which means that it must be in culture, for what else is there? And now things get tricky, for culture is poorly understood. All too often we talk about culture as though it were a homogeneous essence that flows through nations like water between the banks of a river. For all practical purposes, the way this conception of culture accounts for European conquest differs little from chalking it up to superior genes.

abstract principles two v2.jpg

Recaps – How do people use them?

Note to self: What about all these recaps? Are they as old as the web? When did the NYTimes start publishing recaps? – I just noticed a Boardwalk Empire recap this AM, which is what got me thinking about this. 

Some digital humanist ought to be harvesting these things, if only for later reference. I wonder how people use recaps? Sure, you can use them to fill in the gaps if you've missed an episode or three. But you can also use a recap to remind you of the ep and fans can use them in conversations.

Is someone looking into this? Is this an opportunity for the citizen scholar squad?

Fantasia Redux?

From today's NYTimes, the "paper of record":
“It’s a continuation of the spirit of ‘Fantasia’ in a different medium,” Mr. Battilana said.

The original “Fantasia” is a feature-length animated film intended to popularize classical music. It features eight shorts, each pairing compositions by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven and others with mind-bending visual representations.

While there is no central story in the new game, it includes 10 realms with original art and musical personalities. The soundtrack features 32 songs in a range of styles, from works in the film (“Night on Bald Mountain,” “The Nutcracker Suite”) to classic rock and pop (David Bowie, Queen, Elton John) to songs by current stars (Bruno Mars, Lorde, the White Stripes). The original versions are accompanied by remixes, like a ska version of Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” or a Caribbean vibe for Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass.”

There is a sense of progression from realm to realm. 
Good, I think. I've argued that Disney's original Fantasia had progressive order.

Under the hood:
In creating Fantasia, the company tapped the musical expertise of its own employees, some of whom moonlight as musicians in local bands. The studio also hired the London Symphony Orchestra to rerecord the classical tracks, section by section, to allow players to swap out separate “stems” — woodwind, percussion, violins — and replace them with instruments from the remixes. One remix features Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” with honky-tonk piano and harmonizing vocals; another mashes up Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” with The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

The game’s lead music developer, Eric Brosius, who plays guitar in two bands, said having musicians working at the studio brings “an air of authenticity.”

“Our games aim to give normal listeners a look under the hood,” Mr. Brosius said.
Oh, crap! Not "authenticity," the most hyped aesthetic virtue in the book. And so easily faked. But who knows. Still, why not just make your own music?

The game is for the Kinect platform, which I've never seen. Here's a Lorde preview on YouTube and if you look to the side you'll see lots of videos related to the game.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Saturday riddle

20140825-IMGP9440-2

Genes and culture: black death, pogroms, slavery and trust

Kenneally describes a study by the economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, which found persistent differences in anti-Semitism among towns in Germany. Communities that reacted to the Black Death some 600 years ago by blaming and massacring Jews were far more likely to lead pogroms against Jews in the 1920s and to turn Jews over to the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.

In a separate series of studies, the economists Nathan Nunn of Harvard and Leonard Wantchekon of Princeton found a similar cultural legacy that shaped trust — a trait some presume to vary according to genetic makeup. Nunn and Wantchekon noticed that the poorest regions of Africa were the regions most exploited by slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries. These areas suffered decades of raiding in which any stranger might prove a kidnapper, and in which slavers often gained access to their victims by bribing or blackmailing relatives or village authorities.

Clearly such behaviors may have eroded trust at the time, but could the effect last? Nunn and Wantchekon found that it does. The more a population was exposed to slave raiding generations ago, the lower its measures of trust and economic activity today. The specter of slavery, they concluded, had done long-term damage to the social bonds necessary for efficient trade. The economies and people continue to suffer accordingly.

It’s a far more plausible and evidence-based explanation for Africa’s economic troubles than the one offered by Nicholas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance,” which, with vaporous evidence, attributes weak African economies to African-­specific genetic profiles that purportedly discourage trust. Genetics gives all humans the power to create culture. Yet it appears most likely that it is not genetics but culture’s manifestations, some lovely, some horrific, that distinguish and divide us.