30 April 2011

Extended Mind Joke

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:09 pm

Why did the pencil think that 2+2=4?

Because it was connected to a mathematician.

– from Fred Adams and Ken Aizawa, “Defending the Bounds of Cognition”

I’m not a complete curmudgeon with respect to extended mind theory. I acknowledge that I’ve not read the primary documents other than this seminal paper by Clark and Chalmers, and I’ve not thought carefully about the implications. Tentatively, I’d say that thinking is an intentional action performed by some agent, using whatever materials and tools it has at its disposal to perform this action: pencil and paper, calculator, human expert consultant, etc. When using external tools in performing a cognitive act, the thinking agent has to wield those tools with skill and intent, which requires deploying cognitive capabilities internal to the agent. However, the external tools deployed by the agent as part of the thinking process do not thereby become part of the thinking agent.

These distinction between action and agent and tool apply to more mundane activities as well. When I cook a scrambled egg I use a bowl, a fork, a skillet, a stove, and a big spoon. These are tools I use in cooking, and I couldn’t cook a scrambled egg without them: the tools are as integral to the cooking process as is the cook. But the cooking tools aren’t part of the cook. The tools aren’t even part of the scrambled egg, even though there would be no scrambled egg without them.

28 April 2011

The Diving Pool by Ogawa, 1990

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:42 am

In a recent thread on the Impostume, Carl said that he liked Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool. On this recommendation I picked the book up from the library, and now I like it too. It consists of  three novellas, each told by a different young woman narrator, each possessed of a creepy passivity and a delicate lascivious cruelty. These days I read fiction not just for its own sake but also for its potential exemplary value in crafting my own writing. A couple of things here with Ogawa’s book. First, the length of these stories: they’re about 13K words each, maybe 40 pages in typical book print. That’s long enough to explore some territory and dig under the surface a little without obligating oneself to the sweep and intricacy of a full-length novel. I recently read the excellent Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, which is a set of interrelated short stories narrated by and centered around the same main character. Now, after reading Ogawa, I’m thinking about maybe stretching this structure into a set of interrelated novellas.

The other exemplary thing for me about Ogawa’s book is signaled in the first sentence of the first novella:

It’s warm here: I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.

The places in which theses stories unfold — an enclosed swimming pool, a maternity hospital, a university dormitory — assume a subjective presence, as if these places were themselves characters. In our discussion of Kubrick’s The Shining we observed that the Overlook Hotel is a presence affecting the guests and caretakers who stay there, almost as if the humans and the events that befall them are repressed memories of the hotel itself, locked up in the rooms waiting for someone to unlock them. Is the hotel’s madness a projective expression of the occupants’ disturbed psyches, or vice versa? This sort of expressionistic personification of place surely predates cinematic exemplars like The Shining — Poe’s stories come most readily to mind. Ogawa does it too. Here’s another example, this one from the third novella. The manager of the dormitory is dying: he’s lost both arms and a leg, and now his ribs are curving inward toward his heart. The narrator has begun tending to the manager…

“Could you get my medicine?”

“Of course,” I said. I took a packet of powder from the drawer of his nightstand and filled a glass from the pitcher of water that had been left by his bed. Everything he might need — the telephone, a box of tissues, the teapot and cups — had been brought from elsewhere in the apartment and arranged close to the bed. The change was minor, but to the Manager it must have seemed as though his world was shrinking along with the space in his chest. I watched a drop of water fall from the lip of the pitcher, and a chill went down my spine.

“I hope this helps,” I said, trying to appear calm as I tore open the packet of powder.

“It’s just to make me more comfortable,” he said, his face expressionless. “To relax the muscles and soothe the nerves.”

“But isn’t there anything they can do?” I asked again.

The Manager thought for a moment. “As I’ve told you, the dormitory is in a period of irreversible degeneration. The process has already begun. It will take some time yet to reach the end — it’s not a matter of simply throwing a switch and turning out the lights. But the whole place is collapsing…”

Ogawa’s Dormitory, like The Overlook Hotel, is a variant on the traditional haunted house. I’m not trying to write horror stories or weird fiction. I’ve written a book about a set of characters whose various motivations eventually converge; now I want those merged subjective trajectories to take shape as a set of interrelated places in the world. I don’t think Ogawa’s sensibility is right for my project; still, her expressionism gives me something to work with, to immerse myself in, to be possessed by…

27 April 2011

News Flashback

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:40 pm

Change in philosophy could lead Panthers to Newton, insinuated the online headline. Intrigued, I clicked to the story, thinking it would be about these Panthers and this Newton. But no.

26 April 2011

Breaking Local News

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:45 am

Did you happen to read about the failed pipe bomb planted last week at a shopping mall in suburban Denver, near Columbine High School, on the anniversary of the massacre? And that the prime suspect had recently been released from jail, present whereabouts unknown? Well, this morning he got arrested here in Boulder, about a mile down the road, at the grocery store where we regularly shop. “It is unclear what connection, if any, he has to Boulder,” says the news story.

Two years ago, on the tenth anniversary of Columbine, the bomb squad evacuated and swept our daughter’s high school. A couple driving a van with out-of-state plates had been seen attempting to place a parcel at the base of the flagpole in front of the school. Turned out the suspects were looking for a geocache planted there at least a year earlier by one of the teachers at the school.

Besides being the anniversary of Columbine, 4/20 is also international smoke weed in public day. Every year the University of Colorado in Boulder hosts an enthusiastic celebration.

24 April 2011

Quantitative Dis-easing

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 11:45 am

I’m reluctant to write about politics or economics because I don’t know that much about them. But I don’t know much about ontology or education or the origins of human language either, so what the hell…

According to this article in the NY Times, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledges that the Fed’s “quantitative easing” interventions haven’t had much effect on the average American’s economic situation. The idea as I understand it was for the Fed, comprised of a bunch of privately-owned banks, to buy a lot of debt issued by the Federal Government. This sudden increased willingness to lend would reduce long-term interest rates in financial markets, which in turn would stimulate the private sector to borrow more cheap money to expand production capacity. This expansion would include hiring more US workers, thus reducing unemployment. In addition, the banks’ purchase of Federal debt would pump hundreds of billions of additional dollars into circulation. More total dollars reduces the value of any particular dollar; i.e., the currency is devalued relative to other world currencies. The weaker dollar would effectively reduce wages paid to US workers, and reduce the prices of US-made goods on the world market.

However, even before the quantitative easing was enacted it seemed evident that industry was in no mood to borrow. The bank bailout, pushed through Congress in the aftermath of the housing crash, was justified as a credit easing move, inasmuch as the “toxic assets” held by the mortgage lenders wouldn’t collateralize any new lending. But even before the bailout the long-term interest rates were low, and still the corporations weren’t borrowing. In the two-plus years since then American businesses have amassed huge profits, which presumably means that they have enough cash to finance expansion without borrowing heavily. And yet the US unemployment rate hovers near 9 percent.

The implication seems clear: profits have gone up largely because US unemployment has gone up. American workers are expensive relative to third-world workers. More profits can be generated by laying off American workers and rehiring elsewhere in the world — which is what has happened. Meanwhile, the only big borrower has been the Federal government: the national debt has doubled in less than ten years. This is the new money that’s been used to keep American demand — and prices — growing.

During the current Republican resurgency, panic is mounting about government debt being out of control, about how 42 cents of every dollar spent by the Federal government is used to pay interest on the debt and so on. Now Bernanke is setting the stage for discontinuing the quantitative easing, which means that interest rates on government borrowing are about to increase, which will increase the panic level. Surely the bipartisan political solution won’t be to raise taxes or (God forbid) for the government to default on its loans, but to cut government spending. More hundreds of thousands of people who hold government jobs or contracts will be cut loose, flooding the job market, increasing the unemployment rate, reducing the wage rate. At some point the private sector’s rehiring of American workers will generate as much marginal return on investment as further expanding third-world production capacity. Maybe that recovery will happen in two years, as the experts contend. I wonder if it will always be two years away.

17 April 2011

Origin of Human Language?

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:46 pm

I’ve been thinking about the rationale behind the recently-released study by Quentin Atkinson tracing the original human language to southwest Aftrica. Atkinson predicated his work on the “serial founder effect” in biological ecology. When a small group splits off from a larger population of a species, that group carries with it only a fraction of the genetic diversity present in the entire species. When this fragmentation occurs frequently, relatively homogeneous divergent subpopulations of the same species arise. When the fragmentation occurs serially, then the diversity of each newly-budded subgroup is lower than that of its predecessor.

It’s known that the human species evolved in Africa and spread from there, and that the serial founder effect reduced the genetic diversity within human subpopulations branching off during this spread. Atkinson contends that the serial founder effect works not just with human genetics but with human language as well. Rather than looking at vocabulary or grammatical elements, Atkinson studied phonemes, which are the smallest units of sound used in building meaningful utterances (e.g., in English the “k” sound is a phoneme). It turns out that the languages of southwest Africa use the largest number of phonemes (including various clicking noises). Atkinson presents evidence demonstrating that the longer it took for any given subpopulation of humans to migrate from Southwest Africa, the smaller the number of phonemes there are in that subpopulation’s language.

Let’s assume that Atkinson’s findings stand up to subsequent empirical scrutiny. The question is why the serial founder effect would work for languages. I can see why a small group of migrants might between them use only a fraction of the vocabulary of their native tongue. Even so, wouldn’t they have occasion to use most if not all of the distinct sounds of their language? English has something like 45 phonemes. I suspect that even a 3-year-old knows enough words to use all of those phonemes. Why would even a very small subset of language-users drop start dropping their phonemic diversity? And how in the world did the Hawaiians, way out on the farthest frontier of the serial-founder dispersion from Africa, manage to lose all but 13 phonemes? Someone else reviewing Atkinson’s work cited Dave Barry’s hypothesis:

The Hawaiian language is quite unusual because when the original Polynesians came in their canoes, most of their consonants were washed overboard in a storm, and they arrived here with almost nothing but vowels. All the streets have names like Kal’ia’iou’amaa’aaa’eiou, and many street signs spontaneously generate new syllables during the night.

I came across a study suggesting two possibilities accounting for this phonemic erosion in subpopulations. Maybe the leaders of these splinter groups are so powerful that, if they get sloppy with their phoneme use, no one around them is likely to risk correcting them. Instead, the followers adopt the regressed linguistic practices of the leaders. Alternatively, maybe splinter groups are already so cohesive that they understand one another without having to enunciate their meanings and intentions clearly. As a consequence the language within the entire subgroup deteriorates. Both of these ideas presume that less complex social structures demand less complex language use, a proposition that is supported by another line of research showing that more widely-spoken languages tend to use more phonemes than languages spoken by smaller numbers of people.

If that’s the case, then why do the southwest African languages use twice as many phonemes as English, when English is clearly a more widely-spoken language? Maybe it’s because English is still a relatively new language. Maybe it took tens of thousands of years for the African languages to achieve their level of phonemic complexity. The phonemic deterioration resulting from the serial founder effect must be rapid, and the recovery slow.

Is this argument persuasive? Not to me it isn’t, though I might be missing something. Is the empirical evidence persuasive? I suppose I should actually read the original article in Science, but I’m sure this one study won’t stand without challenge in the field.

10 April 2011

The Shining by Kubrick, 1980

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 10:30 am

6 April 2011

I See BETTER With Glasses

Filed under: Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:41 pm

Here’s what Daniel Dennett has to say about vision in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

We know that eyes have evolved independently many times, but vision is certainly not a necessity on Earth, since plants get along fine without it. A strong case can be made, however, that if an organism is going to further its metabolic projects by locomoting, and if the medium in which the locomoting takes place is transparent or translucent and amply supplied with ambient light, then since locomoting works much better (at furthering self-protective, metabolic and reproductive aims) if the mover is guided by information about distal objects, and since such information can be garnered in a high-fidelity, low-cost fashion by vision, vision is a very good bet. So we would not be surprised if locomoting organisms on other planets (with transparent atmospheres) had eyes. Eyes are an obviously good solution to a very general problem that would often be encountered by moving metabolizers. (p. 128)

Dennett makes a pragmatic case for the evolution of vision —  locomoting “works much better” with eyes. The pragmatic value of visual acuity can be understood only to the extent that the visual system accurately conveys information to the organism about the “ambient optic array” (JJ Gibson’s term) generated by the environment through which the organism locomotes.

It’s likely that, beyond a certain level of visual acuity, the costs of improved vision (more retinal cells, more refined neural processing of retinally-conveyed information, etc.) don’t outweigh the benefits (“at furthering self-protective, metabolic and reproductive aims”). So, for example, humans don’t need as much visual acuity as hawks because humans aren’t as likely to increase their chances of survival by spotting small prey animals at great distances. However, if an individual member of a species has less visual acuity than its conspecifics, then that individual will likely find itself at an adaptive disadvantage, since the visually-impaired individual is not equipped genetically to redeploy bioresources usually allocated for vision in order to compensate for its visual defects. In short, the visually-impaired individual doesn’t just see differently from its peers; it has poorer vision, both informationally and pragmatically. I would recommend that this creature be fitted with corrective lenses.

This all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

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