Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

after the plumbers

loose and careless may,
when frolicking, be fine, but
not in home repairs

Friday, March 21, 2008

a day at the races

"Why I've never been so insulted in my life!"
"Well . . . it's early yet."

. . . . . .

"I wish I had an aunt looked like that!"
"Well . . . take it up with your uncle."

scarecrows and magpies

Justice. — I'd rather let myself be robbed than be surrounded by scarecrows — that is my taste. And in any case it is a matter of taste — nothing more!

The purpose of punishment. — The purpose of punishment is to improve the one who punishes; that is the last resort of the apologists for punishment.

Aside. — Parliamentarianism, i.e. the public permission to choose between five basic political opinions, flatters and wins the favour of all those who like to appear independent and individualistic and would like to fight for their opinions. In the end, however, it is irrelevant whether the herd is commanded to have one opinion or permitted to have five. Whoever deviates from the five public opinions and steps aside will always have the whole herd against him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 1882.

Apparently, Nietzsche was lucky enough to live in a time when our masters allowed us the illusion of choice between five alternatives; now, a selection of only two is deemed adequate. How the slave becomes accustomed to his lot!

Monday, March 17, 2008

free tibet ...?

"Thank you, the West, your fair news media had never stop attacking other countries' sovereignty . . . and your governments never stop trying to split other countries apart . . . but not for one secondhad you guys questioned about your own existences and rule over the native people."

waiting for the plumber

water 'round my knees
detritus bubbling up
now my soles will squish

Saturday, March 15, 2008

understanding the mind X

It is evident that there is a principle of connexion between the different thoughts or ideas of the mind, and that in their appearance to the memory or imagination, they introduce each other with a certain degree of method and regularity. In our more serious thinking or discourse this is so observable that any particular thought, which breaks in upon the regular tract or chain of ideas, is immediately remarked and rejected. And even in our wildest and most wandering reveries, nay in our very dreams, we shall find, if we reflect, that the imagination ran not altogether at adventures, but that there was still a connexion upheld among the different ideas, which succeeded each other. Were the loosest and freest conversation to be transcribed, there would immediately be observed something which connected it in all its transitions. Or where this is wanting, the person who broke the thread of discourse might still inform you, that there had secretly revolved in his mind a succession of thought, which had gradually led him from the subject of conversation. Among different languages, even where we cannot suspect the least connexion or communication, it is found, that the words, expressive of ideas, the most compounded, do yet nearly correspond to each other: a certain proof that the simple ideas, comprehended in the compound ones, were bound together by some universal principle, which had an equal influence on all mankind.

Though it be too obvious to escape observation, that different ideas are connected together; I do not find that any philosopher has attempted to enumerate or class all the principles of association; a subject, however, that seems worthy of curiosity. To me, there appear to be only three principles of connexion among ideas, namely, Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause or Effect.

That these principles serve to connect ideas will not, I believe, be much doubted. A picture naturally leads our thoughts to the original (Resemblance): the mention of one apartment in a building naturally introduces an enquiry or discourse concerning the others (Contiguity): and if we think of a wound, we can scarcely forbear reflecting on the pain which follows it (Cause and Effect). But that this enumeration is complete, and that there are no other principles of association except these, may be difficult to prove to the satisfaction of the reader, or even to a man's own satisfaction. All we can do, in such cases, is to run over several instances, and examine carefully the principle which binds the different thoughts to each other, never stopping till we render the principle as general as possible. The more instances we examine, and the more care we employ, the more assurance shall we acquire, that the enumeration, which we form from the whole, is complete and entire.

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748, section III: of the association of ideas

Monday, March 10, 2008


a pox upon ye!
ill-fitted pipes spluttering
disdain 'pon tile pure

too long this sewage siege
has polluted ablutions

Thursday, March 6, 2008

bonaparte's retreat

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is not a dance tune. Rather, it represents another fiddle tune genre, more poular on the concert stage than anywhere else: a programmatic piece meant to depict an event imitating the action in its sound. . . . Bayard (1944) traces the tune to an Irish march, "The Eagle's Charge," (also known as "The Eagle's Tune") and gives references to printed versions in Irish collections.
Jeff Todd Titon, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, 2001

"Bonaparte's Retreat" is an instance of a genre which has largely died out at its origin, but which has remained trapped in Appalachia for a century. As with all fiddle tunes, the essence of the piece is a loose melodic and rhythmic structure, in this case built around a central narrative metaphor. Individual fiddlers (and disjoint histories of the tune) develop idiosyncratic expressions of this melodic / thematic core.

Tommy Jarrell (1901 - 1985) performs his interpretation of a version with a long pedigree:

One could also compare the various interpretations of the central melodic / thematic schema synchronically in two recordings from 1937, both made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in Kentucky, 1937.

Luther Strong (1892 - 1963)

William H. Stepp (1875 - 1947)

On October 26, 1937, Alan Lomax wrote to his supervisor at the Library of Congress, Harold Spivacke, that "This afternoon the best fiddler I have heard in Ky. is coming to play. . . ." He was referring to Bill Stepp.
Jeff Todd Titon, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, 2001

By considering the intersection of these three versions, we can separate the melodic backbone of the tune from the embellishments and interpretations imposed by the various performers. These latter idiosyncratic additions serve as a commentary on and interpretation of the underlying melodic / thematic core.

This particular recording (the only one) of William H. Stepp's version of "Bonaparte's Retreat" was brought to the attention of Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) and used as the melodic basis of the "Hoe-Down" movement of his Rodeo ballet (1942).

Aaron Copland, "Hoe-Down," 1942 (interpreted by Buster Keaton)

Now, despite Titon's comments above, Stepp does indeed perform "Bonaparte's Retreat" in a break-down, or hoe-down style. Nevertheless, to use this particular melody as a representative instance of such a dance demonstrates a profound insensitivity to both the particulars of the style and of this tune.

More striking than this, however, is the fact that Copland's version mimics the melody and rhythm of Stepp's version so precisely. Comparing the two, we find a far stricter melodic and rhythmic similarity than exists between any two of the performances of Stepp, Strong, and Jarrell. In following Stepp's performance so precisely, in fact, Copland has lost the distinction between the tune (its melodic and thematic backbone) and the interpretation of it (the idiosyncrasies of different players which emphasize different strands in the melodic / thematic core).

The three fiddle versions each illustrate a monotonous march punctuated by bursts of cannon, a trek, hastened and desperate, but also dignified and glorious. Stepp's version is more glorious than the others, yet there is still a sense of monotonous march punctuated by desperation and excitement. Stepp layers a frantic and ecstatic veneer onto the incessant flight, the chaotic running, of the underlying melodic structure. Yet Copland, in lifting the literal melody from Stepp's performance, lifts this ecstatic veneer without the underlying desperation. The monotony and rhythm of the march is absent from "Hoe-Down" where the melody, Stepp's idiosyncratic frills and all, is put through the paces of orchestral variation. The lull and swell of dynamics and instrumentation here is not motivated by any particular thematic or aesthetic narrative, but rather exemplifies the standard moves of a the large orchestral spectacle.

Here, we can separate out, I think, those expressive variations in dynamics, tempo, and timbre which are motivated by a coherent thematic structure and those which simply represent the catalog of techniques available. Certainly, if Copland's "Hoe-Down" is not an exemplar of the latter, it inspired such travesties. Consider, for example, how much further from the thematic core of Stepp / Strong / Jarrell the melody has come in this 1973 performance by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer:

and again here in this 1987 performance by David Gamble:

Gamble and Emerson are certainly talented performers, but, under Copland's influence, they have taken a narrowly defined melody and used it as fodder for displays of speed and virtuosity. There is no sensitivity, however, to any theme or meaning to the music besides the melody itself. Both Emerson and Gamble impose a narrative structure of sorts on the sequence of variations they traverse, but it seems to serve only as an excuse for flourishes. Yet even Stepp was constrained by a prior narrative structure, one that forced him to impose flourishes and virtuosity in a meaningful fashion, one that would enhance the underlying structure and interpret Bonaparte's Retreat as a joyous event.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


when linguistics fails,
its analysis absurd,
we bring in snake-oil

Sunday, March 2, 2008

probability and public policy VIII: intelligent design

[part one of this series here]

There has been much recent debate about intelligent design theory, whether it presents a significant challenge to evolutionary theory, and whether it should be taught in schools. A recent film criticizing intelligent design (though also the demeanor and attitude of mainstream scientists toward ordinary folk) will soon be followed by one criticizing the treatment of intelligent design by the scientific community, accusing it of violating the basic precepts of free speech (and starring no less an eminent public intellectual than Ben Stein).

Public debate on this question has been confused by several issues. First, the desire by those uncertain in their faith to find some empirical confirmation of their beliefs; yet, as many theologians have argued, belief in a divine entity is fundamentally a matter of faith, and thus not evidential in character. This is the view defended by Kierkegaard under the slogan "leap to faith". Second, the naive scientific realism of many scientists; in the documetary "A Flock of Dodos," for example, evolutionary scientists are repeatedly shown urging that evolutionary theory and not intelligent design should be taught in schools because evolutionary theory is "true." Yet, in the first case, there is much question concerning whether even the most empirically confirmed scientific theories should be judged "true," and in the second, there is no single "theory of evolution," rather there are a number of competing theories within a loosely defined general research program. Third, and in particular, the idea that the structures of living creatures have been selected for optimally, or that all features of such structure are purposeful, or "designed" (even if by a "random process"), has been criticized since the first appearance of Darwin's work, the landmark critique here being, perhaps, Gould and Lewontin's "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm."

The question of whether intelligent design should be taught in school intersects with the concerns of probability theory in two areas. First, the general question of how a theory is supported by data is a probabilistic question. So, both the claim that evolutionary theory is not supported by the data, and the claim that evidence for intelligent design can be found in the data are probabilistic claims. Second, arguments for intelligent design depend (implicitly, if not explicitly) on a characterization of randomness and what kinds of behavior can or cannot be exhibited by a random process. As we saw in our discussion of the clustering illusion, humans exhibit a natural tendency to see patterns and organization in random phenomena. Statistics, thus, and scientific claims based on statistical analysis, must proceed very carefully in order to guard against the inadvertent systematization of fallacious preconceptions about whether or not a particular process exhibits non-random patterns.

Considering the question of how theories relate to data, one is inclined not to dismiss intelligent design theory out of hand. Surely, finding an objective standpoint from which to teach students about scientific methodology so that they can compare for themselves which scientific theory best fits the data would be far more constructive than teaching them the currently most popular scientific theory as dogma. Thus, if comparing intelligent design theory to evolutionary theory can be turned into an objective exercise in scientific methodology, there seems nothing in principle wrong with teaching it in schools. Unfortunately, most parties seem to treat children as future soldiers for their particular cause and are concerned only in indoctrination (i.e. which dogma do we impose upon them?) rather than education proper (which would teach children how to determine for themselves what constitutes dogma and how to pick for themselves amongst alternate views). This, however, is not a point about probability.

Considering the claim that analysis of the structure of organisms can determine whether they were generated by a random process or designed is a much trickier matter. First, the claim of standard evolutionary theory is not that human beings, say, were produced by a random process. Rather, new genetic material is generated at random, but the principles by which this material are selected for or against are rule governed and systematic. Just as relinquishing the claim that an intelligence guides the planets in their motion does not amount to relinquishing the claim that rules can be discovered which govern this motion, relinquishing the claim that intelligence guided the speciation of life on earth does not amount to relinquishing the claim that this speciation was governed systematically by rules.

In fact, although the straw man version of evolutionary theory publicly discussed seems to depend on this fallacious step, there is a similar fallacious step in the publicly available version of intelligent design theory. In particular, the claim that a process was generated by an "intelligence" does not have scientific content. Why not? Because we do not actually have a scientific theory of intelligence. This is the point which Turing emphasizes in his seminal paper "Computing Machinery and Intelligence." There, Turing introduces (what has become known as) the Turing test as a means of determining whether or not a computer is behaving intelligently. Such a test is needed precisely because there is no antecedant notion of intelligence other than by analogy with human behavior. If Turing's analysis is right, than any claim that a system is the result of intelligent behavior amounts to the claim that it looks as if the system were generated by something like human behavior. But then, the question of how to discover the principled rules which govern the system ( the scientific question) just reduces to the question of how to discover the principled rules which govern human behavior. So, intelligent design doesn't look like it could be a scientific theory about how life arose on earth, but rather an argument that no such scientific theory is possible (or, rather, will reduce somehow to an as yet unspecified theory of intelligence in general). Insofar as evolutionary theory is able to generate any systematic rules about the emergence and development of life (other than those directly applicable to the operation of the human brain), it seems to be constantly disproving intelligent design.

A final remark here about the structure of this argument. If intelligent design claims are basically of the form: the systematic rules of evolutionary theor(y/ies) are unable to account for the complex structure observed in living organisms, therefore we must posit some form of intelligent design behind the observed phenomena; then, this argument can only be relevant to the space of possible hypotheses considered, it cannot be an in principle argument against any such theory. This is because (as discussed before here and here) confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory by evidence depends upon the priors placed on the space of possible theories. Even if intelligent design theorists use some objective or principled technique (such as Bayes' postulate, or the Jeffreys prior) to place a prior distribution over evolutionary theories, their argument must be indexed by the space of possible theories. At most, then, such an argument could only amount to pessimism about the prospects for current research, it does not seem (on the basis of the arguments presented in the public sphere) that it could constitute a contentful alternative research program.

next: climate change