The Valve - Closed For Renovation
It’s probably past time I made such an announcement. Not that there’s been anything wrong with what Bill B. has been up to on his own lonesome for some time hereabouts. But the Valve was never intended to be Bill Benzon’s personal blog. Best he relocate to his own digs if it’s to be a solo operation.
I want to keep the site up. I would be sad if the archives disappeared. Lots of good stuff. But keeping the place up? ... well, we’ll see. Maybe I’ll get around to organizing some of those good old book events again soon. Best of luck to all our past authors, wherever they have wandered to by this point. And thanks to all the readers and commenters who made it such fun while it lasted. But nothing lasts forever.
Happy Trails to You
I first heard of The Valve back in late Spring or early Summer of 2005 when I caught wind of an up-coming discussion of an anthology entitled Theory’s Empire. The idea, it seems, was to look at what had by now become capital “T” Theory and, perhaps, hope! hope! lay it to rest.
So I showed up in early July and joined the commentariat. I soon found myself playing an unaccustomed role, that of the old timer who says, “Now, back in my day . . . “ Now, I’m not that old, and it wasn’t that long ago in calendar years, but it WAS before the personal computer and internet. I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins when the French landed in 1966 and I’d lived the ferment in literary studies that had been occasioned by those ideas. I also encountered developmental psychology, through Mary Ainsworth, and psycholinguistics through James Deese. And so I added Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky to my repertoire while studying semiotics and comp lit in English translation under the tutelage of Dick Macksey, one of the organizers of the (in)famous Structuralism conference.
The upshot of all that is that I shuffled off to Buffalo and joined the cognitive revolution under the tutelage of David Hays in the Linguistics Department. But my degree was in English and my dissertation was on cognitive science and literary theory. I’d decided that structuralism led, not to post-structuralism, deconstruction, or postmodernism, but to cognitive science. The profession did not agree with my assessment of the situation; we parted ways several years after I got my degree.
But I kept up my intellectual program anyhow, publishing this and that, here and there. I showed up at the Theory’s Empire event to see how things were going in the literary academy and to engage that part of it that might, I thought, just might, be looking for something new. Later in that year I was asked to try out for the masthead and was accepted early in 2006. Since then The Valve has been the closest thing I’ve had for an institutional home base.
Up into the second half 2010 or so The Valve functioned as a vigorous group blog, more vigorous at some times than others, but strong and interesting. In the Spring of 2010 I set up my own blog, New Savanna, mostly so I could post on a wider range of topics than I felt appropriate to The Valve. By the end of 2010 it was clear, however, that, as a group effort, The Valve was dying. I continued to post here, as well as at New Savanna, because it was easy enough to do and because there seemed to be constant traffic from somewhere out there in the ether.
All things change, however. John Holbo, The Valve’s progenitor, informs me that it’s time for The Valve to go the way of the Phoenix and be reborn. To do that, however, it must first die. Really and truly. Dead.
And so I will cease posting at The Valve in order that this plot of cyberspace may lay fallow for awhile.
It was a good run.
I’d like to thank John and the other Valvsters for the good intellectual company and you, our readers, for your kind and generous attention.
What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?
I remember browsing through the encyclopedia when I was young. We had an Americana, to the Britannica, which just announced that it will cease print publication, and I would spend hours reading from one entry to another. The volumes were heavy and substantial and the set of them gave a visible and tactile sense of complete knowledge. That sense, of course, was an illusion, but it was there.
The Wikipedia affords a different experience. Of course, I come to the Wikipedia as a mature adult with a great deal of intellectual sophistication; how it would appear to a bright 11-year old, I don’t know. But there’s no way to get a sense of all-knowledge-complete from the Wikipedia; you can’t see it on the shelf, you can’t handle it volume by volume. It just trails off into the ether, in many many different directions.
There is, of course, the question of accuracy and authority. I know that comparisons have been done between Wikipedia entries and, I believe, Britannica entries. And Wikipedia has come out well in these comparisons. But that’s not all there is to IT.
By IT I mean both authority and, well, accuracy, I guess. They’re closely related, but not quite the same. In the case of conventional encyclopedias, such as the Britannica, the authority resides in the institution itself. Where the entries themselves came from, who wrote them and what sources they consulted, that’s pretty much a mystery.Continue reading "What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?"
Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations
From today’s New York Times:
In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.
“It’s a rite of passage in this new era,” Jorge Cauz, the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., a company based in Chicago, said in an interview. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia.” ...
Sales of the Britannica peaked in 1990, when 120,000 sets were sold in the United States. But now print encyclopedias account for less than 1 percent of the Britannica’s revenue. About 85 percent of revenue comes from selling curriculum products in subjects like math, science and the English language; 15 percent comes from subscriptions to the Web site, the company said.
About half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for the online subscription, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications.
Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that What’s Opera, Doc? is one of the finest cartoons ever made. It satirizes opera, Wagner in particular; it parodies Disney’s Fantasia, and, for that matter, it parodies the routines of its stars, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The production was, by Warner Brother’s standards, lavish, and the layouts, by Maurice Noble, are inspired.
All of that’s obvious. What’s not so obvious is that the film plays on the nature of reality in a way that’s reminiscent of Dance of the Hours from Disney’s Fantasia. As I’ve argued in Animal Passion? Hyacinth Hippo and Ben Ali Gator, that episode depicts the inability of animal dancers to stay in role with the result that, when Ben Ali Gator courts Hyacinth Hippo we don’t know whether they’re acting roles or whether their passion is, well, real. Something like that is going on in What’s Opera, Doc? Elmer Fudd is in role as, well, Siegfried I guess, from beginning to end, but Bugs is not.
Note: I’m not going to comment on the design. But you should pay attention to it. Note the colors, the camera angles, and the use of lines. It’s really exquisite.
Kill the Wabbit
Let’s start at the beginning. As the title card and credits roll we hear an orchestra warming up. We thus know that, yep, as the title says, this is going to be opera. The opening music is wild and stormy and we see a stormy sky, and then a large hulking shadow appears projected against a cliff. More sky and lightening, and then we see that the large shadow is projected by a rather small fellow:
It this point a simple, and rather old, point has been made: things aren’t always what they seem to be. The camera zooms in and it’s Elmer Fudd, in heroic costume as a Nordic warrior, informing us that he’s “hunting wabbits.”Continue reading "Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?"
Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them
A new journal, Singularum, has an interview with philosopher Alphonse Lingis, who translates Merleau-Ponty, writes, travels, and takes photos.
I had long resisted buying a camera, thinking that there was something false about collecting images of things seen and people encountered and who have passed on, trying to retain the past. I thought that what was real was what from a trip left one changed. I started taking pictures when a friend who was taking me to the airport gave me a camera on the way.
I soon realized that the camera had changed my perception. The light: it was no longer just cleared space in which things took form; it had direction, it led the gaze, its shafts excavated situations isolated in the dark, sometimes it spread in a scintillating, dazzling, blazing medium without boundaries. Shadows took on substance; they stretched, flowed, condensed things in themselves. It occurred to me that I saw them that way when I was a child. Things looked different: the contours of shadows and of things that overlapped other things pushed out the contours that contained things in themselves. Flat surfaces showed corrugations, grain, stubble and texture, and sheets of gleam. And the continuity of the landscape drifting by would be abruptly broken by momentary events—the spiraling neck of a heron probing the space, the poised pause of an antelope, the legs of a child in an arabesque she will never be able to do once grown up, the grin of a passerby at something inward. The landscape is abruptly splintered, a segment isolates, magnetizes and pulls the glance into it.
Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models
Since George Dyson’s recent history of modern computing, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, was written in part to restore John von Neumann to prominence, I thought I’d republish a double review, lightly edited, I wrote some years ago: “A Tale of Two Geniuses,” Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 17(2): 227-230, 1994. Richard Feynman was one of the geniuses and John von Neumann was the other.
* * * * * *
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick, New York: Pantheon Books, 1992, 532 pp.
John von Neumann, by Norman Macrae, New York, Pantheon Books, 1992, 405 pp.
Students of cognitive evolution and of twentieth century thought are fortunate in the simultaneous appearance of these two biographies. No doubt the simultaneity is mostly coincidence. The physicist Richard Feynman is most widely known, alas, for two autobiographical collections of anecdotes which reveal him to be a waggish and riggish anti-establishment sort; he is most deeply known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. John von Neumann was a thoroughly establishment sort - soldiers guarded his hospital room as he lay dying of brain cancer just in case he let out defense secrets in his sleep - and is most widely know as the name which appears in phrases like “computers using the von Neumann architecture.” The two men crossed paths in Los Alamos, where they worked on the atomic bomb. That crossing is a reasonable place to begin our review.
Feynman was recruited to Los Alamos while still a graduate student. He was in charge of group T-4, Diffusion Problems. The problem was to figure out how neutrons, which drive the fission reaction, diffuse through the explosive core. Knowing the rate and pattern of diffusion was essential to determining the mass and configuration of fissile material. Since the late 30s von Neumann had been working on similar problems in connection with shock waves and explosions in general and so was able to help the Los Alamos effort between 1943 and 1945.
The difficulty was that the relevant equations could not be solved analytically. Rather, it was necessarily to simulate neutron diffusion numerically by calculating the step-by-step motion of individual neutrons. That requires lots of calculations, which were performed by a group of people operating calculators. The problems would be broken into components; each person would be responsible for one component, with each problem being passed from person to person as individual components where calculated.
Computing and von Neumann
That, of course, is the general way computers solve problems, with the computational plan being an algorithm. But, they did not have computers at Los Alamos. Computers came after the war and von Neumann was central to the effort. He understood that the computer is essentially a logical device and clarified that logic with the concepts of the stored program (Macrae, pp. 282-284), the fetch-execute cycle (pp. 287), and conditional transfer (see Bernstein 1963, 1964, pp. 60 ff.). That is to say, von Neumann clearly differentiated between the physical structures and connections of the devices from which the computer is constructed and the logical requirements which those devices have to fulfill. For that he is the progenitor of the computer.Continue reading "Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models"
Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe
Several years ago I spent a delightful evening at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art viewing retrospective of Michael Sporn’s films. Everyday I check his blog, which is a treasure trove for those interested in animation. Now I’m asking you to support his Kickstarter project, which involves a biography of Edgar Allen Poe that he’s been working on for several years.
Here’s how Sporn describes the film:
The Animatic, above, is a rough representation of animation in progress. It helps us tell the story. We hope to turn the many segments started into completed animation to be able to thrust the feature film, POE, into complete production. The Kickstarter money will do that for us and help satisfy the needs of the possible distributors and financiers who are already interested.
What’s the story?
Edgar Allan Poe was a brilliant writer who lived a very short and eccentric life. He died at the age of 40 and in that time created literary genres including the detective mystery, the sci fi epic, the horror story, and many of the most beautiful love poems imaginable. Within this life there is a very dynamic story to be told.
The film opens with baby Edgar dragged from theater to theater by his ever-squabbling actor parents. They travel to cities up and down the East Coast performing, as their marriage falls apart. Edgar’s father disappears, and his mother dies of consumption. The three year old watches the last theater his mother performs in burn to the ground. He’s left an orphan, and the film begins.
Poe’s life was destroyed not by drugs or alcohol, as is often stated, but by absolute poverty, and this is the crux of our film. Many of the women in his life died of consumption and illness as he was too poor to be able to care for them properly.He, himself, died in a poorhouse hospital.
Our film will show various biographical key points in his life and will use selections from his great fiction to depict this dramatic story.
The film is now completely scripted and story-boarded and 20 minutes of an animatic have been completed. Four Poe stories will be set in counterpoint to the biography: The Premature Burial, Murder in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, and Ms. in a Bottle.
Now’s you chance to step into film history by supporting this project.
Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind
Writing in, of all places, The New York Times, Colin McGinn, a distinguished philosopher—for only distinguished philosophers get to appear in “the paper of record”—has called for a rebranding of the discipline of philosophy. No, “rebranding” isn’t his word, though it was astutely used by one of the commenters. McGinn just called for a name change. “Ontics” is his suggested alternative.
McGinn notes that the name is misleading to non-philosophers, who “immediately assume you are in the business of offering sage advice, usually in the form of unargued aphorisms and proverbs.” And when you try to explain, well, they just don’t get it. Whatever this discipline is, “lover of wisdom”—the etymological meaning of the name—is too generic.
Well, sure, yeah, it is. But then, is what McGinn does, or what most academic researchers do, is that wisdom in any meaningful sense? Thomas Kuhn famously argued that what most scientists do is rather like puzzle-solving, and he did not mean the term at all pejoratively. The point of the term was to suggest that most scientists—and McGinn thinks of philosophy as science, in a broad sense of the term—work within fairly well-specified conceptual boundaries.
Which they do. And so it is with most academics. That’s just the nature of the enterprise.
There is tremendous respect for the mythology of “going boldly where no man has gone before,” but little on-the-ground tolerance for that activity in the flesh. I rather suspect that McGinn wouldn’t recognize one of the bold ones if she bit him in the ass. Whatever it is that McGinn does, is there any reason whatever to suspect that he gives a fig about wisdom?Continue reading "Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind"
Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom
J.J. Gould has a short piece in The Atlantic that lists Nazi regulations for dance orchestras on Czeckslovakia:
- Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
- in this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
- As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
- so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
- strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
- also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
- the double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
- plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
- musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
- all light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.
H/t Graham Harman.
The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology
This chronology is from a Guardian interview with George Dyson, who’s just written Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. One of the central features of the book is to restore prominence to John von Neumann, the great Hungarian polymath.
1936 Alan Turing submits his paper ‘On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungs problem’ to the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society.
1941 Konrad Zuse working in isolation in Germany, builds the Z3. He knows nothing about Turing’s work.
1944 The first Colossus computer is operational at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, significantly contributing to the allied war effort by doubling the codebreakers’ output. It contained 1,500 thermionic valves, was the size of a room and weighed around a ton. In all, 10 Colossus computers were in use by the end of the war.
1945 John von Neumann publishes a paper setting out the architecture of a stored-program computer.
1946 First public showing of the Eniac computer built in the preceding three years at the University of Pennsylvania.
1952 Von Neumann’s IAS computer becomes operational and is extensively cloned – there is no patent.
Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum
As soon as I finished yesterday’s post on Brian Smith’s On the Origin of Objects, I had a thought: Ahh...so THAT’s why the philosophy of computing leads to metaphysics. If your intuitions about computing are dominated by your practice of arithmetic, well, that’s calculation, and calculation is only an aspect of computing has it has evolved since World War II.
Consider the opening paragraph to the Preface of Domain-Driven Design by Eric Evans (xiv):
Leading software designers have recognized domain modeling and design as critical topics for at least 20 years, yet surprisingly little has been written about what needs to be done or how to do it. Although it has never been formulated clearly, a philosophy has emerged as an undercurrent in the object community, a philosophy I call domain-driven design.
In that paragraph the object community is not a fellowship of philosophers, it’s a bunch of computer programmers using languages such as C++ or Java and working in a style that came to be called object-oriented long before the philosophers re-coined the phrase for their own purposes.
But that’s a side-note.Continue reading "Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum"
On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)
While crusing the web I came across a 1996 book by Brain Cantwell Smith, On the Origin of Objects. Smith is a computer scientist who was, in fact, in search of a theory of computation but found himself smack in the middle of metaphysics. Interesting, no? Just what computing is, is not exactly clear. And with folks, such a Stephen Wolfram (and he wasn’t the first), proposing that the universe is, beneath it all, a giant computer of some sort, well, you can see how chasing down the nature of computation could be interesting.
The publisher’s blurb was provocative:
Everything that exists - objects, properties, life, practice - lies Smith claims in the “middle distance,” an intermediate realm of partial engagement with and partial separation from, the enveloping world. Patterns of separation and engagement are taken to underlie a single notion unifying representation and ontology: that of subjects’ “registration” of the world around them.
That had just a whiff of object-oriented ontology about it, though the book’s date puts it before the term was coined.
I found an ontology site that had excerpts from the book, from critics, and from Smith’s reply. It had this bit from the book’s conclusion:
Continue reading "On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)"
Overall, the project was to develop what I called a successor metaphysics, one that would honor the following pretheoretic requirements (345-246):
1. Do justice to what is right about:
a. Constructivism: a form of humility, or so at least I characterized it, requiring that we acknowledge our presence in, and influence on, the world around us; and
b. Realism: the view that adds to constructivism’s claim that “we are here” an equally profound recognition that we are not all that is here, and that as a result not all of our stories are equally good.
2. Make sense of pluralism: the fact that knowledge is partial, perspectival, and never wholly extricable from its (infinite) embedding historical, cultural, social, material, economic and every other kind of context. The account of pluralism must:
a. Avoid devolving into nihilism or other forms of vacuous relativism, and in particular not be purchased at the price of (successors notions of) excellence, standards, virtue, truth, or significance; and
b. Not license radical incommensurability, provide an excuse to build walls, or in any other way stand in the way of interchange, communion, and struggle for common ends.
Two additional criteria were applied to how these intuitions are met:
3. Be irreductionist—ideologically, scientifically, and in every other way. No category, from sociality to electron, from political power to brain, from origin myth to rationality to mathematics, including the category “human,” may be given a priori pride of place, and thereby be allowed to elude contingency, struggle, and price.
4. Be nevertheless foundational, in such a way as to satisfy our undiminished yearning for metaphysical grounding. That is, or so at least I put it, the account must show how and what it is to be grounded simpliciter - without being grounded in a, for any category a.
Along the way, the account should:
5. Reclaim tenable, lived, work-a-day successor versions of many mainstay notions of the modernist tradition: object, objective, true, formal, mathematical, logical, physical, etc.”
Symposium on Graeber’s Debt
Crooked Timber is running a symposium on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. Contributions so far:
- Seminar on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years – Introduction, Chris Bertram
- The unmourned death of the double coincidence, John Quiggan
- The World Economy is not a Tribute System, Henry Farrell
- Debt Jubilee or Global Deleveraging, Barry Finger
- The end of debt, John Quiggan
- The Return of Grand Narrative in the Human Sciences, Neville Morley
- The Dangers of Pricing the Infinite, Malcolm P. Harris, on student debt
All are worth reading, as are many of the comments. I’ll end with the last paragraph from Bertram’s introduction:
Does Graeber find in utopian and democratic resistance to the Axial empires an historic precedent for the Occupy movement to emulate? Perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” and the democratic instincts that persist even in the heart of modern capitalism. The anarchist writer Colin Ward used a phrase from Ignazio Silone – “the seed beneath the snow” – to make a similar idea vivid. We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.
Sounds a bit like a plug for the Transition Movement, which originated in England and has since spread around the world.
The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation
I have distinct memories of the days when the prospect of digital media everywhere led to thoughts of how easy it would be to preserve everything: Digital Will Never Die! The basic idea was that, as digital is All or Nothing, the signal is strong and clear and so resistant to degradation. All we have to do is just keep transferring it from one substrate to another as the substrates wear out.
Piece of cake.
That’s not how things have worked out. David Bordwell has written a useful essay on the nasty problems of digital preservation: Pandora’s digital box: Pix and pixels. The law of unintended consequences strikes again, and again; as Bordwell observes: “It seems likely that digital projection has, in unintended and unexpected ways, put the history of film in jeopardy.” There are many problems, more than I care even to list, much less summarize. Let one little paragraph stand for many:
Storing 4K digital masters costs about 11 times as much as storing a film master. You can store the digital master for about $12,000 per year, while the film master averages about $1,100.
For that’s what it all comes down to, cost.