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All posts for the month January, 2010

Still working my way through Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories.

http://www.psybertron.org/?p=3172
http://www.psybertron.org/?p=3149
http://www.psybertron.org/?p=3145

After Book I, on the evolution of play, art and fiction as part of the evolution of human cognitive capabilities and behaviour, Book II, as advertised, switches to two specific works of fiction, to illustrate how the evolutionary theories are applicable in practice. Homer’s Odyssey and Dr Seuss’ Horton. Something ancient and complex for adults, and something recent and simple for children. I’m guessing chapters 14, 15 and 16 are LitCrit101. Phylogeny on plot, character, structure and patterns, natural and contrived open-ended ironies. Interesting in their own right, since I’m neither a scholar of Homer, not of literary criticism. Phylogeny, because the age of The Odyssey says much about how fiction evolved as a species, with and since Homer.

If the first half was about the need for mutual attention of speaker/writer and listener/reader in developing knowledge of and strategic information about intents and beliefs, that affect our ability to predict our future behaviours, then these early chapters on The Odyssey show that this really is what is going-on, even if Homeric Greek has no language of mind, belief and psychology. There are all the obvious dramatic ironies between the mortals and between the gods and mortals over how much is known, both here and now and ahead of time, and of course deliberate “deceptions” as part of the process. Deceptions of incomplete knowledge, even in collaborative processes. Two points caused me to pause and blog.

Intelligence as curiosity as opposed to intellect. Curiosity for explanation that is, and the recognition that explanation in human affairs always involves implicit or explicit understanding of psychological games, and that these games may exist on infinitely many levels over many time-scales. Odysseus being the exemplar at the hands of Homer.

Taking a God-like view. Far from being primitives who knew no better, invoking gods as part of such explanations, actually shows a sophisticated understanding of how complex (and interminable) that explanatory process is, and that some things do need to be taken effectively as “god-given”, illustrated by examples, but never objectively known.

Like for example the idea of Xenia, the stranger/guest/host/friend behaviour amongst strangers. A behaviour that extends tendencies to mutual altruistic behaviours amongst close genetic individuals, to remote individuals recognized from their behaviours as members of the species – humans. If I turn up as a stranger (but a human) on your doorstep it is your duty to feed and show me hospitality (and more) before even needing to know my identity as an individual. An engrained code of behavior that can be explained in terms of evolutionary cost-benefit value at the species level, but would be intractable at the level of each individual transaction. A social pattern easily shared (a meme)  and statically preserved because it is worth preserving. A value.

Noticed a paradox before in Thoreau’s descriptions of building a railroad with bridges … to get places … which I mentioned in this piece on The Devil Wears Prada “Everybody Wants to Get Ahead

Came to mind again when I saw this story “to get rich quick, build roads fast” story of road-building opening up more remote areas of China (well Tibet actually, but that’s another story).

The reason I noticed was because I was looking up the Elvis Costello lyric (*) “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding.” which I have used before (as well as in the above post) as a summary or plea within my Psybertron agenda and my “Joining Dots / Weaving Threads” project, who knows maybe even building bridges to get places.

As I walk through this wicked world
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, is all hope lost ?
Is there only hatred and misery ?

And each time I feel like this inside
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding ?
Oh, what’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding ?

And as I walk on, through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So, where are the strong and who are the trusted ?
And where is the harmony, sweet harmony ?

‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away,
Just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding ?
Oh, what’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding ?

So, where are the strong and who are the trusted ?
And what’s so funny ’bout peace, love & understanding ?

Indeed. If we are actually going to make any kind of progress, where are the strong and who are the trusted ?

(*) And, although Elvis made the song famous, the lyric is of course by Nick Lowe.

Apparently 80% of airliner manufacturer order books now depend on the budget airline business. Scary.

I still do a lot of business and domestic air-travel compared to my pledge to reduce it to a minimum, and that will probably continue well into 2010, depending how working life pans out. Sigh. But it is a long time – more than 10 years – since I even considered business class on a business trip.

Recently (like many) I have been taking advantage of budget airlines in Europe (Ryanair in particular) after several years of using internal and transatlantic US carriers. In terms iof service I do have favourite airlines, including BA by choice, if they have an economic fare / route for a given trip. But Ryanair is just too cheap in my opinion. For industry economic viability, for air-safety ultimately if the crew are all sales staff on commission, and for environmental balance in encouraging more discretionary travel. As I said in my pledge I’d support higher taxes on aviation fuel and travel – but of course being trans-national-borders that is unlikely to be possible to administer equitably – and most people would probably reject a taxation solution anyway.

I am amongst the “never again” crowd when it comes to Ryanair – yet perversly, despite having ludicroulsy inconvenient airport locations at the remote end, they often use a convenient local airport at the home end – I expect there is a BAA distortion in the market too, as well as the disruptive pricing policy.

At this rate, I could blog as many words on The Origin Of Stories as Brian Boyd writes.

“Attention” is as important as anything in communication and social behaviours, so not surprisingly we are well attuned to movement, particularly unexpected movement in life events, especially faces, or courses of events in any kind of narrative. So much of Boyd’s story is about play as art and art as play, very specifically their value to human evolution, and fairly obviously attention is part of play and art. Recognizing the value of the abnormal is not just a part of creativity, but also a part of understanding the normal. That doesn’t do justice to the first half of the book, which I have just completed, but hey. So what about the art of fiction, narrative at play ?

The last two chapters of Book 1 are Ch12 Fiction : Inventing Events and Ch13 Fiction as [Evolutionary] Adaptation. Ch12 ends with …

Narrative is always strategic, for both teller and listener, in ways that can range from the callously selfish to the generously prosocial. Because natural selection occurs at multiple levels, it can assist individuals or groups at different levels in their competition with other individuals or groups. But narrative especially helps coordinate groups, by informing their members of one another’s actions. It spreads prosocial values, the likeliest to appeal to both tellers and listeners. It develops our capacity to see from different perspectives, and this capacity in turn both arises from and aids the evolution of cooperation and the growth of human flexibility.

But maximum flexibility, in humans as in others, depends on play.

Wow. A very strong message on memes “likeliest to appeal” as well as the playful evolution of cooperation. Quite early in Ch13 after descriptions of child-invented play narratives, we find this solitary reference to Dawkins …

Thought experiments, Dawkins observes, “are not meant to be realistic. They are supposed to clarify our thinking about reality.”

The immediately following sentences are these …

Thought experiments of fiction may opt for realism, like Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, or against it, like Aesop’s animal fables. We do not need to be a Samaritan or to travel from Jerusalem to Jericho, or to encounter a wayfarer robbed by the roadside to learn from the example ….

Irony at play I hope. Many a true word.

The good news is that Reading beat Burnley 1:0 today.

The bad news is that Avatar has to be the biggest pile of one-dimensional crap ever. What, a thousand people in the credits maybe ? And they couldn’t afford to pay anyone to write a story or a script even ? What an unimaginative waste of expensive resources.

Every cliche in the book is OK as an idea, but it would have needed wit and humour to pull it off. And the 9/11 collapsing tower, falling ash, war on terror, shock & awe … how low can you get searching for paper-thin metaphors.

Some (very) good 3D and lighting effects though.

[Post Note - I was so disappointed, I couldn't be bothered to be specific in the initial review, but the comment from Victor in the previous post - on stories - highlights just one of the massively wasted opportunities in the film - as also blogged here.]

[Post Note 2 : And the scale of the wasted opportunity becomes even clearer. Must investigate where the as-filmed story itself came from ... was it crap to start with or ruined in the screenplay ? I see Cameron, scripted right from the original story idea through to the screenplay. Pity, given the immense collaboration on technical and linguistic detail, that more could not have been spared to develop the story before all the money was spent. Somebody tell me if there is a level of irony I've missed ? Oh good, maybe I am still sane after all

"critics, many of whom slated its plot, dialogue and characterisation, ..."

Yep, plot, dialogue and characterisation. I think they were the missing dimensions of the salient story points.]

Brian Boyd On The Origin Of Stories is a comprehensively researched and referenced story of the evolution of the human mind, psychology and behaviour, involving the evolution of art (representative and not) and stories (true and not) as part of that process, rather than some incidental “cheesecake for the mind” bi-product. Pinker, the originator of that quote, is well referenced and provides supporting cover note :-

“This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge.”
– Steven Pinker

I’m only about a third through the text (see the previous meta-review), and only as far a the evolution of narrative specifically in the evolution of recalling and representing events and people as agents. Up to this point the evolution has been more generally about art, creativity and communication.

It’s really very good. It fits my evolutionary psychology agenda to a tee, of course, and provides much reinforcement and “illumination”. A recommended read, and I suspect a very important book.

Here some significant quotes from the end of Ch10 Understanding & Recalling Events and the beginning of Ch11 Narrative : Representing Events. Firstly, the game-theoretic battle-of-wits (*), behaviour :

The capacity to track other agents effortlessly surely derives from the need of any flexible agent facing potential predators, prey, partners, rivals or allies to infer the maximum information about the likely next behaviour of those who could make a decisive difference to its fate.

Our capacities to comprehend events and to recall and reconfigure them in memory develop in us naturally, and to a considerable extent without language. But that we can handle events so well individually does not prevent us from trying to find ever more interesting ways to relate events, if we have good reason to – as we do.

It becomes clearer as we move into Ch11 that Boyd is using the word language here in a narrow sense of symbolic written & verbal communication …

Narrative need not involve language. It can operate through modes like mime, still pictures, shadow-puppets, or silent movies. It need not be restricted to language, and often gains impact through enactment or the emotional focussing that music offers in dance, theatre, opera or film, of the visual focus in stage lighting, comics or film. But language of course makes narrative more precise, efficient and flexible.

Narrative need not involve language, but it does need external representation, not merely internal [diffuse, distractable, mental] “representations” of events as we witness, recall, anticipate, imagine or dream them. Lately it has become almost a truism to speak of the self or of experience as fundamentally narrative. Despite the near-concensus, we have little reason to think that this is true in either case.

[....] It would be burdensome to tell ourselves continuously the story of ourselves. But why should we tell any stories to others ?

[....] Active communication, especially via voice, allows the rapid transmission of detailed, complex, contingent information. Although such signals remain comparatively cheap, they cost senders in time, energy and risk.

[....] How then, does cooperative communication establish itself ? And how can we explain the much more complex and costly communication of narrative.

Dawkins and Krebs argued in 1978 that “communication should arise more for competitive than for cooperative reasons: we should expect the manipulation rather than accurate transmission of information”. But competition thrives best on concealing information: a predator silently stalking its prey, and ambush catching enemies unaware. Cooperation by contrast, usually stands to gain from communication.

[....]  Signals that eveolve through competition tend to be costly, as arms-races develop between insistent senders and receivers. [....] Signals used for cooperative purposes, by contrast – eg conspiratorial whispers – will be energetically cheap and informationally rich. This is what we find ….

[....] Brains evolved not to give humans rich mental lives – though we are delighted they do – but to permit the creatures that have them to make better decisions …

The psychology of better decision-making. My agenda I’d say. Reading on.

(*) Post Note – When I say “battle” of wits, I’m not talking about competitive situations. In my experience even debating with yourself and friendly collaborators, communication – forward directed intentional communication – is still a “battle of wits” if intended understandings and outcomes are to be achieved. Then again, maybe I’m just a lousy communicator ;-)

Before I review reading the content of Brian Boyd On the Origin Of Stories, a few words on the style and structure of the book itself.

There are 540 pages of which 130 are notes, bibliography and index. The 410 pages of text contain only index numbers for the notes, individual references to some of the source names, but almost no discussion of those or their arguments. The notes themselves refer to the specific sources by author surname and date and you need to further cross refer to the bibliography to see exactly who and which published work.

The consequence is that the style of the book itself is a narrative of statements / assertions, with explanatory hows, whys and wherefores simply stated without discussion – references in the text being simply the index of end notes.  This means it is very dense – packed with “factual” information on its subject matter, the evolution of cognition, art, narrative and fiction.

The opposite feature is that if you want to study and analyse the arguments and orginal sources, it is meticulously referenced, but it requires equally pains-taking effort to follow-up. It does therefore make it near impossible to both read it and study it at the same time.

So, I am reading it, after browsing the references for a general picture … all the expected bio, mind & lingustic evolutionary writers E.O.Wilson, D.S.Wilson, Dennett, Pinker, Dawkins, Gould, Lewontin, Chomsky, Baron-Cohen, Barthes, as well as many more in the spheres of art and literature. Fascinating.

[Incidentally, Denis Dutton The Art Instinct - which I also have to read - refers and is referred to and shares a great number of the same references.]

A lot of reading recently.

I finished and blogged some views of Chris Hitchens – God Is Not Great.
[Here][Here][Here]

I’m currently very much enjoying Brian Boyd – On the Origin Of Stories.
Will blog some initial review in a moment.

I also have to read ….

Denis Dutton – The Art Instinct, wich refers to the above and has a lot of common references, including Steven Pinker who provides cover notes too.

Steven Toulmin – Cosmopolis, The Hidden Agenda Of Modernity (1990).
Steven Toulmin – Return to Reason (2001)
Paul Feyerabend – Against Method.
Levitt &  Dubner – Superfreakonomics
Roger Griffin – Modernism And Fascism.

And whilst I’m at it, a few catch-ups. I blogged about Hitchens’ GING, Lawson’s Closure and about Diamond’s Collapse. Did I mention Le Carre’s Most Wanted Man, Dostoyevski’s Notes From The Underground, between Lewycka’ History of Tractors in Ukrainian and  Hosseini’s Kite Runner and Thousand Splendid Suns … oh and Dante’s Divine Comedy after all that Salman Rushdie too ? Funny about two years ago I told myself I had to stop reading and concentrate on writing. Weird.

Another collection of stunning “nature” photographs – all subject to much artistic treatment, but nevertheless …. stunning and creative.

I’ve posted a few of these before – I guess they are attractive – but the reason I posted this one is that I had just noticed this news story today. (Can’t find the post where I linked to this competition originally …. but I will.)

As a parent I have more than a passing interest in this talk. This “famous” last lecture of Randy Pausch in 2007 has been cited as “inspirational” by many. I beg to differ.

Yes, you have to be impressed with a man in the last months of terminal cancer being this upbeat and positive to the last. I am impressed. And amongst all the private in-jokes for his geek friends in Virtual Reality at Carnegie Mellon, which one can indulge given that context, his message about following your dreams, is really a message about living life. Learning through the fun of doing creative things and living life the right way, with honesty, integrity, trust, loyalty, saying thank you and sorry, and of course hard-work. Hard work verging well over into workaholism, if his response is this boastful, “well if you wanna know, call me at 10pm in the office any day”. That message is at odds with the real “head fake” here – that this really is a message for his kids, not the faculty attending his last lecture.

If you want an inspirational lecture (pre YouTube and TED – yes, you have to read it) for kids, the future in general, as well as one’s own try this commencement address, from Richard Russo in 2004. But perhaps I should have head-faked that too ?

(“Head-fake” is the idea that doing fun creative things IS learning … you don’t have to be explicit in who or what is being learned and taught.)

Already the 3rd week of 2010 and I’ve still read only a smattering of the responses to the 2010 Edge Question “How has the internet changed the way you think ?”

This George Dyson response is a good one.

We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Too true. More needs to be less.

And in fact that is a recurring theme. Dawkins concludes net gain, TBL for the Nobel Peace Prize even, after bemoaning the anonymized rubbish that pads out the web. For Dave Morin, context is more important than the content; Nassim Taleb, the degradation of knowledge … Kevin Kelly

My certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than importing authority, I am reduced to creating my own certainty — not just about things I care about — but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can’t possibly have any direct knowledge . That means that in general I assume more and more that what I know is wrong. We might consider this state perfect for science but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons. Nonetheless, the embrace of uncertainty is one way my thinking has changed.

More likely to have one’s mind changed for the wrong reasons. The mimetic risk – ideas that stick because they are “sticky” not because they are any good.

Reading did do really well, some great team defending such that Liverpool had few actual chances. But, something’s not right at Liverpool FC. One unfortunate injury time goal each way, but a cracker from Gunnarsson and Long in extra time. For Liverpool, another season with no trophy, and Rafa under further pressure.

Interesting that both Torres and Gerrard were substituted early “because they asked to be and therefore he had to do it” ? Where is the fight ?