Non-Zero

Jan. 16th, 2006 11:25 am
trochee: (pedant)
I've been reading Robert Wright's Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, recommended by a friend who's an "old high AI" person (she thinks, for example, that relational databases are a good model for thought and truth, which I find frustrating).

Anyway -- Non-Zero is a 300-page book with a one-paragraph premise: that human culture (and biological evolution as well) has a stochastic trend towards greater levels of organization, because non-zero-sum parts of the world require collaboration to harvest the (relatively) positive cells in the matrix. While it's an interesting premise, I think it would have gained substantial strength from distillation into a 30-page pamphlet instead, and it doesn't seem to present an argument that would convert those not already very close to the idea of collaboration and cooperation. The evidence presented is anecdotal and handwaving, and seems to thrive on three or four example tribes (the Shoshone of the scrub desert and their rabbit-catching insta-mini-government "rabbit bosses" get a little too much screen time, but nevertheless we learn no additional details about the form of their society).

Wright argues that this model justifies cultural evolutionism, which was rejected in the 20th century as a form of thinly-disguised racism and a justification for imperialism. I am uncomfortable with this argument, since Wright's own model bears little in common with the theories of cultural evolution that the cultural anthropologists of the 20th century so opposed. Wright then assumes that Margaret Mead and Franz Boas would be opposed to his proposal, but many of their objections to 19th and 20th century "cultural evolution theory" do not apply to his proposal. Nevertheless, Wright positions himself as the radical upstart, when it is not at all clear that he is upsetting any applecarts at all.

Wright's writing style has an occasionally off-putting contrast between form and content: while Wright clearly wants to be taken as seriously engaging with the questions of cultural evolution, he also occasionally drops into arguing with sarcastic analogy or jokey colloquialism. While the informality is occasionally welcome, it belies his attempt to be taken seriously -- argument by buddy-ness is not convincing.

Overall: ([livejournal.com profile] blackwingedboy take note) don't spend your paycheck on it. If you're interested in cultural evolution questions, skimming this as a survey isn't a bad idea. But it's not a serious introduction to the subject, and its overall argument can (as above) be summed up in a page or two. Despite Bill's interest, this is what libraries are for.
trochee: (pedant)
Hey [livejournal.com profile] beckyb and the other faculty who read this, you might be interested in a paper mentioned on WorldChanging: "Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students through Science Fiction".

They had them read Neal Stephenson, among others. (the WorldChanging reviewer also suggests Linda Nagata, which I agree with.)

Also, Gratuitous Icon Post thanks to [livejournal.com profile] chr0me_kitten!
trochee: (resolute)

Carla Speed McNeil has decided to move Finder to web serialization, with the trade paperbacks still coming out once or twice a year. This move echoes the Studio Foglio decision to publish Girl Genius on the web, with periodic collections on dead-tree.

So far the Light Speed Press website has no news about this, but it was quite clear from the notes in the back of the latest (last!) pamphlet Finder (the first in the Five Crazy Women storyline, which I was skeptical about but have totally fallen in love with now that i've read the first one).

I wrote Ms. McNeil: )

UPDATE: Lightspeed Press now has the beginning of issue #38 online! And I feel almost famous, since I got a response from Speed herself.

trochee: (fear)
I've been busily writing all week. Last night was a nice change from that; I went home earlyish (for me) and read books (Five is the perfect number and Emergence) and listened to music. Emergence isn't spectacular, but it's thinking about a bunch of neat stuff. Perfect Number is an Italian noir hitman comic that really is begging to be made into a movie.

[livejournal.com profile] imtboo came over, and spent the night. We went out for breakfast this morning, and she's gone home to write while I am here at the internet cafe.

My current to-do list for this weekend -- we'll see if I get to it all:

  • incorporate second-reader's written comments
  • incorporate second-reader's oral comments (from our meeting yesterday) done except for the tedious making-consistent of "we" vs. "I" and "one"
  • incorporate citations from Construction Grammar literature (per meeting with second reader)
  • cite L's thesis -- it's a natural, and she'll like it
  • fill out citations from my notes (e.g. [CITE Hunt 1995]) into proper LaTeX citations (e.g. \cite{hunt94prosody})
  • rewrite conclusion to ASR background section
  • switch to robbib.bst per second reader's suggestion
  • catch up on email
  • catch up on LJ
  • expand citations in .bib file to include first names; if i decide to go with initials I should change the bib style instead
  • write the prosody and parsing background section
  • write the parsing and ASR background section
  • score outputs from most recent run of last set of experiments

trochee: (sharp)
gmail is down.

i'm at the lab at ten to eight, wondering if i should go out to get yakisoba while i write.

I'm very proud of myself today: I broke the block I was in, and I wrote three subsections of background. My hope is to take advantage of this momentum and actually finish a draft of the background chapter tonight (!)

I spent two hours today running down problems wtih bank transfers, and there seems to be something weird about my entire X session right now -- it keeps freezing firefox. And XMMS won't start. It's like the whole computer has bent itself on "no distractions for you".

but -- haha! I have found distractions aplenty. Among other things fished out of the P section of the stacks, I found Phonetic Symbol Guide by Geoffrey Pullum and William Ladusaw. It's like a little dictionary with a funny letter on each page. I love it. The introduction (available through Google Print) is fun for typography geeks like me.
trochee: (smiling)
This is a followup to my interlibrary loan fiasco:

But at the same time, I had already sent a request to the linguistics graduate student group. Since several of the faculty read this listserve, one most appropriate ([E]) piped up that she would be interested in that book as well, and she hadn't heard of it. We exchanged a few rounds of email and she offered to loan me one of her books that's currently checked out of the library.

are you in your office today? I wrote to [E]. when might be a good time for me to come by and pick up your book?

Then I sat down to write to the librarian [A] in charge of linguistics, I cc'ed [E] and the ILL folks. [A] -- a godsend among librarians -- tracked the book down at a Dutch library and verified that it existed. He responded (cc'ing me and [E]):

ILL was having a problem with this title, because it exists in no North American Library, nor in any of the libraries in Europe which enter their catalog holdings in the massive OCLC database. ...
I believe, however, I have the answer to your problem. [he found it in Nijmegen; details omitted]
I'd suggest you resubmit your request giving the both the verification record source and the library source. That should be sufficient to move your request forward.


And then [E] responded (to my query about "are you around"):
actually, I'm in my new office at the Dean's offices (I'm acting divisional dean of arts and humanities this year.)

... which explained the panicky, excuse-laden email I got from the supervisor of ILL later that afternoon:
We will re-start the request and attempt to borrow from Nijmegan University. The odds aren't good, but we will give it a try.
[[livejournal.com profile] trochee], we will let you know what we hear back from the Netherlands regarding this loan. Our experience is that most European institutions won't lend books overseas; often they do not even respond to international requests. It may we a long process.
--[Supervisor of ILL group]


The short version: how to intimidate librarians? CC a dean when asking for interlibrary loan requests. it gets things done.
trochee: (Default)
grr...

I filed an interlibrary loan request yesterday. It being a holiday in the US yesterday, I didn't expect a speedy response. But I was pleasantly surprised to find an email notification this morning in response.

But here is what it said: (emphasis mine):

Dear [[livejournal.com profile] trochee],
 
A request you placed:
          
  Author:  Kager, Rene and Wim Zonneveld
  Title: Phrasal Phonology

  UWorld #: 148096 (Borrowing)
 
has been cancelled by the UWorld Express staff for the following reason: 

We are unable to verify this citation and cannot locate any potential
suppliers for this material.
 
Question about this cancelled item should be directed to the 
UWorld Express office at [email] or [number]. Please cite the 
UWorld Number 148096 for the cancelled request.

Thank you for using UWorld Express.
Wait, so they're thanking me for having "used" their service where they do exactly nothing for me, in less than two hours of research, and haven't (1) contacted the book editor or publisher themselves or (2) done basic google research. The PDF of chapter 1 is the second link!

I wrote back immediately to the service and cc'ed the librarian in charge of linguistics. This is why we have a library, and why the university takes such a big cut from grants: it's supposed to support the shared institutions like librarians and people who track down difficult-to-find books. arrgh. It's not like I'm being lazy -- i wrote the linguistics grad students listserve as well. Finally, I couldn't help adding a postscript:

PS: in addition, I would much prefer that you ask me for more information
rather than summarily cancel my request.

trochee: (Default)
Over the last week:1

movies

  • Saw Batman Begins with a small contingent from [livejournal.com profile] emerald_citizen. I was impressed at the faithfulness to the comics, without being campy: there were very clear references to big chunks of Year One (the look of Wayne Manor, the trips to the Far East to learn, the doubts about how to use fear) Dark Knight Returns (the automobile, the pearls), along with a successful re-introduction to Ras al-Ghul, who had never previously "worked" for me as a villain (I stopped reading the whole Batman panoply around the time they introduced Bane). I particularly liked that the script takes its time in introducing the costume etcetera, and that the hand-to-hand combat scenes were shot in the close-up, confused flurry that leaves a lot to the imagination (Michael Keaton's Batman always looked like a clown in fights).

    I got suckered by the turn-your-cellphone-off preview, which had medieval kung-fu warriors clashing in mid-air when someone's cell phone started ringing. It went on, and I was completely snookered -- I said "okay, turn it off now", out loud, loud enough to be heard throughout the theater, and then I realized that the subtitled moment had the two warriors debating what noise that was -- "it's in the audience", says one. So embarrassing to be taken in. I obviously don't watch enough movies, because it felt like everybody else in the theater knew what was coming. I felt like one of those apocryphal primitive tribesmen who talks back to the television, or asks "how do they get the little people in there." Amusing for everybody else, though I could feel my skin flush with embarrassment. This embarrassment was somewhat mitigated by being massively out-fanboyed by the entire row behind us, who [to a man, and yes they were all men] bore a striking resemblance to Comic Book Guy and as soon as the movie ended started ripping on how it wasn't really authentic.

    It was very nice to spend some time -- however non-conversational -- with both [livejournal.com profile] blackwingedboy and [livejournal.com profile] imtboo; the former I barely see at all and the latter has been frantically busy in going to a major theater conference in town (to which she received a scholarship!).

reading
Wow, I've been reading a lot.
  • The Nation
  • The works of Ellen Ullman, at [livejournal.com profile] imtboo's recommendation. She's a decent writer, and it's the first thing I've read that really seems to capture the feelings of clarity, confusion, drive and obsession that go into a programmer's life. The Bug is both frightening and fascinating in its eerie similarities to my own life -- the first-person narrator, for example, is a PhD linguist who has dropped out of the academy and become a software tester; she is forced to learn to program as a matter of pride in her job but it quickly becomes a mesmerizing world of its own to her. ([livejournal.com profile] nihilistic_kid didn't like it, though [some spoilers in these reviews] Mostly Fiction and the NYT did.) I won't say more -- there are a few plot points I don't want to give away -- but I encourage the geeks and geeks' friends out there to read it, or her gonzo memoir Close to the Machine (an interesting review).
  • I've started reading The Confusion, which I picked up the other day. This morning I took a knife and tore the giant trade paperback into three chunks so I don't have to carry around 2.9 pounds of paper, I'm still on chunk 1.
  • in a fit of bookstore madness, I went to Twice Sold Tales and left with $35 of used books: #2-4 of the Princes of Amber series, Emergence (non-fiction about group-emergent properties and processes ), Persepolis (a comic-book memoir of a girl in Iran) and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which I've been meaning to re-read for years.

1There's no narrative here. It's just a log of what I've been doing for the last week or so. Sorry for the lack of updates...

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