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{Sunday, February 08, 2004}

A Data-Dandy, an Extra-Textual, and an African Grey

BBC News: Parrot's oratory stuns scientists by Alex Kirby
The finding of a parrot with an almost unparalleled power to communicate with people has brought scientists up short. The bird, a captive African grey called N'kisi, has a vocabulary of 950 words, and shows signs of a sense of humour. [...] When he first met Dr Jane Goodall, the renowned chimpanzee expert, after seeing her in a picture with apes, N'kisi said: "Got a chimp?" [...] When another parrot hung upside down from its perch, he commented: "You got to put this bird on the camera."

Referential Communication with an African Grey Parrot
"Bye. You be good. I'm gonna go eat dinner. I'll see you tomorrow." I hear these words most nights as I close the door of my laboratory. Such a series of vocalizations would not be surprising if they were to come from the lips of my graduate or undergraduate students, but they come from a beak ... the beak of my research subject, an African Grey parrot.

Irene Pepperberg: The woman behind the most famous parrot in the world
"In 1977, Pepperberg moved to Purdue University with her then-husband, an assistant professor of electrical sciences and neurobiology, and set up her first lab in a corner of the biology department. She chose the African grey parrot as the animal with which she would try to bridge the interspecies communication gap. German scientists who had done limited work with the birds in the 1940s and '50s had already proven grey parrots were intelligent. She began to call around to find a pet shop that sold African greys and eventually purchased a year-old bird at a store 122 miles away in Chicago.
"I generally tell people that if they're going to buy a pet bird, they should get it from a breeder or a pet store that does its own breeding so they know where it's coming from," says Pepperberg of her decision to go the pet-store route. "But I had to show that Alex was not a specially-bred bird. He had to be chosen at random so I could show there was nothing special about him."
Pepperberg named the young bird Alex, for Avian Learning Experiment."

New Scientist: Are aliens hiding their messages?
If we are not alone in the Universe, why have we never picked up signals from an extraterrestrial civilisation? This long-standing puzzle is known as the Fermi paradox. Two physicists have come up with an intriguing solution.

The Data Dandy and Sovereign Media (1994)
"The data dandy, who I wish to introduce here, falls under ADILKNO's category of "potential media figures." In The Media Archive, which ADILKNO published in Dutch in 1992 and in an expanded German edition in 1993, a series of potential media and potential media figures are collected under the denominator of "Unidentified Theoretical Objects," or UTOs. These compact texts are purely speculative."
Geert Lovink

Thomas R. Pynchon: Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? (1984)
" Since 1959, we have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen. Demystification is the order of our day, all the cats are jumping out of all the bags and even beginning to mingle. We immediately suspect ego insecurity in people who may still try to hide behind the jargon of a specialty or pretend to some data base forever "beyond" the reach of a layman. Anybody with the time, literacy, and access fee can get together with just about any piece of specialized knowledge s/he may need. So, to that extent, the two-cultures quarrel can no longer be sustained. As a visit to any local library or magazine rack will easily confirm, there are now so many more than two cultures that the problem has really become how to find the time to read anything outside one's own specialty.
What has persisted, after a long quarter century, is the element of human character."

George Landow: Twenty Minutes into the Future

Printed books are technology, too
"We find ourselves, for the first time in centuries, able to see the book as unnatural, as a near-miraculous technological innovation and not as something intrinsically and inevitably human. We have, to use Derridean terms, decentered the book. We find ourselves in the position, in other words, of perceiving the book as technology. I think it no mere coincidence that it is at precisely this period in human history that we have acquired crucial intellectual distance from the book as object and as cultural product. First came the distant hearing - the telephone - then the cinema and then the distant seeing of television. It is only with the added possibilities created by these new information media and computing that Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Jack Goody, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Alvin Kernan, Roger Chartier, and the European scholars of Lesengeshichte could arise.
Influential as these scholars have been, not all scholars willingly recognize the power of information technologies upon culture. This resistance appears in two characteristic reactions to the proposition that information technology constitutes a crucial cultural force. First, many humanists assume that before now, before computing, our intellectual culture existed in some pastoral nontechnological realm. Technology, in the lexicon of many humanists, generally means "only that technology of which I am frightened." In fact, I have frequently heard humanists use the word technology to mean "some intrusive, alien force like computing," as if pencils, paper, typewriters, and printing presses were in some way natural. Digital technology may be new, but technology, particularly information technology, has permeated all known culture since the beginnings of human history. If we hope to discern the fate of reading and writing in digital environments, we must not treat all previous information technologies of language, rhetoric, writing, and printing as nontechnological."
George Landow - Hypertext 2.0 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, pages 25-26)

Hyper-Reality - Virtual Originals & Postmodern Panic
Rachael: "Do you like our owl?"
Deckard: "It's artificial?"
Rachael: "Of course it is."

"No less a figure than Benjamin Lee Whorf took Fabre d'Olivet as the starting point for a series of reflections on the curious subject of 'oligosynthesis'. He was wondering about the possible applications of a science capable of 'restoring a possible common language of the human race or [of] perfecting an ideal natural tongue constructed of the original psychological significance of sounds, perhaps a future common speech, into which all our varied languages may be assimilated, or, putting it differently, to whose terms they may be reduced' (Whorf 1956:12; see also 74-6). This is neither the first nor the last of the paradoxes in our story: we associate Whorf with one of the least monogenetic of all the various glottogonic hypotheses; it was Whorf who developed the idea that each language was a 'holistic' universe, expressing the world in a way that could never be wholly translated into any other language."
Umberto Eco - The Search for the Perfect Language
(Fontana Press, 1997, page 113)

Tina Hesman: The machine that invents [via gyre.org and hakank.blogg]
"Thaler's technology was born from near-death experiences of dying computer programs. Its foundation is the discovery that great ideas are the result of noisy neurons and faulty memories.
The invention began to take shape in the 1980s. By day, the physicist worked at McDonnell Douglas Corp., where he wielded a powerful laser beam to crystallize diamonds. He built elegant computer simulations, called neural networks, to guide his experiments.
But at night, things were different. Shirley MacLaine and her ilk were all over the TV and on magazine covers talking about reincarnation and life after death and near-death experiences. It made Thaler wonder: "What would happen if I killed one of my neural networks?"
Neural networks can be either software programs or computers designed to model an object, process or set of data. Thaler reasoned that if a neural network were an accurate representation of a biological system, he could kill it and figure out what happens in the brain as it dies.
In biological brains, the information-carrying cells, called neurons, meet at junctions, called synapses. Brain chemicals, such as adrenaline and dopamine, flow across the junctions to stimulate or soothe the cells. In the computer world, there are switches instead of cells. The switches are connected by numbers or "weights."
So after work, Thaler went home and created the epitome of a killer application - a computer program he called the Grim Reaper. The reaper dismantles neural networks by changing its connection weights. It is the biological equivalent of killing neurons. Pick off enough neurons, and the result is death.
On Christmas Eve 1989, Thaler typed the lyrics to some of his favorite Christmas carols into a neural network. Once he'd taught the network the songs, he unleashed the Grim Reaper. As the reaper slashed away connections, the network's digital life began to flash before its eyes. The program randomly spit out perfectly remembered carols as the killer application severed the first connections. But as its wounds grew deeper, and the network faded toward black, it began to hallucinate.
The network wove its remaining strands of memory together, producing what someone else might interpret as damaged memories, but what Thaler recognized as new ideas. In its death spiral, the program dreamed up new carols, each created from shards of its shattered memories.
"Its last dying gasp was, 'All men go to good earth in one eternal silent night,'" Thaler said.
But it wasn't the eloquence of the network's last words that captured Thaler's imagination. What excited him was how noisy and creative the process of dying was. It gave Thaler ideas. What if, he asked, I don't cut the connections, but just perturb them a little?
Thaler built another neural network and trained it to recognize the structure of diamonds and some other super-hard materials. He also built a second network to monitor the first one's activities.
Then he tickled a few of the network's connections, and something began to happen. The tickling, akin to a shot of adrenaline or an electrical jolt in the brain, produced noise. In this sense, noise is not sound, but random activity. And the noise triggered changes in the network.
The result was new ideas. The computer dreamed up new ultra-hard materials. Some of the materials are known to humans, but Thaler didn't tell the network they existed. Other materials are entirely new ..."
(From The St.Louis Post-Dispatch - 25 January 2004)

That Gibberish in Your In-Box May Be Good News
(From The New York Times - 25 January 2004)
"If you could sit back with Zen-like detachment and observe the dross piling up in your electronic mailbox, the spam wars might come to seem like a fascinating electronic game. Like creatures running through a maze with constantly shifting walls, spammers dart and weave to sneak their solicitations past ever wilier junk mail filters. They are organisms, or maybe genomes, grinding out one random mutation after another, desperately trying to elude the Grim Reaper.
[...] Dispiriting as it is to start the morning with a hundred of these orthographic monsters crouching in your in-box, there is reason to take heart. Measured in bits and bytes, the sheer volume of spam may not have diminished. But advanced filtering software, which learns to recognize the mercurial traits of junk e-mail, is having an effect. The spammers' messages are becoming harder and harder to decipher. Sense is inevitably degenerating into nonsense, like a pileup of random mutations in an endangered species gasping its last breaths.
[...] A recent e-mail message making the rounds promised "Leacatharsisrn to make a fortcongestiveune on eBay!" (A Web link inside led to a site with information on a money-making auction scheme.)
Increasingly the subject lines convey no meaning at all: "begonia breadfruit extempore defocus purveyor." For the spammer, the hope, slim as it seems, is that a few curious souls will open and read the e-mail, which begins, "I finally was able to lsoe the wieght" and goes on to offer a product "Guanarteed to work or your menoy back!" Read out loud, the message sounds a little like HAL the computer in "2001: A Space Odyssey" sinking into aphasia as its synapses are severed one by one.
In what may be their final death throes, some spammers have begun sending messages consisting of a single image or a one-line sales pitch - "picospams" - with a link to a Web site. Often appended at the end, in an attempt to flummox the filters, is a scrap of Dadaist poetry - "feverish squirt feat transconductance terrify broken trite fascist axis stultify floc bookshelves." Sometimes this "word salad," as it has come to be called, is rendered in invisible ink - white letters on a white background - or hidden inside an embedded formatting command.
No matter. The filters learn to adapt. If the spammers want to stay in business, ultimately they must convey at least a hint of meaning. After all, you cannot send a completely random message - or one that is blank - and expect many people to click the link."
George Johnson

Jozef Kelemen: On the Post-Modern Machine
"We are born trusting. Some theologists even consider the primitive trust stemming from the initially very bodily relationship between the child and its mother as a basis for our later need to believe. We acquire fear of others, just like hope in others, love for others, belief in others, or hate, i.e. experiences that make it possible for us to live, through massive interaction with our environment, in human society. Wouldn't it be possible in some of these very opposing experiences to find the roots of our contradictory relationship to our own self, to our own body, which we, whether in a certain subconscious or conscious projection, relate to machines too?"

New Scientist: AI and A-Life: The creativity machine
"Unlike conventional computers, which are programmed in painstaking, step-by-step detail, neural networks can be trained." Bob Holmes (20 January 1996)

Can robots make good models of biological behaviour? by Barbara Webb (2001)

The Unfolding Mind: Death and Transfiguration
"One of the most surprising of recent discoveries is the fact that death, on a massive scale, plays a crucial part in the development of the brain, long before the child is born. Some weeks before birth there are far more cells in the brain than there will be in the newborn child, and their connections are more widespread too. The death of nerve cells and the removal of connections both play vital parts in the perfection of the brain. The genetic program that orchestrates the construction of the nervous system seems to play safe by building in extra cell divisions and by encouraging the immature neurons to form exploratory connections to distant parts of the nervous system. Both the unneeded cells and the unwanted connections are eliminated as the brain becomes refined to its ultimate state.
The factors that regulate the death of cells and the rearrangement of connections are numerous. Some of the changes seem to be written in the inbuilt blueprint of the genetic code, a code that can kill as well as create. But others depend on the individual battle fought by each growing fibre for space in the crowded brain. The optic nerve of a monkey, some weeks before birth, contains more than 2 million fibres; twice the number that it will keep as an adult. If one eye is missing at this stage, the remaining eye retains more nerve cells and more optic nerve fibres than usual. Presumably fibres from the two eyes normally fight with each other for space on their target cells in the brain - a deadly game of musical chairs in which the losers die.
The literal death of neurons is not the only mechanism that the developing brain employs to remove unwanted connections. Some cells, especially in the cerebral cortex, send out their fibres to unusual targets but then, at some specific stage in development, withdraw those connections and make new ones instead, without the cells necessarily dying. Giorgio Innocenti at the Institute of Anatomy in Lausanne discovered that this process of switching connections plays a major part in the development of the corpus callosum, the huge cable of millions of fibres that connects together the hemispheres of the brain. In rodents, cats, monkeys and human beings, the corpus callosum contains a vast excess of nerve fibres in the fetus, joining together parts of the two cerebral hemispheres that do not remain connected in the normal adult.
All this attrition of cells and axons is far from the wastage that it seems to be. It is a clever trick that Nature has devised to sculpt the perfect neuronal machine from an over-abundance of cells and an excess of interconnection."
Colin Blakemore - The Mind Machine (Penguin, 1994, pages 23-24)

The Internet as an Organism + WaterBird: A Metaphor for the Net

"The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat."
Arturo Rosenblueth & Norbert Wiener

George Dyson on the reality of cats and apples [vide Edge #128]
"The latest manifesto from Jaron Lanier raises important points. However, it is unfair to attribute to Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, or John von Neumann (& perhaps Claude Shannon) the limitations of unforgiving protocols and Gordian codes. These pioneers were deeply interested in probabilistic architectures and the development of techniques similar to what Lanier calls phenotropic codes. The fact that one particular computational subspecies became so successful is our problem (if it's a problem) not theirs.
People designing or building computers (serial or parallel; flexible or inflexible; phenotropic or not) are going to keep talking about wires, whether in metaphor or in metal, for a long time to come. As Danny Hillis has explained: "memory locations are simply wires turned sideways in time." If there's a metaphor problem, it's a more subtle one, that we still tend to think that we're sending a coded message to another location, whereas what we're actually doing is replicating the code on the remote host.
In the 1950s it was difficult to imagine hardware ever becoming reliable enough to allow running megabyte strings of code. Von Neumann's "Reliable Organization of Unreliable Elements" (1951) assumed reliable code and unreliable switches, not, as it turned out, the other way around. But the result is really the same (and also applies to coding reliable organisms using unreliable nucleic acids, conveying reliable meaning using unreliable language, and the seemingly intractable problem of assigning large software projects to thousands of people at once).
Von Neumann fleshed out these ideas in a series of six lectures titled "Probabilistic Logics and the Synthesis of Reliable Organisms from Unreliable Components" given at Cal Tech on January 4-15, 1952. This formed a comprehensive manifesto for a program similar to Lanier's, though the assumption was that the need for flexible, probabilistic logic would be introduced by the presence of sloppy hardware, not sloppy code. "The structures that I describe are reminiscent of some familiar patterns in the nervous system," he wrote to Warren Weaver on 29 January 1952.
The pioneers of digital computing did not see everything as digitally as some of their followers do today. "Besides," argued von Neumann in a long letter to Norbert Wiener, 29 November 1946 (discussing the human nervous system and a proposed program to attempt to emulate such a system one cell at a time), "the system is not even purely digital (i.e. neural): It is intimately connected to a very complex analogy; (i.e. humoral or hormonal) system, and almost every feedback loop goes through both sectors, if not through the 'outside' world (i.e. the world outside the epidermis or within the digestive system) as well." Von Neumann believed in the reality of cats and apples too."

The New York Review of Books: In the River of Consciousness
Oliver Sacks: "How, then, are the various snapshots "assembled" to achieve apparent continuity, and how do they reach the level of consciousness? [...] Whatever the mechanism, the fusing of discrete visual frames or snapshots is a prerequisite for continuity, for a flowing, mobile consciousness."

Mathematics and Language by Tony Brown
[...] As with Saussure (1966), Derrida sees the signifier/signified duality as inseparable. But as with Lacan (1968), Derrida sees relatively stable signifiers being associated with a fluid underbelly, comprising a signified field which sweeps out to occupy the whole of consciousness, and indeed, the unconscious. Both presence and absence are located by the signifier. The loss incurred in the attempt to articulate remains attached to the signifier seeking to replace it. Meanings are derived only through retrospective examination of the flow of signs. The component signifiers do not have implicit meanings, only relational associations with other signifiers in the chain. There are no independently existing meanings in the chain since any attempt to frame in words, any attempt to "mean", creates a gap between "being" and attempts to explain it. Lacan speaks of an indefinite sliding of meaning to convey the "impossibilities" of attaching one word with one meaning. We have no truths to provide orientation apart from those generated through this system of differences. Derrida (1981, translator's introduction, p. ix) suggests that self-present meanings are illusions brought about through repressing the differential structures from which they spring. However, as a note of caution Derrida seems to have back-tracked a little from the extreme way of thinking many associate with him:
"... it was never our wish to extend the re-assuring notion of text to a whole extra-textual realm and to transform the world into a library by doing away with all boundaries, all frameworks, all sharp edges."
(Jacques Derrida - Living on the Border Lines, in Kamuf, P. (Ed.) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Columbia University Press, New York, 1991, page 257)

An Inuit on the Underground
Ros Coward: "Over the years, Brody has lived with and studied several hunter-gatherer societies. He has become convinced that the hunter-gatherer world-view contains important lessons for humanity's future.
He devotes much space to discussing Inuit language in addressing these issues. It is the language, he claims, that 'reveals different ways of knowing the world'. Anaviapik introduces him to Inuit not as a collection of words but as a culture. When Brody learns about seal hunting, he is shown not only how to hunt but how to talk about the hunt to other community members. He also learns there is no generic word for seal, only 'ringed seal, one-year-old ringed seal, adult male ringed seal, harp seal, bearded seal'.
It is a well-known academic curiosity that Inuit has no generic word for snow either, only a vast array of different snowy conditions. For Brody, these are far from idle academic points. They expose how hunter-gatherer languages 'express and celebrate the importance of detailed knowledge of their natural world'. They demonstrate a complex and profound respect for their land and the creatures they hunt. Far from the miserable subsistence existence imagined by colonists, Brody meets an almost spiritual connection to the land. Many hunter-gatherers feel there's a porous connection between the natural and spirit world."

Enviro Digita

posted by Andrew 2/08/2004 07:28:00 PM