Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 2

As its name indicates, this post builds on Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1. I want to call your attention, in particular, to the next to the last section, Becoming Memetic. There I trace, albeit sketchily, the history of Rhythm Changes. The point is that Rhymthm Changes didn’t exist as a memetic entity in 1930, when George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm.” Just when the chord changes had become differentiated from the song itself is not clear. But it had certainly happened, at least in the jazz world, by the mid 1940s. Thus, it is not as though certain patterns are essentially memetic while others are not. It’s a question of how the patterns function in the cultural system.

* * * * *

In the previous post I took a look at Rhythm Changes, a memetic entity that has played an important role in jazz and, in particular, in bebop. FWIW, Rhythm Changes has also been used in the theme song for well-known some well-known cartoons, Woody Woodpecker and The Flintstones. In this post I want to do several things:

  • consider all the elements of “I Got Rhythm,” rather than just the chord changes,
  • think briefly about how pools of memetic elements function in defining musical styles, and
  • look briefly at how the chord changes to Gershwin’s tune became memetically active.

Taken together those discussions flesh out the role of memetic elements in music systems in the large. I conclude by

  • examining this discussion of memes in music in the context of a recent article by Evelyn Fox Keller and David Harel, Beyond the Gene, and not some broad thematic similarities between their discussion and mine.

I Got Rhythm, Whole

As I’ve indicated, Rhythm Changes is derived from, abstracted from, George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” Now let’s think about the whole tune, not just its harmonic trajectory, i.e. Rhythm Changes. In addition to that trajectory we also have a specific melody, the lyrics, the rhythmic framework, and the arrangement. The lyrics are optional; the tune can be performed without them, and among jazz musicians that is the typical, if not universal, performance practice. Note, however, that any consideration of the lyrics brings a whole other memetic field into consideration, that of language. Continue reading “Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 2”

Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1

Now that the replicator meme is out and about I’ve got more to say. I’m going to republish two more posts from my 2010 cultural evolution series. These posts are about music. I have various reasons for using music as my cultural evolution conceptual sandbox. For one thing, it means that I don’t have to contend with semantic meanings arbitrarily associated with bits of music. In music, all we’ve got is the physical signal.

In these two posts I choose, not a simple musical example but, rather, a complex one, something jazz musicians know as Rhythm Changes. While I could talk about the four-note motif Beethoven used to construct the first movement of his Fifth Symphony, which is a memetic favorite, that’s too easy. Thinking about it won’t stretch our intuitions about the memetic properties of mere physical things. That motif has four notes, with specific durations and specific note-to-note pitch relationships.

Rhythm Changes isn’t like that. It’s an abstract property of a sound stream. There is now specific number of notes, no specific durations, and no specific note-to-note pitch relationships. Thousands upon thousands of specific musical streams, many quite different from one another, have exemplified the properties of Rhythm Changes.

In the previous post (in this series) I argued memes, the cultural parallel to the biological gene, are those physical properties of objects, events, and processes that allow different individuals to coordinate their participation in those things. In this view, memes are not physical objects, like genes, that spread through a population. Rather, memes are about sharability; they are physical properties that can easily be identified by human nervous systems and thus be the basis for shared (cultural) activity.

In that post I considered a very basic case, people making noise at regular intervals. In that case we have two memes, period (the interval between “hits”) and phase (the relationship between streams of hits by different individuals). Now I want to consider a considerably more complex case, the entity jazz musicians know as Rhythm Changes. This entity assumes that, for a given performance, period length and phase value are agreed upon. In fact it assumes a lot more. We’re dealing with a whole lot of memes here.

But I don’t want to get hung up in those details. I just want to characterize Rhythm Changes in a reasonable way and explain just why I insist that we regard Rhythm Changes as a structured collection of physical properties that can be ascribed to a stream of sound. While it would be nice to characterize Rhythm Changes using the language of acoustics, it’s not at all clear to me that we’ve got the necessary concepts. In any event, if we do, I don’t know them. Instead, I’ll couch my description in the schematic terms jazz musicians tend to use when talking about their craft; these terms are derived, in part, from descriptive and analytic concepts developed for European art music (i.e. classical music).

I’m going do this in two posts, the first will be confined to Rhythm Changes itself. The second will consider how Rhythm Changes came into being and how it functions in the popular music system. Continue reading “Wild Replicator’s Got Funky Rhythm, Part 1”

In Search of the Wild Replicator


The key to the treasure is the treasure.
– John Barth

In view of Sean’s post about Andrew Smith’s take on linguistic replicators I’ve decided to repost this rather longish note from New Savanna. I’d orignally posted it in the Summer of 2010 as part of a run-up to a post on cultural evolution for the National Humanities Center (USA); I’ve collected those notes into a downloadable PDF. Among other things the notes deal with William Croft’s notions (at least as they existed in 2000) and suggests that we’ll find language replicators on the emic side of the emic/etic distinction.

I’ve also appended some remarks I made to John Lawler in the subsequent discussion at New Savanna.

* * * * *
There’s been a fair amount of work done on language from an evolutionary point of view, which is not surprising, as historical linguistics has well-developed treatments of language lineages and taxonomy, the “stuff” of large-scale evolutionary investigation. While this work is directly relevant to a consideration of cultural evolution, however, I will not be reviewing or discussing it. For it doesn’t deal with the theoretical issues that most concern me in these posts, namely, a conceptualization of the genetic and phenotypic entities of culture. This literature is empirically oriented in a way that doesn’t depend on such matters.

The Arbitrariness of the Sign

In particular, I want to deal with the arbitrariness of the sign. Given my approach to memes, that arbitrariness would appear to eliminate the possibility that word meanings could have memetic status. For, as you may recall, I’ve defined memes to be perceptual properties – albeit sometimes very complex and abstract ones – of physical things and events. Memes can be defined over speech sounds, language gestures, or printed words, but not over the meanings of words. Note that by “meaning” I mean the mental or neural event that is the meaning of the word, what Saussure called the signified. I don’t mean the referent of the word, which, in many cases, but by no means all, would have perceptible physical properties. I mean the meaning, the mental event. In this conception, it would seem that that cannot be memetic.

That seems right to me. Language is different from music and drawing and painting and sculpture and dance, it plays a different role in human society and culture. On that basis one would expect it to come out fundamentally different on a memetic analysis.

This, of course, leaves us with a problem. If word meaning is not memetic, then how is it that we can use language to communicate, and very effectively over a wide range of cases? Not only language, of course, but everything that depends on language. Continue reading “In Search of the Wild Replicator”

Conrad’s Special K: Periodicity in Heart of Darkness

Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo, Part II

While Kurtz is the center of attention in Heart of Darkness, he doesn’t appear until relatively late in the story. He isn’t mentioned until about 8000 words into the 38000 word text nor do we know much about him until a long paragraph that starts roughly 23,000 words into the text. That paragraph, which I’ve called the nexus, is structurally central to the text, and is roughly 1500 words long.

I decided to investigated Kurtz’s presence in the text by the simple expedient of noting where the name “Kurtz” occurs. The result, my colleague Tim Perper subsequently told me, is what’s called a periodogram (PDF):


HoD500
Figure 1: Periodicity in the appearance of “Kurtz”
Visual inspection suggests that the appearance of “Kurtz” is periodic, with two components, a short one and a significantly longer one. Before discussing this further, however, I would like to explain what I’ve done. Continue reading “Conrad’s Special K: Periodicity in Heart of Darkness”

Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo

Or, Speculations in Computational Evolutionary Psychology

Note: This version of the post has been revised from an earlier version in which I suggested that the distribution in the first chart followed a power law. Cosma Shalizi checked it for me and it’s not a power law distribution. It’s an exponential distribution.

So, I’ve been exploring Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the last two posts I’ve examined one paragraph in the text, the so-called nexus. It’s the longest paragraph in the text, it’s structurally central, and it covers a lot of semantic territory.

OK, but what about the other paragraphs.

What about them?

Aren’t you going to look at them?

Well, yeah, but I sure don’t have time to troll through them like I did the nexus. I mean, that post stretched from here to Sunday.

I get your point. Why don’t you do the Moretti thing?

Moretti thing?

You know, distant reading.

Distant reading? You mean count something? Count what?

How about paragraph length?

What’ll that get me?

I don’t know. Just do it. I mean, you already know that the nexus is the longest paragraph in the text. There must be something going on with that. Mess around and see if something turns up.


* * * * *
I did and it did.

I used the MSWord word-count tool to count the words in every paragraph in the text. All 198 of them. One at a time. Real tedious stuff. Then I loaded the results into a spreadsheet and created a bar chart showing paragraph length from longest to shortest:

HD whole ordered 2 Continue reading “Digital Humanities Sandbox Goes to the Congo”

Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing

It has long been obvious to me that the so-called cognitive revolution is what happened when computation – both the idea and the digital technology – hit the human sciences. But I’ve seen little reflection of that in the literary cognitivism of the last decade and a half. And that, I fear, is a mistake.

Thus, when I set out to write a long programmatic essay, Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form, I argued that we think of literary text as a computational form. I submitted the essay and found that both reviewers were puzzled about what I meant by computation. While publication was not conditioned on providing such satisfaction, I did make some efforts to satisfy them, though I’d be surprised if they were completely satisfied by those efforts.

That was a few years ago.

Ever since then I pondered the issue: how do I talk about computation to a literary audience? You see, some of my graduate training was in computational linguistics, so I find it natural to think about language processing as entailing computation. As literature is constituted by language it too must involve computation. But without some background in computational linguistics or artificial intelligence, I’m not sure the notion is much more than a buzzword that’s been trendy for the last few decades – and that’s an awful long time for being trendy.

I’ve already written one post specifically on this issue: Cognitivism for the Critic, in Four & a Parable, where I write abstracts of four texts which, taken together, give a good feel for the computational side of cognitive science. Here’s another crack at it, from a different angle: symbol processing.

Operations on Symbols

I take it that ordinary arithmetic is most people’s ‘default’ case for what computation is. Not only have we all learned it, it’s fundamental to our knowledge, like reading and writing. Whatever we know, think, or intuit about computation is built on our practical knowledge of arithmetic.

As far as I can tell, we think of arithmetic as being about numbers. Numbers are different from words. And they’re different from literary texts. And not merely different. Some of us – many of whom study literature professionally – have learned that numbers and literature are deeply and utterly different to the point of being fundamentally in opposition to one another. From that point of view the notion that literary texts be understood computationally is little short of blasphemy.

Not so. Not quite.

The question of just what numbers are – metaphysically, ontologically – is well beyond the scope of this post. But what they are in arithmetic, that’s simple; they’re symbols. Words too are symbols; and literary texts are constituted of words. In this sense, perhaps superficial, but nonetheless real, the reading of literary texts and making arithmetic calculations are the same thing, operations on symbols. Continue reading “Cognitivism and the Critic 2: Symbol Processing”

Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind

MIT recently held a symposium on the current status of AI, which apparently has seen precious little progress in recent decades. The discussion, it seems, ground down to a squabble over the prevalence of statistical techniques in AI and a call for a revival of work on the sorts of rule-governed models of symbolic processing that once dominated much of AI and its sibling, computational linguistics.

Briefly, from the early days in the 1950s up through the 1970s both disciplines used models built on carefully hand-crafted symbolic knowledge. The computational linguists built parsers and sentence generators and the AI folks modeled specific domains of knowledge (e.g. diagnosis in elected medical domains, naval ships, toy blocks). Initially these efforts worked like gang-busters. Not that they did much by Star Trek standards, but they actually did something and they did things never before done with computers. That’s exciting, and fun.

In time, alas, the excitement wore off and there was no more fun. Just systems that got too big and failed too often and they still didn’t do a whole heck of a lot.

Then, starting, I believe, in the 1980s, statistical models were developed that, yes, worked like gang-busters. And these models actually did practical tasks, like speech recognition and then machine translation. That was a blow to the symbolic methodology because these programs were “dumb.” They had no knowledge crafted into them, no rules of grammar, no semantics. Just routines the learned while gobbling up terabytes of example data. Thus, as Google’s Peter Norvig points out, machine translation is now dominated by statistical methods. No grammars and parsers carefully hand-crafted by linguists. No linguists needed.

What a bummer. For machine translation is THE prototype problem for computational linguistics. It’s the problem that set the field in motion and has been a constant arena for research and practical development. That’s where much of the handcrafted art was first tried, tested, and, in a measure, proved. For it to now be dominated by statistics . . . bummer.

So that’s where we are. And that’s what the symposium was chewing over.

Continue reading “Statistics and Symbols in Mimicking the Mind”

Academic Blogging

Natalia Cecire has a good post on academic blogging over at Arcade. Tne ensuing discussion is excellent.

Here’s what I posted to the discussion:

Excellent post, Natalia, and excellent discussion all.

I come at this subject from a different angle. I was trained as an academic, held an academic post, then failed to get tenure. Since then I’ve done this and that, while maintaining an active intellectual life. The advent of the web was a godsend to me, for it opened up new lines communication. Now I could easily find out about things and stuff and contact any scholar with an email address. I was once again in the mix, though a somewhat different mix, to be sure.

It’s within that context that I see my blogging. I do most of my blogging at my own blog, New Savanna, which is a mixture of various things. I could easily break it into 3 or 4 more tightly focused blogs, but why do that? (Perhaps readers would be less confused.) I post photos, personal essays (not so many of those), and material on a wide variety of topics at varying levels of sophistication and intellectual development.

I’m particularly fond of the work I’ve been doing on cartoons, most of which is analytic and descriptive. I regard that as being as important as anything I’m doing, but I don’t see how I could do that work in a formal academic venue. As far as I know, there’s no place to publish largely analytic descriptive work on cartoons. So I blog it. Most recently, a series of four posts on Porky in Wackland and eight on The Greatest Man in Siam. While some of those posts get just a tad heavy here and there, for the most part they’re pretty straightforward and accessible. Anyone who’s interested in that material can read those posts. And there’s a substantial community of folks interested in animation that isn’t being served by academia.

So, I’m a public intellectual without the reputation that seems to be part of the implicit understanding of the term. Continue reading “Academic Blogging”

“Xanadu” Revisited (Culturomics?)

Google has just released an interesting dataset. Geoff Nunberg describes it at Language Log:

Culled from the Google Books collection, it contains more than 5 million books published between 1800 and 2000 — at a rough estimate, 4 percent of all the books ever published — of which two-thirds are in English and the others distributed among French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Hebrew. (The English corpus alone contains some 360 billion words, dwarfing better structured data collections like the corpora of historical and contemporary American English at BYU, which top out at a paltry 400 million words each.)

It is, he says, “the largest corpus ever assembled for humanities and social science research.” The New York Times has reported on it and there’s an article in Science based on it.

You can also play around with it online with the Google Books Ngram Viewer. You enter individual words or phrases (up to five words long) and a Google graphs their frequency over time. I’ve spent a little time playing around with it.

In particular, I’m interested in the proper noun, “Xanadu.” As you may know, it’s the name of Kubla Khan’s summer capital and is also the second word in Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan.” Several years ago I did a Google search on “Xanadu” and was surprised to come up with over two-million hits. How’d that happen? I wondered.

I ended up writing a long post on The Valve, which generated an interesting discussion, and then distilling that down into a tech report. You can download the report here (One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: The Xanadu Meme). Here’s the abstract:

I treat a single word ‘xanadu’, as a ‘meme’ and follow it from a 17th century book, to a 19th century poem (Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”), into the 20th century where it was picked up by a classic movie (“Citizen Kane”), an ongoing software development project (Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu), and another movie and hit song, Olivia Newton-John’s Xanadu. The aggregate result can be seen when you google the word, you get 6 million hits. What is interesting about those hits is that, while some of them are directly related to Coleridge’s poem, more seem to be related to Nelson’s software project, Olivia Newton-John’s film and song, and (indirectly) to Welles’ movie. Thus one cluster of Xanadu sites is high tech while another is about luxury and excess (and then there’s the Manchester Swingers Club Xanadu).

Continue reading ““Xanadu” Revisited (Culturomics?)”

Bleg: Why CULTURAL Evolution?

That is to ask: Why has there been so much interest in cultural evolution in the last two decades or so? It seems to me that a lot of this thinking is just messing around, seeing if evolutionary ideas can somehow be attached to cultural phenomena in a coherent way. It seems more motivated by a desire to extend evolutionary thinking than by a desire to understand culture. And it’s not obvious to me that anyone has actually explained anything in this process, not so far.

In particular, has anyone used some theory of cultural evolution to explain some phenomenon of culture as well as, and ideally, better than competing non-evolutionary accounts? It’s not at all obvious to me that the answer to that question is “Yes.”

Note that I don’t exempt my own efforts from this criticism, which is why, on the whole, I’ve devoted more time to examining and analyzing cultural phenomenon than I have conceptualizing cultural evolution. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about popular music in America, and the interaction of African-derived and European-derived styles (see, e.g. this longish paper) and, more recently, I’ve been looking at graffiti, which I’ll address later on.

Evolution?

One caveat: A lot depends on just what one means by cultural evolution. If one is just using ‘evolution’ as a substitute for ‘change,’ then the question has little meaning. It seems to me that much of memetics is like this, with the added innovation of attributing agency to the memes, rather than to people.

And then there’s gene-cultural coevolution (GCCE). Those folks may well have succeeded in coming up with useful explanations, e.g. lactose tolerance. But it’s not at all clear to me that GCCE can work with the kinds of phenomena that most interest me and that do constitute a great deal of cultural activity. As I’ve explained here, it’s not clear to me that GCCE has anything to say, for example, about something like the growth of graffiti in the last 40 years.

Graffiti 1

By ‘graffiti’ I don’t mean any writing on walls, but the specific practice that originated on the East Coast of the USA in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The practice seems to have been pretty much confined to those cities by the early 1980s. But it had gone world-wide by the start of the current millennium. How did that happen? And why?

I don’t see that GCCE has any tools to answer that question. The spread is too fast for any biological changes to have been involved. Whatever’s going on has been going on purely within the cultural sphere. There are obvious things to point to concerning how it happened: 1) Press coverage of early graffiti made the activity more visible. 2) When graffiti became associated with hip-hop, it followed hip-hop in its spread through world pop culture. 3) Photography, books, and films (Style Wars, Wild Style) spread the word. 4) The emergence of the world-wide-web created a new means by which photos of graffiti could made instantly available around the world.

But none of that explains why the practice spread. What made graffiti so attractive to so many people in so many different places around the world? And why has it been, on the whole, so conservative, so that the themes and motifs that originated in the East Coast of the USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s are showing up in Japan in then 2000s? On one level that question answers itself. If the designs changed rapidly, so that putting any old design up on the walls counted as graffiti, then the activity would loose its identity, its genealogical connection with those first writers in New York City and Philadelphia. It would just be painting on walls, illegally. Big deal.

The genealogical connection IS important. Why? Note that, while stylistic conservatism maintains that identity, we also have to allow for the identity of individual writers within the tradtion. The tradition has to have enough internal variety to allow for that.

There are ways of talking about those questions, and you’ll find some of them in the literature, but the question I’m asking is this: Can a strong theory of cultural evolution do a better job of accounting for this spread than any other theory? If so, what would that theory look like?

Continue reading “Bleg: Why CULTURAL Evolution?”