Friday, May 25, 2018

Surrealist Landscape by Fred Fredden Goldberg (1889 – 1973)

Surrealist Landscape by Fred Fredden Goldberg (1889 – 1973)

Click to enlarge.

And then, from a distant corner, there sounded a deprecating, cough

From The Clicking of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse, 1922. In installments.
It is too much to say that there was a dead silence. There could never be that in any room in which Vladimir Brusiloff was eating cake. But certainly what you might call the general chit-chat was pretty well down and out. Nobody liked to be the first to speak. The members of the Wood Hills Literary Society looked at one another timidly. Cuthbert, for his part, gazed at Adeline; and Adeline gazed into space. It was plain that the girl was deeply stirred. Her eyes were opened wide, a faint flush crimsoned her cheeks, and her breath was coming quickly.

Adeline's mind was in a whirl. She felt as if she had been walking gaily along a pleasant path and had stopped suddenly on the very brink of a precipice. It would be idle to deny that Raymond Parsloe Devine had attracted her extraordinarily. She had taken him at his own valuation as an extremely hot potato, and her hero-worship had gradually been turning into love. And now her hero had been shown to have feet of clay. It was hard, I consider, on Raymond Parsloe Devine, but that is how it goes in this world. You get a following as a celebrity, and then you run up against another bigger celebrity and your admirers desert you. One could moralize on this at considerable length, but better not, perhaps. Enough to say that the glamour of Raymond Devine ceased abruptly in that moment for Adeline, and her most coherent thought at this juncture was the resolve, as soon as she got up to her room, to burn the three signed photographs he had sent her and to give the autographed presentation set of his books to the grocer's boy.

Mrs. Smethurst, meanwhile, having rallied somewhat, was endeavouring to set the feast of reason and flow of soul going again.

"And how do you like England, Mr. Brusiloff?" she asked.

The celebrity paused in the act of lowering another segment of cake.

"Dam good," he replied, cordially.

"I suppose you have travelled all over the country by this time?"

"You said it," agreed the Thinker.

"Have you met many of our great public men?"

"Yais—Yais—Quite a few of the nibs—Lloyid Gorge, I meet him. But——" Beneath the matting a discontented expression came into his face, and his voice took on a peevish note. "But I not meet your real great men—your Arbmishel, your Arreevadon—I not meet them. That's what gives me the pipovitch. Have you ever met Arbmishel and Arreevadon?"

A strained, anguished look came into Mrs. Smethurst's face and was reflected in the faces of the other members of the circle. The eminent Russian had sprung two entirely new ones on them, and they felt that their ignorance was about to be exposed. What would Vladimir Brusiloff think of the Wood Hills Literary Society? The reputation of the Wood Hills Literary Society was at stake, trembling in the balance, and coming up for the third time. In dumb agony Mrs. Smethurst rolled her eyes about the room searching for someone capable of coming to the rescue. She drew blank.

And then, from a distant corner, there sounded a deprecating, cough, and those nearest Cuthbert Banks saw that he had stopped twisting his right foot round his left ankle and his left foot round his right ankle and was sitting up with a light of almost human intelligence in his eyes.

There are some complex artifacts with nonobvious, or causally opaque, functions in the world that one needs to learn about.

From The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. Page 71.
Alongside these anatomical changes, our species’ long history with complex tools has also likely shaped our learning psychology. We are cognitively primed to categorize “artifacts” (e.g., tools and weapons) as separate from all other things in the world, like rocks and animals. Unlike plants, animals, and other nonliving things like water, we think about function when we think about artifacts. For example, when young children ask about artifacts they ask “What’s it for” or “What does it do?” instead of “What kind is it?” which is their initial query when seeing a novel plant or animal. This specialized thinking about artifacts, as opposed to thinking about other nonliving things, requires, first, that there be some complex artifacts with nonobvious, or causally opaque, functions in the world that one needs to learn about. Cumulative cultural evolution will readily generate such cognitively opaque artifacts, a point I’ll make in spades in chapter 7.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I spit me of Sovietski!"

From The Clicking of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse, 1922. In installments.
"Oh, Mr. Brusiloff," said Mrs. Smethurst, "I do so want you to meet Mr. Raymond Parsloe Devine, whose work I expect you know. He is one of our younger novelists."

The distinguished visitor peered in a wary and defensive manner through the shrubbery, but did not speak. Inwardly he was thinking how exactly like Mr. Devine was to the eighty-one other younger novelists to whom he had been introduced at various hamlets throughout the country. Raymond Parsloe Devine bowed courteously, while Cuthbert, wedged into his corner, glowered at him.

"The critics," said Mr. Devine, "have been kind enough to say that my poor efforts contain a good deal of the Russian spirit. I owe much to the great Russians. I have been greatly influenced by Sovietski."

Down in the forest something stirred. It was Vladimir Brusiloff's mouth opening, as he prepared to speak. He was not a man who prattled readily, especially in a foreign tongue. He gave the impression that each word was excavated from his interior by some up-to-date process of mining. He glared bleakly at Mr. Devine, and allowed three words to drop out of him.

"Sovietski no good!"

He paused for a moment, set the machinery working again, and delivered five more at the pithead.

"I spit me of Sovietski!"

There was a painful sensation. The lot of a popular idol is in many ways an enviable one, but it has the drawback of uncertainty. Here today and gone tomorrow. Until this moment Raymond Parsloe Devine's stock had stood at something considerably over par in Wood Hills intellectual circles, but now there was a rapid slump. Hitherto he had been greatly admired for being influenced by Sovietski, but it appeared now that this was not a good thing to be. It was evidently a rotten thing to be. The law could not touch you for being influenced by Sovietski, but there is an ethical as well as a legal code, and this it was obvious that Raymond Parsloe Devine had transgressed. Women drew away from him slightly, holding their skirts. Men looked at him censoriously. Adeline Smethurst started violently, and dropped a tea-cup. And Cuthbert Banks, doing his popular imitation of a sardine in his corner, felt for the first time that life held something of sunshine.

Raymond Parsloe Devine was plainly shaken, but he made an adroit attempt to recover his lost prestige.

"When I say I have been influenced by Sovietski, I mean, of course, that I was once under his spell. A young writer commits many follies. I have long since passed through that phase. The false glamour of Sovietski has ceased to dazzle me. I now belong whole-heartedly to the school of Nastikoff."

There was a reaction. People nodded at one another sympathetically. After all, we cannot expect old heads on young shoulders, and a lapse at the outset of one's career should not be held against one who has eventually seen the light.

"Nastikoff no good," said Vladimir Brusiloff, coldly. He paused, listening to the machinery.

"Nastikoff worse than Sovietski."

He paused again.

"I spit me of Nastikoff!" he said.

This time there was no doubt about it. The bottom had dropped out of the market, and Raymond Parsloe Devine Preferred were down in the cellar with no takers. It was clear to the entire assembled company that they had been all wrong about Raymond Parsloe Devine. They had allowed him to play on their innocence and sell them a pup. They had taken him at his own valuation, and had been cheated into admiring him as a man who amounted to something, and all the while he had belonged to the school of Nastikoff. You never can tell. Mrs. Smethurst's guests were well-bred, and there was consequently no violent demonstration, but you could see by their faces what they felt. Those nearest Raymond Parsloe jostled to get further away. Mrs. Smethurst eyed him stonily through a raised lorgnette. One or two low hisses were heard, and over at the other end of the room somebody opened the window in a marked manner.

Raymond Parsloe Devine hesitated for a moment, then, realizing his situation, turned and slunk to the door. There was an audible sigh of relief as it closed behind him.

Vladimir Brusiloff proceeded to sum up.

"No novelists any good except me. Sovietski—yah! Nastikoff—bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad. No novelists any good except me."

And, having uttered this dictum, he removed a slab of cake from a near-by plate, steered it through the jungle, and began to champ.

Spring's Now by David Graeme Baker

Spring's Now by David Graeme Baker

Click to enlarge.

Children have an evolved fascination with fire

From The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. Page 68.
The impact of this culturally transmitted know-how about fire and cooking has had such an impact on our species’ genetic evolution that we are now, essentially, addicted to cooked food. Wrangham reviewed the literature on the ability of humans to survive by eating only raw foods. His review includes historical cases in which people had to survive without cooking, as well as studies of modern fads, such as the raw foods movement. The long and short of all this is that it’s very difficult to survive for months without cooking. Raw-foodists are thin and often feel hungry. Their body fat drops so low that women often stop menstruating or menstruate only irregularly. This occurs despite the supermarket availability of a vast range of raw foods, the use of powerful processing technologies like blenders, and the consumption of some preprocessed foods. The upshot is that human foraging populations could never survive without cooking; meanwhile, apes do just fine without cooking, though they do love cooked foods.

Our species’ increasing dependence on fire and cooking over our evolutionary history may have also shaped our cultural learning psychology in ways that facilitated the acquisition of know-how about fire making. This is a kind of content bias in our cultural learning. The UCLA anthropologist, Dan Fessler, argues that during middle childhood (ages six to nine), humans go through a phase in which we are strongly attracted to learning about fire, by both observing others and manipulating it ourselves. In small-scale societies, where children are free to engage this curiosity, adolescents have both mastered fire and lost any further attraction to it. Interestingly, Fessler also argues that modern societies are unusual because so many children never get to satisfy their curiosity, so their fascination with fire stretches into the teen years and early adulthood.

The influence of socially learned food-processing techniques on our genetic evolution probably occurred very gradually, perhaps beginning with the the earliest stone tools. Such tools had likely begun to emerge by at least 3 million years ago (see chapter 15) and were probably used for processing meat—pounding, chopping, slicing, and dicing.14 Drying meat or soaking plant foods may have emerged at any time, and probably repeatedly. By the emergence of the genus Homo, it’s plausible that cooking began to be used sporadically but with increasing frequency, especially where large fibrous tubers or meat were relatively abundant.

Our repertoire of food-processing methods altered the genetic selection pressures on our digestive system by gradually supplanting some of its functions with cultural substitutes. Techniques such as cooking actually increase the energy available from foods and make them easier to digest and detoxify. This effect allowed natural selection to save substantial amounts of energy by reducing our gut tissue, the second most expensive tissue in our bodies (next to brain tissue), and our susceptibility to various diseases associated with gut tissue. The energy savings from the externalization of digestive functions by cultural evolution became one component in a suite of adjustments that permitted our species to build and run bigger and bigger brains.
As an Assistant Scout Master, I can testify to the enduring fascination with fire, at least among young boys.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Staircase, House (Buhrich I), Edinburgh Rd, Castlecrag, May 1958 by Max Dupain

Staircase, House (Buhrich I), Edinburgh Rd, Castlecrag, May 1958 by Max Dupain.

Click to enlarge.

Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair

From The Clicking of Cuthbert by P.G. Wodehouse, 1922. In installments.
When Cuthbert had entered the drawing-room on the following Wednesday and had taken his usual place in a distant corner where, while able to feast his gaze on Adeline, he had a sporting chance of being overlooked or mistaken for a piece of furniture, he perceived the great Russian thinker seated in the midst of a circle of admiring females. Raymond Parsloe Devine had not yet arrived.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth, and it seemed to Cuthbert that there was an expression in them not unlike that of a cat in a strange backyard surrounded by small boys. The man looked forlorn and hopeless, and Cuthbert wondered whether he had had bad news from home.

This was not the case. The latest news which Vladimir Brusiloff had had from Russia had been particularly cheering. Three of his principal creditors had perished in the last massacre of the bourgeoisie, and a man whom he owed for five years for a samovar and a pair of overshoes had fled the country, and had not been heard of since. It was not bad news from home that was depressing Vladimir. What was wrong with him was the fact that this was the eighty-second suburban literary reception he had been compelled to attend since he had landed in the country on his lecturing tour, and he was sick to death of it. When his agent had first suggested the trip, he had signed on the dotted line without an instant's hesitation. Worked out in roubles, the fees offered had seemed just about right. But now, as he peered through the brushwood at the faces round him, and realized that eight out of ten of those present had manuscripts of some sort concealed on their persons, and were only waiting for an opportunity to whip them out and start reading, he wished that he had stayed at his quiet home in Nijni-Novgorod, where the worst thing that could happen to a fellow was a brace of bombs coming in through the window and mixing themselves up with his breakfast egg.

At this point in his meditations he was aware that his hostess was looming up before him with a pale young man in horn-rimmed spectacles at her side. There was in Mrs. Smethurst's demeanour something of the unction of the master-of-ceremonies at the big fight who introduces the earnest gentleman who wishes to challenge the winner.

Hunters do not produce enough calories to even feed themselves (let alone others) until around age 18

From The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. Page 63.
Human brain development is related to another unusual feature of our species, our extended childhoods and the emergence of that memorable period called adolescence. Compared to other primates, our gestational and infancy periods (birth to weaning) have shortened while our childhoods have extended and a uniquely human period of adolescence has emerged, prior to full maturity. Childhood is a period of intensive cultural learning, including playing and the practicing of adult roles and skills, during which time our brains reach nearly their adult size while our bodies remain small. Adolescence begins at sexual maturity, after which a growth spurt ensues. During this time, we engage in apprenticeships, as we hone the most complex of adult skills and areas of knowledge, as well as build relationships with peers and look for mates.

The emergence of adolescence and young adulthood has likely been crucial over our evolutionary history, since in hunting and gathering populations, hunters do not produce enough calories to even feed themselves (let alone others) until around age 18 and won’t reach their peak productivity until their late thirties. Interestingly, while hunters reach their peak strength and speed in their twenties, individual hunting success does not peak until around age 40, because success depends more on know-how and refined skills than on physical prowess. By contrast, chimpanzees—who also hunt and gather—can obtain enough calories to sustain themselves immediately after infancy ends, around age 5.5 Consistent with our long period of wiring-up, this pattern and contrast with chimpanzees reveals the degree to which we humans are dependent on learning for our survival as foragers.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For learning purposes, we are prestige biased, as well as being skill and success biased.

From The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. Page 43.
We use these prestige cues to help us rapidly zero in on whom to learn from. In essence, prestige cues represent a kind of second-order cultural learning in which we figure out who to learn from by inferring from the behavior of others who they think are worthy of learning from—that is, we culturally learn from whom to learn.
Despite the seeming ubiquity of this phenomenon in the real world, there is actually relatively little direct experimental evidence that people use prestige cues. There is an immense amount of indirect evidence that shows how the prestige of a person or source, such as a newspaper or celebrity, increases the persuasiveness of what they say or the tendency of people to remember what they say. This effect occurs even when the prestige of a person comes from a domain, like golf, that is far removed from the issue they are commenting on (like automobile quality). This provides some evidence, though it does not get at the specific cues “that learners might actually use to guide them, aside from being told that someone is an “expert” or “the best.”

To address this in our laboratory, Maciej Chudek, Sue Birch, and I tested this prestige idea more directly. Sue is a developmental psychologist and Maciej was my graduate student (he did all the real work). We had preschoolers watch a video in which they saw two different potential models use the same object in one of two different ways. In the video, two bystanders entered, looked at both models, and then preferentially watched one of them. The visual attention of the bystanders provided a “prestige cue” that seemingly marked one of the two potential models. Then, participants saw each model select one of two different types of unfamiliar foods and one of two differently colored beverages. They also saw each model use a toy in one of two distinct ways. After the video, the kids were permitted to select one of the two novel foods and one of the two colorful beverages. They could also use the toy any way they wanted. Children were 13 times more likely to use the toy in the same manner as the prestige-cued model compared to the other model. They were also about 4 times more likely to select the food or beverage preferred by the prestige-cued model. Based on questions asked at the end of the experiment, the children had no conscious or expressible awareness of the prestige cues or their effects. These experiments show that young children rapidly and unconsciously tune into the visual attention of others and use it to direct their cultural learning. We are prestige biased, as well as being skill and success biased.