Tag Archives: technology

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.


Thoughts on Sandy: We Must Change Our Ways, NOW

5 Nov


I didn’t really think much about Sandy until I went grocery shopping on Sunday afternoon, October 28. The fact that Irene hadn’t hit Jersey City as bad as had been predicted meant little about Sandy. And I knew that. But still, how bad could it be? So I didn’t stock up on batteries, candles, and non-perishable food. Thus it’s a matter of luck that I had enough to get through four-and-a-half days without power.

Of course, I also had friends, June Jones in particular. A number of people met at her place for meals. She was cooking up a storm. Without power the food in her freezer would spoil quickly. She decided to cook it up and had her friends and family over.

Thanks, June!

And then there’s my friends at the Villain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So I got home from shopping on Sunday afternoon and spent some more time on my Halloween costume: Trash Master. I was coming down the home stretch on it and figured it would be ready in plenty of time for the Halloween party we were throwing for the kids in the garden.

Did some more work on the costume on Monday and more this and that. Took some photos of wind whipping through the garden (see above) and planned my work for the rest of the week. Around 8:30 PM or so that evening the power flickered and then went out. But it came back in a minute or so. Every once in awhile I could feel the building shake. At 9:05 PM the power went out again, and didn’t come back.

Not to worry. I was ready for bed anyhow—I’m going to bed early these days, and getting up early, too, as always. I figured the power would be back when I woke up, or later that day.

I woke up Monday morning to darkness. I had some breakfast, grabbed my camera, and hit the streets by 6:45 AM. Very few lights were on anywhere. That was NOT a good sign, not good at all. Oh, some big buildings had lights on, buildings with generators no doubt. But mostly things were dark, in Jersey City AND in Manhattan.

Continue reading

40 Days and Nights of Techno Hubris: Titanic

29 Oct

It’s 7:30 in the AM this Monday in late October, just before All Hallows Eve, and my thoughts turn to Titanic, not the ship, but a folk poem about that ship. It’s a poem about water, lots of it, and that’s one reason it comes to mind.

I’ve published it here before, back in May of 2010, but it’s time to bump it up to the top of the list, along with a new introduction. Why?

Here’s why.

Lafayette by the Bay

I live in the Lafayette neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, less than a half-mile from the Hudson Rive and the New York Bay. Sometime in the next 24 hours there’s going to be a storm surge in that bay and part of Jersey City is going to be flooded. Probably not my part, but, in those immortal words of Thomas Fats Waller, “one never knows, do one?”

Whatever flooding there is, and there WILL be some, will be driven by hurricane Sandy. Last year it was Irene. Irene wasn’t as bad as predicted, at least not in my neighborhood–though Communipaw Avenue had 3 or 4 inches of water near Garfield, just a few blocks from me. But it was bad enough, and inflicted considerable damage inland in small towns and hamlets that were wrecked by raging rivers.

I want to blame this one on anthropogenic climate chaos, aka global warming. But that’s tricky. There were hurricaines, and nasty one, long before us industrious industrial humans started messing with the climate. Not knowingly, not intentionally mind you, no more so that those ancient humans desiccated North Africa until it became the Sahara Dessert. Be messing with the environment we did, not doubt about it.

The thing, we can’t blame any specific weather even on global warming, because all of the weather, all the time, 24/7/365 (366 in leap years) is affected. It’s the general tempo and temperature that’s affected, not specific events.

There are, of course, those who imagine techno-fixes for this mess. Let’s pump some sulpher into the atmosphere, they say, it’ll blot out the sun just enough to set things right. Any maybe we should all hold on to our lucky rabbit’s foot while doing it, ’cause we’re going to need all the luck we can get.

No, I fear that putting our faith in techno-fixes is just going to make things worse. We’re not that powerful, not that knowledgeable. So let’s be wise. Let’s listen to the poets of Titanic, which is, among other things, about techno hubris. And water, lots of water.

What’s Titanic?


Titanic is a toast, a form of boasting narrative in the African-American oral tradition that is a precursor to rap and hip-hop. If you go to this YouTube video you can hear Rudy Ray Moore recite a version from Dolomite. Continue reading

Tech is Over

19 Jul

Google is sitting on 10s of billions in cash and has no idea how to invest it. Microsoft and Apple are the same way. See the discussion at Marginal Revolution.

How about a guaranteed income floor for everyone and a 20 hr/week job for everyone who wants it? The 19th century ended a long time ago, folks.