Friday assorted links

*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

Solve for the China jaywalking equilibrium

Jaywalkers in China are to be named, shamed and slapped with an instant SMS fine.

And it’s all thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

In the southeastern city of Shenzhen, police have set up AI-powered boards by crossings.

If you jaywalk, a CCTV camera will scan your face and flash it up on the huge screens for all to see, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are now plans to ping offenders’ phones with quick-fire fines as soon as they violate the grim rule.

The AI company behind the billboards, Intellifusion, is in talks with mobile phone networks and local social media platforms to enforce the new system.

To be clear, I consider this report speculative.  But not impossible.

Who’s complacent, Charlie?

In 1910, just 5% of American babies named “Charlie” were girls. Over 100 years later, girl Charlies took over their male counterparts for the first time in 2016—making up 51% of the share.

With little fuss or fanfare, Charlie has gone gender-neutral…

Quartz analyzed the Social Security Administration’s public data on baby names to find out whether what happened with “Charlie” is an exception, or part of a wider trend. Our results show that, on average, the country is slowly moving toward using more gender-neutral names.

Here is the full story by Nikhil Sonnad, with good graphs too.  It lists all sorts of names and tells you how gender-neutral they are.  Some of the less gender-specific names these days are “Jerry,” “Aden,” and “Orion.”  Not to mention “Finley,” “Justice,” and “Armani.”  Don’t ask about “Lennon” or “Emerson.”  Marion slowly has been switching from a girl’s name to a boy’s name.  Blake is now one-quarter female.  I did not know that Ashton is now mainly a boy’s name.

Thursday assorted links

Suicide attackers, the drone wars, and self-driving vehicles

To remind you of the Tempe story:

Police say a video from the Uber self-driving car that struck and killed a woman on [the prior] Sunday shows her moving in front of it suddenly…”The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir said, referring to the backup driver who was behind the wheel but not operating the vehicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

From other sources I have read, the chance this was an actual intentional suicide seems to be low.  But I wonder if that is an angle to self-driving cars which we haven’t thought through yet, namely they could become a target for suicidal Luddites, intent on changing the course of history (they don’t like cars or social control).  It may indeed be the case that only a small number of pedestrian deaths will significantly slow down the progress of these vehicles, and thus they may be targeted.  Let’s turn to the sunny state of California:

So far in 2018, there have been only six reported traffic incidents involving self-driving vehicles in California, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But of those six incidents, two involved angry, violent Californians going up to the futuristic cars on San Francisco streets and attacking.

This is just a speculative thought…

Bill Bishop on the Kim visit to China

The coverage was extensive, he got a lot of face time with Xi, and the general messaging seems to be that the errant junior ally has returned to the correct path. Xi was shown speaking to him confidently and without notes, and listening but not writing anything down while Kim spoke. Kim was shown reading prepared remarks and studiously taking notes while Xi spoke.

The propaganda makes it look like a tributary bromance is budding.

You can subscribe here to Bill’s email newsletter.  Here is Evan Osnos on the visit.

China simulated death markets in everything

Beijing’s biggest funeral parlor held an open day last Thursday that featured a virtual reality simulation of death, reported The Beijing News — though it left some wondering why you would want to experience death prematurely.

Visitors could don VR glasses and earphones to experience having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, and entrance into the afterlife. Funeral parlor employee Dong Ziyi told The Beijing News that the immersive experience “enables people to better cherish the beauty of life.”

In addition to the death experience, visitors can use VR to explore funeral services with a five-minute session that goes through corpse delivery and storage, mortuary preparations, the memorial service, and cremation — a tour that would take an hour in real life.

Here is more by Liang Chenyu from Sixth Tone, one of my favorite media outlets.

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.

[laughter]

NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.

My advice for a Paris visit

This is for another friend, here are my pointers:

1. Find a very good food street/corner and take many of your meals there.  I’ve used Rue Daguerre and around Rue des Arts (Left Bank) for this purpose, but there are many others.  Spend most of your money in the cheese shop, asking them to choose for you, but supplement with bread, fruit, and of course chocolate.  This beats most restaurant meals, noting it won’t be cheap either.  And yes it is worth paying $8 for a bar of chocolate there.

2. Do track down medieval Paris, most of all the cathedrals.  This will bring you by other delights as well.

3. Especially on the Left Bank, Paris is one of the very best walking cities.  Avoid Champs-Élysées and environs, a broad-avenued, chain store-intense corruption of what Paris ought to be.  Avoid Jardin Luxembourg and the surrounding parts as well, they are urban deserts.

4. Get a peek of the major bridges over the Seine, if only by traversing them.

5. You don’t in fact have to stand in line to see the Mona Lisa.  It’s a lovely painting, but at this point in human civilization it is OK to skip it.  You don’t need to hear “Bohemian Rhapsody” again either.  But you should go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  And in the Louvre, don’t neglect the Poussin room, the Michelangelo sculptures, or the Flemish and 17th century works.

6. The Louvre, d’Orsay, Cluny, and Branly (ethnographic) are the essential museums in town.  Check out Grand Palais and Petit Palais for possible exhibits.  When walking around, keep your eye out for posters (yes, posters) advertising exhibits and concerts.

7. If you want to spend forty euros for a very good but not revelatory lunch, find a “cool” area with lots of restaurants and poke your head in at their opening, at 12:30, to ask for a table.  By 12:45 it is too late and you are screwed and back to your favorite cheese shop.  By the way, I don’t think Paris is the best city in which to spend $200 on a meal.

8. In most of the parts of Paris you are likely to frequent, do not try to eat any Asian or “ethnic” foods.  The best restaurants of those kinds are in north Paris, on the way to the airport, but no one visits there.  Couscous in Paris is boring.

9. Belleville is the gentrifying Brooklyn of Paris, with relatively few tourists, if that is what you are looking for.  Avoid Montmartre.  For practical reasons, I’ve spent a lot of my Paris time near Unesco, in a neighborhood that is a bit sterile but very beautiful and it gives you a decent sense of well-to-do residential Paris life.  Develop your mini-Paris residential life somewhere, and make your time there more than just a tourist visit.  The site I should not enjoy but do is Le Dôme des Invalides, also the tomb of Napoleon.

10. The essential Paris movies are lots of Godard (Breathless, Band of Outsiders, others), Jules and Jim, and Triplets of Belleville.  Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 for those with an experimental bent.  Eric Rohmer for something light-hearted.  Amélie and Before Sunset are both rewarding, though at the margin Godard usually is what Americans are lacking.

11. Carry along Hugo and Balzac to read.  Flaubert and Proust are wonderful, but they are more “interior” authors and thus you can imbibe them anywhere.  Do not forget Houllebecq’s Submission.  I do not love most of the well-known non-fiction books on Paris; perhaps they become corrupted through the chance of being truly popular.  Do read Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France and try to dig up a useful architectural guide to the city.  I’m also a big fan of Hazel Rowley’s Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

12. Don’t go expecting Parisians to be rude, I have never (well, once) found that to be the case in more than six months spent in the city.

13. My overall take is this: Paris today is fairly sterile in terms of overall creativity, or for that matter business dynamism.  But Parisians have perfected the art of taste along a number of notable dimensions, like nowhere else in the world.  If your trip allows you to free ride upon those efforts in a meaningful way, it will go very well.