You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2008.

Particularly among “audioblogs” but not limited to them, there’s a new type of blog written by people employed, not in academia or the corporate hierarchy, but in the traditional “culture industry”: let’s call them “semi-pro” blogs. Since such people are accustomed to trying hard at “getting across” their writing is accessible without giving up invocations of what is hip now: the blogs are intelligently laid out and look sharp. My favorite such blog (it’s been around a while) is Oliver Wang’s Soul Sides, because any fool knows that R&B is one of the great American creations and anyone who’s expended some effort getting deeper into it knows that the fantastic rarity is the “normal case”. There’s no contradiction in that: the soul genre is fundamentally an “off-label” use of gospel harmonies to address earthly concerns, so even the “greats” were doing something pretty subversive within the black community, and the oppressive social atmosphere of the soul era without is one of the fundamental determinants of the sound.

Of course, being serious critics Wang and company are beyond deep in terms of the various tributaries of the main stream: Soul Sides covers the explosion of soul sounds at home but also abroad, including early Afropop birthed from James Brown and Latin inflections (though as far as I know they’re still looking for a Northern Soul expert). New developments in neo-soul and the odd hip-hop song or two also show up, and all of it can be listened to in good conscience since the MP3 material is vetted and stays up for a week or so (it can be streamed through a Yahoo Music player built into the site). And it’s not only the music that is historical: Soul Sides stays in touch with the history of criticism of such sensitive topics, as in Oliver’s informative interview with Jeff “Chairman” Mao of ego trip. It’s a big deal, and a real treat besides.

Like everybody else, I recently upgraded to Firefox 3.0. I am very impressed by most of the design choices, and more than impressed by the improvement in image quality: 3.0 has changed the way the Internet looks overnight, and if you’re attempting to rock inadequately anti-aliased images it now shows. As part of the upgrade I fished around in the add-on bin, and came up with the Sage RSS reader — “a lightweight RSS and Atom feed reader extension for Mozilla Firefox”. Though it’s a little primitive in some ways, Sage is an idea whose time has come: standalone RSS readers are dead but Web feed readers still give you all substance and no style, and that’s not the Web of the now (now that people with serious graphic design chops are getting in on the game).

If you turn off the feed display pane, the Sage sidebar is a very useful tool for collating Mozilla’s “live bookmarks”: as with Google Reader you can keep track of what you’ve already looked at, and nest blog (newspaper, library, etc.) feeds within subcategories of categories, but clicking on post titles in the feed summary will take you directly to the post in question — fully styled and with comments. Given the capacities of contemporary broadband, this only makes sense: there’s really no good reason not to use full HTML except that typing in blog addresses takes too much time and bookmarks can’t tell you “Click me, there’s new content”. Granted, you might have to look at some “creative” designs, and you might overinflate someone’s stats (though the latter seems to be the wave of the future in any case), but using Sage as your reader is definitely worth a try.

Arthur Rothstein, Boulder Dam, Nevada, 1940

This week’s selection is a collection of ’30s and ’40s photographs from the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information, hosted by the Library of Congress. Many New Deal agencies sponsored public art, heretofore restricted to statues in front of public buildings: although these agencies are not as well-known as the Works Progress Administration, many of the photographers involved (Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks) went on to be quite famous. The images are indexed by photographer, subject, and geographic area and are available in professional-quality TIFFs: they offer compelling portraits of rural America in the teeth of the Depression and the war.

But lest you think that the federally-funded art of the Roosevelt Administration was just a Cyclopean eye surveying its domain, I invite you to consider the “Columbia River Ballads”, songs from Woody Guthrie commissioned by the new Bonneville Power Administration (to the tune of $266.66). The most famous of these is “Roll On, Columbia“, but I’ve never seen it mentioned that this is actually one of the worst pieces of propaganda ever made: Woody compares the construction of the dams to the Indian wars, which as a Cherokee he would have a nuanced position on and which (considering the submerging of the native community Celilo Falls by Bonneville Dam) were not totally past.

(Thanks to Dave for the photo link)

Here’s another feature, though I think I’ll make this one irregular. It’s Friday, and maybe you just got paid: maybe not too much, though, and maybe a lot of that paycheck is already spoken for (I include barroom “celebration” in this). In “Squeegee Solutions”, I’ll include things I’ve found that people with almost no money can do to meliorate their condition.

I’m a big believer in all kinds of beverages, including non-alcoholic ones, including cold non-alcoholic ones. When “craft sodas” were more widely sold, I used to eagerly buy Real Traditional Ginger Beer Like Someone You Never Knew Used To Make and suchlike drinks. One hot Pittsburgh summer, I started buying 16oz bottles of Orangina at a bodega on Atwood Street, and I really enjoyed it: but I never found another store that sold that size of Orangina bottle, and two of the smaller bottles would set me back entirely too much (as well as being unkind for the environment).

Here’s my “recipe” for a homemade orange-juice soda: I drink these all the time, since they’re refreshing and healthful (though you might want to watch your teeth a little). Buy some concentrated (!) or from-concentrate orange juice and cans of generic seltzer water: the Safeway brand is cheap, although it may be stocked with the mixers rather than the sodas. Take a pint glass and add 2-3 oz of juice; add as much of the can of seltzer as you can without overflowing the glass (chemical reactions afoot). Variations involving other juices are of course possible, but (as with Orangina) the “body” added by orange solids is especially pleasant — the alcoholically inclined may find it reminds them a little bit of beer without the diuretic and other effects that make that unsuitable for really hot days, or rather small people.

From the “cognitively homeless” to you.

I recently started a conversation on comp.theory with this post:

Newsgroups: comp.theory
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 2008 13:02:09 -0700 (PDT)
Local: Tues, Jun 17 2008 1:02 pm
Subject: P does not equal NP – a logical approach
Hey, do you guys want to hear a good one? The structure of
Satisfiability shows that NP-complete problems cannot be simulated in
P without oracles. Here’s how: n propositional atoms can have 2^n
different sets of truth-values. For an n-atom statement (it could be
in CNF, although it makes no difference) any one of those 2^n lines in
its “truth-table” could satisfy it: and since each of those
permutations is independent of the others by definition (no truth
value of an atom can depend in any way on the truth-value of any
others), the upper bound on a deterministic search for a satisfying
set of truth-values must be 2^n.
Oracles work (or don’t work) by reducing the truth-functional
complexity under consideration to 2^n-1: the mathematically inclined
among you will notice this is ever so slightly less than the
cardinality of the power set. But that’s a story for another time.


Once people figured out what I meant, more or less, I was told that the observation about truth-tables was commonplace and the conjecture about oracles confusing to the point of uselessness. Unfortunately for scientific elegance, however, this observation (reformulated a couple of different ways) is the reason why P does not equal NP. Here’s one reformulation: the paper-and-pencil algorithm for testing satisfiability involves the backwards reconstruction of a prooftree for the sentence of propositional logic under consideration.

There are 2^n possible prooftrees (modulo truth-functionally equivalent symbolic formulations), since there are 2^n possible assignments of variables and the next level of a prooftree compositionally depends on those assignments, and so on. Using paper and pencil, we “sweep through” these possible prooftrees by nondeterministically guessing valuations and eliminating other valuations incompatible with the guess: but if we don’t guess, we can’t eliminate (since any of the prooftrees may be a correct one). A nondeterministic automaton moving through a “tableau”, as in Sipser, does the same thing (using the multiple possible transitions associated with a state in the nondeterministic automaton).

There is no way to translate those multiple transitions (which, taken together, must comprise the power set of n, all possible combinations of n variables) into the single transitions of a deterministic automaton faster than 2^n. Deterministically considered, SAT is EXPTIME-hard for unrelativized TMs.

I’m going to write a slightly more “popular” exposition of the ideas behind “Extensionality is Decidability“. In my old age, I’ve become something of a Wolframite: if we want to view something scientifically, we are going to have to view it as computational. Not because the “cellular automata” in the Game of Life, or any computer model, are so enlightening about the way the world is: the folks out in Hillsboro continue to make better, if not bigger, chips but there are real limits on the ingenuity of computer programmers and so computer programs are not necessarily the best way to think about the world.

No, my reasons are logical and “metaphysical”. David Lewis proposed that any sensible theory of how something really was would have to obey a stricture he called Humean supervenience: “all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another”. If we attempt to justify this doctrine on “ontological” grounds, there are arguments for and against: but to my knowledge it has never been pointed out that what Lewis in effect is saying is that scientifically respectable theories of things have to be structurally recursive and involve base cases (“atomic” local qualities). It certainly stands to reason that a scientific theory otta be decidable, to have consequences that mechanically arise from its premises: and if we are even simply structural realists about theories, that means that the dynamics of the real-world systems being described by the theories are computational as well.

However, anyone who is aware of Church’s negative solution to the Entscheidungsproblem, his proof of the undecidability of the first-order predicate calculus (to my mind almost more pregnant a result than the Incompleteness theorems), will see that this doesn’t hold out much hope for people who want the “scientific image of man” to dominate or eliminate the “manifest image”. Since on our hypothesis everything in the physical world is computational, a human brain is computational as well: but, as computer scientists are well aware, a massively parallel “connectionist” system like the brain won’t be able to solve any more problems than a “monolithic” Turing automaton, and very many things the human mind is concerned with must be formulated in first-order terms beyond the ken of a computer.

Well, perhaps Roger Penrose is right, and quantum miracles happen in the microtubules: leading to consciousness, and the ability to adjudge first-order validity, and the magical deliciousness of life in general. Perhaps; but as with the ultimate equivalence of Churchlandian and Fodorian computational theories of mind, maybe we don’t need to posit miracles. Maybe the reality is that the human grasp of undecidable languages is decisionist: although our material information-processing system chugs along doing what it can computationally do, we make choices and treat those choices as real in ways that make a more expansive logos tenable.

But, ultimately, this sort of ungrounded choice cannot be anything other than theological, though the theology may be as post-Christian as you like. What do I mean by this? Well, like most people, I spend time thinking about historical personages: people I’ve known, and people very distant from me in time. I wonder what the lessons of their lives and ideas are for me, and sometimes I even imagine that they are speaking to me (though I don’t “hear” their voice). Am I positing an unscientific “spirit world”?

I don’t think so: I believe those people were made of atoms in the void, as I am, and that the transmission of historical knowledge about them to me occurred only through physical processes like “emission of air blasts” and making marks on paper. What binds them to me beyond that, such that I might be able to reconstruct their mindedness and its import for me? Ultimately nothing but my own (materially-caused) feelings, which I choose to treat as effecting a genuinely “valid” connection between their projects and my own: an attempt to “keep the faith, baby”, as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. said. Maybe this is what Benjamin meant when he said “Every generation has a weak Messianic power”: having historical understanding at all involves a “religious” element, a “leap of faith” attempting to redeem past experience in the life of the present.

I’m going to start another weekly feature: selected interesting music for the beginning of the week. This week, I’ll attempt to undo something I said a while ago about the contemporary Portland scene. It’s not all “lifeboat rock”: there are a lot of bands which take something from the more aggressive ’90s scene and make it relevant to the present. Here are five selections.

The Thermals — “Pillar of Salt”

I saw these guys when they were first starting out, and (modulo some drummer changes) Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster haven’t stopped yet. They are what pop-punk would be if it was cool: political, frenetic, fun. From their Sub Pop record The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

Menomena — “Wet and Rusting”

Portland bands have understandably started thinking hard about “electronica”, and cult favorites Menomena (meh-nom-en-a) have one of the most interesting reads on blending it with indie-pop. I Am The Fun Blame Monster! was a record (title) that deeply resonated with me in 2003, but it was four years before they released their next album, Friend and Foe. An amusing video for a very pretty song.

The Blow — “Parentheses”

The Blow is one of Portland’s most beloved bands, although calling it a band is somewhat of a misnomer: Khaela Marichich has, and has not, collaborated with another person to make lo-fi “electronic folk music”.  This is from 2006’s Paper Television.

Helio Sequence — “Keep Your Eyes Ahead”

Helio Sequence are the coolest band ever to (partially) rep Beaverton: they have dealt with personnel changes of an unusual kind, as Brandon Summers lost his voice and had to relearn how to sing. This video for the title track of their 2008 release features them in various Portland locations doing a neo-New Wave number.

Lifesavas — “Living Time”

Portland hip-hop is a subculture of a subculture (Bay Area) of a subculture (West Coast): it really couldn’t be anything but underground, but some artists manage to break out. Bosko has made a fairly big impression as a producer and collaborator with E-40, and this unofficial video shows the “indie” Lifesavas have managed to reach the hexagon. From Spirit in Stone.

George Carlin is dead, but Mort Sahl lives (as does, perhaps, his version of the Eisenhower jacket).

My daughter, my daughter, what can I say
of living?

I cannot judge it.

We seem caught
In reality together my lovely

I have a daughter
But no child

And it was not precisely
Happiness we promised

Tho the house on the low land
Of the city

Catches the dawn light

I can tell myself, and I tell myself
Only what we all believe

And in the sudden vacuum
Of time…

…is it not
In fear the roots grip

And beget

The baffling hierarchies
Of father and child

As of leaves on their high
Thin twigs to shield us

From time, from open

George Oppen, from “Of Being Numerous”

Mark Bradford, Help Us, 2008, roof of Carnegie Museums and Library

As befits its status as headquarters for many large corporations, Pittsburgh is a good city for visual arts. The centerpiece of its arts scene is the quadrennial Carnegie International, held at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland: I attended the 2000 International, and although I was at the time a little bit suspicious of some of the fine arts it was definitely a genuinely enriching experience. It’s not quite documenta (which I’ve always wanted to attend), but it is a major event and this year’s show has a nice website which shows people what’s going on there.