Saturday, January 28, 2023

In what language do we read faces?

Often, when you read the conclusions of the psychologists in the U.S. or the Anglosphere in general, you come away feeling that psychologists treat English, or at best English and a few other European languages, as a sort of universal blueprint to feelings. Thus, in a famous study of facial expressions and emotions, Paul Ekman claimed that the Fore group in New Guinea recognized and categorized facial expressions in the same way as Americans, according to some universal menu of emotions.

This research has often been criticized, and anthropologists seeking to replicate Ekman’s work claim that the Fore responses they get are different. Ekman, as a matter of fact, did not speak either the Pidgin or the Fore language. However, he didn’t seem to feel he had to: like many English speakers, he felt his native language endowed him with all the psychological knowledge he would need.
I don’t think this is true. For it to be true, English would have to be an unusually hypercognized medium.
I take that term from Robert Levi’s paper, Emotions, Knowing and Culture [1984], where he proposed two axes for analyzing emotions on the sense making level – that is, not as private experiences, but as experiences that enter into the public domain. On the one hand, he speaks of hyercognition – “Hypercognition involves a kind of shaping, simplifying, selecting, and standardizing, a familiar function of cultural symbols and forms. It involves a kind of making “ordinary” of private understandings.” In contrast to that stands hypocognition – “Hypocognition forces the (first order) understanding into some private mode.” Citing his own work on “sadness” among Tahitians (Levy claims that, while there are words for severe grief and lamentation, there are “no unambiguous terms that represent the concepts of sadness, longing, or loneliness… People would name their condition, where I supposed that [the body signs and] the context called for “sadness” or “depression”, as “feeling troubled” pe’ape’a, the generic term for disturbances, either internal or external;…”) Levy writes that these are some “underschematized emotional domains”, and that these are hypocognized. “One of the consequences of hypocognition is that the felt disturbance, the “troubled feelings,” can be interpreted both by the one who experiences them and by others around him as something other than ‘emotion’. Thus, the troubled feelings that persist too long after the death of a loved one or those that occur after some loss that Tahitian ideology holds to be trivial and easily replaceable are in the village often interpreted as illness or as the harmful effects of a spirit.”
My notion is that English and the Anglophone culture also underschematizes certain emotional domains. For instance: ease.
Ease is an odd word entirely. The etymology goes back to old French “aise”, which is translated as comfort. As the Mashed Radish blog on everyday etymology points out, how “aise” emerges is an unsettled question among etymology mooks.
“Skeat, Weekley, and Partridge conclude that aise, formed from aisance, is from the Latin adjacentia, literally “something nearby.” You can quickly spot the English adjacent. According to Baumgartner and Ménard, “something adjacent” is connected to “the free space next to someone,” which produced an idea of a “nice location” and more generally, “wellness” and “recreation.”
Some, like Norwegian scholar Sophus Bugge, proposed that aise is ultimately from–here it is again–ansa, “handle” of a jug or jar, say. This ansa had a secondary sense of “opportunity,” so the record states, and may have evolved to asa on the roads of the Roman empire, later evolving into French’s aise.”
The dictionaries do an odd thing with ease – they tend to define it by what it is not. It is not disquiet. It is not difficulty. The military drill phrase – at ease – seems associated with this notion of adjacence – of elbow room. But the expanded, positive notion of ease – of ease as an emotional state – seems only to peep through the grid of English, to suggest itself, as though it were hypocognized. To be stressed seems to be the English norm. Ease – now what is that mood or feeling? It comes with a spatial proposition – at – unlike, say, sadness. One does not say one is at sad, as one says one is at ease.
Ease is, however, dreamt of. To be “at ease” doing something – to have that emotion that you don’t have to do the thing you are doing and that you are doing it from that center – seems to elude the Anglophone consciousness, which reaches out for other terms, like zen. Hence the zen of tennis, or the zen of cooking where the agent is centered – a spatial term again. The ease of tennis or cooking – that would be an odd locution. One would be ill at ease with it. To use Ekman’s vernacular of facial expressions, which one would be ease?Is it a smile? Is it a sexual thing, a lazy thing?
Last night I was getting groceries at the Franprix, and chose to get in the line for a cashier, rather than in the machine lines. The boy – I thought of him as a boy, although he must have been a late teen – who was checking out customers had a long face and what looked like a vacant stare and a slightly open mouth. I at first “recognized” this as dope-face – the face of a dope. A dummy, an incompetent. But as the line moved forward I realized he was doing fine. He was dealing with the old woman and her coupon-y thing just fine. He was sorting through the groceries and ringing them up just fine. The dope-face, I thought, was something he should work on – make himself do a work-face.
But as I was walking home, it struck me that the dope-face was my problem, not his. Perhaps I had been seeing a face of ease. A feeling I, with my varied stresses and worries, just did not recognize.
Recognizing facial expression with the notion that maybe we are subjects in a society that, as do most or perhaps all, hypocognizes certain parts of our emotional activity, is perhaps related to a mass of everyday problems.
Maybe faces are harder to read than we assume.

Friday, January 27, 2023

what is wrong with Von Mises (Ludwig, not Richard)


I ain’t satisfied at all, at all  with Jonathan Rée’s London Review essay on Hayek. An essay in the form of a review, the classic LRB format.

Ree starts out wrongfooting from the moment the runner is off his mark: in the first graf:

“We s​ocialists like to hark back to better days, when ideals shone bright and principles stood tall: equality, fairness, democracy, internationalism, mutuality, jobs, education, food, housing, medicine, pensions, peace, friendship and love. But there is one strand of the tradition we prefer not to think about: the idea of putting an end to the wasteful chaos of capitalism by implementing a comprehensive economic plan.”

“We socialists” here puts Ree on a definite side, from which he can pretty much cut away at socialism. This is the timehonored neoliberal stance of all the socialist parties that tossed themselves in the garbage in the post-Wall period – the French socialists, the Italian Olive tree, the English Labour party. In fact, of course, globalization has been largely the effect of trade treaties by political entities implementing comprehensive economic plans in order to get going with that Ricardo-ist de-industrialization of the heartland. They’ve been piecemeal and are heavily tilted towards capital and away from labor. As for those plans that put away the wasteful chaos of capitalism, may I remind you, ladies and germs of the jury, of the past three years of responses to the pandemic? In a piece that avoids history – you know, of business cycles and wars – and confines its biographical details to marriages and books, this is what you get.

Von Mises – and not the good one, Richard, but the bad one, Ludwig – gets a pretty sweet treatment. Take for instance this graf:

“Socialists as Mises imagined them were no more than reactionary fantasists, trying to stuff the genie of capitalism back into a medieval bottle and imagining they could hang on to modern prosperity while banishing the free markets that make it possible. He made the case with flair, and one of his jibes – about socialists who talk about ‘paths to socialism’ without saying anything about ‘socialism itself’ – still hurts. He chose, however, to confront the socialist ideal directly. There wasn’t much to go on: Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific had put a damper on speculation about socialism-as-such. But Mises found a convenient example close at hand, in the work of Otto Neurath, who was, like him, an Austrian economist-philosopher, but otherwise his complete opposite. In 1918, Neurath had run the Office of Central Planning in the shortlived Bavarian Soviet Republic, and he would go on to work in social housing and adult education for the socialist administration of ‘Red Vienna’.”

That mention of Neurath’s planning for the “shortlived Bavarian Soviet Republic” could be paired, and should be paired, with Ludwig von Mises own position as an advisor for the Austrian governments that led Austrian into the crash. But first: about Neurath’s economic activity, incidentally, one might ponder one of his great contributions to economics: making economics legible to the masses.  Let me boost this bit from  Robert J. Leonard’s essay, Ethics and the Excluded Middle: Karl Menger and social science in Interwar Vienna:

“ In 1924 Neurath set up the Social and Economic Museum of Vienna (SEMV), with funding from the Viennese municipal government, some trade unions, and social insurance funds. Using the "Vienna method" of pictorial statistics, this center exhibited statistical information on social and economic change to the workers of Vienna. Pictorial symbols were used to overcome literacy barriers and stimulate the interest of the uneducated, who would probably never have set foot inside a museum otherwise. By demonstrating clearly to the Viennese working class that infant mortality rates were falling in the poor ghettos, but not as quickly as in the wealthy enclaves, or that the Social Democratic municipal government had made great strides in the provision of housing and education, the museum's pictorial statistics were both a constituent element of Neurath's empirical sociology and an endorsement of a particular politics. The most important of the SEMV's informative graphic art came from the chisel of Gerd Arntz, Neurath's chief designer from 1928…  Amtz used simple forms-in his case black-and-white woodcuts and linocuts-to protest against socioeconomic conditions, and this simplicity appealed to the sensibilities of Menger and many socially progressive moderns.”

Neurath, now there was a genius, who has inspired one of the best philosophical minds in the business right now, Nancy Cartwright.

But I digress.

What was Mises doing during the “interwar period”? The Journal of the History of Ideas has a special issue, edited by Quinn Slobodian and Niklas Olsen, on von Mises (Spring, 2022), which is propelled by a fact that Ree doesn’t mention: Mises has become the figurehead for a paleo-conservative movement with its center at the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama – a movement that combines racism, suspicion of international institutions, rabid support for the gold standards, and a generally contemptuous attitude towards democracy.

Does this mirror Mises own positions?  He was employed by the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, and it was a position that exactly fit his talents.  lent his support to an austerity regime and continuing the gold standard. Von Mises became famous outside of his little circle by writing an article, in 1920, that attempted to show that socialist economies would be de facto inefficient: by denying themselves markets, they would deny themselves the tool that made for price searches. Prices made capitalist economies what they were: machines tending towards the greatest level of efficiency.

You can read a lot of commentary about this essay, translated as: Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commons. Most of that commentary, however, misses how ballsy it was to make these claims for capitalism in 1920. 1920! In 1919, annual consumer prices in Austria rocketed up 149 percent. By 1922, the inflation rate had reached 2,087 percent. Mises calmly explaining the efficiency of the market made price system in the midst of these numbers is rather like Doctor Pangloss explaining all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds in the Lisbon earthquake.  The market was entirely unable on its own to stop the inflation – although undoubted, after mass starvation had crashed demand, the prices might have gone down.

Ah, but these are mere figures and human lives – it is not the fictitious free market! Austria came out of the inflation by the usual international measures, overseen by that non-market entity, the League of Nations, which devolved the currency making power to a monopoly bank – basically, making Austria institute a central bank – and implementing export-oriented policies while cutting the budget. This, of course, is not called central planning, because central planning is supposedly done by radical lefties instead of Capital. But of course, this is how Capital speaks – and it does not give a fuck about the free market, save as a rhetorical figleaf.  The loans made to the government found a ready market among the bond dealers, and Austria’s crown stabilized with relation to the dollar without the “free market” having much to say about it.

In the arguments around the socialist price question, much forgetting is necessary to get started. The Soviet Union, with its image of planning – which we know from extensive research created an ad hoc bureaucracy of rent-seeking – is considered the true empirical refutation of the planners. But the planners don’t need a perfect central planning authority – they just need to show that planning of one type or another, by private enterprises, sets prices, and that consumer choice is not the determining factor. In actuality, in the branches in which prices can most effortlessly be compared by consumers, the movement towards monopoly is actually advanced, as smaller enterprises can’t compete until you have a small number of price makers. On top of this, of course, there is the planning level of the official state – which produces money and borrows money. We can see central planning everywhere we look in actual capitalist conditions. This is, incidentally, why the Mises-ites hate the central banks – because the central banks represent the reality of Capital. Central Banks are the waking up – free markets are the wet dream.

Well, this started out as a bitch against Jonathan Rée, and lets leave it by dissing, again, his notion that the fall of the Soviet Union and all that jazz showed that central planning is dead.  Which is why he thinks that Von Mises has made a brilliant argument here:

“Planners in a socialist state could probably sustain the manufacture and distribution of standard consumer goods, he said, at least for a while (as in certain wartime economies), but they would be flummoxed when faced with choices about long-term investment. If they wanted to build a new factory, for example, they would need to evaluate thousands of options ranging over labour, plant, materials, location, transport and likely demand, many of them untested and all interacting far into the future; but without the guidance provided by prices in a free market they would be groping in the dark, and stumbling towards miseries unknown since the middle ages. Some socialists might relish the prospect, persuading themselves that wealth corrupts and poverty breeds virtue; but if they meant what they said about constructing a ‘rational economic system’ they would have to swallow their pride and recognise that economic rationality is impossible without free markets.”

The guidance provided by prices in the free market? This might be the silliest picture of the actually existing practice of firms in the capitalist economy one could draw. The reason factories were not being built in Austria in the 1920s was precisely because there was no guidance whatsoever from prices in the “free market”. This is true in good times and bad. A price is a compromise between different institutional forces – not the pearl in the fictitious oyster of a market that can’t exist on any but the smallest scale.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

ChatGPT, Perceptual absorbance and machine dreams


I am a great admirer of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s “History of Train

Rides: on the industrialization of space and time in the 19th century.” It is through Schivelbusch’s history that I grasped a social force that has continued up through ChatGPT: that the “modern era” is defined by a series of perceptual shocks and absorbances. Schivelbusch began researching the early response to the train and found that the speed at which trains travelled had a definite effect on the sensorium of the early riders.
In the twentieth century, instruments were often dubbed the “extensions of man”. It is against this organic notion that Schivelbusch writes, since his sense of the industrial complex sees “man” divided up into different specializations: here’s the customer, here’s the conductor; here’s the coalminer, here’s the economist; here’s the victim of the accident, here’s the insurance company.
The power of steam was distributed over a number of industrial branches - perceptual shock and absorbance is detectable in all of them. The early users of steamboats were impressed by the way these boats could proceed in straight lines, as opposed to the continual manoeuvring of sailboats against and with the wind and the tide. The Titanic was by no means unusual as a boat disaster: the day before June 16, 1904 – Bloomsday – the General Slocum caught fire and sank in the New York City harbor, killing 1,000 some people, an event that is submerged in the stream of all events in Ulysses. However, the Titanic making its straight line into an iceberg bore mythic proportions in relation to the original marvel of the steam engine, its disregard for “eotechnics”, as Schivelbusch puts it. The railroad train is an even more obvious monument to the end of a certain seemingly timeless perceptual reign. As writers of the time commented, the passengers on a railroad train were cut off from a former primal assumption: that travel and distance over land can be measured in animal exhaustion. Going at some ten to fifteen miles per hour, the passengers on a coach could very well see that the miles travelled equalled the animal energy expended. This was absolutely not the case with the railroad. Mechanical exhaustion was of an entirely different order. And this order was in disjunct with the perception of speed.
After quoting a Saint-Simonian, Constantin Pecqueur, about the railroad’s ability to “bring the provinces to Paris”, Schivelbusch notes:

“The idea that a French provincial city would find a place on a Parisian street communicates with the fact that the alteration of spatial relationships through the speed of the railway train is not a simple process of the ‘shrinking’ of space, but a double one of the shrinking and expansion of space. The dialectic of the process is that the shrinking of the temporal dimension brought about by transportation is, as well, the expansion of transportable space. The bringing together of the nation and the metropolis appears, inversely, as the expansion of the metropolis… The epoch of the suburb, that countourless growth of the once enclosed cities, into the countryside begins with the railroad.”

Schivelbusch’s book is what I turn to when I read about some great new technological leap. The current leap – the ChapGPT – is being processed in terms of a perceptual shock that will, of course, lead to a perceptual absorbance, in the same way we have absorbed the death of the camera and the birth of the phone camera. The noticing, here, is particularly acute by academics, who are well aware that mechanisms that automatically write text are going to be jumped on instantly by students. In fact, anybody who thinks about it knows that teaching is based, very much, on automatism – you teach primary kids the alphabet, reading, adding, multiplying and dividing so that as they go on in life they will absorb these things as a second nature. That a machine can reference another machine – Google – find relevant references (a carrying out of Grice’s program of implicature) and organize these things in texts is not a real leap. It is, at most, an after leap from the skip-rope of algorithms we already all know how to do. My gmail offers me replies for emails, and I can imagine a whole correspondence of “yes” and “no” between my email and a correspondent in which neither of us actually look at the email.
A nightmare is still a dream. We are long past the point in which our environments are not half machine dream. Is this a bad thing?

Monday, January 23, 2023

Chichikov and Charlie Javice


The story of Charlie Javice, one of Forbes 30 under 30 – along with Sam Bankman-Fried – was unrolled at length in the NYT's Sunday section. How she was a poor girl, the daughter of Didier Javice, who has worked on Wall Street for more than 35 years, with 11 years at Goldman Sachs and three at Merrill Lynch, and a mother who the NYT could not contact or find on Linked in. You know the type – her Mercedes was a hand me down from Dad, the private school she attended did not vote her prom queen, etc. She had a revelation – from God above, the ultimate billionaire – before she was out of that school, however:
"Ms. Javice’s career helping others began, in her telling, on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. She spent time volunteering there one summer, between terms at her private high school in Westchester County, N.Y.”
God, perhaps, directed her to Wharton.
It is the Wharton that throws me off. It is a top business school, like Harvard School of Business, and it discourages its students from ever reading literature by throwing business inspiration books and CEO biographies at the students. Once suitably dimmed, they are made to squander the gift of reading on, for instance, studying case studies from the Harvard Business Journal and making them their own. How to clean out the deadwood, how to leverage borrowing to purchase a small publicly traded company and, after emptying it of any valuable properties, rolling it back into the market as a hollowed out brand. Top notch stuff, to make America's CEO class top notchiest! Things which make America, or that part of it found on business tv cable channels, sit up and take notice!
What I think it is when she was volunteering. Some volunteer left behind, in her hut, Gogol’s Dead Souls. And it gets boring in the jungle night...
Dead Souls chronicles an entrepreneur named Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov. Because he lived in the benighted 19th century, before Forbes magazine even existed, he never managed to be one of the 30 under 30 – but nonetheless, he saw the sweet fortune to be made by getting in the middle of the trade between the serfowner and his tax liabilities, the dead serfs who are still exist on the property lists. Like Michael Milikan of blessed memory with his junk bonds, Chichikov realizes that the dead souls can be borrowed against – you can leverage that dead weight up – and they can, of course, be purchased for a song. Except that the owners out there in the sticks are all suspicious and shit.
I am thinking that this book hit Charlie Javice like the best case study ever made – like that Harvard Business article about how Hedge Funder Eddie Lampert was going to squeeze value out of Sears Roebuck by screwing its pensioneers – really, old trash when you think about it – thinning the work force to a muscular few and spinning off those urban properties like crazy! But Ms. Javice had a true appreciation of business as art, conceptual art. Lampert was good, but his scam, perfectly legal of course and shipshape, was so, well, grossly material. Properties for god’s sake! Javice saw that the Chichikov path was so conceptually superior! So she, according to the NYT, started a company, Frank,  that was almost perfectly useless. The company was to step in  to “help” students get funding – student loans and shit – by “simplifying the process.” Like Bankman-Fried, her activity was noticed by the beneficent country-clubbers in our fine, fine media:
“All along, Ms. Javice was making frequent media appearances. In December 2017, she wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times with the headline “The 8 Most Confusing Things About FAFSA.” The piece contained so many errors that it required an eight-sentence correction.”
The problem with her company, Frank, was, frankly, the cash flow. The cash was supposed to come from students availing themselves of a service that cost way more than doing it yourself. What is an entrepreneur to do? Or, to put it in bumper sticker form: “what would Chichikov do?”
He’d instruct his underlings to just find names of students and put them down on a long computer list and pretend that they were clients of Frank, that is what he would do!
Of course, in Imperial Russia and in the U.S. of the 21st century, the great way to wealth is dishonesty on a massive scale. So, her company of the equivalent of dead souls – fictitious students engulfed in debt, how great is that! – Javice made her bold move. Although as a creative it was hard to let go, when J.P. Morgan threw 150 million dollars her way, she, well, decided to take the money. No doubt animated by the thought that this pile of money, used properly, could really effectively altruize those poor people on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Or something like that. But first the penthouse!
Unlike Chichikov, however, Javice did make one teensy weensy error. For along with the company, Javice had turned over her email account. Perhaps she forgot it as she was signing the 20 million dollar retention contract with J.P. Morgan, the euphoria of the moment and all that.
The email account turned out to be a  fascinating snapshot of how today’s 30 under 30 take lemons and turn them into lemonade!
Problem: Company’s useless services were not attracting gullible rube parents and their throw away kids.
Solution: “The messages, according to the bank, included copious evidence that she had hired a data science professor to create fake information to prove to the bank that the millions of customers Frank claimed to have were real.”
Chichikov, alas, did not have a date science professor that he could buy for 15 thousand rubles to do the hard lifting. We can laugh now at that earlier age, but remember: they came up with the dead souls idea first! Hat tip where hat tip is due!
One person does come out of the Javice story badly:
“Highlights from the emails also included a Frank engineer’s questioning of Ms. Javice’s data manipulation request. She responded that she didn’t think anyone would end up in an “orange jumpsuit” over it, according to JPMorgan’s complaint against Ms. Javice and Mr. Amar.”
News does get around in the industry. An engineer that won’t get on board when a higher up demands action to create a massive fraud – why, this is not a guy you want in the ranks of your middle managers! Not a can-do guy, but a nattering negativo. I hope he or she  is suitably ashamed, whereever he or she is.
At the end of the day, though, what is 150 million between friends?
“For there’s no good in them now whatsoever – they’re all dead folk. All a dead body is good for is to prop up a fence with, as the proverb says.
“Why of course they’re dead,” said Sobakevich, as though he had come to his senses and remembered they were dead in reality, but then added: However, it may also be said, what good are the people who are now numbered among the living? What sort of people are they? They are so many flies, and not people.”
This is where the landowner Sobakevich is wrong, as Javice has decisively proved – for even flies, if they have, somehow, a social security number, can borrow money to go to school in order to find a lowlevel job paying off the loan that put them through the school! It is as plain as the nose on your face – living souls are now as good as dead ones!

The synthetic progressive

I have been searching for a term to encompass one of the great features of capitalism – the non-necessary synthesis. I guess I will call it ...