Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Limits of Embodied Simulation and Piaget's Schemata

Harvard Professor Talk about Concepts
It was that time of the year again for me, time to attend the latest (10th) Quinn Memorial at UBC and to write and reflect on the issues raised. This time around we had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Susan Carey, a Harvard professor, talk about concepts. The title of the talk was “Concept Acquisition: Beyond Logical Construction and the Building Blocks Model.”

Susan Carey was introduced by UBC's Head of the Psychology Department Geoff Hall who enumerated all her distinguished awards and accomplishments and summarized her view as one that gave more credit to infants' minds than Piaget had done previously. In fact, her views were also opposing a number of ideas propagated by Locke and Berkeley.

All this sounded interesting and aroused my curiosity. I have often felt that Piaget had generally underestimated the rich and resourceful mind and the mental and other capabilities of children, but it would be much better to actually hear it from someone who was an expert on the matter.

Yet as so often happens, I was disappointed at first. What she was talking about mostly had little to do with what I thought she was going to talk about. In fact, it seemed initially that she was not showing us how children are smarter than we think, but that they, in fact, deceive us!

But first thing first. Susan Carey asked us the simple but poignant question of why understanding can be at times easy and at other times hard. The general view is that we are born with a set of innate primitives. This is basically our knowledge base that can increase its content but not its processing capacity. In other words, we are operating with an 18-month processor.

According to this view, our learning cannot increase our expressive power. Put differently, we are rather limited in terms of learning and understanding new primitives since we have already acquired the necessary linguistic and semantic blueprint, a set that is somewhat set in stone. But Susan Carey disagrees with this view since new primitives can be learned.

She gave us an example of certain migrating birds. They travel over long distances and do so at night. How do they know where to go? Is it based on a set of innate primitives or do they learn and adjust? Or in that specific case, how did the birds know where to go in the dark?

One theory is that they may have used the North Star Polaris. But how did they know which one is the right one to follow as following an erroneous star could take you - or rather the birds - to the wrong place? Also, what is the North Star for us now, has not always been so due to the Earth's rotational axis; in fact, about 14,000 years ago, it used to be the star called Vega (and it will become Vega again in 12,000 years or so).

This cannot be information passed on genetically from bird to bird generations. There must be some learning involved, that is the ability to create new primitives. That is when the computational primitives come in. This is not just using your processor, but also making it more powerful through the power of arithmetic.

How does this knowledge happen and does it apply to humans as well or is it simply for the birds? There are two methods we apply to learn about numbers. One of them is the Parallel Individuation Model. This means that we learn and count each number at a time, and see each number as distinct and separate from other numbers.

Yet there is also a process called the Analog Magnitude Model. In this case, we process chunks of information at once and see them more as a comprehensive set rather than as individually different or distinct items. The ability to do this changes with practice, experience, and age, but as a general rule of thumb, we can pay attention to and “hold” 3 or 4 items at a time.

Susan Carey then presented us with a bunch of dots grouped together and asked us to guess how many there were. For lower numbers where less crowding occurred, say 7 or 8 dots, we could make more confident and accurate guesses, but once there were twenty or thirty dots, there was too much noise and distortion, and we would be often wrong in our estimates.

Hence, she was explaining the acquisition of concepts via a mathematical/computational manner. I felt a bit disappointed because I had been more interested in concept-making in terms of language and its representation. Nonetheless, there were interesting bits of information that caught my immediate eye and attention. For instance, there was the surprising fact that children learn numbers at an early age, but they do not “understand” them! In other words, they can count from 1 to 10, but they do not know what that means!

She showed us some videos of experiments done with young children. When they were told to give a certain number of toys and they had awareness of that number, they would do so correctly. However, if they had no knowledge of that number, they would err. For example, a child that does not know anything beyond 3 would grab an indiscriminate amount of toys. They could still “count” up to ten, but did not notice that the number “4” corresponded with the four items in front of them, that is 4 toys put together.

This was very interesting as we often show off the knowledge of our children without awareness of the fact that their counting and these numbers had no tangible relation with the facts and abilities! One child, for example, would comment “Daddy, Mommy, and me” to talk about any items in a set of 3. This shows that she has awareness that the set of 3 corresponds with three, in this case very specific, items.

In a similar way, according to embodied simulation, this is how we learn our first language. We have an image in our head and the spoken or written word is used as an analogy; they are paired and associated with each other using a representational scheme. For example, the word One would be associated with “finger” and that would then lead to a long-term memory of that particular concept, i.e. number.

We often learn concepts and use logic to connect them with others, hence building connections within our minds. But not all learning processes as we have seen are through logic alone. We often use mathematical representations. We know that adding one more to any set increases the number and value of the set by one. 

It may take us a few years to be able to accomplish this feat, but at a certain age, we understand it. This then can be expanded and applied to a number of other computations, hence growing and diversifying our capacity to learn. In other words, she has shown us that learning increases over time and is not limited to a set of primitives.

Now if you are slightly confused, you are not alone. As I am wont to do at such events, I looked to personally chat with our presenter Susan Carey for some clarifications. With my red wine in hand, I approached her at the reception and asked her about embodied simulation and Piaget. She gave me an answer that clarified my doubts and confusion.

According to her, embodied simulation is correct but a too simplistic view and account of human learning. We are capable of much more. When a person sees a dog, they do not simply associate the animal with the word “dog,” but concept building goes beyond that. The person makes a wide range of assumptions, such as the fact that there are many of its kind and that this particular animal is different from other animals, say a tiger or a squirrel.

Some of these assumptions may be wrong or mistaken, but they are still part of the inner world that the individual carries around with him or her. We can see that this is not just associating one thing with another à la Piaget, but that children at an early age already make a number of assumptions vis-à-vis what they see. This shows more activity and awareness of the human mind than was previously assumed, and it may not be necessarily limited to humans as animals seem to draw conclusions and notice connections as well.

All this left me inspired. There is more to human learning than meets the eye. I imagined the brain being capable of doing an infinite number of tasks like the endless possible moves on a limited chess board. As this was going through my head and our conversation had reached its end, she surprised me with the following question: Was I a computer scientist?

I admitted I was not. I do not think that watching Mr. Robot would make me a computer expert and my general suspicion regarding technology has always prevented me from embracing technology more than was necessary or pragmatic. 

It was also the first time I had been associated with computer science. Perhaps it was due to my question, which she deemed both relevant and appropriate, or perhaps my look (I think I was wearing a hoodie). Be it as it may, I left this talk feeling slightly more accomplished knowing that I had added to and updated my knowledge base.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hubris of Unlimited Power: Gods, Gangs, and Narcos

Image of powerful Greek God Zeus
What would it be like to have unlimited god-like power? I am not talking about being a vigilante / superhero like Batman or Superman who use their skills and powers to right the wrongs in the world. I mean to have power that exceeds the reaches of nature and to be suspended beyond the tentacles of the law and the limitations of morality; hence, to be a Zeus-like entity that often engages in a self-absorbed, shamelessly and unapologetically narcissistic show of power.

To be someone to be reckoned with. Perhaps the most tangible and vivid image that comes to mind would be the God of the Old Testament. He is filled with wrath and the power to destroy and demolish anything he so wishes, be it individuals or whole towns. He is basically ready to eliminate anything and anyone that do not please him or do not abide by his bidding. There are no limits to his reach and nowhere for you to hide since he can track you down, find you and make you pay for your sins and transgressions.

The closest example that comes to this power on Earth would not be the American president but rather somebody like a ruthless dictator or a scrupulous drug pin like Pablo Escobar. The problem with the president is that his powers are limited in scope and reach. As we often see, despite having executive orders, there are many things that the president in the Oval Office cannot do, such as scrap guns or close Guantanamo.

Elected presidents are bound by laws and morality (to a certain extent at least), which may limit what they are able to say or do. They can circumvent these limitations by using doublespeak or by changing and distorting facts and events to their advantage, but few of them have the guts to downright speak their mind. Again the only ones that do not mince words and have the power to back it up are dictators. They are free to act as they please, be it for good or bad (mostly it is the second as absolute power does corrupt).

Yet somebody like Escobar and his fellow narco counterparts today are the closest we come to absolute power. I have been watching the brilliant and addictive series Narcos and it shows us an astute and cunning businessman at first who becomes a megalomaniac shamelessly abusing his power in his latter years.

One of the strongest traits of this drug lord was his extensive network. He had information, and that gave him power (I suppose the NSA is trying to copy that kind of network, but this is better left unsaid). In one of the early scenes of the Netflix series, Escobar intimidates a group of boastful military police officers at a road check by enumerating not only their names, but detailed personal events in each of their lives, such as one of their mothers being sick in a hospital or so-and-so having a beautiful wife. Having all this intimate knowledge coupled with the power that money brings and affords him, he is indeed invincible.

If anybody dared to oppose him, no matter who it was, they would feel the wrath and fire of this man. He could kidnap their children, torture their relatives, and, at the last instance, assassinate them at a whim. At the same time, he is untouchable because of a sort of unofficial and unspoken immunity nor can he be found or located, let alone arrested due to his multi-faceted connections. The mention of his name alone only induces fear.

Who would not sometimes dream of having this type of power? Not to have to run to the Godfather in times of emergencies so that they can take vengeance on our behalf for the slights and insults we suffer every now and then, but to simply be that person. Imagine to threaten the person that disgruntles you and have them shake in their boots! A simple phone call or with today's technology a simple text message can arrange the problem and seal the fate of those who malign you or treat you wrong.

In life, we see the opposite occur. We bow our heads and obey the authorities, official or otherwise. It could a teacher, school director, landlord, boss or higher-up at work, a government employee, judge, security guard or police officer. It seems that the list is never-ending and despite living in a democracy and having recourse to the law, we are quite limited in our powers.

This may be also a main reason why youth are attracted to join dangerous cults, radical groups or gangs. They feel not only validated in those cohorts, but it also gives them a (false) sense of empowerment. They feel protected by a god, for instance, who they believe will guide them through danger, or by gangsters who (supposedly) treat them not only as family, but give them also protection from authorities; the same gang leaders also give them symbols and weapons to assert their new-found identity. The young initiates see themselves as somebody stronger and better, somebody not to be messed with or else consequences will ensue upon the perpetrators.

This power that they feel with and within those radical or criminal organizations is in direct proportion to the helplessness they feel due to lack of cultural or national identity or simply due to the erosive nature of poverty. Incidentally, Escobar himself was poor in his younger years, which may explain his general sympathy for the poor, but also his unbridled ambitiousness.

His desire was to attain absolute power. This power transcends morality in a Nietzschean way since any action by this Übermensch is justified and righteous in itself. What would Nietzsche say about Escobar, I ask myself? Like the God of the Old Testament, you need to obey and never ever dare to negate anything. This embodied power is to be respected because of the fear it induces and its suffering it can create in a flash.

Yet in reality this power, no matter how extensive it may seem, comes up a little short. Escobar's dream of becoming a president of his country was cut short. With all his powers, influence and money, and despite the ramping corruption, that was one dream he could not fulfill. And despite being so powerful, he had to, for a large part of his life, live in hiding and even worry about the safety of his family members and friends.

And again, dealing with the hard currency of reality, there are always rivals and competitors who will try their best to make you tumble and fall. They may be as ruthless as you are, if not more so. And your vengeance after vengeance will lead to more and more bloodshed and misery for all. Put differently, such power and privilege comes with a bloody price tag attached to it.

But as an occasional daytime fantasy, it does fulfill some needs. We can imagine we had those powers and that we are respected in a society that pushes us around, whereas laws and regulations equally protect and stifle us. For the downtrodden and the poor or for the dreamy middle class with a little bit of control and say, all we can do is to hold onto floating pieces of dignity, that small space we call our own and not be all too fazed or impacted by the slings and arrows of the world.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Two interpretations to the ending of Cassavetes' Opening Night

Angelic woman appearing to fall on stage
The following post is for those who have already seen the movie Opening Night by John Cassavetes and are either baffled by the ending, understood it and are able to shed light on it (and offer a better interpretation than the ones proposed here) or simply are curious about the Cassavetes phenomenon. Even renowned film critic Roger Ebert was confused about the ending of this movie, so much so that he felt inclined to ask the director himself, but, unfortunately, Cassavetes had already passed away by that time.

Being a novice to the John Cassavetes universe I do not claim to get it or to offer a final say on the matter. I am just sharing my thoughts and impressions on the movie and hope to provide food for thought and to elicit comments. Of the two interpretations I prefer the first one, but have provided the second one to give the whole thing a little bit of balance.

Interpretation One

This is the happier version of the two in which Myrtle has managed to exorcise her demons and has achieved success. Success comes not only in terms of fame and recognition, but more importantly includes acceptance of her age and self-identity.

What is Myrtle's problem anyway? There is some speculation on that and as usual Cassavetes keeps it vague. Is it a mental disorder, alcoholism or a devastating midlife crisis? It might be a combination of the three (with additional elements thrown in for good measure), but it is not alcohol alone, as some have suggested.

Myrtle, the famed and renowned actress has her doubts regarding the latest play. The doubts are manifold: First off, she may doubt her own abilities and /or she has concerns about fulfilling her audience's expectations.

Secondly, she has concerns regarding the role she is supposed to play. The play called Second Woman may be too close for comfort, meaning she may identify with the protagonist rather too closely.

Finally, she disagrees with the play's take on women. It seems that the woman in the play written by an aging female playwright is continuously humiliated, while the notorious slap in the face scene is the crown of all that.

Add to this the fact that Myrtle has just witnessed a fan of hers being hit and killed by a car. This fan who seems otherworldly and grotesque in the rain and whose face we do not see until she is dying on the street was rather obsessed with Myrtle. Myrtle may feel guilty about not only being the possible cause of her death, but she may agonize about the fact that the idealized person this fan was adoring was not her real self.

This may be part and parcel of the actors' world. We may fall in love with certain of them because of the roles they are playing but will fail to see them the way they are in reality and in their real lives. It is the image and reputation that they may project, whether intentionally or not, and we take it as the real thing.

So Myrtle might have realized that there is a great gap between how others see her and the way she is or rather the way she sees herself. Either way, not only was the young woman's death in vain but it happened for the wrong reasons. Myrtle was faking her way through it all whether on the stage or her own messy life.

The issue of aging looms large and is often referred to in the movie. Myrtle senses that her opportunities are becoming scarce and she is afraid that once she plays an older woman like in the Second Woman she will be typecast and never play a younger woman again.

At the same time, because of the play's content and the fanatic girl's premature and unnecessary death, she is evaluating her own life. Myrtle is not married, does not have a stable relationship and has no children. All of this suffocates her, and her spacious but sparsely furnished apartment does not help much in the matter.

Shot from Myrtle's apartment

She tries hard but fails miserably to rekindle passion in her ex-lover who is now happily (?) married and even Maurice, her co-actor (and most likely another ex-lover) coldly and cruelly rejects her, not once but twice!

His reason is that she has the big shot role, while his is a minor one, that is, in his view, a supporting actor cannot get involved and fall in love with the star of the show. This would screw up the dynamics. (I sense a certain touch of envy there). But he has no qualms about slapping this star's face on the stage.

In order to cope with her traumas, Myrtle imagines the existence and presence of the young fan Nancy. She looks remarkably like the younger version of Myrtle and in fact, they first “meet” as Myrtle is observing herself in the mirror. Suddenly, her wrinkles around her mouth disappear and she becomes young and desirable again.

Her surrounding friends and colleagues are worried about her decline as it is seriously affecting her acting skills and mental health. So the playwright offers a solution: To see her spiritualist in New York. 

When they get there, Myrtle feels that the life of her creation will be under attack and she still refuses to part with Nancy who provides her with at least some comfort in those turbulent times. Myrtle excuses herself from the spiritualist by stating that this young woman Nancy is her own creation and is fully under her control.

Yet in reality she feels more and more threatened by her presence. Perhaps it is the image of youth that terrifies her because she knows deep inside that it is forever and irretrievably gone. So she decides to see another spiritualist. In that session, she meets eye to eye with an angry version of Nancy and Myrtle finally kills her (under the shocked eyes of the spiritualist fearing both for Myrtle's sanity as well as her own safety).

In this way, I believe (at least in this interpretation) that Myrtle has indeed killed off one of her demons, the one of impossible youth. It aches, but she must have felt some relief. Nonetheless, the bigger demon was still waiting in the wings: the play itself with its misogynistic elements.

Myrtle tries to escape it. She gets completely wasted but realizes that she cannot simply ignore it. Something must be done and in her stupor she shows up at the premiere. She is not able to walk or even stand, but with the help of the cast, she manages to pull through.

Towards the end of the play, something magical happens. She changes the lines. She escapes the fate of her character. In fact, she transcends those written tragic lines set in stone by its unhappy playwright and turns them into comedy.

In fact, Myrtle gives dignity to her character and regains her own in the process. She evades the humiliation and takes control of her own fate disregarding everything around her. At last, she is in control of her own life by transcending her character. The tragic outcome has been lifted; there is no humiliating slap; she is the creator of her own universe and she creates a happy ending.

To show this, Cassavetes gives us the reaction afterwards of not only the enthused audience, but also most of the cast behind the stage (I cannot see the playwright being very happy about having her play butchered though). In fact, even Peter Falk, her husband from Woman under the Influence and the real-life director Peter Bogdanovich in a cameo praise her and give her a kiss on the cheek.

Then there is a still of her face and we still hear the praises telling us how wonderful she is and we feel that she has made it indeed. She did not only excel at the opening night but found true and lasting peace and happiness within herself. You may see why I prefer this interpretation. Now let us move onto

Interpretation TWO

In this second scenario, everything is grimmer. First off, the ending is not seen as a reaffirmation of life, but as a hopeless hallucination. The success that Myrtle supposedly experiences is as “real” as Nancy is. Her fears and insecurities have buried her under her growing and relentless alcoholism.

In fact, when she arrived at the theater drunk, she signed her own seal of death. It is the deplorable end of her once illustrious career. She made a complete fool of herself; she did not surpass the limitations of gender set upon by the play itself: She augmented them. She may not have been physically slapped on the stage, but the metaphorical slaps will hurt and haunt her for the rest of her life.

In this case, she has not killed off or exorcised her demons, but only made them all-encompassing and immune against any help or intervention. The ending was mere fantasy and make believe. The exuberance around her was staged and artificial, and all those people pitied her and wanted to spare her the tragic consequences of her pitiful performance, or it may have been partially or mostly imagined by her fragile (and still inebriated) mind.

The still at the end with the continuous voices of praise playing in the background like a loop only demonstrate the fantastic aspects of her illusory success. Here we have a woman who cannot accept the fact that she is aging, and she will face death with a tormented and restless soul. She has been caught in an endless cycle of misery until her dying day.

Now you can see why I prefer the first version. Which one (if any!) Cassavetes would agree with is debatable. Yet one thing is for sure. This is an enigmatic work that has a lot to say about a number of issues in our lives. It touches upon age and gender, as well as theater and film-making.

The last bit of improvised lines on the stage may have shown the art of film-making à la Cassavetes. Or as many have claimed and which I second, it is also part of the make believe of spontaneity since it is rather a carefully scripted craft.

Truffaut whose films often have an air of improvisation once admitted that it was all carefully planned ahead. Rohmer, who is the epitome of improvisation in cinema, had also tightly conceived and very deliberately structured his works. In fact, improvisation is often more difficult to do than it may seem.

To conclude, Opening Night may be difficult to get through and I found it less moving and emotionally engaging than Cassavetes' masterpiece Woman Under the Influence (1974), but it is an idiosyncratic work that is densely layered, challenging, and profound. 

The fact that I cannot get it out of my head and it still puzzles me and as we have seen has led to head-scratching among famous film critics (minus Pauline Kael who simply is not a Cassavetes fan, period) is to me proof that this is a work to be reckoned with.