(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘learning

“We account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in individuality”*…

remarkable new study on how whales behaved when attacked by humans in the 19th century has implications for the way they react to changes wreaked by humans in the 21st century.

The paper, published by the Royal Society [in March], is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.

Using newly digitised logbooks detailing the hunting of sperm whales in the north Pacific, the authors discovered that within just a few years, the strike rate of the whalers’ harpoons fell by 58%. This simple fact leads to an astonishing conclusion: that information about what was happening to them was being collectively shared among the whales, who made vital changes to their behaviour. As their culture made fatal first contact with ours, they learned quickly from their mistakes.

“Sperm whales have a traditional way of reacting to attacks from orca,” notes Hal Whitehead… Before humans, orca were their only predators, against whom sperm whales form defensive circles, their powerful tails held outwards to keep their assailants at bay. But such techniques “just made it easier for the whalers to slaughter them”, says Whitehead.

It was a frighteningly rapid killing, and it accompanied other threats to the ironically named Pacific. From whaling and sealing stations to missionary bases, western culture was imported to an ocean that had remained largely untouched. As Herman Melville, himself a whaler in the Pacific in 1841, would write in Moby-Dick (1851): “The moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc.”

Sperm whales are highly socialised animals, able to communicate over great distances. They associate in clans defined by the dialect pattern of their sonar clicks. Their culture is matrilinear, and information about the new dangers may have been passed on in the same way whale matriarchs share knowledge about feeding grounds. Sperm whales also possess the largest brain on the planet. It is not hard to imagine that they understood what was happening to them.

The hunters themselves realised the whales’ efforts to escape. They saw that the animals appeared to communicate the threat within their attacked groups. Abandoning their usual defensive formations, the whales swam upwind to escape the hunters’ ships, themselves wind-powered. ‘This was cultural evolution, much too fast for genetic evolution,’ says Whitehead.

And in turn, it evokes another irony. Now, just as whales are beginning to recover from the industrial destruction by 20th-century whaling fleets – whose steamships and grenade harpoons no whale could evade – they face new threats created by our technology. ‘They’re having to learn not to get hit by ships, cope with the depredations of longline fishing, the changing source of their food due to climate change,’ says Whitehead. Perhaps the greatest modern peril is noise pollution, one they can do nothing to evade.

Whitehead and Randall have written persuasively of whale culture, expressed in localised feeding techniques as whales adapt to shifting sources, or in subtle changes in humpback song whose meaning remains mysterious. The same sort of urgent social learning the animals experienced in the whale wars of two centuries ago is reflected in the way they negotiate today’s uncertain world and what we’ve done to it.

As Whitehead observes, whale culture is many millions of years older than ours. Perhaps we need to learn from them as they learned from us…

Learning from the ways that whales learn: “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information.”

* Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

###

As we admire adaptation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1953 that Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for his short novel The Old Man and the Sea. It was cited by the Nobel Committee as contributing to their awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hemingway the following year.

The Old Man and the Sea reinvigorated Hemingway’s literary reputation and prompted a reexamination of his entire body of work. The novel was initially received with much enthusiasm by critics and the public alike; many critics favorably compared it with Moby-Dick.

source

“So many books, so little time”*…

Dear The Sophist, 

I own a lot of books, and nearly enough shelves to fit them. I haven’t read most of them—has anyone with a lot of books read most of them?—yet I still get impulses to buy more. Can you please tell me why it’s OK for me to buy more books? I should add that I live with a partner who doesn’t own a lot of books, but tolerates mine so far. So far.

—Tome-escent

Dear Volume Purchaser,

Books are ridiculous objects to buy, aren’t they? For the sake of spending a day or two, maybe a week, with some author’s thoughts and words, you take custody of this physical item that sticks around, and around, as more and more others accumulate along with it. You look at them, almost unseeingly, day after day; the walls of your rooms press in; you pay extra money to the movers to drag the extra weight around from one dwelling to the next, all because you read an interesting review once or a cover caught your eye in a bookstore.  

You know what else is ridiculous? The sheer impermanence of thought. The constant yet ephemeral flickering of partial understanding across the synapses in our wet and mortal brains, and the dry circuits of the junky and even more short-lived electronic ersatz brains we rely on for backup. A book is an investment against forgetting and death—a poor investment, but it beats the alternatives. It is a slippery yet real toehold on eternity,,, If you stop the flow of new books, you stop this flow of possibilities…

Too many books? Tom Scocca (@tomscocca) explains that there’s no such thing as too many books. (via the ever-illuminating Today in Tabs)

And lest one fear that the only option is to buy books, remember the Public Library…

Central Library, Kansas City (source)

* Frank Zappa

###

As we reorganize our shelves, we might spare a thought for someone whose works definitely deserve places of honor thereon, Octavia Estelle Butler; she died in this date in 2006. An African American woman science fiction author, she was a rarity in her field. But her primary distinction was her extraordinary talent, as manifest in novels and stories that stretch the imagination even as they explore the all-too-real truths of the human condition. She was a multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and became (in 1995) the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.

It’s measure of her insight that her work– perhaps especially her “Parable” series— is being re-discovered as painfully prescient of our current times.

source

“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope”*…

After this post, your correspondent is heading into his customary Holiday Hiatus; regular service will resume in early 2021. In the meantime, a piece to ponder…

“Civilizations with long nows look after things better,” says Brian Eno.  “In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.”undefined  You can imagine how such a process could evolve—all civilizations suffer shocks; only the ones that absorb the shocks survive.  That still doesn’t explain the mechanism.

In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks?  The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size.  Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft.  Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.

Consider the differently paced components to be layers.  Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure.  It is what makes them adaptable and robust…

Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand) unpacks a concept that he popularized in his remarkable book How Buildings Learn and that animates the work of The Long Now Foundation, which he co-founded– pace layers, which provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system.  It is in the contradictions between these layers that civilization finds its surest health: “Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning.” Do click through and read in full…

* Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

###

As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth. Modified for scientific exploration, its activities over the next four years, known as The Challenger Expedition, laid the foundation for the entire academic and research discipline of oceanography.

The Challenger

source

“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school”*…

You can learn to make these at a terrariums workshop

It’s that time again

In Warsaw’s Gruba Kaśka water plant there are eight clams with sensors attached to their shells. If the clams close because they don’t like the taste of the water, the city’s supply is automatically shut off. [Judita K]

When bar codes were patented in 1952, they were round [Sarah Laskow]

A 70% dilution of isopropyl alcohol is better at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses than ‘pure’ 99% isopropyl alcohol, for several distinct reasons. [Mitch Walleser]

Epidemiologists at Emory University in Atlanta believe that raising the mimimim wage in the US by $1 would have prevented 27,550 suicides since 1990. [John A Kaufman & Co, via The Economist]

Games Workshop, owner of Warhammer, is worth more than Centrica, owner of British Gas. [Allister Thomas]

Numbers 30-34 of this year’s list from Tom Whitwell of Fluxx: “52 things I learned in 2020.”

* Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones

###

As we have fun with facts, we might send fascinatingly-illustrated birthday greetings to David Brewster; he was born on this date in 1781. A physicist, inventor, author, and academic administrator, he is best remembered for his work in optic (especially the phenomenon of polarization). Brewster was a pioneer in photography; he invented an improved stereoscope, which he called “lenticular stereoscope” and which became the first portable 3D-viewing device. He also invented the binocular camera, two types of polarimeters, the polyzonal lens, the lighthouse illuminator, and (perhaps most relevantly to today’s post) the kaleidoscope. For this work, William Whewell dubbed him the “father of modern experimental optics” and “the Johannes Kepler of optics.”

source

Written by LW

December 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Me, poor man, my library / Was dukedom large enough”*…

Tsundoku (積ん読) is a beautiful Japanese word describing the habit of acquiring books but letting them pile up without reading them. I used to feel guilty about this tendency, and would strive to only buy new books once I had finished the ones I owned. However, the concept of the antilibrary has completely changed my mindset when it comes to unread books. Unread books can be as powerful as the ones we have read, if we choose to consider them in the right light.

What is an antilibrary? To put it simply, an antilibrary is a private collection of unread books. The concept was first mentioned by Lebanese-American scholar and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, where he describes the unique relationship Italian writer Umberto Eco had with books:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?”* and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary”…

The vastness of the unknown: “Building an antilibrary: the power of unread books.”

For inspiration: “7 Spectacular Libraries You Can Explore From Your Living Room.”

* Shakespeare, The Tempest

###

As we cultivate curiosity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940, at approximately 11:00 am, that the first Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge collapsed as a result of wind-induced vibrations. Situated on the Tacoma Narrows in Puget Sound, near the city of Tacoma, Washington, the bridge had only been open for traffic a few months.  For those who missed it in high school physics:

Written by LW

November 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: