Friday, November 27, 2009

thought of the day - marx on the relationship between state and society (with some kafka thrown in for good measure)

Not only what it says in the title, but an interesting perspective on American Exceptionalism as it applies to the lack of a strong socialist presence here after 1886 as well! I mean, what a potent paragraph.

From R. Miliband, State in Capitalist Society pp. 180-1:

The obvious question this suggests is why this has been so; why the anti-socialist parties have so regularly been legitimated by popular support in elections; why the dominant classes in these societes have been able, in conditions of open political competition, to ensure the continuance of the kind of economic and political predominance which has been outlined in the previous chapters....

The answer which Marx gave to that question was, in a famous formulation, that 'the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas' and that the reason for this was that 'the class, which is the ruling material force in society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it'.

Much has happened in the world of capitalism since this was written in 1845, and it was not even then a sufficient answer to the question. But it remains, as will be seen in the following pages, the basic element of an answer to it.

And Franz Kafka in The Problem of Our Laws:

The law is what the nobles do.

A worthwhile paper or research project (which I am sure has been explored already and I'm just unable to recall examples) would be to go back to primary documents of the late 18th century U.S. (or other countries at the time of their capitalist origin) such as newspapers and other popular media, and school/university curricula and see expressions of Marx's thesis/Gramsci's "political socialization".

Thursday, November 26, 2009

new super mario bros. wii -- first impressions

The game is definitely worth getting. While I have only reached the fifth world (of eight) it's fair to say I've seen enough of the gameplay to form a general impression of the game. It is a 2D sidescroller in the tradition of the older Super Mario Bros., before the 3D "turn" on the N64. In fact, a lot of the levels' themes will remind you of levels in these older games. Mario still has his standard moves and not much more: jump, slide, spin, wall jump, etc. In addition, there are the ice and fire powerups, and there are two new "suits": one where Mario can transform into a helicopter allowing him to span the entire screen with a simple jump and spin of the Wii remote; and another where Mario turns into a Penguin, allowing him to belly slide over water, swim better, and shoot ice balls (like the ice Mario powerup). The worlds follow your standard themes: a water world, an ice world, a jungle world, a lava world, etc.

Sounds pretty standard for a Mario game, right? The big innovation that will really draw people to the game and enhance the experience is the cooperative mode. Basically, one can either move through the game according to the standard 1-player format (complete it 100%), or play the levels with up to three other characters on the screen at once. This added dimension really makes the game a lot of fun, though it is not without its weak points.

In terms of positive aspects, the cooperative mode adds a real feeling of teamwork and team accomplishment as you go through the levels. As anyone who has played one of these sidescrolling platformers before knows, they can be very, very frustrating experiences. But at the same time, pulling off a difficult maneuver, especially with another person there to cheer you on (and maybe even help you!) is a great feeling. Sometimes teammates will want to communicate with each other in order to get an optional coin (of course, with a bonus attached) or take care of a particularly difficult sequence of platform jumps. There is also a specific set of built-in team abilities, such as lifting characters to throw them to locations, or taking advantage of the helicopter ability mentioned above that are really fun and occasionally useful.

On the negative side, there are the obvious issues with having one or two good players and then a third player who isn't as good that can definitely affect the experience. This normally comes into play when the third not-so-good player gets in the way on platforms or can't execute a team strategy. This of course could affect any cooperative game so it's not really a levelling criticism. What really seems to be a weakness is that while the game is meant to have four players on the screen at once, there's really not much need for more than two -- the team problems you have to solve, as well as your ability to navigate the screen, seem most effectively handled with two players! The only reason I can see myself being wrong on this is because I've only had one other "interested" gamer to play with (one of my brothers) in the sense that my other brother and my sister either don't like it that much or aren't that good. Perhaps if I had two other people who were really interested the experience would change, but I'm skeptical at this point.

Here is a fuller review you may want to check out: Gamespot has the advantage of historical knowledge and says this game is one of the harder Mario's to ever come out, giving it an 8.5 based on this difficulty and the richness of the gameplay/replayability but also partly agreeing with me over the ambiguous nature of the multiplayer.

Overall, however, I really do think it's worth it and definitely whets my appetite for Super Mario Galaxy 2 in the first half of next year!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

applying the chandlerian model today - the internet age and changing economic institutions

I found this article after skipping off a few links that originated from a BoingBoing post on contemporary media. The thesis presented here is not new. Alfred Chandler's work on the rise of big business (in which he explains several of the consequences of industrialization mentioned in the article, including centralized products, big companies, and mass marketing) places primary emphasis for this change in the rise of integrated transportation and communication networks. Specifically, after the Civil War, railroads played a very important part in providing the markets necessary for large enterprise. Improved communication also allowed information concerning supply chains and prices to spread more quickly and across a wider area, fostering firm growth.

The author of the article is extending Chandler's model to the rise of the internet by asking, what kind of production structure will arise out of the arguably more decentralized market that is the internet? One of the most interesting implications which he or she outlines is, "work life integration", questioning whether "Not only will more people work from home, but personal life will also permeate more traditional offices through IM, e-mail, and other communication forms. Conversely, people will never really leave work, because mobile technology will let them take their offices wherever they go."

Certainly this idea is more reminiscent of the artisan shops of pre-19th century production (and also of grad school!!!), and I wonder to what extent this can become a part of the internet age. Can we combine the gains we've made in productivity over the last few centuries with a more "humane" understanding of work? I think that the rise of open source software and alternative forms of copyright law that have gained prominence in this digital age show signs of the Chandlerian model emerging in this period: specifically, the influence of new forms of communication and transportation technology (the latter taken in a much more broad sense now in order to consider uploading/downloading as a form of 'digital transportation') on the organization of production. The question is how far this institutional model can take us in revolutionizing the economy.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

theoretical models of state and society bleg

I let the blog cool down for two weeks mainly for work-related reasons. In my attempts to hone in on some area of interest concerning U.S. economic history in the early 19th century, I've struggled with some overwhelming questions and I'm now working on finding a theoretical framework in which to give some semblance of an answer to at least one of them. The process has consumed much of my time and thoughts for these past two weeks and since you, the reader, are familiar with most of these issues, I thought it would be redundant to explain my problems again. See, for past examples of my struggles, my posts here (moral economy of competition) and here (understanding the legal dimensions of proletarianization). This gives you a flavor of the central ideas I was presenting to my advisor.

My main question wrestles with something that I've stressed all semester in Econ 362: giving a narrative of early economic development which stresses the lack of freedom in property and contract. Here, my advisor has directed me toward the theoretical Marxist literature on the relationship between the state and society in capitalism, toward people such as Miliband and Poulantzas. In addition, for my own intellectual curiosity I picked up a book of selections from Gierke's Community in Historical Perspective. While I haven't completed Miliband's book, it deals, on a theoretical level, with defining the term "ruling class" (a popular term to throw around that is by no means easy to pin down analytically) and exploring how to demonstrate that such a class exists in society, and finally, the social effects of this established class. Poulantzas and Gierke I have yet to crack open.

If you have any suggestions for books on this topic I will be very appreciative. Specifically, I would be looking for any evolutionary theories of the relationship between the state and society in capitalism. Readings which characterize the modern state in advanced capitalism are good and certainly helpful but they aren't exactly what I'm looking for. Thinking out loud, is it possible that the development of such an evolutionary theory could be a new addition to the literature, historically/theoretically speaking? I conjecture that studying how it exists today is helpful to a certain extent for forming a history but to avoid falling into the teleological trap I definitely need a more thorough treatment of how the state developed and its effects, along the way, on society (and materialism is just not an answer...sorry!).

At any rate, I do have a bunch of articles and things I've accumulated over the last two weeks that I will be sharing with you all quite soon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

sounds like bach - douglas hofstadter and formalism in classical music

Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in an article titled "Sounds Like Bach" on computer programed classical music:
In my lectures, I usually have a second musical interlude, this time involving mazurkas -- one by Chopin and one by EMI [Experiments in Musical Intelligence]. One time, when I gave this lecture at the world-famous Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, nearly all the composition and music-theory faculty was fooled by the EMI mazurka, taking it for genuine Chopin (and the genuine Chopin piece, by contrast, for a computer-manufactured ditty). An Eastman music student, Kala Pierson, wrote me an email about this event in which she said, 'I voted real-Chopin for the second piece, as did most of my friends. When you announced that the first was Chopin and the second was EMI, there was a collective gasp and an aftermath of what I can only describe as delighted horror. I've never seen so many theorists and their composers shocked out of their smug complacency in one fell swoop (myself included)! It was truly a thing of beauty.'
Much, much more here

Marvin Minsky, called the "father of AI", takes up the same topic but a little earlier than Hofstadter. His argument is more theoretical so he's making a slightly different point from Hofstadter: basically, that the formalistic models of classical music are incomplete but that does not mean we have to give up on the project:
Minsky: In a computation-based treatment of musical expression you
would expect to see attempts to describe and explain such sorts of
structure. Yet the most "respectable" present-day analyses -- e.g., the
well-known Lerdahl & Jackendoff work on generative grammars for
tonal music -- seem to me insufficiently concerned with such
relationships. The so-called "generative" approach purports to describe
all choices open to a speaker or composer -- but it also tries to abstract
away the actual procedure, the temporal evolution of the compositional
process. Consequently, it cannot even begin to describe the choices
composers must actually face -- and we can understand that only by
making models of the cognitive constraints that motivate an author or
composer. I suspect that when we learn how to do that, many
regularities that today are regarded as grammatical will be seen as
results of how the composer's motivations interact with the
knowledge-representation mechanisms shared by the composer and the
listener. In any case it seems to me that, both in music and language,
one must understand the semantics of tension-producing elements -- at
least in the forms that resemble narrative. Each initial discord, be it
melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or whatever, can be seen as a problem to
be later resolved. A lot of what a composer does is setting up
expectations, and then figuring out how to frustrate them. That gives
the composer some problems to solve. The problems and their
solutions are then like elements of a plot, and composition becomes a
kind of story telling.

Otto Laske: To look at composing as a variety of story-telling, and at music as
a pseudo-story, wouldn't that help us to arrive at a theory of musical
Just a few paragraphs down we come to what I find to be the most interesting aspect, the (partial) answer to the above:
OL: So, then, for you to apply AI to music, if one can say apply...

MM: ... would be making composers, or at least listeners...

OL: By "making," do you mean to produce a robot-like creature that
does certain things like, observably composing?

MM: Yes, indeed. And in the case of listening it would have to know
when to say "oh, this is exciting," or "how very tender," and the like. I
haven't seen much of that.

OL: In Japan, one has built a robot that is capable of reading music,
and play it on the piano.

MM: Yes, that fellow at Mazda.

OL: Is that something you have in mind here?

MM: Not at all. Because I'm more concerned about what happens at
larger scales of phrase and plot. Our listening machine would have to
understand the music well enough to recognize from each moment to
the next which problems have been solved, and which remain open.

OL: How would that understanding have to become manifest?

MM: Well, for example, an understanding listener can hear a piano
concerto and appropriately say things like "that was a good idea here in
the cadenza, but he didn't carry it through." I'd want the robot to make
similar analyses.

OL: To do that, the robot must be able to recognize solutions, good or
bad. But then how would it communicate this to others?

MM: One way might be to have it write the sorts of sentences that
critics write. Or to have work more in the musical realm by performing
as a teacher does, explaining differences by demonstration -- "Look how
much better it would be to delay a little these notes here, and make
those near the end more staccato, like this, and this." And of course if
our machine turned out to able to produce interesting enough
interpretations, then we might be satisfied by that alone -- if many
listeners were to agree that "really, that performer has a lot of good ideas
about this music, and brings out stuff that I didn't realize was there."
Here is the lengthy conversation. All emphases my own. See about halfway down for the quoted passages. To defend him, he does consider the possibility of alternative logics (even mentioning Hegel), but "the idea is not carried through." :)

See this comment thread which took place on Joe Rebello's blog back in August where we have a spirited discussion of formalism(s) in economics which directly relates to Minsky's discussion of alternative formalisms in the article.

Monday, November 2, 2009

quote of the day: gavin wright on proletarianization in the postbellum south

Gavin Wright is a really good economic historian. He comes from the same generation as the cliometricians and new economic historians such as Fogel and Engerman, but he's much more conscious about his use of neoclassical models/concepts when studying history. He also asks much more interesting and nuanced questions. A good example of this is found below, from his paper "American Agriculture and the Labor Market: What Happened to Proletarianization?" where he considers two very intriguing points. First, he questions the traditional Marxist model of proletarianization, beginning the paper with a passage by Lenin. Second, he considers an argument that is actually quite similar to the "moral economy of competition" paper by Jason Opal discussed in a previous post.

But one of the most striking passages comes at the end when he is summarizing his main findings, one of which argues that proletarians in the South did not come from an increasingly impoverished middle class. The premise: Southwestern farmers in the late 1800s, early 1900s found it hard to recruit labor due to their specialization in seasonal commercial crop production, as opposed to year-round farming, or the sharecropping system which was mostly present in the South Central, Southeast. In order to keep the workers around all year, the farmers on these commercial crops would therefore have to offer a high enough wage to persuade people to work on the farms. (These are the "pressures" mentioned below.) How did they deal with these pressures? Well, they could mechanize...
But where mechanization was technically difficult, the combined result of these pressures was the emergence of a migrant labor system as insulated as possible from urban and industrial labor markets. This system began in the southwest around the turn of the century, spread to California by the 1920s, and continued to expand eastward in the twentieth century, for the most part little noticed or bothered by most Americans, organized labor included. The social invisibility of these migrant workers and their families, their insulation from the mainstream of industrial development (quite in contrast to traditional proletarianization scenarios) is perhaps the major reason why most Americans do not believe that their country's agricultural history has much to do with proletarianization.
As I said, this quote is very striking, which is the reason I chose to share it. But I also find it quite instructive in terms of understanding the source of much of American development within a historical and Marxist framework.