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Historiographical Etude -- Henry Box Brown Dec. 30th, 2012 @ 10:52 am

I spent a bit of time this morning following up on the story of escaped slave Henry Box Brown.  We read Ellen Levine's Henry's Freedom Box ast night with the kids, which strongly emphasizes the two parts of the story that children can probably best relate to: the separation of the family and the feeling of being inside the box for a long time.

I wanted to find out more about whether Brown managed to learn of his wife's  and childrens' whereabouts or even manage to be reunited with them, but the blurb on Wikipedia--with reference to the Jeffry Ruggles' biography--suggested that Brown had opted not to do so and start over with a English second wife. I found the information provided insufficient to decide whether Brown did not want to or could not, but I do not have access to the Ruggles biography to make progress on this issue.

The Wikipedia article argues that Brown in general was quickly functionalized as a spokesperson for the abolitionist cause (e.g. the ghost writing support of his escape account) and proved unsuitable for this, as Brown chose to showmanship himself and his story (via an extensive panorama), mainly in England due to the Fugitive Laws, and turned to mesmerism, magic shows and a family singing group when the biographical interest waned. Consequently, it hardly is surprising that Levine cherry-picked the family separation and the box escape; the life of Brown after the escape does not immediately appeal to the buyers of these children's books. (It seems hard to be a hero without being truncated biographically in some way.)

The most interesting other piece of source material I stumbled over was Hollis Robbins' working paper n the interpretation of the express mail company and its workers in the narrative. On the one hand, Robbins pulls the box interpretation down to a less metaphorical level, and provides crucial underpinning for the understanding of the role of the express packet services as it existed in the US in 1849. On the other hand, Robbins analyzes the relationship between the humoristic nature of the account (with Brown being tossed this way and that way as if in some Dance Hall farce) and the depiction of the workers, who remain unavoidably anonymous and transported Brown the 350 miles from Richmond, VA to Philadelphia in 27 hrs, and in one piece. Brown's narrative has no other opponents than the mail workers, who contributed nothing to his dehumanization and do their job well enough.

Robbins is correct in pointing out that the transportation of the box comes across as "magical" precisely because the workers are anonymized; but her analysis can only penetrate one level down, and needs to again bypass the other railroad workers and the shipping agents, not to mention the secondary (the station masters) and tertiary personnel (the road builders, the canal dredgers) involved in the transportation event. In the end, historical reconstruction has to side with the poetics and turn the persons actually involved, of whom we have no records and no details, into almost magical forces, This problem worsens as the complexity and the industrialization of a society rises; the more cogs in the machine, the more difficult to give an accurate account of involvement.

The flip side of this highlights a deep distinction between poetics and historiography (other than the ones that Robbins already raised); it would be at least in principle a valuable historiographical account to brings together all the folks involved in transporting Brown to Philadelphia. But I suspect it would make for a lousy novel.

Current Mood: pensivepensive

simulating complex converging processes Nov. 14th, 2010 @ 01:06 pm
This weekend I had a bit of time to pick up my hobby horse of worrying about ways to simulate virtual societies at a relatively fine grained level. One of the big problems that I have grappled with in the past is how to make the population pyramid come out right in the absence of a very detailed model of nutrition, health, accidents and warfare. On a more general level, the problem is one of making two models interact correctly that have complex and incompletely understood feedback aspects to them.

So, on the one hand we want the populations to be able to take actions that improve their survival, directly or indirectly in their off-spring; on the other hand, all the data we have is the overall population pyramid. How do you design a system of rules of actions and consequences that will appropriate converge to these averages?

In the past, I simply felt that the population pyramid was the most important aspect of the problem; when the virtual population members were generated, I sampled their life expectancy from the pyramid, and that was their fate, so to speak, a form of algorithmic predestination. The problem with the approach is that it makes it difficult to punish or reward behaviors immediately; how do you simulate a county-wide famine or a battle rout in this scenario? You cannot play evolution of successful strategies; the winners will be those that have been chosen to live the longest.

But then I recalled an article I had read about a strategy for making NPCs in online games more interesting vis-a-vis human player behavior. The writer proposed to support message exchange between meeting NPCs with respect to specific actions that the players had taken when encountering the NPCs. Effectively, the NPCs were gossiping to each other, when meeting on the map, about how the players had treated them--including treatments that the NPCs only had heard gossip about. As a result, whole communities would quickly turn for or against the players, depending on communication rates etc.

This communication of experiences inspired me to exchange good experiences with bad experiences in terms of life expectancy. So, in the case of agriculture, those that have the best harvest and therefore the best nutrition, get to take some age expectancy from those that have bad harvests. They effectively swap positions in the population pyramid. The hand of fate has been tempered with some "free will".

thesis basement design Jul. 18th, 2010 @ 10:14 am

So, it looks like I am finally heading toward the stretch in my life when I will have an opportunity to make progress on my thesis.

As a good architect (*chuckle*), I am thinking of a protocol stack of sorts, and here are some of the layers that I have identified and wish to sort out.

  • The layer of argumentation, which breaks down into two pieces:
    • The formal layer of logic, where we deal with issues of validity. These are arguments that have established rules of inference.
    • The informal layer of rhetoric, where we deal with issues of presentation of situations where there is not enough information to build formal models yet. (I like to think of this as the duct-tape layer of the exposition.)
  • The layer of model building, which has several components to it.
    • There is the work of the Minnesota School of Philosophy of Science (e.g. Giere) on how model building works in the so-called "hard" sciences.
    • There is the Cognitive Science work on how model building (in the sense of mental and conceptual models) actually proceeds and functions, and crucially how model derivation through analogous reasoning and through case based model completion plays out. For those keeping tabs on origins, I am thinking of the NWU CogSci/AI folks (Gentner, Forbus, Riesbeck) and Brits like Johnson-Laird.
  • The coupling between these two layers is accomplished, if I am not mistaken, by the theory of scientific discovery as outlined by Peirce, esp with his use of the deductive foundation and the twin approaches to knowledge acquisition--induction for new rules, abduction for new instances--for populating the edge of what is known.

The basic assumption is that the models that are being built will be extracted from argumentations and presented in the form of argumentations. So the models are the content, and the argumentation is the packaging layer.

I think with that epistemological toolbox in hand, it will be possible to work over the key works of Mediterranean historiography, starting with Braudel's magnum opus of the WW2 years, and identify structural patterns of model building. These structural patterns will then provide guidelines for required conceptual models to attack the problem of the early history of Mormonism and its internal change as the movement grew and was pushed westward.

Something like that.

Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

in and out of useful Jun. 20th, 2010 @ 10:07 am
The continuous update process of Google Docs is somewhat annoying, esp since the last release lost some major capabilities. Most importantly from my point of view, we can no longer:
  • use block quote, my favorite markup for setting of long citations
  • specify a cross-document default font that is not Arial
  • fiddle with the CSS directly
  • Use CTRL-nn to select the heading level (they threw in another meta-key)

It used to be that you could go back to previous versions of their JavaScript implementation in order to work around changes that you did not like, but that features has evaporated too.
I am now at the point where I need to begin to decide what I will use for the write up of my research readings; I was hoping to use Google Docs (it is rather convenient in many ways), but I guess I will go back to the EMACS plus LaTeX plus Git tool suite, and use Google Docs upload anything feature (rather than GMail attachments) to snapshot my repository ....
Current Mood: frustratedfrustrated

for my local friends Jun. 15th, 2010 @ 09:14 pm
The last gerbil moved on to the big Desert in the Sky, so we now have a bunch of gerbil maintenance equipment that we no longer need, including a cage, a water bottle, an exercise wheel, a food bowl, some food and some bedding.

If anyone is interested, let me know.

Update: It is all spoken for. Thanks.
Current Mood: busy
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» taking a stand

Recently, it was proposed by the uninformed that I had somehow gotten _mwife_ "stuck" with adopting children of a "different race" than ourselves. I only thought it appropriate to take up these charges in a more public setting. Allow me to observe that like most urban legends, this one is based on serious misinformation.

  • Those who take this stance are uninformed in that they do not really know much about _mwife_. People, I am married to a power woman! The reason my mortgage is so low is because she would not let the guy go for dinner until he came down that final quarter percent! If you think that _mwife is a push-over, you have not talked to her in the last decade.
  • This is not how the decision process in our marriage, nor the foster-adoptive qualification process, works. We talked over getting into the foster-adopting business for a long time. We went through many months of training. We had dozens of house visitations by various folks. It would have been trivial for _mwife_ to make any of these fail, should she have been too scared of me to let me know of her qualms (which she is not). There were interviews in complete privacy, without the partner there, so if she had any doubts, she could have unloaded them freely then and there. Admittedly, it may be possible to get a woman pregnant in one night and leave her "stuck" with a child she did not want. It is not possible to make a woman an adoptive parent in one night!
  • I did not get her "stuck" with anything, because I was the one who ended up as the primary parent. Understand that part of the force of the argument behind phrases like "knocking up" and similar lies in the fact that typically the mothers end up in the position of the primary parent. Put differently, the moral force of the argument hinges on the fact that for the lesser contributor to make such a decision is reprehensible. But this is not how it played out in our case (according to our family therapist). Now I say that the fault for this lies with her dissertation research, which forced _mwife_ to be absent for one month and made the children decided that putting their eggs into my basket was a safer bet than placing them into hers.

So here is the truth of the matter. And if anyone be still bothered by my children's levels of melanin, I ask that they come closer, so I may spit in their eye with greater ease.


» Apparently ...
... I am down to posting here once a month.

The fact that I am not posting much on facebook either hardly qualifies as consolation.
» the induction of the self
This morning I figured out something about the way we constitute the self that was rather surprising to me (I make no promises that it will be surprising to you).

I start with the premise that most people assume that if they behave in a way that is in alignment with their true inner self, then the universe would conform to their intentions. In other words, being true to oneself is rewarded by universal compliance.

However, behavioural psychology suggests that the precise opposite is the case. As conditioned animals working from reward functions, we adopt the behaviours that meet with success. For example: Children will pursue whatever actions that make the parents sit up and notice. If it is screaming, the children will scream; if it is talking in ornate sentences, the children will do that, etc etc.

The problem so far then is that we think that the replication of our successful behaviours reveals our true nature, while in fact what we consider our true nature is merely the composite of the successful strategies that we have accumulated over time.

As a deception, this is of course sad; but at the same time it is a grand opportunity, esp if we want to update our behaviours, for we can now tweak them in the full assurance that they are merely the result of the stories of our successes, and not a description of our essence. It is much easier to change things that we experience as decoupled from the self.
» Russian Adoption Thought #3

I have to say honestly, I am not sure why people are so focused on international adoption. Maybe it is not a bad idea that the Russian government is suspending adoptions to the US.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • In international adoption, there are too many potentials for middle-folks. Why does international adoption cost so much? Because of the translators? Because of the document fees in China and Russia? Think again. But those involved in making the deal happen, they have no stake in its success, only in its taking place. The situation is very different for national adoption. If the local adoption fails, the state has to bear the cost and the social workers have to take over again. There are no rewards or premiums for the mere placing of the children, so those that undertake these tasks are much more vested in their success.
  • Consequently: International adoption has a tendency to promise more than they can deliver. During our foster-adoptive parent training class, we met a mom of one adopted child from China who was going to get a local child the second time around. She told of sitting in the hotel room in China, meeting her daughter there for the first time, only to discover that the girl was about half a year older than she had been told. At this point, she had spent well over $20K (!) to get the adoption put into place, and probably another $1K to get to China. Of course she gritted her teeth and took the girl, and as the good person she is, she loved her new daughter all the same. But the point stands that she was lied to.
  • In international adoption, there is no foster parent precursor to adoption. In the US, the children come for visits from their foster home for a couple of weekends, and then longer and longer, until the adoption process has run to completion. If it really turns out that the children are too much for the prospective adoptive parents to handle--and this can indeed always happen, dont get me wrong--then there is an equally gradual process of dissociation that lets the children down without (too much) of the disappointment and damage and abrupt termination of the relationship would cause.
  • What do you actually know about these children? Internationally adopted children are predominantly from orphanages (or so they tell you). While there may be records from their time in the orphanage (in a language that you may not be able to read without help), what was before then? Locally adopted children come with voluminous records, assembled by the state's workers and representatives. The files we have for our children form a stack of paper 10 inches high.

Remember: Think globally, act locally.


» Russian Adoption Side #2
I have complete and utter sympathy for the adoptive mother, and I can understand why she felt that the adoption workers in Russia had pulled her over the table.

I have come to be convinced that the time of a baby growing from helplessness into toddlerhood is as important for the parents in getting used to the idea of having a child as it is for the baby. Going from zero to eight years puts one at an enormous disadvantage with respect to all the other parents. I cannot even begin to imagine how they handled the language issues (not to mention the cultural delta).

Adoption also requires preparations that have seemingly nothing to do with the adoption process in the technical sense. You have to get the support network in place, prepare the relatives and the friends. You have to line up post adoptive services, such as behavioural training and/or family therapy, both for the children and for the parents. You have to get things organised with the school, and with afternoon activities, etc.

I still recall the odd transition from being a foster to an adoptive parent. It was very sudden, the way the social workers stopped dropping by. It was a little bit like using part of our support network, because the social workers had been a helpful source of suggestions and recommendations. We no longer had to fill out the reports about the children and their days, but we then realised how helpful it had been to do that and get a higher level overview of how they were changing and growing. If things are not going well, I can see how someone might feel overwhelmed and even betrayed. And this was international adoption.

There are other aspects that are easily forgotten as well. Babies and toddlers have expectations that can be pretty straight-forward to meet: food and cuddling, toys. My heart always aches when I read the adoption wishes from the older children, who are up for adoption in the US, about how they wish their future family to be. They do not just wish for parents--they wish for their own rooms, loving and supporting siblings, dogs and horses, a house on a farm. Again, this is completely understandable but puts the adoptive parents into a very difficult position. I would be hard pressed to provide that kind of home, and I suspect many others would be too. I do not know, but I suspect the eight year old had some ideas of his future parents. I would be surprised if his mother would have been able to live up to them.

So, my hearty goes out to the mother as well.
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