File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 669

From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
Date: Fri, 10 Apr 2009 05:06:18 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist]  22.683 blasts from the past of computing

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 683.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to:

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <>          (42)
        Subject: collaborate like our own neurons

  [2]   From:    Willard McCarty <>          (33)
        Subject: a scientist's historiography

  [3]   From:    renata lemos <>         (87)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.680 the spirit of Humanist

        Date: Thu, 09 Apr 2009 10:50:26 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: collaborate like our own neurons

At the very end of his article, "Warren McCulloch's search for the logic 
of the nervous system" (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.2, 2000) 
that I cited yesterday, Michael Arbib talks in a very neurological way a 
la McCulloch about collaboration. The image is quite charming, and I 
think would do us some good to contemplate. But before I quote Arbib's 
words, a preliminary note is needed.

McCulloch was one of those people who seem to draw ideas from 
everywhere. As a young man he spent time in the U.S. Navy, where he 
learned about the strategic idea known as "redundancy of potential 
command". Arbib explains as follows:

> In a naval battle, there are many ships widely separated at sea, and
> normally command rests in the ship with the Admiral. But if some
> fighting breaks out or some crucial information becomes available
> locally, then temporarily the ship that has that information is the
> one with command.

He then relates this to McCulloch's subsequent work:

> This notion of redundancy of potential command, rooted in McCulloch’s
> experience in World War I, came in the 1960s to yield the view that
> the nervous system is not to be seen as a pure hierarchy but rather
> operates by cooperative computation.

Thus the neurological metaphor, which we're now equipped to understand. 
Here are Arbib's final words, where collaboration comes in:

> Of course, each scientist must master a certain palette of
> techniques, whether empirical or theoretical. Nonetheless, the idea
> of seeing how we can go beyond technique to answer fundamental
> questions remains crucial if the fruits of these techniques are to
> transcend mere data collection. Some neuroscientists worry more about
> theory or cognition, some focus on anatomy, or neurophysiology, or
> neurochemistry. But the array of talents and techniques marshaled by
> a community of scholars who know how to communicate with each other
> really creates a redundancy of potential command, as it were, to take
> control of this incredible question: how does the brain work?

or any of the many other questions we have, indeed the wonderfully 
endless questioning of the humanities.



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London,;
Editor, Humanist,;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews,

        Date: Thu, 09 Apr 2009 15:11:40 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <>
        Subject: a scientist's historiography

The following comes from a man in the very thick of technological 
progress, at the time vice-president and dean of engineering at MIT:

> A review of the mode of living of our forefathers, if it is to be
> useful, should be sympathetic in its attitude. The lapse of time
> often obscures the difficulties surrounding a former generation, and
> we are apt to smile at crudities when a just estimate should rather
> leave us to marvel that so much was accomplished with so little.
> It is especially pertinent that we should review the technical
> accomplishments of another period only in the light of the
> contemporary science. Otherwise, we may well be guilty of a
> patronizing complacency, and as a result lose the benefit to be
> derived from a really analytical view of history.... It is possible
> that by taking our minds back, divesting them of their modern
> knowledge, and then studying these bygone days in an attempt really
> to appreciate their true worth, we would lose some of our
> satisfaction with respect to the technical accomplishments of our own
> generation, and be better prepared for advance. At least it is worth
> the attempt.

This is from the introduction to Vannevar Bush's "The Inscrutable 
'Thirties: Reflections Upon a Preposterous Decade", The Technology 
Review 35.4 (January 1933), written tongue-in-cheek as if it were "a 
preprint of a paper that might be found many years hence among the 
literary effects of the present Vice-President of the Massachusetts 
Institute of Technology", or one that might be written by a future VP.

Good advice, no?


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London,;
Editor, Humanist,;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews,

        Date: Thu, 9 Apr 2009 12:49:58 -0300
        From: renata lemos <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.680 the spirit of Humanist
        In-Reply-To: <>

in the spirit of Humanist, i feel compelled to say a few words about o
times, o mores.
from the recent wave of cut backs in the DH field, which seems to be
happening not only in europe but also in the usa, we are forced to
acknowledge that this field is faced with the challenge of "upgrade or die".

let us upgrade. this is the spirit of Humanist.

so i once again make the call for all humanists to look forward.

taking risks is unavoidable right now.

looking forward, leaping ahead, and doing it fast, might be the way to
ensure the very survival of the digital humanities.

in love, light and peace,

renata lemos

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