Wiener on control versus learning

I’ve seen this quote excerpted in parts before, but not the whole thing:

I repeat, feedback is a method for controlling a system by reinserting into it the results of its past performance. If these results are merely used as numerical data for the criticism of the system and its regulation, we have the simple feedback of the control engineers. If, however, the information which proceeds backward from the performance is able to change the general method and pattern of performance, we have a process which may well be called learning.
– Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings

It is a strange distinction Wiener is trying to make here. First, Wiener tries to make “numerical data” a simple special case, and equates control as the manipulation of numerical data. However, he doesn’t contrast numbers with something else (presumably non-numerical) which can “change the general method and pattern.” Taking it from the other direction, he implies that mere control engineering cannot accomplish “learning.” That is, from numerical data and “criticism of the system” we cannot change how the system works. By Wiener’s lights, pretty much all of the work in mathematical control and machine learning would be classified as control.

I am, of course, missing the context in which Wiener was writing. But I’m not sure what I’m missing. For example, at the time a “control engineer” may have been more of a regulator, so in the first case Wiener may be referring to putting a human in the loop. In the book he makes a distinction between data and algorithms (the “taping”) which has been fuzzed up by computer science. If this distinction leads to drawing a line between control and learning, then is there a distinction between control and learning?


Some interesting stuff has passed my way while being in India (and one or two things from before). Might as well post them before I forget, no?

Slavoj Žižek may be a curmudgeonly Marxist, but the animation helps soften it, I think. I don’t think I fully agree with him, but there’s stuff in there to chew on.

The Purdue anonymization project won a big NSF award.

Tips for tasks related to graduating (h/t Bobak).

Some interesting news about the future of the textbook market. It’s doubly interesting since I am in Pune, a treasure-trove of cheaper editions of technical books.

Apparently I sometimes wear a lab coat.

Joel Stein on Edison, NJ : poor taste (needs more curry?)

Joel Stein has an truly atrocious piece in Time magazine, which opens with

I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.

I can see how Stein is sort of trying to be funny, but the whole piece has a stink (like uncooked hing) about it that got Anna up in arms and Mimosa writing:

But really, what bothers me about this piece, why it didn’t strike me as satire, is that it seems to assume that there really is a dominant narrative out there, i.e. that “white” culture is where it’s at. Assimilation is not an option, it’s a requirement for these rude new aliens – but of course, that assimilation is on the dominant narratives terms.

Klein’s response:

Didn’t meant to insult Indians with my column this week. Also stupidly assumed their emails would follow that Gandhi non-violence thing.

Perhaps he thought the emails would also be curry flavo(u)red?

On that note, here is a quote from Amitava Kumar’s Passport Photos, which I am enjoying right now:

If the word ‘curry’ doesn’t have a stable referent or a fixed origin, how can its changing use by postcolonials be seen as a sign of resistance?

copyright and the ex-avant-garde

Kyle Gann had a rather disturbing revelation about how copyright intersects with scholarship, and in particular scholarship about experimental music:

… you are no longer allowed to quote texts that are entire pieces of art. This means I’ve been trying to get permission simply to refer to Fluxus pieces like La Monte Young’s “This piece is little whirlpools in the middle of the ocean,” and Yoko Ono’s “Listen to the sound of the earth turning.” And of course, Yoko (whom I used to know) isn’t responding, and La Monte is imposing so many requirements and restrictions that I would have to add a new chapter to the book, and so in frustration well past the eleventh hour, I’ve excised the pieces from the text.

Normally, I’d expect the publishing companies to be the most obstructionist, as this commenter said:

Just last week I found out that, even for a thesis that will not be published, Shirmer [sic] now asks money to permit me to reproduce musical excerpts. If I paid every institution (libraries for manuscripts / publishers for printed matter) that holds rights to the excerpts that I need to reproduce to illustrate points and arguments, my dissertation would cost in excess of 15.000US dollars for permissions alone.

Some months ago I was warned that I may not have had the right to TAKE NOTES while studying Cowell manuscripts at the LOC in 1998.

Apparently, however, the artists themselves are also the problem. Way to make yourselves even more irrelevant…

Amardeep Singh responds to “On Yankee Hindutva”

I just wanted to link to Amardeep’s timely post on Vijay Prashad’s analysis of Hindu organizations for desi youth in the US. Two interesting points to me were:

  • Religious practice in the US tends to become more like “going to church” (Amardeep cites Sikhs going to Gurudwara as an example).
  • Shadowy secret global Hindutva conspiracies are strawmen of a sort. The things I’d like to see are concerted challenges and alternative organizations to the VHP-A.

It’s timely because I’m rereading Prashad’s Karma of Brown Folk right now as part of my self-imposed South Asian-American Cultural Studies Bootcamp, sponsored by the UCSD Libaries. More posts on that to come in the future I hope.

Racist “Wild West Tribute” at Ocean Beach

American “artist” Thom Ross has recreated a tableaux of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show on Ocean Beach in San Francisco. This show was the equivalent of blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century but for Native Americans, yet is lauded in the press as a “tribute.” He himself is quoted as calling it a “Valentine to my hometown.” Of course, since Native Americans are such a marginalized population in the US, he can get away with it — life-size plywood figures of Sambo eating his watermelon with the head cut out so you can take a photo would never have made it off the drawing board. So much for cultural sensitivity, San Francisco.

It boggles the mind that such an astoundingly uncritical recreation is put up as a public art project in an ostensibly progressive major city. I’m used to dull things like giant arrows coming out of the ground. But is this art? Does it invite us to think about the image and it context? Does it intend to implicate us by inviting us to take the cutout photo-op because it should leave a dirty taste in our mouths? No. It’s simply a paean to a degrading, exploitative, and racist past. Valentine, indeed.

Here is some more information (pdf), courtesy of mark27. Hat tip to Jen for pointing out the article and the link to the flyer.

p.s. The comments on the Chronicle’s website are equally horrific.

p.p.s. There is some reaction from a show on KPFA.