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Humanist Archives: May 2, 2020, 8:55 a.m. Humanist 33.815 - on the uses of arithmetic

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 815.
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    [1]    From: Jim Rovira 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic (99)

    [2]    From: David Zeitlyn 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic (43)

    [3]    From: David Hoover 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic (26)

    [4]    From: Nathaniel Bobbitt 
           Subject: Uses of arithmetic  (159)

    [5]    From: Tim Smithers 
           Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic (50)

        Date: 2020-05-02 00:14:38+00:00
        From: Jim Rovira 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic

Much appreciation for Peter Boot's response to the review of the Plague. I
agree with his ideas, but I think his reply to the quoted text is a bit
misrepresentative of the full quotation.

If all that had been said was,

"Mathematics flattens. It is a killing art..."

and the author stopped there, then I would certainly agree with Peter's
response fully. But it went on. The specific point was not the ridiculous
generality about mathematics implied by the first two sentences, but
specifically about the activity of objectifying human beings by reducing
them to a number. The very next sentence establishes this context:

"Counting humans, alive or dead..."

The problem is not with mathematics itself in some general sense, but with
quantifying human beings and treating them as objects by doing so. Rose is
not treating mathematics in a general sense but discussing it within a
narrow context.

But then the author goes on -- after defining the context for these
comments as quantifying human beings, not mathematics itself, this initial
claim is qualified:

"Of course counting can also mean the exact opposite."

So the author is willing to consider that even the act of counting human
beings can affirm human dignity and importance.

The author is not writing about mathematics at all, but about applying a
certain kind of reasoning to human beings using mathematics as a synecdoche
for that kind of reasoning.

Jim R

> Dear Willard, and all,
> You ask for comments about two paragraphs in Rose's review of The Plague. I
> start with the second one:
> > Mathematics flattens. It is a killing art. Counting humans, alive or
> > dead, means you have entered a world of abstraction, the first sign
> > that things have taken a desperate turn. Of course counting can also
> > mean the exact opposite. If someone counts, they matter, with the
> > further implication that they can be held answerable for their own
> > deeds. Not to count, on the other hand, is to be overlooked or
> > invisible..
> Now, it is clear that there is absolutely nothing in mathematics that is
> 'killing'. That is merely a personal association from someone with an
> overgeneralizing mind. There is nothing in abstraction that signals that
> 'things
> have taken a desperate turn'. On the contrary, abstraction, and more
> specifically mathematics, is a wonderful tool and an enriching way of
> looking at
> people and at the world, in any situation. Things take a desperate turn
> when a
> president with utter disregard for science advises people to inject
> disinfectants and half a country continues to applaud him. Mathematics,
> like
> everything else in the world, doesn't mean anything by itself. The idea
> that it
> should be killing or flattening or a sign of desperation is ludicrous.
> I write this as a mathematician, but also as a citizen. In the first
> paragraph
> Rose describes, without any justification, the counts many of us follow as
> 'a
> doomed attempt at omnipotence'. Omnipotence indeed! Everyone knows that
> these
> numbers have serious limitations. No-one believes that any single number
> can
> clearly show how to proceed in the emergency. But it is surely
> irresponsible to
> disregard them, and to attack them as a delusion is to ally yourself with
> the
> irresponsible. There is also a cheap remark about government incompetence,
> just
> as if, if Rose had had her way, Corona would have been eradicated. As we
> know,
> there are singularly incompentent governments but most of them are just
> struggling with a new and unforeseen situation. How could it be otherwise?
> As a digital humanist, I am surprised by the suggestion that Rose's
> thoughts
> should have relevance for our own 'number juggling'. To me, she sounds
> like our
> detractors, people who have no sense for numbers, who do not care for
> patterns,
> and who, as I see it, don't really care about an empirically grounded
> understanding of (in her case) the pandemic, or (in our case) human
> culture .
> Best wishes,
> Peter Boot

        Date: 2020-05-01 14:49:07+00:00
        From: David Zeitlyn 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic

Dear all

On other ways of doing arithmetic see

Verran, Helen. 1999. "Staying true to the laughter in Nigerian
classrooms." In Actor Network Theory and after. Sociological review
monograph, edited by John Law and John Hassard, 136-55. London:
Blackwells and The Sociological Review.
---. 2001. Science and an African logic. Chicago: University of Chicago


David Zeitlyn,

Professor of Social Anthropology (research). ORCID: 0000-0001-5853-7351

Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, School of Anthropology and Museum
University of Oxford, 51 Banbury Road, Oxford, OX2 6PF, UK.
http://www.mambila.info/ The Virtual Institute of Mambila Studies

2020 Monograph:
Mambila Divination: Framing Questions, Constructing Answers (Routledge Studies
in Anthropology)
London: Routledge.  ISBN 9780367199500

A paper on the intellectual genealogy of primatologists: "Perception, prestige
and PageRank"
     David Zeitlyn, Daniel W. Hook | published 28 May 2019 PLOS ONE
    Online vizualisation https://livedataoxford.shinyapps.io/DavidZeitlyn/

Oct 2015 open access paper 'Looking Forward, Looking Back'

Vestiges: Traces of Record http://www.vestiges-journal.info/ Open Access Journal

        Date: 2020-05-01 13:30:00+00:00
        From: David Hoover 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic

On the issue of counting, numbers, and arithmetic, consider the ability of
Alex, an African Grey parrot, to understand numbers at least up to 6,
apparently along with the concept of "none." It's uncertain whether Alex
counts objects when asked, for example, how many of a collection of objects
are green or wood, or whether he may be able to subitize numbers as large
as six (recognize the number of items without counting).

Pepperberg's studies of the cognitive abilities of grey parrots is, I
think, the most important research on non-human cognition, largely because
parrots' brains are the size of a walnut and their evolutionary path is so
radically divergent from ours. *The Alex Studies* will blow your mind.

On Alex's numeric abilities, see the following:

 David L. Hoover, Professor of English  NYU Eng. Dept. 212-998-8832

   "There is no nonsense so arrant that it cannot be made the creed
    of the vast majority by adequate governmental action."
          -- Bertrand Russell, "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish"

        Date: 2020-05-01 10:38:47+00:00
        From: Nathaniel Bobbitt 
        Subject: Uses of arithmetic 


On an Elgar score "Noblemente does not tell how to create that feeling. One
may feel very noblemente, but how do you make it? (The only thing to be held
onto) how to create the sound to make that feeling." Jaqueline du Pré

RE: the metaphor the hand and counting.

I have been working on: the hand and computation using finger pairs, the
deformation of the violinist's hand, and the neuromotor programming (thanks to
the violin note playing) I looked up Jacqueline Rose's book.

I was game to look at the thread on uses of arithmetic when I saw "pointing
the finger".

 What I see in the review on Rose's book is far from my own (near completed)
"Notes on the Etiquette of the Hand." The followup to the 'Etiquette of
the Hand' a more detailed account on the hand and computation with the case of
brain-brain shared work with duets in string quartets.

How different is Rose's use of 'the pointing finger' and my study on
'paired fingers' in biological movement?

'Pointing the finger' is a metaphor to get at a representation of
relationships... plague, Camus ... mounting face of mortality COVID-19.

As a clinician I have found severe cases of autism where children did not have
language (reception or expression). More generally I found in these cases an
inability to orient themselves in tool-use. The topic emerged 'tools orienting
to the biology one brings: expert user, disabled, and skill acquisition.'
Motivated by this observation and time spent in a nanoscience lab where they
used tissue engineering's 3-way matrix to develop 'body on the chip.' I
devised a protocol to bioengineer sensors based on observations informed by
translational knowledge. The following highlights some observations on the hand
and computation.

The role of neuroscience in music (performance assessment and composition) is a
special case to address tool-use... 'tools orienting the biology one
brings.' This line of observation draws on multimodal conditions evident in
music: music > acoustics > biomechanics > neurophysiology.

'Paired fingers' provide the foundation for a system of 'rule detection'
hidden within musical note playing, that is, transitions in the violinist's
left hand's stretching and reaching. Additionally, this points to: (1)
'where computation occurs?'; (2) biological phenomena (excitable boundary
systems) vs. representational systems (Turing Machine); and, (3) anthropometry
(eye charts and eye glasses) missing in smart systems, that is, absence of
metrics for biological personalization in motor function.

The basic question hovers:

Why 'not' piggyback on existing computational infrastructure (computational

There are gaps in the granular computation and multiscale computation in
research (behavioral or manual) due to the absence of translational knowledge
and the use of planetary geometry (Newton-Lagrange) to describe biological

Currently, hand movement is understood as puppetry without proprioception and a
link between multi-functional circuitry and moving members. While our visual
technology makes no difference between backward and forward movement unlike
Chalfie et al. pioneering research.

The violin offers a stretching or reaching (unlike the piano or other
instruments)... an elasticity with coordinated movement between 'finger
pairs.' The shifts in violin performance touch upon:

finger anticipation > 1:1 (actuation | tone production).

The neural function in violinists contrasts with the pianists or a non-
musician's neural plasticity in hand movement. We will see?

Key in the observations above is an 'under-used' capacity... as long as the
hand is not driven to work in paired finger patterns.

One can quickly gain the neural capacity of the violinist. But, our mechanistic
tools (biologically neutral) eclipse the use of the hand's plasticity without
the elastic (stretching or reaching) evident in the violinist's (note playing)
left hand.

Meanwhile, the knitter's knitting hands or the Asian midwife's massage
suggest further examples of touch and plasticity awaiting study. The use of
Qigong massage in ASD research and Tiffany Field's work on touch in premature
infants with low birth weight suggests a relationship between touch and manual
movement. The link between indigenous systems on touch and translational
knowledge extend Stiles' seminal work on the principle of brain development.

The case of coordinated finger elasticity (stretching or reaching) signals a
plasticity. Critical to this observation is the transition pairs
{(from-,evacuation) | (to-, entry)} evident in violinist note playing. This runs
counter to goal-oriented research since Jeannerod.

There are some specifications to avoid the acculturation and roadblocks within
conventional view of the hand (eg Michaelangelo's creation touching fingers or
the current updated telegraphic clicks since Edison).

The hand is a self-referencing organization. The hand shows motion between
voluntary motor function and involuntary (joint chains) in the fingers. Without
the need of spatial plots the deformation of shapes in the hand (fingers) tells
a story on neuromotor control (programming):

a system of granular indexing of behaviors drills-down into multiscale

Unlike Rose's metaphorical pointing the finger (rhetorical gesture) the
'paired finger' addresses the biology one brings under the skin and
Deleuze's intensity of difference (Difference and Repetition). The self-
referencing of the hand follows marking the shape in a violinist's series of
movements. What Hadder-Algra recognizes as repertoire and sequelae in
neurological assessments of general movement in infants only touches the

What these observations lead to is a methodical wearable sensing to further
understand the plasticity in fingers unlike toes. The path from the palmar
reflex in infants to the plasticity (abilities or disabilities) in adults
warrants more than 'the now' framed in photography by Muybridge or Frank and
Lilian Gilbreth.

The hand as a universal member (with innervated skin) suggests an 'under-used

Look at cups, scissors, door knobs, toilet handles, pens, all kinds of manual
instruments. Each device frames how the hand works. But the hand's capacity
and flexibility goes under-used. The personalization of the hand's mobility in
its plasticity (neuromotor) and its elasticity (the pair finger patterns
adduction or abduction) remains 'unexplored' but 'experienced' by
violinists (bowed instrumentalists).

In the violinist the capacity of paired fingers is processed but undocumented.
The case of the music prodigy is misinformed as the link between reflexology in
neonates and the plasticity of skilled abilities is overshadowed by the novelty-
envy of an adult capacity in a child's body.

The computational importance of the hand signals limitations in: tool-use,
theories on prehensile grip, and as an adaptive feature in evolutionary trees.

Soon I will share a systematic paper on the issue of direct biological interface
with a method to conduct granular indexing of paired finger patterns. The
purpose and method for tools orienting to our biology signals a system of
wearables based on translational knowledge.

The closer one comes to tool-use orienting to the biology one brings... the
closer society comes to the states unobserved by existing technology.

In this time when things are slowed down there is an opportunity to recognize
the promise of rebuilding... from the ground-up to mark difference with greater
personalization on biological grounds.

As things reopen there remains a gateway for communication in cases where tool-
use orients to what one brings under the skin rather than the struggling child
unable to orient to the boundaries of a mechanistic (biologically neutral)

I look for reviewers and collaboration opportunities.

Sent from my iPhone

        Date: 2020-05-01 08:29:06+00:00
        From: Tim Smithers 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 33.813: on the uses of arithmetic

Dear Peter,

Thank you for your clear and calm response to Willard's
Jacqueline Rose provocation.  "Mathematics flattens.  It is
killing art."  Nonsense.  Surely?

One way, I think, of understanding "mathematics" is that it is
the language we use to discover, describe, talk about, think
about, work with, understand, know about, ...  patterns.  Some
may prefer languages here, not just one, but I like the idea
that mathematics is a language of many dialects, some close,
some distant, but still related, albeit in ways we don't yet
know or understand.  Doing mathematics is an art, just as much
as doing painting is an art, and, perhaps, doing
psychoanalysis is an art too.

Doing arithmetic -- doing operations on numbers -- which is
what Rose seems to be talking about in the quoted passage, is
only a part of mathematics, and just because some do things
with numbers with little regard for what these numbers can
really be used to tell us, does not provide a fair basis for
condemning all of mathematics.  It doesn't provide a
justification for condemning arithmetic either.  The doing of
good arithmetic doesn't kill any art.

To confuse, apparently deliberately, the "to count" of
counting things and the "to count" of being important, seems
to me to be yet more emotionally over the top -- way over the
top -- stamping of a foot here.  Signs of covid-19 stress,

More from the outside than you, I would say one thing the
Digital Humanities bring to the Humanities, beyond what [let's
call it] the more traditional Humanities bring, is the careful
and proper use of numbers to build new kinds of knowledge and
understanding, and sometimes stronger ways of knowing and
understanding.  This, as you know, takes careful art.

People who have no sense of numbers aren't people who can't do
arithmetic.  They are people who fail to always ask for and
want to know what is the story behind each and every number,
about where it came from, how it was arrived at, what can be
sensibly and properly done with it, ...  Isn't this like what
people who use written and spoken (Natural) languages and work
more with texts would say about words?

Best regards,


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