Friday, September 29, 2017

An Early Akkadian Historical Argument

I have often felt that the initiation rite that Gilgamesh does not pass in Tablet XI of the standard Akkadian version (right after the flood narrative of Utanapishtim) of the Epic is one of the earliest historical arguments that we have (ca 1200BC, from the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh). It is unclear to me whether the older Babylonian versions contained this section.

The context of the story is the challenge that the "Akkadian Noah" Utanapishtim gives to Gilgamesh to show that he is worthy of eternal life; he must not fall asleep for a week. Utanapishtim and his unnamed wife had earlier received, as an exception, immortality from Enlil, because they had overheard the secrets of the Gods; cf. L190ff.
(L198) [Utanapishtim said:] "Now then, who will convene the gods on your behalf,
that you may find the life that you are seeking!
Wait! You must not lie down for six days and seven nights."
soon as he [Gilgamesh] sat down (with his head) between his legs
sleep, like a fog, blew upon him. 
Gilgamesh falls asleep immediately, and Utanapishtim complains to his wife that Gilgamesh failed, but she asks for mercy, that he may wake up and return home. 
(L202) Utanapishtim said to his wife:
"Look there! The man, the youth who wanted (eternal) life!
Sleep, like a fog, blew over him."
His wife said to Utanapishtim the Faraway:
"Touch him, let the man awaken.
Let him return safely by the way he came.
Let him return to his land by the gate through which he left." 
Utanapishtim is concerned that Gilgamesh will deny falling asleep altogether, so he sets up a temporal trap, asking his wife to mark off the days on the wall and place fresh loaves of bread next to him.
(L208) Utanapishtim said to his wife:
"Mankind is deceptive, and will deceive you.
Come, bake loaves for him and keep setting them by his head
and draw on the wall each day that he lay down."
She baked his loaves and placed them by his head
and marked on the wall the day that he lay down.
The first loaf was dessicated,
the second stale, the third moist(?), the fourth turned white,
its ..., the fifth sprouted gray (mold), the sixth is still fresh. [...]"
One suspects that the earlier version had just marks on the wall, and the later version then fixed the fact that the marks show no temporal progression per se, but could be made together. This is independently interesting, if my suspicions are correct.
(L218) The seventh--suddenly he touched him and the man awoke.
Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim:
"The very moment sleep was pouring over me
you touched me and alerted me!"
As Utanapishtim predicted, Gilgamesh tries to deny it by claiming that he ad been sleeping for just a moment (i.e. was not really asleep yet). But the evidence makes that story unsupportable.
(L222) Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
"Look over here, Gilgamesh, count your loaves!
You should be aware of what is marked on the wall!
Your first loaf is dessicated,
the second stale, the third moist, your fourth turned white,
its ...
the fifth sprouted gray (mold), the sixth is still fresh.
The seventh--at that instant you awoke!"
Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim the Faraway:
"O woe! What shall I do, Utanapishtim, where shall I go!
As far as the translation is concerned, the problem is the rotting away of the bread. E.A. Speiser had "soggy" instead of moist.

Colophon: Tablet XI translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, electronic version by Wolf Carnahan, line numbers according to ANECT, 3rd edition with Supplement, (pp.95-96).

Disagreements in Wikipedia

I have been tracking disagreements between articles in Wikipedia for a while now, and just found another nice one (though admittedly one of the articles is a stub). I found this while researching this post. The articles are about the Egyptian Pharao Dejdkare Isesi, specifically his daughters, and the man married to one of them, Senedjemib Mehi, who had finished the tomb that the previous post talked about.

While the stub-article on Senedjemib Mehi identifies his wife Khentkaus as either a daughter of Pharao Djedkare Ikesi or Unas, the successor of Djedkare Ikesi, the article on Djedkare Ikesi writes:
Less certain is the filiation of Kentkhaus III, wife of vizier Senedjemib Mehi, who bore the title of "king's daughter of his body".[75][76] It is debated whether this title indicates a true filiation or if it is only honorary.[76][77]
The fascinating part is that the quote draws upon Brovarski's 2001 work, The Senedjemib Complex, p.30 (= Fn 75),  but so does the stub-article on Mehi!

An Old Egyptian historical Argument

In the autobiographical part of his tomb inscription, Vizier Senedjemib Inti of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, who worked under Pharao Djedkare Isesi, writes:
When it came to pass [Register 4] his majest caused that I be annointed with fat [by the side of his majesty] [Register 5] [Neve]r [was done] the like by the side of the king for anyone. [Register 6] -- James H. Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, Vol 1, #270, p.122.
Given the dating of the Fifth Dynasty, that would put the record between the late 25th and the mid 24th century BC; see here for some of the proposed dates of Djedkare Isesi's reign.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Reactions to Schank

In my previous post,  I reviewed Roger Schank's Tell me a Story, New York (Scribener) 1990 (= NWU Press, 1995) as to the problem of how to construct narratives, what constituent pieces are, and especially how to challenge or critique them. Though in the previous post, I mentioned three examples of analysis by Schank, I mostly focused on Tawana Brawley and on Iran Air Flight 655 getting shot down by the USS Vincennes, leaving Canadian Olympic gold-medalist runner Ben Johnson aside.

In musing over my dialogue with Schank, I wanted to offer some preliminary stabilization of my thoughts in terms of some theses to historiography---especially in the aftermath of the political display of revisionist Southern supremacy history in Charlottesville. Some of these are issues that Schank is concerned about and some of them I do not take him to care about.

  1. Schank is right that story skeletons and their selection form an initial stance on the problem that even leads to the filtering of information or adaptation of memories. In fact, if Schank had the benefit of hindsight that we have, he could have pointed to the US Navy's explanation of scenario confirmation offered to the BBC in 2000 for the precise behavior that his story skeletons had predicted in terms of filtering incoming information.
  2. Schank correctly distinguishes between story, skeleton and gist. The story is the actual production of the human talker, targeting the listener. The skeleton is the summary of the basic telos and gives explanation patterns at hand (more of that probably in Schank's prior book on Explanation Patterns). The gist is the cake mix, to use an analogy from cooking, that can be turned into a variety of cakes that all share a distinct family resemblance. Knowledge about what my current guests like and what I have quickly at hand inform the actual execution.
  3. Schank's skeletons provide an easy ingress into his theory for content analysis. The arguments made and the supports advanced and the information elided (if we can reconstruct it) come from the telos of the skeletons that is truly most like a political stance.

  1. Because Schank does not do much with the evidence/story or fact/narrative distinction (possibly because his biases against expert systems and automated theorem proving), he misses out on the ability to postulate that facts are stories for a subculture that no longer can or wishes to treat these stories narratively. They are as if baked, and questioning them can be interpreted as a violation of the norms of the subculture. Even low level sensor readings have these stories behind them, and this holds true even in particle physics (cf Knorr-Czetina), where the individual detectors in a setup such as the CERN super-collider are attributed 'personality' (in a anaphoric sense) because of their non-interchangeable behaviors. Unlike edible cookies however, facts can be unbaked back into stories if there are anomalies, provided the research data is available. Thus, bad footnotes or page references ghost through the literature until some brave grad-student hunts them down and slays them. For many historical documents, that is not possible, and here the community finds the line drawn for it. 
  2. Schank has no locus for the social role of power in the success of narratives, because he does not distinguish the UN Security Council adequately from a US district court or the admiralty of the US Navy. Schank tries to rope this in while looking at the story expectations, but that is really a small aspect of the problem only. His use of made-up stories or divorcee self-reports is equally ill-suited to discover this, as in the first case everyone knows the story is not real (thus there are no real validity requirement or possibility) while in the second case our culture considers it flat-out rude to question people's divorce narratives. 
  3. Schank is handicapped by his focus on the genre newspaper articles and transcript of psychological experiment. He looks a bit at screenplays as well, but never clarifies how the fictional status of these works interacts with the realistic status of the newspaper article or the emotional stance of the transcribed individual.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What about all these Stories? Rereading Schank

In the aftermath of the civil disturbances of Charlottesville, Michael Eric Dyson wrote in the August 12th, 2017 edition of the New York Times:
Such an ungainly assembly of white supremacists rides herd on political memory. Their resentment of the removal of public symbols of the Confederate past — the genesis of this weekend’s rally — is fueled by revisionist history. They fancy themselves the victims of the so-called politically correct assault on American democracy, a false narrative that helped propel Mr. Trump to victory. Each feeds on the same demented lies about race and justice that corrupt true democracy and erode real liberty.
Dyson then distinguishes between political memories, between revisionist history and other history (proper? academic? he has no name for it, but cites Du Bois), between true and false narratives.

Tools of Story Telling

It is in this context relevant to look at the infrastructure that Roger Schank has identified for story telling (bracketing Schank's occupation with intelligence, however). Because of his particular slant to story analysis, Schank provides a repertoire of narratological tools and distinctions that differ from those in the literary toolkit. (This cuts both ways, Morson argues in the Foreword, missing for example the notion of Genre in Schank's musings, p.xxff.)

Stories are received and generated structures that people label in an attempt to index them, so that they can retrieve them and match them for comparison purposes. People are assisted in story manipulation by story skeletons, which give a basic direction to a narrative, and by the hierarchy of scripts, plans, goals and themes that Schank had identified in his classical work with Robert Abelson (1977). Because stories can be retold in a variety of ways and for various purposes, Schank posits that they are remembered in a different format, the gist, of which the individual retelling is a production. Stories vary by culture and subculture---Schank specifically discusses the French restaurant on the one hand and the teenager Rock fan on the other.

In much of the exposition of the book, and especially in the discussion of the story production and generation, Schank brackets the question of truth. Schank writes as if the intentionality of the stories would make the question of whether the stories are true or not irrelevant or even impossible to answer.

Diplomatic Incidents

Schank uses a diplomatic conflict, the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US Navy warship, the Vincennes, on July 3, 1988, to illustrate the way that the same event is used to make hay for the divergent political positions.
If we construct our own version of truth by reliance upon skeleton stories, two people can know exactly the same facts but construct a story that relays those facts in very different ways. (p.152)
Or even more patronizingly:
The real problem in using skeletons whis way is that the storytellers usually believe what they themselves are saying. Authors construct their own reality by finding the events that fit the skeleton convenient for them to believe. They enter a storytelling situation wanting to tell a certain kind of story and only then worrying about whether || the facts fit onto the bones of the skeleton that they have previously chosen. (p.154f)
Schank then goes on to label the skeletal stories that backed the reactions of the various government as the US using the understandable tragedy (p.152f), Great Britain the justifiability of self-defense (p.153),  Libya insolence and state terrorism (p.154),  and Bahrain justifiable bad effects of war on the aggressor and moral courage (p.155).

So, we can summarize as a first impression that, while Schank will admit that some facts do not fit onto the bones of a skeleton, he is willing to talk about people's own realities and how the skeleton stories are what make up people's notions of truth.
... no matter what happens next, all the viewers of the play [that plays out in the international diplomatic incident, RCK] will retell the story according to the skeletons they have already selected; i.e. they will probably not be moved to reinterpret any new event in terms of some skeleton that they do not already have in mind. (p.158)
So even though the stories dominate to the point of where they shape the memory of the events and the way that future facts will attach to past narrations, there is still something that Schank can call coherence.
One of the oddities of story-based understanding is that people have difficulty making decisions if they know they will have trouble constructing a coherent story to explain their decision. (p.159)
So justificatory stories do have coherence requirements, otherwise they will not properly support the decisions through explanations. Schank goes on to demonstrate this with divorce stories (pp.160ff), which however need not concern us here.

Stories that were Challenged

While there is much plausibility to the fact that political agents have apriori decided how participants will respond to events in the arena that is international diplomacy---theorizing, as Sherlock Holmes would warn us, in advance of the facts (p.159), matters become more complicated when Schank looks at stories that were strongly challenged by agents able to do something about disagreement.

Schank discusses this problem in two examples, in the claimed rape of Tawana Brawley by white supremacists (pp.208ff) and the disqualification of Canadian runner Ben Johnson (pp.210ff) for allegations of doping. However, the larger context is the problem of the cultural and subcultural specificity of stories, and how to acquire that skill (pp.189-218). As a result, the analysis of these stories that were challenged (and ultimately rejected) by authoritative agents come across as situations of choosing bad raw materials for story telling on part of Brawley and Johnson.

Tawana Brawley

... Tawana Brawley ran away for four days, and she needed to tell a story. For her own reasons, she decided not to tell the true story of where she had been, but to invent one instead. (p.209)
It is easy to agree with Schank here, though one has to emphasize that he distinguishes between "true story" and "invend(ed) one" explicitly.

Schank then continues:
When we invent a story in order to mislead people, we try to figure out the story that they want to hear, and we tell it. Children frequently tell a he made me do it story or an it wasn't me that did it story when they are caught having done something wrong. And this kind of story is what Tawana Brawley told too. (p.209)
Again, we are on the same page as Shank here. But then Schank takes a departure that is interesting for the problem of reliability.
Her [Tawana Brawley's, RCK] problem was selecting a believable story. She failed to assess how many listeners would hear her story and failed to understand that what each of them wanted to hear was quite different. (p.209)
Even with the discussion of enculturation into story cultures and subcultures and the difficulties for teenagers to acquire these skills going before (p.208), the turn here is unexpected. The problem according to Schank at this point is not that too many listeners would eventually exhaust Tawana's range of fictional supports, but that they story expectations would eventually exceed her capabilities in some other way.

Schank argues that Brawley picked two basic skeletons, both shockingly realistic in 1980s America ( and as Dyson might remind us, even in 2017), namely young girl is kidnapped and raped as well as young black is victim of racial attack (p.209). Crucially for Schank's argument, the first one comes from the general American culture, and the second one from Brawley's subculture (p.209).
While either of these standard stories is bad enough, the combination of them produced something we can only assume Tawana had not counted on---the match of two types of stories || sought by the news media and black activists. (pp.209f)
Schank then discusses these two groups in turn:
The media looks for horrifying stories involving assaults on especially innocent people. Consequently, Tawana's story matched a skeleton story that news people are always looking to report. (p.210)
Her [i.e. Tawana Brawley's, RCK] story also matched a skeleton story that black activists are always on the lookout for: innocent blacks as easy victims of white officials. She had added that her rapists were state police officers and other officials of her area. The factor, of course, had it been true, should well have caused alarm on the part of the activists. (p.210)
Schank is entirely plausible in identifying the activation patterns for various groups' involvement, and the in arguing that Brawley did not understand how her chosen skeletons meshed with these activation skeletons. But even here, Schank is willing to admit that there are true stories of innocent blacks as victims---"had it been true" (p.210)---that activists should be alarmed by.
Tawana's mistake, apart from fabricating events in the first place, was to invent stories without understanding the standard nature of the stories that others look for. (p.210)
There are a polite and a critical reading to this sentence. The admission, and as an aside only, that "fabricating events in the first place" was a mistake either is Schank's backdoor to admit that the events matter (this is the polite reading) or an indication of his lack of appreciation for how much events matter (the critical reading), i.e. that Brawley's failure to grasp "the standard nature of stories" (p.210) pale to the point of irrelevance in comparison with the need to fabricate facts that could hold up to the scrutiny of multiple organizations.

It is thus with much less agreement than previously, or with a feeling of the emphasis lying on the wrong part, that we head into the description of the role of the standard nature of stories.
Thus, when doctors are handed a rape case or a case of unconsciousness from beating and deprivation, they have certain tests they perform to aid the victim. They also use skeleton stories to understand such cases, and they seek to fit the details of any new story into the familiar story. (p.210)
This  is just an adapted restating of Schank's general epistemology that understanding in humans is story-based.
Similarly, the police know a story about rape, and in the case of Tawana Brawley, they tried to fit the details of her story into theirs. (p.210)
As a result of casting the problem in this way, Schank posits that the police became suspicious because of the mismatch between Tawana's story and their expected story.
For both the doctors and the police, Tawan's story did not agree with the standard stories about rape, and this disparity caused them to question the truth of Tawana's claims. (p.210)
Notice that the whole problem of truth---now however applied to claims, not to facts or events or stories---is admitted and raised by Schank. Yet his conclusion is cast in terms of story skeletons and of subcultures:
Not surprisingly, since she is young and rather unsophisticated, Tawana Brawley failed to understand how to make up a story that matched the ones that the people who were listening to her expected to hear. She did not know the stories of the other subcultures. (p.210)
And almost wistfully, Schank concludes:
Traveling across cultures, it seems, requires the help of a translator. (p.210)
Perhaps a stronger stance that Schank could have taken was to recur on his prior notion of scripts. Tawana failed, because she did not really understand the rape script and the deprivation script, and was therefore unable to tell stories that matched well enough with the script that the doctors and the police officers had for these incidents.

Furthermore, as the New York Times article that Schank quotes (pp.208f) suggests, while the doctors and the police officers took their departure from their questioning the validity of the story, they did not condemn her on that account but used it to find actual evidence that contradicted Tawana's narrative. Notice the use of the word "evidence" in the cited article:
The conclusion that Miss Brawley fabricated her story is supported by ... evidence that she ran away and spent much of the next four days at her former apartment, evidence that she concocted the condition in which she was found, and evidence that she tried to mislead the police, doctors and others about what had happened to her.  --New York Times, September 27, 1988, cited in: Schank 1990, (p.209)
In fact, the article, a two-page spread as Schank admits (p.208), was called "Evidence points to Deceit by Brawley".

Even granted all the usual caveats of the mutual interaction between evidence and narrative, it seems hard to support the stance that for Miss Brawley, the story skeletons did her in. At best they tipped the police off to problems. And the failure in the collection of confirming evidence, which would have been required equally for a court of law, would have done her in just as much as the success in finding fabricated evidence.

Canadian Runner Ben Johnson

Schank of course believes that he has proven that Brawley became entrapped by being unfamiliar with the story expectations. Thus he can use the case of Ben Johnson, a Canadian runner disqualified from the Olympics for doping, as "another case of story misunderstanding" (p.210). 
The story is interesting in this context because the press assumed that everyone who used steroids also knows how to avoid getting caught. (p.211)
Schank's quotes from the NY Times actually do not bear this statement out. It is Dr Voy, the chief medical officer of the US Olympic Committee is the one that is quoted as commenting on the masking know-how in the athletes community.

Schank then goes on to enumerate the stories that Dr Voy, the physician and official, has---to wit: the miscalculate the dose, the screwy system, and the reckless gamble story, the panic to insure victory story and the masking the drug story (p.211)---as well as the stories that Johnson was familiar with---to wit: spiked my drink with drugs and bad lab test (p.211).

The first thing to notice is that Voy's and Johnson's narrative intentions are at odds. None of Dr Voy's stories would have gotten Johnson a pass for testing positive. Indeed, the article gives no examples of stories that Dr Voy would have considered legitimate for a positive testing candidate to continue on as a medal bearer. So Johnson could not have used any of these stories. In fact, all we learn is that the stories Johnson alleged were not part of Dr Voy's repertoire of acceptable excuses; that set may have been empty. If there was no story for Johnson to choose, then Schank's comment, that "in essence, the only thinking we have here is the selection of stories" (p.211), is puzzling in the extreme.


Though Schank at times sounds as if he is flirting with both sides of the relativism divide, this effect is produced partially by sloppy wording and partially by not distinguishing the following points correctly:
  1. Even if skeletal stories are hard to disprove because of their intentionality, which functions as a political stance does, their are notions of quality of match that can lead to not selecting them.
  2. Stories include factual information and can be challenged much more readily along that dimension. Admittedly, facts may themselves be the outcome of stories (a topic that Schank unfortunately bypasses), and facts have some of the same subcultural aspects that Schank identified for the stories (e.g. water-logged dinosaurs supporting a Biblical flood narrative) as to acceptability and validity.
  3. Though it may not be possible to show that some stories are true, it is sufficient to be able to show that some stories are false for historiography to have the ability to stem the flood of politically-charged revisionist history. Tawana Brawley's story for sure and possibly Ben Johnson's story as well (Schank's source material is too terse) are stories that are false, due to the evidence found, not the skeletons chosen.
It is possible that Schank's side-stepping of the question of truth is due to his general goal of moving AI work from theorem proving and expert systems (p.xlii) toward story generation / understanding / summarization and explanation.

If we take a step back and look at the larger sources of information available for the examples that Schank uses, such as the Admiral Fogarty report from August 1988 or the investigative research journalism by the New York Times reporters Robert McFadden et al, Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax, from August 1990,  we get the suspicion that Schank is used in the small forms, such as the newspaper article, not the hundred-plus pages slugfest of details that Fogarty or McFadden and their collaborators provided with.


In an amusing twist, the McFadden's book Outrage, published contemporaneously with Schank's book in 1990, possibly even contradicts the sequence of events claimed by Schank. 
Later, Dr [Alice, RCK] Pena [the emergency room physician, cf. p20, RCK] had her put her feet into stirrups for an examination of the vaginal, rectal and pelvic areas. The examination revealed no cuts, dried blood, bruises, swelling, deep redness, or other indications of injury. There were no signs of trauma to the mouth …. Indeed, the girl’s [Tawana Brawley’s, RCK] teeth were surprisingly clean and her mouth did not even have a bad odor. Dr Pena decided to forego the use of a rape-detection kit, at least for a while. There weren’t enough signs to warrant it …. (p.21)
At this point, with Tawana still giving signs of semi-consciousness (p.17), and had hardly launched into a story of the type that Schank is looking for. Already the initial interaction with the paramedics and the emergency room physician was gathering evidence against the narrative that Tawana was planning or had been told to use.

Bibliographic Record

Roger C. Schank, Tell Me A Story: Narrative and Intelligence,  Evanston, IL (Northwestern University Press), 1995 (= reprint of the 1990 edition published in New York (Scribner), 1990; with a foreword of Gary Saul Morson, from 1995). [Google Book Selections]