Now that my Fulbright grant is completed, ITMO University asked me to make a short video about my Digital Humanities research in poetics, butterflies, Nabokov, Turing and reaction diffusion processes to show prospective students what kind of creative learning they might expect to undertake in this interdisciplinary field.
I’ve working on a collection of short stories and essays about artistic creation entitled after a line from Nabokov, “chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower.” The introduction to the collection describes my work as a philosopher of science and literary fiction author and how these two parts of my life are seamlessly interwoven. This month the online and print journal Pangyus offers the introduction in their science section.
My work in science and art has been inspired by Nabokov and the volume will include several Nabokovian stories and essays about Nabokov’s work in lepidoptery. My science is also inspired by Alan Turing, who provided some theories about butterfly wing pattern development that I’ve used in my work on Nabokov’s theory of the evolution of mimicry, and I also need to mention Goethe, who, as the quintessential artist-scientist, plays an important role in all this too. The last story in the volume is a Faustian tale about Turing with Nabokov making a cameo appearance.
I hope you enjoy this piece.
The Strange Recital, Episode 20021
A podcast about fiction that questions the nature of reality.
VNA reads two short stories from her collection, Chance that Mimics Choice. Stay tuned for the interview that follows the stories.
Meno’s Stories is a series of four about a paradoxical scientist who stumbles his way to discovery. This program features “Winter Flies”* and “The Walk.”
*Reproduced by permission from the Antioch Review, Vol. 77, No. 2 (Spring, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by V. N. Alexander.
The Brian Boyd Prize, for the best book of 2016 – 2018 by someone who has previously published a book predominantly on Nabokov.
Awarded to Professor Stephen Blackwell (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Kurt Johnson for Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art (Yale University Press, 2016).
The judges write: ‘The judges for this Prize carefully considered five impressive books on Nabokov published in the last three years by established Nabokov scholars. Each would have made a worthy recipient, but ultimately they chose Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov’s Scientific Art, edited by Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson (Yale University Press, 2016). Being a distinguished lepidopterist as well as one of the twentieth-century’s great novelists, Nabokov is a writer of outstanding interest to all those who care about the complex relationships between science and art. Fine Lines carries the existing work on this subject forward by presenting us with no fewer than 148 of Nabokov butterfly drawings, beautifully reproduced. The elegantly written and intellectually sophisticated introduction, drawing meticulously on a range of sources, sheds new light onto Nabokov’s thought and writing by focusing in particular on the fundamental questions of taxonomy and systematics. The annotations to each drawing are exceptional, providing every context that future students will need to understand what Nabokov was thinking about as he drew his butterflies. Although the Prize is awarded for the quality of the introduction, editorial work, and annotations, the judges note that the volume is enriched by ten excellent essays (by V. N. Alexander, Stephen Blackwell, Brian Boyd, Robert Dirig, Victor Fet, Lauren Lucas et al., James Mallet, Naomi Pierce et al., Robert Michael Pyle, and Dorion Sagan) and a valuable bibliography. Yale University Press also deserve the praise and gratitude of Nabokovians, and of the literary and scientific community more broadly, for having made this beautiful book.
The state of platform cooperativism November 7-9, 2019 at the New School in NYC. Victoria Alexander, director at the Dactyl Foundation and editor of Dactyl Review, will speak on Saturday, Nov 9th about efforts to transform literary fiction publishing using a co-operative platform model. 2:45-4:15PM
The New School, The University Center, Room U304, 3rd Floor, 63 Fifth Avenue, NYC
Around the globe, we are starting to build an alternative economy that benefits the many, not just the few. Our passions, research, and projects challenge platform capitalism and chart a more democratic future. We show that an inclusive economy is not only necessary but already growing among us.
When starting a platform co-op, we have a much better chance at success if we rely on the support of our communities, established co-ops, incubators, co-op banks, unions, foundations, researchers, lawyers, technologists, and policymakers. “Who Owns the World?” is about building connections between these groups, finding the much-needed support, and learning from each other. For the first time, this event will bring together many of the most active players in this movement worldwide to share updates and insights, instigate initiatives, make new friends, lift each other up, plan next steps, and find new business partners as well as funders.
Celebrating 10 years of digital labor conferences at The New School, “Who Owns the World?” will feel the pulse of platform cooperativism, worldwide.
I’ve been working on a collection of short stories called Chance that Mimics Choice. This first story written for the collection, “Winter Flies” is included in the latest issue of the Antioch Review. This story is one of four about a scientist named Meno whose mind gives things and events meanings, sometimes just by putting them side by side or noting a coincidental similarity between two things, and this is how he stumbles on new discoveries and becomes successful, despite his rather sloppy approach to thinking. In short, he overcomes what in Plato is described as “Meno’s Paradox”: Continue reading
On Saturday, June 1st at 12PM, Victoria Alexander will lead a discussion about her novel Locus Amoenus at
Pleasant Valley Free Library
3 Maggiacomo Lane
Pleasant Valley, New York 12569
The event is hosted by the Dutchess County Libertarian Party. Listen to the first chapter of the audiobook, read by Ben Jorgensen, below.
We have been hearing a lot about “fake news” and “propaganda” lately, and it is as important as ever to use our critical thinking skills. But we also need to understand how propaganda works and why it is so difficult to counteract with logic. Propaganda takes advantage of the way our brains function when we are not paying attention. When we are paying attention our analytical skills are engaged. When we are not, our brains go on processing information in a non-analytical way, using what might be called a poetic logic, based mainly upon similarities, coincidental patterns, associations, repetition, and emotion. There are sound biological reasons for this mindless type of processing, which actually helps us learn faster, retain memories longer, and make appropriate decisions without really thinking. In this presentation, we will explore how and why art and poetry may actually be more helpful in developing critical thinking skills. Art also works with the poetic logic of subconscious processing, but does so in a way that is not manipulative, deceptive or dishonest.
Last week Professor Mark Crispin Miller invited me to speak to his culture in media class at NYU about my experiences as an author dealing with the problems of the shrinking book publishing industry and the loss of quality and increased (ensorshlp that followed as a result. I mostly talked about the problems. During my train ride home, I started thinking more about possible solutions.
Publishing involves a product, information, that is unlike any other product; information can be copied and shared. Partly because of this, and partly because information can be a public good, a human right, writers are often expected to work for free or for low pay. The problems of this industry are unique. So must be the solutions. I put together Wish List, that, if implemented, would make my life easier and the reading public smarter. Some things on my list involve nothing less than reorganizing the entire economy or getting society as a whole to change its expectations. But, hey, the first step on the way to a revolution is to imagine how things might be, however impossible such changes may seem from where we stand now. Continue reading
My term as Public Scholar for Humanities NY comes to an end in March. This month will be your last opportunity to get me to come speak to your New York based non-profit group — for FREE! I offer three different talks — on Propaganda, Artificial Intelligence or Insect Mimicry. All three talks have in common the theme that science and art need to be integrated to develop real critical and creative thinking skills. Great for all ages. To book, apply here.
Propaganda & Art: How we think when we aren’t using logic
We have been hearing a lot about “fake news” and “propaganda” lately, and it is as important as ever to use our critical thinking skills. But we also need to understand how propaganda works and why it is so difficult to counteract with logic. Propaganda takes advantage of the way our brains function when we are not paying attention. When we are paying attention our analytical skills are engaged. When we are not, our brains go on processing information in a non-analytical way, using what might be called a poetic logic, based mainly upon similarities, coincidental patterns, associations, repetition, and emotion. There are sound biological reasons for this mindless type of processing, which actually helps us learn faster, retain memories longer, and make appropriate decisions without really thinking.
In this presentation, we will explore how and why art and poetry may actually be more helpful in developing critical thinking skills. Art also works with the poetic logic of subconscious processing, but does so in a way that is not manipulative, deceptive or dishonest.
What Can Art Teach Us About Artificial Intelligence?
Every time we use Google, purchase an item on Amazon, write an email with Gmail, or post something on Facebook, we interact with computer algorithms that adapt to our Internet activity. Apps can translate spoken English sentences into spoken Chinese. “Deep learning” programs find patterns and can help doctors diagnose cancer or help singles find mates. In the court system, judges can use software to analyze patterns in criminal behavior before passing sentences. We call our phones and our weapons “smart,” and all of these advances in technology are said to use artificial “intelligence.”
We may wonder, What is intelligence? What’s the difference, if any, between an organism and a machine that can seek an object, read signs, or identify a pattern? Both can obtain goals, set either by evolution or design. Do organisms and machines use similar methods for learning, classifying, remembering and interpreting? Are animals and people really just organic machines? If so, could science eventually make machines that can learn to make up their own minds as robots do in science fiction? In this presentation, we will talk about some of the differences between the present-day artificial intelligence and biological intelligence. Specifically, we will learn about biologists studying cell signaling who say that even the simplest unit of life can make interpretations in ways that smart machines do not. Animals can take advantage of chance associations, which machines are usually designed to ignore, and machine learning programs are not designed to invent new knowledge–not yet anyway.
Examining smart technologies can inspire us to learn about our own learning processes and help us decide whether or not it’s a good idea to rely on machines to make judgements.
Nabokov’s Unorthodox Theory of Insect Mimicry: why science needs more artists
It’s a commonplace to say that good science requires imagination, yet scientist aren’t really encouraged to read poetry or to take up painting. Maybe they should. This talk will present the example of Vladimir Nabokov, renown Russian-American novelist and butterfly scientist who used his artistic knowledge to understand how evolution can work. He went against the prevailing theories of his day and was attacked for being unscientific, but recently some of his work has been vindicated by DNA analysis, showing that his artistic guesses were amazingly accurate and precise.
Nabokov didn’t think natural selection, a mere proofreader with no real creative powers, could make a butterfly look exactly like a dead leaf, complete with faux fungus spots. He didn’t think natural selection had gradually made the tasty Viceroy species butterfly look like the bitter tasting Monarch, allowing it to survive better. Although he believed that natural selection had shaped many of nature’s forms, he thought the one thing natural selection could not create was mimicry, which could be better explained by other natural mechanisms. This heresy infuriated scientists who thought insect mimics were the best illustration of the gradual powers of selection. More than fifty years later, Nabokov’s genius is finally being recognized. What was it about Nabokov’s way of thinking that allowed him to see what others could not? And how did his understanding of nature inspire his fiction?
This presentation will look at “artistic” versus “scientific” ways of understanding nature. Art and science lovers in the audience will be encouraged to share their experiences in different styles of analysis. We will try to break down the false barrier between the “two cultures” and examine how critical thinking, keen powers of observation, wit, logic, and imagination are necessary for both art and science.
V. N. Alexander, PhD is Public Scholar with Humanities New York. She is a noted researcher in the field of biosemiotics, facilitating interactions between art and science, and a novelist whose most recent work is Locus Amoenus, a political satire set in upstate New York.