Tag Archives: Stag hunt

Back to School

Courtesy of Avoire

Courtesy of Avoire

Across the globe, the New Year is celebrated at different times of year. My own preference is to begin the New Year in September–the date used in the Gregorian, Eastern Orthodox calender; for this is the time when, everywhere, students and teachers alike, are returning back to school. To be sure, on January 1st, I never fail to make New Year resolutions, some of which I actually keep. But in September, I feel differently. Instead of focusing on self-improvement, my expectations run high when the new school year begins. Satiated with all the diverse, lackadaisical, and serendipitous happenings of Summer, I am right up there–at the gate–ready to take off. Enthused and excited, I think: A new year, a new beginning!

I attribute some of these positive aspirations to nostalgia, and my early summers spent at Lake Hawthorne. In mid-August, not long after the brown-eyed susans blossomed, the huckleberries ripened, and the katydids arrived, we would begin to plan for school. It was a memorable event. My mother would drive my sister and I in our old, maroon-colored Dodge to the nearest large town, about forty five minutes away. Wandering along the streets inhabited by white, Victorian buildings, their paint often peeling down the sides, we would shop to buy new outfits for the first day of school. The selection in this rural town was limited to say the least, but we always found something–typically a red/blue plaid dress with a white collar and ruffled sleeves. No matter, it was never the actual style of the dress that was important: Rather, it was its newness, an important symbol that conjured up for me the idea of a a fresh start and a propitious beginning. To accompany the dress, we bought very sensible shoes, the ugly, brown, lace-up type. Then, we would stop by the five-and-ten cent store–now an artifact of antiquity, to be sure–where we would very carefully finger through and select from among the wide array of three-ringed notebooks, paper, and pens. I hesitated, convinced that my choice of which items to buy would determine my academic success. Best of all, before driving home, we would visit the local luncheonette, where we sat at the counter, and slowly savored an ice cream soda. Back at the lake, I imagined myself on the first day of school, dressed in my new outfit, and armed with my ‘lucky’, hand-selected writing implements. A renewed sense of confidence came over me. I knew that I would not be shy on that first day. No, I would be thrilled to see my old friends; glad to make new ones; and–in those brown shoes–start off on the right foot with my new teacher.

More than fifty summers later, it is that time again. Time to get ready for a new academic year. Already I have noticed recent graduates stopping by the office to catch up and say their final goodbyes; new students visiting in search of housing and perhaps to reassure themselves that their investments in the CCT Program will payoff; faculty straying back from out of town with tales of their summer exploits, and, of course, the book store nagging faculty to turn in their book orders. Refreshed and stimulated by my month-long vacation, I am eager to start. However, just as I did as a youth, I follow some rituals. First, I prime my pump, putting all my recent reading materials on the floor, and slowly savoring each. Each book has become a part of me, a new window through which I can look at the world. But, my attachment to all these books constitutes a major problem for me as well: how will I ever decide what books I should assign, and which I should leave out? Without a doubt, I will include The Stag Hunt, and for sure, Epstein’s introductory chapter in Generative Social Science.. Likewise, in my discussions on networks and emergence, I will use Paul Pierson’s Politics in Time and Beinhocker’s wonderful book, The Creation of Wealth. As part of this sorting process, I fiddle, and faddle, and fiddle some more, changing the reading assignments, the sequence of classes, and even the style of the font. Having become a convert to blogging, I also integrate an on-line component into my courses. Eventually, I am satisfied–I think I have it right.

Then, before going home, I check out Howard Rheingold’s blog, and look at his syllabi posted there. In one, he includes a short film clip, produced by Michael Wesch and his students at the University of Kansas. Entitled A Vision of Students Today, the film takes me aback. It all too compellingly coveys how our traditional teaching styles are less and less relevant in today’s digital environment. I stop. I pause. Tomorrow, I determine, I will revisit my syllabus, taking this film into account. In the meantime, and just to be on the safe side, I will stop at the store on my way home, and buy a new outfit to wear on the first day of school.

A Froggy Goes A-Courting

Bull Frog, courtesy dbarronoss on FlickrIn Washington, D.C., I am often awakened by the shrieking sounds of sirens, as police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances go racing past my house and down my street. But here, at Lake Hawthorne, it is the sounds of frogs — Bull Frogs to be exact — that interrupt my nightly reveries. Some say that it is chirping, but I perceive the Bull Frogs’ vocal chorus more like “plink-plunk,” as in the cello’s pizzicato notes that adorn some of Beethoven’s chamber music. Except for their mysterious, and thankfully temporary, disappearance several years ago — the Bull Frogs, together with many amphibians all across the States, constitute an eternal feature of The Lake. Thus, as is true for other aspects of my surroundings here, I have tended to take them for granted. No longer! Reading Skyrms’ The Stag Hunt, I have been inspired to ponder them, or in Jim Rosenau’s words, “to think about them thoroughly.”

Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions.

Recall that the Stag Hunt is all about cooperation, and how it might emerge and be maintained, notwithstanding that, at the individual level, non-cooperation will likely have a higher pay-off. Here we have a major social dilemma; for, although the individual may gain in such a case, society as a whole loses. Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions. As importantly — pointing to many human experiments and computer simulations — Skyrms notes that signaling systems are in equilibrium (in other words self-enforcing) in nature; hence, alternative strategies just don’t survive the evolutionary process. No wonder, then, that this kind of cooperation can be observed all around us, especially in the biological world. Thus, we find that cells merge together to create organisms; mouth bacteria join together in a community to form plaque; and myxococcis xantus aggregate themselves in mounds so as to survive food shortages. When, and how, these life forms alter their behaviors — often described as a phase transition — depends on timing and the specific situation in which they are located, as well as the types of messages that they exchange. 

At Lake Hawthorne, with Skryms’ discussion in mind, I am not only awakened by the Bull Frogs, I typically spend the next few hours, after their first “plink-plunk,” contemplating their sounds and signals. Imagining the contours in the lake’s circumference, and imaging the sequence of coves, I wonder which frogs are making what signals, where? I ask myself: What messages are they communicating? Do their different pitches signal a different message? According to my subsequent Google search, Bull Frogs communicate in order to stake out their territories, or to attract a mate and reproduce — certainly one form of cooperation. That the Bull Frogs signaling system is effective in this latter regard is verified to the extent that, according to my Google sources, female Bull Frogs — on connecting up with a Bull male — produce up to 25,000 eggs. This number assures their survival, even if, as my dog Sparky is wont to do, intruders constantly dive into the frogs’ habitat, seeking to satisfy their own curiosity about the sounds and signals.

There is another way in which The Stag Hunt is relevant to my experiences with frogs at Lake Hawthorne. As young adults, my cohorts and I initiated one more yearly tradition — the Frog Jumping Contest. It was held on the Fourth of July. To enter, and capture a contestant, we had to organize a “stag hunt.” In our little cooperative venture, one person rowed the boat, one held the flashlight, and two got in the muck (along with the leeches) to net the frog. The pay-off was having fun. In those days, we called it a “blast.” But one night, after searching all the coves, and getting all mucked up, we had little to show for our efforts — a smallish frog, no more that four inches in length. Perhaps we were over-zealous, but in our merriment, we decided to substitute our frog for a larger frog that our friends — who were also competing in the Jump — had sequestered that evening in their bathtub. Stealthily sneaking into their house, and switching our frog for theirs, was every bit as challenging, not to say entertaining, as the hunt itself. But in the morning, it didn’t seem so funny: our friends, viewing us as “defectors” who had broken the rules of the game, were no longer enthusiastic about the Jump. Understandably, there were few subsequent jumping contests after that night. And it was soon thereafter that the frogs just disappeared. My mother, who loved the frogs, said it was the fault of Frog Hunts. Post-Skyrms, I think that she might have been right — too many intruders disrupting their life cycle, or, better yet, their signaling system.