December 10th, 2013 by Wil
I came across this recent L.A. Times aarticle on the sentencing of Bob Filner, the disgraced Mayor of my city, San Diego. (Filner, as you likely know, was dethroned after it was revealed that he sexually harassed numerous women.)
Hello probation. Goodbye dignity.
Monday’s coda to the career implosion of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is yet another cautionary tale for powerful men: You could end up like Filner, jobless and disgraced, with your deepest secrets laid out in the cold, precise language of a probation officer’s report.
Obviously my curiosity is piqued. Deepest secrets? What could they be? He had a stash of midget porn? He dressed as a woman? He was the one person who watched the new Seth MacFarlane sitcom “Dads”?
What the probation report also details are very private issues: He recently underwent a root canal and broke a finger on his left hand. He is seeing a doctor for interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome. He is seeing a psychologist, as well as a psychiatrist. And he takes half a dozen prescription medications, including two (Lexapro and Buspirone) that are often used to treat anxiety and one (Lamictal) that is used as a mood stabilizer.
Wow… a root canal. Way to embarrassing him L.A. Times. And IBS. And cystitis, whatever the fuck that is.
Of course the rest of it is somewhat interesting though hardly qualifies as deep secrets. Filner was on a variety and anti-depressants and seeing shrinks. Just like about 30% of the western world.
But this opens up an interesting question. If Filner is “funny in the head” can he be held accountable for his actions? If something in his neural wiring is off, is “he” responsible for what he did?
Nobody likes these questions of course. With Filner we all get something we want – a public figure we can unabashedly hate. To imply that he might be sick, not evil, takes away our righteous anger.
Nonetheless, I submit that asking these questions would have made for a more interesting article that a rather flaccid reveal of somebody’s dirty laundry.
December 8th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve been reading a book I’ve been interested in for some time: “The Mind’s I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul.” The subject is probably obvious from the title. Within its pages I came across an very thought provoking line of inquiry.
First, let’s consider the “conventional” view of consciousness. The idea is that we have all these brain neurons – tens of billions of them – connected to each other by their arms and legs (or more correctly dendrites and axons.) They send signals to one another and somehow, out of this mass of connecting wires, arrives consciousness. This is largely the premise of the book “Connectome” which I discussed on these very pages.
Let’s apply a thought experiment. Suppose you take a person’s brain and tease apart all the neurons from each other. You put each neuron in its own nutrient bath (to keep it alive) and you fix some kind of radio transmitter on each of its inputs and outputs (e.g. arms and legs.) Each neuron can now pass signals to all its fellows as it did before, only now it’s using these transmitters. (This is technically impossible but go with me on this.) Is it reasonable to conclude that this brain is still conscious? Maybe, though something seems off.
Let’s get even crazier. Lets say we observe that a particular experience – eating a cheese sandwich – causes the neurons to fire in a very precise order (as it almost certainly would.) Then, instead of placing radio transmitters on each neuron, we place little pulse devices that can zap each neuron just like a brain signal. At this point we should be able to activate (in this brain) the experience of eating a cheese sandwich just by zapping the neurons in exactly the same order (and same speed) they would be zapped during a “real” sandwich eating experience. But would our brain – a bunch of neurons lying in separate chemical baths, not even connected to each other but receiving zaps from pulse devices – be conscious? It seems hard to believe it would. What is binding these neurons together?
I can think of several possible conclusions from all this.
1) Dualists and spiritualists are right: there is an immaterial soul. Something that takes all that neural processing and in some way interprets it as a conscious experience. Of course, this is just taking one mystery – how does the brain work? – and replacing it with another – how does the soul work? (You could exchange the word “soul” with “mind” and make the same point.)
2) There’s some missing part to the connectome theory – some strange property that emerges out of complex systems like the brain, or dark matter, or weird laws of quantum physics, who knows what. This sort of thing is what I believe the quantum consciousness movement advocates.
3) Separate strands of unconnected brain tissue CAN be conscious. Maybe all sorts of weird complex systems can. Maybe clouds are conscious! Computers! The universe!
4) This one is hard to really put into words but I like it. We are presuming the brain has to correlate to this thing we call consciousness but we have never really defined consciousness. Maybe we aren’t really conscious at all? Maybe it’s just some kind of illusion? (But don’t we need to be conscious to be fooled by an illusion? Like I said, this one is tricky.)
December 2nd, 2013 by Wil
Most people are somewhat familiar with Photoshop, the image editing program that has turbo charged the graphic design industry. And I think most people are generally aware that Photoshop has what are called “filters”—tools with which one can take an ordinary photograph and turn it into a blurry, Monet style painting, or a pointillist masterpiece, or a piece of pop art a la Lichtenstein. Here, for example, is an example of a filter that gives an image a black and white comic book effect.
How these filters work is a bit beyond me but one can assume the processes are tailor made for computation. To consider one example, if we realize that a color’s saturation level can be assigned a number, we then realize that to make an image desaturated (in the style of a water color painting) we could create a computational rule like: for each pixel with a saturation value higher than [some threshold number], set that pixel’s saturation to -20 below its current value. Repeat until it’s below the threshold.
So computation and filters have radically affected what’s possible with visual art. It struck me today, why hasn’t this happened with music?
To some degree it has. With MIDI manipulation software, it’s quite easy to swap one synth sound out for another—to make what was initially a trumpet sound like a xylophone, for example. (I find in practice, however, it’s not quite so simple, as how you play a part is dependent in the timbre feedback you get while you play it. When swapping instruments I sometimes have to redo the part.)
You can also easily modulate a piece of music to a new key, so that a piece written in the key of A# can be moved up to C.
But it strikes me that there’s a number of other ways one could use computation tools to make music creation easier. All of the following commands are the kinds of things I would like to be able to request in a program such as Garage Band. I’m using musical terms here that may not be familiar to non-musicians, but I’ll try to keep it simple.
- Take all the block chords in the selection and turn them into 8th note arpeggios.
- Harmonize this melody line in thirds.
- Take my harmony and render it in the style of a ragtime piano. (I think this actually can be accomplished via the software “Band in a Box.”)
- Take all the instances of a minor chord that precedes a chord a fourth away and change them into dominant 7th chords. (This would have the effect of “jazzing up” the sound of a song. I vi ii V7 would become I VI7 II7 V&.)
These are all “surface level” examples – I can think of plenty of filter ideas that would apply on a more granular level.
My point being that this sort of thing is eminently possible; indeed, it has been for years. Maybe it’s out there and I’m unaware of it, but that would surprise me.
This would of course make the production of music much* easier, and enable the exploration of creative ideas with much less effort. That said, it’s valid concern that this might make the world of music much worse, creating an mob of middling Mozarts who could render listenable but fundamentally undisciplined music. (I would likely fall into this group.) It’s reasonable to argue that the path to compositional virtuosity should require a degree of effort to travel. But these concerns are exactly the sort of thing I think we’re going to be confronting soon enough anyway.
*I originally mistyped this word as “mush” which is ironic since such software tools might result in a lot of musical mush.
December 1st, 2013 by Wil
Towards the end of Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not a Gadget” he talks of the technology that he’s most famous for: virtual reality. He worked on it quite a while ago, back when VR essentially consisted of strapping on goggles and seeing a wireframe alternate reality (a bit like early first person shooter video games I suppose.) But while experimenting with VR Lanier noticed something interesting—he could redefine his body in the VR world in some dramatic way, but it wasn’t difficult for his brain to master this new form. In the book, he describes one of his hands becoming very big and, at another time, adding on extra mini-arms and becoming a VR human lobster. He describes this a bit here:
I had the experience of my arm suddenly becoming very large, because of a glitch in the software, and yet still being able to pick things up, even though my body was different. And that sensation of being able to alter your body is different from anything else. I mean, it’s almost like a whole new theater of human experience opens up.
I find this notion that the human brain can easily adapt to new body formation interesting but not all that surprising. The neuroscientist Miguel Nicolellis, who’s working on connecting paralyzed people to robotic body parts, talked quite a bit about this in his book “Beyond Boundaries.” He’s connected monkeys to fake legs and the monkeys “get it” pretty quickly. It’s another example of the plasticity of the brain.
So now I’m going to get a little out there. On Thanksgiving I was lying around listening to some music (Grieg, not that it really matters.) and I started thinking. Lanier’s point seems to be that people can easily adapt to sensations coming from virtual body parts. They easily accept that “I’m feeling a sensation on my giant thumb” for example. As such, we should be able to easily inhabit new forms. But do those forms have to be physical, e.g. body shapes of some type? Can we enter forms made of of things like sound? Music, for example? While thinking about this, I made a basic effort to “become” the music I was listening to. And I did have a certain oddball glimmer of a sense that my interpretation of the music changed from something I was listening to to something that I was. Like a part of my consciousness entered the “shape” of the music.
This was not a mind bending experience; it was merely a slight change of how I viewed the world, not unlike saying, “I wonder what it would like to be that guy over there” (except in this case the guy was music.) And I recognize that I don’t totally understand the experience and probably couldn’t capture it into words even if I did. (It does remind me of the time I “became” water.)
Maybe it works something like this. We tickle our ear and we understand that this sensory experience is something that we are doing to ourselves. But we listen to music or see a plane crash into a mountain and we understand that to be something we have no control of, events caused by a foreign entity (e.g. the cd player playing the music or the idiot pilot.) But what if we change our conception to be that the cause of these events is us (in the same way Lanier in his virtual environment accepted the giant had to be his.) Do we not then, in some way, become something we are not?
December 1st, 2013 by Wil
I’ve spent quite a bit of time here arguing that technologically enabled fast paced communication (e.g. email, twitter, texting, facebook etc.) has had the effect of making us easily distractible, constantly searching for the next “hit” of information. But this op-ed piece by the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” makes an good point: being easily distracted was our natural state for a long time.
Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.
It was only after we achieved levels of relative peace and security that we could focus in on things. It would not surprise me if the distracting presence of the interweb completely rolls back tens of thousands of years of human progress within a generation
November 26th, 2013 by Wil
Over at Andrew Sullivan’s site, a reader writes in to condemn the phrase “sucks” (as in “this sucks” or “you suck”) as being homophobic. His allegation is that the phrase refers to the sucking of a penis which is a common homosexual act and therefore, by the logic of the insult, homosexuality itself is being condemned.
There’s probably something to this and the same could be applied to the term “blows” (like “this restaurant blows, man!”) But of course not only gay men suck or blow; heterosexual women have been known to engage in the practice. (Thanks gals!)
But I think there’s more to the story. Let’s consider the mother of all swear expressions: fuck. Like “you’re fucked” or “fuck you!” (We can also consider fuck’s lesser cousin, “screw.”) Fucking is not a behavior limited to homosexual men. But the term is considered pejorative. So what do fucking, sucking and blowing all have in common? A person on one side of the equation is being penetrated. Some orifice of their personhood is being violated. They have lost control of or ceded the limits of their body. It’s this logic that ultimately drives the insult value of these terms, and I even made this case while explaining the titling of my article “Dean Koontz Can Blow Me!!!”
Who or what can be a target of an “…Can Blow Me” article? Anyone really… Obviously this is not meant to be literal… The “…Can Blow Me” concept is based on the simple premise that during the fellatio, the “blower” is subservient to the “blowee.”
Now we can argue who is really subservient to who during these sex acts. I’m sure more than one guy in history has literally begged his partner for a blow job. But you get the point.
Interestingly, I just came across a section in Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” that relates to this. He makes the point that there may be a correlation between how we interpret language and how we we interpret smells. He first notes that there are two kinds of smells. There’s general smells, like a daisy or old books, then there’s pheromones: “strong odors given off by other animals (usually of the same species), typically related to fear or mating.” He continues…
Language offers an interesting parallel. In addition to the normal language we all use to describe objects and activities, we reserve a special language to express extreme emotion or displeasure, to warn others to watch out or get attention. This language is called swearing.
There are specific neural pathways associated with this type of speech; some Tourette‟s patients, for instance, are known to swear uncontrollably. And it‟s hard to overlook the many swear words that are related to orifices or activities that also emit pheremonic olfactory signals. Could there be a deeper connection between these two channels of “obscenity”?
Could phrases like “suck,” “blow,” “fuck,” “screw,” “cunt,” “twat,” “asshole,” “balls,” “ballsack,” “dick,” “cock” etc. have strong emotional connotations because they are connected to powerful, pheromone related smells?
November 24th, 2013 by Wil
I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” a tome that bemoans (or should I say “a bemoaning tome”) the free economy which has overtaking music, much of writing (you aren’t paying for this blog post, for example) and possibly soon, movies. Last night I dug up some of Lanier’s various TV appearances on you tube. (I did not pay to view them of course.)
Fundamentally Lanier is getting at the question of how we valuate things. Obviously we’ve long used markets to do so, though they have always been affected by external manipulations e.g. tariffs, price setting, caps by government or industry on how much of something can be produced etc.
If we look at music we can note that music used to be worth something—generally about a dollar a song though that’s a flawed estimate— and now it’s worth much less. It’s hard to really say what a song is worth these days. I guess they still sell for 49 cents to 99 cents over at iTunes, but most people can dig up any song they want to hear on piracy sites or youtube or Spotify. I haven’t paid to listen to music for years unless I’m buying a friend’s music (and even then I grumble.)
Have markets decided that music has no value? It’s a bit more complex than that. Markets are dependent on the state to enforce the notion of private property. If I can just take want I want, markets really have purpose (at least to me, the person doing the taking.) The debate in the world of music right now is over what the product is an who owns it. If I buy a song, am I free to make a digital copy of it and send it to my friends? Technically, in the eyes of the law, no, but realistically, yes, insomuch that laws that aren’t enforced are worthless.
I tend to side against the “free information/piracy” types, but I do concede these are hard questions to answer. How can anyone really own what is essentially information on a computer?
And I’ll entertain even more Marxist thoughts. Let’s look at the realm of physical objects. A chair, say. Some guy cuts down a tree and makes a chair which I buy with my money. Did he really “own” that tree? Maybe it was on his land but how did he get that land? Did an ancestor of his take it from Indians who themselves had no real sense of ownership (since they were hunter-gatherer types who just wandered around)? At some point the earth had no intelligent creatures on it – who owned everything then?
On some level these are silly questions, but I think you get my point. The very premise of ownership of anything is somewhat shaky.
Anyway, Lanier is trippy to watch so I will include a video here.
November 21st, 2013 by Wil
I’ve just started reading a book that I’ve mentioned being interested in: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” The book is something of a condemnation of aspects of modern Internet culture, made all the more damning by the fact that Lanier is technologist who played a role the development of the web. Many of the “pro-Internet” views he takes on belong to good friends of his.
One argument he makes is that eccentricity—the expression of unique behaviors and ideas—is being removed from modern culture. Part of this is because of the mob-like nature of Internet comments sections. As I have noticed, in many Internet forums, a consensus view often develops among the participants. Those who express opinions different from this view are either mocked or ignored (as I have been until I gave up on opinion forums.) People tow the party line and are not exposed to ideas that may challenge their views. And, as has been well commented on, people gravitate towards blogs and sites that correspond to their world view, further isolating their thought processes.
(Related to this: I once argued that the fluid communication the web enables makes one realize just how hard it is to be unique.)
Lanier also sees individuality taking a hit on social networking sites like Facebook. In the mid 90s people defined themselves on the web via home pages, many of which were housed on now deceased hosting site geocities. I remember these pages and you probably do too. They were often amateurish in design and usually had god-awful background tiles that made text unreadable. But they had personality. It was hard to confuse one person’s home page for another’s. The same is not true with Facebook—most people’s pages look basically the same. (Yes, you get your own header but that’s not much.)
Now the fact that everyone’s Facebook pages look similar is hardly the greatest calamity facing society. But I get Lanier’s point. It’s one more chip away from the idea of individuality, of personality. The Internet is not encouraging individuation, but a borg-like assimilation into a mono culture. I predict this will cause the death of all humanity within 20 years.
November 21st, 2013 by Wil
It’s noted that humans generally like melodies that move with what we call stepwise motion. Basically this just means we like melodies that go from one note to a note next to or close to it. We like it when a C note goes to a D note or an E note, but we aren’t crazy about wider leaps like, say, C to an F over an octave away. And we definitely don’t like a barrage of crazy leaps – that has the “cat walking on a piano” sound.
There are exceptions to this rule of course. A lot of jazz and modern classical music does engage in such wild melodic leps. But that music isn’t particularly popular with the public at large—it tends to be thought of as intellectual music. I doubt you could find a single popular song in history that uses many wide melodic leaps in a melody (the possible exception might be a novelty song of some sort, probably about robots.)
Why is this? One could argue that such big leaps are difficult to play. There’s some truth to that. On almost any instrument it’s easier to run up a scale than to leap about the melodic range of an instrument.
But I suspect something else is at work. An argument can be made that early man evolved to find beauty in the sounds he heard around him. And in nature there are very few examples of sounds leaping around melodically. Most animal calls are fairly stepwise (though there are some wild bird calls out there.) The vibrating sounds of wind and waterfalls tend to fluctuate subtly. They sounds of nature are like hills and valleys much more so than sharp cliffs.
Thus I have spoken.
November 12th, 2013 by Wil
Endless college lectures and books have discussed the use of symbolism in fiction writing. But the conversation continues because it is a very effectively technique for drawing attention to themes in a story that otherwise may not be clear.
Blogger C.S. Lakin has a lot of interesting bits of writing advice. In this blog she discusses using shapes symbolically.
Shapes are probably the last thing on a novelist’s mind when constructing a scene or an image system for a novel. Most of us probably pay little attention to shapes. Shapes of what? Well, everything has a shape, and even if you don’t think about shapes consciously, there are universal feelings that tend to go along with certain shapes, and throughout time and across cultures, shapes hold meaning and often symbolism.
Think about a character who feels stuck in a rut, her life like a treadmill. She feels as if she is going in circles, getting nowhere. Each morning she runs three miles on her treadmill. Her life is a merry-go-round of colorful painted horses that are not real. Without stating anything specifically, circles can be used in an image system throughout the novel. She could live at the end of a cul-de-sac with a circular driveway in front of her house. Her daughter could even have a pet hamster that runs in a hamster wheel, something she looks at every day and relates to. Her job could entail her doing some kind of repetitive motion that is circular (stirs sauces as a sous chef in a kitchen).
She makes a good, if obvious, point: we infer meaning to shapes. Jagged, spikey things are dangerous. Round, curved things are friendly. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has a whole theory of neuroaesthetics that gets into the idea that we were wired by evolution to find patterns (which are a form of meaning) in what we experience. If we hear a strange moan, and then hear it again louder, and yet again louder, it would behoove us to presume something dangerous is getting closer. Creatures who figure that out survive, those who don’t get eaten. (This might explain the menace in the JAWS theme.)
In essence, Ramachandran argues that when we “get” the meaning in an experience (be it “Wow, the monster’s getting closer,” or “Ah, her life is going in circles just like the hamster!”) we get rewarded with a good feeling—an emotional pat on the back. One could then theorize that if you insert such meta meaning in fiction (through symbolism and other techniques like metaphor) you set up opportunities for readers to “get it” and pat themselves on the back. And readers like books that make them feel clever and thus recommend them to their friends etc.
But here’s the beef I have with all this. Reality is not really filled with meaning. By this I mean, not every person going in circles has a hamster (some might have an iguana), not every evil person wears black (or has a name like “Dr. Satanus”), not every hero who hides their emotions beneath a hard exterior drives a Hummer etc. There’s some truth to these tropes and clichés, but I think programming them into fiction at a granular level makes the writing seem phony and unrealistic.
I think man seeks stability—that’s fairly obvious looking at human history. And I think we use myths, stories and even religion to evoke stability from the confusing and often meaningless world we live in. I understand the desire to create fiction that feeds that need, but I also think that on some level fiction should be confronting people with reality, making them a bit uncomfortable.
I’m reminded of a passage from David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” (which I discussed in this blog.)
At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.”