Archive Page 2

Music animation

Here’s a new animation storybook I did featuring one of my longer, classical style pieces. It tells the story of some aliens who face some of life’s challenges.

Is this what they mean by ‘sexting’?

I’ve certainly complained about the intrusions of social media into our lives, but even I didn’t see this one, er, coming.

Facebook use during sex? Many seem to ‘like’ it

A more formal national study found young Britons having less sex today than in the past, with social media perhaps partly to blame.

[The survey] also found that 12 percent had answered a phone call during sex and 10 percent had read a text in the midst of the act.

I don’t consider myself a guru in the fields of either sex or social media, but I am confident enough to say that combining the two probably means you’re doing one of them wrong.

I DO consider myself a sex guru and I agree!

Are we wiring ourselves to death?

The New Yorker notes that we are in the midst of a suicide epidemic. While I’m always wary of the term epidemic, it’s worth noting that American suicide rates rose about 30% from 1999 to 2010.

The article posits that suicide’s main sponsor—depression—is an illness, not a deficit or character weakness. While I agree with gist of that, one has to question, “Why then has this illness only recently increased so dramatically?”

I’m often arguing that technology has substantially changed our lives over the past 15+ years. I talk about my total frustration with the intrusions of modern media (endless email messages, Facebook alerts, the incessant fucking phone, etc.) Part of what is so annoying about all this stuff is that it gives you this sense of losing control over your life. You want to just lie down and take a nap, or sit in the yard and stare into space but there’s a half dozen electronic devices poised to ruin your reverie. I wonder if all this contributes to the rise in self-immolation.

Obviously this argument is so speculative is doesn’t even deserve the term “fanciful.” But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And there’s another way I think technology, particularly the web, has unsettled our psychology. In the pre-internet era, people could (somewhat) comfortably settle into various tribal distinctions, often but not exclusively based on the music they listened to. Punks, Metal-heads, hippies, hip-hoppers, yuppies etc. This allowed a certain sense of self-definition and self-worth. “I’m a cool, rebellious punk rock type!” one could think. But I think the web, for a variety of reasons has weakened these tribal self-definitions making us more like interchangeable members of the digital citizenry. And this has weakened our sense of ourselves… we find ourselves, in some hard to define way, asking ourselves “what am I?”

Can I see your MRI?

Today I was reading through my new tome, “The Anatomy of Violence” and came across an interesting observation. The author noted that the septum pellucidum, a section of the brain that has fused tissue in normal people, is often found to be separated in psychopaths and antisocial types. I immediately went and examined an MRI of my brain done years back during my vestibular issues. And I was able to confirm that I am probably not a psychopath—my tissue is fused.

It struck me that this opens up an interesting situation. This unfused tissue seems to be a marker for psychopathy—it doesn’t confirm the person is a nut, but it increases the odds. As medical scanning gets cheaper will employers start checking applicants’ brains for such markers? Will potential romantic partners ask each other for MRI scans to rule out problem relationships? Only time will tell…

The anatomy of violence

I’ve just started reading a book called “The Anatomy of Violence.” It might have been better called “The Neuro-anatomy of Violence”; it’s basically about the differences in brain structure between violent criminals and lovable imps like the rest of us.

It refers a lot to the work of Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist I’ve mentioned often. Damasio has studied many patients who’ve had damage to their prefrontal cortex (essentially the parts of the brain near your eyeballs.) He’s observed that these people seem off—they have dulled emotional responses. Damasio has convincingly shown that damage to the prefrontal area of the brain inhibits emotional awareness.

Besides clinical patients, who else seems to lack emotion? Well, many criminals, especially psychopaths. The author of the book, Adrian Raine, did an extensive study of psychopaths and noted that their prefrontal cortex had an 11% reduction in brain matter. They lack the complexity of prefrontal wiring the rest of us have, which could certainly explain their anti-social behavior. Why this is so is unclear. It could be damage in the womb, it could be damage in early childhood, it could just be a fluke of genetics.

This opens up again an interesting conundrum philosopher Sam Harris has explored. We punish psychopathic criminals because they are bad people. But what if they are merely people lacking the necessary brain tools for moral reasoning? What if they are more like a person who has suffered a blow to the head, and less like an evil monster?

Eh, let’s kill them just to be safe.

Sense of space

As a kid I was big practitioner of comic book style drawing. Lately I’ve been taking it up again. I’m decades out of practice, but I’m reminded that much of drawing, particular drawing from life, requires a strong sense of space. Basically, you must take an image before you, say, two coffee cups a foot apart from each other, and preserve their relational distance while you draw the image on a piece of paper 6 inches wide.

For some reason today I was reminded of a high school friend of mine. When I knew him he was a top ranked tennis player in the state of Hawaii. We lost touch when I graduated but not long after that I heard he had become become a professional painter. When I knew him he had no interest in art. It seemed quite a switch—from tennis to art. But, as I think about it, tennis is also all about strong spatial awareness. You have to know where that ball is in space. I wonder of his (likely genetic) endowment for spatial awareness fueled both his tennis and art?

News blackout

I wrote recently that I was of the opinion that the modern news is a negative force that should be avoided. Over the past month I’ve been engaged in a news blackout and I feel greatly enriched. I’m less tense, more optimistic and don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.

To celebrate, I’m thinking of taking a vacation soon to the relatively unknown nation of the Ukraine. I’ve been shopping for tickets and have found low prices on Malaysian Airlines. They seem like a dependable, trouble free operation. I think it will be a enjoyable adventure.

Cheers!

Musicians: just go home and die!

A while back I discussed an interesting speech that examined the economics of the modern rock business. The crux of the speech was that, for various reasons, the bulk of profit made from selling music was going to fewer and fewer performers.

Today I find an interesting new report that mirrors this. It describes the current music business as a “superstar economy.” Lady Gaga and Kanye West reap gazillions while superior artists such as myself eat cat food. The article notes that the advent of this superstar economy is actually at odds with what seemed to be the promise of digitized music. If digital technology makes it cheaper to record and distribute music, the argument went, we should see profits spread to a wide spectrum of musicians who are no longer blocked from the public (as they were in the days when a big upfront investment was need to get an album out there.) But…

In fact digital music services have actually intensified the Superstar concentration, not lessened it (see figure). The top 1% account for 75% of CD revenues but 79% of subscription revenue. This counter intuitive trend is driven by two key factors: a) smaller amount of ‘front end’ display for digital services – especially on mobile devices – and b) by consumers being overwhelmed by a Tyranny of Choice in which excessive choice actual hinders discovery.

That second point is interesting. Basically, human beings can only keep track of so many music choices, so most of us just go for what everyone else is going for. “I don’t want to shift through millions of song files so I’ll just listen to this Beyonce record everyone is talking about.” The promise of a democratic marketplace ran up against the limitations of the human mind.

This is, of course, at odd with a mantra that was popular in the 1990s—that more choice was better for consumers. At a certain point buyers say, “enough choice – just pick something!”

The end of the creative class?

I’ve mentioned the book “The Age of Insight” which I found quite interesting. It was about many things including the exploits of various artists that lived in Vienna around the turn of the century (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, etc.) One thing I recall from the book is how these men really struggled to come up with unique art. They experimented with different ideas and incorporated a lot of the discoveries of that era’s science into their art. (Klimpt incorporated images of blastocyst cells in his painting, for example. ) Their art was more than just pretty pictures—it had meat and substance*.

* Visual artists of the day were spurred on by two pressing challenges—1) the advent of photography that rendered realistic painting somewhat moot, and 2) the rise of the Freud and the idea that one’s “inner world” might be a more fascinating place than the outer world.

I think this trend lasted through the 20th century. Think of jazz musicians, existential filmmakers, Robert Crumb, psychedelic music etc. Whatever you think of this stuff (I, personally, find most psychedelic music laughable though I applaud the band Ultimate Spinach) it was art with a lot of thought behind it.

This was art made by what I would call the creative class. These were artists (of all disciplines) exploring the world, making art not for any obvious immediate use (like being used in a greeting card or as a portrait.)

I’m not sure you see much of this today. With the decimation of the value of content in the digital age, I’m not sure it’s viable to make art that doesn’t have immediate use.

There was a book that came out several years ago called “The Rise of the Creative Class.” I never read it but it would seem to dispute what I’m saying. But examine this blurb about the books (From the book’s Amazon page.)

He defines this class as those whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. In general this group shares common characteristics, such as creativity, individuality, diversity, and merit. The author estimates that this group has 38 million members, constitutes more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and profoundly influences work and lifestyle issues. The purpose of this book is to examine how and why we value creativity more highly than ever and cultivate it more intensely.

This creative class is creating for a (usually commercial) reason. I absolutely agree that creating a web application can be a very creative pursuit—after all, I’ve been part of that process—but it’s different from explorational creating, from the act of creating to “find your voice.” We value creativity today if it has short term payoff, not so much if the benefits aren’t immediately obvious. Art now has to immediately find its value in the marketplace.

I should be clear, I realize there’s some crossover here. Artists making “for immediate use” art often spend their off hours making more esoteric art. But the general trend I find troubling.

Big data and pop music

I’ve talked a bit about the work of computer scientist David Cope who has developed several software tools that compose music. The exact methodology he uses is complex (he’s written several books about it) but his programs have ably output hours of music in the style of various classical masters.

In one of his books, Cope comments that he has not used his software to write pop music. This is partly because he isn’t interested in pop music and partly because he concedes pop music is about a lot more that just the notes on a page (which is what his software is fundamentally creating.) Pop is also about the tone of instruments, their hip factor, and a lot of contextual baggage the performing artists bring to the song (their personal history, persona etc.)

Nonetheless, I think it’s inescapable that computers will be composing pop song in the future. Or more likely, computers will be helping humans compose pops songs.

But, then what? Cope’s software can generate thousands of variations on a basic tune. Say someone does the same with a pop song. You have 10,000 versions of a certain melody in A minor. Obviously nobody wants to listen to all of them to find the “best one.”

But what if you could look through a data pool of what listeners were listening to and spot upcoming trends? For example, two years ago you could have noted, “Gee, it looks like people are really digging music with these wonky low end gurgles… I bet dub-step will be popular.” Basically, you would note what properties of music seemed to be getting popular and aim the computer composed music towards those styles.

But where would you get this data? This recent NY Times piece, noting that music analysis company Echo Nest has been bought by Spotify, may offer clues.

The Echo Nest is one of a handful of companies specializing in the arcane but valuable science of music data, examining what songs are being listened to by whom, and how. It makes this information available to its clients, including major media companies like Sirius XM, Clear Channel and Univision, which use the data primarily for music-related apps.

“Analyzing music preferences is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” Jim Lucchese, chief executive of the Echo Nest, said in a joint interview with Mr. Ek. “But being directly wired in, and sitting alongside the Spotify team, will give us the ability to push products a lot faster and learn a lot faster than we could before.”

I suspect Echo Nest is, right now, just analyzing “big picture” music trends, like “people are digging hip-hop country songs.” I think eventually they could move towards more granular observations like “major scale melodies that climb high over three bars and then fall down in a giant octave leap in the fourth bar are getting popular,” or “Synth timbres that sound like a theremin and glockenspiel are getting big.” That data could then be used to power the computer aided composition of pop music.

I’m not saying this is a good thing; it worries me. It could certainly lead to an arms race of musical ideas that would result in fads burning out faster and faster. But I think it’s the future.