Saturday, April 21, 2018


One of my favorite sci-fi authors and futurists, David Brin, has several times in his blog advocated resolving political disputes, or maybe more accurately, calling Bullshit on conservatives, via wagers - "put your money where your mouth is".

A few months ago, I got a new friend on Facebook. He is an excellent guitarist and vocalist, but also a Libertarian (and actually active in the party), Trumpite, and gunophile. And he posts out the wazoo. I attempt to inject an opposing viewpoint, or actually more often, a "Where the hell do you get this stuff???".

It really hasn't gone too badly. I haven't been called a libtard once, although I have been called "fucking stupid" a few times. I did unfriend 1 of his friends who posted a nice "Obama as chimp" meme. Zero tolerance for racism, I was raised with that shit, I hate that it's in my head.

But, for the record, I unfollowed him a couple of weeks ago. Just way too much stupid shit.

So a couple of months ago, just after the Parkland massacre, he posted something about "follow the money" re how can the high school students afford to be protesting their massacre by assault weapons? I trolled "George Soros". He replied, "I bet that you can trace funding for these students back to 1 of Soros' foundations".

OK, the game is afoot, I come back with "How much do you want to bet?". He comes back with "$20". A good number I thought.

But, as always, the devil in the details. In the time it took to establish this framework, he has moved on to dozens of other posts.

  1. The burden of proof rests on the person who proposed the (conspiracy) theory, in this case him. That just seems like the scientific method to me.
  2. A time limit for providing this proof must be established. I think in general 1-3 months?
  3. How is the result adjudicated? I proposed that any data in support of the theory must be verified by,, or He agrees to trust, but also somewhat - and absolutely 0 from mainstream media. I'm sorry, but, I trust anything I read in the NY Times or the Washington Post, because, when they get it wrong, they are hugely embarrassed and publish retractions. Vs Fox, who never retracts anything.
    Plus, he never trusts anything that comes from a US government agency, which makes it really hard, because they are probably the main source of real data on most things. WTF, he must distrust all weather reports, which come from the NWS, the NOAA, and the NHC. Wow, too bad, SW Florida needs to get those hurricane reports.
  4. If the theorist provides any data in support of their theory, but both parties cannot agree on its validity, then the bet is a push - no one wins.
  5. If the theorist provides no data in support of their theory within the timeout period, then they lose the bet.
Is this workable? Or is Brin's suggestion to engage conservatives in wagers something that sounds good in theory, but cannot be made to work in practice?

If it is workable, it sounds like a great opportunity for a website/app to administer these wagers, given that #3 can be resolved - that is the crux of the matter, can the reality-based mainstream news vs the propaganda machine fake news, or vice versa, be resolved? Or are the 2 realities completely disjoint?

Too bad I'm retired. Any takers?

But, just having read "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker, I doubt the efficacy of the whole concept. Pinker posits that belief in any explanation of political facts is about boosting your esteem, your credibility, in your political tribe, and has nothing to do with objective reality. The more outlandish the "fact" asserted by your tribe, the more esteem you gain by backing it up. So does the "let's bet" thing work at all?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #EnlightmentNow

Maybe my fav chapter in "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker, blogged here, was Chapter 12, "Safety". I decided to tweet one of the chapter's FFTKAT (Fun Facts To Know And Tell, AKA cool statistics) every few days. Plus I added 1 of my own, which is my fav of all (bolded). Here they are, in chronological order:

March 31: From 1921 to 2015, motor vehicle accident deaths per mile driven decreased by a factor of 24x.
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture

April 3: From 1921 to 2015, pedestrians killed by motor vehicles decreased by a factor of 6x.
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture

April 4: I love living in the future!
My three ring song binder was getting really heavy - 374 songs/pages. But it seems like I can add as many songs as I want to my iPad and it doesn’t get any heavier!!! Magic!
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #music #OnSong

April 6: In 1970, your chance to die on an airline flight was < 5 in 1,000,000. As of 2015, that chance has decreased by a factor of 100x.
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #FAA #GovernmentRegulationSavesLives

April 10: Since the 1930s your chance of dying in a fall has declined by 72%. I guess those idiotic "not a step" labels actually work!
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #GovernmentRegulationSavesLives

April 12: Since the 1930s your chance of dying in a fire or by drowning have declined by >90%.
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #EnlightenmentNow #GovernmentRegulationSavesLives #ThanksFiremen #ThanksLifeguards

April 15: In 1929, >20,000 workers were killed on the job. In 2015, with 2.5x population, 5,000 workers died, a 10x reduction.
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #EnlightenmentNow #OSHA #GovernmentRegulationSavesLives

April 18: From 1900 to 2015, your chance of of being killed by a bolt of lightning decreased by a factor of 37x. Go figure!
I love living in the future!
HT @sapinker
#ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime #TheFuture #EnlightenmentNow #NWS #NOAA #GovernmentServicesSaveLives

I posted this comment to the FaceBook write-through post of the last tweet.
Note, this is the last FFTKAT (Fun Fact To Know And Tell) from Chapter 12, "Safety", of "Enlightenment Now". I think I will consolidate all these in a blog post. So farewell to #ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime and #TheFuture - for a while.
The 1 about my iPad is my fav because this is indeed magic, and we now completely take it for granted! My iPad has 5,000 tracks of music, 1000s of pictures, 460 songs in my performing music management app, > 500 eBooks, and all these numbers can increase 2x, 3x, 10x, and my iPad WON"T GET ANY HEAVIER! I love living in the information age! I love living in the future!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Letter to the Editor

As promised in my review of Pinker's "Enlightment Now".
Reading "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker, I came across a reference to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no. This was in reference to a 2006 NIH study titled “Is There an Epidemic of Child or Adolescent Depression?” Answer, no. The study concluded "there is no evidence for an increased prevalence of child or adolescent depression over the past 30 years."

I was surprised the very next day, April 11, to see on Page 1 of the Living section the headline "Is there a child, teen mental health crisis in the US?" The author, syndicated psychologist John Rosemond, answered "yes". His evidence: "Today's child by age 16, is five to 10 times - depending on the source - more likely to experience a prolonged emotional crisis than was a child raised in the 1950s. For example, ..."

OK, he's going to tell us about some of those sources, right? Wrong! Instead we get a worthless anecdote: "For example, I do not remember, nor have I ever run into a person my age who remembers a high school classmate committing suicide."

We are all now concerned with fake news. I rely on the Herald-Leader to fact-check what it prints. I guess with syndicated columnists, they are like a pig in a poke? Regardless, in matters of public health and science, data and evidence are what matter, not opinion and anecdotes. Rosemond's lack of data and evidence should have been noted.

Friday, April 13, 2018

It's Getting Better All The Time!

5 years ago, I greatly enjoyed Steven Pinker's book "The Better Angels of Our Nature", subtitled "Why Violence Has Declined", blogged here under the title "Good News! Good News!" So I was really psyched by the release of his follow up to that book: "Enlightenment Now", subtitled "The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress", 576 pages. The cover has a blurb by Bill Gates, "My new favorite book of all time". Gates has written a review of the book, if you want something a lot shorter than I'm guessing this review/summary will turn out to be.

Just published, here's an interview with Pinker on the book in the NY Times April 10, 2018.

As I started reading this book, I was not going to write one of my long review/summaries. I really felt like everybody should just GO READ THE BOOK! It is an easy and fun read! But as I continued to read, there were just so many succinct statements of things we all should know but don't know, or, rather, forget that we know, that I started highlighting. So here we go.

The book has 23 chapters in 3 parts: Part I, "Enlightenment", 3 chapters; Part II, "Progress", 17 chapters; and Part III, "Reason, Science, and Humanism", 3 chapters, 1 on each of the 3 topics listed. Like "Better Angels", the book is chock full of charts (75) showing bad things declining or good things increasing - with 1 exception.

Part I has an introduction before Chapter 1. Pinker recounts how after giving a talk on "the commonplace among scientists that mental life consists of patterns of activity in the tissues of the brain", a student asks, sincerely, "Why should I live?" Here is part of Pinker's answer, which gives a good feel for his overall approach.

As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy — the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness—and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.

And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.

"Human flourishing" is a touchstone throughout the book.

Chapter 2 has an interesting title: "Entro, Evo, Info" - referring to Entropy, Evolution, and Information. Entropy, the tendency of all things towards disorder ("shit happens"), always must increase, according to the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This provides the background against which all activity, all striving, in the universe must work.

the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.
The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics only applies "in a closed system". Meanwhile
Organisms are open systems: they capture energy from the sun, food, or ocean vents to carve out temporary pockets of order in their bodies and nests while they dump heat and waste into the environment, increasing disorder in the world as a whole.
Evolution is the song and the story by which organisms, through natural selection, discover ever better ways to fight entropy. Information is how they store those better ways, both in the DNA of their genomes, and, in more advanced organisms such as humans, in their nervous systems, their minds.
Internal representations that reliably correlate with states of he world, and that participate in inferences that tend to derive true implications from true premises, may be called knowledge.


language, which allowed them to coordinate their actions and to pool the fruits of their experience into the collections of skills and norms we call cultures.

Pinker emphasizes how these 3 forces are what is real, are what really have to work with. As opposed to
disembodied forces like karma, fate, spiritual messages, cosmic justice, and other guarantors of the intuition that “everything happens for a reason.”


misfortune may be no one’s fault.


Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.

In Chapter 3, "Counter-Enlightenment", Pinker talks about some of the things that oppose the Enlightment: left-and-right-wing ideologies; romanticism [which I think I may have encountered in some of my right-wing gunophile acquaintances], and finally, the Art Nazis.
A final alternative to Enlightenment humanism condemns its embrace of science. Following C. P. Snow, we can call it the Second Culture, the worldview of many literary intellectuals and cultural critics, as distinguished from the First Culture of science.


They write as if the consumption of elite art is the ultimate moral good.


The idea that the ultimate good is to use knowledge to enhance human welfare leaves people cold. Deep explanations of the universe, the planet, life, the brain? Unless they use magic, we don’t want to believe them! Saving the lives of billions, eradicating disease, feeding the hungry? Bo-ring. People extending their compassion to all of humankind? Not good enough — we want the laws of physics to care about us! Longevity, health, understanding, beauty, freedom, love? There’s got to be more to life than that.

Part II, "Progress", starts with a great quote from my favorite president:

If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.
—Barack Obama, 2016
The 1st Chapter of this part is titled "Progressophobia", and follows Chapter 3 in exploring opposition to the Enlightenment and the goal of Progress. My old friend Professor Pangloss is mentioned. [I have downloaded most of Voltaire to my iPad, I may try to actually get around to reading "Candide".] We hear about "the Optimism Gap" - I'm OK, but everybody else sucks. My neighborhood is safe and prosperous, but everyone else's are varying degrees of shitholes [to quote our Dear Leader].

Pinker talks about "mental bugs", or cognitive biases or illusions (tagged in this blog as "cognitive illusions"), as we've met before in the work of Tversky and Kahneman, in particular the Availability heuristic. And, of course, the policies of most news media - "If it bleeds, it leads" don't help things at all.

Hah, I like this example.

The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about ISIS closely, and 77 percent agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.
Pinker's answer? Science! "The answer is to count."
A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.
Pinker talks about the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, most of which had been met by their target date of 2015. (They have been followed by the Sustainable Development Goals for the next 25 years.)
And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.
Pinker lists 3 websites with data detailing this progress. They all look great, but HumanProgress does not have an RSS feed :-( Hah! I took the Gapminder test, and got a measly 54% correct!

The next 15 chapters detail the world's progress, with chart upon chart to back it up. This parallels "Better Angels", but with 5 more years of data. The chapters are:

  1. Life
  2. Health
  3. Sustenance
  4. Wealth
  5. Inequality
  6. The Environment
  7. Peace
  8. Safety
  9. Terrorism
  10. Democracy
  11. Equal Rights
  12. Knowledge
  13. Quality of Life
  14. Happiness
  15. Existential Threats

Chapter 9, "Inequality", was somewhat surprising. Pinker downplays the importance of inequality. He quotes philosopher Harry Frankfurt's 2015 book On Inequality:

“From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
Here he questions a lot of the basis of "1% vs 99%" arguments - this seemed somewhat glib to me:
Readers commit the same fallacy when they read that “the top one percent in 2008” had incomes that were 50 percent higher than “the top one percent in 1988” and conclude that a bunch of rich people got half again richer. People move in and out of income brackets, shuffling the order, so we’re not necessarily talking about the same individuals. The same is true for “the bottom fifth” and every other statistical bin.
These comments hit home with regard to recent US politics:
The international and global Gini curves show that despite the anxiety about rising inequality within Western countries, inequality in the world is declining.


Now, it’s true that the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class, and if I were an American politician I would not publicly say that the tradeoff was worth it. But as citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the tradeoff is worth it.

Take that, Trump voters! But he does counterbalance this outlook with yet another thing that we all forget:
globalization, may produce winners and losers in income, but in consumption it makes almost everyone a winner.
Yes, we are already in a post-scarcity economy, now we just need to work on the utopia part.

Pinker gives a nod to Universal Basic Income (UBI).

In Chapter 10, "The Environment", Pinker also strays from the party line. 1st, here's a positive fact to be happy about:

the proportion of the Earth’s land set aside as national parks, wildlife reserves, and other protected areas has grown from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 14.8 percent in 2014—an area double the size of the United States. Marine conservation areas have grown as well, more than doubling during this period and now protecting more than 12 percent of the world’s oceans.
But, he appears not to be a fan of the ideas and arguments of Naomi Kline, whose 2014 "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate" I described as "a clarion call to action". He starts off sarcastically paraphrasing her:
we should not treat the threat of climate change as a challenge to prevent climate change. No, we should treat it as an opportunity to abolish free markets, restructure the global economy, and remake our political system.

He then moves on to some flat-out criticisms, justified(?), of some of her stances:
In one of the more surreal episodes in the history of environmental politics, Klein joined the infamous David and Charles Koch, the billionaire oil industrialists and bankrollers of climate change denial, in helping to defeat a 2016 Washington state ballot initiative that would have implemented the country’s first carbon tax, the policy measure which almost every analyst endorses as a prerequisite to dealing with climate change. Why? Because the measure was “right-wing friendly,” and it did not “make the polluters pay, and put their immoral profits to work repairing the damage they have knowingly created.” In a 2015 interview Klein even opposed analyzing climate change quantitatively


Blowing off quantitative analysis as “bean-counting” is not just anti-intellectual but works against “values, human rights, right and wrong.”

Pinker also invokes the Kusnets arc, which Kate Raworth (and Piketty?) describe as being "debunked" - search for Kuznets here.

Pinker is a proponent of nuclear energy (as am I), and is willing to consider climate engineering that is "moderate, responsive, and temporary".

Here is a FFTKAT: the chemical formula for coal is C137H97O9NS. Wow, lots of nasty carbon compared to our friends hydrogen and oxygen, and a nasty sulfur atom as well.

Chapter 12, "Safety", was 1 of my favorites. So many charts showing how much unbelievably safer we are! I have been tweeting 1 of these every few days. Here's the latest:

I've been tagging them with #ItsGettingBetterAllTheTime and #TheFuture. The last few I've added #EnlightenmentNow (duh). Where appropriate, I also add #GovernmentRegulationSavesLives to troll my libertarian friends.

Here we encounter our 1 exception to bad things declining and good things increasing: deaths by poison (solid or liquid) started rising steeply in 1990, going from around 2-3 deaths/100,000 people/year to 12 or so - a 4-5x increase. Pinker was of course surprised by this exception - until he realized that this category mostly (98%) consists of drug overdoses. The Opioid Epidemic is indeed a step backward, in contrast so many other steps forward.

Chapter 18, "Happiness" discusses, along with other topics, the current mental state of the US and the world.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to sound the alarm against this “disease mongering,” “concept creep,” “selling sickness,” and “expanding empire of psychopathology.” In her 2013 article “Abnormal Is the New Normal,” the psychologist Robin Rosenberg noted that the latest version of the DSM could diagnose half the American population with a mental disorder over the course of their lives.

The expanding empire of psychopathology is a first-world problem, and in many ways is a sign of moral progress. Recognizing a person’s suffering, even with a diagnostic label, is a form of compassion, particularly when the suffering can be alleviated.

We are introduced to "Betteridge’s Law of Headlines: Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered with the word no." with reference to a study which asked “Is There an Epidemic of Child or Adolescent Depression?” Answer, no.

[Ha ha, the very next day, April 11, there was a headline on page 1 of the Living section of the Lexington Herald-Leader "Is there a child, teen mental health crisis in the US?" to an article by a syndicated, old-school, spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child family psychologist. He, of course, answered "yes". His evidence:

Today's child by age 16, is five to 10 times - depending on the source - more likely to experience a prolonged emotional crisis than was a child raised in the 1950s. For example,
OK, he's going to tell us about some of those studies, right? Wrong! Instead we get a worthless anecdote:
For example, I do not remember, nor have I ever run into a person my age who remembers a high school classmate committing suicide.
I will be writing a letter to the editor on this, reminding them that, particularly in matters of public health and science, data and evidence are what matter, not opinion and anecdotes.]

Here's another FFTKAT from Chapter 19, "Existential Threats":

about 10 percent of electricity in the United States comes from dismantled nuclear warheads, mostly Soviet.
The final chapter of Part II is Chapter 20, "The Future of Progress". Guess what? It's getting better all the time!
The Enlightenment is working: for two and a half centuries, people have used knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
Except for Trump voters, of course, but Pinker shows that the demographics are in our favor. But it comes back to the same issue as ever - when will the young people start voting? Fingers quadruple-crossed that the #NeverAgain movement will get out young voters in 2018.

Chapter 21 "Reason" opens with a tautology: "Opposing reason is, by definition, unreasonable." Postmodernism, ugh. Pinker quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel, in what seems to me to be a riff on the Liar's Paradox:

The claim “Everything is subjective” must be nonsense, for it would itself have to be either subjective or objective. But it can’t be objective, since in that case it would be false if true. And it can’t be subjective, because then it would not rule out any objective claim, including the claim that it is objectively false. There may be some subjectivists, perhaps styling themselves as pragmatists, who present subjectivism as applying even to itself. But then it does not call for a reply, since it is just a report of what the subjectivist finds it agreeable to say. If he also invites us to join him, we need not offer any reason for declining, since he has offered us no reason to accept.
The more you think about postmodernism and absolute relativism (oxymoron), you realize that they are, well, just silly.
From the most recondite deconstructionist to the most anti-intellectual purveyor of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts,” everyone recognizes the power of responses like “Why should I believe you?” or “Prove it” or “You’re full of crap.” Few would reply, “That’s right, there’s no reason to believe me,” or “Yes, I’m lying right now,” or “I agree, what I’m saying is bullshit.” It’s in the very nature of argument that people stake a claim to being right. As soon as they do, they have committed themselves to reason—and the listeners they are trying to convince can hold their feet to the fire of coherence and accuracy.
This is so relevant to modern times. Facts that impinge on political beliefs are negated, by both the left and the right (but of course the right is worse). Maintaining status and political correctness within your political tribe are more important to people's sense of self and worth than ascertaining facts and truth.
Given these payoffs, endorsing a belief that hasn’t passed muster with science and fact-checking isn’t so irrational after all—at least, not by the criterion of the immediate effects on the believer. The effects on the society and planet are another matter. The atmosphere doesn’t care what people think about it, and if it in fact warms by 4° Celsius, billions of people will suffer, no matter how many of them had been esteemed in their peer groups for holding the locally fashionable opinion on climate change along the way.


preposterous beliefs are more effective signals of coalitional loyalty than reasonable ones

I have heard this last with reference to religious beliefs - it's easy to believe something reasonable, it takes real zealotry to believe something that is completely unbelievable.

Pinker references "legal scholar Dan Kahan:"

Kahan concludes that we are all actors in a Tragedy of the Belief Commons: what’s rational for every individual to believe (based on esteem) can be irrational for the society as a whole to act upon (based on reality).
Pinker talks about some other terms which are new to me:
  • a blue lie is told for the benefit of an in-group (originally, fellow police officers) ...
  • But since another part of the human mind keeps a person in touch with reality, as the counterevidence piles up the dissonance can mount until it becomes too much to bear and the opinion topples over, a phenomenon called the affective tipping point ...
  • Most of us are deluded about our degree of understanding of the world, a bias called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth.
Ha ha, I wonder what libertarians have to say about this?
no developed country runs on right-wing libertarian principles, nor has any realistic vision of such a country ever been laid out.
I really liked this idea: that politics should be based more on sciencific principles.
A more rational approach to politics is to treat societies as ongoing experiments and open-mindedly learn the best practices, whichever part of the spectrum they come from.


Reason tells us that political deliberation would be most fruitful if it treated governance more like scientific experimentation and less like an extreme-sports competition.

As disheartening as our fractious politics and even views of reality are, as would be expected, Pinker offers us some hope.
We are not in a post-truth era. Mendacity, truth-shading, conspiracy theories, extraordinary popular delusions, and the madness of crowds are as old as our species, but so is the conviction that some ideas are right and others are wrong.


eight in 10 Americans have a positive view of political fact-checking.

This is an insight into yet another cognitive illusion/bias that can help us move forward. Recognizing cognitive biases helps us to compensate for them.
The discovery that political tribalism is the most insidious form of irrationality today is still fresh and mostly unknown.

Chapter 22 is titled "Science"! Yes, science!

What, then, distinguishes science from other exercises of reason? It certainly isn’t “the scientific method,” a term that is taught to schoolchildren but that never passes the lips of a scientist. Scientists use whichever methods help them understand the world: drudgelike tabulation of data, experimental derring-do, flights of theoretical fancy, elegant mathematical modeling, kludgy computer simulation, sweeping verbal narrative. All the methods are pressed into the service of two ideals, and it is these ideals that advocates of science want to export to the rest of intellectual life.

The first is that the world is intelligible.


The second ideal is that we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.

Some bitter medicine for faith-based or magical thinking:
the findings of science imply that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the genesis of the world, life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken.


There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers


Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality.

Pinker is not a fan of most Second Culture analyses of science.
The result is like a report of a basketball game by a dance critic who is not allowed to say that the players are trying to throw the ball through the hoop.


Resisters of scientific thinking often object that some things just can’t be quantified. Yet unless they are willing to speak only of issues that are black or white and to foreswear using the words more, less, better, and worse (and for that matter the suffix –er), they are making claims that are inherently quantitative. If they veto the possibility of putting numbers to them, they are saying, “Trust my intuition.” But if there’s one thing we know about cognition, it’s that people (including experts) are arrogantly overconfident about their intuition.

This was an interesting example of the value of quantification.
The political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan assembled a dataset of political resistance movements across the world between 1900 and 2006 and discovered that three-quarters of the nonviolent resistance movements succeeded, compared with only a third of the violent ones. Gandhi and King were right, but without data, you would never know it.
We encountered Dr. Chenoweth before here. I have their book "Why Civil Resistance Works" but have not read it yet.

Pinker discusses the disconnect between the science and humanities departments in modern universities. The humanities departments have been struggling for years, particularly as our universities (and educational systems as a whole) are being transformed into factories for producing corporate wage slaves. Pinker urges them to keep their focus on their very, very important subject matter, but to adopt scientific methods, rather than condemning them.

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness. Many of its luminaries—Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, the Critical Theorists—are morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain.


A consilience with science offers the humanities many possibilities for new insight. Art, culture, and society are products of human brains. They originate in our faculties of perception, thought, and emotion, and they cumulate and spread through the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others. Shouldn’t we be curious to understand these connections? Both sides would win. The humanities would enjoy more of the explanatory depth of the sciences, and a forward-looking agenda that could attract ambitious young talent (not to mention appealing to deans and donors). The sciences could challenge their theories with the natural experiments and ecologically valid phenomena that have been so richly characterized by humanities scholars.


The advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores has inaugurated an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination, and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the contours of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, the universality or culture-specificity of archetypes and plots, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo.

Chapter 23, the last, is titled "Humanism". Here is Pinker's definition:

The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism.
[sarcasm] I will lodge an official protest on behalf of my gunophile friends that he does not mention "lots of guns" in this statement of what defines human flourishing.[/sarcasm]

He references The Humanist Manifesto, 1st published in 1933, now on version III. In my very 1st blog post, I included a link to the principles of the Council of Secular Humanism - which was dead, I have refreshed. I think I like their verbiage a little better.

I enjoyed Pinker's discussion of "the Golden Rule and its precious-metallic variants". I had heard of the Silver Rule, but not "the Platinum Rule, “Do to others what they would have you do to them.”" I tweeted Pinker the Bronze Rule, which somehow I have been referencing lately, I'm not sure where it came from: "Don't Be An Asshole".

This was something really new: a defense of all of our basic (guilty) human pleasures, which have been under attack, what, forever, by various forms of asceticism and puritanism. I for 1 wish I would rewrite the damage 11 years of sin-based teaching I received in Catholic schools did to my mind.

The physical requirements that allow rational agents to exist in the material world are not abstract design specifications; they are implemented in the brain as wants, needs, emotions, pains, and pleasures. On average, and in the kind of environment in which our species was shaped, pleasurable experiences allowed our ancestors to survive and have viable children, and painful ones led to a dead end. That means that food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie are not shallow indulgences or hedonistic distractions. They are links in the causal chain that allowed minds to come into being. Unlike ascetic and puritanical regimes, humanistic ethics does not second-guess the intrinsic worth of people seeking comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment—if people didn’t seek them, there would be no people. At the same time, evolution guarantees that these desires will work at cross-purposes with each other and with those of other people. Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desires among people.
This next statement I think reflects how far we have come in the last 50-100-200(?) years. Kind of an Occam's Razor argument.
Even when humanistic movements fortify their goals with the language of rights, the philosophical system justifying those rights must be “thin.” A viable moral philosophy for a cosmopolitan world cannot be constructed from layers of intricate argumentation or rest on deep metaphysical or religious convictions. It must draw on simple, transparent principles that everyone can understand and agree upon. The ideal of human flourishing—that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives—is just such a principle, since it is based on nothing more (and nothing less) than our common humanity.
These ideas all seem so easy, so self-evident, don't they? So what opposes them?
The idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing clashes with two perennially seductive alternatives. The first is theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife. The second is romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation. Though romantic heroism was first articulated in the 19th century, it may be found in a family of newly influential movements, including authoritarian populism, neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and the alt-right.
Hah, reading the 2nd part above, I read "manly" instead of "newly". An insightful slip. I do indeed possess a Y chromosome, and, as such, grew up imagining heroism, valor, strife, slaying dragons, and rescuing maidens (who of course were greatly appreciative). Then, I became an adult, and having to actually be responsible and raise 4 children pushed these to a far back burner. I'm sure they were/are still going great guns in my subconscious.

Over the last few years I have occasionally engaged (for as long as I can stomach) with RWNJ/libertarian gunophiles, mostly on FaceBook. I have concluded that many of them are still immersed in fantasies of, with their incredibly fabulous and sexy gun collections, protecting white women, who will of course be so grateful, from the ravening, raping hordes of black-and-brown-skinned subhumans. So the curse of "romantic heroism" is still gumming up the works.

A final argument for humanism:

The Euthyphro argument puts the lie to the common claim that atheism consigns us to a moral relativism in which everyone can do his own thing. The claim gets it backwards. A humanistic morality rests on the universal bedrock of reason and human interests: it’s an inescapable feature of the human condition that we’re all better off if we help each other and refrain from hurting each other. For this reason many contemporary philosophers, including Nagel, Goldstein, Peter Singer, Peter Railton, Richard Boyd, David Brink, and Derek Parfit, are moral realists (the opposite of relativists), arguing that moral statements may be objectively true or false. It’s religion that is inherently relativistic. Given the absence of evidence, any belief in how many deities there are, who are their earthly prophets and messiahs, and what they demand of us can depend only on the parochial dogmas of one’s tribe.
Our new word for the day: necrometrician, presumably a statistician who studies the statistics of death.

So many inspirational thoughts, I will let Pinker conclude with the last 3 paragraphs of the book:

We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.

And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

There is so much good information and so much good news in this book. A few times, yes, the words "Polyanna" or "Pangloss" came to mind, but, that is kind of the point of the book. Given that there is a $B industry out there dedicated to spreading bad news, fear, and anger, a little tilt towards the side of good news is a welcome change.

It is an easy and fun read, please put it on your to-read list. Bill Gates will give you a free Microsoft product! (Just kidding).

You knew it would come sooner or later. Here it is. I love this band, which McCartney has been playing with for the last couple of decades.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

4 x Fantasy

I really wanted to read the Tim Powers short story collection that came in to the Kobo eBooks on my iPad. So I decided to change mode to fantasy for my junk reading.

1st up, "Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr", by John Crowley (2018). The story of the serially immortal crow Dar Oakley, who was the 1st crow to have a name and the 1st crow to talk to humans. I have a lot of hardcopy Crowley (1 of my fav authors) in the FL library, so I bought this in trade paper.

Crowley also allows for the possibility that this is all the delusions of an extremely grief-stricken widower.

I am a huge fan of the family Corvidae: crows, ravens, and blue jays. I loved just reading about how it feels to be a crow.

They are so smart. In Lexington, KY, we have vast numbers of the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos. In Naples, FL, we have mostly Fish Crows, Corvus ossifragus. iBirdPro says that they are almost completely indistinguishable except for their calls. And, yes, the nasal "kaa" of the fish crow could never be mistaken for the "caa" of the american crow.

There are also American Crows in Florida. One of our standard destinations in SW Florida is Shark Valley Everglades National Park. It is off of US 41 (Alligator Alley), 2/3 of the way from Naples to Miami, ~1 hour from Naples. I usually see some american crows there.

There is a great 13 mile loop you can bike, or take a trolley, or walk, with an observation tower 1/2 way. There are signs by the bike racks for the tower that say "Do not leave backpacks. Crows can work the zippers." ?!?!? Crows are so smart!

So, if you are a corvid fan as I am, this will be a fun read for you too. But regardless, it will be a thoughtful one, as Crowley explores the relationship between humans creating mass quantities of dead bodies via war and religion, and crows being quite happy to gorge on those dead bodies.

Next, the Tim Powers short story collection, "Down and Out in Purgatory" (2017). 20 stories of ghosts, immortal body thieves, time travel. He does this so well. I was surprised to find that he seems to be a practicing Catholic. So it's not surprising that there is a story about a priest being visited by a ghost in the confessional.

3rd, "The Bookman", by Lavie Tidar (2016). Very fun steam-punkish fantasy, where, among many other time slips, the extraterrestrial Lizard Men have replaced the Tudors on the English throne. Very imaginative, consistently so. Babbage's corporation produces simulacrums (androids) based on famous dead people and on independent personalities. The writing is excellent. I highlighted this passage:

This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.
But, somehow, this just didn't work for me. No ongoing serious topics, maybe? There are 2 more in this series, I will forgo them.

It was also odd, after the main book finished, there were 6 chapters of "From the Lost Files of The Bookman Histories". They fill in some of the details of earlier actions. Presumably they were omitted to keep the main narrative thread moving briskly. But, it's like deleted scenes in a movie. There is a reason they were deleted ...

4th and finally, "The Tangled Lands", by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Bucknell (2018). I left this for last because Paolo is always a dependable read. But, I was disappointed. It was billed as a novel, but it is 4 independent novellas, 2 by Paolo and 2 by Bucknell. And I had already read the 1st Paolo story in another collection. The stories are entirely consistent in their shared world and are compelling reads, but, I was expecting a novel. Still, very well written, well worth a read.

Next up, something worthwhile for a change!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Awesome Music!!!

On Sunday, February 11, 2018, Dimanche Gras (Fat Sunday), my wife and I attended The Grand Carnaval of Martinique parade, in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. I will do another travelogue post on the whole trip, but I really want to get this music out. It was absolutely, completely, totally awesome - a bucket list event! After the 1st couple of bands, you could not stop moving!

After reading the David Byrne book with one its main messages being, how the corporate state wants us to be music consumers rather than music producers, it was great to see the exact opposite here. There was a little corporate sponsorship, but by and large, this parade, with the dozens of bands and other groups participating, seemed to be a labor of love. The many hours spent on the lavish costumes and music rehearsal were done out of the community values of creativity, tradition, and love.

I tried to get a pic of the banner of each group, and then a video. So I will present them in that same order. 1st up, a human field of sugar cane! Several of the groups had 1 person dressed as a plantation overseer as this one did.

Now we start getting some serious rhythms. Some of these groups had well over a dozen rhythms going.

Note, the 1st 5 days we were on Martinique, it rained for a few minutes every hour or so. Usually it rained hard for 30-60 seconds in the middle. It rained 3 times during the 2 hour parade, the groups soldiered on. I think the rain on my phone terminated this video prematurely.

Some of the dancing was very stylized.

Nice costumes, and a guy on stilts! Plus the 1st horn section. The horns in general weren't so good.

Man, dancing even simple stuff like this for 2 hours!

This appeared to be an all-female group.

This next was the most commercial group - it was sponsored by one of the rum distilleries. They were giving out plastic cups with the distillery marketing info on them. The jungle cat makeup was outstanding, but the dance routine looked like that of a US high school dance team (some of which are very good I'm sure).

The next group was my favorite. I think they were an AIDS awareness group. I stopped the video when they weren't doing much, then restarted when they started doing some set pieces. After that, they just kind of took it to another level (at around the 2:49 mark) - the crowd went nuts, and you can see how it got them high when the crowd started roaring!

Not sure what this meant. The dancers were all coated in what looked like black oil?!?!?

More great costumes and dance steps.

A lot of the horn sections included conch shells.

A little faster pace.

A common theme of the groups wearing headdresses was headdresses sliding off, headdresses being uncomfortable, and other general modes of headdress failure.

Well, that's it. At one point when they were stopped the guy in of me was playing a really complex rhythm on a cowbell, and I thought, "Now that's what I call more cowbell!" - then I noticed that he was in a row with 3 other cowbell players, all of whom were playing different rhythms! I thought I had that on video, but I didn't see it.

So, if you ever get a chance to go to Carnaval on Martinique, or who knows which other Caribbean island, go for it! This was one of the most moving experiences of my recent life.

Friday, February 23, 2018

How Music Works

My wife got me a most thoughtful christmas present: "How Music Works", by David Byrne, 2012, 2017, 381 pages. I knew of the book and had thought about reading it, my wife made the decision for me.

It was a great read, touching on many topics relating to music, and Byrne definitely provides some memorable phrases and inspiring ideas. It's good enough that I decided early on to review it chapter by chapter and include quotations. As my wife gave me a trade paperback version of the book, this involved dogearing, highlighting, and touch-typing in quotations. [I will also include some of my own musical experience.]

Chapter 1 is titled "Creation in Reverse". Byrne talks about the interplay between music and the venue where it is performed. The bigger the room, the more reverb. Outdoors generally has no reverb, and is best suited to percussion, which dominated African music.

[From my experience, playing indoors you get told to turn down, playing outdoors you get told to turn up. My 15 watt Fender Blues Jr tube amp is unusable for outdoor gigs. My 50 watt Marshall solid state amp used indoor has been set on 3-4, outdoors 6-7 (out of 10).]

We are introduced to CBGB, the club in Manhattan where The Talking Heads, Blondie, and others got their starts.

Chapter 2 is titled "My Life in Performance". Byrne recounts his musical life story. He tried a lot of different approaches and concepts in creating music.

I thought this was a great story of a technique used to evaluate dancers for a tour Byrne was preparing for. From these 4 rules, 50 dancers were moving in unison in under 4 minutes:

  1. Improvise moving to the music and come with an 8-count phrase.
  2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.
  3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.
  4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.

Chapter 3 is titled "Technology Shapes Music", subtitled "Part One: Analog". The history of analog recording devices is recounted. Ha, the 1st Edison recorders had such poor quality that they were mostly used for spoken word recordings.

The New York Times predicted that we might collect speeches
In recording music, the early analog media required the performers to modify how they would do things to fit the requirements of the media.
Our understanding of certain kinds of music, based on recordings anyway, is completely inaccurate.
This is interesting. The vibrato that is de rigueur for classical music came about to hide the off-key notes that recordings made painfully obvious?
Katz contends that before the advent of recording, vibrato added to a note was considered kitschy, tacky, and was universally frowned upon ...
Byrne also talks about a version of Wagner's Parsifal directed by Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg (1982) that seemed like it might be worth a look. It appears to be on Vimeo, but it is 4:15 long.

The 1st and last analog recording and playback devices - the Edison cylinder and the cassette tape - allowed the end user to record as well as listen. Generally, the music producers, the record companies, sold more product if they were the only source of content - so early on user recording options were phased out.

The cassette tape made possible mixtapes. Everyone exchanged these with their friends.

The mixtape was your friend, your psychiatrist, and your solace.

Mixtapes were a form of potlatch - the Native American custom by which a gift given requires that a reciprocal gift be received in the future.

[I have made only 2 mixtapes in my life - my favorite songs by Fats Waller, and my favorite songs by Django Reinhardt, at the request of a guitarist friend of mine. Those aren't really mixtapes. I would not know where to begin to create a small selection of the music in my collection. Even given a theme, there's just so much good stuff. My kids have given me great mixtapes. Maybe it's a skill I should work on. I'm pretty good at coming up with set lists for bands I've played in, that seems similar, I wonder why I find the creation of a mixtape off-putting.]

Byrne ends the chapter discussing how the dissemination of music creates cyclic homogenization.

Pop music can be thrown off its axis by some previously unknown and talented rapper from the projects. And then the homogenization process begins again.


Music eats its young and gives birth to a new hybrid creature.

Chapter 4 is titled "Technology Shapes Music", subtitled "Part Two: Digital". Hmmm, CDs were the 1st digital medium, followed by mp3s. Ha ha, interesting, in the early days of digital recordings, a doctor treating psychotics with music found that "When his test subjects are played digital music, they get agitated and twitchy."

Byrne talks about digital composition, including MIDI. Yay, there is hope for us human musicians!

But some instruments elude capture. Guitars aren't easily quantifiable in this way, nor are wind, brass, or most bowed string instruments. So far, the nuances of those instruments have been just too tricky to capture.
Hmmm, is this a form of a race to the bottom? A local minimum hiding a global minimum?
As soon as technology makes one thing easier, it leaves a host of alternatives in the dust.

Chapter 5 is titled "Infinite Choice: The Power of Curation". I was excited to see the title of this chapter - I love curating my music and my books! Here is the 1st line of the chapter:

Endless choice is no choice.
A simple statement like this, you want to say, "that's so obvious, it must be true". But I'm not sure this statement is true, it seems more like something that is said for effect.

In the very next sentence, Byrne mentions that, at least in music, we have achieved post-scarcity utopia! Yay!

In an age of glut, when huge quantities of music are available, the issue for consumers is no longer access but how one finds music that is of interest.
This is an interesting point. It reminds me of the t-shirt that my oldest daughter gave me at one point: "I listen to bands that don't exist yet".
We want the illusion of free will, that some aspect of what we listen to is our choice.
Byrne posits
four kinds of music discovery and curation: recommendation by experts, by the music itself, by social and cultural forces (often managed by algorithms), and by narrative and context.
Talking about the music selection algorithms, Byrne returns to the "free will" concepts:
We're more predictable than we admit, which is why these things work, but the ecstasy in joining the collective pulls against the urge to feel special.
As my t-shirt says, we "feel special" when we discover the cool new band 1st and then the collective follows us.

Hmmm, I thought that the Music Genome Project which powers Pandora had an academic component, apparently not.

[From my personal experience, in the early years of Amazon, I ordered a Counting Crows album. Amazon then said, "If you like Counting Crows, you should check out The Band". I'm like, WTF!, The Band is possibly my favorite band of all time! But, look at the details of the 2 bands: southern rock, mostly guitar based but with mandolin and squeeze box. Counting Crows is indeed a child of The Band, 25 years later.

The 1st time I used Pandora, I was completely blown away. I picked an artist, it gave me an outstanding selection of similar music. I'm asking myself, "Why are you spending so much time curating your music when this is so good?". Answer is, I enjoy curation.]

Chapter 6 is titled "In the Recording Studio". Early on, total emphasis on separating instruments to make things easy for the sound engineer doing the mixing. I just noticed 1 of the sections is titled "Modular Music" - in music as in software, anytime you are creating composite structures, modularity of your components is key. In software, it is key because it maximizes maintainability. In music, seems more like, it makes the sound engineer's job easier.

Here's an interesting anecdote about what is probably my favorite Talking Heads' song: "Once In A Lifetime":

One or two fragments that I used - the repetition of the phrase "You may find yourself", for example - were straight lifts from the radio preacher
A great video too, let's include it here.

Byrne talks about "Paris, An African City" and "New York, The Secret Latin City" as musical influences.

The vaguely melancholy melodies over the syncopated grooves - typical of Latin music - was attractive as an emotionally liberating combination.
This is really interesting - who knew?
Much Latin music has a framework referred to as the clave (the key), which sometimes isn't even played or audibly articulated by any one instrument. (What a beautiful concept that is: the most important part is invisible!) The clave divides the measures into a three-beat and a two-beat pattern - for rockers it's like a Bo Diddley beat, or the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away." (Rock and roll didn't just come from country and blues mixing; there was Latin flavor in there too!) All the other parts, even the horns and the vocals, acknowledge the clave pattern and play with awareness of it, even if it isn't always audible.
So these songs are actually not particularly 4/4 time, they are more like 8/4 time.

Byrne talks about recording moving from the studio to the home, but he notes

The mixing, however. was still done in a "real" studio. A fresh set of ears at that stage can be useful, as one tends to fall in love with parts for reasons no one else can actually hear.

Chapter 7 is titled "Collaborations". Ha ha, here's the 1st paragraph:

The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. This wasn't intended as a compliment - though, to be honest, it's not that far from the truth. Contrary to their insinuation, I am fairly picky about who I collaborate with, but I am also willing to work with people you might not expect me to. I'll risk disaster because the creative rewards of a successful collaboration are great. I've been doing it all my life.
[I greatly enjoyed his recent collaboration with St. Vincent (Annie Clark), of whom I am also a fan. The background was mostly horns, arranged by Lexington native and Dunbar graduate Kelly Pratt, a friend of my oldest daughter the graphic designer.]

I like Byrne's take on improvisation.

So by improvisation I don't mean long meandering guitar solos. Quite the opposite. Ours were more about hunting and pecking with the aim of "finding" short, sonic, modular pieces.
I found this next paragraph very insightful, and maybe inspirational as well. I've always told people that lots of software developers are also musicians because both are about patterns.
If music can be regarded as an organizing principle - and in this case one that places equal weight on melody, rhythm, texture, and harmony - then we start to see metaphors everywhere we look. All kinds of natural phenomena are "musical." And I don't mean they make sounds, but rather that they organize themselves, and patterns become evident. Forms and themes arise, express themselves, repeat, mutate, and then become submerged again. The daily street ballet that Jan Jacobs wrote about, and the hustle and bustle of an outdoor market, are each a kind of music. Stars, bugs, running water, the chaotic tangle of vegetation. Musicians playing together find a kind of symbiotic relationship between one another and an interplay between their parts, so that the interlocking and interweaving create a sonic fabric.
Byrne posits a heuristic for remote collaboration that I think applies to all collaboration. It certainly applied to working on a team of software developers.
The unwritten rule in these remote collaborations is, for me, "Leave the other person's stuff alone as much as you possibly can."
This was an odd piece of arcana - regarding Carmen Miranda's headdresses?!?!?
There was some deeply profound shit secreted in those headdresses, and Veloso alluded to it obliquely in his lyrics.
Another insightful and maybe inspirational passage from Byrne.
... I was also reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, about the almost utopian social transformations that sometimes emerge out of disasters and revolutions - citizens spontaneously and selflessly helping one another after traumatic events ... All these events have in common a magical and all too brief moment when class and other social differences vanish, and a common humanity becomes evident. These moments often last only a few days, but they have a profound and lasting impact on the participants, who witness a door cracked open a little to reveal a better world, one whose existence they never forget.
The final section of this chapter is titled "Emergent Storytelling". It contains a really interesting algorithm for writing song lyrics. I have left this page dogeared, I might have to give this a try.

Chapter 8 is titled "Business and Finance". It is subtitled "Distribution & Survival Options for Musical Artists". Byrne gives quite a detailed analysis of how one made and now makes a living in the music industry, and the role played by record companies. He also provides actual $$$ figures for some of his projects.

He enumerates the changes which have been brought about by modern digital technology. The 1st 2 are reminiscent of "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", which I blogged a little over a year ago.

  1. Recording costs began to approach zero
  2. Manufacturing and distribution costs are approaching zero
  3. Artists no longer get big advances
  4. Performing is now viewed as a source of income
He then delineates "Six Distribution Models With Different Levels Of Artist Control", ranked from least to most artist control. He discusses each model in depth.
  1. The 360• Deal
  2. Standard Royalty Deal
  3. License Deal
  4. Profit-Share Deal
  5. P & D (or M & D) Deal - production & distribution, or manufacturing & distribution
  6. Self-Distribution

Chapter 9 is titled "How to Make a Scene". This is really kind of different. He goes back to the club where Talking Heads got their start, CBGB in the East Village, and attempts to identify what it was that made this place successful. He defines 8 rules:

  1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material
  2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material
  3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too)
  4. There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene
  5. Rent must be low - and it just stay low
  6. Bands must be paid fairly
  7. Social transparency must be encouraged
  8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary
Byrne provides sketches of CBGB - it is tiny! [I don't think I've ever played in a place this small - maybe Green Lantern before it acquired the space next door.]

Very interesting stuff. [#8 definitely disagrees with at least 1 open mic I've played at that insisted on silence during performances.]

#3 is interesting in that it implies that there is a cover charge for admission. [There is now a saxophonist/sound man in Lexington who moved down from Brooklyn a few years ago. He was running a jazz jam and charging a $5 cover, including on the jammers. When questioned on it, he said, "Hell, in Brooklyn, it would be a $5 cover and a 2 drink minimum". Ha ha, he was reminded that this wasn't Brooklyn (hipster capital of the universe).] I wonder how much these rules apply to smaller cities?

Chapter 10 is titled "Amateurs!". [Although I consider myself a semi-pro musician (I occasionally get paid), I think that I am included in this chapter.] I think this chapter can be summarized as Byrne contrasting high culture (classical music, opera, ballet) vs low culture (pop music, dance, etc) - or 1% culture vs "the rest of us" culture.

He also addresses again the desire of Capitalism for us to be music consumers instead of music producers. He addresses the question of, is there something ineffable, magic, inexplicable in music? This reminds me of lazy evolutionary psychologists who make this contention about the human mind. And he addresses Great Man Theory as it applies to music - and IP nazis. A wide reaching and evolutionarily sound chapter, I think!

He starts by returning to the theme of Chapter 1 - that music is part of its environment.

The arts don't exist in a vacuum. And, of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more that it is a thing - it is yoked to where you heard it, how much you paid for it, and who else was there.
He doesn't particularly think it's a "vast conspiracy", but he clearly unhappy with our culture's approach to music.
The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things. And yet for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don't want us to emjoy making things for ourselves - they'd prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation. ... Capitalism tends toward the creation of passive consumers, and in many ways this tendency is counterproductive.
Here is the 1st mention of Great Man Theory.
In the modern age, though, people have come to feel that art and music are the product of individual effort rather than something that emerges from a community. The meme of the solitary genius is powerful, and it has affected the way we think about how our culture came into being.
Here is the 1st IP mention. Cory Doctorow would definitely be onboard.
Much technology in contemporary culture, in which creative tinkering by non-professionals has been crippled by the efforts of computer and software companies, and by the enforcers and lobbyists behind copyright and intellectual-property laws, displays this same tendency. Amateur music makers have had to take a backseat. So much for the market catering to the will of the people!
I did not know that in 1906 John Phillip Sousa wrote an essay titled "The Menace of Mechanical Music". He was really afraid amateur music would disappear completely! This was another interesting thought from Sousa, agreeing with Byrne's "music + environment" ideas.
Sousa is saying that the gaps between performances might in some ways be just as important - socially, at least - as the performances themselves.
On high art vs low art, Byrne quotes John Carey, an English literary critic, who calls out veneration of high art as class-based.
Meanings ... are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them. High art is that which appeals to the minority whose social rank places them above the struggle for mere survival.


One is saying, "What I feel is more valuable than what you feel." In assuming that high art makes life worth living, there is an inherent arrogance toward the mass of people who don't partake of such forms ... and an assumption that their lives are not worth as much, not as full. The religion of art makes people worse - because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic.

Ha ha, I liked the story about an artist showing western masterpieces to folks in rural Thailand. They didn't get much out of it. "the great Western masterpieces simply are not the transformative icons they are considered to be back home."

Supporting high art has also been a way for the nouveau rich or those with questionable sources of income to try to legitimize themselves socially. Take, for instance, the Koch brothers paying to help remodel the Lincoln Center in NYC.

Someone who supports "good" music must be a good person, too. (I have no idea why the Mafia dons and the narco-gangsters haven't wised up to this idea. Wouldn't you love to see the Joey Bananas opera hall?)
Interesting, Byrne mentions the Japanese tea ceremony as a flavor of amateur art.
utilitarian objects and activities, made and performed with integrity, consciously and mindfully, could be art.
There is a very interesting story about a music education program in a favela outside Rio de Janeiro helping to transform young men's lives, keeping them out of gangs.
Music is indeed a moral force, but mostly when it is part of the warp and woof of an entire community.


From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who'll later become a citizen.

Also referenced is an art program in UK prisons.
He claims that the remedy for violence is an agency that will defeat feelings of impotence. Historically, religion has successfully done this, and the rise of fundamentalism might be viewed as a reaction to incresing feelings of alienation and inconsequentiality around the world. Making music might act as a antidote to those feelings too, as those cultural and music centers in the Brazilian favelas attest. In those UK prisons, the quality of the work is beside the point, as it was in Brazil. And unlike religion, no one has ever gone to war over music.
Not sure about that last statement. What about the East Coast vs the West Coast rappers?

Byrne finishes the chapter again touting creation over consumption.

In my opinion, though, it's more important that someone learn to make music, draw, photograph, write, or create in any form, regardless of the quality, than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol, or Bill Shakespeare - to say nothing of opera as it is today.

Chapter 11, the last, is titled "Harmonia Mundi".

"You are the music, while the music lasts."
- T. S. Eliot

So far, we've covered how music is distributed, how it's affected by architecture, and a lot more, but who do we need music? Does it even matter? Where did it come from?

In this chapter, Byrne recounts some of the history of thinking about music, and provides some information on how it works in our brains. We learn about frequency and harmonics, Pythagoras, the Music of the Spheres. Ha ha, Bode's Law, which predicts the spacing of the planets, "gives a series of orbital ratios, which are mathematically identical to the common intervals in musical theory. They're variations on what we call the [C]7th chord, C, E, G, B flat". This leads Byrne to quip
You might say the universe plays the blues.
[I personally prefer 9th chords over 7ths for the blues.]

The 2 sections "Biology and the Neurological Basis for Music" and "Music and Emotion" did not do much for me, as with books I have read on these subjects. I will stick with my Darwin meme.

Ha ha, talking about all the places music is included in our lives, Byrne says he wants to hear "toilet-training songs" - he must not have seen Daniel Tiger.

I was surprised by this statement, which I have said many times.

moving liturgical music away from its original Latin - a language almost no one understands anymore - diminishes some of its power and mystery. The Church inevitably loses some of its deep cosmic power when the hymns are written in languages everyone speaks.
Byrne discusses a proposal by Marshall McLuhan
that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you, and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multilayered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has perspective - a vanishing point, a direction. In visual culture an image is in one very specific fixed spot; it's in front of you. It isn't everywhere at once.
That's interesting, some psychoarcheology, reminiscent of TOOCITBOTBM. But I doubt the relative distribution of the 11 Mbps of the human sensorium (more here), has not changed from 10Mbps vision, .5Mpbs hearing, .5Mbps everything else. So at what layer in the human mind did this change occur?

This was interesting, on Muzak and background music.

The dynamics (the changes in volume level), and even the higher and lower pitches, were ironed out. It seemed as if Muzak had sucked the soul out of the songs, but in fact they had created something entirely new, something close to what Satie imagined: furniture music, music that was clearly a useful and (to their subscribers) functional part of the environment, there to induce calm and tranquility in their shops and offices.


The concept of a musical soporific doesn't work across the board, though. Not every activity is improved by adding a soundtrack. I can't listen to music while I write this, though I have friends who have music playing constantly in their studios while they paint, do Photoshop work, or design web pages. But my attention is always drawn to music.

[I don't listen to music in the mornings - I like quiet in the morning, and I particularly dislike the sound of human voices in the morning. I turn on music when I start making lunch and leave it on until after supper. I particularly like music on while I am cooking - definitely a soundtrack. I turn it off if I am playing music. I have often said that I think my CPU runs a bit hot and that the music acts as a null job, soaking up some of the excess cycles.]

Getting towards the end, Byrne ponders:

If music is inherent in all things and places, then why not let music play itself?
Nice! The last section of the book is titled "Cheesecake", after the description of music as "auditory cheesecake" by one of my favorite writers, Steven Pinker (most recently blogged here), with whom Byrne appeared onstage during a book tour.
Pinker mused in an email to me as we were planning our conversation, "I wonder whether music might be innate, not as a self-contained mental organ but rather as a consequence of the way that language, rhythm, emotion, and acoustic analysis are packed into the brain."
An evolutionary spandrel, as Byrne had discussed earlier.

Here's 2 final pretty thoughts about music.

When we move, perform, or play music in unison, we lose ourselves in a way that is psychologically pleasureable.
[Or, as my youngest daughter said after the 1st time she sang with a full band at a jam, "Dad, playing in a band is really fun, isn't it?"]


we don't dance because we're human as much as we are human because we dance.

Again, a great read, so many different views of and concepts relating to music. Definitely check it out.