Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mata Hari Wants to Friend You

The following showed up this morning on Al Jazeera English through their wire service sources:
Iranian hackers set up fake Facebook accounts and tried to befriend US and Western officials in an effort to spy on them, an internet security firm has said.
The hackers created fake personas and populated their profiles with fictitious personal content, and then tried to befriend targets, the Reuters news agency reported.
Targets are believed to include a US navy admiral, politicians, ambassadors, lobbyists and officials from several other countries including the UK and Saudi Arabia, according to the internet firm, iSight Partners.
Is anyone surprised that social software should turn out to provide a new layer of efficiency for some of the oldest spycraft techniques?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Difference between Hearing and Listening

This blog seems to have become my "laboratory notebook" for tracking how my thoughts progress as I work my way through John Sloboda's book The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music. Now that I am deep within the chapter entitled "Listening to Music," it has occurred to me that Sloboda has not yet made any mention of that distinction between hearing and listening made by Igor Stravinsky of which I am so fond. On both this site and my writing for, I have invoked Stravinsky's colorful language in drawing this distinction:
Others let the ears be present and they don't make an effort to understand. To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.
However, there is probably something a bit deeper when it comes to separating us from the ducks; and I would have thought that, being a psychologist, Sloboda would have been aware of it.

At the risk of making things sound too pretentious, I believe that the distinction may best be captured through a distinction one encounters in semiotics. Hearing is all about detecting and processing signals. To the extent that it involves any aspect of mind beyond basic sensory responses, it involves detecting signal properties. Those include temporal properties, as well as spectral; but, if we are talking about looking for patterns, they are patters that take place in the abstract world of trace graphs in both the time domain and the frequency domain.

When we move into the domain of listening, we approach those signals as if they are indicators of something symbolic. I use that word with a bit of caution, since we may not be talking about symbols the way we talk about how words can serve as symbols in linguistic communication. However, listening introduces one or more factors that take us beyond signals that are defined strictly in terms of their physical properties. Like other forms of communication, those factors may bring into play features the characterize making music as a a motivated action, rather than merely a playing out of phenomena in time. My guess is that just what those features are remains a topic for further research, but that research is likely to provide far more insight than Stravinsky could express through his pithy used of language.

Monday, May 26, 2014

How Can we Study Acts of Listening to Music?

Last Saturday, when I was trying to cope with the question of the "semantics" of music, I tried to home in on Jürgen Habermas' efforts to develop a theory of "communicative action." I suggested that, where music is concerned, the nature of the engagement that takes place between those who make music and those who listen to it carries more significance than more objective approaches to communication, which assume that some kind of "signal" is being passed from a "sender" to a "receiver." What is now known as the "mathematical theory of communication" is almost entirely about how what the receiver receives is basically identical to what the sender sends without acquiring any of the interference of "noise."

Where music is concerned, however, this theory may not rest on a useful set of premises. It may be hazardous to assume that listening to music involves some kind of "processing" of an "auditory signal" by brain or mind. Rather than thinking in terms of either the objective world of signals and noise or the psychological world of collecting data from reproducible experiments, it may be necessary to recognize that the act of listening is as much a matter of in-the-moment behavior as the act of making music is. This may require taking a stance that is more in the spirit of phenomenology, with its assumption that mind constructs neither more nor less than appearances, than in the spirit of cognitive psychology. As I have previously observed, this is a generalist approach that tends not to sit eill with those whose careers depend on their skills in practicing "normal science."

Nevertheless, it circles back on a theme I have tried to explore in the past. An appearance may best be viewed as the construct of an individual mind; and, because it is a mental construct, it does not lend itself to being reduced to a signal that can then be subjected to noise-free transmission. For better or worse, "transmission" can only be achieved by the effort of the individual to provide an "account" (which probably amounts to a "description") of that appearance. Such an act requires skill, and that skill may be important enough to be addressed by those who have committed themselves to educating future generations of serious listeners, such as would-be music critics. This may be where the real need to explore the relationship between language and music resides, simply because those "accounts" can only be grounded in language, rather than in the music itself. If this means that similar regions of brain are involved in these two acts, then so be it; but that involvement may not have anything to do with whether music is linguistic in nature (or whether language is musical in nature). It requires a new area of study that probably will not sit will with the "normal" scientific community.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Does it Really Make Sense to Talk about the "Semantics" of Music?

Every now and then I browse through past posts to this site to see whether or not some of the things I have written in the past still have some validity and whether or not there are some that would be better off "forgotten" (since that particular action now seems to be of great interest to the European Union). I discovered that it has been a little less than a year since I wrote a post entitled "Does it Really Make Sense to Talk about the 'Syntax' of Music?" I encountered it as a result of the time I am currently putting into reading John A. Sloboda's The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music, where I recently encountered the following observation:
Musical semantics is of a similar type to poetic semantics. This does not mean that either subject is necessarily opaque to scientific understanding, but that we may be mistaken to seek for musical meanings in the same way as psychologists have so far attempted to elucidate the semantics of normal speech.
This reminded me that any such question that I pose about syntax may also be asked about semantics.

My guess is that many readers will nod enthusiastically at the first sentence in that quote. Certainly, there are differences in how we try to grasp the semantics of:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
as opposed to (for example):
If you are going by the pharmacy, can you pick up my prescription?
I would probably even suggest that the distinction goes beyond John L. Austin's speech act theory and probably just as far beyond the efforts of Jürgen Habermas to generalize Austin's efforts into a "theory of communicative action." Indeed, rather than raising the question about semantics, we may do well to ask the broader question of whether or not the acts of making music can be taken as instances of such "communicative action." About three years ago I tried to take on this issue on my national site for with an article entitled "Acting to communicate and communicating to act." Looking back on that article, however, I realize that, at that time, I was writing about how musicians communicate among themselves when engaged in such acts of making music, rather than any question about whether or not the music itself communicates.

One way to approach this broader question is through what has become my favorite joke about John Cage:
Q: Mr. Cage, what is your composition 4'33" about?
A: Well, it is about four minutes and thirty-three seconds long.
This is one of those cases where a clever play on words may home in on "ground truth" more effectively than all the resources of just about any approach to what we would call "music theory." Part of that ground truth may have to do with the fact that, while it may make sense to talk about there being some kind of "engagement" between performers and their audience, the nature of that engagement is too far removed from the axiomatic foundations of Habermas' theory to be considered as a "communcative action;" and the same may be said of the relationship between a poet and his/her reader or listener.

Sloboda's sentence thus manages to weasel out of a difficult situation while, at the same time, homing in (perhaps inadvertently) on a fundamental principle of the act of making music. I tend to agree that studying that principle and its implications is not "necessarily opaque to scientific understanding." However, I would prefer to identify "scientific understanding" with "consistent reasoning," rather than identifying it merely with disciplined data collection and interpretation. If I were pressed to say more about the nature of such reasoning, I would, at least at the present time, follow the advice of Ludwig Wittgenstein and "pass over" that matter "in silence." In that silence, however, my mind will be churning over the related questions in the hope that, eventually, I can break that silence with at least a modicum of confidence.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

"Go where you will not be tempted."

"Go where you will not be tempted" has become, for me, the most memorable line from Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons, even if it happens to be delivered by one of the most Machiavellian figures in British history. (I am pretty sure that Bolt did not see Sir Thomas More in quite that light. However, I figure that, in praising a concept, I feel it is necessary to include the disclaimer that it was mouthed by one of history's most abject hypocrites.)

It would be nice if we could follow the advice of that sentence at the supermarket. Unfortunately, supermarkets remain one of the most prominent battlefields for consumer attention in American marketing. Indeed, one could say that every inch of every shelf involves an ongoing series of battles the likes of which may not have been seen since the American Civil War, except that, in this case, the battles are all about enslaving all American citizens to specific products and their associated brands. It was therefore comforting to read a report on the BBC News Web site about a trend among British supermarkets to remove shelves full of candy products from the checkout lines. After all, those shelves really are the mother lode when it comes to seizing consumer eyeballs, since they are the one place in the store where the customer really is a captive audience. There have even been efforts to make sure that all candy products are kept away from the eye level of kids.

Considering that the movie Fed Up will be opening this week, this story could not have come at a better time. After all, one of the messages of that film is that the purveyors of junk food have a much stronger hold on both consumers and vendors. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that a film like this will prompt a critical mass of people capable of making a difference to act, any more than An Inconvenient Truth had an impact on environmental policy at either the national or global level. One might even go so far as the say that there are those who believe that "freedom to eat to the detriment of your health" is a Constitutional right, alongside freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. They would probably read this BBC story and interpret as yet another example of the tyranny of a "nanny state."

When Oscar Wilde said "I can resist anything except temptation," he thought it was a witty riposte. He may have even believed it. Unfortunately, he had to confront the consequences of that particular conviction with another kind of conviction. One wonders if he reflected on this in his prison cell. We may not think about public obesity in the same way that Wilde thought about his own temptations and the consequences are not as likely to be as great as imprisonment. Nevertheless, this is a serious matter that will not fare very well in a culture that has chosen to identify itself by not taking anything seriously (other than, perhaps, gun ownership).

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What to Expect REALLY from the "Internet of Things"

For those of us (unlike Tim Berners-Lee) who feel it is important to examine the reality of the Internet, rather than some utopian academic ideal, Don Reisinger's story this morning on CNET News would just have been a matter of waiting for the shoe to drop. Everything can be found in a single sentence quoted from a Google document:
For example, a few years from now, we and other companies could be serving ads and other content on refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses, and watches, to name just a few possibilities.
In other words, whatever propaganda Cisco may be pumping out about how the "Internet of Things" will make the world a better place, the only result that will really matter is that more "things" will be targets for Internet-based advertising. The repercussions of pop-up ads appearing on car dashboards can be left as an exercise for the reader!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dylan Goes Rachmaninoff

I guess I was not surprised by the news that Bob Dylan was recording a song popularized by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had recorded "Blue Moon;" and that showed up on his Self Portrait album. However, the tune for this latest shot, "Full Moon and Empty Arms," comes from the third movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. The idea of Dylan singing a Rachmaninoff theme boggles all minds except those fortunate enough to have experienced the "Mississippi John Hurt sings Gilbert and Sullivan gag."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Scholarship in the Internet Age

The latest issue of The New York Review has an article by Robert Darnton entitled "A World Digital Library Is Coming True!" The piece is basically a paean for the growing empowerment of scholarly practices enabled by the Internet with little care that those actually engaged in those practices are declining in number at a painful rate. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see mention of a software tool that "makes it possible for a reader to go from a Wikipedia article to all the works in the DPLA [Digital Public Library of America] that bear on the same subject." Such an endorsement by Darnton carries far more weight in accepting the legitimacy of Wikipedia than any anecdotal evidence from yours truly.

Indeed, I read Darnton's remark shortly after learning that Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (MGG) just announced plans to go digital. Considering how long Grove Music Online has been available, the obvious question is, "What took them so long?" The other question will be, "Will this make any difference?" The fact is that, when writing my thesis, I made no use of either of these encyclopedic sources. I started from full-length books on the topics I was pursuing and then used their bibliographies to seek out primary sources. As Wikipedia authors take the practice of writing more seriously, Wikipedia readers will take the practice of reading more seriously; and those great minds that once labored over producing qualities entries for both Grove and MGG may need to recognize that there are better ways in which they can spend their time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Public Education Considered Harmful

We all have favorite jokes about the stupid things that emerge where politics and education cross paths. My favorite has always been the story of a law passed in Tennessee making the mathematical constant π equal to 3. (A more generous version of the story has it being legally equal to 22/7.)

Still nothing could prepare me for the recent news from the Rialto Unified School District in San Bernadino County. According to a report by Beau Yarbrough for the San Bernadino County Sun, about 2000 eighth grade students were given an essay assignment, in conjunction with having read Anne Frank's diary, to
read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based on cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe (the Holocaust) was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.
It seems to have taken about a week for news about this event to circulate, after which the Rialto Unified School Board held an emergency meeting to discuss damage control for damage that had already been done.

Personally, I find this a useful data point for setting expectations of what will happen when Fox News takes over public education in the United States.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Psychologists Do What Psychologists Do

Last August I found myself writing on my national site about John A. Sloboda and his 1985 book, The Musical Mind: The Cognitive Psychology of Music, on two consecutive days. I had been drawn to Sloboda because of a bold statement concluding the very first paragraph of his Preface:
It seemed, to me at least, that the psychology of music related rather little to what musicians actually did, and so was failing to tackle questions of central musical importance.
On the first of those days I elaborated on Sloboda's argument as a framework for discussing the shortcomings of a far more recent book, Music, Language, and the Brain, by Aniruddh D. Patel. The following day, however, I encountered a paper by Chia-Jung Tsay, who seemed far more inclined to honor his position (even if her paper still left certain matters open to question).

Since having read Sloboda's sentence and his elaboration on it, I have been reading a fair amount of the literature from psychologists. I have been struck by the fact that, while a quarter-century has elapsed since he nailed his thesis to the wall, most of the subsequent papers I have read have been blithely ignorant of it. I realized that Sloboda was fighting a losing battle.

Psychologists who decide to apply their expertise to music are still psychologists. That means that they are probably members of an academic Psychology Department, and most of them have to worry about publishing, particularly if they have not yet gotten tenure. In other words they have to produce material of value to their peers, and their peers are not musicians. Hence, they do what psychologists do: They collect data according to the approved practices of their profession and then analyze the data according to another set of approved practices. They then document the results of the analysis in a paper in a matter that will get it published. In other words, psychologists succeed in their profession by doing what other successful psychologists do.

Within that context, any significant impact on our knowledge of what musicians do is necessarily incidental and, most likely, will be accidental.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Wikipedia Trumps Grove!

In my writing for, my rule of thumb has been to use Wikipedia for quick convenience and Grove Music Online (which I can enter through a gateway provided by San Francisco Public Library) for authority. Yesterday, however, I happened to be attending the San Francisco premiere performance of Artur Schnabel's piano trio; and I felt that this deserved digging into some background material. Schnabel's Wikipedia page provided a generous biographical account with discussions of both his performing career and his efforts as a composer. Unfortunately, the piece performed yesterday was not included in the list of his compositions; and this led me to check his Grove Music Online entry. This turned out to be a skimpy two paragraphs by William Glock taken from the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music! I am not sure who at Grove decided that Schnabel was that insignificant, but I was glad to see that the anonymous musicologists who hang out on Wikipedia felt that he deserved more attention.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Words of Wisdom Doomed to be Ignored (at our peril)

Perhaps the most damning statement in Richard Lewontin's attempt to assess the state-of-play in synthetic biology (involving anything from basic research to product development) in the May 8 issue of The New York Review is the following:
Nothing in history suggests that those who control and profit from material production can really be depended upon to devote the needed foresight, creativity, and energy to protect us from the possible negative effects of synthetic biology.
I suppose this is a polite way of saying that "the bottom line" cares about neither risks nor averse consequences. Of course there is no reason why it should. It is only a number. However, because that number is so closely watched by high-stakes shareholders, it ends up carrying more significance than what the business is actually doing, whether it involves the creation of product, the marketing of product, or the human factors involving both workers and customers. That solitary number that determines the fate of every business of any size may well be the whimper with which T. S. Eliot predicted the world would end.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Artificial Intelligence and the Wisdom of Physicists

I have been conditions to worry whenever physicists weigh in on the topic of artificial intelligence, particularly when they are Nobel laureates. It has now been 25 years since Roger Penrose published The Emperor's New Mind, in which he skillfully applied higher mathematics to demonstrate the impossibility of artificial intelligence. When a colleague equally skilled in the mathematics of computation theory pointed out the many flaws in Penrose's argument, all he did was write another book, Shadows of the Mind, which added little to the first, citing the flaws that had been raised but not addressing them with any substance.

Now we have an article by Stephen Hawking (with assistance from Stuart Russell, Max Tegmark, and Frank Wilczek), whose credentials are as good as Penrose's, arguing that artificial intelligence is inevitable and that we need to be prepared for consequences we might otherwise regret. Had Hawking been inspired by something other than the movie Transcendence, I might treat this article with more respect. After all, I agree with the punch line. I continue to believe that we have become so enamored of technology evangelism that we have all but expunged the word "consequences" from our working vocabulary. Furthermore, while his expertise is physics, Hawking certainly knows a thing or two about mind and embodiment that most of us will never adequately grasp. Nevertheless, like Penrose he also may not really grasp the reality of the technology, as opposed to the fantasies that are spun for the sake of funding research projects and startups.

So it goes.