Grey Matter

Informing America

Executive 1: "We need a new face... someone that beams honesty and understanding... someone who knows what's really going on and can explain it clearly."

Executive 2: "Nope. Viewers don't want smart talking heads. They want dumb people that they can relate to."

Executive 1: "Bullshit. They expect presenters to be informed. They look to them to help make sense of the world's confusion."

Executive 2: "That's so last century. That's from back when people had faith in science and technology to make a better world. It's different now. They know they'll never understand, so they just want television to reassure them that they're in line with the crowd. Talk shows are the new opiate of the masses."

Executive 1: "But if that's true, you could put absolutely anyone up as a face. As long as they have sex appeal and a clear voice."

Executive 2: "Bzzzt. Wrong. Don't need sexy. Don't want sexy. Physical attractiveness is another thing that places a barrier between the presenter and the viewer."

Executive 1: "No way! I still call bullshit. You CANNOT make a popular talking head out of a loudmouthed slob with a preschool education."

The rest is history.

Responsibility of Intellectuals

3 Quarks Daily led me to Noam Chomsky on The Responsibility of Intellectuals

I'm always uneasy about the concept of "speaking truth,"
as if we somehow know the truth and only have to enlighten others
who have not risen to our elevated level. The search for truth
is a cooperative, unending endeavour. We can, and should, engage
in it to the extent we can and encourage others to do so as
well, seeking to free ourselves from constraints imposed by
coercive institutions, dogma, irrationality, excessive conformity
and lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other obstacles.

Noam gets his teeth into wars of aggression and torture and where the responsibility lies. He finishes positively.

From the Book of Meaning

Meanwhile, in another multi-dimensional space, there remained only two aggredeities after the (metaphorical but not necessarily allegorical) dust settled. Their interactions were not completely untranslatable, and are interpreted here as idiomatic dialog to facilitate human comprehension.

Pseu: "What'll it be, Reg? You must decide."

Reg was a coordinated coalition of consonant conscience and courtesy, and Pseu was a devious distributed dissonance of distraction and dissipation. Pseu was offering Reg a choice. This was the denouement of an epic whose span cannot be compassed by the likes of you or me. Its casualties were countable, but not finite; its plot twists, recursive and non-euclidean; its lessons, lost to all but the victor because the casualty count included all observers.

Only these two aggredeities remained, but this was unlike the final showdown one might expect for an ultimate battle between order and chaos. Reg (the definite undergod) did not have overwhelming odds stacked against it, because this 5.72-dimensioned space was completely deterministic. Probabilities need not even be considered. Reg was constrained to an end-game choice of only two options with no possible alternatives.

Reg: "What were those options again? I got distracted by trans-dimensional expository interference."

Pseu: "I could keep you alive for all eternity,
suffering. I could exist very comfortably on your pain alone. Or..."

Reg: "Ah, the obligatory non-option, so that you can call the outcome my choice."

Pseu: "Or I could let you die now in peace and create from your essence a whole new universe. Your intrinsic order would live on in the rules of the new universe, but I can construct it so that the very basis of those rules is randomness. I can make it so that the tiniest changes precipitate staggering catastrophes. Everything will look like it follows a pattern, but randomness will obscure the important patterns and remote coincidences will misguide any learning. Nothing will be certain. Even causality will be impossible to confirm. And any intelligent being locked in this universe will be doomed to suffer the ongoing aching angst of uncertainty."

Reg: "But if you make the universe out of me, you won't be able to meddle with it. You won't be able to break my essential rules."

"I won't have to. This universe will start slowly, but once it gets going it'll radiate the pain of trillions of frustrated intelligences. Tasty!"

Reg made the only reasonable moral choice possible: "I think I'll skip the eternity of torture, thanks, and go straight to the universe of pain. At least it won't be my pain."

Visualizing Music

Over in my guest book topic, Judah posed a question. I started composing a response but it got too long, so I've posted my stab at an answer here.

Hey, Virge, question for you: I was just listening to music and watching the visualizations on Windows Media Player, and they really seemed to flow with the music and mean something. It seemed like a strange thing that these randomly generated visualizations should have such a close bond with the music. I know that some of the input for the program comes from the music itself, but even so, how smart can the algorithm be? It doesn't know what's going on in my mind.


Is music able to convey relatively complex things through simple cues (volume, pitch, changes in pitch), and can those same cues be reflected in a visualization to the same effect? Or do the music and visualization convey only relatively simple things, which in turn are the cues for my mind to amplify on? Or is the whole thing a projection: what I hear in the music, I project onto the visualization, which in reality does not reflect the music except in a very simple way? What do you think?

As far as I can see, most of the Media Player visualizations are based on a combination of 5 elements:

  1. real time spectrum analysis of the audio--working out how much sound volume is present at each frequency, from the deepest bass to the highest sizzles,
  2. a geometric mapping--mapping the frequency and volume parts of the audio spectrum to different positions on the display and/or to different shapes or colours on the display,
  3. a time-based filtering algorithm so that a short duration change in the spectrum (e.g., the blip in the spectrum due to a single drum hit) will produce a change in the image that morphs and fades over a few seconds,
  4. some slow time-based input independent of the audio, e.g. a steady progression of the colors through parts of the palette, or a steady rotation of the whole picture,
  5. some pseudo-random input to introduce variety of images even if the audio is repetitive.

Of those elements, only #1 has any ability to connect the mood or feel of music to a visual effect. The spectrum is a very, very raw measure of the instantaneous timbre of the combined instruments.

This question reminds me of something I read recently (probably by Daniel Dennett, since I read two of his books over the last couple of months) about the problems of reductionism: we may eventually be able to completely explain in physical terms all the parts of the experience of music, but such a description will never be satisfying. Understanding each of the parts doesn't lead to an understanding of the whole. There are so many layers* in which a description of micro-behavior of one level depends on the macro-behavior of the underlying level, that our understanding of music as an experience cannot be usefully described in the language of acoustics. The information presented in a real-time updating audio spectrum is a very "mechanical" description of the music. What we experience when we listen to music is overwhelmingly determined by what we already have stored in our heads from past listening experiences. As you say, music is "able to convey relatively complex things through simple cues" and this is because we have a rich set of conditioned reactions to the language of music that we've absorbed as part of our culture.

In our westernized culture we associate certain sounds with certain emotions, e.g., a kazoo or tin whistle playing in a major key = playful; a violin playing in a minor key = wistful (even if you keep the same rhythm and tempo). The difference in tonality between major and minor makes a huge difference to the mood conveyed by a piece of music, but will be completely undetectable on a spectrum based visualization. It is possible to automatically analyze the tonal and harmonic content of music, and a visualization based on these might be able to run in real-time on a current PC, but I'm pretty sure none of the Media Player visualizers do so.

I think you're on the right track with the idea of projection, but it's not the whole story. Two other things are also contributing to the sensation:

  1. The people who design and select visualizations are actively choosing the ones that are interesting and pleasing representations of the music. Of all the possible ways to convert spectrum information to a picture, the only ones you get to see in the end product are ones that pleased the software geeks, and the marketers, and the customer focus groups, etc. So if there are certain mappings from audio spectrum -> color/shape/movement -> human image recognition -> association/memories -> emotions that do happen to correlate with the listening experience in our culture, then these will be selected for in the product development and marketing process.
  2. You are continually learning whether you realize it or not. When you listen to a piece of music and have an attractive pattern projected to your eyes it doesn't take long for your brain to start recognizing patterns (subconsciously) and building associations between those visual and audio patterns. If the visualization was mostly random, the associations wouldn't develop (except by accident). Because the visualizations are based primarily on consistent algorithmic manipulations of the audio information, the patterns are consistent and your brain learns them. Even if you go to a new visualization with different transformations, there is enough commonality in the way they process audio spectra for your brain to adapt, re-use what it has learned, and condition how you react to what you see.

* Here's my over-simplified map of the layers of knowledge required : mechanical vibrations -> sound transmission -> the ear as an auto-tuning sound transducer -> neural firings -> networked interconnections that have learned to "recognize" sounds/rhythms -> combinations of recognitions -> memory associations -> emotional states.

Fairy dust and happy thoughts

Silent Night, Hallowed Night

He'd prayed about it long and hard; he knew
The voice, that still small voice of calm within,
So pure and so assured, so clearly true
That failure to obey must count as sin
Like leaving vile diseases free to grow
Or asking Satan's demons to come in.
As is in Heaven, soon to be below,
He'd bring the hallow back to Halloween,
Reclaiming silent streets from rats that go
About with shouts profane and screams obscene
Demanding tribute to their god of greed--
A feast of fleshly gluttony to glean.
He tiptoed out to start the cleansing deed
With ears well blocked, so not to hear them plead.

(Halloween is supposed to be a little scary, isn't it?)

On Communication

I've been reading Overcoming Bias regularly for the last couple of months. It's become one of my favorites for mental stimulation.

Eliezer Yudkowsky on communication barriers:

If you want to sound deep, you can never say anything that is more than a single step of inferential distance away from your listener's current mental state. That's just the way it is. (From How to Seem (and Be) Deep)

The audience doesn't know anything about an evolutionary-psychological argument for a cognitive bias to underestimate inferential distances leading to traffic jams in communication. They'll just think you're condescending. (From Expecting Short Inferential Distances)

Inherit the earth

A geek desires to tell you how he feels
and not content to air his fragile dreams
obscurely in third person, he reveals
them cloaked in allegorical extremes.
He writes from the perspective of a hack--
a journalist from twenty-fifty-two
who chronicles nerd heroes of way back
when physical appearance was what drew
more hearts: "The strange emergence of the nerds,
equipped with sci-fi trivia and math,
as models for the macho human herds
has steered mankind from war's destructive path.
 The world grew up when people learned to play
 and regular expressions saved the day.

Just words

If I could have my way with words
I'd lock them in my soundproof ward,
subject them to a hypno-beat,
deny them sleep.
I'd isolate them from their kin
and stress them till they'd only mean
the things I want,
and not the things you think you hear.

Cephalopod Awareness Day

I missed it (by Australian time). October 8th was International Cephalopod Awareness Day. Not having much time, I've collected some of the cephalopod poems I'd written for PhaWRONGula.

An Awdl Gywydd for Pharyngula: Firefly squid

Skin-deep creatures, rage the night,
Flaunt your brightness to excess;
Flashing features, star-like, proud,
Show the crowd your nightclub dress.

A Lehrerian tango for Pharyngula: More cephalopod art

Dim the lights for a tantric temptation;
Feel this rhythm of writhing elation;
Great Ones watch us askance as the night bids us dance
And the music demands the tentacle tango.

All alone in your tank, are you sighing?
Let me taste every tear that you're dyeing;
Feel the lure of my charms; leave your marks on my arms;
Come to me, and we'll trip the tentacle tango.

As I fondle each sensuous sucker
Is it out of the question to pucker?
Your rapturous grip makes each dance step a trip
When we dance, beak to cheek, the tentacle tango.

Though my friends say I'm wasting my life on
A wet bag with eight legs and a siphon,
Still I'm lost without trace in your tactile embrace
Every time we attempt the tentacle tango.

A limerick for Pharyngula: Cirrate octopus

They're luminous, leggy and lissome,
In diaphanous drag. Don't dismiss 'em.
You see, I'm a sucker
For 'podes when they pucker,
But I can't find the courage to kiss 'em.

And some double-dactyls:

Re: Pharyngula: "los diablos rojos"?

Tabloid Canadian
Libels the Humboldt with
Fishermen's tales,

Marking himself as a
First to be food when the
Old one prevails.

Re: Pharyngula: Cephalopod gnashers

Two-spot the octopus
Suckers his snacks with his
Tangly physique,

Munching his meals with a
Chitinous crab-opening
Muscle-bound beak.

Re: Pharyngula: God hates squid

Answers in Genesis
Claims that an octopus
Is not alive;

This is great news, 'cause their
Lore will allow undead
Squid-men to thrive.

Re: Pharyngula: Florid squid prose

Gigas (Dosidicus),
Migrating north from its
Home in the deep,

Causes reporters to
Paint purple prose while the
Old guy's asleep.

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