Thursday, January 21, 2021

David Bruce on rhythm in music: language, micro-rhythm

The nature of language rhythm affects rhythmic pratice in speakers of a language

Have you ever wondered whether the way you speak, the language and the particular accent you use, affect the kind of music you write? In this video I look at the fascinating research into this area that has indeed found people with different languages and even accents do end up writing different kinds of music.


Micro-rhythm is a term used to describe the "wonky" rhythms found in musical traditions like Samba da Roda, Morrocan Gnawa, the Viennese Waltz, as well as in neo-soul like D'Angelo and jazz musicians like Errol Garner and Malcolm Braff and Jacob Collier. I take you through some examples.

Monday, January 11, 2021

“Spontaneous combustion” at the Capitol Building on Jan 6

Sociologist Keiran Healy has a fascinating conjectural account of what happened at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2020:

From the moment he knew he’d lost the presidential election, Trump absolutely wanted to get the result overturned. Some large proportion of his own staff and Congressional Republicans thought there was no harm in humoring him. Many surely knew him well enough to realize he was quite serious about it. But most, falling into a way of thinking that Trump has repeatedly benefited from over his entire career, and especially during his Presidency, figured that he could not possibly overcome the weight of institutional and conventional pressure behind the transition of power. Still, by the first week of January he had not relented in his efforts to find some way to do it, whether through bullying local election officials, chasing wild geese through the courts, or directly intimidating state officials. That all failed, or looked like failing. The next thing on the horizon was Electoral College certification.

So, Team Trump organized a big day of protest to coincide with the certification. The MAGA hats and Q people got all excited. Initially, Pence was going to be the guy who’d sort things out by using his made-up authority to reject the votes. But then he said he wouldn’t do this, which complicated things considerably. By this stage they were running out of rope, but Trump’s whole m.o. is just to keep pushing and pushing until those charged with stopping him just get tired, give in, or give up.

The plan for Wednesday was to have Trump go down and rile up the MAGA crowd, have them march up to the Capitol steps, and look like a big mass of people demanding something be done.

And, to put a short gloss on the rest of the post, they pushed and they pushed until the whole thing blew up in their faces. They were hoping something would happen that would overturn the election, or at least throw another monkey wrench into the works, though they didn't have any clear idea of what that might be, but they had no intention that the Capitol Building would be entered and trashed. But things got out of control.

...the White House very quickly found itself in a supercharged version of the situation that Cruz and Hawley are also in. They presumed they could cynically ride this movement for their own ends. They gleefully lit match after match, and eventually to their horror they managed to set themselves on fire along with everyone else. They clearly incited these events. They saw them spin rapidly out of control. They ended Wednesday afternoon with five people dead, the Capitol defiled, and the country stunned. They definitely wanted to overturn the election, which by itself is a subversion of representative government. Their efforts produced a messy putsch into the bargain, and got people killed. They should be punished for it as severely as the law permits, and they should never be allowed to live down their responsibility for what happened.

H/t Tyler Cowen.

Anger sprite

Software mediation of everything is one of the MAJOR challenges facing human progress

The rest of the tweet stream:

What follows is not literally @doctorow's words, but rather the ideas as they appear refracted through my memory and further reflection.

He reminded us of what was by then becoming Silicon Valley conventional wisdom, almost certainly correct, that software is eating the world.

That is, over time, more & more of the objects & systems in our world are having a software layer added. We no longer directly control them; rather their behaviour is mediated. This gives us extra capabilities, but also means a loss of control, ceding it to the software layer

You know the story: books are becoming mediated by a software layer. Cars are being mediated by a software layer. Home appliances. Even our bodies.

So too at a higher level, the systems that run our world: housing, transit, conversation (hi @jack! ), democracy, and almost every other human system.

Eventually it seems likely that everything from the tiniest objects to the largest systems will be mediated by a complex ecology of software.

What @doctorow pointed out is that that mediation layer is an absolute, full-on battleground.

It's a battleground of all the governments of the world. Companies. Not-for-profits. Activists. Black-hat hackers. White-hat hackers. Etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Over time, invisible to most users, that battle is becoming fiercer & fiercer & fiercer, as the stakes rise & rise.

And because this mediation layer increasingly runs our lives, it has many of the characteristics of both law and infrastructure. But it's law and infrastructure subject to an increasingly fierce, ongoing, invisible battle by a multitude of interests.

We'll all be subject to the outcomes of that battle in unexpected ways, ways that will be profound, sometimes big and obvious, sometimes very hard to detect until after the fact

Anyways, I think often of that mediation layer now, and the battle for control, and wonder how it will turn out, and how the outcome can be influenced.

It seems likely that figuring out the principles & protocols of governance for this mediation layer will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century, a challenge much like figuring out the principles underlying, say, the US constitution.

Encouragingly, it seems like wisdom & deep thought can make a big difference. Ideas like freedom of speech, separation of powers, & religious freedom aren't obvious; they were invented by brilliant, humane people. I wonder what similar depth of thought can help achieve today?

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Trump's cybernetic circle: Twitter and television

Maggie Haberman, Stripped of Twitter, Trump Faces a New Challenge: How to Command Attention, NYTimes, Jan. 10, 2021:

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets.

The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

Mr. Trump’s White House aides said he loved tweeting and then watching the chyrons on cable news channels quickly change in response. For a septuagenarian whose closest allies and aides say often exhibits the emotional development of a preteen, and for whom attention has been a narcotic, the instant gratification of his tweets was hard to match.

I analyzed the relationship between Trump's tweeting and his television viewing in a blog post from 2018: Trumposaurus Rex @ 3QD – Toward a cybernetic interpretation, which is part of a working paper on Trump, Trump Works the Presidency: Imperial Boss and Cyborg Operator.

Arnold Schwarzenegger on the stroming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, comparing it to Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10 in Germany. From Wikipedia:

... a pogrom against Jews carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany on 9–10 November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night") comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings and synagogues were smashed. The pretext for the attacks was the assassination of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old German-born Polish Jew living in Paris.

Things hidden

Gamers, breakers, and lies [about the violence of Jan 6]

From Timothy Snyder, "The American Abyss", NYTimes, Jan 9, 2021:

In this sense, the responsibility for Trump’s push to overturn an election must be shared by a very large number of Republican members of Congress. Rather than contradict Trump from the beginning, they allowed his electoral fiction to flourish. They had different reasons for doing so. One group of Republicans is concerned above all with gaming the system to maintain power, taking full advantage of constitutional obscurities, gerrymandering and dark money to win elections with a minority of motivated voters. They have no interest in the collapse of the peculiar form of representation that allows their minority party disproportionate control of government. The most important among them, Mitch McConnell, indulged Trump’s lie while making no comment on its consequences.

Yet other Republicans saw the situation differently: They might actually break the system and have power without democracy. The split between these two groups, the gamers and the breakers, became sharply visible on Dec. 30, when Senator Josh Hawley announced that he would support Trump’s challenge by questioning the validity of the electoral votes on Jan. 6. Ted Cruz then promised his own support, joined by about 10 other senators. More than a hundred Republican representatives took the same position. For many, this seemed like nothing more than a show: challenges to states’ electoral votes would force delays and floor votes but would not affect the outcome.

Yet for Congress to traduce its basic functions had a price. An elected institution that opposes elections is inviting its own overthrow. Members of Congress who sustained the president’s lie, despite the available and unambiguous evidence, betrayed their constitutional mission. Making his fictions the basis of congressional action gave them flesh. Now Trump could demand that senators and congressmen bow to his will. He could place personal responsibility upon Mike Pence, in charge of the formal proceedings, to pervert them. And on Jan. 6, he directed his followers to exert pressure on these elected representatives, which they proceeded to do: storming the Capitol building, searching for people to punish, ransacking the place.

Of course this did make a kind of sense: If the election really had been stolen, as senators and congressmen were themselves suggesting, then how could Congress be allowed to move forward? For some Republicans, the invasion of the Capitol must have been a shock, or even a lesson. For the breakers, however, it may have been a taste of the future. Afterward, eight senators and more than 100 representatives voted for the lie that had forced them to flee their chambers.


Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

Some of his lies were, admittedly, medium-size: that he was a successful businessman; that Russia did not support him in 2016; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Such medium-size lies were the standard fare of aspiring authoritarians in the 21st century. In Poland the right-wing party built a martyrdom cult around assigning blame to political rivals for an airplane crash that killed the nation’s president. Hungary’s Viktor Orban blames a vanishingly small number of Muslim refugees for his country’s problems. But such claims were not quite big lies; they stretched but did not rend what Hannah Arendt called “the fabric of factuality.” ...

In November 2020, reaching millions of lonely minds through social media, Trump told a lie that was dangerously ambitious: that he had won an election that in fact he had lost. This lie was big in every pertinent respect: not as big as “Jews run the world,” but big enough. The significance of the matter at hand was great: the right to rule the most powerful country in the world and the efficacy and trustworthiness of its succession procedures. The level of mendacity was profound. The claim was not only wrong, but it was also made in bad faith, amid unreliable sources. It challenged not just evidence but logic: Just how could (and why would) an election have been rigged against a Republican president but not against Republican senators and representatives? Trump had to speak, absurdly, of a “Rigged (for President) Election.”

A precarious balance:

In the four decades since the election of Ronald Reagan, Republicans have overcome the tension between the gamers and the breakers by governing in opposition to government, or by calling elections a revolution (the Tea Party), or by claiming to oppose elites. The breakers, in this arrangement, provide cover for the gamers, putting forth an ideology that distracts from the basic reality that government under Republicans is not made smaller but simply diverted to serve a handful of interests.

At first, Trump seemed like a threat to this balance. His lack of experience in politics and his open racism made him a very uncomfortable figure for the party; his habit of continually telling lies was initially found by prominent Republicans to be uncouth. Yet after he won the presidency, his particular skills as a breaker seemed to create a tremendous opportunity for the gamers. Led by the gamer in chief, McConnell, they secured hundreds of federal judges and tax cuts for the rich.

Trump was unlike other breakers in that he seemed to have no ideology. His objection to institutions was that they might constrain him personally. He intended to break the system to serve himself — and this is partly why he has failed. ...

Yet Trump never prepared a decisive blow. He lacked the support of the military, some of whose leaders he had alienated. (No true fascist would have made the mistake he did there, which was to openly love foreign dictators; supporters convinced that the enemy was at home might not mind, but those sworn to protect from enemies abroad did.)...Trump could make some voters believe that he had won the 2020 election, but he was unable to bring institutions along with his big lie. And he could bring his supporters to Washington and send them on a rampage in the Capitol, but none appeared to have any very clear idea of how this was to work or what their presence would accomplish. ...

Trump is, for now, the martyr in chief, the high priest of the big lie. He is the leader of the breakers, at least in the minds of his supporters. By now, the gamers do not want Trump around. Discredited in his last weeks, he is useless; shorn of the obligations of the presidency, he will become embarrassing again, much as he was in 2015. Unable to provide cover for their gamesmanship, he will be irrelevant to their daily purposes. But the breakers have an even stronger reason to see Trump disappear: It is impossible to inherit from someone who is still around. Seizing Trump’s big lie might appear to be a gesture of support. In fact it expresses a wish for his political death. Transforming the myth from one about Trump to one about the nation will be easier when he is out of the way....

The big lie requires commitment. When Republican gamers do not exhibit enough of that, Republican breakers call them “RINOs”: Republicans in name only. This term once suggested a lack of ideological commitment. It now means an unwillingness to throw away an election. The gamers, in response, close ranks around the Constitution and speak of principles and traditions. The breakers must all know (with the possible exception of the Alabama senator Tommy Tuberville) that they are participating in a sham, but they will have an audience of tens of millions who do not.

Will the big lie be amplified over the next four years?

Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished....

America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good. The racism structured into every aspect of the coup attempt is a call to heed our own history. Serious attention to the past helps us to see risks but also suggests future possibility. We cannot be a democratic republic if we tell lies about race, big or small. Democracy is not about minimizing the vote nor ignoring it, neither a matter of gaming nor of breaking a system, but of accepting the equality of others, heeding their voices and counting their votes.

There is much more at the link.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Hey kids! Let's put on a show! [The day the Capitol was captured by must-see TV]

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Ray Bradbury and the emergence of science fiction in mid-century America

 Sam Weller and Dana Gioia discuss the impact of Ray Bradbury in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Weller: Is there any way to measure Ray’s impact on popular culture?

Gioia: Let me offer one perspective. If you compiled a list in 1950 of the biggest grossing movies ever made, it would have contained no science fiction films and only one fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz. In Hollywood, science fiction films were low-budget stuff for kids. The mainstream market was, broadly speaking, “realistic” — romances, comedies, historical epics, dramas, war films, and adventure stories.

If you look at a similar list today, all but three of the top films — Titanic and two Fast and Furious sequels — are science fiction or fantasy. That is 94 percent of the hits. That means in a 70-year period, American popular culture (and to a great degree world popular culture) went from “realism” to fantasy and science fiction. The kids’ stuff became everybody’s stuff. How did that happen? There were many significant factors, but there is no doubt that Ray Bradbury was the most influential writer involved.

It’s interesting you say this because you don’t seem to be afraid — some critics don’t want to connect popular culture or mass culture with literature or with high intellectual arts. You seem to say that Bradbury is one of those people who brought these two things to the crossroads.

In my academic training, I was inculcated in the tradition of the psychological and social realist novel, the so-called “Great Tradition.” This was an extraordinary literary lineage — Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Conrad, James, Cather, Hemingway, not to mention Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky. The realist novel was one of the great achievements of Western literature. It provided a powerful means to articulate and understand personal and social relations of enormous complexity. Three cheers for realism! Maybe even four.

But there are different modes of storytelling. The most primitive is myth, where natural forces become personified in narratives. The next historical development was romance. In romantic narratives, we have the world not as it is but as we wish or fear it to be. This was the mode of medieval and Renaissance narratives. (Centuries later it also became the mode of science fiction, fantasy, horror, Gothic romance, and old-school mysteries.)

Realism is the mode that emerged last. Although the realist novel quickly became the dominant narrative form, its popularity only dates back about 400 years. The realist novel had a particular power that made it very attractive. The realist mode allowed one to see the world simultaneously from the inside and the outside. It compared — usually with a great deal of irony — the subjective experience of characters and the exterior world that surrounds them. Great novels mediate these two realities with tremendous finesse.

But realism is not the only way to tell a story, and the romantic mode never vanished. Even some of the realist masters, such as Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Balzac, found themselves exploring the mode of romance to represent certain human possibilities. Romance remained very strong in American literature with some of our most original writers — Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But it never became academically respectable. It smacked of popular or children’s literature. As a senior at Stanford, I had to ask permission to add Mary Shelley to my reading list! (Another student asked to read H. P. Lovecraft and got a stern lecture.)

What books are you thinking about here? What do you consider Bradbury’s best period?

Sam, you’ll probably disagree with me — but I think Bradbury’s best work was mostly done in a 10-year period in the early part of his career. In one remarkable decade he wrote: The Martian Chronicles (1950), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The October Country (1955), Dandelion Wine (1957), and A Medicine for the Melancholy (1959). The books came one right after the other, and he created a new mode of speculative fiction.

The culture immediately recognized his achievement. Suddenly, major mainstream journals published his fiction, and producers adapted his work for movies, radio, and TV. Millions of readers, who would not have read pulp fiction, came to his work. He also became the first science fiction author to attract a large female readership. ...

For 10 years, he was Joe DiMaggio. Every time he went to bat, there was a good chance he would hit the ball, sometimes out of the park. It’s significant that Ray’s great hitting streak came in the 1950s, a period of national optimism. Despite the anxiety, darkness, and anger in his work, Bradbury always wrote in a spirit of hope and reconciliation. He never believed humanity was beyond redemption. Perhaps as America shifted into the late 1960s and beyond, he lost touch with the culture.