Monday, February 8, 2016

Historical direction and popular music, a reply to Underwood et al. (Feb 2016)

Over at The Stone and the Shell there’s an interesting post by Ted Underwood, Hoyt Long, Richard Jean So, and Yuancheng Zhu, You say you found a revolution. It’s a critique of Mauch et al. “The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960-2010”, from 2015. Mauch et al. 17,000 recordings that topped the Billboard charts during that period, assessed their similarity on harmonic and timbral properties, and argued for three ‘revolutions’ during that interval, at roughly 1964, 1983, and 1991. Underwood et al. argue that the claim is overstated and that they’ve mis-analyzed their data. As Mauch at al. have made their data public, Underwood et al. were able to reanalyze it, to more modest conclusions.

In the course of explaining their work, Underwood et al. made some assertions I found to be problematic. So I wrote to Underwood about it, he replied, and has asked me to post my observations to my blog. That’s what’s in the rest of this post.

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Why Assume Linear Direction in Time?

Hi Ted,

I’ve read my way through this and I’m not quite sure what I think. I have no strong attachment to the revolution argument – seems to me too many “revolutions” for that stretch of time ¬– but I think you have a hidden assumption in your argument. Here’s two passages where that assumption shows up:
History doesn’t repeat itself in the same way. It’s extremely likely (almost certain) that music from 1992 will resemble music from 1991 more than it resembles music from 1965. That’s why the historical distance matrix has a single broad yellow path running from lower left to upper right. 
As a result, historical sequences are always going to produce very high measurements of Foote novelty. Comparisons across a boundary will always tend to create higher distances than the comparisons within the half-spans on either side, because differences across longer spans of time always tend to be bigger.
In short, the tests in Mauch et al. don’t prove that there were significant moments of acceleration in the history of music. They just prove that we’re looking at historical evidence! The authors have interpreted this as a sign of “revolution,” because all change looks revolutionary when compared to temporal chaos.
The assumption you’re making is that history has a default direction and that it is linear. That is, linear change of the kind we see in that data set requires no explanation, though acceleration and deceleration do. But I think that the direction itself requires explanation, though just how to go about that is not clear to me.

Purple Flower


Three Moments in America’s Conversation on Race

Over at 3 Quarks Daily, my piece for February. Here's my introduction:

In Playing in the Dark, a set of essays on race in American literature, Toni Morrison is led “to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature . . . are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding, signing Africanist presence. . . . Through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and bodies of this presence--one can see that a real or fabricated Africanist presense was crucial to their sense of Americanness.” That is to say, the sense of American identity embodied in our literature is at least partially achieved through reference to African Americans.

Let’s consider three imaginative works where race is an issue. First we have Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It is not American, of course, but English. The character of Caliban, who may not even be human, marks the imaginative space the English used for understanding Africans. The play was written and performed at about the same time as Jamestown, Virginia, as first settled.

Then we move forward two and a half centuries to late 19th Century. America has established itself as an independent nation and fought its bloodiest war, the Civil War, over the status of the American sons and daughters of Caliban. We find Huck Finn fleeing his abusive father by rafting down the Mississippi with a runaway slave. Jim sure isn’t Shakespeare’s Caliban nor is Huck a Prospero. I conclude with a counter narrative from the early 20th Century, an African-American “toast”, as they’re called, about the sinking of the Titanic. Think of such oral narratives as antecedents of rap and hip-hop.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Friday Fotos: How about some birds?

solo duck.jpg

pigeon and iron.jpg




Universal Semantic Structure?

Hyejin Youna, Logan Suttond, Eric Smithc, Cristopher Moorec, Jon F. Wilkinsc,f, Ian Maddiesong, William Croft, and Tanmoy Bhattacharyac. On the universal structure of human lexical semantics. PNAS 2016: 1520752113v1-201520752. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1520752113


Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides indirect access to an underlying level of conceptual structure. To what degree this conceptual structure is universal or is due to properties of cultural histories, or to the environment inhabited by a speech community, is still controversial. Meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterize, for quantitative comparative studies. Using cross-linguistic dictionaries across languages carefully selected as an unbiased sample reflecting the diversity of human languages, we provide an empirical measure of semantic relatedness between concepts. Our analysis uncovers a universal structure underlying the sampled vocabulary across language groups independent of their phylogenetic relations, their speakers’ culture, and geographic environment.


How universal is human conceptual structure? The way concepts are organized in the human brain may reflect distinct features of cultural, historical, and environmental background in addition to properties universal to human cognition. Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides indirect access to the underlying conceptual structure, but meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterize. Here, we provide an empirical measure of semantic proximity between concepts using cross-linguistic dictionaries to translate words to and from languages carefully selected to be representative of worldwide diversity. These translations reveal cases where a particular language uses a single “polysemous” word to express multiple concepts that another language represents using distinct words. We use the frequency of such polysemies linking two concepts as a measure of their semantic proximity and represent the pattern of these linkages by a weighted network. This network is highly structured: Certain concepts are far more prone to polysemy than others, and naturally interpretable clusters of closely related concepts emerge. Statistical analysis of the polysemies observed in a subset of the basic vocabulary shows that these structural properties are consistent across different language groups, and largely independent of geography, environment, and the presence or absence of a literary tradition. The methods developed here can be applied to any semantic domain to reveal the extent to which its conceptual structure is, similarly, a universal attribute of human cognition and language use.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

100 Milestones in Modern Comedy

I just spent a couple hours working my way through The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy, by Jesse David Fox over at Vulture. Here's the concept:
The oldest joke on record, a Sumerian proverb, was first told all the way back in 1900 B.C. Yes, it was a fart joke: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.” Don’t feel bad if you don’t get it — something was definitely lost in time and translation (you have to imagine it was the Mesopotamian equivalent of “Women be shopping”), but not before the joke helped pave the way for almost 4,000 years of toilet humor. It’s just a shame we’ll never know the name of the Sumerian genius to whom we owe Blazing Saddles. But with the rise of comedy as a commercial art form in the 20th century, and with advances in modern bookkeeping, it’s now much easier to assign credit for innovations in joke-telling, which is exactly what Vulture set out to do with this list of the 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy.

A few notes on our methodology: We’ve defined “joke” pretty broadly here. Yes, a joke can be a one-liner built from a setup and a punch line, but it can also be an act of physical comedy. Pretending to stick a needle in your eye, or pooping in the street while wearing a wedding dress: both jokes. A joke, as defined by this list, is a discrete moment of comedy, whether from stand-up, a sketch, an album, a movie, or a TV show.

For clarity’s sake, we’ve established certain ground rules for inclusion. First, we decided early on that these jokes needed to be performed and recorded at some point. Second, with apologies to Monty Python, whose influence on contemporary comedy is tremendous and undeniable, we focused only on American humor. Third, we only included one joke per comedian. And fourth, the list doesn't include comedy that we ultimately felt was bad, harmful, or retrograde.
Cruise on over there. You're sure to find something you like and something you didn't know. I'll be back.

H/t 3QD.

Railroad remnants

old signal tower.jpg

Bridge to Green

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wikipedia has problems with editors-for-hire

Edit conflicts are old hat for Wikipedia. But what happens when people hire themselves out to PR firms whose clients have a financial interest in what Wikipedia articles say? In an article  focusing on medical examples Joe Pinkser reports on the problem in The Atlantic.
In 2006, Jimmy Wales, Wikimedia’s most public-facing board member, reportedly said that undisclosed paid editing—trying to alter the content of Wikipedia without revealing a financial conflict of interest—is “antithetical” to the site’s aims. The practice continued at a low hum over the rest of the decade, but a few years ago Wikimedia started hearing from its volunteer editorial corps that weeding out undisclosed paid edits was distracting from more substantive work. "They were spending a tremendous amount of their time patrolling articles, particularly articles about celebrities or individuals or companies for PR-type editing,” says Katherine Maher, a spokesperson for Wikimedia. The issue took on a sense of urgency in the fall of 2013, when a firm called Wiki-PR was banned from the site for using hundreds of dummy accounts to fabricate widespread support for pages that flattered its clientele.

To combat activity like this, Wikimedia amended its terms of use last summer to ban any undisclosed paid editing that might carry a conflict of interest. (To clarify, the scenario of a political-science professor, who’s paid to think about political science, forgoing disclosure when she edits a page about Japanese elections doesn’t present a conflict of interest and is thus kosher.)

Maher says the terms-of-use change has been received well by those in the Wikipedia community devoted to stamping out paid editing. Perhaps it has—several large PR firms pledged not to violate Wikipedia’s rules—but the practice hasn’t disappeared entirely. Two months ago, an investigation revealed that even after the rule change, employees of Sunshine Sachs, a public-relations firm, had still been editing the Wikipedia pages of their clients without disclosing their affiliation. One email sent by the company boasted, “Sunshine Sachs has a number of experienced editors on staff that have established profiles on Wikipedia. The changes we make to existing pages are rarely challenged.” Sunshine Sachs is reported to have scrubbed, among other things, Wikipedia’s references to Naomi Campbell’s critically-panned R&B album and Mia Farrow’s Ecuadorian activist efforts.
So, who uses Wikipedia articles, and how?
But the way people answer their everyday questions today means that a lot of research does end on Wikipedia. The site’s pages are regularly among the top links that search engines turn up—among the general public, the site’s medical articles are estimated to have a larger readership than WebMD. Google has even started embedding excerpts from Wikipedia pages alongside its search results. Wikipedia isn’t just the final destination of typical denizens of the Internet; sometimes it’s where professional researchers end up as well. Fifty to 70 percent of physicians have been found to consult it as a source of medical information—a testament to its reliability.
It is not, however, obvious just how big the problem is.
Because an undisclosed paid edit that goes through is undetectable, it is hard to empirically assess the effectiveness of Wikipedia’s responses to conflict-of-interest editing over the years. Nowadays, the estimated prevalence of paid editing changes depending on whom you ask. “The site itself is so massive that when you talk about problems, they actually tend to be quite small compared to the overall body of work,” Maher says. She points out that Wiki-PR, the furthest-reaching paid-editing operation yet discovered, only made a few thousand edits. Still, undisclosed paid editing is enough of a fly in the ointment to prompt the Wikimedia Foundation to say it “affects the neutrality and reliability of Wikipedia.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Cabbage after the Rain

For some reason some of my cabbage photos are fairly popular at my Flickr page. Here's one of them.


Attridge and Staten 6: Some Notes on Milton’s Solemn Music

Continuing my investigation of Dereck Attridge and Henry Staten, The Craft of Poetry: Dialogues on Minimal Interpretation, Routledge 2015.
Attridge and Staten are interested in John Milton’s At a Solemn Music as a vehicle for exploring the relationship between a poem and “the currents of thought and system of beliefs prevailing at the time if composition and original composition initial reception – currents and systems that might be quite foreign to us a readers now” (p. 57). The poem is explicitly Christian and was written for a Christian audience. Can it speak to contemporary secularists and, of so, how?

My interest is a bit different: it’s quite different from the other poems I’ve looked at in this series of posts – The Sick Rose, Lennox Avenue: Midnight, and I started Early. This poem has an actual argument. That the argument is grounded in Christian doctrine is of secondary interest to me.

The Poem: At a Solemn Music

1     Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav'n's joy,  A
2     Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Verse,  B
3     Wed your divine sounds, and mixet power employ  A
4     Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce,  B
5    And to our high-raised fantasy present,  C
6    That undisturbèd Song of pure content,  C
7    Ay sung before the saphire-coloured throne  D
8    To him that sits thereon  D
9    With Saintly shout, and solemn jubilee;  E
10    Where the bright Seraphim in burning row  F
11    Their loud up-lifted Angel trumpets blow,  F
12    And the Cherubic host in thousand choirs  G
13    Touch their immortal Harps of golden wires,  G
14    With those just Spirits that wear victorious Palms,  H
15    Hymns devout and holy Psalms  H
16    Singing everlastingly;  E
17    That we on Earth with undiscording voice  I
18    May rightly answer that melodious noise;  I
19    As once we did, till disproportioned sin  J
20    Jarred against natures chime, and with harsh din  J
21    Broke the fair music that all creatures made  K
22    To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed  K
23    In perfect Diapason, whilst they stood  L
24    In first obedience, and their state of good.  L
25    O may we soon again renew that Song,  M
26    And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long  M
27    To his celestial consort us unite,  N
28    To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.  N

Syntax and Form

Staten begins the discussion with this observation (pp. 58-59):
I first realized what a great poem this is when I concentrated on following its syntax from beginning to end, not worrying too much about what everything meant, but keeping a sense of how the phrase and clauses fit together – allowing myself to be carried by the rhetorical rush of the opening 24 line sentence, with its four line coda. The sheer architectural grandeur of this syntactic construction, in its interaction with the metrical lines and end rhymes, game me considerable pleasure. (I think, by the way, that it’s generally a good idea to approach new poems this way, by trying to get a feel for the flow of the language first, and for how this flow is organized into phrases, clauses, sentences, and verses, rather than trying to “understand” it right away. It’s much easier to understand the poem once you’ve clarified the syntax.)
I agree, let’s start with the “architectural grandeur” and the “flow of the language.” However, I parse that grandeur and flow a bit differently than Staten does.

In the interests of brevity let me just state how I think it goes. The poem has four sections. Three of them constitute that 24-line sentence Staten rightly holds in high regard and the fourth is the concluding coda. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

El Sistema isn't the feel-good progressive program you think it is

Lawrence Cripp, "All that Matters is How Good It Sounds: An Interview with the Former El Sistema Violinist Luigi Mazzocchi," VAN Magazine:
Despite my positive first impression, however, I soon became aware that evidence for the impact of El Sistema had not been systematically gathered and empirically verified. It struck me as unlikely that a large-scale national system of extremely intensive out-of-school youth orchestra training could simultaneously provide free or low-cost instruction, instruments, and community núcleos (music schools) open to all youth; elevate families from poverty and communities from drug addiction and gang warfare; and render exquisite and passionate performances of the most difficult pieces in the classical repertoire.

As an independent researcher, I was disappointed in the lack of evidence for El Sistema’s validity as a model for 21st-century music education in service of broader social goals. As a music educator, I had difficulty understanding how a nationalized orchestra training system based solely on classical music and serving only a self-selected 6-8% of Venezuela’s youth could possibly be considered comprehensive education in music for all. It just didn’t add up.

In 2014, the researcher and musicologist Geoff Baker published a book entitled El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth. His account challenged idealized views of El Sistema as an engine of positive social action and focused on the testimony of practitioners who were not directly involved in promoting the program. His interview sources, who were only willing to speak anonymously, portrayed El Sistema as a secretive, autocratic organization that has not been held accountable for its management practices, its treatment of teachers and students, and for gathering objective evidence of its social impact beyond anecdotes and musical performances.
In an effort to check what Baker reported Cripp interviewed "Luigi Mazzocchi, concertmaster of the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra and associate concertmaster of the Delaware Symphony, who studied for 15 years in El Sistema starting at age nine, and rose to become a member of its top orchestras and a soloist in Venezuela." Mazzocchi has been in the United States for 20 year and had just finished reading Baker's book when Cripp contacted him.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Take Five – East and West

Performed at The Marciac Jazz Festival, July 2013. The very first collaboration between Sachal Jazz and Wynton/Jazz at Lincoln Centre. For all things Sachal follow me (Hassan Khan) at either or Sachal Includes Baqir Abbas (flute, bansuri), Nijat Ali (conductor), Ustad Ballu Khan (tabla), Nafees Ahmed (sitar), Asad Ali (guitar), Najaf Ali (dholak), Rafiq Ahmed (dholak).

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Fotos: Back to basics, some graffiti

These are the five most popular of my graffiti photos over the last 20 hours or so. All were taken in Jersey City. The first and last are gone; the structures on which they're painted have been destroyed. The second is several layers from the top. The third and fourth are on freight cars and are most likely gone by now.

eye sore / trak am7





Thursday, January 28, 2016

Sound and music: emotion tracks changes in the acoustic environment

Weiyi Maa and William Forde Thompsona, Human emotions track changes in the acoustic environment, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112 no. 47 > Weiyi Ma, 14563–14568, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1515087112


Emotions function to optimize adaptive responses to biologically significant events. In the auditory channel, humans are highly attuned to emotional signals in speech and music that arise from shifts in the frequency spectrum, intensity, and rate of acoustic information. We found that changes in acoustic attributes that evoke emotional responses in speech and music also trigger emotions when perceived in environmental sounds, including sounds arising from human actions, animal calls, machinery, or natural phenomena, such as wind and rain. The findings align with Darwin’s hypothesis that speech and music originated from a common emotional signal system based on the imitation and modification of sounds in the environment.


Emotional responses to biologically significant events are essential for human survival. Do human emotions lawfully track changes in the acoustic environment? Here we report that changes in acoustic attributes that are well known to interact with human emotions in speech and music also trigger systematic emotional responses when they occur in environmental sounds, including sounds of human actions, animal calls, machinery, or natural phenomena, such as wind and rain. Three changes in acoustic attributes known to signal emotional states in speech and music were imposed upon 24 environmental sounds. Evaluations of stimuli indicated that human emotions track such changes in environmental sounds just as they do for speech and music. Such changes not only influenced evaluations of the sounds themselves, they also affected the way accompanying facial expressions were interpreted emotionally. The findings illustrate that human emotions are highly attuned to changes in the acoustic environment, and reignite a discussion of Charles Darwin’s hypothesis that speech and music originated from a common emotional signal system based on the imitation and modification of environmental sounds.