Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How Music Works

David Byrne rides his bike around Manhattan and plays guitar and sings in a rock band. What a life, eh?

This book contains a few different sections exploring "how music works". Part of it explores the origins of music and the impact on society and individuals. Even though music is different in various societies, it frequently plays a major role. While it once required a very individual experience, through recording and amplification it can now be mass-produced. Societies all seem to have their "popular music".

Another section provides a biography of the author's experience in music. He describes how he started playing instruments, how he formed a band, and how the creation process worked. He later spends some time describing the economics of the music industry itself. Detailed examples are given of how band can help their music to get out there. Now the barriers to entry are supposedly much lower. However, getting people to find music remains a difficult task.

The final section deals with music's role in modern culture and the place of music in education. Music is deemed to be important due to its creative impact. Byrne criticises focus on certain types of "received" music. Instead, people should be encouraged to make music themselves. Playing an instrument is more useful than "appreciating" a type of music that you don't care for. You may eventually decide to explore Beethoven or African drum music. The music that impacts and individual person will be different. Even classical music was closely tied to its place, with the music evolving to fit its appropriate venues. Even commercial pop can have its place.

Recording and electronics have changed how people can play or listen to music. (Vibrato on string instruments was mentioned as a response to music recording.) Things are still evolving. The personal way in which you experience music can be just as important as the music itself.

The book is more a series of independent long essays than a unified work. The last essay on arts education and society was a little dry, but all the others were well written. After reading, I googled my old high school band director. I found that he was promoted to "fine arts director" at the high school, only to have the position eliminated 2 years later. (The positions seems to have been created a few decades earlier for another retiring band director. And it was filled by his replacement afterwards. Poor timing with the whole no-child left behind thing.)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Medical Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths: What We Think We Know May Be Hurting Us

I'm not much of a fan of "evidence-based medicine". Yes, there are lots of good advances that have come about out of it. But, there is also plenty of bias that has been built in to the system. It is geared towards finding isolated drugs that have a certain impact on the general population. This may be the "best" that can easily be done today, but it is far from ideal. The "treatments" often distract people from the well known (but harder to follow) "cures" that can be achieved by appropriate lifestyle changes.

The bias towards chemicals also leads to a disregard of ways in which the human body can influence itself. Some people may have better ability to cause changes in their health themselves. However, the studies typically try to remove these "outliers" from the double-blind studies so they can focus only on the specific treatments. Even studies that attempt to be purely objective require a huge amount of interpretation. There are numerous places that bias can creep in. Large meta-studies allow an even greater chance to make the data fit one's own beliefs. (There is always something "horribly wrong" with the methodology or results of the contradictory study.)

With all that being said, I approached these lectures with trepidation. Was this going to be another one of those pandering medical lectures? Was he going to come out and say "the current accepted medical wisdom is 100% correct and everything else (including last decade's accepted wisdom) is all quackery? Luckily, it wasn't so bad. There was actually some good information in here - with only a few contradictions.

First the problems. Other than the general issues with evidence-based medicine, there were some problems with "out-of-domain" coverage. (This was all the more humorous as it followed a criticism of some doctors for attempting to influence policy outside the medical domain.) GMO plants are given as pass as being "just as healthy" as non-GMO plants. You would hope so. However, the problem with GMO is not so much the impact on the food source but on the environment as a whole. How will the GMO plants impact the overall ecosystem? This is a question outside the domain of medicine. Similarly, organic plants were found to have little health differentiation from non-organic plants. Some of the "organic" pesticides were criticized as being "Worse" than the traditional alternatives. Again, this is going outside the domain. While, the organic standards due tend to be somewhat arbitrary, a doctor is not any more qualified than a farm worker to discuss their specific impact.

Discussions of ADHD and Autism were also interesting. They are both on a continuum, so the diagnosis is somewhat subjective. Treatment is seen as something that can help people coping with these to succeed in our society. (Though perhaps we need to ask the question as to why they need to. Aren't we in a society that prides itself on diversity.) The increase in both (especially ADHD) is claimed to be due to better diagnosis. (But you have to wonder what other diseases would be more common with better diagnosis.)

Other areas were a little better. He did a fairly decent job of covering many medical "myths" and providing the studies that backed up the alternatives. Often times popular culture or media influenced false perceptions (like of hypnosis.) There are also many folk remedies that have no basis in the "evidence-based" medicine culture, while others have been shown to be effective. (I wonder about the origins of some of the ineffective ones. Were they always "quackery", or were they previously effective remedies that had been stripped of their "effectiveness" over time. (Perhaps a key ingredient in a concoction was substituted, living the new remedy less effective.)

Overall, the lectures were not bad. Sure, they were biased towards meta-studies, but they did contain plenty of decent information.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs

This was Heinlein's first book, yet it was not published until after his death. It is nominally a science fiction book. However, in reality it is a platform for the Heinlein's political beliefs. It starts with a guy driving in the summer of 1938. He gets in a crash and suddenly finds himself rescued in the winter of 2068. The protagonist gets to know his rescuer and his new world. That's about it for the plot.

The new world is a Heinlein libertarian utopia. Europe has been pretty much destroyed by wars and their aftermath. The US has an isolationist policy with a new "economy". (Bankers are evil.) There was a war against south america that killed off most bankers and led to the better government. People can do what they want. The government prints money. People get a regular subsidy and can work whenever they want to. (and not work when they don't want to.) Family relationships and clothing are optional. Public and private life are separated.

The book contains long treatises on the economics and other points of view. This seems like an academic paper that was then transformed into a novel. Alas, there are huge flaws in the "world" he envisions, but it is always nice to dream. Exploring the world in a novel is much more interesting than writing a dry economic paper. Perhaps the best way to criticize it would be to write a novel where a society attempted to implement the Heinlein utopia with disastrous results.

College Football Playoffs

It likes like we will again have an SEC team play in the BCS championship game. Auburn vs. Florida State. Yawn. The SEC manages to continue to play in the championship game because the conference has a reputation of winning it. The strict formula of rankings and ratings almost guarantees it.
Luckily, next year there will be a college football playoff, albeit only of 4 teams. The teams will be chosen by a committee rather than a formula. Hopefully this will give us a better set of teams.

How would we pick teams if we did it this year?

Well, Florida State would definitely be in. They are the only undefeated team. Undefeated teams should always make it to the playoff. Otherwise there will still be other claimants to the championship. Even if a team such as Northern Illinois makes it through undefeated, they should be in the playoff.

After Florida State, we need to use some tools to find the best teams. The conference championships can be helpful for picking participants. Pac12, Big10, SEC, ACC, Mountain West, MAC and C-USA all have a championship game. While we can't include the winner of each game, we can reasonably exclude the losers. (We could consider it as a play-in round.)

The SEC and Pac12 have been the strongest conferences this year, so their champions should get the first look. Do they pass the smell test? Auburn's lone loss has by a couple touchdowns, but it came back in September. They have the best record in the conference, and have beat the next-best teams (Alabama and Missouri) in their last two games. Looks good.

Stanford has two losses. However, they have played one of toughest schedules in the country (#4 by Sagarin - the only teams with tougher schedules are teams that Stanford defeated.) They have more victories over Sagarin top-10 (3) and Sagarin top-30 (6) teams than any other team. The two losses were both close (and could have been wins if a single play would have gone a different way.) They have recovered from their last loss with 3 victories, including the last two against top-25 teams, with the most recent a strong road win over Arizona State. Also looks good.

Now who do we get for the last spot? Oregon and Alabama were both early season favorites with records equal to Auburn and Stanford. Alabama's loss came on a time-expired kickoff return. However, that was the last game they played. (Do we call it a play in game?) Oregon's loss to Stanford was more of a drubbing. Since then, they lost one more game, and had to struggle to beat rival Oregon State.

Michigan State is the Big-10 champion. Their lone loss was a 4 point defeat at Notre Dame. However, the recent victory over Ohio State is the lone signature win. Other than that, they have just a trio of wins over 8-4 teams that are worth talking about. Yet, they have beat all teams by at least 10 points. Maybe.

Baylor is the 1-loss Big-12 champion. However, their loss 32-point loss to Oklahoma State was just a few weeks ago. They also won a close game at TCU last week. Their signature win was over 2-loss Oklahoma. Other than that, there is just a win over an 8-4 Texas. Sorry Bears.

What about the AAC? Louisville and UCF both have a single loss from early in the season. Alas, they lack signature victories. UCF's best win was against Louisville. And then 8-4 Houston is it. For Louisville, its 9-3 Cincinnati and 8-4 Houston. Meh. Neither team has been dominating their opponents.

Northern Illinois has one loss, but that was in the MAC championship game. Fresno State lost one game, but that was last week. Neither team has played a very strong schedule. C-USA champion Rice has 3 losses. The top Independents are 8-4 BYU and Notre Dame. Sun Belt Champion Louisiana-Lafayette has 4 losses.

Without a better option, the fourth spot comes down to a battle between Alabama and Michigan State. They both suffered a narrow road loss to a good team. Alabama would be a strong pick and the likely higher-ranked team. However, their last game was a loss and their opponent is represented in the playoff. Why have a rematch when their are better options? Thus, the spot would go to Michigan State.

Thus the playoff would be:
#1 Florida State vs #4 Michigan State
#2 Auburn vs #3 Stanford

As it turns out, this year, all four teams will likely be playing in the Rose bowl, with Michigan State vs Stanford in the Rose Bowl game, and Florida State likely playing against Auburn in the championship game the next week. Perhaps we just need one more after that to declare a champion.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Don Quixote

Quick! How many Spanish novels can you name that are more than 100 years old? Yeah, I didn't get much past Don Quixote either. There is a reason it has survived and has been named one of the best books of all time. It is really good.

The modern version was actually written as two books. The first book contains the classic Don Quixote stories. He fights windmills and thinks he is a noble night and all that fun stuff. In the second book, most everybody has read the first book and is enthralled with the character of Don Quixote. We get many elaborate ruses created by people to allow Don Quixote to be his entertaining self. (Alas we also get a more rambling narrative.)

Reading the book in a modern translation is the way to go. The language is "fresh" and modern, similar to how it would have been to the original readers. Don Quixote himself, however, talks in a more flowery, archaic language. Sancho Panza is constantly quoting and misquoting popular sayings. It all makes for a very entertaining book that is easily accessible to the modern reader.

You can easily picture a Monty Python crew acting out some of the different scenes. The story has a slight plot, but that is really just a thread to hold together a series of crazy adventures. Sancho Panza knows that Don Quixote is mad. Yet, he follows him and participates in his crazy adventures in hopes of receiving wealth and positions. In the process he chances on just enough to keep him continuing on his quest (in spite of all the negative things that befall him.)

There are also elaborate sub-stories within the story. (The "man who was recklessly curious" comes to mind.) At one time Sancho Panza becomes a governor (as part of a Duke's ruse.) He does a surprisingly good job, dispensing bits of wisdom and resolving some difficult cases. (He uncovers coins hid in a cane in one story. On another, he asks a woman to defend her virtue as well as she does her purse.)

Throughout these adventures, some of Don Quixote's friends try to cure their friend's madness. However, many of their attempts end up backfiring as he win's mock duels or manages to complete quests. Finally, near the end of the book, a friend (dressed as a knight) defeats Don Quixote in battle and forces him to give up Knight Errantry. Don Quixote then goes home and "repents" of his madness - and promptly dies. Perhaps his madness was all that was sustaining him.

The episodes (especially in the first book) are tied together well in a narrative. (Most also stand alone quite well.) As entertainment, it still works well today. There is also plenty of commentary on human nature as well as the society of Spain of Cervantes day. Altogether, this remains a classic.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained

Sea Salt may not differ a whole lot from table salt. (And on the west coast, it may be the same.) "Raw" sugar has already been pretty well refined. This and many other interesting tidbits related to food and cooking are contained in this book.

While I listened to the audiobook, this is one of those books that would be good to have sitting in bathroom to pick up and read interesting chapters. It contains plenty of interesting tidbits about the art and science of cooking. To cover a few additional ones: Microwaving and rolling lemons doesn't increase the juice in lemons. However, it makes it easier to hand squeeze more juice out. Microwaves cook by exciting molecules. Silver would make the best frying pan, but it is a little on the expensive side.

There are plenty of additional tidbits regarding food and cooking that can be read in just about any order you desire. They are divided into sections that cover a number of different aspects of food preparation and eating.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

American Religious History

American Religious History provides an overview of religion and its role in religious history. Religious has remained one of the most religious major economies. Most European countries have seen a great fall in religiosity as the economy boomed. America, however, has factors that have caused it to hold on to religion. One factor may be the establishment clause that prevents the country from establishing a religion.

In many European countries, a single religion is supported by the state. If people are upset with the state, they tend to be upset with the church also. By not supporting a religion the US may allow people to maintain the religion even when they object to the state.

The religions also have an important social role. Americans tend to be more on the move, and a particular congregation can be a social outlet in a new location. This is especially important for immigrants moving into the country. (They may congregate in the church from their homeland.)

I loved how these lectures went through the history of the United States with a focus on religion. This helped provide a better understanding of the events and the evolution of religious practice in the US. Many religions were imported from the old world and gradually modified to meet the needs of the new world. Other religions sprouted up locally, especially during the great awakening. The key to survival was often whether they could be successfully passed on to the younger generations.

Religion was important in the founding of the colonies for different reasons. At the time respecting and tolerating other beliefs was often seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Thus, various religious groups tended to run different colonies. (This also led to the creation of tolerant colonies.) Even nominally unreligious orators would use religious rhetoric to speak to the masses.

The civil war was a deeply religious war. The conflict was predicted by the separation of the churches into pro-slavery southern wings and anti-slavery southern wings. Each side thought they were fighting for God's justice as they knew it.

Religion also tends to converge. At times there would be a different catholic church for each group of immigrants. Gradually these converged to be just "Catholic". Similarly, Christianity as a whole has began to become more united as Islam and other non-Christian religions become more prevalent. However, each different sect retains its unique aspects contributing to a engaging history.

Filter Bubble

Companies like Google, Facebook, Axiom and Blue Kai know a lot about you. They can use this to taylor websites and advertising to individual users. This can have serious impact on our society.

Huge amounts of information are produced every day. Determining what is relevant is a huge challenge. That is where algorithms come in. Google taylors search results to the individual users. Facebook's news feed is based on what it thinks users are interested in seeing. Advertisers and retailers also customize their online promotions based on what they think users will be interested in seeing. This can cause people to reside in a "bubble" where they only see things that they like. They may not see opposing viewpoints or anything that allows them to think. This is even more worrisome since most of this data filtering is done transparently without users knowing they are living in a bubble. (Perhaps this is a form of "mind control" where the big companies can gradually nudge people in a direction they would like.)

Personalization is treated as a "black box" by most companies. The companies themselves may not even know exactly what results are being returned. They can tweak algorithms based on feedback. However, they probably could not tell exactly what type of results would be returned. The algorithms can use various different data points to personalize. Thus, even if a user is not logged on, their location, computer or web browser could identify them and provide personalized results.

This book rambles on to sound the alarm against "filter bubbles" that allow individuals to live in their isolated worlds filtered to provide what they want. This will keep out information from opposing viewpoints. It will also tend to stock them up with the most "sensational" junk-food content rather than the "good for you content." This could result in a dumbing down of society as people don't work their brains to get around new thoughts. Also, it can make it more difficult for new thoughts and media to get out there. (Since discovery is often based on "likes", only things most like what already exist will tend to get more exposure. Thus, even though it is theoretically easier for new things to be discovered, it is actually much more difficult to find innovation.

The filter bubble is often transparent to users, and can gradually steer content to more extreme viewpoints. This can lead to highly cantankerous partisan discussions. (Since each side is not exposed to the opposing view, they not even understand how others can feel that way.) Even worse, people wont realize they are living in the filter bubble and assume that everybody else is receiving the same information. Discovering "new" ideas can actually be more difficult than it was in the days when everybody was force-fed the same broadcasts.

I was expecting this book to be a discussion of the difficulty we have today of "filtering" through all the information out there. Instead, it focussed on the danger of a personalized web. The two are tightly related. However, this book seemed to spend a lot of time rambling from bullet point to bullet point. It contained plenty of good ideas, but the connections where not very strong.

The amount of information out there is enormous. Discovering useful information is becoming more and more difficult. The quantity of "junk" out there seems to be growing at a faster rate than the amount of useful data. Fifteen years ago, it was easy to put a website out there and get visitors interested in the content. You might get a few random spammers or bots, but most traffic was legitimate. Similarly, if you wanted to search for something, you could use one of the numerous search engines and find relevant sites. The search results may contain a bunch of sites that you were not interested in, but this was more a result of bad algorithms than bad sites.

Today, however, there is so much junk out there. You may have to wade through numerous spam and junk sites to get to the site you want. People are much less likely to find a site that somebody just put up. I see more traffic on this blog than on my proto-blog from 1996. However, the quality of traffic seems to be much worse (at least judging from the ratio of real comments to spam comments.) It is harder to discover quality new content. And it is harder for quality new content to be discovered.

I find myself spending more time on "established" sites. They may occasionally guide me to independent sites. However, they are more likely to simply direct to other well-known commercial sites. With so much information out there, curation has to be done somewhere. I don't have the time to do it (or even to create an algorithm to do it.) I'm dependent on somebody to do it for me. Since this is a huge undertaking, these "somebodies" will likely be large corporations that need to earn money. Since I am cheep, putting up with advertising is my most likely "payment". This puts me in a position vulnerable to being influenced by whatever the corporation or the advertisers desire. (Ironically, at the same time the internet is giving away unlimited content for the price of advertising, broadcast media has become more reliant on "subscriber fees" as part of its business model.) Thus, we become subject to whatever whims the big algorithms have. Is this really much different from being beholden to the broadcaster's desires? At least with the broadcasters, we were likely to find something new we liked. With personalization we can find ourselves further ghettoized. (I'm often finding that problem with online radio. I can create a station that plays songs I like within a very narrowly defined range. However, I get sick of the same type of music and want more variety. However, it is difficult to get variety without a bunch of junk. I'd almost prefer to have a DJ picking the music for me.) I still haven't found a recommendation engine that does a really good job. With the glut of information out there, one of the big challenge is filtering the unique from the derivative. Perhaps now is the time to reinvent the web.