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    Friday, October 31, 2008

    Music tagging -- or, voluntary involuntary auditory memories

    No, not that kind of music tagging, the kind where you add tags/labels to your mp3 collection. What I want to discuss is a phenomenon that I've tried to be conscious about for quite some time: the act of deliberately forming strong associations between certain pieces of music and a particular place. You're all familiar with what is known as olfactory memory, smells that suddenly take you on a journey down memory lane - in particular childhood/adolescent memories of certain perfumes and foods. The same holds for certain tastes, as described in the now famous Madeleine cake episode in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time:
    No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place
    The same also holds for music, be it particular sounds or particular sound tracks. These phenomena are sometimes referred to as involuntary memories. What I've been doing on occasion is to try to make these voluntary.

    The phenomenon first occured to me when I read Stephen King's Pet Sematary as a child. This must have been back in 1991-92, because every time I picked up the book, I would listen to Metallica's then recent Black album (you know, the last good one before it all went downhill). After having finished the novel, I noticed that every time I listened to that particular album (in particular, the "Sad but true" song, for some reason), I would be instantly transported to that path leading to the pet cemetary (misspelled Sematary) -- or to the gruesome scene of Zelda.

    Interlude: In writing this I went to search for the Zelda scene and found it on Youtube. I don't know why, but it still sends shivers down my spine and I just very reluctantly finished watching it. Incidentally, Zelda is played by a man, which just makes it even creepier. I still think this is one of the most haunting horror characters invented. Please watch at your own discretion.

    Anyway, after having experienced the tagging of Metallica's Black album onto the Pet Sematary novel, I got curious. Could this phenomenon of involuntary memory be made voluntary? And of course it can. Since then, I've tried to consistently listen to one particular album whenever I travel to somewhere new. Last week I went to Copenhagen, and I consistently listened to Klaus Schulze's Mirage album (a true masterpiece) every day when I walked from my hotel to the conference venue. The result: Now, whenever I listen to Klaus Schulze, memories from Copenhagen will come up. To be fair, it doesn't really bring up explicit memories, but it brings up this undescribable je ne se qua feeling of there-ness (wow, sorry about the collapse into obscurism there). This has become my way of taking photos; my own harmless means of tagging a city. Sadly the snapshot cannot be conveyed, but in some sense, that just adds to the value of it.

    I would really like to come up with a name for this phenomenon. I guess the most precise would be 'voluntary involuntary auditory memory', but I think I'll just refer to it as 'music tagging' for now. 'Music tagging' nicely catches the way in which a city can become tagged by music (although invisible to others), but also that the music itself becomes tagged (labelled) according to its associations. Recommendations for other neologisms (or, indeed, already existing terms) are very much welcome. Until then, happy music tagging.

    Thursday, August 28, 2008

    Internet killed the video star

    Well, some headlines just lie there dormant, waiting for the right opportunity to become overused. That opportunity is here.

    The phenomenon that prompted the headline is called "Take-Away shows" and is being done to perfection at La Blogotheque. The concept is easy; pick up a camera and a cheap microphone, convince a band that this is the new cool, and shoot an improvised, raw, dogma-like music video on the fly. As the web site states, "what makes the beauty of it is all the little incidents, hesitations, and crazy stuff happening unexpectingly". The results are mixed, as can be expected, but it can be pretty awesome.
    I think the best examples are the sessions with REM -- five videos shot on one night in Athens, GA. Perhaps the main reason why they are supreme to the others is that Michael Stipe is simply not capable of producing sounds that are out of tune. In fact, I was wondering whether it was playback or not on occasion, but it's really not. I particularly recommend "Living well is the best revenge". There is something so refreshing, pure and this-is-what-its-all-about in this video, where the REM guys are crammed into a car, guitars and all, while playing the song to perfection.
    The final song is "Sing for the submarine", where Stipe's haunting voice is augmented by the acoustics inside a silo, while banging his elbow into the silo wall (which looks pretty painful at times). The drummer spontaneously try to break some twigs to produce the necessary rhythm. Not entirely succcesful, but just shows the spontaneity of it all. Incredible stuff!

    The headline is not just an empty play on the title of the famous music video from the launch of MTV. In an era where "live" award shows are delayed to avoid any surprises (such as, god forbid, any wardrobe malfunctions), where music videos are endlessly produced on the same stale format ("all we need is a corridor and some [insert degrading nouns for females]"). Although YouTube is ridiculously over-hyped (and, technologically speaking, services like dailymotion, guba and megavideo are superior), it has brought back spontaneity, instanteneousness, and the importance of conveying a sense of being-there. Although this tends to produce many annoying Internet memes, the upshot might indeed be that it brings back spontaneity. If so, it's all worth it!

    Monday, August 11, 2008

    Best comedy sketches

    So, I came across this listing the other day (can't find the link right now) about the top ten comedy sketches of all time. It covered pretty much only US comedy (a lof of Saturday Night Live), and missed some of the best sketches ever -- the ones that literally made me roll on the floor laughing. So here it is, my collection of the best comedy sketches, from the five best comedy shows of all time:

    5. Arrested Development; The Chicken dances

    Arrested development must be the best sitcom ever, yet for some idiotic reason got canned. Although I loved it for its intelligent humour and intricate plots, those are difficult to present as a clip. Luckily, good olf fashioned slapstick and body humour was also a major part of it, and nothing made me laugh harder than the Bluth family's somehwat original takes on the chicken dance, nicely captured in the montage below.

    4. The Fast Show: Arse and coughing

    Although I simply love The Fast Show and can't get enough of the recurring characters, it rarely gives me tears in my eyes. This little bit featuring some unfortunatte tourette-like characters did the trick.

    3. Monty Python: Tinny words
    Well, I could've mentioned so many by Monty Python (the fish slapping dance is another one of my favourites), but this one is relatively unknown, yet so darn funny. Graham Chapman at his very best!

    2. Saturday Night Live: Chris Rock as rapper with toe fetish
    Ok, let's admit it. SNL is 95% crap, which might be the reason why the 5% times they get it right, it makes it into comedy history. Again, I could've mentioned many of the familiar ones (I think "more cow bell" was one the top 10 list I mentioned above), but this is also a rarely seen one, featuring Chris Rock as the most puny rapper ever. When he hits the chorus towards the end, I literally fell of my chair.

    Hmm, I just couldn't find this vid anywhere, except for which is only available within the United states (I guess the SNL copyright hunters are pretty good). If you come across it, be sure to watch it, laugh, then let me know where.

    1. Reeves and Mortimer: Mulligan and O'Hare
    Weird is the only word for British duo Jim Reeves and Vic Mortimer. Often it becomes so surreal that you're left with a smile, albeit a confused and slightly disturbed one (you can see some of this in the intro to Mulligan and O'hare below). Sometimes, they just hit the nail on the head, and there's just no beating their amazing and surreal portrayel of singers Mulligan and O'Hare. Enjoy!

    Please let me know if any of the videoes have been removed.

    Sunday, August 10, 2008

    The strangest conference

    I went to a conference the other day, about intellectual property in cyberspace and all that. The experience turned out to be quite surreal.
    When I entered the building, there were only three people standing around. One of them were shouting commands, seemingly to a technician that I couldn't see; as with all conferences, Murphy's law was upon them. This went on for a while. I was quietly sitting at one end of the auditorium. I didn't really know anyone there and wasn't in the mood to network, so I decided to just wait for the show. On stage, nothing was happening, though.

    Half an hour had gone by, and there was still not much happening on stage. Some people, who looked like technicians, would show up now and again, but disappear just as quickly. While waiting, I almost dosed off. My head was slowly sinking towards my chest when, with a jerk, I woke up again -- looked around as if nothing had happened. By this time, there were more people in the auditorium, many of them complaining loudly about what seemed to be shoddy organizing. Then, presto, as if out of nowhere, the keynote speaker suddenly appeared on stage. Apparently, enough time had been wasted so he went straight into his talk.
    Although the talk was interesting, I found myself drifting. There were so many weird characters at this conference, so I couldn't help look around. Sure, we don't need to wear suits at conferences these days but this is ridiculous, I thought to myself upon noticing an older gentleman with short shorts. Behind me, there was a woman wigh a huge bloody hat on -- flowers and all. As if the presence of all these characters weren't enough, a number of the participants were half asleep and many were discussing things loudly that had nothing to do with the lecture. I felt like I was back in primary school.

    While trying to understand what kind of weird conference I was attending, a friend of mine messaged me and asked where I was. "I'm at this crzy cnfrnce. Lots of weeeird ppl. It's free, so come by if u want". Sure enough, my friend showed up a few minutes later. In general, I must admit I'm not completely used to Dutch manners, yet (I'm originally from Norway, but work in the Netherlands now). Still, I was quite suprised when my Dutch friend came through the doors and strolled down the aisle mid-lecture with clogs on!!! That's right, huge bloody wooden shoes. He sat down next to me, and I couldn't help but feel slightly embarrased by the spectacle he was making. He shouted, so the whole auditorium could hear, "what's all this then?". I don't know if it was to prove a point or not, but at the other end of the auditorium, a woman shouted back "a lecture about intellectual property". Weird, I thought, but this was when things started becoming even weirder. Suddenly, I felt like I was having problems seeing the stage. My vision was getting blurry! What the heck is happening? As this happened, I heard people around my make the same complaints. One man shouted "I can't hear anything", the woman with the flowery hat behind me shouted "Even worse, I can't see anything". People started getting out of their seats, run out for a moment, and come back in again. The guy who had been shouting to the invisible technician started shouting again. My friend said "This sucks. I'm outta here". I was sitting there trying to figure out what the heck was going on. It was at this point the shout-to-invisible-technician-man got up on stage and shouted to all of us. "If you want to see the lecture again, you have to press stop and then start on your quicktime players". Second Life conferences are weird.

    Monday, March 31, 2008

    Why open access publishing is troublesome

    In various email lists etc. there have been a lot of discussion about the future of paper journals and the superiority of open access on-line journals. Although I agree that information should be widely accessible and that many (especially independent) researchers are left out of the loop due to the cost of subscribing to journals, the solution is not to just move access-restricted journals into the public domain, nor to abolish paper journals. Sometimes there's made a connection between the seemingly inevitable demise of other physical media (e.g. cd's and similar will be entirely replaced by digital downloads) but this is a very misleading analogy. The most important thing about scholarly research and academic journals is that they have to be subject to a quality control, usually in the form of a peer review. Although there's nothing difficult about doing this with open access journals, the main problem is that it is difficult for the reader to know the extent and quality of peer review. The reason is that with open access journals, there is often no discernable body that puts its reputation at stake. If a journal is rumoured to not take the peer review process seriously, then no respectable publisher would let that continue. Blackwell, Springer etc. have a reputation at stake. With online journals, there is often no such stakes involved. I'm not saying that this is foolproof (there are probably many instances of shoddy journals hiding behind a respectable publisher), but at the very least it is a more reliable indicator than anything found on the Web. Thus, the alternative to the current system cannot bypass the important role of the publishers. The alternative, in other words, is not to start up a host of independent, ad hoc journals, but rather to sway the publishers to find alternative and more accessible means of publishing their journals. The reason why the analogy with record companies does not hold, is that there is no such requirement for peer review and quality control in music. Research is not a matter of the taste of the consumers, but the quality of the research; and currently the best way we have of controlling the latter seems to be peer-review and to have it done through a publisher with a reputation at stake. In more constructive terms, I think the sustainable road to more open access journals is to sway the publishers, not to simply set up alternatives whose scientific quality is difficult to assess.

    Tuesday, February 12, 2008

    Men, computer games and methodological flaws.

    Researchers have appearantly found that reward regions in the brain are more active in men than women when playing computer games and, the researchers conclude that this is why men are more prone to be hooked on computer games. The video game they used in the experiment was "a vertical line (the "wall") in the middle of a computer screen. When the game begins, 10 balls appear to the right of the wall and travel left toward the wall. Each time a ball is clicked, it disappears from the screen. If the balls are kept a certain distance from the wall, the wall moves to the right and the player gains territory" (see picture) and the researchers state that "This is a fairly representative, generic computer game" *sigh*

    This actually reminds of a story I saw on CNN yesterday about the lack of proper defense for the alleged 9/11 terrorists in their upcoming trial. A political scientist claimed that this is the worst thing the US could do if they want "revenge" on the terrorists, because if they are convicted without having a proper defense, this just removes all credibility from the process. I think there's a similar thing going on with these video game experiments. I do not really doubt that there's a grain of truth in the result, but when making such elementary methodological mistakes and mind-numbing generalization, they really are doing themselves a disservice -- it just removes all credibility from the process. I'm not just picking on this experiment in particular, but I've seen a lot of the same problems with the most cited experiments on violence in computer games, including the interesting but far from conclusive research by Craig Anderson.
    What's worse it that the media, when picking up these stories, usually omit any caveats and methodological footnotes, which results in the kinds of headlines that ultimately might sway the public opinion.

    I think the sensible thing to do is to not jump to conlusion on either side. Allow me to make a sweeping generalization on my own: On the one hand, gamers and hackers too often claim that all kinds of so-called piracy is good and that virtual violence has nothing at all to do with real violence, whereas policy makers and media all too often claim that piracy is just ultimately a form of selfishness and that every murderer out there has been playing violent video games (which, even when true, could by at any end of the causal chain). Neither is true, and in championing either extreme it just makes it more difficult for the sound and carefully weighed considerations to come to the front.

    In the words of Jascha Heifetz (which just happened to be the quote of the day on my Google home portal): "No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other."

    Saturday, February 9, 2008

    Searle's rational beer drinking in action

    One of the modern works of philosophy that has influenced me the most is John Searle's Rationality in Action -- but probably not for the right reasons. I do not agree with all of Searle's hypotheses (if they can even be referred to as such), but I do find the book incredibly thought-provoking. One of the reasons is that it reads like a novel. It's a heck of a roller coaster where you find yourself nodding when reading one page, and vehemently shaking your head (or banging it into a wall) when reading the next.

    When I first read the book almost 10 years ago, I used to make fun of it. One of Searle's central theses is that there can be such a thing as desire-independent reasons for action, in contrast with what he terms the classical model. Take the following example. A man orders a beer, drinks the beer, and the bartender asks the customer to pay. According to Searle, I have no desire right there and then to pay for the beer; there is nothing in my motivational set that would give me a reason to pay for the beer. According to Searle, the reason for paying for the beer is not a desire to pay that I have right there and then, but a desire-independent reason that I created at the time of ordering the beer. I think the gut reaction to this argument for most readers, including myself, is that I do have a number of desire-dependent reasons to pay for the beer: I desire not to get punched by the bartender, forced to do the dishes, lose face in front of my drinking buds, be denied another beer and so forth. I feel really slow for not really realizing it until about the third time I read the book, but this is the wrong way to see it. Searle's claim becomes more understandable if we look at it in terms of rational justification. Let's say I order a beer, drinks it, and then the opportunity arise that I can get away with not paying for the beer at all. Surely, many would take the opportunity and not pay for the beer, but let us say that I decide to actually pay for the beer. After having settled the bill (and reminded the bartender that I owed him money), my drinking bud might ask me: "What the heck did you do that for?". In that situation, it would be a perfectly rational thing to claim that "Well, because I ordered it and thereby promised to pay for it". Searle's point is not whether this is the reason why we usually pay (often we only pay because we don't want to face the consequences of not paying), but that the desire-independent reason is a reason for action. It is perfectly rational (and incidentally, ethical) to act upon the reason that I created in the past even though I do not have any desire whatsoever to do so. In other words, if I had no desire to pay for the beer, no general moral desire to keep my promises or any other desire that could possibly motivate paying for the beer, it is still a perfectly rational thing for me to do if I decide to pay for the beer. Once I realized this subtlety, Searle's book made a whole lot more sense and I highly recommend it -- at least for its terminology and ability to provoke thoughts. To continue the novel analogy, Searle is both hero and anti-hero in this book. At some points you will think of him as a cranky, arrogant geezer, but at some points he's the little child that points out the emperor's lack of clothes.