Friday, January 29, 2016

Freudian Slip?

This morning while we were discussing the latest round of entertainment passing for a debate among Republicans, my wife happened to call the absent candidate "Crump." When she said, "I don't know why I said that," I replied, "It comes from trying to say 'crap' and 'Trump' at the same time." That struck me as a rather innocent language game, compared with Marco Rubio. In response to Time proclaiming him "The Republican Savior," he declared that there was only one "Savior." I honor the capitalization implied in his used of the word, because his punch line was that the only true "Savior" was Jesus. It may be that the November election will be a signal to those of us that are not Christian (or, perhaps, even Rubio's idea of what Christian should be) to start living with packed suitcases.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Remembering Marvin Minsky

I just finished reading the BBC News report of the death of Marvin Minsky, who succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 88. Minsky served as adviser for both my senior and doctoral theses. The former amounted to a systematic implementation of some ideas he had been playing around with through which he could compose music with the aid of computer software. The latter was basically an extended analysis of that what implementation could and could not express and what means of expression were involved. As is the case with many doctoral students, it led to a few publications, one of which I particularly enjoyed, since it got me into the Journal of Music Theory, which had been a major source for much of my background research.

I suppose what I remember most about Minsky was that he was a "hands off" adviser. He would let me go off on my own with relatively little guidance, but he would then subject my findings to intense criticism. At the time he was running the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was getting its funding from the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. He had other areas of research to supervise to keep those guys was happy. I was a side show. So I had the freedom to run it myself while enjoying the facilities of the Laboratory. My best move came when the composer Ezra Sims became my "unofficial" adviser (and composition teacher); and much of what went into my thesis was the result of not only Sims' coaching but also his own experiences in using my software.

However, even before my graduate studies, Minsky made a mark in the world of computer music that never really got duly acknowledged. What I built for my senior thesis was basically a symbol manipulation system, whose symbols amounted to a hybrid of the fundamental constructs of music notation and the basic operators of a programming language. The former was, in just about any imaginable way, a predecessors of the MIDI coding system. Had Marvin been more concerned about intellectual property instead of chipping away at enormous research challenges, he probably could have made a strong case that what finally showed up in concrete form in my senior thesis would have been prior art for what MIDI had been trying to do. (On the other hand my work with Sims came about through a shared interest in microtonality. One of the first things I did, to satisfy the sort of expressiveness that most interested Sims, was divide the octave into 72 equal internals. My attachment to that representation was why I ignored MIDI during its first years of application.)

On a broader scale I acquired from Minsky the basic precept that finding the right questions to ask is always more important than answering them. In that respect I was glad to see the BBC quoting him on the downside of companies like Google and Facebook getting into artificial intelligence. He sees those companies trying to make money by commercializing things that never worked very well in the early stages of research. (There used to be a joke among graduate students that a thesis was based on a demonstration project that could only be applied to one example and did not even work reliably in that limited case!)

I suppose that Minsky was more interested in intelligence as a process, rather than a product that might eventually be marketed. In this respect he was a direct descendant of Alan Turing, whose "Turing Test" has been bastardized by contemporary technology hacks as a product that can vie in a competition, while Turing himself was more interested in the sorts of processes through which his "Imitation Game" could be played successfully. If those processes worked for a human player, then there was a good chance they could be implemented on a machine.

Minsky's background also endowed him with an appreciation of intelligence having a subjective dimension, that is elements that had more to do with psychology than with mathematics. Mind you, he believed that such subjectivity might eventually be mapped into a more objective domain; but he still knew enough to appreciate the difference. On the other hand I am not sure he appreciated that there was also a social dimension to intelligence, which may explain why he was often so impatient, if not bored, in many of his conversations.

That same comment that objects to commercialization advocates, instead, "giving support to individuals who have new ideas." I suppose that is why he took me on as a doctoral student. However, back when I was still trying to make a living in scientific research, I found very few such individuals when interviewing job candidates. Graduate schools were now coming out a crop of students who were most proficient at following orders, passed from funding organizations down through thesis advisers. I suppose that is why I am now happier these days writing on my own nickel (or, to be fair, nickels coming in part from the Social Security Administration). Even in the world of music, it is getting harder to come across "new ideas;" but I find the odds of finding them at a conservatory are better than those of finding them at even the best of the universities!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"… our pathetic native self"

I just finished reading Janet Malcom's harsh review of Jonathan Bate's recent biography of Ted Hughes, now available online prior to my receiving it in the next issue of The New York Review of Books. I was particularly pleased with her concluding paragraph, in which she dismissed the idea that a biography should be about what the subject was "really" like. Her punch line about that topic was:
If anything is our own business, it is our pathetic native self.
This left me wondering if this was her way of venting about the current mass addiction to social media, suggesting that whose who indulge most heavily are actually the most pathetic. In an earlier age (about which these addicts are totally oblivious), the prevailing motto would have been "Get a life!" In the absence of an authoritative voice to utter that maxim, such addicts can think of nothing to do other what broadcast every detail of "native self" to the entire Internet, neither knowing nor caring about how pathetic that act of broadcasting is.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Pierre Boulez and the Second Viennese School

I wanted to wait until after I had documented my own "obituary thoughts" about Pierre Boulez before reading anyone else's. Fortunately, because of the print cycle of The New Yorker, I had a generous amount of waiting time before having an opportunity to look at what Alex Ross had to say. His article for the January 25 issue is now available for reading online; and, while my personal attitude towards Ross has been variable, I thought that he did an excellent job of giving Boulez his due (which does not mean that I liked reading his piece because it showed that he agreed with me)! One observation that we share has to do with Boulez' acute understanding of the music of the Second Viennese School and his consummate skill at making what they wrote sound like music at a time when most other conductors were lost at sea.

Here is the operative passage from Ross' text:
His lucid approach to classic works of early modernism, particularly the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, changed how that music is played and heard. Simon Rattle, one of many forward-thinking conductors who received Boulez’s encouragement, described the status quo: “What one heard was only a struggle.” Boulez took away the struggle—the muddiness and the messiness. As if seen through polished glass, the music assumed an unearthly beauty.
I am inclined to agree, but I think it is necessary to clarify the nature of the struggle. One element came with Arnold Schoenberg's decision to add Hauptstimme (primary voice) and Nebenstimme (secondary voice) markings to his scores. This seems to have led to a slavish allegiance to Schoenberg's priorities without necessarily grasping the logic behind them. However, the more serious problem came with the move into the use of the twelve-tone row. Amateur mathematicians, such as Milton Babbitt, were quickly drawn to how Schoenberg's technique involved working with a limited number of permutations of the twelve chromatic pitches. This led Babbitt to jump to the conclusion that the foundation for Schoenberg's theory must be the abstract algebraic theory of permutation groups.

It is unclear if Schoenberg knew or cared what Babbitt was trying to do. Fortunately, we do know his famous caustic remark in a letter to René Leibowitz:
I do not compose principles, but music.
Unfortunately, by the time I was an undergraduate, music teachers seemed to prefer drinking Babbitt's Kool-Aid to reading Schoenberg's letter.

Perhaps it was because Boulez had his own intense brush with permutations and the "principles" behind them that he came to realize that there was music behind those principles that was "where the action was." Boulez may thus have been the first high-profile conductor of Schoenberg's music after Schoenberg's death to chuck the mathematics and worry instead about where the music was. Boulez turned out to be very good at doing this, perhaps because he was already beginning to grasp where the music was in other composers, such as Olivier Messiaen. Rattle would then emerge as another such conductor, and it now appears that Rattle is willing to credit Boulez for encouraging him into that frame of mind. Meanwhile, Babbitt's work has been pretty much forgotten. As one of my former colleagues put it:
No one is afraid of Uncle Miltie any more.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Will We Survive in a World Without Work?

I see that life is once again trying to imitate art with an international project to alter the trajectory of any asteroid that might crash into our planet. Since anything is possible in a space of infinite possibilities, these researchers have, supposedly, done some mathematics to determine a "mean time to Armageddon" (to cite the title of the movie behind this project). We could then compare that duration with the mean time to the time when life would be unlivable on this planet through either failure to control the dangers of climate change or, worse yet, failure to provide conditions for a life worth living.

Think about that latter option. The idea of gainful employment for all was already being dismantled through the joint efforts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Long after Regan was out of office, his former economic adviser David Stockman was declaring on National Public Radio the end of salaried employment. Everyone whole be doing piecework. Stockman did not say anything about how living from one job to the next was fraught with insecurity, not to mention the possibility of financial support when health care was involved.

Yet Stockman's prognostication seems to have been an accurate call. Today's generation of youth still believe that they will not be able to compete in the job market without a college education. Yet they cannot reconcile that proposition with the likelihood that such an education will leave them with a debt that, thanks to the changes in the world of work, may not be paid off over the course of a lifetime.

Have we really managed to create a global society in which only the rich are likely to survive? If so, will they continue to survive if their only talent is one of pushing around bits that reinforce fictions of convenience about financial worth? People do not care very much about "asteroid Armageddon," because they do not see it happening during their lifetimes. We used to say the same thing about climate control; but those chickens seem to be coming to roost on the schedule predicted by scientists whose work was dismissed as "only a theory." Add to that a global social class in which the very idea of working hard for a secure decent wage is now obsolete; and the question of whether the planet is worth saving may be more than idle academic philosophy.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Occasional Amusement of Mindlessness

There was an amusing error in the headline for a KGO RSS feed posted last night:
Find out the winning Powerbull numbers
Experience has taught that these headlines tend to be a relatively mindless process of copying what looks like the right headline from the source article and distilling it down to headline length. By now I no longer complain that nothing even faintly resembling editing is part of the aggregation workflow. However, given how much this particular task involves little more than copying, I suspect the odds of it being a deliberate prank rather than a mindless error are pretty good. Perhaps somewhat has finally found the right wooden shoe (sabot) to throw into the RSS machinery!