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I’ve been listening to my tapes again

It’s now clear that CDs were a massive backwards move for personal music. My CDs are scratched, my CD players have conked out, one by one. I sit surrounded by dead storage media, while my tapes and tape players play as loud and clear as ever.

The popularity of low quality mp3s reveals the myth of fidelity that helped us buy into the CD hype. As with virtual reality, we let ourselves be fooled into believing that the primary thing that matters is high resolution (kbps, frames per second, pixels per inch, 3D, etc). CDs might have some sound quality edge over tape, but in terms of immersion quality is irrelevant. Fluidity of action drives immersion in VR. With music, the relationship we have to the production and consumption is primary; the history of obtaining, retaining, playing and enjoying.

With music, CDs accelerated us along that path that eroded music-as-object. This creates a vacuum in the emotional life of our music collections. The CD gives you shuffle, destroying the order the higher order of sequencing in favour of the individuality of tracks. You can skip in an instant, removing the distance tapes impose via effort of holding the forward key. CDs are fickle towards their digital memories, all too ready to give up to scratching, skipping or fatal “NO DISC” load failures. Frankly, less than 20 years after I bought my first CD, too many of them don’t f****ing work.

The tapes still work. I recognise my handwriting on the track listing, anticipate the start of each track from the end of the one that invariably came before. Certain artists are forever bound in my memory by accident of being taped onto opposite sites of the same tape. My hand knows the weight of a tape. Somewhere in my motor cortex a dedicated network of neurons store the pattern which allows me to stab STOP/EJECT, slip out a C90, spin it around between thumb and index finger, reinsert, slam shut holder and stab play, all within half a second.

Music-as-objects limits our choices. With a tape, if you want to skip more tracks you have to wait longer for the tape to wind forward. If you want to change your selection you need to stand up and find another tape you want to listen to. If you want to make a mix tape, you’ve only got 45 minutes a side, say, within which to do it.

The tape gives freedom through constraint in a way that is a release for anyone who has sat in front of Spotify, mouse over the search bar, thinking “a million million songs at my fingertips and I can’t think of anything I want to listen to”. Once, I could only listen to the music I had on tape (and a radio, without any pause or replay). Now I can spend 10 minutes listening to the first thirty seconds of 20 songs from a selection wider than the sky. It’s like a music diet consisting entirely of crisps.

Sometimes less is more.

The Natures of Explanation

(Attention conservation notice: mostly me trying to work out what I mean. If you know, feel free to get in touch)

Explanation is not a zero-sum game. You can add additional explanations without negating existing explanations. The loss of life after the flooding of New Orleans was due to Hurricane Katrina. And it was due to climate change. And under-investment in the levees. And a history of social exclusion based on race and class. All these explanations are true, there is no explanatory exclusivity.

I am reading Bruno Latour’s “Science in Action” where he gives the best (only?) account I have seen of how any explanation can be countered or superseded by subsequent explanations. Scientists seek to settle claims – to generate “black boxes” of fact, in Latour’s terms – but the process of scientific debate sees a flux of competing explanations. An experiment by A said X. But two experiments by Y said not-X. But Y isn’t using the correct equipment, of course his experiments give the wrong results. But X’s equipment is biased to give the answer X, Y has to use non-standard equipment. But Z has shown not-X with A’s equipment for sub-case Z. And so on. Explanations seek to settle, but can always be weakened by subsequent explanations which qualify, reframe or negate. It is not just that subsequent claims diminish our confidence that X is the case, on some linear scale where 0>confidence>1. Instead, there is a fundamental uncertainty in the very metrics we are judging.

We seek to define or find (domains) where exclusivity applies. Responsibility and blame feels like a domain where exclusivity applies – almost by definition, because we want it to apply. If it was my fault it is not your fault. We want blame to sum to 1, so that even in complex cases we sort through the responsibility of all involved an apportion a limited amount of blame to each party.

Obviously, when non-exclusive explanations originating from science are used in the moral domain, it is natural for people to interpret them exclusively. If your brain or your environment made you commit a crime, it is not your fault. In a similar way – perhaps essentially similar – freedom of the will is often talked about as an exclusive property. Is your choice at the moment free OR is it pre-determined? This is a fundamental misconception, in my opinion.

You need a tolerance for ambiguity to deal in non-exclusive explanations. Usually we seek to find a restricted domain where we can argue over explanations which are, temporarily, exclusive. Is it nature or nurture? Is dyslexia caused by cerebellar dysfunction or magnocellular pathway dysfunction? For the non-restricted domain the ground can always shift underneath you. Someone can come along a redefine any element of what you are arguing about, including the tools of argument themselves.

A National Eccentricity Index

I’ve been wondering if it would be remotely possible to measure the amount of eccentricity in a culture. In particular, I’m wondering about the historical trend in number of people who are “characters” – ie the distinctly usual. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that 60 years ago there were more people who marched to the beat of a different drum, and it isn’t hard to imagine a story about the homogenising influence of modern and commercial culture. It also isn’t hard to imagine that all sorts of selection biases and preconceptions are at work, so that there really hasn’t been any change in this over recent history. So – could it be measured?

I was doing some research the other day, on what questions people ask about psychology. This tends to overlap, but not by much, with the questions that we as professional psychology researchers invesitgate. If you’re interested you can look for yourself:

Very common, it seems, is the question “Am I normal?” or “is this normal?”. Did people always ask this question, or is it particularly modern? If you do a google ngram search for the words “strange” and “normal” you get an interesting pattern:

More normal (in red), and less strange (in blue) over the last two centuries. They even appear inversely related at points – notice the damping of ‘strangeness’ around WWI and WWII and a surge in ‘normality’.

Games which teach kids systems thinking

Procedural thinking may be the 21st century’s most essential yet endangered way of thinking. Of course the best way of teaching it to your kids is to live in the 1980s and buy them a BBC Micro, but that is getting harder and harder in these days of touchscreens and it being 30 years too late. Now children’s games designers Exploit ™ have introduced a new range of children’s games for exactly the purpose of teaching procedural thinking skills to your kids. Each game in the new range is designed to be played by children and adults together and involves rules of age appropriate complexity. Standard play of these games should allow the player with the most foresight and self-control to win most of the time (ie the adult). Within each ruleset, however, is hidden a loop-hole which, if discovered, should allow the unscrupulous player crushing victory after crushing victory. The thrill of discovering and using these loop-holes will train your kids in the vital skills of system analysis, procedural thinking and game theory. Parents can either play in “carrot” mode, feigning ignorance of each game’s loop-hole and thus allowing their children the joy of discovery; or they can play in “stick” mode, exploiting the loop-hole for their own ends and using their child’s inevitable defeat, amidst cries of “it’s not fair!” as encouragement for them to engage their own ludic counter-measures.