All student work should go on the web

Well, it’s official. All of my students are now henceforth required to post all music assignments on SoundCloud.

It solves so many problems! No fumbling with thumb drives, no sharing of huge files, no annoyances with incompatible DAWs. No need to mess with audio-hostile Learning Management Systems. Everyone gets to listen to everyone else’s music. And best of all, the kids get into the habit of exposing their creative work to the blunt indifference of the public at large. Students can comment on and fave each others’ tracks, and so can randos on the web. It really takes the “academic” out of academic work.

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A book you should read

I’m currently reading On Immunity by Eula Biss, which is so good you can’t believe it. Recommended if you’re interested in vaccination, health generally, being a parent, gender, race, class, the history of medicine, Greek mythology, vampires, or if you just need an example of how to parse out a difficult subject in a warm and elegant manner.

On Immunity

Also, if you have money and want to make a well targeted public health intervention, I recommend buying a bunch of copies and handing them out in front of the Park Slope Food Coop and the equivalent locations in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, Laurel Canyon, Portland, and wherever else well-educated professionals aren’t getting their kids vaccinated.

Music theory blues

I’m reading a lot Schenkerian analyses of blues right now in service of my forthcoming article about blues tonality. Each paper I read is wronger than the last. On the one hand, they fill me with righteous rage, but on the other hand, that rage does at least help me focus my arguments. Here are some particularly awful quotes from a scholar who will remain nameless, because I don’t believe that the racism is intended:

Blue notes, by nature, are alienated from their harmonic environment and have a dissonant relationship with them, giving the blues and all its derivatives a rough, angry character. Nevertheless, the hostility of blue notes toward the surrounding world may be mitigated—“domesticated”—through consonantization.

Blue notes (BNs), by nature, spoil the diatonicism of and cause dissonance in “clean” chords. But these notes may achieve their own independent harmonization, thereby being domesticated and turning into “environment-friendly” consonant notes.

The products of the consonantization of the BNs, which appear in a major-mode harmonic environment, are necessarily flatted degrees. These degrees turn the BNs from minor notes, which are “alien” to the major chords that build the basic harmonic progression, into “family” notes that are “at home” in these chords. The legitimacy that the flatted chords give the BNs is ostensibly the opposite of the “emancipation”that Arnold Schoenberg gave dissonant notes when he freed them from having to resolve to consonance, since the BNs by nature are dissonant notes with no obligation to be resolved.

However, the domestication of the BNs is an emancipatory act, since they thereby stop clashing with the harmony and instead become settled in it.

In Example 1(e), we see flatted or “minorized” degrees, among them VI and III. These degrees now include 3ˆ and 7ˆ not as BNs but in a mixtural framework—that is, as an insertion of flatted notes in a major key. Both of these—mixture and BNs—are common in the Beatles’ songs. Are they related? Ostensibly, they are two completely different things: the journey back in time in quest of the origins of blues will take us to the Mississippi Delta and from there to Africa, whereas the search for the origins of mixture, which is anchored in traditional harmony, will eventually lead us to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. The connection goes through the “domestication of BNs”—when it can be shown that a particular BN has changed from being outside the consonant harmony, in which case we may regard it as a garnish or a “disturbance,”to being an integral part of a consonant triad. If, for example, we can claim in a particular context that the III chord in Example 1(e) is based on a BN (G), then the status of this BN has improved substantially relative to its status in (c): instead of being an outsider, it becomes a distinguished member of the club of the flatted mediant without losing its blues character.

The status of these [blue] notes in the harmonic society improves substantially in part B: they become the roots of VII and III, and thus they become respected members of the community and live in consonant harmony with the rest of the notes. Their past is nevertheless evident in the descriptive term CBN, which is imprinted on their identity cards.

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What are the main ideas and highlights of Gödel, Escher, Bach?

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter describes and defines the concept of recursion, and discusses its applications in computer science, consciousness, art, music, biology and various other fields.

Recursion is crucial to writing computer programs in a compact, elegant way, but it also opens the door to infinite loops and irreconcilable logical contradictions.


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Visual remixes

Long before I got interested in electronic music, I was a fine arts guy. It bothers me that unauthorized appropriation of a music recording will get you sued, but visual artists who appropriate pop cultural materials get into museums and art history textbooks.

Marcel Duchamp

In ancient times and more traditional societies, there was never much importance attached to the concept of sole authorship or ownership of creative works. Widespread belief in the lone Byronic genius didn’t take hold until the eighteenth century in Europe. Duchamp signaled the beginning of the end of the Byronic genius with his readymades, like the infamous urinal, or this bicycle wheel:

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Is Richard Dawkins helping science through his attacks on religion?

I would wish for Dawkins to use more emotional sensitivity and compassion when dealing with religious people, because his hostile tone gets in the way of his invaluable message. His condescending attitude toward believers, epitomized by calling atheists “brights,” is seriously counterproductive. I’m concerned that he’s unnecessarily confrontational and inflammatory in his TV appearances, op-eds and so on. He’d benefit from taking a page from Jesus and turning the other cheek when religious people attack or misrepresent him.

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Building a better dopamine awareness campaign

I’ve been intrigued by Charles Lyell‘s self-described “dopamine awareness campaign,” trying to show how all of our social behaviors boil down to a desire for gratifying dopamine shots. The campaign doesn’t seem to be going so well; see, for example, the collapsing of his recent answer to Why do people contribute reviews of restaurants/theatres/events etc? what is the human motivation to do this? I voted it back up, but gently satirized him in a comment:

I appreciate your awareness campaign, but it does seem like all of your answers boil down to one word. “Why does anyone do anything?” “DOPAMINE!”

Charles wrote me back:



I’m not trying to annoy or bore people, but part of my awareness campaign is to help spread the word that everything we do we do for dopamine. 

Imagine a world where the fear/power/esteem addicts wreaking havoc and destroying the planet are revealed to be desperate addicts who need treatment for the same brain disease plaguing heroin addicts. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that everything comes down to dopamine appeal and that trying to explain dopamine appeal has zero dopamine appeal. As a result, I’m working a couple of new approaches. 

If you can think of a way to make explaining dopamine appeal more appealing, please let me know.

That’s such a good question that rather than respond in a comment, I thought it merited my first-ever Quora post.

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What are some possible innovations for Delicious going forward?

This is a melancholy topic for me. There was a time when my Delicious network feed was the first site I looked at in the morning, my favorite source of news and serendipitous new knowledge, and the primary repository for my short-form writing. Now I barely ever use it.

I started out using Delicious for its intended purpose, bookmarking. Then I discovered that between the tags and the notes field, it was a spectacular notetaking tool. Over time, I built up a network of around a hundred other people. My Delicious use became 10% archiving and annotating links I planned to refer to later, and 90% social linkblogging. The experience became almost Quora-like.

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How can you give an effective talk on a depressing topic without depressing your audience?

Here’s what works for me.

  • Focus on solutions. What immediate steps can people take right now? What are bigger steps that governments and corporations need to take, and what can we do to push them in the right direction?
  • Don’t judge. Assigning blame is gratifying but counterproductive; it heightens tensions and closes minds. Instead, take a the thousand-mile-distant Buddhist perspective. In the longest time scales, nothing matters; the sun will explode and destroy the earth in five billion years one way or the other. Meanwhile, we’re in this situation, it’s not good, but it’s no one’s fault (or everyone’s fault, same thing.) Now what’s the most practical way out?
  • Be funny. You can take the subject matter seriously without taking yourself seriously. Gallows humor is the best kind. See: Stewart and Colbert, South Park, hip-hop lyrics and Mark Twain for inspiration.

Humans are adaptive and full of surprises. We do stupid, self-destructive, narrow-minded and short-sighted things, but we’re also capable of imagination, optimism, compassion and even self-sacrifice. Which feelings do you want to stir in your audience?

Original post on Quora