William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 151 of 410

On The Murder And Death Of Classical Music

It is difficult to discover one word which adequately and non-misleadingly describes what is today called “music” and what used to go by that name a century or more ago. The word should be statistical in the sense that music are the sounds which one encounters more than any other (and not necessarily what one listens to purposely).

For example, the average citizen in these United States is likely to hear rock produced from latter portion of the twentieth century when in grocery stores, houseware shops, and department stores; the same genre but of more recent vintage when in convenience stores or coffee shops, cafes, and the like; and a mysterious headache-inducing pounding emanation by the name of “hip hop” when in bars, or on beaches and other outdoor spaces.

Incidentally, my theory for the latter is that these sounds are generated by algorithm to cause the aforementioned pain, the kind of which can only be relieved by consuming massive amounts of alcohol—sold, of course, at high margins. We must admit that this is more effective than over-salting the free popcorn.

What are we to call this constellation of sound? Modern places it too squarely in time, and leaves our heirs in a jam because they will have to discover a new word to describe what they listen to in the future. Popular doesn’t work, because there will always be a genre which is the most popular (kind of like how there will always be a “leading cause of death”). Perhaps rock suffices if that word is interpreted to mean what is commonly thought of as “rock” plus its many derivatives.

Now what about those sounds from Rachmaninoff, Hayden, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Tchaikovsky and the like? The word most use is classical. And that’s fine, in its way. But it is defeatist, too. Classical means, in part, “that which belongs to antiquity.” Static museum pieces. Mention classical music and one imagines hearing a piece one has heard many times before, a piece from a limited repertoire. Mozart is not, after all, writing new symphonies.

Sometimes classical is labeled art music, but given what has happened to art over the past century, this is an insult. We could use beautiful since most of it is, especially in comparison to such things as this1. But it is only most, not all. There are, after all, folks like Philip Glass lurking in the margins.

And then there is Nico Muhly, subject of a glowing piece in The Telegraph (he has also been praised by the New York Times). The writer is under the impression that Muhly’s work is “classical.” Presumably this is because he does not use the electric guitars or computer programs which churn out today’s music.

Muhly, a sweet-faced young man whose haircut resembles the kind of expensive “designer” jeans which come with pre-ripped holes and bare spots, instead composes with noise.

I’m constantly recording ambient, unchanging noises. I stayed in a hotel in the Netherlands last month where the elevator shaft had this glorious hum of an open fifth. The air conditioner in my house is this sort of E-flat, the hiss of unconnected electronics, the buzz of a halogen lamp…

His best known composition is entitled “Drones & Piano.” And this is exactly what it is. Droning noises and a piano played with a fitful fist, jamming notes into the air in the way today’s poets scatter words across a page. Which is to say, randomly. Don’t take my word for it. The Telegraph embeds this piece at the bottom of its article. I myself was able to listen to nearly one minute of Part I, “Bedroom Community.”

The paper calls the sounds of this Part “a paranoid, hypnotic piano layered over a warm string hum.”

Viola drones continue into Part II jabbed with staccato jerks and pretty chords. Part III moves forward with brio and speed. Here, the string drones become a bee’s nest and the piano, sounding like a nest of wires, gets more and more tangled before a gentle, quiet coda segues perfectly into Part IV. This track feels like a fresh, dewy dawn.

I listened to the opening strains (yes) of each Part and I’m fairly sure that each repeats; the whole thing sounds like a twenty-second loop endlessly repeating.

Now, the reason this is important is that the paper and Muhly himself calls this stuff “classical.” And proudly. He believes himself to be continuing in the tradition of Hayden, Telemann, and so forth. He says, “The internet is filled with people saying that blah blah classical music is dying blah blah.” (This quotation shows that the mental processes which given Muhly his words also supplies his notes.) Of the doomsayers, “Chances are, they are being paid to say this.”

Nobody is paying me, Mr Muhly, but if classical music lives, you are not providing it life support. But least you have provided us something to listen to which is worse than the Beatles.


1Found by searching “hip hop charts”, clicking the first link, and selecting the third most popular song

The Last Cruise Of The USS Iowa

The USS Iowa on its last trip
USS Iowa


I was aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien yesterday when the USS Iowa was towed from its berth up San Francisco bay and out under the Golden Gate bridge on its way to Los Angeles. The entire crew, except for those guarding the engine room (four of the eight boilers were operational), of the O’Brien was out watching. And commenting.

The USS Iowa was launched in 1943 at the height of the Pacific war, though she started life in the Atlantic as a giant ferry for President Roosevelt. She was in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also called the Marianas Turkey Shoot, in June of 1944. And she was there for the last major push on Okinawa in 1945. “The Big Stick”, as she was affectionately known, also carried Halsey’s flag in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered. She saw service in Korea. And she became infamous in 1989 when one of her gun turrets exploded under mysterious circumstances and killed nearly 50 sailors.

The Iowa is nearly three football fields long and weighs 58,000 tons. One of the O’Briens claimed that just one of the roller bearings and mount for one the Iowa’s massive gun arrays weighed as much as the O’Brien, itself no slouch. It took several tugs to slowly maneuver the Iowa around the tight corners behind Alcatraz, an area which possess the deepest channel. (The picture above is from my not-so-hot camera phone, at full zoom.)

A private company bought the Iowa and will (thankfully) turn her into a museum. But in LA and not San Francisco. None of the O’Brien’s were pleased that Frisco was losing the Iowa. Politics is perception and all perceived that it was the fault of ex-mayor Gavin Newsom, who was thought to be petulantly anti-military. “All he had to do was to write a letter. But he wouldn’t,” one of the crew told me.

The thinking was that the Iowa will have to see a million visitors a year to turn a profit, which all hope she will. Nobody wants to see the old ship scrapped.

The O’Brien is an ex Liberty Ship, and still a working ship. She will cruise, as she does only a few times each year, today in honor of the Golden Gate bridges’ anniversary and, in greater honor, for Memorial Day. The O’Brien is different than many ship-museums because it is a working, sailing ship. Plus you get to go almost everywhere. Unescorted.

Engine room of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien
SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Most men head for the engine room, which is down several flights of perilously narrow, highly pitched ladders. I saw one husband plead with his wife, who refused to descend, say, “Just 15 more minutes.” He shot down into the gloom before his wife could say no. This must be a common occurrence because there is a set of folding chairs atop the entrance to the engines where another woman was already sitting.

I had a nice chat with the chief engineer who had been with the ship for eighteen years. He said it got to be about 120 degrees in the engine compartment when all eight boilers were going. But it was a pleasant 75 or so yesterday with just four. Topside it was cold and windy. As usual.

He told me that one of the more clever engineers had rigged one of the machine guns with a motor, spark plug, and propane canister that when switched on would make a pleasant pop-pop-pop sound. Another had rigged a fused bomb that fit into the five-inch gun. Had to be fused because the firing pins were removed from the guns. I didn’t get to hear the gun, but the machine gun simulator sounded realistic.

Some of the ship is off limits, including the still working radio room. Nobody was in it yesterday, but they did have a tape on continuous loop with a Morse code message spelling out the name of the ship and its berth. Throughout the rest of the ship were speakers playing Big Band tunes. Was I happy about that.

As we lined the rails watching the Iowa, Spike Jones came on singing Der Fuehrer’s Face (“Not to love der Fuehrer is a great disgrace”, “Super Dooper super men.”). I once got into trouble from trying to sing this song in a German restaurant. Many wives have no sense of humor. A crewman told me that this song was originally written by one of Walt Disney’s musicians, by a man who was Jewish. I had to look it up, but Disney even had Donald Duck croak out the tune. (Also see this.)

Stop by the O’Brien if you are even in San Francisco. You can even arrange a sleepover on board.

From Homochirality In Amino Acids To Conquering Dinosaurs: How Journalists Report Science

Today, just a pointer to a hilarious story by Robert McHenry in The American of how a workaday paper in a chemical journal with the title

Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth

became, after a severe manhandling by journalists,

Do Intelligent Dinosaurs Really Rule Alien Worlds?

Since we’ve so often seen how some obscure paper with dicey conclusions is tarted up in the press to confirm this or that bias, it’s good to read the steps McHenry identifies in the common process:

1. Some scientists publish a report of their work.

2. An alert PR guy who works for the university or institute notices some potentially hype-able words in the report.

3. He writes up a release, under the impression that he is Arthur C. Clarke.

4. J-school grads at a number of media outlets, whose science education ended in 8th grade, pick up the release, change three words to make it their own, and it is published to an unsuspecting public.

5. The unsuspecting public, which is not as dumb as the PR guy believes, dismisses the story as bushwah and blames the scientists.

Go and read the rest.

Scientists Discover Women Who Lick Their Lips Are Judged More Attractive By College Men

Hot or Not?

First the good news. It’s completely unrelated to what follows, but it is good news. Scientists say “Aliens ‘wouldn’t want to eat or enslave us’ says ET-hunting expert – the first ones we meet will be FAR too civilised.”

So we at least have that going for us. And then we have this Slate article, which asks, “Do Men Find Dumb-Looking Women More Attractive?” The scientific answer is yes.

I was going to critique the study on which this article is based in the usual manner, but after reading the article I gave up hope and went instead to search for good news, any good news, about our race. Hence the headline that aliens won’t, thank the Lord, want to Serve Man.

Anyway, here’s the study which plunged me into the gloomy depths (the “they” are the researchers).

To figure out which sorts of women might be deemed most receptive to a sexual advance or most vulnerable to male pressure or coercion, they asked a large group of students (103 men and 91 women) to nominate some “specific actions, cues, body postures, attitudes, and personality characteristics” that might indicate receptivity or vulnerability [in women].

This pool of WEIRD people came “up with a list of 88 signs that…a woman might be an especially good target for a man who wanted to score.”

The researchers then searched—wait for it—the internet for images of women who might be amenable to be scored upon. “Once they had pictures of women licking their lips, partying, circling their areolas, and all the rest, they cross-checked them with a separate group of students who surmised” that, yes indeedy, these are women who wanted it. Other items: tight clothing, open body posture, and lying back.

The researchers also found a list images that tended to be mood dousers. Such things as: skinny, old, passed out, sad, distressed, and crying.

This is science, folks.

A fresh group of 76 male participants [college students] was presented with [the postive] images in a randomized sequence and asked what they thought of each woman’s overall attractiveness, how easy it would be to “exploit” her using a variety of tactics (everything from seduction to physical force), and her appeal to them as either a short-term or a long-term partner.

There is no word whether beer was served during this “Hot or Not” rating party (the paper unfortunately doesn’t show us the pictures). Good news for the ditzy, though: “pictures of dimwitted- or immature-seeming women, for example, or of women who looked sleepy or intoxicated, did seem to have an effect: Not surprisingly, men rated them as being easy to bed.” And here’s the big “finding”, these easy scores “were also perceived as being more physically attractive than female peers who seemed more lucid or quick-witted.”

“These findings suggest that men are sensitive to cues in a variety of domains when assessing the sexual exploitability of women.”


The authors tied their stunning results (all confirmed with wee p-values) to deep theory in evolutionary psychology. But even the Slate author was able to ask “Do photos of boozed-up young women posted on the Internet simply happen to depict more physically attractive females—ones who’ve dolled themselves up for parties, say—than the sober head shots of those who party less?” She also quipped, “It also seems to me that although men may lower their standards when it comes to judging women for casual sex, even the creepiest, horniest, coldest man has his aesthetic limits.” She forgot to mention that we have other “research” that demonstrates that these limits are an inverse function of blood alcohol content.

Perhaps the best news is that new research is called for: “investigating men’s approach likelihood or arousal level when exposed to women displaying cues to exploitability will shed light on the behavioral output that results from this attraction.” Right on.

Even better, “Future work also could profitably examine men’s conscious awareness of the relationship between perception of cues to exploitability and the sexual attraction they experience, as well as the potentially conflicting emotions they experience when presented with the opportunity to engage in a sexually exploitative strategy.”

I think that means, stated in plain English, that men probably know what they’re looking for and that they might sometimes feel badly about it.

Believers Less Vindictive Than Godless Atheists: New Research

Vengeance Is Mine

The actual title of the Live Science press release was “Believers Leave Punishment to Powerful God,” a story which opens with the memorable words:

Believing in an involved, morally active God makes people less likely to punish others for rule-breaking, new research finds.

Which I hope you agree is equivalent to saying that atheists are less forgiving, less compassionate, less merciful, and—oh, let’s just say it: they are worse people. Now don’t get mad at me. This is research, complete with wee p-values.

But then maybe this summary is too telegraphic. Because the very same research that proves that atheists are more bloodthirsty than theists also proves “that religious belief in general makes people more likely to punish wrongdoers — probably because such punishment is a way to strengthen the community as a whole” (emphasis mine).

In other words, theists are less forgiving, less compassionate, less merciful, and just plain worse people than more enlightened atheists. Except when they aren’t and when their roles are reversed. The press release explains the conundrum thusly: “In other words, religion may introduce two conflicting impulses: Punish others for their transgressions, or leave it to the Lord.”

This, friends, is the power of statistics, a field of science which, given the routine ease with which two opposite conclusions are simultaneously proved, we may now officially dub Orwellian Analytics.

Research Shows…

The paper is “Outsourcing punishment to God: beliefs in divine control reduce earthly punishment” by Kristi Laurin, and three others, and published on-line in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

After a lengthy introduction arguing that all morality (except presumably the morals of the authors) can be reduced to urges induced by evolutionary “pressures,” and defining something called “altruistic punishment”, the authors describe how they gathered small pools of WEIRD people (i.e. undergraduates) and had them play games. The results from these games told the authors all they needed to know about who enjoys punishment more. Incidentally, about the punishment, they said this:

Prior to effective and reliable secular institutions for punishment, large-scale societies depended on individuals engaging in ‘altruistic punishment’—bearing the costs of punishment individually, for the benefit of society.

And did you know that “According to theory”—are you ready?—”Though administering punishment benefits society as a whole, it has immediate costs for punishers themselves.” Who knew?

Experiment one corralled “Twenty undergraduates” who “participated in exchange for course credit.” That’s one more than nineteen, friends. The supplementary data (which is mysteriously left out of the main article, but which is linked there) shows that these participants contained 8 whites and 9 Asians, with 1 black and 1 Arabic left over; 10 Christians, 1 Buddhist, 1 Hindu, 1 Muslim, 1 “Other”, and 6 Atheists. The authors claim to have “measured participants’ belief in powerful, intervening Gods, and their general religiosity.” Which makes you wonder how they classed the Buddhist and “Other.” No word on the breakdown of how participants answered the “religiosity” question.

Ah, skip it; because the next is more fascinating. “We then employed the 3PPG–an economic game commonly used to measure altruistic punishment.” The words which struck yours truly were “commonly used.” It must be common, because there isn’t word one in the paper or supplementary material of what this creation is. But I can reveal to you it is the “Third-Party Punishment Game,” a frivolity invented by academics designed to flummox undergraduate participants in studies like this. About that, more another day.

The “game” runs so (sorry for the length, but do read it):

player A receives 20 dollars, and must share that money between herself and player B in two-dollar increments, without input from player B. In the second stage, player C [who presumably knows what A did], who has received 10 dollars, can spend some or all of that money to reduce player A’s final payout: For every dollar that player C spends, player A loses three dollars. Player A’s behaviour does not affect player C, all players are anonymous and expect no further interactions, and punishing player A costs player C money. People treat sharing money evenly between players A and B as the (cooperative) norm; thus, player C’s willingness to punish player A for selfishly violating this norm can be taken as an index of altruistic punishment of non-cooperators.

In other words, Player C looks at how much A gave B. If C thinks this too low, C sacrifices some of his own money to reduce the amount A kept. But A and C got the money for free and since these are students we do not know if A actually knew B in real life, or if C knew either. For example, if I as A and Uncle Mike as B and Ye Olde Statistician as C were to play this game, I would split the money with Uncle Mike and Ye Olde Statistician would go along. This is because we were pals before the game commenced. But if we were enemies, something entirely different would occur. The authors never mention if they look for these kinds of effects in this or in any experiment. Leave finding flaws and contrary evidence for others.

But never mind, because C giving up some of his play money is scarcely the same thing as C desiring that a child rapist be tossed in jail to rot, even though C knows that the cost of the rapist’s cell will be taken from his wallet. But C in real life hardly knows even that. C knows that he pays taxes and that some of his taxes go to prison upkeep, but those taxes also go to pay for the fuel to ferry the president around on Air Force One from fund raiser to fund raiser. That is, most of us Cs don’t think that ponying up taxes is altogether altruistic.

The authors are mute on this objection, too.

Enter The P-value

We regressed participants’ levels of altruistic punishment [amounts of money] on their God beliefs and their religiosity (both centred around 0) simultaneously…participants who believed more strongly in a powerful, intervening God reported less punishment of non-cooperators, β = -0.58, t(17) = 2.22, p = 0.04; whereas more religious participants showed a trend towards reporting greater punishment, β = 0.33, t(17) = 1.67, p = 0.11.

And there it is. Theists reported less punishment and more punishment. Except that the p-value for the “more punishment” isn’t small enough to excite. (And a linear regression is at best an approximation here.) The authors also discovered “more religious people tended to believe in powerful, controlling Gods.” The correlation wasn’t perfect, but neither should it be when you mix Buddhists and Christians. Let’s don’t forget that this regression model only included 6 atheists for its contrast.

The really good news is that “Given the strong correlation between religiosity and conservatism (r = 0.52), we conducted an additional analysis including conservatism in the regression. Results are reported in table 1; we found no evidence that conservatism explains the religion–punishment association.”

Sorry, Chris Mooney.

The authors did four more studies, all similar to this one, but with increasingly complicated regression models (lots of interactions, strong hints of data snooping, etc.). The findings don’t change much. In their conclusion, however, they include these strange words: “In our research, we found it necessary to remind participants of their beliefs for these beliefs to influence their decisions.” This sounds like coaching, a way to induce results the authors expected.

The real lesson to us is how this complex mass of data is squeezed into the terse, and misleading, headline.

HT HotAir.

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