William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 395 of 604

John Cage’s 4′ 33″

As much as I think his theories are composed of aether, I wish, and heartily too, that John Cage’s masterpiece 4′ 33″ were pumped through public speakers more often. I would that it replaced en masse—in every bar, restaurant, radio station, grocery store and public gathering space (Penn Station excepted)—what now seeps like toxic waste from a Chinese drywall factory from our nation’s woofers and tweeters. Place it on continuous loop and let it gain and hold with a death grip Billboard’s number-one-hit slot forevermore!

Ivan Hewett writing in The Telegraph details Cage’s intellectual journey which culminated in his discovery of 4′ 33″ (HT A&LD).

After “writing” pieces composed “for 12 radios whose tuning dials had to be randomly twiddled, another for a pianist who also had to play cards, blow whistles and slop water”, Cage despaired of finding new musical boundaries to push. He also knew true that his forays were not unique. That whistle-blowing, water-sloshing work of art was already anticipated by Spike Jones, for example. Inspiration struck after

a visit he made to a perfectly silent – anechoic – chamber at Harvard University in 1951. Instead of silence, he heard two sounds, which the engineer told him was the sound of his nervous system in action and his blood flowing. This taught him that true silence is unattainable. As he wrote in his Juilliard Lecture: “Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.”

It was at this point that Cage felt the insidious grip of theory. It put the squeeze on his cerebellum and demanded obedience, which he gave willingly, even eagerly. It told him to compose, which he did. But it was a benevolent theory, and did not demand excessive labor. The result came when

David Tudor walked on to the stage, sat down at the piano, and closed the keyboard lid. Thirty seconds later, he opened it. He then repeated the action twice, each time varying the gap between opening and closing. The first time it was two minutes and 23 seconds, the second time it was one minute 40 seconds — so 4’33” in total. After the final opening, he stood up and took a bow.

That bow brought applause both in the hall and outside of it amongst the intelligentsia, who are ever ready to appreciate theory. This concert in 1952 also allows to date exactly the point at which American audiences begin allowing performers to accept praise for nonexistent achievements.

What about the piece itself? Cage’s theory whispered that silence is “pregnant” with sound. This is true, but Cage has forgotten that pregnancy progresses by stages. Non-orchestrated sound can be as small as a zygote’s swishing or as large as twins making their maternal jail break. Not all silences are created equal.

Like all deceivers, Cages’ theory mixed truth with gross falsities. If it is true that we can never escape sound, then to call all noise “music” is an abuse of language and a bad joke (but not the funny kind). Cage’s title is thus a deliberate falsehood. There is nothing to demarcate the beginning of his work, nor any natural ending. If the theory is true, then all life turns into a “concert” (one which began long before Cage breathed his first).

Cage claiming authorship of silence is, and always has been, absurd. It became ridiculous when those in powerful places feared admitting a lack of understanding of Cage’s pretension. There might be something there in the theory that they had not discovered, something deep and imponderable. So to say publicly that the Emperor is naked is like confessing to an intellectual disability.

Yet, given all this, given this bold entry in the never-ending contest of human comedy, Cage’s work is clearly superior to nearly all that which came after. To go to nearly any public place today and be forced to endure waves of tortuous sound would have been grounds for assault in earlier days. Therefore, the reason to study Cage’s critical success is to see if we can convince modern musicians to emulate Cage’s methods.

Can we, that is, prevail upon, for example, Cee Lo Green to compose a hip-hop version of 4′ 33″. Given that genre’s purposeful mangling of language, perhaps Green’s work could be entitled 3′ 93″. Can we talk others into riffing on Cage and produce remixes? We could then look forward to pieces such as 33′ 4″, etc., etc.

If this could work, I would be first to nominate Cage for every prize even remotely connected with music. Plus, a world filled with Cage-like sounds would be a better, less harrowing place.

What Is A “Statistically Significant Trend”?

Longtime reader Nate Winchester found a discussion—among the many, many—of global warming data revolving around statistics, from which we take the following snippet:

You just do the statistics on the data. If you calculate trends over a short period you don’t get statistically significant trends, and over a longer period you do get statistically significant trends. This is true for almost any real life data, and how long it takes for trend to show up over short term non-trended variation will depend on the data.

In the case of global temperature anomalies, it turns out that the trends in temperature become statistically significant over scales of roughly 15 to 20 years or more, and lack significant trend over shorter scales. That’s just a description of what global anomalies are doing.

Where this quotation originated is not important; probably you can find one nearly identically worded at any site in which the subject of climate change arises. But it is a useful comment, because it betrays a standard misinterpretation of statistics which we can here put right.

Suppose in front of you is a picture of a number of dots, one per year arranged sequentially, each dot representing, say, a temperature. Obviously—yes, truly, obviously—those temperatures, assuming they were measured without error, came from somewhere. That is, something, some physical process or processes, caused the temperatures to take the values they did.

They did not appear “randomly”, if by use of that word you mean some vague and mysterious metaphysical engine (run by quantum gremlins?) which spit the temperatures out for humanity to discover. But if by that word you merely mean that you do not know or do not understand what physical process caused the temperatures, then you speak intelligently.

Our second supposition requires us to weakly anthropomorphize either all, or individual portions, of the dots. You have to squint at the collection and say to yourself, “Say, if I draw a straight line running amidst the dots between year A and year B, most of those dots will lie close to the line, though only very few will touch the line.” You are allowed to draw various lines through the dots, some pointing upwards, some downwards, as long as all the lines connect head to foot, starting at the first year and ending at the last.

Once done, you can reach into your bag of statistical tricks and then ask whether the lines you have drawn are “statistically significant.” The first step in this journey to amazement requires you return to the word “random” and invoke it to describe the behavior of the dots not lying on the line. You have to say to yourself, “I know that nature chose to make the temperatures lie on this line. But since they do not lie on the line, only close to it, something else must have made the dots deviate from the line. What this cause is can only be the normal distribution.”

In other words, you have to say you already know that nature operates in straight lines, but that something ineffable steers your data away from purity. The ineffability is supplied by this odd who-knows-what called the normal distribution, the exact nature and of motivations of which are never clear.

Another thing that isn’t quite clear is the slope of the line you drew. It is a line, though; in that you are certain sure. But perhaps the line points not so nearly high; rather, it might lie flat. Must be a line, though. Has to be. After all, what else could it be?

Now, with all these suppositions, surmises, and say-whats in hand, you feed the dots into your favorite statistical software. It will churn the dots and compute a statistic, and then tell you—the whole point of the article has now come upon us, so pay attention—it will tell you the probability of seeing a statistic larger than the one you actually got given your line theory and your ideas about randomness are faultless (I ignore mentioning infinite repetitions of data collection).

If this probability is small, then you are allowed to say your line is “statistically significant.” Further, you are allowed to inform the media of this fact, a tidbit for which they will be grateful.

Of course, saying your imaginary line(s) are “statistically significant” says nothing—not one thing—about whether your line(s) are concrete, whether, that is, they describe nature as she truly is, or whether they are merely figments of your fervid imagination.

The best part of this exercise, is that you can ignore the dots (reality) entirely.

Global Warming Causes Death

Work is catching up to me this week, so today only the briefest of reports, with the promise of a return to regularity after this weekend. Also keep those post suggestions coming everybody!

Thanks to the Daily Mail, we learn of new “research” which says that global warming causes cancer.

Melting glaciers and ice sheets are releasing cancer-causing pollutants into the air and oceans, scientists say.

The long-lasting chemicals get into the food chain and build up in people’s bodies – triggering tumours, heart disease and infertility.

It had to happen. Global warming has been proved, in the same manner as this new paper proves its dread effect, to cause every other horrific kind of premature death, from swarming insect attacks, to rampant prostitution and its natural aftermaths, to unstoppable epidemics of this bacteria and that virus.

But nobody thought to put the Big C on the list until Donald Cooper of the United Nations Environment Programme. His mental efforts deserve some kind of prize or award, surely. It’s true Cooper’s invention is not the most imaginative cause of death caused by climate change. That distinction, even though I say it myself, goes to me and my number two son, after we proved conclusively that zombie attacks must increase because of global warming.

It’s also so that it was only a matter of time that cancer showed up as an aftereffect of a half degree Centigrade rise in global average temperatures. Cooper real feat was being first, for having the guts to cross the line and say what others wanted to, but did not. So this one’s for you, Coop. You have provided the last legitimate fright.

That also means there is nothing else; at least nothing else conventional and semi-realistic (zombies don’t fall into either classification). Even increased waves of madness have been predicted to arise because of global warming, the waves composed of human bodies crashing to the ground in suicide attempts (yes, suicides are supposed to increase because of global warming).

Researchers can only gain notoriety by predicting the new, bizarre, or shocking. All the regular routes have been taken. Therefore, the question we have before us today is: what new deadly realistic thing will global warming be said to cause to increase? Let’s get the predictions noted down here, all in one place, so they are easy to verify later.

The only rules are: you can’t use something already in print, and you should try hard to tie your dread cause of death to a funding source, so that when you use the phrase “more research is needed”, you see the money flow.

In Praise Of Bad Jokes

“A bus filled with members of a carnival sideshow was found to have crashed through the guard rail, killing all occupants inside. Police are describing it as freak accident.”

That is a bad joke, but a funny one. Bad jokes—or “witty stories”—differ from the humorous story, as Mark Twain tells us. “The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.”

Anybody can tell a bad joke. But not all can master the higher forms of humor.

The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.

The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.

This is true. But there is still delight to be had in the bad joke, a delight that is chiefly in the reading of it and not in hearing it. Seeing the bad joke in print forces it to stand on its own, it removes all artifices and personality of the joke teller. Reading it allows you to enjoy it without having to admit it to others.

Patrick O’Brian was a master of the humorous story—few besides O’Brian can build up to a punchline that lasts across separate novels. But had a tremendous facility with bad jokes, too. Which type did he prefer? Its telling that he allows his co-protagonist “Lucky” Jack Aubrey to enjoy bad jokes above all else. In one memorable instance, O’Brian lets Stephen Maturin quip, in answer to a question of a shipmate who wonders why the second dog watch is short in duration, “Because it is cur tailed.” Hilarious!

As is typical of bad jokes, Maturin’s witticism drops like a stone into a bottomless pit. The joke has provided amusement—as Twain foretold—for himself alone. His shipmates respond only with blank or suspicious stares.

However, we can now see that what makes a bad joke good is word play, particularly double meaning in the punchline. Good bad jokes are thus different from groaners; for example like this, “What did one snowman say to other snowman? Smells like carrots.”

My all-time favorite: “These two cannibals are eating a clown and one says to the other, ‘Does this taste funny to you?'” I have told this joke in all corners of the world and it has never ceased to fail to produce a laugh, no, not even a smile. The uniform lack of response only serves to confirm the joke’s sublimity.

Any further examples you might suggest?

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