Did academics finally discover left-wing authoritarianism?

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A team of researchers believe that they have finally found left-wing authoritarianism, long referred to as “the Loch Ness Monster” of social psychology. At least, that’s what they’re claiming. And in the rich tradition of poorly communicated science, instead of an analysis meant to convey the information in the paper to a broader audience, it is first put through an ideological blender.

Here’s the short version: this team of researchers used a different definition of authoritarianism and found that it exists on “both sides.” (Yes, there’s a lot of “both sides” in the article and the popular press articles. That alone might tell you enough…)

The value of exploring definitions

Before I get into the article’s substance, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with exploring how definitions of concepts create biases. In fact, good science relies on thoughtful definitions. However, there is no such thing as a definition without a bias. Definitions are explicitly biased. That’s the point.

Let me show you what I mean: I use the definition of the term “cat” to differentiate between my sweet Lorelei from, say, a Mack truck. My definition, when I’m searching for my cat, biases me to look for small furry things instead of metallic diesel-powered behemoths. Does that mean that Mack trucks are the “Loch Ness Monster” of cats? Because if I changed my definition enough, I could indeed fit them both into the same category of “cat.”

LOOK AT THIS VOID ANGEL

If it isn’t obvious, I’m using hyperbole to make a point. The authors of this flawed study didn’t do anything quite so outrageous but they did make some choices that undermine the findings and study. And the study certainly does not live up to the popular press reporting on it.

Because the vast majority of people will get to this study through the popular press, I’m going to start there and might do a more serious analysis of the journal article itself if there’s interest.

How the popular press talks about this study

Images

The article in The Atlantic, titled “How Experts Overlooked Authoritarians on the Left” is my case study. Right away, we see an attention-grabbing image:

Inside you there are two wolves… (Getty Images/The Atlantic)

The large, bared fangs of an obligate carnivore and its snarling muzzle are in this person’s brain. This is an animal about to attack. So before we read anything at all about the study, we are primed to fear (and thus hate) whatever we read about, because we have been signaled about danger. Now, I’m not opposed to using images to help tell a story. But what story are we telling?

Just for fun, compare this to another Atlantic article about a journalists’ experience of being embedded in the Alt-Right for four years:

Inside you is an obvious bias against the Left… (The Atlantic)

Right, got it. Left-wing authoritarianism is super dangerous and scary–so scary that it took academics 70 years to (maybe) find it. It deserves a scary image!

The Alt-Right, a prominent hate movement in the US, gets an oblique reference to their symbols. The Alt-Right is a major force in our society, with nuanced and monied propaganda machines to recruit more people. They got a President elected, and have a firm grip on the Federal government.

Anyway.

Who wrote the article?

Who wrote the article for the Atlantic? Was it someone trained in reading and interpreting social science–maybe even a social scientist?

No, it was written by a psychiatrist who works for a right-wing think-tank. The think-tank credited as being the seat of neoconservatism. They’re also pals/long time co-authors with one of the authors on this paper. They have a personal stake in this, and we can also infer (to some extent) the politics of the authors of the scholarly article too. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to further the career of someone in a think-tank that I’m ideologically opposed to…

Does this sound like an unbiased source? On top of it all, a psychiatrist is a clinical role and not a research role. They’re more like engineers than scientists. I don’t mean this disparagingly–when I need medical help, I need someone trained to help me!

Psychiatrists are skilled in diagnosing and prescribing medications, not reading and interpreting the nuances of statistics and research methodology. I’m not saying you need a degree to be able to read research papers but since we don’t know the author personally, all we can go on are their credentials and what they write.

So far, we know they are obviously biased and not formally trained in interpreting scientific research. We can’t throw away what they’ve written, but we do need to read it with a healthy dose of skepticism. So, what did they write?

The Atlantic’s analysis of the study

They give a brief overview of the history of study of authoritarianism, claiming that it’s unfairly biased to pick on people on the right. Satel (the author of The Atlantic piece) specifically name drops a scholar named Adorno.

“In the 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality, […] the German-born scholar Theodor W. Adorno and three other psychologists measured people along dimensions such as conformity to societal norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression.”

– Satel

Why do we need to know Adorno was born in Germany? Why do we need to know HIS name and not the others’? These are allusions to tired right-wing talking points: Adorno is the boogeyman, and he was German and alive during WWII and the Nazis were socialists (just so we’re clear: they most definitely were not), blah blah blah. It’s a canard to “The Frankfurt School.” You know, the conspiracy theory about how “the Jews” via the Frankfurt School pushed their “postmodern cultural Marxism” to control the world. Think of it as an easter egg for neonazis. So, we’re off to a good start.

But note the dimensions: conformity to social norms, rigid thinking, and sexual repression. Sounds like typical right-wing talking points. They’re proud of their conformity, their rigid thinking, and sexual repression. There are a lot of other dimensions that Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson, and Sanford identified but they did indeed include the ones Satel mentioned.

What is the original conceptualization of “authoritarianism”?

Here’s what was actually examined in The Authoritarian Personality:

  • Conventionalism: Adherence to conventional values.
  • Authoritarian Submission: Towards in-group authority figures.
  • Authoritarian Aggression: Against people who violate conventional values.
  • Anti-Intraception: Opposition to subjectivity and imagination.
  • Superstition and Stereotypy: Belief in individual fate; thinking in rigid categories.
  • Power and Toughness: Concerned with submission and domination; assertion of strength.
  • Destructiveness and Cynicism: hostility against human nature.
  • Projectivity: Perception of the world as dangerous; tendency to project unconscious impulses.
  • Sex: Overly concerned with modern sexual practices.

(Thank you, wikipedia, for that handy bulleted list.)

The researchers also discuss the relationship between the above list of things with anti-semitism, ethnocentrism, and conservatism. Spoiler alert: they’re ALL highly correlated. People prone to the exhibit high amounts of the above dimensions are also very likely to be anti-semitic, ethnocentric, and conservative.

This, of course, is very upsetting to conservatives who refuse to acknowledge the consequences and implications of their belief systems. It’s also not perfect research, and the researchers had their own biases and ideas. But in short, they are saying that people that score high on these measures are the kinds of people that are also likely to vehemently support fascists like Donald J Trump or Joe Biden.

Drowning in false equivalency

“The Trump era likely deepened psychology’s conventional wisdom that authoritarians are almost always conservatives; the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year showed the urgency of understanding the phenomenon. And yet calls to de-platform controversial speakers and online campaigns to get people fired for heterodox views suggest that a commitment to open democratic norms is eroding, at least in some quarters, on the left.”

– Satel

An armed group of people storming the Capitol with clear intention to kill or at least capture elected officials is the same thing as people not wanting to listen to someone spreading obvious lies. Great take on that one!

Satel paints a quaint picture, too. Getting people fired for heterodox views is a funny way to put it when the views in question are, say, “we should run over protestors with our cars,” or “women are biologically inferior to men,” or “trans people are all pedophiles and sex pests.” Not every view deserves a platform, and it’s awfully funny to see how upset conservatives get when The Free Market doesn’t reward them. No one’s buying what these people are selling.

Dogma over analysis

Satel repeats the tired old line here, about universities being “far to the left,” which is something I’ve written about already and you can read here. Universities are run by conservatives, and staffed by conservative faculty, carry out conservative agendas in pursuit of conservative goals. True, many faculty in some departments will Vote Blue No Matter Who. That means they support candidates that do the exact same terrible things the Bad Orange Man did, but also do it more. Is conservatism defined purely by the color-coding on the candidate? I don’t think so, but this is what Satel seems to be purporting.

Scholars who personally support the left’s social vision—such as redistributing income, countering racism, and more—may simply be slow to identify authoritarianism among people with similar goals.

– Satel, emphasis added. Always interesting when conservatives tell on themselves.

Enough table-setting, what does the new research say?

Costello and his colleagues [authors of the new research] started fresh. They developed what eventually became a list of 39 statements capturing sentiments such as “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary” and “I should have the right not to be exposed to offensive views.” Subjects were asked to score the statements on a scale of 1 to 7.

– Satel

These sound like radical statements! And to a degree, they are. Replacing the established order of fascism/capitalism is crucial to the survival of humanity. A case in point is the struggle to combat climate change. We might already be past the tipping point, too, because of the failures of capitalism despite the incalculable amount of work put in by activists historically and presently.

Self-Defense

Our society enshrines the right of self-defense, which means it’s legally acceptable to even kill someone if they’re a real threat to you. (In practice, it often means it’s legal for people with power to kill whomever they want of lesser power, as long as they can come up with a half-assed cover story.)

If we’re allowed to protect ourselves… what’s so wrong about the desire to protect ourselves? It’s radical, sure, but it’s not without reason. By removing these beliefs from context, they appear to be just as irrational as people that think we need to “preserve the white race.”

I find Satel’s analysis offensive

What are these offensive views that “The Left” wants protection from? Are they things like “Wow, I’m so glad that Chris Pratt is going to play Mario,” or are they more like “[incoherent transphobic drivel]”? The latter is dangerous. That’s the kind of offensive views I don’t want to hear. It’s not because they’re offensive, it’s because they’re violent and false.

The authoritarianism is coming from inside the house

Furthermore, Satel conveniently ignores all of the illiberal and authoritarian ideals within neoconservatism. Controlling what people do with their bodies is not very freedom-loving, for example, and it is a consistent interest of neoconservatives: the war on drugs, the war on women and reproductive rights, and the systematic/systemic oppression of Black and other people of color.

Surely there’s more to it…?

Other measures include:

  • “Getting rid of inequality is more important than protecting the so-called ‘right’ to free speech.” (Labeled as “top-down censorship” be the researchers, and interesting leap in logic.)
  • “If I could remake society, I would put people who currently have the most privilege at the bottom.” (Again, shaky phrasing here. Feels like a gotcha. It is coded in a way to allow conservatives to connect “privilege” to “white privilege” and there we have it: evidence that The Left hates white people; when the respondent may be talking about wealth, political power, etc.)
  • “I cannot imagine myself becoming friends with a political conservative.” (Labeled as “anti-conventionalism,” another interesting leap without any consideration as to why that might be. Satel and the authors’ presumption is that conservative viewpoints are inherently valid by virtue of being conservative.)

By measuring things this way, without paying any attention to the why is how the researchers and Satel create misleading narratives. I would have a hard time being friends with someone that hates who I am or thinks we need a white ethno-state, for example. That’s not exactly “anti-conventionalism.”

Who owns convention in the 21st century?

This also shows how conservatives believe they are the true vanguards of our society and convention. They’ve got The Truth and we don’t. There’s a rich tradition in America of defying convention. In fact, that’s where neoconservatism comes from.

Neoconservatives defied the conventions of conservatives that came before them to set new standards (while pretending their new standards are very old). George Bush Senior went on record to support abortion rights, for example, when he was a senator. (His father, however, tried to do a fascist coup in America. Oops!) This was before Nixon realized he could galvanize the base with the issue.

So, who exactly “owns” conventionalism? Maybe no one party or ideology does, since they all have their own conventions. America is not, and never has been, a monolith. Except maybe about capitalism. But of course, that’s not what they’re talking about here. Mustn’t question capitalism!

So what are the actual findings?

The authoritarian mentality, whether on the far left or far right, the authors conclude, exerts “powerful pressures to maintain discipline among members, advocate aggressive and censorious means of stifling opposition, [and] believe in top-down absolutist leadership.”

– Satel

But what is their opposition trying to do? You can’t just claim these are equivalent without examining that. And pointing a finger at the left’s attempts at self-defense while ignoring whom or from what they’re defending against is just bad faith.

At the very least, Satel is honest enough to acknowledge that left-wing authoritarianism is not prevalent in the US (while right-wing authoritarianism is), and right-wing authoritarianism is far more dangerous. Credit where credit is due, I suppose.

What is to be done?

Satel has a very helpful idea:

If academic psychology had more viewpoint diversity, the political biases that distort researchers’ work would all counterbalance one another.

– Satel

Ah yes, if we just get more ethno-state fascists into psychology, that’ll help things.

More scholars producing half-assed ideological hitjobs like the one discussed here would not improve the state of discourse. It’s like saying we need a debate about race in America between Dr. Cornell West and David Duke to really get the full picture. For people that decry the ills of postmodernity, they sure love postmodernity. Truth? Reality? Reason? Who cares! As long as we believe it hard enough, it’s true and real.

I’m exhausted

There’s more I could talk about in Satel’s article in The Atlantic but my brain is melting. Did researchers find left-wing authoritarianism? Sure, if you accept their fundamentally changed the definition of authoritarianism that removes any and all context.

I’ll leave you with this nugget:

[E]ducation has become ever more highly correlated with political ideology.

– Satel

Sometimes they say the quiet part out loud.

And this is why we need major reform in education, to make it more accessible. Education (and I don’t mean specifically through universities) is our only known tool to de-radicalize people and reduce hate.

The hack frauds of evolutionary psychology

The hack frauds of evolutionary psychology

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Updated 9/30/21: Addendum to discuss Pinker’s upcoming book (bottom), in addition to correcting typos and altering layout for readability.


Where does morality come from? What about language? How do we deal with interacting with media? The answers to these kinds of questions have immense implications for the nature of humanity and evolutionary psychology aims to answer them. But, how do we study something like that? How do we track down origins of morality?

History isn’t useful here, because all of these things predate historical record. And contemporary psychology isn’t suited to look into the past, only observe what is happening now. Sure, some researchers strap people to giant magnets to see under what conditions a few cubic centimeters of brain matter receive increased blood flow, a supposedly objective way to indicate how brains work. But even that doesn’t answer how these things came to be.

A false hope

Enter evolutionary psychology, a subfield of psychologists that consider how evolution helped shape the psychological reality of human beings. It goes without saying that evolution must have impacted our psychology, so why not consider evolution when studying psychology? It’s a natural combination, and very sexy too. Suddenly, there are oodles of explanatory power behind how and why humans got to be human.

But there’s a problem: when starting with the present day and working backwards, it requires the researcher to hold a plethora of assumptions about the nature of humanity and human cognition. Or, conversely, it requires the researcher to be an expert like no other in psychology, evolution, biology, neurology, anthropology, and critical studies at the same time.

Now, get ready for this one: it’s not possible for one person to be an expert in all these categories. Instead, the field is populated by psychologists that dabble in evolution, often with little or no training. Sometimes you’ll find biologists in the field, too, that dabble in psychology. Same thing. The point is that they aren’t experts in the human condition, and they carry assumptions with them.

The star of evolutionary psychology

A picture of Steven Pinker having dinner with Jeffrey Epstein and
Steven Pinker at a nice dinner with nice people.

Steven Pinker is the closest thing to a household name as there is in contemporary evolutionary psychology. He’s a rockstar of the field, and a prolific writer. He might benefit from some more evolved capacities for picking friends, though, eh? He’s written books on language, “how the mind works” (didn’t know we’d settled that one already!), and more.

Steven, a totally not guilty of anything and very normal person, allegedly hired a “data scientist” to constantly scour Twitter and block people that ask Steven about the kinds of people he has dinner with.

It’s pretty rare for a serious thinker in an esoteric field to connect to the masses. Typically, I am excited to see scientists cross that divide and actually speak to society writ large. We need more of this. But Pinker serves as a cautionary tale: he’s a fraud. Despite opining about the role that evolution plays in our psychology, Steven has exactly zero training in the fields of evolution or biology. He’s a cognitive psychologist, who serves us stories that serve as palliatives for the awfulness of the world around us. Stories that preserve the current power structure, that coincidentally place people like him at the top.

The perspective lacks

Let me outline the dangers of evolutionary psychology through example: hunter-gatherer societies divided labor by gender, because man are strong and women are nurturing. The men go hunt, the women gather berries and nuts while caring for the young. This is evidence to support the claims that sex = gender, men are from Mars, and women belong in the kitchen.

In other words, evolutionary psychology works backwards, starting at the conclusion (ie, the way division of labor is gendered in America) and searching for an explanation for why that is under the guise of evolutionary psychology. The way things are, they claim, is because we evolved to be like this; not history, not economics, not the structure or superstructure of society, not religion, not environment, not material conditions, and not any choices of any kind.

Pinker, and his ilk, invite us to wash away the sins of our current reality by claiming “it’s just how we are.” There’s no better way of doing things, this is the better way. Stop criticizing the status quo! Stop trying to make things better, because ahhhhhhhhhhckshully this is it. (Notable evolutionary psychologist bravely step forward as a proud centrist, surprising no one.)

The Books of Steven

  • The Language Instinct: the one where Steven baselessly argues that there is a global conspiracy among social scientists to not discuss the roles of genetics in human cognition, which is weird because that’s a whole field called Cognitive Genomics. Though even in that field, experts are very quick to point out that genetics are a factor among many, not a determinant of much of anything.
  • How the Mind Works: the one where Steven, a cognitive psychologist, offers “definitive” claims about vision, emotion, feminism, and the meaning of life. Jerry Fodor, one of the originators of cognitive psychology, reviews Steven’s book with a big ol’ “yikes.”
  • The Blank Slate: the one where Steven claims that humans aren’t blank slates (tabula rasa) when they’re born because that would be very scary. Notably, positive reviews for this book come from other evolutionary psychologists; while negative reviews come from biologists, anthropologists, and behavioral psychologists. You know, people that are actual experts in the fields that Steven loves to dabble in.
  • The Better Angels of Our Nature: the one where Steven says that actually neoliberal policies are good, and we’re good and so much more enlightened than our ancestors and wow we’re so smart and good. I can’t even begin to summarize the criticisms of this book, so go ahead and read here if you’d like. Suffice to say, numerous experts (in evolution, statistics, history, etc) collectively say “wow, Steven, this is a very bad book.”
  • Enlightenment Now: the one where Steven rants about Social Justice Warriors while also saying that there was nothing wrong with things like the Tuskegee Experiments (that time the US Army knowingly infected Black people with syphillis and didn’t tell them, just to see what happens). Enlightenment, indeed!

Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.

– Polonius in Hamlet; Act 2, Scene 2

Are you seeing a pattern emerge? Steven writes books that tell us we’re doing great, and that the status quo is very good. He’s got more in common with a self-help guru than a serious or honest thinker. And when actual experts weigh in, they point out glaring flaws in Steven’s books, which he dismisses as some kind of conspiracy instead of contemplating that maybe he’s wrong. And while I’m using Steven as a case study, please don’t think he’s unique in this in the field of evolutionary psychology.

The dangers of evolutionary psychology

For a serious and very valid field of inquiry, it sure is almost entirely populated by white cis men. You’d think that, if it’s just good science that people of all types would flock to it. Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist-turned-supervillian, loves the stuff! And, obviously, as Pinker and Peterson have both claimed, the “woke left” is ideologically opposed to evolutionary psychology and their criticisms can be dismissed as such. On the other hand, one might wonder why this field of research seems to only attract the same kind of person over and over. Good science brings honest scholars from all walks of life.

Evolutionary psychology is a refuge for scared white men who, instead of examining their own roles in societal problems, prefer to take the route of “actually, I’m very good and everything is good so stop complaining and also if you disagree with me it’s because you’re an ideologue.” Remember, actual experts in biology, evolution, anthropology, and so on, pretty much universally disagree with the kinds of claims Steven and other evolutionary psychologists make.

Hunters, gatherers, and honest inquiry into the topic

It’s also a way that these men will reject people trying to make the world a better place. Let’s go back to the oft-repeated hunter-gatherer thing: men hunt, women gather. It’s a story we tell ourselves all the time, because when we look at the way the world is organized now, we see what could be vestigial remains of that “original” division of labor. The only problem is that it’s not true.

Sure, some hunter-gatherer societies were or are organized that way, but others weren’t or aren’t. Some didn’t or don’t even use sex or gender to divide labor, instead focusing on factors like age. The point is that when we study the supposed evidence, we quickly find that dividing labor by gender is one way to do it, among many. If it were due to evolutionary differences, one might expect to see a more uniform application of that means of organization.

Instead, we find that there any many ways to do it. Yet we are all the same evolved species, so whatever determines how a society structures its division of labor, we can be confident and say that it’s not evolution. This “division of labor” argument is favored by people who deny the existence of trans people, because it (supposedly) demonstrates that there are two genders and they’re fundamentally different.

This is the evolutionary psychologists’ dirtiest trick: the “just so” stories of evolution. Starting at the end of the story and without doing any research to back up this claim; the evolutionary psychologist makes up a story about why things are the way they are and presumes that it’s evolution and not anything else. Next, show these “just so” stories to people that benefit from them (white cis men love stories that justify why white cis men are at the top of the social ladder), and you’ve got a cult. I mean sham science. I mean… yeah, I mean sham science. Made by hack frauds.

Or, actually, let me revise my claim. It is human evolution that determines, in part, how we divide our labor because evolution/biology/psychology/etc help determine what is possible. There are no societies that divide labor among flying and flightless humans, because no humans can fly. Our status as flightless mammals is a consequence of evolution, and this limits the possible ways humans structure societies. But that’s not the kinds of arguments people in evolutionary psychology typically make.

It’s only mostly awful

See? I can be nuanced. There are ways to do evolutionary psychology responsibly. And there’s value to it! Consider this: Reeves & Nass (1996) use a just-so story about evolution to explain the fundamental ways people interact with media: media is brand new, and our minds haven’t had enough time to evolve capacities to deal with media specifically. Are Reeves or Nass experts in evolution? No, but they are making a claim about evolution that is easily corroborated: the timescales we observe that constitute evolutionary shifts are so much longer that the history of media, by orders of magnitude.

Or, even more confusing: just-so stories can be dead wrong and still useful. Consider Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, which makes dubious (at best) claims about the evolution of the central nervous system to better understand how trauma impacts and shapes the psychology of an individual.

The story is wrong. There’s no clear evidence of a “polyvagal” anything, and plenty of counter-evidence. But, at the same time, therapies derived from Polyvagal Theory are useful at helping people cope with PTSD, chronic pain, and other kinds of trauma. Treatments such as listening to processed music to help with pain management or hypervigilance are the result of this wrong theory. (Note: I used to work in a lab doing research on Polyvagal Theory, just so you’re aware.) So the story is wrong, but the outcomes are useful.e

Don’t drink the Kool-aid

Given all my criticisms of evolutionary psychology, it may surprise you to learn that I think it’s a valuable, if not dangerous, tool for researchers. Here’s something important to consider about science: the difference between hypotheses and theories. A hypothesis is a claim that is testable, which can be supported or falsified by research. A theory is the result of lots and lots of research, and provides some aspect of the “why” or at least “how” all of these different findings are related, and also is a useful tool for generating additional hypotheses.

I think that evolutionary psychology is a fruitful (if not haphazard) approach to generating provocative hypotheses. Going back to our pal, Steven Pinker: he once claimed that music is auditory cheesecake, something that we are not evolved to do or listen to–much in the way we didn’t evolve to eat cheesecake, yet both are quite satisfying. I, and many others, find this to be a startling and provocative claim. But we can test this claim, and when tested we can determine if this claim is accurate or not.

But, and here’s the big one, we must not take claims from evolutionary psychology at face value. They are claims to be tested, not conclusions. And the prominent minds of this field seem to be drinking the Kool-aid, confusing their hypotheses with conclusions or theory. Good science doesn’t happen with armchair hypothesizing, it happens when people test hypotheses. Because of the nature of the research necessary to test ideas like Steven’s, there’s very little evidence to support these claims, and even less that isn’t nakedly falsified.

Tread lightly

As I said above, I think there are real benefits to evolutionary psychology when used carefully and with a clear mind. But it’s all too easy to turn it into a sort of religion, a faith-based system that conveniently supports and reifies the way things are. It also requires a breadth of knowledge that few, if any, people actually contain in themselves; thus, it is a field that requires teams of people if the desire is to use evolution to explain a specific social phenomena.

Further reading

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of criticizing evolutionary psychology. In fact, I’m pretty sure the wiki article of criticisms of evolutionary psychology is longer than the article about evolutionary psychology. At any rate, it’s a great place to start for further reading.


Addendum

Steven’s cool new book

What a headline.
Steven is not well.

Just so we’re clear, Steven Pinker is claiming that:

  • 1) “Reason” or “Rationality” is the commonality between all of humanity’s greatest progresses
  • 2) However, kids these days don’t like rationality (?) because rationality is “uncool” (???)
  • 3) To emphasize how “uncool” rationality is, Steven says it is also not any of a series of terms derived largely from African American Vernacular English, such as “dope” and “phat.”
  • 4) In other words, things that are “dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb” are not rational. What he’s implying is: words that Black people use describe irrational things.

And then he goes on to take Prince (“Let’s go crazy!) and the Talking Heads (one surmises he’s referring to “Stop Making Sense”) in a surprisingly literal way. Maybe he’s not listening to much auditory cheesecake these days. His brain is too full of Very Good Ideas, music is a waste of space!

The Tweet and The Story of The Tweet

I debated including this story originally, and didn’t because it felt like a detour. But now that I’m adding an addendum for Steven’s new book anyway, why not?

I didn’t have a clever tweet or anything. I was mostly curious about the boundary for getting blocked. It’s interesting to me because I made sure to not be specific in my tweet. But even more interesting is what caused me to tweet at him in the first place.

The (Alleged) Ballad of Steven’s Data Scientist

At the time, Steven allegedly hired a data scientist (???) to semi-automatically block people that tweeted at him about paling around with Epstein. Music Academia Twitter was talking about it.

He was doing PR damage control, not wanting there to be a flood of tweets asking him about why he hung out with Epstein, defended him in court (seriously!), and even allegedly discussed some interesting theories with him–doing the kind of work Steven typically does: justifying the status quo by making up stories to say evolution made us this way. And allegedly the topic of these interesting theories was related to the kind of sex crimes Jeffrey did.

Anyway. So my tweet isn’t original or a good tweet, but it was vague. I was trying to see how specific you could get before getting caught in the grasp of the “data scientist.” Turns out not very:

Within moments, I was blocked.

What’s extra weird – and I’ve dug to try and find the receipts and I can’t find them, apologies – is that some people would post additional tweets like “why did you block me?” or whatever, just to draw more attention to this very normal thing for an innocent person to do.

And they’d get contacted by one of a few different accounts–all the same username–suffixed with a different number, claiming to be a data scientist that was hired by Steven to block people on Steven’s behalf. The account claimed it was for some kind of legal reason since the claims of his relationship to Epstein are salacious, even implying people could get sued for tweeting at Steven (lol). It was weird.

Why a data scientist? Why ever reply at all? The only way anyone knew about the data scientist is that they revealed themselves.

And why multiple different accounts to reply with? What was the logic that motivated which burner account to tweet from?

Why, if the process is automated with a script, is there someone around to reply to tweets in the first place? Why not just hire an assistant to go through your @s?

WHY?!

Like I said: data scientist or not, these are very normal things for a totally innocent person to do. Or maybe it was someone else playing an elaborate prank, in which case: bravo, this is very funny. Either way, it seemed worth talking about.

Did you know you know more about music than you know you know?

Did you know you know more about music than you know you know?

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That title is a bit of a tongue twister, so let’s condense it down to an easy to remember anagram: “DYKYKMAMTYKYK?” There! That just rolls off the tongue, right?

Word play aside, this is a somewhat serious post. If you’re reading this, you’re someone that knows a good bit about music. Even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket or have never touched an instrument, you still have a wealth of knowledge about music. By merely existing in a culture where music is ubiquitous, you have an implicit understanding of how it works. Even more, that understanding of music is so deeply rooted in your mind that it is incorporated into your fight-or-flight systems. This is a pretty big claim, but first I need to hit you with some concepts that are crucial to the argument I’m presenting to you: orienting response, statistical learning hypothesis, and musical interval.

I’ll start with the simplest one: musical interval. A musical interval is a name given to the pitch distance between two notes. In Western tonal music (read: pretty much all music you hear in your day-to-day life if you live in the West and even more places than that thanks to cultural colonialism), intervals are measured in semitones. There are 12 semitones in an octave. We more or less hear octaves as being equivalent, meaning a “C#” is a “C#” regardless of the octave it is. See the list below for all intervals by name and number of semitones.

  • Unison, 0 semitones
  • minor 2nd, +1 semitone
  • Major 2nd, +2 semitones
  • minor 3rd, +3 semitones
  • Major 3rd, +4 semitones
  • Perfect 4th, +5 semitones
  • Tritone, +6 semitones
  • Perfect 5th, +7 semitones
  • minor 6th, +8 semitones
  • Major 6th, +9 semitones
  • minor 7th, +10 semitones
  • Major 7th, +11 semitones
  • Octave, +12 semitones

You don’t need to learn or memorize that list for the sake of this article, but it’s there so you can just see what I’m talking about. The big take away is that musical interval describes the distance between notes.

Next is the statistical learning hypothesis of pitch class acquisition. This one is sort of buck wild, and painfully un-romantic. The hypothesis states that people learn how music works but just by being around it. In Western tonal music, we have those 12 semitones in an octave but other cultures have different subdivisions of octaves. In other words, the scales you hear all the time are quasi-arbitrary and based almost solely on the culture you grew up in. And even someone with no musical experience whatsoever can tell when a piece of music uses a different scale than the scale they’re used to hearing. They might have a hard time articulating what is different about it, but they can tell! As for the learning part, have you ever heard a song that sounded off, or did something weird? That’s because you have an implicit understanding of how music works. When you hear a IV chord, you’re used to hearing it go to a V or a I (for example), but if it goes to a flat-III chord, it would be pretty unexpected. Now, if you’ve never studied music theory, very little of that made sense and that’s kind of the point. You don’t have to study music theory to hear when a song does something weird. That’s because – per the statistical learning hypothesis – you are used to hearing IV go to V or I, so that sounds “right” and when it goes somewhere unexpected, like flat-III, it sounds weird. It really might be that simple.

You’ll note that I’m calling it the statistical learning hypothesis and not a “theory” or “law.” That’s because, at present, no one has figured out a way to test the hypothesis in such a way that makes it falsifiable. Falsifiable means that an idea needs to be tested in such a way that it could be proven wrong. Right now, there isn’t really a way to see if the statistical learning hypothesis is wrong because it claims that this is a slow process that happens over someone’s lifetime by being exposed to society. A way to test it would be to raise a baby from birth and totally isolate it from society then expose it later in life to music and see what happens. But thankfully, we have ethical standards and expectations of our science. Some clever person will, some day, figure out a way to test the hypothesis in an ethical way. But until then, we have a hypothesis that isn’t falsifiable. However, there is a mountain of evidence to support it, some of which I’ll get into later. Anyway, enough about philosophy of science and back to it!

Finally, the orienting response is an automatic reaction to novel or relevant stimuli in our environment. It goes all the way back to the work of Pavlov, and can be understood most simply as a “what is it?” reflex and is tied to the fight-or-flight response. Fortunately, we orient to all sorts of things and only a few illicit that response. What is particularly interesting about the orienting response is that we can measure it by observing someone’s heart rate. Let’s say you’re at your desk and your cat suddenly leaps onto your lap. The moment you begin to perceive a sharp, fuzzy mass on your legs, your heart rate slows and then returns to the baseline after 6 – 10 seconds. If you were particularly startled – let’s say you don’t own a cat, but suddenly a cat jumped onto your lap – your heart rate would likely decelerate from its baseline, then accelerate above the baseline before finally returning to the baseline. The point being is that your heart responds to changes in your environment because your mind sends different signals out when orienting. That, in a nutshell, is psychophysiology: using physiology to gain insights into cognition.

So now that we’ve got a good baseline on each of these concepts, we can get to the juicy part: DYKYKMAMTYKYK?

There is a wealth of solid research that shows people orient at the onset of a structural feature in a media message. A structural feature is a change in a message that isn’t inherently semantic in nature. Think of things like a cut in a video or the beginning of a new song on the radio. For example, Potter, Lang & Bolls (2008) found eight different structural features that people would orient to in the context of radio broadcasts: a phone-ringing sound effect, commercial onset, funny voice, station change/dial tuning, jingle onset, silence onset, voice changes, and laser sound effects. That means when one of those things happen when you’re listening to the radio, you’re likely to orient to it, and your heart rate will change accordingly. It doesn’t matter if you know you’re listening to the radio, your mind treats media as real. (For more on this notion, let me strongly recommend Reeves & Nass’ The Media Equation.) Similar research has shown that people orient to the onset of a song. The thought is that regardless of the context, the beginning of a message – song, jingle, station ID, etc – is novel enough for your mind to respond with “what is it?” and orient to it accordingly.

Setting aside radio for a moment, I think it’s easy to see why such a cautious mindset is helpful from an evolutionary standpoint. Imagine if our ancestors’ minds didn’t automatically orient to novel stimuli in the environment. Do you think they would survive in the wild? Obviously radio never killed anyone and no aural assault from a morning shock-jock can’t physically harm anyone. But it’s still real enough to warrant a “what is it?” The point being that this is a hardwired evolutionary response!

Radio is, in fact, a victim of murder.

Hey, wait a minute. The Buggles guy – remember that 1979 smash hit music video? – tried to tell us all about a murder, but no one took him seriously. Radio was a victim of murder! Spurned, he turned to a life of eco-terrorism, bent on destroying the corporeal world he once sought to warn of the evils of technology.

Fortunately the Planeteers were able to stop him.

After a setback, he changed focus (and name) yet again to deliver an overly-long monologue about a convoluted plot for revenge or something before being ultimately destroyed. Such a tragic tale.

Definitely the most thrilling scene from Captain America: Winter Soldier, in which the heroes stood and listened to digitized consciousness of the guy from the Buggles talk about revenge.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right.

Hard-wired evolved responses to novelty in the environment. And that’s where my own research comes in. There are a couple of really fascinating studies by Krumhansl (1979) and Krumhansl & Kesller (1982) that found people rate the notes in certain intervals as being more similar than notes in other intervals. An off the cuff guess might lead to you think, “sure, the notes that are closer together will be more similar sounding than distant notes.” But that isn’t what they found at all. They found that the more similar-rated intervals were the intervals that would form chords – notes played together that form a new texture – and the smallest intervals were some of the least similar rated ones. Though sort of surprising, it kind of makes sense: if people understand music implicitly through statistical learning, people are going to be exposed to a whole heck of a lot of chords in day-to-day life. But that made me wonder: would the “similarity-ness” of an interval impact whether or not people would orient to the beginning of the next message?

It does, much to my surprise. If the last note of a song and the first note of the next song forms an interval that Krumhansl and Krumhansl & Kessler found to be one of the “more similar” intervals, people did not orient to it. Mind you, this is in the context of a simulated radio broadcast of a Top-40 radio station. As The Weeknd starts to fade out, BAM! The next song begins. It’s hard to miss, but it seems that the musical content of the two songs could mean you don’t automatically attend to it. And this goes for more than just songs, but jingles and station IDs too. All of these messages are designed to be as attention-grabbing as possible.

So draw a fine point to it: did you know you know more about music than you know you know? You know so much about how music works that when something musically logical happens between the end and beginning of the next song, it overrides millennia-old systems designed to keep you alive despite everyone’s best effort to grab your attention with the start of their song, jingle, or station ID. You know so much about music that you have an implicit understanding of how music works. Isn’t that neat? Music isn’t just a thing for people with specialized knowledge or training. It’s for anyone that wants it.

References

Krumhansl, C. L. (1979). The psychological representation of musical pitch in a tonal context. Cognitive psychology, 11(3), 346-374.

Krumhansl, C. L., & Kessler, E. J. (1982). Tracing the dynamic changes in perceived tonal organization in a spatial representation of musical keys. Psychological review, 89(4), 334.

Potter, R. F., Lang, A., & Bolls, P. D. (2008). Identifying structural features of audio: Orienting responses during radio messages and their impact on recognition. Journal of Media Psychology, 20(4), 168-177.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. I. (1996). The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge university press.

Thru’ These Architects Eyes: a Dungeon Master’s (Auto)Ethnography of a Dungeons & Dragons Group

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This post is adapted from a paper I wrote for a Fan Studies class. I’m not typically a humanities scholar, so this paper was a stretch for me, but I think it’s interesting, nonetheless.

You can’t really buy a copy of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) like you can buy a copy of Risk or Dominion. There are rulebooks, premade monsters, and even official campaigns but none of those are D&D. Instead, they represent a framework of mechanics and ideas that a Dungeon Master (DM) might use to run the game. The DM is a unique player within a D&D group because they are the architect of the fictional universe the other players interact with through their own characters. In other words, the DM creates a fictional space, and other player make fictional characters that exist in that space. In my D&D group, I am the DM.

You might have noticed an apparent typo in the title of this essay. I assure you, it is purposeful and a reference to a David Bowie song of the same name from the album 1. Outside. 1. Outside is a concept album with a non-linear narrative and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” is a defiant breaking of the fourth wall to address the audience directly as (a character of) the writer of this story, watching it all fall apart. The use of punctuation in the title is itself, an act of architecture; and the song immediately name-checks two behemoths of architecture: Philip Johnson and Richard Rodgers. These two luminaries are evoked by the writer-character as objects of fandom and basises of comparison to his own work. Similarly, I am name-checking David Bowie. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. Despite referencing a non-linear narrative, I intend to be straightforward in my writing. For now, I will turn back to D&D.

D&D is typically run as a series of sessions that all connect to a larger narrative. Each session is typically 3 or 4 hours long. For this particular group, we are playing our second campaign set in the same universe. As of writing, we have played 25 sessions: 19 in the first campaign, and 6 in the current campaign. To fully appreciate this (auto)ethnography, I will provide a lore primer below.

 

Lore Primer

Civilization is spread across the known galaxy, yet there are no interstellar vessels. Each planet is connected to other planets by gate(s) built by an ancient civilization that vanished eons ago. Over time, two large factions arise: the Coterie and the Phrygian Wing. These two factions wrestle with ideological differences and failed trade negotiations that lead to generational wars. The campaign itself begins with the player’s characters (PCs) acting as representatives of either the Coterie or the Phrygian Wing to sign a peace treaty between the two factions and form a new government.

At the signing event, an unknown enemy army pours through previously inactive gates, killing or enslaving all present, including the PCs, and stopping the peace treaty from being formally signed. Neither the Coterie nor the Phrygian Wing are ready to fight this war and both suffer immense losses over the coming months. The PCs attempt to stop the invasion and learn that the invading force are the Tagmati, the forerunners that built the gates. They found themselves alone on their planet, so they built the gates to visit other worlds. Those worlds, too, were empty. Dissatisfied with this, they seeded life on several planets. Evolution being a long process, they attempted to speed it up so they could meet the new races – only to instead rip themselves out of time and come back to learn that the races they consider to be their children are engaged in a petty war. The Tagmati demand obedience from their children. The PCs confuse the leader of an extremist splinter group of Tagmati, Chaucer, as representative of all Tagmati. Chaucer is working to not only “bring them to heel” but also a backup plan in case the invasion fails. Chaucer is embittered against the gods that created the Tagmati and is working on gathering artifacts that will enable him to perform a ritual that will undo all existence – including the gods themselves.

Without going too far into it, the PCs try to do the right thing at every turn but often fail or set other problems in motion. This culminates with confronting Chaucer years later and incidentally bringing the last artifact Chaucer needs to him. Chaucer performs the ritual, but it doesn’t work as planned. Instead, it unleashes an ancient evil known as the Blackstar. The Blackstar possesses all of the PCs and a few non-player characters (NPCs), effectively ending the campaign.

The next campaign begins 286 years after the rise of the Blackstar in the same universe now ruled collectively by the Blackstar: ten different rulers, each with their own fealty of planet(s) to preside over. The Blackstar seem to have no goal other than maintaining their power – which is absolute. The players created new PCs that are setting out to destroy The Blackstar. So far, they’ve taken out one (The Laughing Gnome) and a few of the Blackstars’ lackeys, and are on the run. They are woefully unprepared to face any other Blackstar because the one they killed was by far the weakest and had the smallest fealty: one planet. What’s more, as of the conclusion of the last session they have: promised the souls of everyone living in a city to an death cult’s god in exchange for protection, nearly died of a curse, killed a Blackstar commander (The Ghoul), pleased a god (Aphbrodite, a member of the Brotheon of Gods) to lift the curse, found and killed a Blackstar imposter acting as a ruler of jungle village (ala Apocalypse Now), and then accidentally got themselves trapped in the Astral Plane (which, in this universe, is a featureless plane of Crystal Pepsi). All in all, it’s going well.

 

Rule 1: The DM is Always Right.

Part of writing an ethnography is explaining your connection with the studied group. In this case, I am a member of the group, but also in control of the reason the group meets. While it appears in the rulebooks in different ways over the years, the understood “Rule 1” of D&D is that the DM is always right. The DM may interpret or even disregard the rules at their discretion, including taking over a PC temporarily or even permanently. The DM could even create paradoxes and force the PCs to deal with it. The DM’s power is absolute. A cursory googling will give plenty of examples of DMs going too far. I’m sure, at moments, I’ve toed this line too.

 

Rule 0: Have fun.

Fortunately, there is a rule that supersedes all rules, and all subsequent rules are beholden to satisfy Rule 0: have fun. Despite the immense power that I wield as a DM, I wield it with a singular goal in mind, which is to have a good time together. Given the stability of the group I run, I like to think that I’m OK at this.

 

“This is a constitutional monarchy.”

If Rule 1 sounds a bit authoritarian, that’s because it is. D&D is not a democracy or even a republic. I like to tell my players that it is a constitutional monarchy: I am the absolute ruler but I am (hypothetically) bound by the rules, just as anyone else. But I also recognize that even if I’m not really bound by the rules, it’s in my best interest to abide by them – lest I am beheaded by an angry mob.

Fortunately, the people I play D&D with combined with my DM style rarely leads to friction of the bad kind. I think the closest we’ve ever come to it is I had my players briefly captured by metallic vines that they couldn’t escape from. This was necessary from a narrative standpoint, but in universe it didn’t make a ton of sense. Anything should be possible, even if improbable, in D&D. I got a few dirty glances from players as they learned that they were helpless in that moment. Those dirty glances were earned, but also worth it in the end with the narrative payoff. It seemed as if everyone had forgotten about it by session’s end, anyway.

Stating “friction of the bad kind” implies there is a friction of the good kind, and I would argue that there is. Tension is necessary for rewards to feel earned and palpable. As DM, part of my job is creating and nurturing that friction. I use my power to craft instances that pulls members of the party in different directions, forcing them to figure out how to work together, but also how to compromise. More plainly put, good friction is when characters are acting reasonably per their personalities and find that they disagree. Bad friction is when the players at the table work against each other. We don’t have that issue, fortunately.

 

“I jump off my wolf!” or: why I don’t play D&D with strangers

Though slightly outside of the main scope of this paper, I think it’s important to highlight an instance of myself as a D&D player that illustrates why I don’t play D&D with strangers and also what “bad friction” can look like. A few years ago, I attended a session of Pathfinder – effectively a variation on D&D but highly organized and hosted at game shops – where myself and two friends were paired with some strangers to play a session.

One player at the table embodied all of the negative stereotypes of a D&D player, so much so that he very well may have been straight out of Mazes & Monsters (more on that later!). He was playing a halfling ranger that had a pet wolf that he could ride. Rangers are typically thought of as skilled hunters, but also friends of animals. This particular ranger had bonded so thoroughly with this wolf that it was tamed. By this charitable description, you might think that this was a thoroughly nuanced and developed character. Not in the least. This player had scoured the rules and found a series of loopholes to exploit so he could have the most powerful character at the table. When in combat, he could control the wolf’s movement, hop off, do his own movement, and then even duck behind the wolf so the wolf takes damage instead of him. This doesn’t sound anything like a ranger and his tamed wolf to me.

This created bad friction at the table, too, because it ceased being fun for us. This player wasn’t playing the game in earnest, he wanted us to know how cool and powerful his character was. His fictional, pretend character in a game where we move tiny figures around a grid to talk about punching elves and orcs. D&D is absurd, and a player getting very serious about it is painful to watch. You can’t “win” D&D, the experience (and the XP) is the reward. I’ve since sworn off playing with strangers, and I’ve vowed that as a DM I would quickly squash that kind of thinking at my table.

 

Name-Checking

Now that I am no longer ahead of myself, I have more to say about name-checking. The use of a David Bowie song title is pointed and purposeful. Not only is it a fitting title for what I’m doing as a DM, but referencing Bowie is something this whole campaign in about. I am a massive David Bowie fan. My earliest music-related memory is hearing “Space Oddity” on the radio and not understanding why he sounded so sad, given that he was an astronaut.

With Bowie’s sudden passing in early 2016, I have found myself still struggling to fully comprehend it. I am not actively sad about it. In fact, I’m more puzzled than anything. I’ve listened to just about every iota of music the man recorded at great length, but I still don’t quite “get it.” There seems to be something more there for me to grasp, but I can’t tell what it is. I still can’t.

However, I took this as an opportunity to just dive into my fandom and realize it in a totally different space. The Blackstar are all based on characters that David Bowie used throughout his career. Instead of forcing myself to confront the loss of these characters, I am asking my players to kill them for me. And because the player’s “old” characters are possessed by the Blackstar, they are killing (freeing?) characters they are close to as well. It’s all very Freudian. Or is it Jungian? Hard to say at this point.

 

A brief interlude about anonymity and my focus

I am not interested in identifying the players at my table. In fact, the focus of this ethnography is strictly in-universe. I will relate characters across campaigns, but I won’t discuss who plays these characters. Not only do I want my players to feel secure when they sit at my table, I also don’t want to muddy the waters. I will leave that to other scholars. Furthermore, this group is more important to me than the scholarly insights I might gain by pulling back the curtain more. Call it what you will (intellectually bankrupt!), that is my choice as a fan and academic to keep the barrier in place. I’m not alone, either: Henry Jenkins (2012), among others, does the same thing. While this decision may be upsetting, please understand that it is necessary for this paper to exist at all.

Unlike Jenkins, however, I do hope to interrogate myself as a DM more than one might typically expect from a Fan Studies autoethnography. Hills (2002) criticisms of shoddy ethnography commonplace to the field echo throughout this paper as I try to maintain some credibility as a scholar while simultaneously juggling being a fan.

At any rate, you need to know who populates this fictional universe that I created. Below you will find brief synopses of each of the current player characters. Each person at the table plays one character.

 

Quinn

Quinn is a half-elf (the other half is human, but by convention merely called “half-elf”) barbarian scholar. She studies “The Incident:” namely, she studies the war and the events of the prior campaign. This is not a popular thing to study and her college got a lot of pressure from the local Blackstar authority to push her out of the academy. No dictator wants someone digging around in their history.

Quinn often finds herself at odds with the world: half-elves are generally considered the children of two worlds, but not wholly accepted in either. Furthermore, as a barbarian scholar, her physique intimidates the intelligentsia and her intellect intimidates the muscle. The constant struggle to find the truth and being thwarted at every turn wears on Quinn, but she appreciates the respect she gains from the fear she generates.

Early on in the campaign, Quinn had to face a prior colleague of hers at the university. He dealt to her the greatest insult he could: he did not even acknowledge that he had ever met her before. Ackman, her former colleague, was a potential candidate to be the head of the local government after the party disposed of the Blackstar. His condescending attitude and his stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge that they knew each other drove Quinn up a wall. Fortunately, Ackman leapt from his spire once confronted with evidence of his collusion with the Blackstar. Unfortunately, he grew sixty feet tall as he jumped and the party had to deal with a Huge Ackman. The fight ended with Ackman’s giant corpse demolishing the college. Quinn was finally free.

Quinn often finds herself being the voice of reason in the party. Her intelligence and her knowledge of the Blackstar surpasses most. The difficulty is, of course, when she get frustrated she goes into a blood rage. The barbarian in her takes hold. She can be fierce in battle, but she can be just as fierce in conversation.

 

Shtutz

In contrast with Quinn, Shtutz is a totally passive and quiet character. He has a repulsive, mealy-mouthed, stooge for any authority figure. Especially those that espouse fascist dogma. Shtutz, in all respects, seems to be the player’s attempt at understanding Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Shtutz will parrot anything he hears if it’s said in the right tone of voice. Unlike Spicer, he doesn’t work for an authoritarian regime, though. In a way, he’s playing Sean Spicer in reverse: Shtutz was a stooge but he’s slowly finding his way back to the Easter Bunny costume and in doing so regaining some humanity. (Yes, Sean Spicer was the Easter Bunny. See: O’Neal,  2017).

 

Birdperson

Chirp is Birdperson’s real name, but since his people don’t have a language, he can’t really tell anyone his name. Birdperson is a kenku. The kenku are an avian race that displeased the god that elevated them to sentience only to have that god take away their capacity to fly, and took their language too. Instead, Birdperson can mimic sounds he’s heard to form thoughts. Birdperson has also faced the most cruelty at the hands of my DM via terrible dice rolls. Notably, his heavy crossbow broke as he was loading it. The snapping mechanism mangled his lower torso and genitals. (In all fairness, he double crit-failed!)

 

Delilah

Delilah is a on a quest to rid the land of slavery. She only indirectly cares about the Blackstar threat because of their implicit support of slavery. Delilah, by most measures, is a swashbuckling pirate and a former slave trader herself, until she realized that slaves are people too. Delilah is overly pragmatic and thus often a source of momentum for the party: no sense in making plans or talking once the threat has been identified.

 

Gnoz Tingz

Tingz is a Kobold (think “small lizard-person”) and the party think his name is Gnoz, not realizing that Kobold surnames are first. Furthermore, the party can’t tell that Tingz isn’t S’kritz. S’kritz is Tingz fraternal twin and joined the party for about 15 minutes before dying brutally. Fortunately, Tingz was following S’kritz and now has a reason to stick with the party: covertly getting revenge for his brother’s death.

 

Squirrel Nut-King

There’s a strange little halfling in the group who may be a druid or may be a wizard. Regardless, he’s got three squirrel companions with him at all times, and is on an eternal quest to be the ruler of all squirrels everywhere. Squirrel wears armor made from leaves and moss, and favors strong drink and substances to enhance his experiences. He’s a bit of a wildcard, but the group often misses that he makes massive, if not subtle, contributions.

 

Batai

Batai is a remnant of the Tagmati war, and he carries the weight of that war on his shoulders. He has decided that it is his responsibility to undo the evils his people perpetrated, and the Blackstar are part of that equation. Batai is accompanied by Archimedes,  his friend’s soul trapped in a technological construct, that serves as a sounding board for plans and occasional advice.

 

Writing a session

As the DM, I put in a lot more time into playing than anyone else at the table. But it’s a labor of love, and a fun way to have an outlet and an audience for my creative endeavors. Something that often surprises people when I talk to them about D&D is that I don’t particularly like fantasy. At a young age, I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but that was pretty much it. Even then, I did not particularly enjoy them. The world building was astounding, but the writing was painfully bad.

D&D is an interesting space for me to occupy, then, because it explicitly designed to operate in a fantasy setting. My first D&D campaign (“Dresden II”) was a scifi adventure with lots of homebrew mechanics to account for technology instead of magic, as well as interstellar travel. I look back fondly on that campaign – you never forget your first – but it has become clear to me that I had bitten off more than I could chew with all of the homebrew mechanics. For the two campaigns I have been discussing here, I have held onto elements of scifi but ultimately landed on a sci-fantasy setting. This choice was made out of desire to make the game more approachable for myself, but also my players – several of whom had not played D&D before.

Preparing for a typical session takes a variable amount of time, and time that I don’t keep track of. My best guess is that I spend between 2 – 4 hours each week preparing for the session. This time is spent on brainstorming, writing, curating a playlist of music for the session, and maintaining our D&D Facebook group.

Brainstorming and writing happen in an interleaved fashion. Sometimes something from the last session will give me an idea for the next session, making my life easier. Other times, I find myself with an opportunity to do more or less as I please. Regardless of the initial impetus for the session, one thing I always work on first is the title of the session. I conceptualize each session as a chapter, and I share the chapter titles with the D&D group on Facebook prior to the session each week. The titles matter to me, because they help set a tone. Like a good song title, I hope for my chapter titles to give away some core truth of the chapter, but it only becomes obvious after playing the chapter. For example, a chapter was titled “The Janus Eternal Trust,” triply serving the purpose of being a backronym, a setup for a bad joke, and a clue. In this particular chapter, the adventurers are beguiled by a previously minor NPC named Bennie, who is now the unwilling leader of a cult of warforged, only to use the adventurers to be trapped by the cult so she could escape. Bennie’s duplicitous nature has served as plot points before, so it was only fitting to invoke the two-faced god of antiquity, Janus. Also, I got to work into the conversations between NPCs and PCs the phrase “Bennie and the JETs.” The plot of that chapter was more or less lifted directly from the classic Star Trek episode “I, Mudd,” for those of you playing along at home. All of this to say that chapter titles matter. What started out a desire to make a backronym for JET for make an Elton John reference became a particularly memorable session. My PCs still bring it up, and we played it about 4 months ago.

The title doesn’t necessarily come first, though. Sometimes the plot is sketched out first and the title is used to find a way to change the outline into something more interesting. Sometimes I find myself with an outline sketch of the chapter that is suitable but ultimately lacking in terms of flair or thoughtfulness. Ruminating on the themes and trying to find a connection to a title that is, itself, a reference can push me to make new connections I had not previously seen.

 

D&D as a series of political statements

When I write a session, I am engaging in making inherently political statements. Sometimes these statements are overtly political, such as confronting the PCs with the need to set up a government (see next section below). Other times it is a more subtle kind of politics. When I structure an chapter, I am making decisions about what belongs where and how. I am organizing a multidimensional space as I see fit. Inevitably these are value judgements. Sometimes they are purposefully provocative. Other times, they are unavoidable. Given my propensities for subtext and acting as an agent provocateur, sometimes these political statements push me to write and espouse things to nudge the players around, things I object to with the hope that they’ll object to it too.

To help explain this, I must elucidate on a part of my fandom. I am a huge Robert Heinlein fan. I have read just shy of all of his novels (Podkayne of Mars is sitting expectantly on my bookshelf), and I find that this is something he does too. Most famously, I would argue, is Starship Troopers (1997). The novel follows a character deeply embedded in an authoritarian meritocracy society, waging a war against an alien species. To the casual reader, it may appear as if Heinlein himself endorses these views, given that his characters think and act within this system, and uphold it. I sometimes think I am in the minority of Henlein fans that thoroughly loves Verhoeven’s 1997 movie adaptation because it seems to understand the story more than most people give it credit for. Verhoeven, in all of his Verhoeveness glory, pushes the message of the book to the extreme to make it obviously absurd. Heinlein was pushing our buttons, tasking us to confront something and to be continually mortified by it so we could reject it.

Case study: sometimes it’s the dumbest thing said that makes the point for you, or: “the natives always say bwana”

I have tried to pull the same stunt as Heinlein at times, and to mixed success. (It’s almost as if I am not of the same writing caliber as one of the greatests minds in science fiction.) In a story arch where PCs found themselves trapped in a series of illusions, one of them was meant to be a sort of early 1950s B movie version of The Most Dangerous Game (Connell, 1924), replete with bad accents, a Russian aggressor, a damsel in distress, a tokenized “country of Africa”-type assistant to the strong-jawed white male lead. The PCs find themselves waking up from a strange dream-like sequence in the middle of a jungle, plopped down in only to immediately meet all of the main characters of this story.

This chapter is the second in a three-part arc where players find themselves embedded in B movie-esque renditions of hackneyed stories. I kept upping the gonzo factor because I wanted them to start questioning their surroundings, but they seemed to more or less accept what was happening around them as real. Falling into a trance, being overcome by a sedating white light only to wake up in a strange place? No problem, it seems!

The first time I did this was the previous chapter, and I doubted I would get away with it but it seemed like a good gag. But no, they played right along to my surprise. To push them more and more to doubt their reality, one of the angles I used was an increased racial insensitivity. However, it was not done in an in-universe fashion. Instead, the insensitivities were born out in, to me, painfully obvious real-world racial issues. The black characters were subservient cultured savages. The white characters were the heroes. The black characters died first. The white characters got the girl in the end, and so on. But this still didn’t work, so I relied on an old B movie cliche: the black characters were now wearing grass skirts and had tiny bones piercing their septums, and they would always say “bwana.” Bwana means boss or master in Swahili. To me, this was the most reductionist and cruel thing I could do: the only vestigial instance of a “real” culture was used to hail the white saviors.

I must have done something wrong here, though, because my players found it funny and odd. There were concerned looks at the table at these cruelly racist undertones, but they never questioned it outright. Or if they did, it didn’t seem to influence their characters much at all. It is possible that while the reality was becoming more and more objectionable, they felt powerless to change it. Even in the end when I went full Verhoeven, it did not work. The final chapter using this technique, I put them in a painful kung fu B movie, that was explicitly an uninformed westerner’s attempt at making a kung fu film setting. Finally, I had to lay my hand on the table and show it to them: they were being tested by a powerful lich – basically a Q neé Star Trek character – to push their sense of reality, to see what they were capable of and what they would tolerate.

 

Case study: Power Vacuum

We find our adventurers in the city of Sedna, capital of Ankora. They have just worked together to defeat The Laughing Gnome, a Blackstar, in combat. Upon The Laughing Gnome’s defeat, the party learns that The Laughing Gnome is actually “Beef Peef,” a character from the Tagmati war campaign, augmented with cybernetics to have a full 4 limbs. Beef Peef got his name because he was the one-eared elvish head of a man named Peef attached to a large, hairy, muscular human leg (Beef). This is a major realization for the players at the table: their old characters may be alive as other Blackstar. This is also a major realization for the PCs: the adventurers that (per popular understanding) aided the Tagmati in unleashing the Blackstar are the Blackstar. This has long been speculated, but never known for a fact.

After defeating the Blackstar, the party was planning on simply leaving. However, some of the locals convinced them that walking away now would surely doom the city to be ruled by other Blackstar or really anyone else seeking power. Instead, the locals argued, the party should help them set up a new government. The party was invited to lead the government directly, but they summarily declined. Instead, they tracked down four leads of notable locals that may be fit for the job.

The party invited all four to dinner: a prominent craftsman, a popular tavern owner (and allegedly a priestess for one of the outlawed gods), the just and compassionate warden of the Laughing Gnome’s prison, and a scholar. Ackman, the scholar, was generally disinterested in the proceedings and implied that he was not interested in holding office. The craftsman was interested and certainly had the charisma to lead, but he was a bit too interested in the power. The warden was fair but just, and one of the few people able to temper The Laughing Gnome’s propensities for random cruelty. She ran a prison, but it was a lawful, safe, and just place. Lastly, the tavern owner was a certainly popular enough, but she lacked any fundamental understanding of governance.

With the dinner party not really revealing enough relevant information about the candidates, the party held additional interviews with the candidates. Notably, a now deceased PC, Obi, attempted to kill the Warden out of principle: she was a Blackstar capitulator despite her reputation for doing good. Obi was also working to his own end and wanted to be able to indirectly control this government. Unfortunately, he botched the attempt and ended up dying himself as he killed the Warden. Because he was acting alone, no one ever understood exactly what happened between the Warden and Obi. This was also the first PC to die during this campaign.

Player death is a tricky thing to navigate as the DM. I need to make the world dangerous enough to provide a real sense of tension and risk, but I also don’t want to make it in such a way that it kills PCs in ways that don’t serve some greater purpose. At the same time, I do not have control over dice rolls and things that are typically mundane can quickly turn terrifying. In the case of Obi, he was fighting an unarmed civilian. Unfortunately, he critical failed a couple rolls. This leaves me in a further tricky spot: do I pull my punches to keep the PC alive? If I do, that removes the sense of danger from the world and provides a safety net. If I don’t, a PC dies and it serves nothing. In this case, I decided to not pull my punches since the player might learn from this experience if I kill his character. He split off from the party, started combat, and acted irrationally. In fact, this deserves being shared for posterity. I present it below:

Obi: [to the Warden, in an attempt to distract her] I’m here to tell you that we suspect someone is trying to kill you!

The Warden believes him due to his excellent Deception roll, panics, and starts packing her things. Obi surreptitiously slips poison into her drink.

Obi: Good! Now finish your tea and we’ll get you to a safe place.

Obi rolls very poorly on this Persuasion check, and is unable to shake the previously instilled panic in the Warden. Instead of backing down or seeking another route, Obi threatens her and demands she drink her tea. He rolls poorly on this Intimidation check, and instead she draws her weapon and makes quick work of him. As she attempts to leave, she trips on the steps and falls and breaks her neck. Later, it is discovered that someone planted a magical rock in the steps that causes people to trip.

In this instance, it seemed reasonable to kill this PC, even if I hadn’t planned on it. Players need to learn their actions have consequences, and also stick together. There are few impositions from outside the game world that I put on my players, but one of them is stick together in dangerous situations. Obi struck out on his own and then escalated a situation needlessly. He paid for it with his life.

After the mess with Obi, the other candidates were still turning up dead. When the party went to check on, then confront Ackman, he leapt from the window in his spire office, seemingly committing suicide. Instead of splatting on the ground, he grew 60 feet tall. Unfortunately for all involved, his clothing did not work like the Incredible Hulk’s and thus the party had to battle a paunchy, middle-aged, nude giant. I did this for puerile humors’ sake, but I learned I need to be careful with that.

Part of playing D&D is figuring out how to creatively utilize your environment. My players are kind of notoriously bad at this, and it lulled me into a false sense of security. One of the very first actions a PC took was Quinn throwing one of her hand axes at Huge Ackman’s testicles, rupturing the scrotum and exposing the dangling testes. (Of course, moments later Birdperson suffered his disfiguring accident.) The rest of the combat primarily centered on characters trying to exploit and find other possible weak points. All in all, this is a favorable approach to combat on a conceptual level. I now know that I need to be careful when I, ah, expose a weakness.

Following the end of this debacle, Ackman’s enormous corpse collapsed onto the spire of the college, symbolically freeing Quinn from her frustrations and anger about her past. Since that event, Quinn has struggled to figure out who she is and why. Hatred and anger fueled her for so long; and once the external forces that she hung her rage upon dissolved, she had no idea why the feelings persisted. Quinn’s solution to her problems was still useful, but it didn’t actually solve anything. The other players, since the battle with Huge Ackman, have gained a sense of power and ability. It the first time that, as a group, they solved a problem together and decided to think outside the box. Furthermore, they learned that Huge Ackman was a Blackstar agent when they found a fushigi ball and a note amidst his remains, promising him great power.

Finally, the group found a way to help the people of Sedna. Not only did they upset the balance of power, they overthrew the Blackstar rule, averted a Blackstar agent from seizing power, and laid the groundwork for Sedna to be self-governed. Following the events of The Laughing Gnome and Huge Ackman, Sedna was laid seige by a retaliatory Blackstar force lead by a Blackstar commander known as The Ghoul. But that’s another story.

 

Mazes & Monsters: capitalizing on a moral panic

D&D has been subject to surprisingly little scholarship it seems, at least in the field of psychology. However, Carter and Lester (1998) find, much to the surprise of popular culture expectations, that male D&D players seem to be totally similar to non-players in regards to rates of depression, suicidal ideation, psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism. Though not from the field of fan studies, this certainly speaks to the field and how popular culture expectations can be quite wrong about fans and fandoms, and provides a more quantitative and defendable approach to demonstrating that fandom should not be automatically pathologized.

The experimental design was simple: 20 D&D players (60% of which were undergraduates) and 20 unselected undergraduates both responded to the same questionnaires to provide data on their mental health. The means of the scores from each group were compared and found to be statistically identical. While the reported findings are limited in the kinds of statistics that were reported – notably that frequentist tests such as the ones employed here cannot “prove” that two groups are not different – it is an accepted practice of the field at the time to report these kinds of statistical analyses and not others.

Carter and Lester’s study does have limitations, however: the study only utilized self-reported measures or indexes derived from self-reported data. As such, there is a possibility for respondents replying in a way they think they should respond as opposed to how they actually feel. Regardless, this data is an interesting rejection of the fears of D&D being a place for the weirdos and outcasts. Or, if they still are weirdos and outcasts, they aren’t experiencing direly poor mental health.

This study is ultimately a response to fears of the religious right that D&D is a breeding ground for satanism or the occult, much like Harry Potter has been accused of the same. (It doesn’t look good when magic is a possibility for more than just the big guy in the sky.) This fear was so pronounced and such a part of popular culture, it even was the plot for a movie.

Mazes & Monsters (hereafter M&M, 1982) is a made-for-TV movie that unabashedly cashes in on the moral panic surrounding Dungeons & Dragons. Robbie (played by Tom Hanks in his first starring role!) and his friends play the non-trademark infringing game “Mazes & Monsters.” Robbie inexplicably thinks he is his character in real life after his friends decide to go LARPing because D&D isn’t nerdy enough. The movie intimates in some vague and thoroughly insulting way that Robbie suffers from some kind of mental illness. I’m not interested in talking about that portion of the film here, mostly because it is so poorly done that I can’t give it the thrashing it deserves without taking a total left turn. Instead, I want to focus on all the hackneyed ways the movie tries to sell the moral panic. Bear with me, because I intend to compare and contrast this movie with my D&D group.

The movie begins with a close-up shot of a police siren flashing and blaring in the night, only to reveal emergency responders, a bespectacled intrepid reporter, and a detective in a trench coat (a bold triple-trope blend of Hardboiled Detective, Inspector Javert, and Inspector Lestrade). They’re bemoaning a game of M&M gone awry, and imply a dead body was found in a cave. In other words, we see authority figures and upstanding citizens trying to save, protect, and inform the world about the happenings and the dangers of M&M. The intrepid reporter stares right into the camera, and thus the audience, to describe M&M as a fantasy game where the goal is to make as much money as possible without dying. It is then established that this is a game that mere children are playing!

Cut to three vignettes set six months in the past of attractive, well-off, beautiful, straight, white teens and their home lives. Kate comes from a broken home, and doesn’t ever want to get married. Instead, she wants to be a writer! Daniel is underperforming by going to a lesser known school when he should be going to MIT “for computers.” This conversation plays out with a shockingly on-the-nose sitcom family: the worried mother, the stern father wearing a conservative cardigan. JJ is the eccentric one because he likes to wear different hats. A boy genius, only 16 years old and he’s a sophomore in college. These kids have everything going for them, and they’re the kinds of kids that every parent should want, with just the right kind of flaws to make them real but not scary.

Then we meet Robbie, as he sits looking sullen in the back of an expensive car as his father admonishes him for getting kicked out of his previous school because of “those games!” The mother chastises the father for being too harsh, and he says she’s been drinking too much. The sensible, caring father is undermined at every turn by the deviant mother, and their poor son is the real victim – so implies the movie.

Naturally, these four teens meet as we follow them back to college for the fall semester. Robbie is immediately ousted by Kate as an M&M player. She rounds up Daniel and JJ and announces, “Meet Robbie, he’s a level 9!” They briefly discuss the abilities of being a level 9, such as creating your own scenarios and gaining powers. Here, the discussion of M&M sounds much more like Scientology and less like a pen-and-paper role playing game.

Poor Robbie is pressured by the teens that don’t know they’re giving a heroin junkie an armful into playing with them. All goes well at first – they play a couple times a week in a room overstuffed with occult imagery. Kate and Robbie fall in love. The semester is going well until Robbie recounts the tale of his brother’s disappearance and how it still haunts him. JJ finds out about Kate and Robbie’s relationship then announces to himself that he’s going to commit suicide and what would be the best way to do it. Why, the forbidden caves near campus, of course!

But he doesn’t. Instead, he convinces the group to LARP their M&M in the caves. While LARPing, Robbie has a hallucination that he is being attacked by a monster. Thus begins the end of Robbie and the beginning of Robbie-as-a-clumsily-named-fantasy-cleric-archetype. He can’t separate himself from the fantasy. As a holy man, he must be celibate so he dumps Kate and instead focuses on school (the horror!), all the while he continues to dream of his runaway brother. Eventually, his dreams lead him to travel to New York City (explicitly without money or his wallet).

After Robbie goes missing, the Triple-Trope Detective comes back into the story and we see the beginning of the film again. Turns out there is no body in the caves. But the detective is grilling the kids, who all refuse to admit to playing M&M, let alone playing with Robbie. After some grousing and moralizing, the Triple-Trope Detective leaves the kids alone and announces that they have no leads on Robbie’s location. The movie goes on and, gosh, I don’t want to spoil it too much but Robbie never escapes his fantasy and the other three do and go on to be happy perfect white adults. Robbie is seemingly doomed to live at home with his parents in this fantasy, medicated and under the care of a shrink. Robbie is gone, and only his character remains.

 

Mazes & Monsters & Dungeons & Dragons

Maybe none of us have reached Level 9 yet, but I have to say that M&M is not particularly representative of my experiences with D&D. D&D is a space for the marginalized, the queer, and the oddballs. Though previous editions have fallen prey to mindless sexism, D&D now stands as a largely inclusive, broad, and welcoming space for people to wrestle with ideas like race, class, culture, and identity. D&D explicitly tasks players with choosing a race, class, culture, and identity and then interacting with a diverse yet often cold world. Bigotry of all kinds is commonplace in D&D worlds, and players must often figure out ways to work with, around, or dismantle these systems to attain their goals.

Going back to Quinn, the half-elf barbarian scholar: Quinn’s juxtapositions within her identity often puts her at odds with the world. Half-elves are often seen as a fantasy-form of mulatto, and a barbarian scholar is almost an oxymoron. Quinn must constantly push against normative notions and systems of oppression to simply be. I don’t know what the resolution will be for Quinn or her self-identified anger issues, but I would be willing to bet that she will always confront those systems head on to try and change them.

Now this seems odd, in a way. Players purposefully design and play as characters that have suffered and will continue to suffer. As the DM, I am very much directly responsible for enacting these terrible things and putting them upon my players. When described like this, it sounds hellish and frustrating. And while it can be frustrating, it’s pointedly so. Players need to see their characters struggle so they can feel the successes, too.

I don’t know for sure, because I can’t ask them directly without giving it away, but the players are there to fix this broken world that I create. And it’s soothing for me, as the DM, to see this too. I often project my fears and anxieties of the real world into the D&D campaign. It gives me hope when I see a small, ragtag bunch of adventurers fix those problems. You don’t need therapy after playing D&D like Robbie did after playing M&M, D&D is therapy.

 

References

Carter, R., & Lester, D. (1998). Personalities of players of Dungeons and Dragons. Psychological reports, 82(1), 182-182.

Connell, R. E. (1924). The most dangerous game.

Jenkins, H. (2012). Textual poachers: Television fans and participatory culture. Routledge.

Hills, M. (2002). Fan cultures. Psychology Press.

O’Neal, S. (2017, March 02). Sean Spicer’s tragic fall from grace as White House Easter Bunny. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.avclub.com/article/sean-spicers-tragic-fall-grace-white-house-easter–251358

Stern, S. H. (Director). (1982). Mazes & Monsters [Motion picture]. 905 Entertainment.

Verhoeven, P. (Director), & Davison, J. (Producer). (1997). Starship Troopers [Motion picture].

Once More, with (Less) Feeling: artificialized vocals

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This semester has been challenging and fun. One class, in particular, really pushed me. It’s a class on music information processing. In other words, it’s a class on how computers interpret and process music as audio. I’ll spare you a lot of the technical stuff, but generally speaking we were treating audio recordings are vectors with each value of the vector corresponding to the amplitude of a sample. This allowed us to do all sorts of silly and interesting things to the audio files.

The culmination of the class is an independent project that utilizes principles learned from the class. This presented a unique opportunity to design an effect that I’ve wanted but couldn’t find: a way to make my voice sound like a machine. Sure, there’s vocoders, pitch quantizers, ring modulators, choruses, and more… but they don’t quite do what I want. The vocoder gets awfully close, but having to speak the vocals and also perform the melody on a keyboard is no fun. iZotope’s VocalSynth actually gets very close to what I want, but even that is hard to blend the real and the artificial. There had to be something different!

And now there is. Before I can explain what I did, here’s a little primer on some stuff:

Every sound we hear can be broken down into a combination of sine waves. Each wave has 3 parameters: frequency (pitch), amplitude (loudness), and phase. You’ll note that phase doesn’t have an everyday analog like frequency does with pitch. That’s probably because our hearing isn’t sensitive to phase (with some exceptions not covered here). Below is a picture of a sine wave.

zxfec

See how the wave starts at the horizontal line that bisects the wave? This sine wave has a phase of 0 degrees. If it started at the peak and went down, it would have a phase of 90 degrees. If it started in the middle and went down, it would have a phase of 180, and so forth.

As I said, we don’t really hear phase, but it’s a crucial part of a sound because multiple sine waves are added together to make complex sounds. Some of them reinforce each other, others cancel each other out. All in all, they have a very complex relationship to each other.

This notion of a complex wave represented by a series of sine waves comes from a guy named Fourier. (He’s French so it’s “Four-E-ay.”) There’s a lot of different flavors of the Fourier Transforms, but the type relevant here is the Finite (or Fast) Fourier Transform. This one only deals with finite numbers, which are very computer friendly.

There’s a subset of the FFT called the STFT (short-time Fourier Transform) that maintains phase information in such a way that it’s easier to play with. One of the simplest tricks is to set all of the phases to 0. This makes a monotone, robotic voice with a few parameters changed. Hm! That’s fun, but not very musical.

STFTs, as the name implies, analyze very short segments of audio then jump forward and analyze another short segment. Short, in this case, means something like 0.023 seconds (1024 samples at 44.1k) of audio at a time. Here’s where the robot voice comes in: instead of jumping ahead to the next unread segment, I’ll tell it to jump ahead, say, a quarter of the way and grab 0.023 seconds, then jump another quarter and so on. This imposes a sort of periodicity to the sound, and periodicity is pitch!

By manipulating the distance I am jumping ahead, I can impose different pitches on the audio. This is essentially what I did in my project. More specifically, I:

  1. Made a sample-accurate score of the desired pitches
  2. Made a bunch of vectors for start time, end time, and desired pitches (expressed as a ratio)
  3. Made a loop to step through these vectors
  4. Grabbed a chunk of sound from a WAV file
  5. Performed an STFT using the pitches I plugged in
  6. Did an inverse STFT to turn it back into a vector with just amplitube values for samples
  7. Turned that back into a WAV file

(See the end of the post for a copy of my code.)

Here’s what I ended up with!

And here’s what it started as:

Please be forgiving of the original version. It’s not great… I was trying to perform in such a way that would make this process easier. It did, but the trade off was a particularly weak vocal performance. Yeesh. My pitch, vowels, and timbre were all over the place!

Anyway, here’s the code. You’ll need R (or R Studio!) and TuneR. Oh, and the solo vocal track.

setWavPlayer("/Library/Audio/playRWave")

stft = function(y,H,N) {
 v = seq(from=0,by=2*pi/N,length=N)
 win = (1 + cos(v-pi))/2
 cols = floor((length(y)-N)/H) + 1
 stft = matrix(0,N,cols)
 for (t in 1:cols) {
 range = (1+(t-1)*H): ((t-1)*H + N)
 chunk = y[range]
 stft[,t] = fft(chunk*win)
 }
 stft
}

istft = function(Y,H,N) {
 v = seq(from=0,by=2*pi/N,length=N)
 win = (1 + cos(v-pi))/2
 y = rep(0,N + H*ncol(Y))
 for (t in 1:ncol(Y)) {
 chunk = fft(Y[,t],inverse=T)/N
 range = (1+(t-1)*H): ((t-1)*H + N)
 y[range] = y[range] + win*Re(chunk)
 }
 y
}

spectrogram = function(y,N) {
 bright = seq(0,1,by=.01)
 power = .2
 bright = seq(0,1,by=.01)^power
 grey = rgb(bright,bright,bright) # this will be our color palate --- all grey
 frames = floor(length(y)/N) # number of "frames" (like in movie)
 spect = matrix(0,frames,N/2) # initialize frames x N/2 spectrogram matrix to 0
 # N/2 is # of freqs we compute in fft (as usual)
 v = seq(from=0,by=2*pi/N,length=N) # N evenly spaced pts 0 -- 2*pi
 win = (1 + cos(v-pi))/2 # Our Hann window --- could use something else (or nothing)
 for (t in 1:frames) {
 chunk = y[(1+(t-1)*N):(t*N)] # the frame t of audio data
 Y = fft(chunk*win)
 # Y = fft(chunk)
 spect[t,] = Mod(Y[1:(N/2)])
 # spect[t,] = log(1+Mod(Y[1:(N/2)])/1000) # log(1 + x/1000) transformation just changes contrast
 }
 image(spect,col=grey) # show the image using the color map given by "grey"
}


library(tuneR)
N = 1024
w = readWave("VoxRAW.wav")
y = w@left
full_length = length(y)


bits = 16
i = 1
# this is a vector containing all of the pitch change onsets, in samples
start = c(0,131076,141117,152552,241186,272557,292584,329239,402666,
 459154,474012,491649,697317,786623,804970,824932,900086,924171,
 944914,968743,984086,1082743,1088571,1120457,1132371,1151571,
 1335171,1476343,1614943,1643400,1666886,1995600,2133514,2274429,
 2300571,2325686,3332571,3412114,3437400,3451800,3526457,3540343,
 3569314,3581657,3600943,3610371,3681086,3694800,3745200,3763371,
 3990000,4072371,4091143,4113000,4195286,4216200,4233429,4254000,
 4286743,4380771,4407701,4422086,4443686,4630114,4750886,4768029,
 4906371,4934829,4958914,5286171,5409686,5428714,5565943,5595086,
 5618829,5944543,6068829,6086057,6223714,6250543,6275057)

#this is a vector containing all of the last samples necessary for pitch changes. in samples
end = c(131075,141116,152551,241185,272556,292583,329238,402665,459153,
 474011,491648,697316,786622,804969,824931,900085,924170,944913,
 968742,984085,1082742,1088570,1120456,1132370,1151570,1335170,
 1476342,1614942,1643399,1666885,1995599,2133513,2274428,2300570,
 2325685,3332570,3412113,3437399,3451799,3526456,3540342,3569313,
 3581656,3600942,3610370,3681085,3694799,3745199,3763370,3989999,
 4072370,4091142,4112999,4195285,4216199,4233428,4253999,4286742,
 4380770,4407700,4422085,4443685,4630113,4750885,4768028,4906370,
 4934828,4958913,5286170,5409685,5428713,5565942,5595085,5618828,
 5944542,6068828,6086056,6223713,6250542,6275056, full_length)

#this ratio determines the pitch we hear by manipulating the window size
ratio = c(4.18128465,3.725101135,3.318687826,3.725101135,4.693333333,
 4.972413456,4.693333333,3.132424191,4.18128465,3.725101135,
 3.318687826,3.132424191,4.18128465,3.725101135,3.318687826,
 3.725101135,4.693333333,4.972413456,4.693333333,3.725101135,
 3.318687826,4.18128465,4.18128465,3.725101135,3.318687826,
 3.132424191,4.972413456,5.581345393,3.725101135,4.18128465,
 4.972413456,4.972413456,5.581345393,3.725101135,4.18128465,
 4.972413456,4.18128465,3.725101135,3.318687826,3.725101135,
 4.18128465,4.693333333,4.972413456,4.693333333,3.725101135,
 3.318687826,2.486206728,4.18128465,3.725101135,3.132424191,
 4.18128465,3.725101135,3.318687826,3.725101135,4.693333333,
 4.972413456,4.693333333,3.725101135,3.318687826,4.18128465,
 3.725101135,3.318687826,3.132424191,4.972413456,3.725101135,
 5.581345393,3.725101135,4.18128465,4.972413456,4.972413456,
 3.725101135,5.581345393,3.725101135,4.18128465,4.972413456,
 4.972413456,3.725101135,5.581345393,3.725101135,4.18128465,
 4.972413456)

w = readWave("VoxRAW.wav")
sr = w@samp.rate
y = w@left
ans = 0

for (i in 1:81) {
#the loop steps through each of the 3 above vectors
frame = y[start[i]:end[i]] #take a bit of the wave from start to end

H = N/ratio[i] #make the window this size to change the perceived pitch
Y = stft(frame,H,N)


Y = matrix(complex(modulus = Mod(Y), argument = rep(0,length(Y))),nrow(Y),ncol(Y)) # robotization
ybar = istft(Y,H,N)
ans = c(ans,ybar) #concatinate all of the steps along the way

i = i + 1 #step through the loops
}

ans = (2^14)*ans/max(ans) #do some rounding to make sure it all fits
u = Wave(round(ans), samp.rate = sr, bit=bits) # make wave struct
#writeWave(u, "robotvox.wav") #save the robot version
o = readWave("VoxRAW.wav")
o = o@left
spectrogram(o, 1024) #what does the original recording look like?
r = readWave("robotvox.wav")
r = r@left
spectrogram(r, 1024) #what does the robot version look like?
#play(u) #listen to the robot version

MP3s don’t matter (until they do)

Published   Updated

I’ve written before on some of the differences in MP3s vs WAVs, specifically how MP3s seem to invoke more negativity than WAVs in a blind test. I don’t know about you, but I thought those results were interesting and weird. So, I thought it made sense to kind of zoom out and try and get a bigger picture of this phenomenon.

A logical first step was to ask “Can people even hear the difference between WAVs and MP3s in their day-to-day life? If so, in what circumstances?” As the title implies, people generally can’t tell in most circumstances but once they do, it is a very pronounced shift.

The Experiment

I made an online experiment, asking people to listen to 16 different pairs of song segments and select the one they thought sounded better. There were 4 levels of MP3 compression: 320k, 192k, 128k, and 64k.

‘Why those levels of compression?’ you might be wondering. Amazon and Tidal deliver at 320k, Spotify premium does 192k, YouTube does 128k, and Pandora’s free streaming is 64k.

For each pair, one version of the segment was a WAV and the other was an MP3. (See below for more detail.) I also asked basic demographic information and how they usually listen to music and how they were listening to the experiment. For example, a lot of people use Spotify regularly for music listening on their phones, and a lot of people used their phones to do the experiment. Doing the experiment gave up a lot of control over how and where people listened, but the goal was to capture a realistic listening environment.

The Songs

I selected songs that are generally considered to be good recordings capable of offering a kind of audiophile experience. Also, I tried to choose “brighter” sounding recordings because they are particularly susceptible to MP3 artifacts. The thought behind this was to maximize the chance for identification of sonic differences, because I was doubtful there would be any difference until a very high level of compression.

I also split the songs into eras: Pre and Post MP3. I thought that maybe music production techniques might change to accommodate the MP3 medium, and maybe MP3s would be easier to detect in recordings that were not conceived for the medium.

The Song List by Era

Pre MP3 (pre 1993):

  1. David Bowie – Golden Years (1999 remaster)
  2. NIN – Terrible Lie
  3. Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane
  4. U2 – With Or Without You
  5. Lou Reed – Underneath the Bottle
  6. Lou Reed & John Cale – Style It Takes
  7. Yes – You and I
  8. Pink Floyd – Time

Post MP3:

  1. Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan
  2. Lou Reed – Future Farmers of America
  3. Air – Tropical Disease
  4. David Bowie – Battle for Britain
  5. Squarepusher – Ultravisitor
  6. The Flaming Lips – Race for the Prize
  7. Daft Punk – Giving Life Back to Music
  8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Jesus Alone

The Song List by Compression Level

320k

  1. Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane
  2. Lou Reed – Underneath the Bottle
  3. Squarepusher – Ultravisitor
  4. Daft Punk – Giving Life Back to Music

192k

  1. David Bowie – Golden Years (1999 remaster)
  2. NIN – Terrible Lie
  3. The Flaming Lips – Race for the Prize
  4. Air – Tropical Disease

128k

  1. U2 – With Or Without You
  2. Lou Reed & John Cale – Style It Takes
  3. Buena Vista Social Club – Chan Chan
  4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Jesus Alone

64k

  1. Pink Floyd – Time
  2. Bowie – Battle for Britain
  3. Lou Reed – Future Farmers of America
  4. Yes – You and I

The Participants

I had a total of 17 participants complete the experiment (and 1 more do part of the listening task) and a whole lot of bogus entries by bots…. sigh. Here’s some info on the real humans that did the experiment:

Pie Charts2.png
Note: options with 0 responses are not shown

Pie Charts3.png

Pie Charts4.png
“Which best describes your favorite way to listen to music that you have regular access to?” was the full question. I didn’t want everyone to think back to that one time they heard a really nice stereo!

Pie Charts5.png

Pie Charts6.png

Pie Charts7.png
“This includes informal or self-taught training. Examples of this include – but are not limited to – musicians, audio engineers, and audiophiles.”

 

Unfortunately, the sample size wasn’t big enough to do any interesting statistical analyses with this demographic info, but it’s still informative to help understand who created this data set.

The Results

Participants reliably (meaning, a statistically significant binomial test) selected WAVs as higher fidelity when the MP3s were 64k. Other than that, there was no statistical difference.

OUTPUT.png

OUTPUT1.png

OUTPUT2.png

OUTPUT3.png
11 to 57 in favor of WAV, p <0.001

When I first looked at the Pre/Post MP3 comparison, I was flummoxed. There is a statistical difference in the Post MP3 category… favoring WAVs.

866

That’s pretty counter-intuitive. That would be like finding that people preferred listening to the Beatles on CD instead of vinyl. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would recordings sound worse in the new hip medium that everyone’s using?

They don’t. My categorization was clumsy. So, yes, I selected 8 songs that were recorded after MP3s were invented, but what I didn’t consider is that the MP3 was not a cultural force until about a decade later, and not a force in the music industry until later than that even. So I went back and looked at just the Post MP3 category and split it again. Figuring out when the MP3 because a major force in the recording industry was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to go down, so I used a proxy: Jonathan Sterne, a scholar who looks at recording technology, published an article in 2006 discussing the MP3 as a cultural artifact. And luckily enough, using 2006 ended up being fruitful because of my 8 songs in the Post MP3 category, none were released on or even near 2006. I had 5 released before and 3 released after, and when I analyzed those groups, there was a strong preference for WAV in the older recordings but not in the newest recordings. This suggests that yes, recordings, after a certain date, are generally recorded to sound just as good as MP3s of a certain quality or WAVs. Here’s the analysis:

better-mp31
25 to 60 in favor of WAV, p < 0.001

 

better-mp3

So, to sum up: the debate between WAV and MP3 doesn’t matter in terms of identifying fidelity differences in real world situations for these participants UNTIL the compression levels are extreme. And, recordings designed for CDs and not MP3s sound better on CDs than MP3s, but it doesn’t matter for older recordings. If I had to guess it could be because some of the limitations of the vinyl medium are similar to MP3 (gasp! Heresy!) and so recordings designed for vinyl work kinda well as MP3s, too.

Let’s define music!

Published

Goodness, I have written lots of word about music, but I’m not sure if I have ever thoroughly defined what I mean by “music.” In this post you’ll find my definition, of course, but I want to clarify right up front that this may read to be slightly antagonistic. In a sense it is meant to be, but ultimately it is about how to define music in the context of communication. I’m trying to push boundaries, not hurt feelings.

I don’t claim all of these thoughts as my own, but this may be a unique synthesis of standing ideas. I’ve also touched on some of these ideas in previous posts, but I wanted to put them all together.

Music describes a way of thinking about sound.

Music is a bit like the infamous Supreme Court ruling on pornography: it’s hard to define but when you’re presented with an example, you recognize it immediately. Once you start leaving the very obvious examples, it gets kind of hard to find the boundary between music and regular sound. That’s because music describes a way of thinking about sound, not a specific kind of sound.

I think the most famous example of pushing the boundaries of music in the western world might be John Cage’s 4’33.” A pianist sits down, prepares to play, then does nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Is that music? Well, Cage would certainly say so but the audience in the music hall is split. Some say yes, some say no. Who is right?

I would argue that 4’33” in that example is definitively music, and here is why: the context. In his autobiography, Frank Zappa argued that context is key. He called it “putting a frame around it.” Let’s explore this a bit. The audience in my example above is at a music hall to hear music. A performer sits at an instrument, prepares to play, then plays silence for 4’33”. While it is certainly up to audience members to decide how much they enjoy the performance, they can’t really argue about whether or not music happened because the context clearly articulated that music happened.

Here’s another example: you’re walking in the woods alone, and you come to a clearing to find a pianist sitting at a piano. As you approach, she hops up and says “ah! I just finished my performance of 4’33”! What did you think?” Did you hear music for the last 4 minutes and 33 seconds? I don’t think so. There was no contextual clue to encourage you to think about sounds as music for the previous four and a half minutes. (Unless, of course, you just so happened to be doing it on your own free will, but the odds of that are remote.)

Another way to think about it is the old paradox: don’t think about an elephant. It’s impossible to not think about an elephant when you are given this prompt. Similarly, the people in the music hall are thinking about music and thinking about sound as music. Even if they’re thinking “ugh, this is stupid, this isn’t music,” they are still thinking about sound as music.

Music is communication.

When we hear sound as music, we are interpreting and processing it. Music is inherently more vague in its meaning than language, but there is still meaning. Music has emotional impacts, triggers memories, and causes physiological responses. Language does all of these things, too.

I think a lot of people get hung up on the idea of “music is communication” because music isn’t specific or declarative. I agree wholly that music is non-specific and non-declarative. I can’t play you a tune on a recorder to ask you to get me a beer (I would if I could, though!). And if you ask 10 people to listen to the same song, they’ll each tell you something different when asked what it means.

However, language suffers some of the same faults. Has anyone ever misunderstood you? Or have you ever said something that came out wrong? Of course you have. Language is specific, but the interpretation is difficult. I think music suffers a somewhat similar fate: a composer can intend to convey a scene or a feeling, but different audience members will have different responses.

Also, I’m blogging right now. (Duh.) But why? Well, blogging has a certain set of affordances that other kinds of communication lack. I could say this out loud, but only the other people near my desk would hear me. And once I’ve said it, it’s gone forever. I could write a book, but that means people need to buy it to read my thoughts. I could write a poem, but my prose is terrible. The point is that I’m writing this in blog form because it seems to be the best way for me to share these specific ideas in a way that I want to share them. Music is no different. I can express things that are difficult or impossible to express outside of music.

I think a more complete analysis of the affordances of music would be a swell thing to do, but here’s a short sketch: musical expression has no substitute mode of expression. I can’t accurately tell you about a piece of music, I can only approximate it in words. Information is lost when I talk about it compared to you experiencing it first hand. I think what is lost is the thrill and the emotion. Not only am I sharing words, but I’m sharing my interpretation of it. I’ve taken the experience out of it. It’s like baby food: the nutrition is there, but the experience of texture is lost in the processing.

Music is interesting.

Unlike language, music is inherently interesting. Language is designed to convey specific ideas. The goal is clarity and meeting expectations of normal patterns of communication. Sentences have at least a noun and a verb. Normal communication is utilitarian and functional. Musical communication is impressionistic and fanciful.

Part of the joy of listening to music is the blend of having your expectations met and defied in unexpected but carefully constructed ways. A piece of music establishes or implies a set of rules, but then defies those rules for your enjoyment. For example, a common thing to do in a pop song is to modulate up part of the way through the song. This defies expectations because the song has clearly established itself to exist in a given key, but then everything suddenly shifts upwards. The foundation the song was built on just got pushed upward a little bit. It’s startling, but it can be pleasant when done artfully. Another example is establishing a phrase (a pattern) by repeating the structure, but then unexpectedly stopping the pattern short. Again, this can be quite exhilarating and pleasant when done carefully. Imagine that happening in a conversation, though. Someone is talking to you and they just stop right in the

… Language doesn’t work that way, does it? Language is meant to inform and music is meant to challenge and entertain you, in a broad sense. Attempts to describe music in terms of musical forces (like physical forces) sometimes stumble because music does unexpected things. A thrown ball will always obey physical forces. In that sense, it is uninteresting. Music, however, will only sometimes obey musical forces and that’s part of the point.

Music is important.

Music is a means of expression for both performers and listeners. It is therapeutic. Music helps build identity both for individuals and groups. These are concrete, real psychological benefits. Music helps us survive, and it helps shape societies.

And now, I think a brief explanation of what music is not would be useful.

Sheet music is a lie.

Sheet music is not music nor is it an accurate representation of music. It is a shorthand expression and a necessary means to preserve musical ideas in the era before recording audio was possible. It is a useful guide for memorization and performance. Systems that explicitly or implicitly rely on sheet music as if it is real music are faulty.  Sheet music captures onsets and durations in an abstract and imperfect way, and make little to no attempt to capture feeling.

Schenkerian analysis is a way to analyze music, but it is not the way.

Schenkerian analysis is a useful tool to analyze music of a certain type when asking certain questions. However, since it is by far the dominant (heh) method of musical analysis, it is often applied to situations where it is not relevant or meaningful. Schenkerian analysis also presumes that sheet music is an accurate representation of music. Schenkerian analysis is performed on sheet music, not actual music. It is also produces a tautological result: each piece of music can be reduced to simpler and simpler versions, eventually ending in a descending pattern of notes. On the surface, this is a stunning revelation about how music works but the problem is that Schenkerian analysis demands this outcome.

When studying the psychological implications of music, it is important to ask questions about the music that most people actually experience.

Remember, music is a phenomenon that exists in the mind. It then follows that it is important to study the kinds of music found in most minds. And I think it’s safe to say that Schubert isn’t it. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and dig into the music of the now.

Music perception and cognition research largely limits itself to SERIOUS CLASSICAL MUSIC and maybe jazz when feeling cheeky. This is a problem! And please don’t think I’m knocking serious classical music or jazz, or the study of this music. It’s very important and relevant and I am grateful that people do it because both of the forms of music profoundly influence our current popular music.

What I am advocating is that music be studied in such a way that is more related to how most people experience music. Artificiality is a challenge in any line of research, but this stumbling block seems easy enough to avoid. The barriers to studying popular music are institutional elitism, not practical issues.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this or at the very least found it provocative. I know it helped me a lot to codify all of these thoughts in one place, so I thank you for the indulgence.

Beauty and the Beast: is there any difference between listening to MP3 vs CD quality?

Published

TL;DR: yes. But come on! There’s a bunch of graphs and some lame jokes if you actually read the post.

Preface

As I sit here at my desk, I am surrounded by audio equipment and CDs. Spotify is open right now (streaming quality set to “Extreme,” thank you very much). My favorite pair of headphones are within arm’s reach. My studio monitors are effortlessly reproducing a lovely Terry Riley piece. Clearly, I am spoiled. But wait, let’s rewind a moment: I’ve got a stack of CD’s next to me, but I’m streaming compressed audio when I could be enjoying clean, uncompressed audio from my CDs? Why would I do that? (I also have a record player and a few choice vinyls, but it’s an obviously inferior format to CD so it’s not part of the comparison.)

I do it because it’s convenient. And there’s a massive amount of diversity on Spotify that simply isn’t legally accessible to me given my grad student budget. And I’m not alone: a whole heck of a lot of people in the US use streaming services. But all of them, save one, stream in what’s called lossy formats. In fact, other than listening to a CD or vinyl, the music you listen to is probably in a lossy format. It means the previously uncompressed and pristine digital audio of a CD is reduced not just in file size, but in information it contains.WAVs, by comparison, are lossless. It’s kind of bonkers to think, but MP3s and other lossy formats throw away a LOT of sound. That’s partially why they’re so small. The goal, of course, is to only throw away things you can’t hear.

It might sound kind of like science fiction (or the fantasy of scared parents of metal fans): unheard sounds in recordings? It’s true, though. In fact, our cognitive systems are really excellent at filtering out unwanted noise. It’s called the cocktail party effect. So why not automate the process and only save the parts that we hear anyway? It might not be that simple. I, along with a classmate and our advisor, decided to test if there was a difference in the subjective enjoyment of music listening between WAVs and MP3s.

The Experiment

We selected eight songs: four recorded before MP3s were even a glimmer in the Fraunhofer Institute’s eye, and four very recent songs. We did this because there’s an idea floating around in audio engineering and audiophile circles that, for example, the Beatles sound better on vinyl than CD because the albums were recorded for the idiosyncrasies of vinyl in mind. The easiest way to control for this was to have two “early” songs and two “recent” songs as MP3 and another set of two and two as WAVs.

The Song List

  • Aretha Franklin – RESPECT
  • Michael Jackson – Thriller *
  • The Eagles – Hotel California
  • The Beatles – Help! *
  • Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe
  • Sia – Chandelier *
  • Rihanna – We Found Love
  • Daft Punk – Get Lucky *

* = MP3, 128k, LAME encoder

Note: the oldest available CD mastering was used for the pre-MP3 songs to eliminate / reduce the chance that some modern mastering techniques would be used to make it more MP3 friendly. For example, “Hotel California” was sourced from the original CD release in 1989.

We had people come in, put on headphones we provide them with, and listen to all 8 songs presented to each person in a random order. After each song, they would rate how positive it made them feel, how negative it made them feel, and how much they enjoyed it. The reason we asked positive and negative separately is because we conceptualize those feelings as representing activations of appetitive or aversive systems, respectively. They can activate separately or they can activate together.

Keep in mind, we told the participants nothing about the sound quality, MP3s or WAVs. As far as they knew, they just had to listen to 8 songs and respond to those 3 questions for each.

Results

I instigated this experiment because I didn’t think there would be a difference. We ended up hypothesizing that there would be a difference between the formats, such that people would like WAVs more. But to be honest I was skeptical, even if I had a theory-driven rationalization as to why I thought it would come out this way. (More on that later.) I thought people might even prefer MP3s since our participants are young and have probably been listening to MP3s their whole lives, give or take.

H1 figure.png
F(1, 17) = 2.162, p = 0.16

The graph above shows the mean positivity results by Format. It’s not statistically significant, but it is in the direction we predicted. Admittedly, this one result alone isn’t convincing. But wait — there’s more!

H2 figure.png
F(1, 17) = 5.224, p < 0.05

And this is a prime example of why we split out positivity and negativity into two measurements: the negative scores are significant, and support our hypothesis that people would like MP3s less.

H3 figure.png
F(1, 17) = 1.7, = 0.21

Again, not statistically significant findings here but the data are trending in the direction we predicted.

RQ1 figure.png
F(1,17) = 5.285, p < 0.05

And here’s the kicker: people rated early era songs as MP3s more negatively than anything else. And this finding is statistically significant.

Discussion

So what gives? Well, it could be as simple as our participants just hated “Thriller” and “Help!” as songs. But more than they hated The Eagles‘ “Hotel California?” I sincerely doubt it. But it is possible, I’ll admit that openly.

Here’s what I think went on, though: remember how I said that MP3s strip out a lot of information, most of which you can’t hear anyway? I bet that process is flawed. It clearly works very well, but I bet that it is imperfect and listening to MP3s is actually MORE work for your brain than uncompressed audio (like WAVs). Our minds are very lazy and, under most circumstances, seek the path of least resistance when hit with a task. If MP3s tax the cognitive systems more than WAVs because we need to actively fill in some of the missing gaps or work harder to do our usual filtering, then it seems logical that we would rate the experience more negatively.

Moving Forward

This study isn’t perfect. I would prefer to have run it with a counterbalanced design where some participants heard Song A as MP3 and others heard Song A as a WAV. That would help remove unwanted effects of the song itself. That, and while I have some ideas as to why these results came about, this experiment doesn’t prove or even directly support my ideas. I need more information before I can put that claim forward more strongly.

The good news is that we have a lot more research in the pipeline regarding audio compression and how it impacts the listening experience.

What does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

Published

This semester, I took a class where we spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be an interdisciplinary scholar. The class was kind of a mess. We talked about being interdisciplinary all semester, but never got anywhere. In fact, on the last day of class we collectively realized that we still did not have a working definition of interdisciplinary research, let alone a definition of science or the humanities.

So, in an effort to construct some value from this class, I’m going to write my thoughts down – with definitions – and go from there.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I am a scientist. Depending on the day or my mood, if pressed harder I’d tell you I’m either a psychologist or a cognitive scientist. Frankly the distinction is pretty vague from my vantage point. But what does it mean to do science or to be a scientist? What are the underlying assumptions? What do I even do?

One thing I was surprised to learn early in grad school is there is no clear definition of science. As an outsider, I was confounded. All I really knew about science leading up to that point was The Scientific Method, skepticism, and an attempt to explain reality through observation. When you don’t think about it too hard, that seems to paint a pretty clear picture science. Closer inspection, however, shows that this definition is incomplete. More than incomplete, there is disagreement about what science is! So, I’ll share with you where I’m coming from.

There are three primary texts from which I draw my current understanding of science: Susan Haack’s Defending Science – within reason, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and Alfred Crosby’s The Measure of Reality. (I have Annie Lang to thank for introducing me to all three.)

My main take-away from Crosby is that societal constructs that work under the surface can greatly impact our understanding of the world. Crosby calls this our mentalité. Mentalité is so insidiously subtle that attempting to define your own mentalités are exceedingly difficult. So, I’ll use one of Crosby’s examples to illustrate something seemingly bizarre by our standards: time.

In Ye Olde Days, prior to the prevalence of clocks, people viewed time as fluid and vague. Think about it. Information could only travel distances as fast as the fastest horse. News from far away would be difficult to collect and analyze in a specific order for people living now. But for people living then, it wasn’t really a concern because that’s just how things worked. Time was inconsistent and relative.

I can’t wrap my brain around that. I can read about it, I can think about it, but I can’t empathize with it. I can’t try it on and think like that. Crosby argues that I can’t do it because the people in this example have a different mentalité about time. Mentalités are not hard wired from birth, but they’re learned implicitly and are constantly reinforced. Undoing that kind of statistical learning would take immense work.

What all of this says to me personally is that humans are incapable of being objective, and also incapable of being aware of their blind spots caused by mentalités. Mentalités even help dictate what kinds of questions are asked and how they are answered. Powerful stuff.

Kuhn’s work on the history of science is profound and highly contentious, even some 55 years after it was first published. Kuhn says, in short, that everything you learned about the history of science was wrong. In grade school, I was taught the history of atomic theory. The story starts in Greece (and India!) in philosophy. Then Dalton with the first measures of atomic weights in the 18th century. Later there was Avogadro and Bohr and so forth.

Kuhn says that’s all crap. Bohr has nothing to do with Ancient Greece. Kuhn argues that scientific knowledge isn’t cumulative. Instead, it is destructive. Kuhn talks about paradigms as a way to describe eras of scientific knowledge. Ancient Greece and India may have been talking about similar things to Bohr, but Bohr’s knowledge does not come from them. Let me use another example: Newtonian physics.

Physics is a staple of the high school curriculum. I remember my Physics teacher, Mr. Pettit, explaining early in the class that we would be learning Newtonian physics but we should keep in mind that Newtonian physics is wrong. (Of course, it’s still useful in day-to-day life and that’s why it’s taught!) Einstein didn’t build on Newton: he blew it up. Einsteinian physics is fundamentally incompatible with Newtonian physics. Countless minds kept poking at Newtonian physics and finding flaws. Efforts were made to patch these flaws, but it was clear this was a sinking ship long before Einstein. The problem was, no one had a better answer until then.

This old notion of cumulative knowledge of science commonly uses a metaphor of building a house, but Kuhn says this is flawed. If Newton built the foundation with round pegs and round holes, Einstein’s first floor using square pegs and square holes won’t work. Also, this metaphor of house building suggests that there is a clear goal. But is that reasonable? If so, what is that goal? Is the goal to know everything? I doubt even the most hard-nosed objectivist would ever assert that humans as a species could ever actually know everything. If, instead, the goal is to better explain reality than previously possible, there is a direction, but there isn’t a goal.

And remember Crosby? As mentalités shift, so do the kinds of questions we ask. Mentalités provide implicit structure to science, and paradigms are the next layer. They’re much more explicit, but they too provide structure. Anyone could go out and study alchemy, but the field isn’t exactly thriving anymore. The prevailing paradigm does not include Alchemy.

Finally, my favorite: Haack. I want to someday give Haack the full attention she deserves, so I’ll be brief here. Haack attempts to contextualize science in society. She synthesizes Crosby and Kuhn, and puts them into the current social and political landscape. In short, Haack says that science can do a lot of things, but because we are imperfect human beings, we need to stay skeptical. Science is not fact. Science does not “prove” anything. But science is the best we’ve got and it’s incredibly powerful. Good science acknowledges and limits subjectivity, but it never claims to eliminate it.

Whew! So there you have it: a primer on my epistemology and ontology. And I basically co-opt Haack’s definition of science wholly.

Don’t worry. My definition of the humanities will be much more brief (and probably cringe-inducing to those that know better than I do). All I know about the humanities is conjecture. I spent some time as a member of a digital humanities scholar group – how I got in is unclear to me – and I am learning from my humanities classmates in the new Media School at IU.

Subjectivity and interpretation seem to be at the core of the humanities scholarship I’ve been exposed to. There is no attempt to answer questions directly but instead craft compelling arguments. I have to assume this means the humanities assume there is no objective reality and everything is relative. The story or argument is the answer itself.

And so now the question: what does it mean to be interdisciplinary?

My view of science argues that there is an objective reality and we can interact with and measure it. We probably get it wrong some/most/all of the time, but through empirical evidence and rigor, we can at least demonstrate our findings and produce things that reliably work. I am typing this on a computer, after all. Clearly, scientific knowledge can at least be functional.

My understanding of humanities says that there is no objective reality and everything is relative. Answers are not interesting, but the arguments that precede them are. I think humanities scholars may disagree with this, but if everything is relative then I don’t see how answers actually matter.

Before I can attempt to reconcile these two fields, I need to first define what it means to be interdisciplinary. In the class I was talking about at the beginning of this post, we read a profoundly awful book about interdisciplinary research. It was Really Egregiously and Profoundly Knavish and Oafish. I won’t name it, but maybe you can figure out what I’m talking about. The book didn’t really put in the effort to define interdisciplinary research. So I’ll try.

“Inter” is a prefix that means between. So interdisciplinary research can first and foremost be thought of “between disciplines.” So what is a discipline? I’ll use some shorthand and say that the classic institutional departments more or less align with disciplines: English, Physics, Psychology, etc.

Interdisciplinary research is when a scholar or scholars produce a work that synthesizes two or more disciplines into one example of research in such a way that elements from the two disciplines are intertwined and impossible to separate without rendering the research fundamentally broken.

In other words, a large report on the impacts of shortages on rainfall that has sections dedicated to ecology, sociology, and chemistry is not interdisciplinary. It is multidisciplinary. The section of sociology could be dropped without fundamentally breaking the other sections. Of course, the scope of the research would be narrower, but it would still “work.”

To me, interdisciplinary research is rare and often game-changing. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid comes to mind. Hofstadter brought together comparative literature, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and mathematics in such a way that they could not be disentangled. I don’t think it is incidental that this book is also one of the founding texts of Cognitive Science. Interdisciplinary research makes something fundamentally new from old parts.

I do think there are varying levels of analysis, though. For example, the Media School at IU is interdisciplinary. It combines vastly different scholars that all study media in radically different ways. The Media School wouldn’t be the Media School if one kind of scholar was removed from the mix. It would be fundamentally changed.

However, as a scholar in the Media School, I do not see myself as interdisciplinary. Sure, I seek sources of outside inspiration like any other inquisitive mind but at the end of the day, I’m doing Psychology. I might borrow from Music, but I twist it around and mold it to fit into Psychology.

It would also be possible for me to contribute psychology research to a larger work that another scholar synthesizes with another discipline in such a way that it becomes an interdisciplinary work. But I still didn’t do the heavy lifting.

To purposefully understate it: interdisciplinary work is very hard and very rare. Let it come to you. Don’t force it.

In the preface to GEB, Hofstadter talks about feeling like he had a question that couldn’t be answered within any one discipline. So he set aside all of those boundaries and struck out on his own. I can’t fathom the risk he took. I would be willing to bet that for every GEB, there’s thousands of malformed monstrosities and failed experiments out there.

There is a lot of pressure  to be (and in turn, evaluative sentiments about) interdisciplinary, as if it’s a desirable goal. And sure! I’d love to achieve a truly interdisciplinary work. But I don’t feel like I have an itching urge like Hofstadter. At least not yet. I also don’t feel like I know enough about my own discipline to feel constrained. This is probably because I exist in two interdisciplines: Media and Cognitive Science. The disciplines are defined by their object of study and not much else. There is little, if anything, that is out of bounds. To be interdisciplinary, I think you need to fight your way out of your box. I haven’t found the walls of my boxes yet, and I’m not sure I ever will.

So what does this all mean? Attempting to be interdisciplinary is a waste of time and effort. It’s also disingenuous scholarship. Instead, seek to answer questions you have in whatever way you think best serves the question.

Thanks for reading.