Natural Magic: On Weird Beliefs As Overfitting

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Data with different levels of noise: if the ground truth is at the center of the target, real-world data will typically not exactly match it.

The world is a noisy place. No, I don’t mean the racket the neighbor’s kids are making in the back yard. Rather, I mean that, whatever you encounter in the world, probably isn’t exactly what’s actually there.

Let me explain. Suppose you’re fixing yourself a nice cocktail to enjoy on the porch in the sun (if those kids ever quiet down, that is). The recipe calls for 50 ml of vodka. You’re probably not going to measure out the exact amount drop by drop with a volumetric pipette; rather, maybe you use a measuring cup, or if you’ve got some experience (or this isn’t your first), you might just eyeball it.

But this will introduce unavoidable variations: you might pour a dash too much, or too little. Each such variation means that this particular Moscow Mule differs from the one before, and the one after—each is a slight variation on the ‘Moscow Mule’-theme. Recognizably the same, yet slightly different.

This difference is what is meant by ‘noise’: statistical variations in the measured value of a quantity due to inescapable limits to precision. For most everyday cases, noise matters comparatively little; but if you overshoot too much, your Mule might pack more kick than intended, and either just taste worse, or even make you yell at those pesky kids for harshing your mellow.

Thus, noise can have real-world consequences. Moreover, virtually everything is noisy: not just simple estimations of measurable quantities, like volumes, sizes, or time spans, but also less easily quantifiable items, like decisions or judgments. The latter is the topic of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, the new book by economy Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, together with legal scholar Cass Sunstein and strategy expert Olivier Sibony. The book contains many striking examples of how noisy judgment leads to wide variance in fields like criminal sentencing, college admissions, or job recruitment. Thus, whether you get the job or go to jail might come down to little more than random variation, in extreme cases.

But noise has another effect that, I want to argue, can shed some light on why so many people seem to hold weird beliefs: it can make the correct explanation seem ill-suited to the evidence, and thus, favor an incorrect one that appears to fit better. Let’s look at a simple example. Read more »

Joanna Demers, “Listening Through The Noise”

by Dave Maier

Joanna Demers – Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010)

DemersWhen I tried, in 1981, to interest my undergraduate music professors in progressive electronic music, they didn't get it: anything with notes was “harmonically simple” (“it hess to do with analeetical levelss”, explained one prof), and anything without notes left them completely at sea. Apparently “musicology” meant the theory, not of music generally, but of Western classical music in particular. For anything else you want “ethnomusicology”, which turned out to be basically a subset of anthropology, dominated by scrupulously objective descriptions of Javanese gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, and so on (worthy music all, but not what I was talking about).

I guess that's not too surprising. If you are trained from the age of five to think about music solely in terms of melody and harmony, or at least pitch and duration, then you should be equally flummoxed both by music which lacks these things entirely, and – perhaps even more – by that which subordinates them to other things, like sound texture and spatial location. So I have not been expecting much analytic help from musicological quarters. However, I am pleased to report that Joanna Demers's recent book displays an amazing degree of familiarity – for an academic musicologist at any rate – with the full range of contemporary electronic music and sound art.

Listening Through the Noise is not a work of criticism, but of aesthetic theory, and the discussion is a bit abstract at times, perhaps in order to avoid drowning the reader in technical detail. However, as appropriate to the subject as this abstraction is, Demers renders her subject approachable through the analysis of a wide-ranging array of examples, and her writing is clear and accessible. This is partly because she is laying the groundwork for future elaboration rather than making a definitive statement, but as a level-headed introduction to this difficult topic, this book is hard to beat.

Yet I think we're still talking about baby steps. Impressed as I was to see approving references in an academic book to the likes of Celer, Basic Channel, and Tetsu Inoue, a quick look at the discography and index reveals huge, gaping holes. Some are excused by the focus on aesthetic theory rather than history or criticism, but to see what progress has actually been made here, we need to take a closer look.

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That’s not music – that’s just noise!

by Dave Maier

Masonna2Noise music – if that's even what you want to call it – is pretty hard to defend in polite company. Most of the guys who make it are demonstrably weird if not downright insane, and of course it sounds like the cat got its tail caught in a blender. Who wants to listen to that? All it's good for, seemingly, is to piss people off, and/or to show how edgy and cool you are. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that in defending noise music, critics point to just these things. But are they right to do so?

Here's one way this defense might go. One critic, Nick Smith, appeals to Theodor Adorno’s views here, which looks funny at first, as Adorno is famously all about the high art, as pointedly opposed to anti-artistic hipster trendiness. But let's let Smith explain this paradox to us, and then see what we think.

Adorno[Deep breath.] According to Adorno, language, art, and philosophy are all manifestations of underlying sociocultural phenomena. Everything Adorno deplores – the economic inequality and social oppression which he sees as the inevitable result of capitalist economies based on the principle of abstract exchange-value – can thus be diagnosed in the analogous ills afflicting the corresponding spheres of culture, including philosophy itself. The engine of capitalist culture is instrumental rationality, which abstracts from individual things and persons for the purposes of economic and social efficiency. To preserve the principle of exchange-value, thought denies individual uniqueness, and at the same time, defines knowledge according to the concepts which thus deny it, allowing knowledge to be put to work for socioeconomic purposes. This self-deluded “identity thinking,” put into the service of instrumental rationality by the very structure of our thought, prevents philosophy from self-reflectively diagnosing its own illness. In pursuing rationality and “objectivity” for its own sake, it simply repeats its mistake in the process of attempting to correct it, if it even gets as far as the attempt.

That sounds bad; but it gets worse.

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Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean

by Daniel Rourke

This paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck Uni/London Consortium Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011

Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed they “could not afford to pay the fines on.”

In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work

On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze.

In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars.

“No one can win against kipple,”

Dick wrote:

“It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.”

In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple.

Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. A consequence of the lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it.

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