April Fool







Virtual Reality

180402_r31788“I need you to think of a personal problem that is causing a bit of distress in your life,” Neyret said, while I went through a few embodiment exercises. “You will explain the problem to Freud. Then, when you finish speaking, you will press this button”—she guided my hand to a controller—“and you will enter Freud’s body. Listen carefully to yourself, and try to give yourself some advice.”

The virtual world shifted. I was sitting at a desk in an expansive, glass-walled house. Outside, wildflowers punctuated a sunlit lawn. Across from me, behind his own desk, sat Sigmund Freud. There was a large red light on my desk. It turned green.

I paused, uncertain how to begin. “My mother is in a nursing home, and when I get updates from people who visit her I feel guilty,” I said.

I pushed the button, and the world shifted again. Now I was Freud. I looked down at myself—white shirt, gray suit—and, in a nearby mirror, inspected my beard. Across from me, behind a desk, sat my avatar, wearing a blue shirt, gray jeans, and brown boots. He opened his mouth, then closed it. He settled his hands in his lap and looked at them.

“My mother is in a nursing home, and when I get updates from people who visit her I feel guilty,” he said, in my voice.

Watching him, I felt fascination, curiosity, and pity. Was that me? He seemed like another person—a stranger. “Why do you feel guilty?” I asked, as Freud.

I pushed the button. Now I was sitting across the desk from Freud. I watched as he watched me, cocking his head. “Why do you feel guilty?” he asked. His voice was strange—older and lower than mine.

“Because I live far away,” I said, as me.

I pushed the button.

“Why do you live far away?” I asked, as Freud. “Is there a good reason?”

Soon, I fell into a rhythm. Freud and I talked for about twenty minutes. He was insightful; he said things that I’d never said to myself, in ordinary life. When I took off the headset, I was moved. I wanted to tell myself, “Good talk.” From his perspective, I’d seemed different: sadder, more ordinary and comprehensible. I told myself to remember that version of me.

“I didn’t feel like I was talking to myself,” I said. “It felt like a real conversation. How can that be?”

“Maybe we can have many selves,” Slater said, raising an eyebrow.

— Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker

Evidence that Nonviolence Works

The data are clear: When people come together in acts of civil non-violence, governments are forced to change. This is true in dictatorships as well as democracies. 3.5% is enough. Every time 3.5% of a population has joined a non-violent protest movement, a government has fallen. (Sometimes they have been successful with even smaller numbers.) That’s just 12 million Americans. Those people are already in our camp, already taking action. All we need is coordination.Nonviolent movements have been twice as successful as violent wars over 100 years.

Comparison of Violent and Nonviolent Movements, 1900-2006
(Image by Erica Chenoweth)
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We know that violence is wrong, but we fear that nonviolence will always be squashed by those who are more ruthless. Chenoweth has demonstrated that, historically, this fear is groundless.

Erica Chenoweth at TEDx Boulder.
David Swanson destroys war in 2 minutes


Music — What Makes us Want to Listen?

If music is governed completely by logic, it becomes predictable, and our ears soon realize there’s no reason to continue paying attention.

If music unfolds with no pattern at all, our ears can’t make sense of it, and quickly tune out, dismissing it as noise.

So, it would seem that the musical ideal is a golden mean between these two extremes: a mixture of logical progression and surprise.  Set up expectations, then keep you on your toes.  Certainly, what can be considered a “logical progression” varies with the acuity of the listener’s ear and with the range of his previous listening experience.   I know there are subtleties in the performance of a sitar raga that are beyond my discernment, and in Western classical music, I know there are people who can follow harmonic complexities that leave my ear in the dust.  In this way, our differences in musical taste can be accounted for by our listening history and by the refinement of our innate sensitivities to sound.

All this is much more culture-bound than we might at first realize.  Bizet’s Carmen was rejected by its first audiences as obscene.  The late quartets of Beethoven were deemed unintelligible.  And the debut of Stranvinsky’s Sacre prompted Paris concert-goers to demand an apology and return of their ticket price.  Many millions of people today are in possession of ears that can relish this music without a stretch.

Hence there is a temptation for the greatest musicians of any age to compose for the century to come, to risk irrelevance in their own lifetimes by reaching beyond the standard of sophistication and complexity that their contemporaries can appreciate.  There is a nobility and courage in this exercise, and without it, perhaps music would not be able to develop and grow through history.  There’s always the motive to make music simple, repetitive, and appealing to the commonest ear of the day.  $$$.  At the other end, there’s the challenge of composing in a way that won’t become stale or boring when we listen 100 times, but will reveal new subtleties to us each and every time we return to it.  Rare geniuses have managed to create music that is appealing both on its first and its 100th exposure.

Hence we come to Pierre Boulez, whose 93rd birthday would have been today.  Boulez was consciously reaching into tomorrow, both with his conducting and his composition.  He was determined to create music that would be relished on its 100th listening, and less concerned with motivating us to get through the first 99.  Some say you have to analyze it with your left brain before your right brain can take it in as music.

Listen to Notations — a piece relatively accessible and (I find, at times) beautiful.



La création n’existe que dans l’imprévu rendu nécessaire.
Creation exists only in the unforeseen made necessary.

— Pierre Boulez, born this day in 1925.


When Socialism was Respectable

Before the Robber Barons pulled together and figured out that socialism was a threat to their dominance, before there was a full-court press to discredit socialism by any means possible and deceive the workingman into thinking it was not in his interest…

there were a handful of privileged idealists who saw beyond a selfish desire to maximize wealth and power for their own class.

What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain­slack brain workers, nor heart­sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realisation at last of the meaning of the word commonwealth.

— William Morris, born this day in 1834, wrote poetry and fantasy novels, designed textiles, philosophized and founded the Socialist League to bring Marxism to industrial Britain

Six-inch mummy

Nearly two decades ago, the rumors began: In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, someone had discovered a tiny mummified alien.

An amateur collector exploring a ghost town was said to have come across a white cloth in a leather pouch. Unwrapping it, he found a six-inch-long skeleton.

Despite its size, the skeleton was remarkably complete. It even had hardened teeth. And yet there were striking anomalies: it had ten ribs instead of the usual 12, giant eye sockets and a long skull that ended in a point.

Ata, as the remains came to be known, ended up in a private collection, but the rumors continued, fueled in part by a U.F.O. documentary in 2013 that featured the skeleton. On Thursday, a team of scientists presented a very different explanation for Ata — one without aliens, but intriguing in its own way.

Ata’s bones contain DNA that not only shows she was human, but that she belonged to the local population. What’s more, the researchers identified in her DNA a group of mutations in genes related to bone development.   — NYTimes article

The body was mummified just a few decades ago.  Most skin is still there.  Internal organs are identifiable.

This is a unique specimen, of unique interest.  I’m sure there are dozens of labs around the world that would leap at the opportunity to study it.  But one lab at Stanford has held onto this specimen for 5 years before publishing anything or even issuing a press release.

What I find suspicious is that the explanation they have put forward is the most conventional, and that it is taken as “Science has spoken!”  There is only one explanation, and it is fantastically improbable, but it has been selected for us from among many other fantastically improbable explanations.  Science Daily tells exactly the same story as NYTimes.

Sanchita Bhattacharya, a researcher in Dr. Butte’s lab, searched for mutations in Ata’s DNA and identified 2.7 million variants throughout the genome. She whittled this list to 54 rare mutations that could potentially shut down the gene in which they were located.

Here’s the journal article.  Their analysis begins with the assumption that the specimen is human, and doesn’t consider other possibilities.  Their conclusion involves a co-occurrence of many rare mutations.   They attribute the large amount of DNA that doesn’t match human to DNA damage that has occurred in the mummy.  But full genomes have been extracted from much older samples than this one.  Damage can be differentiated from genome variation because damage is different from one cell to the next, whereas variation is consistent.

My  hope is that this is the beginning of an open-ended scientific discussion, and that many labs around the world have a chance to do their own analysis.