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Recommendations for September 24, 2012

I will start this week with two items about people making music by “reading” objects or matter around them.
Article/Music: “Music from tiny particles’ movements set to debut” Text by Jason Palmer; Music by Mark Fell
This is a news story about a piece about to debut that was made by using al algorithm to assign musical characteristics to the Brownian motion of particles in suspension— specifically, pitch to velocity and timbre to angle of motion. It is not very “musical” in any usual sense of that word, but it does seem to me to somehow evoke the phenomena that it describes in an interesting way. It also makes me think of the experiments of John Cage, the centennial of whose birth has just passed, with chance in musical composition; here is a situation where the sonic possibilities are, potentially anyway, far more numerous, and also where the “composer” has essentially no control at all over what comes out, once he/she has written the algorithm. 
Video: “An Instrument for the Sonification of Everyday Things” by Dennis P. Paul
This shows a somewhat similar kind of musical experiment, with very different results. An optical laser scans 3-dimensional objects and translates their shapes into sound. The real difference comes in the the way that Dennis P. Paul has, apparently, limited the pitches to stay within a particular key, and, more importantly, controlled the rhythm by controlling the speed of the object’s rotation (and then adding percussion). Also, the fact that the pattern repeats as long as the object and the laser’s position remain the same imposes a pattern on the result, which makes it conform much better to our expectations about music. 
I think there is something interesting in the contrast between these two, perhaps having to do with the role of constraints in creative work.
Article: “L.A.’s Transit Revolution” by Matthew Yglesias
A relatively short piece about how, despite its reputation as a city doomed to poor public transit through decades of car-centric urban planning and the dominance of certain corporate interests, Los Angeles has actually dramatically improved its mass transit systems in the last ten years or so, and is continuing to do so. This article pleases me both because I am happy that LA is, in fact, doing something about the transit situation, and also because I think LA is probably the most misunderstood, misrepresented city in the country— so anything that helps to undermine the stereotypes that are so pervasive strikes me as a good thing.
Article: “Feathered Dinosaurs Drive Creationists Crazy” by Brian Switek
This is a piece about biblical literalists/”fundamentalists” and their attempts to, most recently, deny the possibility that dinosaurs evolved into birds; really, of course, what they want to do is deny that dinosaurs evolved into anything. This of course forces them into all kinds of contradictions, both internal to their theories and between those theories and the geological facts that are available to us. Switek is correct to call them out for this. 
The literalists Switek describes are wrong in their interpretation of scientific facts, but they also don’t understand how science works in general; this is a much deeper problem, and one that extends well beyond the fundamentalist community. When they suggest that, because there are paleontologists who dispute the theory that dinosaurs evolved into birds, the whole theory of evolution is called into question, they are assuming that scientific theories provide absolute certainty, and that, in fact, calling something “science” is to say that it is absolutely certain. Therefore any whiff of uncertainty undermines the claim to the status of “science.” In other words, if there are any problems or uncertainties whatsoever in the explanation of how evolution proceeded in a particular case, then the whole theory is at best suspect. It’s all or nothing. (This is why they can use the work of paleontologists who, as Switek makes clear, “are fully on-board with the concept of evolution” to undermine that theory: it doesn’t matter if that’s what these scientists intend to say— by calling into question the details of this particular part of the story, they have unwittingly exposed the unsoundness of the whole theory). This, of course, is fundamentally at odds with the process by which scientific theories are developed, which is all about the specifics, the detailed and nuanced relationships between facts. (Unfortunately, Switek does not help matters by describing these paleontologists as “misguided”; they might nor might not be wrong, but, at least as far as we can tell from this article, they are simply following the rules of scientific research and developing different interpretations of the evidence).
However, Switek also makes the same fundamental mistake as those he is criticizing: he assumes that religious faith should be subject to the same rules of evidence as science is, and that because of this since and faith must somehow be reconciled; and he at least implies that because some aspects of the book of Genesis do not seem to fit the facts, there is something wrong with belief in those stories in any sense. (He may not, in fairness, mean to say this, but I don’t think I am being to unfair in reading the tone of this piece as dismissive of religious faith in general). Switek suggests that

Some people fervently believe that Noah had to figure out how to keep Carnotaurus from eating all the other captive animals on board the ark, not to mention what to do with the prodigious piles of Apatosaurus dung.

Do they? I am not sure that any significant number of people (outside of the lunatic fringe that Switek is directly addressing) believe that, or frankly have even thought about it in those terms— and they shouldn’t, because to do so is to utterly misunderstand the point of the story of Noah and the Ark. To subject this story to these kinds of logistical questions is to assume that the practicalities are important, when they are not; to attempt to argue that yes, in fact, Noah did manage all of these difficulties in some way is to make the same mistake. Both sides in this debate are trying to turn a screw by hitting it with a hammer.
It seems to me that both sides in this debate—when presented in this way— do a disservice to both science and religious faith.

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