Whiplash & Nightcrawler

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I’m not sure whether I liked Whiplash so much because it managed to accurately portray the musicality and ambience of big-band jazz (a unique accomplishment, I believe), or because J. K. Simmon’s performance as the “conductor” was so deliciously over the top (imagine Kubrick’s abusive drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket times 10), but I do heartily recommend it, particularly to jazz and classical musicians. Yes, there are some scenes that could have been toned down a bit, and not all of the acting and writing is equally strong, but I’ll be very surprised if Simmons doesn’t win a few awards for his performance. Justin Hurwitz also deserves more-than-honorable mention for the music (not to mention the players who made it happen). Here’s the trailer, which makes the film look much tamer than it is-

The other similarly low-budget but high-quality film currently in theaters is Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Gyllenhaal has been getting much of the hype for this one, and his portrayal of a man (alien being?) with a “business plan” is impressive: highly controlled, consistently tense, and definitely disturbing. But for my money, the performance to watch here is Russo’s. Her subtle reactions to Gyllenhaal’s bizarre presence are shockingly effective; if she doesn’t win at least a nomination for best supporting actress, there is no justice. Watch the trailer on Vimeo-

R.I.P., Jack Bruce

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Photo of Jack Bruce,  2006Photo by Christian Sahm (2006); used under the Creative Commons license.

Of all the rock “icons” whose talents peaked in the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Jack Bruce – bass player, songwriter, and remarkably polished vocalist – is probably one of the more under-appreciated. He certainly contributed more than one-third to the sound of Cream, the band he formed with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. But his solo work during a slightly later period garnered him relatively little acclaim, as I recall, probably because it was so much subtler and harmonically complex than his work with Cream. His musicality was not lost on me, however, just a high school senior at the time of his 1971 release, “Harmony Row”. That year, if you remember it at all, was a time of high historical drama and, for some of us, personal lessons learned. Bruce provided part of our common soundtrack, in an uncommonly sophisticated way. Here’s one of my favorite songs from Harmony Row: “Can You Follow”.

 
Hey can you follow,
Now that the trace is fainter
In the sand
Try turning your face to the wall

Can you still read me
Now that the chase is wilder
In your hand
Try losing your place in the sun

All the praises of the dream
Turned to tangles in the trees
All yesterday’s fine chariots
Turned to buses in the street

Can you still hear me
Now that the songs are moving
Into night
Try sleeping with the dancers in your room

Terrasses Mystérieux

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Okay, so I’m pretty sure that there is a very simple answer to this question, but I didn’t think of asking anyone while I was in the neighborhood, and Google has been of little help. But, clearly, there are either terraces cut into, or walls set on to, the granite peak of this mountain just outside of Martigny Switzerland. The question is: who put them there, and why?

Update: a Swiss citizen who should know told me that those are actually large wooden structures that are intended to prevent avalanches. Fair enough, but there seems to be no one living on the slope beneath to protect… Maybe the Swiss just generally disapprove of avalanches, and stop them whenever and wherever they can?

Terraced Mountainside Martigny 4

Swiss Internet Speed

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I’m spending some time at a research institute in Geneva, Switzerland. Today I plugged my 13″ MacBook Pro (mid-2014) into an ethernet internet connection, using a thunderbolt-to-ethernet adapter. These are the speeds I saw-

Internet Speed

This is at least four times faster than I’ve ever seen on my home campus in the Wisconsin. Public institutions in the U.S. should lobby the government to improve our internet infrastructure (in addition to our non-internet infrastructure), or we’ll be left in the dust economically…

Political Microtargeting Alienates Supporters

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Have you been interminably microtargeted by political interest groups that you’ve financially supported in the past? If so, perhaps you can relate to the cynical attitude I’ve developed about the whole process, and why I’ve opted out of four or five overlapping political-interest email lists over the past few weeks.

I don’t have anything negative to say about the microtargeting of undecided voters in the months shortly before an election. This allows campaigns to maximize the efficiency of their operations, and since I’m almost always well-decided well before election day, I appreciate being passed over by the in-person hard-sellers (and so does Katie, our dog, who freaks out at the slightest hint of a visitor at the door). But what has increasingly come to irritate me are the endless email invitations I receive from movements I’ve financially supported in the past – invitations that are clearly seeking ever-more specific information about my particular interests in order to follow up with more specific pleas for funds. If I thought that my signing a petition or taking a poll authored by these groups would have any political impact whatsoever, including altering the priorities of the groups themselves, I might participate. But since the petitions and polls are so transparently merely ploys to gather more data about me for further fundraising purposes, they just cause me to lose interest in the entire political process.

A brief web-search on the topic of political microtargeting indicates that even those who agree with me that such microtargeting “dehumanizes” individuals (by treating them as mere data-points and potential resources to exploit) seldom condemn it. Rather, they cynically accept it as a political necessity. But political parties and interest groups, as well as commercial corporations, ought to beware of the long-term effects their marketing practices might have. Politically conscious individuals may at some point say, “Microtargeted-to enough already!”, and find alternative ways to form political and economic alignments.

R.I.P. Chuck Silverman: A Keeper Of The Flame

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I just learned that an old friend of mine passed away unexpectedly last May: Chuck Silverman, a man whose life-long obsession was drumming – particularly Afro-Cuban percussion. Along with a couple of other aspiring musicians, Chuck and I shared a house high up in the Hollywood hills in the late ’70s. When he wasn’t at a gig, he was almost always at the house, but rarely seen: he would practice literally all day in a narrow walk-in storage closet he’d (somewhat) sound-proofed, using headphones to play along with his favorite latin tracks. After that household dissolved in the early ’80s, we largely lost track of each other until he emailed me a few years ago to catch up. In addition to having studied ethnomusicology at UCLA, he’d become a successful teacher and writer, authoring several highly-regarded books and columns, teaching at the Musician’s Institute in L.A., and introducing anyone who would listen to Afro-Cuban rhythms. At the time of his death, he was trying to complete a documentary film on a style of Cuban music he feared would soon be lost. As a memorial to Chuck, and in the now perhaps dim hope that his film will eventually be finished, here’s a short video he made about the project (before his initial filming began in 2013).

“Keepers of the Flame” Documentary Film Fundraising Video

The Ethics Of Facebook’s Emotion-Manipulation Research

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I’ve railed against Facebook many times on this blog, and in 2010’s “Facebook: Beyond The Last Straw“), I promised I would stop. I managed to keep that promise for nearly four years, but I’ve been roused to rail once again by the confluence of four different interests I happen to have: emotion research (one of my philosophical activities), ethics (a subject I teach), federal regulations covering university research (which I help to administer by being on my university’s Institutional Research Board) and the internet (which, of course, I constantly use).

In case you haven’t yet heard, what Facebook did was to manipulate the “news feeds” users received from their friends, eliminating items with words associated with either positive emotions or negative emotions, and then observing the degree to which the manipulated users subsequently employed such positive or negative vocabulary in their own posts. Facebook’s main goal was to disconfirm a hypothesis suggested by previous researchers that users would be placed in a negative mood by their friends’ positive news items, or in a positive mood by their friends’ negative news items. As I understand it, the results did disconfirm that hypothesis, and confirmed the opposite one (namely, that users would be placed in congruent rather than incongruent mood states by reading their friends’ positive or negative news items), but just barely.

Although I find this methodology questionable on a number of grounds, apparently peer-reviewers did not. The research was published in a reputable journal. More interesting to me are the ethical implications of Facebook’s having used their users as guinea pigs this way.

The best article I’ve found on the net about the ethical issues raised by this experiment was written as an opinion piece on Wired by Michelle N. Meyer, Director of Bioethics Policy in the Union Graduate College-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Bioethics Program. Meyer is writing specifically about the question of whether the research, which involved faculty from several universities whose human-subject research is federally regulated, could have (and should have) been approved under the relevant regulations. Ultimately, she argues that it both could have and should have, assuming that the manipulation posed minimal risk (relative to other manipulations users regularly undergo on Facebook and other sites). Her only caveat is that more specific consent should have been obtained from the subjects (without giving away the manipulation involved), and some debriefing should have occurred afterward. If you’re interested in her reasoning, which at first glance I find basically sound, I encourage you to read the whole article. Meyer’s bottom line is this-

We can certainly have a conversation about the appropriateness of Facebook-like manipulations, data mining, and other 21st-century practices. But so long as we allow private entities to engage freely in these practices, we ought not unduly restrain academics trying to determine their effects. Recall those fear appeals I mentioned above. As one social psychology doctoral candidate noted on Twitter, IRBs make it impossible to study the effects of appeals that carry the same intensity of fear as real-world appeals to which people are exposed routinely, and on a mass scale, with unknown consequences. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. What corporations can do at will to serve their bottom line, and non-profits can do to serve their cause, we shouldn’t make (even) harder—or impossible—for those seeking to produce generalizable knowledge to do.

My only gripe with this is that it doesn’t push strongly enough for the sort of “conversation” mentioned in the first line. The ways in which social media sites – and other internet sites – can legally manipulate their users without their specific consent is, as far as I can tell, entirely unregulated. Yes, the net should be open and free, but manipulation of the sort Facebook engaged in undermines rather than enhances user freedom. We shouldn’t expect to be able to avoid every attempt to influence our emotions, but there is an important difference between (for instance) being exposed to an ad as a price of admission, and having the information one’s friends intended you to see being edited, unbeknownst to you or your friends, for some third party’s ulterior purpose.

More Fun With Frax

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I’ve been slow on the posts lately, but it is summertime (when the livin’ is supposedly easy), so perhaps I can be forgiven. To avoid having nothing in my June folder, however, here are a few images I came up with exploring Frax, the endlessly fascinating iPhone app-

“It’s Alive!”
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“Jewel”
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“Hole”
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“Curtains”
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“Edge”
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Shadow-Selfie On Bike

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Yet another sign of Spring…

Shadow Selfie On Bike 480

And here is a blossoming tree for no good reason (except for the fact that my iPhone camera happened capture an exceptionally smooth, deep blue gradient sky in the background).

Tree Blossoms