Monday, December 14, 2009

Computers are not instruments

It is wonderful to have lived through the birth of the personal computer, and to be part of the computing industry. I have been a programmer and systems designer, and today everything I do has some computer aspect to it: professional work, photography, music, research, websites. With my background, they are not black boxes to me.

Computers are great machines, but they are bad tools at a very fundamental level.

I want to draw a distinction between a machine, which you set up and assign work to, and a tool, which you wield directly, as a human animal. What makes a tool great is its capacity to function as an extension of yourself, as though it were part of your body. Poking a hole with a stick is not importantly different from using a finger; the tactile and visual feedback is immediate in the same way. That stick is a tool.

Becoming adept at stick wielding (think: swordplay) is a matter of entraining muscle movements and responses to real-world feedback. If you have to think about the movement, it's too slow. Animals like humans are well-equipped for this sort of learned skill. We learn how to walk, run, reach, throw, poke, and so forth as part of our repository of behaviors. Any tool we have that we can treat as a bodily extension is incorporated into our reactions in the same way, and we can become expert users.

In music, we speak of knowing a piece "in the fingers". "The hands know how to play the tune". We can add to that tacit skill our rational decisions, reacting to other musicians, to the emotions of the moment, to an experimental harmony, and so on. As beginners, we find that we have to "think too much" about what we're trying to do. Music becomes a performance pleasure to the degree that our mastery is at our command to be directed as we will.

For this cognitive skill to work with something external to the human body requires one very special attribute: immediacy. If I touch something, I know something immediately: hot/cold, soft/hard, moving/still, noise/silence. Even if my sensory apparatus is compromised (numb fingers) or extended (stick, prosthetic), I receive immediate feedback of some kind that I can process directly with my developed somatic systems.

There's a term for this immediacy in the world of computers: sub-second response time. That means, when you type something, the response should be effectively immediate. We haven't had that on general purpose computers since we left the green screens for the graphical user interface (windows) environments.

We can incorporate some delay into our natural cognitive systems. To provide a musical example, playing the bass notes of a pipe organ or driving the mechanical linkages of a carillon creates a not insignificant barrier to the immediacy of feedback. Your hands will have moved on before the sound is audible. But in these cases, the extent of the delay is predictable and there is no impediment for proceeding before the feedback is received. So even though the response is not truly immediate, we are able to adjust without conscious thought about each movement.

How are machines different?

It's not a matter of materials; a car is a tool from the perspective of the human animal who has mastered how to drive. A machine, for me, is something which can not be a direct extension of the human body because its feedback mechanisms are not aligned to support that. For example, when I treat a stain on my clothing and use a washing machine, I don't know until the end of the process if my action was effective. The feedback is not immediate. While I can certainly accumulate a set of observations that make my treatments better, giving me an intellectual mastery, it is inherently difficult for me to "master" a washing machine the same way I can master a bass fiddle. It's not at all related to the somatic knowledge of a physical skill.

There is a sliding continuum of such things, where feedback is delayed to a greater or lesser extent. If I take a picture with incorrect settings, I will discover this after the shutter click; the display that tells me about the problem is a separate perception. But it is very soon after the original error, so the mastery of the camera as a tool should be easier. Nonetheless, camera wielding expertise is an intellectual mastery, not a somatic skill. When the sun is bright, adjusting the exposure setting is not engrained in the body, like squinting is. For me, cameras are machines, not tools.

Before computers had graphical interfaces they were able to function rather well as abstract tools. With an expert knowledge of a software program you could type commands into a long keystroke buffer, much like playing a carillon, and the computer would process them in sequence until it ran out. As long as the delay wasn't too long, this was much like playing an instrument with a slight delay, like an organ. The same muscle memory developed. I remember handwriting music on paper, and whenever I paused my left hand did an automatic twitch. When I thought about it, I realized it was typing "ctrl-S" for "Save" (on the paper), because that's what you did whenever there was a pause in creating a computer document, just in case it crashed.

Once the "windows" metaphor was universalized as a graphical user interface (GUI), this effect was lost for general purpose computers. What computers gained in power and capability they lost in predictability of response and limitations on live input. If I have three software applications open, even if I minimize the use of a mouse and do as much as possible with keystrokes, I can not sufficiently accurately predict the operating system's attention. The keystrokes that were intended for application two might end up in the window for application three. I need to look and, much worse, I need to wait for the system to catch up. There's no serious "keystroke overflow buffer" to allow me to type ahead. This fundamentally breaks the ability to use the computer as a cognitive tool in my sense -- it has become a machine instead.

All of us hate to wait for our computer's response. I think the frustration has a more fundamental component to it. Despite its intellectual richness, I think we want the computer to behave like a musical instrument we can play that is mastered at the somatic level, and that is not currently possible. Without the immediacy of feedback, it's like an instrument that cannot be learned, and yet anything with keys like that should be playable.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Waving my hands in the air

These days I play the fiddle.

It wasn’t always thus. I had classical piano training as a child, and taught myself guitar, both folk and classical, as a teenager. I can’t remember ever learning how to sing -- I assumed everyone could (I still think that). My mother was trained as a classical pianist in Antwerp but she was diverted from that life by WWII and an American GI. She became interested in jazz theory when I was quite young, and I enjoyed learning what she was doing with basic music and harmony theory.

So there I was in my 30s, an experienced amateur singer in medieval-to-classical choral works and a variety of ethnic and traditional genres, and I still spoke string and keyboard a bit. Suddenly one day, listening to traditional Scandinavian multi-fiddle tunes, it occurred to me -– why couldn’t I do this? After all, how hard could it be? I got to the basic level of “village fiddler” after a while, and it’s all been a bonus from there.

Today, I play music for Scandinavian dancing. (I’ll speak more on that genre some other time, but if you like Irish music, I recommend the traditional fiddle music of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark.) What I want to talk about now is the psychology of playing the violin for this music, specifically how the physical movement of the playing impacts the overall communication.

I understood the principles of the strings and stops before I started, and I knew how the bow was used to produce the sound, but I was not prepared for the significance of the musical gestures imparted by bowing. Playing a guitar is an activity with small hand movements. But bowing... this is the land of big gestures.

For example, much of the dance music is in the form of "polska", a dance with 3-beat measures, and the bowing is conventionally “down”, “up”, “down-up” for the 3 beats. One of the distinct characteristics of the Scandinavian polska is that the second beats are often asymmetric, varying by region or by dance type, or for expressive variation within the tune. So, not only might the second beat be “early”, you get there by “throwing” the bow up into the air early, and in some regional dances the dancers also rise on that beat, as if pushed up by the fiddler.

Stefan Ohlström playing Vödåspisn (Polska from Boda)

Think of the gesture of flinging up your arms in enthusiasm. Though your hands are constrained by the requirements of bow control, still the shoulders rise sympathetically, and the whole body follows, for the fiddler as well as the dancers. There is a complete alignment of this particular gesture of dramatic pleasure with the mechanical requirements of the performance.

Polska dances from other regions have different dialects. Sometimes the floating second beat with its up-bow is used for a different sort of emotional expression. In this example, the gesture is the shoulder lift and head tilt of regret or sympathy (“Oh, that’s too bad”).

Jonas Hjalmarsson playing Polska av Viktor Gabrielsson (Polska from Älvdalen)

In either case, there is the human gesture of a raised arm (and shoulders) and a head movement that expresses a different emotion, and the gesture can accommodate the mechanical needs of using an up-stroke to produce the notes.

On other instruments, the effect is muted (cello) or absent (voice), but on the violin it’s a perfect match. The “body English” that goes into a passionate piano performance is expressive, certainly, but it lacks the specific gestural mimicry and can only emulate, in timing and volume, what comes naturally in our physical modes of communication. For these fiddle tunes, it’s as though you wave your hands in the air and somehow the emotion embodied in the gesture is communicated through the music. It’s magic.

For further reading:
The Musical Gestures Project
Meaning in Music Gesture

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Little Musgrave

The traditional ballads of the British Isles are renowned for their vivid, but objective, style. Descriptions are generally impersonal (in contrast to the lyric songs), and characters establish their motives via direct dialogue, as in a play.

One of the better ballads is Little Musgrave, number 81 in Francis James Child’s collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: 1882-1898. Child collected as many manuscript and printed versions as he could find, and also described related ballads in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. For Little Musgrave (familiar to Americans as Mattie Groves), he collected 15 versions, the earliest of which is dated 1658. Beaumont and Fletcher mention it in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), the earliest known reference. 400 years have worked their usual transformation on the material, preserving what best pleases the singers.

Since we need a concrete example for discussion, I’ve selected a version recorded by Nic Jones, part of the English Folk Revival movement, on his album Ballads and Songs (1970). He heard or read more than one version, and in this recording collated elements of several around an American version. Like all such performances, this is a combination of traditional material and personal choices. He presents a very clean distillation of the story. Text. Audio.

Ballads often have several scenes or incidents. What strikes me in this ballad is the cinematic nature of the scene transitions.

  • Scene 1: Lady Barnard entices little Musgrave and guarantees secrecy by setting a page to watch for her husband
  • Transition: We follow the page who travels straight as an arrow to Lord Barnard in the greenwood
  • Scene 2: Lord Barnard learns of the adultery and arranges to travel home to surprise them
  • Transition: We follow the horn call from the greenwood straight to the lovers in bed
  • Scene 3: The lovers discuss and then dismiss the warning. Followed in place by…
  • Scene 4: Lord Barnard arrives, taunts the lovers, kills little Musgrave, and kills his wife.

One could easily come up with a different version of this story -- Lord Barnard receives word from one of his spies, little Musgrave wakes up and contemplates leaving -- but oh how much more effective the narrative is with its realized transitions. In each case, a person with divided loyalties is responsible (in other versions of the ballad, the page declares “although I am my lady’s footpage, I am Lord Barnard’s man”). On the one hand, we follow the runner to the greenwood, and on the other we follow the horn call back to Lord Barnard’s castle, as if we were flying through the air on the sound.

Singers, even those who learn a ballad in a traditional context such as a family, make personal choices about verses to include or omit, word choices, things to focus on. As you can see from a sample of the different versions collected by Child, this ballad is a structure with a cluster of common elements but a great deal of variation. Nic Jones’s performance contains some especially apt choices.

The extraneous elements (rewards for the page, regrets over the killing of the wife, Musgrave’s motives) are all pared down. The more barbaric versions of the wife’s killing are gone, the “folk process” (whatever that is) tending to reflect current sensibilities over time. The entire focus of the song is now the seduction, the choices, and the deaths. The ballad carries in all its versions an internal pause where the alarm of the horn competes with the sheltered bower of the lovers; if they had made another choice at that moment, they might have escaped the consequences. This performance poignantly repeats the first verse at the end, reminding us that the initial choices might also have been different.

As is common in ballads, the heroes do not lie; they face death bravely. Other versions have Musgrave wishing he could evade the consequences of his action, but this version is more subtle. Instead of dialogue, we see Musgrave move slowly to his death, the slowness being the sole manifestation of his regret. To make this reluctance more immediate, we switch to the present tense in verse 23.

Finally, perhaps it’s accidental, but I am struck by the rhetoric of verse 4: “What would you give this day, Musgrave, to lie one night with me?” Both day and night are little Musgrave’s last.


Saturday, March 1, 2008

The path not taken

Let’s start with something simple. What makes this photo so appealing? (larger, largest )

This comes from a recent January meet with the Nantucket-Treweryn Beagles in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. (You can find the full photo essay here.) It’s a view of an interior road of a largish farm in a rural area. Despite the timeless air to the place, I know these oaks are less than 100 years old, and that the path probably intersects a public road not far from where it vanishes here, but none of that matters to how the picture registers with me.

There are formal elements that are pleasing -- the straight lines of the fences contrasted to the winding line of the lane, the various vertical angles, the flat lane against the low hillocks in the distance, the proportions of sky to land. But I find I have projected personalities and narrative into the scene, and that is the foundation of its appeal to me.

The oak trees own or guard this path, the one in front clearly the leader, with the others, lightning-shortened and leaning deferentially, in his court. Only the king oak reaches into the full sky. This is a numinous, fairy-tale setting: if I start down that path into the unknown dark, I will surely have an adventure and my life will be changed.

Without the path, the oaks would be handsome but story-less. Without the stormy lower sky, the path would be less of a gateway -- the darkness is not necessarily sinister, just unknowable. The formal receding lines of fence and path create a visual focus of interest in the dark place where the path vanishes from sight, and that synchronizes with my curiosity and pulls me into the shadow.

The king oak may thrust into the well-lit winter sky, but his minions are trapped in the darkness. If I pass the guardian, nothing will stay my feet from trying to discover what lies beyond.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's it all about

I am a minor performer in the musical and visual arts, with a keen interest in language, mathematics, and related crafts, such as textile production.

As a fiddler and singer, I encounter tunes that trigger my intellectual curiosity: why does it work that way, how did it return to that spot, what makes that effect possible, and so forth.

As an amateur photographer, I stumble upon compositions that are surprisingly effective. Why and how do they work?

How does language instantiate its historic roots, with rhetoric surviving across the centuries?

I am drawn to exploring what is happening in these situations, how my sense of delight is triggered. The analysis is just as interesting to me as the initial perceptive act.

My goal is to illuminate how my own mind works (and maybe yours, too), and to let you listen in. This will not be a platform for academic studies and broad conclusions in psychology and the arts. If you explore with me, you'll be learning about traditional British and Scandinavian folk music, the field sports, dead languages, live crafts, and a variety of esoteric areas.