Semantics and the lowest common denominator

Written by peterkienle on December 25, 2015

I have been interested in books, TV shows and lately Podcasts about supernatural, paranormal, extraterrestrial and other such stuff for a long time. Lately I have been listening to lots (lots) of Podcasts dealing with all sorts of topics somewhat from the fringe. Sometimes the host(s) of the show and the guest are very careful how they talk about a subject. Often, though, words (or memes) such as reincarnation, near-death-experience, ghost, alien, UFO, etc, are dropped as if they (and we, the listener) know exactly what that is. The guest sometimes talks about the afterlife in such specific ways as if they had just finished a college course on it. Of course that kind of language usage and specific words and terms dominate our daily life. Terms, such as food, sleep, super market are spoken and used in written form and usually they are understood close to what they were intended to mean.

Quickly, though, we come to more dubious words that are used in everyday language by a large number of people and on the surface we go: “Sure, I know what a conservative (or liberal, or progressive) is.” Except, that you have two different people trying to explain it and their understanding will most likely not overlap much. How about the word god? How about the phrase “I believe in god?” What does that mean? This could conceivably take a lifetime to explain – and the explanation would again contain usage of terms that are assumed to convey clear, unambiguous information but in turn require more explanation.

In a way, isn’t this what the working body of science has tried to mend? When ‘normal’ people talk about a theory they usually mean something they think is an explanation – not necessarily backed by any evidence or any logical or rational path of reasoning. In science the word theory has a very specific meaning and is clearly defined. It seems science strives to implement very strict definitions of the language and terminology it uses. That means, ideally, that those who have studied specific scientific fields can communicate in very precise and unambiguous terms. While this is the ideal situation, more often than not it has turned out that established scientific fact (along with the terminology) was simply wrong. Luckily, science can admit errors and correct them

Now we get to the fringey stuff, where two folks talk about reincarnation or ghosts as if they both knew exactly what is being talked about, assuming that they are also talking about the same thing, and (before I forget) that those things actually exist. Can there even be a meaningful discussion under such circumstances? Again: the thing that is being discussed is most likely not the same for each party, often one or both of the parties have not experienced anything like a ghost personally but get their information from other sources, who also use terms and words which are not defined but are taken as truth. This is how huge pyramids of fringe theories are built on hot air.

You could claim that much of the scientific body of work and knowledge is equally built on hot air. Perhaps it is, I don’t care, but the rigorous definition of terms and relationships plus a high internal consistency amounts to something and has changed material reality. It’s akin to a bunch of musicians knowing the same tune in the same key, agreeing on how to start, when to modulate to where and how to end. It may all be made up from hot air, but it works. While you put a bunch of people together, some who may not know how to hold their instrument, you tell them to play a tune that everybody should know from listening to the radio, nobody counts off, nobody knows the key (or even what a key is). What you’ll hear could be very adventurous, maybe interesting but probably won’t resemble the song they were supposed to play. And if they try it again it will sound totally different.

I guess here comes the clincher. Is it possible that nothing has any meaning unless it is given meaning by what or who consciously experiences it? And then that experience will be incredibly deep, valuable and detailed until the experiencer tries to explain it to someone who hasn’t experienced exactly the same thing – at which point the experiencer will start accepting the verbalized, official version him or herself. Makes you wish for something like telepathy, where an experiencer could transmit the experience directly to somebody else….

Some podcasts I really like (warts and all):

Skeptiko

Mysterious Universe

Paranormal Podcast

The Paracast

and on the skeptical side:

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe

Geologic Podcast

Big Picture Science

Skepticality

There are of course a lot more but the day is only so long….

Who controls the 8th string?

Written by peterkienle on November 18, 2014
6 strings - perfect!

6 strings – perfect!

A few years ago I started playing seven string guitar. It’s only an added B string below the low E. And while I am practicing quite a bit, composed several pieces for seven string classical guitar and adapted J. S. Bach’s 15 Two Part Inventions and all of the Well Tempered Clavier for the instrument, only now do I start feeling somewhat comfortable. Sure, there is the issue of smaller string spacing on my seven string electrics. Then there is my habit of using the note on the low E string as sort of an anchor point for the notes on the other strings. And then, maybe, the extra neurons needed in the brain to add control over that added string may not grow as quickly in an older person.

add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons

add a low B string and make your brain grow new neurons

To add insult to injury, this past summer I found a really nice eight string guitar on eBay – and when I pick that up my musical-guitaristic instincts are once again of no help. This time however I seem to experience it from a more neutral observer. As long as I totally ignore any of the strings on the bottom (let’s say the low E, B and F#) I can just pretend it’s a normal guitar. When I then try to incorporate the E and B strings I “know” what the notes are called and I see the patterns they form with what I play on the upper strings – at least to a certain degree and when I am not looking at the fingerboard but imagine where my fingers are in my head.

But now I get to that eighth string. That F#. As long as I play by ear and just extend the scales downward to the eighth string I am fine. My fingers know where to put themselves. But when I try to play chords based off of that eighth string I notice that I have to “calculate” the note name just like a beginner – relative to the open F#. It doesn’t help that my brain also thinks that the lowest string is a B.

add a low F# string feels like a new limb

add a low F# string feels like a new limb

The funny thing about this effect is that the low F# string feels like an added third arm might feel. It’s there but there is no software in place to control it. Just like when you hook up an external device (printer, hard drive, etc) to your computer and there is no driver installed – the computer might notice that something was connected but it has no idea what to do with it.

Like I mentioned, I went through this process after I started the seven string guitar thing. I realized that over about 35 years of playing guitar there were so many patterns, shortcuts, good and bad habits, chord and scale shapes (and much more) in my brain that I was never thinking on a note by note level. Almost as if certain chord voicings were attached to practice sessions or gigs where I discovered them. Or whole musical passages where associated with a specific person or date. Adding an extra string seemed to require to rearrange many of these associations or make new ones.

Now, as I am going through the eighth string learning pains, I observe from a third person perspective. While I am playing I can almost “feel” the blank spots of my guitaristic brain as I torture that new, unknown string. It feels a lot like stepping from firm ground onto an ice sheet. Somewhat dangerous on a gig but a lot of fun. And it also includes some personal research into how I learn.

The Cooking/Composing Analogy

Written by peterkienle on September 15, 2012

This is one of the many things which I only discovered a little later in my life.

Over the past few weeks I have been reading through a book called “Cooking for Geeks” by Jeff Potter. Amongst many cool recipes and cooking related interviews it contains tons of scientific information about what is happening during food preparation.

If you asked me today when I started to cook I would tell you that I always loved preparing my own food. That is of course not quite true because obviously my mother was the boss in her kitchen and only once I moved out at the tender age of 18 was I confronted with the need to think about what to eat and how to make it. Since my hometown was pretty devoid of any interesting places to get lunch and I was notoriously short on cash that only left the choice of somehow learning how to prepare food myself.

Naturally I started out trying to recreate my favorite dishes from home. But I wasn’t very successful. Most kinds of meat are very unforgiving if ill prepared and I quickly turned into a vegetarian because at least most vegetables can be eaten raw. Some of my favorite home-foods, like Maultaschen (literally “Mouth Pockets” – some kind of huge ravioli) were far beyond reach because creating them required complicated procedures. You could buy those ready made but they just never were as good as Mom’s. So, very slowly, out of the necessity of pickiness, I developed some things I could cook and actually liked to eat.

When I moved to the US in 1988 the availability of Fast Food at every corner was shocking. Still a vegetarian, though, choices were limited. And I guess what could be seen as the main attraction of franchised fast food joints turned out to be one of it’s main turn-offs: A Pizza Hut pizza tastes the same where ever you go. After about a decade of being my own chef switching to eating manufactured food didn’t work. So I kept cooking my own food.

Fast forward to 2006. After reading Ray Kurzweil’s “Fantastic Voyage” (which is about a lot of other health stuff besides food) I became obsessed (at least that’s what my wife and kids called it) with eating healthy. It turned out that spaghetti and tomato sauce isn’t necessarily as healthy as I thought – I still have to convince my kids, though. Surprisingly, our bodies don’t always crave what’s good for them. Due to increased exercise and more conscious diet I lost a few pounds and all of a sudden needed belts for most of my pants. A few years later I found out that my blood pressure was a bit high. That really sucked. I worked around with my diet (less carbs, increased potassium through fresh spinach and cantaloupes, watch that salt!), started jogging, and bought an exercise bike. It actually worked – at least something did, as the blood pressure went to normal.

And what exactly does that have to do with composing music?

Since my humble beginnings as a guitarist at age 14 or so I liked to compose. The music I did like to listen to was never prefect. Even the epic “Dark Side of the Moon” had some sections I could do without and other sections I would have liked to be longer. So I think I started to play and write music to make it just the way I wanted. In the process noticing that this is just not that easy. You have to learn about your ingredients. You have to have a way of writing down your ideas. You can’t get sucked into your music so deeply that you lose your bearings or some kind of objectivity. (Now, improvising is a bit different because I want to be sucked in. It’s almost schizophrenic because your are the maker of the music and also the emotional recipient).

These days I feel I am able to write much better music with much less material. I used to write fusion tunes with lots of notes just as I used to make soups with lots of spices. That kind of experimentation is all good but in the end the simpler stuff rules. That totally complex C13#11b9 chord will stick out in a mostly basic triad-based tune. Now I feel I can actually let the music speak for itself just as I don’t need to cover up a perfectly good lentil-chickpea soup with all the spices from my spice rack.

The medium makes the message

Written by peterkienle on July 12, 2011

If you read many of the posts on this blog you’ll notice that I have been a musician for most of the past 30 years or so. Specifically, a “Jazz Guitarist”. Many knowledgeable folks have tried to classify what “jazz” is or what qualifies a certain piece of music as “jazz”. I admit that I actually don’t know or care – I just like to improvise. And not in the sense of playing a ’solo’ but making up music alone or together with a band.

Lately I have been playing a lot of solo guitar gigs and much of my practicing consists of improvising music just on guitar alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I throw all harmonic rules out. Most often I start out with a standard jazz tune or an original but since I am by myself I can go wherever I want. I don’t have to stick to the ’chorus’ (which of course is utter blasphemy when playing with other people). In principle I take material I know how to play (and what it sounds like) and try to stick it together in a hopefully logical and musical way. This material can be small melodic fragments or interesting chord sequences unrelated to a specific tune or piece of music. Or I take larger chunks from music I have played before (the famous introduction to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” comes to mind). Often, just trying to play the bridge of a well known standard in a different key will introduce a new dimension and risk, leading you down unexpected alleys. And then there are random unintentional notes (call them mistakes) which often play the role of ’genetic mutations’ where the basic idea is good enough to be repeated and each repetition sounds less than a mistake – clearly a kind of evolution. This sounds easier than it is but after a few ’normal’ tunes a certain flow develops and I start playing differently. The result may not sound all that different to a listener – after all I am still using the same material – but to me it seems to come from a different source. The music mostly comes out by itself. The two hours of my gig usually just fly by.

I have often tried to find patterns and rules to explain to students how I do this (actually one of my friends, who is a cognitive neurologist, is also interested in this). Some people have called this process ’stream of consciousness’ or ’channeling’. And here comes the 78 degree turn: Many years back I had a great fondness for the books of one Jane Roberts. Roberts claimed that she channeled an entity called Seth. In the beginning the channeling happened through a Ouija board and later verbally through Roberts. At the time when I read these books I didn’t care where that material came from. I just found it very fascinating since it dealt with a lot of things I kept thinking about, such as UFOs, alternate realities, weird stuff from various holy books, the works. It was like reading a novel. The common explanation for action with an Ouija board are involuntary movements of the operators’ finger muscles. So essentially, the information that is produced comes from the participants. I guess it’s a version of facilitated communication which has been pretty much proven to be a hoax.

Moving on to Roberts’ verbal delivery. While delivering for the Seth entity she used a different voice and her husband Robert Butts often asked in-context questions. Do I think Roberts actually delivered messages from Seth? No. I think she was improvising. She was, in other words, telling a story, made up from material she had picked up, knowingly or unknowingly, from many sources. Naturally the material was blended with original ideas (Roberts was after all also a Science Fiction writer) and it seems some ideas pop up again and again over her channeling career, mutating and evolving.

One can of course argue my conclusion but I think Roberts did the same thing that I do when I improvise music on my guitar only in her medium. Nothing ’supernatural’ about it. The medium makes the message.

Floyd – a strange detour

Written by peterkienle on December 31, 2010

How could I ever try to become a jazz guitar player? I tried, hard, for quite a while. But, unnoticed by me, at first, and in the last few years becoming more and more obvious, I drifted away from what I thought I had wanted to be. People blame the strangest reasons for picking up an instrument. Over all, my reasons weren’t all that weird.

I never had any inclination that I wanted to play guitar or become actively involved in making music of any kind before age 12. On the other hand when I received my first cassette tape recorder and was able to record the few songs that drew my attention off the radio I used the music as backdrop to the LEGO sets I was building. Strangely, the songs I recorded were not the ones most of my friends were listening to. No Rolling Stones or Beatles. I gravitated towards instrumental stuff that sounded mysterious and that had a certain cinematic or SciFi quality.

Just around that time my friend Klaus introduced me to “Dark Side Of The Moon” by Pink Floyd when I was about 13. After he had made me a cassette copy of his brother’s album copy that became my sound track for a while. During that time we wanted to make a science fiction movie. At first “Dark Side….” was to be our main musical material (screw copyright). In the process we noticed that we didn’t want to use the parts that had vocals which of course narrowed the usable material down somewhat. Eventually we decided we would not only make our own movie but also record the music to it – not withstanding the fact that Klaus only played some classical piano and I had never played any instrument at all.

In the research for music to use for our movie we had stumbled upon earlier records of Pink Floyd. In particular the double album “Umma Gumma” which changed my life forever. When you read what the critics said about this strange collection of live and studio tracks you would probably skip it. For me the disc that contains the four live tracks was an eye (or ear) opener of the third kind. The song “Careful with that axe, Eugene” has no lyrics, no hook, no chord changes, just a barebones bass line. It doesn’t even have a melody as such. All it does is slowly build up to a loud scream of Mr. Waters followed by a haunting guitar solo by David Gilmour in which he sings along with what he plays. After ten minutes or so the song just quiets down and ends. But for me this was music to paint pictures by in my mind. There was so much texture and to me it sounded so ‘organic’ and not forced into a form. Each time I listened to it different stories played out in my mind. Admittedly, the fertile mind of a teenager. But still, other music just would not have that same effect. Vocal music just seemed to stifle the imagination because the lyrics told you what to think. One of my other favorite bands from that time was “Yes”. While there were lots of lyrics in their music the words seemed to have a rather different purpose than those of the Top Ten tunes of the time. And for a budding guitar player/musician there was lots of interesting material in the music of “Yes”. But “Careful with that axe, Eugene” had an emotional arc which I have been searching for in all the music I have listened to since but it is a rare quality. And of course it became my prime motivation to make that music myself – except that I seemed to be the only one with that desire in my hometown.

Instrumental music? No hooks? Just really strange music? Lots of it improvised? Not where I grew up!
And what is ‘Instrumental’ and ‘Improvised’ often associated with? Jazz! And so, slowly at first, but with growing guitaristic abilities more and more I began drifting away from my fantasy of playing in a “Careful With that Axe….” way. Not surprisingly I found my way into jazz through the unmarked backdoor of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” and other less traditional recordings that for me had that “Careful with that axe” feel.
As mentioned before, the property that most attracted me to music is the ‘blank canvas experience’. Where this comes from I don’t know. But early on when I started taking photographs I always got criticism because my shots seemed to look at landscapes, buildings, scenes but rarely people (which was of course very annoying in pictures taken at family gatherings). Also, a big portion of SF books I own I bought because the cover art appealed to that same instinct. There were big mysterious cities, spaceships drifting in space, or other awe inspiring  scenes – perfect backdrops to imagine a story. The other ‘music’ (and I have a hard time calling it that sometimes) that was sort of fascinating to me at that time was the emerging branch of electronic space music, specifically Tangerine Dream. Although that interest faded relatively quickly – only to re-emerge decades later with the accidental discovery of a ‘space musician’ by the name of Steve Roach.

But remember, I was already a guitar player and most young guitar players are pretty competitive. It seemed almost natural for me to become interested in bands like Weather Report or Mahavishnu Orchestra whose leading members came straight out of the “Bitches Brew” corner. While Mahavishnu fascinated me with a totally alien, otherworldly musical language Weather Report provided the danceable funky grooves and memorable melodies. I didn’t know back then that this music was called jazz (well, ok, jazz-rock). Until somebody dragged me to see a ‘real’ jazz concert – which happened to be the Modern Jazz Quartet. I must have been 16 or so. It felt more like a classical recital. I knew it was well played, good music, and I could certainly appreciate it at that level but it didn’t touch me at all. At that time I did go out and see many live concerts, though. One of my favorite live bands at the time was the German rock group Embryo. My first ‘big’ concert was Klaus Doldinger’s Passport. It was very groovy – I always liked drummers and Fender Rhodes piano. A year or so later I saw Weather Report in Munich and the show just blew me away. It was everything that Modern Jazz Quartet hadn’t been. And yet, the people at Jazz School Munich told me one was real jazz and the other just a cheap ripoff (although every bass player I knew had a Fender bass with the frets removed in a back room somewhere).

And so I gradually drifted away from my “Eugene” inspired beginnings. Driven by the ambition to become such a good guitar player that everybody would call me to play in their band and by the non voluntary recognition that my earlier vision of how I wanted to perform music was a bit unrealistic. Over the years I became a reasonably capable jazz guitarist and composer. After our move to the US I even started to work regularly in clubs and with many different people. But that “Eugene” spark has always come through on my recordings. The resistance to ‘just’ record a few standards with long solos never went away. And then, just a few months ago, I listened to a live version of “Careful With That Axe” on youtube. Of course I knew that this stuff is out there today. But it’s a bit like thinking about “Dark Side Of The Moon” – I just think of it and I can hear the music in my mind. Emotional impact. And yet, that youtube version of “Careful…” was a little different. Same mood, same basic structure but also some different chords on the keyboard, Gilmour’s solo is different – in short, it sucked me in just like 35 years ago. It also reaffirmed my suspicion that I really never wanted to become a jazz player.

Rebooting Reality, part 1

Written by peterkienle on September 11, 2009

I have often wondered what would happen if we could start over with something. For example language. Let’s say we wind back time to the beginning of the development of language – assuming, for the moment, there is such a thing as a starting point. If we let it run again from that moment how would it develop? Would it develop pretty much along the same lines? Totally different?

Now, take something like Mathematics. Push the RESET button. Do we expect the exact science of Mathematics to develop the same way it did? Maybe it will develop along different ways but still end up with the same formulas, constants, rules, etc. One would expect the latter if Mathematics is as universal as it is usually made out to be. Wouldn’t we feel utterly betrayed if somehow these RESET mathematicians came up with a consistent, workable and applicable system that is totally different from ours?

Think of a house. Over its lifetime the owner will put on a new roof. Floors might be ripped out, walls torn down. Additions might be built. A second floor added on. When you get to the thought of adding passive and active energy savings measures such as insulation, windows that reflect the sunlight at just the right time of the year and let the light through at other times, solar panels? geothermal heating & cooling? – you get the idea – one might find that the original dwelling was built at a very odd angle to the sun that doesn’t allow easy usage of sunlight. You might find out that there is not enough room to run the water pipes from a roof installation of solar hot water panels – the rafters might be too weak to carry the weight anyhow. There comes a point when the owner realizes that if she really wants go ahead with all the upgrades it would be much more efficient to start over. Tear the old house down and build a new one – doing it right this time.

Another interesting target for such speculations is the wide field of Physics. Especially Theoretical Physics. This is a field which interests me tremendously yet I must admit my actual understanding of the whole thing is pitiful. I tend to read these really cool articles in Scientific American and various other magazines. While I read I go “Yeah, right. I get it this time. Makes total sense.” But as soon as I am supposed to tell somebody else in my own words what the article was about I can’t put it back together. What is probably the most outlandish aspect of it is that it’s all so small. Not only can’t we see any of the quarks, leptons, let alone force carriers such as photons. Somehow all of that seems so removed and irrelevant to our everyday lives. And yet the interactions between all these different forces and particles produce our reality. What if we press RESET for Theoretical Physics? One would imagine that while we don’t know how, when and by whom various effects would be discovered and what language would be used to express this knowledge there still would be someone to figure out the theory behind electromagnetism (James Clerk Maxwell did it in our reality). You would think that somebody would eventually uncover E=mc squared although we don’t know what mathematics she would use to describe it. Could it be that the building of Theoretical Physics might be constructed in a different order and thereby would actually come out differently? Impossible, you say, physics describes the underlying rules of reality but maybe our physics only describe the tip of a huge iceberg. RESET physics and another tip of the iceberg might be sticking out of the water.

One subject of interest to me is music. How could music develop differently after a total RESET? (Assuming of course that music would actually develop in the first place.) Since music is a subject I have a bit more expertise I want to offer an idea I have been elaborating on for a few years now. Assuming a piece of music – for the moment this could be one of the simpler, shorter and clearly structured compositions of J. S. Bach – we know what theoretical background it comes from. We know the key, the meter, how the melody relates to the bass notes, how the notes in between create a harmonic movement. We know how, through the circle of fifths, the major and minor keys relate to each other. Seemingly the composition of the piece is more or less an application of general rules mixed with personal preferences on the musical raw material which has been fine-tuned and formalized over hundreds of years. So, now assume that some alien digs out a recording of that piece. No other materials are found. No reference points to what culture that music came from. The piece of music clearly has structure. It clearly works according to certain rules. But which rules? Can the alien figure out by that piece of music alone what the underlying system of rules and customs that led to its composition were? Could it actually be that this alien might come up with a totally different underlying system for the creation of the piece? I guess if these aliens find more music they will develop a better and better handle on what concepts it’s based upon. Or really? Maybe after a piece of music has been composed or created in some way it’s roots are best forgotten. On the other hand I wonder if it could stand all by itself, apart from the culture that brought it forth.

Finally, for part 1 of this train of thought, think how science actually developed over thousands of years from mythology, religion, superstition, etc. People wanted to know. What knowledge they didn’t have they filled in – by connecting the visible dots, consequently ignoring countless little details in between. Obviously nowadays we know much more about the details in between the dots. And much of it actually seems to be correct since we can use the theories we came up with and reliably predict how certain things in reality will behave. We use these theories to work out what will happen if we put together two chemicals in specific quantities We use them to calculate how to construct rockets to deliver satellites into space and figure out where to put them so they appear to stay over the same geographical location all the time. We use them to program the algorithms that let our GPS navigation systems use these satellites to guide us through big city jungles of one-way streets. So the theories we have work on various chunks of reality. None so far seems to pull it all together. There are still dots hidden and one wonders if in a RESET reality other dots might be found first.

Improvising with LEGOs

Written by peterkienle on March 7, 2009

My wife actually got me a set of LEGO Mindstorms for my birthday. I am done buying guitars. For those who don’t know what Mindstorms are:
These are LEGO Technic (not the blocks but the parts that let you build all sorts of vehicles, airplanes, cranes, robots – probably guitars if you push it). The set comes with a few motors, sensors and a small computer which holds programs that control whatever robot – or thing – you build.

Here’s the musical analogy part:
As I am toying around with this I realize that having all the hundreds of parts in one big box really slows things down. Especially finding these very small pins takes time. On a trip to the hardware store I bought a few compartmentalized boxes people use to hold screws and other small stuff on their work benches and then I sorted all parts out and now I can find them quickly.

Somehow that whole process of learning what actually to do with this stuff reminded me of learning about jazz.

1) you start with a big, unsorted box of LEGOs

2) you put together small things from a few blocks to see how it works

3) you look at existing models and try to copy them

4) you start getting a little experience, what parts you can use for which job

5) you start organizing parts so you don’t always have to search in the big box

6) you become aware of what you actually CAN build with what you have

7) you organize your LEGOs in various compartmentalized boxes

8) you develop a ‘style’, things you like to built

9) you start re-using subsections you developed

10) your perception of what you CAN and WANT to build is intimately connected to how you organized the components

11) over time you might actually store pieces you NEVER use in a separate box

blah, blah

This could go on and on. From my perspective this is pretty much how we learn to improvise. Seems the main thing is to not sort our parts too much. You want to keep access to the big, unsorted box of ideas.

I guess I am getting old and a bit bored by ‘what scale goes over what chord’.

Copyright © by Peter Kienle