Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Musical Taste

[Note: Another repurposed post]

I don't consider my musical taste to be especially eclectic, or even particularly interesting, but it's still hard to find unifying traits among the various stuff to which i listen. First, i'd discard classical and jazz music because i don't think there's anything that could link, say, Tadeusz Baird with Ornette Coleman with the Drive-By Truckers other than maybe common historical origins from the traditions of Western music. But even if i restrict myself to popular music, it's hard to find connections.

The key features that i think cover much of my musical taste are:
  1. Interesting, often clever,sarcastic or cryptic lyrics.
  2. Melodic.
  3. Conventional or mildly dissonant harmonies.
  4. Conventional, non-synthesized instrumentation.
Since 3 of these features are aspects of the music itself (rather than meta-information such as genre, era, or region), you'd think that analysis of the signal might be in order. But i'm not convinced of that, because there doesn't seem to be a consistency of rhythms or modulation or keys. I don't think there'd be much overlap between say, System of a Down and Gershwin other than perhaps trivial similarities in rhythm.

There are at least three aspects of music that appear to figure into people's tastes. One is cultural-- people tend to listen to what other people are listening to; or people tend to assiduously avoid popular music. They also can only develop an opinion of what they hear regularly, so for instance a person in a Western country might have strong feelings one way or the other about Beethoven, but won't even be aware of Indian classical music. Lyrical preferences are, i believe, culturally influenced also, as evidenced by the fact that 12-year-old girls and 40-year-old men will rarely find common ground.

The second aspect is the set of qualities of the sound itself (rhythm, tempo, timbre, etc.). Although i've already said that i think signal analysis can't explain musical taste, i suspect that there are some characteristics of the sound that an individual might favor, like a preference for minor keys might explain interest in both heavy metal and sad, dramatic, Russian classical composers. In a sense this is only an interesting aspect of musical taste to the extent that the listener crosses genre and style boundaries. If you listen to nothing but Frank Sinatra or speed metal, then the sonic similarities in the music are insignificant.

The third is the aforementioned meta information, which, although it seems a separate category is not independent of the cultural and sonic influences,(e.g., i might seek out Norwegian death metal out of a true affection for the music, or because all of my friends in study hall like it, or because i'm a manic depressive Norwegian). Though i don't understand it myself, there are those who listen to music based on things like the era (Hits of the 60s), or the genre (space music) or the region (southern rock). In a rough sense, this type of meta information is a proxy for other sonic or cultural traits.

Ultimately, i believe that musical taste is determined by what you listen to. That might seem silly or tautological, but i agree with Aaron Copeland's statement from What To Listen For In Music: "Nothing can possibly take the place of listening to music". In other words, your musical taste can't be reduced to any set of parameters because the only way that you can judge a piece of music is to hear it.

The Voynich Manuscript

[Note: This is a post i originally had on my Yahoo 360 page, which i'm dumping here]

I recently finished The Friar and the Cipher, a book whose title and dust jacket suggest it is about medieval monk/scientist Roger Bacon and the mysterious Voynich manuscript. Actually about 20% of the book covers those topics and the rest is a recap of ancient and medieval philosophy, the conflict between logic (Aristotle, Aquinas) and empiricism (Roger and Francis Bacon), lots of stuff about the University of Paris, various popes, Frederick the Great, John Dee, Emperor Rudolph, blah, blah, blah. In other words, if you're interested in either Roger Bacon and/or mysterious cryptic texts like the Voynich manuscript, i'd recommend you look elsewhere.

Anyway, the Voynich manuscript. Like most geeks, I'm a total sucker for undecipherable texts and languages. In fact, there might be nothing more intellectually appealing than the idea of a manuscript that's almost certainly trying to say something significant, but which has remained impenetrable. I'm a total nerd for codes, riddles, and ancient languages like Linear B and Mayan hieroglyphs (i actually had my picture taken next to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum once). The Voynich manuscript is like all of these things rolled into one. Its provenance is uncertain, but its first definite appearance in the historical record dates to the court of Emperor Rudolph in the early 17th century (it was apparently in the possession of royal gardener Jacobus de Tepenec around 1608). The manuscript was purchased in 1912 by Wilfrid Voynich, hence the name.

The manuscript consists of many illustrations, mostly botanical, but also pictures of tiny naked people and other mysterious things. It is assumed by many to be encrypted, although the original language is uncertain (Bacon was an enthusiast of cryptography). The really cool thing though, is that unlike other mysterious texts (like, say, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili), the Voynich manuscript is written in a completely original, invented text.

An apparent postscript at the end of the book is written in Latin characters, although still apparently in code. Many think that this postscript supplies the key to decoding the text. In the 1920s, William Newbold claimed to have deciphered this postscript and then used it to decrypt parts of the manuscript. He determined not only that Roger Bacon was the creator of the manuscript, but that it explained how he had built early telescopes and other devices. He even claimed that one of the illustrations was of a nebula that Bacon could only have seen with a telescope.

This explanation of the manuscript was accepted (Newbold had solid academic credentials), and briefly made celebrities of both Newbold and Bacon's legacy. Unfortunately, his ideas were thoroughly debunked by William Manly, which ruined Newbold's reputation and returned Bacon to the status of medieval crackpot.

The great cryptanalysts William and Elizebeth Friedman took a crack at the Voynich too (in fact they had a group dedicated to it during the second World War when they were also going 24/7 to crack enemy codes). Although they did not decipher the document, they made the first serious effort at cataloging the symbols used in the text and attempting to do a frequency analysis. William Friedman's analysis of the structure and entropy of the language lead him to believe that it was an attempt at pasigraphy, or the creation of a universal symbolic language.

The Voynich now resides in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, where it is known as MS 408. There are numerous websites devoted to its presentation and study, just go Yahoo for them.

Monday, April 24, 2006


My family and i spent Saturday morning playing paintball with a group of my wife's co-workers. I don't have much to say about it except that it's really, really fun. It'd be easy to identify a few ethical dilemmas and to ridicule the goofiness of a bunch of middle-class desk workers gathering to play war; but it'd all be cancelled out by the fact that it's simply too much fun. You can't really knock good (though perhaps not so clean) fun that's not at anyone's expense.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Since it was the boys' spring break, we made the Boston Marathon into a short family vacation. We took a red-eye on Friday night to JFK and then on to Boston. Our hotel was actually in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston University. We got into Boston so early that we couldn't get our room right away, so we had to spend the most of Saturday wandering around Boston and Cambridge. We walked around the Boston U area, and we finally took a cab to the marathon expo, which was at the World Trade Center, basically a convention hall along the wharfs.

The expo was wall-to-wall people so we didn't hang out for long after picking up my race junk. We managed to get back to the Boston U. area via the "T", Boston's subway system. It was fairly painless, although they have a slightly odd ticket purchase system. We finally got a room at the hotel, and we crashed until dinner time. Our hotel was right next to MIT, so we walked through the campus that evening to get dinner at Bertucci's, one of a chain of Italian places.

Sunday was Nathan's 12th birthday, so we let him choose the day's activities. We ended up at the Boston Museum of Science. It's an excellent science museum, though it's got a strange combination of hands-on, Exploratorium-style exhibits and old-school wildlife dioramas. The highlight for me was the "Colby room", which is a complete room that was once in the house of a certain Colonel Colby. Colby was a big-game hunter, and the room is a large study/library room filled with the remnants of endangered wildlife. This guy pretty much shot one of everything it seems. Very strange and unsettling, but fascinating in both a historical sense and a macabre sense.

Monday was marathon day. One of the lesser-known facts about the Boston marathon is that not that much of it is actually in Boston. It starts in a town called Hopkinton well outside of Boston, so the organizers bus the participants from Boston's Back Bay area out to Hopkinton in the morning. For some reason, very early in the morning so that most of the runners are at the pre-race village by 9 even though the race doesn't start until noon. So we got to hang around for 3 hours waiting for the race to start, trying to stay warm, and standing in Port-a-john lines. Although the "athletes' village" was divided into 2 parts this year (one for the noon start, one for the 12:30 wave), that's still a whole lotta humanity to pack on to what is basically a high-school practice field.

A bit after 11 they started shuffling us toward the gear buses and then the start line. You have to walk about a mile or so to the actual start area. I was in the 6th corral, which was unusual for me. Even at Chicago and the San Diego RnR marathons, which have more entrants, i was in the first corral so i wasn't that far from the start. Finally the race was started, but it took another couple of minutes to get moving and another to get to the start line. By the start we were able to run at a decent pace, but it was crowded and would never really thin out.

Going down the road in Hopkinton i immediately realized why Boston is not your average marathon. Crowds lined the road and they were really cheering. Not just the normal "you can do it" sort of cheers, but real honest-to-god cheering. I haven't felt so much like a real athlete since high school basketball. I don't remember much about the course at this stage except for the large number of people (all men) who jumped off the road to relieve themselves. The road is so crowded at this stage that you don't really have much of an opportunity to lock into a pace and drift off.

The first real landmark i remember is the Wellesley college crowd, almost entirely female, who are known for being very, very loud. They lived up to the rep. I did not stop for a hug as many do, but it still felt like a small rock-star moment.

Throughout the course, i slapped more spectator hands than ever before. Normally, i tend to ignore the spectators as much as i can, but there's some compulsion at Boston to interact with the crowd. I had no idea how fast i could run, whether this would be like Phoenix where i didn't hit the wall, or like previous marathons where i've felt good for 20 and then crashed. I decided on 7:30 pace for no good reason, and i was having good luck at sticking to it though my legs definitely didn't feel as good as Phoenix. The more intense speed training i did prior to Phoenix obviously made a big difference, but i wasn't sure how much. I felt pretty good coming into the big uphills near the town of Newton, so i just kept chugging along.

I made it up Heartbreak Hill without major problems, though i obviously lost some time to pace. But once i hit the downhill, i started to feel pretty good. I was over 7:30 pace, and i hit the 24 mile mark in about 3:02 (7:30 pace = 3:00 hours), but no crash. The final couple of miles were just great, as the crowd was cheering and my legs felt good and we were going through an interesting part of Boston. I kept cranking, and i even had a bit left for a mild kick at the end. I finished in 3:18.50, about 7:35 pace; but i felt pretty good about the race. I really didn't think going into the marathon that i'd be able to break 3:20 again, especially on this course. It's very gratifying to run a Boston qualifying time at Boston.

There wasn't a lot left of race day. I met up with Em and the kids and we took the T back to the hotel. We cleaned up and went to Legal Seafoods for dinner so that i could protein-load, which i've found to be an excellent aid to recovery (or maybe just a good reason to eat a steak. Whatever.)

On Tuesday we went to Harvard Square and walked around the campus. We bought a Harvard sweatshirt for one of my nephews, knocked around the Harvard book store, and then got some lunch at a local cafe. Emily and the boys were amused by the "Dewey, Cheetham, and Howe" sign in the window across the street. After lunch we took the T over to Fenway park and bought a Bosox shirt for my other nephew. We headed back to the hotel, and then walked to a nearby Trader Joe's to get some food for dinner.

Wednesday was mostly a travel day. We had to check out at noon and our flight was at 4, so we headed to the airport in the late morning, checked our luggage, and then took the T over to the New England aquarium. The aquarium was way too busy, so we just wandered around on the wharfs and grabbed some lunch. Other than an encounter with a slightly belligerent subway denizen who wanted to rant about immigrants, it was an uneventful trip and we made it back to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Ultimately, i guess i'm just glad that Boston wasn't too anti-climactic. I'd put so much effort into getting there that i was afraid that the race itself would be an afterthought. But Boston is designed to be special, not only because it's been going on for 110 years but also because of the Monday noon start and the fact that it's a holiday and the race gets so much attention. For days when you walk around Boston you see people with marathon gear and, after the race, people will wear their finisher medals even though the race is long over. Unlike most marathons, Boston is not about first timers or "just" finishing or even (for better or worse) raising money for charity. Boston is elitist in the sense that it is exclusionary and competitive. Virtually everyone at Boston is a "serious" marathoner, and it doesn't matter to any of the participants whether anyone else cares because for those 3+ hours it's only the rest of the field that counts.