Monday, June 21, 2010

The hand of a master

Last week I had the immense pleasure of going to the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk to interview the pianist Leon Fleisher in front of an audience. I was standing in for Antonio Damasio, who had been unable to fly trans-Atlantic because of a recent accident. Leon was already deemed one of the most significant pianists of his time as a young man in the 1960s, when he found himself afflicted by ‘musician’s cramp’, also known as focal dystonia, which made two fingers of his right hand curl up and refuse to accede to his demands. This condition left him unable to play two-handed for the best part of three decades, during which he taught, conducted, and performed the left-handed repertoire (mostly written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War). Leon finally regained use of his right hand, and now performs two-handed – he had already played at the festival with his wife Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, and will shortly perform Bach and Brahms with the Signum Quartet. I said a little about Leon’s condition in my piece for the FT; Oliver Sacks says more in his book Musicophilia. It was a tremendous privilege to be able to talk with Leon before and during the event; I felt myself to be in the presence of someone who genuinely lived inside the music. Radio 3 are broadcasting several of the Aldeburgh events, including Leon’s performance with Signum. They also recorded an interview with Leon and me before the event, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day.

Here, however, is a piece about one of the other events, which I did not have a chance to mention in the FT. It also involves Signum, and appears in the July issue of Prospect.


There are two golden rules for an orchestra’, the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is alleged to have said. ‘Start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between.’ Beecham was prone to witty overstatement, but his remark fits an intuition that we are acutely sensitive to failures of synchronization in musical performance. ‘They were all over the place’ is the typical put-down of ensembles with sloppy timing.

But playing together in time is far from trivial. Even orchestral musicians watching a conductor have to be anticipating the beat if they’re not going to miss it, and the smaller ensembles for chamber music have no human metronome to follow. Besides, most music requires a variable metronome: a string quartet, just like a soloist, will slow down and speed up for expressive purposes. Who decides the rhythm and how to vary it, when there is no one obviously leading?

That’s a question being studied by psychologist Alan Wing and Satoshi Endo at Birmingham University, together with cellist Adrian Bradbury. At the Aldeburgh Festival in June, Wing will describe his experiments with the Signum Quartet, a German ensemble who are also performing at the festival. Signum have gamely agreed to be the guinea pigs for Wing’s studies of musical synchronization, the results of which he was still analysing as the festival’s opening loomed.

Wing’s interest in human timing and synchronization led only by degrees to music. Some years ago he investigated how rowers in the Cambridge Blues all pulled together, and he hints with tongue in cheek that those studies might have helped stem the long run of Oxford victories.

But rowing, with everyone striving to synchronize an identical and highly regular action, is easy compared with music. In a string quartet, each musician plays a different part, and yet they must all intermesh to create a single rhythmic pulse, albeit one that satisfies the elastic demands of musical expression. Who is following whom?

To find out, Wing tracked the movements of the Signum musicians using motion-capture video, which bounces infrared light off reflectors attached to their bows. Electronic pick-ups on the instruments then allowed him to follow the relationships between movement and sound for each player in turn, and to look for correlations between the players. Previous work, particularly on keyboardists (whose finger movements are easy to detect electronically), has shown that performers don’t keep to a strict tempo but vary the gaps between beats by perhaps a few milliseconds. Some of these variations are random, but some are intentional and repeatable from one performance to another. Such variations not only convey emotion but also, paradoxically, help the listener to discern the music’s pulse in the first place by slightly exaggerating its rhythmic patterns.

In string quartets, the performer who carries the melody – often the first violin – is usually deemed to be the leader. That, at least, is what the musicians will profess. But do their microscopic variations in timing bear that out – do the other players, for example, fall in step slightly behind the first violin? That’s what Wing’s results suggest. By using mathematical techniques analogous to those used to study periodic change in climate and animal populations, he analysed the timings of each player during a test passage from Haydn to figure out whether any one player’s rhythm depended on that of any other. It seems that the cello and viola form a tight-knit ‘rhythm section’, like the bass and drums of a rock band, which responded to but did not in turn affect what the first violin was doing.

Mindful of Beecham’s dictum, Wing also wondered just how ensembles begin a piece. How, and how well, do they all come in together? The lead player in a quartet will usually make an exaggerated movement of the bow or head to signal the first beat, but what exactly is it that the other players respond to? From video recordings, Wing created a virtual avatar of the first violinist, from which he could lop off the head or an arm to see how much it influenced the other players when they were guided by the on-screen image. As intuition suggests, the head and the right (bowing) arm were crucial, while the left (fingering) arm didn’t really matter. And the tempo adopted by the ensemble as the music proceeds from its outset seemed to be set by the energy of these initial gestures – how much the bow arm accelerates in preparing for the first stroke, say.

In a sense, this is an extreme example of the kind of “unspoken leadership” that has been studied in animal communities, for example in the question of how just a few honeybees with “privileged information” about the location of a good nest site can induce the rest of the swarm to follow them. It’s possible, then, that the ramifications extend beyond the togetherness of musicians: to that of dancers and acrobats, even to the socially cohesive group activities involved in agriculture and industry—in which some think music has its origins.

Wet dreams

This morning I found myself sitting outside a café in upper Regent Street watching passers-by sample three types of water and offer their opinions on them. ‘Three types of water’ of course begs the question, and I suspect there was nothing but one type of water involved, with trivial variations in the usual trace solutes. This was a vox-pop test for the Radio 4 consumer and lifestyle programme ‘You And Yours’, which in this item was investigating the claims being made for so-called ‘ionized water’, equipment for the production of which is being installed in health-food cafés at vast expense. When the BBC folks contacted me last Friday to ask my opinion on ionized water, I think they were a little surprised when I responded ‘what’s that?’ They’d got it confused with the deionized water available in all good labs, not to mention garages that sell it for your car battery. But as I said to them, ‘ionized’ water made no sense to me. I’m pleased to say that it was quite proper that it did not. A quick search reveals that ionized water is just the latest of the ‘altered water treatments’ being advocated for turning ordinary water into a wondrous health-giving reagent. Like all the others, it is a sham. Basically it seems to involve an electrolytic process that allegedly produces alkaline water at one electrode – not entirely implausible in itself, if there is an electrolyte present, but the claims made for the health benefits of drinking ‘alkaline water’ are nonsense, and the waffle about reactive oxygen species and cancer just the usual junk. Fortunately, Steven Lower of Simon Fraser University has prepared an excellent web site debunking this stuff, which saves me the effort.

Those who want the full nonsense can get it here. Yes, complete with special ‘water clusters’. If you want to buy a water ionizer, feel free to do so here. And I’m amused to see that Ray Kurzweil, who wants to live long enough to reach the age of immortality that is just around the corner, has bought into this stuff. Ray swears that ionized water is alkaline, because like a ‘responsible scientist’ he measured the pH. His scientific curiosity did not, however, extend to investigating, if this was so, what the counterions to the hydroxyls are – in other words, which salts had been added to the water to make alkalinity possible. We are apparently supposed to believe that it is the water itself that is alkaline, which of course is chemically impossible. Keep drinking, Ray.

In any case, I was required on You And Yours to offer scientific comment on this affair. You can judge the results for yourselves here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bursting out

I have a review in Nature of Albert-László Barabási’s new book Bursts. The book is nice, but the review was necessarily truncated, and here is how I really wanted to put it.

Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do

Albert-László Barabási

Dutton, New York, 2010
310 pages

Is human behaviour deterministic or random? Psychoanalysts, economists and behavioural geneticists, however unlikely as bedfellows, all tend to assume cause and effect: we do what we do for a discernible reason, whether obeying the dictates of the unconscious, rational self-interest or our genetic predisposition. But those assumptions have not produced anything like a predictive model of human actions, and we are daily presented with reason to suspect that our actions owe more to sheer caprice than to any formula. Given the disparity of individual decisions, perhaps our behaviour shows no more pattern than coin-tossing: maybe collectively it is dominated by the randomness encoded by the gaussian distribution, the familiar bell-curve statistics of a series of independent events whose outcomes are a matter of chance.

Albert-László Barabási’s Bursts explains how this notion of randomness has been undermined by recent research, much of it conducted by him and his collaborators, that has revealed a hitherto unexpected pattern in human activities ranging from the sending of emails (and before that, postal letters) to our movements through the world. We conduct our affairs in bursts, for example sending out several emails in a short space of time and then none for hours. Even our everyday wrist movements, when monitored with accelerometers, show this bursty behaviour, with spells of motion interspersed with periods of repose. Because the distribution of bursts differs for people who are clinically depressed, these seemingly irrelevant statistics might offer a simple diagnostic tool.

Burstiness could seem so intuitively obvious as to be trivial. That we find a moment to catch up with email responses, rather than attending to them one by one at random intervals, is scarcely puzzling or surprising. But such rationalizing narratives don’t fully account for everything: why, then, does it take us a few minutes to respond to some messages but weeks to get to others? Barabási and his coworkers explained that on the assumption that we prioritize, adding new priorities to our ‘must-do’ lists each time others are cleared.

Barabási renders observations like this, which could seem dry or frivolous, both engaging and illuminating through human stories: Einstein unwittingly stalling the career of Theodor Kaluza by taking two years to reply to a letter, or the hapless artist Hasan Elahi being taken for questioning by US Homeland Security because of his ‘suspicious movement’. Barabási shows that Elahi’s globetrotting really was anomalous – whereas the algorithm he developed in his lab to predict people’s whereabouts based on their personal bursty signature forecast everyone else’s movements with more than 80 percent accuracy, Elahi foiled the program with his genuine randomness.

Burstiness is not confined to human activity, and so is not somehow a by-product of cognition. It is seen in the foraging patterns of several animals (though not, as once claimed in this journal, albatrosses). It even fits the transcriptional activity of genes and evolutionary speciation. But Barabási cannot yet say whether this ubiquity stems from the same basic cause, or whether burstiness happens to be a statistical signature that many mechanisms can generate. The same question has been raised of the power-law statistics found for many natural and social phenomena (in fact bursts also produce power laws), and of fractal structures. To put it another way, is burstiness a discriminating and informative character, or just a common epiphenomenon of several distinct processes? We don’t yet know.

Moreover, the burstiness of human behaviour doesn’t obviously warrant the air of determinism that hangs over the book. ‘Prediction at the individual level is growing increasingly feasible’, Barabási asserts. But bursts per se don’t obviously help with the sort of detailed, moment-by-moment prediction he is discussing here – like the avalanches of self-organized criticality, they remain unpredictable as individual events, differing from gaussian randomness only because they are correlated. They simply help us get the overall statistics right.

While popular science books written by researchers presenting new ideas typically have an ex cathedra quality, Bursts shows the influence of the journalistic approach of professional writers, exemplified by James Gleick and Malcolm Gladwell, narrative-driven and replete with personality sketches. Barabási is rather good at these story-telling tricks, and his opening paragraph is a masterful example of the genre, drawing us in with a puzzle we know will be resolved only much later.

Whether his daring device of punctuating the exposition with the tale of how his Transylvanian compatriot György Székely led a peasant revolt in Hungary in 1514 works is less clear. Barabási implies that this tale illustrates some of the conclusions about burstiness and unpredictability, but that’s far from obvious. Because I am apparently Barabási’s personal Hasan Elahi, a vanishingly rare outlier who happens to have an interest both in Székely Transylvania and the peasant uprisings of the early sixteenth century, I was happy to indulge him. I suspect not everyone will do so. But they should try, because Bursts reveals Barabási to be not just an inventive and profoundly interdisciplinary scientist but an unusually talented communicator.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Still got music on the brain

I have a piece in the FT about the forthcoming events on ‘music and the brain’ at the Aldeburgh Festival. The piece is so unadulterated that I won’t even bother pasting the ‘pre-edited’ version here (apart, that is, from the conversion of Eckart Altenmüller from a neuroscientist to a ‘euro-scientist’, a typo that has the distinction of both being mildly amusing and remaining true). More on this to follow.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Mind over matter?

There’s a piece in today’s Guardian Review by American author and novelist Marilynne Robinson, who bravely challenges the materialistic interpretations of the brain offered by the likes of Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson. It is an extract from her book Absence of Mind. I say’ brave’ rather than ‘persuasive.’ I’ve got some sympathy for her criticisms of the way the pop neuro- and cognitive scientists try to explain the brain by ruling out of bounds those things that seem too intangible or difficult. And although Pinker makes a valid point by confessing that we have no reason to suppose the human brain is capable of understanding the resolution to some of the hard philosophical questions, Robinson is right to suggest that this, even if it is true, is no reason to stop asking them. (The likes of Pinker will probably be pulling their elegantly coiffeured hair out at the way Robinson casually makes Freud a part of mainstream science, but let’s put that aside.)

My main complaint is that the article is encrusted with what seems to be the characteristically clotted style of American academics of letters, which strives always to be artful at the expense of plain speaking. For example, in response to E. O. Wilson’s comment that ‘The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to the point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbour a nonphysical mind’, Robinson replies: ‘To prove a negative, or to treat it as having been proved, is, oddly enough, an old and essential strategy of positivism. So I do feel obliged to point out that if such a site could be found in the brain, then the mind would be physical in the same sense that anything else with a locus in the brain is physical. To define the mind as nonphysical in the first place clearly prejudices his conclusion.’ The same point might have been made with less fuss had she simply said ‘But how can a nonphysical mind have a physical location?’

Here at least, however, her meaning is clear. But how about this: ‘What grounds can there be for doubting that a sufficient biological account of the brain would yield the complex phenomenon we know and experience as the mind? It is only the pertinacity of the mind/body dichotomy that sustains the notion that a sufficient biological account of the brain would be reductionist in the negative sense. Such thinking is starkly at odds with our awareness of the utter brilliance of the physical body.’ I have read this several times, and still doubt that I really understand any of it. Would a statement like this be permitted by an editor in a commissioned piece? I’d like to think not.

And isn’t it odd, after stating ‘What Descartes actually intended by the words "soul" and "mind" seems to me an open question for Descartes himself’, to simply sign the question off with ‘No doubt there are volumes to be consulted on this subject.’ Indeed there are – why not consult them? Better still, why not tell us what Descartes actually said? (For what it is worth, I think she is trying to complicate the matter too much. The soul, for Descartes, seems to me to be simply what motivates the body-machine: what puts its hydraulics and cogs and levers into particular motions. No big deal; except that it enabled Descartes to defend himself against charges of atheism.)

The standfirst of the piece (obviously not by the author) asks ‘What is meant by the idea of a soul?’ Robinson suggests that Pinker identifies the soul with the mind, which seems fair enough on the strength of the passage she quotes. Aristotle did likewise, at least as far as humans are concerned, for he said we are distinguished from other beings by possessing a rational soul. But then, Aristotle’s soul was always a thoroughly secular, quasi-scientific notion. All I can find as Robinson’s alternative is that the soul is ‘an aspect of deep experience’. I can see that this may be developed into some kind of meaning. She might also have usefully pointed out that this apparently deviates from the traditional Catholic notion of a soul as a non-physical badge of humanness that is slotted into the organism at conception.

But the least convincing aspect of the piece is the classic ‘just-as’ reasoning of the scientific dilettante. Robinson knows about quantum entanglement (sort of). And her point there seems to be ‘if we don’t really understand that, how can we think we can understand the brain/mind?’ But the hard thing about entanglement is not ‘understanding’ it (though we can’t claim to yet do so completely), but that it defies intuition. And please, no more allusions to the ‘quantum brain’.

Similarly, just as we don’t see a bird as a modified dinosaur (ah, do we not?), she argues that ‘there is no reason to assume our species resembles in any essential way the ancient primates whose genes we carry.’ Hmm… you might want to have another attempt at that sentence. Even if we allow that Robinson perhaps means it to apply only to aspects of brain, this is more a desperate plea to liberate us from our evolutionary past than a claim with any kind of reasoned support. ‘Might not the human brain have undergone a qualitative change’ [when the first artifact appeared], she asks? Well yes, it might, and some have called that change ‘hominization’. But this does not mean we lost all our former instincts and drives. It would doubtless have been catastrophic if we had. Even I, a sceptic of evolutionary-psychological Just So stories, can see this as an attempt to resurrect the specialness of humankind that some religious people still struggle to relinquish.

Pinker et al. will have little difficulty with this rather otiose assault.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

What's the big idea?

I’m still not sure whether I did right to join the panel for the online debate being launched by Icon Books on ‘The World’s Greatest Idea’. Well, the title says it all, no? I’m dubious about any view of history as a succession of ‘great ideas’, and the notion of ranking them – abolition of slavery vs the aerofoil vs arable farming – could seem worse than meaningless. Besides, does one rate them according to how intellectually dramatic an ‘idea’ is, or how important it has been to world civilization, or how well it has served humankind, or…? But I acceded in the end because I figured it does not do to be too po-faced about an exercise that after all is just a springboard for a potential discussion about how society produces and is changed by innovation. And there is something grandly absurd about pitching sewerage against romance against simplified Chinese characters. I’m also reassured to see that someone as discerning as Patricia Fara has also taken part. Go on, place a vote – there’s no harm in it.