Monday, March 15, 2010

Trope-Shuffling in Fiction

Supposedly a grad student somewhere did his or her thesis on Nora Roberts (I would love to link to it but can't find it). On surveying the voluminous work of Ms. Roberts said grad student noticed a number of common structural patterns: one of them was that the protagonist kisses the love interest for the first time after the same percentage of the book has elapsed. Learning this, you're left with the feeling that Roberts could just be doing a find-and-replace with character names and dropping in the odd paragraph of location description. ("In September Darcy smelled the air along the New England coast turning crisp..."-CTRL-H-"In October Jessica's boots crunched in the first snowfall around their little Rocky Mountain cabin...")

There are two reasons this post is not an attack on Nora Roberts. The first is that people are obviously getting something out of reading her novels, and if I could make what she does writing romance novels, I sure as hell wouldn't be sitting here writing blog entries for free. The second is that in my old age I'm getting picky about science fiction because it's more and more obviously doing the same thing. I'm not complaining that the genre has changed for the worse - it's that readers have access to more material, and more organized criticism of that material. This is why structural awareness of art, and structural approaches to creating it (whatever term you use for that) inevitably emerges in highly literate societies. (As a long aside: speaking of structural awareness in literature, have you noticed all the works like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or that Kerouac meets Lovecraft stuff, or techno-thriller meets space opera meets cyberpunk? You can't help but wonder what this means for genres or literature in general; there's a fine line between deliberate genre-cross-fertilization and parody, if it exists at all. The mid-90s to early aughts saw a burst of ill-remembered experimentation between metal and other forms of music, driven both by the stylistic dead end metal found itself in as well as a desire for broader recognition by music fans in general. Spot the difference.)

The bottom line: the more of a genre you're exposed to, the more obvious the underlying (identical) patterns and themes become, and more and more much of it seems like a find-and-replace exercise, even though the authors may not realize it themselves. If you're dubious, go here and click around for awhile (but come back and finish the post). It's a nice Wiki of science fiction concepts. Eldritch abominations, stellar empires, intelligent gerbils, all things which seem interesting and "cool" in novel settings - until you see multiple specimens of each concept isolated and under glass. Put them in a card deck and shuffle, connect these still frames with some fairly automatic narrative, voila! Science fiction story. In a way it doesn't even seem as clever as David Cope's program in the post I wrote before this one. The absent aliens don't always reveal themselves on page 183 as is claimed with Nora Roberts, but they still make an appearance in the same sort of pattern. There is a finite number of themes in any genre, including speculative fiction, and they get rearranged in different stories. Understandable; new ideas are hard to find, and even harder to read. After considering this, it might not seem so strange that a technical journal article with just one explicitly-presented novel idea is so dense. By analogy: throughout my twenties, I used to visit hospitals all over the country for my job, and I was amazed at how hard they were to navigate, and how you never get any better at it; you don't realize how similar are the floorplans of most buildings, and how much you rely on that, until you're in a large and unique building.

This post doesn't purport to be a revelation from a world-weary fiction consumer that there's no such thing as a new idea (that idea sure isn't new at least.) There are, but you have to dig; and in a way I'm sorry that I've finally stored up enough data that I can no longer avoid noticing the patterns. I imagine this will be happening to younger and younger people as time goes on, as media becomes more prevalent and available and sortable.

Genre fiction will always be guilty of trope-abuse to some degree; otherwise it wouldn't be genre fiction. But some are worse than others, and fantasy has always been one of the guiltiest. The evolution of fiction is about turning more and more of the traditional elements of literature into variables instead of constants, and speculative fiction finally brought even setting into play. That's why fantasy always seemed like such a wasteful genre to me - a speculative fiction author is free to build whatever world he or she wants to, and the fantasy author takes that opportunity and puts a character into a re-named early medieval Europe, complete with the looming columns of a recently fallen empire. Yes, I know, people like sword-fighting, so it sells; fine for them. Not everybody wants to spend their finite minutes skimming repeatedly through the same duel.

This might be why in our dotage, sf fans eventually move to things like Borges or Barth (although Wolfe and Delany also force some number-crunching). What do you really get out of a find-and-replace-the-names kind of piece except temporary amusement? It's possible and preferable to learn something about the real world through fiction and even to exercise your critical thinking and problem-solving muscles.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Language, Metal and AI Composers

I'd long ago heard of David Cope and never got around to checking him out, but didn't realize he was using software to compose. (The article has samples). If you're already familiar with Cope you can skip this excerpt:
The best way to replicate Bach’s process was for the software to derive his rules — both the standard techniques and the behavior of breaking them. Cope spent months converting 300 Bach chorales into a database, note by note. Then he wrote a program that segmented the bits into digital objects and reassembled them the way Bach tended to put them together...[The computer program] produced thousands of scores in the style of classical heavyweights, scores so impressive that classical music scholars failed to identify them as computer-created.

So what it looks like from this brief review is that Cope's software inducted patterns from Bach's ouvre, determined what "rules" Bach was following, and then turned around and produced more work based on those rules. This is the first point from this article that fascinates me. For years, a back-burner idea I've had as a fan of the metal genre is to write a program that does exactly the same thing with metal riffs, if not entire songs. (Metallica fans: did you have your heart broken trying to get into Trivium after they were supposedly writing old-school Metallica songs? Me too. If Trivium and Metallica won't do it, maybe Skynet will. Blackened Part II would be a good song for Skynet to play on Judgment Day.) What's stopped me is I would have to know something about programming to do it, and I haven't set aside time to learn enough PERL or Python or whatever would be the best language for the project. Maybe Cope will share his software.

A second point of interest is that one of the problems that Cope ran into was that there was structure - rules subject to (more difficult) induction - below the structure that he initially examined. It would be like trying to predict the movement of the stock market entirely from its behavior, and nothing else; yes, it does have some predictable behavior patterns over time (despite what fundamentals fundamentalists will tell you) but not enough to make a decision entirely based on (despite what the technical snake oil salesman will tell you). If you're only looking at "short-term" melody, I imagine you'd run into the same problem. As a result, Cope's software was reproducing Bach melodies, but there was something missing:

Yet as Cope tested the recombinating software on Bach, he noticed that the music would often wander and lacked an overall logic. More important, the output seemed to be missing some ineffable essence...For hundreds of years, musicologists had analyzed the rules of composition at a superficial level. Yet few had explored the details of musical style; their descriptions of terms like “dynamic,” for example, were so vague as to be unprogrammable. So Cope developed his own types of musical phenomena to capture each composer’s tendencies — for instance, how often a series of notes shows up, or how a series may signal a change in key. He also classified chords, phrases and entire sections of a piece based on his own grammar of musical storytelling and tension and release: statement, preparation, extension, antecedent, consequent.

That Cope must necessarily have generated a systematic notation for all these qualities is exciting enough, but of course "reducing" art to such a system will offend more than a few. Forgive the condescension in my attempt to summarize the way the objections from artists usually go: "But like the human spirit, art triggers emotions and is forever unprogrammable and free! You shouldn't try to describe it systematically!" (Translation: "I am not consciously aware of how I do what I do or why I am reacting so strongly. This obscurity of motivation is useful, because as long as this is the case it can not be easily taught or replicated by others, and therefore the status afforded by my rare ability is secure.")

But this approach is generalizable outside music. One of the reasons I find Cope so interesting is that his work in discovering the non-superficial patterns in Bach recapitulates an issue in linguistics: the rules of grammar and morphosyntax have received the most scrutiny so far, but there is clearly more to language than that (think of the rules of rhetoric, the logical development of a topic, and lots of other things that we have no reason to think computers are yet anywhere close to automating). This ability sometimes breaks in humans with other cognitive disruptions. Single sentences from schizophrenics are usually completely coherent, but look at a few dozen strung together, and you notice that something isn't connecting. You can even measure this electrically: wire a healthy person up to an EEG, and when she uses non-content operator words (linguistics nuts-and-bolts, for example, prepositions in English) you can tell by the electrical activity in her brain she doesn't have to work as hard as when she retrieves content words like tree or Korea. But tellingly, in schizophrenics, the linguistic operators are just as hard to pull up as the content words. (And there's another project I haven't yet done: look at speakers of languages with complex topic-marking systems that anticipate the content and function of coming sentences, like Washoe, and see if schizophrenic speakers have more trouble with those markers than healthy speakers. Granted, these days I probably can't find many schizophrenic first-language Washoe speakers so I'll have to go looking elsewhere.) Since Cope was eventually able to pull out the patterns that make Bach Bach, no matter how obscure they initially were, his approach doubtless has applications to pattern recognition in general, in language and elsewhere.

Finally, the article is just as much about the reactions to Cope's work as about the work itself. He's made many people unhappy; in particular I was surprised by Doug Hofstadter's reaction. One can understand the completely practical concern that composers have enough trouble making a living through their craft now, and if eventually There's An App For That, so much for getting paid for manual composition, or at least what will be seen as the pre-industrial inefficient cottage industry of composition. But of course, that's not what motivates most of the furor; what does motivate it is the usually-unstated influence of the persona of a work's producer on people's appreciation of the work. I think most people - not just artistic rubes like me but even professional critics - are dishonest with themselves about the major role this plays in their appreciation of arts of all sorts. For example: who would give a rat's ass about this amateurish impressionist piece unless you knew a chimpanzee painted it? The basic truth of perception is that human minds don't have separable sense channels, and one of those inseparable channels is from episodic memory. That is to say: when you watch a crow flying and hear its call, you don't have to "decide" to integrate the sight of the crow with the sound of the caw; the integration of inputs happens prior to your conscious experience of it, and it's not subject to deliberation. (Don't get too excited about this; in fact your nervous system is also integrating motion, distance, color, and the edges of surfaces in your vision, to the extent that we're still not quite sure how we actually see objects, instead of separate colors, edges, movements, etc.)

But our experiential world is built from sight and sound, and from associations from prior experience. Do you like steak? Imagine that you have a steak dinner with a friend. After the meal, he gets up from the table, walks outside the restaurant to hail a cab, and is run over and killed. Suffice to it say your next steak will not be as enjoyable. But in the set of chemical equations that sum up to cause "perception of eating steak", it's not the steak that's changed, it's you, and (importantly) the change is not even in your taste buds, but in your central nervous system. The same rule that applies to food applies to art. Van Gogh's work is probably somewhat interesting to begin with even if you don't know anything about its creator. But how many people have stood before Starry Night and tried to banish all thoughts of its ear-splicing creator's inner life from their minds? If we're dishonest that this is part of our experience of appreciating art, then of course we'll be disturbed to discover that the notes in a composition were arranged by a computer. A simple blinded listening test might settle the question of to what degree computers can compose beautiful music. If prior experience about people's ability to protect these kinds of beliefs from the truth is any guide, then the people seemingly most confident that computers can't compose will certainly be the ones least likely to agree to such a test.

But this is exactly why Cope's critics should calm down. The composer as part of the work isn't going anywhere. That's why people read the linked article and some even write blog posts about it. The melodies Cope's software produced - that is, that Cope produced - didn't leap from Chaos into our ears fully-formed. They exist because of the passion and hard work of the composer. I'll definitely be listening to more of his work, and of course, part of my enjoyment will come from appreciation of Cope and his accomplishments.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

First Interstellar Mission by 2025

People have put money on the following proposition at

"The first true interstellar mission, targeted at the closest star to the Sun or even farther, will be launched before or on December 6, 2025 and will be widely supported by the public."

What do you think? I certainly think this should be true, but I'm not confident that it will come to pass.

Note that longbets is a one-to-one wager site, not a futures market; those are cool because lots of people can get in on the action.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Were There Earthquake Lights in Chile?

Here is an excellent USGS document on earthquake lights. Sky- or ground-associated earthquake lights have been reported preceeding earthquakes by an hour or so. A man reported the sand at Ocean Beach in San Francisco glowing in the pre-dawn darkness an hour before the 1906 quake struck (and of course I can't find the reference). One of the earliest good documentations of earthquake lights were the Matsushiro earthquakes in central Japan in the 1960s (right over the North American-Asian-Philippine Plate Triple Junction). Want to see for yourself? These weird rainbow clouds appeared over Sichuan in the hour before the quake there in May 2008.

People have reported weird lights preceding the Chile quake, although the only footage I've seen so far is here, and I'm betting it's just transformers blowing up, like these in Peru from 2007. (Notably, they're during the quake.)

(Note that these observations in no way support the tinfoil-hat-wearers who blame the Chilean earthquake and everything else on "HAARP". Were the earthquake lights in Japan HAARP too? What about in San Francisco a century ago? I guess those earthquake lights were from aliens trying to blow up the Earth.)

The best explanation for earthquake lights so far (but it's still not great) is ultra-low frequency (ULF) electromagnetic radiation generated by plate motion. That I know of no one has a coherent model to explain how it works or originates, especially since even empirically a) lights and large earthquakes don't always occur together, and b) electromagnetic anomalies don't always occur in high activity areas. Parkfield, California (where all the parallel Northern California faults split off from the San Andreas) is probably the most seismically active place in the Lower 48, and when an acquaintance went there to record with his field rig, he got nothing.

Empirically, the ULF connection has arguably been reinforced by the Vogel Study, a set of observations in 2001 of what was almost certainly a man-made phenomenon near Toppenish on the Yakama reservation in central Washington State. The report is worth reading. Essentially, the reservation fire department kept getting calls about fires from people at who saw lights at night. These lights turned out to be lights in the sky rather than burning hillsides. This was costing the reservation money, so they called in the team that wrote this report to figure out what was going on. What these observers picked up were ULF signals, almost certainly of artificial origin (look at how square the wave forms are), modulated both by amplitude and frequency. Entirely on a lark because I had read this study, a few summers ago I drove through the area and until I actually went there I didn't look at the map too closely. It turns out Hanford Nuclear Facility and Yakima Firing Center are nearby, in one of the possible directions from which the signal was coming. Without getting all tinfoil-hatty, the Federation of American Scientists maintains a document supposedly from the EU Parliament about a U.S. surveillance network called ECHELON which supposedly has operations at Yakima Firing Center (see page 52). One problem is that while these ULF emissions were detected, there were no lights detected during the observation period. It's still interesting that the lights were seen at this location, and that there were ULF signals detected.

Since the lights sometimes precede earthquakes and could conceivably help us avoid future loss of life, this phenomenon requires closer study.

Do We Already Have a Grand Unified Theory?

If we do, it's a non-mainstream one; yes, that usually matters, in terms of speed of acceptance. Burkhard Heim and a few disciplies claim that he resolved the inconsistencies between relativity and quantum mechanics. The math is beyond my poor power to evaluate it but doing a "social meta-analysis" of Heim's behavior, he certainly doesn't fit the standard physics crank profile as developed by Pascal Boyer, first and foremost because Heim developed a new calculus for his theory. (Most cranks can't get past algebra). John Reed abandoned his exegesis of Heim's work after locating some obscure defintions that Reed claims show Heim's work to be circular. Dröscher and Hauser appear to still be developing Heim's ideas; start here for constants and notation.

Repeat Miller-Urey with Silanes

See proposal at