Hemispheres of Music

“Find the thing that excites you the most and go after that … find the thing that you’re natural and really good at, and then exaggerate it…”

I came across this 2010 interview with Steve Vai, and something he said struck me.

— Steve Vai

He says that some of the best musicians don’t know music theory and can’t read or write.

“If you tell Jeff Beck to play an F# on the G string, he might not know what it is…”

—Steve Vai (rather out of context, but still…)

This is a possible example of where musicality is a right-hemisphere activity whilst the symbolic representation happens on the left. I am simplifying and talking metaphorically as I have not done any brain scans, but it feels apt. Of course, Steve Vai does both—and on steroids, so there’s that.

Unwitting Carnivores?

Children are ethically indisposed to think it’s wrong to eat animals. This article from the Journal of Environmental Psychology published a year ago looks into the schism and cognitive dissonance assuaging mechanisms in play.

This study relied on a small sample size (n=176), between the ages of 4 and 7 years living in a metropolitan area located in the southeastern region of the United States. The sample was otherwise diverse.

As this study was limited in geographic scope (see WIERD on a tangential note), it noted that eating habits vary by culture. For example, eating horse (or dog) meat is not condoned in the United States, but it is acceptable in many other places.

In summary, the childer were shown cards each with a picture of an item, whether a French fry, a horse, a cat, a fish, a tomato, and so on. At the start, they were asked to identify the item represented on the card. Next, they were asked to put the card into one of two bins, each decorated to approximate an animal or vegetation. Finally, they were asked to sort the cards into two areas, one represented by false teeth indicating edible products and a rubbish bin representing inedible items.

The subjects did a fair job of identifying the card items. They had very high image recognition of these particular animals. On the lower end of recognition were hamburger (ground beef patty), almonds, and shrimp. There was a difference between the older children and the younger children, but this may relate to the added acculturation their age would bring.

Without delving deeply into details, in this study, most 6- and 7-year-olds classified chicken, cows, and pigs as not OK to eat. The interesting cognitive trick is that these children also classified these derivative food items as non-animals thus removing the cognitive dissonance. No longer classified as an animal, their ethical framework remained internally coherent.

In discussing the results, many children were ill-informed about the source of various food products. Language games obscured the source. No one should eat a cow, but beef is fine—a hamburger is fine. Hot dogs grow on trees, don’t they?

This reminds me of the story wherein a chicken and a pig are conversing, and the chicken suggests that it and the pig go into the restaurant business. The pig considers the proposition and declines by the rationale that it would be committed but the chicken would only be involved. Children may believe that hot dogs are a by-product like eggs, fur, or feathers—don’t get me started on the down used in pillows, jackets, and comforters—rather than grasping that the animals yield these products at the expense of their lives.

Some people grow up and realise the inconsistency of their ethics and actions, but they find any number of ways to reconcile their actions, noting that the activity is normal and natural.

FULL: DISCLOSURE: For the record, I eat chicken, turkey (on festive holidays in lieu of chicken), and I eat beef (that’s cows, for the uninformed). I also consume some animal byproducts, i.e., chicken eggs and cheese. I also wear leather. I was a vegetarian for about three years until I opted to become a chickenatarian. My life partners goaded me into eating beef, and so I’ve since added that. In all cases, I feel bad for eating defenceless, sentient beings. I’m not sure it serves as any consolation that I limit my consumption to these three animals—or even if it were only one. For the record, I don’t particularly like the taste of turkey or beef, but it’s not offensive like pork, coffee, or alcohol. Chicken, I like. Sorry chickens.

Video: Homer Simpson’s (not so) ethical dilemma

For the record, this is post number 500 on Philosophics. Perhaps I should write a post about it.

Language Perception

The link between language and cognition is interesting though not entirely grasped.

VIDEO: TED Talk on YouTube — Lera Boroditsky

“I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.”

― Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (probably not, but whatevs…)

Perspective

In the West, we tend to be quite self-centric. We are the centres of our universes, and this has several implications. Firstly, we orient conversation around ourselves; occasionally, we orient conversation around others. Instead, some cultures orient themselves around their world.

Self as Centre

Ordinarily, if a Westerner is asked which is their dominant hand, they might answer left or right. If they are asked to describe where something is spatially, one might answer on my left or right or above or below me. If the person asking is present, they may simply point to the object as a gesture.

Other as Centre

In some cases, we might feel it necessary to orient relative to another? The answer to the question, “Where is the book?” might be, “On your left”, or “You’ve got something on your left cheek”.

Terrain as Centre

In the West, we have notions of cardinal directions—North, East, West, and South—, but we still tend to orient communication around ourselves or others. In some regions, the use of cardinal directions is more prominent than in others. For example, when I am in Boston, I didn’t find many people reference places by cardinal directions, but when I am in Los Angeles, much conversation is relative to head north or head east. I notice that Google Maps tend to employ this. It’s often confusing when I am in an unfamiliar place, and the voice instructs me to travel west toward Avenue X. If I happen to have remembered where Avenue X is, I might internally orient toward that. Otherwise, I head in some direction until Google reinforces my choice or it rather recalculates based on my bad choice, if even nonjudgmentally.

In some cultures, this cardinality includes the body, so in comparison with the aforementioned self-as-centre dominant hand query, the response would depend on which way the subject was facing. Were they a southpaw (lefthander) facing north, they would respond that their west hand is dominant. But if they were facing south, it would be their east hand. This may seem to be confusing to a Westerner, but to a native, they would explicitly understand because they would be intimately oriented. As Lera relates in the video, someone might point out an ant crawling on your southwest leg.

To be fair, this space is not entirely alien to some Westerners. For example, mariners can shift the conversation from themselves to their ship or boat. Rather than left and right, relative to themselves or another, they might refer to port and starboard relative to the vessel. Being on the vessel and facing front (the bow), left is port and starboard is right; however, facing the rear (the stern), left is not starboard and right is now port. So, if someone asks where the lifeboat is, landlubbers may say it’s on their left whilst a sailor might say it’s on the starboard side.

Centring Time

Time is another aspect we centre on ourselves. I won’t even endeavour to raise the circular notion of time. If an English speaker thinks about a timeline, we would likely configure it from left to right equating with past to future. This aligns with our writing preference. For native Arabic or Hebrew speakers, they might naturally opt to convey this from right to left in accordance with their preferred writing system.

For the Aboriginal Kuuk Thaayorre in Australia, their rendition of time was contingent on their orientation in the world. Essentially, time flows from east to west, perhaps in accordance with the apparent movement of the sun across the sky relative to Earth. Facing south or north, they rendered time left to right and right to left, respectively. When they faced east, time came toward the subject, with time moving away from the body when facing west.

Counting

So-called modern or advanced societies have developed number systems, but some cultures either have no counting or limited counting, having systems that might extend 1, 2, many, or 1, 2, 3, many. This means that tasks we learn like accounting, inventory management, or comparing counts of apples and oranges are not only not available to these people, they are irrelevant to them.

Categorical Imperitive

Lera tells us about the blues. Not B.B. King Blues, but the categorisation of blue, blues, and colours more generally. I’ve discussed this before in various places. As with numbers, some languages have a lot and some have few; some have only distinctions for light and dark, or equivalents of white, black, red, and so on. Colour names are typically added to a language in a similar order based on the frequency within the visual colour spectrum. I may have written about that earlier as well if only I could find it.

Different cultures and languages categorise colours differently, subdividing them differently. In many non-English languages, pink is simply light red. English opts to assign it a unique label. On the other hand, blue is basically one colour name in English whilst it is further broken down in Russian to goluboi (light blue, голубой) and siniy (darker blue, синий). This mirrors the pattern of pink (lighter red) and red (darker red) in English, a distinction not prevalent in other languages. Of course, we also have variations of reds and blues such as crimson or cyan, but this is rather second-order nuance.

Interestingly, in neurological studies, when measuring a person with a language that splits a colour, say a Russian looking at blues, the instruments capture the event of the subject having noticed the category shift. No such shift occurs in speakers without such a switch. I would be interested to know what the results would be for a bilingual speaker to be asked to respond in each language. Informally, I asked a Russian mate of mine if he experienced anything differently seeing blue whilst thinking in Russian versus English. He said yes, but couldn’t really provide any additional information. If a reader happens to be fluent in two or more languages, I’d be interested in hearing about your experiences.

One last note on colour, I’ve read studies that claim that women on balance have more colour names than men, which is to say where a typical male only sees shades of blue, the typical woman sees periwinkle, ultramarine, cyan, navy, cobalt, indigo, cerulean, teal, slate, sapphire, turquoise, and on and on. Of course, many English-speaking males may be defensive about now, arguing, “I know cyan. I know teal. Who doesn’t know turquoise?” Knowing is different to employing, and perhaps you’re not typical. You’re an atypical male. Let’s not get into gender challenges. Rather, let’s.

Gender Problems

Yet again, gender rears its ugly head. I am wondering when people are going to start demanding fluidity among gendered nouns. Sticking with Lera’s examples, a bridge happens to be grammatically feminine in Germans and masculine in Spanish. When asked to describe a bridge, German speakers are more apt to choose stereotypically feminine adjectives, beautiful or elegant whilst Spanish speakers opted for stereotypically masculine terms, strong or long. I suppose she was reaching for laughter on that last reference.

Structured Events

Objects and subjective injection are other possible conventions. Lera mentions a tourist bumping into a vase. In English, one would be comfortable declaring, “The man knocked the vase off the pedestal.” In Spanish, the same event might more often be described as “The vase fell off the pedestal”. Notice the shift in agency and dispersion of blame. In English, we have some apparent need to inject not only a cause but an agent as a source of the cause. As I see it, one might have these several (possibly inexhaustive) options:

  1. He knocked the vase off the stand.
  2. Someone knocked the vase off the stand.
  3. The vase got knocked off the stand.
  4. The vase fell off the stand.

I decided to note the relationship between the case and the stand. I suppose this is not strictly necessary and might seem superfluous in some contexts.

In case 1, a specific agent (he) is responsible for knocking off the vase. This does not suggest intent, though even negligence carries weight in many circles.

In case 2, the agent becomes indefinite. The speaker wants to specify that the vase didn’t just fall over on its own.

In case 3, agency is not only indefinite, but it also may not have a subject. Perhaps, a cat knocked it off—or the wind or an earth tremor.

In the final case, 4, the agent is removed from the conversation altogether, All that is conveyed is that the vase fell from a stand.

One might want to argue, “So what?” but this is not simply a convention of language; it stems from perception—or perhaps perception was altered by language through acculturation, but let’s not quibble here. It determines what someone pays attention to. When an event was witnessed, people from cultures where agency is a strong component, the witness is more apt to remember the culprit, whereas a non-agency-focused witness, would not be as likely to recall attributes about the person who may have knocked it over. Practically, this leads to issues of blame and culpability. Clearly, a culture with an agent orientation might be quicker to assess blame, where this would be further removed from the conversation from a different cultural perspective. I am speculating here, but I don’t feel it’s a large logical leap.

In a retributive justice system, the language that assigns agency is more likely to mete out harsher punishments because he broke the vase, it wasn’t simply broken. The use of language guides our reasoning. This leads me to wonder whether those who are ‘tough on crime‘ use different language construction than those who are more lenient.

Enfin

I just wanted to share my thoughts and connect language with cognition. I don’t think that the connection is necessarily strong or profound, but there is something, and there are more language nuances than noted here.

Music Property

The topic of intellectual property gets me every time. As much as I am opposed to the notion of property in general, intellectual property is a complete farce. Along with Rick Beato and David Bennet, Adam Neely is one of my three main music theory staples on YouTube. Here, he goes into more depth than I would have expected, but it’s worth hearing the perspective of a musician. I won’t break down his video fully because it speaks for itself. Instead, I’ll share my thoughts and pull out highlights.

Podcast: Audio version of this page content.

November 8th, 1548 is the day in history that the French King Henri II opened the door to intellectual property, an obvious giveaway to a benefactor, creating a publishing monopoly. He turned community cultural knowledge into property, turning the benefit of many into the benefit of one. This is the crux of capitalism—favouring the one over the many.

Before continuing, it seems that there is a schism in the legal system itself. In fact, it is very fractured even within this small domain. At the same time it wants to be precise and analytical, it’s dealing with a subject that cannot be analysed as such. To add insult to injury, it exempts musicians and musical experts and requires music consumers to decide the outcomes of trial cases. To be fair, even relying on so-called experts would lead to mixed results anyway. They might as well just roll the dice. This is what happens when right hemisphere art enters a left hemisphere world.

nature + work = ownership

Adam establishes a grounding on the theory of property rights à la John Locke’s ‘sweat of the brow’ concept, wherein nature plus work equates to ownership. He then points out how intellectual property has even shakier ground to stand on. It relies rather on notions of originality and creativity, two concepts that have no intersection with the left-hemisphere heavy legal and jurisprudence systems. Moreover, like pornography, these things cannot be defined. They need to be divined. Divination is no place for lay jurists. It’s a recipe for disaster. The entire English court system is rife with problems, but the left-brainers feel these are just trivial devils in the details. I beg to differ, yet I am voiceless because I won’t participate within their frame.

Adam also points out how out of date the law is insomuch as it doesn’t recognise much of the music produced in the past few decades. Moreover, the music theory it’s founded on is the Romantic Era, white European music that often ties transcriptionists in knots. If the absence of certain words to emote experience is a challenge, it’s even worse for musical notation.

In any case, this is a hot-button issue for me on many levels, and I needed to vent in solidarity. This video is worth the 30 minutes run time. His ham sandwich analogy in part V works perfectly. It’s broken into logical sections:

  1. 0:00 Intro
  2. 1:45 Part I – Rhythm-A-Ning
  3. 7:07 Part II – Property Rights
  4. 11:25 Part III – Copyright
  5. 15:58 Part IV – Musical Constraints
  6. 22:18. Part V – HAM SANDWICH TIME
  7. 26:51 Part VI – Solving copyright….maybe?

Give it a listen. Cheers.

The cover image for this is of Thelonius Monk (circa 1947), who features heavily in the video.

Trust and Performance

Apologies in advance for another business-oriented post, but it ties in well with the latest McGilchrist content. Simon Sinek is the presenter, and he asks how the Navy pick the members of Seal Team Six—as he says, “the best of the best of the best of the best,” which happens to align with the way my toddler might tell me how very, very, very, very much she likes something.

Simon is an adept communicator with a high woo factor, but this isn’t about him. I’ve cued this video to a place where Simon illustrates the assessment mindset employed to separate the wheat from the chaff in the minds of the Navy command. I’ve effectively recreated the chart Simon draws, and I use it as a reference.

Performance is on the Y-axis and Trust is on the X-axis. Effectively, they assess competency on and off the battlefield, respectively. He describes Performance as capturing “Do I trust you with my life?” and Trust as “Do I trust you with my money and my wife?” Perhaps he’s reflecting the sentiment of the generation managing the Seals. Not judging.

His point is that no one wants an untrustworthy low-performer (bottom left) and everyone wants a trustworthy high-performer (top right). He goes on to say that high-performing, low-trust members are toxic to the team. The team is better off with a relatively moderate performer that is otherwise trustworthy. I suppose the rest is a wash.

Performance is typical left-hemisphere fare: how much, how many, how fast, and so on. Companies have a million and one ways to measure performance.

Trust is a resident of the right hemisphere. This is an intuition and can’t be measured.

As Simon points out, even without explicit metrics, if you ask each team member who’s the highest performer, they’ll all point to the same person. Correspondingly, if you ask who’s the most trustworthy, they’ll all point to the same person as well. I can’t say that I trust this judgment, and thankfully, they do document whatever performance measures they have determined are appropriate. This option is not available for trust, so they have to rely on intuition. I don’t know if they also rely on consensus. I will grant that if all of the members do point to the same person as having the highest level of trust–presuming some performance threshold has been met–and the goal is to find a leader for that team, this person would make a fine leading candidate. If this person happened to be the highest performer then great, but being the best leader doesn’t require being the highest performer.

A sports coach doesn’t even need to excel at the sport s/he is leading. Their function is to motivate and inspire the team. Of course, in the case of the seals, I’m presuming this role is more of a player-manager. Still, the cohesion factor should be taken into account.

Trust is a heuristic that can’t be measured, and it’s fairly simple to find examples of people who appeared to be trustworthy but turned out not to be. It’s also conceivable that a trustworthy person may be misunderstood and perceived as trustworthy.

My question relates to the object of trust. When I think of police officers in the United States, I think that their trust is in each other, but at the expense of society. So they will generally protect each other even when they are morally and legally in the wrong. This is not the trust we want to foster for the public good. But since in my opinion policing is not about the public good but rather maintaining the status quo power structure, this is not a problem for their hiring managers.

Tone Deaf

Real music comes from the heart. Rather, it’s a right-hemisphere affair. Beethoven was such a true musical genius, he had to express himself even when you couldn’t hear himself.

Above, Rick Reato gives us a little appreciation for Daniel Barenboim’s rendition of Beethoven’s Op.110 Piano Sonata. I’ve included the entire opus below. The entire 31st sonata can also be found on YouTube.

To be a musician and continue to write when deaf is the same as continuing to write as a deaf author. Musical notation is just symbols as words are symbols in a different medium. The inspiration happens in the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere translates them into symbols.

Musically speaking, I am more left-hemisphere. I have ideas that spawn from the right, but without an instrument, I couldn’t articulate them. Not even relatively. Many of my own compositions are left-hemisphere fare. I either take a mathcore approach or perhaps something along the lines of Schoenberg, where I want to convey a pattern—an example that comes to mind is Tool’s Lateralis, wherein the lyrical melody is based on the Fibonacci sequence—, or I let the instrument do the talking and transcribe the music after the fact. I know just about enough music theory to be dangerous, but not enough to be self-sufficient. This is why I always tended to collaborate with music directors or someone competent in this along the way.

My point is that the ears are not necessary to produce music—at least after you’ve figured out how to articulate it. For the record, there are blind artists and sculptors.

Schizoid Workplace

What is Schizophrenia?

Most people have heard the term schizophrenia. It’s a mental health pathology wherein people interpret reality abnormally. To oversimplify to make a point, in a ‘normal’ brain, the left and right hemispheres operate together to regulate bodily functions and to interpret the world we live in. In brief, schizophrenia is a condition where the left cerebral hemisphere overly dominates the right. Some might be led to believe that schizophrenics interpret reality irrationally, but the opposite is true. Schizophrenics are hyperrational to a fault.

Schizophrenia has been on the rise this past half century or so, but this might just be a symptom of Modernity, as cultures are also experiencing a leftward shift—a shift toward hyperrationality. Cultures have swung like a pendulum from left-hemisphere-dominance to right dominance and back through the ages, but we may be seeing an uncorrected swing further and further to the left, led by science, followed by commerce and politics, dangerously close to the territory of schizophrenia, if not already occupying this territory. Allow me to briefly summarise how the hemisphere function to help the reader understand what it means to be too far left or right.

Cerebral Bilateral Hemispheres

Most people experience the world—what some otherwise known as reality—with both cerebral hemispheres, and each hemisphere has a function. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere experiences reality holistically, which is to say that it views the world through a Gestalt lens. The right hemisphere is open and divergent. It is creative—generative. It knows no categories or subdivisions. All is one and connected. I like to refer to this as Zen. Many people can relate to this Zen notion. The right hemisphere is a creative and empathetic centre that only knows the world as it is presented—without words or naming. Intuition lives here. It distinguishes differences in the world in a manner similar to that of a preverbal child who can tell mum from a bowl of porridge without knowing the word for either. Children are right hemisphere creatures. As we mature toward adulthood, the function of the left hemisphere increases to offset the dominance of the right.

The left hemisphere is the sphere of intellect. Its function is to categorise, to create symbols—words, names, labels, icons, and so on. It doesn’t know how to create, intuit, or empathise. In fact, it doesn’t even experience the world as presented; it relies on re-presentation. To borrow from a computer analogy, when it experiences something in the world, it caches a symbol. Where the right hemisphere experiences a tree and just appreciates its ‘treeness’, and it doesn’t know that it’s a tree by name. It’s just another thing in the world. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, notices these things with ‘treeness’ and categorises them as trees—or des arbres, árboles, Bäume, 木, درختان , पेड़, or whatever. And it reduces the tree to an icon, so it can file it away for later retrieval to compare with other tree-like inputs.

The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from

The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from. Where the right hemisphere is open and divergent, the left hemisphere is closed and convergent. It is particularly egotistical, stubborn, and always thinks it’s right if I can anthropomorphise analogically. The left hemisphere knows no nuance, and it doesn’t recognise connotation, metaphor, allegory, or allusion. Everything is literal.

The left hemisphere can use similes and understand that a man is like a tiger, but it takes the right hemisphere to know that a man is a tiger, has metaphorically embodied the tiger and assumed its form, say in the manner of indigenous Americans. Poetically, there is a difference between being a tiger and being like a tiger. The left will have none of this. The response to hearing ‘he was a tiger’ would either result in ‘no he isn’t, he’s a human’ or ‘someone must be talking about a male tiger’. The nuance would be lost.

At the risk of further digression, this is why a poem can’t be dissected for meaning—this despite so many valiant attempts by high school teachers and undergraduate professors. Dissecting a living poem is like dissecting a living animal. You might learn something, but at the risk of devitalisation—you’ve killed the subject. It’s like having to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work. You can’t explain a work of art or a piece of music. The best you can do is to describe it. Although we’re likely familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, a thousand words is not enough to do more than summarise a picture. This sentiment is captured by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Education is a left-brain function, that can be stuffed like a sausage, but no amount of education can make someone feel a work of art, music, or poetry. This can only be experienced and is apart from language.

A Tree is not a Tree

As already noted, schizophrenics are hyperrational. They are devoid of the empathy and intuition afforded by the right hemisphere. So, they fail to connect the parts to a constructed whole. They presume that a whole is constructed of parts. This is the mistake of Dr Frankenstein, that he could construct a man from parts, but all he could manage is to construct a monster.

In the experienced world, there are only whole objects as experienced by the right hemisphere. As humans, we break them down for easier storage and retrieval, but this is like lossy compression if I can risk losing some in technical lingo.

But a tree is not built from parts. It’s just a tree. We can articulate that a tree has a trunk and roots and branches and leaves and seeds and blooms, but it’s just a tree. The rest we impose on it with artificially constructed symbol language. This is what post-modern painter Rene Magritte was communicating with the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscription in his work The Treachery of Images—This is not a pipe. He was not being cute or edgy or trying to be clever. He was making the point that the symbol is not the object.

In the manner that the image is not the pipe, it’s been said that to document a system is to make an inferior copy. The documented system is less optimal. This may feel counterintuitive. In fact, you may even argue that a documented system allows subsequent process participants to plug into the system to allow it to continue to operate into perpetuity. Whilst this is true, it comes at a cost. I’ll leave this here for you to ponder. The right hemisphere understands the difference. The document is not the process.

Getting Down to Business

If you’ve been following along, you may have already noticed that the left hemisphere looks and sounds a lot like the business world. Everything is systematised, structured, and ordered. We have all sorts of symbols and jargon, processes, and procedures. Everything is literal. There is no room for metaphor. There is no room for empathy. HR instructs that there be empathy, but they might as well instruct everyone to speak Basque or Hopi. In fact, it’s worse because at least Basque and Hopi can be learnt.

Sadly, this leftward shift isn’t limited to the world of commerce. It’s affected science, politics, and entire cultures. It’s caused these entities to abandon all that isn’t rational as irrational. But empathy and intuition are irrational. Science says if you can’t measure it and reproduce it, it’s not worth noting, but science is not the arbiter of the non-scientific realm. Business takes a similar position.

Politics of the Left (Hemisphere)

And politics creates categories: left and right, red and blue, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, and this and that. All of this is all left-hemisphere debate.

Categories and names are exclusive provinces of the left hemisphere. If you are hung up on an ideology, whether Democracy, Republicanism, Marxism, or Anarchism, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you defend your positions with logic and words, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you can’t imagine an alternative, you are really stuck in the left. I’ll stop here.

Science and Scientism

How did we get here and come to this? Science was receptive to right hemisphere influence up until about the 1970s. That’s where Scientism began to take hold. Scientism is when faith in science becomes a religion. I feel that many scientists today are less likely to hold a belief in Scientism as a religious belief. Paradoxically, I think this is more apt to be a faith held by non-scientists. Unfortunately, this faith is exploited by politics as exemplified by the recent trust in science campaign perpetrated by politicians, which is to say non-scientists with their own agenda, whether they practised Scientism or not.

The problem is that the left hemisphere has an outsized ego. It thinks it’s always right. In practice, it’s right about half the time. Because of its reliance on stored data and a ‘belief’ that it doesn’t need to fresh its data until it’s effectively overwhelmed and acquiesced. It fails to give enough weight to the experienced world, so that it shifts belief further and further left, which is to say further from reality as it is.

It trusts the symbol of the tree more than the tree itself. We may all be familiar with stories of cars driving down train tracks and off cliffs because the SAT-NAV user put more faith in their device than the world outside. This is the risk companies face as well, choosing to believe that the documented process is superior to the system in and of itself.

Getting on About?

You may be wondering what inspired me to write this and where I get my information. My realisation started in chapter 9 of The Matter with Things and was reinforced by this video interview by its author, Iain McGilchrist.

Actually, it started even before this with The Corporation, a Canadian documentary and companion book released in 2003. One of the points of The Corporation is to articulate the parallels between corporate behaviour relative to the definition of psychopathy as presented in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, henceforth DSM. Per Wikipedia, the DSM ‘is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association for the classification of mental disorders using a common language and standard criteria and is the main book for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the United States and is considered one of the “Bibles” of psychiatry’. Essentially, corporations ticked all the boxes.

Methodologically, this assertion is a bit weak, but it is at least sometimes entirely valid despite provoking an emotional trigger reaction. Nonetheless, this established corporations as pathological entities. But that is not my focus here. It simply tilled the soil for me to be more receptive to this topic. This topic is less about the legal fiction that is a corporation and more about the people embodied in it. From the height of the C-suite to the workaday staff, floor workers, warehouse workers, and the mailroom. Do they still have mailrooms? I digress.

I can’t claim to know what it is to be schizophrenic or schizoaffective, but I’ve known enough people who have these diagnoses. My brother was one of those. Although I use these and other labels, I am not a fan of labels, generally, especially psychological labels, specifically this label. Autism is another nonsensical label. Both fall into the realm of medical syndromes, which for the uninitiated is the equivalent of your kitchen junk drawer. It’s equivalent to the other choice when all others fail. I don’t want to go off on a tangent from the start, so I’ll leave it that these categories are overly broad and reflect intellectual laziness. There is no single schizophrenia or autism. There are many, but the distinction is lost in the category. The push to create an autism spectrum for DSM obscures the problem, but it helps for insurance purposes. As the saying goes, follow the money and you can gain clues to the driving force behind why this happened. I suppose you can also label me a conspiracy theorist. If I learned one thing in my undergrad Sociology classes, it’s to eschew labels.

Almost finished

Given the length of this segment, I am not going to summarise it here, save to say that this leftward shift in business and culture doesn’t have a good outlook. We are not only being replaced by machines, but we are also forced into becoming machines, and we aren’t even questioning it. All we need to do is to become more analytic, right?

What I suggest is to watch the six-minute video of Dr Iain McGilchrist discussing this topic, and if you really want a deep dive, read The Matter with Things, an almost three-thousand-page tome, to fill in the details.

Postscript

Here’s a music analogy to help to express why the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. If I want to learn to play a new piece, I will listen to the piece first. Depending on the length and genre, I may have to listen many times. In some cases, once or twice is enough, but let’s say this is at least somewhat complex and not some repetitive three-chord pop song. I’ll probably break the song into pieces or movements—verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever—, and then, I’ll learn each note and each pattern of notes, perhaps as musical phrases. Once I figure out the verse, I might either learn how the next verse differs or move on to the chorus and defer that verse-to-verse step. I’ll rinse and repeat until I’ve got through each of the sections. If I’ve had the luxury of hearing the piece, I’m at an advantage as far as tone, timbre, and dynamics are concerned; otherwise, I’d better hope these are all documented and that I interpret them in the manner they were intended. If the audience is familiar with a tune, they’ll notice the difference.

When I am practising, I need to get the mechanics down pat. All of what I’ve described thus far is left-hemisphere fare. It’s translating the symbolic representation of notes—like letters and words in writing—into an utterance. In this case, it’s a musical utterance. But once I am ready to perform the piece, it needs to be performed through the right hemisphere or it will feel mechanical and stilted.

I used to earn my living as an audio recording engineer and producer. Most of the time I was working with unknown artists recording demo records and trying to get a record deal. For the uninitiated, that usually translated into not having a large recording budget. Occasionally, we want, say string parts—violins, viola, cello, or whatever—but we couldn’t afford union players. We’d hire music students from USC or UCLA. These players would be more than willing to play for cheap in exchange for something to add to their portfolios or experience chops.

Somebody would transcribe the musical notation, and we’d give it to the string player. Of course, it could be a keyboard or wind or reed part, but I’ll stick to strings. Part of music is the vibe. This is something that can’t be captured in symbols. Revisiting Scientism and the left-hemisphere analogy, vibes can’t be real because they can’t be notated.

Almost invariably, if we got someone with Classical training, they could not get the vibe. The music was right in front of them. We’d play it for them on piano, maybe on a synthesiser, but they couldn’t get it—even if they were playing along to a reference track just trying to double the synth part. They would hit every note for the specified duration and dynamic, but it might have as well been the equivalence of a player piano or music box.  We could have played it on a synthesiser, but we might be seeking the nuance a real instrument would bring.

We never had the luxury of auditioning players or recording several players and grabbing the best parts. That’s for the bigger-budget artists who go through a half-dozen or more performers to get just the right one. When we got lucky, it was usually because we got someone from the jazz program. These cats seem to have a natural feel for vibe inaccessible to the classical performers.

In business, the classical performer is good enough, but for art, it wasn’t. Business might appreciate the difference if it happens to get it, but it won’t seek it, and it won’t pay for it. A pet peeve of mine is a quip in business I heard often—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. This is obviously a left-hemisphere sentiment based on Voltaire’s statement. Besides, even from a left hemisphere perspective, reciting, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least strive for good enough because I noticed that mark was missed often enough, too.

Bang the Jrum Slowly!

I was riding a chrain down a shchreet banging a jrum and eating shrimp.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

If you keep up with English language morphology—and let’s be honest here, who doesn’t?—the opening sentence is a phonetic respelling of ‘I was riding a train down a street banging a drum and eating shrimp’ but for a new generation. Dr Geoff Lindsey created a video, which includes material drawn from his book English After RP: Standard British Pronunciation Today. But don’t be fooled by the RP reference. There is plenty of relevance to the shifts in General American English if ever there was such a thing.

As noted previously, the principle of least effort tends to be a guiding factor for language morphology, and we’re witnessing the conservation of effort driving this shift.

Technically, what’s happening is that, traditionally, we performed some lingual gymnastics gliding (or not) from an alveolar consonant to a post-alveolar shift. The new fashion is to shift the entire structure into a post-alveolar space. Lazy wins. Of course, I’ll expect to hear from vocal prescriptivists, the traditional grammar Nazis, who will insist, “If I see a T in train, I’m going to pronounce it like a T, dammit. No ch-ch as in choo-choo for this ‘adult’.”

I’ve summarised the italicised words in a table.

TraditionIPANouveauIPA
train/tɹeɪn/chrain/t͡ʃɹeɪn/
drum/ˈdɹʌm/jrum/ˈdʒɹʌm/
street/stɹiːt/shchreet/ʃt͡ʃɹiːt/
shrimp/ʃɹɪmp/shrimp/ʃɹɪmp/

Traditionally—which is to say the language spoken by older native English speakers—, the consonant clusters are pronounced pretty much as written. One would pronounce the T or TR in train; the DR in drum; and the STR in street. Shrimp had already made the shift, so we can think of it as a trendsetter.

Notice how the T in train shifts to a CH sound (/t͡ʃ/) or how the D in drum shifts to a J sound (/dʒ/). As the video shows, Michelle Obama is a bit ahead of the change curve, as she’s already shifted the S in street to a post-alveolar-friendly Sh Ch (/ʃt͡ʃ/), replacing the ST with a Sh-Ch combination, the S becoming Sh and the T becoming Ch. This trend has not caught on more broadly, but it seems it may be inevitable and allows us to keep this in a nice and tidy box.

In the video, there is a clip recounting a story of a seven-year-old just learning to write (and evidently into Star Wars) who wrote the following.

IMAGE: Watch out for the stormtrooper as written by a 7-year-old native English speaker

Notice that he is trying to capture a quasi-phonetic rendition of the word TROOPER that he hears (correctly) as CHROOPER. Again, this might cause grammar Nazis to go on a rampage. I don’t expect any spelling back-formation reformation to follow suit. We’ll just add this to the “English is not a phonetic language and has a lot of spelling exceptions” adage.

If you are a native English speaker, is this something you notice? If you speak English as a second language, have you noticed this trend? Which camp are you in? Old school or new school?

English Weak Forms

I have been so utterly distracted by YouTube this weekend. In this case, it’s a video by Dr Geoff Lindsey explaining weak forms of the English language.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Much of my work life involves speaking either with non-native English speakers or speakers of English who may be quite well versed in English and yet have a certain rigidity in their execution. Along with local accents, this makes the language feel unnatural to a native speaker.

A common challenge is the adoption of weak forms. Following the principle of least effort, language speakers are lazy. In fact, one may extrapolate this morphology to predict where language may drift next. One example that comes to mind is the American habit of uttering flap Ts over ‘real’ Ts that require slightly more effort to produce.

In English, one says the words, butter, water, doctor, and sister as /ˈbʌtə/,/ˈwɔtəɹ/, /ˈdɒktə/, /ˈsɪstə(ɹ)/ whilst in American English, using the flap T sound, one says (respelt in parentheses) /ˈbʌdəɹ/ (buhd-er), / ˈwɔdəɹ/ (wahd-er), /ˈdɔkdɚ/ (dok-der), /ˈsɪsdər/ (sis-der). Whether the pronunciation of the R is rhotic or non-rhotic is another issue altogether.

But this is about something a bit different. It’s about weak forms, particularly vowels that can be weakened from the strong vowel sound to the shwa (/ə/) sound. It turns out that we do this a lot. In fact, more often than not. Rather than a rehash from the video, I’ve cued it to where Tom Hiddleston recites Lord Byron’s So We’ll Go No More a Roving.

So, we'll go no more a roving
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
   By the light of the moon.

As it happens, much of the difference between native English and English as spoken by non-natives is the hyper-diction heard by choosing the strong rather than the weak form of certain words.

Seeing the World As It Is

Cubism reminds us that we don’t see the world as it is. We see pieces, and we fill in the gaps. From the front, we can’t see the back. From the top, we can’t see the bottom.

Video: YouTube Video


The illusion that, if we can see something clearly, we see it as it really is, is hugely seductive.
John Ruskin makes the point that clarity is bought at the price of limitation. He paints a scenario wherein we are asked to imagine viewing an open book and an embroidered handkerchief on a lawn. From a quarter mile away, the two are indistinguishable. Moving closer, we can see which is which, but we can neither read the book nor trace the embroidery. Closer still, we can read the text and trace the embroidery, but we can’t see the fibres of the paper or the threads of the kerchief. And we can’t simultaneously focus on both and see detail in each. Focusing on the book, we can look closer and see the watermark, the hills and dales in the paper’s surface. With a microscope, we can see more still, as infinitum.

But at which point do we see it clearly?


I’ve created a YouTube short. I have to admit that I dislike the format. Sixty seconds isn’t really enough time to convey a concept. There’s too much missing context, and no time to elaborate. Nonetheless, I was reading The Master and His Emissary and wanted to share a point. I don’t feel I succeeded. I posted it anyway, and here it is.