Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thus Spake Zarathustra

The End of College As We Know It: College for $99/month

Washington Monthly
September / October 2009
College for $99 a Month
The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities.
by Kevin Carey

Like millions of other Americans, Barbara Solvig lost her job this year. A fifty-year-old mother of three, Solvig had taken college courses at Northeastern Illinois University years ago, but never earned a degree. Ever since, she had been forced to settle for less money than coworkers with similar jobs who had bachelor’s degrees. So when she was laid off from a human resources position at a Chicago-area hospital in January, she knew the time had come to finally get her own credential. Doing that wasn’t going to be easy, because four-year degrees typically require two luxuries Solvig didn’t have: years of time out of the workforce, and a great deal of money.

Luckily for Solvig, there were new options available. She went online looking for something that fit her wallet and her time horizon, and an ad caught her eye: a company called StraighterLine was offering online courses in subjects like accounting, statistics, and math. This was hardly unusual—hundreds of institutions are online hawking degrees. But one thing about StraighterLine stood out: it offered as many courses as she wanted for a flat rate of $99 a month. “It sounds like a scam,” Solvig thought—she’d run into a lot of shady companies and hard-sell tactics on the Internet. But for $99, why not take a risk?

Solvig threw herself into the work, studying up to eighteen hours a day. And contrary to expectations, the courses turned out to be just what she was looking for. Every morning she would sit down at her kitchen table and log on to a Web site where she could access course materials, read text, watch videos, listen to podcasts, work through problem sets, and take exams. Online study groups were available where she could collaborate with other students via listserv and instant messaging. StraighterLine courses were designed and overseen by professors with PhDs, and she was assigned a course adviser who was available by e-mail. And if Solvig got stuck and needed help, real live tutors were available at any time, day or night, just a mouse click away.

Crucially for Solvig—who needed to get back into the workforce as soon as possible—StraighterLine let students move through courses as quickly or slowly as they chose. Once a course was finished, Solvig could move on to the next one, without paying more. In less than two months, she had finished four complete courses, for less than $200 total. The same courses would have cost her over $2,700 at Northeastern Illinois, $4,200 at Kaplan University, $6,300 at the University of Phoenix, and roughly the gross domestic product of a small Central American nation at an elite private university. They also would have taken two or three times as long to complete.

And if Solvig needed any further proof that her online education was the real deal, she found it when her daughter came home from a local community college one day, complaining about her math course. When Solvig looked at the course materials, she realized that her daughter was using exactly the same learning modules that she was using at StraighterLine, both developed by textbook giant McGraw-Hill. The only difference was that her daughter was paying a lot more for them, and could only take them on the college’s schedule. And while she had a professor, he wasn’t doing much teaching. “He just stands there,” Solvig’s daughter said, while students worked through modules on their own.

StraighterLine is the brainchild of a man named Burck Smith, an Internet entrepreneur bent on altering the DNA of higher education as we have known it for the better part of 500 years. Rather than students being tethered to ivy-covered quads or an anonymous commuter campus, Smith envisions a world where they can seamlessly assemble credits and degrees from multiple online providers, each specializing in certain subjects and—most importantly—fiercely competing on price. Smith himself may be the person who revolutionizes the university, or he may not be. But someone with the means and vision to fundamentally reorder the way students experience and pay for higher education is bound to emerge.

In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows.

In combination, these two trends threaten to shake the foundation of the modern university, in much the same way that other seemingly impregnable institutions have been torn apart. In some ways, the upheaval will be a welcome one. Students will benefit enormously from radically lower prices—particularly people like Solvig who lack disposable income and need higher learning to compete in an ever-more treacherous economy. But these huge changes will also seriously threaten the ability of universities to provide all the things beyond teaching on which society depends: science, culture, the transmission of our civilization from one generation to the next.

Whether this transformation is a good or a bad thing is something of a moot point—it’s coming, and sooner than you think.

It's a lengthy article; read the rest HERE.

Scientific American: Why Does Music Make Us Feel?

Scientific American

See original for images and links to further readings

Mind Matters - September 15, 2009
Why Does Music Make Us Feel?
A new study demonstrates the power of music to alter our emotional perceptions of other people

By Mark Changizi

As a young man I enjoyed listening to a particular series of French instructional programs. I didn’t understand a word, but was nevertheless enthralled. Was it because the sounds of human speech are thrilling? Not really. Speech sounds alone, stripped of their meaning, don’t inspire. We don’t wake up to alarm clocks blaring German speech. We don’t drive to work listening to native spoken Eskimo, and then switch it to the Bushmen Click station during the commercials. Speech sounds don’t give us the chills, and they don’t make us cry – not even French.

But music does emanate from our alarm clocks in the morning, and fill our cars, and give us chills, and make us cry. According to a recent paper by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya from the University of London, music even affects how we see visual images. In the experiment, 30 subjects were presented with a series of happy or sad musical excerpts. After listening to the snippets, the subjects were shown a photograph of a face. Some people were shown a happy face – the person was smiling - while others were exposed to a sad or neutral facial expression. The participants were then asked to rate the emotional content of the face on a 7-point scale, where 1 mean extremely sad and 7 extremely happy.

The researchers found that music powerfully influenced the emotional ratings of the faces. Happy music made happy faces seem even happier while sad music exaggerated the melancholy of a frown. A similar effect was also observed with neutral faces. The simple moral is that the emotions of music are “cross-modal,” and can easily spread from sensory system to another. Now I never sit down to my wife’s meals without first putting on a jolly Sousa march.

Although it probably seems obvious that music can evoke emotions, it is to this day not clear why. Why doesn’t music feel like listening to speech sounds, or animal calls, or garbage disposals? Why is music nice to listen to? Why does music get blessed with a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas there is no market for “easy listening” speech sounds?

In an effort to answer, let’s first ask why I was listening to French instructional programs in the first place. The truth is, I wasn’t just listening. I was watching them on public television. What kept my attention was not the meaningless-to-me speech sounds (I was a slow learner), but the young French actress. Her hair, her smile, her mannerisms, her pout… I digress. The show was a pleasure to watch because of the humans it showed, especially the exhibited expressions and behaviors.

The lion share of emotionally evocative stimuli in the lives of our ancestors would have been from the faces and bodies of other people, and if one finds human artifacts that are highly evocative, it is a good hunch that it looks or sounds human in some way.

As evidence that humans are the principal source of emotionality among human artifacts, consider human visual signs. Visual signs, I have argued, have culturally evolved to look like natural objects, and have the kinds of contour combinations found in a three-dimensional world of opaque objects. Three-dimensional world of opaque objects? Nothing particularly human about that, and that’s why most linguistic signs – like the letters and words on this page – are not emotionally evocative to look at.

But visual signs do sometimes have emotional associations. For example, colors are notoriously emotionally evocative, and arguments about what color something should be painted are the source of an alarming number of marital arguments. And “V” stimuli, such as that yield sign on the street, have long been realized (within the human factors literature) to serve as the most evocative geometrical shape for warning symbols. But notice that color and “V” stimuli are plausibly about human expression. In particular, color has recently been argued to be “about” human skin and the exhibited emotions – which is why red grabs our attention, since it's associated with blushing and blood - and “V” stimuli have been suggested to be “about” angry faces (namely, angry eyebrows).

Which brings us back to music and the Logeswaran paper. Music is exquisitely emotionally evocative, which is why a touch of happy music makes even unrelated pictures seem more pleasant. In light of the above, then, we are led to the conclusion that the artifact of music should contain some distinctly human elements.

The question, of course, is what those elements are. One candidate is our expressive speech – perhaps music is just an abstract form of language. However, most of the emotion of language is in the meaning, which is why foreign languages that we don’t understand rarely make us swoon with pleasure or get angry. That’s also why emotional speech from an unfamiliar language isn’t featured on the radio!

But there is a second auditory expressive behavior we humans carry out – our bodily movements themselves. Human movement has been conjectured to underlie music as far back as the Greeks. As a hypothesis this has the advantage that we have auditory systems capable of making sense of the sounds of people moving in our midst – an angry stomper approaching, a delicate lilter passing, and so on. Some of these movements trigger positive emotions – they conjure up images of pleasant activities – while others might be automatically associated with fear or anxiety. (The sound of running makes us wonder what we’re running from.) If music were speech-driven, then it is missing out on the largest part of speech’s expressiveness – the meaning. But if music sounds like human expressive movements, then it sounds like something that, all by itself, is rich in emotional expressiveness, and can be easily interpreted by the auditory system.

Regardless of whether music is emotional intonation from speech or a summary of expressive movements – or something else altogether – the new research by Logeswaran and Bhattacharya adds yet more fuel to the expectation that music has been culturally selected to sound like an emotionally expressive human. While it is not easy for us to see the human ingredients in the modulations of pitch, intensity, tempo and rhythm that make music, perhaps it is obvious to our auditory homunculus.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tarantino on Selecting Music for His Films

From a very long and very good interview from the Village Voice:

At what point do you score a movie?

In three stages. I pick a lot of music as I'm writing, some of it even before I write. I have a vinyl room, like a record store, in my house—that's one of the perks of being me. I dive into my record collection, I have a turntable already set up to make tapes, and I'm trying to find the rhythm, the beat of the movie. For instance, I wanted to set Jackie Brown in a more black world than the book took place in—even if it's not a blaxploitation movie, it will have that energy or vibe. So then I go diving into '70s soul music. Usually, I'm trying to find that opening credit sequence and once I find that, then I'm like, "OK, I can do this now," 'cause that gives me enough to be excited by it. Also, if I get tired writing, or whenever I just need enthusiasm, I go into that room, play those songs, and imagine watching the movie with my friends and everyone's oohing and aahing, and that gets me going again. I might even play those on the set. Then I'm always looking for music while I'm doing the movie, and then that last thing is in the editing, I'm diving for more stuff. And Harvey [Weinstein] always wants me to put more music in. I'm like, "Harvey, the reason it works so good is that there's not wall-to-wall noise, [so] when it comes on, it's cool." [It's] the last little thing before we lock picture—because Harvey pays a lot of money for my movies so let me give him a little respect. I dive in, and if I find something [else], it's good, and if I don't, I don't. But I know that if I look hard enough, I'm going to find something.

Read the whole interview HERE.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Jim O'Rourke's new recording and ideas regarding context


Once Insider, Now Outsider, and Liking It
by Ben Ratliff
Published: September 2, 2009

Singer, composer, producer Jim O'Rourke, now living in Japan. Most interesting part of the story:

That, and working on “The Visitor,” released this week by Drag City. It’s a nearly orchestral, fully instrumental album, his first in eight years. He made it alone in his home studio — except for the piano tracks, which he recorded in a rented rehearsal space — so it takes its place alongside the small number of other high-level pop records made completely or mostly by one person, including Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything?” and Stevie Wonder’s “Music of My Mind.” Mr. O’Rourke gives the sense that its gingerly dynamics were dictated by thin walls and respect for his neighbors.

“The Visitor” is so easy on the ears that it disguises its density. “There are parts where there are almost 200 tracks of instruments, but I didn’t want it to sound difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want itto be virtuosic.”

Consisting of one 32-minute track, “The Visitor” took three years to make, including a year to mix. Mr. O’Rourke had exhausted his savings, and for one of those years, he said, he was prevented from earning an income in Japan because he didn’t have a work visa. (It finally came through early last year.) He lived off royalties from his past albums, some of which have sold upward of 50,000 copies in America.

“The Visitor” runs through chapters of folk, chamber-pop, progressive rock and jazz bucolia, and it’s crazily broad: a Leo Kottke fan might like it, a Pat Metheny fan might like it, a Morton Feldman fan might like it. As the piece moves along, holding together with its long-form logic, it can be difficult to discern that most of the music relates back to the album’s simple opening chords and theme. That theme develops through different rhythms and arrangements for an array of instruments — piano, pedal-steel guitar, organ, cello, banjo, clarinet — some of which he learned how to play for the purposes of this record.

The trombone, for example, which comes in after about 20 minutes, took six months of practice before Mr. O’Rourke could play the lines he’d written for it in a perfect take. (He kept a no-edit rule.) The trombone is mixed low, but it’s the loudest instrument he used; when he was ready to record it, he waited until his next-door neighbor left for her grocery run.

Mr. O’Rourke’s production style is precise and dry; he creates a sound picture in which tiny sonic details matter. But where his Drag City records are concerned, everything matters: the pacing, the length, the sound, the cover images. For this reason he won’t allow “The Visitor,” or any of his albums, to be sold as downloads, on iTunes or anywhere else. He’s taking a stand against the sound quality of MP3s; he’s also taking a stand in favor of artists being able to control the medium and reception of their work.

“You can no longer use context as part of your work,” he said, glumly, “because it doesn’t matter what you do, somebody’s going to change the context of it. The confusion of creativity, making something, with this Internet idea of democratization ...” he trailed off, disgusted. “It sounds like old-man stuff, but I think it’s disastrous for the possibilities of any art form.”

His record company approves, perhaps a reflection of his being one of Drag City’s best-selling artists. “Frankly I’m really pleased about it,” said Rian Murphy, the label’s director of sales. “It may affect the way we’re able to promote it, and it may affect the wider range of listeners that come to get the record — if they can’t point and click to it — but it’s good to have someone standing up for that.”

Read the full story HERE.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Neurosonics Audiomedical Labs Inc.

Neurosonics Audiomedical Labs Inc. from Chris Cairns on Vimeo.

NYT Review of Trey Anastasio and NY Phil

Love the last two sentences...


September 14, 2009
Music Review
Classical and Rock, Blended Pleasingly

If there was a single moment that best illustrated the difference between a routine concert by the New York Philharmonic and the one it presented at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night, that moment came when Sheryl Staples, the concertmaster for the evening, returned to the stage after intermission. Ms. Staples was greeted with warm applause, as tradition mandates. Just before it faded, a coyotelike howl of approval sounded from a balcony. Ms. Staples gamely acknowledged her admirer with a smile that was surely as incredulous as it was appreciative.

The occasion was a concert with Trey Anastasio, the singer and guitarist for the rock band Phish, benefiting a foundation named for his sister, Kristine Anastasio Manning, an environmentalist and author who died of cancer in April. Mr. Anastasio enjoys a rabidly devoted following among jam-band devotees. But curiosity seekers anticipating a blissed-out legion in henna and hemp would have been disappointed by an uncommonly diverse, entirelywell-behaved throng of listeners, some of whom could be overheard marveling at their first sight of Carnegie Hall.

Playing with an orchestra is nothing new for Mr. Anastasio, who studied composition and arranging in college and has made several recordings with classical players. The most recent, “Time Turns Elastic” (Rubber Jungle), features a 29-minute work of the same name that Mr. Anastasio wrote with Don Hart, a commercial arranger and orchestrator who is also the composer in residence for Orchestra Nashville.

A shortened “Time Turns Elastic” has found a place in Phish’s live sets and appears on the group’s new album, “Joy” (JEMP). Heard in its original form at Carnegie, the piece was both an electric-guitar concerto and a song cycle, its three movements broken into nine sections, in which the languorous eloquence of Mr. Anastasio’s guitar playing alternated with his gentle, plain-spoken singing. (The dreamily impressionistic lyrics were Mr. Anastasio’s as well.)

Mr. Hart’s appealing orchestration touched on cinematic lushness and musical-theater dazzle, with episodes of Disneyesque twinkle and “Classical Gas”-style kitsch. In that context the brief fugue that opened “Splinters of Hail” (the second part of the last movement) felt almost jarring, like a plea to be taken seriously.

No such pleading was necessary: what Mr. Anastasio and Mr. Hart have created is that rarest of rarities, a classical-rock hybrid that might please partisans from both constituencies. Set amid a generous group of popular Phish songs — gentle, string-cushioned ballads like “Brian and Robert” and “Let Me Lie,” as well as the audacious, intricate instrumentals “Guyute Orchestral” and “You Enjoy Myself” — the new piece could hardly have gone wrong.

The orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch, played brilliantly throughout the evening, with the trombones dipping into deep reserves of raucousness for “You Enjoy Myself.” The concert was liberally punctuated with whoops and cheers; the final ovation for the orchestra before the encore — another Phish song, “If I Could” — was the loudest, wildest response I have ever heard for anything at Carnegie. That so many of the players could remain stone-faced during the tumult is a phenomenon beyond my comprehension.