Wednesday Flotsam, Including Science!

A. Stray thought: there is evidence that we’re in a Golden Age in at least some fields, and not just the obvious technological ones. Besides, we’re so close to the birth of technical fields such as computer and material sciences that calling this a Golden Age in that respect seems too premature to mean much. No, I mean areas old enough to have gone through a few boom/bust cycles.  There seem to be an awful lot of people, many  young or youngish masters, doing very impressive work across a number of fields.

Further, while Golden a Ages seem to feature a disproportionate number of true masters, I would think that the true measure isn’t the individual genius (who can pop up anywhere at any time, it seems) but rather the number of competent to great practitioners beneath them. For example, the 16th and early 17th centuries were the Golden Age of polyphony. Everybody who knows anything about that era can name Palestrina, de Lasso, Victoria, Byrd. But what’s astounding is that the few times I’ve gotten to perform stuff written by the supposed 2nd tier guys, I’ve been blown away. There seems to have been a lot of great music written back then, for which Palestrina in particular has been chosen as the poster boy, with everybody else getting at most a ‘oh, yea, him too’ reference. (1)

Years ago, listened to an interview with some pianists involved in competitions. Turns out there’s a general consensus that there are more fabulous piano players alive now than at any time in history. Used to be that, for example, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos used to be the peak of the virtuoso mountain, attempted by only the best of the best. Today, there are thousands of 15 year olds around the world knocking them off. It’s gotten to the point where, in competitions, as single mistake will disqualify you; as one young pianist said: it’s like they’re judging your soul. Technical perfection is simply the price of admission.

Sticking with music, Rick Beato, an accomplished musician with a Youtube channel I follow, mentions in one of his videos the growing number of utterly excellent guitar players out there today. He tells a story familiar to any of us older, say, over 50, guys: when we were young, a new song would come out and you’d throw the vinyl record on the turntable and wear it out while you figured out how to play it. A noble, useful exercise, but time-intensive and often frustrating.

Today? On Youtube, you can likely find a dozen videos of people, occasionally, even the original performers, showing you how to play the song. Technical issues such as fingerings and voicings that are often difficult picking up from the recording become clear. You still have to do the work, but it is so much faster and less frustrating to see it worked through, especially when you’re a relative beginner.

Same general principle holds for woodworking, blacksmithing and boat building, and no doubt a thousand other crafts and arts. There’s some normalish guy out there building a Bombay chest, a classic rapier or a cedar strip canoe right this minute, and his work will stand comparison the the best that’s out there.

But the real value is more subtle: you get to see normal people doing extraordinary things. Teenage girls will shred their way through Eruption or arrangements of Beethoven sonatas; you can watch her hands and see how she’s doing it. Dude will show you how to do epic, Japanese-flavored woodworking projects in his home shop. A guy will build a 45′ steel boat in his front yard; a young couple will build a ketch from scratch with the intention of sailing the world. A 20 year year old kid will make swords that should be hanging in museums. And on and on.

There’s even a sort of Art Tatum of this crafty world, a guy whose patient perfectionism and awesome skills might intimidate you even he wasn’t so matter of fact and charming: on his Clickspring channel he’s building a replica of the Antikythera Mechanism out of sheets of brass, often using tools he makes for the purpose. It must be seen to be believed.

Is it just that social media makes all this cool stuff easily seen, when in the past it was hidden from all but the hardest hardcore hobbyists? I don’t think that’s the whole story. Rather, I think there’s a general spreading of inspiration, that people everywhere are seeing that people just like them can do these incredible projects, and that some of those people then start incredible projects of their own.

I think this a very good thing, if true. People with a sense of accomplishment are much less likely to get blown about in the winds of political and social fashion, seems to me. They’re not looking, or looking less, for that practical sense of meaning in their daily lives that mastery of a craft gives you. People who finally master that instrument, build that boat, or finish that home addition are more likely to be stable, solid citizens.

Maybe. I could be delusionally optimistic. Wouldn’t be the first time.

B. In comments to  this article from the Medical Press, a nuclear physicist points out that even elite scientists often screw up their statistical analyses. In the initial paper, data was collected from a carefully selected representative sample of people who use statistics. Just kidding! I slay me! Using an ‘instrument’ of some kind, some college students were asked to solve questions where the solution required following 3 or more logical steps OR really knowing stat so that you could plug some numbers into standard stat formulas. There is an example in the initial paper.

Now, knowing quite a few people, including myself, I’d say the likelihood a high percentage of any group of people who aren’t professional statisticians or logicians to solve such problems is slim to none. It would fall well below half. I’d expect single digits among, say, pedicurists, long haul truckers and journalists – you know, fields were being able to follow 2 or more steps of logic isn’t a job requirement.  No knock – if we don’t use it, our minds are pretty good at freeing up space for something else.

The purpose of the study was no doubt to obtain a stick with a patina of science on it with which to beat some target or other. Since the reason suggested – I hope you’re sitting down – is that statistics is taught very badly in schools, it looks like the target is people whose money the state wants for funding reliable statist voters, such as ‘educators’ and teachers. The state of eternal school reform must be maintained, while at the same time all who question why we would pay for something that has failed to work for 200+ years are automatically excommunicated.

I don’t think teaching will help much, unless lots of us peons somehow reach the conclusion that following logic very carefully is something we can’t live without. Until then, even ignoring any possible issues with native intelligence, people aren’t going to learn this. For those who might want to know how to think a little but for whom the schools have  succeeded in their stated goal of preventing just such thought, well, they could start with Dr. Briggs’ book.  In it, he shows convincingly that probability and statistics are branches of philosophy (and thus necessarily, of logic) with a little math attached. In other words, knowing what you are doing and what is possible comes first. Do that, and the math is either completely unnecessary or firmly secondary.

Statistics properly understood is both a powerful tool and a cautionary tale. As Briggs explains in his book, there are more interesting questions in this world about which statistics can tell us nothing than there are ones where statistics can give us great insight. I’d guess exactly 98.83% of all statistical analyses you’ll ever hear about are out and out nonsense, at least as presented. How the data is gathered, what the data even is, whether the subject matter even admits of numerical analysis – these are philosophical questions that get booted even before the perp gets a chance to screw up the math.

  1. And it’s even worse than that, in that about a half dozen works by Palestrina are well known among the tiny subset of people who care about this stuff. Palestrina and de Lasso were very prolific, writing hundreds of pieces over their careers. Palestrina also maintained legendarily high standards – all his work is good to epically great. It’s too much! So we get to hear the same small set of pieces repeatedly, and just take the experts word for it being representative. And that’s not even counting any of the other masters who you’ve never heard of and whose names I promptly forget.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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