Vi Hart Weekly, June 5th

This week’s weekly Vi Hart news includes the following topics that have been in my brain this week, gathered here for your Vi Hart news consumption experience: music/improv/earworms, VR stuff, Caitlyn Jenner, and this week’s book reviews.

1. Music Section: improvisation and earworms

This section is first so that you can hit play on this embedded sound file if you want accompaniment for the rest of your consumption experience.

The above is an improvisation on my piano that happened. I did record it and put it on the internet.

I also watched/listened to this amazing video at least 20 times. I could not get it out of my head, so I did a weird improvised “let’s play” on the section most stuck in my head, which I also posted but then deleted a few days later because it’s not very good for anything but curing that particular stuck-in-head disease.

I’d do better to describe it to you: I play the theme in a lot of ways: cliche ways, weird ways, same notes but in the context of different keys and/or different chords, and in the end go on to destroy context entirely and get all atonal on it for a while.

That is how things often get stuck in my head, and definitely how they get stuck in my head when it’s in a really bothersome way. They transform, combine with other songs or pieces, and in the end become unrecognizable as the original. An aspect of it might repeat in a maddening way, but everything around it changes and changes.

That, at least, is what I experience that is closest to the cliche of the annoying earworm. But more often the music in my head is beautiful to listen to, and plays through larger sections or skips around different parts, rather than looping. A familiar and beloved string quartet can play through my head unaltered. Or my own compositions, in which I know the purpose and order of every note.

But sometimes I’ll have something stuck in my head and have trouble placing it, and maybe it will end up that it is my own unwritten composition, or after a while I’ll recognize it as an orchestration of something else, or maybe I never figure it out. I’d say a large percentage of music that gets stuck in my head is music that I have never heard in real life, whether it be a cover version or variation of something “real”, or something completely invented. Music that I know is my own unwritten composition can play again and again in a way that is quite maddening until I finally write or record or otherwise make the thing “real” and get it out.

Sometimes I find I have more than one thing stuck in my head at the same time, but they’re not overlapping or synching, they’re just sort of running in parallel but completely separately (which wouldn’t work in real life). Or I find that the piece is stuck in my brain but it’s not playing so much as just in my brain all at once, or some combination of the above.

I mention this because also this week, I read Mike Rugnetta’s Reasonably Sound intermission post in which he talks about how he just found out that some people only get songs stuck in their head as short repeating loops, while he only gets songs stuck in his head in their complete form, and only instrumental work. I had never heard of that before. This has me interested in the different ways music gets stuck in people’s heads, and so I thought I’d add mine the list.

It’s also weird to listen to myself improvise, and I’d like to record myself more often and see if it gets less weird. I feel like I should know what I’m thinking and where I’m going, that it should be even easier to follow my own thoughts when I’m not also busy playing, but it’s hard to think those thoughts without actually using the piano and my hands as an extension of the brain. I understand my improvised self much less than I understand my composed pieces.

2. Virtual Reality Research News

Yep, still doing VR.

We just passed the one year anniVRsary of our “hello world” post on eleVR (and almost 1 year since my own post about it on this site).

One year doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but we’ve had the luxury of being able to focus all our time doing research, rather than having to create a product and do business and marketing stuff, so we’ve been able to cover a huge amount of ground. I can’t believe how much VR content we’ve created, and how much research content we’ve shared on our blog in just the past year. There’s a lot there.

This week in eleVR:

-I set up virtualeality.com (still under construction, it is the future we’re talking about after all)

-Emily’s been posting a series of articles on editing VR video

-Emily and Andrea are doing some stereo video experiments and I don’t really understand what’s going on but I think there’s codecs involved? Also they did an awesome interview and they are awesome.

-Elijah is working on a post about the work he’s doing with 3d models and capturing panoramas in Maya and I want to reaaaad itttt

-I sent a million emails because apparently that is who I have become.

3. This Week’s Trending Topics Opinion Column: Thoughts on the Caitlyn Jenner media experience and Gender and Identity and Stuff

A month or so ago it seems, I was having a scotch with some colleagues in a sports bar. On the 20 television screens of this sports bar appeared the face of someone I had never heard of before, doing an interview.

There’s a lot of terrible soul-sucking media ridiculousness that I wish were not in my brain. I wish I were not wasting brain space knowing who Lady GaGa is dating or what Snookie’s hair looks like. But I am glad that, thanks in part to the media machine that infects us all with the cultural consciousness of who has been judged to look awesome on magazine covers, I know who Caitlyn Jenner is.

For selfish reasons as well as general desire for social progress, I really wish this and other recent examples of trans visibility in media had all happened so much sooner, that I had been exposed to all this when I was young. I really did not understand the whole transgender thing when I was a teenager, and besides that I might have been a better and more thoughtful person, it also would have helped me understand myself better.

I really could not, when I was younger, understand why people made a big deal of gender at all. Why would anyone ever feel the need to point out that they were “A Man,” or “A Woman?” I thought it silly and attention-seeking when anyone would call attention to their gender in any way. Profile names of the form [thing I like]+[gendered identifier] caused an instant dislike to well up in me. I assumed that gender mattered as little to other people as it did to me, and thus if they made a fuss about, for example, being misgendered, it was a purely dramatic show made in bad faith.

This made quite a puzzle out of the fact that apparently some people considered their gender to be so strongly a part of their identity that, if it just so happened that they had been assigned the wrong gender at birth, they’d go through the trouble to transition. I believed that humans are social animals who tend to take the path of least resistance both physically and culturally, so if someone does something that’s very difficult, there had to be a good reason for it. Being trans sounded like a lot of effort to me, hard to justify if gender doesn’t really matter after all.

And it was too long, not until I was in college, that any actual trans voices made it across my radar, and I realized this was not just a theoretical curiosity from far away, but something people actually do. Real people go through all this trouble, and for what, gender?

The only conclusion that fit the facts was that indeed, gender is a thing. Maybe it’s culturally created, or maybe it’s biological, or maybe it’s something else, but it’s definitely real. And if it’s real when trans folk do it, maybe it’s even real when cis folk do it.

In understanding that gender identity is a real thing, I also understood that I don’t have it. I don’t identify as nonbinary either, I simply don’t identify. I have all the privilege of being fine with keeping the default I was born with, as well as the privilege that when people use the “wrong” pronoun when they email me or write an article regarding my work, I don’t feel misgendered (although I might feel tired of sexist assumptions).

My condescending teenager attitude came from a false belief that other people are basically like me. I didn’t care, therefore others don’t really care, therefore if they act like they care then it’s just an act for attention, or drama, or because they’re bored, because I know that if I were acting like that, it could only be for those reasons.

The same fallacy made me think that since I thought beer tasted terrible (before I lived in Belgium and learned what beer is), everyone thinks beer tastes terrible, therefore if they say they like it they’re just pretending to be cool, just like I’d be doing. And if I have a bias that I pretend to be politically correct about, everyone secretly agrees with me but is also just pretending to be politically correct, and why can’t we just all admit, as a culture, the truth about these people and their beer?

It turns out people are truly different from each other, and thankfully not every human secretly harbors the same inner feelings, same tastes, same resentments, same biases, as my idiot teenage self.

I managed to finally realize that when someone says “I am a Woman,” they actually mean something by it, in a way I never will. I wish I grew up knowing any of this were a thing, I probably would have been better to others as well as to myself.

So the transgender community taught me a lot, and I am thankful for this, and I’m glad not just for Caitlyn Jenner and the trans community but also for teenagers like who I was, and anyone else trapped in the uncaring meat of their head who is finally being forced to imagine that maybe the world is truly different from the stupid spiteful place they imagined in their own image.

4. This Week’s Book Reviews: Dissanayake and Wittgenstein

Homo Aestheticus, by Ellen Dissanayake

Dissanayake argues that art evolved as a useful human activity in and of itself, rather than being fundamentally useless, or an accidental side-effect of other human abilities such as language.

If this book had been written well and in confident tone, most academics would know this book and Dissanayake’s name. Just 20 years ago when it came out, Dissanayake’s ideas were completely new, and she encountered a lot of hostile push-back. Now, the idea that art-making might have evolved as a specific adaptive behavior seems like an obvious one, hardly worth making a fuss about.

The result is that, from a modern perspective, much of the book is self-justifying and defensive. Her ideas were revolutionary, but not well formed or well argued, and in her rush to shove in piles of examples and evidence from other fields to try to legitimize her work, she frequently contradicts herself or seems out of her depth. There’s occasional bits of great stuff in there, but almost the entire book is spent simply justifying that it’s worthwhile to write about the topic in the first place, making it a frustrating read for anyone who is already on board with the idea that it is worthwhile to think about art from an evolutionary perspective.

Of course it’s worthwhile to think about art from an evolutionary perspective! Or at least, such an idea seems obvious to me over 20 years after her book came out, thanks to her work. Who would have guessed that so much would change in only 20 years?

If I didn’t have to read it for this week’s office book club meeting, I would not have read past the first chapter, but I’m glad I forced my way through because there’s some interesting tidbits and perspectives in there. The greatest interest comes from knowing the history and context in which this book was written, and seeing how many of the ideas in it got picked up and made known by others in clearer more convincing work. It’s valuable to look at badly-formed self-contradictory thoughts that live in the process of trying to say a new thing. I will share some of what I think are the best ideas here, to save you the suffering of ever having to read Homo Aestheticus yourself.

“Making Special” is this great concept that Dissanayake uses to describe the human behavior of… making things special. Adornment of houses or bodies or objects, the special movements of dance or music, personalization of things, affected speech, all this artistic activity makes important objects special, or important activities or rituals special, with the evolutionary advantage that a community will pay attention to those important things, do them more willingly, increase cultural identity and community cohesion through their specialness, etc.

I love “make special.” I feel like the concept was just waiting for the right label, and “making special” is perfect. It’s a very simple phrase that aptly describes a wide range of artistic behavior. It has already found its way into my personal vocabulary, and I can see it sticking around our office lingo for a while.

(“WHAT DID YOU DO TO MY WALL?” “Um… I ‘made it special’?”)

Dissanayake’s perspective on artistic behavior is focused on the history and cross-cultural existence of non-Western art, looking at art’s functions in human communities as we evolved, all but ignoring the Western art culture of the past couple hundred years (negligible in terms of human evolution). There is almost no mention of things like individuality and self-expression. Curiously, for a book taking an evolutionary perspective, there is very little discussion of art-like behavior in animals, beyond some discussion of the bowerbird (which is probably what led to it being the canonical example today).

She puts out the idea that art may be a misapplied instinct to do stuff, that people do art when they’re not sure what else to do. Having an instinct to do something in all cases is better than an instinct to do nothing when it seems convenient. It may be therapeutic and keep us in the habit of doing things that feel worthwhile, even when there’s no directly useful action we can take in response to a situation.

One of the things of particular interest that she mentions, in her surveys of different cultures and making special, is that all cultures (or at least many) have an idea of an alternate reality, a special world more or less real than this one. I need to do more research on this, look into just how universal it really is and think about the implications for VR.

The great philosopher Iris Murdoch says that art, by showing us things in different ways, makes the original thing more real, helps us understand it better. That by contrast through an art version (or a “made special” version), we can better see what the thing is in the first place. I like how Dissanayake’s thoughts connect to Murdoch’s, and how making things special might in fact make them more of what they were in the first place, at least to our understanding.

The most remarkable things Dissanayake argues, to me, is that art evolved as its own thing, separate from language. Art does not come from the same place as language or symbols, it is its own alien thing that we might layer language onto, but that doesn’t fundamentally have anything to do with language or symbols or communication. We may, she argues, even destroy the thing that is the art, when we try to use language to understand it.

I realized that it has been an assumption in my brain that art, especially music, is a linguistic, symbolic, communicative thing. This is the lens through which I’ve seen it, and whether Dissanayake is right or not is less important than realizing that this assumption has been limiting my thoughts. I don’t think she argues particularly convincingly for her conjecture, but I do know that imagining her perspective when I think about art will make me a better thinker.

Remarks on Colour, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe

This I read as part of my ongoing research on VR and philosophy. In contrast to the above painfully long book, Remarks on Color might be less revolutionary, but it’s much more fun.

Short and pithy in classic Wittgenstein style, but on a more accessible concrete topic than usual. Written near the end of his life and edited posthumously for publication by Anscombe. She included his later more concise version, as well as the longer earlier version, which provides some interesting insight into Wittgenstein’s thought process, and which I think contains some of the most interesting material.

The thoughts themselves are outdated by science, but the thought process is not. We know a lot about how color vision works now, which makes a lot of philosophy on color obsolete. The way of thinking is still interesting, the logic that gets to these conclusions that we know now have nothing to do with reality, as well as the good questions that now have good answers (such as why we can perceive yellowish-red but not reddish-green).

And between the stuff about color, there’s some fascinating stuff about language, content, and philosophy itself. Some standalone favs:

II-11. In philosophy we must always ask: “How must we look at this problem in order for it to become solvable?”

III-301. That I can be someone’s friend rests on the fact that he has the same possibilities as I myself have, or similar ones.

I-15. In every serious philosophical question uncertainty extends to the very roots of the problem. We must always be prepared to learn something totally new.

Wittgenstein is so much fun. “Remarks on Colour” did not introduced any big new concepts that will stick with me and change my thinking, possibly because Wittgenstein’s ideas have had such a huge influence on modern philosophy and he’s referenced all over the place (at least in the areas of philosophy I tend to study), but his words are brain candy snacks nom.

Ok, that’s what’s up in my brain this week, or at least all I have time to write about. See you next time.