Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Creativity, Rigidity and the LSATs

No one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor, because sore throats will recover without medical intervention. In recent years several cases of epiglottitis have occurred. Epiglottitis is a condition that begins with a sore throat and deteriorates rapidly in such a way that the throat becomes quite swollen, thus restricting breathing. Sometimes the only way to save a patient’s life in these circumstances is to insert a plastic tube into the throat below the blockage so that the patient can breathe. It is highly advisable in such cases that sufferers seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur, that is, before the condition deteriorates.

Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?

(A) The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance.
(B) The author assumes that similar effects must have similar causes.
(C) The author uses a medical term, “epiglottitis,” and does not clarify its meaning.
(D) The author makes two claims that contradict each other.
(E) The author bases her conclusion at the end of the passage on inadequate evidence.

Above is a sample question for the Logical Reasoning section of the LSAT. Now unlike the vast majority of human beings, I like standardized tests. No really, I actually enjoy them. I mean I'll be the first to admit that there's a great deal of tediousness associated with standardized tests. And the gap between a standardized test's ability to realistically assess a person's intelligence and the importance of said test's score in determining an individual's future is far too wide. Everyone knows at least one person who scored horribly on their SATs in spite of their obvious intelligence, and I'd guess that you might know one or two people who scored extremely well even though they're less intelligent than a common squirrel.

But none of that has abated my love for a good, regimented standardized test. There's just something very... finite about them. Every question is familiar, because they have to follow a pattern. Similarly, every answer is familiar, because they follow patterns too. On the LSAT, you know that you're going to get five sections of 35 minutes each. Each section will have between 24 and 28 questions, and you're guaranteed a break after the fourth section of no less than 10 but no more than 15 minutes. Let's take a look at the question above for a minute (don't panic, I swear I'm not going to make you take any practice tests or anything, I'm just trying to prove my point). The question, "Which one of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?" tells you a few things immediately. The phrase "statement of the flaw" indicates that this question falls into the category of Fallacy Questions, one of the 11 different categories of questions in the logical reasoning section of the test. Fallacy questions directly ask you to spot a flaw in an argument-i.e. to identify a "fallacy," or particular type of invalid logical reasoning. Now I've only been studying for the LSATs for a few weeks, but I know that with a fallacy question, the correct answer will do more than just describe the argument; it must describe an error in reasoning.

With just a little experience and prior knowledge, I've transformed my perception of this question. Unless you've been studying for the LSAT, or have taken it before, your initial reaction to this question was one of confusion, boredom, or if you actually tried to answer it, concentration. However, since I've seen a lot of fallacy questions before, and know a bit about how LSAT writers formulate questions, my reaction was a bit different. I first read the passage, taking careful note of absolute statements, definitions and qualifiers (e.g. "No one who has a sore throat...", "epiglottitis is..." and "It is highly advisable..."). Then I read the prompt, immediately realized it was a fallacy question, and started crossing out answers. Now I won't go through them one by one, but its fairly clear to me that A, B, C and E are all incorrect. They're clever tricks, meant to divert you away from the right answers, but since I know most of the playbook that the question writers use, I can spot these tricks easily. For example, answer A (The author draws a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance) defines an actual logical fallacy, the generalization fallacy. However, a correct definition does not make a right answer, and its clear upon reading the passage that the author does not clearly draw "a general conclusion on the basis of evidence of a particular instance" of anything.

Odds are, if you tried answering this question yourself, you got it right. It's one of the easier practice questions I've come across, designed as a simple check against those who don't read carefully. It's clear the claims that "no one who has a sore throat need consult a doctor" and "it is highly advisable that sufferers [of epiglottitis, a condition that begins with sore throat,] seek medical attention when the first symptoms occur" are contradictory, and therefore D is the correct response. However, the odds are also good that if this is your first time looking at a sample LSAT question, you spent a good deal of time figuring out exactly what the question was asking, weeding out the wrong answers and mentally sorting through the importance of various phrases and factors in the question. Most people can, with sufficient time and a proficient grasp of English, reason their way through any of the questions on the LSAT. With sufficient time is the key phrase here, because when you take the test, time is anything but sufficient. You have 35 minutes to answer about 25 questions, which leaves with you with just over a minute per question. This is why experience and prior knowledge are so important with standardized tests. You have to know the types of questions you're going to see, the types of answers you're going to see, and be able to figure out why the right answer is right and the wrong ones are wrong. The key to doing really well on tests like the LSAT or the SAT isn't intelligence, it's practice. With enough experience and practice, complicated questions about logical fallacies begin to look more like a simple game than a part of some incomprehensible standardized test. The rules are rigid, they're set, all you have to do is play as well as you can. The best test takers will tell you that they don't have to concentrate very hard when taking a test, because at that point its mostly instinct.

I bring up standardized testing not just because I'm in the middle of preparing to take the June administration of the LSAT, but because it ties in perfectly to the book I read this week, "You Are Not A Gadget- A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a member of geek royalty- he's known as the father of virtual reality technology and has worked with figures like Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine and John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But with "I Am Not A Gadget," Lanier separates himself from his former colleagues. The open internet, he argues, is not nearly as open as we perceive it to be. Some of the most influential decisions in technological history have been made with little foresight as to how they could influence and limit the actions of the future, especially when it comes to the realm of creativity. Lanier, who has a strong background in classical music, uses the invention of MIDI to demonstrate his point:

One day in the early 1980s, a music synthesizer designer named Dave Smith casually made up a way to represent musical notes. It was called MIDI. His approach conceived of music from a keyboard player‟s point of view. MIDI was made of digital patterns that represented keyboard events like “key-down” and “key-up.”
That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone player can produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin. But there was no reason for MIDI to be concerned with the whole of musical expression, since Dave only wanted to connect some synthesizers together so that he could have a larger palette of sounds while playing a single keyboard.
In spite of its limitations, MIDI became the standard scheme to represent music in software. Music programs and synthesizers were designed to work with it, and it quickly proved impractical to change or dispose of all that software and hardware. MIDI became entrenched, and despite Herculean efforts to reform it on many occasions by a multi-decade-long parade of powerful international commercial, academic, and professional organizations, it remains so.
You've heard MIDI technology before, even if you aren't aware of it. Every song created on a computer utilizes it, the infamous auto-tune is built around it, and programs like iOS' Garage Band are utterly dependent on it. That means all of this music, all of this creative potential, must be funneled through the filters of MIDI. This is exactly what Lanier is warning against, and why his book is not just a book, but a manifesto.

One of the book's underlying themes has to do with this disconnect between the potential of the human mind and the technologies we interact with on a daily basis. When you sit down at a computer, you probably don't think about how your keyboard is limiting you to typing one letter at a time, or how your mouse restricts your ability to manipulate variables on screen to a single horizontal plane. These basic technologies, which we take for granted, have an enormous impact on our ability to create and innovate. Lanier isn't necessarily advocating that we abandon these restricting technologies immediately, he's simply asking us to pause periodically and consider the forest for the trees. In particular, he is criticizing "the promotion of the latest techno-political-cultural orthodoxy," in which the Singularity is considered inevitable and "Web 2.0" technologies are categorically heaped with praise (and rarely with criticism).

Facebook is yet another example that Lanier presents of an innovation that we rarely question, but which causes a form of "digital reductionism" that serves to disenfranchise our personalities. On Facebook, you are presented with standard prompts to fill out: relationship status, birthday, residence, profile picture. Your entire personal identity devolves into simple, personality-free entries in a database. Now compared with the other ways in which we represent our identities online, Facebook has been called an improvement. Unlike a webpage, where every bit of HTML is customizable (although HTML is also not without its limitations), Facebook is standardized. When you click through to somebody's Facebook profile, you don't have to read the banner at the top of the page that was formerly adorned with the silhouette of Mark Zuckerberg. You know that there will be a picture in the upper left corner which that person has chosen to represent themselves, you know that you can find their recent activity on their wall right in the center of the page, and if you want to know if they're in a relationship or not its as simple as clicking on the link titled "info" under their name. Before you even go to that person's Facebook page, you know exactly what to expect. Sure there may be minor variations here and there, some people choose to display less pictures and remove the wall, while others seem to have fully devoted their lives to Farmville. But all of these behaviors, pictures, and boxes of text which we use to represent who we are as people are standardized and taken for granted. Gone is the seemingly limitless potential of the individual webpage, which take serious commitment, creativity and know-how to make. In its place is the Facebook page. Stale, standardized, and predictable, Facebook is about as good at representing individual personality as a standardized test is at representing intelligence. Sure it makes things easier to sort through, but go look at your own Facebook page and tell me if it accurately represents who you are as a person. Just as the infamous "no child left behind" act forced millions of teachers to abandon their passion for inspiring young minds in favor of "teaching to the test," Facebook asks us to disregard our inner creative influence in favor of making ourselves easier to search for.

Now this isn't to say that you should go delete your Facebook and Twitter account, throw away your mouse and keyboard and completely revert back to man's natural state. But there are a lot of valuable warnings in Lanier's book, especially for technology enthusiasts like myself. I've read a lot of books about social media and technology this semester, and I have to admit that "You Are Not A Gadget" is my absolute favorite. That's because unlike the authors of Cluetrain, Clay Shirky, and Kos, Jaron Lanier refuses to accept the tools of social interaction as simple tools. Instead, he forces you to question the evolution of speech, its contexts, and its limitations. Instead of unabashedly praising new innovations, he wonders how they will limit us in the future, as well as how they can be improved. Instead of accepting the common belief that the abilities of the human brain are approaching those of a computer, he challenges computers to better adapt to the abilities of the human brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got an LSAT prep class to go to. Hey, just because I can see the forest for the trees doesn't mean I don't like to go hiking through the woods every now and then.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Music and Politics

Music and Politics.

That phrase looks just as awesome to me today as it did nearly four years ago, when I first saw it as an incoming Lehigh freshman. In the College of Arts & Sciences, every freshman is required to select a "freshman seminar" to take during their first semester at school. Now these "classes" cover a ridiculously wide spectrum of human knowledge, letting freshman who have yet to experience their first college class choose from subjects like "Intro to Theater," "Prehistoric Religion, Art and Technology," and even "The Drugging of America." In high school, all my classes had dry, academic sounding names like U.S. History, or AP Statistics, so the prospect of taking a class all about the "Lives and Legacies of Great Explorers" was pretty exciting. But there was one class in particular that really caught my eye: Music and Politics. My mother, who majored in music in college, instilled a love for music in both her children at a very young age. And growing up just outside the beltway (AKA Washington D.C.) meant I was no stranger to politics, at least from an observational standpoint. But I had never really considered that there was any link between the two subjects until I found them juxtaposed so boldly against each other in my freshman orientation packet. So, curiosity piqued, I chose Music and Politics as my first choice for a freshman seminar.

Taught by the award-winning, internationally renowned concert pianist and conductor Eugene Albulescu, Music and Politics proved to be everything it suggested and more. For starters, Professor Albulescu (who will hereafter be referred to as Eugene, as he insisted we call him in class), plays the piano so beautifully that he must have made a bargain with the devil at some point, which made class more of a privilege than a responsibility. And our class discussions were constantly teaching me new things about artists I thought I had known. For example, I found out that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-semite, even going so far as to publish an essay called "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music) to 'helpfully' explain why Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn are biologically incapable of producing song or music (the Flight of the Valkyries sounds much more sinister to me now than it used to). I also found out that the Bob Marley classic "Buffalo Soldier" was meant to be a rallying cry against racism in America. But what fascinated me most about the role of music in political discourse was its ability to subvert the rules and norms of society in order to create change. Whether you're talking about Woodstock, The Concert for Bangladesh, or Live Aid, musicians have time and time again proven that they can use their voices to usher in real, positive societal change, in addition to simple entertainment.

So when I read "Taking on the System" by Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga, aka 'Kos,' I was immediately drawn to the idea of using music to bypass, crush, and influence the 'gatekeepers.' Gatekeeper is Kos' derisive term for people in positions of power and control (think Marxism and its fascination with the individuals who control the means of production). Now don't get me wrong here, despite his ambition, popular success and organizational prowess, Kos is certainly no Saul Alinsky. "Taking on the System" reads more like a history of successful progressive community organizing efforts than a manual for radical protest. And I'm sure that while some people would be interested that the writer of the self-proclaimed "most influential political blog in the nation" can cite example after example of successful political campaigns, most were expecting a bit more pragmatism out of what Kos has dubbed the "Rules for Radicals of the digital age."

But the gatekeepers idea is interesting to me, especially since Kos used the music industry as an example to explain his point. Eugene's class was my first educational brush with music and politics, but it wouldn't be my last. In my sophomore year, I was introduced to international hip-hop when I read Heavy Metal Islam- Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam for an Anthropology class. The book is a travelogue of sorts, written by heavy metal musician and Middle Eastern history professor Mark LeVine. The title alone was enough to draw me in, but the stories I found inside provided a unique, first hand perspective of hip-hop in a different country that I had never seen before. Below, I've included my first impressions of Heavy Metal Islam. They were written for another blog I wrote on international hip-hop when I first read the book, before I was blessed with the wisdom of J325, but I think most of the insights still hold true.

Now despite being a white kid from the suburbs of Washington D.C., I've always loved hip-hop. When I first discovered the genre, I was fascinated by the way artists sampled and blended different bits and pieces of music together to create a mélange of music. I was a big fan of all kinds of hip-hop, and I even hosted my own radio show freshman year for two hours every Friday. So when I read Heavy Metal Islam, LeVine's description of the ways that artists communicate and collaborate in the Middle East amazed me.

“Our whole life is inside,” describes a musician from a popular Iranian metal band, “Inside you don’t need to wear your veil, you can blast your music, dance… and otherwise feel free" (176). This is a common sentiment among artists. In Iran, musicians are restricted mostly by the Islamic government. All music must be approved by the Ministry of Culture, which screens for anything from rebellious lyrics to guitar riffs that are just a bit too edgy. Cassette tapes, which were banned by Khomeni after the Iranian revolution, are bought and sold by fans like illegal drugs. Public concerts are regularly shut down and heavy metal artists are reduced to playing “metal theatre,” where patrons must be seated, and cannot headbang or dance. So in repressive cultures like this, how do artists collaborate to put out decent music, and create communities where they can share this music and their culture? One word: Internet

"Hanging around the internet has become the equivalent of hanging out on the street corner,” LeVine declares (18). And it’s true, the internet has proliferated most countries in the Middle East to the extent where almost any city dweller can afford an hour at an internet café to link up and share information across national and cultural boundaries. Indeed, the very existence of LeVine’s text owes thanks to the internet, without which he would have never met all the musicians and politicians that he did. He met Reda Zine, one of the most influential figures in Heavy Metal Islam, through the internet. In LeVine’s own words, “It was just a matter of time before [they] went from chat rooms to rehearsal rooms, the recording booth, and ultimately to sharing the stage” (25). What is even more important is when the power of the internet to unite people goes beyond these transnational bridges, and establishes local bonds. People who live under oppressive governments, where finding a public space to perform and share non-traditional music is difficult, have turned to the internet to create local communities based around musical movements. The web magazine Tehran Avenue has succeeded in creating a “means of bringing the vibrant underground scene of Tehran aboveground” (192). The magazine hosts regular web based music competitions where local artists can share and discuss their music. This allows musicians and fans who would otherwise be oblivious of each other a chance to communicate and establish a common community. These communities are even beginning to gain the courage to speak out against the government. LeVine talks extensively about the flourishing blogger scene in Egypt, and how it has become one of the primary outlets for activists who want to voice their opinion. They are even training other activists in technical matters and blogging techniques. The members-only metal community metalgigsforum.com (no longer exists) is another place where artists and fans alike can speak out about politics with lessened fear of government backlash. The ability to have anonymity on the internet and garner widespread report even allowed the web site Marock Sans Frontiers (Morocco without Borders) to post an open letter challenging the Moroccan King, which is a definite no-no in Morocco. The internet has provided a ground-breaking forum for citizens to assemble and create public communities, complete with a public group identity.

In Egypt an artist’s popularity is heavily dependent on their MySpace page. In Lebanon, the rap duo Soap Kills has chosen to distribute their music online to avoid corporate restrictions and reach a broader audience. In Iran, rapper Peyman-Chet uploads his raps to the internet to be downloaded by thousands of people worldwide. Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because all over the world musicians are using the internet to disseminate their music and create virtual communities. Here in the United States, the artist Girl Talk and the band Radiohead both chose to release their most recent albums online for free. Hip hop in America is heavily reliant on mix tape sites like datpiff.com where artists, beat makers, DJs and lyricists can collaborate across the world. The internet is one of the musician’s greatest tools, and it allows music to travel to places where it can attract brand new audiences and bring people together despite cultural boundaries. Slowly, cultural revolution is coming to countries which are in desperate need of change. Iranian rappers are beginning to reclaim public space through internet advertised rap battles in the park. Young people are traveling through the cities of the Middle East blasting hip hop and heavy metal they downloaded off the internet through their car speakers and iPods, while tagging their favorite artists’ names on the walls of the subways and buildings. Hopefully, if the movement continues, the internet will allow those people in the Middle East who have been forced to build online societies to enact real change, and eventually, bring their public, group identities back into the real world.
In hindsight, I'm pretty proud of this post. I, like Kos, cited Radiohead's free "In Rainbows" release as significant because the band subverted the typical gatekeepers by giving their album to the fans, rather than the record companies (although I now realize that Girl Talk only released his album for free because you can't legally profit off an album composed entirely of samples under copyright laws). And in February, LeVine wrote an excellent editorial for Al-Jazeera about how young people in the Arab world have ignored the typical gatekeepers of the western world in favor of a people-powered revolution.

But music, much like twitter or facebook, is not responsible for causing revolution or change (despite what CNN says). Music is simply a tool, or maybe even less than that, music is an issue. It's something that people can gather around, a simple, concrete goal that effects change (COUGHSUCCESs modelCOUGH). All it takes to create a great song is an idea, a couple voices and some enthusiasm. Add in about $3000 and you can even create an international music sensation overnight. And that's why "Taking on the System" isn't a total waste of time- it's about the stories, not the rules. While I wouldn't give Kos the "most influential" title, it would be foolish to say that he hasn't inspired some pretty big political movements. He reinvigorated "people power" in a country that has all but given up on it. And I'm certainly a fan of that.