Luminous Nonlinearity

Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking was a pleasant part of my winter break. I don’t really care for the title, and it’s somewhat difficult for me to articulate what the book was about. Broadly, it intertwined anecdotes about mathematicians with mathematical concepts and illustrated these concepts in action with pithy vignettes about selection bias among surviving war planes, the expected value of a prior iteration of the Massachusetts lottery, and regression to the mean among the sons of tall fathers. Somehow, it was a page turner.

Non-linearity was a concept described brilliantly early in the book: “Nonlinear thinking means which way you should go depends on where you already are.” Ellenburg applies this concept to the Laffer Curve (and provides a humorous counterexample of a writer with a sharply discontinuous utility function with respect to wages who is incentivized to work more hours if tax rates go up) and a conservative polemic that America should not try to become more like Sweden (tax and redistribute more) if Sweden is trying to become more like America (tax and redistribute less) (Ellenburg implies in rebuttal that there may be an optimal amount of government intervention in the economy straddling these two points).

Shortly after finishing this book, I encountered a clear example of nonlinearity in my own life. I was buying light bulbs for my standing lamp, which is my primary light source for my apartment when the sun is down. I had the bright idea to purchase slightly less luminous bulbs than I was using previously — more environmentally efficient, I thought, and maybe better at night as I’m winding down. As it turns out, this was not correct. It’s now not quite bright enough for me to read, so I also turn on a small table lamp. The net effect: because I decreased the amount of light emitted by my standing lamp, I now use two lights; reducing the electricity consumed by one light increased my total electricity consumption. Brilliant and definitely non-linear.

Beautiful Etymology

  1. Anandamide, the endogenous cannabanoid neurotransmitter; name comes from “the Sanskrit word ananda, which means ‘joy, bliss, delight.'” (I guess Vishy Anand, the chess player, gets his family name from this word too!)
  2. Coprolalia, the word for clinical profanity. Coprolalia comes from the Greek κόπρος (kopros) meaning “feces” and λαλιά (lalia) from lalein, “to talk”. Literally means to talk shit.
  3. Orthodoxy means “true/correct belief” (a normative claim, really, which makes it really interesting that sects of some religions are described as Orthodox). Relatedly: Orthogonal, meaning of right angles, comes from the same “ortho” root meaning correct. That means that “right” angles more generally means “true” or “correct” angles!

I’m sure there are dozens of interesting etymologies like these. Semi-related: the word velleity is really neat. Also this rebuke of the word “problematic.”




Musical Transformations: Word to sound and sound to kaleidoscopic color

I stumbled on some cool artistic transformations involving music and technology lately, and I thought I’d share / document them.

1. “Music Worth Watching.” I stumbled on a series of “animated graphical visualizations” of various songs in classical music. Different shapes represent different instruments, colors represent tones, and spatial orientation shows pitch, among other elements. The result is a really neat visualization; pyramids of sound cascading across the screen, creating a kaleidoscopic of swirling voices. Check out a video of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (notes here). Looks like it’s called the Music Animation Project created by a guy named named Stephen Malinowski – and the whole idea started as a hallucination in the 1970s.


2. “Transprose” – Novels transformed into piano music. This project involves assigning words to particular tempos, keys, and tones according to their emotional content (ex. joy, sadness, trust, happiness);  The full list of songs is here. It’s a little simple right now, but the idea is so cool, and some of the songs sound pretty neat (my favorite is Heart of Darkness). Time did a short write-up about it: “By picking out emotion-related words and translating those into tempos and keys, two researchers found a way to connect music and literature.” A programmer/artist from NY named Hannah Davis and Saif Mohammad of the Canada’s National Research Council created it.

3. “Listen to the Sound of Wikipedia.” This project takes real-time activity on the different Wikipedia sites (English, French Punjabi, Wikidata… you choose the ones you want) and generates tones. The result is continuous ambient music. I think this is especially neat because it creates art out of something obviously not intended for art – the big data of Wikipedia edits – How cool is that! Here’s the description: “Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, and purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots.”  It was built by Stephen LaPorte and Mahmoud Hashemi and apparently was inspired by a similar idea for Bitcoin.

I think it’s clear that increasingly sophisticated technology is not the bane of aesthetics. Rather, technological innovations magnify the space for artistic expression by unveiling new modes through which art can proliferate. All three of these projects are powered by recent software and involve coding of some kind. All the more reason to learn to program, I think.