Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My city of ruins

Howard Street, Baltimore (Google Street View)

Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded-up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother's down on his knees
My city of ruins

—"My City of Ruins," Bruce Springsteen, The Rising
I recently had occasion to travel back to Baltimore, a city I knew in my late teens and early twenties. I was staying in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood of wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings. And please don't misunderstand me: I like wine bars, fine restaurants, and lovingly renovated historic buildings.

I was attending a conference that was being held at the Baltimore Convention Center in the Inner Harbor, an area of high-rise office buildings, malls, chain restaurants and chain hotels. To get there I walked down Howard Street from Madison to Pratt Street, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. In making that journey every morning and returning every evening, I was brought face to face with the effects of decades of racist urban planning and economic and political choices that have kicked those who are no longer considered useful into the gutter.

Block after block of Howard Street is lined with abandoned buildings and shuttered businesses. Some of these photos are taken from Google Street View, but most are mine:

Howard Street at Franklin, east side

Howard Street between Franklin and Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016; 
the central building has since been reduced to a pile of rubble. 
There are four more empty buildings to the left out of the frame.)

Howard Street at Mulberry, west side (Google Street View, October 2016)

Howard Street between Mulberry and Saratoga, east side
(The sign on the empty building to the left advertises beepers and VCRs; it must date back two decades or more.)

Howard Street at Saratoga, east side

Howard Street at Clay, east side

Howard Street at Fayette, west side

The entrance to the former Marble Bar, 306 W. Franklin Street between Howard and Eutaw

Baltimore has always been a gritty, struggling city. But I don't remember this level of devastation even after the massive urban disinvestment of the 1970s. The core of the city has been hollowed out. My city's in ruins.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Not beautiful: The Beethoven string quartets part 2

Portrait of Beethoven by Willibrod Josef Maehler (detail), 1815

The Takács Quartet returned to Berkeley in early March for the middle two concerts of their Beethoven quartet series. (For my previous post on the first two concerts in the series, see "For a later age.")

The Takacs Quartet: Károly Schranz (second violin), András Fejér (cello), Geraldine Walther (viola), and Edward Dusinberre (first violin). Photo: Keith Saunders, http://www.takacsquartet.com

Once again the concerts were introduced by a series of residency events. This time they included an open rehearsal; a panel discussion led by UC Berkeley faculty member Nic Mathew and featuring first violinist Edward Dusinberre and visiting scholars Mary Hunter and Mark Ferraguto; and pre-performance conversations between Mathew and each of the visiting scholars. The theme for the weekend's concerts was "When Old Media Were New Media," or as the Cal Performances residency events program had it, "the role of audiences, institutions and technologies in shaping our experience of this music."

One of the key new modes of experiencing the Beethoven string quartets was the public string quartet concert itself. Before Beethoven, string quartets were often played at home by groups featuring skilled aristocratic amateurs, with an audience of an invited group of friends. (A recent book about the Mozart string quartets was entitled Mozart's Music of Friends.) After Beethoven, string quartets were increasingly performed in concert halls by professional musicians with an audience of paying ticketholders.

The shift from amateur to professional performance is epitomized by the Op. 59 "Razumovsky" quartets. They were commissioned by Count Andreas Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador to the Habsberg court in Vienna, who was an avid and talented violinist. Beethoven delivered three quartets based on Russian musical themes, but they were too difficult for their patron to play. [1]

Portrait of Count Andreas Razumovsky, by Johann Baptist Lampi (detail), ca. 1806
Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/642687#pl07

Razumovsky had to hire the professional Schuppanzigh Quartet (named for its first violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh) for the first performance in 1807. That performance was received with bewilderment.
Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible. . . [2]
"Not generally comprehensible." Even fifteen years later this same journal would state that Op. 59 No. 2 involved "bizarre sounds."

Among the "bizarre sounds" may have been the first violin part in the second, slow movement, which is marked "Molto adagio. Si tratta questo pezzo con molto di sentimento" (Very slow, with a great deal of feeling). At around the 1:37 mark in the 2002 recording by the Takács Quartet the first violin starts playing a two-note figure that sounds like a heartbeat, as Mary Hunter pointed out:

It's unusual for the first violin to play a part that is so clearly intended as an accompaniment to what the other musicians are playing. It must have made those first listeners wonder whether the players had inadvertently switched parts.

The Op. 59 No. 2 quartet was performed by the Takács during the Sunday afternoon concert. In the panel discussion on Friday night, a page of the first violinist Edward Dusinberre's part for this quartet was projected onscreen. Over one of the measures (around 6:05 in the recording), he had written the words "not beautiful."

I had an opportunity to ask Dusinberre what he was warning himself against in that passage; he replied that as a student his training had emphasized producing a beautiful sound. As a professional musician, he had to learn to use beauty when it's appropriate, "and not just ladle it on." Beethoven's direction to play "with a great deal of feeling," in Dusinberre's view, meant that in these measures he should maintain a certain rigor and precision.

That precision is especially needed in the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 132. This nearly 20-minute-long adagio was described by Beethoven on the score as "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenden an die Gottheit" (Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Deity). Beethoven had become seriously ill while working on Op. 132, and had miraculously recovered. The Holy Song of Thanks consists of five parts, alternating Molto adagio (very slow) with Andante (moderately slow). In inexpert hands this lengthy slow movement could easily bog down or become static; the Takács were able to maintain forward momentum while remaining emotionally expressive and playing in perfect unison.

In concert, this movement simply stopped time.

In the pre-performance conversation on Saturday night with Mary Hunter, Nic Mathew quoted someone as saying that "If you don't like the early quartets, that's Beethoven's fault; if you don't like the later quartets, that's your fault." Of course, it's never your "fault" if you don't like a work of art. As modern and postmodern (and whatever comes after postmodern) art have shown, the history of art is not a slow but steady march of progress from the worthy but primitive forms of the past to the increasing perfection of today.

But it is your mistake if you dismiss a work without trying to understand its historical context and the artist's aims and methods. We live in a world that has been musically shaped by the middle and late Beethoven quartets; when they were first performed, of course, they were unprecedented. In his day Beethoven was seen as revolutionary, and the residency events that Cal Performances has sponsored around the Takács Quartet's Beethoven cycle are designed in part to try to help us recapture that sense of radical innovation. For me they have immeasurably enriched the experience of these difficult works. I'm very much looking forward to the next (and, alas, final) concerts in the series.

Other posts in this series:

  1. Mark Ferraguto, a panelist in the Friday night discussion and a participant in the Sunday pre-performance conversation, believes that he has identified the "missing" Russian theme in Op. 59 No. 3; see "Beethoven à la moujik: Russianness and Learned Style in the 'Razumovsky' String Quartets." Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 67 No. 1, Spring 2014, pp. 77-124. DOI: 10.1525/jams.2014.67.1.77
  2. Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, 27 February 1807. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Suggested reading: Psychohistory is now real

Your portable (or desktop) personality test

Isaac Asimov.
Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, published shortly after psychological testing became widespread during World War II, a secretive group applies mathematical formulas—or as we would say today, algorithms—to psychological data in order to predict and shape the future course of human history. Asimov called this amalgam of prediction and manipulation "psychohistory."

The 2016 presidential election has shown that psychohistory is now real. Today using psychological profiling to manipulate people is called "psychometrics" or "psychographics," but it's essentially the system that Asimov foresaw 65 years ago.

In their article "The Data That Turned the World Upside Down," journalists Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus describe how two Cambridge graduate students, David Stillwell and Michael Kosinski, correlated results from online personality tests and Facebook profiles. (I've posted about Stillwell and his research group before.) They realized that, with a dataset of millions of subjects, they could link a particular set of "likes" with specific personal tendencies and attributes: gender, sexual orientation, ethnic heritage, political affiliation, intelligence, religion, the use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, whether your parents divorced before you were 21, and the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). As Grassegger and Krogerus write,
". . .before long, [Kosinski] was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook 'likes.' Seventy 'likes' were enough to outdo what a person's friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 'likes' what their partner knew. More 'likes' could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves."

Presumably, "likes" are voluntarily shared. But often without our explicit knowledge or consent, our computers and smartphones are constantly transmitting data on our behavior and interests. Companies are collecting, aggregating, sharing, and reselling that data. "Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously."

Ingrid Bergman, Michael Chekov and Gregory Peck in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945)

Enter Cambridge Analytica, a "predictive analytics" company that combines data from many sources to create detailed profiles of specific individuals. Cambridge Analytica claims that they have "profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people." By name.

All sorts of companies—employers, insurance companies, and marketers, to name three—might be interested in this information. But there's another class of client for whom detailed personal profiles are highly desirable: political campaigns. Cambridge Analytica worked for Brexit and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Both achieved stunning upsets and defied conventional political wisdom. Cambridge Analytica helped them both to win against the odds.

The vote for (orange) and against (blue) the Brexit referendum, from 50% (light) to 80% (dark).
Source: New York Times.

Two key strategies were used by both campaigns:
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to motivate them to vote, often against their own interests and beliefs. In one day, Grassegger and Krogerus report, the Trump campaign tested thousand of different ads for effectiveness with various types of voters.
  • Micro-targeting messages to specific individuals to convince them not to vote. A series of "dark posts"—nonpublic posts that appear in the Facebook timelines of users with specific profiles (in the US election, Sanders supporters, African Americans, and young women, among others)—promoted heavily negative views of the opposing side. The object was not, as in traditional political advertising, to gain these voters' support, but rather to discourage them from going to the polls at all. The Trump campaign boasted of its voter suppression efforts to Bloomberg Businessweek.
The Trump campaign also automated the amplification of its messages on social media platforms. As Sue Halpern writes in the NYR Daily, at one point nearly 40% of Trump's Twitter followers were bots masquerading as humans and retweeting his messages.

How effective was this approach? As reported by Andrew Cockburn in Harper's, in the final days before the election, the models used by Clinton's campaign predicted that she would win Michigan by 5 points, or about a quarter of a million votes. Instead she lost by 11,000 votes.

Why facts don't change our minds

The spectacle of working-class people voting for a developer of luxury resorts, women voting for a self-confessed sexual predator, and Affordable Care Act beneficiaries voting for a man who has vowed to repeal the ACA may be dismaying. But do you think that you respond to well-reasoned positions cogently argued, and that you're immune from manipulation?

Think again. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker in her survey of three recent books on cognitive psychology, all of us repeatedly exhibit an immunity to information that contradicts our beliefs.
  • We are highly suggestible. Students who were told they were especially good or especially bad at a judgment exercise assessed themselves as, respectively, better or worse than average—even after they were told that their assignments to the original groups were random. The researchers who carried out this study were surprised that "even after the initial evidential basis for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs."
  • We are subject to confirmation bias, "the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them." Students presented with statistics on capital punishment that supported their already-held opinions, either pro or con, became more hardened in their positions even after they were told that the statistics were falsified.
  • We fall victim to the "illusion of explanatory depth," which is our tendency to believe that we are far more knowledgeable than we actually are. Shortly after the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the farther off US survey respondents were when asked to identify Ukraine on a map the more likely they were to favor military intervention.
You should take the evolutionary rationales that are presented for these tendencies in Kolbert's article with a grain of salt, since they're not testable. But the implications in a world of fake news, Twitter bots, and other tools of deliberate misinformation are incontrovertible. The Big Data that we ourselves supply makes it ever more possible to identify, exploit and manipulate our biases.

This year three European countries in which right-wing parties have made recent gains are holding elections: Holland, France, and Germany. Brace yourself for more surprises.

Update 7 March 2016: In a New York Times article, Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim write that "a dozen Republican consultants and former Trump campaign aides, along with current and former Cambridge employees, say the company’s ability to exploit personality profiles — 'our secret sauce,' Mr. Nix once called it — is exaggerated. Cambridge executives now concede that the company never used psychographics in the Trump campaign."

Hmmm. Cambridge Analytica is a company that was founded to exploit personality profiling. It is largely funded by Robert Mercer, "a Trump backer and investor in Breitbart." It had Steve Bannon on its board of directors until he was officially hired as the Trump campaign's manager (although, as The Daily Beast reports, "Breitbart's ties to Trump were long suspected before Bannon was brought aboard the campaign following the ouster of campaign chairman Paul Manafort in August 2016" and that Bannon wrote in an August 30, 2015 e-mail, "'I'm Trump's campaign manager.'") The company was paid a reported $15 million by the Trump campaign for its services.

And yet the campaign operatives and company executives quoted in the article now claim that Cambridge Analytica was not heavily involved in the Trump campaign, or that it was involved but did not employ its proprietary methodology, or that it was involved and used its methodology and but that it wasn't effective.  You'll have to pardon me, but this denial simply does not seem credible. And the denial is contradicted by an article by McKenzie Funk published right after the election in November, which appeared in The New York Times.