Notes on Composing

  1. If I go to sleep thinking “what a load of shit, what a wasted evening,” I can usually count on waking up the next morning loving last night’s work. (The opposite is also true).
  2. If I’m doing it as a work-for-hire, and thereby giving up the copyright, there’s a good chance it’ll be my finest work ever. (The opposite is also true).
  3. If I’m writing symphonies over breakfast and conducting them with my spoon–there’s a good chance that I’m cluelessly stealing from something I heard too many times as a reference track two years ago. (i.e., that time I stole an entire guitar solo from Duran Duran and didn’t know it until years later).
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Mumford: The Road Through Magic (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

The Fountain of Youth
The Fountain of Youth

Between fantasy and science is magic. Magicians were necessary to reach science, as they were the first to both believe in marvels as well as seek to “work them”. It’s difficult to define precisely where magic ends and science begins, but two unscientific qualities of magic are: “secrets and mystifications” and “a certain impatience for results.” Regarding the latter, fraudulent acts of magic were commonplace amongst alchemists of the 1500s, (as is sometimes the case amongst scientists today) for the sake of achieving immediate results. But, what the alchemists and magicians could be thanked for is working with their hands, in their laboratories, with real tools and real substances, and most of all, on demonstration. The alchemists, magicians, and early scientists lacked systems. “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology: it was chiefly a lack of direction that was fantastic: the difficulty was not in using the instruments but in finding a field where it could be applied and finding the right system for applying it.”

Von Neumann: The Brain: The Problem of Memory within the Nervous System (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

firebrainMost likely, the nervous system contains one or more memory organs. We don’t know what or where they are any more so than did the Greeks, who believed it was in the diaphragm. We just know that if it exists, then it must have a great capacity.

In a computing machine, memory size can be quantified. It has a maximum capacity, which can be expressed in bits. A memory that can hold a thousand letters has a capacity of 6,450 bits, for example.

How much? How much!?!?!?! Assuming a 60 year human lifespan, a bunch of neurons, each able to receive 14 distinct digital impressions per second, and that we never truly forget things—we just focus away from them–lands us at around 35 million terabytes of data stored in the brain (aka 2.9 billion iPhones).

What is the physical embodiment of memory? One proposal is that it’s the variability of stimulation criteria—that is, the threshold of stimulation changes depending on frequency of the cell’s use. Another proposal is based on distribution of axons connecting cells—in disuse, an axon becomes ineffective over time, while in frequent use, a stimulation is facilitated by a lower threshold over a given path. Another proposal is genetic memory—chromosomes and their genes have memory elements, so perhaps this is the case in an expanded sense. There are many other suggestions also.

“Systems of nerve cells, which stimulate each other in various possible cyclical ways, also constitute memories”—this would go hand-in-hand with the “strange loops” of Gödel, Escher Bach. Likewise, vacuums-tube machines can do the same via “flip-flops”.

But we have good reason to believe that the active organs do not function also as the memory organs. That’s how early computers (the ENIAC) began, with small memory components, and with time memory components have become larger and “technologically entirely different” than active organs.

Mumford: The Obstacle of Animism (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine
Cloaca: A Mechanical Pooping Machine

While the natural world came as a great inspiration for technology (hornets nests: paper; rolling logs: wheels; lungs: bellows), technological development could only proceed slowly until the machine could be dissociated from living things. Airplanes were unsuccessful so long as they were designed to have bird (Leonardo da Vinci) or bat (Clement Ader) wings, bodies, and motion; Giovanni Branca’s human-shaped steam-engine was a nonstarter. In the meantime, circular motion, which we find infinitely useful, is only rarely seen in nature—perhaps most often by humans dancing. Dissociating life from actions resulted in the arm becoming a crane, firelight becoming electric light, human and animal work becoming mechanical work.

God, as clockmaker, had created and set an orderly world. If the world was nothing but God’s creation, wrapped in symbolism, and the Church the only path to the absolute, then there was no place for mechanical understanding or development unless Earth and Heavens could be divided. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that division became clear—there, the Heavens and the soul of man, and here, the earth. But even the monastery may be considered mechanical: its sterile environment, separate from the earthly world, temptations removed, strict rules and minimized irregularity as the self is replaced by the collective. A machine. And like a machine, it was “incapable of self-perpetuation except by renewal from without.” Hence, a great number of scientific discoveries came from monks. Further, Christianity’s teachings that the body is sinful, vile, and corrupt, to be mortified and subdued, meant that rather than celebrate the body, as pagans once did (gigantic symbols of fertility, etc.), it would be reasonable to move away from the body and toward the machine. Even as the Church would declare machines the work of the Devil, it “was creating the Devil’s disciples.”
The machine came about most quickly wherever the body was destroyed: monasteries, mines, and battlefields. It came about more slowly in places that gave life: agriculture.

Von Neumann: The Brain: Stimulation Criteria (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

This is just a picture of some cows. Has nothing to do with this post.
This is just a picture of some cows. Has nothing to do with this post.

Neurons function as basic logical organs, and basically digital organs: if a neuron requires only one incoming pulse (stimulator) to produce a response, then it is an OR organ; if it requires two incoming pulses, then it is an AND organ. These two, along with simulating “no” can be combined in various ways into any complex logical operation.

It’s not simple as this, though: a neuron may have hundreds of synapses connecting it to other cells, perhaps even to one other cell, receiving an enormous number of pulse combinations, and to further complicate things, pulses may be characterized not only by frequency, but also by spatial relations to one another.
Therefore, while there is a stimulation requirement, that is, a threshold, it may be simple, or it may be very complicated. And in the case of receptors, being neurons that respond to stimuli, there may be more than a simple threshold. Further: “if the nerve cell is activated by the stimulation of certain combinations of synapses on its body and not by others, then the significant count of basic active organs must presumably be a count of synapses rather than of nerve cells.”

Mumford: From Fable to Fact (Technics and Civilization, 1934)

fact-checking“‘In the Middle Ages,’ as Emile Male said, ‘the idea of a thing which a man formed for himself was always more real than the actual thing itself, and we see why these mystical centuries had no conception of what men now call science. The study of things for their own sake held no meaning for the thoughtful man. . . . The task for the student of nature was to discern the eternal truth that God would have each thing express.’”
“How far could the mind go in [science] as long as the mystic numbers three and four and seven and nine and twelve filled every relation with an allegorical significance.”
“Unfortunately, the medieval habit of separating the soul of man from the life of the material world persisted, though the theology that supported it was weakened; for as soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to eliminate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power.”

Melville: Chapter V: Breakfast. (Moby Dick. 1851)

Split_Decision_BreakfastChapter V: Breakfast

They say that men who have seen the world, thereby become quite at ease in manner, quite self-possessed in company. Not always, though: Ledyard, the great New England traveller, and Mungo Park, the Scotch one; of all men, they possessed the least assurance in the parlor. But perhaps the mere crossing of Siberia in a sledge drawn by dogs as Ledyard did, or the taking a long solitary walk on an empty stomach, in the negro heart of Africa, which was the sum of poor Mungo’s performances–this kind of travel, I say, may not be the very best mode of attaining a high social polish. Still, for the most part, that sort of thing is to be had anywhere.

Von Neumann: The Brain: The Nature of Nerve Impulses (The Computer and the Brain, 1958)

GalvanifroescheStimulation of nerve cell is similar to two digital markers: 0 in the absence, 1 in the presence, of electrical impulse. This is a high level description of the more conspicuous aspects of nerve impulses—with nuance, the digital qualities are less clear.
“Natural componentry favors automata with more, but slower, organs, while the artificial one favors the reverse arrangement of fewer, but faster organs.” Thus “the human nervous system will pick up many logical or informational items, and process them simultaneously,” while a computer “will be more likely to do things successively. . . or at any rate not so many things at a time.” The nervous system is parallel, while computers are serial. But the two cannot always be substituted for one another—some calculations must be done serially, the next step must follow the one previous to it, while other calculations done parallel, to be done serially require immense memory requirements.

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (21-25)

belly

XXI: On the Renown Which My Writings Will Bring You

Your greatest difficulty is yourself; for you are your own stumbling block. You do not know what you want. You are better at approving the right course than at following it out. You see where true happiness lies, but you have not the courage to attain it.

The belly will not listen to advice; it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at a small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.