Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Ever wanted to live in the '50s for ever? Yeah, won't sound so appealing in a few minutes.

Around the New Year, a couple of things happened that I meant to post about, but haven't got round to until now. One of those was the fact that the character of Popeye is now in the public domain within the EU, but really, aside from putting a few pictures of Popeye in the post there's not a lot I can do with that.

Above: Public domain in the EU. Which is where the server hosting it happens to be. Har.

So let's look at the other (and rather sadder) event that happened around Christmas: the death of Henry Molaison, known to thousands of psychology students simply as "HM".

I first learnt about HM in my first year at university, when I was first being introduced to the neurophysiology behind memory. It's a fearsomely complicated topic — we spent a considerable time covering the debate about what the different kinds of memory even were, let alone how they worked — and it was impressed on us very quickly that there is no single part of the brain that "does" memory. We learnt about Karl Lashley, the American mad scientist neuroscientist who removed progressively more and more brain tissue from a rat, observing how it never suddenly lost the ability to run a maze. We listened to lecture after lecture as various learned people found new and interesting ways of saying "yeah, we don't really know how this works".

And then, bringing it all into clear and frighteningly relevant focus, along came HM. He was born in 1926, and developed very severe epilepsy at a young age. In an attempt to cure him that some would describe as "experimental" and others would describe as "ludicrously reckless", surgeon William Scoville removed pretty much all of his posterior hippocampus, along with a few other bits that he wasn't even aiming for. In case you're a bit rusty on your neuroanatomy, the hippocampus is a small, seahorse-shaped bit of brain, buried deep in its craggy folds, which is instrumental in the formation of short-term memories and in spatial reasoning.

"Why, that's foolish," you're probably thinking. "If Scoville knew that, why on earth did he remove it?" Well, he didn't know it at that point. Indeed, the main reason we know anything about the role of the hippocampus in laying down memories is that HM, immediately after recovery from the operation, was entirely unable to remember anything that had happened more than a few hours previously.

Although he was cured of epilepsy, HM was now suffering from a condition called anterograde amnesia. This isn't the type of amnesia that Hollywood loves so much, where you forget who you are but otherwise function perfectly normally (that's retrograde amnesia, and is usually considerably more debilitating than your average schmaltzy matinee movie would have it). Instead, HM remembered most of the events that took place up to his operation, but woke up each morning with no idea of what had happened since then.

It's a testament to the strength of HM's personality that he didn't go completely insane. Scoville, presumably in an attempt to work out which bits of the brain he shouldn't take out next time, worked closely with him for years afterwards, but every day HM met him for the first time. Every day he had to learn what was wrong with him, every day he had to come to terms with a world that was unaccountably no longer in 1953. Worse than that, he had to cope with the vast numbers of people who knew absolutely everything about him, but who (as far as he could tell) he had never met.

One of the insights that HM brought us was the difference between episodic memories (those about a particular event) and procedural memories (those covering general abilities and knowledge that you don't realise you know). Although he couldn't form the episodic memories necessary to remember one day to the next, he did pick up skills. One of my tutors told me, for example, that HM was a stunningly good table-tennis player, despite thinking that he had never played it before — years of playing his first game again and again had left their mark. Essentially, he lived a reverse Groundhog Day — the world moved on, while he went round in circles.

Back on my old blog, I posted a quotation from HM that was in one of my textbooks. I'll repost it here:

"Every day is alone in itself, whatever enjoyment I've had, and whatever sorrow I've had...

Right now, I'm wondering. Have I done or said anything amiss? You, see at this moment, everything looks clear to me, but what happened just before?

That's what worries me.

It's like waking from a dream; I just don't remember."

Well, if Dory's words back in this post were sad, that should have you bawling. HM was isolated from the world in a way that we can't imagine, unable to form any lasting relationships, and presumably aware every day that all he was experiencing was about to ebb out of his mind, never to return. Even though he was famous (albeit among a very specific section of the population), he remained anonymous to all those who knew about him, known to us all just by his initials.

On the 2nd of December last year, Henry Gustav Molaison died of respiratory failure in a nursing home in Connecticut. I didn't know his name or see his picture until after his death, but even so, I wish I'd met him. He contributed enormously, without knowing he was doing it, to one of the most fascinating and important branches of science affecting us today, and he lived one of the most difficult lives imaginable, by all accounts in a gracious and polite way.

Wherever he is now, I hope Henry is remembering everything that happened to him, all the people he ever saw, and all the ways he was able to make a difference.

And I hope he's playing a mean game of table tennis.

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Saturday, 14 February 2009

Why are pink fluffy hearts romantic, anyway? Surely that would be a sign of some really horrible heart condition?

So once again it's February 14th, the day originally named forone or more early Christians whose only known action was to die horribly at the hands of the Romans. It's not clear exactly why this has anything to do with sending someone a card with a huge pink fluffy heart and/or teddy bear on it, although Wikipedia (that fount of all knowledge) suggests that the celebration of love was one of the festivals of the early Britons, built on by the Church. If that's the case, then the Church has done a singularly bad job at putting any kind of Christian message into the occasion. When Clinton's Cards are more enthusiastic about a Saint's Day than the Church is, you know something's gone wrong.

In so far as it's possible to call something a tradition when you've only done it twice, it's traditional on this day for me to post a song that is thought to be about love, but which may well have some rather hidden depths. Although I may be mellowing a little in terms of the depth of cynicism I have for Valentine's Day, let's go right ahead with it anyway. This is the very popular "Bohemian Like You" by the Dandy Warhols.

"Nothing wrong with that," you might say. "After all, doesn't he say that he likes this girl? Repeatedly? Throughout the entire chorus?" And yes, he does.

But now have a look at the end of the bridge.

...oh, you broke up? That's too bad,
I guess it's fair, if he always pays the rent,
And he doesn't get bent about sleeping on the couch when I'm there...
Hold up a second. So this other guy has now broken up with his girlfriend, but they were living together at the time and he hasn't moved out yet? Fair enough, I suppose — it's a believable scenario — but he only has to sleep on the couch when the singing guy with the questionable haircut is staying over? So he's still sleeping in the same bed as his ex at all other times? What kind of relationship is this?

It gets worse when we hit the second bridge, just before the last chorus.
It's you that I want, so please,
Just a casual, casual, easy thing,
It isn't? It is for me!
Good grief, dude. You've told this girl over and over that you like her (eight times by this point), and now you're surprised when she thinks you're in it for the long haul? If you were actually just coming on to her because you thought she was cute and you wanted a one-night stand (and if you did, this song is already way outside the boundaries of any kind of relationship that anyone should be involved with), then why on earth didn't you tell her that?

OK, enough of the extremely skeezy Rolling Stones rip-offs. If we're going to have Valentine's Day at all, we may as well go for the good parts. So here's the reverse, a song that seems to be about heartbreak and pain, but which reveals a love beneath the surface that meant a whole lot more. This is "Dirty Girl" by Eels.

Happy Valentine's Day.
Videos copyright of their respective owners, and not covered under this blog's CC licence.

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Tuesday, 10 February 2009

So you'll be an Austrian nobleman, commissioning a symphony in C

One of the reasons I like having easy access to central London is that in a city this size, you'll always find a whole bunch of shops that would have real difficulty surviving elsewhere. What's more, the modular way London has developed (it's really just a collection of villages and small towns smooshed together into one gigantic whole) means that you're very likely to find entire streets that are heavily weighted towards one type of shop.

For example, Rupert Street and Berwick Street in Soho (they're end to end, so are effectively the same road) are packed to the gills with little record shops. I've spent a happy few hours in Cheapo Cheapo Records, poking through shelves full of CDs where I recognised maybe one in ten of the bands, and choosing music based entirely on whether I liked the name of the album. (Current front-runner: Hellogoodbye's Zombies! Aliens! Vampires! Dinosaurs!)

Go into any of these shops and you'll find a mind-numbing array of musical genres. Find a specialist shop for one of these, and it gets even more complicated; Wikipedia lists thirty different varieties of metal, twenty-eight of punk, twenty of country, the list goes on. Mix in all the types of music that isn't sold in these shops at all (the various flavours of classical, music-hall, opera etc.) and it just gets ridiculous.

However, I reckon that these splits boil down, in the end, to just one major difference, and it's not necessarily one that you'd expect. Rather than splitting the genres based on the types of instrument that are played, or by the age of the music, I think the best way to look at it is the underlying philosophy of the song's composer, and what they thought of the relationship between musician and audience.

Let's go back as early as we can to look into this more. In the Bible's Old Testament (which is pretty darned early), music is found in two places — people's homes and workplaces, and in worship. Even then, worship music is an extension of that found in the home — people wanted to express their love for God in many ways, so they took the things that meant the most towards them and deeply moved them, and turned them towards praising Him. In that way, music comes up from the people as a whole. Even when there are specific Temple musicians leading the people, everyone's joining in, in a many-to-many interaction. Let's call this the bottom-up model of music.

Even in the Old Testament, though, we see parts of the other model. In 1 Samuel 16, King Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit (from the Lord, apparently – there's an entire theological debate to be had in that verse alone, but it's one that we are emphatically not having here), and he gets David to come and play the harp for him, to soothe his mind. Here we have a one-to-one interaction: Saul isn't taking any part in the music, he's just listening to David. David is, essentially, the first court musician, someone employed by the rich and powerful to play music for a select group who do not themselves participate. This is the top-down model.

OK, getting both of those out of the first few books of the bible is maybe a bit of a stretch, but both models have definitely been in place throughout history. By the time we reach mediaeval times, there's a definite split. People in their communities create their own music for participation, and the composers and musicians are a part of the community. In the houses of the rich and powerful, however, musicians tend to be employed. As such, they are explicitly not part of the community. What's more, because the music they play is also bought (or commissioned), it tends to be created by a single person, then propagated out by the musicians to a non-participatory audience — one-to-many. Once again, it's coming from the top down.

Fast forward to the present day, and we can still divide musical genres into these two models. In a classical concert, the music has been created by a single person. It's played by a large (and therefore anonymous) group of musicians, who are controlled by a single, powerful figure (the conductor) and have little opportunity to put something of themselves into the performance besides competence. And the audience is generally not going to do much more than sit there. I'm not saying that it's going to be bad music — the audience may well be enjoying it tremendously – but they are definitely in a passive position of receiving the music rather than joining in.

In a rock gig, on the other hand, the composer is often one of the musicians, all of the musicians will have defined, unique and visible roles, they'll be facing the audience rather than a conductor, and the audience itself will be jumping around a lot more. One more thing — rock musicians very rarely play from music at a gig, whereas classical musicians generally do. The implied message is that the rockers are actively encouraged to improvise bits, to put their own spin on the song, and to just rock out, dude. This often results in a much messier performance, but that's the whole idea.

If you start looking at music with these models in mind, you end up splitting the genres in unexpected ways. For example, folk music may look and sound completely different to speed metal, but both are bottom-up. And a comedy-oriented post-punk band like They Might Be Giants might share certain similarities with Tom Lehrer's comic songs, but Lehrer is firmly in the music-hall tradition, which is top-down.

Although the two models are very different, there's not usually any conflict between them because they tend to be found in very different venues. However, there's one place where the two clash on a regular basis, and it's one that brings us full circle: the church. The heated (not to say vitriolic) disputes between those who want traditional organ music to accompany church services, and those who want contemporary guitar-based tunes, has very little to do with the choice of instrument and everything to do with the model of worship that people want.

A church organ is pretty much the only instrument that can't cross the divide between top-down and bottom-up. "Classical" instruments do it all the time (the trumpet is just as comfortable in a marching band as it is in a jazz quartet), but playing an organ is necessarily an isolating activity, and hence they don't work well with other instruments, making them necessarily top-down. And that makes them the perfect choice for those who see worship as something that is led from the front, handed down from on high. Making up a band from the congregation, on the other hand, where people bring along their own instruments and lead from the floor, is the natural extension of the idea that worship comes up from the people and is expressed in their way.

I'm not going to suggest that either model is in any way better (although you can probably guess which way my preferences go, given that I was reading the Guardian at lunchtime today and I'm currently listening to The Who). But it is an interesting way of looking at something that's not only been of immense importance to humanity ever since humanity was first...well, human, but is also an integral part of the world around us. Music's a powerful thing, a shortcut to our memories and emotions — it's worth thinking about to see how much of our society is tied up in it.

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