Month: April 2012

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Old-School Music Snobbery

(Warning, fact-free reminiscences, no policy, science or anything resembling analysis, possibly of interest only to my indulgent friends)

Obscure knowledge was once a kind of currency. To get it, you had to be in the loop. You had to know the right people to learn about the right bands. You had to know the right record stores to hear those bands.

via Why the Old-School Music Snob Is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter –

This article took me back to my 15 year old self. I grew up in pre-cable, pre-“liberalized” India where access to “Western” popular music was very limited, and class and income segregated. The top 40 stuff of the time was available as cassette tapes. Finding albums was almost impossible, most of the time, you got “Now this is what I call music” type compilations. The music popular and available as LPs was a mix of big names like The Beatles, ABBA,  and an eclectic mix of  Boney M, Osibisa, The Ventures, Uriah Heep? (don’t even ask). The popularity of these more off-the-wall choices was probably linked to their willingness to tour India and bring their records.

My mom was a huge Beatles and Cliff Richard fan growing up, catching it on Indian and Sri Lankan radio in the early to mid 1960s. As I cast my mind back to my parents’ collection, I see a bunch of Beatles LPs (The Red, Blue and Rock’n’Roll Double LP compilations), some ABBA, Boney M, Uriah Heep, The Ventures 🙂 I didn’t have money to buy my own, and we didn’t really have too much money to spend on records anyway.

Which brings me to 15, my music tastes have stagnated, I’m occasionally listening to random mixes of music, done with ABBA, still liking the Beatles (I still like the Beatles!), but need more. Where can I find music that will move me? Well, there’s no internet, and no radio/TV playing anything other than Top 40 stuff (very rarely) or the Beatles. I don’t have rich relatives in the US to send me music either. In hindsight, I guess I could have tried short wave radio (which we definitely used a lot for sports), but how do you know what’s cool?

I was “rescued” by a friend, with whom I listened to a very scratchy recording one day. This friend was lucky enough to have an older brother who had access to music. The first minute of Black Dog changed my life! I “discovered” Led Zeppelin in 1988(9), and all the usual suspects soon after. I can’t even begin to express how I felt the first time I heard Bohemian Rhapsody. I know, right, what a lot of my friends from when I was older and living in the US and Canada  think of as the most clichéd over-exposed, un-cool songs set the cool kids of Madras apart from the rest.

Finding full albums of music of decent audio quality was another matter. We soon heard through word of mouth (probably the brother) of this magical small store in Anna Nagar, on the other side of the city. So, we took the bus out one day. Anna Nagar was a gridded sub-division, which for some reason confused people like me who lived in older parts of the city. We had an address, which led us to a house on a mundanely residential street, with a small sign board for the “shop”, only open evenings. We walk in, and, magic, it was many rows of LPs stacked and arranged alphabetically by band. You told the guy at the store what albums you wanted, gave him blank cassettes and money, and a week later (a long week later), you went back and picked up your magical tape. A 90 minute cassette could fit two albums, of course, so I always associate Led Zeppelin II with The Best of Cream (back to back).

Wow, clear LP transfers of music, I still remember all those little discoveries like the bass pedal response of Mitch Mitchell to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze riff, and scratching “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky” on every desk I sat in for a couple of years.

I was also part of a crack school quiz team at a time when these quizzes were basically wank fests for people like us. We got quiz “masters” asking us obscure music trivia and playing songs from the 60s and 70s for us to identify and win the quiz shows. Looking back, our smug superiority was probably unwarranted 🙂 This period was the peak of musical snobbery, limited access meet obscure knowledge! I hoarded, I judged, I laughed at people who listened to the wrong music, not a very nice 19 year old at all. We had no internet, but I had “discovered” that libraries were a great source of music books and my obscure minutiae quotient was off the charts. That strange intersection of my “discovery” of music and its scarcity was a magical and intense place.

Things changed. MTV hit India in 1993, and grunge showed up in Madras at about the same time it took  over the US. I could also hit up my US based sister for music, band shirts, merch. Stores started bringing tapes in (and CDs, though those were some shiny unaffordable jewels). But there was still that class-based division, and access was limited, though every year made the music more accessible.

Moving to North Carolina hipster heaven brought the rather unwelcome news that classic rock (oh, so my music has a genre?) was associated with middle aged white folk, and as uncool as it got. Oh well, it didn’t stop me from listening, but parties became a bit less fun. My music tastes expanded into the roots of all that rock, into blues, jazz, and funk.

As I understood the politics of appropriation and where all that music really came from, my attitudes changed, and I listen less. But those riffs still have a direct connection to a very emotional part of my brain. I will always be that uncool kid who knows every Jimmy Page solo in my head even as I cringe at the misogyny and racism of the lyrics and laugh at the bombast and obvious masculine posturing.

I am very glad that the internet has mostly erased the boundaries. The ability to listen to a song just by searching for it is life-changing. Yes, people will still judge, but it is harder and harder to hoard, and use scarcity as a filter. I love it. My relationship with the music has not changed. When I hear something I like, it is still such an intense emotional experience, especially when it links back to memories, the people I first heard it with, the things I did when the music was playing in the background, it’s lovely.

To end, another quote from the article…

Populism is the new model of cool; elitists, rather than teeny-boppers or bandwagon-jumpers, are the new squares. There are now artists who sell out concerts while rarely getting played on commercial radio


Best way to pick legislators? At random.

While discussing options for Canada’s broken senate, I advocated for making senate selection random, an idea near and dear to many science fiction acolytes.  I believe this to be a superior alternative to the current lot of retired civil servants, failed politicians, washed up broadcasters, privileged elite, and a few decent people that currently make up the Canadian Senate. Here’s a study (pdf) that says a mix of random legislators makes for good policy.

The Abstract

We study a prototypical model of a Parliament with two Parties or two Political Coalitions and we show how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both the number of laws passed and the average social welfare obtained. We also analytically find an ”efficiency golden rule” which allows to fix the optimal number of legislators to be selected at random after that regular elections have established the relative proportion of the two Parties or Coalitions. These results are in line with both the ancient Greek democratic system and the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations.

Need to move those people from the bottom left to the top right

Good policy is supposed to maximize social gain. It is difficult for legislators to make good policy in the absence of personal gain, so everyone needs to be in the upper-right quadrant of the figure. The simulation works by denying any party a majority unless they can appeal to a number of independent, random actors. Since these legislators can’t be re-elected and have little to gain personally, they will make decisions based more on social gain than personal gain, and move things upward and right. The simulation also found that having no parties and complete independence conferred little advantage. The optimum was a little more than half of the legislature to be “independent” and “random”.

This is only a simulation. In practice, few people are independent and promises of future positions and future prestige will presumably influence independents to vote to preserve privilege rather than maximize “social good”. But the current system of a very small minority (1-2% of Canadians belong to a party) of people of a very specific kind passing policy based on diktats from the prime minister is not a good system anyway.

So, a senate that is part “elected” and part random would presumably provide the best outcome. A completely lottery senate would be a great, great improvement to the Canadian senate as it exists today. I am glad there’s some research to back my pet proposal.

via Washington Post – Study Says Pick some Legislators Randomly

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