Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Mozart meme

Heard some great lectures yesterday evening at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute. John Sloboda gave a wonderful talk about the psychology of music, and in particular what makes the difference between a musical genius and the rest of us. He showed, with some pretty compelling evidence, that firstly you need to start learning an instrument very young, and secondly you need around 10 years of averaging 2 hours per day of practice - but not just any old practice, it has to be strongly supported and guided - before then starting composition. Are musical geniuses born or made? John offered the view that it's much more down to nurture than nature. He suggested that genetics may account for musical deficits (such as the very small number of people who are genuinely tone-deaf) but probably not musical genius.

John told a story so fascinating that I want to recount it here. A US research team ran some IQ tests on a group of adults, one group immediately after listening to Mozart, the other (control) group without. The Mozart group showed higher IQ scores than the control group. Now that's interesting enough, but it's what happened subsequently and outside the research lab, that is really quite shocking. John recounted that a journalist reported this finding as "The Mozart Effect" and parents anxious to improve their youngsters' IQs started playing them Mozart, schools introduced the same practice, and in some US districts this became a requirement of the education authority. Pop-psych books were published and money was made. Google the Mozart effect and you'll see what I mean.

But does it work? No. John explained that the original study was done on adults and subsequent work has shown that the same effect isn't apparent in children, and even on adults the IQ raising effect wears off after 10 minutes or so. But that's the power of a great meme. The idea is so attractive that as soon as it catches hold the truth behind the idea becomes irrelevant. And of course Mozart already has almost mythical super-genius status, so the Mozart effect meme was already riding on a winner. Someone asked John if the same would have happened if the original study had used another composer's music. "Almost certainly not", he replied, "the Couperin effect, doesn't have anything like the same ring to it!"

But the world is full of such memes. Some emerge from flaky science, others from a flawed interpretation of otherwise good science. A particular hobby horse of mine is "The Big Bang". Popular culture regards the Big Bang as an established fact. But it isn't. There are two competing theories for the origin of the Universe: one is the big bang theory, the other is the steady-state theory. The problem with the steady-state theory is that it's just dull. Where's the excitement in the idea that the Universe has always existed? Like the Mozart effect, the big bang theory feeds a need. Finite creatures that we are, we like the idea that the Universe has a birth and a death. And if you believe in God, even better. The steady-state theory is not good news for theists.

Memes really are powerful magic.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Homo dinosauroid

Last night's Horizon was promising: what might have happened if the asteroid that is generally agreed to have triggered the extinction event at the end of the cretaceous period 65 million years ago had missed? This should be good, I thought. Interesting to speculate about how dinosaurs might have continued to evolve. What forms might they have evolved into by now..?

But the programme was spoiled by an unnecessary and scientifically dubious focus on the question "what would have happened if humans had co-evolved along with dinosaurs?".

Given the extraordinary success of the dinosaurs in exploiting ecological niches (as the programme pointed out) the likelihood that mammals would have evolved very much beyond the rodent-like animals (like Repenomamus) that managed to just about co-exist with dinosaurs must be vanishingly small. (Clutching at straws perhaps) the programme suggested that the tree-tops might have provided a dinosaur-free niche in which primates might have evolved, but failed to address the question of why dinosaurs would not have also moved into the same eco-space, especially with fresh mammalian meat to tempt them.

But for me the programme makers lost it completely with the suggestion that intelligent humanoid dinosaurs might have co-evolved with humans. Now I love thought experiments, but the idea that homo dinosauroid would now be peacefully sharing our 21st C. cafe culture is, frankly, insulting to dinosaurs. We were shown a rather meek and frightened looking specimen (well you would be too with no clothes on) - clearly 21st C. homo d. needs to get down to the gym.

Now I have no problem at all with the idea that dinosaur evolution, if it had not been rudely interrupted by the Chicxulub asteroid, might have resulted in highly intelligent dinosaurs, language, culture and so on (especially given emerging evidence for gregarious behaviour in dinosaur groups). If the asteroid had missed, and (against the odds) primates and hominids had evolved alongside intelligent dinosaurs, the suggestion that the two lineages would have somehow co-evolved into a peaceful vision of Dinotopia is, well, just unbelievable*. Much more likely is that the dinosaurs would have been subject to another and equally lethal extinction event. Man.

*I say this with the greatest respect for the wonderful books of James Gurney.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"By, you were lucky..."

My friend, erstwhile mentor and visiting professor colleague Rod Goodman and I were reminiscing a few days ago about our first experiences (~1977) with the Intel 8080, which arrived on a circuit board with 1K bytes RAM, a 1K byte EPROM and absolutely no software. We were having one of those conversations inspired by Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen sketch (and thanks to Dave Snowden for this link from his excellent blog):

"When I were a lad, we only had 4K bytes of RAM and a hex keypad"

"Hex keypad! By, you were lucky. We only 'ad 1K of memory and had to key in t'boot loader by 'and in noughts and ones before we could even start work".

"Well you were lucky. We were so poor we could only afford noughts..." and so on.

But the truth is (and I realise how perilously close I am to becoming a grumpy old man parody here) that my fellow graduate students and I really did have to start from scratch and make all of our own development tools. I recall that we first had to write a cross-assembler, in Algol-68, on the university mainframe: an ICL 1904S. We took advantage of the fact that the mainframe was accessed by electro-mechanical 'teletypes' which were fitted, as standard, with paper-tape punches. We got hold of a paper tape reader and interfaced it to the Intel 8080 development board (designing by hand the necessary interface electronics and device driver code - remember this is long before 'plug and play'). Then we were able to write symbolic 8080 assembler on the mainframe, generate 8080 machine code on paper tape, and load that directly into the 8080 development board to test it. Of course the edit test cycle was pretty long, and not helped by the fact that our lab was two floors from the mainframe terminals, so to speed things up we invested in a special device that allowed us to directly 'edit' the paper tape. The device allowed us to make extra holes and cover over - with a special kind of sticky tape - unwanted holes. Here's a picture of this marvellous device.

So, to anyone out there who grumbles about their software development tools I have only one thing to say. "You're lucky you are. When I were a lad..."