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The Beatless
March 17, 2011 6:37 AM | Posted in: ,

I made a couple of jesting comments on Facebook and Twitter about this article describing the first documented case of something called beat deafness, wherein a man named Mathieu "can't feel music's beat or move in time with it." But it's a bigger problem than those researchers probably realize.

I'm sure that complete beat deafness is indeed rare, but beat "hard of hearingness" is quite commonplace, based on my perception of what often takes place on the dance floor. And this is an indictment of my own skill (or lack thereof), as I occasionally have trouble finding and staying with the beat of certain songs. For example, Unchained Melody gives me fits; I find that I can get started OK, but somewhere along the line the beat just disappears. Fortunately, Debbie never seems to have that problem and can keep us on the beat - and still manage to follow my lead (a miracle in itself).

Musical beat is not just an important issue for dancers. It's also a big deal for those who provide music for dances. The most popular bands are those who know how to select music that's easy to dance to (yes, Dick, your teenaged American Bandstand reviewers knew whereof they spoke), and that implies that it has a beat that's not too fast or slow for the step it's associated with. Nobody wants to dance to a waltz that's dragging along at 50 beats per minute, or frantically zooming at 180.

I have newfound respect for musicians who have both perceptiveness and skill to make danceable music. As I mentioned yesterday, we used prerecorded music at our last ballroom dance, and I volunteered to build the playlist. While I included mostly songs that dance club members had suggested or that have been popular at previous dances, I found that some of those songs had multiple arrangements using - you guessed it - different tempos. It was harder than I expected to choose just the right tempo. If I had only used a tool that could quantify differences in tempo, perhaps I could have made better decisions.

Screenshot of BPMTapper
Guess what? That tool exists, in the form of Cadence BPM Tapper, a free desktop application (Mac-only) that allows you to play any song and "tap" along (using your space bar or your mouse button) to the beat. The app computes the beats-per-minute for the song, and if you're playing the song via iTunes, it will export the computed tempo to the BPM field in that application.

Simple, no? Well, remember my comment about beat-hardofhearingness? I've found that some songs are harder to tap along to than others. You also have to deal with the phenomenon where a song may have a very rapid tempo but the dance steps are done according to half-time. That is, a song's tempo may be 180 BPM but the steps are actually 90 BPM. So, which do you use in iTunes...180 or 90? I finally decided it didn't matter as long as I was consistent in my choice, for a given step. All rumbas must be analyzed in the same fashion, as should all triple swing songs.

I've always wondered why the BPM field in iTunes wasn't populated, and now I think I have the answer: it's harder to compute than you might think. I would guess that programming a computer to accurately assess the BPM of all possible songs would be a daunting task. The same company that built BPM Tapper also sells more full-featured applications that work on both Macs and Windows computers, as well as iPhones. Those apps will, theoretically, analyze your entire music library or playlist in batch mode, without the need for you to tap along with any of the songs. However, I've been less than impressed with the results, at least on the iPhone version.

The real value of BPM Tapper isn't necessarily in the absolute calculation, but in your ability to compare songs once tempos have been established for each. If we determine that an arrangement that's 80 BPM is too slow, then we just need to look for one that's, say, 90 BPM.

At the end of the day, I'm just glad we didn't have Mathieu manning the BPM Tapper. I suppose there's a certain amount of prestige to being the first person identified with a disorder, but I'd rather be able to dance better than Elaine.

Brain Dead Man Not - Or Not
November 24, 2009 9:41 AM | Posted in: ,

Update: Some instances of so-called "Facilitated Communication" have been scientifically debunked. Here are some media reports on those debunkings. Particularly damning is this one detailing the results of a double-blind test in which not one of 180 FC tests yielded the proper response.

By now, you'd have to be in a coma not to have heard the account of the Belgian man who was diagnosed as being "brain dead" for 23 years, but was recently found by doctors to have normal brain function and who further claims that he had been conscious through the entire period. He's now communicating via a special keyboard and thus is able to finally share his heartbreaking story with the world.

Or is he?

I saw a televised report of this story this morning on a national news show, and what I saw was a "facilitator" using the man's finger to type on a keyboard. I was puzzled about a minor detail: how does she know what he wants to type? The "facilitator" is said to be specially trained to detect - and interpret -  faint movements by the subject, and translate them into coherent communications. This is a wonderful skill to possess...if indeed it actually exists.

James Randi thinks it's a "cruel farce," and lays out his impassioned case against "Facilitated Communication," of which, he says, this is simply the most recent example.

I sincerely hope Randi is wrong about this, for the sake of the man's family at the very least. And I'm torn between wanting to believe that this man's new-found communication ability is real and his relationship with his loved ones restored, and wanting to believe that he didn't really endure 23 years of conscious silence. I have a hard time imagining anything worse than the latter.

[Link via Neatorama, but original skepticism all mine.]
...the goal of reading is to go beyond the author's ideas to thoughts that are increasingly autonomous, transformative, and ultimately independent of the written text. ... The experience of reading is not so much an end in itself as it is our best vehicle to a transformed mind, and, literally and figuratively, to a changed brain.
We were never born to read. [With the invention of reading] we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain is a delightful rarity: a treatise that will pass the strictest scholarly and scientific scrutiny while being completely accessible - and fascinating - to the layperson. The author, Maryanne Wolf, is a professor of child development at Tufts University near Boston, and she also directs the Center for Reading and Language Research. Her passion is developing a better understanding of how the human brain re-organized (and re-organizes) its own circuitry to permit people to communicate through the written word. But her research isn't limited to the historical or theoretical; she's also determined to find ways to cope "when the brain can't learn to read." And her focus isn't limited to the past or present; she's doing her best to look into the future to see how our transformation into a digital society might affect our reading skills.

The book is less than 250 pages (with another sixty pages devoted to notes, sparing the casual reader a slog through the omnipresent footnotes that mark an academic text), but its breadth and scope are expansive. Wolf takes us through the known history of writing, starting with clay tokens dating to 8,000 BC and which represented the first accounting records; to Sumerian cuneiforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics; to the first alphabet (attributed to Semitic workers living in Egypt around 1,900 BC); with a detour through Greece to explore the surprising condemnation of writing by none other than Socrates, who believed that the access to unsupervised reading would lead to undisciplined thinking, erroneous conclusions, and the destruction of memory.

The author then describes at length what goes on inside the brain when we read. Thanks to advances in brain mapping, scientists can now literally see the process of reading played out across the brain, beginning with visual recognition of the words, followed by word-specific activation, phonological processing (connecting letters to sounds), and, finally, semantic processing (assessing varied meanings and associations), all of which takes place in the normal reading brain in .2-.5 of a second. If this sounds overwhelming, never fear. Wolf considerately places this jargon-heavy science into a neat package of italicized text, and points out that those who aren't all that interested can skip to the next section and be no worse for having done so.

Then, having described how the brain is supposed to handle the process of reading, she delves into those situations where it doesn't work that way. She spends a great deal of time on dyslexia, a syndrome that still isn't fully understood although great strides are being made in that direction. If nothing else, Wolf offers great hope to those who have children or other loved ones who are having difficulty learning to read. She urges calmness and patience in the case of children who seem to be "behind the curve," as the acquisition of reading skills varies greatly among individuals.

Wolf comes by this advice honestly; her children are dyslexic, and she and her husband had several dyslexic ancestors. She presents compelling evidence that dyslexia isn't an unmitigated curse, as there are too many examples of brilliant dyslexics whose contributions to culture and society through the ages are unmistakable and invaluable. In her words, dyslexia, with its seemingly untidy mix of genetic talents and cultural weaknesses, exemplifies human diversityñwith all the important gifts this diversity bestows on human culture.

Finally, Wolf ponders the implications of a digital society, where the traditional written word has been replaced by pixels and sound bites. If the book has a weakness, it comes here, as the subject is given relatively short shrift. But at least one set of questions illuminates one significant source of concern:

Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another's inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

I can't think of anyone to whom I wouldn't recommend this book, but I think it's an especially valuable and enlightening resource to three groups. First, educators who teach reading will benefit from the author's insights about how the human brain learns to comprehend the written word. Second, parents of young, pre-literate children need to understand the long-term significance of that seemingly simple things - like merely talking to their children - can have on their ability to achieve effective literacy (pay close attention to her thoughts about "the war on word poverty").

The third group is perhaps less obvious. I think that writers, professional and otherwise, will benefit from Wolf's perspective about the purposes of reading. Writers would do well to internalize the quote that introduces this post and ponder the implication that their words are most successful when they provide not an end, but a beginning ñ a jumping off point where their readers build upon a foundation in ways that the author may not be able to conceive.

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