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Tuesday, January 1, 2008 -- 9:41 pm

It seems to have been a growing trend over the past few decades for certain sub- or counter-cultural contingents to embrace unconventional spellings or abbreviations and to use intentionally poor grammar as a way of distinguishing themselves. I doubt that everyone who indulges in this can be lumped together into a single category encompassing hackers (hax0rs), LOLcat aficionados (I can haz __), the politically disaffected mocking the slips of various authority figures (internets), graffiti artists (can't read it anyway), and teenagers (R U BZ). I wonder why people choose to do this -- it clearly isn't done out of ignorance, or out of a desire for secrecy, or even as an effective shibboleth to part the faithful from the interlopers because I imagine people can pick it up fairly quickly. I also wonder whether other languages, and other historical periods, of witnessed similar nonviolent orthographical protests and demonstrations. Somehow Noah Webster's reform of American spelling doesn't seem to belong in this category.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008 -- 9:30 pm

This is an issue that will require a deeper acquaintance with genetics and computation theory, but it's been on my mind a bit lately so I'll try to spell it out. Our DNA is popularly described as a 'blueprint' or computer 'program' that prescribes certain aspects of our physical structure and behavior. It obviously doesn't control every single feature of our existence, such as experience-based learning, but neither does a computer program, whose performance is influenced by user input, interaction with other programs, power failures, and the like. It has long been established that it is impossible to predict, in a systematic and formulaic way, whether a given computer program will halt or fail, based simply on an analysis of its code (the "halting problem"). So is the same true of our DNA? It would seem that a genetic predisposition for cancer would, at least superficially, qualify as a type of halting problem or, more colloquially, as a type of genetic crash. I noticed a relatively recent article, in either Nature or Science, in which researchers were examining the empirical probability that a given gene would eventually lead to cancer, and one element of their findings was that rather than there being a few genes with high propensity to result in cancer, there were numerous genes each with low propensity -- much like no programming language would remain long in circulation that contained a few commands that inevitably induced system failure. So does this mean that the prospects of understanding, predicting, and eradicating cancer are dim when considered from the standpoint of genetics?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008 -- 8:56 pm

A news story published online in the December 10, 2007 issue of Nature suggested that African populations with similar musical traditions also had similar genetic makeups, and that one may have caused the other. Thus 39 different African cultures' singing styles were analyzed according to 37 different criteria, and the gene samples from these tribes were analyzed (in some unspecified way) for related news, and it turned out that ethnic groups with polyphonic singing traditions (such as the Juhoansi Khoisan and the Aka Pygmies) were more closely related to each other than either was to the homophonic Hutus. It's not clear what conclusion the authors of the study hoped to derive from this, and I have my doubts about comparative ethnomusicology being a reliable guide to history or genetics. In fact, after years of colonial and imperial rule, it would seem to beg the question of the extent to which influence from, or reaction against, various colonial powers would inform musical taste. Within European culture as well, polyphonic writing has tended to drift in and out of vogue, with its heyday several centuries ago. Do these scholars suggest that Pygmies are more closely related to Europeans (or Solomon Islanders) than Hutus are, or that the prevalence of polyphonic writing in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and its subsequent decline in status, was the result of immigration and genetic flux? Somehow I doubt it.

All the same, I do find it somewhat plausible that each of us has a different innate propensity to appreciate and enjoy polyphony, and that genetic factors may be involved. From the standpoint of sense perception, I subjectively find it much easier to perceive chords as a whole, and to hear functional harmony, than to follow and extract individual melodic lines. By the same token, I have a great deal of trouble following individual conversations in a crowded room. And although it naturally demands a certain amount of attention, I have little difficulty following multiple and simultaneous layers of contrapuntal writing, and I've been drawn to it for as long as I can remember. But there are plenty of people who, from an equally tender age, have found polyphony tiresome, tedious, and academic-sounding. So perhaps our tastes are informed slightly by our neural wiring and, from that, certain perceptual predilections.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008 -- 8:52 pm

It's been a while since my last post, with a lot of items accumulating without much of a chance to record them, so I'll present what amounts to a bit of a grab bag.

On sampling unusual or newly-discovered fruits. A discussion recently came up involving the native Amazonian fruit açai, somewhat hyped of late because of its antioxidant stores. Not everyone found the flavor terribly palatable ("a cross between blueberry and paper towel", said one), which is fair enough. But I think it's important to keep in mind when trying new fruits that açai hasn't enjoyed the benefit of millennia of selective propagation, like the more highly-esteemed citrus, pear, apple, and various stone fruit. Pliny, I believe, described the pear as small, bitter, and somewhat unpleasant fruit, and the strawberry has come far since the tiny alpine varieties known in the 17th century. Even cacao, which I understand to be native to the Amazon, was subject to substantial cultivation by the Aztecs and Mayans -- nor does that account for the peoples who selected and carried the plant from the Amazon up into central America and Mexico. So when tasting rare and unusual fruits, I like to imagine also how the flavor might evolve in several centuries' time.