The Problem with Interesting Music

By Patrick Flanagan (PopTech 2010)

Interesting works, for all their cerebral trappings, are easily packaged and delivered in the marketplaces that matter for composers (I’m focusing on composers and academic music because it’s the world I know best.) A piece that performs data sonification by mapping train schedules to musical notes offers a nice “Aha” moment when you realize “Oh, there goes the F train. Neat.” These pieces fire the cognitive pleasure neurons like grasping the predictably counter-intuitive argument of a Malcolm Gladwell think piece. And because they can be grasped quickly, especially with a little prodding from a program note or verbal explanation, they are ideal for job talks and grant proposals. With just a little explanation and a short snippet of video, an audience can get the piece because the piece is reducible to its concept. Unlike some behemoth of absolute music devoted to its own formal development, interesting pieces make for great elevator pitches.


There are worse problems to suffer than an abundance of interesting works of music and art. Still, every time I hear an interesting data sonification piece or novel interdisciplinary collaboration, I’m reminded of the gap that separates them from the music that made the strongest impression on me when I was learning guitar and later composition. The sublimity of late Beethoven string quartets, the searing spirituality of A Love Supreme, the cortex-melting stupidity of AC/DC’s Back in Black (no seriously, more on that in the future)–you can’t describe any of these pieces as interesting. They have larger (and in the latter case dumber) ambitions. I wonder if any 16 year old has ever been motivated to take up an instrument or composing because he heard something that was so interesting he had just to learn how to make interesting music too. I doubt it. Let’s just please not let the dance music producers find out that their beats are supposed to be interesting.

There are some areas where neuroscience will really allow for new contexts in society, and the legal system is one of them. Because we are able now to measure things we have never been able to measure before, this allows us potentially to customize sentencing and rehabilitation. The goal is to have the whole system be more just and have more utility. Currently, our national legal system [in the U.S.] does not allow that people are very different on the inside. Brains are not the same, neuroscience is proving, and they are sometimes very different from one another. Our system is built on the assumption that if you’re over 18 and over the IQ of 70, you’re a practical reasoner, free to choose how you act. But modern neuroscience suggests that those are not good assumptions. We treat incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution. In America, we incarcerate more of the population than any other nation in the world — because in large part, there is no nuance to how we approach the system. My project is calling for greater nuance and refinement to create a tailored system. Just like how we have tailored education. I have to emphasize, though, that this is not about exculpation. I have to be very clear that this is really about customized sentencing and rehab that works.

"Wildlife conservation is always behind the eight ball, always fighting catch up…we’re always fighting crisis because we’re not at the right scale."Alan Rabinowitz, president and CEO of Panthera and one of the world’s leading big cat experts.


Graham Hill:

I actually don’t think it takes much to make most people happy. We want to live in a healthy environment, enjoy good physical health, have great relationships, have time for recreation and live in peace.

On the other hand, happiness often requires removal. Many of us could stand to scale back on our possessions, space, debt and activities. Most of us have found that the things we thought would make us happy actually stress us out and can make us miserable.

So “editing” means removing all that detracts from our happiness. This is not a passive act; as Blaise Pascal put it, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Editing takes effort.

TreeHugger founder, Graham Hill has a new project called LifeEdited. Where TreeHugger aims to show that environmentalism doesn’t have to be about outdated stereotypes, LifeEdited aims to show us that less isn’t just more. It’s better. Read why Graham says, “Nothing is the Next Big Thing.“ 

At PopTech 2010, Treehugger founder Graham Hill announced the launch of a new online design competition, LifeEdited, and asked all interested parties to weigh in on how he could best design his new 420 square foot New York City apartment. The contest has evolved into a website focused on sharing how to design your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy.

Why We Lie

By Dan Ariely (PopTech 2009)

Over the past decade or so, my colleagues and I have taken a close look at why people cheat, using a variety of experiments and looking at a panoply of unique data sets—from insurance claims to employment histories to the treatment records of doctors and dentists. What we have found, in a nutshell: Everybody has the capacity to be dishonest, and almost everybody cheats—just by a little. Except for a few outliers at the top and bottom, the behavior of almost everyone is driven by two opposing motivations. On the one hand, we want to benefit from cheating and get as much money and glory as possible; on the other hand, we want to view ourselves as honest, honorable people. Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.

Much of what we have learned about the causes of dishonesty comes from a simple little experiment that we call the “matrix task,” which we have been using in many variations. It has shown rather conclusively that cheating does not correspond to the traditional, rational model of human behavior—that is, the idea that people simply weigh the benefits (say, money) against the costs (the possibility of getting caught and punished) and act accordingly.

U.S. filmmaker Laura Poitras repeatedly detained at border

One of the more extreme government abuses of the post-9/11 era targets U.S. citizens re-entering their own country, and it has received far too little attention. With no oversight or legal framework whatsoever, the Department of Homeland Security routinely singles out individuals who are suspected of no crimes, detains them and questions them at the airport, often for hours, when they return to the U.S. after an international trip, and then copies and even seizes their electronic devices (laptops, cameras, cellphones) and other papers (notebooks, journals, credit card receipts), forever storing their contents in government files. No search warrant is needed for any of this. No oversight exists. And there are no apparent constraints on what the U.S. Government can do with regard to whom it decides to target or why.

In an age of international travel — where large numbers of citizens, especially those involved in sensitive journalism and activism, frequently travel outside the country — this power renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment entirely illusory. By virtue of that amendment, if the government wants to search and seize the papers and effects of someone on U.S. soil, it must (with some exceptions) first convince a court that there is probable cause to believe that the objects to be searched relate to criminal activity and a search warrant must be obtained. But now, none of those obstacles — ones at the very heart of the design of the Constitution — hinders the U.S. government: now, they can just wait until you leave the country, and then, at will, search, seize and copy all of your electronic files on your return. That includes your emails, the websites you’ve visited, the online conversations you’ve had, the identities of those with whom you’ve communicated, your cell phone contacts, your credit card receipts, film you’ve taken, drafts of documents you’re writing, and anything else that you store electronically: which, these days, when it comes to privacy, means basically everything of worth.

The acclaimed director shared stories with the 2010 PopTech conference crowd about the making, and consequences, of her most recent films – My Country, My Country and The Oath, which form part of a trilogy she’s making about life after 9/11. 

Poitras’ intent all along with these two documentaries was to produce a trilogy of War on Terror films, and she is currently at work on the third installment. As Poitras described it to me, this next film will examine the way in which The War on Terror has been imported onto U.S. soil, with a focus on the U.S. Government’s increasing powers of domestic surveillance, its expanding covert domestic NSA activities (including construction of a massive new NSA facilityin Bluffdale, Utah), its attacks on whistleblowers, and the movement to foster government transparency and to safeguard Internet anonymity. In sum, Poitras produces some of the best, bravest and most important filmmaking and journalism of the past decade, often exposing truths that are adverse to U.S. government policy, concerning the most sensitive and consequential matters (a 2004 film she produced for PBS on gentrification of an Ohio town won the Peabody Award and was nominated for an Emmy).

But Poitras’ work has been hampered, and continues to be hampered, by the constant harassment, invasive searches, and intimidation tactics to which she is routinely subjected whenever she re-enters her own country. Since the 2006 release of “My Country, My Country,” Poitras has left and re-entered the U.S. roughly 40 times. Virtually every time during that six-year-period that she has returned to the U.S., her plane has been met by DHS agents who stand at the airplane door or tarmac and inspect the passports of every de-planing passenger until they find her (on the handful of occasions where they did not meet her at the plane, agents were called when she arrived at immigration). Each time, they detain her, and then interrogate her at length about where she went and with whom she met or spoke. They have exhibited a particular interest in finding out for whom she works.

Read more…

Share better with Upworthy, a new project from The Onion‘s Peter Koechley,’s Eli Pariser (PopTech 2010) and Facebook’s Chris Hughes. 
Could This Be The Most Upworthy Site In The History Of The Internet?

Hi, we’re Upworthy, a new social media outfit with a mission: to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.

Share better with Upworthy, a new project from The Onion‘s Peter Koechley,’s Eli Pariser (PopTech 2010) and Facebook’s Chris Hughes. 

Could This Be The Most Upworthy Site In The History Of The Internet?

Hi, we’re Upworthy, a new social media outfit with a mission: to help people find important content that is as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof.


What The Kids Are Watching of the Day: Mixed-media outfit OK Go teach Sesame Street’s young viewers about primary colors in signature OK Go fashion.

See Also: The OK Go Color game.




Meet Mr. Toilet | Jessica Yu by Focus Forward Films

For those without access to a simple toilet, poop can be poison. Businessman-turned-sanitation-superhero Jack Sim fights this oft-neglected crisis affecting 2.6 billion people.

Inevitably, 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Ryan Smith opened his presentation with a poop joke.

“It was irresistible,” he said of the “Poop!Tech” logo on the screen behind him. Natch. Smith, after all, is co-founder and chief technical officer of Micromidas, Inc., a biotech company that uses an innovative microbial process to convert raw sewage into high quality disposable plastics.

The plastics made by Micromidas’ sewage-eating bacteria are completely bio-degradable and the implications of the technology are obvious. A non-petroleum plastic made from organic waste that completely degrades in six months to a year? What’s not to love?