Guilty pleasures, my new grand piano, and understanding mass delusions
by Rob Tiller
It’s been pleasantly mild in Raleigh this week, bringing out the early spring flowers, though it got colder this weekend. I’ve been in good spirits, which is hard to explain. With so many big things to worry about, I’ve felt a little guilty about this happiness. But what can you do?
On Friday I had a successful spinning class with Matt at Flywheel. Despite a couple of weeks off, I finished with the first place score, with 320 points. Almost everyone (or everyone) in the class was considerably younger than me. It’s invigorating to try to keep up with younger people, and especially fun to go faster than them!
Gabe and I had lunch this week at the Remedy Diner, and talked about the possibility of his becoming a partner in a new print-jobbing and graphic design firm. He’s already doing web site design and related print design work, and the new business could be a good platform. I’m excited for him, and enjoyed kicking around some of the practical aspects, like finding clients, office space, legal services, accounting, and insurance.
This week I figured out how to work forScore, an app for reading piano music on my tablet device. There’s a massive amount of great music in the public domain and available for free on sites like IMSLP.org, but it’s cumbersome to work with unbound paper copies. Just as my tablet has become my primary tool for reading books, it might become that for music. Another plus is solving the problem of page turning. In prior generations, pianists needed two hands to play the instrument and a third hand to turn pages, but I’m getting a little wireless foot pedal that should do the job.
I’m in love with my new grand piano, a Fazioli F228. The sound is amazing! It is truly a joy to play. It’s a 2003 instrument that I acquired from a businessman in Greenwich, Connecticut, who’d got it for his young son to learn on. Since then, it’s been lovingly tended to by an experienced technician, but barely used. It will certainly be used by me. I’ve been delving into my favorite music of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy, and discovering beautiful new prospects. I’m selling my Steinway A, a 2004 instrument with a really lovely tone, if you know anyone who might be interested.
Being of such good cheer, I’d planned to abstain from political discussions this week. But I can’t resist sharing links to a couple of articles with very intriguing ideas about a big question: are we losing our grip on reality? The White House’s attacks on the media, the justice system, scientific consensus, and other institutions initially seemed to me so bizarre and ridiculous that I assumed no one would take them seriously. But some people are.
Alexander George in the NY Times compared the situation to a famous forger of Vermeer’s work who succeeded by temporarily changing, through his own fake paintings, the understanding of what qualified as a Vermeer. George points up that we judge the validity of new information based on our current knowledge base, including the concepts we’ve developed as to what sources are reliable. If someone were to convince us that we could no longer trust scientists or journalists, our existing knowledge base would be undermined. Rationality would be seriously impaired, as would political organization and action. Query, is this the Bannon plan?
Also in the sad, failing, fake news Times, Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman wrote a piece entitled Why We Believe Obvious Untruths, which centers on an idea that is both simple and profound. The answer, they say, is not lack of intelligence. Fernbach and Sloman point out that human knowledge is essentially collective — dependent on knowledge of other humans. The things we think we know are for the most part actually things we’re confident somebody else knows. While this system of collective intelligence allows for the large and long collaborations necessary for the greatest human achievements, it also accounts for our susceptibility to mass delusions.
For better and for worse, we largely rely on our communities for knowledge, and our tools for detecting when our communities go awry are not so good. As others have noted, we have a tendency to believe new information that fits with whatever we (and our community) already believe and ignore and suppress everything else, which has an error magnification effect. Social media serves for many as news fast food that compounds the echo chamber problem.
Thus it turns out to be easy for groups to come to strong agreement in support of ideas overwhelmingly at odds with the weight of the evidence. QED: climate change is a hoax, immigrants are threatening us with terrorism, our military is too weak, etc.
On a cheerier note, speaking of intelligence, there was a report this week of experiments showing that insects have a lot more mental capacity than previously thought. They aren’t just automatons operating on pure instinct, but can learn and solve problems. Scientists at the Queen Mary University in London taught bumblebees to roll a little ball across a platform in exchange for a reward. Amazing!