Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Favorite Albums of the Last 17 Years

I've been toying with an idea to see what I can come up with as my favorite songs for every year, going back fifty years, to 1967.  It's somewhat daunting.  You can't pick just one, of course.  Or can you?  Different genres mean different things.

Different songs have different resonances.  It's one thing to take a song on its own, by its own merits.  It's another to add one's own response, which then must incorporate space and time, one's own history.  When I heard Corey Hart talk about wearing his sunglasses at night, I felt some serious emotions at the age of 8.  There were certainly many more interesting things going on in 1986.  I say now.

But I'll get my feet wet here.  A friend recently lamented that nothing good is being made anymore.  Now, that's just cranky.  So I figured I'd make him a list.

My favorite albums since 2000.  With a favorite track from each.

1. Split: Rumah Sakit - Self-TitledFaraquet - The View From This Tower (2000)
The first, well, what happens when your favorite people make your favorite music?  And you are way too picky about both? ... The second, Ryan Jones turned me on to this.  I still swear the singer is channeling someone.  But I can't figure out who.  Maybe firehose, but that can't be it.  Math + emotion doesn't happen often enough.  runners-up: Radiohead - Kid A; PJ Harvey - Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea

2. Pinback - Blue Screen Life (2001)
I first heard Pinback on John Baez' answering machine.  It doesn't get any more pop than that.  runner-up: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - No More Shall We Part; Califone - Roomsound
 3. Hella - Hold Your Horse Is (2002)
OK, I'll admit that I didn't like Hella when I first heard them.  It was through Ryan Jones' (again) tinny computer speakers and sounded like some kind of malfunction.  But when it clicks, and you realize there's method to the madness, your head kind of explodes.  Seeing them live with Quasi at the Khyber Pass in Philadelphia was a highlight of that particular misadventure in residential planning. runners-up: Mum - Finally We Are No One; Baxter Dury - Len Parrot's Memorial Lift; +/-: Self-Titled Long-Playing Debut Album; Dilute - Grape Blueprints Pour Spinach Olive Grape; Howard Hello - Self-Titled

4. The Notwist - Neon Golden (2003)
When I first put this on I was put off by the unabashed electronic instrumentation.  But it quickly grew on me, bowling me over with hook after hook, as well as the rich, earnest German accented vocals.  runner-up: Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway; Frog Eyes - The Golden River; Jaylib -Champion Sound; A Perfect Circle - Thirteenth Step; TV On the Radio - Young Liars

5. John Vanderslice - Cellar Door (2004)
There are a lot of interesting touchstones in this album.  Overwrought narratives somehow hang around like overstayed guests who just won't leave, but somehow possess key information.  Runner-up Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat; Madvillain - Madvillainy; Arcade Fire - Funeral; Joanna Newsom - Milk-Eyed Mender; Mastodon - Leviathan

6. Sleater Kinney - The Woods (2005)
The weird thing about that record is that, despite not really liking much at all of the band's previous or subsequent work, this album stuns from start to finish.  The constant clipping is beastly, a bold move that only puts the whole thing over the edge as epic.  runners-up: The Walkmen - Bows + Arrows; Bloc Party - Silent Alarm; Wilderness - Self-Titled; 

7. Mew - And the Glass Handed Kites (2006)
Umm, I'm not sure I even want to listen to their latest album.  Which is really too bad, because this may be the greatest album ever recorded.  It's complex, sublime, bizarre, cheesy, sentimental, and pushes about the most ambitious hooks I've ever heard.  The melodic choices are consistently odd and inventive, but completely directional. runner-up: Destroyer - Destroyer's Rubies; Beirut - Gulag Orkestar; Tool - 10,000 Days; Lavender Diamond - Imagine Our Love

8.  Shugo Takemaru - Exit (2007)
A post-punk Legend of Zelda.  Your welcome.  runners-up: St. Vincent - Marry Me; Band of Horses - Cease to Begin; Deerhunter - Cryptograms; Dinosaur Jr. - Beyond; PJ Harvey - White Chalk

 9. Fucked Up - The Chemistry of Modern Life (2008)
Somehow I manage to embrace the constipated Fear-core vocals as the guitars slowly build their sweet machinery.  This is an example of synthesizers being our friend. runners up: Atlas Sound - Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel; Crystal Castles - Self-Titled; Frightened Rabbit - Midnight Organ Flight; Gnarls Barkley - The Odd Couple

 10.  The Joy Formidable - A Balloon Called Moaning (2009)
More math in service of sweet tension and release.  Many of these songs were redone on their following release, but it was kind of downhill from there.  A brilliant moment in time though, methinks.  So much delicious noise.  Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest; Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca; St. Vincent - Actor; Real Estate - Self-Titled; Beirut - March of the Zopotec/Realpeople Holland; BLK JKS - After Robots

 13. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today (2010)
So, maybe don't go and see this band.  Some things might be better behind the veil.  But that said, imagine if you took Karen and Richard Carpenter, sent them to a seance with Bootsy Collins, and had them all channel Lou Reed.  runners-up: Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz; Twin Shadow - Forget; Wild Nothing - Gemini; Baths - Curulean

 12.  The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong (2011)
OK, my Smashing Pumpkins weakness is showing here.  It isn't done as well, but that's also part of what makes it so good.  If you know what I mean. runners up - runners-up: Cut Copy - Zonoscope; Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

 13. Beach House - Bloom (2012)
Something weird to note about the LP: it's 2 discs and played at 45rpm, which is totally annoying.  But also totally worth it because everything about this album is honey.  Victoria Legrand finally decides she isn't fucking around. runners-up: Frankie Rose - Interstellar; Lotus Plaza - Spooky Action at A Distance; Grizzly Bear - Shields; Joyce Manor - Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired
14. These New Puritans - Field of Reeds (2013)
Fun fact, the drummer is a former (?) male model.  Which makes perfect sense somehow.  When you listen to the record, you'll have no idea what I mean.  But then you will.  This is the kind of music that needs to get made.  Neither fancy rock, nor dorky classical.  Just good, tasteful, serious music.  runners up - Bombino - Nomad;

 15. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else (2014)
The nice thing about punk rock is just how good it can be, how much it can do with so little.  runners-up: Real Estate - Atlas; TV On the Radio - Seeds

 16. Car Seat Headrest - Teens of Style (2015)
This is still new to me.  In time, things may change.  There's just so much music, and I'll admit I probably haven't listened to this enough.  But it's one of those things where you can just tell.  runners-up: Mew + -; Angel Olsen - My Woman; Tame Impala - Currents

17. Mitsky - Puberty 2 (2016)
There's something about this kind of woman that frightens me.  In a good way.  It's probably some kind of weird statement about my male ego.  But PJ Harvey and Cat Power would I think also agree that I need to just shut up and listen.  runners-up: Blood Orange - Freetown Sound; Case/Lang/Veirs - Self-Titled
Well, until next time.  I'm going to see if I can add some runners-up.  And look for my more ambitious 50 year list of songs.  It isn't fair, of course.  But why not?

Oh yeah, then there's my little album from 2016. I have to say it's my favorite, but I'm biased. It exists secretly on my tiny planet. Eli Rector - Summer

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Confirmation Bias as Ratio Strain

A Witch Surfing on A Sieve (Turner ,1807)
I wonder how much the notion of confirmation bias can be thought of in terms of what in behaviorism is called "Ratio Strain".

A reduction in the rate of a target behavior and an increase in emotional behavior resulting from an increase in the ratio of behavior to reinforcement.
In order to understand ratio strain, it is important to understand a basic principle of behavior, the Matching Law.

A description of a phenomenon according to which  organisms tend proportionally to match their responses during choice situations to the rates of reinforcement for each choice (i.e., if a behavior is reinforced about 60% of the time in one situation and 40% in another, that behavior tends to occur about 60% of the time in the first situation, and 40% in the second)
Behaviorists talk about how we all live in something you might call a "sea of reinforcement and punishment". That is, our behavior is a product of a countless number of contingencies that have and are currently operating on us, either reinforcing (increasing) or punishing (decreasing) our behavior.

At this moment, for example, I am experiencing various reinforcements, a "schedule" if you will, in my environment. There is a constant ebb and flow, or push and pull between reinforcement and punishment. Every time I sip my coffee, that behavior is reinforced - it will be more likely to occur. However, as my bladder is filled, drinking is being punished.

As I type, when I come up with a good, satisfying sentence, my typing is reinforced - I will continue. But if I struggle, I will encounter less reinforcement.

My chair is comfortable at first, which is reinforcing, but after a while it might become punishing, and I will get up, which removes the stiffness, and is reinforcing (next time I will "know" to get up. I put "know" in quotes because usually I won't even be conscious of it, and thus "unknowing").

The Pink Floyd song playing makes me feel good, and so is reinforcing. I will put it on again! But not too frequently, as like food, I become satiated, and so engage in the behavior of eating and listening according to my biological needs - whether dietary or sonory.

So, back to what is called "confirmation bias".
The seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations or a hypothesis at hand.

It occurred to me this morning that confirmation bias could be explained in terms of ratio strain: the reduction of behavior according to a ratio of decrease in reinforcement. I had been reading a comment thread. Someone posted an argument I disagreed with. Someone else then posted a response which I agreed with. The original poster then rebutted... and I realized that I was skimming - barely reading - the response. I didn't feel like reading it. Reading it seemed a chore.

The behavior of reading verbal behavior we agree with is much "easier", as it involves relations that have already been reinforced. However, verbal behavior that challenges us in some way, is much more aversive. It requires engaging in behaviors (types of thinking - recalling, classifying, comparing, interpreting, etc.) that can be quite effortful. Not do these behaviors require work, but the greater the ratio strain, the more likely are they to evoke "emotional behavior", that is, uncomfortable feelings such as anger, fear, etc. And that is aside from the content! If, as we further understand the content of an argument we disagree with, it may challenge our preconceptions - our expectations of the world, which had been reinforced. The fact that they are suddenly no longer being reinforced - a process referred to in behaviorism as "extinction" - can produce uncomfortable side-effects.

Findings from basic and applied research suggest that treatment with operant extinction may produce adverse side effects; two of these commonly noted are an increase in the frequency of the target response (extinction burst) and an increase in aggression (extinction-induced aggression).

Noticing this, much of our tendency towards "group-think" and ideological rigidity would seem to be explained. It is simply easier and more enjoyable to read what has been previously reinforcing. Encountering contradictory views is more effortful, fundamentally less reinforcing, and possibly uncomfortable and anger-inducing.

Now, the nice thing about behavior is that we can change it by altering the contingencies in our environment. We can learn to tolerate delays our reinforcement, as well as create rules to help us along the way, as sort of mental prompts. We can learn to find enjoyment in difference, and even come to be reinforced by the process of having our beliefs changed and enjoying the benefits of expanded knowledge and, ultimately, closer synchronicity with reality.

How to go about doing this, of course, isn't simple or easy. In this post, I'm merely laying out a behavioral case for noticing the process. Who knows, maybe it will allow me to more easily notice (or "tact" as behaviorists call it), and become aware of a trap I might be falling into, and to this make choices that might be more rewarding in the long run.

Maybe I'll go back to that comment thread and spend more time reading that comment with an open mind....

A related paper:
A Behavioral Analytical Account of Cognitive BIas in Clinical Populations