Artificial Music

Gaetan Hadjeres and Francois Pachet (Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Paris) have developed a neural network capable of composing music in the likeness of Bach, one of the greatest composers of baroque music in the 18th century.

The machine, DeepBach, was given a data set of 2503 chorales by transposing 352 Bach chorales to other keys within a predefined vocal range. 80 percent of the data set trains the neural network to recognise Bach harmonies while the rest validates it. Given a set algorithm, the machine then produces harmonies of its own in the style of Bach.

In order to determine the success of DeepBach, more than 1600 people were asked to listen to two different harmonies of the same melody, and determine which sounded more like Bach. More than 400 of them were professional musicians or music students.  Around half the voters judged the DeepBach harmony to be Bach’s; whereas seventy five percent of them judged Bach’s harmony to be his own.

The results prove DeepBach’s capability in understanding the complexity of Bach’s compositions, in terms of its structure and rules of construction.

This latest advancement in technology offers us a glimpse of what may be the future of music – or at least a part of it – that machines can and will generate music beyond our current appetite of electronic sounds. Arguably, in time, DeepBach can be taught to recognise and rectify its errors in composition, and become more Bach-like. For the untrained ear, it may become impossible to tell the difference between original and artificial compositions. And does it matter? Will we cease to appreciate good music just because it lacks a human author?

Another implication of this technological advancement is the possible threat to the creative industry. Will musicians lose their jobs to artificial intelligence? Arguably, no. Today, the music industry thrives not on the quality of music, but on media influence. After all, how many modern artists can compare to those of Nina Simone and Prince? These days, what feeds the ears must also feed the eyes and quench the constant thirst to be entertained, be it in the form of social media engagement or celebrity gossip. If an artist fails to be riveting on social media platforms, it does not matter how good his/her music is. Simply put, we still prefer to be entertained in person, by persons.


All is change

“There is no permanent status quo in nature. All is a process of adjustment and readjustment, or else eventual failure.” – Hermann Muller

Our indeterminable fates

While Mendel discovered that a gene determines a physical feature, Dobzhansky realised the full picture – the intersection of genes, environment and chance/triggers determines the physical outcome.

An excerpt from The Gene:

In humans, a mutant BRCA1 gene increases the risk for breast cancer- but not all women carrying the BRCA1 mutation develop cancer. Such trigger-dependent or chance-dependent genes are described as having partial or incomplete “penetrance” – i.e., even if the gene is inherited, its capacity to penetrate into an actual attribute is not absolute. Or a gene may have variable “expressivity” – i.e., even if the gene is inherited, the extent of it becoming actualised into an attribute varies from one individual to another. One woman with the BRCA1 mutation might develop an aggressive, metastatic variant of breast cancer at age thirty. Another woman with the same  mutation might develop an indolent variant; and yet another might not develop breast cancer at all. 

We still do not know what causes the difference of the outcomes between these three women – but it is some combination of age, exposures, other genes and bad luck.

Our indeterminable fates must cause us to question our persistent clinging onto certainty in life, and our lack of examination of what it means to live.



Food wastage & aestheticism

A 2011 study estimated global food waste to be about a third of edible parts of food produced for human consumption.

A 2013 report estimated that 30% – 50% of all food produced remains uneaten.

This year, an EU project estimated that 88 million tonnes of food are wasted annually in the EU.

From 2017 to 2025, the EU aims to reduce food waste by at least 30%.

In order to tackle the pressing issue of food wastage, we look at the stages of production, processing, retailing and consumption.

In this post, I shall focus on retailing and the question of aesthetics.

Before produce such as fruits and vegetables arrive at the supermarket, they are checked for presentability – any oddity or imperfection and the produce will be chucked into the rejected corner. Food suppliers and supermarkets argue that consumers simply do not wish to purchase imperfect food as they seem inedible or even harmful for health.

This begs the question of aestheticism. By nature, many creatures use beauty as a measurement of viability, whether for mate or for food. By the theory of evolution, humans necessarily inherit similar taste for beauty. In the 1500s, Michelangelo created the perfect body of David, to be admired by the world till this day. Oscar Wilde too postulated that aestheticism is the “search after the secret of life”. Arguably, men cannot be blamed for want of perfection as it is a primal instinct; yet we have moved past our earlier minds to see beyond the surface and think.

If we continue our old habits, we will only let waste our resources, and ruin our earth. Eventually, hundreds or thousands of years later, aestheticism will be no longer as we will be unable to feed ourselves with earth’s barren land.

In 2014, Intermarche launched the Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables campaign which saw increase in sales and reduction in food wastage. This movement away from standard (commercialised) beauty is to be welcomed as did Dove’s Real Beauty campaign  . Our constant obsession with what is basically a primordial instinct will not serve to progress our human race.

For the love of Kafka

For the love of Kafka, here’s an excerpt from his diaries, 1910 – 1923.

11 February 1913: While I read the proofs of “The Judgement”, I’ll write down all the relationships which have become clear to me in the story as far as I now remember them. This is necessary because the story came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime, and only I have the hand that can reach to the body itself and the strength of desire to do so:

The friend is the link between father and son, he is their strongest common bond. Sitting alone at his window, Georg rummages voluptuously in this consciousness of what they have in common, believes he has his father within him, and would be at peace with everything if it were not for a fleeting, sad thoughtfulness. In the course of the story the father, with the strengthened position that the other, less things they share in common give him – love, devotion to the mother, loyalty to her memory, the clientele that he (the father) had been the first to acquire for the business – uses the common bond of the friend to set himself up as Georg’s antagonist. Georg is left with nothing; the bride, who lives in the story only in relation to the friend, that is, to what father and son have in common, is easily driven away by the father since no marriage has yet taken place, and so she cannot penetrate the circle of blood relationship that is drawn around father and son. What they have in common is built up entirely around the father, Georg can feel it only as something foreign, something that has become independent, that he has never given enough protection, that is exposed to Russian revolutions, and only because he himself has lost everything except his awareness of the father does the judgement, which closes off his father from him completely, have so strong an effect on him.

Georg has the same number of letters as Franz. In Bendemann, “mann” is a strengthening of “Bende” to provide for all the as yet unforeseen possibilities in the story. But Bende has exactly the same number of letters as Kafka, and the vowel e occurs in the same places as does the vowel a in Kafka.

Frieda has as many letters as F. and the same initial, Brandenfeld has the same initial as B., and in the word “Feld” a certain connexion in meaning, as well. Perhaps even the thought of Berlin was not without influence and the recollection of the Mark Brandenburg perhaps had some influence.

Eugenics vs Euthanasia

In light of information gleaned from Chapter 11, The Gene, I shall revisit my previous post on  whether severely disabled children may be euthanised.

In 1933, the Nazis enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. The law mandated that “Anyone suffering from a hereditary disease can be sterilised by a surgical operation.” An initial list included mental deficiency, schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, blindness, deafness and serious deformities. The law stated that “Once the Court has decided on sterilisation, the operation must be carried out even against the will of the person to be sterilised…where other measures are insufficient, direct force may be used.”

The slip from sterilisation to outright murder came virtually unannounced and unnoticed. In 1939, Richard and Lina Kretschmar petitioned Hitler to allow them to euthanise their child, Gerhard. Eleven months old, Gerhard had been born blind and with deformed limbs. The parents – ardent Nazis – hoped to service their nation by eliminating their child from the nation’s genetic heritage. Sensing his chance to ramp up gene-cleansing efforts, Hitler approved the killed of Gerhard. 

To justify the exterminations, the Nazis had already begun to describe the victims using the euphemism lebensunwertes Leben – lives unworthy of living.

The killing began with “defective” children under three years of age, but by September 1939 had expanded to adolescents. Juvenile delinquents were slipped onto the list next. Jewish children were disproportionately targeted – forcibly examined by state doctors, labeled “genetically sick” and exterminated, often on the most minor pretexts.

By October 1939, the program was expanded to include adults. 

The eugenics movement in 1933 differs starkly from euthanasia in terms of purpose. The former sought to produce a superior society by means of genetic selection while the latter seeks to relieve an individual from suffering. Thence, the former encompassed a broader scope of illnesses, many of which will not fall under the eligibility criteria of euthanasia. Furthermore, while the courts were able to order involuntary sterilisation, euthanasia of adults must be voluntary, with full and informed consent. This then begs the question of whether severely disabled children may be euthanised.

Firstly, can severely disabled children possess a will to live? If yes, how can we determine that will? If the will to live is determined, arguably, involuntary euthanasia will be ethically and morally wrong.

In 1939, Gerhard Kretschmar was involuntarily euthanised. Today, he would have failed the first of four requirements, which is the presence of hopeless and unbearable suffering. As society has progressed over the years, more has been devised to improve the lives of others such that suffering may be bearable and life, of hope. More importantly, the purpose of involuntary euthanasia today lies in the interest of the child, and not the parents’ or the state’s.

In order not to slip into humanity’s horrific past, power must not go unchecked and unchallenged. The horror of the Nazi era began when the German parliament endorsed the Enabling Act, granting Hitler unprecedented power to enact laws without parliamentary involvement. Support for genetic cleansing grew due to state-controlled media, propagating only one side of the story. The slip of judiciary and medical judgement was likely due to the political and psychological environment of the Nazi reign. Hence, one should not trust fully and blindly the systems of power, but question with one’s own conscience.

Stages of emotions

Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa advises his student who had found herself consumed with anger at her son. He wrote:

After sitting yong maeng jong jin (silent meditation), your mind was clear. A clear mind is like a clear mirror, so when anger appeared, you reflected with angry action. You love your son, so you were angry. Is this correct? Don’t check your mind – when you are angry, be angry. When you are happy, be happy. When sad, be sad. Afterwards, checking is no good.

Your previous anger and the anger you talked about in your letter are different. Before yong maeng jong jin, it was attached anger; after yong maeng jong jin, your anger was only reflected anger. If you do more hard training, the reflected anger will change to perceived anger. After more practicing, perceived anger will disappear. Then you will have only loving anger – inside you will not be angry, only angry on the outside. So attached anger, reflected anger, perceived anger, loving anger – all are changing, changing, changing. Anger is anger; anger is the truth. Don’t worry, don’t check yourself – it has already passed. How you keep just-now mind is very important.

Acceptance and reflection of one’s emotions will bring about greater inner peace.