Music history, path dependency, and Dresden

Preamble

So, let’s do this again. Here are three things to think about—or at least that I’ve been thinking about.

The History of Music Technology

I don’t really care that much about music, which is one reason it is all the more strange I keep thinking about music. Or at least about the evolution of music. Or the evolution of its technology grammar. I blame Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. 

I’ll explain. Almost a year ago the BBC did a wonderful documentary series on the history of music and technology, hosted by Pink Floyd’s Mason, which I heard at the time, but that promptly disappeared from the BBC website, other than a placeholder. I’m delighted to report that the series is now available again, and I’ve no idea for how long, on archive.org (grab it quickly). 

From the rise of multitrack, to the Hammond organ, to the electric guitar, to synthesizers and ORCH_2 hits, this series hot-swapped most of what I dimly knew about the building blocks of modern music, and replaced it with a new sonic grammar, one that was both coherent and evolutionary.

The upshot: I listen to music in an entirely different way. I don’t necessarily like it any more, but I now hear the evolving machine inside the noise. And it’s remarkable.

Path Dependency and Action Bias in Immunology

Humans like to feel like they’re doing something. They have, in behavioral jargon terms, an action bias—when faced with a problem they feel better if they do something than if they don’t, even if the thing they are doing doesn’t do much. Or is even counterproductive. 

My go-to example of this sort of thing comes from professional soccer goalkeepers. As a classic 2007 paper showed, they feel compelled to dive to one side or the other, despite having no idea (for the most part) what shooters are going to do. The action bias is so strong that they jump even when it’s fairly clear they would stop more shots if they simply stood still. They just want to be seen to be doing something. 

We see a similar action in bias in healthcare, where the over-prescribing of antibiotics can be seen the same way. According to a new study in this stream of work, around 10% of people like being prescribed antibiotics, even though they know they don’t do anything for their current malady. They just like feeling like they’re doing something. The effect is even more pronounced with younger patients, where a recent study presented evidence that more than one-in-four patients were being prescribed antibiotics unnecessarily. 

This matter, of course, mostly because it reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics through selection pressures on bacteria. But it has other effects too, as an increasing number of studies show, like potentially permanently altering the human gut microbiome, often in ways that have a long-term effect on future health. 

The human adaptive immune response is evolutionary, it responds to things, in part, based on what it’s previously seen, so our current resistance to viruses and bacteria is path-dependent. For example, a recent study showed how imprinted by their birth year with influenza A exposure have different responses to future flu outbreaks than those who do not. We are, in short, what’s made us ill.

The Firebombing of Dresden

This past Thursday was the 75th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden. The anniversary of the horrors of Dresden was re-examined this week in an excellent BBC Start the Week episode, one that, among other things, called attention the almost immediate revulsion to the episode in newspaper headlines.

Even Churchill had a change of heart about its merits, writing a secret memo about the bombing, as well as asking privately “Are we beasts?”.

Unrelated reading
Video of the Week

The UTMB ultramarathon at night.