When Books about Science Aren’t Fact Checked, I Can’t Trust Anything in Them

This weekend, I started reading This Is Your Brain on Music, by Daniel Levitin. He is a neuroscientist who had previously been a professional musician, and the book explores why we enjoy music and how it affects the brain.

It started off interestingly, showing that this was a book by a scientist exploring a topic in which he had personal experience. But then I got to a few areas where he made ridiculous statements, a couple of which were outlandish, and one that was just false. This showed that the book had not been fact checked, and made me wonder about everything else in it: if there were mistakes like this, they cast doubt on everything the author says.

The author was discussing the way information is stored in the brain, comparing it with the way data is stored on computers. He says:

People who work with image files all the time are able to look at the stream of 0s and 1s and tell something about the nature of the photograph—not at the level of whether it is a human or a horse, perhaps, but things like how much red or gray is in the picture, how sharp the edges are, and so forth. They have learned to read the code that represents the picture.

This is simply ridiculous. You cannot tell anything about the contents of any file from “the stream of 0s and 1s.” You could tell something about some types of files if you look at the hexadecimal interpretation of those 0s and 1s, but only if they contain metadata (such as the type of file, the creation date, etc.). There is nothing in a file that gives you any idea of its contents by simply looking at the raw data.

He doubles down shortly after the above statement:

Similarly, audio files are stored in binary format, as sequences of 0s and 1s. The 0s and 1s represent whether or not there is any sound at particular parts of the frequency spectrum. Depending on its position in the file, a certain sequence of 0s and 1s will indicate if a bass drum or a piccolo is playing.

I think the only polite thing that I can say is that this is fantastical. The idea that “a certain sequence of 0s and 1s” in any way suggests which instrument is playing, which note is played, or anything at all is ludicrous. Audio files are sampled 44,100 per second, meaning that in each second of music, there are 44,100 discrete segments, combined in “frames,” of audio data. Each of these frames of data contains an abstraction of the sound, and it is not broken up into sections for which instrument is playing, what note is played, etc. The fact that a scientist can write this, and that a publisher fact checked it, is literally beyond belief.

Finally, there’s this:

The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might well have been titled “I Want to Scan Your Brain.

Alas, this is the kind of thing that, perhaps, one may have remembered hearing, but that a fact checker should have corrected. It was the CT scan that EMI developed; the history of the MRI is quite complex and took a long time to become a viable diagnostic tool. It began in the 1950s, and took a couple of decades to become useful.

It is beyond disappointing to read this sort of error. I know about these things, and was able to detect them, but I don’t know much about the other things – such as how the brain works – that the author discusses. So there’s no way of knowing whether he is correct, and I simply cannot read a scientific book with this doubt in my mind.

The PhotoActive Podcast, Episode 61: Choosing What to Photograph

A listener in the PhotoActive Facebook group asks a great question, “How do I choose a subject to shoot?” In this episode, Kirk and Jeff explore how they approach a scene, with groups of photos from deliberate photo shoots that seek to answer that question.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at the PhotoActive website. You can follow The PhotoActive on Twitter at @PhotoActiveCast to keep up to date with new episodes, and join our Facebook group to chat with other listeners and participate in photo challenges and more.

Binge Reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels

Reacher

In early December, I decided that I wanted to spend some time reading a series of books. I’ve been reading mysteries and crime fiction for decades, and this is a genre where there are very long series, such as, for example, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, which ran for 40 volumes, until the death of the author. Unfortunately – and I’ll discuss this more later – his estate decided that it was worth containing novels with that character written by others. One of them was unfinished at his death, and his agent completed it, and there have been eight more since then, writing by Ace Atkins.

So I went back through the series that I enjoy, and decided to re-read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. I had read about a dozen of them, many years ago, but had not gone any further. So I decided to buy all of the books, a few at a time, and read them. I completed the first 23 novels (and one volume of the "complete collected short stories") in about two months, and put off reading the latest (or last) one until a few days ago. I thought that I would perhaps save that one for a time when I wanted to dip back into the character, but decided to complete the series.

What I didn’t know when I began re-reading these books is that the latest novel, Blue Moon, is the last one. Not really, though. It’s only the last one that Lee Child will write. He’s announced his retirement and is passing the series on to his brother, Andrew Grant. (Lee Child is a pen name of James Grant.) I have no real interest in reading books by a surrogate author, so I won’t be reading any more.

The Jack Reacher novels are light reads. They read quickly, and, in some cases, I was able to complete on in an evening. They are well plotted and well paced, but relatively simple in execution. Reacher is an interesting character, a man who roams, almost, as Child has said, like a knight errant. He helps damsels (and dudes) in distress, out of a code of honor that he learned in the military. He has no attachments, and never stays anywhere more than a few days, unless he’s in a novel. This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic, but it is similar to the way in westerns some stranger would come into town, then ride off into the sunset.

He’s a very big man: 6′ 5" tall, or nearly a foot taller than Tom Cruise who played him in two movies, and weighs 250 lbs. Because of this, fans of the series could not accept Cruise’s depiction, and a TV series is on the works for Amazon.

He is also a violent man, with the reptilian part of his brain often taking over. But he also has a propensity for meeting female cops – and sleeping with them – so, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of fine traits, seems to make women swoon easily, even though he is often described as "ugly." But they know he won’t stay long, so his exploits – always tastefully written – are just punctuations to complex stories of crime and punishment.

The books follow Reacher after he leaves the Army, where he was an MP, and there are a couple of books that reach back to when he was still active in the military, including one which leads directly into the first book. His understanding of the military and his experience as an MP gives him a unique outlook on crime, and he is a believable character.

in the first novel, Child writes a lot in an almost Hemingwayesque style. Which he later drops. Though it comes back again at times. While that style may work with the character, it’s a bit frustrating. Another element that I find annoying – and that I skip – is the detailed descriptions of firearms, with an almost erotic discussion of their features, muzzle speeds, and deadly effects. The fight scenes are also too detailed for my taste. Some fights – often fisticuffs, rather than gun battles – run for a few pages, and I just read the first sentence of each paragraph to know what’s happening, because the details aren’t important. I do understand that some people like that stuff though.

Over 23 books, there are a few duds, but for the most part, these are top-shelf crime novels. Child’s plotting is confusing in a couple of the novels, but it’s never the type of Harlan Coben-esque plot where you think you know what’s happening, then something unexpected happens, then something else unexpected happens, and so on. I find this fatiguing; it’s almost as if the author is toying with readers. Reading a Jack Reacher novel, you know what you’re getting: a clear ethical dilemma in which honor wins. His choices are sometimes illegal, but one can understand his reasoning.

Child is very careful to make sure that Reacher’s stern morality is constantly present, but he also constantly underscores some of the character’s weaknesses, such as his total cluelessness with technology. When computers, then mobile phones, come into the story, Reacher is always fat fingered and perplexed about these devices, though eventually manages to figure them out enough to exploit them when needed, as in the final novel, Blue Moon. (It’s a minor plot point, but I won’t include spoilers.) Reacher has many quirks, some of which reflect the author’s lifestyle (he drinks as much coffee as he can) and others which, hopefully, do not (he never washes clothes, but buys new clothes every few days and throws the dirty ones away).

As series go, the Jack Reacher novels are quite strong. There are highs and lows over this many books, and rarely do people read so many in such a short time, as I did. Reading like this allows you to see the similarities that may jar during a binge, but which are reassuring when you read one a year.

If you like this sort of novel, check them out. You won’t be disappointed.

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode 122: Understanding Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

A child spends a fortune on in-app purchases, the CIA has been running a fake company providing encryption services, and beware of public lockers. We then take a deep dive into blockchain technology and cryptocurrency; if you’ve been wondering what Bitcoin is, we explain (almost) everything.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

The Next Track, Episode #169 – The Environmental Impact of Vinyl Records, CDs, and Data

We talk with Kyle Devine, author of a new book about the environmental impact of music recordings, which raises a number of issues that we had never previously considered.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Virtuoso mourns beloved £150,000 piano smashed by movers – The Guardian

A unique piano which was treasured by the Canadian virtuoso Angela Hewitt as her “best friend” was broken beyond repair when it was dropped by specialist instrument movers.

The expensive accident happened late last month after Hewitt finished recording Beethoven’s piano variations at a studio in Berlin. She said it left her in such shock that it took her 10 days before she could announce the news to her followers.

In a Facebook post Hewitt said her F278 Fazioli, the only one in the world fitted with four pedals, and worth at least £150,000, was “kaputt”. She said: “I hope my piano will be happy in piano heaven.”

The broken instrument was inspected by the firm’s Italian founder, Paolo Fazioli, who declared it “unsalvageable”. The piano’s iron frame smashed when the 590kg instrument dropped as movers tried to lift it on to a trolley. The force of the break, compounded by the high tensions in the piano’s strings, was so strong that it split the piano’s lid in two.

“It makes no sense, financially or artistically, to rebuild this piano from scratch. It’s kaputt,” Hewitt said.

The accident left Hewitt in mourning. She said: “I adored this piano. It was my best friend, best companion. I loved how it felt when I was recording – giving me the possibility to do anything I wanted.”

This is incredibly sad. She is a great pianist, and her recordings of Bach are some of the best on the instrument.

Source: Virtuoso mourns beloved £150,000 piano smashed by movers | Music | The Guardian

How to view and edit your Off-Facebook Activity

One of the most pernicious activities that Facebook does is to track you when you’re not on their website, and even if you’re not logged into Facebook or don’t have a Facebook account. They often do this using cookies that websites deliver to your browser. Facebook has recently provided a way to view and edit “off-Facebook activity,” which the company defines as “activity that businesses and organizations share with us about your interactions, such as visiting their apps or websites.”

The word “apps” above is important. Facebook gets data not just from websites you visit, but also from apps you use, and you have no way to turn that feature off. Facebook then uses this data to serve you ads based on your activity. You can use content blockers or tracker blockers in your web browser to prevent this tracking, but they have no effect on apps.

You can “disconnect” this activity, but this won’t change the number of ads you see; ads will just not be “personalized” as before.

Read the rest of the article on The Mac Security Blog.

Intego Mac Podcast, Episode 121: How Security Analysts Work

We explain how to delete “off-Facebook activity,” discuss a Google Photos data leak, a Twitter phone number issue, and a man who created a traffic jam with a wagon full of smartphones. We then explain how security analysts work, discussing a developer who wanted to know why his Wacom drawing tablet had a privacy policy, and worked out what data the device was sending to a server.

Check out the latest episode of The Intego Mac Podcast, which I co-host with Josh Long. We talk about Macs and iOS devices, and how to keep them secure.

The PhotoActive Podcast, Episode 60: Machine Learning with Andrius Gailiunas and Pixelmator Pro

On this week’s episode, we’re joined by Andrius Gailiunas of Pixelmator to talk about machine learning and how it powers some of the features in Pixelmator Pro. In particular, we’re impressed with ML Super Resolution, a way to enlarge photos beyond their original dimensions while retaining quality and crispness.

Find out more, and subscribe to the podcast, at the PhotoActive website. You can follow The PhotoActive on Twitter at @PhotoActiveCast to keep up to date with new episodes, and join our Facebook group to chat with other listeners and participate in photo challenges and more.