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DJ for a day:music stories

Posted by Arjendu on January 22, 2008

A couple of months ago, the Carleton Alumni magazine did an article about the recently-tenured faculty, with the organizing theme being their question: ‘What inspires you?’ Mine was pretty easy — music. I listen to it incessantly, and it really does inspire me to think/focus/be. A student who has a show on the Carleton student-run radio station picked up on that and asked me to come in for an hour for her ‘DJ for a day’ show, where she invites/cajoles people into sharing their music.

Well, okay, then. The biggest problem as far as I was concerned was picking an hour’s worth of music out of my library. Being a good statistical mechanic, I decided to go with randomness — I allowed the party shuffle to play, and created a playlist by picking whatever showed up (within limits of size — some of my favorite Hindustani classical pieces can run 45 minutes without a break of any sort, for example. Ok, to be completely honest, I also used the criterion of familiarity — there’re a few songs on my ipod I actually know diddly-squat about). I walked in with the playlist which was quite a bit longer than the hour — and again used the randomizer to choose what it wanted and I told whatever stories I associated with the music. It was fun, and now my mumbled stories and chosen songs are permanently archived — the first few tunes are someone else’s and then there’s an hour of my music.

There is some intellectual/physics content to this post, if you’ve borne with me so far. When I taught my first-year seminar on complexity a few years ago, one of the books we read was Per Bak’s how nature works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality. One point he makes in there has stayed with me, even as I acquire more evidence for this from my readings into psychology, and even as I clarify my own thoughts on the difference between material determinism (+ randomness) and psychological freedom.

The point is roughly as follows: Humanists ascribe a lot of meaning to contingent phenomena, and spend their intellectual energy creating (or discovering) stories to explain the specific sequence of events that have occurred. A good statistical mechanic realizes, however, that it is almost impossible to explain complicated nonlinear phenomena given the incredible amounts of randomness and deterministic unpredictability involved, and instead recommend focusing on the probabilities of various events happening.

Human beings live in this tension: We are a lot happier when we understand why something happened, and from the ‘inside’, but honestly, the only hope is to understand it statistically, that is, from the outside.

Anyway, the ipod randomizer did a pretty good job of choosing songs for my playlist, and even finished with an amazing segue: The last song it chose from my playlist was Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Voodo Chile (Slight Return)’. The next person in the booth, Ross Currier, a Northfield resident, had burned his CD with his playlist, and the first song on that was Jimi himself doing ‘Red House’. Given that I’d never met Ross before, and had no idea that he liked similar music, I was pretty impressed. Randomness rocks!

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2 Responses to “DJ for a day:music stories”

  1. […] hands through some of this process! The trick of advising, or choosing in general is, as I said in an earlier post, the dichotomy between global statistics and individual chaos: We can reason statistically, make […]

  2. […] set of random quotes some other day in the future. Another little piece of anecdotal evidence in my theory about statistical mechanics and stories. Randomness, as always, […]

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