July 10, 2012
Florida State Prison, in the small town of Starke, is a sprawling mass of gray concrete and barbed wire, approached by a road lined with palm trees and lush greenery. “This is what I call the green mile,” says my guide Rosalie Bolin, “but at the end of it is hell.” The prison houses death row and the execution chamber.
On the green mile we pass a hearse that, she tells me, is used exclusively by the prison. “No one wants to have their loved ones in a vehicle that has carried murderers,” she says. “People see them as inhumane, and that is how they are treated, even in death.”
Bolin has been involved in preparing mitigation arguments for defendants in capital cases for more than 20 years. There are currently 400 men and four women on death row in Florida and I am visiting Starke to explore America’s shifting opinion on capital punishment.
Capital punishment was suspended in the US from 1972 to 1976. Since the suspension was lifted, 1,280 people have been executed, most since 1990, though only 78 death sentences were passed in 2011, compared to 312 in 1995. Since 1973 more than 130 people have been released from death row after their convictions were overturned. From 2000-11, exonerations have averaged five a year.
A majority of Floridians support the death penalty and opinion, unsurprisingly, is divided along political and religious lines. Three-quarters of Republican voters support state execution compared to just under half of Democrats. Catholics oppose the death penalty more than non-Catholics. Age is also a factor: Americans under the age of 30 are less likely to support the death penalty.
According to Bolin the death penalty perpetuates a view of inmates as monsters beyond redemption or rehabilitation and has no place in a civilised society. “This grotesque system of ours is about stamping out irritants, similar to how you would a spider. It has nothing to do with so-called justice. It is barbaric revenge.”
Such is Bolin’s disgust with the death penalty that she walked out on her lawyer husband and four daughters and in 1996 married one of her clients, Oscar Bolin, a convicted killer and rapist, who had been on death row for five years. Their marriage was broadcast on national TV, she in a lace wedding dress, he on speakerphone behind bars.
She is on record as saying it was meant to be a statement of “great personal sacrifice” that would draw attention to what she thought was a terrible injustice. It was never an infatuation: “People thought the wrong thing.” The marriage never accomplished what she had hoped and has overshadowed her subsequent mitigation work. I have the feeling that Bolin, who spent years trying to prove her husband’s innocence, regrets her grand gesture.
Starke, near Jacksonville, has a population of less than 6,000. The vast majority is Southern Baptist, and most adults keep a licensed gun at home to protect them against intruders. At the Starke Rotary Club the members say grace and swear allegiance to the American flag before tucking into baked ham, corn bread and sweet iced tea. Mike, like the majority of Starke residents, has worked in the Floridian prison system. He was an engineer who helped maintain the electric chair, known in Florida as “Old Sparky”. He tells me how he had tears in his eyes the first time he saw a death row prisoner prepare for execution. “But then the guard took me to one side and told me he had raped a little girl in front of her mamma and then filleted her like a fish,” says Mike. “From that day on I felt nothing for them.”
Now that prisoners in Florida can choose between lethal injection and electrocution, the electric chair has not been used since 1999. Anonymous men in black robes and hoods are paid $150 to administer the injection after careful selection and training.
Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year, which is more than it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. The reason is that death row inmates in the US usually spend more than a decade awaiting execution: some serve 20 years or more. Oscar Bolin is a case in point. Three previous convictions and two death sentences for the murder of Natalie Holley did not survive appeals. He was recently found guilty in a fourth trial of her second-degree murder and remains on death row for the murders of two other young women. A 2009 poll commissioned by the Death Penalty Information Centre found that police chiefs considered the death penalty the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money…
‘In more exalted fields of human endeavour, it is difficult to think of geniuses who were truly evil: that is to say, to think of evil composers, painters, writers, scientists and so forth’
July 10, 2012
When I am in England I am fortunate enough to live in a pleasant little town which holds the only annual Haydn festival in the country. At lunchtime during the festival I can walk to either of two nearby churches to listen to a chamber concert. The better church, acoustically, was built by Thomas Telford, the great engineer who invented the suspension bridge. His architectural style was cool, classical and rational rather than Gothic or decorated, not at all suited to religious zealotry and more adapted to a tepid deism than to transports of pietism.
It is a perfect place in which to listen to Haydn string quartets, which I love; and this year’s quartet was very good. It was formed in 1993 and I was much moved by the evident affection of the players for one another after so many years of ceaseless and unrelenting work in close association together. They were specialists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century repertoire, and surely the inexhaustible depth and beauty of this repertoire was not unconnected to their capacity to survive constant close association with such good feeling. I am not by nature envious, at least by comparison with many other people I have known, but I confess that I envied them.
Haydn is an interesting figure, for he refutes in his own person the romantic notion that a creative person must either be tormented or a swine. (Haydn was tormented, but only by his wife who was a shrew, and that is not the kind of torment that the romantics mean. They mean inner torment.) Haydn is universally acknowledged to have been a delightful man with the most equable temperament; but the virtual inventor of the string quartet, and masterly composer for it, can hardly be denied the title of genius. Mozart deeply and sincerely revered him; there could hardly be a better testimonial than that.
Another undoubted genius of the most attractive character who comes to mind is Chekhov, probably the greatest writer of short-stories who ever lived. No doubt there has been a deal of hagiography in the way that he has been memorialised; but not even the late Christopher Hitchens could have debunked him in even a minimally convincing way. Few men have ever had such an inextinguishable if evasive charm; even Tolstoy, who was not easy to please, least of all by people who were not contented to be his uncritical acolytes and were his equals, loved him.
Personally, I have never been convinced of the supposed link between genius, or even great talent, and bad character. Perhaps I have been unusually fortunate, but the people of real distinction whom I have met, some of the greatest men or women in their fields, have mostly been delightful people into the bargain (though not quite all, but I will not reveal the exceptions). In my experience, it is the moderately talented, those with some talent but enough self-knowledge to wish it were more and worry themselves that it is not, who have a tendency to unpleasantness, for they are disappointed and often bitter that their reach exceeded their grasp.
A friend of mine once told me that a famous Russian writer – Pushkin, I think it was – once said that no real genius could be an evil man, that evil was incompatible with genius. I have thought about this question on and off ever since. To decide the question properly, according to the current canons of science, one should have an operational definition of both genius and evil, then select a number of geniuses at random and see whether any of them displayed evil. (The number of geniuses you would have to select for examination of their character would rather depend on the number of evil people you expected in a random sample of ordinary people. The smaller the proportion, the large the number of geniuses necessary. And even then there would remain the black swan problem: because 1000 geniuses had no evil characters among them would not mean that the 1001st genius would not be evil.)
What Pushkin – if indeed it was Pushkin – meant was that there was and is an intrinsic incompatibility between genius and evil. Of course, it is not very difficult to think of geniuses with profound flaws of character: Sir Isaac Newton, for example, was inclined to paranoia, could be cruel, and was not much fun. But no one would call him evil, and quite apart from his brilliance as a scientist he was as capable of great wisdom as of great foolishness.
The term ‘evil genius’ suggests that people do apply the term ‘genius’ to the doers of destructive or evil deeds when they reach a certain level of intensity, beyond the capacity of the vast majority of men to commit. The evil genius is not merely wicked, and does not confine his evil deeds to his personal sphere, say an exceptionally cruel murder or two; he is Mephistophelian in his cunning to procure evil on the largest possible scale. The first man that comes to mind of this type is, of course, Hitler, though the last century was exceptionally rich in such men: Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Abimael Guzmán (the founder of Sendero Luminoso in Peru) and several, perhaps many, others. In his biography of Lyndon B Johnson, Robert Caro presents his subject almost in such a light, a worshipper of power for its own sake and without scruple in achieving it.
In more exalted fields of human endeavour, it is difficult to think of geniuses who were truly evil: that is to say, to think of evil composers, painters, writers, scientists and so forth…
When computers listen to music, what do they hear? A new generation of scholars is turning music into data- and uncovering truths beyond human ears.
July 10, 2012
Soon after the release of the first iPhone five years ago, an astonishing new ritual began to be performed in cafes and restaurants across the country. It centered on an app called Shazam. When the phone was held up to a radio, Shazam would almost instantly identify whatever song happened to be on, causing any iPhone skeptics in the vicinity to gulp in bewilderment and awe.
There was something unspeakably impressive about a machine that could listen to a snippet of a random hit from 1981, pick out its melody and beat, and somehow cross-reference them against a database that seemed to contain the totality of all recorded music. Seeing it happen for the first time was revelatory. By translating a song into a string of numbers, and identifying what made it different from every other song ever written, Shazam forced us to confront the fact that a computer could hear and process music in a way that we humans simply can’t.
That insight is at the heart of a new kind of thinking about music—one built on the idea that by taking massive numbers of songs, symphonies, and sonatas, turning them into cold, hard data, and analyzing them with computers, we can learn things about music that would have previously been impossible to uncover. Using advanced statistical tools and massive collections of data, a growing number of scholars—as well as some music fans—are taking the melodies, rhythms, and harmonies that make up the music we all love, crunching them en masse, and generating previously inaccessible new findings about how music works, why we like it, and how individual musicians have fit into mankind’s long march from Bach to the Beatles to Bieber.
Computational musicology, as the relatively young field is known within academic circles, has already produced a range of findings that were out of reach before the power of data-crunching was brought to bear on music. Douglas Mason, a doctoral student at Harvard, has analyzed scores of Beatles songs and come up with a new way to understand what Bob Dylan called their “outrageous” use of guitar chords. Michael Cuthbert, an associate professor at MIT, has studied music from the time of the bubonic plague, and discovered that during one of civilization’s darkest hours, surprisingly, music became much happier, as people sought to escape the misery of life.
Meanwhile, Glenn Schellenberg, a psychologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga who specializes in music cognition, and Christian von Scheve of the Free University of Berlin looked at the composition of 1,000 Top 40 songs from the last 50 years and found that over time, pop has become more “sad-sounding” and “emotionally ambiguous.”
“You get a bird’s eye view of something where the details are so fascinating—where the individual pieces are so engrossing—that it’s very hard for us to see, or in this case hear, the big picture…of context, of history, of what else is going on,” said Cuthbert. “Computers are dispassionate. They can let us hear things across pieces in a way that we can’t by even the closest study of an individual piece.”
As more of the world’s concertos, folk songs, hymns, and number one hits are converted into data and analyzed, it’s turning out that listening is only one of the things we can we do in order to try and understand the music we love. And it confronts us with a kind of irony: Only by transforming it into something that doesn’t look like music can we hope to hear all of its hidden notes.
Perhaps the most straightforward way to analyze large swaths of music at once is to focus on lyrics. In the last few years, multiple studies have sought to use lyrics as clues to how American music—and the country itself—have changed over the course of the past several decades. In 2009, a pair of psychologists examined a dataset of Billboard hits released between 1955 and 2003 and looked for patterns involving subject matter and sentence length. They found that during tough economic times, musicians tended to use longer sentences in their songs, and referred more often to the future. In 2011, a paper published in the Journal of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts examined popular songs from 1980 to 2007, and found an increase in the use of the pronoun “I” and a decrease in the use of “we.”
Such studies fall neatly within the tradition of the digital humanities, a burgeoning field centered around breaking down works of literature to their basic components and analyzing them for things like word usage, syntax, and plot structure. But when it comes to music, lyrics are only the beginning. In many cases, much more is communicated through the texture and sound of the music itself: the tune, the beat, the chord progressions, the tempo, and so on. It’s often these attributes, more than lyrics, that imbue a piece of music with the power to communicate a mood, hijack our emotions, invade our consciousness, or make us dance. And while most of us do all right when it comes to describing how a song makes us feel, we tend to fail miserably when asked to explain what it is about how it sounds—what it does, musically—that makes us feel that way…
July 10, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.