Category Archives: Cultural Heitage

Study Identifies World Music “Outliers”

Computers have a long and deep connection with music, and have from the beginning. This isn’t surprising to me because humans will make music with any tool they have (and with their body if they have no tools at hand).  People use digital computers and networks to make, perform, fiddle with, and share music, just as they have done music with every technology every invented.

Some people also like to use digital techniques to classify and otherwise analyze music (e.g., as “Music Information Retrieval”).  This applies widely used learning, classification, and searching schemes to digital representations of music.

I have never really been able to be excited about this topic, myself.

A recent study from Queen Mary University of London reports on “outliers in world music.”  Using large collection of digital recordings from around the world, the study looked for examples that are “different”, standing out from other music [1].

The research uses widely used data mining techniques, adapted to musical “objects”.  At bottom, this works from summary descriptions of each music sample. There are a huge, if not infinite, number of ways to describe music, so the researchers had to select a handful of characteristics.  (This is common practice, and it generally works OK.)

The overall goal is to find “outliers”, which they interpret as especially novel or creative examples.  If you have 100 songs, and one or two stand out statistically, there might be something really interesting about those two.

The research binned the music by country of origin.  This is a very approximate identification for the cultural tradition that the music might be associated with.  So, they found “outliers” within a given country, and also could report countries with relatively high numbers of outliers.  For example, in their collection, Botswana had large numbers of outliers.

This paper made me think a bit. The title and press release piqued my interest in “world music”, and made me wonder what an “outlier” would mean. But looking at the report, I see a lot of limitations.

I’m not sure what significance these “outliers” may have. The researchers imagine that these cases somehow represent innovation or creativity.  But the classification is such a blunt instrument that it’s not clear how “innovative” these examples may be, or whether other equally “creative” samples are not flagged, because they are different in ways that are not detected.

The methodology is “blunt” for many reasons. It’s a small and unsystematic sample. Yes, these are large databases, with enough data to do statistics.  But it is hard to know how representative these samples are.  The entire idea that there is some kind of Platonic ideal for, say “Brazilian music”, is lunacy of the first order.

This limited sample probably doesn’t matter too much, because the extracted features are probably obscuring them anyway.  The features used are only loosely justified, and there is not particular reason to think that they are specifically related to “creativity” or even to differences between musical traditions. Whatever is being classified here, it isn’t obvious that it has much to do with musical creativity, at least not everywhere and at all times.

(Ironically, the methodology is also “too sharp” in a crucial way.  The classification techniques are so powerful that they will find something.  They find outliers and groupings, whether such conclusions are meaningful or not.

The “world” part of the study is not exactly what I expected.  To me, “world music” means local music that is enjoyed lot’s of places other than home.  This study seems to define it as some kind of expression of aboriginal, pre-colonial, pre-mass-communication culture.  Taking this as the definition, it is certainly misleading to ‘bin’ music by country.  Countries are scarcely mono-cultural, and, by the way, minority “outliers” are often suppressed.  Finding “outliers” at the country level is interesting, but probably not indicative of “creativity” so much as stereotypes and the vagarities of the collection methods.

Finally, the entire notion that local folk music is somehow generated from a pure, unsullied local culture is highly questionable.  For centuries, musical cultures have been travelling and mixing around the world, and in the twentieth century mass communication has allowed music to spread nearly instantly nearly everywhere.

I would say that some of the most important “innovation” has been in the creative response to all these different sources.  At the very least, this means that an “outlier” in one country might be an import that would middle of the road at home, or that an imported hybrid in one country might be a shining outlier in the original country.  But these cases aren’t found by this study at all.

For example, consider American Jazz.  This music developed from many geographical roots, and now has spread throughout the world, influencing many musical styles.  So, everything that is influenced by jazz will be classified as somewhat similar, and less likely to be an “outlier”.  On the other hand, a pedestrian cover of a familiar standard might be flagged as an “outlier” compared to the rest of the “traditional” music of the country, less directly copied from overseas.  Either way, it misses the who point that Jazz has influenced and been influenced by many people, everywhere.

The point is, the methods of this study aren’t a very good way to find meaningful “outliers”.  And whatever this study is about, it probably isn’t finding anything interesting about “innovation” or “creativity”.  For that matter, it doesn’t really describe culture or music very well at all.

  1. Maria Panteli, Emmanouil Benetos, and Simon Dixon, A computational study on outliers in world music. PLOS ONE, 12 (12):e0189399, 2017.
  2. Queen Mary University of London, Computational study of world music outliers reveals countries with distinct recordings, in Queen Mary University of London – News. 2017.


Bison Restoration: Wind River Herd Is Growing

I’m a huge fan of Bison restoration, and I’ve been pleased to see the careful reintroduction of wild bison to Banff, Montana, and Wind River, among other places. It is particularly gratifying that Native Americans are stewards of this process, which bolsters and renew ancient cultures and guarantees thoughtful human protectors for the Bison.

Last year we celebrated the introduction of 10 Bison to a free range on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, and a calf was born in May, to great acclamation. The project is led by the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s Boy-zshan Bi-den (Buffalo Return) program.

This fall, an additional ten animals will be added to the herd.  The latest batch is another group of “genetically pure” animals, unmixed with domestic cattle, which will further broaden the gene pool of the Wind River herd.

At 21 animals (I assume), the tiny herd can’t be considered self sustaining (the program aims for 1000 head), but it’s a start. Presumably, happy Buffalo will make more Buffalo themselves, so things should take off.

I probably will never see these Bison in person, but it makes me happy to know they are there, living as they should.

  1. Melodie Edwards, Eastern Shoshone Tribe To Add Ten More Wild Bison To Herd in Wyoming Pubic Media. 2017.
  2. Garrit Voggesser, Buffalo Break New Trails on Wind River, in National Wildlife Federation – Blog. 2017.


Native American “Wellness Warriors” App

At this week’s conference, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), released their new “Wellness Warriors App”.

There are probably a bazillion “wellness” apps out there (and, confusingly, more than one “wellness warrior”).   This app is distinguished by begin designed to be culturally-based for Native American youth.

Cool! This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of: digital apps that strengthen community and culture rather than eroding it. So I had to take a closer look.

The idea of the project is to promote “wellness from a cultural perspective – fitness through cultural dance, healthy eating with traditional Native foods, and more.” These activities already enjoy considerable participation as an expression of cultural identity and solidarity. The app adds in an emphasis on the health benefits of these activities.

These are real world, face-to-face activities. What can a mobile app really do?

From a brief trial run, it looks like that one contribution is social connection with a digital community that promotes a broad solidarity across many locations and specific tribes. The app seeks to,

encourage Native youth to interact with each other in a way we’ve never seen before.

I’m not sure that this has never been seen before (I’m pretty sure that Facebook and everything else is already widely used by these kids), but it bundles all the stuff into a single, “just for us” app.

I admit that I don’t really know all the features WWA has, or how to use it reasonably. (I, for one, could use some directions! But I’m not in the target demographic, who are digital natives.)

Many of the features are familiar from generic apps, including sharing and messaging. The “wellness” aspect including some fitness tracking and charts (I don’t know how to use them), space for contributed regional recipes and a planner.

The ‘cultural sensitivity’ appears in many forms, such as the graphic design and in channels for various Indian languages. The “wellness tracker” itself is a self report meter through which you enter your current state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. These dimensions are probably used by many such wellness apps, but in this case they should be interpreted in the context of tribal heritage. The “social” and “spiritual” dimensions definitely have important and specific meanings for Native Americans.

This app, like any mobile app, is mainly talking, not doing. The activities of interest (eating, exercising, helping each other) are real world, face-to-face things. Digitally augmented talk is not necessarily going to promote wellness or fitness.

In general, I’m not optimistic on the effectiveness of any self-reported tracking features. Aside from the problematic nature of this kind of introspection, interrupting your life to fill in the data just seems too intrusive to work for long.

Also, I’ve never been interested myself in sharing fitness data (or recipes), so I wouldn’t be motivated by these features, even if I did take time to record my wellness. But lots of people, especially you youngsters out there, like to do this sort of thing. So there you go.

All that said, the cultural solidarity represented by UNITY should, in principle, add motivation and intrinsic rewards that make this app work better than a generic app with similar features would. It is also true that there already is a social network (UNITY and its many affiliated youth organizations), so this app overlays existing social connections, and therefore is more likely to be effective.

In other words, a digital app might or might not be especially effective for promoting wellness, but one that is embedded in a strong and positive cultural context might work better. As they suggest, the aim of the  game is “Finding wellness and healing within our cultures” which is a lot more meaningful than just “promoting wellness” in general.

This app inspires me to think of additional features that might make it even better. There are many possibilities that could be done technically, though I don’t know what will fit the spirit and practices of this group.  (Perhaps spinn off apps, if these are too far afield from “wellness”..)

Things that occur to me:

  • A gratitude meter–express gratitude every day
  • Ambient nature awareness channels, e.g., Bison cam streaming coverage of reintroduced Bison herds.
  • informal (social) games (in local languages!), with cultural content. E.g., guided meditation/story telling with traditional themes and images.
    • (can you make the game so great that kids everywhere–not just Native Americans– will want to practice Native American spiritual values, because its just cool?)
  • Idea market for mutual help (think “mindsharing”, with a cultural twist)
  • Platform cooperatives for sharing stuff (think Uber or AirBnB, except owned by the users). In this case, should be embedded in cultural heritage surrounding sharing and gifts.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens with this app.

  1. United National Indian Tribal Youth, Cultural-based Wellness App to Launch at National Native Youth Conference, in UNITY – News. 2017.


Baby Bison Born!

I’m a long time Bisonophile and enthusiastic supporter of restoring wild Buffalo herds to North America. I’m particularly happy with the strong role of various Native America tribes, working through the political and technical barriers, and finding land to host the new herds. It almost goes without saying that this restoration has immense symbolic and cultural significance for the peoples who once lived with the Buffalo.

There has been a steady stream of reintroductions, notably to Banff earlier this year and  Blackfeet Reservation and Ft. Peck Reservation in earlier years This month was marked by another milestone, the birth of a calf on the Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation.

The birth of the bison calf catalyzes important conversations to be had about tribal protection of this spiritually important ungulate on tribal lands. CREDIT COURTESY OF JASON BALDES

You go little guy!

As part of a twenty year project to restore buffalo to tribal lands, the Eastern Shoshone received ten buffalo last fall. The new baby is a welcome sign that the Bison are settling in, and a promise of a permanent presence in the future.

Jason Baldes considers this to be more than wildlife management, for him it is a form of restorative justice. He commented on Yellowstone Public Radio,

What happened to Native people similarly happened to buffalo and we’re now isolated on former pockets of our once vast territories, you know, Indians on reservations and buffalo on national parks and refuges. And we’re kinda in a time now where we can handle that different.

At a time when knuckle draggers and latter day Medicis in Washington are plunging down a deeply destructive path, we can only hope that this little guy and his small tribe of buffalos can survive and thrive.

I’ll end with a culturally mixed welcome to the young one in Lakota, Taŋyáŋ yahí.

(I know very well that Lakota is not the same as Shoshone. But I have an online translator for Lakota, and this was an opportunity to learn a new word. I’m sure Lakota people are happy at the birth as well.)

  1. Brie Ripley, Eastern Shoshone Tribe Celebrate First Baby Buffalo Born On Reservation In Over A Century Yellowstone Public Radio.May 8 2017,


Bear Lake UNESCO Site

Peter Kujawinski wrote a nice piece in the NYT aboutTsá Tué, a new UNESCO preserve at Bear Lake in Canada. This vast area is inhabited by the Sahtuto’ine people, who have lived there for generations.

Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Snow- and ice-covered bushes along the shore of Great Bear Lake. It’s the eighth largest lake in the world. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times

Unlike many other nature preserves, Tsá Tué has been placed under the formal authority of the local people, to sustain and protect for all humanity.

This approach aligns the traditional cultural connections of the local people with the lake and it’s environs, and places our faith in people who feel a deep, deep link to the area. (And for once, the priorities of the local people are treated with respect and not to be overrun by outsider powers.)

Tsá Tué caught my attention because I had dreamed of such approach to combat poaching and destruction of forests. I imagined forming a protective force run by inigenous people, including defensive bands of rangers. Who better to selflessly care for a forest or park, than peoples whose identity and culture are one with the natural setting?

Kujawinski was lucky enough to visit Deline and the lake, and reports on the beauty he found there. He also spoke to his hosts about their views and hopes. The residents and now stewards of the area speak of their language and history, and an identity inextricably tied to the lake.

He notes that many of the people are inspired by the prophecy o Sahtuto’ine elder Eht’se Ayah, who taught that the lake will be one of the last clean areas on Earth, and people would come North for refuge. Other stories recount the beating heart of the lake, and suggest that Bear Lake is connected to all the other lakes and waters of the world.

Whether you take these stories literally or metaphorically, they illustrate a commitment to defend the natural environment, a commitment that is not motivated solely by self-interest.

Not everything is honky dory, of course. Bear Lake is way up North, but hardly far enough to miss out on the twentieth century. For several decades, there was a large Uranium mine on the lake, which supplied Uranium for the earliest nuclear weapons. Many local people worked in the mine, and many died from the work. The mine is closed now, but who knows how much residual damage is there to plague the future?

I also have to think that the idea that Bear Lake, Tsá Tué, will remain pristine, and be a refuge from environmental disaster is too optimistic. Even today, the seasons are changing, which will surely stress the wildlife and waters. I’m also confident that the snow, lake, and living things already contain measurable traces of chemicals from the smoke down south. The preserve may be relatively empty, but I’m sorry to say that it is still part of the far from pristine world.

I don’t think I’ll be visiting Bear Lake soon, it’s too far away. But I’m glad to know that it is in good hands.

  1. Peter Kujawinski, Guardians of a Vast Lake, and a Refuge for Humanity, in New York times. 2017: New York.
  2. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Tsá Tué. 2016,


3D Viz Display of Mummy

Museums offer many opportunities* for digital augmentation, to visualize the unseen, provide context, and allow more human interaction with fragile and rare objects.

There are many technologies that could be interesting, including visualization and animation (2D and 3D), Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and imaginative combinations of techniques.

The digital technology is particularly valuable when it can give new views of objects to make the invisible visible, and to help tell their story.

Anders Ynnerman and colleagues discuss a clever interactive visualization of a mummy on display in the British Museum. The exhibit is “simple”: a digital display lets visitors explore the insides of the mummy. The digital display presents detailed 3D visualizations computed from MRI scans of the mummy.

[The] mummy is shown on the surface of the table, but, as a visitor moves a virtual slider on the table, the muscles, organs, and skeleton reveal themselves as the skin is gradually peeled away.” ([1], p. 73)

The article sketches key elements of a “work flow of scanning, curating, and integrating the data into the overall creation of stories for the public can lead to engaging installations at museums” (p. 74)

  1. Scanning
  2. Visualization
  3. Interaction
  4. Story telling

The scanning employs now ubiquitous CT scanning, though scanning dehydrated mummies requires adjustments. On the other hand, radiation dosage is less an issue.

Scanning protocols for mummies require custom settings, as the body is completely dehydrated and regular CT protocols assume naturally hydrated tissues” (p. 75)

The data is visualized by volume rendering, which can be done via ray casting. They remark that this is a highly parallel process, and therefore quite suited to contemporary GPU systems. (Game Processor Units (GPUs) are vector coprocessors (a la Illiac IV) designed to rapidly generate 3D scenes, i.e., for video games.)

The algorithm calculates a representation of the tissue depending on settings which reflect the physics of the materials and the X-ray data. Different settings reveal different types of tissue, and the rendering works to make the view understandable through color, texture, and other features.

These techniques generate huge amounts of data for a single study. Continuing developments in storage and data management have made it much easier to handle CT scans. High end, custom systems are no longer necessary to store and manipulate these volumes of data.

The display system is interactive, and projected to a large touch screen. This type of interface is used by experts (as seen on TV), but a public display needs to be more fool-proof and self-explanatory. They also comment that the system needs to be robust (to run unattended for hours without failing) and have consistent performance with no lags or noticeable artifacts.

Finally, the exhibit is designed around a story. In the case of the Gebelein Man mummy, the exhibit tells about the evidence of an apparently fatal wound (a stab in the back), and the suggestion that the individual was “murdered”. This narrative ties the archaeological exhibit to familiar contemporary police fiction, and helps visitors imagine the remains as a fellow human.

To date, developing such a visualization is labor intensive and requires considerable expertise in visualization and data handling. This process can be improved in the future, to make it easier for domain experts to create interactive visualizations to present science and stories to the public.

  1. Anders Ynnerman, Thomas Rydell, Daniel Antoine, David Hughes, Anders Persson, and Patric Ljung, Interactive visualization of 3d scanned mummies at public venues. Commun. ACM, 59 (12):72-81, 2016.

* Opportunities to teach and learn and enjoy, but not  necessarily opportunities to make piles of money. Museums are generally underfunded and over-committed.

Computer Music From Alan Turing’s Lab

I have sometimes pointed out to people that the early and ubiquitous development of computer music is scarcely surprising. Humans make music. (Neanderthals probably did, too. [2]) We make music with everything, and if we have nothing else, we make music with our body.

Every technology ever developed has been deployed first to stay alive, then to kill things, and then to make music. Computer technology is no different.

Evidence: Alan Turing’s lab used the computer to generate music.

Think about that for a second. There could not have been more than a handful of computers in existence, and no one had any idea what these expensive beasts were for except maybe calculating math tables.

With access to Sensei Alan’s hulking Mark II computer, Christopher Strachey thought, “Whoa! Let’s make music!” (Sensei Alan himself used the sound effects for what we now call ‘sonification’.)

With an all night hackathon (yes, children, we did this long before you were born!), he made it do music! And, as Jack Copeland and Jason Long comment, “In the wake of Strachey’s tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs”.  And we have never stopped.

This month researchers in NZ released recovered audio from 1951, documenting what must be one of the first ever computer generated tunes. Awesome!

Copeland and Long note, “There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies”, because people immediately started hacking and modifying the code. Even at this early date, digital music was problematic!

  1. Jack Copeland and Jason Long, Restoring the first recording of computer music, in Sound and vision blog. 2015, British Library.
  2. Steven Mithen, The Singing Neaderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2006.