Around the ’50s a political ideology formed. I’m sure its ideas date back further but it was at this time that it crystalised into a coherent group. More than a political ideology, it was, and is, a worldview. This worldview has no explicit pop-culture presence. No-one preaches it overtly. So most people are unaware of it directly. However it was, and still is, insidiously influential on the thoughts of some important people.

One of the most basic assertions/assumptions of this worldview is what is technically called strong reductionism. This is the idea that any system is just the sum of the elements in the system. Put plainly: to understand a society you have to only understand individuals. So, for example, if crime increases by 10% then the explanation is that individuals like crime by 10% more than before. It is this idea that lead Thatcher to believe and proclaim that “there is no such thing as society.” What she meant is that society is a kind of academic myth. A mirage created by a bad understanding of the world.

I don’t know how but this worldview has filtered out into popular culture. The world is confusing right now, and confusion both inspires and demands analysis. Reading the never-ending stream of analyses of how we got here, on racism, on sexism, on equality, on social justice, I have noticed that the worldview I mention is encoded right into all of them, and it makes these analysis irrelevant because they’re blind to the biggest factors.

These analyses seem mostly to try to reduce behaviours of societies down to how individuals think and act. Attributing things to individuals is difficult, as there are billions of them, so this approach necessarily requires demographic segmentation i.e. stereotypical thinking (which is ironically often what the analysis is out to criticise.) You have to find the demographic group whose behaviour, or thoughts, or opinions can reasonably be said to contain the behaviour you are trying to explain. I say reasonably because these analyses are usually only opinions; what the writer thinks is a reasonable explanation is accepted, usually without any actual evidence, instead relaying on the reader liking the sound of the conclusion. How many “why Trump got elected” videos and articles have you seen? Few provide any causal evidence, most only provide demographics as data masquerading as evidence. These are plentiful and have, undoubtedly, already coloured peoples ideas of how the world works.

This approach to understanding the world is limited to specific types of conclusions. If the phenomena we are most concerned about are recent this type of analysis can only conclude that the difference in our society is obviously the fault of whichever group represents the biggest recent demographic change; millennials. Things like institutional racism or sexism are incomprehensible because those phrases don’t mean anything. How can an institution be racist if none of the individuals in the institution are guilty of overt racism? How can we even approach fixing a sexist education system if none of the parts of that system are being sexist? How can inhuman labour practices be an issue if everyone working in the factories chose to work there?

Strong reductionism is bullshit. It was shown, with actual maths, to be bullshit over 100 years ago. The hard sciences, you know, the people who put robots on comets millions of miles away, predict weather with miraculous precision, run optical cables across the ocean floor, create self-driving vehicles, use general relativity to account for transmission distortion in communication between machines in geo-stationary orbits, put the magic machine you are looking at in front of you, those people, dropped strong reductionism at that time and never looked back.

If you want to understand radical changes in the behaviour of our society in the last decade there is an elephant in the room: social media. Social media itself mediates the new social interaction. The important word there being interaction. Interaction is not a feature of individuals so strong reductionist worldviews are blind to it. For them interaction is effectively inert. It just transmits benignly, having no overall effect on behaviour. It can express behavioural traits, that’s it.

When the world, apparently in unison, listens to Gangnam Style then a month later ritualistically pours buckets of water over their heads, what does that tell you? That everyone woke up one morning and decided they like songs about Korean horse farming, then changed their mind and really wanted to pour whatever over their heads and social media was just there to record it? Or is it a more feasible explanation that those things went viral largely because of the nature of social media itself? So many variables in that process are obviously part of how social media and the internet themselves work and cannot be reduced to individuals at all. If social media didn’t exist, but every music shop in the world sold copies of Gangnam Style one day, would people have bought it? There is clearly another factor at play here that isn’t just peoples’ traits.

There is a motion that fake news, transmitted by social media, was a large factor in recent political events. You might think that this is an example of a break from the worldview above because it is laying blame at Zuckerberg’s feet. Maybe it is, but this analysis, again, seems to be about the content traveling around social media rather than the system itself. The system is at fault in that it contains this type of content. It is recognised that social media creates filter bubbles in which our view of the world is coloured to match our outlook, biasing our opinions. Again, this looks at the situation in terms of individuals. Social media biases the individual, or more accurately the individual biases themselves using social media, which manifests itself as a societal bias. Social media is just providing a way for individuals to do what they as individuals want to do, but if that is true there is no bias… ta da!

This is, I’m sure, a factor but it’s an incomplete story. Social media filters content based on two broad factors: the user’s interaction with it and marketing revenue. So if we like things that steers social media’s shaping of the filter bubble but what we like is a function of our social interaction, which is itself mediated by social media and distorted by our filter bubble. It might sound like I have added nothing to this analysis. The first says “A affects B”. Mine says “A affects B which affects A”. I’ve just pointed out a feedback loop made from the same elements, but that feedback loop is an important extra element. Put a feedback loop in a speaker-microphone system and you get a loud, shrill whine, right? That screechy noise isn’t a product of the singer, or the mic, or the speaker, or the cables; it’s a product of those things combined. It’s exact pitch is a product of the properties of all of those things and it’s volume is a product of their interaction. You can sing a different song but you’ll still get the same pitch. The only way to get rid of it is to get rid of the feedback loop.

We all see definite polarisation on most important issues. The standard analysis is, again, that two groups form, and the difference in opinion between the two sums to the outlook of the society. And again we are ignoring interaction. What people miss out is that both sides have a vested interest in portraying the other side as as crazy as possible. So most of the examples of either side are actually picked out by the other side. Those articles about air conditioning being sexist, a woman with 40 kids on benefits, people complaining about a movie poster, outrage about this and that, political correctness gone made, are in every case minor incidents involving a handful of people selected by the other side and made viral. Then the analysis that follows is based on data handed over by this process. Apparently the worlds leading experts on gender equality are all well-off white men who think that feminists are all men hating nut-cases; a conclusion based on a biased view of the world provided largely by a social media system designed to respond to those opinions by shaping its filters to make the world look more like that view!

In technical science systems with feedback loops have a mathematical property called non-linearity. They’re called complex systems because they have complex and often weird behaviours. The properties of these systems are well understood by people whose opinions no one cares about, and are unknown unknowns to a huge number of people whose opinions that shape our society. You probably aren’t aware of this but the idea of strong reductionism is axiomatic to all neo-classical economics, which includes all the ideas about how economies function in official practice right now. It’s embedded in the university curricula studied by many of our government ministers, although to be fair they probably didn’t pay much attention.

It’s one of the deep ironies in economics that so many economists (to be fair, sometimes without realising) argue that the market works in mysterious ways beyond what any of us can comprehend and that trying to get ahead of it is impossible… then spend their entire careers trying to explain how to, or how not to, get ahead of the market. According to Peter Schiff’s blog he has an Austrian Economics view of the markets. Talking about gold he said:

People were buying internet stocks at crazy valuations just before the crash, people were buying condos in Vegas. They are doing the same thing in reverse when it comes to gold. It is the same lack of understanding of the fundamentals that is causing a mispricing of the asset.

So it seems that an understanding, or lack there-of, can cause the ‘mispricing’ of an asset. How is that possible? Is the market powerless to resist the effects of people’s ignorance? Or is he arguing that everyone has to be a devout and practicing Austrian Economist for Austrian economics to hold [1]?

Austrian economics argues that all agents obey what they call the Action Axiom, which seems roughly similar to the general mainstream proposition of rationality. It argues that economic agents do things that maximise utility, though they seem to dress things up with even more messy language than main-stream economists [3]. Austrian Economics also argues, again like mainstream economics (they aren’t as hip and anti-establishment as they’d like to imply) that the economy is just a sum of agents and by treating each agent as the same agent they can pretend that what is true for one agent is true for the economy [2]. So again, how the hell can any agent’s ignorance cause ‘mispricing’? In fact how can any agent be even said to be ignorant of anything relevant to prices? Every component of this statement contradicts some axiom of both Austrian Economics and mainstream economics in general.

[1] That would cause an interesting paradox in that, apparently, being an Austrian economist means not understanding Austrian economics.

[2] They hold it as axiomatic that there is no such thing as a group entity in economics.

[3] The difference is that the action axiom is, as far as I can tell, an unfalsifiable basis of a huge circular argument, while the idea of rationality is falsifiable and clearly nonsense.

You have probably watched one of those TV shows in which someone is convinced they can sing because they’ve only ever had positive encouragement from the small set of people who have heard them sing. The Stefan Molyneux phenomenon reminds me of that. Molyneux operates inside a bubble of his own making that suppresses negative feedback. He runs a community and charges a fee for full access. Discussions there are moderated. You know, to preserve the freedom. For example, there was a huge discussion on free will. Molyneux declared the subject off limits because he found it boring.

I found the embedded video mirrored on someone else’s youtube account:

He begins the video by introducing his podcast as the biggest philosophy podcast in the world. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as “the biggest podcast that tagged itself philosophy”. Now, I could spend a lot of time explaining all the ways I disagree with Molyneux. There are ways in which I agree with him but those aspects of his ideas are so intwined with such grotesque perversions of reason that it’s hard to find common ground even when I’m standing on it. Instead I will try to narrow my disagreement down to something fundamental. The video illustrates.

So he begins by telling us what his conclusion is: “there is no such thing as mental illness”. He then follows his standard format: bombards the viewer with a torrent of factoids without even explaining why they are relevant, let alone providing a common thread of reason. What I dislike about what he does is that: He has no idea how to do philosophy. He listed some facts about the number of people affected by what is called mental illness, none of which is relevant to his assertion. Further, the number of people affected by mental health issues is an empirical measure i.e. science, not philosophy. Not only is it all off topic but it demonstrates his lack of understanding of what philosophy really is. Further, his approach seems to amount to a kind of emotional pleading by throwing lots of facts around that are apparently significant for some reason and letting the viewer join the dots. All of which allows him to arrogantly begin a lot of his video titles with “The Truth About…” because his videos are often mostly factoid dumps.

He defines mental illness as “a chemical imbalance in the brain” then cites some people saying that cases of mental illnesses rarely involve a detectable “chemical imbalance”. He makes the rough argument that no-one has ever found a “chemical imbalance” underlying a mental illness [2]. But, again, that is an empirical argument about the existence of chemical imbalances not a philosophical argument about the nature of mental illness. He makes a big deal of the fact that mental illness diagnoses make use of behaviour measures, and picks out psychiatry as if it is the only field that discusses mental health (conveniently sidestepping neuroscience, which is the thing that he is criticising psychiatry for not being) [6].

There are two things that he needs to realise:

1) The fact that mental illnesses are detected and categorised based on behaviour is irrelevant as to whether they are a reality [7]. An illness is a situation that fulfills two criteria, firstly, it is out of the ordinary and secondly it negatively affects quality of life. That’s it. If we happen to be able to directly observe a physical process causing it that’s helpful for treatment but not necessary when it comes to actually recognizing it’s reality. Take an example, you have an infection that causes nausea. You are ill because throwing up all of the time is unusual and negatively affects your quality of life. In that case we can probably observe the offending bacteria. What if you simply believe you feel sick? Someone who is literally convinced they feel sick, by definition, is ill. To assert that the fact that we can’t find a physical correlate proves there is no physical correlate is a simple breach of logic. You can argue that it is false to claim we have seen the illness… but that is an (obvious) empirical statement, not a philosophical one [5]. If a million people just started throwing up one day, and doctors couldn’t find any offending physical cause, would that mean we should just stop looking for a cause? By Molyneux’s reasoning medical science is at fault for ever imagining that there was any physical cause for any illness.

2) People profiting off the illusion of something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I am sure there are plenty of huge companies in the US profiting of people thinking they are in need of drugs and that is terrible. So what? If someone convinced people in the US that they need insurance against tornadoes and, as a result, sold huge insurance policies and made a killing, would that lend any weight either way to whether tornadoes are real? No, obviously. So why dedicate so much time to it?

Perhaps what he meant to say was “there are people lying about what is or isn’t mental illness in order to profit” [1]. If so he should be precise because philosophy demands precision at the very least.

It’s ironic because he seems to have positioned himself as someone who is out to rid the world of statism, which he seems to regard as perfectly analogous to a mental illness. I vaguely remember him calling religion a virus of the mind in one of his videos.

Molyneux seems to have so effectively protected himself from criticism[4] that he has become convinced that he is an important philosopher with lots of indisputable arguments[3] that have, somehow, gone undiscovered for thousands of years before he showed up.

[1] I suspect he can’t actually allow himself to argue this because he espouses so called “free market” societies in which lying to people to sell drugs is perfectly acceptable.

[2] Actually he imposed this definition. His argument is analogous to arguing tornados are defined as “things caused be imbalance of chi” and concluding tornadoes don’t exist.

[3] One of his gems is the argument that if you disagree with him about whether free will is real you have already proved it is real.

[4] I think he at least partially rationalises this by applying the ideas of the “free market” to knowledge: He is providing a service and others are paying him to provide his trash. Which might be why he feels he has the right to censor, his customers could just leave. Or he is just a terrible human being.

[5] “We can’t find unicorns therefor no-one has found a unicorn”: a valid, but banal, deductive statement deduced from empirical findings. “We can’t find unicorns therefor unicorns don’t exist”: an empirical statement derived in an invalid way from another empirical statement.

[6] He also proves himself wrong halfway through the video and doesn’t realise. He pointed out that children with ADHD could have it as a result of the drugs they are given… which would be an example of a physical cause of a mental illness. Of course it would be an artificially induced but lots of non-metal illnesses are artificially induced. And if we were having a properly philosophical discussion the distinction between artificially induced illness and naturally occurring illnesses would be a point of contention in of itself. A sign of someone who has no idea how to do philosophy is that they take ideas like that distinction as solved because they don’t realise that philosophy is about debating the possibility that they aren’t solved.

[7] This is hard for people who haven’t studied epistemology to grasp but science doesn’t deal with reality. Science delivers models that can be used to predict. It is for this reason that the reality of a disease is formally irrelevant (it has to be because it is actually impossible to know). Science simply says “If we pretend that X is true, we can make the following predictions.” X is not the reality of a phenomenon it is a model. Science is a methodology for building such models. You can model a thing without knowing what it is as a reality, which is why science is possible because if we had direct access to reality we wouldn’t need science.

I tend not to play the social media game. I use social media of-course, but I don’t feed it marketing data. I don’t like things very often and I’m not in many groups. As a result FB has the strangest idea of what I am interested in. it seems like it just makes random stabs at things I might like. As a result, since FB has started injecting those ‘sponsored’ status updates into my feed, I get notifications about completely random products and services. I get the obvious stuff like dating websites but also get things like electronic point-of-sale systems, management software, marketing services (ironically), industrial solutions, medical equipment, cars, random pop acts etc. Amazon, similarly, has literally no idea what I like and so will send me emails with selections of items that make no coherent sense. I once bought something from Amazon and afterwards got an email trying to sell me what just seemed like an arbitrary selection of things, like a lamp, a kids toy of some sort, Katy Price’s autobiography, and a hi-fi.  Funny thing is the thing I bought was a hi-fi. If I just bought one why would I immediately want to buy another?

Marketing, in this form, often leaves me wondering how it will play out over the next ten years. Whether it is stable or not.

In many ways it reminds me of the dot-com bubble. Everyone assumed that everyone could get rich providing free websites by just placing adverts all over them. Which worked at first because everyone thought it worked at first… which it did. Until some key stakeholder realised it was bullshit, and the whole thing collapsed.

I wonder if social media marketing is, to some extent, though not entirely, a bubble like that [4]. Social media provides a great way to get targeted messages in front of people (assuming it works as intended [1]). One of the key mistakes in the dot-com era was to overlook the idea that people might just learn how to ignore them. The marketers are now coming up with ways around this. For example there is a company (I know because they market themselves) that uses CAPTHA style interfaces that have  a marketing message embedded in them. So you have to learn the message in order to pass the authentication stage. Whether marketers can use these systems to make their message heard is something that can only be speculated about but it raises the point that they wouldn’t need go to such extremely coercive lengths if people wanted to be marketed to.

But let’s assume for a moment that marketers know exactly what they are doing and marketing works (and consequently that the dot-com bubble is just a lie that never happened).

Firstly, imagine a world without marketing. Everyone has money to spend and they spend it in some combination goods and services. They might choose not to spend but in any standard economic theory saving is itself like a good that is demanded [2]. If you add marketing to this, you add another service, and add the potential for a change in the combination of goods and services bought. Roughly speaking the purpose of marketing is to change the combination of goods sold or prices to favour a particular firm [3]. This is rough because this is only from the perspective of one firm. From a macro-economic perspective this might result in a different combination of goods and services or it might not.

There are a few things to notice:

1) Marketing doesn’t produce demand

The level of aggregate demand available in any society can’t be affected by the nature or quantity of marketing. Marketing firms might make more money, but they make it by charging other firms for it. An individual firm can change the proportion of aggregate demand that is demanded for their products, but by doing so they leach demand of some other products. They can encourage people to spend rather than save: whether you see this as a rise in demand really depends on how you view saving, but even if you see this as a rise in demand, it can only happen to a point. Further if they save money then they are going to spend it later anyway [2].

2) Marketing is a zero sum game

An extension of the above is that for someone to win at marketing someone has to lose.

So you can imagine marketing like a game with thousands of teams. The game is played on a muddy field. It’s messy and difficult but kinda works. Then Social Media comes along and says “you can play your game on my pristine and well maintained astroturf field, but it’ll cost you”. Now the players can start to play their game on the perfect playing field. It makes the game much easier to play. They can do things they couldn’t do before and the have fewer costs. Running around is much easier, they don’t get hurt as often and their kits are easier to maintain.

Early adopters of this approach get a boast over those firms that still play on the old pitch (and hit with a bill from the Social Media firms). But, eventually, everyone is playing on the new field. The thing is they are playing for the same prize as before. Some firms might well do better on the new pitch than on the old, so the combination of goods and services might change in favour of some firms and not others, but the overall aggregate demand is the same, so collectively they are all winning the same prize… but they’re paying a tax to social media companies for doing it. To me, it seems plausible that if all the firms in the world all payed twice as much for marketing the only change in combinations of purchases would be that marketing goods/services price would be doubled. The firms marketing efforts would all cancel themselves out. The firms (that aren’t marketing firms) would conceivably sell the same number of goods in roughly the same proportions. You could imagine that because they are pumping twice as much into marketing that they can convince people to buy their goods at a higher price, but the firms supply chains are made up of other firms for which the same is true. So the firms suppliers would also be commanding the same price hike, eating up the margin [5].

I think the idea held by most would be that this is progress. This is a ‘better’ marketing system and all firms will do better, and because they are doing better they make more money and therefor pay higher wages and therefor consumers have more money to spend [6].

To me, however, I can’t see where this extra money is coming into existence. All firms are doing ‘better marketing’ but all being equal it seems like that would completely cancel itself out relative to other firms. Plus they are all paying an economic rent for it, and the firms that charge that rent make a profit too.

If you leave standard economic theory for a moment then the explanation for this may well be as simple as “the extra money is created out of nothing by extending loans”. The growth of the economy creates confidence which results in people creating ventures (start-ups or firms expanding). Those ventures are initially funded by loans created by the banking sector (the ventures that are funded by past profits don’t represent an expansion of the economy). The government then normalises the books by creating the ‘fiat’ currency to match the credit money already created by the market.

This explanation can’t work back in economics land because they tend to hold that money is created first by the government, which they tend not to like.

If money weren’t being injected into the economy (assuming these economic models), all that can change is the value of money. But, in the above example the whole point of marketing is to command higher prices, which is inflation, the opposite of currency increasing in value, or sell more which isn’t an increase in money value. But again, marketing can’t explain everyone having more money to spend. Everyone having more money to spend is what the expansion is… so it can’t explain the expansion.

If money is allowed to be injected by the government (assuming these economic models) then the economy goes into a kind of “would like to formally expand” phase, then as soon as the government prints some money it swallows it up to expand. In this model the government is ‘feeding’ the economy money, but it still leaves the question “what makes the economy hungry?”  If this is the case, however,  it seems like at the point the government prints money the expansion has already happened, they just dilute the money supply, inflating it. The market makes money more valuable then the government dilutes it again, changing the nominal money supply. So the same point arises: how can marketing push prices up universally and money value go up at the same time in an exogenous money supply system?

Well it seems like it can’t. So can it push some prices up and some down? Well sure but again this comes back to the idea that marketing just distorts market prices. And also this can’t really be the case because the marketers are charging, so the price of marketing is higher. And if aggregate demand is unchanged for their prices to go up… all other prices, in aggregate, would have to go down. Effectively this is a lottery. Everyone is slightly worse of in return for some people to be better off, but lotteries are profitable. So the people entering the lottery, on the whole, have to be worse off.

I guess this is all a very convoluted way of saying I can’t tell what the point of marketing is in general or in the specific case of new social media marketing. It seems like marketing makes a difference only when someone doesn’t use it, but once everyone uses its effects on firms cancel themselves out, but the system charges for it. So in the end marketing creates a service that does nothing (and I can’t see how it can contribute to productivity or economic expansion) but takes a share of demand. This only changes during transitions from one marketing paradigm to the next, so some firms can exploit differences in take up of the new marketing systems, for a time.

I realise however that this conclusion is a very neoclassical ‘Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium’ style conclusion. The idea that marketing is a kind of equilibrium that is sometimes shocked by new inventions that wobble it to a new equilibrium is very neoclassical. I think the fact that money is created by the market itself (contrary to neoclassical theory) makes the reality quite different, and a lot more chaotic, such that the equilibria are a lot less stable. There is a huge amount of speculation around social media companies, and that speculation is largely debt based and not productive; debt being the real money creation mechanism. The expansion of the economy comes largely from the belief that we have found a way to make supernormal profits through speculation, creating both positive and negative feedback loops that suck money from the productive economy but ultimately crashes when someone realises that we would have to sell Earth to aliens to pay off the debt.

[1] This might not be the case. I found a study recently that claimed that much of the marketing data mind by marketing firms is incoherent nonsense. There are also systems be designed that actively deny or distort these data gathering mechanisms. The most common is ad-blocking, of course, but there are even systems that inject intentionally misleading data into the web.

[2] Neo-classical economics has an axiom called Says / Walras Law/ Principal. It holds that people only want money because they want the things they can buy with it. So saving is really just buying something later. So in effect saving doesn’t change macro-economic demand levels it just puts it on hold for a while.

[3] This raises the mind-bending economics question: What is the market price for a service that distorts market prices?

[4] You could argue that the dot-com bubble was just the first incarnation of it.

[5] Of course this assumes a kind of homogeneity that is unrealistic, not all firms have the same marketing requirements (although a fairly standard approach in economics).

[6] The rose tinted interpretation of this is that marketing doesn’t expand or increase productivity, but it does result in a somehow ‘better’ rationing of goods and services. I think this is plausible only if marketing had very specific properties. Firstly it would have to be perfectly truthful. If it were then adding marketing to an consumer economy would result in a closer approximation of how economists actually model the economy i.e. everyone knows everything about all products. In this case marketing would have a finite (although very high) aim: to determine and distribute truth. Since the truth about goods and services is as finite as the goods and services, the aim would be finite. Once the truth is exhausted, and is being distributed in some perfectly efficient manner, marketing would be at it’s optimum. Marketing would constantly aim for this state. At this stage agents in the market would be ‘rational’. This is a very strange tangent from economic theory, however, because according to such theories marketing should be happening, somehow, for free as an axiomatic property of the market… so why would anyone pay for it? Secondly this is clearly nothing like marketing in the real world. Marketing in the real world is “do and say whatever you can to get people to buy your clients goods”. Again, if you assume rationality then this type of marketing is, actually, kind of a waste of money as well as agents are all supposed to be rational and would be impervious to being told anything about goods or services. So either market works, and breaches rationality axioms, or doesn’t work at all. All firms want to breach market price setting in their favour, but whatever optimum prices are it seems logically impossible that a marketing sector that aims to raise any and all firms market share will always move towards that optimum. Even if the market somehow arrived at that optimum (which would take a remarkable coincidence in starting conditions) the marketing sector would plough right past it.

I noticed this when I first saw it. I’m always surprised how surprised other people are when I point this out. The themes are there throughout the franchise but they are more explicit and complete in TS3.

Toys are sentient but aren’t allowed to be

The gimmick of the movie is that toys are alive. They have emotions and dreams and can make independent decisions, but the other side of the gimmick coin is that it is their purpose to act as if they don’t.

Children are God

Toys are expected (for some reason) to regard their owners as infallible. The moral of the story is that the toys are supposed to have faith in Andy, their god, regardless of anything that happens in reality. It is, again, their sole purpose to serve him.

Secular society leads to tyranny

The toys end up in a “community” in which toys have no single owner. Religious fanatics often equate aspect of secular society with polytheism, arguing that the one true god has been replaced with myriad false idols. The consequence of this is, of course, a tyrannical state system in which toys are kept in boxes and eventually destroyed by uncaring false idols [1]. Once they’re broken they even go to a hellish furnace.

[1] This also resonates with Jobsian philosophy / economics. The idea that things that are owned are looked after better.

When I encoded this track to mp3 I noticed that it particularly degraded it’s quality, more so than other tracks. It got me thinking that a lot of people may not realise what effect mp3 compression has on a track because they would tend to only have the mp3 version. Similarly very few people ever listen to music higher than CD quality, with the exception of movie soundtracks on DVDs or Blurays.

So I decided to make a comparison that people can download and try out.

When I produce a track it is done at at least 96kHz. The software I use runs at 32/64-bit floating point (I think it switches to 64-bit for some specific tasks). Such high bit depth is necessary because of the amount of summing that has to happen. A track could be made of dozens of channels, each itself doing summing internally (sound generators may involve summing many channels and effects processors will have things like dry / wet mixes).

I personally do the final mix down through an analog mixing desk. The result is a 32-bit 96kHz wav file ‘master’. This is then downgraded to 44.1kHz 16 bit using r8Brain. That file is than turned into several mp3 files (I happen to use FL Studio for that, which is the only thing I have that can encode mp3s, though it probably isn’t the best application for that). NB: the file might not play an all sound cards. You’ll have to check. It’s also 94MB.

The above file contains the same 16 bars repeated 4 times:

1) The full 32-bit 96kHz version @ 6144 kbps

2) The CD quality version 16-bit 44.1kHz @ 1411 kbps

3) MP3 @ 320 kbps

4) MP3 @ 128 kbps (this is the quality SoundCloud uses)

These were sequenced and the upscaled back to the 96k/32-bit file you can download.

The first thing to note is that this track has a much bigger dynamic range than most modern music. The final full track has an average dynamic range of 12 (measured by this), most modern tracks probably have a dynamic range of <1dB or something ridiculous. MP3s seem to sound ‘better’ when there’s more going on and less dynamic range just because there’s more stuff to distract you and less dynamic range means less actual information. Aliasing does become an issue with mp3s but mostly at lower bit-rates.

The first thing I noticed is that you can hear a slight difference between 1 and 2. 1 has a high frequency granular texture to it that is more rounded off in 2, which makes sense as 2 must have had some low-pass filtering done. You can hear it if you focus on the reverb sound between the kicks, right in the middle of the stereo field. It’s hard to pick that out without knowing what to listen for though.

When you listen to the mp3s the things you should be aiming your attention at are the transients. These are the short snappy sounds that usually happen at the onset of a sound. You’ll notice that mp3s really do ‘pixelate’ them. In the 128 kbps version the transients sound almost like they’ve been passed though a resonant envelope filter and have a tonal quality added to them, like a pitched poppy, zappy sound that is completely unintended. This is important because transients portray most of the rhythmic structure of the music. It sounds exactly like the audio analogy of the type of compression artifacts you get on compressed movies: details smudged, generalised and relocated.

The other area that you should listen to is around the low frequencies. There are all kinds of things happening in that area that are just added by the MP3 codec. The whole area is much more muddy, and filled with random pulses and booms of sound that, again, aren’t intentional, and have their own tonal characteristics.

As I have had unavoidable time off I have had the opportunity to watch a few episodes of The Wright Stuff,  a morning discussion show. They were talking about something, I can’t remember what, but the panel in general somehow got round to registering their endorsement of fostering competition in schools. I think the topic was something to do with kids.

The panelist, an American Comedian (I only say that because I can’t remember his name) said that schools need to encourage more competitive behaviour and schools trying to teach children that everyone is a winner for taking part is absurd, actually dangerous. For all I know this might be one of the ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ conspiracy stories that are so often just made up by right-wing columnists. Maybe schools are proactively teaching children that everyone is a winner. Maybe they aren’t. Maybe it happened one time and someone complained about it to a columnist. Either way it was greeted with applause by the audience and noises of agreement by the famous panelists.

Competitive behaviour is good. Everyone roughly agrees. Why?

Within the context of a sport or game, competitive behaviour makes perfect sense, but that’s only because sports are usually designed to be zero-sum activities. Within the context of the sport or game, winning is what it is and requires no justification. It’s just an axiomatic property of the game that winning is the best state to aim for. Once you step outside of the context of the game or sport that axiom no longer stands on it’s own. Why try to win? Well you might get a trophy or get famous. Why is that a success? Because we happen to have designed our society in such a way as to have defined one type of success around being famous and winning sports.

It might be tempting to turn to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ [1] argument here and say that nature is a zero-sum affair. The thing is… it isn’t. And even if it were… so what? Some aspects of nature, seen in a narrow sense, can be interpreted as zero-sum but to see that you have to proactively ignore much of what you see. Humans are social animals, we innately form communities and sacrifice for each other. Multi-cellular organisms can themselves be seen as a super colony of organisms all miraculously, and apparently against all reason, working together taking just what they need to do what they do so that the colony can survive. This whole system is built on top of the selfishness of genes themselves, but the point is that that selfish, individualist, zero-sum foundation can be the basis of systems that are far from zero-sum. So nature is a mixed bag, not that nature is really a meaningful yardstick in any sense.

So far I have implied that zero-sum and competition effectively mean the same thing. That’s obviously not true. It’s just that competitive thinking gives everything the appearance of a zero-sum game.

I have already alluded to the idea that most situations in which competition is apparently a good idea are synthetic. Society is definitely not a zero-sum game. Happiness is not a zero-sum game. We can all be happy and being happy doesn’t require others to be unhappy. If the idea of competition doesn’t really apply to something so fundamental as happiness or to the dynamics of society why do we even entertain it as anything other than a quirky pass-time? Taken further, situations in which we have implanted competition invariably result in disaster.

As a final thought: If you are motivated to do what you do by competition, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it.

[1] I was just wondering about the etymology of this phrase.  Dogs aren’t known for cannibalism are they? The word ‘dog’ is often used to refer to lowlifes… so maybe dog-eat-dog doesn’t mean ‘the world is filled with terrible people who do each other over’, maybe it means kinda the opposite: that ‘the lowlifes will devour themselves’.