The Rolling Stone has an article about the devastating toll climate change will have on southern Florida. The most shocking aspect of the story is how the threat of climate change is handled by Florida politicians: with ideologically motivated suicidal denial.

The latest research, including an assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, suggests that sea level could rise more than six feet by the end of the century. James Hansen, the godfather of global-warming science, has argued that it could increase as high as 16 feet by then – and Wanless believes that it could continue rising a foot each decade after that.

and...

With just three feet of sea-level rise, more than a third of southern Florida will vanish; at six feet, more than half will be gone; if the seas rise 12 feet, South Florida will be little more than an isolated archipelago surrounded by abandoned buildings and crumbling overpasses.

yet...

The statehouse in Tallahassee is a monument to climate-change denial. "You can't even say the words 'climate change' on the House floor without being run out of the building," says Gustafson. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, positioning himself for a run at the presidency in 2016, is another denier, still trotting out the tired old argument that "no matter how many job-killing­ laws we pass, our government can't control the weather."

Watson [a disaster-­impact analyst] recalls attending a meeting on natural-hazard-response planning in South Florida, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state: "I mentioned sea-level rise, and I was treated to a 15-minute lecture on Genesis by one of the commissioners. He said, 'God destroyed the Earth with water the first time, and he promised he wouldn't do it again. So all of you who are pushing fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.'"

Here's a lovely article about Tumblr and it's founder David Karp written Marco Arment, Tumblr's first employee. Marco is optimistic about Tumblr's future under Yahoo ownership, and so am I. I'd love to see a revitalized Yahoo, and we may look back on this acquisition as the first step in that direction.

I deleted my account on LinkedIn about a year ago because I was wasn't getting any value out of it and was concerned about their security. After reading this post from David Veldt I am so very glad that I did.

I’ve concluded that LinkedIn is by far the creepiest social network. The primary reasons LinkedIn is the mustached, trench coat and wire frame glasses wearing mouth breather of the internet are the “People You May Know” and “People Also Viewed” features.

Here is a deeply misguided article by Tom Rogan arguing that conspiracy theories are good for America.

Bogus theories that America faked the moon landing evoke such fascination that they lead to information discovery. As a result of conspiracy-fueled curiosity, each new class of 10th graders may discuss fluttering flags and secret film sites, but in the end, the desire to know leads to the great majority's acceptance of reality. And in that journey of discovery, this amazing story of human adventure is renewed again and again. The conspiracy becomes the servant of history.

Rogan's argument boils down to this: conspiracy theories are good because they incite our curiosity and encourage us to learn more about our history. Do you see the problem there? It's akin to saying that terrorism is good for America because it encourages us to make our country safer. Wouldn't it have been better to not experience the terrorism in the first place? Wouldn't it be better to not have to waste resources battling stupid conspiracy theories?

I suspect the source of Rogan's positive attitude towards conspiracy theories ("just about everyone kind of enjoys hearing about them") is that he underestimates the corrosive effects of conspiracism. Conspiracy theories are generated by arrogant and irrational thinking. They are often fueled by racism and radical ideologies (anti-semitism is rampant among 9/11 conspiracy theorists, for example). They short-circuit our critical thinking skills, causing us to bypass mountains of evidence in search of the handful of isolated facts and anecdotes which, taken out of context, superficially support our pet theories. This tactic of conspiracy theorists is often called anomaly hunting. It is the opposite of the scientific process in which the quality of a theory is judged by the degree to which it is supported by evidence, rather than the quality of the evidence being judged by the degree to which it supports the theory. It is one of the many processes by which false ideas are reinforced by non-scientific thinking.

Interestingly, Rogan doesn't argue that conspiracy theories are good because they sometimes uncover the truth. Well, he almost doesn't. He weakly offers Watergate as an example of "conspiracy theorists find[ing] great malfeasance." While the Watergate scandal certainly involved a conspiracy, I don't think it counts as a conspiracy theory. Watergate was uncovered by professional investigators and journalists following a clear trail of evidence. A conspiracy theory is an explanation of events that specifically contradicts the accepted explanation, and is generally constructed by amateurs.

Akron/Family - "No-Room" (Official Audio)

The new Akron/Family album, Sub Verses, is fantastic. Here's the opening track.

Vulture.com has some fascinating charts comparing the ages of leading-men in movies to their female love interests. For the most part, as male actors grow older the women playing their love interests remain around the same age. Of course this isn't very surprising, but it's interesting to see it quantified. Rebecca Watson reversed the process and posted some charts on Skepchick for Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep.

Hummingbird is a new music notation system designed to be "easier to learn, faster to read, and simpler for even the trickiest music." It has received some high profile attention since it launched last week, but I haven't seen much critical analysis (aside from a very critical thread on Quora). As a musician and music teacher, I'd like to provide some perspective on Hummingbird, what's good about it, what's bad about it, and what role it may be able to serve.

Hummingbird Notation Example

Who is Hummingbird for?

The most important mistake the creators of Hummingbird have made is that they are positioning it as a complete replacement for traditional music notation, rather than as a stepping stone for beginners. As a learning tool, Hummingbird has some merits, but as a general use music notation system there are significant problems. Some of these problems can be attributed to Hummingbird being a work in progress. There are missing pieces that I'm sure the creators are working on, such as triplets and grace notes. Other problems, such as the removal of stems, are much more serious. I'm going to try to evaluate Hummingbird according to both of these goals; being easier to learn and being easier to use long term.

Pitch notation

My favorite part of Hummingbird is its system for notating pitches. They have preserved the traditional method of associating pitches with vertical positions on a staff, and have added uniquely shaped noteheads for each pitch. This creates redundancy, but I think that has some value.

pitch notation

Changing the appearance of notes according to pitch is hardly a new idea. Other teaching systems exist that color-code pitches, or simply write the names of each pitch within the notehead. These systems are intended as a crutch for beginners, and students are weened off them as quickly as possible.

The creators of Hummingbird, on the other hand, see the unique shapes as a permanent feature. I can see some advantage to this. For isolated or difficult to read notes (such as very high or very low notes with many ledger lines1) shapes can be more quickly recognized than positions. However, in a typical passage of music experienced musicians don't read note-by-note. They recognize intervals and scales, and this requires position-based notation. Let me explain.

Bach Partita 3 Bach Violin Partita No. 3 (BWV 1006) Preludio, measures 7-8

Above is an excerpt from a Bach partita for violin. If I were sight-reading this (I don’t play violin, but this piece sounds lovely on marimba) I wouldn't be thinking "E then F# then G# then A then B then C# etc." I would be thinking "start on E, then move up an E major scale until I get to A, then play F G# B, then start on E again and move up the scale, etc." I wouldn't even be slowed down by the high notes with ledger lines because I can instantly recognize them as simply the next notes in a scale. This is why it's fortunate that Hummingbird kept note positioning. Reading the wider jumps in pitch, such as the E in the second measure, may actually be easier with Hummingbird's shapes.

I have seen some criticism that the shapes Hummingbird uses are too similar to each other and would be hard to discern at small sizes. I don’t really agree with this. In context, even vague shapes will be helpful. The only pair of very similar shapes, C and E, are at least not next to each other. And, as I’ve said, you can still use positioning to read the notes.

Returning to the idea of using Hummingbird as merely an aid in teaching, the key to its value is in preserving the association of each shape to an actual named pitch. It would be a terrible mistake to put stickers on your piano with the shapes of each note on them. I have seen this done with color-based systems where each key on the piano is given a colored sticker. This makes it possible for students to play a song by simply matching up the colors, without ever knowing what the notes are (guitar tablature has this problem too2). Wisely, the creators of Hummingbird designed their shape-based system to help musicians learn the names of the notes. They even have clever (english only) mnemonic devices to help you translate each shape into a name.

pitch mnemonics

Of course Hummingbird's pitch notation has drawbacks. The shapes are more time consuming to draw by hand, and harder to read when printed small or at poor quality. Then there's the really big drawback: because Hummingbird uses both hollow and filled-in noteheads it's necessary to also change how rhythms are notated, and that's where most of Hummingbird's problems lie.

Rhythm notation

rhythm notation

Hummingbird's rhythm notation is placed inline with it's pitch notation. In other words, the circle that defines a note's pitch occupies the same horizontal space as the lines which define it's duration. I worry that this will make the music more difficult to scan and read quickly. To a certain extent, traditional notation visually separates rhythm and pitches. The rhythm is mostly defined by thick horizontal bars that sit far above or below the notes. This makes it is easy to focus on pitch or rhythm independently. I suspect that this is much harder with Hummingbird.

The small dashes that define note length will be hard to read at small sizes, or on poor quality copies. The notation also takes up more space, requiring sheet music to be longer.

I understand the reasoning behind stretching out noteheads so that they more literally describe the lengths of notes, but I think this resulted in a system that compromises long-term readability for the sake of learnability. This is not such a big deal if Hummingbird is only designed for beginners, but that’s not how they’ve been promoting it. Even if they were positioning this only for beginners, the rhythm notation is far too different from traditional notation to serve as a useful entry point to reading music.

Why stems are important

The worst part of Hummingbird, in my opinion, is the removal of stems. Stems are the vertical lines that extend up or down from noteheads.

Stems play a very important role in music: they allow a composer to group notes together, or to isolate notes from each other. Take a look at this passage from Schumann's Von fremden Ländern und Menschen for piano.

Schumann Von fremden Ländern und MenschenSchumann, Von fremden Ländern und Menschen, measures 1-4

Schumann is using stem direction and beaming to convey some very important information. He is telling us that there are three separate musical parts. There is the melody on the top staff with stems pointing up, the bass line on the bottom staff with stems pointing down, and an accompanying part split between both staffs with stems pointing towards the center. He is instructing the performer to keep these parts discernible from one another because they each serve a different musical role. An experienced musician will likely interpret this by playing the melody notes a little louder than everything else, and by being careful to keep the accompaniment fluid and connected even though it's split between both hands. This information is lost if you remove the stems.

Composers sometimes use stem direction to tell performers other information, such as which hand to play with. Here's an excerpt from Clair Omar Musser's Etude in C Major for marimba with four mallets. The notes with stems pointing up are played with the right hand, and stems pointing down with the left hand. This is a common pattern for marimba music. Again, this information is lost if you remove the stems.

Musser Etude in C Major Clair Omar Musser, Etude in C Major, measures 1-6

How about this polyphonic passage from a Bach fugue. In its current form, I have serious doubts about Hummingbird's ability to notate complex music, and this fugue is just the tip of the iceberg.

Back Fugue 17 in Ab Major Bach, Fugue 17 in Ab Major (BWV 862), measures 27-32

What about clefs?

It is odd that Hummingbird preserves traditional clefs. Learning multiple clefs is one of the most complained-about aspects of learning music. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed a young percussionist a part written in bass clef and had them look at me like I’ve asked them to try playing ukelele for a change. It seems frustratingly pointless that pitches are written on different lines in treble and bass clef (and these are just the two most common clefs). If the goal is to completely replace traditional notation, I would have used a single clef and devised a simple way to indicate which octave to play in. (I would put middle C in the center of the staff, like alto clef. This has a certain logic to it. Viola players would be thrilled.)

What does it mean to teach music?

The final point I want to make is about the difference between teaching a song, and teaching music.

I think any notation system aimed at beginners should be designed to build an understanding of music, rather than just making it easier to learn individual songs. I'm concerned that Hummingbird's only goal is to be easier to read, which can sometimes run counter to the goal of aiding understanding.

For example, they propose eliminating the key signature if there are only a couple flats or sharps. They say you should just mark each flat or sharp note with an accidental as the music goes along. At least they don't suggest removing the key signature entirely. They think it should be placed at the beginning of the music in plain text, like a tempo marking, where it's certain to be ignored. This is a terrible idea. Understanding key signatures is fundamental to understanding harmony, which is fundamental to understanding music. The concept should be introduced as early as possible, not skipped over until the key signature becomes too complex to ignore.

Hummingbird focuses too much on bringing clarity to individual notes, at the expense of bringing clarity to the music as a whole.

Where to go from here?

As a teaching aid, I think some parts of Hummingbird have some merit. I like what they have done with notehead shapes because they aid readability without taking away any information, and can serve as a bridge to learning traditional notation. However, I think they have gone down the wrong path with the rhythm notation.

As a complete replacement for traditional notation, Hummingbird is nowhere close to being ready. All of the music they have posted on their website is very simple, and I worry that they haven't tried rewriting something more complex. I'd like to see them do a version of the Schumann piece I mentioned above (here's a link to the score). This is a good test piece for Hummingbird because it's short, it's not very hard, and it's in the public domain. Once Hummingbird can handle that, maybe try a Bach fugue. Then try an orchestral score. If you really want to test the limits of the rhythm notation, try rewriting a snare drum solo.

If these pieces can be rewritten in Hummingbird, be made easier to learn, and not loose any information, then perhaps Hummingbird is ready to be adopted by the musical masses. Perhaps.


  1. Ledger lines are little horizontal dashes used when a note is too high or too low to fit on a traditional 5-line musical staff. The higher (or lower) a note is, the more dashes are required. These notes can be hard to read because the dashes are small and difficult to count quickly. 

  2. Guitar tablature is essentially a diagram of the fretboard. It tells you exactly on which strings, and at which frets, to put your fingers. It’s an extremely literal notation system, like writing a word by describing what shapes to make with your mouth. As a result, it's possible (and common!) to learn a song on guitar without ever knowing what notes you're playing.