Was Prince an 'Acquired Musical Savant'?

Prince on piano

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In April 2016, the world was rocked by news of the death of Prince Rogers Nelson. One of music’s - or more correctly, modern culture’s - biggest ever stars, Prince was a man of small stature whose shadow of influence was mind-boggling large. Immediate musical tributes from fellow 80s icon Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, country star Chris Stapleton, the cast of the hit musical Hamilton, and many others were testament to the respect the man and his music were held in.

For much of the public, Prince was a ‘star’; a hell of a performer who they might have seen playing guitar and piano in different music videos. What most musicians knew, however, was that Prince was - beyond his singing, his dancing, his band-leading skills, and his audio production talents - a skilled instrumentalist of the highest order, on not only the guitar and piano, but drums, bass guitar and more. Indeed, it is difficult for anybody who hasn’t played each particular instrument to truly appreciate how good he actually was.

It is silly to have debates about “was Prince a better guitarist than Clapton” or whoever - there are many ways to value a musician’s skill, whether it’s technical, historical knowledge, talent at improvising, or ability to play ‘for the song’ (among others). Let’s just say that Prince’s live band (on record, he often played all the instruments himself) was filled with musicians of the highest calibre - and if Prince ‘blind’-auditioned for each of the parts of his own band, he would probably have got all of the gigs based purely on his skill on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums.

The almost supernatural array of talents that Prince possessed are enough to have made many wonder as to how anyone could have assembled such a formidable skill-set - remembering that much of it was already fully formed at the time of his debut album, in his teens (go back and listen to his debut album For You, with tracks such as “Just as Long as We’re Together” sounding like an extremely tight band of talented musicians - but it’s all him).

Most accounts of Prince’s life put his skill set down to the twin factors of being a ‘functional orphan’ - he was largely abandoned by each of his parents in turn, and so is said to have spent much of his time playing music - who nevertheless inherited from those parents some serious musical acumen (his father was a jazz pianist, and his mother a singer). His unfortunate family situation - along with his extremely short stature (Prince only stood 5’2”) - are also claimed to have made him absolutely driven to prove himself to the world.

But could there have been an additional factor at work?

A Prodigious Musical Talent

Many people are musically talented. Many also become extremely proficient at their chosen instrument at a young age. However, Prince’s abilities, excelling on multiple instruments, verge on the spooky - the type of talent that gives rise to ‘down at the crossroads’ mythologies. He mastered a variety of instruments rapidly in his youth, to the point of being able to play all of the instruments on his debut album while still in his teens.

With his estate in confusion following his tragic passing, and his legendary control of material being posted online at least temporarily on hold, YouTube has been flooded with video examples of his wonderful talent (though how long they will remain is another question). Here are just a few isolated examples, among many: ... Read More »

News Briefs 06-06-2016

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Philosopher Says We Should Begin Planning Now, So That a Super-Intelligent A.I. Doesn't Kill Us All Off

AI Death Flowchart

Could the creation of an artificial intelligence (AI) more powerful than our own be a dangerous moment in the history of humanity? Philosopher Nick Bostrom, in the TED talk below, says yes indeed. Intelligence is what has lifted humans to their current dominion over many aspects of nature, Bostrom notes, so the creation of an intelligence beyond ours would have "profound implications":

Chimpanzees are strong...pound for pound, a chimpanzee is about twice as strong as a fit human male. And yet, the fate of [chimpanzees] depends a lot more on what we humans do, than on what the chimpanzees do themselves.

Once there is super-intelligence, the fate of humanity may depend on what that super-intelligence does.

Bostrom points out that problems may not even necessarily be due to malevolence on the part of the AI. He points out the story of King Midas, who wished for his touch to turn everything into gold, as an allegory for what might happen to us if we give a super-intelligent AI a poorly thought-out 'wish' to complete.

As such, Bostrom urges those involved in the creation of artificial intelligence to consider the safety measures needed now. so that we can plan for the eventuality of an intelligence superior to our own:

I believe that the answer here is to figure out how to create superintelligent A.I. such that even if -- when -- it escapes, it is still safe because it is fundamentally on our side because it shares our values. I see no way around this difficult problem.

...The technical problems that need to be solved to make this work look quite difficult -- not as difficult as making a superintelligent A.I., but fairly difficult. Here is the worry: Making superintelligent A.I. is a really hard challenge. Making superintelligent A.I. that is safe involves some additional challenge on top of that. The risk is that if somebody figures out how to crack the first challenge without also having cracked the additional challenge of ensuring perfect safety.

So I think that we should work out a solution to the control problem in advance, so that we have it available by the time it is needed. Now it might be that we cannot solve the entire control problem in advance because maybe some elements can only be put in place once you know the details of the architecture where it will be implemented. But the more of the control problem that we solve in advance, the better the odds that the transition to the machine intelligence era will go well.

This to me looks like a thing that is well worth doing and I can imagine that if things turn out okay, that people a million years from now look back at this century and it might well be that they say that the one thing we did that really mattered was to get this thing right.

News Briefs 03-06-2016

“…What is the aim of a physical theory?”

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Pierre Duhem

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News Briefs 02-06-2016

Asking the big questions...

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How Long Would It Take for Evidence of Our Civilisation to Disappear?

In discussing the possibility of lost civilisations, the question is often asked: if there was an advanced civilisation in antiquity - say, more than 10,000 years ago - how much evidence would actually be left for us to find? The above video covers this in asking the question, what would happen if humans disappeared from the planet:

After 10,000 years, the only reminiscence that people were here someday, will be the remains of a few stone constructions, among which [would be] the pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China. Mount Rushmore National Memorial will be there almost intact for several hundreds of thousands of years.

(via Gizmodo)

News Briefs 01-06-2016

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King Tut Was Buried With a Dagger of "Extraterrestrial Origin"

King Tut's Space Dagger

In 1922, Howard Carter stunned the world with his discovery of the 'lost tomb' of the Egyptian King Tutankhamun (18th dynasty, 14th C. BCE), still intact with its treasures (and body of the now-famous boy-king) having remained safe from looters over the millennia. Three years into his investigation of the contents of the tomb, Carter found two daggers within the wrapping of Tut's mummy: one on the right thigh, with a blade of iron, and another on the abdomen - this one with a blade of gold.

While for most people the latter might seem the more interesting, it is the dagger with the blade of iron that has been of more interest to archaeologists. In ancient Egypt, minerals such as copper, bronze, and gold were used extensively from the 4th millennium BCE, but - despite the significant amounts of iron ore in the area - iron was very rarely used until the 1st millennium BCE. As such, there has long been a debate as to whether the dagger found on Tut's thigh might have been made out of meteoritic iron, which was highly venerated by the ancient Egyptians.

The dagger, pictured above, is certainly a thing of beauty. At 34.2cm (roughly 14 inches) long, it has a finely manufactured, non-rusted blade of iron, and a handle largely made of fine gold with a rounded knob of rock crystal at the end. Additionally, it was protected by a gold sheath decorated with a floral lily motif on one side and with a feathers pattern on the other side, terminating with a jackal’s head.

But is it from space? Scientists set out to answer that question in a recent study, which has just been published in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science under the title "The meteoritic origin of Tutankhamun’s iron dagger blade" Lead author Daniela Comelli and her team of researchers (thankfully) used a non-destructive technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to determine the composition of the dagger at two different places on the surface of the blade.

Their analysis - carried out at the Egyptian Museum of Cairo - demonstrated that the two buik constituents of the dagger's blade were iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni), with minor concentrations of cobalt (Co). And, importantly, they found that the nickel contributed around 10.8% of the full weight of the blade:

Iron meteorites are mostly made of Fe and Ni, with minor quantities of Co, P, S, and C, and trace amounts of other siderophile and chalcophile elements...The Ni content in the bulk metal of most iron meteorites ranges from 5 wt% to 35 wt%, whereas it never exceeds 4 wt% in historical iron artifacts from terrestrial ores produced before the 19th century.

[Additionally] the Ni/Co ratio in the dagger blade is consistent with that of iron meteorites.

Their conclusion: "The blade’s high Ni content, along with the minor amount of Co and a Ni/Co ratio of ~20, strongly suggests an extraterrestrial origin".

Location of space dagger on King Tut's body

This finding, along with last year's discovery that a 5000-year-old bead from the beginnings of Dynastic Egypt was also made from the remains of a meteorite, reinforce the idea that the ancient Egyptians attributed great value to iron from meteorites.

In this new paper, the researchers do feel that their finding "provides important insight into the use of the term “iron”, quoted in relationship with the sky in Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Egyptian ancient texts":

Beside the hieroglyphic “bja”, which already existed before the XIX dynasty with a broad meaning (as “mineral, metal, iron”), a new composite term “bja n pt”, literally translated as “iron of the sky,” came into use in the 19th dynasty (13th C. BCE) to describe all types of iron. In the same period, we can note a text at Karnak
probably describing a meteorite. The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians, in the wake of other ancient people of the Mediterranean area, were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky already in the 13th C. BCE, anticipating Western culture by more than two millennia.

I mentioned some fascinating details about the ancient Egyptian veneration of meteorites, sourced from researchers Robert Bauval and Adrian Gilbert, in my post about the beads last year, so I won't discuss it again at length here. But at the end of that post is an interesting hypothesis that wasn't explored much further: could the sacred Egyptian 'Ben-Ben stone' (like other omphalos stones) have originally been a conical meteorite? And, while we're speculating: could its shape have ultimately given rise to the shape of the pyramids?

This new research at least adds to the collection of very cool artefacts from space, including the Buddhist iron man (stolen by Nazis no less), and this more modern Japanese meteorite sword.

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