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This Is Your Brain on Music

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 4:00 PM EST

brain%20200.jpgFor the past few years, I've been posing a question to all my music-enthusiast friends: Why do we like music? And more specifically, why do we like the particular music that we do? "There's no accounting for taste" simply doesn't cut it for me. I'd like someone to explain to me exactly what accounts for musical taste. So far, though, no one's been able to answer my question definitively.

All this has, however, led to some pretty interesting nature-vs.-nurture discussions. Most people I've asked are cheering for nurture. "My older brother was really into hardcore, and I ended up stealing all his mixtapes," they'll say. Or, "I liked this guy in high school who played in a punk band." Even, "I used to dance around my living room to my parents' Paul Simon tapes, so I've always had a soft spot for folk music."

So it's pretty clear that formative musical experiences influence our music preferences at least a little, but there's some scientific evidence that there's an organic component, too. Today, I came across an Innovation Canada interview with Daniel Levitin, a McGill University neuroscience professor who studies music's effect on our brains. Now don't get your hopes up: Levitin says that scientists have a long way to go before they'll be able to answer the taste question. But what's really interesting is Levitin's unique research method:

IC: You emphasize using actual music — not abstract electronic sounds — in your studies. Is rap music by Busta Rhymes better than classical Bach for your research purposes?
DL: Part of the challenge in designing a rigorous experiment is ensuring that each subject has something equivalent. In the old way of thinking, you played everybody the same piece of music, but if you hate classical music and I make you sit for an hour and answer difficult questions about music while listening to Beethoven, I may not be getting meaningful answers out of the experiment. The newer way of thinking is that we need to be flexible about equivalence across subjects. That doesn't mean a loss of rigour, it means that you might have an experiment where everyone brings in their own music and each subject serves as their own control. So, the experiment may steer more to [rapper] Ludacris than [virtuoso pianist/composer] Liszt depending on who your subject is.

So even if he can't explain taste, Levitin is obviously acknowledging that it exists—and that it's important. My challenge to Levitin: Find me a scientific explanation for the fact that anyone was ever into the Doors. Now that would be impressive.

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Study This! Separating Siblings for Science

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:36 PM EST

These two women had always known they were adopted but had no idea that they had a sibling, let alone an identical twin!

At 35, when one started searching for her birth family, they found out that researchers had intentionally separated them, and as many other twins and triplets as they could get their mitts on, specifically so they could study the nature v. nurture thing. To top it all off, these separated siblings have no legal recourse. The study results won't even be available until 2066. Did the birth parents know their kids would be separated?

I guess I'd have made a lousy scientist because there's no way I could ever have devised, or agreed to, something so callous. Here's hoping they don't give up on the legal angle so no one ever comes up with this type of psychological Tuskegee experiment again.

Led Zeppelin & Portishead: Video

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:17 PM EST

You know you want to watch. First up, Zep:

Led Zeppelin - "Whole Lotta Love" (Live at O2 Arena, 12/10/07)

The first thing one notices is: so many dudes, and so much bald. Anyone with a fetish for paunchy bald guys with a lot of money would be in heaven at this show. But then, that riff starts up, sounding even on this cell phone camera like it's being played by the finger of God, and you remember what the fuss is about. Wait, where's my hair going and why am I so flabby around the middle?

Quick, before we get too old, let's watch Portishead:

Portishead - Unknown New Song (Live at ATP 2007, 12/7/07)

Well! Now that's... noisy? Actually, after a minute, the clanking industrial drums become kind of hypnotic, and singer Beth Gibbons' voice is still powerful, both delicate and anguished. It's a catch-22 for bands like this: the reason they gained such enormous adoration was their boundary-pushing innovativeness, but then how do you progress and continue to innovate without losing what made you special? Apparently by out-clamoring Nine Inch Nails. Hmm.

The Candidates Go Negative - All of Them

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:14 PM EST

It's getting dirty out there.

Obama has released an opposition research paper on Edwards, Clinton has released an opposition research paper on Obama, Romney has released an attack ad on Huckabee, McCain has issued a statement slamming Romney for attacking Huckabee, and a Clinton deputy campaign manager has sent out an apparently drunk email requesting dirt on Obama's work as a South Side organizer in Chicago.

If this sort of stuff turns your stomach, go ahead and turn off your television for the next two months. From now until February 6, it's crunch time.

Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision: Both Wrong, Dammit

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:14 PM EST

My post last week on the debate around female circumcision is still on my mind, as well as the world's. Today, a NY Times piece on male circumcision, as well as my original post, has me thinking. OK. Circumcising baby boys is wrong, too. Happy now?

I gave little thought to my own son's future, let alone his rights, when I left that decision up to his father since I knew what he'd decide. Had I been on my own, I'm sure I would have had it done with little thought but at least, that way, I had plausible deniability going for me if Junior came after me in the future. That was 2001 and the backlash against the practice was in its infancy. Now, though, I don't see how you can support the practice for men but not for women. Of course, circumcising anesthetized babies in a hospital is a far cry from doing it to 12 year old in the village square. Still, adding an operating room in the latter instance might be painless but nonetheless wrong. If either a boy or a girl wants to be circumcised once adult, who's to complain (see: breast implants and 're-virgination' procedures)? But until the health claims made for male circumscision are proven (see the above article), it's hard to see how the practice can be justified on grounds of tradition alone.

Man, I hate having to carry my thoughts through to uncomfortable conclusions. I'd rather change a 1,000 mouse traps than my mind.

(Also, see the Huffington Post on a western woman's investigative foray behind the veil since there's a pretty straight line between it and FGM.)

Tuesday You're a Loser for Not Being at the Led Zeppelin Show Music News Day

| Tue Dec. 11, 2007 2:04 PM EST

mojo-photo-news1211.jpg

  • Yes, okay, jeez, fine, Led Zeppelin played a show last night and apparently it was okay. Or, alternately, "glorious" (NY Times), "a joy and a privilege" (UK Telegraph), and a "triumph" (Billboard). God, everybody, if you like them so much why don't you marry them.

  • The transition to digital sales hasn't given people better taste: iTunes has announced the top-selling single and album on the music download site this year were from Fergie and Maroon 5, respectively. The rest of the top five albums? Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, Daugtry and Colbie Caillat. Fine, fine, holy, crap.
  • Wilco will one-up the recent trend of playing entire classic albums live by attempting to perform "the complete Wilco" over the course of five February nights at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. Frontman Jeff Tweedy promises they'll "clear out the dusty corners of the catalog." That's a lotta Wilco.
  • Erykah Badu will release her first set of new material in four years this coming February 26th with a double album called Nu AmErykah. The singer told SOHH.com that the work was inspired by producers like J Dilla, Madlib, Sa-Ra, and 9th Wonder. Okay, maybe I'll forgive that weird title.
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    The Republican Path to the Nomination, In Helpful Video Format

    | Tue Dec. 11, 2007 1:12 PM EST

    This is a neat little video. John McCain, perhaps sensing he has nothing to lose, has put his strategy PowerPoint online. Rarely do you see such candor from a campaign.

    If you're a political junkie, you might enjoy it. If not, here's the takeaway. No Republican will emerge from Iowa or New Hampshire with the nomination secured, the campaign theorizes. Even if one of the candidates does exceptionally well in both states, which is no sure thing, he will still have to contend with the fact that Rudy Giuliani has adopted a "late state" strategy and will by lying in wait for him in the February 5th states.

    But if someone does well in both Iowa and New Hampshire and turns that momentum into wins in the middle states (i.e. the states that come between IA/NH and the 20+ states voting on February 5th), they will be so far ahead they'll be able to treat February 5th like a victory lap. That means Michigan, South Carolina, and Florida are more important than people realize. The McCain campaign seems to think whoever wins Florida, in particular, has the inside track on the nomination.

    Anyway, this video obviously has a McCain slant, but it's valuable because it illustrates a campaign manager's thinking. Enjoy.

    (H/T PrezVid)

    Christians Good! Christmas Good!

    | Tue Dec. 11, 2007 12:02 PM EST

    The Christian victimization complex in this country has hit new heights.

    Iowa representative Steve King (R) has introduced a resolution (H.Res. 847) asserting—honest to God—that Christmas, Christians, and Christianity are important.The House will vote today.

    Below is the text of the resolution. It reads like some sort of bizarre self-parody. Consider the paranoia necessary for a Christian, with members of his faith occupying the White House, most of the Supreme Court, and a huge percentage of Congress (there is currently one Muslim and one atheist in Congress), to introduce something like this.

    Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.
    Whereas Christmas, a holiday of great significance to Americans and many other cultures and nationalities, is celebrated annually by Christians throughout the United States and the world;
    Whereas there are approximately 225,000,000 Christians in the United States, making Christianity the religion of over three-fourths of the American population;
    Whereas there are approximately 2,000,000,000 Christians throughout the world, making Christianity the largest religion in the world and the religion of about one-third of the world population;

    No Matter Where you go...: Disappearing Acts in the News

    | Tue Dec. 11, 2007 11:51 AM EST

    While we were digging out from 9/11 and the nation spent so long hysterically trying to account for everyone, a writer friend told me that after most mass accidents -- train wrecks, etc -- some people were found to have used the tragedy to decide to disappear. They'd turn up months or years later, usually by accident or the diligent work of family members who hadn't known they'd been abandoned, simply having decided to walk away from it all. I don't know whether to condemn or admire these...bastards? Maybe they're heartless schemers and maybe they're just more brave and honest than the rest of us.

    Britain's "Canoe Man" is simply the latest, if not the smartest. He deserves nothing but condemnation. Had he, and his wife, foregone the insurance money and simply walked off into the sunset together, hand in hand, to start over again like Adam and Eve in the Canal Zone, you could see the poetry. But what they've done to their sons: inexcuseable. You can live without your children, your parents, a lifetime's worth of friends and your country but not without an unearned windfall?

    It's Election Day! (In Ohio and Virginia)

    | Tue Dec. 11, 2007 10:36 AM EST

    capital145.gif Two congressional districts are holding special elections today.

    Ohio's 5th district is a conservative district (Bush won 60% there in 2004) that, to the surprise of many, is being hotly contested by Democrat Robin Weirauch, whose only political experience thus far is losing the last two elections by wide margins. The seat came open when Rep. Paul Gillmor, a Republican, died in a fall at his apartment in September.

    The Republican Party thought their candidate, Bob Latta, would win handily. A state representative, Latta has the right bloodline: his father represented this district for three decades. And the GOP has represented Ohio-5 since the 1930s, according to the AP. But Latta has run a poor campaign that has left Republican bewildered. "It's like the Latta campaign is trying to write a handbook on how to lose a Congressional campaign in 60 days or less," a D.C. Republican told Roll Call.

    The already cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has thrown $428,000 at the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $244,000 in the district. (Those numbers are from the very good Swing State Project.) Though this race will likely be closer than anyone would have expected a year ago, and though Gov. Ted Strickland (D) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) took the district in the 2006 midterm elections, Ohio-5 should stay red. A win for Weirauch would be a real coup.

    The race in Virginia's 1st district is garnering less attention. The seat became vacant when Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R) died of breast cancer in October. The Republican candidate, state delegate Rob Wittman, is described as a moderate on the war and on the environment. He has a 4-to-1 fundraising advantage over the Democrat, a Navy reservist named Paul Forgit who won a Bronze Star in 2005 while serving in Iraq. Forgit has no prior political experience. He has the backing of Virginia's heavy hitters—Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), Sen. Jim Webb (D), and former Gov. Mark R. Warner (D)—but the DCCC has thrown no money his way.

    MSNBC's First Read quotes a political analyst as saying, "This may be the election where we see what happens when you have an election and no one comes."

    So if you're from Ohio's 5th or Virginia's 1st, get out and vote! Turnout matters a ton in off-year elections. We'll do our best here at MoJoBlog to keep you updated on the results.