In Internetland, Headphones Listen To You

Headphones traditionally serve as a delivery device, a conduit that brings sound directly to your ears.

A college-student created company called Musical Minds wants to make headphones smarter, capable of reading your mind.

“At Musical Minds,” says their About page, “we use innovative brainwave technology to show how each song you listen to changes the landscape of your brain in real time. Our unique algorithm then interprets these changes to create playlists that affect mood, focus, and motivation.”

The headphones, called “Trills,” are implanted with EEG sensors to track the listener’s brain waves as they listen to music. The requisite smartphone app will show the listener how  their brain reacts to what’s playing. The playlists, hooked up to Spotify, will be tweaked then to give you more of whatever music heightens your focus, your motivation, or whatever mood you might like to get into that day.

Or as the promotional copy puts it, the “mood app curates a playlist that helps you reach the emotional state you need, whether that’s carefree bliss or a good shower cry.”

“We’re actually redefining the end goal of listening to music,” Musical Moods co-founder and Ithaca College junior Jessica Voutsinas told The Ithacan. “You’re not reading a research paper on the theory behind music therapy. It’s actually working in real time, and we show you how it increases your focus, motivation, and mood. It’s not something you read about – it’s something you yourself are experiencing.”

Voutsinas told The Ithacan her “company’s goal is first and foremost to promote mental health wellness.”

That sounds all well and good, but the Musical Minds team still needs to answer some questions before Trills start helping music fans get a thrill.

For one, the app is connected to Spotify: music fans who can only get motivated by listening to Taylor Swift trash an ex-boyfriend will find no stimulus whatsoever, along with fans of Prince, Bob Seger, and King Crimson – though The Beatles are now an option on that service. Innumerable underground, independent, and unsigned artists will also be left out of the mood-change-via-music data revolution.

More importantly for those worried about online privacy – and who isn’t! – Musical Minds will need to mind that their service’s findings remain secure.

Why should you be afraid of your musical preferences getting out? In part, because if you’re not afraid, news people don’t really have any other ideas about how to get you to pay attention. Even scarier, imagine that Tipper Gore or someone like her who’s afraid of rock ‘n roll got hold of how your brain looks on death metal.

Do your serotonin levels spike when chain-listening to Slayer albums? Do vintage Ice Cube rhymes get your endorphins flowing? Can you sing of drowning your lover all a-smile? Well, then, the Surveillance State has got a cell for you.

Image courtesy of the Musical Minds website.

YIMBYs Say Yes, Build In My Backyard

Anyone who wants to pitch a tent in my backyard, pictured above, is welcome to stay for a while.

Whether extending this open invitation to live in the only backyard I’ve got qualifies me as a genuine YIMBYite, I don’t know. Perhaps, to be sure, we should have a Tiny House raising to create a more permanent living situation.

A YIMBYite, for those not hip to the Neo-Urban lingo, is the new, positive type of downtown-living cat who says “Yes, I most definitely want some more buildings in my city!” The YIMBYite – as in, “Yes, in my backyard” –  is into more people living in less space, walking to the grocery store, rolling with the changes. As opposed to the well-known “NIMBYite,” who shows up to meetings when new development is proposed and says “Not in my backyard!”

Second Ward alderperson Duc Nguyen informed me of the YIMBY, through this Ithaca Voice article summing up a new “housing development toolkit” put out by the White House earlier in September. Nguyen referenced a “YIMBYTown” conference, the first, held in Boulder, Colorado, this past June to talk about encouraging “abundant housing and sustainable infill in growing cities.”

The recommendations made in the White House “toolkit” line up with the YIMBY line. If you’ve been paying attention to Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick’s pro-development talk over the last few years, the recommendations are kind of a bore.

“Local and neighborhood leaders have said yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing,” the White House document reports. Those rules include too-slow or too-stringent zoning approval processes, and land use laws which favor single-family homes over denser development.

The toolkit has 10 ideas for how localities can “modernize their housing strategies and expand options and opportunities for hardworking families.” Ithaca has already pushed toward some of the suggestions, in pieces, like scrapping parking requirements and allowing for higher builds in Collegetown and downtown. The city’s tax abatement program is seemingly constantly in flux, and an inclusionary zoning program is in the long, slow grind of legislative tweaking. (My last check-in with that process was in March, at this link.)

The main reason YIMBY groups exist, it seems, is to mobilize behind these neo-urbanist ideals. The problem of mobilization is one that Myrick lamented many a time during the approval process for the 210 Hancock affordable housing project. Few who don’t live somewhere yet are going to show up in support of their potential future home, or so his musings go. And while affordable housing was approved at 210 Hancock and at Stone Quarry in recent years, it seems less certain that many people in Ithaca are crazy about Really Big Buildings like that proposed at State and Aurora in the Triangle. Every unit matters, but It’s those big projects that are, in theory, supposed to give a big increase to supply and lessen the housing crunch for people who can’t swing this area’s high rents right now.

Though there might be a teensy bit less demand for housing now than in recent years, not everyone’s getting into somewhere nice this fall. Get at me about my backyard vacancy: don’t bring rats, please, though a ferret is OK. Better yet, if you’ve got an RV, I’ve got some gas money. Let’s go South. Winter is coming soon.

 

Voices For Freedom Speak In Ithaca

Writers, like most people, like to be noticed once in a while. Sit or stand at a keyboard all day in a quiet room, and even a misspelled email in ALL CAPS informing one of gross incompetence and grammar mistakes can be a comfort: “Well, at least somebody is reading,” the writer thinks.

Those writers who have come to Ithaca over the past 15 years through the City of Asylum program experienced a heavier sort of critical attention in their home countries. Your average letter-writer or tweeter might have some nasty things to say; the City of Asylum writers have had action taken against their lives.

Present at the Kitchen Theater on Sunday, September 25, were Yi Ping, the first Ithaca City of Asylum writer, who fled China along with his wife, poet/translator Lin Zhou after the Chinese government increased repression after the Tiananmen Square protests. Here was Sarah Mkhonza, who had her University of Swaziland office ransacked after criticizing the monarchy’s repressive regime. Journalist/activist Sonali Samarasinghe left Sri Lanka for the United States with her family after her husband, editor of a weekly paper openly critical of the government, was assassinated in 2009. And Raza Rumi, the current ICOA writer-in-residence, left his home in Lahore, Pakistan, after an attempt made on his life by Islamic militants in 2014 that left his driver dead.

In exile, the internet has allowed these writers to continue publishing for outlets in their homelands. Given their apparent distance from danger, one might think that they would grow more outspoken in their critiques. Yet the effect of exile has been somewhat the opposite for some.

Mkhonza said at the Voices of Freedom celebration on Sunday that she feels her words don’t have quite the same impact spoken from afar.

“I can be out here and speak, but it doesn’t get to Swaziland the same way as when I was there,” Mkhonza said.

In Pakistan, Rumi was a defender of liberal values, of human rights, and a critic of the military’s use of jihadist militias. He’s more careful in what he says since coming to the United States.

“I’ve been put in the position of telling people not all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists,” Rumi said, adding drily “It gets rather exhausting.”

In Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe said she was a “lot more strident.” In the U.S., she has found her style to be more “tempered and circumspect.”

“You have to be strident, or you’re not going to be heard with all that noise and fearmongering going on,” Samarasinghe said of her writing in Sri Lanka.

Despite the distance, their duty is still to write. As Yi Ping put it, though he’s a poet, essayist, and dramatist, he feels because in the U.S. he has “the freedom to write and speak, I should focus on political writing and help my friends.”

With her voice rising, Mkhonza said her work was to tell Swazis, especially women, “the freedom is theirs, the voice is theirs, and their stories can be told by them as well as by anyone.”

Though writers and journalists are by and large freer from the threat of physical violence in the United States, there are areas where critics here don’t dare to tread: Rumi reiterated a point he made in a March interview with me for the Ithaca Times that when it comes to coverage of national security policy, most outlets toe the government policy line.

Ithaca City of Asylum co-founder Anne Emmanuelle Berger said in a video introduction sent from Paris that Ithaca’s “marginality” and “diminutive size” is why this town is a good place for writers who question power. Far from the center of decision-making, writers in humble burgs like this one have more room to breathe, free of influence and fear. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s a slower-acting force that needs space and time to have its effect.

The American writer is often guilty of not using freedom to its fullest ends; we pat ourselves on the back for living somewhere oppression isn’t so blatant, and congratulate ourselves on our wit and charm while ignoring that “shabby backstreet” of our own country where most people live, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Algren.

Writers worldwide would do well to heed Samarasinghe’s words every time they crack open the laptop or set pen to paper:

“I’m very, very critical of my country not because I hate my country, but because I love my country and want it to be a better place.”

Featured photograph of Yi Ping and Lin Zhou from YouTube.