Lumosity Can’t Help Your Brain or Your Soul

Lumosity“No matter why you want a better brain, Lumosity can help.” So said the endless ads with the squeaky clean faces and doodles drawn on and around those faces. It was supposed to help you “improve your performance with the science of neuroplasticity.” Reading it makes it sound kind of portentous, but the ads themselves came off more like an ad for visiting the local farmer’s market on Saturdays. It’s good for you — and the kind of thing that upper-middle class, college educated people do. Unfortunately, it turns out that attending the farmer’s market is about as effective as Lumosity at improving your performance “but in a way that just feels like games.”

Last week, Lumosity settled a $50 million lawsuit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for false advertising. But they will only have to pay $2 million because the company is in bad financial shape. Now I’m not the kind of person to kick someone when they are down. So I leave it to you to piece together your own joke involving two or more of the words “bright,” “management,” “luminous,” “brain-training,” and “bankruptcy.” But it is a serious matter, because the company made some outrageous claims. As Jessica Rich at the FTC said:

Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease. But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.

But there was apparently one thing that Lumosity did help people with the training itself. As Michael Hiltzik put it, “The largest studies indicate there’s no effect except for performance on the tests themselves — possibly the result of increased familiarity with the tests.” And that’s great! But Noodlecake Studios’ Brickies is more fun and doesn’t cost $14.95 per month. (In fact, it is free.)

I understand the fear. But the commercials were clearly making an emotional appeal rather than an intellectual one. It was the “one weird trick” for losing belly fat — but for your brain. But I wonder about the people who liked these ads. And there are apparently 35 million people who pay for this service every month. I’m very much aware of my own mental deterioration over the years. But it isn’t as simple as my being smarter before. I know that I’m just not as good at doing quick mathematical computations. But it’s possible that is due to an autism like effect, where I was better at that kind of stuff because I didn’t think about much else.

With age comes different abilities. I’m able to make vastly more complex and creative connections than I could when I was 25 years old. But I was better at solving differential equations then. Lumosity promised to get me those old days back. But I’m highly skeptical that I could get that kind of brain processing back without losing the far more valuable things I’ve gained since. So the woman in the commercial who wants to “remember people’s names” strikes me as having an awfully dangerous desire.[1] Are we willing to give up a profound understanding of the system of people we interact with just so we can know their names, like we are performing Harry Lorayne’s memory trick?

I don’t know what people want from their brains. My longstanding belief has been that it is far more important to be interesting than “smart.” And that is usually just a question of people being themselves. I have one friend who is incredibly well read — especially when it comes to philosophy. And he can be annoying to talk to, because he can (And does!) name an author who wrote about any “new” idea I’ve recently been thinking of. It tends to be a conversation stopper. At the same time, many people I consider a bit dim can make me rethink the whole world.

So even if Lumosity were delivering on its promises, I think what it was offering was awful: junk food for the brain and the soul.

Copyright Crazy and the Death of Creativity

Obama Hope: Fair Use CopyrightA lot of my day job involves work about copyright. That is why you will notice that I am now so careful about using only free and fair use images and giving credit. It’s made me paranoid. But also, I really didn’t know much in the past. I thought, for example, I could take anything from Wikipedia and it was okay. It turns out, that’s not true. All images on the site are free, but most of them require attribution. I’ve just taken to providing attribution regardless, because I like giving people credit. I’m grateful that I can use their work to provide a better experience for my readers.

But last night, I was thinking about the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, which was created by Shepard Fairey. It’s a beautiful design. And after thousands of parodies, beyond the visual idea, it is clearly hard to render well. But back in 2009, I was listening to Fresh Air, and Mannie Garcia was being interviewed. He was a photographer for the Associated Press, and it turned out that Fairey had used one of Garcia’s photos as the basis of the “Hope” poster. It was because there was a legal battle going on: how dare Fairey “steal” Garcia’s work!

The original purpose of copyright was to encourage the creative arts. It has been a long time since that’s been true. Now copyright discourages the creative arts.

As a legal matter, I think what Fairey did was entirely in keeping with the letter and spirit of fair use. Garcia had taken thousands of photos. He didn’t recognize that Fairey had used his image because Fairey hadn’t. Fairey used a small part of one of his images and made something totally new. But Fairey knew the slippery legal foundation of all this because he tried to hide the source of his poster. That was stupid, but probably standard operating procedure, because the way the law works, if everyone had a good enough lawyer, nothing would ever be created.

The way it worked out, Fairey and the AP made a settlement where they would share the royalties going forward. I believe Garcia was squeezed out of the deal all together. Think about that. Fairey takes a small part of an endless supply of photographs that the AP publishes, each of which has negligible marginal value. He turns it into something that is not only of great cultural important but also of great financial value. And he has to share the profits from that. This is rent seeking, pure and simple. This isn’t about art. The AP hired Garcia because they wanted photos to go with an event that was being covered. This is just a big business forcing an innovative small business to pay it money. It is a kind of protection racket for big corporations.

But what bugged me in the interview was that Garcia was offended at the idea Fairey would just go online and look for images — that he did not “condone people taking things, just because they can, off the Internet.” The nature of all art is acquisition. But in the visual arts, it’s totally out of hand. No one would ever be sued for using the phrase, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Yet that is exactly what happened in the case of the “Hope” poster. In fact, it was even worse, because that particular element of that particular photo is not nearly as memorable — and creative — as Chomsky’s sentence.

The original purpose of copyright was to encourage the creative arts. It has been a long time since that’s been true. Now copyright discourages the creative arts. All copyright really encourages is the promotion of things that look salable and legal action against creative workers. It’s sad. And it means that creativity has been corporatized. It’s just another sign of an empire in decline.

Afterword: Copyright and Fair Use

It’s amusing that Fairey couldn’t use part of the original image to make his iconic poster. But Wikipedia can now use his poster — a far greater creative achievement — under fair use.

Morning Music: Joe Satriani

Surfing with the Alien - Joe SatrianiI’ve decided to just run through some guitarists I admire. But not just any guitarists. Last week I did guitarists I admired: acoustic blues guitarists. I want to focus now on electric guitar players with a focus on people who craft sound as well as music. Today, I’ve picked Joe Satriani. Now he isn’t such a sound craftsman. But I do love the sounds he makes. But mostly he’s just really good without a lot of nonsense. He keeps the focus on the music.

Well, I’ll admit: live he can become a bit much. But that’s what you expect from a jazz musician. And that is basically what Joe Satriani is. It’s just that he insists on not playing jazz. He is a lot like Frank Zappa. They are guys who I think want (wanted) to play jazz but know (knew) where the money was. Regardless, Satriani’s music has a jazz fusion feel to it. But it’s missing the harmonic complexity to really delight me.

Still, it’s hard not to listen to him play just about anything and not sit in awe. Music is interesting in that an instrument in the wrong hands just is noise. And that’s especially true on the guitar. In the hands of someone like Joe Satriani, it sounds like he was born attached to it — like he’s singing rather than playing.

Anyway, here is probably the first song of his I ever noticed, “Always With Me, Always With You” off his second album, Surfing with the Alien. It appeals to me more than his hard rocking numbers. Because I’m an old guy now. But really, how can you not love this, except that it was once overplayed:

Anniversary Post: Discovery of Titania and Oberon

TitaniaOn this night in 1787, William Herschel discovered the two largest moons of Uranus: Titania and Oberon. He had also discovered the planet six years earlier. Of course, “discovered” is a strange word, because Hipparchos recorded it as early as 128 BC. But he thought it was a star. Herschel himself originally thought it a comet. This is one of the reasons that I think everyone really owes it to themselves to go visit some amateur astronomers. Spend a night in the cold and see with our advanced technologies, just how hard it is to tell a star from a comet from a planet. And also note just how many stars are in the sky. And how vast it all is. It is a spiritual experience.

But the issue at hand today is the discovery of these first two moons. They’re tiny. Well, a bit more than half the radius of Pluto, and a quarter its mass. Larger, but comparable in size to Pluto’s biggest moon Charon. I still find it amazing. Our Moon is the fifth largest moon in the solar system; it’s very large compared to the Earth. And Charon is huge compared to Pluto. But Uranus has these tiny moons. Of course, that makes the detection of them all the more amazing.

Titania and Oberon are very similar: size, mass, inclination, eccentricity. They have the same composition: about half and half rock and ice. In fact, they are so much alike, it’s kind of creepy. The main difference between them is that Oberon has a whole lot more craters. It is assumed that Titania experienced some recent major event that covered over the old surface. If you look at the image above, you can see an enormous impact in the upper right-hand corner. Could it be that a huge impact temporarily liquefied the surface? I’ve never heard anyone argue that, and I do know that our Moon has bigger impacts. But it isn’t half made of ice!

It’s interesting that Herschel named the moons after the two most boring characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Okay. Not the most boring, but I’ve always found that subplot very lame and kind of misogynistic. Anyway, I don’t know what to think of objects like these in space. The solar system is a bizarre place. And our solar system is really boring. Thank God! If I gave it more thought, I’d spend all my time hiding under the bed. But it’s great that people like William Herschel are around looking at the skies. And like I said: you really should go out. I’ve put in my time. Although I still gaze at the night sky every chance I get — just not huddled around a telescope for hours at a time.