Education Portfolio Technology

HCI, Cognitive Load, and Forms: Pre-Filled and Required Fields

Written for our “Innovations in HCI and Design” course.

Cognitive Load Theory

For form design, cognitive load theory can be boiled down to the idea that people only have so much space in their brain, so don’t overfill it. The exact amount varies depending on context: is the information auditory or visual?1 What stage of processing are you going through? (Gwizdka 3)

Techniques for Reducing Cognitive Load

  • Produce less cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load is necessary to what the user is trying to do; extrinsic is work because the design surrounding the goal is bad (Hollender et al. 1279; Feinberg & Murphy 345).
  • Use multiple modalities. Mixing visual with auditory, for example, allows users to distribute the cognitive load across multiple cognitive subsystems (Oviatt 4).
  • Do the work for them. Pre-filling known fields (i.e., a user’s name and address when they’re already signed in) moves the cognitive load from the user to the computer, saving the user the effort (Gupta et al. 45; Winckler et al. 195).

Cognitive Load in Human-Computer Interaction

Under heavy cognitive load, users work slower, and may commit more errors (Rukzio et al. 3). From a young age, humans are goal-oriented; slowing them down as they work towards these goals, unless explicitly a design goal, can only cause frustration (Klossek et al.). Reducing cognitive load leads to happier users.

Applying Cognitive Load Theory to Form Design

Cognitive load theory gives us several key takeaways:

  • Indicate which fields are required. Provide a clear indicator of what is required so your users don’t have to guess (Bargas-Avila, Javier A., et al., 20 Guidelines 5).2
  • Pre-fill data when possible. Use available sources—an existing account, or on-device sensors—to save the user the effort. However, if that data might not be accurate, don’t guess; leave the field blank to prompt the user to enter the correct data (Rukzio et al. 3-4).
  • Don’t interrupt the user by validating data. Real-time validation is fine, as long as it doesn’t force the user to switch from ‘completion mode’ to ‘revision mode’ (Bargas-Avila, Javier A., et al., Useable error messages 5).3

There has not been any research into the combined effects of marking required fields and pre-filling fields; however, we can extend the conclusions in the first two points, above, as such: a required field, even if pre-filled, remains required, and should be marked as such.


Baddeley, Alan D., and Graham Hitch. “Working memory.” Psychology of learning and motivation. Vol. 8. Academic press, 1974. 47-89.
Bargas-Avila, Javier A., et al. “Simple but crucial user interfaces in the World Wide Web: introducing 20 guidelines for usable web form design, user interfaces.” (2010).
Bargas-Avila, Javier A., et al. “Usable error message presentation in the World Wide Web: Do not show errors right away.” Interacting with Computers 19.3 (2007): 330-341.
Budiu, Raluca. Marking Required Fields in Forms. 16 June 2019,
Feinberg, Susan, and Margaret Murphy. “Applying cognitive load theory to the design of web-based instruction.” 18th Annual Conference on Computer Documentation. ipcc sigdoc 2000. Technology and Teamwork. Proceedings. IEEE Professional Communication Society International Professional Communication Conference an. IEEE, 2000.
Gupta, Abhishek, et al. “Simplifying and improving mobile based data collection.” Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies and Development: Notes-Volume 2. 2013.
Gwizdka, Jacek. “Distribution of cognitive load in web search.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61.11 (2010): 2167-2187.
Harper, Simon, Eleni Michailidou, and Robert Stevens. “Toward a definition of visual complexity as an implicit measure of cognitive load.” ACM Transactions on Applied Perception (TAP) 6.2 (2009): 1-18.
Hollender, Nina, et al. “Integrating cognitive load theory and concepts of human–computer interaction.” Computers in human behavior 26.6 (2010): 1278-1288.
Klossek, U. M. H., J. Russell, and Anthony Dickinson. “The control of instrumental action following outcome devaluation in young children aged between 1 and 4 years.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 137.1 (2008): 39.
Oviatt, Sharon. “Human-centered design meets cognitive load theory: designing interfaces that help people think.” Proceedings of the 14th ACM international conference on Multimedia. 2006.
Pauwels, Stefan L., et al. “Error prevention in online forms: Use color instead of asterisks to mark required-fields.” Interacting with Computers 21.4 (2009): 257-262.
Rukzio, Enrico, et al. “Visualization of uncertainty in context aware mobile applications.” Proceedings of the 8th conference on Human-computer interaction with mobile devices and services. 2006.
Stockman, Tony, and Oussama Metatla. “The influence of screen-readers on web cognition.” Proceeding of Accessible design in the digital world conference (ADDW 2008), York, UK. 2008.
Tullis, Thomas S., and Ana Pons. “Designating required vs. optional input fields.” CHI’97 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (1997): 259-260.
Winckler, Marco, et al. “An approach and tool support for assisting users to fill-in web forms with personal information.” Proceedings of the 29th ACM international conference on Design of communication. 2011.

  1. The foremost theory splits it into three: the phonological loop (sound), the episodic buffer, and the visuospatial scratchpad, all controlled by a central executive (Baddeley & Hitch; the episodic buffer was added by Baddeley in a later revision than that cited here). 
  2. There is some dispute over what makes the best indicator; the general consensus in industry is to use asterisks to mark required fields (Budiu). Studies have shown, however, that using a background color in the field to highlight required fields performs better (Pauwels et al.), which in turn is outperformed by physically separating the required fields from the optional ones (Tullis & Pons). All, however, agree that it is preferable to mark the required fields, rather than the optional. 
  3. Non-interruptive real-time validation, say by adding error messages beneath invalid fields, works well for sighted users. Be aware, however, that screen reader software struggles with dynamically-updating pages (Stockman & Metatla); avert this accessibility problem by providing both real-time and on-demand validation, presenting errors in a modal fashion when the user attempts to submit the form with invalid data. 
Education Portfolio Technology

Swift Student Challenge

A few days ago, Apple announced the winners of their Swift Student Challenge. I had applied and used my “taking a test” tactic, which was to hit ‘submit’ and then promptly erase the whole thing from my brain. (What’s done is done, and I feel silly worrying about something I have no control over.)

So when I got the email that “my status was updated” it was a bit of a surprise.

And when I clicked through the link (because, of course, they can’t just say in the email, you have to sign in) I was in for more of a surprise.

My submission had been accepted. I’m one of 350 students around the world whose work sufficiently impressed the judges at Apple.

Screenshot from Apple Developer website. It reads: Congratulations! Your submission has been selected for a WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge award. You'll receive an exclusive WWDC20 jacket and pin set at the mailing address you provided on your submission form. You'll also be able to download pre-release software, request lab appointments, and connect with Apple engineers over WWDC20 content on the forums. In addition, one year of individual membership in the Apple Developer Program will be assigned free of charge to eligible accounts of recipients who have reached the age of majority in their region. For details, see the WWDC20 Swift Student Challenge Terms and Conditions.

Now, throughout the whole process of applying, I was my usual secretive self. I think two people knew that I was applying at all, much less what I was working on. Since it’s over with, though, it’s time for the unveiling.

What I made

I wanted to bring back a concept I’ve played with before: cellular automata. A few days before the competition was announced, I’d seen a video that really caught my interest.

Well hey, I thought, I’ve got some code for running cellular automata. I want to learn Swift Playgrounds. And I’ve been having fun with SwiftUI. Let’s combine those things, shall we?

The first big change was a visual history; when a cell dies, I don’t want it to just go out, I want it to fade slowly, leaving behind a trail of where the automata have spread.

The second was rewriting all the visuals in SwiftUI, which was a fun project. Animation timings took me a bit to get right, as did figuring out how to do an automated ‘update n times a second’ in Combine. The biggest issue I had, actually, was performance – I had to do some fun little tricks to get it to run smoothly. (Note the .drawingGroup() here – that made a big difference.)

And third, I didn’t want it to just be “here’s some code, look how pretty,” I wanted to actually use the Playground format to show some cool stuff. This turned out to be the most frustrating part of the whole thing – the Swift Playgrounds app doesn’t actually support creating a PlaygroundBook, and the Xcode template wasn’t supported in the then-current version of Xcode.

But the end result? Oh, I’m quite happy with it. PlaygroundBooks are cool once you get past how un-documented they are. You can, to borrow a Jupyter turn of phrase, mix code and prose in a lovely, interactive way.

Screenshot of the 'Grid' page of the playground book.  The full text is at
Don’t worry, the real version (and some videos) are below.

Doing the actual writing was pretty fun. This is a concept I’ve spent a lot of time learning about, just because it captured my interest, and I wanted to share that in a fun way.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the result. If you’d like to see more, I’ve made recordings of the ‘randomized grid’ and ‘Wolfram rule’ pages running, and the actual playground is available on GitHub.


User Testing

I am rather bad at the whole concept of relaxation. I say this as an introduction, because writing this post is my idea of taking a break from putting together the final presentation for my class on user testing.
The course has been interesting overall. I will readily admit that I don’t intend to make a career of user research, but I am glad I’ve had the experience. Research is, after all, critical to design and development both. We can try to stick to the whole “if we asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said ‘a faster horse’” thing, but, shockingly, we actually aren’t omniscient. We aren’t our users.
Throughout the course of the course (and now you can tell my brain is a bit fried, because I’m throwing in wordplay), we’ve used a few different techniques. My favorite so far has been card sorting: it’s easy to explain, quick to do, and works very well for figuring out a sensible way to organize a bunch of stuff.1
I also quite enjoyed the competitive analysis assignment—going through, as best as I could, the entire market for a specific category was a surprisingly fun challenge. It’s also immediately visible how useful it is, from a strategic perspective: at the end of that assignment, I closed out an open project I had where I’d been putting together sketches for a fitness application. While it would’ve been fun to build, it really wouldn’t have had anything truly unique to establish itself in the market, and I’m too much of a Broke Millennial to be able to devote that much time to ‘fun to build.’2
We also did some quantitative and qualitative user testing, which I found interesting, but also served as the main argument for my “I don’t have a career as a researcher ahead of me” stance. Interesting, yes; useful, when done right; surprisingly difficult to do right, absolutely.
The qualitative structure was a bit more forgiving than the quantitative. We used, which has a well-polished interface for assembling a test, a slightly less well-polished interface for going through a test, and a checkout page that leaked memory at an astonishing rate.34 Those complaints aside, the actual data I got was very helpful—the biggest issue I had with it was because of my own mistake, and the more open nature of the test meant that even that failure helped me sort out the answer to a different question I had.5
Going into the class, I thought I was going to like the quantitative testing more—I majored in computer science, and threw in a minor in math at the end, I’m a Numbers Guy. In execution, though, I wasn’t a fan. Part of this is probably due to the software we used: I was utterly unimpressed with Loop11. Their test assembly and reporting interface felt very Web 2.0, which I always find a bit alarming for an online-only business, and while the test-taking interface was a bit better (hello, Material Design 1.0!) it was unusable in Safari and a privacy disaster waiting to happen everywhere else.67 And for all that trouble, the data I got wasn’t all that useful. Though, a caveat to that: quantitative testing is more appropriate for summative testing, verifying that your completed design/product works as it’s supposed to, and I won’t be in a position to actually do that sort of testing for, oh, months at the earliest. Certainly not in time to use the results for this class, so I misused the technique a little bit in order to have something to work with.
As I said at the start, though I don’t intend to make a career of this, I’m glad to have taken the class—at very least, it means I’ll have that much more respect for the work my colleagues who do make a career of it are doing. And I sincerely doubt that this will be the last time that I do some testing myself; it’s important to do, and I quite like having the data to validate my designs.

  1. You can do it with actual cards, if you have time and are actually in the same place as your participants. If not, you can use online tools. We used OptimalSort, which is available as part of the OptimalWorkshop suite of tools. If that’s the only thing you’re going to do with it, I honestly can’t recommend it, because while it’s a good tool, it is not, on its own, worth the price. (Having seen their pricing structure, am I considering breaking into that market? Only vaguely.) 
  2. But hey, while we’re on the topic, check out some of my apps
  3. I left the tab alone for ten minutes and came back to 30,000 error messages in Safari’s console and about 2 gigabytes of RAM consumed. On their checkout page. C’mon, folks, that’s just embarrassing. 
  4. To be fair, I’ve got a pile of content blockers enabled, and at a quick glance quite a few of the error messages where a result of that. On the other hand, you shouldn’t be throwing that many little privacy-violating scripts at people to start with, and you definitely shouldn’t be doing it so badly
  5. I’m being intentionally vague about what I was actually testing, because it’s something I may yet fully develop, and I don’t talk about things until they’re good and ready. 
  6. I suspect Safari’s refusal to work with it was related to the latter concern; I didn’t dig into what was going wrong, just threw my hands in the air in disgust and installed Firefox. 
  7. As far as I can tell from some cursory inspection of the functionality of their ‘no code’ feature, it works by having your testers install a browser extension that… executes a man-in-the-middle attack, of sorts, on every page they view. When asking people to do the test, I told them to install the extension, do the test, and then immediately uninstall the extension—and that because I didn’t want to try walking people through installing a completely separate browser to do it in, like I did. 
Education Portfolio

Value-Sensitive Design

The first unit in our course on Advanced Design and Prototyping focused on Value-Sensitive Design, and a couple of the assignments we did as part of it were pretty fun.

The first was to do a sketchnote on the concept itself. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical of the concept of sketchnoting – I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t think it would actually be all that useful. In doing it, however, I found that it helped me to coalesce my thoughts a bit – though, admittedly, that may have more to do with the fact that it forced me to go through my typed notes again than the sketchnoting itself. Still, it was a fun way to do that bit of studying, so I think I’ll try to add it to my workflow in the future.

Presented with apologies for my terrible handwriting.

Another activity was to put together a presentation, going through some value-sensitive design processes and presenting our ‘findings.’ Of the available prompts, I chose the one that boiled down to “your team has just been hired to design a photo-sharing application; you’re in charge of the VSD portion. Go.”

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Productivity and Organization

Over time I’ve acquired a reputation for being an organized (and, presumably, productive) person; occasionally, people ask me for tips.

Be as efficient as you can.

In the interest of following my own tips, I’m writing this up as a blog post so I have something I can quickly send to folks when they ask. Automate things where you can; if you’ve got the time to learn it, Workflow is a wonderful tool.1 I’ve got a good chunk of my morning routine compressed into pressing a single button on my phone and, depending on how complex my calendar is for the day, answering a question or two.

Don’t trust your brain to remember things

The human brain is a wonderful machine! Unfortunately, it’s terrible at remembering things, but also convinced that isn’t the case. The good news is, we invented writing, and then computers, both of which make it much easier to remember things. So don’t just put stuff in your head and assume it’ll stay there; it doesn’t matter what you use, but have somewhere permanent that you can put stuff. Depending on what you prefer, you can use a planner or notebook, or go all digital like I have. Personally, I use a combination of the system-default Calendar app, syncing through Google Calendar, with Drafts 42 as my “writing thoughts down in the middle of the night” app, Day One as a journal, and Ulysses for any longer-form writing or note-taking.3

Have a to-do list

Technically speaking, this is an extension of the above, but don’t trust yourself to remember things you have to do in a day. If they’re at a specific time or meeting with someone, they go in your calendar; otherwise, they go on the to-do list. Again, this can be on paper if that’s your style, but if you’re a big ol’ tech nerd, you’ve got a bounty of options. The built-in Reminders app is… there, and it’s not great, but it’s free and meets the bare minimum of functionality. Personally, I’m a big fan of Things 3,4 but Omnifocus is also a big name in the field, if (in my opinion) over-complicated. That said, task management apps like that are a huge market on the iOS and macOS app stores, as well as just online, so you should be able to find something you like.
Once you’ve started using it, I recommend the “vaguely Getting Things Done” style, which consists of “write stuff down as soon as you think of it, and file it away in the proper place when you’ve got time.” The important thing is to not go “oh, I’ll remember that later,” because there’s a really good chance you won’t.

Figure out what you’re spending your time on

You know that feeling like you’ve wasted a whole day? That’s stupid, but it’s also hard to convince your brain you’ve been productive if you don’t actually know what you’ve been spending your time on. Having a to-do list helps with this; you can look at your list for the day and see all the things you’ve checked off.5 Beyond that, you may want to try time tracking; I’m a fan of toggl and use it all the time. I keep the website pinned in a tab on my laptop, and rather than use their app, I’ve got some Workflows built that interact with their web API.6 It works pretty well for me; I know what I’m spending time on, and I can also use it for some very accurate billing, should I need to.

Clean up

Finally, staying organized is not only helpful for quickly finding things, it also just tends to make you feel better about everything. Take time when you can to organize your work and living spaces. If you’re currently in college, you’ve probably got ten thousand pages of various papers drifting around; next time it’s time to buy textbooks, I recommend going digital (it’s slightly cheaper, and then you only have to carry around your laptop/tablet, which you were probably gonna be carrying anyways, and you can search in your books, which is quite helpful). For the zillions of pages of handouts you get, invest in a scanner that can do duplex scanning and a recycle bin; it’s amazing how much space you can save by getting rid of all the papers.7 Once you’ve got things digitized (or, preferably, as you get them digitized), come up with a neat organizational system and stick to it. For school stuff, semester/term lines are a nice dividing line; if you’re doing the whole ‘adult life’ thing, the tax year is a good one.8

I’m going to call it done there. If you skipped to the end, the single most important thing I’d like you to get from this is brains are bad at remembering things; write stuff down. That’s my number one tip, so if you only take one thing from this, that’d be it.
If you’ve got any questions, I’ve recently brought back the ability for people to leave comments, so go ahead and do that.9 And hey, maybe I’ll do more posts like this, I enjoy doing the writing, and it’s fun to be able to support the various apps I use.10

  1. In September 2018, or thereabouts, it’s going to disappear and be replaced by Shortcuts, but from what we’ve seen in public betas, Shortcuts has the same functionality, some new features, and a new coat of paint, so if that link doesn’t work, just search the App Store for ‘Shortcuts.’ 
  2. Drafts 5 has been out and received very good reviews for its automation capabilities, but all I really want from the app is a dark color scheme and the ability to open directly into a new document, so the old version works for me. 
  3. That link is to Ulysses’ iOS app, but thanks to their subscription system, you pay for it on one platform and get it on iPad and Mac as well; mostly I use it on the Mac, but it’s nice to have it available wherever. 
  4. That’s their macOS app; they’ve also got separate iPhone and iPad apps. 
  5. This is why I’ve got Things set up not to sweep things away as soon as I check them off, but to leave them there until the end of the day. If I look at my list and it’s empty, nothing to do and looking like I’ve done nothing, the “oh god I wasted the whole day” feeling gets so much worse
  6. If you’d like to know more about those, leave something in the comments that I’ve just remembered I opened back up. 
  7. You don’t necessarily need to do what I did, which was a roughly five-year-long process of clearing out every paper I own, but then, you’re hopefully less of a pack-rat than I was, too. 
  8. Oh, and don’t leave those files in a single place; the nice thing about being digital is that it’s easy to make copies, and when you’ve got copies, you don’t have to worry that you’ll lose the original. These days, I throw all the current stuff into iCloud Drive, but I used to use Dropbox; older things get moved from whichever cloud to an external hard drive that’s backed up with Backblaze
  9. It’s one of the only ways to get in touch with me. Bonus productivity tip, for those of you reading the footnotes: social media sucks, stop using it. 
  10. Shameless self promotion: as an app developer, I know how danged hard it can be to actually make a living from the App Store. Support the people making the stuff you use. 
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Idealized Love in Music

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
Love is an integral part of the human experience and a source of inspiration for a vast portion of all the music created by mankind. Love is almost always treated with positivity, but at times this positivity goes too far, and the loved one becomes less a person than an ideal, a concept that cannot exist in reality. The exact nature of this idealization, however, has changed over time, from the Renaissance poetry of Petrarch in which the beloved is perfect and untouchable to the Romantic poems of Heine and Hugo, when that perfection is acknowledged as fragile, ready to break with the lightest touch, and beyond that to a point when the idealized love has broken and twisted, as in Viardot’s “Hai Luli.”
Our examination begins in the 1300s, with Francesco Petrarca (anglicized as “Petrarch”), the most famous poet of the Italian Renaissance. A priest, Petrarch became famous, basically, for seeing a woman – Laura – attending church and falling deeply in love. His was a courtly love, a distant affair: she was married, and he was ordained to remain celibate. The poems that resulted from his infatuation have been set to music many times, but the most famous setting of them is Liszt’s song cycle, “Tre sonetti di Petrarca.” The poetry around which the first song is based describes the pain of separation that Petrarch felt;1 the second and third, however, focus on the positive side of that love.
In the second – “Benedetto sia ‘l giorno” (“Blessed be the day”) – Petrarch devoted the entirety of the first stanza to a gushing thankfulness, asking blessings for the ‘day, month, year, season, time, hour, and moment’ when he first saw his love, and beyond that, ‘the beautiful country and place where I first saw her eyes’ (paraphrasing from the Kline translation of the text). In keeping with this gushing feel, Liszt’s setting of the text moves through this portion quickly, leaving the singer only eighth-note-rest in which to take a fittingly quick breath. The third stanza, however, comes only after a long pause in the vocal line, and moves slower than the earlier portions of the song; Petrarch remembering once again that his love is a distant one, a saddened recall of “the sighs, and the tears.” In the fourth and final stanza, though, the pace picks up once again, sad thoughts replaced once more by adoration.
The third song in the cycle, however, is the most characteristic of this period of courtly love. The poetry sets the stage: “I saw angelic virtue on earth/ and heavenly beauty on terrestrial soil,” it begins, and continues to describe “two lovely eyes that . . . made the sun a thousand times jealous.” Petrarch describes his love not as a woman but as an angel, a work of art delivered from Heaven. She is no more real to him than a beautiful sunset is to any of us: something that can be seen from afar, but never reached, never touched.
As time went on, however, this ideal changed: the Renaissance ended, and, eventually, the Romantics rose to prominence. Some of this idea remained: the objects of their love were still just that – objects – but the distance, once insurmountable, had closed to something in a way too small. Take, for example, Liszt’s setting of Heine’s poem, “Du bist wie eine Blume” (“Thou art like a flower”).2 The text begins in a manner similar to the Petrarchian style, describing the unnamed beloved as ‘pure, fair, and kind.’3 The twist is quick to begin, with the ‘sorrow in my heart,’ but the true point of interest is in what form that sorrow takes: ‘I must then pray that God may preserve thee/ as pure and fair as now,’ the poem ends. In Liszt’s setting of the text, the instrumentation serves to emphasize this moment: as the singer says “Gott erhalte” (“God keep/preserve (thee)”) the piano, for the first time in the piece, falls silent. That earlier perfection of the beloved, though still there, is no longer held as an immutable fact; it is something that must be protected, by both the beholder and by God himself.
And yet, we are not done. The Romantics had changed this idea further still, evidenced in Hugo’s “Oh, quand je doers, viens auprés de ma..” (“Oh! when I sleep”).4 Of interest to us here is the third stanza, in which the text reads “Then on my lips . . . place a kiss, and transform from angel into woman” (Ezust). This idea is a French addition to the concept of the distant romantic love, and would go on to define ‘courtly love’ as a new subcategory of that concept. In the transformation from angel to women, triggered by the kiss, we see the true twist of the concept of courtly love: not only is the beloved’s heavenly status fragile, it is the deed of acting upon the love that does the damage.
Again, Liszt’s setting follows the poem well: the first stanza is underlaid by a calm, rolling piano line, portraying the dreaming state of the speaker. In the second stanza, however, the music accelerates, the piano and vocal lines both bringing more excitement to match the dream as it “become[s] radiant”. For the third stanza, the peaceful quality of the first stanza is brought back, but the chords are arpeggiated more clearly, granting a purity of sound to match the “flash of love” that the poet describes as “pure”. Once again, Liszt makes use of a silence in the piano line to highlight the words of the poem: as the vocalist goes through the phrase “et d’ange de viens femme” – “from angel into woman” they are, for that moment, alone: Liszt’s recognition of the importance of this single moment. It is the kiss, the moment of contact between the love and the lover, that marks that most important change.
To truly love their distant ideal,5 then, is to deliberately maintain that distance; to protect the perfection by refusing to sully it with their own mortality.
There is, however, an interesting twist on this concept, made quite visible in Xavier de Maistre’s untitled poem, set to music by Pauline Viardot as Hai Luli: the ‘heavenly perfection’ is expected, required, only of the female love. Rather than an aspect of heaven, the (male) love in the text has failed the speaker, “Perhaps he betrays his oath to me/ Beside a new lover” (Bamberger). Though, of course, the lover has not, in actuality, betrayed the speaker: instead, the poem is more of a plan for “If one day he should abandon me” than it is a response to actual events. Nonetheless, the fact that the love is treated as even capable of such horrible deeds is a sharp contrast to the (feminine) descended angels of the other poetry.
The concept of the idealized love was so integral to the Romantic era of art that the term ‘romance’ has come, in colloquial usage, to refer to a moment of ideal love. That we need a specific term for that sort of love then implies that such an idea has fallen out of popular use; and, as the current state of popular music can attest, it has.6
The manner in which humanity has idealized their distant loves has changed over time. At the beginning, there was an innocence to it: the beloved is something pure and holy, a stand-in for the most holy of women, the Virgin Mary. As time went on, though, the idealism shifted, and the perfection became something fragile, an eggshell-thin veneer of holiness which would be tarnished and broken by the slightest contact from the beholder. And then, finally, the concept broke entirely, and a poem that boils down to “he might leave me for another, and if he does, everybody burns” was penned: the love is utterly human, utterly fallible.


Anonymous translation of “Du bist wie eine Blume”

  1. “I feed on sadness, laughing weep:/ death and life displease me equally:/ and I am in this state, lady, because of you.” (Kline) 
  2. In my discussion of this poem, I’m using both an unattributed translation and my own knowledge of the German language as reference. 
  3. And, of course, this is done at an implied distance: “I gaze on thee,” states the text. 
  4. There’s a nice bit of self-reference in this poem thanks to the presence, in the first stanza, of the line “approach my bed,/ as Laura appeared to Petrarch.” (Ezust) 
  5. And of course, there is a self-awareness to this concept: Errico’s “Ideale” (“Ideal”), set to music by Tosti, has the poet, in a waking dream, speak directly to the imagined version of the beloved. In the poem, she is referred to as the titular “dear ideal.” (Paton) 
  6. For my citation, I’m going to point out the fact that a song whose chorus consisted of “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” spent eight weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard “Hot 100” list. 
Articles Education


This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the spring of 2017 titled “Art Song.” Since I’ve now got a bit of a tradition of posting my essays once the courses are over, I figured I may as well.
“Phänomen” was written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and published in 1819 in the first book of his West-Östlicher Divan, Buch des Sängers. The Divan as a whole was inspired both by Goethe’s written conversations with Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860) and Joseph von Hammer’s (1774-1856) translations of the works of Hafez, a 14th-century Persian poet. The title of the book, and its contents, are inspired by the combination of Western and Eastern philosophies, the coming together of Germany and the Middle East. This was more than just two regions meeting, though: it was also the meeting of two faiths, Islam and Christianity, and of two very different imperial histories – the Roman and Persian empires. The text of “Phänomen” opens with a description of a rainbow appearing from the rain, establishing the idea of hope through what was overwhelming shadow. This appearance of hope is replicated and passed on to the “cheerful old man,” reassuring him that, in spite of his age, he will “still love,” or “love again.” The poem was set to music by Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) in 1874, and then by Hugo Wolf (1860 – 1903) in 1888-9, being published in 1891. Though the two settings share the same text, overall they are very different pieces.
The two settings are incredibly different, vividly demonstrating the difference in writing style between the two composers. The melody in Brahms’ setting is fairly constrained; the voices throughout move in a stepwise pattern, occasionally leaping – but only to outline the underlying chord. The use of a second voice is an interesting addition, but in terms of melodic contour it doesn’t add all too much: the second voice is, throughout the piece, either echoing or harmonizing with the first; in moments where the lower line moves ahead of the higher, the higher then takes the role of echoing the lower.
Contrary to Brahms’ constraint, Wolf – a member of the Wagnerian school of music – made liberal use of chromaticism in his melodies. His setting of the text has the singer performing acrobatics, making use of frequent leaps from high to low notes in the first half of the song, and then switching to leaps from low to high towards the end. Measures 12-14 utilize these upwards leaps, F#-D, F#-C#, E-C#, both rhythmically and melodically highlighting certain words. The first rise ascends to the word “nicht” before descending again on “betrüben”; a descending line for the verb in ‘do not sadden yourself,’ with the high point on ‘not,’ an excellent use of text paining. The second rise is a mimic of the first, with the high point on “gleich” – ‘similarly.’ The third of these leaps is the most notable, emphasizing as “doch wirst du lieben” – ‘but you will (again) love.’ It is the only one of the three ascending patterns to continue upwards after, a movement that is echoed by the piano moments later, emphasizing the overall sense of happiness in the text.
Some of the most interesting moments in Brahms’ settings are in his use of rhythmic contrast between the two voices. This motive first appears in measure 7: as the higher voice moves in even quarter notes from “Phö-bus” to “sich,” the lower line pauses on “Phö-” holding it out for a full two beats before moving quickly through the “bus sich” as if trying to catch up. The moment lasts only that single measure, but appears again elsewhere: both voices simultaneously use the hold-then-catch-up rhythm in measure 14; the tension between the two is brought back in measure 41, and the rhythm makes a final appearance in measure 48. The version in 48 is different, however: the text is used differently, with only two words across the measure, (“wirst du”) thus leaving the measure lacking in the slight tension created by the need to ‘catch up’ with the beat that the other instances use.
Rhythmically speaking, however, there is only one other point of interest in the piece: measures 19-33, where the voices play an extended game of catch-up. The higher voice starts two full bars ahead of the lower, pauses in mm.22-23 to allow a bit of catch-up, takes off again in m.24, and the two finally meet in m.27 after another pause on the part of the higher. Then it’s the lower voice’s turn to start ahead, though not by as much, and the two finally come together again for good in measure 32 as the lower, rather than pausing, repeats the words “der Bogen.” This is, however, the only place of rhythmic interest in the vocal line; the rest is either even quarter notes, a half note and a quarter note, or the occasional dotted-quarter-eighth-quarter measure. The piano plays a near-constant stream of eighth notes throughout, pausing only in measures 21 and 23 when the job of filling the space with eighth notes is taken up by higher and the lower voice, respectively.
Wolf’s setting does a better job of varying the rhythm throughout, taking advantage of the “sehr langsam” pace he wrote for and giving it an almost recitative feeling at times. There are two rhythmic ideas that he uses multiple times throughout the piece to great effect: the dotted-eighth-sixteenth pattern used at the end of every duplet, and the shifting of certain points off the expected beats by a half-beat. The repetition of the dotted-quarter-eighth rhythm is a subtle way of drawing the entire piece together; in certain spots, such as measure 9 or measures 14-15, its presence is masked by the repetition of a note or the carrying over of a longer note into the idea. The second of these ideas is less obvious: the two best examples are the stretching of the word “farbig” from measure 3 into measure 4, and the right-hand lines of the piano in measures 5 and 10. Rather than allow the melody to move on the strong beat, Wolf gives them a slight twist, making the motion occur on the off-beats.
The two composers have differing ideas about how the structure of the poem should be used: Brahms’ version follows a rounded binary structure, with the division between the different portions of the song being the stanza breaks in the original poem. Wolf acknowledges the stanzas with a bar of rest in the voice at the end of each stanza, but doesn’t return to his original material, instead opting for a through-composed structure that allows for his soaring portrayal of a rainbow in the final measures.
In Brahms’ setting, the piano has two basic ideas the entire time: ascending eighth notes in the left hand with chords in the right, or chords in the left hand with rocking high-low eighth notes in the right; the second of these two is also sometimes modified with chords above the eight-note pattern. Contrast this to he final two measures of Wolf’s setting of the poem: an excellent use of the piano, a piece of text painting that fits the piece while being an entirely new idea. The other moments of solo piano, in measures 5 and 10, also make great use of the instrument’s capabilities, mimicking the effect of a continuing upper voice while continuing the existing piano line. In the moments when the piano is supporting the voice, it still does so in an interesting manner: only rarely is the rhythm in the piano the same as that of the vocal line. In both settings, the piano is subordinate to the singer or singers, but Wolf’s piano solo moments are more musically interesting than Brahms’, indicating that the piano receives higher billing in his version than in Brahms.
The tonal scheme of the two settings is where their differences are most visible. Brahms begins fairly calmly, in the stated key of B, and largely remains in that key for the entirety of the ‘A’ section of the rounded binary structure of the piece. The ‘B’ section, however, is far more interesting: it’s a gleeful exploration of the harmonic spaces around that original key of B major that begins by transforming B major into the V of e minor, returns to b minor instead of B major, makes a pit stop in G (as VI of b minor) and finally, through an extended V7-I cadence in measures 34-38, returns to B major just in time for the returning ‘A’ section to sound at home once again. Wolf, ever the Wagnerian, makes no such concessions to a home key: he begins, briefly, in the stated key of A major, and the piece ends in E major, but in between is a land of glorious uncertainty. As if predicting the atonal music that would arise in the next century, the piece makes a gleeful game of avoiding any true tonal center, instead opting to move almost constantly from place to place. The result is fiendishly difficult to analyze, but, as a true show of his skill as a composer, never sounds out of place.
Brahms’ setting of “Phänomen” is a wonderful piece: the harmonic playfulness in the central portion of the song, as well as the subtle rhythmic variations, give it a distinctive, and enjoyable, feel. Wolf’s, however, feels more closely fit to the actual text: the slower tempo feels more fitting for a conversation with a ‘white-haired’ man, and the ending piano line is a beautiful bit of text painting, a gentle ascension that feels like the sound a rainbow would make as it appears. Though a close match, I must conclude that Wolf’s setting of the poem is the more successful of the two.

Articles Education

The United States and the European Union

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016 titled “Austrian Politics and Society in a European Context.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
In the wake of the fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world was left massively changed. The era of two superpowers had ended; for a while, the world lived under the hegemony of the United States of America. That era, too, has come to an end, though a much quieter one: new superpowers have begun to develop. China is coming into its own as a world power; India has high aspirations that have yet to be realized; the Russian Federation has, under the control of Vladimir Putin, used the legacy of the Soviet Union to re-emerge as a military superpower, if not an economic one. The most interesting emergent superpower, however, is the European Union: rebuilt in the wake of the Second World War by the United States as a colony-esque bulwark against the spread of Communism, it has become an economic powerhouse to rival the United States. The European Union, thanks to its history of US-backed construction, has the most in common with the reigning hegemon; it does, however, have some key differences. It is these similarities and differences that will be examined in this paper.
The core institutions of the European Union (E.U.) are, in writing at least, more complex a structure than those of the United States (U.S.A.): while the E.U. has seven key institutions, the government of the U.S.A. is split into three.12 What is, in the U.S.A., the Executive Branch of the government is in the E.U. distributed across several institutions: the European Council, combining the heads of state of all the member nations into a President-by-committee; the European Commission, to handle the day-to-day functionality of the E.U. in all its aspects; the European Central Bank, coordinating the monetary policy of the E.U.; and the Court of Auditors, ensuring that the monetary policy and budgetary strictures of the E.U. are actually being followed. The Legislative Branch is, similarly to the U.S.A., a bicameral structure, though split into the Council of the European Union and the Parliament, rather than into a Senate and House as in the United States. The Judicial Branch in the U.S.A. is closely matched in structure by the European Court of Justice in the E.U.: the Court of Justice itself at the top, in answer to the Supreme Court of the U.S.A., with a network of lower courts beneath it.
Within these structures are further differences. One of the most visible differences is in the party systems of the two unions. In the U.S.A., two parties have nigh-on absolute control of the political system: the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans. Smaller parties exist, but none are large enough even to have ballot access in every state, making them largely irrelevant on the national playing field.3 In the E.U., the political system allows for representation of more parties: in the current European Parliament, seven different parties are represented amongst the 762 Members of the European Parliament (M.E.P.s), and 31 M.E.P.s are listed as “unattached” – generally referring to an affiliation with a party that exists only within their member state, and not across the E.U. as a whole.4 A point of similarity across both, however, is the existence of partisan politics – the vitriolic nature of the recent election in the U.S.A. demonstrates the prevalence of blind party loyalty. The E.U., as well, is to some degree guilty: take, for example, the actions of the European People’s Party to shield Hungary’s Orban government from criticisms in the European Parliament.5
The varying parties are not the only way in which the two superpowers differ. The U.S.A. has always had a common foreign policy; it is one of the rights granted to the President and the Congress by the Constitution. In the E.U., this is not so – though the Treaty of Lisbon created the office of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the powers of that seat are still limited largely to defense and security policy.6 The other core difference between the two is in their sources of revenue: the U.S.A. is able to levy taxes directly, while the E.U. income is a mix of direct contributions from member nations, a very small percentage of the E.U.-wide Value Added Tax, and import duties on non-E.U. goods.7 This creates a sharp difference between the amount of monetary force the organizations are able to throw behind their various initiatives. For example, the United States federal research and development budget for 2017 is almost the same as the entirety of the E.U. budget for the same time period.89 The budgetary differences alone are enough to guarantee that the federal government of the U.S.A. is much more powerful, relatively, than the E.U. is in relation to its member states.
Economic differences, however, are not the only reason that the federal government of the U.S.A. holds more power than the institutions of the E.U.: the largest part of this difference is due to the set of powers given directly to the organizations. In the E.U., this list of powers (or rather, competences, as they are termed by the organization) is fairly concise: the creation of a customs union, the ability to create competition rules to maintain the internal market, Eurozone monetary policy, the common commercial policy, a limited ability to conclude international agreements, and the common fisheries policy for the conservation of marine biological resources.10 In the United States, that same list of fiscal powers is given to the national government, but has several additions on top of that. These additions include the full spectrum of foreign policy, notably the declaration of war; the creation of the armed forces, as an extension of foreign policy; the creation of post offices; and the ability to create any law that is “necessary and proper” to carry out those other powers.11 And, of course, the fact remains that the E.U. does not have the capability to levy taxes, while the federal government of the U.S.A. shares that ability with the states. At their root, the two superpowers have a very different stance on the centralization of power; as a result of this, the governance of the U.S.A. is much more cohesive than that of the E.U.
Economically, the two have quite a bit in common: they are the two most powerful economies in the world, and sit comfortably at the top of the “developed” economies list.12 The top ten companies worldwide, by revenue, includes three U.S. corporations and three E.U. corporations, in a mixed order.13 The picture changes a bit when sorted by profitability: the three Chinese state-owned and the Japanese contender all vanish… as do the three E.U. corporations. Instead, the list becomes entirely U.S. companies, mostly financial services firms but made incredibly top-heavy by the presence of Apple.14 In both finance and information technology, the U.S.A. has a strong lead over the E.U., a gap that may grow larger with the pending Brexit talks: not only will Britain take BP (the 10th-largest company in the world) with her when she goes, but with her goes London, the “financial capital of the world.”15
At the governmental level, more similarities and differences are evident: the U.S. Dollar remains one of the world’s strongest currencies, and serves as the official currency of the entirety of the U.S.A., as well as a remarkably long list of other countries. The Euro, though nearly as strong, lacks the historical backing of the dollar, and theoretically only applies to those member states that meet the requirements to join the Eurozone – though, one should note, that a few non-Eurozone member states use it as their official or de facto currency, and the membership requirements for the Eurozone have not always been met by its members.16 The central banks of the two superpowers have similar levels of power, though their response to the global financial slump in the 2000s was quite different: the European Central Bank focused on containing inflation, while the Federal Reserve System in the U.S.A. was much more active in restoring the U.S. economy.17 There is also a notable weakness in the European banking system, thanks in no small part to the different division of power: the lack of a strong pan-European banking union.18 In the U.S.A., the Federal Deposit Insurance Company provides deposit insurance to member banks, providing a strong signal of trustworthiness for member banks to show to their customers; the E.U. does not yet have anything of a similar scale.19
By far the largest difference between the two powers, however, is defense spending. The U.S.A. famously spends more than $500 billion per year on defense, while the E.U. as a whole spends less than half what the U.S.A. does. Per capita, the difference is even larger: the U.S.A. comes in as the third-largest per-capita spender at just under $2,000 per person per year, while across the E.U. the spending averages just under $350 per person per year.20 This disparity likely arises from the history between the two: during the Cold War, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union seemed poised, at all times, to turn Europe into a battlefield once more. As a result, the U.S.-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) poured more and more military resources into Europe. When the Soviet Union fell, NATO did not, and has left Europe with a strong military defense that is, by and large, funded by the U.S. taxpayer. The continued presence of U.S. personnel and matériel in Europe, then, helps to reduce the need for either European states or the European Union as a whole to seriously invest in their own military.
The ongoing presence of NATO is not the sole reason for less military spending in Europe than in the U.S.A.: another significant contributing factor is the cultural differences between the two. Taken as a whole, the U.S.A. is significantly more in favor of violence than the E.U., in a variety of ways. The most visible, of course, is their policies on guns: the Second Amendment has ensconced the right to ownership of weapons in U.S. law for centuries; the E.U. makes no such constitutional provision, and, in fact, has been working to limit gun access across the entire E.U.21 As a people, Europeans like guns less than Americans: there are three guns in private hands for every ten Europeans, while the figure in the U.S.A. is nine guns to every ten people.22 Even their response to gun violence differs massively, with a requirement for E.U. membership being a ban on the death penalty; compare this to the U.S.A., where in the 2016 election three states passed ballot measures that implemented or re-implemented capital punishment.2324 On punishment in general, the U.S.A. is harsher than the E.U., with nearly six times as many prisoners per 100,000 people. Even the most punishment-happy E.U. country – Lithuania, with 254 of every 100,000 people incarcerated – only imprisons people at a third of the rate of the U.S.A.25
This stands out as an area of heavy government involvement for a nation that generally prefers their leadership to have a light touch. As a whole, the people of the U.S.A. tend to be very individualistic, and regard their own work ethic and abilities as the primary, if not only, driving force behind their success or lack thereof in life.26 This stands in contrast to the peoples of the E.U., who generally see success in life as being determined by forces outside their control; in Germany, the strongest economy within the E.U., less than a third of the population agreed with the individualistic mindset of the U.S.A.27 In a similar vein, the origins of the European welfare state are fairly visible in the ideals of the E.U. population – Americans largely want to be left to achieve their goals alone, while Europeans would rather their governments “guarantee that no one is in need.”28
This is not to say that Americans and Europeans disagree on everything – the U.S.A. and the E.U. form the core of what is regarded as “the West,” pitted against the forces of the East – the former Soviet Union, and now, the growing power of China. For the people of the West, democracy is a core ideal, and the freedoms that come with it and help to ensure it are of great importance to the peoples of the U.S.A. and the E.U. both.29 Religious freedom is fairly important to both superpowers, but they differ significantly in where they come from that stance: Europe, long the bulwark of Christianity, has fallen from that position as their increasing wealth brings decreasing belief in god.30 The U.S.A., meanwhile, is considered “the great exception” – a country that is both wealthy and deeply religious; the bastion of Christianity, maintaining belief when the original stronghold fell.31
The U.S.A. is unified by more than just belief in the Bible. Perhaps the most important unifying factor for the country is the fact that the entire population shares a single language – only seven percent of the population does not speak English to some degree or another.32 Within the E.U., no such universal language exists – English is the most broadly-spoken language within the E.U., and only a third of the population can speak it.33 This, obviously, can make communication difficult across the E.U.: Europeans regard translation as an important part of life, if not an every-day component of it.34 For the average U.S. citizen, though, such a thought is unlikely to enter their mind – there are a variety of jokes told that riff on the concept of U.S. citizens telling tourists or immigrants to “speak American” when they hear a language other than English being used. Jingoism aside, having a single common language allows for other commonalities – like the existence of a single news network to cover the entire country. Though the U.S.A. does not have a single news network covering the country, it does have networks that provide nationwide coverage – CNN, ABC, and Fox all jockeying for ratings across the entire country. There is no pan-European news network, however; the closest analogue would be broadcast news that cycles through coverage in multiple languages.
The E.U. has more problems with unity than just the lack of a common language across the E.U.: it also lacks a cohesive culture. Within the U.S.A. there are different subcultures: each state has their own identity, and different regions also have theirs. But some things are universal: the nation comes together to watch the Super Bowl, to light off fireworks on the 4th of July, and to never forget 9/11.35 Europe has an answer to the first in the World Cup, but there is no European Independence Day, and no shared day of mourning.36 The U.S.A. has their share of heroes – Abraham Lincoln may be a bit controversial in the South, and Stonewall Jackson similarly so in the North, but George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Hamilton are fairly universal in their appeal. Though the Commission has tried to create a list of founding fathers of the E.U., for one reason or another they have not picked up the same amount of dramatic flair.37 Looking further back into history, each country has their own heroes, from Empress Maria Theresia for the Austrians to Napoleon for the French. But each of these heroes is a villain in another place: Maria Theresia was a religiously oppressive empress, and Napoleon did so much damage to Europe in his wars that he was sent to exile multiple times. There are no universal European heroes, as of yet, and with neither heroes nor language in common, the citizens of the E.U. can find it difficult, at times, to see anything truly keeping them together. This lack of a coherent identity is an ongoing problem faced by the leadership of the E.U., though hopefully they will find a way to address it before it pulls the E.U. apart at the seams.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world has gone through a series of major changes. Fortunately, the age of unilateral rule by the U.S.A. was a short one, and new superpowers rose to counterbalance U.S. power. The E.U., as one of these counterbalancing powers, has the most in common with the U.S.A., but they are certainly not the same. Politically, the two have strong structural differences, from the further division of high-level power present in the E.U. to the relatively lesser powers of the states within the U.S.A.. The relationship between the two is interesting due to the split in power present in the E.U. – some foreign relations are handled at the E.U. level and others at the per-state level. Nonetheless, both are democratic organizations and are unified by their devotion to those ideals.
The U.S.A. has remained the dominant world superpower thanks to having a blend of both hard and soft power – the U.S. military is second to none, and the country remains the most powerful single economies in the world. The E.U., though lacking in any real amount of hard power, is a strong contender for the coveted spot of top global economy. The development of the Euro has brought the countries of the Eurozone closer together, though not without some bumps along the way.
Finally, the two superpowers are culturally very similar – both are, almost by definition, Western civilizations. Both value democracy highly, though the manners in which they do this vary – the people of the United States tend to be more individualistic than their counterparts in the European Union. More than just that divides them – the United States has a strong identity as a country, while the European Union is still struggling to establish such a concept of itself as a coherent whole. This is not expressed solely in the opinions of the people that make up the two superpowers: it is also eminently visible in the different degrees to which the two have centralized power. In sum, though the European Union and the United States of America have some key differences, they also have a great deal in common.


 European Commission: “Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages“ Published 2012-06, accessed 2016-11-20
 FIFA: “2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Television Audience Report” Accessed 2016-11-20
 Matthias Matthjis and R. Daniel Kelemen: “Europe Reborn: How to Save the European Union from Irrelevance” from January/February 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs
 Statistica: “TV viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016 (in millions)” Accessed 2016-11-20
 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database” Accessed 2016-11-20
 Tom Dyson and Theodore Konstadinides: “Understanding the Limitations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy” Published 2013-09-26, accessed 2016-11-15
Ballotpedia: “List of Political Parties in the United States.” Accessed 2016-11-15
BBC News In Depth: “World Prison Populations” Accessed 2016-11-20
BBC News: “Greece admits fudging euro entry” Published 2004-11-15, accessed 2016-11-20
Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union Accessed 2016-11-20
CNN Money: “Europe’s gun laws are about to get even tougher” Published 2016-01-05, accessed 2016-11-20
Dae Woong Kang, Nick Ligthart, and Ashoka Mody:“The ECB and the Fed: A comparative narrative” Published 2016-01-19, accessed 2016-11-20
EUR-Lex: “Directive 94/19/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 1994 on deposit-guarantee schemes” Accessed 2016-11-23
EUR-Lex: “Division of competences within the European Union” Accessed 2016-11-20
Europa: “Budget” Accessed 2016-11-15
Europa: “How is the E.U. funded?” Accessed 2016-11-15
Europa: “The Founding Fathers of the EU” Accessed 2016-11-20
Fortune: “Global 500” Accessed 2016-11-20
Fortune: “Top 10 Most Profitable Fortune 500 Companies in 2015” Accessed 2016-11-20
infoplease: “Powers of the Government” Accessed 2016-11-20
International Monetary Fund: World Economic Outlook: “Statistical Appendix” Published October 2016, Accessed 2016-11-20
It’s Your Parliament .eu: “Groups.” Accessed 2016-11-15
KennedyPearce Consulting: “London vs New York: Which is the world’s financial capital?” Accessed 2016-11-20
Pew Research: “5 ways Americans and Europeans are different” Published 2016-04-19, accessed 2016-11-20
Pew Research: “Support for Democratic Principles” Published 2015-11-08, accessed 2016-11-20
Reuters: “Death penalty gains new support from voters in several U.S. states” Published 2016-11-09, accessed 2016-11-20
Strasbourg l’européene: “Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union.”,3214,en.html Accessed 2016-11-15.
Timothy Garton Ash: “Europe as Not-America” from Free World
U.S. Census Bureau: “ Language Use in the United States: 2011” Published 2013-08, accessed 2016-11-20 “Branches of Government.” Accessed 2016-11-15
White House Office of Management and Budget: “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017” Accessed 2016-11-15

  1. Strasbourg l’européene: Detailed explanations about the Institutions of the European Union 
  2. Branches of Government 
  3. Ballotpedia: List of Political Parties in the United States 
  4. It’s Your Parliament .eu: Groups 
  5. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 107 
  6. Dyson and Konstadinides, “Understanding the Limitations of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy” 
  7. Europa: How is the E.U. funded? 
  8. White House Office of Management and Budget: “The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017” 
  9. Europa: “Budget” 
  10. EUR-Lex: Division of competences within the European Union 
  11. infoplease: Powers of the Government 
  12. International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook: Statistical Appendix 
  13. Fortune: Global 500 
  14. Fortune: Top 10 Most Profitable Fortune 500 Companies in 2015 
  15. KennedyPearce Consulting: London vs New York: Which is the world’s financial capital? 
  16. BBC News: Greece admits fudging euro entry 
  17. Kang, Ligthart, and Mody: “The ECB and the Fed: A comparative narrative” 
  18. Matthjis and Kelemen, page 104 
  19. EUR-Lex: Directive 94/19/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 May 1994 on deposit-guarantee schemes 
  20. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 
  21. CNN Money: Europe’s gun laws are about to get even tougher 
  22. Ash, page 74 
  23. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union 
  24. Reuters: Death penalty gains new support from voters in several U.S. states 
  25. BBC News In Depth: World Prison Populations 
  26. Pew Research: 5 ways Americans and Europeans are different 
  27. Ibid. 
  28. Ash, page 74 
  29. Pew Research: Support for Democratic Principles 
  30. Pew Research: Generally, poorer nations tend to be religious; wealthy less so, except for U.S. 
  31. Ash, page 74 
  32. U.S. Census Bureau: Language Use in the United States: 2011 
  33. European Commission: Special Eurobarometer 386: Europeans and Their Languages, 19 
  34. Ibid., 9 
  35. Statistica: TV viewership of the Super Bowl in the United States from 1990 to 2016 (in millions) 
  36. FIFA: 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Television Audience Report 
  37. Europa: The Founding Fathers of the EU 
Articles Education

The Reforms of Maria Theresia and Joseph II: The Enlightenment in Austria

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took in the fall of 2016, titled “Austrian Cultural History.” I’ve decided to publish it here because… why not?
The Enlightenment took longer to arrive in the Holy Roman Empire than it did for the other superpowers of the time, but arrive it did. Thanks to the lack of a strong bourgeois class within the population of the Empire, however, Enlightenment did not spring up from below as it did in France. Instead, it was applied from the top down, by the reigning monarchs of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine: Maria Theresia and, later, Joseph II. Under those two rulers (arguably three, because Leopold II, the Emperor following Joseph II, seemed to have plans to continue the works of his predecessors before he died) the Holy Roman Empire felt numerous changes to bring it more in line with the Enlightened thinking of the day.
The Enlightenment brought numerous changes to Europe as a whole, but undoubtedly the furthest-reaching area in which those changes were made was the realm of civil rights. Under the Habsburgs, these changes were limited, as “Enlightened monarchs saw it as their duty to think for their subjects.”1 The largest change implemented in the Habsburg empire was the abolition of serfdom, a slow and complex process that occupied Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II during their respective reigns. Maria Theresia began the process, granting her peasant subjects many of the rights previously afforded only to free tenants. The peasantry was endowed with freedom of movement, the ability to marry without the explicit approval of their liege lord, and freedom to choose their own occupation – though what was granted on paper and what was granted in effect were different. Also notably absent from the list of rights granted to the peasants was freedom from personal service to their liege lord – it was Maria Theresia’s opinion that doing so would lead to the complete dissolution of the lord/subject relationship, eventually causing a complete slide into anarchy.2
Under Joseph II, the expansion of the rights of the peasantry continued – though, in his characteristic fashion, it was done too rapidly and wound up causing more problems than it solved. With the tax and urbanarial regulation of 1789, Joseph II converted the requirement of personal service to their liege lord into a monetary burden, a 30% tax intended to replicate the work accomplished by the traditional system under which two of every five working days were filled with working the lands of the liege lord.3 What he failed to account for was the fact that the agrarian areas in which this was to take effect did not work on a monetary economy like Vienna and the other cities of the empire, but almost entirely on barter. Prepared for argument from the liege lords, Joseph was surprised by the vehemence of the resistance offered by the peasants themselves – the very people his reform had been intended to help.4 Joseph II also brought about other civil rights reforms, beginning with decreasing the amount of censorship in public – though, it should be noted, he replaced it with strong disincentives for those producing works that didn’t match the utilitarian party line. He also enacted legal reform that meant the laws treated all, from the peasantry to the nobility, equally. Unlike his mother, he even opted to halt the use of capital punishment. In this regard he was once again more utilitarian than humanitarian: his Code of Substantive Criminal Law of 1787 replaced capital punishment with life sentences of hard labor, in order “to give the government the benefit of a wretched criminal’s toil.”5
The Enlightenment also brought with it an increasing concern for public health. While Joseph II focused on the construction of public hospitals, Maria Theresia focused more on altering the policies of her empire in order to effect change. Under her reign, vaccination came to the Holy Roman Empire – thanks in no small part to her willingness to have her own children vaccinated. Having used her own flesh and blood to prove the efficacy of the then-unpopular concept, she began to expand the use of vaccination further, going so far as to host a dinner at her Schönbrunn Palace for the first group of children to be vaccinated. She also made provisions for the increasing of medical knowledge, creating a law that made autopsies mandatory for all hospital deaths in the city of Graz – a mandate that produced one of the most thorough records in all of Europe.
For Joseph II, public health reform was an easy decision – not only was it the humanitarian thing to do, but it also met his utilitarian goals: “healthy subjects meant a healthy state.”6 Foremost of his projects was the construction of the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, and the accompanying  Guglhupf (née  Narrenturm), the first such construction the Empire had ever seen.7 Rather than regarding the poor, the ill, and the insane as a single group that should be avoided at all costs, he saw that their problems were distinct and should be treated separately. This focus on public health went further: he opened both the Parter and the Augarten to the public, ignoring the complaints of nobles regarding the lower class invasion of their formerly private rectums. were being invaded by the lower classes.8 He also ordered the cobbling of all the streets within the Viennese city proper, and instituted both a law requiring those new streets by wetted twice a day to prevent dust and a system of prisoner labor to provide such maintenance as the city needed.9
But once again, Joseph had his failings: in the regard of public health, it was his overzealous attempt to regulate the ways in which the Viennese could bury their dead. For the sake of efficiency, he created a system by which the bodies of the dead were put in mass graves, rather than taking the amount of space and effort that individual graves required. What was universally regarded as a step too far, however, was the reusable coffin – a wooden construct into which the body would be laid. The funeral (also regulated down from a miniature Baroque pageant, in the true Viennese style, to something as time-efficient as reasonably possible) would be carried out, and then the priest would release a mechanism, opening the bottom of the coffin and unceremoniously dropping the body therein into the grave below. This affront to the sensibilities of his subjects could not be borne, and after only four months he was forced to retract the decree that created the system of reusable coffins in the first place.10
Though Joseph II is rather famous for having attempted far grander reforms than his mother, there was one area in which he left her changes largely untouched: education. This is perhaps because education was the one area in which Maria Theresia’s reforms were on the same grand scale that Joseph himself preferred to work. Education was also the area that likely would have caused her the most personal anguish, being a large break from the way she herself was raised. Under Maria Theresia, the absolute control of the Austrian education system was finally wrested from the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church and instead placed firmly under the auspices of the state. While the educational system as a whole was not secularized – Maria Theresia was a steadfast believer in the tenets of the Catholic Church, while Joseph II at least recognized the utility of religion in the daily lives of his subjects – the colleges were allowed to expand from the realm of theology, and the long-standing requirement that the students be Catholics themselves was removed. For the lower levels of education, Maria Theresia acted the caring grandmother, creating a school system based on the one used in Prussia that was mandatory from the age of 6 up until the students were 12 years old. She was quite vehement in ensuring that it would take effect, as well: those who resisted the new system were arrested. Perhaps she could have stewed less dissent if she had provided for the costs of the education, but the education was not free; though the seizure of the assets of the Jesuit Order had provided some income that was put towards the new system, this was not able to meet the full cost of the education system.11 Between the cost of textbooks and the cost of tuition itself, the newly implemented schools were none too popular with the parents of the freshly-minted students.
For Joseph, this system was apparently satisfactory. He left it almost entirely untouched, though he did reduce the stature of some of the smaller universities of the realm, judging those in Prague and Vienna to be sufficient to meet the needs of his grand bureaucracy.12 As in all things, he was a utilitarian, and intervened with the university programs to ensure that all their work was for practical purposes: “[Joseph] supported general education only to the extent that the material benefits for society were demonstrable.”13 The only large change he made came as part of a larger edict, by which the institutions of the imperial government as a whole changed their formal language from Latin (or, in some cases, the local language) to German, helping to consolidate the governance of the Empire.
Unlike in the field of education, in the realm of religion Joseph II was far more willing to create change than his mother. Under Maria Theresia, religious reform was so limited as to be nearly nonexistent. She argued that religious freedom was something that “no Catholic prince can permit without heavy responsibility,” and, by and large, wanted little to do with the regulation of the church.14 Her sole aim, with regard to the Church, was to ensure the “primacy of government control in Church-state relations.”15
Joseph II stands in contrast to her restraint towards ecclesiastical affairs. As his reign began, he issued the Patent of Tolerance, granting permission for Jews and Protestants to practice whichever religion they so chose.16 Barring certain architectural limitations, they were also permitted to construct places of worship for their religions. He was not, however, in favor of unbridled religion: even as he was allowing other to practice theirs, he began to limit the ways in which faith could be displayed. The regulations he produced, spanning everything from how long a sermon could last to how many candles were permitted at the altar, “occasionally assumed the character of pettiness.”1718 The aforementioned burial changes were a part of this crusade of efficiency, one of the most visibly unsuccessful aspects of it. But by far the largest of his religious reforms was his nationalization of roughly half of the 2,000 monasteries in Austria and the collection of some 60 million Gulden in taxes and seized assets.19 The resulting funds were placed in a Religious Fund (Religionsfond) that was used to fund the construction and maintenance of a wave of parish churches, striving for an ideal by which “no one should be more than an hour’s walk from his local church.”20
The core of Joseph’s religious reforms was the idea that Catholicism, and religion in general, was a tool of the state. There is even some evidence that he considered the foundation of a Church of Austria, taking religion from an area where it was regulated by the state to a realm in which it was directly controlled.21 As part of these efforts, he made numerous other changes to bring the Church to heel: marriage was made from an ecclesiastical into a civil procedure; the number of religious holidays recognized by the state was reduced; and joining monasteries was discouraged, in no small part by banning the taking of monastic vows before the age of 24.2223 His concept of ‘modernized Catholicism’ was not only a Catholicism obedient to the state, it was one that did as little as possible to interfere with the productivity of the populace, instead encouraging the subjects of the empire to work for the collective betterment of the state and her people.
There were other reforms, of course, though none quite so far-reaching as those mentioned above. No discussion of Maria Theresia’s changes would be complete without a mention of the “comprehensive reforms” of the Empire’s military that she was forced to make in her struggle to hold the throne.24 In order to support her new military machine, she also became responsible for the construction of a new centralized bureaucracy, “adapting ancient institutions to modern needs.”25 Many of the new institutions she created are still functional today, including “the Officers’ Military Academy at Wiener Neustadt and the ‘Theresianum’ Diplomatic College in Vienna.”26 In doing so, she increased the status of Vienna as a whole, making it even more than before the heart of the Empire.27
Of Joseph II’s reforms, many have been left unmentioned – he was rather prolific in that regard. Unlike his predecessors, who left the Baroque palaces of Vienna and Austria, he focused on the construction of public goods – hospitals, orphanages, barracks, and so on.28 He continued his mother’s expansions of the city of Vienna, not only cleaning the streets but also lighting them, and enforcing the clear labelling of streets and houses.29
Maria Theresia, known as the ‘daughter of one age and mother of another,’ marked the beginning of the Enlightenment in the Holy Roman Empire. Though she herself wasn’t fully in favor of the ideals of the era, she nonetheless made numerous changes to help modernize her realm, starting with the requisite military and bureaucratic reforms needed for her to remain on the throne, but then expanding to some civil rights reforms and the educational system for which she is still known today. Her son, Joseph II, was truly an Enlightened emperor – though one who was far less effective, in the long run, than she was, thanks to the overzealous nature of his numerous reforms. Nonetheless, between the two of them they were able to make a great deal of progress towards bringing Enlightened ideals to the Holy Roman Empire.


Kann, Robert A.: “A History of the Habsburg Empire: 1526-1918”
Lehne, Inge and Johnson, Lonnie: “Vienna- The Past in the Present: A Historical Survey”
Parsons, Nicholas: “Vienna: A Cultural History”
Rickett, Richard: “A Brief Survey of Austrian History”

  1. Lehne-Johnson, 70 
  2. Kann, 196 
  3. Kann, 198 
  4. Kann, 199 
  5. Kann, 180 
  6. Lehne-Johnson, 64 
  7. Parsons, 186-187 
  8. Lehne-Johnson, 64-66 
  9. Lehne-Johnson, 66-67 
  10. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  11. Kann, 193 
  12. Kann, 194 
  13. Kann, 192 
  14. Parsons, 176 
  15. Kann, 187 
  16. Lehne-Johnson, 61 
  17. Rickett, 65 
  18. Lehne-Johnson, 63 
  19. Parsons, 185-186 
  20. Parsons, 186 
  21. Kann, 184 
  22. Kann, 180 
  23. Kann, 189 
  24. Kann, 160 
  25. Rickett, 63-64 
  26. Rickett, 63-64 
  27. Lehne-Johnson, 58 
  28. Lehne-Johnson, 67 
  29. Lehne-Johnson, 70 
Education Travel

“Neural Audio,” or, “What I Did This Summer”

I’ve had a few people1 ask me what, exactly, I was doing all summer, off in Louisiana. As a programmer, being efficient is sort of the goal of everything I do; as such, doing a single write-up here and then sending that link to people makes more sense than answer the question over and over.2
I spent the summer working at a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Center for Computation and Technology at Louisiana State University.3 It’s a pretty cool setup they’ve got at the CCT4 – it’s not an academic unit, it’s a research group only. The building has all sorts of handy resources – all of us in the program had access to both a shared workspace for the REU students and our own individual workrooms, which varied depending on our project.5 The exciting new thing for me was the server room, which I had access to.6 There were a few machines of interest in there – HIVE, a cluster-in-progress that was devoted entirely towards art that required high-powered computation, and Titan, a machine designed for use with neural networks.
This is where I lead in to my specific research program, which wound up being titled “Neural Audio,” as above.7 The goal was basically an exploration of the use of deep neural networks for music information retrieval.
Whoops, went a bit jargon-heavy. Let’s break it down.

Deep Neural Networks

You may have heard about this one before – neural networks are the current big thing in artificial intelligence. Google uses them to power a lot of things, but the big one people have heard about is Google Photos, where deep neural networks provide the incredible search features.8 As you might guess from the name, they’re based off the structure of the human brain:9 a bunch of nodes, connected by weighted edges, which are the neurons and synapses of the artificial brain.10 Now, what’s cool about machine learning is the training: instead of sitting down and writing an algorithm to perform a task, you just build up a big data set of questions and their paired answers. Then you feed it into the system, and it learns11 how to answer the questions.
Of course, it’s not that open-ended- you can’t drop the works of Shakespeare in there and expect it to write a paper analyzing his writing style.12 They work best with categorization – you give them a set number of categories, and the network can tell you either which category something belongs to, or the percentage chance that thing falls into each category.13
Beyond that, there’s nothing fancy about neural networks – they’re just a software construct used to do a heck of a lot of math, the end result of which is an algorithm that no human could’ve designed. Cool stuff.

Music Information Retrieval

The field of MIR isn’t new, they’ve been around for a while doing cool things. It really does what it says on the tin: the idea is to be able to feed a piece of music into the software and receive useful information about the music out. Software that can recognize the key of a song being played or identify the speed at which the piece is being performed are good examples of this.14

Combining Them

My work was basically looking into combining these two fields. Machine learning can do some cool stuff, the idea went, so why not try applying it to music?
This took two forms: trying to identify the genre of a piece, and trying to identify the instruments playing in a piece.
It’s here that I’m going to hand off the explanation to another thing I was working on this summer, though as a test subject rather than a researcher: the digital poster. One of the other research groups at the CCT was working on a system to modernize the poster presentation, a staple of scientific conferences. I had the opportunity to be one of the trial-run students for the digital poster, and wound up putting together an online version as my way of wireframing what the final product would look like. Being me, I made my wireframe look just as good as the ‘official’ one, and wound up posting the whole thing online and providing a QR code on the paper poster15 that linked to the online site.


While the summer, and thus the time I had at LSU, came to an end, the work didn’t. I’m still16 trading emails with my mentor, and I’m hopefully going to be attending another conference at some point to talk about my work. In the interim, I hope to be able to get some additional work done, maybe get some more interesting data out of the machines. It’s a goal, and time will tell how well I’m able to accomplish it.
That’s about all I’m going to write here – if you want to know more, you can check out the digital poster, and if that doesn’t get you enough information, you can fire me an email, it’s grey (at) this site.17

  1. Reasonably 
  2. If I were teaching a computer science course, the first thing I’d say would be along the lines of “‘efficiency’ is just a codeword for ‘laziness that won’t get you fired.’” 
  3. Or “LSU CCT NSF REU” for out-of-order short. 
  4. I hope you read the last footnote, because I’m going to be using these short-forms of the names throughout. Efficiency! 
  5. One person had a few offices shared with graduate students working on the same program; another had a Mac lab to themselves; I was given the key to a media lab on another floor. 
  6. I found this oddly entertaining after I had to let one of the IT staff in there to reboot a server following a power failure. 
  7. I kept trying to make it “neural audio,” because I’m a millenial and thus hate capital letters, but I was overruled by my mentor. Probably for the best. 
  8. Seriously, the fact that I can search for someone’s name and have it accurately spit out a list of every photo I’ve taken with them in it is seriously impressive. The fact that I can ask for stuff like “mountain” or “car” and also get accurate results? Mind-blowing. 
  9. Though, it’s important to note that they’re not based off an accurate/current idea of how the human brain works; we’re computer scientists, not biologists. 
  10. The weighting of the edges is important, as that’s where all the magic happens. Each node, simplified down, is performing an averaging operation over all of its inputs. The output is then passed along the edges, and transformed by the weight of that edge, creating the new input for the next node. 
  11. Using a system called Stochastic Gradient Descent, which I find to be a very elegant solution the problem. (I recommend reading the previous footnote before this one.) Learning, via training goes like this: you feed the network an input, and the randomized initial weights do the processing and spit out an answer. That’s probably not the right answer, so the network will change the weights in a random ‘direction,’ and then try again. If it’s closer to the right answer, the network will change the weights in that direction again; if it was further away, it’ll try a different direction. The process of training is just repeating that operation over and over and over again. 
  12. Although, entertainingly, you can drop the entire works of Shakespeare into a neural network and have it make a spirited attempt at creating a new work in the style of Shakespeare. 
  13. That’s called softmax, and it’s pretty handy. I looked at using changing softmax results over time as a way of extracting metadata from music. 
  14. Entertainingly, some of the best examples of MIR arguably aren’t MIR at all: Gracenote, for example, the system that allows the ‘smart’ stereo systems in cars to figure out what CD you’ve just put in, is based on a ‘CD fingerprint’ that looks at the length of the tracks and when each one starts. It is possible, with a lot of effort, to design a CD that will show up as being something entirely different than it actually is. 
  15. We were all required to make traditional paper posters, regardless of our use of digital posters. 
  16. Infrequently, because time zones. 
  17. I’m not dumb enough to put my email address up on the open web, c’mon. I already get way too much spam email. 

“Cara Mia Addio”

This was a short paper I wrote about the titular song for a class on music technology, which I said at one point I might post. Here it is!
I’ve made two changes: the transitioning of my citations from a “available in my notes but not visible otherwise” to “accessible by all,” and the addition of this note.

I chose to partially ignore the “no YouTube videos” part of this assignment, because I felt that the video was an important part of the song. They were created together, after all, as part of an even larger multimedia project: Portal 2, one of the top-selling games made by one of the world’s most famous video game companies. The compositional arc of the game as a whole is fascinating: Valve’s in-house composer, Mike Morasky, wrote almost the entire soundtrack for the game1 while working closely with their programming teams. Though the soundtrack was eventually rendered down to a still form for the release of Songs to Test By, within the game they’re procedurally-generated MIDI, with pre-set starting points that are then algorithmically developed to match the gameplay in a way that’s almost guaranteed to be unique to the player. (Morasky once stated that one of the pieces only repeats itself every 76,911.3 years, roughly.)
“Cara Mia Addio” was not a procedurally generated song, though the exact method by which it was made did rely on MIDI audio. In the studio, Morasky gave McClain2 the music he’d written for the turrets to sing and a melodic line for her, and asked her to improvise the words. The resulting melody, based on what she referred to as “my terrible Italian” became the Turret Opera. Morasky edited that recording to ensure that it didn’t sound too human – the ‘singer’ within the game being a robotic gun-turret – and then fed the backing sounds into the game engine itself.
That’s what I found most interesting about this – though the scene was rendered as a video file, not running live on the game engine,3 it was built within the same game engine that ran Portal 2, Source. Valve’s in-house animating tool, now released to the public as Source Filmmaker,4 provides deep control of every aspect of the game engine. Morasky (and, presumably, some of Valve’s animators) used sounds that had already been implemented in the game engine to provide all the voices save the melodic line. If I had to guess, I’d say that the system running animation queues was based on MIDI, as that’d be the easiest way to sync the visuals with the triggered sounds.
And a final note on those triggered sounds: all of the ‘turret voice’ effects were based on McClain’s voice, meaning that she sang the full chorus and solo of the song. Quite an impressive range.

  1. A single song, “Want You Gone” was composed by Jonathan Coulton as a call-back to the piece he wrote for the first Portal, “Still Alive”.
    “Exile Vilify” was written and recorded by The National, though based on early materials given to the band by Valve, in order to match the scene in which the song would be played. 
  2. The game has very few voice actors involved – the main character, in a manner characteristic of Valve games, never speaks. Off the top of my head, there are only two other characters with repeat appearances, GLADoS and Wheatley. (A few other minor characters have lines, but nothing more than a couple of words at a time.)
    McClain, by contrast, voices GLADoS, a character who moves from ‘narrator’ to ‘ally’ to ‘antagonist’ and back fluidly, as well as providing the sounds that would be edited into the audio for all of the turrets throughout. 
  3. Citation 
  4. Citation