Lesson #403: Shepard Tones

I finally got around to watching Dunkirk today. It’s stressful. But it’s beautifully made, and there was a variation on Elgar’s ‘Nimrod‘.* Which mostly drove me crazy by pretending to be Nimrod, very slowly, for a bar or two, without ever becoming Nimrod. In looking it up later, I learned that it wasn’t actually Nimrod, which mostly exonerated it.**

Anyway, one of the way that your blood pressure gets ratcheted up in this film is the Shepard tone. Identified by cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, the Shepard tone is an auditory illusion that gives the listener the sense of a perpetually rising tone without ever actually rising. Using overlapping tones, as the scale rises the top end fades out and allows the bottom tone to pick back up very quietly as the other pitches continue to rise. It’s sort of like a round of, say, Frere Jacques, where after you’ve finished the line “ding dang dong”, you pick back up at the top of the round with “Frere Jacques” while your friend moves into the “ding dang dong” line. While this is happening, you’re quieter in the initial “Frere Jacques” and the ultimate “ding dang dong” lines, and louder in the middle “dormez-vous” and “sonnez les matines” lines. The Shepard tone is a more uniform and linear version of this idea that tricks your brain into thinking it’s continually climbing. The effect of that is a sense of mounting tension, and Dunkirk‘s composer, Hans Zimmer, uses this masterfully. You can hear it (and the snippets of Elgar) in this piece.

To hear what a Shepard tone sounds like in isolation, listen here.

For more on the theory of the Shepard tone from some BBC scientist types, see here.


*We’ve previously discussed this very piece of music.

**It is, however, a brilliant choice of music for people familiar with the wave of Elgar’s (posthumous — he died in 1934) popularity in England at the time.


Lesson #402: Combinations Locks in the Arab World

Hello, all five of you who are still subscribed to this blog! Glad you’re still here.

I’m at a bit of an intellectual standstill, so I’ve decided to return to this endeavour for 2018. Here’s a quick bite to tide you over until the new year — unless I decide to post again between now and then, in which case, you know, lucky you!

Every now and again, something will pop into my head for absolutely no reason, and it’ll be completely absurd and serve very little intellectual purpose. Not even as a question on Jeopardy!. This is one of those times.

Imagine this: it’s 11:30 pm on a weeknight. I’m getting ready to head in the direction of bed. And then this pops into my head: do combination locks in the Arab world use dial faces with the Hindi numerals on them? Do not ask me why I suddenly needed to know this at 11:30 on a weeknight. I’m as baffled by it as you are.

Now, to understand this question, it’s first important to clarify something you may not know. The numbers we use in Indo-European language (0, 1, 2, etc.) are Arabic numerals. The numbers used in Arabic are Hindi numerals. Answering this question should have been easy, but because of the subtleties of language, it was not. The internet was exactly zero help.

So I did the obvious thing and, at midnight, turned to a friend who spent years living in Jordan. We went back and forth about this for a little while. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a combination lock while in country. But in Jordan, they mostly use Arabic numerals in writing and signage, so she suggested it was likely that even if Master and similar companies do make locks with different dials, they wouldn’t be available in Jordan. But, she continued, Saudi Arabia is very strict in its usage of Hindi numerals. Obviously, the next person to ask was my Saudi friend. His response didn’t come in until the next morning because, seriously, who sends texts about lock dials at 12:30 in the morning?

In Arabic countries (and, by logical extension probably all other countries that do not use Arabic numerals), combination locks use the standard dial with Arabic numerals. Though this is as academically unreliable an answer as I’ve ever posted, it’s the best I can do with the failure of the internet to help in literally any way.

But now you know. For the zero times it will ever come up again.

A quick update

I’m crazy busy this semester. I’ve accidentally overextended myself and there’s no way to pull it back. So there won’t likely be much here until the end of April.

But here’s a quick update of what’s going on in my learning world:

1. I’m in the process of researching a paper on whether FIFA, as an international organization, are doing enough, under the UN’s “responsibility to protect” (R2P) mandate, to protect football fans in conflict zones.

2. There’s a very good chance I’ll be in Sarajevo for the summer.

3. There are not enough hours in my day. This weekend I’m turning off my phone, avoiding my friends, and trying to get 75 hours worth of work done in 55.

Lesson #401 (sort of): Serbia’s Ultras Problem

I turned in my term paper for my Ethnic and Cultural Conflict class today (three days early!). I’m really pleased with how it turned out on its fourth iteration. It began as an examination of football clubs’ interactions as reflections of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian relations with one another. Then it was how Croatian and Serbian football clubs’ interactions with each other and with European fans is reflective of the overall regional politics. Then it was how football violence in Croatia and Serbia is reflective of each country’s position in Europe. And finally it was what it is…

an explanation of contemporary Serbian politics using four football matches: Croatia/Serbia in March of last year (how Serbia is coping with its lingering resentments and learning to work with its traditional rival); Partizan/Tottenham in September (how the rise of the right is spurring anti-Semitism and homophobia in Serbia); Serbia/Albania in mid-October (how the Kosovo question is affecting Serbia’s relationship with the EU and why its transition has been so slow); and Partizan/Red Star at Halloween (how Serbia is allowing its ultras to destroy it from within).

Short version: all of Serbia’s current political troubles stem from using football ultras groups as paramilitary units during the Homeland and Bosnian Wars.*

It’s 15 pages of awesome. That I had to work for.


…good research will get you everywhere. If I hadn’t done the leg work, paring down enough to get a *good* paper into 15 pages would have been impossible.

*You’re either going to have to trust me on that or do the research yourself. I’ve done the work.

Lesson #400: Yugoslavia’s Dwindling Football League

I’m  writing a paper on how, as Serbia is Europeanized as it moves towards EU membership, football hooliganism is the last outlet for expressing lingering ethno-cultural anger. And I am learning all sorts of interesting stuff about the way football operated in the former Yugoslavia. For example:

Eager to maintain some sense of “normalcy”, and despite the fact that six teams from Croatia (5) and Slovenia (1) had already withdrawn from the league, the Yugoslav League continued the business of football through the first two seasons of the war in Croatia (and the first season of the war in Bosnia) with an ever-dwindling number of teams in its league as teams withdrew — or, in the case of Željezničar Sarajevo, abandoned the league when their stadium was destroyed. The Yugoslav League collapsed after the 1992-93 season.*

I find that fascinating. The article that information comes from also talks about how for the big teams in the top flight, getting to and from matches in the months leading up to the war wasn’t particularly difficult since they could fly from Belgrade to Zagreb, but for second division teams and smaller first tier teams that traveled by bus, getting to away matches in Croatia was a lot of crossing your fingers and hoping no one killed you on the way. Which is mad.

*This comes from Richard Mills’ article, ‘It All Ended in an Unsporting Way’: Serbian Football and the Disintegration of Yugoslavia, 1989-2006.



Lessons #398-399: Sleep Sneezing and Milk Frogs

Right…end of semester. You know how it is. So…two very interesting links about things that I’ve learned this week.

1. As I was drifting off to sleep the other night, I sneezed. Which got me to wondering whether people sneeze in their sleep. To my knowledge I’ve never heard it. It turns out, you cannot sneeze in your sleep because your brain shuts that area of your brain down. You can read about that here.

2. Before refrigeration was a thing that existed, people put frogs in their milk to preserve it. Which is gross on so many levels, but apparently is totally scientifically sound. You can read more about that here.

Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Do Research

I’ve been down the research rabbit hole this week; it’s been nice being back in an environment where I’m doing grown-up research. To that end, I’m currently working on earning the seething contempt of my third Interlibrary Loan office; Monday, I sent them 45 article requests. To their credit they didn’t come back to me with an email that just said, “Are you fucking kidding me with this right now?”*

Here’s the thing about research: it’s a skill. And it’s a learned skill. Some of it you can learn from someone else — we all had that research unit in grade 7 English, right? — and some of it you pick up as you go. I know how to learn what I want to know because I’ve spent years learning by trial and error how to find the information in the first place.

Here’s what I’ve learned that no one taught me (and would have been useful information to have):



1. You have to be flexible – sometimes the information you want doesn’t exist or can’t be obtained (I’m running into this problem with a particular special journal issue on football in the post-Yugoslavia/war Balkans…which would be a huge asset because one of my term papers is on how inter-club football politics in the Balkans are reflective of the broader ethnic and political tensions of the region). Sometimes that means you’ll have to change topics; sometimes — like in the case of my football paper — it just means that you’ll be shy a few potentially valuable sources. Rigid research is your enemy. Rigid research will kill your paper because you’ll either be under-researched or off-topic. Be flexible, and you’ll be okay.

2. Preliminary research will make or break your paper – an hour of time spent in preliminary research will save you three scrambling hours down the road. You can’t fake sources (well, you can, I guess, but that’s generally frowned upon); if your scope was too narrow in the preliminary phase, your research will be lacking. It is much easier to grab too much in the preliminary stage and sort through it than it is to scramble to find more in the writing stage.

3. Embrace your sources – Use every database you have available to you (within reason…there’s no need to search the education databases if you’re writing on Russia/Ukraine politics), get acquainted with Google Scholar**, make friends with the Interlibrary Loan librarians. The ILL librarians are the best allies you’ve got; they’re the ones getting you the sources you can’t readily access so be good to them.


Preliminary research:

4. The right keywords are everything – if you’re searching the wrong keywords, you’re finished before you start. Consider any and all alternate wordings — for the above paper, I didn’t just search football together with Balkan or Yugoslavia, I also searched with Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and, independently, clubs specific to Sarajevo, Zagreb and Split, Belgrade, and Ljubljana. Consider eliminating unnecessary words that could expand your search results — transnational crime will return more results than transnational organized crime.

5. You have to start big – you can have an idea of what your paper is on, but — and this is especially in grad school where you’re given a lot of leeway to study what interests you — until you know what information is available to you, you don’t really know what you’re writing about. It might seem like the best thing to do is start with the topic and work your way out, but if you’re looking at the bigger picture, it’s much easier to see connections you might otherwise have missed. One of the papers I’ve been doing research for this week started as a paper on transnational organized crime in conflict zones, but my prelim research showed me that I’d do well to do a comparative study of TOC in Turkey and Nigeria.

6. You have to be picky straight away – because you’re starting big, you also have to be picky or you’ll be overwhelmed by how much information there is. Limit by date. Limit by region. Limit by economy. Limit by something, but limit. I started with the idea of TOC in conflict zones, which is a huge topic. But I’m also looking at post- 9/11 governance, so my research doesn’t need to include anything before about 2004 because global governance prior to that is outdated. There, in the click of a mouse, I’ve significantly reduced the number of sources I need to review.

7. You have to see the patterns – if you’ve done your research properly, your topic is somewhere in your results, but you’re going to have to sift through to find it. The fastest way to do this is to review titles. Look for the similarities, look for what can be tied to current or historical events, look for patterns and trends within the scholarship. Toss the results that don’t fit your topic or are so tangentially related that you won’t be touching on the subject matter. Save things that you’re on the fence about; most of them will be superfluous information, but some will be useful. Usually, for me this category is broader material that gets used mostly as background information.


Topic research:

8. You have to develop the ability to judge a source quickly – unless you’re doing your thesis or dissertation research, you don’t have time to read every article that’s tangentially related to your topic, so you have to develop your skill at deciding at a glance whether a source will be useful and, if so, how useful it will be. Sometimes, the title tells you what you need to know. “International Drug Trafficking and the National Security of Turkey” can’t really be much clearer on its topic. Often, the abstract is your best friend. If your source has an abstract, read it; it will tell you what the article is about. Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you don’t even have to read the abstract, you just scan it for keywords.

9. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) read every word – sources that are most related to your work you’ll read (mostly) word for word; sources that are less related you’ll learn to skim to find the information relevant to what you’re writing about. Figuring out which sources fall into which category is a skill you’ll have to pick up with time.

10. Pay attention to the sources your sources cite – sometimes, you’ll come across multiple sources that all cite Source X. Get Source X if you don’t already have it; there’s a reason it’s being cited repeatedly. Sometimes, depending on your discipline, the list of sources your source provides might be very useful in locating governmental documents you didn’t know existed — especially if you’re dealing in foreign governments like I usually am.

I can’t stress enough the importance of scanning the works cited/bibliography page of an article or book. No matter how good your prelim research is, you’re always going to miss something, and there is no better way to collect valuable sources you’ve overlooked than the works cited/bibliography.

11. Sort as you go – sorting your research as you go means that you can more easily see the patterns and connections that will make up the bulk of your argument. Not only will this better direct your focus as you’re working through your sources (which will lead to a better argued paper), if you’re doing it right, your research will write your paper for you. My thesis for my first MA was 170 pages. I wrote it in roughly 72 total hours over about 12 days. Yes, it had to be edited some, but because of the way I’d done my research***, the entire thing all but wrote itself.


In the end, the reason I’m better at research than most people is because I’m more efficient at research than most people. I’ve taught myself how to streamline the process. I also don’t find research especially difficult; it’s time consuming and requires hard work, but it isn’t difficult. And it certainly doesn’t have to be a tedious slog.


*And to the credit of the ILL librarians at the schools where I did my first MA and my PhD work, they never did either and I sent them on much more difficult searches. “There’s one copy of this book in the world…it’s in Denmark…go!”

**You. Guys. Google Scholar is the. best.

***Full disclosure: I still use notecards for book research. I also use highlighters, flags, margin notes, notes on scraps of paper, random stars, and a handful of other things to sort and organize my research so that when it comes time for the writing, I can whip out a nearly-fully formed graduate thesis in less than two weeks.