Waltz for Richard

Japanese couple Cristian Lopez (R) and N

Crotchety Man used to write software for a living. Writing good software is hard and he enjoyed the intellectual challenge. Like other forms of writing, producing good code is also very much an art, which added considerably to the pleasure. For Young Man Crotchety programming was both a job and a hobby.

Early in his career Crotchety Man joined an association of like-minded programming enthusiasts and he still follows its free-and-easy, “general chat” mailing list. Religion and politics are off-limits on that list but anything else is fair game and topics unrelated to software do occasionally turn up there. Recently, there was a post that mentioned an academic paper about intelligence.

sexist AI?

I didn’t read the paper itself but, from following the email thread, I gather that it was proposing a possible explanation for a curious observation: there’s a greater variation in the intelligence of men than in women. The researchers had built a mathematical model of intelligence in a population where men and women were under different levels of natural selection pressure. They concluded that their model, although far from conclusive, was consistent with the observed data on real people.

If we accept the paper’s analysis (a big ‘if’) we must conclude that the most intelligent and least intelligent people are mainly men, and that this effect may be entirely genetically determined. This sparked a long and and, at times, prickly debate. One writer in particular was vehemently opposed to any suggestion that men and women differ in intelligence in any way, seeing other opinions as rampant sexism. His name is Richard.

The debate rambled on for some time. A number of pertinent points were raised but the pot was simmering precariously close to boiling point when a couple of lighter, cooling diversions were introduced. (Apparently, there are at least 6 viable human karyotypes: the most common are 45X, 46XX, 47XXY, 46XY, 47XYY and 48XXXY.) The digression relevant to this blog, though, concerns music. In particular, a song called Intelligence was mentioned and so was this delightful video of First Aid Kit performing their Waltz for Richard in a Melbourne street.

First Aid Kit are sisters Klara (vocals, guitar) and Johanna Söderberg (vocals, keyboards, Autoharp, bass guitar). They started to sing together and write their own songs as teenagers, performing in the streets of their home town of Stockholm. In 2007 they sent a demo to a Swedish radio station which not only played the song but called it one of the best songs of the summer. At this time Klara, the younger sister, was just 14 years old.

The duo were soon signed to a Swedish record label under conditions that gave them full control over their music and album art. They released their first EP, Drunken Trees, in April 2008. By the end of that year they had both quit school, signed with a bigger record label and performed for the first time outside Sweden. Their first full album, The Big Black and the Blue, was released early in 2010 and it was promoted with an extensive tour of the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Europe.


First Aid Kit: Johanna and Klara Söderberg

Waltz for Richard is a track from that debut album. It’s just an unremarkable folk song: a simple melody accompanied by a solo acoustic guitar and delicate two-part vocal harmonies. As a track on an album of folk songs it doesn’t stand out. But the video has recorded a few minutes of personal magic in the lives of Klara and Johanna and that, thanks to YouTube, is something we can all treasure.

Into every life a little rain must fall and, sometimes, it brightens the day in a way that sunshine never could.

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