LIL Talks: Synthesizer

This week Ben Steinberg took us on a strange and magical trip through the world of synthesizers.

Ben wasn’t talking about those Casio keyboards we all had as kids:

No, he was talking about this kind of thing … a self-built modular synthesizer:

Before showing off the hardware, Ben first asked us to ponder: what is sound? For Ben, it’s the neurological, psychological, cultural, social phenomenon that occurs when waves of compression and attenuation hit the insides of your ears. And then the sounds began, starting with a simple sine wave. Ben showed us what happens as you adjust the frequency on the sine wave, and explained that humans can hear frequencies ranging from 20 to 20,000 Hz.

(Did you know? There’s a device businesses (like malls) can use to emit “a high-pitched sound that drives teens crazy but can’t be heard by most adults over 25.” It’s called “The Mosquito.”)

Ben then introduced us to control voltage, envelopes, voltage-controlled oscillators (VCOs), voltage-controlled amplifiers (VCAs), and low frequency oscillators (LFOs). Look them up if you want to know more, but here’s the kind of sounds they make:

All of these effects conspire to produce the “timbre,” which is the quality of the sound produced by the distribution of frequencies within it. And you can add filters — like “low-pass,” “high-pass,” “bandpass,” and “notch” filters — to create even more interesting sound effects, like the effect created by a wah-wah pedal. And if that’s not enough, Ben showed us a cool, minimalistic interface called a monome grid, which you can use to trigger different sound patterns and effects:

Ben wrapped up with a discussion of the “most interesting” sounds. To him, these are the ones that aren’t simulating other sounds and don’t sound like anything else. They sound like “machines playing themselves.”

For a sample, visit Ben’s own sound machine on the web:

Thanks Ben!

LIL Talks: Seltzer!

In this week’s LIL talk, Matt Phillips gave us an effervescent presentation on Seltzer, followed by a tasting.

We tasted

  • Perrier – minerally, slightly salty, big bubbles with medium intensity
  • Saratoga – varied bubble size, clean… Paul says that this reminds him of typical German seltzers
  • Poland Springs – soft, smooth, sweet and clean
  • Gerolsteiner – Minerally with low carbonation
  • Borjomi – Graphite, very minerally, small bubbles, funk

Of course, throughout the conversation, we discussed the potential for the bottles affecting our opinions. We agreed that for a truly objective comparison, we’d transfer the samples to generic containers.

Though our tech and law talks are always educational and fun, our carbonated water talk was a refreshing change.

LIL Talks: A Small Study of Epic Proportions

(This is a guest post by John Bowers, a student at Harvard College who is collaborating with us on the Entropy Project. John will be a Berktern here this Summer.)

In last week’s LIL talk, team member and graduating senior Yunhan Xu shared some key findings from her prize-winning thesis “A Small Study of Epic Proportions: Toward a Statistical Reading of the Aeneid.” As an impressive entry into the evolving “digital humanities” literature, Yunhan’s thesis blended the empirical rigor of statistical analysis with storytelling and interpretive methods drawn from the study of classics.

The presentation dealt with four analytical methodologies applied in the thesis. For each, Yunhan offered a detailed overview of tools and key findings.

\1. Syntactic Analysis. Yunhan analyzed the relative frequencies with which different verb tenses and parts of speech occur across the Aeneid’s 12 books. Her results lent insight into the “shape” of the epic’s narrative, as well as its stylistic character in relation to other works.

\2. Sentiment Analysis. Yunhan used sentiment analysis tools to examine the Aeneid’s emotional arc, analyze the normative descriptive treatment of its heroes and villains, and differentiate—following more conventional classics scholarship—the tonality of its books.

\3. Topic Modeling. Here, Yunhan subjected existing bipartite and tripartite “partitionings” of the Aeneid to statistical inquiry. By applying sophisticated topic modelling techniques including Latent Dirichlet Allocation and Non-Negative Matrix Factorization, she made a compelling case for the tripartite interpretation. In doing so, she added a novel voice to a noteworthy debate in the classics community.

\4. Network Analysis. By leveraging statistical tools to analyze the coincidence of and interactions between the Aeneid’s many characters, Yunhan generated a number of compelling visualizations mapping narrative progression between books in terms of relationships.

In the closing minutes of her presentation, Yunhan reflected on the broader implications of the digital humanities for the study of classics. While some scholars remain skeptical of the digital humanities, Yunhan sees enormous potential for collaboration and coevolution between the new way and the old.

LIL Talks: 1924 Democratic Convention by Caitlin

On May 5th, 2017 Caitlin went in depth on the intricacies of the 1924 Democratic Convention (also known as the ‘Klanbake’).

In the 20s the democratic primary had a significantly different process than it does today. Back then only 12 state had primaries, the rest of the delegates were selected through state-level caucuses and conventions that were tightly controlled by political machines.

Going into the Primary, the ecosystem of the United States was divided and often heated. At a glance:

  • Prohibition had been in effect since 1920 and there were 20,000+ violation cases. Coincidentally grape juice sales skyrocketed during this time.

Unknown. (October 1931). Labor union members in Newark, New Jersey march against Prohibition. [Photograph]. Retrieved from John Binder Collection. (date unknown). Anti-Saloon League rally. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

  • Coolidge signed the immigration act of 1924 which limited the number of immigrants admitted into the US to 2% of people from that country that were living in the US as of the 1870 census. This was primarily aimed at Southern & Eastern Europeans (ie: Italians and Jews). Immigrants from Africa and Asia were outright banned.

  • The Ku Klux Klan was at its peak with an estimated 3–8 million members. The Klan’s platform at that time was to have a country that was white, Protestant and immigrant-free.

There were two front-runners of the Primary.

William McAdoo:

Harris & Ewing. (Between 1905 and 1945). William G. McAdoo, half-length portrait, facing slightly left. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

He was the former treasury secretary in Wilson’s administration and Wilson’s son-in-law. He had the popular vote, was favored by the labor unions and formally accepted the Klan’s support. His supporters were generally: southern, western, rural, Protestant & dry (pro-prohibition)

Governor Al Smith:

Harris & Ewing. (Between 1905 and 1945). Smith, Alfred. Honorable. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

He was the NY Governor at the time and had entered the race primarily block McAdoo for the western & urban political base. He was backed by the NY political machine Tammany Hall, and his supporters were generally: northern, urban, Catholic & wet (anti-prohibition).

The convention was held at Madison Sq Garden on June 24th, 1924. A 2/3 vote was needed to select a candidate and in order to accomplish that the convention lasted for 16 days and 103 ballots until a consensus was reached. The convention was PACKED and the Washington Post described it as full of “Tammany shouters, Yiddish chanters, vaudeville performers, saga Indians, hulu dancers, street cleaners, firemen, policemen, movie actors & actresses, bootleggers, 1,098 delegates and 15 presidential candidates.”

Underwood & Underwood. (June 20, 1924). Transfigured Interior of Madison Square Garden Ready for Biggest Convention in History!. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

There were fist flights on the floor between pro- and anti-Klan delegates. The Tammany Machine stacked the crowd with paid protestors filling the are with the sounds of thousands of people with drums, tubas, trumpets and electric fire sirens in support of Smith after FDR gave his nominating speech.

Apic/Getty Images. (June 1924). Convention nationale democrate. [Photograph]. Retrieved from

After 16 days neither McAdoo or Smith won. John W. Davis, a candidate from West Virginia, was the eventual compromise.

However in the end it was all for nothing; Calvin Coolidge won the 1924 presidential election and Davis only captured about 26% of the total vote.

LIL Talks: Parsing Caselaw

In last week’s LIL talk, expert witness Adam Ziegler took the stand to explain the structure of legal opinions and give an overview of our country’s appellate process.

First on the docket was a general overview of our country’s judicial structure, specifically noting the similarities between our federal and state systems, which both progress from district courts, to appellate courts, to supreme courts.

Next, we dissected several cases which would eventually be heard by the US Supreme Court. While some elements, such as a list of attorneys and the opinion text, are standard in all cases, each court individually decides how their cases will be formatted. They are, however, often forced to work within the guidelines and workflows specified by their contracted publishers.

In our Caselaw Access Project, we’re working on friendlier, faster, totally open, and more data-focused systems for courts to publish opinions. For more information, please send an email to:

Privacy Concerns vs. Traditions – When the World Changes Around You

(This is a guest post from the amazing Jessamyn West, who we’re lucky to have with us this year as a Research Fellow.)

I live in a town of 4500 people. Like most towns in Vermont we have an annual Town Meeting. We vote by Australian Ballot on things like budgets, but there’s time at the end of the meeting for Other Business. This year we discussed whether Randolph should become a sanctuary town. Another topic was the annual publication of the names of people who hadn’t paid their taxes at the time of the town report’s publication. I can remember being a kid and seeing these names in my own hometown town report, often of our town’s poorest residents. I always found the “name and shame” aspect of it troubling, though I know that others feel this is a necessary sanction to insure that taxes get paid promptly.

At this year’s Town Meeting we discussed whether the town should continue to publish the names of people with delinquent taxes in the town report. Delinquent taxes make up about 3% of the town’s tax revenue. You can see the list yourself, it’s on page 35 of this 37 MB document. People had varying opinions of the positive or negative aspects of this practice. A few people said “We’ve always done it that way.” I rarely speak at Town Meeting–I feel my opinions are often already well-represented–but this time I asked to speak and said “We may have always done it this way, but the world has changed. The town now puts the PDF of the town report online which it has been doing since 2010. This means it’s potentially indexed by Google which has been indexing PDFs for the past few years. People who are late on taxes are now perpetually Googleable as scofflaws.”

(Photo by Ramsey Papp. Used with permission.)

I should note at this point that I am aware that there are technical solutions for avoiding Google indexing that are not realistic within the scope of how our town manages their web content.

I went on to say that the people who show up on these lists are often people having trouble; two of the listings from this year are a man and his estate, clearly a person who has died. Most of the people in my area, especially my older, poorer and more rural neighbors, have almost no online footprint. This would give them one, a bad one. I concluded “We should not do this to them.”

The vote was close, the voice vote wasn’t conclusive so we had to do a standing vote. In the end we recommended that the selectboard look into discontinuing this practice. We might even wind up with some sort of compromise solution like the names being posted in the Town Hall but not on the internet. The fight for privacy, online and offline, is taking place everywhere. Make sure you speak up when you see a way that you could help.

LIL Talks: Ania

We were fortunate to have Harvard scholar (and LIL friend) Ania Aizman talk to us about Anarchism. She clarified what it was, discussed some of its different branches and how they overlap with familiar groups/events like the Occupy movement.

We discussed “mic checks” and dug into the emergence of anarchism in Russian history. Her absorbing talk took us right to the end of our available time – thanks Ania!

LIL Talks: Adam

Adam shared two different topics on February 24, 2017 — Mardi Gras and how to be deposed.

Adam grew up in New Orleans and it was clear from his talk that the gravity of MG still pulled on him.

Adam reviewed the history of the yearly celebration and highlighted the fascinating tradition of the social orgs that fuel the celebration — the krewes.

The thing that stuck with me a week later as i reflect on Adam’s talk — Mardi Gras is different things to different people. For wild, party seeking, spring breakers, it’s one thing. And, for families that march as high school band members, and for community leaders (in and far away from the French Quarter) that network by shaking a ten thousand hands — it’s another thing.

Hard Right Turn — It’s a two for one talk today!!

Adam also used his experience as a practicing litigator to instruct us on how to behave when being deposed. Fascinating!! Adam shared his guidelines — something like, 1/ tell the truth; 2/ take your time when responding to the question; 3/ only respond to the question by being focused in your response.

We watched three entertaining and engrossing depositions — Joe Jamail, Lil Wayne (oh, I wish he had a library rhyme. please, please, please toss us a bone Lil wayne!!), Donald Trump — and enjoyed king cake and coffee!

LIL talks: Andy

We started a weekly series where members and friends of the LIL team teach us about something they are interested in.

Last Friday, Andy showed us how to make homemade mayo and aioli: