Friday, January 30, 2015

In Popular Music, Good Means Accessible and Original Is Mostly Impossible.

A few days ago, rising pop star Sam Smith and his legal team added the songwriters of "I Won't Back Down" (1989), Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, as co-writers to his single, "Stay With Me" (2014). While the key and tempo are different between the two songs, the melody and chord progression are similar enough to potentially cause legal trouble for the latter song's writers.

Several decades ago, George Harrison lost a copyright infringement lawsuit because his "My Sweet Lord" was very similar to Ronnie Mack's "He's So Fine." There have been many cases (and non-cases) before and since regarding similarities between songs, whether intentionally plagiarized or by accident.

In conventional Western music, there are 12 pitches ("notes") in however many octaves that can be played and, especially, heard. Counting double-sharps and double-flats, there are 35 note names, but they are the same 12 pitches (e.g., A double-sharp, B, and C-flat refer to the same pitch, in most cases). At the very basic level, a piece of music consists of a melody, a time signature implied by the melody (e.g., 4/4 meter), and a harmony (i.e., chord progression) also implied by the melody. With those elements in place, a piece of music can easily be transposed to a different key and/or changed in tempo -- and it would still be the same piece of music.

The conventional "wisdom" of having 12 notes is that accidental similarities are an inevitability. This is a misleading statement mathematically, but it is shorthand for a deeper societal truth*:

Let's get the math (as much as I can understand and explain) out of the way. Yes, there are only 12 notes in conventional Western music, with micro-tones used in passing (e.g., slides and vibrato) or by accident (e.g., bad performances). There are, if I'm thinking correctly, 48 possible triads, that is, major chords, minor chords, diminished chords, and augmented chords. There are possibly several hundred variations, additions, subtractions, inversions, and substitutions of these 48 triads (e.g., suspended 4th chords, root-5th power chords, dominant 7th chords, etc.). There is an exponential amount of variation when creating melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, and associated rhythms (e.g., whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.), and time signatures (e.g., 3/4, 4/4, 6/8, 5/4, etc.).

With myriads-upon-myriads of possibilities, statistically speaking, accidental similarities should not be inevitability. However, cultural standards tend to definite which combinations are "good" and which combinations are "bad." Let's try to define the word good, at least for this topic. Artistic endeavors, from music to visuals to food, cannot be judged by an objective good, but rather a more subjective scale of accessibility. Music theory limits culturally pleasing melodies/harmonies to defined scales and modes, with room for related scales and modulations. Popular music tends to limit which combinations of melody and meter are accessible to audiences, mostly regardless of genre. Genre conventions tend to limit which arrangements of instrumentation are good for genre (the fuzzy overdrive of hard rock guitar vs. the heavy distortion of metal guitar, or hip hop's use of samples and programmed beats vs. country's fiddles and twangy vocals), but the accessibility of melody/harmony and rhythm tend to be the same across all genres of popular music.

The deeper societal/cultural/pop cultural truth is that a very small combination of pitches and beats (and words, usually) can be considered accessible to audiences. If melodies, harmonies, and time signatures could be generated purely randomly, with no algorithms to adhere to cultural conventions -- there's probably and app for that -- I can guess that less than 1% of these musical combinations might be hit songwriting, perhaps 10% might have potential for some audience appeal (with major adjustments), but the rest might be off-key, inaccessible musical gibberish. This app would generate a lot of original ideas, but the current culture would judge a lot of that as inaccessible and weird -- except for a very small audience, if any, who would be into experimental things.

*I've put an asterisk earlier for the TL;DR point of the blog post: Conventional Western music has only 12 notes, and because of cultural limitations, accidental similarities among songs are inevitable. Assuming there was no intentional plagiarism involved, that's why "Stay With Me" sounds so much like "I Won't Back Down." That's why the bulk of recent (the past several decades) of pop music -- from dance pop to rock to R&B to country -- boils down to a soup of sameness. That's why popular recording artists tend to repeat themselves, their audiences love them for that, and there's a lot of money to be made.

In popular music, as with all artistic endeavors in popular culture, good really means accessible, and original is mostly impossible with contemporary audiences. Original is for the future and alternate realities. Original is for artists with no current audience, with a very real possibility of no future audience, ever.

My bad real advice: Be accessible.

My good advice: Be original.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Defining Marriage -- and the Number Two -- for the Next Ten Thousand Years

As an ordained-on-the-Internet minister for nearly 14 years, I have figured out a mostly timeless definition of marriage, as far as any government is concerned:

For the purposes of taxation and spousal benefits (et cetera), the government of [insert nation-state here] shall define marriage as the civil union of two non-closely related, consenting, adult, living persons.

Most of this blog post really isn't about marriage. It's about defining the words that define our definitions. Okay, let's parse the following in this order:
1. Persons
2. Living
3. Adult
4. Consenting
5. Non-closely related
6. Two
7. Civil union

Who is a person? A modern human being is a person. An archaic human being, like a Neanderthal, was probably a person. A space alien who purposely traveled to Earth might be a person. An angel might be a person. A demon might be a person. A robot with human-level intelligence (or higher) might be a person. A god might be a person.

Sapience should define personhood, generally speaking. Sapience, not just sentience. Sapience is a cut above sentience. Sentience basically means consciousness and awareness, like any animal with a nervous system. I must have read this on Wikipedia, but in the Harry Potter universe, centaurs are a sapient race. Instead of being counted as persons, a category of legal status that includes humans and goblins and whatnot, the centaur race chose to be counted as beasts, another legal status that includes non-speaking magical animals and regular animals.

If a being is sapient enough to choose to be counted as a person, or choose to not be counted as a person, then that being is obviously a person.

What is being alive? Obviously, living things are alive. Biologically alive things are alive, even if unconscious or comatose. Is there a consensus whether self-replicating viruses are alive? Undead things might be alive. Vampires might be alive; they might be living persons. Zombies might be alive, but they probably cannot declare personhood for themselves, depending on what kind of zombie they are. Ghosts and spirits that can communicate with the general world of the living might be considered living persons. Sapient artificial intelligence might be alive.

If a thing seems alive, then it probably is alive (no guarantees).

Who is an adult? Adulthood is a number, an age, a line, that is determined by the society in which a person lives. Like life and personhood (and every other term we're defining), adulthood has a fluid definition. Is biological maturity considered adulthood? Is emotional maturity considered adulthood? 18? 21? 25? 500?

If a person commits a crime and is tried as an adult, then that person might be an adult but might not be an adult. It's complicated.

What is consent? Yes is consent. However, a coerced yes is not consent. Does a subtly manipulated yes count as consent? How about a yes brought about by duty and cultural norms? How about a yes caused by propaganda? How about a yes caused by pop culture? Do free will and moral agency even exist?

If both (or all) parties have a similar belief in free will, or the lack thereof, then consent is possible. Possibly.

How can we determine close relations? Members of an immediate family are close relations: Parent/child and sibling/sibling. Direct line of ancestry and descent are close relations, plus or minus several generations. First cousins are close relations, depending on the culture. Anything beyond that is non-closely related, hopefully. Keep in mind that a person has an exponential amount of ancestors (two biological parents, four grands, eight greats, etc., with redundancies), and that person has the potential to have a multitude of direct descendants (children, grands, great-grands, etc.). Time travelers beware.

If both parties are neither siblings, parent/child, grandparent/grandchild, great-grandparent/great-grandchild, or first cousins within (let's say) four generations, then they're not closely-related. Your mileage may vary.

What is two? Two is one plus one. Conjoined twins are two people, as defined by having separate brains, separate nervous systems, and having an overall separate sense of self. (Conjoined twins are also closely related, which goes without saying.) A person with a multiple-personality mental illness is one person, with one brain, and one consciousness -- and arguably, one personality at a time. A person possessed by a legion of demons, on the other hand, might be one or many, but that person does not have consent, moral agency, or control over his/her body. The legion of demons can probably be separated into individual evil spirits. The monotheistic Christian triune God is another matter altogether.

If a person has his/her own sense of self, due to having one's own brain (or soul/spirit/essence/operating system, for the disembodied), then that person is one. Double that amount of one, and the number becomes two.

Hopefully you noticed that I tried to avoid any language that refers to gender. In order to be timeless for the next ten thousand years, we must accommodate all persons -- humans, aliens, angels, demons, gods, monsters, robots, etc. -- regardless of gender, or lack thereof (e.g., angels and robots).

What is a civil union? This is where I stop most of my hyperbole and try to write something actually relevant to the world today. A civil union isn't holy matrimony, and the government stuff involved should be kept separate from any religious stuff. This specifically applies to the United States of America, and hopefully other present-day countries, as well as societies in the future, with religious freedoms.

I've read various people's opinions, and a common complaint is that they don't want the word marriage to be used when referring to the union of same-sex couples. Beside the context of their own denominational theology, these commenters seem to be hung up by the modern English word marriage. Specific words in specific languages are relatively temporary bits of communication. In the next ten thousand years, the word marriage might not even be spelt or pronounced that way at all. In any case, since state and federal governments involve themselves with joint tax returns and spousal benefits, a simple catch-all term like marriage would be pretty efficient (as far as governments and bureaucracies are concerned). A term like civil union would be equally efficient, as long as it is applied to all unions of two non-closely related, consenting, adult, living persons.

A second common complaint, which has happened in the real world, involves businesses that are open to the public, but these businesses to not want to be vendors at same-sex weddings -- or inter-species weddings or asynchronous chrononaut weddings, sorry for the hyperbole -- due to the religious beliefs of the business owners. Is this a legal "no shoes, no shirt, no service"-type of situation? Or is this an illegal Jim Crow-type situation? Are "no shoes, no shirt, no service" signs actually legal? Are de jure and de facto policies of apartheid still around today?

Perhaps a reasonable compromise can be reached. A business open to the public must serve the public. A business that requires paid memberships might be able to be more picky about their customers, to a certain extent. A business that is wholly owned by a church/religious organization should be able to draw the line against same-sex weddings (and unions between humans and angels/demons/vampires/robots/talking horses). Then again, my proposed solution is probably full of loopholes and complications.

The TL;DR (too long; didn't read) message of this blog post is basically the same for all my recent posts: Be kind, and if you can't be kind, be clinical (i.e., how does this issue honestly affect your life?).

Photo from my Instagram profile: Yes, my middle name is Jeffrey.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Contrary to Popular Belief, War Is Civilized.

"To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems," said Homer Simpson, in an episode of The Simpsons.

Civilization is not sustainable.

Sometime last decade, as noted in various parts of this blog, I read the Ishmael books by Daniel Quinn. To summarize, Ishmael is a telepathic gorilla who critiques the ins and outs of human civilization, and his students do the same. Basically, the gorilla is a mouthpiece for the author's point of view.

I enjoyed the books; I recommend you read at least the first one, if you haven't already. I liked the sequel better, but I didn't really enjoy the one without the gorilla as much. Then there's the one with short essays, without any storyline. Attempted affiliate marketing* aside, the main point of the books is that civilization is not sustainable, and there are other ways for humans to live because there is no one right way to live -- or something like that.

As I tried to state before, I enjoyed the books, found the ideology interesting, but ultimately forgot about mostly everything -- for years. A few months ago, I read a compilation that condensed most of the books I mentioned earlier, as well as other books by Quinn. This time around, I compared what the author was saying with what was (and is) going on in the world today. I am, for the time being, convinced that civilization is not sustainable.

First, we have to define what civilization is. To paraphrase Quinn (and his telepathic gorilla), civilization is keeping food under lock and key. It's trading time and energy for money, trading money for food (and other necessities, as well as non-necessities), and repeating the process. It's the few at the top, and the many at the bottom -- whether feudalism, capitalism, or communism in practice. It is the belief that there is only one right way to live, which ironically competes with itself in defining that one right way to live. Western, eastern, northern, or southern -- civilization is mostly global in its basic sameness.

Since I'm neither at the top-top nor at the bottom-bottom of civilization, I must admit that I enjoy the comforts of existing in a civilized society. I can't very well blog bloggedy blog blog here without this history of technological advances and relative accessibility. There is a nagging thought, however, that many of civilization's achievements are merely solutions to civilization's problems. The prevalence of mental illness might be attributed to civilization. In turn, civilization has provided treatments for mental illness. The advances of civilization has caused pollution, which can be linked to health problems. In turn, civilization has provided modern medicine. Since food is under lock and key, we the civilized might as well process a lot of it, causing another set of health problems. In turn, we the civilized have created a market for fad diets and trendy exercise routines. "The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems," indeed.

And that's just the low-hanging fruit of civilization's problems and solutions.

Contrary to popular belief, and idiomatic language usage, war is civilized. Warfare usually happens because of one of civilization's central tenets: There is only one right way to live. Wars of conquest, wars of conversion, and wars of annihilation follow the basic plan of civilization. The irony is that variations of civilization want to overwrite other variations of civilization because, of course, there is only one right way to live.

Perhaps that is one way to define civilization: Never-ending conquest. It seems to me that non-civilized humans, in the past and in isolated populations in the present, don't participate in never-ending conquest. I am certain there is competition and violence between and within non-civilized populations. (Shall we call each population a tribe? But that might cause confusion between civilized tribes and non-civilized tribes. A band?) Perhaps the willingness to conquer, convert, or totally annihilate competing populations is the line between a non-civilized people and a civilized people.

I haven't yet elaborated why civilization is not sustainable; I'll do so as I stop defining words that are important to this topic.

A final thought brings me to the story in Genesis, as symbolism: Adam was a forager who became a farmer. Abel was a herder who was murdered. Cain was a farmer who murdered and built cities. Who are we, exactly?

Postscript. A potential topic for another day: "Contrary to popular belief, crime is civilized."
Post-postscript. Another potential future topic: "You don't bomb them back to the Stone Age. You teach them."
Photo from my Instagram account.
*Buying stuff through these links helps this blog, and this blogger. Thanks!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Surefire* Way to Success**

1. Exploit everyone around you.

2. Sell unnecessary products/services/messages to people

3. ???

4. PROFIT!!!

I'm only kidding; there is no mystery to step 3 because it doesn't exist. Total completion of steps 1 and 2 will almost certainly lead to step 4. This four-step three-step method to success is valid for virtually every form of civilization, from kingdoms to capitalist countries to communist countries.

If you were kind to everyone around you, there really is no guarantee for success**. While you are concerned about others, those who are only concerned about themselves will speed closer to step 4. The likely spectrum of outcomes for kindness will range between failure and meh.

If you had a revolutionary product or service or message, truly useful to as many people as possible, there really is no guarantee for success**, at least for you. Someone might give you the ol' step 1, and turn what was once useful into stuff people don't need. In any case, the likely spectrum of outcomes for useful things will range from meh to martyrdom.

How's that for cynicism? It's totally unnecessary ...

*There are always risks involved, like competing against more skilled, powerful, and corrupt individuals.
**Success, as defined by step 4: PROFIT!!!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Greatest Derogatory Slur and Most Honest Euphemism of All Time!


Lesser is what is truly meant when someone uses a term or phrase to put down another person (or place or thing or idea). If you call someone an a-, you really mean lesser, one who is beneath your self-perceived status. If I call someone a b-, I really mean lesser. If she calls someone a c-, she means lesser. If he calls someone a d-, he means lesser. If they call someone an e- or an f- or a g-, they mean lesser. If we call someone an h-, i-, j-, k-, we mean lesser. L-? Lesser. M-, n-, o-, p-? Lesser. Q-, r-, s-, t-, u-, v-? Lesser. W-, x-, y-, z-? You get the idea.

Since it is nowhere near an explicit word in the English language today, lesser is also a euphemism for every derogatory term that ultimately means or at least implies "lesser."

Therefore, lesser should be a thing, but feel free to use a synonym (inferior, sub-this, or sub-that) or a translation for other languages.

What is the opposite of lesser? Neither implying equality nor superiority, the opposite of lesser is friend.

The photo of the Pleiades is from my Instagram account.

Monday, January 5, 2015

This Blog Was Dead. Until It Wasn't.

I went a full year without posting anything on this blog. I could have went another year, maybe a decade, or maybe I could have just shut down the whole operation. But here I am, posting, and being meta about myself posting on a blog.

My first New Year's resolution was to limit the amount of hashtags used on my Instagram account. My second resolution, which I only thought of hours ago, is to blog right here on calendar days with numbers ending with 5 and 0. Since it's January the 5th, here I am.

In the past, I did not have any sort of focus to this blog. I would do a quasi-(un)educated, and mostly tongue-in-cheek -- but not very humorous, in hindsight -- rant about politics, especially around 2007 and 2008. Then this blog became a unsuccessful attempt at being a webcomic around 2009 or so. Then I slowly but surely lost interest in posting whatever was on my mind. It became a monthly exercise in pointlessness, until I stopped writing on this blog for 2014.

In all likelihood, I'm still not going to have a focus for this blog. It's, not something focused like Chord du Jour or any of the single-topic websites I've managed over the years. It's still probably going to be a mix of bad writing, bad advice, and bad information, with a hint of sarcasm -- which will never translate well over text. Will any of this go viral? Probably not. This blog has no target audience. Whatever I write here probably will neither appeal to nor disgust anyone enough to gather a wide audience, if any.

I will, however, title my posts with wannabe click-baiting headlines, in the hope that someone will ... click. And maybe read.

I'm going to type out a quick example of what I hope to write about, and how I will try to get a message across with this blog. Today, one of the "trending topics" on Facebook was X celebrity and his/her opinion(s) about Y topic, causing controversy among Z people. It's pretty much like that every day. Today, it was pop star (he's a pop star now, right?) Kid Rock listing various opinions as part of his marketing strategy for his latest album, causing controversy among really no one, other than wired-up people with WiFi. His opinions were pretty basic, and I probably share some of them, but for the sake of doing a writing exercise, I'll try to parse one quote from the article:
Rap-rock was what people wanted at the time, and they still love those songs at shows. But it turned into a lot of bullshit and it turned out to be pretty gay… If someone says you can’t say “gay” like that you tell them to go fuck themselves. You’re not going to get anything politically correct out of me.
1. "At the time" refers to the late '90s, and perhaps the turn of the millennium. I was never really into rap-rock at the time. I liked "American Bad Ass" because he sampled Metallica, and it was Biker Undertaker's wrestling entrance music for a time.

2. "Gay," used as an adjective to denote inferior quality, probably. (I'll blog about slurs in the future.) Kid Rock has every right to speak/write like a teenager in the '90s who doesn't know any better. (Full disclosure: I was once a teenager in the '90s who didn't know any better. Do I know any better now? Who knows?) People who do not approve of his use of language have every right to be angry and should express their anger with their own use of words. People who support his use of language have every right to be supportive and continue to speak/write like the target audience of Kid Rock's rap-rock.

3. In my opinion, political correctness and political incorrectness are simply euphemisms for preaching to one's choir:

"I know this is politically incorrect, but [inserts rather antiquated musings that seem out of place for the current day and age] ... " and the target audience applauds.

"I think we should be more sensitive to [inserts somewhat awkward, euphemistic neologisms] ... " and the target audience applauds. (I know that's probably a strawman for political correctness, but I'm trying to make a point here. I'm also using my own skewed definition for political correctness; too many definitions for too many words will be another blog topic.)

Who even gets persuaded by any of this? Children, perhaps? Their own children, and no one else?

Language usage, and the definitions of various words, will inevitably change over time. That's a given. In the meanwhile, I'd rather attempt politeness and kindness instead of overtly explosive language by the politically incorrect crowd, as well as the unhelpfully vague euphemisms employed by the politically correct crowd.

That's what I'll try to write about in this blog (for the time being). I don't know if any of this makes sense, other than to me, or is helpful in any way to anyone reading in cyberspace. In any case, I'll try to add a pretty picture (or an ugly selfie) for every post. I'll see you all on the 10th!