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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

May 27, 2010 | 49 Comments

What Makes Music Bad? A New Scale: Part I, the Definition

It might have been coming out of the air space between her ear buds and flesh, or it might have been seeping through the holes in the woman’s head. Either way, that endless, non-varying thumpthumpthump was making me nuts.

This experience is similar that one endures when listening to a well known song by a bubblegum band named after an ubiquitous insect. The one in which the lyric, “I want to hold your hand” is repeated over and over and over and over and…

The “Boss”, Bruce—Bruce!—Springsteen uses this technique as a bludgeon: “Born in the USA!…I was…[wait for it]…Born in USA!” Repetitiveness is such an integral part of this man’s music that you have the idea he is ad-libbing most of his songs, though drawing on a shallow fund of imagination.

And then there is the sheer, gut-wrenching awfulness of most modern children’s music, which includes music supposedly sung for the benefit of children. “Banana Phone” and “We are the World” come to mind. Not only are the lyrics of these songs simpleminded, but their melodies are brief, trivial; a handful of phrases recapitulated dozens of times in one sitting. Thinking children idiots is a recent phenomenon, incidentally.

Need I repeat what makes music awful? Repetitiveness! Overt, unnecessary simplicity. Purposeful limitation.

Think of a “melody” consisting of just one tone, whichever tone you like, and held for as long as possible. This, we shall not quibble, is music. But it is bad music; it meets our tests of repetitiveness, simplicity, and limitation easily.

Now think of a harmony consisting of a regular, unvarying thumping, again replayed ad nauseum. This, too, meets our tests. It is also, we say in a spirit of generosity, music. But only in the sense that the Museum of Modern Art is a museum which displays, well, art.

Finally, take a lyric, any string of words will do, say less than length ten, and then sing them over and over and…you get the idea. Once more, music; but rotten.

Our measure is three-dimensional, consisting of the components melody, harmony, and lyric. Some music lacks one or two of these elements; none lacks all three. Jokes in which a “composer” sits unmoving at a piano in front of a credulous audience who hear nothing but their neighbors farting are not music. If “everything” is music, nothing is. In any case, a piece which is lacking one or two of the elements, our measure is also silent.

Musical Badness (MB) quantified is this: the proportion of the time a length of music is devoted to repetitiveness.

MB is thus a number between 0 and 1. Consider our three examples: the endless tone has a melodic MB of precisely 1 because the repetition is exact however long the “piece” lasts; the harmonic MB is also 1 and for the same reason; as is the lyric MB, obviously.

A score of 0, it must be emphasized, does not indicate goodness: our score says nothing directly about excellence. For example, a chaotic series of “bleeps” and “bloops” supposedly emanating from a computer, such as were often heard in 1950s science fiction movies, would score very low on the melodic MB, but in no sense would this music be good. Neither would singing the dictionary make for a sublime lyric.

There is subjectivity in MB which arises from deciding which parts of a piece one cuts for tests of repetitiveness. Oftentimes, lyrics fall into natural clumps: nearly any pop song is distinguishable as pop for this very reason. Hip Hop (Rap) is instantly identifiable for its use of the same four or five (perhaps it is only three) harmonies.

Natural divisions are found in melodies, too, but the test here is less reliable. Take, for example, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata (no. 8 )1 in C Minor, adagio cantabile: the same, it must be admitted, very simple melody occurs throughout, but it would take a strong man to call it bad.

The MB scale can fail here if it does not take into account the evolving voice of the melody; repeated, yes, but with different accents; similar to a poetry reading by a native English speaker followed by a Frenchman approximating that language.

Think, therefore, of MB (in each dimension) as a probability of badness: high scores only say that a piece is probably bad, not that it certainly is. A sunny day may follow a forecast of ninety-percent chance of rain. The measure, once more, is not symmetric: low scores are indicative only of the lack of repetition, which itself may or may not be good.

No perfect method exists, or can exist, to quantify beauty or ugliness. In fact, even though I am a statistician, I caution against undue reliance on quantification. The Benthamization (if I may) of music is to be resisted. But here I think we can have a little fun.

Next time: examples.


1 The extra space after the “8” but before the “)” is intentional; if missing, an insipid smiley face with glasses appears.

May 26, 2010 | 45 Comments

Pet Peeves

Car ads on the radio

I listen to a lot of baseball, which means I’m forced to endure a lot of ads. The worst are for cars, where each has a now-mandatory overlay of bad, repetitive music. Usually it’s a small phrase of one to two seconds, which is looped, a monotony broken only by a non-articulate voice singing at random things like “Unh” and “Ugh”.

Worse, when one ad agency hears that another ad agency is moving to “Unh” music, the first agency will feel it has to fall in line. Soon, they are all doing it. They never come to the realization that all the ads sound the same, which is surely a bad thing.

It used to be that all car commercials had snippets from 1970 “hard” rock. That was equally bad. I can’t wait to hear what’s next.

Dear Car Manufacturers: I won’t buy your cars if I have to listen to these ads.

Stupid. Taglines. In Your Life.

Companies used to content themselves with being called by their names. Now they feel the necessity of adding a snappy tagline. This tagline, constrained by brevity, is nearly always asinine or stupid. Of course, this phenomenon isn’t constrained to taglines; it is often found in print advertisements where space is limited.

Copywriters are driven to punch up their four- or five-word allotment, and the mechanism they have chosen to use is the lowly period (full stop). Thus, we see phrases such as “It’s not fitness. It’s life.”, “Life. Worth Living.”, “You. On Vacation.”, “Impact. Make one.”

That last is from an ad for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, surely a cause worthy enough to deserve a tagline that is not an eyesore.

The larger question is this: Is this just another fad among advertisers, or are these ads a results of our ever-lessening attention spans?

Either way. Hemingway. Would not be proud.

(I admit a weakness for the tagline “Who, but W.B. Mason?”)


I’ve said before that when I am emperor, I shall ban the word “like”, and that those who use it will suffer greatly. And the same goes for “goes.”

Linguist John McWhorter writes that people who rely on these devices are engaged in mimicry, which is the opposite of “literary” speech. He claims, and all experience tells us, that this sort of thing is on the increase.

The natural explanation is that I suppose it’s difficult to develop a sufficiently varied vocabulary and to learn how to string words together in sequences longer than five when your reading consists of bus kiosk ads and video game directions.


Music is passion, and anybody can be excused for the occasional indulgence of allowing a melody to control their musculature while in public. But to close your eyes—actually squeeze them shut—and wag your head for more than thirty seconds is affectation.

I see this frequently on the train. A young man, usually thirty-ish, will see that there are desirable females within eyeshot. He will then go into an act of what he imagines one feels while in the throws of musical ecstasy. He will sway his head to the beat, one lip tucked under another.

Occasionally, he will open his eyes—the head will remain bopping—to see if he has caught somebody’s attention. If he thinks he has, he redoubles his efforts; his head will carve out larger arcs, he may sing softly. For all this work, I have never yet seen one of these men approach a woman to follow up. As a mating strategy, this is fairly weak.

If you did this kind of thing where I grew up, you would have found yourself smacked upside the head.

Unfunny Euphemisms

Regulars will know that I have an issue with “issue” as a euphemism for “problem.” I mention it again hoping to elicit your least favorite euphemisms.


Feel free to mention any. Except typos.

May 24, 2010 | 13 Comments

Martin Gardner, Philosophical Scrivener, RIP

All regular readers will surely know Martin Gardner, writer, philosopher, mathematician, magician, exposer of flim flam. He died Saturday night; according to long-time friend and magician James Randi, peacefully.

For those who did not know Gardner, Roger Kimball’s tribute is an excellent starting point.

Gardner made it to 95, which is a damn good run. Florence King warns that we should never call somebody a “national treasure” because it is a cliché; but if those words don’t apply to Gardner, they’ll never be adequate for anybody. We are all better off because he lived.

Most of us knew his mathematical columns for Scientific American, back when that publication was serious. Many or most of those columns were compiled into books, of which we all have a few on our shelves.

He was also known for his columns exposing pseudo-science in the Skeptical Inquirer, back when that publication did not belong to the Socialist party. His best-known book in this field is Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, a sublime work that is mandatory reading.

Most don’t realize that Gardner was not a trained mathematician: he was a philosopher. He was a student of Rudolph Carnap, one of the leading minds of logical probability and, well, friend to induction. It is helpful to know that Carnap was hostile to the theories of Karl Popper; this skepticism was passed to Gardner, who gave it to all of us, tightly packaged in, inter alia, Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?. I in particular owe a tremendous intellectual debt to these grand gentlemen.

But about those topics, another day. For now, let’s look at his deepest work, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, which he said was “a book of essays about what I believe and why.”

Gardner called himself a “philosophical theist”; and since that term is unfamiliar, it is important to emphasize that Gardner was not an atheist. He accepted the existence of God and believed in the afterlife. Yet he was not religious, in the sense of belonging to an organized sect. He did, however, pray, but not on bended knee, but as Coleridge did, in “a silent ‘sense of supplication.'”

Prayer is a mode of communication, but not a magical activity designed to sway God to intercede in a material way. Indeed, Gardner was a kind of fideist, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy somewhat too tersely describes as the belief “that faith is in some sense independent of, if not outright adversarial toward, reason.”

God cannot intercede materially, because He designed the physical laws upon which the universe runs. To break them is therefore impossible; they are inviolate. Because of this, we cannot seek for the proof of God’s existence empirically. We can only come to God through faith.

Ah, faith, a very difficult word. Troublemaker William James liked to quote a schoolboy who said, “Faith is when you believe something you know ain’t true.” This is scurrilous. A better definition comes from Russell, who said faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” This can only be improved by changing the last words to “for which there can be no evidence.”

It is important—crucial!—to hold separate this meaning from “faith”‘s other shades, hope and trust. You may hope of God but you must first have faith in His existence. And trust is a rational response to empirical evidence; you trust a pilot to steer you in the proper direction, for example.

It is Russell’s sense of “faith” that philosophers have found so frightening. They want to talk of belief in the absence of material proof, but they don’t want to use the word “faith” because of its connotations with religion. So they instead talk of “a priori knowledge”, or of “synthetic a priori statements.”

But it’s all one, and there lies the fright and the reason many philosophers and would-be philosophers embraced relativism so warmly. You cannot discuss faith, the belief in the absence of proof, without asking why. The answer is always, “because my intuition says so.” Now, it is certainly true—examples are without number—that intuition has misled, that it has provided for beliefs that were false. But from this it does not follow that intuition always misleads.

Carnap labored vainly his whole career to emphasize that point, but he never convinced more than a minority. The rest of philosophy, as Donald Williams tells us, “in its dread of superstition and dogmatic reaction, has been oriented purposely toward skepticism: that a conclusion is admired in proportion as it is skeptical; that a jejune argument for skepticism will be admitted where a scrupulous defense of knowledge is derided or ignored; that an affirmative theory is a mere annoyance to be stamped down as quickly as possible to a normal level of denial and defeat.” (A favorite quote of David Stove’s.)

Gardner never surrendered to the wiles of skepticism. He quoted Luke: “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in paradise.” I am sure those of us who do not have faith at least hope Gardner has gone to his reward.

May 23, 2010 | 12 Comments

eBooks And The Future of Reading

Warning: Raw Speculation Alert. You have been warned!

You are reading. This form of reading will not disappear.

eBooks—whether they be standalone devices, or merely apps on multipurpose toys like cell phones—will cause the reading of short bursts of words on a screen to become increasingly common. The key is “short”: columns such as this already push the limit of most people’s patience (yes, the content, too).

The reading of book-length material—which is to say books in electronic or paper forms—will decline rapidly. eBook sales will increase, accelerating over the next five years. With the closing of mall stores, and with the mega stores faltering, “consumer” eBook sales will overtake paper books within the next two decades. Paper books will dominate in commercial venues for some time.

Do not confuse sales with reading! They are not the same; they are only weakly correlated. This is also so for paper books (pBooks?), but at least the correlation with reading and sales of pBooks is high. This correspondence is not exact for many reasons: many pBooks are especially designed not to be read (coffee table and “gift” books), college textbooks lie fallow, and we often do not meet our intentions.

Many reviewers of standalone eBook devices whine that the screens are not color or that the devices do not allow for distractions, such as web surfing. Manufacturers have heard these complaints and have responded, and they will continue to respond. Standalone, dedicated-purpose eBook devices, therefore will become rare, forcing distraction-free reading to become rare.

The number of books that will be published will initially increase dramatically, but only in electronic format. There is little reason for publishers to refuse all-electronic books: as long as would-be authors conform to the software standard, books will slide without friction into the system because the marginal cost of storing a new book is near zero. Most of these offerings will not be promoted, and fewer will earn money. Eventually, the flood will ebb, and most writing will migrate on-line, in bite-sized packages (I resisted “byte”-sized).

Print-on-demand will flourish. Many people and institutions, such as libraries, will continue to buy paper copies of books. Since most book stores will close, print-on-demand will become the only real route to obtain paper copies. Surviving publishers will merge with companies like Amazon to ensure top listings.

Used bookstores, for the most part, and in all small cities, will die, mostly because of the lack of new stock. Specialty stores might exist, but will be frequented only by scholars or other elite. Nearly all sales of used books will migrate on line. Discovering new writers, therefore, will be difficult for most.

eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man. There will remain a core, a small fraction of humanity that continues to read book-length material regularly. This fraction will return to the low levels seen for most of recorded history.

Cynthia Ozick, in her “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to the Aural Culture”, reminds us that “mass literacy itself is the fixity of no more than a century”, an era which began with the introduction of leisure and the industrialization of printing. Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.

Books are a wonderfully stunted technology: they require no power source, they can be dropped, sat on, crushed, filled with sand or even water, and they still work. They can be lent, used as props or decorations, hurled, written in. They are useful for storage of small, flat objects like leaves. They can be sold and resold.

They are single-purpose: all they do is to display the set of words they came with. No matter what else changes, no matter the speed of the latest chips, or the changes in operating systems, those words remain the same. As long as the book isn’t lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, there will never be any reason to replace it, nor to pay for its content more than once.

But best of all, they offer no distractions! You cannot press a button on the page to bring you to a website, nor can you check email or Facebook, nor can you Tweet. You can only read, or possibly take a note as you read. Further, your notes will never be lost as long as the book is not lost. They have no volume dial!

eBooks do not allow ownership of books; they merely grant licenses, which may be revoked, as has happened, and will continue to happen, particularly for works deemed “controversial.” Electronic bowdlerization and deletion will replace bonfires.

Remember: you read it here last.

Update I have just learned that Martin Gardner has died. More tomorrow on this great man—and writer of timeless books.