Friday, June 19, 2015

Emotion or Artifice?

I’ve wondered how critics—musical, literary, etc.—can tell if someone or some people have put emotion into their work. After all, paintings, songs, stories, and movies are inanimate. They are products, created and revised and polished to a shine. The only emotions they hold are derived via inference.

Hypothetically, if an artist is skilled enough, he or she could so carefully create a work of art that it feigns earnestness. Aren’t all artists storytellers in a sense? Aren’t liars as well?

There are plenty of amateur bands whose members feel strongly but don’t perform well in a technical sense. There are authors who write from someplace in their hearts yet cannot move anyone else because they don’t know how to convey what they feel. Following this logic, good art is created not from emotion but from skill and only skill—which means in turn that skill can imply/imitate empathy.

Thus, art can and does fake emotion.

Songwriting is an appropriate example. If you can write a half-decent melody over, say, a I-V-IV-iv progression (which is C-G-F-F minor in the key of C major), you can provoke an emotional reaction in listeners. Seen through the lens of music theory, music often seems like a formula: Certain notes arranged in a certain pattern will cause a certain biochemical reaction in the brain. I’m willing to bet that the most commercial songwriters view music like mathematicians view functions—plug in value x, get result y.

Even writing and painting could only adhere to formulas. Our brains are likely wired to enjoy specific organizations of words or of colors and textures.

Granted, artistic formulas aren’t perfect. Context is an external force no artist can control. Still, though, we could simplify art into two qualities—skill and context—one controlled by the artist, the other by the environment. In this model, the audience is still powerless.

As both a purveyor and (amateurish) creator of art, I’ve always been frustrated by the divide between what I feel and what I say. If the solution has always been an equation... maybe I just need to take more math classes.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

I Don't Like New Year's Resolutions

Before we reach the nitty-gritty of this blog post, I request that you suspend your disbelief at least until you finish reading everything I have to write.

My thesis is as follows:

New Year’s resolutions are bogus.

Yes, I know that they’re traditional and motivational and comforting—but they’re effectively bogus.

Let’s examine the situation. We assign so much value to the beginning of each “new year”, the time at which the Earth completes one more revolution around the sun (it’s not mathematically exact, but it’s close enough for human standards). But this calendar is arbitrary. Some people in Europe—likely noblemen and high-ranking religious officials—met and decided that the year would begin at this here point of the seasonal cycle. Heck, the Chinese New Year starts on a different date. January 1 is a random name and number assigned to a roughly twenty-four-hour period in time within Earth’s orbital period of approximately 8766 hours.

What about holidays? They’re generally created to celebrate something specific. Christmas and Easter are religious holidays. Thanksgiving was started to give thanks for the harvest. The list goes on.

Out of all these annual celebrations, none is more arbitrary than New Year’s.

But I don’t mean to wax invective about the holiday itself—it’s nice to celebrate having survived one more year. No, I’m taking closer aim.

Picture this scene (one of many hypothetical scenarios): On New Year’s Eve, family members sit together in front of the television, which is displaying either a pop music act or a few random people oversimplifying what happened in the preceding year. One of those family members (most likely one of the parents) brings up the subject of New Year’s resolutions to kill time. Everyone in the room is then forced to condense his or her goals for the coming year into concise bullet-point items. After January—very likely after New Year’s Day itself—no one mentions these goals again.

First, it’s unhealthy to measure the “success” of a year by whether or not you met a few goals that you only spent a few minutes thinking about, anyway. Certainly it’s nice to follow through on your spur-of-the-moment plans, but it’s also nice to get an extra Christmas present despite being satisfied with the ones you already unwrapped.

If you treat your goals as utterly trivial, assigning no importance to them, well, what’s the point of setting them? It’s like adding more achievements to a video game. In the end, they do nothing for you. Maybe there’s a positive psychological effect hidden in the setting and achieving of New Year’s goals, but it certainly isn’t life-changing.

Let’s suppose that you set serious goals, then, and resolve to achieve them no matter what. Then you wake up on New Year’s Day (hangover optional) and never think about them again except when you look at the paper taped above your desk with the neat little list of things you now know you will never accomplish within 365.25 days. Congratulations!—you’ve just diminished your self-esteem for another year. Just leave the list above your desk because you already know what your resolutions will be for next year.

What if you don’t know what you want to do with your year? No one should expect to be struck by an epiphany on December 31 when the other 364 days of the year were inspirationally as barren as the Sahara. Don’t fret. Circumstances change. If you have no good ideas, don’t force out bad ones. If you do and make poor resolutions, throw them out when you realize they aren’t helping you.

Last, but not least—to those of you who consistently set New Year’s resolutions and achieve them:

Stop making resolutions on New Year’s Eve.

New Year’s resolutions only function as artificial motivation for people who normally don’t have as much as they would like to. If you are able to successfully set resolutions on New Year’s Eve, congratulations: You’re a motivated individual. Now set resolutions on any days other than December 31 and January 1. Try setting goals for the summer, or the winter, or any other arbitrary period of time. Don’t tie your biggest motivation to the turn of each new year. You’re better than that.

And for the rest of you—myself included—don’t wait for the next year to set goals for yourself. Please. You’ll do yourself a favor by working on self-motivation all year long instead of the last fading days of December.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write down my own New Year’s resolutions.

1. Stop making New Year’s resolutions.
2. Write a novel, darn it!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What I Learned (and Didn't Write About) at College

I intended to write blog posts during my first semester in college, but the plan never came to fruition. In fact, all of my writing came to a standstill during that semester, not from lack of free time but lack of inspiration. It seems contradictory: In a new place with new people and new things to do, shouldn’t I be overwhelmed with ideas?

The problem, I suppose, is that I didn’t want to treat living on college campus as only material for writing. I participated—joined clubs, made friends, and rapped on karaoke night—without ensuring that my experiences would make good blog posts. There aren’t any big takeaways from my first semester to share.

I probably need to wait until I’ve graduated to organize my time in college into something like an analysis. In the meantime, I’ll think of college life as an experiment; in other words, I’ll write the paper later.

What I can do for now (because this blog post would be way too short without something extra) is provide some tips for people living on/soon to be living on state college campuses:

  • Set an agreement—write it if you need to—with your roommate(s) in the beginning of the semester to avoid future arguments.
  • Attend class, for crying out loud.
  • Homework should be your number one priority. (Or maybe it’s number two if you get what I mean.)
  • If you have a problem, try to address it immediately instead of waiting on it.
  • Joining extracurricular clubs is a great way to meet new people who share at least one of your interests.
  • You will probably run across alcohol. You do not need to drink it.

“What will happen to this blog in the future?” you may be asking of your computer screen. Well, dear imaginary concerned reader, I intend to branch out so that I will have more material to publish. Expect some short creative writing to be intermixed with my usual “oh-hey-look-at-this-thing-I-thought-of” posts. This blog won’t become a monthly affair for a while at least, but I will strive for that sort of regularity.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Stages of College Searching: a Preliminary Analysis

I'm not sure which is more influential in the transition from high school to college: enrolling in a university or searching for one. I would opine that the college search process is part of the filter in place to winnow the worthy high school graduates from the unworthy, but that issue is for another blog entry.

Below, I have separated the process of searching for a college into roughly discrete stages. Consider it a layman's psychological analysis. (More research is required to determine if each stage is accompanied by differences in brain chemistry, but I'll leave such in-depth work to people who actually know what they are talking about.) If you searched for a college this year, most of these stages should apply to you. If you knew from the beginning that you would be attending community college, read this only if you want to laugh at what the rest of us go through. If you could afford to go anywhere, well, you're a lucky fellow, and can we please switch bank accounts?


STAGE I: EXPECTATION


The stage most subject to interpretation. This stage likely begins after you enter high school. Some people spend this stage daydreaming in their idle time about how fun and exciting college life will be; others visit campuses as early as junior year (sophomore year for the crazy-prepared types) and begin fashioning concrete plans about applications and test-taking; still others experience anxiety and think of ways to avoid higher education, such as becoming a plumber, or a hobo.

Common symptoms:

-frequent daydreams
-fear of the unknown
-inability to decide on life goals


STAGE II: EDUCATION

You have thought about college, but in this second stage, you work for it. Most likely, you are a junior or senior. Studying for the SAT and/or ACT is your top priority. This is the stage that will decide once and for all where you will be able to apply for college without looking like a fool. Stress is common. After all, your scores are the only determiners of your educational future. Nothing else matters. Nothing else at all.

Common symptoms:
-stress
-anxiety
-fear of sitting down, studying, and doing both at the same time
-attraction to flash cards
-attraction to internet distractions such as YouTube and Facebook
-cramps of the writing hand
-cruelty toward pencils (usually acted on with sharpeners and/or teeth)


STAGE III: EXPLORATION

You have your test scores (and are likely either jubilating or sobbing over them). Now you have to decide where you will send applications. Perhaps you tour colleges; maybe you peruse your notes from your prior visits; or perchance you look up colleges on Google Images and ascertain which ones have the prettiest campuses. Most people struggle with deadlines, application essays, and extra requirements. Do not give up. At the other side of this stressful time is another but more rewarding stressful time. You just have to pay a lot of money in application fees to get there.

Common symptoms:
-stress
-anxiety
-procrastination
-attraction to internet distractions such as YouTube and Facebook
-inability to write coherently about oneself
-inability to determine what colleges want from you
-forgetfulness, especially of important information
-light wallet
-getting logged out of the Common Application website


STAGE IV: EXASPERATION

Something went wrong. Maybe the Common Application was giving you trouble; maybe the colleges to which you applied provide you with price estimates too high for your budget; maybe a college representative is claiming that letters of recommendation were not received. Whatever the case, you have to find a way out of your predicament. Whether this means more college visits, more applications (college or scholarship), or more phone calls, you soldier through it.

Common symptoms:
-stress 2x
-anxiety 3x
-fitful sleep
-indecision
-frustration, often developing into cynicism
-posting vague "ughhhh my life stinks" messages on social media
-second-guessing the decision to attend a four-year institution instead of just going to community college


STAGE V: ENROLLMENT

Maybe your final decision was fraught with angst. Maybe you were practically forced to make a decision at gunpoint. Maybe you were literally forced to make a decision at gunpoint (not a surprising possibility). Regardless, this is the end of your journey. You have decided on a college. Now the only things standing between you and attending an institution of higher learning are an enrollment deposit, payment for wherever you will be living, and miles of red tape that may or may not impede your progress.

Common symptoms:

-hopefulness
-excitement
-foreboding
-wondering if community college would have been a better, cheaper, easier option
-in some cases, complete lack of emotion

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My Life Goals

There are a lot of things I want to do in my lifetime, but only some of those things do I hold near my heart. Below, I have listed some of my more significant life goals in no particular order.

In my life, I want to...
  • graduate from college.
  • get a job contributing to software development, artificial intelligence, or related research.
  • live to see humanity colonize bodies in space other than the Earth.
  • raise a family. 
  • write blog entries with some regularity. 
  • own a shirt with a math-related joke on it.
  • write a singer-songwriter album.
  • write a second singer-songwriter album.
  • become at least a decent singer / instrumentalist, preferably before releasing the aforementioned albums.
  • be called "cool".
  • contribute neologisms to English.
  • write and publish novels.
  • get short stories published in magazines.
  • purchase an electric guitar.
  • play a great solo on an electric guitar.
  • put a lot of distortion on an electric guitar and pretend I'm a guitarist from the nineties.
  • be called "a great guitarist".
  • get at least one hundred followers on Twitter.
  • have a conversation without saying "um" or "uh" at all.
  • have a conversation without awkward pauses.
  • easily use obscure, esoteric vocabulary words without trouble in casual conversation.
  • use obscure, esoteric vocabulary words in a rap battle.
  • win the aforementioned rap battle.
  • be able to rap without sounding weird.
  • watch the entirety of a ten-hour video on YouTube.
  • collect enough knowledge to effectively be a walking reference book.
  • do stand-up comedy.
  • not be booed off the stage after doing stand-up comedy.
  • act in a good film, amateur or otherwise.
  • help design a video game or computer game.
  • compose a soundtrack.
  • have a month's worth of music in my iTunes library.
  • fill up my Kindle with e-books.
  • successfully change American English grammar so that punctuation is only placed within quotation marks when the punctuation is part of the quotation.
  • successfully link four or more independent clauses with semicolons and make the resulting sentence look awesome. 
  • be called "one of the defining writers of our time".
  • be called "the greatest influence on the English language since Shakespeare".
  • be called "humble".
  • make people laugh at command.
  • hear either of my parents say with complete honesty, "You aren't a smart-aleck at all!"
  • never make typos.
  • not do stupid things occasionally, only do smart things.
  • basically be one of the coolest guys ever.
  • fly.
Basically, if I don't meet all of my reasonably high aspirations, I will be disappointed with my life. It's a good thing I picked easily achievable goals.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Albums I'm Looking Forward to This Year

I intended to post this blog entry a few weeks ago, but college research got in the way. Since one of the items on my list, Propaganda's Crimson Cord, was released today (and is awesome, incidentally), I figured I'd post the rest of my most anticipated albums before any more of them are released.

Copeland, Ixora

I'm a little late to the Copeland bandwagon, but I've already come to love all four of their major LPs (that is, not counting Dressed up & in Line). When Copeland announced on April 1 that they were reuniting for a fifth album, I didn't want to believe the news for fear that it would be revealed as an April Fools' Day prank.

It wasn't. The first release from Ixora, the somber piano affair "Ordinary", doesn't showcase the full band but does offer a tantalizing glimpse at what I'm sure will be another solid Copeland release.

Coldplay, Ghost Stories

Released songs "Midnight" and "Magic" show Coldplay experimenting with relaxing, electronica-tinged ambience as opposed to more structured melody -- which I daresay is at least a partial continuation of the shifting of musical gears that started with Mylo Xyloto. My prediction: Ghost Stories will be a quiet, pensive album, especially relative to its bombastic older siblings Mylo Xyloto and Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. Will it be better? Maybe. I doubt I'll be disappointed, though; Coldplay is quite a dependable band.

The Black Keys, Turn Blue

Considering how easily The Black Keys could fit onto a classic rock radio station, it's a bit surprising (at least to me) how popular they are on modern radio stations. Maybe the music scene will always need rock 'n' roll. But I don't mean to digress -- "Fever" is a by-the-numbers Black Keys jam, but its familiarity doesn't change two facts: 1. it's a catchy song, and 2. The Black Keys are releasing another album.

Anberlin's seventh album

I know nothing about Anberlin's seventh album except that it will be their last. It's a little disappointing to see them go -- I only became a fan this year after realizing that Cities is far better than I first thought it was -- but I am sure they will go out with a bang.

While Anberlin hasn't released any songs from their seventh LP (I don't even know if songwriting / recording has finished), I can conjecture that their newly found affinity for electronic accompaniment (which was displayed to full effect in Vital) will carry over to their final release.

Counting Crows' seventh album

Too much time has passed since Counting Crows last released an album of original music (Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings in 2007), so one could say that they have an obligation to release something new. Am I excited to hear that they have a new album in the works? Yes. They've been around since the nineties, but their musical output never really dipped in quality, so my expectations are high.

Yellowcard's ninth album

When You're Through Thinking, Say Yes was amazing. Summer Air was a little more amazing. Sure, drummer Longineu Parsons' departure isn't good news, but Yellowcard's recruitment of Anberlin's drummer Nate Young is. Even if Yellowcard's musical style shifts, as long as it remains upbeat, violin-tinged pop-punk / pop rock, I'll be happy with it.