Epic Metal Playlists

June 17, 2009

I recently fixed something with my computer so that I can once again scrobble (i.e. submit lists of listened-to tracks to last.fm, which will then give me musical suggestions based on my listening habits). In celebration, I suppose, I put together two playlists on my last.fm account, both of which point out phenomena I find interesting in the music I listen to – the tendency towards really long songs, songs which often tell a story and move from one “movement” to another, and the tendency to use a certain language specific to epic metal, by which I don’t mean singing in foreign languages (though this is seen as well), but rather using certain words and phrases much more often than they appear in ordinary English.

Epic Length Epic Metal – ‘Epic metal bands (i.e. viking, folk, power, symphonic, progressive metal bands) have a tendency to love really long songs. This is a playlist of all of the songs in my library over 8 minutes long. There’s a lot of them; they make up 51/828 songs in my popular music library (6%), and take up 8 hours, 52 minutes of the 66 hours, 23 minutes of music there (13%).’

Language of Epic Metal – ‘There are a certain set of words that appear over and over in the titles of songs I listen to – meaning, songs of the “epic metal” genre (viking, folk, power, symphonic, and progressive metal, to be precise). This isn’t surprising; every subculture develops its own distinct language, with words that carry special significance for its members. This is an exploration of those words. The playlist includes every song I have from these genres that contains in its title one or more of these often-appearing words (defined as appearing in >9 titles). The words: Dark, Dream, Land, Night, Song, Time.’

You probably can’t listen to the playlists on last.fm unless you’re a subscriber, but you can still look at the track listing and compare them with your own music library, if some of your musical tastes overlap with mine.

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Monkeys, Typewriters, and Interpretation

June 11, 2009

It’s a common statement. “Enough monkeys with typewriters, given enough time, could eventually write Hamlet.” The idea being that all human artistic accomplishment, and Creation in general, is essentially just random noise, and inherently meaningless.

Well, firstly, the claim is false… give typewriters to monkeys and they probably won’t even try to type with them, or if they do they’ll just hit the same key over and over and over. It won’t be the string of random letters and symbols needed to “eventually write Hamlet”. And even if they did just write random symbols, the experiment would have to be run for an impossibly long time before they produced anything. If every atom in the universe were a typewriter spewing out a random character every second, it would take longer than the universe has been around to write just a sonnet of Shakespeare’s, let alone Hamlet, which is much longer.

Not that that proves much; I never saw the monkey analogy as a very good one for random chance bringing about human art in the first place.

The issue isn’t whether monkeys could really write Shakespeare. Rather, we are meant to wonder why, if Hamlet is a finitely long work that can be converted into a number (take a text file with the content of Hamlet in it; that file is just a string of 1s and 0s, i.e. a really long number), call it H, that a random number generator would eventually spew out if it ran for long enough, why should we look at it as in any way transcendent? Why should we look at human thought as in any sense transcendent if everything it produces is finite?

The answer, I think, is that even if the random number H could be generated by a random number generator, it can’t be interpreted by the random number generator. There needs to be someone out there who picks out H from the other random numbers our RNG spews out, says “this is Hamlet”, reads it, and gets from it what there is to be gotten from the play Hamlet. That requires language, something that doesn’t seem to have a very good finite representation. Without a way of translating those 1s and 0s not just into letters (which can be done with a computer program), but into words, H is no more meaningful than H*1.1 or H*0.9.

I think it’s interesting that H, as a number, is meaningless in and of itself. The computer needs pre-written rules for how to translate H into a series of letters and symbols. If it has a dictionary installed it could then try (if it were told to) to analyze the strings of letters it sees and paraphrase the entire thing. But the computer would never look at the strings of letters and see words, by which I mean things that have meanings that we can try to approximate with other words, but cannot define exactly.

It seems to me that language is really what separates humans from computers, RNGs, or monkeys with typewriters – those all manipulate symbols, but humans actually use words, language. So the fact that humans speak a language, rather than just manipulate symbols, is what makes the number H not equivalent to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They are the same quantitatively, but not qualitatively.


The Paradox of Martyrdom

June 8, 2009

The concept of martyrdom is, on its surface, a simple one. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith; martyrs are generally considered to be saints – meaning they go to heaven – and deserving of a special respect, since they were willing to die for their faith.

But the motives for martyrdom become confused. A martyr is someone who is willing to die for their faith – someone who is willing to endure something bad, death, because their faith is so strong. But martyrdom itself is considered good, and martyrs are rewarded with a special place in Heaven, and so quickly you have many people who desire martyrdom – not who are willing to be martyred for their faith, but who actively desire to be martyred.

These people’s faith would have to be strong, otherwise they wouldn’t believe that if they martyr themselves they will go to Heaven – but because they believe martyrdom is good, they no longer look at it as “willing to endure something bad because their faith is so strong” – they are willing to endure death, which is no longer considered that bad anyway because they will go to Heaven when they die, so that they can be a martyr.

This attitude has always been around, and it has generally been seen as severely flawed. There are references to it as early as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, a document from the second century AD, which is careful to point out that Polycarp didn’t have this attitude – he tried to hide from the people looking for him, rather than actively seeking out capture and martyrdom.

But something always strikes me as odd about these claims that specific saints did not seek out martyrdom. They were men of deep faith; they would have believed that, if they died a martyr, they would go to Heaven; why would they not seek it out? Because to do so is to seek out Heaven, rather than demonstrate faith in God, and so it makes you not a martyr at all. And so, whenever I read about how a given saint tried to avoid capture and execution, it feels like the saint was evading capture only reluctantly; they actually wanted to be captured, to be martyred, but felt that they had to avoid it because, counterintuitively, avoiding martyrdom was a better way of proving their love of God than being martyred.

I sometimes thing the reason counterintuitive situations like this arise in Christianity is that Christians are so focused on Heaven as where you go when you die, and how you are rewarded in the afterlife for your actions in this life. If there were no Heaven, after all, it would be silly to martyr yourself in order to get there – you would only allow yourself to be martyred because you would rather die – enter oblivion – than renounce God. Martyrdom would still be considered heroic, but it would be a kind of futile heroism, and not one that anyone would ever seek out.

I don’t think we should stop believing in Heaven just because it makes the issue of martyrdom confusing, of course. But I do think we might be better off if we stopped saying that “if you’re good, when you die you’ll to Heaven”, and start emphasizing instead that “if you love God, when you die you’ll be with God” – shifting the focus of hope from faith, the least of the theological virtues, to love, the greatest.


Abortion, Murder, Justice, Law

June 3, 2009

This is an important article. Read it.

So, Dr. George Tiller was a murderer – or, late-term abortionist, as you probably prefer to call him. He was shot down while in church by a someone who believed he was committing justifiable homicide – stopping a killer before he killed again. But that man was wrong, right? He shouldn’t have killed Tiller, right? It was murder, right?

Legally, of course, it was. But if you’re someone who believes that abortion is truly murder, that it is the taking of innocent human life, you don’t get off as easy as saying “Tiller was murdered, murder is always wrong, so Tiller’s murder was wrong”. Rather – and the article I linked to makes the argument better than I can – it was wrong, but because it was vigilante justice, not because it was murder.

And that brings us (though the linked-to article doesn’t go this far) to an interesting and somewhat disturbing point. Now, vigilante justice is wrong because it subverts the rule of law. It leads to chaos. You can’t kill someone to exact your own justice, making yourself judge, jury, and executioner, and then expect to re-enter society and have everything be fine. Vigilante justice is a rejection of the legitimate authority and an attempt to establish a new one; it is, in its essence, no different than revolution. A revolution of one man.

A revolution of one man to stop abortion is wrong for a number of reasons. But what about a revolution of millions? If everyone who believed that abortion was murder was actually willing to fight for that belief, to prevent the over one million such murders happening every year, they might actually have a chance of winning. Would it be wrong for them to do so? It would cause chaos, for a time. Wars always do. It would also have a real chance of preventing over a million murders each year. How would this be any different from sending an army in to stop a genocide?

What it comes down to, as far as I can tell, is simply a matter of prudence. We don’t fight because the revolt wouldn’t succeed. It would end up causing so much chaos that it wasn’t “worth it”. And as soon as we start talking about “worth it” – about weighing the good and bad results like that – it means there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such a revolution. It’s just wrong in the details, so to speak.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not gravely wrong. The man who killed George Tiller did something horrible. But that’s not because he believed evil was good, black was white. It was because he had no sense of prudence. He had a sense of justice, but no sense of law. Law, government, always asks questions of prudence. I think that’s another way of saying philosophy can’t govern, because it’s too impractical. Philosophy helps – the philosopher-king is not a bad idea – but it’s not enough.


The Swing of Things (June)

June 2, 2009

So, May was what might be called a bad month. Not because anything bad happened – nothing did, and in fact several good things happened – but because for the entire month I found it difficult to concentrate or get anything done. I finished the required schoolwork on time, but haven’t really gotten any further in my various writing pursuits, and since summer started I’ve basically been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer several hours a day (not that that’s a bad thing) and read a bunch of Tim Powers books (not that that’s a bad thing either).

It seems to be going away though. Over the last few days I’ve gotten “back into the swing of things”; I’ve actually gotten some work done on the cave-orcs campaign, and started on The Sound and the Fury – for fun, yes, but Faulkner can never be considered light reading. And I’m about to finish season 7 of Buffy, at which point I’ll have no excuse for not actually doing something with myself.

But anyway, I currently feel like someone who took a break when they shouldn’t have and is just now getting back into it. Who does this remind me of? None other than Thursagan – the Runecrafter. Guy who forged the Scepter of Fire. His backstory is, essentially: He quarreled with Durstorn, the lord of his clan, and went into self-imposed exile in the far north, not really accomplishing anything there. Many years later (how many, exactly, is unspecified), Rugnur dragged him back and got him to forge for them the Scepter of Fire – a task taking ten years.

So, if this analogy holds up, I’m going to create something awesome this summer. Of course, it also means I’m going to die – creating the Scepter cost all of the dwarves their lives (though Alanin and Krawg the gryphon escaped). Oh well.


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