A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


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Me Post? That’s new!

Alright, I had this vow that I would post at least once a week no matter how crazy things got, but I guess I didn’t realize just how much could stand in the way. So instead of a “math, physic, philosophy, or art” post, I’ll just explain why I haven’t been posting.

This weekend I will be moving. As with any time you move, it is highly stressful and time consuming. Speaking of time consuming, I am a grad student and have midterms approaching and for the most part classes that go faster than any human should be able to keep up with. Not to mention trying to set aside the time to grade the midterms I’ll be giving my students as a TA.

On top of that, my computer decided to break. Or Ubuntu decided to break my computer…or maybe this should somehow be worded that doesn’t involve a machine without consciousness making a decision to do something. In any case, I’ve spent numerous hours fixing it. It is finally back to normal, except for getting all the software back in place which will take at least a few weeks (yes, I formatted my hard drive).

On the plus side, I did get the new Andrew Bird album and may post on that soon. I’ve also read about half of Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse which would make a great compare/contrast post with Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair.

I may also start a series on Morse theory, since I’ve become fascinated by it. Tallyhoe! (spelling on that?)


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Mathematical ethicists?

I should make it a vow of the new year to not get into ethical debates with mathematicians. I’m not going to lie. Mathematicians seem to be much harder to argue with than philosophers. They seem to be much more rigorous, they accept much fewer axioms, and are willing to admit to craziness just to not present a contradiction with their side.

Where is this all coming from? Well, on Friday I got into a few debates with a certain person. The most interesting of which was on whether or not agnosticism is a defensible position. This ended up continuing today with a different person. Amazingly enough, the characterizations given above apply equally well to both of these people, yet they both argued different points (I stayed on my one).

It went a little bit like the following. I claim that agnosticism is not a defensible position. In my brief encounters with the subject, it seems as if mathematicians tend to believe that it is the only position that you can defend from a rational standpoint. We can never know whether there is a God or not, and hence we cannot make a definitive statement one way or the other.

I claim this is nonsense. An agnostic formulates definitive beliefs about the world all the time instead of claiming to “not know.” Most contradictorily being that they are not agnostic with respect to most gods created in human history. Most agnostic are actually atheists with respect to Greek or Norse gods. Less contradictorily, but even more absurd is that an agnostic that actually practices what they preach should say that we cannot know whether or not an invisible pink unicorn follows them around everywhere they go. We have no evidence for or against it, thus the truth of its existence cannot be known for sure. (You may as well consider this line of reasoning to be a variant on Okham’s Razor).

Alright, well that is just one of my arguments, but it turns out that one of the two people were actually willing to agree to not knowing things like the pink unicorn. So on further pressing, like whether or not my eyes were deceiving me and instead of solid ground three feet in front of me there was actually a cliff, he admitted we could not know that for sure as well.

At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with ethics. And here it is. I decided to shift to an ethical argument. I say that an agnostic must ethically make the shift to atheism, because to not do so is to endorse unethical behavior. A person goes and kills someone and says that God told them to do it. The agnostic has to accept that this is possible. In fact, we could use the old standard of the categorical imperative and think about a world of all agnostics. Someone is on trial for a murder. Their case is that God told them to do it. They must be let off free. What if they are telling the truth? Who are we humans to condemn someone carrying out God’s command? Thus I claim that agnosticism tacitly supports an ideological system that allows for immoral behavior to be confused with moral behavior.

The person on Friday bought this argument, but then decided that the same case could be made against atheism. I don’t wish to go into detail, since it completely changes the topic, but essentially the tangent topic dealt with moral relativism vs absolutism and whether or not a case could objectively be made against nihilism (as you may be able to piece together, the argument was that a purely absolute ethics cannot exist, so an atheist system of ethics tacitly supports a nihilistic ethics which devalues human life unless there is a sound argument against it). I’m still thinking about it, but it is a harder case to make.

As I’ve probably stated in the past. My general view is that an absolute ethics does exist, and we can know parts of it, but in general we will probably never know all of it.


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On The Beatles

I think it is finally time to formalize my arguments and make them rigorous. Today I engaged in an argument that occurs periodically in my life. The Beatles were not a great band. In fact, I think it is hard to even make the case for them being a good band. This status that they have achieved that makes them beyond musical criticism needs to be torn down.

So I’ll do this in an argument/rebuttal format. My basic argument is that the main things I look for in music are originality, interesting chord progressions, interesting melody, technical proficiency, musicality, thought-provoking or interesting lyrics (quite reasonable things), and my basic argument is that not only are the Beatles lacking in some of these categories, they actually severely lack in every single one of them. So. The burden of proof is on Beatles lovers to find me songs that satisfy any of these criterion. Nevertheless, I will still go through and debunk the standard arguments in favor of The Beatles.

Argument 1: You have taken them out of context. In the context of the time period, the music they were creating actually was original.

Rebuttal: This is a lie. Both classical and rock musicians had been doing far far more original things before the Beatles came around (though it was very little known and certainly not “popular”). They were almost a set back in terms of musical progress. The I-IV-V progression has been around since Mozart (and earlier). Catchy melodies or “hooks” were certainly not new. And what was their music about? That’s right. The same exact thing that all pop music that came before it was about. Now I’m not making claims about their influence or popularity here. That is undeniable. But please don’t tell me they were doing anything original.

Argument 2: You are judging them unfairly. All bands have to make a public appeal to get their foot in the door before making serious music or else they will sink before they hit the water. Even bands that you think are original like Radiohead got public appeal before going the artistic route (as with Kid A). You should judge the greatness based on their later albums and not on the early ones.

Rebuttal: I partially agree. But I think the same criticism still applies to their later albums. I’m not claiming that every Beatles song ever was awful, but a significant majority (at least 80% but probably more like 90% or higher) do not fit in a single category of greatness that I listed. This is not merely ignoring a few bad songs. But even if it was just a few bad songs, I would still start to question a band’s greatness from that. A truly great band should be discerning and careful enough about what they release to make sure they aren’t tainting their albums. A few bad songs on an album indicates to me that a band may not be good enough musicians to realize those songs were bad. Even the most avid fans must admit that most of what The Beatles released was filler just to get another album out. There were few good and original ideas on any given album.

Argument 3: It isn’t the music that makes them great. You are missing the point. It is the time period and the statement and the look and the feel of the generation that they were portraying etc blah blah blah. You need to look at the whole picture and not just a piecewise analysis of the music.

Rebuttal: OK. That’s fine and all. But that doesn’t make them a great band. That makes them good public figures. They played the game well. In fact, they played so well, they’ve somehow convinced the public that they are a good band. Let’s not confuse these two things. They were great at capturing an era and sound of the era, but they were not a great band. This distinguishing feature is my point. I’m glad we agree.

Lastly, let’s talk about one of my favorite tests for a bad band. If I can listen to a song I’ve never heard and it is so cliche and unoriginal and boring that I can actually sing along with it on my first listen (yes, that means I caught on to the melody and lyrics so easily that I can predict what they are before I even hear them), then you are not writing interesting music. I just can’t understand how people can listen to things like that without being bored out of their minds.


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Brief Update

I didn’t fall off a cliff or anything, but the semester did start, and I tend to lose motivation for posts will all the coursework. I am going to try to post once a week, but usually I think of things that seem not worth mentioning or are so overly complicated that I just don’t have the energy to hash it all out. I never strike on a good idea to post that is of appropriate length and importance. I will keep my eye out, though.

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