All the best songs from musicals…

…are individualist/libertarian. (Ok not really but bear with me.) ‘Defying Gravity’ from Wicked? All about ego and defiance of the system!

‘No-one Is Alone’ from Into the Woods is all about personal responsibility, the relativity of values and morality.

‘Someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot: they are not alone.’

Which is enough to illustrate the crux of personal liberty and non-aggression. From the same musical, ‘Children Will Listen’ tells of the problems with of making wishes, which one can take as an analogy to government intervention.

‘Careful the wish you make… wishes come true, not free. Careful the spell you cast… sometimes the spell may last, past what you can see, and turn against you.’

Which encapsulates of the Free-Lunch economic fallacy, and the fact that all acts of policy have negative implications too, in addition to positive direct effects.

‘Told a little lie, stole a little gold, broke a little vow… did you? Had to get your Prince? Had to get your cow? Have to get your wish, doesn’t matter how – anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

– The Last Midnight / Your Fault

The witch from Into the Woods is one of the most libertarian characters I can think of from a musical. Here she decries fellow characters for their lack of principles in securing their desires. There are other political themes (obviously) in ‘Assassins’ and also in ‘Anyone Can Whistle’, but there are less clear. Perhaps I will explore these in another post!

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Some Philosophy

Ceteris paribus, the more powerful (able to model/manipulate more of reality) an individual lump of conscious reality is, the easier it will have its way. Therefore the precept of ‘might is right’, or ‘will to power’, are less about moral proposition than a position of material fact. What is morality, but the idea that some individuals will have their values achieved? As whose property are the most value achievements to come, if not the property of the most powerful, as they are the ones best able to rule greater slices of reality?

Thus follows a kind of ‘deterministic morality’. Whatever happens will, ceteris paribus (the statistical imprecision being due to individual lumps of matters’ less than perfect ability to model reality and subsequently achieve their goals), be for the best in terms of sheer preferences, if we accept the idea that on average the more intelligent a lump of matter, the better it will model reality, the more it will achieve its values; but also the more intelligent it be, the more capable of consciousness, the more worthy of moral consideration, the more its preferences should weigh in a utility calculation; leading to the probability that those that want, get, and those who get, deserve.

If we posit consciousness as the reason for the consideration of moral utility, to maximise utility we should merely wish to maximise consciousness and thus too minimise restrictions to the creation of consciousness. Consciousness is the quasi-transcendental mix of utilisation of empiricism via sensations, and rational computation in the form of cognition. We would expect then that to achieve maximal morality, we merely want a more complicated world filled with strange loops. And if we’re intelligent enough to warrant the title of deserving it, chances are we’ll achieve it.

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A few thoughts on methodology and art

Stephen Sondheim describes a core tenet of his art to be that ‘God is in the detail’. Beautiful art is difficult because beauty comes from the illusion of simplicity in the mind of the viewer; this is much different from simplicity in the domain of the artist. Using Google’s search engine is unambiguously simple: the code that makes the search engine run is unambiguously not. The user never should have to wonder what was going inside the head of the programmer; it is the job of the programmer to know what is likely to take place in the head of the user, and to get out of the way of the search experience.

An example. Humans are excellent at looking at and recognising faces. We’re great (at the moment, probably better than any computer algorithm) at identifying individuals by their faces. This isn’t because faces are simple: faces are complex. The brain’s visual processing system, too, is complex. The complexities balance and our minds are able to engage with reality fairly consistently in a (conceptually, not fundamentally) simple way.

Drawing faces (a thing done with conscious imperative) is much more difficult than recognising them (a thing done with evolved imperative). We don’t immediately appreciate the complexity in putting pencil to paper to mark out the illustration of a realistic face… most people’s attempts at drawing faces are obvious enough in their representation but are little like reality. It is not the conscious part of the brain, the part that says ‘I want to draw X’, that handles the minutiae of the actual process. Part of becoming great at any art is surely becoming able to automate the complex (non-evolutionarily-pre-programmed) functions required: pencil strokes mapped to the drawing of lines, keeping perspective, paying minute attention to the placement of features, etc.

This idea can be ported to other arts. Another example, piano playing, one I’m more intimately familiar with than drawing. Being technically proficient at piano, which is largely what learning to play is about, isn’t an artistic end in itself; it’s a means to better expressing the music. You learn to play well so you can get out of the way of the music. Just as you learn to rhyme words properly so that you get out of the way of the poem. This appears to suggest that all art is either an autobiography or the worship of another. Composition is a type of autobiography; playing another’s music is that form of worship.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ve actually said here, it was all just stray thoughts I felt like catching and pinning down into words.

Addendum 28th Jan:

As applied to singing. People generally think a song is less complex than it is. When singing it in recollection, they might approximate the song out of five unique notes, where the original actually has seven, for instance. God is in the detail.

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Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Well I have to say, this book definitely allowed me a healthy glimpse of the famed genius of Oscar Wilde. I hadn’t read any of his writing before bar a handful of quotes, but had often enough heard praise directed at the writer.

The Picture of Dorian Gray orbits the life of a beautiful young man (Gray), a wealthy inhabitant of the late-19th century London who at the beginning of the novel sits for a picture to be painted by his friend Basil Hallward. Basil is infatuated with Dorian for his appearance, at a time when Dorian had yet to attend to such things as external beauty. Through the painter Dorian is introduced to Basil’s hedonistic and contrary friend Lord Henry, who influences Dorian greatly over the course of their first meeting. The picture is finished and Dorian first begins to turn his attention from morality to vanity. The story goes that Dorian loses any ability to be physically altered, at the expense that his new painting will change to reflect the perversions of his soul.

I found the prose to be consistently engaging. Multiple exchanges between the colourful characters sparkle with wit and humour; Lord Henry’s reflections are pretty amusing and occasionally thoughtful too. The broad ‘lessons’ of the novel, if Wilde would forgive such an explicit accusation of didacticism, follow (as I interpret them) a fairly standard ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ and ‘vanity-is-a-blindness’ moral, though it is really the dramatic details and linguistic intricacies of the book that lend it its character.

I’ll probably check out one of Wilde’s plays if I get the chance, so you would not be ill-advised to expect that a review of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ will pop up at some point.

Next review: The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. I cannot wait to read this one!

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Review: Night of January 16th

(It was obvious that I had to read it all tonight.)

CLERK: You solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you God?

KAREN: [Calmly] That’s useless. I’m an atheist.

Above is one of my favourite lines from the play. I really enjoyed it, it’s probably the first time I’ve finished a ‘book’ in one sitting. Considerably easier/faster to read than a novel, I admit, which I am ultimately glad for. Obviously, as a work of Ayn Rand, it featured many from the typical array of characters: the boldly intelligent mistress [Karen Andre, on trial for the alleged murder of her lover]; the great businessman [Bjorn Faulkner, initially revealed to have fallen from his New York building on the eponymous date], who people mainly disliked but who had standards and was pretty cool; the evil wife [Mrs. Nancy Lee Faulkner]. Also in the play were the ordinary members of the courtroom: the Defence counsel, Prosecutor, Clerk and Judge.

Night of January 16th is based around the dubious suicide of a high-ranking businessman, whose business empire crashed following his death due to a web of unrepaid loans. His mistress Karen Andre is on trial for his alleged murder, from the penthouse (in which she lived) atop one of Faulkner’s buildings; she is claimed to have pushed him to his death. We hear individually the testimonies of various figures providing evidence in either direction. At the end of the play, the jury (traditionally composed of members of the audience, when played out) decides the verdict, and the play is concluded simply in two possible directions with only a handful of lines at the end of act three provided to conclude the drama, in either case. It was not even halfway through the second of three acts that I’d formed the majority of my own judgement, although the ‘story’ as it were – the entirety of the play takes place within the court – continued to gain interest and complexity, eventually resolving everything, to my own mind at least, satisfactorially by the conclusion of the third act. I would recommend this book to anyone who might be intrigued by an unconventional courtroom drama that makes a good attempt to make philosophical suggestions in its portrayal of characters. Certainly an enjoyable read for anyone familiar with Rand’s other work, although this is a decidedly more vague and symbolic, rather than explicit or finely illustrative statement of her philosophy.

Post-review Scriptum: I temporarily gave up reading The Waves! My gosh that was hard to read; perhaps I’ll choose an easier of Woolf’s books to start my experience with that particular author. To make up for this, I’d started another book instead, however, so the next review I’ll do, rather than Woolf’s as I originally wrote, is for Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

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Good for the soul, bad for the heart

Self-deprecation that is!

(Title courtesy of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Perpetual Anticipation’ from A Little Night Music)

Ugh I’m in one of those moods where I feel approximately useless. Thankfully, I have long since been able to utilise such moods for productivity!

I think it links to an obsession I have with perfectionism. It takes a lot for me to be truly happy with something when it is in my creative control, specifically if I’m producing something as an end in itself (i.e. “this is something I want to do for basically its own sake/an internal motive”). In Year 11 I rewrote and resubmitted my creative-writing coursework even though the first draft got 26/27, simply because I wasn’t precisely happy with it (in fact I was looking through my old GCSE coursework folder a few months ago, and made a handful of edits).

Needless to say if you’re acquainted with my A level scores/lack thereof, my notion of attaining perfection doesn’t consistently extend to the various opinions of external bodies.

Anyway, the thing about thinking that I suck is it generally spurs me on to, y’know, change it. To suck less. When I think, “damn I suck at piano, I can’t play anything”, I don’t wallow in the self-pity, or give up piano. I strive to become a little less sucky. I know for a fact that I can play a handful of songs, and I can play some songs pretty well. But as long as my subconscious doesn’t know that, I may as well utilise my feeling of inadequacy to improve.

Although I don’t have my piano here at the moment so no piano practice for me. I’m gonna do some computer work instead.

Today’s lesson: from bad emotions can come good things; if only you vow to never stop using your mind, to never allow the bad emotions to dictate your life.

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Review: Dune

Far be it from my normal activities to review books, in order to document my progress in reading more books, I shall review Frank Herbert’s Dune which I finished last night.

In short, it is a quasi-mystical, science-fictional imagining of our universe, at least 10,000 years into the future, where space-travel is the norm, along with the reign of several old Houses within an interplanetary Empire. Politics and religion are both a cornerstone to the novel. The secretive and omnipresent Bene Gesserit sect has many intriguing advanced mental powers, as well as the pretence to there being a higher cause behind their obscure machinations. The Mentat, with highly advanced abilities of abstract cognition, serve as a replacement for computers. The politics of the area are hard to grasp in the beginning: crucially the plot orbits the ancient fued between the protagonist’s Atreides and antagonising Harkonnen royal bloodlines. Paul’s mother Lady Jessica being a Bene Gessrit, and his father Duke Leto Atreides as the new ruler of Arrakis, ensure that much of this religious and political import is relevant to Paul’s immediate story. The fight over the planet Arrakis – or Dune – and its precious, mysterious produce of Melange, is the crux of the book.

Now to have ended the synopsis, I’m free to pronounce that I enjoyed the book greatly. Not only this but the intricacy of the plots, and the many references to tricks within tricks within tricks, make me feel considerably more able to comprehend the complexities that arise in the interactions between people, and plans. The book plays out like an elaborate, multi-dimensional game of chess, and you do not see all the pieces at once nor the number of dimensions, and it is the reader’s game to guess the moves.

That’s not to detract from the characterisation. Herbert paints just enough grandeur of religious mystery to make believable the miraculous superposition of events and character that becomes our main character Paul Atreides’ life. Nonetheless, the young adolescent – who becomes a young man – is kept in enough of a tight situation at any point to have his victories seem an achievement rather than an inevitability.

In summation it was a pretty cool book and I’ll probably read the sequel some day! Next review: Virginia Woolfe’s The Waves.

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