Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Happy Holidays

Hello faithful readers, wherever you may be! I still exist!

I, like you all, have been enjoying a happy and fun holiday season that is, alas, getting very near the end. In the meantime, I am working on the remaining posts in my Great Music series, but don't expect anything until I'm settled in back at Stanford (around the 3rd).

In the meantime, Jericha and I are planning to go to Six Flags Magic Mountain for a roller-coaster-filled New Years. Jericha has never ridden a roller-coaster before, so we're both in for some surprises, I'm sure. We'll also be keeping abreast of Stanford's bowl game against Oklahoma, even if neither team will field their starting quarterback.

I hope you all had a good Chirstmas season, and best wishes for the New Year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Towards Defining Great Music, Part Two: On Genre and Deciding Greatness

In trying to decide what is great music – and whether such a thing exists – it is important to consider the genres of music that have dominated and defined their particular times. Genre might as well be, here, a substitute for context, or even for culture more broadly, and is therefore intimately tied in with taste, but it is nevertheless a useful way of categorizing an incredibly complicated phenomenon.

In any given era, there are seemingly uncountable genres and sub-genres of music. It is tempting and simple to simply divide music into two camps, “art” and “popular.” But that is a misleading attempt, because much of what we now consider “art music” was wildly popular at the time, and much music that is written primarily for the sake of a popular audience is nonetheless artistic for it.

Similarly, we might divide music into “spiritual” and “secular” music. While not a meaningful distinction in contemporary music, historically there is a significant difference between the purposes and forms of the two. Indeed, for a long time “spiritual music” and “art music” were essentially the same thing, with popular, secular (and thereby vulgar) music serving an entirely different function and performed by an entirely different set of musicians.

At the other extreme, we might choose to define genres of music narrowly. The minuet and the fugue might be separate, as might the 12-bar blues and the 16-bar blues, or the symphony and the concerto. A narrower understanding of genre might help us to compare pieces under those frameworks – and it strikes me that most reasonable narrow divisions are actually formal constraints – but they don't necessarily help us to find great music.

Perhaps the most common delineation of genres in music is the chronological one. That is, classical music is divided into distinct eras, each of which has a distinctive but related (by the “progress” from one understanding of harmony to the next) style. Beginning with the medieval era, Western music is traditionally said to have gone through the following eras (in order): Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern. Some nit-pickers also slide Nationalist in between Romantic and Modern, or at least alongside, but that's of more political than musical interest.

While I don't think any of these approaches really properly captures what I mean by “genre,” I think they are useful nonetheless, especially when considered together.* A genre is, in short, the combination of the context in which the work was written (that is, its historical, geo-political, and philosophical situation) and the purpose for which it was written (that is, whether it was written for the sake of religion, art as such, popularity or notoriety, or what-have-you). The historical side of that equation is something a composer has essentially no control over, and if there is an argument for or against the existence of great music from a particular time period, it ought to therefore confront the context and the not the composers of that time.**

*I will avoid, for the time being, the thorny issue of modern music, because that is where 'genre' becomes especially uninformative in trying to qualify music. I promise, however, that I will have a whole post in this series specifically devoted to modern music.

** Indeed, we don't really speak of “Great Music” from the Dark Ages primarily for this reason; the social, political, and religious realities of the time made great music all but impossible. Of course, it is also possible that, rather than making great music impossible, context instead made the transmission of that music impossible. Likewise with the Greeks. We cannot evaluate their music – even though discussions of it abound in their writings – because none of it survived. Accessibility is a necessary condition for greatness, and music, after all, must be heard.

So the question becomes, what is greatness? Is it relative, or absolute? Does it even exist?

It seems to me that the simplest claim is that greatness is merely the sorting of music in a particular genre by quality, as is generally agreed upon by those most versed in the language of that genre,* with some help from popular opinion, and as confirmed by the experts who learn that language later and confirm the former judgment. I realize that's a fairly long-winded “simple” definition, but I think the components all make sense, and I'm inclined to use it moving forward. Because of that, I want to go through the definition in a little more detail, to make sure it is clear and to argue for each part.

* Those with the most taste, as we might say, drawing on my last post.

First off, this definition of greatness assumes that greatness is not Platonic, dealing with eternal forms, and rather is a relative measure of art against the other art from close to the same time. That is not to say we don't set up a non-contextual scale, comparing music from the 1800s to music from the 1600s, deciding that Bach is perhaps greater than Wagner, but that Wagner is greater than Vivaldi. Rather, it is to say that, before we compare Vivaldi or Bach to Wagner, we compare them to the other, lesser known composers of their own time, and we recognize that those “lesser knowns” are lesser known for good reason.*

* By way of analogy, there is endless debate amongst baseball fans as to who the greatest player of all time is. Babe Ruth still has a lot going for him because of how much better he was than his contemporaries, but then again Willie Mays faced what was probably a higher level of competition. Barry Bonds may have been a cheat, but he faced an even higher level of competition and managed – by whatever means – to life himself well above it. The point being, there's no way to really decide who's the best baseball player, but it is fairly widely acknowledged that, comparing Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds against their contemporaries, it's hard to say they were not great. Though undoubtedly Willie Bloomquist is an exceptional athlete and phenomenal baseball player by most any measure, he is “lesser known” for good reason when compared against Albert Pujols.

As for how the greatest composers of an era are decided, a great deal of that happens well before we modern folk ever had a say. Beethoven was anointed great and his music preserved because his contemporaries understood his music to be great. The same could be said of Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and the myriad other household name Classical composers. This, however, is an important part of greatness; the recognition of the experts of the time.

While certainly Beethoven was helped by broader popularity, it was the favor of both his fellow musicians and of the more austere, academic critics of music which carried him. Of course there was also substantial negative reaction to much of what he wrote, and a good deal of misunderstanding, but that too we might label a condition for greatness. On the whole, however, it was widely recognized that Beethoven was incomparable among his contemporaries even at the time, a judgment that came from a combination of expert opinion and general enjoyment of the music he produced.

Retrospect, however, is also important in determining greatness. At the time, Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was met with mixed and, frankly, a good many negative reviews. Beethoven was, in summary, an old, deaf man grasping at straws, full of grand ideas but no longer aware of how to really write music. In retrospect, however, it is Beethoven's contemporaries that were grasping at straws, unable to understand a treatment of harmony and form that was heretofore unheard, but that anticipated the evolutions in music theory that would occur over the next century during the Romantic era.

Only hindsight, it could be said, can judge whether the wild and crazy ideas of a great mind will be prophetic or insane. Perhaps it is no mark of greatness, and merely of fortune that in this case Beethoven was the former, but I believe that oversimplifies a complicated situation. An important quality of the prophet is not merely predicting the future, but helping to make that future happen. In Beethoven's case, his greatness was not in anticipating what Romantic music would bring to fruition, but in planting the seed such that his was the only flower that had any chance of growing in the first place.

It is easy to look at transition points between historical genres and find great composers, of course, because influence and greatness are easy to confound. While a great many changes may be inevitable – for example, the progress of music theory in its essence may have been almost exactly the same had Beethoven never been born – the way those changes occur is subject to the influences of a great many men and women, and some manage to have more influence than others.

Even within a fairly static genre, however, we might find greatness. Mozart, brilliant though he was, did not live long enough to see the transition from the Classical to the Romantic eras. While much of his music may have pushed the boundaries of what was common at his time – another potential mark of greatness – he did not possess nearly the influence that Beethoven did historically. And yet we might argue that Mozart was the greater composer. Regardless, that he stood out both now and then above his contemporaries is largely unquestioned.

It is almost inevitable that a discussion of great music will end up being a discussion of great composers, because individual pieces are even harder to categorize and qualify. Nevertheless, we might approach pieces the same way, but with a stronger eye towards the theory in each piece. There are a great many musical devices and techniques that underlie even this discussion of what a musical genre is, and while it is reductionist to discuss composers without that theory, it is at least possible. Discussing the music itself without the theory itself would be impossible, because music theory is the very language that allows for the discussion to have meaning.*

* Without music theory, it's easy to get trapped in the pitfall of unarguable metaphor. “This piece is like a waterfall, that one like a giant rock.” While those connotations and images may percolate in the heads of some listeners, trying to have a discussion and trying to determine quality under such terms is about as productive as teaching First Graders differential calculus. That's not to say the images and emotions that we feel aren't important; indeed, they are the point. But just because a piece of music (or anything else) makes you feel happy or helps you imagine daffodils doesn't mean that it is great. It must also stand up to analysis and contemplation. Some might argue this is a view that encourages cynicism, and I won't disagree. But I will say this: while a great deal of music might be beautiful, happy, melancholy, or any other number of things, only music that remains beautiful, happy, or melancholy when you are cynical about it is truly great. If you are afraid that thinking carefully and critically about a thing will decrease rather than increase your enjoyment of it, perhaps it is not a thing worth enjoying after all.

With that in mind, we'll spend the next post discussing music itself. What is music, after all? Music has undeniable power, and is ubiquitous in our culture. Indeed, the music industry has been at the forefront of copyright law and the effects of digital distribution primarily because we take our music much more seriously than we take our movies, our pictures, or our words. Why is that? What is the power of music? Tune in next time, but don't expect answers.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Towards Defining Great Music, Part One: On Taste

To the uninitiated, the sculptures of Auguste Rodin come across as detailed, but vulgar and often hideous. Shakespeare's plays, likewise, seem mildly amusing, but fundamentally stuffy. Wagner's operas boring and dissonant. Dali's painting simply bizarre.

But who are the initiated, and by what standards do they judge? Is it the art itself that makes Great Art, or is it the ego of the person viewing that art, and the fear of seeming unsophisticated at rejecting a composer, painter, or playwright?

I do not presume to be able to answer that question, as it has too many sociological and psychological implications I'm not capable of tackling. But I will admit that the difference between Rodin and other sculptors, to me, is something I do not fully appreciate. I take it on authority that Rodin is a Master, and that his art is profound. When I experience it, however, I am baffled.* Human? No doubt. Intricate? Likewise. But its hidden, subtler virtues I have not the language or experience to appreciate.

* That I get to experience it at all is likely most of the battle. What is greatness without exposure?

Music is much the same. Without hesitation I claim that, to really understand “Great Music,” you have to know the language. Beethoven can be rousing to anyone, Mozart joyous, and Wagner mysterious (or awful, as the case may be), but without understanding dominants and tonics and substitutions the intricacy of the music comes across as little more than that. “Intricacy,” “subtlety,” and “beauty” become stand-ins for “I don't know why, but I like it.” Indeed, some listeners take this stance with pride: better to love music and not understand than to be discriminating and thereby limit the breadth of what moves you.

It is, in the end, impossible to argue against that position, but to me it smacks of choosing ignorance over knowledge because, in the end, ignorance is easier. There is, however, no black-and-white duality here. In all things we all choose knowledge and ignorance in various degree, waiting until the level of our understanding suits us, and electing to forgo further knowledge-gathering at that point with the pride of a conscious decision rather than the regret and humility of one who has too little time, capacity, or desire to know more (of course, we might feel both pride and humility). That the former is a rationalization of the latter seems obvious; “I know as much as I need to” is a refrain heard more often – or at least spoken more sincerely – than “I don't know enough,” especially when matters of taste are involved.

What qualifies as “a matter of taste,” too, is often up for debate. Today we take for granted that music has to do with taste as much as food. Indeed, what qualifies as good food in our modern world is probably more widely agreed upon than what qualifies as good music. Our broad tastes in music mirror our generally broad tastes, of course. With the possible exception of hard sciences like chemistry and physics, it's hard to claim that our society believes in the inherent superiority of one idea or another in almost any field. “To each his own” is a post-modern cry.

The post-modern world is staunchly individualistic, but is also unquestionably filled with deference to the authority of those 'experts' whose tastes are similar. Our political beliefs are shaped primarily by those authorities we agree with, our taste in movies shaped by those reviewers who's choices most often please us, and our musical preferences mapped by the record labels and critics that most capture our particular habits. All of those, in turn, are shaped by the way we were raised.

Even though we are generally self-confident, we find that we must have some authority, because as strong as our individualism may be, rarely are we willing to go so far as to claim that we, individually, know what is best. We know that we do not know the language of politics, movies, or music nearly well enough to decide for ourselves, and so we defer, defer, defer, until the very act of deference is what most determines who we are. As long as our deference is to authority we 'trust.'

Where does that trust come from? In many ways it's self-fulfilling, though of course mitigated in many realms by experience. If I trust a politician has beliefs similar to my own, but then I perceive that he does not live up to that trust, I am unlikely to vote for him again (unless, of course, he is a member of my party and I am indoctrinated enough to vote against my actual preference for the supposed good of said party). Even that perception, however, is colored strongly by the initial trust I grant. Once a fan of Pericles,* it is much easier to overlook, forget, or otherwise ignore the differences between one's personal preference and the political actions of the deemed-trustworthy authority.

* In the interest of avoiding an unnecessary foray into modern politics, I'll go with Greek instead. Though you may not know much of Pericles, it is fair to say that, at his time, he was probably even more controversial than the people we have around today.

Which is to say that we are complicated, we humans. Even the claim to simplicity – “I am a simple man” – is wrought with complexities, effectively meaning the exact opposite. More often than not, simplicity is complexity unexamined, and not true simplicity at all. Or, put another way, simplicity is complexity in disguise, dressed up (or down) for the sake of understanding, conversation, or propaganda.* All language is inherently reductionist, and working with concepts requires a great deal of categorizing and connecting ideas that probably ought not be grouped together.

* Which may be the same thing.

Whither taste, then? Taste is a word we use, I believe, to excuse ourselves from thinking critically about things we enjoy, but instead wish to take for granted. Oh, we may permit some degree of careful thinking, allowing a comparison of works of art within a preferred genre, weighing whether one song is better than another. Indeed, “good taste” is usually marked by knowing the language of a particular genre, so that the great can be separated from the good, which can in turn be separated from the poor. That's not to say that 'taste' is a bad thing, then. Far from it. But how often do we really examine not just what the language of a particular art form is, but where it comes from as well? How often, in other words, to we turn taste not just on the members of a genre, but on the genre itself?

Is it the art itself that is great, or is it the context in which it is produced that allows for “greatness?” Are those even separable? Our American, Puritan, and democratic prejudices might lead us to claim that hard work is a necessary condition for great art, but while Beethoven was known to slave over every note, Mozart's style was quite the opposite.* Is he therefore not great? On the other hand, we might defer to authority, allowing greatness to be decided by expertise. But the language those experts use is often the language that was developed, not to determine greatness, per se, but to justify the very tastes that lead to preference of one piece or genre of music – or literature, or painting – over another in the first place. Then again, what else than this do we mean by context?

* There is even a myth that every piece he ever published was a first draft.

Taste – and we might just as easily say culture – is all tied up in language, like so much of what we do and think. When dealing, however, with art (however broadly we might define so vague a term), we run into a problem of translation. Language is conversational and, in its origins, honest. Art, in its origins, is dishonest. Not willfully misleading, mind you, but not directly representational and denotative in the way that conversational language is meant to be. The more important the word to our day-to-day operation, the less vague it is, generally speaking, meaning there is always more argument – and more art – made about the abstract than about the concrete. Even the below painting of a simple thing is famous in spite of the simple thing pictured. Instead it is favored for its abstractions. The components – the bits of language – are honest, but the mixing together confuses us, acknowledging all the while the inherent abstraction of painting (and, likewise, the written word, and probably too the spoken word; let alone music).

(Translation: This is not a pipe)

It is not my hope or my expectation to unwind language, and to make clear a thing which is frighteningly unclear to me. Indeed, with every paragraph I feel I am plunging myself and the reader further into confusion rather than bringing us closer to clarity. That, however, is closer to the point. Our tastes are as whimsical, contextual, prejudicial, and largely unexamined as our language itself, because ultimately they are one in the same. Without the language to discuss – or at least to indicate – our tastes, would those tastes exist?

The argument, however, is that there is such a thing called “Greatness” in art, a thing which transcends mere taste. That is not to say that taste does not sometimes prevent us from loving great art. It most certainly does. It is also not to say that taste does not play some role in determining greatness. Rather, I believe that the authority here is not merely the outcome of happenstance and snobbery, however much it looks to be.

How ought we decide greatness in art – and more especially in music – and what that greatness looks like are our next questions, and will be the subject of coming posts. But I believe it is important to understand that, much as I am convinced that some music is inherently better than other music – and not therefore to be belittled because it is no longer prominent among the fickle tastes of the masses – the path to that belief is a sticky one, and one that I am hardly confident in. It seems to me, regardless, a reasonable position, and it ought to be more clear when we dive next time into music itself, rather than skating on these overly broad – and therefore dangerously thin – philosophical sheets of ice.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Favorite Games, Part Two

And now the thrilling conclusion of my favorite games. There are five more, making for a nice, well-rounded eight.

The Russell Crowe Award for Gladiatorial Combat
Tactical RPG

Actually, the reason I award Gladius is not because it is a gladiator game, but rather because it is a competent and engaging tactical RPG. There are a great many good RPGs, a few good turn-based strategy games, but almost no good games that combine the two. And yet this is a natural combination, because a good way to make RPG combat deeper and more strategic is to make it turn-based, like a game of chess. That, of course, means the AI has to be better, which usually means that the graphics will be worse, and that fewer people will buy it, and so on.

The result is that, because the masses like their high-paced, gory first-person shooters (FPS) and real-time strategies (RTS), other genres get often overlooked. More than anything, the RPG model gets folded in the the RTS model (Warcraft 3) or the FPS model (Deus Ex or Bioshock; even Fallout 3 falls into this category). Gladius did not have an exceptional AI, and the story was fairly bland but the gameplay was wonderful. The depth of strategy available to the player and the variety of unit-types found throughout the massive game world was truly staggering for a large-scale, commercial game published by Lucas Arts.

Surprisingly, Gladius was released on console only, even though it is, in almost every way, a game meant for the computer. Though usually multiplayer doesn't interest me, Gladius was meant for it. The AI had no hope of outsmarting the player in so complex a game, so another human would have made the best opponent. Unfortunately, the game's only multiplayer mode was a toned down, single-battle involving, by necessity, only combatants from your saved games in the campaign. On the plus side, the campaign could be played cooperatively (and, as my brother could tell you, was). All in all, a fine gaming experience, but its lack of commercial success - despite uniformly excellent reviews - has prevented a sequel, and the genre remains underrepresented.

The Defenestration of Prague Award for Historicity
Europa Universalis
Real Time Strategy / Simulation
It's hard to really call EU a "real time strategy." The game is certainly not turn-based, but the passage of time can be paused at any moment so that your nation can be assessed, orders can be issued, diplomacy attempted, and trade expanded. The game is more simulation, because none of those things involve the RTS formula: secure resources, build mass of units, destroy enemy base. But I say EU is an RTS nevertheless because in some sense it is far more "real time" than any other game. Rather than processing in arbitrary weeks or months or years (or turns), EU progresses through history - from whatever starting point you choose within its range - day-by-day. When your English forces discover the new world it is not on turn 100, or even in 1492. No, it happens on the 27th of May, 1492.

Doesn't that mean the game takes a long time? Well, you can speed it up to a fairly brisk clip, but yes. Processing hundreds of years of history means processing hundreds of thousands of days. And the length of the game is only the beginning. As I've mentioned in previous posts, EU includes just about every nation existent at any time between 1450 and 1850. The Holy Roman Empire - which famously was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire - is indeed split into its dozens and dozens of member states. Russia begins split between barren wastes, Muscowy, and Novgorod. Japan - if you have the Magna Mundi Mod (which everyone does) - actually goes through its protracted Civil War during the 15th and 16th centuries, meaning it is split into a sizable collection of provinces.

And you, the player, can experience any part of that world at any time period you choose, and that is the beauty of the game. You can, for example, play:
- America at the time of the War for Independence.
- The Mayans or the Aztecs right as they make contact with Europe.
- China, as it strives for dominance in Asia.
- Sweden at the onset of the 30 years war.
- Castille as it fights the Reconquista against the Moors.
and so on.
Europa Universalis - especially EU 3 - is a sandbox. History does not unfold as it did. But that is part of the fun. If you, as the English, crush the American Revolution, what are the implications for the rest of the world? Moving further back, what if Portugal colonizes the Eastern Seaboard instead? Further still, what if England fails to unify the British Isles, and instead Scotland becomes the major British power?

I name my award after the defenestration of Prague because, while the broader historical progress is the heart of the game, the kinds of events that pop up from time to time are such that you might actually see a defenestration. For a game with such breadth, EU sacrifices little in depth (it sacrifices primarily in graphics, but too much glitz would be distracting in this kind of game anyway), which is why it is the gold standard of historical simulation, and the single largest reason that Paradox Interactive is able to survive in the world of Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and other major developers.

I've reserved the final three games here for last because, while this is by no means a list that goes in order, I believe these are the best of the best. It's splitting hairs, especially because - as you may have noticed - there is a substantial amount of variety in the genres and principles of gameplay of the games I have listed so far (a trend that will continue in these three). Nevertheless, the following occupy that special place of "game I would happily play through again, even though I've played through at least once before."*
* Open-ended games like Civilization IV and Europa Universalis don't really fall into the "would play through again" equation, of course. What separates them, I think, from this group - albeit by a hair - is that they are more obviously superficial. It is hard to believe that you are truly the all-powerful, all-seeing monarch of a country that lives for hundreds (or thousands) of years. While I prefer strategy games in many ways - because they make you think - they are abstractions in a way that RPGs are not.

The Monteverdi Award for Pioneering an Art Form*
Shadow of the Colossus

*Monteverdi is widely considered the father of the opera.

Shadow of the Colossus
is a rare, beautiful gem of a game. More than any other game I have every played, it is a work of art first, and a game second, and the first game in this list for which I have felt compelled to include a screenshot. The story is touching and mysterious, as the main character is compelled to battle, one-by-one, a series of giant Colossi in order to save his beloved from death. More than that I won't say, because the game leaves it all unclear.

Which is why the game works so well. You are not merely pitted against these dozen colossi - each clever and innovative in their own way, each requiring a unique strategy to defeat, and each stunning in their artistic merit - you also have to navigate through a rich and detailed world, seeking these Colossi. It is also a barren world, filled with ruins, none of which are explained. What civilization exists or existed? How did you get to this wild, unpopulated place? Who is this entity that can save your beloved, but only if you defeat the Colossi? Where did these Colossi come from?

Ultimately, the brilliance of the game is in leaving all of that unanswered. The player, rather than being given an explanation, is presented only the phenomenon of a beautiful and terrifying landscape populated by nothing but ancient and powerful machines. The answers to most of your questions, as a player, will not be given, and so you must explore the possibilities for yourself. What answers you do get come in the form of one of the most touching and powerful ending sequences in any game I have ever played. Which is hardly surprising, given the artistry of the game as a whole. What little speaking occurs in the game is subtitled - as it was not originally in English - but that only adds to the mystique, and feels somehow "correct."

The Jedi Award
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

This game was and remains one of the finest RPGs ever made. Usually games made under the umbrella of a long-standing and commercially successful franchise are awful. The publisher recognizes that a good game is unnecessary because, ultimately, the name sells itself. There are quite a few Lord of the Rings games out there that, frankly, suck, but were commercially successful because they bore the words "Lord of the Rings" on the box.

Much credit should go to Lucas Arts for bringing in Bioware to make Knights. Rather than relying on the name and the chance to wield a lightsabre, Lucas Arts brought in the best of the best to make an RPG for the ages. Far from leaching off of the Star Wars name, Knights actually contributed to the name, in many ways saving it from the awful new movies.

What made Knights such a good game? Undoubtedly much of it was the chance to become a Jedi - a role-playing experience even the least nerdy of the nerds could not miss. Beyond that, however, there was the in-depth morality system, which made Knights one of the first games to include multiple endings based on whether you followed the light side or the dark side.

The most endearing aspect of the game, however, was the story. Knights of the Old Republic boasts a better story (and better "acting," though only voice acting) than any of the Star Wars movies. The characters are all, to a person (or droid) memorable, and there is a plot twist so surprising, handled so well, that it is still regarded as one of the greatest moments in video games. I won't give it away, but it's way cooler than "Luke, I am your father."

There was also a sequel to Knights, which was a fine game as well, but Bioware backed out and so the game was made by Obsidian instead. Ultimately, the sequel couldn't match the original, and while it expanded and complicated the morality system and included influence within your cadre of companions, it lacked the punch of the original. Bioware, in the meantime, went to work on their next two projects. One was called Jade Empire, an excellent game in itself, though hamstrung by its commitment to the console over the computer. The other is the final game in my list, and the real spiritual successor to Knights.

The Dirk Gently Award for the Whole Package*
Mass Effect

* Of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams at, I would argue, his finest.

What can I say about Mass Effect? It was, at the time, Bioware's most ambitious and most successful work. It remains - in the opinion of this humble gamer, who is now mired in their current effort, Dragon Age Origins - their finest work as well. Mass Effect was brilliant for many reasons, first and foremost being the feeling that you were in a movie. I'll talk about a few key features.

The entire game was voice acted - indeed, it set a new standard for voice acting - including the main character. Rather than moving mutely through a talkative world, Commander Shepard (you) are just as vocal as everyone else. Bioware provides, for each piece of conversation, a short snippet capturing the essence of what you're going to say, but when your character speaks, he (or she) speaks in full sentences and paragraphs. Dialogue is more highly scripted than in many games, in order to make this feasible, but the result is worth it, because your character is that much more believable.

The gameplay itself is excellent as well. Though essentially a first person shooter at battle time, much of what happens is dictated by the conversations that you have and the missions you choose to take on. In battles, as well, you can manage and direct your teammates, giving the game a strong tactical feel, even if it is in real time. Battles almost always take place in areas with plenty of cover for both yourself and your foes, so some firefights can last many minutes. Moreover, regardless of your class - there are three to choose from - you will have an array of abilities and powers at your disposal to help you overcome the mass of enemies that the will be thrown against you. Mixing and matching these abilities with those of your teammates requires some serious forethought.

Of course, the real "movie" feel to the game comes from the story. It is not especially creative in itself, following the "save the galaxy" standard, but the world that it takes place in is unique. What I mean is, while Humans exist in the Mass Effect galaxy, a great many species that are not Humans do as well, and those are not taken from the standard Star Trek, Star Wars, or Master of Orion options. As you explore the game world, you'll come across various races and technologies that each have their own, voiced entry in your journal. These "codex" serve to immerse the player in the game world.

Even though the story is fairly standard, the way it is accomplished is not. Many quests require decisions that do not necessarily end well. It is not only possible, but likely that you will finish the game down a squad member or two (or more). Rumor has it than in the upcoming sequel - to be released next year - it will be possible to finish the game down the main character. If that's not bold and different, I don't know what is.

I am picky about my games. While I have played many, there are actually few that I play all the way through. Often the game becomes too obvious, too easy, or too artificial long before the final battle. Indeed, those final battles are often anticlimactic (Mass Effect's, sadly, is). But some games warrant more than one play through, not just to explore alternate endings - if they exist - or a variety of character types. No, some games are just that good. Mass Effect I have played twice, and the second time I actually did more side quests than the first. There are not many games I can say that about (Knights of the Old Republic and Gladius are the only others, off the top of my head).

Why share all this? Well, for those of you who are gamers, I know that you may not have stumbled across some of these games before. For those who aren't, I want to point out - as I stated in the first post - that games are improving and becoming culturally significant works of art. Bioware is at the forefront of that effort, but so are lesser known companies like Stardock, a developer with an excellent business model that is refreshingly customer-oriented. Check out their upcoming Elemental: War of Magic to see a game that is poised for excellence in strategic depth, artistic merit, and open-ended gameplay. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that a great many of the best ideas for games come from independent developers. Of my own list, Out of the Park Baseball is developed not by some huge corporation, but by an individual programmer in his spare time (in Germany, at that). Europa Universalis, too, is the product of a smaller company, though at this point they could hardly be called an "indie" developer. I didn't speak to Mount and Blade, but very well could have. It was developed by a husband and wife team, and includes the most realistic combat engine you're like to find anywhere.

The point being, there is a lot of money being poured into the gaming world these days, but there's also a lot of artistic fervor and passion. From a gamers point of view, this is an exciting time, when each year brings innovations that put to shame the games of the past (even if you sometimes have to search hard for the truly innovative games). From an educators point of view, this is a time when the possibilities of leveraging games for learning and teaching are finally becoming clear and feasible. From a writer's point of view, this is a time when games are finally catching up to movies and novels in terms of the content they offer.*

*The story goes that, when developers wrote their games in the 80s and 90s, they would ask who on the development team had taken a creative writing course at some point in their education. That person would then write the plot and dialogue and so on. These days, companies higher screenwriters and novelists and so on to write their games. The difference is apparent.

Are games a waste of time? That's the biggest question I haven't addressed, I think. Movies take a couple hours, most games take at least a dozen, and many take substantially more. I would argue, though, that games exercise the mind - imagination, problem solving, and so on - far more than movies do, and certainly more than most TV does. Games are interactive, strategic, difficult enough to be a challenge, but not so difficult as to make you miserable (well, some are). They are a whole new art form, and while games, like any artistic medium, are split between the blatantly commercial and the purely artistic (with most occupying somewhere in between), it would be foolish to condemn the whole genre because what is most well publicized and well known is also crappy (most of the EA Sports games, for example). If that were fair, we'd have to condemn all movies for titles like Transformers and Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay is, after all, the Electronic Arts of movies).

In short, games are far from a waste of time. Don't believe me? Try one out, but try a good one. The sticky thing, for me, isn't whether games are a waste of time, but whether I have time to play them. I certainly find them less important than classwork or a job, but I also find Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, and Beethoven "less important" than those things. Indeed, the preponderance of games in the modern world gives me hope that we may yet overcome this grave societal addiction to work (and by extension, money) that has corrupted our spirits and poisoned our environment for far too long. The play of a culture - its type, intensity, and passion - might be much more indicative of health than productivity. But that, my friends, is a post for another time.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Favorite Games, Part One

Since I've broached the topic a couple of times now, I want to write a brief overview of some of my favorite computer and video games.* I won't make this a “top 10” list or anything, because I find it hard to rank and compare the gaming experience in that way. Some of my very favorite games are in disparate genres, or from different eras, and therefore cannot really be pitted against each other. Since we all love categories, I will try to give each game a fancy and meaningless award to each one. That's a blog-ish thing to do, right?

* A word on vocabulary. The distinction between “computer game” and “video game” is a point of much wrangling in the gaming world. Generally speaking, computer gaming is a narrower term, referring specifically to games made for and played on the computer. Video games, on the other hand, usually refers to console or arcade games, though can also mean computer games. Many computer gamers tend towards an elitism. Computers, in addition to being more expensive than consoles like the Playstation, also tend to have better hardware and, of course, a hard drive capable of running the game without a disc. While consoles have certainly moved in that direction. The PS3, for example, can connect to the Internet, play DVDs, and do all kinds of fancy stuff formerly reserved for computers.

For my own part, while I prefer the power and usability of the computer (it's hard to beat the mouse and keyboard as an input mechanism), I don't think it's something at all worth being snobbish about. A good game is a good game, whether made for the Wii, the PC, or for miniatures, pencils, and dice.

Increasingly video games are moving away from the place where they merely recreate the board game experience (only faster and “real time”). Early computer games were largely influenced by the board game experience. Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) especially were and still are usually based on Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Classic games like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and even Knight's of the Old Republic* were based on the D&D system of (usually 20-sided) dice rolls to determine attack success, skill use, and damage. Likewise, even many early arcade games were based on table-top games of one kind or another. Pong is table tennis, for example. Many Real Time Strategies (RTS) are essentially derivatives of the board game Risk in real time.

The point being, over time games have gotten more ambitious and more groundbreaking, to the point where some are actually starting to be meaningful works of culture and art. While there were, for example, many early movies that were important, few are remembered as “great” (though by all means some are). While a great many modern movies are glitzy and shallow, the best of movies have been accepted as legitimate pieces of serious writing and art. I would argue that Pan's Labyrinth, for example, is on the level of the canonical plays of the past.

The same could be said of video games. The game-playing experience is different than the movie experience to be sure, but that does not mean it is fundamentally devoid of artistry. Indeed, that games are played and not merely watched means that games have the potential to be much more immersive and engaging than movies. But, like movies, a great many games are glitzy, shallow messes produced for an uncritical horde of consumers happy with little more than blowing things up. That said, there is a higher degree of competitiveness and, I would argue, a higher average quality to games because games do not have the cultural and, what amounts to the same thing, marketing purchase that movies do. Merely having Ben Stiller in a movie – no matter how bad that movie is – guarantees a sizable viewership. The loyalties of gamers are more fleeting, because the space is so much more competitive.

I doubt I can convince the most ardently anti-gaming types that games are not only acceptable, but perhaps even culturally and artistically meaningful. Nevertheless, I offer the following examples of games that I love in part because I believe they are more than merely games. The games listed here I have played and, in some cases, replayed, and have enjoyed as much as many of the books and movies and musical compositions that I find great. I do not know that a “great” game has yet been made, but certainly good ones have. So without further ado...

Award: The Puck* Award for Extreme Cleverness
Game: Portal
Genre: Platform / Puzzle

* Not Wolfgang. I mean the Puck from
Midsummer Night's Dream.

is a short game, but a brilliant one. Played from the first-person, Portal requires the player to use a “portal gun” to navigate through otherwise impossible to escape rooms. Basically, in every room the player can place an entrance and an exit “portal” on walls or ceilings or floors. Indeed, a portal on the ceiling and a portal under it on the floor can and does lead – if you try it – to falling ever-faster through the same 20 feet. Needless to say, the potential of this design is great, and the developers use it well.

What makes Portal truly remarkable, however, is that on top of a wonderful concept there is tremendous suspense, humor, and voice acting. Without going into too much depth on the back-story – after all, figuring out what's going on is half the fun of the game – eventually you make it through a series of tests and are pitted in a battle of wits again a smooth talking and hilarious supercomputer. The reward for victory is an award-winning song, and/or cake. Take from that what you will.

The Odo* Award for Customizability

Out of the Park Baseball

* The unrepentant nerd in me is unafraid of naming an award after a
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character. For those unaware, Odo is a shapeshifter. Hence customizability.

Out of the Park
, or OOTP (pronounced “oot-pee,” I'm told) has been the gold standard in text-based sports simulation for around a decade now. Europeans might tell you that Sports Interactive's Football Manager (football as in soccer) series is superior, but while it has fancier graphics and represents, all told, a far more popular sport, each addition is stuck replicating the upcoming and subsequent seasons. OOTP, by contrast, allows you to easily set up a fictional baseball league with just about any settings you desire. Want to simulate the history of American baseball with real players? Do it. Same thing but with fake players? Go ahead. Want to simulate an international league? That's easy. How about a league with 50 teams, a mix of fictional, modern, and historical players, with no free agency, and inflated power numbers? Done.

OOTP, beyond the extreme customizability also offers great depth. The entirety of the baseball world is simulated, if you want it to be, and as a Commissioner, General Manager, and/or Manager you have the opportunity to micromanage as much of it as you want. That can be daunting, of course, because it's a lot of work to make sure your AA catcher who can't field but hits a ton still gets at bats, but fortunately much of it can be automated as well. The result of all of that – along with statistical revolutions in baseball – is a unparalleled realism, making for an awesome playground for any baseball fan.

The Just One More Turn Award

Civilization IV – Fall From Heaven

Turn Based Strategy / Mod

The base game here is worth mention just on its own. Civilization II was one of the most successful and influential games ever made, but it was ultimately hamstrung by a weak AI and graphics that were dated even at the time of production. The sequel Alpha Centauri was a much better game, with unmatched strategic depth and personality, and might very well have warranted its own entry here if not for the stunning success of Civ IV. But what makes the latest Civilization really go – and it is still popular years after its release – is the modability. Firaxis made transforming game files incredibly easy in Civ IV, which has spurred an explosion of mods ranging from alternative and expanded versions of the original to complete remakes of the base engine.

Fall From Heaven
is one such remake. Stories abound of gamers purchasing the official expansion packs to Civilization IV for the sole purpose of being able to play the latest version of FFH. In short, FFH takes the Civilization engine and changes just about everything. Instead of recreating history, FFH operates in a fantasy world, complete with around 20 unique civilizations (and I mean unique; playing each is different), 7 religions, and a vast and complicated magic system. FFH games often turn into epic battles between good and evil, and it's unleash the apocalypse (or prevent it). The real value of FFH, though, is in the imagination it inspires. Most strategy games end up being about how to win. FFH is all about how you, as a player, ought to play. Since the civilizations involved have so much personality, it's hard not to role play, and that's exactly the point.

All told, FFH is an example of the wonderful power of people. The community is so large that there are not only mod-mods for FFH, but a number of mod-mod-mods and even mod-mod-mod-mods. The best of these, of course, get folded into the core game, which rivals and, frankly, surpasses most commercial games.

At their hearts, FFH and Civ IV share one fundamental quality. You always want to play just one more turn before you take a break, and the next thing you know, it's 3 in the morning. The why, however, is not mere addiction, it's the depth and challenge of a well-made game.

To be continued...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gaming and Learning

The following comes from one of my classes, called Technology for Learners. It's a reflection on one of the topics covered during the course written for our end-of-quarter assignment.

Why do we love games so much? The gaming industry in the United States is huge and growing, taking advantage of faster hardware and a generation that has grown up with computers. Educational games, however, retain something of a stigma. Partially that's a matter of budgets and advertising, to be sure, but I wonder whether the objectives of the game makers come into play as well.

James Paul Gee's What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy discusses a great many of the aspects of video games, with a special concern for the learning theories that are implicit in the design of commercial video games. He argues that, in order to survive in the competitive video game market, game designers have to walk a fine line between making games challenging and still possible to defeat. They need to provide information in a timely manner to players. They need to pose problems for the gamer that require creative thinking and new combinations of skills as the game goes on. Often they tell a story, too, with moral or philosophical implications that are – if not profound – at least engaging to the player.

What do games teach? They teach, fundamentally, how to play the game, but they do it so well that it feels seamless to the player. When I play Knights of the Old Republic, I don't think of myself as “learning the game,” at least not at first. I'm playing. And that's an important difference.

Many educational games seem focused on learning first, and fun or play second. In short, they simply try to port already existing material into a different format. That is not an inherently flawed task, but it misses the point. Rather than trying to mix classical epistemology and modern technology, wouldn't it be better to bring the two together? Isn't it possible that if an educational game was designed first as a good game, and second as a good teaching tool, it might be better at both? I don't have an answer to that question, but it is worth considering given the dearth of good educational games.

After all, there are games which bill themselves as commercial that are also educational, and indeed I owe many of the lessons I have learned about history to titles like
Europa Universalis, an innovative and successful franchise of strategy games published by Paradox Interactive. In EU the player takes on the role of the leader of any number of the hundreds of fledging nations around the world in the late middle ages (or in Rome, in one of their games). Whether the player chooses to play as the already established and powerful England, the all-but doomed Aztecs, or the fledging but not-yet-established Novgorod (which can later become the nation of Russia), the game is the same. Because the player can choose to start on any day (!) between the 1450s and the early 1800s, it is, ultimately, a sandbox for exploring alternative histories, and for comparing the strengths of nations at various times throughout history. Some modifications of the game allow for even more historical accuracy than comes with the game natively.

Europa Universalis
was not made for classroom use, and to my knowledge it is not used in any educational setting. Its following is composed mainly of history buffs who don't mind the steep learning curve and strategy enthusiasts who are looking for something a little more challenging and open ended than the larger commercial mainstays like the Civilization games or traditional Real Time Strategy games like Starcraft. Nevertheless, EU is a highly educational game, designed first to be a good game, and is educational because it makes the game better.

While one example does not a principle make, it seems to me that, given the importance of engagement, frankly, fun, in learning, it might behoove educators to design games that are first and foremost good games. Even that, as Gee suggests, might have some metacognitive value for the player. When we engage with games, it is not uncommon for us to not only learn the game, but to work at dissecting how the game was designed. Experienced gamers discover not only the best strategies, but often discover the loopholes in game design. That does not lead to fun, of course, but it is a long process that, in good games, might take a full play-through or two to complete, and it is the process behind it that counts. Playing games can be, in essence, a de facto education in the principles of game design, which may well be transferable from the computer game world to other areas of design.

Gee also discusses identity. The way that we experiment with identities when we're playing games is a very important part of the learning process. Gee argues that students have to imagine themselves as scientists, for example, when they go into the chemistry lab in order for the learning they do there to be meaningful. While a given game may not teach us to be scientists, a great many games involve taking on an alternate identity. Some genres, like strategy, tend to place the player in more of an all-powerful, God-like role which is not so much an identity as a set of powers and limitations. On the other hand, Role Playing Games (RPGs) are explicitly driven by identity. “What Does it Mean to Be a Half-Elf?” One of Gee's chapter titles asks. He speaks to his experiences playing a game, called
Arcanum, as a female half-elf, explaining the effect on his conception of identity and the learning it inspired in him.

Without going into great detail, Gee breaks down his experience of identity in the gaming world in three ways. There is the identity of the player, the identity of the player as a character, and, finally, the identity of the player as a player of the game. The relationship between the latter two are particularly interesting and important, because it is in that space that metacognition cannot help but happen. When confronted with a moral dilemma – as players of RPGs often are – the player must choose whether to act according to his own moral code or the code of his character (if that is different than his own). Regardless of the choice, often companions of the main character will question the decision, forcing the player to justify his actions not only to himself, but to his digital “friends.” It is here that the player sometimes gets pushed into that third place, the mediation between player and character that is, as Gee calls is, player
as character (as opposed to player as character or player as character). In addition to asking whether the decision made was right or wrong, the player asks whether the decision was right or wrong for his character.

Transferring that level of thought to the science class would make, I think, for the science teacher's dream-come-true. Imagine if students, when they went about doing a complicated laboratory exercise, asked themselves not only if what they were doing was good science or good studentship, but rather if they were doing a good job at understanding what it means to be a scientist. Taking on the identity of scientist happens perhaps not often enough, but I think Gee's point – and on I agree with him on – is that students who successfully take on those roles are a step closer to metacognition, because metacognitive questions arise naturally from taking on alternate identities.

Educational games strike me as sometimes being afraid to play the identity game. The Math Blaster series was fun for me as a child, but I never really identified with shooting equations out of the sky. The game was more arcade than RPG, more diversion than immersion, and that is not the mark of a good game.

Gee suggests that, on some level, learning happens even with games like
Grand Theft Auto or Doom. I don't know whether that is true, but it seems reasonable to me. Regardless, the value of games, above all, is that they are interactive in a way that television, for example, is not. While there is great virtue in going outside to play sports, there is perhaps also great virtue in staying inside to play games.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Intervals and Astrology

I haven't written an Astrology 101 post, so forgive me if all this is a little bit confusing. Those uninterested or unversed in music theory and/or astrology may want to hold off on this post.

What I want to try to do is talk about the relationship between astrological aspects and musical intervals. In astrology there are 12 signs, in music, 12 tones. On some level that is a superficial similarity, but I wonder if they don't fit together in an unexpected way.

The ancients - Boethius in particular - believed that the planets themselves rotated about the Earth in musical intervals. Ptolemy's "circular" orbits provided a basis for Boethius in his "Musica Universalis," often translated "Music of the Spheres." The planets whizzing around were not strictly audible, but the notion that they mirrored harmonic patterns was religiously, mathematically, and philosophically agreeable.

Now we know that not to be the case, of course. The planets behave in all kinds of strange, non-circular ways, influenced not only by the incredible gravity of the Sun, but by each other as well. Nevertheless, astrology - never a musical practice in itself - has endured. How astrology works and whether it does is a post for another time (yes, I know, I've got about a dozen of these "another time" posts). For now I'm more interested in the analogy between the twelve-tone scale and the zodiac.

In trying to map the zodiac onto the scale, it is immediately clear that direct mapping is impossible. Moving chromatically creates strange relationships. Aspects that should be pleasant turn dissonant, signs that work well together sound awful. And this makes a kind of sense. Astrology comes from the ages before well-tempered tuning. While mapping directly (C = Aries, C# = Taurus, etc) might make transferring from one sign to another easier, it doesn't reflect the actual essence of astrology. Similarly, before well-tempered tuning, it was impossible to modulate from one key to another. If you started in C, you could not move to D, because in D all of the notes would sound off.

Over time, new tunings were developed, pulling all of the natural intervals ever so slightly off so that modulation became possible. These days, the difference between a C and a C# is identical to the difference between any other two half-steps. This means that, while it is very close, the frequencies of C and G are not in a 3:2 ratio. The "Perfect Fifth" was sacrificed for modulation.

All of that goes to show, we shouldn't try to make our astrological analogy work with modulation. If we are dealing, for example, with an Aries, there is no reason to imagine transforming that Aries into a Capricorn. What good would that do us? Rather, I think it makes more sense to establish the commonalities between signs and intervals according to the base sign in question. In the end, this will end up looking similar across signs, but it will be impossible to assign C to a given sign, F to another, and Bb to another.

So let's kick it off with the great kicker-offer Aries. Imagining Aries as a tonic, what roles would the other signs play? Which are dissonant, and which are consonant? Which lead into or away from Aries?

The obvious first step is to establish which signs represent the fourth and the fifth. These are the most consonant and harmonically functional intervals. Given that there are two, and that they are meant to represent the closest relationship to the tonic, I believe the other signs of the same element - in this case Leo and Sagittarius, which are also Fire signs - are the most logical choice. Because Sagittarius comes "behind" Aries and Leo "in front" on the zodiac, I think Sagittarius should be the 5th and Leo the 4th.

4th - Leo
5th - Sagittarius

In other words, Aries lead into Leo, and comes out of Sagittarius. As a cardinal sign - an initiator - it makes sense that Aries would lead into the fixed sign - more stable and immovable - of the same element. Likewise, Sag is a mutable sign - meaning it tends to be an ending, cycling to a new beginning - making it a natural dominant for Aries.

Another important aspect is the opposition. While my first inclination was to put the opposing Libra in the place of the tritone, I don't feel that's appropriate. The tritone is the most dissonant relationship possible between two notes. While it is a kind of musical opposite, however, that does not make it an astrological opposite. Libra and Aries have much more in common than C and F#, because Libra and Aires are both cardinal and both masculine signs. Their primary point of difference betrays a fundamental sameness: Where Aries is concerned with the individual, Libra is concerned with partnerships. Both, however, are about the relationship of the self to something. Compare that to Taurus, which is about personal resources and appreciation of beauty. Aries and Libra may have much that is not in common, but they have much that is as well. Indeed, opposites are often closer together - in terms of context - than synonyms (consider: yes and no; yes and affirmative).

With all that in mind, I think Libra fits best in the spot of the flat seven. That is not a consonant interval, but not totally dissonant either. Its presence or absence does more to transform the key than any other. The presence of a flat seven turns a major key into a dominant, causing a need for resolution. The same could be said of astrological opposites; they shape each other tremendously, and if both are present in the same chart, it signals a need for resolution.

4th - Leo
5th - Sagittarius
b7 - Libra

The actual largest discrepancies in astrology are between signs at the quincunx (one sign away from opposition). While these signs are not directly opposed, they share nothing in common. For Aries, Scorpio and Virgo are 150 degrees away, meaning they are different elements, ordinality, and gender. Much more than opposition, these signs are dissonant when compared with Aries, and should therefore occupy the two most dissonant intervals, the half-step and the tritone. As for which should occupy which, the shared relationship with the planet Mars suggests to me that Scorpio and Aries ought to be at least close together, so I think they should be at the half-step. Virgo, on the other hand, has nothing in common with Aries at all, and is therefore the best choice for the tritone.

b2 - Scorpio
4th - Leo
b5 - Virgo
5th - Sagittarius
b7 - Libra

There is one more truly dissonant interval, but it is an interval that serves an important harmonic function. That interval is the natural seventh. Similar to the half-step, the seventh is "next to" the tonic, but unlike the flat two, it leads into the seventh. Works of Medieval polyphony often started with a seventh opening into an octave. With that in mind, the natural fit here is Pisces. Pisces and Aires do not share much in common, but Pisces flows naturally into Aries all the same. Pisces is the last sign of the zodiac, and signifies the end of winter, while Aries signifies the beginning of spring. The astrological New Year occurs on the Equinox, when the sun passes from Pisces into Aries. What could be more perfect than for Pisces to be the leading tone in the Aries scale?

Similarly, Aries leads into Taurus. As the "next step," Taurus fits naturally in the spot of the natural second. Again, this is not a consonant interval, but it is a natural scalar progression. With that in mind, I'll plug Taurus and Pisces into our picture.

b2 - Scorpio
2nd - Taurus
4th - Leo
b5 - Virgo
5th - Sagittarius
b7 - Libra
7th - Pisces

Which leaves us with the so-called "most harmonic" intervals, the 3rds and the 6ths. Functionally, the 3rd and 6th serve only to add color to a piece. What they determine, however, is the flavor of the sound, as flat 3rds and 6ths indicate a minor mood while naturals indicate major. Our four remaining signs are either at a sextile (60 degrees, or two signs) from Aries, or square (90 degrees, or three signs). Sextiles are regarded as "soft" aspects, but do not connote the same intense relationship that trines (which are also soft) do. Rather, they are a source of general ease, a kind of coloring of the basic function of the signs involved. Indeed, they are rather like the major intervals of the scale. Squares, on the other hand, are the classic "hard" aspects, indicating the major sources of challenge and effort in a person's life. That said, they also denote opportunity, and can be a source of great pride strength once mastered and overcome. For that reason, they make sense as "minor" intervals; central to the harmony of the key, not always pleasant, but far from crushing or dissonant.

As with the 4th and 5th, the "which sign goes where" game is simplified by the arrangement of the zodiac. The planets that come 'after' Aries make for a more natural fit as 3rds. This puts Cancer on the minor third, and Gemini on the major. This means that our progression from Aries to Taurus can follow naturally into Gemini as well (which follows Taurus). On the other side of the zodiac, Capricorn and Aquarius fill in the flat 6th and natural 6th spots respectively. Aquarius flows naturally into Pisces (which flows into Aries), meaning there's a nice symmetry to our "scale."

b2 - Scorpio
2nd - Taurus
b3 - Cancer
3rd - Gemini
4th - Sagittarius
b5 - Virgo
5th - Leo
b6 - Capricorn
6th - Aquarius
b7 - Libra
7th - Pisces

We could go through the same process with the other twelve signs, but I'll spare you (and myself). Ultimately, I think the arrangement would be similar: trines at the 4th and 5th, opposition at the b7, squares at the minor intervals, quincunxes as the most dissonant, and sextiles and semisextiles (30 degrees) in the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th spots.

What are the implications of this kind of arrangement? Hard to say. By looking at a chart one might be able to translate it's major aspects into music, but that would only be a heuristic analogy. On the other hand, I do think that the analogy fits remarkably well (much better than I would have expected), and is probably worth further investigation. Since I'll be doing some astrology at our cohort's end-of-quarter party tonight, maybe I'll find a way to turn some of my compatriots into music. And hey, at the very least, it's fun.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Battle With Windows

As I intimated a couple weeks back, I intended to get cuddly with Windows 7. I received in the mail a cheap copy thanks to my .edu email address, and was waiting for the right time to re-partition my hard drive and give it a spin.

Of course, these things are never simple. I knew there were some hangups going in - for one, if you're running anything other than Windows and you install it without first formatting your hard drive accordingly, it will eat your other Operating System(s). Windows doesn't like to coexist peacefully. Whereas Ubuntu, when you install it on a Windows machine, can actually reformat your drive for you as a part of the process (and in practically no time), I had to load a Debian Linux "Live CD" in order to partition the drive in preparation for Mr. Gates's latest baby.

That was a long process, but it went off without a hitch. My next step was to actually load Windows on the machine. Interestingly, Windows reboots during the installation, which threw me off. After installing the base operating system, but before installing hardware drivers and basic software, Windows needs a breather. Ubuntu does no such thing, of course, powering through from OS to hardware drivers to basic software to whatever else you need sans reboot. Only at the very end does Ubuntu need to gather itself.

That's not a big deal of course, but it did lead to an awkward moment where I almost started the whole installation process over (prompting another reboot so I didn't lose my progress). Eventually Windows was installed, and functional. And like the Puritans in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, the first thing we had to build in WindowsTown was the jail. That is, the virus checker.

I've been using Ubuntu for over a year now, so I had almost forgotten the whole anti-virus problem. Not only is a Linux virus much more difficult to make (for the same reason an OSX virus is more difficult: Unix is a better model than the registry), all the people who code the viruses probably use Linux in the first place,* so there's not really much of a threat. From my Windows days I recalled that AVG makes a decent free anti-virus program, so I loaded that, and then Windows let me go about my business.

* Or, alternatively, all the people who code the viruses work for McAffee and Norton, in which case a Linux virus isn't profitable. I know, a bit conspiracy-theoryish, but of all the outlandish conspiracy theories you hear, Norton-as-virus-maker is far from the most absurd.

Or, rather that was the plan. It turns out that the version of Windows I purchased was an upgrade version - a fact that Microsoft didn't exactly go out of their way to publicize - and so when I went to enter in my product key like a good little corporate citizen, it was rejected. Turns out I need a previous installation of Windows in order for my key to be valid. Something told me my Ubuntu partition wasn't going to cut it.

I still get to use Windows 7 for 30 days without a key (yippee?), but my purchase is essentially worthless to me (though I'm sure I have family willing to take the upgrade at least, so it won't be a total loss). As I considered my options - from trying to find a crack for the activation to a pirated key to simply paying for the full version, I decided I would take a step back and move onto the really tricky part of installing Windows on a Linux machine: recovering Linux.

Despite the separate partitions of my hard drive - one of which still contained my old, reliable Ubuntu - Windows completely destroys the boot-loading program (called GRUB) that comes with Ubuntu. As many Linux users say, Windows eats the GRUB.* Har-har.

*I should mention, though, that GRUB is a wonderful little program. For example, I was having some minor troubles with my wireless card after upgrading from Jaunty Jackalope to Karmic Koala (the two latest Ubuntu distributions), and GRUB made it easy for me to boot to an older Linux kernel without having to reinstall the OS. That allowed me to use my wireless card and find a fix for the newer kernel. That's like your Time Machine on OSX, or System Restore on Windows, only without actually rolling back your OS permanently (just for a boot cycle). Brilliant.

Only it's no laughing matter, because when you reboot, you boot directly to Windows, no passing go, no collecting $200. Nothing. In order to restore Ubuntu you have to actually load the OS from a CD - something Windows, I'll point out, is incapable of doing - and run through some complicated terminal-based nonsense to reinstall GRUB. Only that didn't go so well for me, because my GRUB was having a hard time finding my OSes. My next boot cycle took me to a text prompt shell for GRUB, which I really had no idea how to deal with.

So I booted back to my partitioning CD, played around, eventually wiped the Windows partition (because it was complicating matters) and restored the whole hard drive back to Linux control. The Imperial uprising had been squashed... by the rebels? Except Mr. GRUB was still unhappy. More surfing the web on my Palm - thank goodness for Internet on the phone - found a way to load my Linux kernel through the GRUB shell, and I finally found my way back to the promised land of Ubuntu, where I can safely repair my GRUB in a more user-friendly interface.

The moral of the story here is so simple no one cliche can adequately capture it. So here's three: Sometimes you just gotta dance with the girl that brung ya; don't change horses in the middle of a stream; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If you dance with a broken horse in the middle of a stream, on the other hand...

I said it before and I'll say it again, Ubuntu is the best OS I've even used. The OpenSourceGods obviously were unhappy at my infidelity on this Friday night / Saturday morning, and punished me with a long and convoluted flight through Microsoft's house of proprietary mirrors and text-prompt Hell. But unlike Orpheus, I managed to bring my Eurydice back safely from the underworld, and despite two re-partitions, an install and uninstall of Windows, and more GRUB than I can stomach (am I right?), my original Ubuntu installation remains intact, undamaged, beautiful as the day it was born. And still faithful. "Never again, my dear," I said to it upon finally seeing the Karmic Koala splash screen at 2 in the morning, "Will I be led astray. We were meant for each other."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Health Care and Fire Trucks

You may not know that fire departments used to be commercial, rather than government-run. Before the Civil War in America, independent fire brigades would rush to put out fires, competing with each other needlessly. What is more, each house was adorned with a badge indicating which insurance the owner had, and if the first brigade to arrive did not have a contract with that insurance company, they would simply let the house burn. Over time it became clear that this was an inefficient and immoral way to provide what is an essential service for the citizens of any city.

Today there would be general uproar if there was an attempt to privatize fire prevention. This basic human service simply cannot and should not be handled by private companies which are more concerned with profit than with saving lives.

The analogy should be obvious here. Health care is a basic human service, necessary for saving lives. And yet we live in a country - the only in the industrialized world - without single-payer, government run health care. I don't have time to cover all of the arguments for and against single-payer here, but it is worth mentioning that most of the arguments against come from the very insurance companies that stand to lose from the implementation of single-payer, whereas the arguments for are primarily moral, grassroots, and democratic.

Instead I want to point out the essential similarity between the state of fire prevention pre-Civil War, and the state of Health Care today. Ultimately, in the 1800s change was quick to come, thanks largely to the obvious injustice of the situation. Today, change is slow to come, and likely to be delayed substantially by the passage of the current health care reform. Why? Lobbying and corporate deregulation. The profits of the insurance industry are sacred today in a way that they were not 120 years ago. As a result, the lives and health of Americans are a mere piece of economics. Human capital.

Public education, public mail delivery, public crime and fire prevention. All of these things came about because people demanded that the government - for all its inefficiencies - provide basic human services to all of its citizens. Today, citizens are demanding no such thing. Why? That's a subject for another day. Needless to say, in the digital age there is faster communication and information gathering than every before, but also faster distribution of propaganda. And it's not always easy to tell those apart.

Disclaimer: I know this is far from a complete argument, and is unlikely to convince the unconvinced. I hope it is a different perspective, however, on an all-too-tired debate.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Portrait of a Bookshelf

When you're young and moving from place to place, you have to make difficult decisions about what to do with your books. As a college student I lugged books back and forth from Colorado to Santa Fe, then had to decide which to ship to Honolulu when my family moved there. Now that I'm back in school - in California this time - I had to choose a small selection to send once more across the Pacific. I always sent more books flying around than I need to, of course. Who has time to read - much less read philosophy - when you're a full time student?

I think that some of the books I chose to ship from Hawaii this time I knew I would not read. I sent them more as reminders of concepts, as artifacts of my academic heritage as a Johnny. Other books I think I sincerely believed I might pick up on some odd afternoon. Still others I simply hoped I might finally find time and motivation to read.

So which books did I send? That's the subject of the post. I don't know that I'll hit everything, but there a few indicative selections worth mentioning.

Have Read and Enjoyed, but Unlikely to Read Again Division

Hegel - Phenomenology of the Spirit
Hume - A Treatise of Human Nature
Plato - Republic
Smith - The Wealth of Nations

Yeah, I know. In retrospect, the Hegel is a little bit over-the-top. A small part of my mind probably thought that I might pick up Hume and maybe (maybe) Smith at some point. I loved Hume, and there are parts I haven't read that I really do want to. And, really, The Wealth of Nations is a seminal and still highly pertinent book, but Hegel? If you're not familiar, Hegel is probably one of the most unclear writers in the history of Western philosophy. Just a random quotation to demonstrate:

"We found that a law existed when the relation was such that the universal organic property in an organic system had made itself into a Thing, and in this Thing had a structured copy of itself, so that both were the same being, present in the once case as a universal moment, and in the other, as a Thing."

Yep, I'll be picking that up for fun. I suppose I should chalk the decision to bring Hegel up to Nostalgia, or the craziness of last-minute book selections. I do suppose it would look impressive (and/or pretentious) to visitors, if I had any.

As for Plato, I feel I don't need to justify that one. Who doesn't have a copy of the Republic on their shelf these days?

Have Read and Still Sincerely Hope to Pick Up Again, but Probably Won't Division

Adams - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the whole, 5-book trilogy)
Cervantes - Don Quixote
Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land
Pascal - Pensees
Plutarch - Lives

Because I still hope to read these - or at least leaf through them - I don't consider them bad decisions. But really, how likely is it that I'll pick up any of these books? Adams is great, and hilarious, and odds are at some point I'll pull down the series and read it again. But odds also are that time is after my graduation in August. Cervantes is, of course, much heavier reading than Adams, though just as fun. Heavier, however, means less likely. Heinlein I haven't read in a long time, but it's a pretty long book, and not as humorous as Adams or Cervantes.

Pascal and Plutarch are much more serious, though in very different ways. Pascal can be agonizing, but fortunately he writes in little fragments (mainly because he died before he could finish the book, but still). Those fragments make for quick reading, but usually require much contemplation as well. Plutarch's various biographies occupy that awkward space between just a tad too long to read in one sitting and too short to devote serious energy to. I wrote one of my bigger papers at St. John's on Plutarch, so I do have a soft spot for him, and do tend to carry his Lives wherever I move around, but I rarely actually read them (even though there are many I haven't touched yet).

Honestly Do Intend to Pick Up Again Division

Montaigne - Essays
Nietzsche - Beyond Good and Evil
Whitman - Song of Myself

Now we're getting into the inner sanctum. Each of these three works I fully do intend to read at least part of. All three books come in larger volumes that I haven't read all of yet, so there's ample opportunity not only for review, but for new exploration. In fact, this summer I already started to read some Montaigne I hadn't read before, so it's far from absurd to imagine that might continue at some point.

As for Nietzsche and Whitman, those two may seem diametrically opposed in many ways, but they also represent two of the more influential works on my own way of thinking. Even though they would probably disagree about a great many things, it is indicative that both loved the music of Beethoven. So perhaps they are not so different after all. Smells like a post for a later time.

Books I Haven't Read Division

Plato - Laws

As with the other divisions, I'm leaving out some things here. In this case, the Laws just about sums it up. When will I read this? It's Plato's second longest dialogue - behind the Republic - and apparently one of his more complicated and enigmatic. Socrates, his usual star, isn't the chief interlocutor (and maybe isn't in it at all? Someone who has read it can let me know...), and it's subject-matter is, as always, heavy. Sometimes our aspirations outstrip possibility.

Reference Books and Religious Books

I won't list all of these, but a substantial portion of my current library is occupied by astrology reference books, a handful of music books, and some of the heavy-hitters from various religions.* All-in-all, these are the books I actually use most. The religious books probably could be fit more into some of the categories above, but the astrology books reside on the lowest shelf, closest to me, because I find myself referencing them whenever I'm running a chart.

* Bible, Rig Veda, Upanisads, Confucian Annalects, Discourses of Buddha, that kind of thing. I do have to admit that I have the New Testament in Greek, but not in English. Consequently, I also have my Greek-English Dictionary, which I will pretend is useful despite the Internet.

Astrology is a post for another time, however. For now, it's back to paper-writing and PhD application-completing.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Topical Humor

Due to end-of-quarter craziness, I won't comment much on the following image. I saw it (replace UK with San Francisco) in the SFO airport on my way back from Honolulu to Stanford after Thanksgiving.

Probably wrong to laugh at, but... Anyway, for an interesting take on the whole thing, read Joe Posnanski.