Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A Computer-Generated Future -- Writer's Poke #449

Could a computer write a hit pop song? Why not? The Australian comedy trio Axis of Awesome demonstrated that many pop songs follow a basic four chord formula. If that’s all it takes, then certainly a computer should be capable of reproducing the formula. For all I know, maybe computers already generate all pop songs already.

If computers did produce the music you love to listen to, would it bother you? Maybe pop music doesn’t qualify as “art,” but what about traditional European classical music? Bach and Beethoven and Mozart were all geniuses, right? And their music isn’t just simply the equivalent of disposable plastic eating utensils; it’s the fine china of the music world. If a computer could compose original classical music, that would be a feat indeed, wouldn’t it? Would it at the same time diminish the genius behind the original human creations of the past masters?

The problem with computer-generated music – pop or classical – is that it’s all derivative. But perhaps that isn’t a problem. After all, people like things to be derivative, don't they? Any time a group releases a new album, they always seem to promise that they've learned their lesson -- that the new album will simply deliver everything that their fans liked from previous albums. When an album bombs, it’s generally because the new work goes too far beyond what the fans expect. AC/DC may be one of the most famous examples of a group making a career on giving the fans exactly what they want with each song, and nothing new or unexpected. 

Computers can create successful songs according to formula, and they have the ability to write lyrics – after all, pop lyrics aren’t all that sophisticated, even if some songs do boast a whole team of song writers. And in 2011, the Japanese pop group AKB48 – a girl group with over eighty members – went as far as to create a virtual member, Aimi Eguchi.

Perhaps all that’s left for computer programmers to do is to create a computer-generated audience, or if that’s too virtual for your reality, then they could integrate these simulated people into human-like robotic bodies. The ultimate act of human creation may eventually lead to eliminating the need for human beings altogether.  

Is the elimination of the need for people the end result of evolution, or as sentient beings interested in our own survival, shouldn’t we be fighting against being made redundant?

“I visualize a time when we will be to robots what dogs are to humans, and I’m rooting for the machines.” – Claude Shannon

The Failure of Will Alone -- Writer's Poke #448

Does failure result solely from the lack of will to succeed? That’s a rather provocative question, and to fully understand what it means, perhaps it would be a good idea to examine a few examples. Let’s just brainstorm and randomly see what develops.

1. The War on Drugs. Pretty much a failure, right? Why? Too much money in the drug trade; too much consumer demand for illegal drugs.

2. The War on Terrorism. Failure? The use of force exhibited in Boston after the Marathon bombings was impressive, but the lack of intelligence needed to prevent the bombing from occurring in the first place is less than impressive.

3. The War on Poverty. “If people are poor, then they should working harder and do something about it. It’s not my problem.” The lack of success resulted from the inability to overcome an entrenched attitude. 

We like to declare war on problems. No one ever declares peace on problems. “War” indicates we mean business, but unfortunately metaphorical wars lack set-piece battles. The theory behind the set-piece battle is that two sides confront each other directly, and the side left standing is the victor. I’m not sure such set-piece battles have existed in reality since Roman times; regardless, set-piece battles certainly aren’t possible against societal problems.

Although we’d like to fight the battle once, declare victory, and go on with our lives, that’s not the way it works. In my own life, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to fix my car once and have it fixed forever. Or, when I go buy groceries, how I secretly wish that my fridge and kitchen cabinets will stay stocked from now through the rest of eternity. My will for the fulfillment of such fantasies is strong, but the reality of life doesn’t seem to care about how strong my will might happen to be.

If the will to succeed is fighting a war, it’s actually fighting a war against reality. As far as I can tell, reality always triumphs over fantasy. The desire to live in fantasy is strong, even understandable, but the truth of reality always outlasts any siege of fantasy.

Success, then, has nothing to do with will. Rather, it has to do with acceptance. Accepting reality is the first key to success. Trying to will reality to be different only results in the failure of fantasy.

How can problems best be accepted and addressed in a realistic manner? Why do we often insist on engaging in fantasy battles destined to fail?

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced” – Soren Kierkegaard 

We, As Humans -- Writer's Poke #447

I’ve been reading student essays for the past fifteen years, and I wish I knew how many times I’ve read students write the following: “We, as humans, ….” Most of the times I just mark out “as humans” and go on reading.

Quite honestly, I probably haven’t given the phrase any deep thought, but the qualification does seem to imply that the “we” the students speak of could be something other than human. What exactly could “we” be, if not human? Perhaps an examination of this question has merit.

Take, gender, for example. One feminist writer described gender as a copy without an original. Essentially, gender is “prescribed” – by culture, or religion, etc. What it means to be “male” or “female” are simply ideas, and all of us pick up on the particular ideas created by the group(s) we belong to.

Assuming this is true, it makes sense to suggest that what it means to be human works the same way. What does it mean to be human? Homo sapiens belong to the animal kingdom, but when people speak of being human, don’t they often imply that being human is different from being animal? To be human, in other words, is to be more than “animal.” Isn’t it interesting that students, perhaps subconsciously, feel the need to clarify the distinction?

Human beings are animals, although I’ve really never had any students focus on this aspect of what it means to be human. To be human means, or so it would seem, trying to escape being animal. When students write “we, as humans,” it’s almost as if they are declaring their commitment to the idea that human beings have the ability – and the obligation – to transcend their animal origins. To be human means not to be supernatural, but natural in a manner generally accepted as being more than animal.

Can you adequately define what it means to be human, or do all attempts at definition fall short?

“No tendency is quite so strong in human nature as the desire to lay down the rules of conduct for other people.” – William Howard Taft

Shakespeare Matters -- Writer's Poke #446

In high school I didn’t know much about Shakespeare, and I didn’t care. If we did read any of his work in any of my English classes, I’m sure it was Romeo and Juliet, which is probably one of his most “accessible” plays. I don’t recall if we read it or not, though, as I’ve done a fairly good job of blacking out all memories of English classes from high school.

My freshman year was my last year in Honors English. At that point in my life, I didn’t know the meaning of homework or studying. If I didn’t know something immediately, it probably wasn’t worth knowing, or so I thought. Besides, each English period was a perfect opportunity to work on my novel. I called it a novel, but it was actually just episodic scribbling. I spent an entire year working on my writing, but I have to admit it was crap. I wish I would have had more direction on how to write, but like I said, I wasn’t in the mindset to study craft. That wouldn’t happen until college.

By the time I reached college, I fell into being an English major. This was rather unexpected, as I hadn’t previously enjoyed reading, per se. Other than reading about ten William F. Buckley spy novels, I can’t remember reading any books prior to college. I read a lot of magazines cover to cover, but no books. Certainly not Shakespeare.

If a sign of cultural literacy is being about to identify five plays by Shakespeare, I would have failed the test. By the start of my sophomore year in college, however, I was hooked on books. I was so hooked that I signed up for a Shakespeare class in the summer. As I recall, most of the students in this class didn’t have a serious interest in being there. Some, I’m sure, were English majors, but they were there mainly to knock out a quick class. Who wants to spend three hours every morning for five weeks learning about Shakespeare?

Actually, what could be better than that? Unfortunately, the professor considered himself to be more actor than teacher. He would spend the class time doing “dramatic readings” of each play’s most essential scenes. All his performances did, however, was to remind me of why I hated English classes in high school. In high school, students would be called to read paragraphs out loud, and this could be quite a painful experience to listen to. A lot of high school students, believe it or not, cannot read very well, especially out loud. Their voices are monotone, and they mispronounce many of the words. While my college professor tried to add some passion to his performance, I didn’t find having Shakespeare spoken to me to help my appreciation any.

I have to admit that I had just discovered Cliffs Notes, and although I would read each play, I would immediately read the summary and analysis of the “experts.” For some reason, I guess I still thought that literature could be distilled down into an “answer.” Yes, I had a lot to learn. Shakespeare, or any great author, cannot be captured in plot or theme or symbolism. Reading Shakespeare is an experience, and maybe I wouldn’t realize that fully until I had the opportunity to read his work more thoughtfully as a graduate student.

Does Shakespeare matter? Yes, very much so, but it would take me about ten years of dedicated study to fully (or maybe just partially?) understand why.

Almost 500 years later, William Shakespeare is still considered to be the greatest writer (in the English language) of all time. What is your experience with Shakespeare, and does he “matter” to you?

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – William Shakespeare