May 2008

The Hard Problem

Ted couldn't tell her how he felt. He felt inferior, defective, somehow less than human. He just couldn't get it.

He'd just spent the last two hours sitting on a drum case in a rehearsal room corner, listening. Helen didn't just play the bass; she made it part of her and she made herself part of the band. They jammed. Chords modulated. Mood changed. Rhythm meshed perfectly. Like there was only one musician, not four independent minds. Like there was a score they'd polished together.

He'd known she must be tired after the jam, what with constantly having to analyze patterns, count bars, predict where the others would take it. It would have taken an immense feat of concentration just to keep searching memories for the matching riffs and devising novel variations, predicting, adapting, monitoring. Ted had told her as much as they drove away, expecting to win the prize for understanding boyfriend of the year.

Helen had looked at him quizzically and said, "No need to get all sarcastic with me, Mr Brain. If you were bored you could've played the machines out in the lounge."

"No, I meant it. Really. I just can't see how you all manage to improvise... together. Doesn't it tire you out?"

"Shit no. Tonight was easy. It just worked. I mean, Rob's only played with us once before, so he had me guessing now and then, but you can tell he's played a lot. We just played."

"But you had to be concentrating."

"No. I just knew where everyone else was going as we went. I could feel it."

That was when Ted knew for sure he was missing out. He'd studied music theory for eight years. He'd slaved away at advanced harmony and composition. He knew all the rules and when to break them. He knew the structures of all the major musical forms for the last five centuries. He could listen to music then write it down from memory. And more than that, he understood the physics of music. He could model the whole process from instrument to auditory nerve, and he'd started reading about neuroaesthetics in his spare time. Helen just knew how to play.

Ted thought about idiot savants, and wisely decided not to raise the subject. Helen had spoken about feeling it and knowing. But that didn't make sense. You feel bass frequencies if they're loud enough. Anything else you feel is just emotions you've associated with certain sounds. And you can't ever know what the other members are going to play. Well you can sort of predict it by thinking of the rhythm, pitches and harmonies as Markov processes. Maybe some people just get fast enough at predicting what they're going to hear, like tennis players learning to return fast serves.

But for Ted, music remained technical. He got it technically right, but he couldn't feel it. Helen tried, but she could never explain to Ted what music felt like.

It was a hard problem.

Restore human dignity: ban ice cream cones

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive.

—Leon R. Kass, Bush's chief bioethics advisor (2002-2005), embryonic stem cell research obstructer, in past years noted for being anti-in vitro fertilization, and ethically troubled by organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants and dissection of cadavers.

The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and "American Idol" would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police.

—Steven Pinker

♦ The Stupidity of Dignity

A triolet for/from Neil Gaiman

The world seems so much brighter when
you've made something that wasn't there
before. You spawn new realms and then
this world seems so much brighter. When
your offspring blaze from mind to pen
they wipe the hours of blocked despair.
The world seems so much brighter when
you've made something that wasn't there.

-Based on a Neil quotation.