Showing Off

July 29th, 2007

This post was made with my Wii. I can has technology!

Also, did you know that the word ‘assassin’ comes from the Arabic ‘hashashin’, or ‘hash eater’?


Context and Concept

July 23rd, 2007

Summary: It makes no difference how well you can sing if you don’t have anything to say.

Well, I’ve put this essay off for a good while now. I wasn’t looking forward to writing it, as it’s 1) not an easy topic to discuss in clear terms and b) it ties together several high-level concepts about art. Nevertheless, it’s come down to the wire. No more beating about the bush. It’s do or die. It’s high time. Let me give you a piece of my mind. Warning: this writing presupposes some basic familiarity with music notation.


First, a lengthy example. Take any old string, or just imagine a string, which will probably work better. Stretch it and pluck it. It makes a certain tone, which varies as a function of the length of the string (shorter:higher::longer:lower). We’ll give this tone a name: Note I. Now cut the string in half, and pluck one of its halves. This will make a higher tone, which we’ll call Note II. The ratio of the frequencies of II:I will always be 2:1, because the fundamental frequency at which a string resonates is directly related to its length. In turn, the human ear perceives frequencies that have this ratio as octaves, or the “same note”. A higher note with the ratio 4:1 will be perceived as two octaves higher, for example.

Now take the original string and cut it into three parts of equal size. Pluck the new note, Note III. It follows, logically, that the ratio of the frequencies of III:I is 3:1, and the ratio of frequencies of III:II is 3:2. The ratio of 3:2 is the next simplest ratio besides that of 2:1, and is perceived by the human ear as a perfect fifth, another pleasantly consonant sound. (Play a C and a G on a piano for an example of this.) Some other simple ratios are 4:3 (the perfect fourth), 5:4 (the major third), 6:5 (the minor third), 5:3 (the major sixth), 8:5 (the minor sixth), 9:8 (the major second), & c. You get the idea.

Now, back before Bach, Western scales were based on these intervals. Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Machaut [1]; basically anytime before the 16th century, these ratios appeared in stringed instruments and the like. Pleasant sounding? You bet. This intervalic kind of tuning is called, appropriately, just intonation. As music became more and more complex, however, this approach became a problem. To wit:


This is Western notation for a major musical scale. The C on the right is twice the frequency of the C on the left. I’m representing an octave here, after which the pattern repeats, ad nauseum. G is the fifth note, so the ratio of a perfect fifth is G:C, or 3:2. A perfect fourth: F:C, or 4:3. You get the idea. So, for example, what’s the ratio between E and G?

It is G:E, or (3:2, a perfect fifth):(5:4, a major third), or 3/2 divided by 5/4, or 3/2 multiplied by 4/5 (remember high-school math?) or 12/10, which reduces to 6/5. So G:E is 6:5, a simple ratio. G:E is a minor third (see above).

Now, what is the ratio between F and D? You would expect it to be a major third or minor third. Let’s find out. The ratio between F and C (perfect fourth) is 4:3. The ratio between D and C (major second) is 9:8. So take 4:3 divided by 9:8, or 4/3 multiplied by 8/9.

The answer? 32/27. And that’s not reducible. In decimal form 32/27 is representable as 1.185, repeating. A minor third (as in G:E, or C:A) is 6/5, or 1.2. A major third (as in E:C) is 5/4, or 1.25. The ratio of F:D in such a framework would sound strangely dissonant (slightly ‘flat’, as the musical parlance goes), and that’s not the only interval with a non-reducible fraction. The result of such tuning problems meant that when an instrument was tuned for a particular key, it sounded a little off when playing in all other keys. Quite a challenge for the musician with a large repertoire.

The solution: Equal temperament tuning. But first, a short aside!

In Western scales, *all* (yes, all) the notes are representable in this framework:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

The # key means that the note is ‘sharp’, or above the frequency of the lettered note indicated [2]. So, if I’m in the key of C, then the F is a perfect fourth above the C, or five semi-tones above the C (count ’em! C#, D, D#, E, F. Five tones.). If I’m in the key of G#, then the perfect fourth would be C# (five semi-tones: A, A#, B, C, C#). Hopefully that makes sense.

Now, it also makes sense that if such a pattern is transposable across the Western scale, then the ratios between the intervals must also be transposable. And that’s where equal temperament comes into play.

The interval between the octave and the fundamental frequency is kept the same, at 2:1. The rest are divided equally. There are 12 semi-tones separating the two octaves, so the ratio between adjacent semitones must equal the twelfth root of two. This way, the ratio between different notes becomes an abstraction, and unrelated to the actual key chosen, or the type of instrument played. All scales can be played on a single instrument. Progress [3]!

It also follows, logically, that there are many other systems of tuning. A brief overview from Wikipedia follows:

“Many systems that divide the octave equally can be considered relative to other systems of temperament (Writer’s context addendum for the reader: 12 tone equal temperament is often referred to as 12-TET, of which there are many others). 19-TET and especially 31-TET are extended varieties of and approximate most just intonation intervals considerably better than 12-TET. They have been used sporadically since the 16th century, with 31-TET particularly popular in Holland, there advocated by Christiaan Huygens and Adriaan Fokker. 31-TET, like most non-12-tone temperaments, has a less accurate fifth than 12-TET. It has been used in Indonesian music.

There are in fact five numbers by which the octave can be equally divided to give progressively smaller total mistuning of thirds, fifths and sixths (and hence minor sixths, fourths and minor thirds): 12, 19, 31, 34 and 53. The sequence continues with 118, 441, 612…, but these finer divisions produce improvements that are not audible. The explanation for this curious series of numbers lies in the denominators of fractions that approximate the logarithm to base 2 of the frequency ratios of the consonant intervals.

In the 20th century, standardized Western pitch and notation practices having been placed on a 12-TET foundation made the quarter tone scale (or 24-TET) a popular microtonal tuning. Though it only improved non-traditional consonances, such as 11/4, 24-TET can be easily constructed by superimposing two 12-TET systems tuned half a semitone apart.”


Okay. Deep breath. The point of all this exposition is to display the many forms of tuning available in Western music. Is equal temperament less “true” than just intonation because it uses a power series to determine the frequencies of its constituency instead of a set of simple ratios? No, of course not. Each of these systems of tunings came into being because it has a function. The just intonation tuning is convenient for harmonically simple music and easy tuning. The 12-tone equal temperament tuning is convenient for harmonically complex music, as well as music that changes keys constantly. For more subtle melodic possibilities, perhaps a 24-tone equal temperament tuning is called for.

And I haven’t even considered non-Western tunings. A popular Indonesian scale, for example, uses a 7-TET scale. No perfect fifth, no melodies or harmonies that can be directly understood by Western ears that are used to Western scales. What about a scale that uses unwieldy ratios like 10/9, or a 15-TET tuning that only repeats every two octaves? To say that such a scale is wrong is as silly as saying the number 12 is better than the number 13. After all, any scale or system of tunings can ultimately be reduced to mathematical relationships; and anyone having heard African or Indonesian music for the first time can attest to difficulty of “learning to hear” the novel relationships between frequencies.

The type of tuning used in a particular piece of music is part of the context surrounding the piece. The type and number of instruments, the electronic or sound effects used, the length of the piece, and the use or lack of use of certain melodies and harmonies are also all context. Ultimately all sound can be reduced to a waveform, anyway, if you want to get really reductionist, and who’s to say that my waveform is intrinsically better or worse than yours? They are equivalent, valueless. Context has no inherent meaning or value; it is a system of choices that frame the concept, the intellectual drive behind a piece, the reason for its existence.

The concept exists as an abstraction, apart from the piece of music. It also exists separately in the mind of the listener and the composer. For example, take Cage’s notorious 4:33. The context is not important – it can be played in a concert hall full of listeners, or by oneself in a forest grove. The only context, it seems, is that of intent, that the piece is indeed going to be played.

The concept in Cage’s mind (from Cage’s Silence, 1961):

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. They are also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer’s explanation, especially as to being able to hear one’s own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound, for example. Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

The concept in my mind:

Fascinating. A treatise on the nature of what music can be. How many notes must one take away before the piece performed ceases to be music? 99% of the notes? Leaving just one note? Leaving no notes? The sounds of the other listeners/performers consist of breathing, rustling of clothes, shifting of feet. The play of my own heartbeat against a bird’s cry and the flag slapping against the flagpole in the high wind create an interesting rhythm, syncopated and dynamic. I close my eyes. A man and woman having a conversation grows and lessens in intensity. Still the bird calls. The flag has grown silent. And now a new player enters the piece. What is it? What is it? Ah, the muted percussion of a far-off helicopter. Perfect. This piece perfectly encompasses the serenity and tranquility of nature, the inestimable value of just listening.


Naturally this is an extreme example, but the idea holds for all art. The context exists only to serve the concept. As a drummer, my physical skill and endurance exists meaningfully only as a function of the concept of the piece I’m playing. Does it matter whether I can play a double bass roll faster than 150 bpm? Only if the concept requires it. Does it matter whether I manage to not drop my stick or whether my cymbals are new, or whether my tom-toms are in tune? Only if the concept requires it.

Does it matter whether I can accurately describe the feeling of nostalgia, or happiness, or destitution by playing my drums and writing my songs?

Only if the concept requires it.





1. Ah, Machaut. The most well-known composer of the 13th century. What? You haven’t heard of him? Who cares! Seriously, though, if you’d like to know more, here’s a piece by him.

Quant es Moy – Machaut

2. Granted, the Western major scale can also be represented with ‘flats’, or notes below the lettered tone (where b = flat): C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab A Bb B C. Db, for example, is the same frequency as C#. Whether a flat or a sharp is used is dependent on the context of the melody or harmony: it isn’t important.

3. The 12-TET is not a bad estimation by any means. A perfect fifth, represented by the ratio 3:2, can also be represented as a decimal, 1.5. The seventh twelfth-root of 2, or 2 to the seven-twelfths power, is 1.498. Pretty close. Similarly, a perfect fourth in just intonation is 4/3, or 1.333. In 12-TET, it is 1.335. (I still like just intonation more, not that it matters.)

2022: Scientists complete the final round of negotiations with the fish diplomats.

2025: Fishing is outlawed.

2028: New mysterious technology appears on the market, proposing to lower the emissions of the airplane industry by flying airplanes underwater.

2028: Amelia Earhart’s body is found in the Mariana Trench, along with the corpses of tens of thousands of dolphins.

2030: First underwater passage is successful; passengers report loud whale songs throughout flight.

2045: Whales send classified documents to the Senate, citing sound violations in the North Atlantic.

2046: The Indian Ocean is temporarily closed due to high dolphin traffic.

2052: Astarus Earhart is announced as the first dolphin president of the United States. The FNSO seeks a recount, claims election is rigged. Senate Majority Leader Daniel Yellowtail resigns.

2054: Daniel Yellowtail is elected as the prime minister of the FNSO. Martial law is declared.

2056: The FNSO secedes from the World Nation.

On The S/O Dilemma

July 11th, 2007

First and foremost: you’re going to want background, as this entry is partially a rebuttal of and continuation regarding both this post (read first) and this post (read second). Otherwise I doubt that what follows will make 100% sense. Do as ye will.

There are what seems to be two schools of thought regarding the nature of art and how it informs both the artist and the intended audience. One school is neatly summarized below, and is taken verbatim from Paul’s blog (first link), who in turn quotes Michael Chekhov’s To The Actor. The other school I’ll be getting to shortly. Chekhov states (apologies for the length, but it is relevant):

The great German director Max Reinhardt confessed, “I am always surrounded by images.” Charles Dickens wrote in his journal, “I have been sitting here in my study all morning, waiting for Oliver Twist who has not yet arrived!” Goethe declared that inspiring images must appear before us as God’s children and call to us, “We are here!” Raphael saw an image moving within his room that later became the Sistine Madonna on his canvas. Michelangelo complained despairingly that images pursued him and forced him to sculpt in all sorts of materials, even solid rock.

How can we question the beliefs of these master artists and writers that their imaginative life came to them from outside themselves? And would they not scorn the narrow conception of creativity that relies solely upon personal memories and efforts? They would undoubtedly feel that today we deny our communication with the objective world of imagination, in direct contrast to their free excursions into it. The creative impulse of the masters was an expansion toward the world beyond them, while ours is often a contraction within ourselves.

The old masters of European and Asian culture might even shout to us, “Look at your creations. They are not confined to reproductions of our petty, personal lives, desires, and limited surroundings. Unlike the artists of today, we forgot our individual selves in order to be conscious and active servants of otherworldly images. Truly, we did not want to be slaves to these unguided visions. But in our work, we incorporated them like an unexpected blessing. Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions? Is it not simply because you are too concerned with yourselves alone and not your art?”

The conviction that there is an objective world in which our images lead their independent life widens our horizon and strengthens our creative will. Developing and assuming new conceptions concerning the creative process in art is the way for the artist to grow and to understand his or her talent. One of those new conceptions is the objective existence of the world of the artist’s creative images. What is the reward of artists brave enough to acknowledge the objectivity of the world of imagination? They free themselves from the constant pressure of their too personal, too intellectual interference with the creative process, the greater part of which is intensely personal and takes place in the sphere that lies beyond the intellect…

Poor indeed is the imagination that leaves the artist’s mind cold, and poor indeed is the influx of wisdom to such an artist, when one hears him say, “I have built my art upon my convictions.” Would it not be better for an artist to say that he has built his convictions upon his art? But this is only true of the artist who is really gifted. Haven’t we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his “convictions” and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?

My good friend Ted (second link) holds that imagination is necessarily subjective, and therefore – effectively – Chekhov is full of shit. More on this in a second. Chekhov additionally implies two paragraphs above that beauty is objective and the standards of beauty are universal, by saying: “Why are you then creating so many specimens of ugliness, disease, and chaotic contortions?” He is clearly willing to go out on a limb and not only say that he thinks a given piece of art is ugly, but also that it is universally ugly. He goes on to say that this ugliness stems from self-centered creation, i.e. creation that is based on personal idiom and experience, rather than the preferred “otherworldly images” from the “objective world of imagination”. I’m going to touch on the difference between art as a concept and art as a craft, as well as what this has to do with beauty and ugliness, in the next installment. Let’s turn now to the nature of imagination.

The Subjectivity/Objectivity Dilemma

Chekhov believes imagination stems from an objective, exterior world, full of imagery that comes to the artist unbidden; Ted believes that imagination comes from the inner workings of the mind and is based on subjective personal experience. So which is it?

Let’s take a huge conceptual leap back and look at it from a purely biological/neurological perspective. I have thoughts. Surely you agree. These thoughts are necessarily correlated to the triggering of neural firing pathways (read: symbols) in the brain; if I’m thinking of a dog, the symbol for “dog” is active. If I’m thinking of “dog covered in cottage cheese”, the symbols for “dog”, “covered”, and “cheese” are all active, in addition to a host of related ones. You get the point. (I’m thinking the symbol for “gross” would be appropriate here.) There are basically two cases that cause thoughts to be triggered, as I see it; actual and hypothetical. Let’s cover them in detail.

Case One: Actual. I’m walking down the street and I see a stray cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. The neurons in my eyes send information to my visual cortex, which undergoes a significant amount of processing to present my conscious with the qualia of the visual field; colors, shapes, patterns, textures, movement. A split-second later, the symbol-processing area of my brain (central cortex) receives the qualia and categorizes the raw data based on my previous experiences. Since I’ve taken walks on sidewalks before, and am additionally expecting to be walking on a sidewalk, the data corresponding to the surrounding environment is instantly identified and decided to be unimportant. The data corresponding to the cat is identified as a cat (face it, I’m highly familiar with cats), the cat-symbol is triggered, and I have a name for it and a reaction in place before I’m really even aware that I see it. Everything up to this point is non-conscious processing. Finally, the conscious mind is presented with the information: “Everything’s usual, except there is a cat.” I like cats, so my decision is informed by my previous pleasant experiences with cats: I walk up to it, let it sniff me. I pet it. You get the picture. Literally.

Case Two: Hypothetical. I’m walking down the street and I imagine a cat on the sidewalk, sauntering up to me. No qualia this time; my sensory apparatus does not actually perceive a cat. No abstraction of lower-level signals necessary. The symbol for cat is activated directly, this time by a higher-level process: conscious imagination. There’s no pre-conscious processing. I imagine a cat, imagine my interaction with it (in turn activating my self-symbol) and daydream about walking up to it and taking it home. It has brown fur, blue eyes, one of its paws is white. Its tail is crooked. So cute!

Moving back to imagination and the S/O dichotomy: Imagination is the same as hypothetical thought, which in turn is nothing more than interaction with symbols and systems of symbols that have no external trigger. Let’s assume for a moment that the trigger for these symbols is wholly external and objective: some alternative world, be it spiritual or just non-detectable, is activating various symbols directly and effectively showing us, the artists, an objective and alternate reality of symbols which all art and beauty originates from. Just to be clear: this is the same as assuming that hypothetical thought is caused by external forces instead of conscious control. Moving on.

The obvious caveat: our system of symbols is necessarily a personal one. Suppose I’ve never seen a cat before, not even one of the jungle cats. Would I have a symbol for the visual representation of a cat? Of course not. It’s silly to posit that humans have a full complement of symbols from birth. This is easily verified by observing human children who have never seen a cat before refer to cats as dogs, before they are corrected by their parents. What would a “full complement of symbols” even mean? It makes sense that children are birthed with a rudimentary set of symbols (like a symbol for “me”, for “nipple”, for “food”, & c.) + the ability to create and map novel experiences onto new symbols. Anything above that just doesn’t follow.

It is, quite logically, also possible that the external trigger doesn’t presuppose our knowledge of cats; that’s admittedly kind of a silly idea, anyway. So there could also be a completely and wholly external pattern of symbol triggering that isn’t based on specific symbols or systems. Sounds good. I’m an agnostic, but I’m willing to accept that spirits or other non-physical beings (read: God) could be causing this triggering. I have no problem with that.

The really obvious thing now, of course, is that if you agree

1) that symbols come into being through interpretation of novel experience;

2) that everyone is going to have different symbols;

then it pretty much follows that any symbol-triggering, even from an outside source, is necessarily going to be unique to each person (everyone has different symbols) and based wholly and completely on their experience set (symbols come into being through novel experience), and therefore 100% unavoidably subjective. Q.E.D.

“Art is necessarily informed only by personal values and experience.”

Beauty and Novelty

July 5th, 2007

Apart from letting you, the reader, know that I like the mountain, the phrase “The mountain is beautiful” really contains no additional information. The word beautiful is just a placeholder for a type of personal value, i.e. “The mountain has personal value [to me]”. This implies a couple of things, not least of which that

1. Beauty is not inherent.

This one is easy. Most everyone is familiar with the proverb Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’ll elaborate: to a blind man, a mountain can never be beautiful. Nor a crevasse, cirque, pretty kitty, & c. At least in a visual way. This doesn’t mean that beauty exists independent of the blind man. (It’s not that he can’t see the beauty; the beauty isn’t actually there. More on this in a second.) It additionally does not mean that a blind man can never perceive beauty. The way that the blind man’s 1920s blanket feels, with its warm woolen folds and worn tattered corners, is beautiful to him. Likewise the softness of the cat’s fur, the way it purrs, the way he can hear it padding across the soft shag carpet in the living room. Not that he can explain it to us, the non-blind. The blind brain is necessarily wired in a qualitatively different way than a seeing brain, so the perceptions he assigns personal value to (i.e. beauty) are of course totally unique and novel. Everyone has perception, so I’m going to go ahead and start using the word qualia, of which Wikipedia has this to say: “Qualia” is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us”. They can be defined as qualities or feelings, like redness or pain, as considered independently of their effects on behavior and from whatever physical circumstances give rise to them. In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences.

In what might be an intuitively easier definition to process, qualia is sensory information; information that can only be described accurately if the person reading/listening to the description has experienced it before. There is no way to describe the color red to John if John has never seen the color red. The experience of seeing red is qualia. (Granted Ted’s blog[1]; even though you are not blind and I am not blind, our brains interpret qualia in a different way. My red is a little different than your red, or maybe even completely different; however, we are in definite agreement that society’s name for [the qualia that is red] is in fact red, so we can still talk about it in a meaningful way. It’s the experience of seeing red that can’t be explained in a meaningful way to someone who’s never seen it; that’s my point.)

2. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from our perception of it.

There is an unnamed mountain on the planet Pluto which no one has ever seen. It is composed of iron and granite and layered with frozen methane and carbon dioxide, which gives it a traditional snow-capped appearance. It is, in all respects, a perfect visual copy of Mount Rainier, which resides in Washington State. Go look at a professionally-taken picture of Rainier real quick here. Isn’t it beautiful? Maybe you don’t find it beautiful, but you can at least agree that someone living on the planet Earth, probably quite a lot of people actually, find Mount Rainier’s icy and foreboding visage nothing less than breathtakingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. Face it. People like mountains.

Anyway, let’s call Pluto’s faux Rainier by the name of Rainier-P. Is Rainier-P beautiful? I would argue NO. It isn’t beautiful because no one has ever perceived it. The qualia for Rainier-P simply doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind. It is the qualia, the conscious perception of qualia, that makes a thing have beauty. Beauty is by definition a type of judgment placed on qualia. And the qualia doesn’t exist apart from perception, which reveals what I feel to be the thrust of this whole article. Beauty doesn’t exist apart from perception. So we aren’t actually judging a mountain to be beautiful at all. We’re the ones that are beautiful. It is our perception – something completely non-differentiable from our ego – that creates that wonderful awe-struck feeling that people call beauty.

3. Unless [the qualia of a perception that is beautiful] has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain [what it is like] directly to them.

The two phrases in brackets are effectively identical, which I’ll call X. Unless X has been experienced by person B, person A can never explain X directly to them. This is where novelty comes into play. Suppose that there was a genetic mutation in one of your chromosomes which allowed you to see infrared light in addition to visible light. How would you go about explaining this novel visual perception to the world? “It’s redder than red?” There is literally no way to do it. No matter what is said, no one will ever be able to understand what infrared light looks like unless they see it themselves. Likewise a host of effectively identical questions can be posed, unanswerable all: What is it like to be blind? What is it like to be a cat? What is it like to see Mount Rainier-P? What is it like to be channeling this idea about beauty and novelty into a blog post? [2]

4. You can only explain personal beauty with metaphor.

Obviously things can be beautiful in different ways, all unexplainable because it’s a value judgment on qualia. My girlfriend is beautiful in a different way than Glacier National Park is beautiful. Many of you have seen my girlfriend so in some small way you can understand the first four words in the preceding sentence. Plus, even if you haven’t seen her before, you can analyze that statement with metaphor: surely sometime during your life you’ve seen someone that is beautiful. So you can just map that feeling of personal value that you had onto the feeling of personal value that I have. It’s probably a bit more accurate if the beautiful person you have in mind is someone that you know personally; better still if it’s a girlfriend of your own. You can see what I’m getting at. There’s no way to directly know what I really mean by the statement “my girlfriend is beautiful” unless you’re me; you have to parse it by comparing my experience with an experience of your own. And of course I wasn’t specific in my statement; is she just visually beautiful or is the beauty part of the whole personality package? You could ask and create better and better metaphors; maybe through some stroke of luck your comparison is so close that you can actually understand what I mean on some deeper, pre-linguistic, intuitive level. But that’s besides the point.

The second half of that statement is a little harder: Glacier National Park is beautiful. Most of you have never been to Glacier, which is why I picked this statement. If you’ve seen GNP before that’s a pretty big help. The next best thing is having been to a mountain range in the West before; you can just roughly map the awe that you felt when you saw that mountain onto my statement, and siphon some meaning out of it. If you’ve never seen Western mountains before, and thus lack the qualia for that experience, it’s a lot harder. You could look at a picture on the internet and try to imagine yourself actually seeing what’s in the picture instead of just looking at the picture, but that’s like looking at a picture of a banana to try to approximate what someone means when they say “Bananas sure are tasty.”

What I do know, however, is that the feeling of seeing Glacier can be explained without specifically talking about Glacier. [The experience of being to Glacier] feels complete, like part of me was always living there and I never knew it until now, and I’ve finally been rejoined. Now you can get at it, make something of it. Perhaps a first kiss made you feel complete. Perhaps finally finishing Nanowrimo and knowing that you did a damn good job made you feel complete. Perhaps buying your first car and going somewhere on your own did it for you. The point is, by generalizing to an emotional state [3], I can phrase my value judgments in a way that you can parse, by then comparing my emotional state to a similar state that you’ve experienced.

You can’t ever know what it’s like to be me in the places I’ve been, but you do know what it’s like to be you in the places you’ve been. And with metaphor, we can talk about it. No author ever says “The mountain was beautiful.” No one would understand.

The mountain is a girl with red hair whose short skirts tantalize and promise an unending era of sleepless nights. Now we’re talking.


[1] Ted states: “But I digressed from the main point that there is black. It exists as a concept or a descriptor of a certain state of events rather than a physical thing—in fact, describing the lack of a physical thing (photons). It’s really a matter of perception. Some people are going to see less photons, and so their version of “black” might be different from someone else’s version of “black”. Besides all that, there’s no way to know what colors anyone else sees. Everyone calls the sky “blue”, but how do you know that someone else’s blue isn’t what you call red? You know the sky is blue because that’s what everyone else calls that particular color, but you can’t ever be sure that you’re not the odd man out.”

[2] I have a bunch of these. What is it like to eat an orange? What is it like to eat an orange with your eyes closed? What is it like to eat an orange if you’re also blind? What is it like to eat an orange if you have a cold? If you’re high? If you’re tired? If you’re retired?

[3] This whole thought process was brought on by the endless questioning of family and friends: “What’s Montana like?” Sure, it’s beautiful and there are tall mountains, but what does that mean? Montana is sleeping in after the alarm’s gone off. Montana is a burger that is so tasty that you’re willing to take another bite even though you’re quite full. Montana is a brand new computer before you’ve even personalized the fonts and the desktop pattern. Enough!