What Music Is, What Art Is and How to Tell Them from a Hole in the Ground


What have all these in common?

Recently I had a discussion online with someone who claimed that a specific type of music wasn’t music and that instruments shouldn’t be used to play that kind of music.

I deliberate left out of that sentence the genre of music, because I know many people look down upon it and therefore their evaluation of that claim would be biased. But suffice to say, it’s a genre of music that low-class, uneducated people like. The music is very simplistic and the lyrics range from the obvious to the silly to the vulgar.

Yet, I think that even if you take into account that consideration, most people would concede that anyone is free to enjoy and play the type of music they like, even if they greatly dislike that type of music. And I also think that 99% of the people would agree that if you buy an instrument with your own money, you can play whatever you want with it.

The episode reminded me of an old program I heard from the 50s or 60s where a musicologist was asked about his opinion about popular music. He was asked in specific what he thought about rock’n’roll. His answer was “It’s not music. It’s popular but not music.”

In the light of what we know today, it’s easy to think of him as being ridiculous. However, let’s remember that rock’n’roll was new back then, and it was something that many people found in bad taste, much the way most people today think of, let’s say, Justin Bieber’s music.

Which led me to wonder to a much deeper and much more important question than “what music do you like?” which is “What is music and what isn’t”?

My personal belief was that music wasn’t taste. Taste is, after all, subjective, and therefore depends on each person. I believe than when people say “this is good music,” they actually mean “this is music that I like or music that people I admire like.” Because we have different tastes, I concluded that there is no “good” or “bad” music. Also, complexity isn’t necessarily a factor in taste, therefore the fact that a certain type of music is simplistic doesn’t disqualify it from being music. I even opened up a dictionary (actually, I didn’t, I looked it up online, but it sounds better that way) to get a definition. I found many and I selected this one: “a sound that’s pleasant to the ears.”

Later on, I started to think, what if I was wrong? After all, I’m no expert on music or art. I also had to admit to myself that I chose that definition in specific because it proved my point, because it adjusted better to the construction of my argument rather than for its truth value.

What to do? Fortunately, I remembered there is a conference about art by Leon Botstein, who is the president of Bard College and a musician and historian of music as well a professor in the arts and humanities. I figured that a guy with those credentials might know a thing or two about art and music. Certainly more than I did in any case.

The conference starts with what Art is. I must say that I was disappointed because he didn’t give a cut-clear definition of what art is. However, through the conference, I was able to get some points here and there and use it to construct my own definition of art. And in consequence, of music. After all, music is just the application of art to sound.

The exercise also made me realize why there is no easy definition of art, and that’s because art is a much more complex concept than what most people think.

In my experience, art, for most people, is one of two things. The first one, which I supported, it’s that art is anything that’s pleasant to an audience. So, as long as there is an audience that likes it, there is art, be it Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”

The second one, which I opposed, is that art is a group of very specific artistic expressions and everything else is not art. According to this definition, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is art because it’s opera and opera is art, and Justin Bieber’s “Baby” is not art because pop music is not art.

My main goal in looking for a definition of art and music is finding a formula or a method that was objective and through which any person could apply it to any assortment of sounds and come up with a confirmation or denial that the sound was music. And that this result would be no different if any other person would apply the same method.

The task was more difficult than what I thought, and maybe that’s why Professor Botstein abstained from giving a clear-cut definition of art and focused more on examples. It’s not that I think that he wouldn’t have been able to, but the complexity of the explanation would have distracted from the purpose of his lecture. He was also right to focus on examples, because I found out that it’s far easier to appreciate and recognize at least the most obvious examples of art than to define art.

Anyway, here is my conclusion, which is by no means complete and holds no authoritative value:

Art is the transfiguration of an element into an expression. In the case of music, this element is sound.

However, there are several requirements for such transfiguration to be art. I didn’t include them in the definition because it would have made the definition much more complex and difficult to understand. Nevertheless, here they are:

-Art is an expression. Art is meant to communicate something from within the artist. Common concepts are love, beauty and sorrow. However, any idea can be communicated as art. Therefore, “good” or moral concepts like patriotism, solemnity, and greatness, are as valid as “bad” or immoral concepts, like irreverence, mockery and treason. Some pieces of art can include more than one concept, something that I have seen in literature.

-Art is not natural. It has to be done by a human being. Art is an expression of a human idea, concept or feeling. You can listen to a bird’s singing, and it’s beautiful, sure. But it’s not art.

-Art is pre-meditated and has to have a structure. An artist has a pre-fixed, approximate idea of what the specific piece of art is going to be. Even if the art somehow involves randomness, the artists has a good idea right from the start the degree of randomness that is going to be involved.

– Art has an audience. Art, like almost all of human activities, is something that connects us. It’s a message that an artists sends to an audience. If it fails to connect with an audience, then it fails to be art and it’s just an individual act. And yes, the moment it connects with one person, it becomes art.

– The quality of a piece of art depends on the number of people it connects. A child that draws a heart on a piece of paper to express love for his mother can be considered art (provided he started with the idea in his head) if his mother understands the message and doesn’t appreciate it only because it came from her son. In fact, a good test would be to see if other mothers can get the message and appreciate his piece of art.

Even so, it’s not going to be great art. In fact, it’s going to be terrible art. The number of people that it’ll connect will be very small. More likely than not, the adorable piece of paper will be mostly appreciate it by the mother, who will try to convince other mothers that his son’s piece of paper is art, while the other mothers will try to do the same with the pieces of papers of their sons.

That’s why the truly great works of art are universal. They connect not only with the people around the artist. They connect with people from different cultures and eras. They are truly a representation of what humanity has best to offer. People from all over the world get the message of love of Romeo and Juliet, the beauty of Mozart’s 40th, the majesty of the Taj Mahal. And while today’s expressions of art have not yet passed the test of time, some of them seem to be on the right path.

As humanity evolves and technology creates new ways to create art, the challenges of defining what art is will increase. I think that eventually webcomics, fanfics, blogs, vlogs, wikis, video games, machinimia will fight and win their right to be considered valid expressions of art, just like movies, music videos, electronic music and photography once did.

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Lessons from the Japanese Earthquake

Japanese nurses helping a patient evacuate in the middle of the destruction.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 is one of the greatest tragedies that I have ever seen. However, as with any tragedy, there are some lessons to be learned. If those lessons aren’t learnt, then a tragedy is just senseless destruction and pain. These are, in my opinion, the lessons that we can learn from this tragedy.

1.- Be happy and enjoy life. Life is so much more fragile than we think and we sometimes waste perfectly good moments over petty details. Some people in Japan went to work on that day, never imagining that when they came back, their families, houses, and even their whole towns would be gone. And while the earthquake is a epic-proportioned tragic, it doesn’t take much to change a life forever, a nervous thief with a gun, a drunk driver, a new virus. So, don’t bitch about how the valet parking got a dent in your car.

2.- Material things are not vital. Yes, it’s nice to buy things and enjoy them. There’s nothing wrong with that. But also take into consideration that they are just that: material things that can be replaced. It’s your life, your health, your feelings, your intelligence, your maturity, your spirituality that’s important.

3.- Are you prepared for when something happens to you or your family? While the tragedy was immense, Japan’s high level of preparedness saved them from a much bigger catastrophe. The Japanese prepared for an earthquake because they know that they live in an area where earthquakes are common. What are the most common dangers in your area? Crime? Poverty? Pollution? Flooding? Do you have a plan for you and your family on what to do in case of an emergency?

4.- Attitude is everything. The Japanese understand that the convenience of one is the inconvenience of everyone. Even during a tragedy of this magnitude, the people are calm and restrained. There are no panic attacks. There aren’t thieves looting from the abandoned houses and properties. There aren’t groups of people fighting over the distribution of food and water. Workers are unselfishly helping and doing their jobs and people are patiently making lines that are several blocks long until it’s their turn to get some food. I’m especially amazed by the people who are in the power plants, risking their lives to prevent meltdowns, and by the workers in the supermarket who in the middle of the earthquake stood there and tried to protect the products from falling and breaking.

5.- We need to reduce or dependency on dangerous and polluting energy sources. As I write this, there are reports of danger of a nuclear meltdown. Radioactivity, as many other types of pollution, doesn’t respect frontiers. However, reducing our dependency on these energy sources will require a lot of sacrifice from us. It’s not as simple as saying “let’s just close nuclear plants.”

6.- We are all humans. Deep down, we’re all the same. The people of Japan, despite being more advanced than other countries, are still grieving and suffering in the same way the people of Haiti suffered and grieved last year when they were hit by an earthquake.

Wherever you are, I’m sure there’s a way you can contribute to the relief effort. Please make a small sacrifice and donate whatever you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small quantity, it will help someone because, despite the numbers of victims that you see on TV, lives come in only one size: individual.

Posted in Life Stories | 2 Comments

Arcades, Happiness and a Missing Arm

Doronjo taking on Morrigan and getting her ass kicked.

Wisdom can be found in the least likely of places. This is a story that talks about such a situation.

I love video games, and I used to play fighting games a lot. When Street Fighter II came out (yes, I’m that old), I used to rule the arcades with either Chun Li or Dhalsim. Afterwards, many Street Fighter clones as well as true original fighting games came out. I never was the king of the arcades again, but I managed to stay competitive. By the time King of Fighters 94 came out, I was still good compared to the average player. However, once King of Fighters 95 came out, my skills weren’t a match for drugstore children (so named because they spend all their time playing an arcade at a drugstore) and I was reduced to mere spectator.

I was forced to play only console games where I could practice enough to beat my friends, who had little to no practice whatsoever. But if I played at the arcades, I did so only from time to time and just to try out a new game or to see a new character. I knew perfectly well that I would play until some child or teen came to challenge me and then I’d last, oh, about 30 seconds and I would have my ass handed back to me.

I still bought fighting games available for consoles. One of the ones I wanted to get was Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, mainly because it featured Doronjo from Yattaman fame. Unfortunately, it’s only available for the Wii, which I don’t have.

Then, one day, as I was taking the subway, I saw that there were some arcades at a station. They were somewhat hidden in a tunnel and I decided to take a look. And Voila! They had Tatsunoko vs. Capcom! I was very surprised since it is a game popular only in Japan.

Needless to say, I played it, and managed to get somewhat good with Doronjo and Chun Li. As usual, except against people who were just trying out the game, I lost to everyone. However, I still liked to go there often and play whenever the machine wasn’t being used. And I also memorized some basic moves by looking them up on the Internet.

One of such times, I was playing and some guy came to play to my left. He seemed cheerful and nice, and he asked a few questions. I specially remember that he asked how to change characters in the middle of a fight.

“Oh, you press this button and you pull the joystick backwards at the same time,” I said.

He pressed the button a few times, but he didn’t change characters because he didn’t pull the joystick backwards at the same time. I thought he hadn’t understood me, so I repeated the instructions again.

“No, you have to pull the joystick at the same time.”

He still continued to press only the button and not pull the joystick, which I though was stupid. Then I finally understood why. He was missing and arm! No wonder he couldn’t push the button and pull the joystick at the same time.

He started to play against me. I felt a bit sorry for him, I must admit. I was trying a new character before he arrived and I didn’t like it. Because of these two reasons I let him win the first match.

With new characters, including my beloved Doronjo, I started to play a bit better. I was still experimenting with new characters, because I figured I’d go easy on him. Also, because he wasn’t able to change characters, I decided I wouldn’t change characters either.

I expected an easy match, letting the fight seem close and then maybe winning by a bit or letting him win. However, I was surprised to see that he was good, much better than I expected in any case. In fact, I was so used to change characters in mid fight in order to have a better strategy that by not changing characters, I felt seriously handicapped and had to really focus, barely winning in the end after lots of efforts.

Most of all, I was surprised that a person who was missing an arm would enjoy spending time and money at the arcades. I mean, I was thinking that if you lose an arm, then you’d pretty much forget about playing video games. Yet, there he was, enjoying the challenge. When I noticed this, I realized that I wasn’t doing him any favors by letting him win. In fact, he was there for the same reason I was: to learn about a game, measure his skills against other players, and have some fun while at it. By playing less than my best, I would be depriving him of all of these. Plus, I figured that handicapped people would like to be treated as equals, not with pity.

So, I started to play my best. I was definitely better than him, but not so much that it was pointless to play. Still, after every time I beat him, he just inserted another coin and played again, as happy and cheerful as he arrived. He even took time between fights to eat chips.

I must have beaten him about 10 or 15 times in a row, and then some other guy came and challenged me. I knew him. He used to go there from time to time, but unlike the guy who was missing and arm, he was both serious and better than me.

As expected, he beat me in the first fight, although I was happily surprised to see that it wasn’t as bad of a defeat as usual (all that practice seemed to work!). As I usually do after every defeat, I just backed away a bit and I expected the one-arm guy to do the same. After all, if he couldn’t beat me, he wasn’t going to be able to beat the serious guy, was he?

Well, I was wrong again. After I lost, he just inserted another coin and challenged the other player. He lost the fight, but I admired him for trying. So, as soon as he lost, I too decided to play against the better player.

But here’s the interesting thing. Even though the other player kept beating us over and over, he didn’t seem like he was enjoying himself. He was very serious looking and it seemed like playing against us was a chore for him. The one-arm guy, on the other hand, seemed to be having a good time. He asked questions, learned some moves, lost a fight, ate his chips, etc. He even offered me some chewing gum.

After a while, another guy came and he was even better than the first one. And then a third one came that was even better. At that time, I decided that it was enough for me. I said good bye to the one-arm guy, shook his only hand and left.

It was an interesting experience and I learned some valuable lessons from it:

a)    Handicapped people are just like you and me. They don’t want our pity. The best think you can do for them is treating them like equals.
b)    Happiness is a state of mind, not a result from circumstances. The guy who was missing one arm was definitely happier than the guy that had both arms and played better than us. I suspect that’s true not only at the arcades, but in every other aspect of their lives.
c)    It’s ok to fail. What’s not ok is to give up. Be prepared not to succeed at the first try. Just get up and try again, learning from your mistakes, and give it another try. As long as you have life and tons of coins, there will always be another chance.

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Love Stinks

It smells like pee. At least it did that summer evening when my friend Felipe was riding the subway under the streets of Mexico City where nearly twenty-nine million people scurried overhead.

He’d been alone in his seat for some time when a wall-eyed young man, as torn and disordered as yesterday’s newspaper, wandered down the aisle. They glanced at each other and Felipe offered the apparently homeless man a smile.

That was invitation enough. The raggedy man swung into the seat next to Felipe and began an animated conversation in a language so garbled that not a word could be understood. It was obvious he had a disability and perhaps it had been an accident that had left his yellowed teeth so broken and missing.

The man took two pesos from his pocket and gestured to them while continuing his prattle. Felipe pretended he understood while suppressing his dawning alarm—triggered not so much by the man’s manner or his appearance—but because he smelled so horrifically of a combination of urine and feces. Felipe was trapped by the overwhelming odor in the enclosed warmth of the subway car. But still he responded to the stream of gibberish, “You don’t say? Oh really? Imagine that!” as if speaking to a friend. Their fellow passengers backed away, repelled by the piercing stench.

Inexplicably, the raggedy man took hold of Felipe’s nearest arm and pulled it around his shoulders and began to cuddle. Felipe felt revulsion, but he made no move to extract himself. The raggedy man moved Felipe’s hand to the top of his greasy head. Felipe patted his head dutifully, all the while hoping that it would end soon.

”Everyone was looking at us like we were crazy,” Felipe explained when he told me the story of what had happened.

“Well, why didn’t you just get up and end it?” I asked him.

“I felt sorry for him. I thought that more than anything he wanted some love and it was evident that he hadn’t gotten any in a long time. He was very lonely. I knew because I was sad and lonely that day.”

The raggedy man put Felipe’s hand on his cheek and winced in pain to tell Felipe that his teeth were hurting badly. Felipe winced back, his expression acknowledging the man’s suffering while silently praying that his own “sacrifice” would be repaid someday.

“I wished we’d arrive at my station, so I could leave,” he told me, “but we arrived at his station first. Before he left, the man took my face in his hands and kissed me on the cheek. He seemed to be very happy. Then he limped away.”

“You wouldn’t think it was possible, but after the man left the train the smell seemed to get stronger. Maybe I was just more aware of how strong it really was, but when he was gone I couldn’t tolerate it and moved to another car.”

(Today’s post was written by guest writer, award winning Monica Rix Paxson, author of “Dead Mars, Men are from Venus” and “Kiss me once, kiss me twice, kiss me once again, it’s been a long, long time.”)

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Who you gonna call? GHOST WRITER!!!

Who you gonna call?

Who you gonna call?

I’m a ghost writer who works over the Internet, as every one of my friends knows (all two of them, including the one whose last name starts with an @). I write about what people tell me to write about, and then I sell it to them, copyrights and all, so they can legally say they wrote it. It’s as unglamorous as it sounds. On the upside, I get to research and learn about several interesting topics, which I previously knew nothing about, like roof shingles, pink dog collars, and bacterial vaginosis. I don’t normally get to know where my writing ends up.

However, when people ask me what I do for a living, I usually say I’m a translator or an English teacher for private classes. Those answers usually leave them satisfied.

Now, I live in a country where Internet is widely available (except on Easter), but it’s considered only a tool for e-mailing, chatting, watching porn, and downloading pirate music and videos, AND the only social network website is hi5. Things like payments and working over the Internet are as strange to most people here as second languages are to Americans (as in, only very few know them, and the rest think they’re useless).

When I say I’m a ghost writer (“black writer” in my language, for those of you who want to make a big deal of anything that might have the slightest taint of political incorrectness) who works over the Internet, most people pull their head back a little, making an expression that makes them look like they just heard me fart but aren’t sure they did. Then, they either then look for someone else to speak with, or they ask questions in order to understand better (this usually happens when for some reason, they’re stuck with me).

It’s not the questions that I mind; it’s the expressions on their faces. It’s like trying to teach calculus to a 6 year old child, grammar to George Bush, or dating to me. The best anecdote that exemplifies this is what one acquaintance who sells creams and perfumes said to me, after hearing my explanation on what I do for a living: “Well, see you. And if you see someone who needs creams and perfumes, you let them know about me, and if I see someone who needs….. what you do, I’ll let them know as well.”

Then, I decided to tell people I was a writer, which is technically true. The problem was that they always asked for the title of my book. When I said I hadn’t written any, they asked for the magazines or newspapers I wrote in. That’s when I said “none,” and I had to explain what I do. It always went downhill. People felt I somehow lied or cheated.

On the other hand, people don’t seem to have a problem when I’m say I’m a translator or an English teacher, which is why I tend to say that.

Recently, I had a very interesting and funny (to me) experience. I got really sick, and I was forced to hire other ghost writers in order to meet my deadline with my client. The requirements I asked for were, among others:

– Good English skills
– Original content
– Ability to meet deadlines, including delivery of the first article in 24 hours and completing the whole job in 5 days.
– Ability to write on any subject at all.

These are some of the replies I got:

• “Sir i can do this in better way and you will get the best resutls you want. previous sample work is attached and you can chek it for the quality. hopefully you will work with me. for quries you are more than welcome..”

I loved the “you will work with me” part.

• “Respected Sir,

We have worked on this job before we have good knowledge about it and and i can assure you that i can do an excellenet job on it. I am interested in working with you as a long term service provider. I can assure you the Quality, Uniqueness, plus there will be no Typo, Grammatical & Punctual Errors. We can assure you that we can give you the work on the best short time possible as well as not loosing the quality of the work. Hope so to get a positive response from your side.”

Imagine my surprise when I found out that someone had worked on THIS job already; and without loosing the quality of the work.

• “i will give you goo output to you.for finishing this project i require 8$.”

I can make my own goo for much cheaper.

• “Hi,I can write the articles for you :)”

What? No lol 1337?

• “Hi,

I have completed a coures named “Technical Writing and Communication”. So, I can do your job.”

This course is a must for every writer.

• “Respected Sir,

(name withheld) International have many professional writer. Which have written many articles which are published on many reputed directories.”

Fortunately, I have many other candidate, which have written better offer, which I prefer to work with.

•    “Hi,
I have done a similar job on Cannabis…500+ words articles related to cannabis. I will provide sample here. You can see the buyer’s comments in my rating for it.

I am a medical school passout and my expertise is in medical/health/nutrition related topics. But if you gave me “metal gear solid”(game) or “windows latest version” I will be lost.

I can do this work in 10days easily and I will take care of keyword density as you ask for.

Please, I have one small issue. I will be free from 27th April and not before that.

Looking forward to work with you.

Your writing hand!!”

April 27th happened to be 10 days in the future, and he can easily do the 5 day job in 10 days. At least it gives me time to ask my clients for a 20 day extension, to modify all their needs to medical related topics and to get him a secretary and a company car.

•    “Dear Buyer,





From a guy who writes on his profile “The first impression last for ever”

So, what is the lesson to learn from this experience? Is it that you should be who you are regardless of what people think? Or that is better to make your life simpler and avoid problems? Is it that you should to your best to make a great first impression, specially when you are applying for a job?

Well, to me, the lesson is very clear: if you make mistakes on the Internet, some bored ghost writer with nothing to do on a Sunday morning will write an essay about them.

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Breaking News: Study shows that people will believe anything as long as you tell them a study about it was conducted.

Flowchart that solves everything

This chart is one of the results of the study. It shows how to solve any problem at work or at home.

New York, NY, Wednesday, April 29, 2009,- Today, experts from the AMA published the results of a study that shows that people will believe anything as long as you tell them that some experts conducted a study about it.

The study was carried out in several states, which names and number haven’t been specified. It was conducted with a sample of 3,1416 individuals. The margin of error was of +/- 3.1416%, with an arithmetic mean of 3, a standard deviation of 1, a frequency distribution of 4, a cumulative distribution of 1, and a variance of 6.

The study also showed that people didn’t really care whether the experts who published the report were really experts, or whether the report was really published at all. The study also showed that people believe that any three random capital letters together stand for an important trustworthy organization.

Another interesting result of the study is that even when there has been a real study conducted about something, it’s usually a reporter who publishes the results, selecting those details that prove his views or those of the media he works for, and ignoring those that he doesn’t consider relevant or pertinent.

Here are a few results of the study, handpicked for you:

99% of the time, the words “analysts, scientists, scholars, researchers or leaders” will have the same effect as “experts.” Similarly, the words “analysis, report, review, research or inquiry” will have the same effect as “study.”

78% of people can’t understand percentages, much less statistics. The other 23% don’t even bother checking that the numbers are correct.

95% of the people can’t remember the name of the person or institute that conducted the study after reading an article about it. The other 5% remember it as being conducted by Harvard, MIT, or some government agency.

37% of the people who read the article will repeat the information as a fact. The rest will mention it as true because “I read it somewhere.”

100% of the publishers don’t really care about informing, and will only publish studies with extravagant or scandalous reports that will sell.

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