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Saturday, August 11, 2007 -- 9:25 am

Another key flaw (perhaps it's multiple flaws, actually) with the notion that predictability (primarily, our familiarity with convention) determines our response to music is that it does nothing to distinguish two pieces aesthetic value. Surely the claim isn't that later compositions by Mozart are superior to earlier pieces because Mozart became more familiar with the musical conventions of his time. And two equally qualified musicians, I would posit, can be equally familiar with Mozart's idiom, with one still preferring jazz to Mozart and the other not.

The place to start, of course, is by recognizing that beauty has at least two components: a particular sensory experience derived relating to an object in the world, and a mind receptive to perceiving the experience in a particular way. Our naive reaction is to consistently associate beauty with certain specific things in the world, and we only experience that beauty when paying attention to those particular objects (or, arguably, recalling them in memory).

Moreover, beautiful objects are interesting in a way that plain objects aren't. They hold our attention, and even captivate our senses, as we willingly linger over them. A proper understanding of beauty requires, then, that we tease apart the differences between beauty, tedium, and ugliness. The most salient property of a boring object is its predictability: the knowledge, or at least the assumption of knowledge, of everything that will come subsequently, and the conclusion that there is nothing to be gained from paying further attention. Beauty, by contrast, has a way of continually surprising us with its richness and unexpected facets. I have proposed how this is accomplished in previous writing and will, I expect, go into a little more detail here from time to time.

Thursday, August 9, 2007 -- 8:57 pm

I note from Syme's The Roman Revolution that Republican Rome had no defamation law. It would be interesting to construct a timeline spelling out just when different aspects of our existence became protectible legal interests.

Thursday, August 9, 2007 -- 8:25 pm

I've been reading Huron's Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, and while I haven't reached the punch line yet, I'm starting to suspect that he and I will turn out to disagree about the causes of musical enjoyment. It's a typical phenomenon, I find, where I expect from a book's title that it will say everything I've always meant to say on a particular subject, and I dive into it with a sort of gloomy resignation, only to discover that they came out somewhere else entirely. This isn't to say that I disagree with all aspects of Huron's thesis or methodology, and certainly his focus on the psychology of expectation and his hypothesizing that our enjoyment of music derives, in some manner, from our predictive capacities, is on the right track. But like many scientists, he's skittish about words like beauty, which I don't recall occurring anywhere in the first 170 pages. And naturally, I think he gives short shrift to Kant's theory.

I think it's probably best to give Huron a full reading before critiquing his theory, but there's at least one component that's not unique to his exposition and can probably be tackled head-on. That's the notion that what we find enjoyable in music is determined by what we've heard before, and that we gradually develop aesthetic norms through a statistical learning process. I find such a theory wanting because it fails to explain how different musical systems arose in the first place (or why, for example, Indian and Western tuning systems are so similar), and it fails to explain how music leaps across cultural boundaries. Why, for example, are we not still listening to Gregorian chant? Why did the so-called Ionian and Aeolian church modes evolve, with the introduction of a little chromaticism in the latter case, into the major and minor scales? Why did we abandon the just-tempered systems of the 17th century, with their rogue "wolf keys" that prevented a particular piece from modulating too far afield, for the slightly unusual-sounding but fully modulable well-tempered tuning system? How about such seemingly trivial innovations as the Piccardy third, or the Neapolitan sixth? It seems to me that each of these is a departure from the preexisting standard, and should have been unwelcome if predictability were our only standard. By the same token, why are the Western tuning system, and Western musical idioms, so contagious in the rest of the world?

I suspect that such things can only be explained, either by a different notion of predictability than Huron has described so far, or by a more careful analysis of the psychological effects of such innovations. He promises, in a final chapter, to explain how music can inspire chills, and awe, and other emotional effects, so I'll hear him out and then use this as a springboard for my own understanding of the subject.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 -- 7:32 pm

The doctrine of bailments is another of those ancient principles at common law (and before that, Roman law) that represents a still-vital but regularly overlooked aspect of justice, perhaps dwarfed in comparison to the high crimes that are no longer taken for granted. A "bailment", according to a note in an old law-school textbook, is an agreement where someone (A) holds another's (B's) property for a time (with permission) and then returns it. What standard of care is A expected to show to B's property. It turns out it depends on the benefit that A derived from arrangement: gratuituous safeguarding, B permits A to use it, B pawns it to A, B rents it to A, B hires A to manage it, or B mandates A to manage it without pay. Where both parties benefit from the relationship, A need only show ordinary care. Where the loan is for A's benefit, A is held responsible for even slight negligence. Where the loan is for B's benefit, A is only held responsible for gross neglect.

Clearly the issue is much more complicated than that, and learned ancient treatises can be derived from Google's digitized warehouses where the precedents in Roman and Mosaic law are dissected and expounded. Such issues creep in as whether A was aware of the valuable contents of the box B left in his custody, and it's always interesting to see how one lawmaking tradition sifts ancient texts to decide which will qualify to guide the new society, and which are dismissed as ancient.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007 -- 7:23 pm

An interesting article in yesterday's NY Times about Timbuktu's efforts to preserve its ancient manuscript libraries, hopefully digitize them, and reestablish itself as a center for learning in Africa. All in favor, as should be clear from everything I've written previously. The rise and fall of Timbuktu is a subject I'll be devoting more time and attention to in future, and the possibility of recovering so much ancient lore from an almost entirely lost civilization -- treatises, encyclopedias, histories, literatures -- is quite exciting. I would hope that a systematic effort were underway to preserve and systematize the literary and other artifacts from each of the world's great past civilizations -- a digital library of cuneiform texts, for example, or Greek writings -- and that Timbuktu's stores would gradually be contributed to this endeavor as they were uncovered and, with time, translated. I'm not sure I'm seeing evidence of that, though. And it's a pity that my own command of dead languages isn't quite up to the task of perusing those snippets I do find. So much to do...

Tuesday, August 7, 2007 -- 7:04 pm

Came across, today, the common law doctrine of emblements: the notion that one who farms land belonging to another, with permission for an indefinite term, has the right to harvest any annual crop already sown before that indefinite term comes to an end through notice by the landowner or some other event. It's still a current notion, and was the basis for a decision in New York in the last few weeks. It seems that the element of unfair surprise is key here -- if the farmer had any reasonable notice that s/he would be deprived use of the land before planting, there's no basis for an injunction. Blackstone, in his Commentaries, mentions emblements in contrasting tenancy for a fixed term of years from an indefinite term: if the tenant knew his lease would expire in midsummer, he is not entitled to reap the crops he planted foolishly. But if he has no reasonable notice, then he is allowed -- indeed, encouraged -- to make profitable use of the land in the meantime.

These old laws are fascinating. Perhaps I should launch an occasional series on the laws of bailments, mayhem, etc.

Monday, August 6, 2007 -- 9:09 pm

I won't belabor the Potter books, now that the series is complete. I came away very much satisfied by the experience. Notwithstanding the drooling idiots who complain that the books purport to teach witchcraft (how do you make a working magic wand, people -- it doesn't say), and the moral certainty that children everywhere are playing at casting fake spells on one another, the real value of the books lies in their clarity of understanding human and political dynamics. For once we're reading about a quest where the heroes have to figure it out -- or make it up -- as they go along. For once authority figures are described, not as good or evil, but as complex, petty, shortsighted, confused, and motivated by intensely personal reasons such as love, loyalty, and fear. Certain villainous characters truly are undermined, in the end, by their own failings of insight and character. And the novels seem to show a rare understanding of how a democratic society can lapse into tyranny with hardly anyone noticing because they're distracted by other concerns. Potter arguably belongs in civics classes, to be taught alongside the stories of Rome, Florence, Weimar Germany, and others. But if the books get more people used to the idea of looking at each other, and their morale choices, as the complex dilemmas they are, they have arguably done their part.