Apr 302010
 

I recently blogged about the glory of goobers posting one-star reviews of things.

Well, we got our own first one-star iTunes rating, though, alas, with no accompanying review. Now, I had thought that this was actually a good thing, that we were finally getting big enough that hostile people were actually getting tuned into us, i.e. no one bothers to rate anything that they don’t care anything about.

However, on further review, I see that a lot of the other podcasts on the “featured” list also have a single one-star rating, with no two-star ratings at all, even “Philosopher’s Zone,” which is a very professional, soothing podcast that could not possibly actually offend anyone (whereas I can at least picture someone being totally turned off by our attitudes).

So, I’m forced to conclude that someone is gaming the iTunes rating system, likely because these determine in no small part which podcasts appear in the “featured” section of the philosophy category in the iTunes store. Now, we’ve been in there quite a bit, and this explains quite a lot of the growth in our listenership (i.e. more people stumble across us on iTunes than via this blog).

The only way to cancel out negative ratings like this is for you, our loyal readers/listeners, to go to our page at the iTunes store and give us a nice (5-star, if you think we deserve it) rating… and a text review wouldn’t hurt either, if you feel so inspired.

So, if you’ve been enjoying multiple hours of us, I ask you to kindly go take the two minutes or less that this will require, and nudge your friends/roommates/spouses/pets to do likewise, and that’ll actually do more to spread the gospel of PEL than nearly anything else. For those of you that don’t use iTunes, if you’re actually motivated to download and install it JUST so you can go to the store and give us a nice rating, well, let us know and we’ll be extra grateful (which along with fifty cents will buy you… well… a gun, I think, but not a very good one).

I see we have a meager 27 total ratings there now; I’ll check back in a few days to see if this here request gets us the goods. Thank y’all for your continued support; the encouragement we’ve gotten from you has determined us to keep doing this and strive to make it at least somewhat listenable, with a minimum of celebrity impersonations and wacky morning-zoo-type sound effects.

Sincerely,

-Mark

Apr 222010
 

This week I give you an entire album from my murky past: “So Chewy” by the MayTricks (no, that movie had not come out when this band existed, so that name isn’t as awful as it seems, though it’s not so good, I think; any band name you have to spell for people is bad news). It was recorded in the summer of 1993, just after most of us had graduated college.

This is that band’s second album, and the most coherent, in that it presents our live show of the time, built up over the two years previous (instruments were in general recorded live, just as for the MayTricks demo tunes I’ve been posting here, with vocals, guitar solos, and other bits overdubbed; all on 4-track cassette). Many of the tunes had been written years before, some as early as 1987 or 1988 when we were in high school. I quote from the goofy, pretentious liner notes here:

“It’s natural in this country to be raised on cruddy, simplistic, obvious music, and so to start one’s songwriting within that style. It’s also natural to eventually rebel against these basic forms and search for higher ground. But when after doing this, you return to the old songs and have to sing them as yourself today, something sinister happens.”

The liner notes also state that “J.P. Sartre plays inaudible saxophones.”

I should mention that as far as a presentation of my songwriting in particular, this is about my least favorite project, with the album opener “A Call to Attention” (written in the summer of 1992, I believe) striking me (not just now, but not long after it was actually finished) as as particularly ill-conceived. Still, overall, the thing is very energetic and fun, and less lo-fi than you’d expect given the technology we were working with.

My most recommended tracks: “Without” (one of Steve Petrinko’s) is probably my favorite, with his “Wooden, Stone” also a great out-of-tune sloppy acoustic Rolling Stones kind of thing. Of my tunes, “The Like Song” is my favorite (featuring a kazoo solo). “Time” is also probably the best straight ballad I’ve ever written (from back in 1988 or 1989), though this is not the ideal recording of it.

Apr 202010
 
plato (2)

Discussing the Theaetetus and the Meno, two dialogues about knowledge.

We’re returning to Plato for a somewhat more thorough treatment than we gave him in Episode 1. This should be considered part two (Hume being #1) of three discussions intended to convey the main conflict in the history of epistemology between the empiricists (like Hume) and the rationalists (like Plato).

We slog through most of the Theaetetus, where Plato considers and rejects a series of mostly very lame conceptions of knowledge and replaces them at the end with… NOTHING. Seth is crushed. In the Meno, knowledge is “remembrance” (maybe), like anything worth knowing can’t be learned but only elicited out of the depths of your unconscious.

Read along: The Theaetetus and The Meno, or if you don’t like the funky background on those pages, look them up via Project Gutenberg. You could also purchase

Seth did this diagram to express his love of the Meno.

End song: “Obvious Boy” by Mark Lint and the Fake from the album So Whaddaya Think? (2000). Listen to the whole album online.

Apr 162010
 

Yes, another song not written by me, from the same 1991 demo as the last two weeks’ entries: “Wild Flower.” However, I did play this 40 million times and wrote the swell bass line and contributed to the somewhat out-of-tune backing vocals. The performance is actually pretty darn good, and the recording was only left off of the eventual album because we preferred to show off the later line-up instead. This song (also written by Steve Petrinko when he was in high school) was our crowd pleaser and set opener, and everyone got to do a solo (well, I don’t solo in this version, but there’s a bass solo on the album version that’s also linked there). Simple, fun, happy, cheesy. So why not just play this kind of stuff all the time and get many more frat party gigs? Not our ideology, I guess.

So I want to ask about the futility of art vs. playing what people like, but the subject tires me and the question is, I think, ill-formed. This song was and is a highlight for me, and if it’s derivative, it’s blocked out for me what it might be imitating, and Steve’s hippie lyrics save it (for me) from the cringe-inducement involved in, e.g., the Spin Doctors, whose big album was released the summer after this recording was made. I buy the comedy here (whether it was intentionally comic or not), whereas for the Spin Doctors, I just don’t, but this just points to the fact that it’s hard to enjoy a band if the lead singer strikes you as a douchebag.

Apr 132010
 

On Episode 16, we discussed some work by Arthur Danto and joked that he would certainly never listen to us.

Well, I sent him a link to the episode via Facebook, and he not only listened that day to it, but put the link on his page, complimented us there to his many friends, and said it was OK for us to quote his correspondence. His initial response to us was this (edited down a bit):

Dear guys

I was really thrilled by the podcast you sent. It was a unique experience, seeing philosophy living in our culture. I’ve never before heard my work discussed like that, and rarely as intelligently. What was wonderful were all the digressions, but then everyone got back to the issues, and usually you came out right -or right enough, given where I was in the path of my thought when I wrote those essays.

…So thanks for the stupendous honor you have done me here. I enjoyed every minute, including the song at the end.

In a follow-up communication, he gave his this quote:

I think the way you address philosophical issues inspiring, including the kind of horseplay that Plato edited out of the dialogues, which had, after all, to be transcribed by hand.

…And on his FB page he said:

I was pleased and surprised by this discussion. Three former philosophy students took on the task of discussing different texts, and though there is a lot of irreverent comments on professional philosophy, it is very high level. I listened to the whole podcast, and felt exalted afterward.

At my request, he sent us some follow-up readings to consider. Some of the issues we discussed in the podcast, he says, were addressed in “The Abuse of Beauty, my Carus lectures, which were delivered not long after 9/11; the insight is directly connected with 9/11 – argues that beauty is indispensible to human life, but not essential to the concept of art” and also that we might enjoy Lydia Goehr’s book comparing Danto with Theodor Adorno: “She is in music aesthetics, and a lot more continental and at the same time more academic than I ever was, but she is very smart.”

As for future readings that will potentially feed our future episodes, here’s his list of suggestions:

Jerry Levinson writes on music in a highly intelligent way. Stanley Cavell is first rate on movies and literature. I love his book on screwball comedies. Noel Carroll’s book Mass Art raises a lot of important issues. Nelson Goodman was a towering thinker and also an art dealer, and his work is full of challenging ideas, even if stretches of it are highly technical.

Needless to say, we are thrilled and grateful for all of this and will get to more philosophy of art (which according to Danto, we should stop calling “aesthetics,” which has to do specifically and solely with “beauty”) as soon as we can fit it in.

Apr 102010
 

Here’s “Wasted Youth,” a song by Steve Petrinko, also (like week 14) from the MayTricks 1991 EP, which I’m retroactively calling the “Happy Flowers EP,” as “Happy Flowers” was to be the name of the album that we started recording with this lineup shortly after making this demo (at least according to my decision; I don’t know that the band had agreed upon this).

This is a song Steve wrote at age 17 about the Tiananmen Square massacre. Now I don’t usually write social protest (Steve doesn’t either), and the earnestness and some awkward bits in the lyrics always rubbed me wrong, but I still liked the darkness of the song and the power of the bridge, and I love the feedback-soaked Pink Floydesque thing that our guitarist Dave Roof did with it. Nonetheless, this was not recorded for any later album, so this is the definitive band recording, such as it is.

Rhythmically, the song is sort of a mess, but I actually did quite a bit of work in that respect, moving around some of the out-of-time drum hits (which are on the same track as the bass and drums) and lining up the keyboard (which was recorded too quietly in the initial live band performance and so was re-recorded on its own track) and the vocals so that they’re in sync. This likely doesn’t mean much to you non-musicians or people who’ve not seen what digital magic is possible nowadays in fixing up multi-track recordings, but trust me, this is a lot better than it was.

So, social protest songs… These struck me as disingenuous (at the time we played this; now my opinion is as always, both liberal and self-contradicting). Art, if honest, expresses personal pain, and unless the tragedy is happening to you, then you’re just faking it, and I’d be pretty sure that someone sitting in a high school classroom in Michigan is not going to have a clue what it’s actually like for protesters getting gunned down under a totalitarian regime. So instead of being about the event, it’s actually about one’s fantasy of the event, which to me seemed a weird thing to have a fantasy about. Discuss! (Note that I did eventually write a social protest song myself, a pretty oblique thing about the Iraq war and the Giuliani-type response to terrorism called “Lock Them Away.” I tried to make it about what actually made me depressed about the whole thing, not pretending to be a soldier a la Billy Joel’s song about Vietnam or something.)

Apr 072010
 

An amusing article by Jeanette DeMain on Salon.com about Amazon one-star reviews of classic books caught my eye. Its thesis is that for every book our culture (or likely, you in particular) finds great, there’s likely a horrific review of it posted.

Now, of course many of these reviews are by semi-literate anti-intellectual assholes. Still, I think that history and other factors inevitably drive a wedge between current readers and classic works, and it requires getting used to a different style of storytelling, different cultural norms mixed up in the works, different agendas, etc. to appreciate the work.

So, yes, you can strive to learn enough to be a competent reader of Shakespeare, but there’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t have the stamina to do that or that, despite how anti-intellectual it may make you look, you actually don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare, or Brontë, or Thomas Hardy or whomever your high school teachers tried to get you to appreciate.

I tend not only to “see” (i.e. abstractly recognize) the works I’ve given substantial time to in both a positive and negative light, but I feel (i.e. viscerally react to depending on my mood) these aspects as well. My “guilty pleasures” are not purely pleasurable, and (as should be clear from the podcasts) I find many of the works I admire to be painful. I think it’s a mistake to try to resolve this ambivalence. Yes, it’s rewarding to work past the barriers into appreciating something, but it’s also pleasurable to bitch about it. One can, without hypocrisy, do both.

I’ve only taken a second here to look up low-star reviews on philosophy works. Here are some amusing partial dismissals of Plato’s Republic. Interestingly, I couldn’t find any one-star reviews of the first few Plato listings at all apart from one person criticizing the vendor’s delivery practices.

I did, however, find a one-star review of Descartes’s Meditations:

Overly repetitious

This review is from: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, 4th Ed. (Paperback)
Descartes seems like the sort of guy who likes the sound of his own voice, not unlike a philosophy professor! He has only a handful of points, a few of them interesting but the majority pure academic fluff, and he spends over 100 pages just reiterating his ideas and logic behind them. It seemed like a modern editor would read the manuscript, and whittle it down to a maximum of 25 pages. I am not surprised that various classes on philosophy only use excerpts of Descartes’ work.

Feel free to reply to this post with anything amusing you run across.

Apr 072010
 

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum in the  The New Republic:

In Britain today there is a new government program called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Under the REF, scholars in all fields will be rated, and fully twenty-five percent of each person’s rating will be assigned for the “impact” of their work—not including its impact on other scholars or on people who like to think, but only including the crasser forms such “impact” might take. (Paradigmatic examples are “improved health outcomes or growth in business revenue.”)

Apr 022010
 

One of my heretofore unmentioned projects for this blog is digitizing and mixing the original, 1991 5-song demo from my college band The MayTricks, so here’s the first tune: “Run Away.” I’ve also posted an mp3 of the eventual 1993 album version of the tune for comparison. I like the demo better, I think, though the album version has its charms.

During high school, I fantasized heavily about what a kick-ass band I was going to get going in college given the amount of talent that would undoubtedly be available there. During my freshman year I attempted to get an all-songwriter band going, and the only person who stuck out of that was Steve Petrinko, who became my co-conspirator in forming The MayTricks. The initial line-up of the band came together in our sophomore year and included two freshman, a guitarist named Dave Roof and a keyboardist named Josh Fielstra, both of whom were actually pretty great players. Those guys, along with a 26-year-old named Rich Stapleton who played with us for about a week, played the tunes on this demo, the instruments for which were recorded live to two tracks of a 4-track Tascam cassette portable studio. I recorded all the vocals myself after the fact, though some of the live singing bled through here.

This song in particular I wrote when I was 16 and was the first tune I ever recorded (by myself) and then performed, originally with my high school band The Backdrop. I made five studio recordings of the song in high school (it was one of only about three original songs the Backdrop had), then these two with the MayTricks, and I’ve got an unfinished, hi-fi version mostly recorded from 2006 just to give the thing some closure, which I’ll eventually post. The lyrics are total cheese dip, as is the 50s verse and the 1-4-5 chorus, but I’ve still always liked it, and I think this demo version, despite some rhythmically sloppy and/or out-of-tune parts of it, works overall better than the eventual album version, which featured only Steve and I from the original band, plus Geoff Esty imitating a synth with a weird guitar effect and also playing some classical and Brian Drake on rhythm guitar.

Philosophical thought of the post: To what extent can you enjoy the creative products of your naive youth? I’ll be honest: even though these lyrics are cheesy, they’re much better than anything I’d written earlier, and I could still choke them out without being utterly embarrassed.