1. What do you think makes a piece of music good? What do you aim at when
you are composing, and how does it relate to your notion of good music?
I'm not sure it's anything I can put into words easily. I know I tend to like songs that have clear and interesting chord progressions. Good ol' Pachelbel's Canon in D is durably a favorite of mine, and so is proper 12-bar blues. Writing music --- I can barely conceive of using the word `compose', with friends like Mark and Sally who are hardcore card-carrying capital-C Composers --- is not a uniform process for me... sometimes I take chords and/or melodies I hear in pop songs or jazz or video game music and tweak them around until I get something I like, other times I just screw around on the piano and something pops out. Only recently have I gotten so that I can transcribe stuff that I just think up away from the keyboard, and it's usually simple bluesy melodies.
On some rare occasions playing/writing I manage to find something that actually has some emotional impact on me, and when that does happen, the emotion seems to be almost the same one every time, some kind of cathartic, euphoric, nostalgic sadness or grief or something. In music I've heard, I've found it in Radiohead's "Exit Music", Bach's "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring", Tori Amos's "Spark", Harum Procol's "Whiter Shade of Pale" (did they use that in "Wonder Years", in like an awkward school dance scene or something? I always think of that show when I hear it) Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo", the Beatles's "In My Life", Simon and Garfunkel's "the Boxer", oh, and dear lord, Joni Mitchell's "the Circle Game". That's really the prime example. I just fucking cried the first time I heard it.
I guess there are lots of songs I just think of as just fun or rocking or pleasant or whatever, but those all feel like... lesser forms of involvement, you know?
Oh, apparently "Circle Game" still works on me. Jesus. "...though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true..." Such a beautiful song.
2. Do you like animals? What is your favorite kind of pet? Did you have
any pets growing up?
Not really so much, but I don't really dislike them either. Our family has had dogs now and then, only small ones. My mom's had a yorkie for about 10 years - I guess it predates my parents' divorce by a year or two actually - and a maltese for maybe 7 years, I think. Both are pretty cute and all, but I don't think I would want to take care of them.
3. You get to pick any place on earth - any country or town or region -
and spend a year there, expenses paid. Where would you go, and what would
you do while there?
I think I would pick a university town somewhere in europe. I've built up a sizeable ambition to live in europe some time, over the last few years, so this may be happening some time anyway, expenses paid or not :) I'm really not sure whether I'd go with somewhere english-speaking or not. I like to think I'd be ambitious, and pick not. I expect I'd sort of attempt to carry out the same sort of life there as I do here - reading, writing, programming, doing math and music - and just see how the different environment affects me.
4. What would you say is your worst trait, and why? Does it have any
I don't know if it's the worst, but the first that came to mind is my habit of giving up on things early. I think it comes from a habitual striving to find out the eventual consequences of some choice as early as possible, trying to optimize the look-ahead function in the game of living, sort of. But it means a lot of perhaps unnecessary pessimism in personal relationships: if I can imagine something bad happening, then there's a big risk I'll start believing it's probable, and stop trying. On the other hand, in research, it sometimes helps when I can generate a lot of ideas quickly and just as quickly successfully eliminate the ones that don't work. But of course the filtering process is never perfect...
5. Where do you see yourself going/doing after CMU? Say, 5 years from
It's actually as up in the air as it's ever been... there's the well-marked road of getting a PhD and becoming a professor somewhere. I still think that's the most likely outcome, but there are little nagging aspirations and dreams ever at the edge of my field of vision. Linguistics and philosophy (both of linguistics and generally) are always around and full of problems I care about and want to see solved. Computer science is always something I've been reasonably good at, but I find myself caring about it less and less wholeheartedly. But on the other other hand, I appreciate the value of specialization: I know a lot more about CS than about linguistics or philosophy, both of which I'm a total amateur in, if only because I've spent the last six years of my life living, eating, breathing CS. So if I'm going to accomplish anything worthwhile, it seems like a good idea to make the best of what I've already got.