Saturday, December 12, 2009

After the Flood

Google takes a bite out of Florida ...

So there I was, just fiddling around in my Google Analytics reports to see where my latest hits were coming from. Suddenly I did a doubletake, because there was something funny about the familiar South Florida coastline.

Apparently Google has flashed forward in time and redrawn the map to reflect rising sea levels. That's the only reason I can think of to explain why Marjorie Stoneman Douglas's "River of Grass," AKA the Everglades, is now a river of water with the cities of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, and Palm Beach clinging to a narrow isthmus sticking out into the Gulf Stream.

Well, this should silence the skeptics once and for all. No global warming? How about no snows on Kilamanjaro? How about an ocean instead of an ice sheet at the north pole? These things are normal? Maybe when their favorite golf course submerges they'll catch on. Or when Sara Palin can't find any polar bears to shoot near her balmy beachfront property in Alaska.

Hm, on second glance it's even worse than I thought, because the island city of Miami Beach doesn't appear on the map at all. Guess we'll have to knock down all the buildings once the lower floors are flooded out. Maybe it will make a nice artificial reef.

Got a better explanation? Let me know, because I need to find out if I have to sell my house ... quick!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Handel's Gift

The music that keeps on giving ...

Miami used to be a provincial town when I was growing up here, with precious little in the way of big city cultural events. Times have changed since we've become a multicultural hub of the Americas, though, and sometimes we get performances here that are better than anything we have have a right to expect.

So it was on Friday evening when James Judd, former conductor of the Florida Philharmonic, returned to conduct a splendid ensemble and chorus in a world class rendition of the complete Messiah at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

Only five years old, the Boca Raton Symphonia played with grace and clear intonation, as well as a good deal of oomph when it was called for, including a thunderous timpani and clarion clear trumpet (more on that later). The Master Chorale of South Florida, in existence for seven years, draws its talent from all three of our local counties. Under Artistic Director Joshua Habermann, they exhibit a mature and refined sound with many textures and a large dynamic range.

And then there were the guest vocal soloists. These kids can sing. And I have to call them kids, because the eldest of them were only 22 -- a very cultured mezzo-soprano, J'nai Bridges, and a striking tenor, Joshua Stuart. But then there was soprano Sarah Shafer, only 20, already with the resume of a 30-something, whose bio mentions that, by the way, she has also appeared as a piano soloist with two regional orchestras. I wonder what she does with all her spare time? And bass Thomas Shivone, with a stronger voice than any 19 year old has any right to possess, who began studying voice at the age of 13. So let's see ... six years, and for how many of them has his voice changed?

With such a cast, Maestro Judd could be counted on to wring every last drop of emotional content from Handel's enduring oratorio -- the Christmas gift that just keeps on giving. A couple of years ago I wrote about listening to a recording of this work, especially the chorus For Unto Us A Child Is Born. But good live performances always beat even the best recordings. There is a texture in the air, a complex of physical vibrations, that is far more subtle and expressive than what comes out of a pair of speakers -- even my very nice set by Bose. And of course seeing the performers, and getting the full resonance of the acoustic space in which they work, add even more.

One thing I noticed about this rendition of "Unto Us" was the way the words were first sung gently, as if to a babe in a cradle (or manger), and then with progressive gusto and emphasis. Naturally, the Halleluiah chorus was equally splendid and jubilant, and audiences can always be excused if they feel the performance could end right there. But Handel had more to say, to complete the story, and the rewards are there for keeping your seat.

"The Trumpet Shall Sound," for example, in which the first trumpet -- in this case, Jeff Kaye -- gets to show what he can do. They had him deliver this solo from the lectern where the lay reader stands during a mass, while the aforementioned bass vocalist, front and center, had to keep up with him and project over him. Talking of textures, you could practically see the brass notes in the air; if they'd been any closer you might have been able to reach up and grab them as they went by, each one perfect and buffed to a high sheen.

The work ends with "Worthy Is The Lamb That Was Slain," and one of the most rousing Amens ever rendered outside of a gospel meeting. I asked my wife on the way home, "How did he get them to hold that last note so long?" She replied that of course they were professionals.

Of course. Don't try this at home, kids. These were professional drivers on a closed course. Just say Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Giving Darwin Away

One of the most important books you never read ...

Talk about strange bedfellows: the Christian Science Monitor reports on the project of an evangelical minister to distribute thousands of copies of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species on college campuses around the country, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the book's first publication.

True, there is some fine print. The minister has put out his own edition, which includes an introduction of his own that refutes the book and admonishes readers to "read the Bible daily and obey what you read." Even so, I think it's a swell idea because it means that some percentage of college students will actually read the whole book who might never have done so otherwise. And I have enough faith in Our Youth to trust them to sort it out for themselves. I've met some of them and would stack their wits up against those of any other generation, be it X, Y or Z, that you would care to name.

But you don't have to wait for someone to walk up and foist one upon you -- why not pick up a copy? Many editions are available, including free digital ones for your ebook reader (visit feedbooks.com). I have a nice little pocket sized hardbound with gilt edged pages put out by Barnes & Noble's Collector's Library, which sells for only $5.95.

With all the furor that continues to surround Darwin's work, you might think that by now everyone must have read it since they have such strong opinions on his ideas. Of course, the opposite is the case. Many of the strongest opinions, both pro and con, are voiced by people who have only heard about those ideas at second hand. And depending on what the source of their information is, they may be seriously misinformed. The book itself languishes unread.

Indeed, most of the fuss is about the origins of human beings, and so complaints should be directed not against Origin, but Darwin's later work, The Descent of Man. But it is true that he was only following to its logical conclusion the theory of evolution by natural selection which he had laid out in the first book. And by then it was obvious to anyone who had understood what he was saying that human beings were part and parcel of the same natural order, and must have arisen from earlier forms of life just as all other species had done.

Curiously, the work had a warmer public reception when it debuted, at least in some circles, than it has now. Boiled down to the misleading summary, "survival of the fittest," it was seen to explain the superiority of European civilization, and to lend the weight of historic inevitability to the colonization and subjugation of the rest of the world. "Man," as humans were known in those simpler and less politically correct times, had emerged on top of the heap of Nature, and white men were destined to be on top of the heap of other races.

Of course this is as much a misinterpretation of Darwin's work as it is to believe it is an affront to God or a justification of atheism. Darwin may have been a bit on the fence as to the role a Creator may have played in all this, but his intention was simply to explore the nature of things as they are, and to learn from that how they may have been in the past. He sought an answer to the question not of who created us, but how it happened. It was an audacious project, especially given that so little was known at the time about the mechanism of heredity. DNA was more than a century in the future, and not even genes had been hypothesized yet.

In his meticulous, almost plodding way, Darwin worked his way from observations of domestic breeding of livestock, to differences between isolated populations of animals, and ended up with the first really plausible explanation for the variety and progressive changes that can be seen everywhere in the world surrounding us.

Maybe the word "plodding" is unkind, but Darwin's carefulness bordered on the compulsive. He labored over Origin for twenty years, during which time Mr. Wallace came up with basically the same idea and almost beat him into print, in which case it would now be known as Wallace's Theory of Evolution. Thanks to the fairness of peer review, it was agreed that the two gentlemen would both present their papers at the same time. Neither of them made much of a stir at first, but once the dust settled Darwin was credited with precedence and by far the most thorough working out of the idea.

After all that, it's amazing to see the author apologizing in his introduction for what he evidently considered to be a sort of first draft or summary of his ideas! "This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. ... No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this."

If the 500 pages that follow are to be considered sketchy, what might his full treatment have amounted to? Something on the scale of the Britannica, I suppose. Anyway, I commend them to your careful attention. After all this time and all that has been learned since, this book still stands as one of the principle landmarks in the history of human consciousness, the time when we first turned to look back from where we came and discerned the first inklings of the tracks we left behind us in the sand.

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
- Charles Darwin, Introduction to The Origin of Species

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another Veterans Day

More memories of a vanished former soldier ...

As I've said before, my thoughts on Veterans Day often turn to my father, who served in World War II. What I'm remembering this year is how little he ever spoke about the war. Like many vets from that era, when he came home he seemed determined to close the door on the ugly past. His intention was to protect his family from the horrors he had seen by keeping them to himself, and his hopes were for a peaceful future where his son would never have to go to war.

I can only imagine the distress he must have felt when the Cold War with the Soviet Union immediately emerged from the ashes of the hot one fought with Germany and Japan. He'd only been home for a few years and had just started a family when the Korean War broke out. For several years he lived with the idea that he might be called back into active service if things got bad enough -- and they seemed to be getting pretty bad.

Then the rest transpired … the H-bomb surpassed the A-bomb by a factor of a thousand … the Rosenbergs were executed for nuclear espionage … Joe McCarthy got everyone looking for Communists … Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles shortened the early warning of nuclear war from hours to minutes … Civil Defense put air-raid sirens everywhere and tested them each Sunday, religiously … bomb testing put radioactive fallout into the air and the milk consumed by a generation of children, even in mothers’ milk … American and Russian tanks faced off in Berlin … the Wall went up … and the whole thing nearly blew up around us when the Russians put nuclear missiles in Cuba, just a few hundred miles from our Miami home, and we found ourselves surrounded by an army preparing to invade the island.

Through it all my Dad never wavered from his conviction that war was a bad idea and had to be put to an end. Each new crisis in current events only stregthened his belief in the senselessness of armed conflict, the idiocy of politicians who relied upon it, the crime that it was to send young men out to kill and be killed. The prospect of nuclear holocost made the whole picture abundantly clear – the history of warfare led inevitable to the final cataclysm that would destroy all of humankind.

The final insult to him was to find yet another war, the one in Vietnam, emerging just in time to lay claim to the life of his only son. So you will understand why he supported me when I claimed exemption from the draft as a conscientious objector. For me, I felt I was only following what he had taught me. When I was a child playing with toy soldiers he had said, “If you want to make them look realistic you should have them all lying in a puddle of blood.” I had heard him reading an anti-war poem to my mother in which he described seeing a tank back up over the head of a soldier who was hiding behind it, crushing it like an egg. And I remembered how the poem ended, with its bitter admonition:

Drape the hallowed bunting on the poor deluded slob’s eternal bed … 
Safe old men, cheer them on, tear in eye, drink in hand.

So Dad wrote me a letter to present to the draft board, along with the ones from my school principal and a minister. He came with me on the day of my hearing, and had to cool his heels in the waiting room until I was done. The board declined to see him or listen to him, and I’m sorry, because when we left he told me through clenched teeth, “I was ready to give them such a piece of my mind.”

I would love to have seen that.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taking the Plunge

A pause that refreshes ...

For some time now my friend Laura Cerwinske has been conducting classes in what she calls Radical Writing. Simply put, it's a technique for using writing to dig into what's up with yourself and to clear up the log jams that most of us experience as getting in our way as we try to navigate down the tumultuous river of life. (Lookout, matey -- thar be rapids up ahead!)

In a former incarnation, these classes were titled "Writing as a Healing Art," which is another good way to describe what happens in them. But lets face it, Radical Writing has more panache. It also captures something about the way you are supposed to launch into your assignments. This is not "creative" writing, or memoir, or even journal writing, though it may have elements of them all. More than anything it is "automatic" writing -- an attempt to let the words flow as uninterrupted as possible from as deep a source as possible, close to the unconscious itself.

This weekend I participated in a two-hour workshop with Laura, my wife, and several other acquaintances and strangers (no, they weren't so strange, only people we hadn't met yet). I thought I might share what came up for me as a way to give an example, so here goes ...

Our first task was to state why we were there:
"My intention for coming here today is to pass the time as pleasantly as possible while delving into some of the scarier parts of my internal nature and sharing them with a combination of intimate friends and complete strangers - an experience no doubt to be be fraught with qualms but which I am quite prepared to plunge into as if taking a dive off the high board - which I did once as a teenager."
At this point Laura pounces on everyone's hot spots and assigns a different task to each one. Mine was to revisit that plunge that I only took ONCE and never again.

"What it was like to look down at the water, so far so far below, and come to the brink and be afraid and do it anyway, the bang of the impact, glad I did but not ever going back for more - so what is the plunge now? not the old ones, the starting of a business, the selling of it, marriage and divorce and marriage again, the change of career - too late? too high? and the plunges yet to be - yet another career, more creations, more disasters, vortexing whirlpooling closer to the last disaster of all that awaits somewhere down the line - to plunge into life as if into death, to commit all, hold nothing back, to be all in the game, to be alive-dead, to be dead-alive, without any hope or dread."
And then a follow up: What if disaster does NOT lurk as a result of my plunge?

"In spite of my fear of rejection I submit my novel and the publisher despite some misgivings agrees to publish it and Oprah loves it as do her millions of viewers and the movie version collects Oscars for the director and cast and I start turning out sequels at the rate of one every 2 or 3 years while the royalties add up and my biggest concern is how to distribute all the money among various charities because my own needs and those of all my family are long since satisfied and I can go to my final rest knowing I have lived the life I was meant to live and given it everything I have and learned all there was to learn and done as much as I possibly could and have no regrets and no apologies to make and know that this is just about the most perfect way for things to be."
Now finally, as a sort of combination graduation exercise and final exam: What I'm feeling now:

"I'm able to breathe - a relaxed feeling in the chest and solar plexus - goes along with a feeling of standing straighter with my feet solidly on the ground, legs extended without slouching or stooping my shoulders, goes along with seeming to see more clearly and attentively - but breathing above all, drinking in the air like cool water, cleansing and life giving, healing, maybe blessing as in holy water, maybe flowing as in streams, cold mountain ones that melt from the glaciers or deep blue ones that melt from the polar ice, a feeling of melting, of thawing, as at the end of a freeze, a relaxing, a seeping into moist earth from which things can grow - and what might sprout, I wonder, what green shoots of dormant things might emerge - everything that has been buried and lost - everything of life that has been dormant and in hiding - out into the clear air - into the lungs and out again - merging with the vapors of the world by inhaling them, waking up from a dream."
Pretty cool, no? And don't worry that I've spilled the beans. If you should take the class (which you can also do online in the comfort of your own room) I guarantee your results will be completely different -- as mine would be if I did it again right now. Hmmm...
"My intention for being here tonight is ..."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Going Electric

It's all about the green ...

If you're a homeowner you can take advantage of a proven technology that will save you money, time, and trouble while at the same time lowering your energy consumption, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the air quality. You might even prevent yourself from going deaf. Interested?

No, you don't have to park your SUV and invest 30K in a hybrid car. All you have to do is dump your humble gas guzzling lawnmower and replace it with an electric one. I did it myself about 3 years ago and I'm here to tell you it works.

The way it happened is, my old lawnmower was giving me problems. I had just spent about $120 having it refitted with a new blade, spark plug, air filter, and oil change. It worked for about a month before it became impossible to start. Then I noticed the metal housing of the whole thing was beginning to rust through and was almost ready to fall apart. So I went shopping for a replacement.

Not finding anything that didn't seem overpriced, I returned from the store with only an electric weed-whacker, which was another tool I needed. I thought I could at least do some trimming while I figured out what to do about the mower. The new machine was light weight and fun to use. I quickly cleaned up all my edges, then paused and considered how much grass was left in the remainder of the front lawn. Hmm ...

Twenty minutes later I had mowed the entire front yard with the weed whacker. My back was a little sore but I'd hardly broken a sweat. That was enough for me. If I could do it with a weed whacker, then a scaled up version with 4 wheels had to be that much easier. For less than $200 -- that's almost $100 less than the price of a Kindle Reader -- I came back with an 18" Black and Decker Lawn Hog electric mulching mower that made short work of the back lawn, and has served me faithfully now for 3 South Florida lawn mowing seasons.

Trust me, there is nothing wrong with this idea. Let's take the usual objections one at a time:

  • The extension cords are a hassle*. Not really. I have two 50-foot cords that I plug together, and two exterior outlets to choose from. All you need is enough wire to reach the farthest corner of your lot. Uncoiling them and wrapping them up again at the beginning and end of the job takes about 2 minutes and is less work than yanking a rope trying to get a gas engine going when it's not in the mood.
  • You get tangled up in the cords. Not if you give it any thought. The only concession I had to make was the time honored pattern of mowing from the outside of a square to the center. Of course if you insist on that you will get tangled up. The thing to do instead is to start from where the cord plugs in and work your way back and forth away from it so the cord just unfurls as you go.
  • Electric motors aren't powerful enough. Baloney. I don't know how a 12 amp motor converts to horsepower, but I know that my gas mower used to stall if I plowed it into a clump of tall weeds. The electric has never done that. It slows but does not stall and has cut down everything I have asked it to.
  • An electric mower won't last. We'll see. Three years and counting. My gas mower gave up after less than 10. One thing I do know is that I will never spend time and money on oil changes, tuneups, or trips to the gas station to fill my 2-gallon can.
  • Your electric bill will go up. Can't say I've noticed anything there. If you think about it, buying 2 gallons of gas every few months is not a noticeable expense either, so why should electricity be any different? I trust the electric company to use its fuel more efficiently than the noisy, polluting engines that they slap on mowers.
And then there are the pluses of going electric:

  • Maintenance-free, or very nearly. I suppose I may need a new blade someday.
  • Quieter - more like a vaccuum cleaner than a mower.
  • Light weight - again, more like a vaccuum cleaner. Even gas mowers that drive themselves are beasts to wrestle around corners, or to lift into the back of your car when you take them to the repair shop.
  • No fumes - remember you're not the only one who has to breath that exhaust.
  • Safety - my gas mower caught on fire once when dry grass clippings were ignited by the hot engine. Remember, it has a gas tank on it, too. Whoops! Another time I splashed gasoline into my eyes when the filler hose came out of the gas tank while I was pouring. Those things are dangerous!
There are some amusing estimates of how many miles per gallon a gas lawnmower gets. This one, for example, concludes: "If you mow for 1 hour and your mower uses say 1/2 gallon ... then in 2 hours you would have walked 8 miles and used 1 gallon. So your MPG is 8 gallons to the mile!" In my case my yard is much too small to walk 8 miles in. I would say maybe 1 to 2 miles max, especially because I walk so slowly while pushing a mower. That gives me between 32 and 64 gallons per mile -- yikes! [Note: this math is backwards, see comments below.]

But mpg is not everything. This article delves into the pollution caused by gas lawnmowers and their noisy brethren -- leaf blowers, chain saws, and trimmers. They say that every week 54 million of us mow our lawns, so you have to multiply what you do by a very large number. 20 million small engines are sold each year, which is another measure of the scale of the problem, as well as how many old ones must be disposed of each year. Altogether they contribute a whopping 10% of our annual production of hydrocarbons.

Convinced? Please, give it a try the next time your mower causes you grief. I promise you won't be sorry, and you'll feel good about yourself, too.

[*You can also get electric mowers that run on rechargeable batteries, but I don't recommend it. They are more expensive, much heavier, lower powered, and have higher maintenance costs because of replacing the battery. Engineers tell me AC motors that run on wall current are always more powerful and longer lasting than DC motors that run on batteries. Let's let them do the math and take their word for it.]

Friday, October 09, 2009

Atoms of Empire

Judging a book not by its cover but by the author's name ...

While browsing on one of my favorite sources for online books, Feedbooks.com, I stumbled across an obscure work called Atoms of Empire. The title caught my eye first, but what really hooked me was the name of the author: Charles John Cutliffe Wright Hyne. How's that for a mouthful? And what an epitome of Victorian respectability it captures in its ringing tones. That settled it. I had to see what Mr. C.J.C.W. Hyne had written.

The concept behind the title is that each individual is an indivisible atomic unit of the society as a whole. Specifically, in whatever far flung reaches of the globe they might find themselves, the intrepid subjects of the Crown were each a representative microcosm of the British Empire. Keep in mind that the work dates from the late 1890's when Victoria was still "Queen of England and Empress of India."

What follows in this collection of short fiction is a marvelous variety of period pieces ranging from droll plots hinging on matrimony to Indiana Jones-style adventures that stretch credulity to the breaking point.

In the opening story a priggish newcomer to an African colony decides to march into the jungle to impose law and order on the cannibal king, armed only with an umbrella. Having made himself universally unpopular, no one sees fit to prevent him from sallying forth to meet his fate.

Elsewhere various adventurers find themselves in the wilds of American swamps, falling victim to brazen train robberies, and fighting a cholera epidemic aboard ship. Then, on the fantastical side, we find out what lurks in an unexplored cave in the heart of the British Isles, and interview a mummy on the floor of an Egyptologist's study. Often the denouement of the story involves an encounter between two of the characters back home in Piccadilly or in the snug confines of their gentlemen's club.

What's enjoyable about these yarns is not just their dry wit but their unselfconscious belief in the triumph of pluck and daring-do. It's like watching old Hollywood movies where the writers, directors, and actors had absolutely no qualms about good triumphing over evil and America vanquishing fascism.

But more than just escape fiction, these stories have acquired a layer of historical interest for what they reveal about the attitudes of their intended readers. Racism, for example, is portrayed in a matter of fact way that has long since (thankfully) ceased being politically correct. Still, there is something refreshing about the use of the word "nigger" by someone who intended no insult by it. Now we are stuck with using the infantile phrase, "the N-word." That's progress for you.

There is precious little biographical information to be found about Hyne online, but in his day (1866-1944) he was a prolific popular novelist who cranked out a whopping 46 volumes during his career. There are a few others available on Feedbooks, including The Lost Continent, and still others thanks to the efforts of Google Books (check on Barnes and Noble), including the likes of Kate Meredith, Financier.

So if Atoms whets your appetite there is plenty to feast upon.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Enough Crime Fiction Already

How many ways are there to end up dead?

Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy a good detective story as much as anyone. And the genre's prolific practitioners, from Edgar Allan Poe to Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson and many more, have left us some wonderful works. But it seems to me we may have exhausted the possibilities of inventing new and ever more bizarre ways for people to be murdered. I don't doubt we can keep it up, but I question whether the exercise is worthwhile. It may even be destructive.

This doesn't tarnish my admiration for the likes of Chandler. For example, one of the many times that his hero, Phillip Marlowe, wakes up after being knocked unconscious, what does he see? A beautiful woman of course. And what does he say when describing her? "A glass of beer stood tall and amber at her side."

Is that great writing, or what? It's a line that sings, a piece of iambic poetry that jumps off the page while bringing the woman into focus. She's elegant because she sips her beer from a tall glass. At the other end of the literary scale, Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled Mike Hammer would have said, "she had a beer next to her." Not the same thing at all.

But that's Chandler for you. He had a way of giving you the whole person or place with just a pair of details. So he calls forth an entire room by focussing on the single yellow rose in a vase atop the grand piano. Or the life of a gin-soaked old woman by noticing the dead fly trapped behind her window screen. It's a kind of writing with images that must even survive translation.

Unfortunately few of those who followed after have equaled Chandler in poetry or matched his chivalric sense of bringing order to the chaos of the unlawful. The public demand for more has called forth an endless stream of imitators, many of whom must qualify only as lesser talents. But if they can't write they can still dream up endless new variations on the demented criminal mind, with loads of ingenious ways for them to torture and kill their victims.

I confess I fell into this trap myself some years ago. Combining my fondness for Marlowe with an interest in Miami history, I invented a detective of my own named Jonathan Spare who came down here from New York in the 1930's on a manhunt and stayed. My original idea was to do something different with the genre. There was to be no murder, only a haunting kind of search in which the watcher found himself being watched.

But when I arrived at the end of the novel I was dismayed to find that three people were dead, and my hero had killed two of them himself. What happened? Two things, I think.

First, the genre makes demands of its own. When I was about two-thirds of the way through and trying to figure out how it should end, I realized my hero had to confront the evil he had uncovered. If he didn't, it just wouldn't be a story. And confronting it seemed to require doing battle with it, and since good must triumph the evil ones had to perish. Well, they had it coming, after all. And my hero had to be transformed by all this.

The second thing is that I fear the contemplation of these evil deeds must have an effect on the author. We have to imagine what we write to the point of living it. Whatever our characters are up to we have to be there with them and see it through their eyes. One wonders how Jim Thompson, for example, was able to live with himself after spending so much time closeted in the dark and cramped minds of his demonic, obsessive characters.

It reminds me of a story by Jorge Luis Borges where a wealthy man gives a big party. In his basement he has a museum of weapons that he has collected, and one of his prize pieces is the actual knife that was used in a notorious murder. Later, two inebriated guests go down to look at it and end up having an argument. You guessed it: one of them dies. The knife has struck again.

So too with the "mystery" novel. Nowadays there is less mystery in it, but ever more graphic and depraved violence. The audience demands it. The publishers demand it. The movies demand it. The characters and plot demand it. What's a poor writer to do?

In spite of all this, it is not impossible to transcend these demands and to create something truly marvelous. Look what Graham Greene did in The Third Man, where a man searching for his missing and presumed dead friend finds him very much alive, but having caused the deaths of untold numbers of innocent people by blackmarketing worthless medicines. Or his earlier Brighton Rock, in which an average woman rises to heroic stature as she makes it her business to bring a couple of thugs to justice.

More recently Denis Johnson's Resuscitation of a Hanged Man accomplished something like what I had in mind -- his hero, only a part-time detective, seems to end up hunting for himself in a wonderfully detailed and dreamlike archetypal fantasy.

I had an epiphany about all this one year at the Miami Book Fair when I attended a session called "Crime, Real and Imagined." The panel included two crime novelists, one of them a woman new to the field, the other a former NYPD officer. With them was Arthur Jay Harris, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel, who had just published Until Proven Innocent, an account of a real Broward County murder and the police detective who showed that the prime suspect was innocent of the crime.

What struck me about this presentation was the contrast between the ways murder was represented. In the fictional accounts the violence was exciting, and the tension leading up to it was titillating, almost sexual in intensity. The factual book began with the first visit to the crime scene, an ordinary house drenched in blood, and the understandable horror that comes over anyone who has to see such things.

I realized that only the real-life (or real-death) account elicited the normal reaction of disgust and revulsion that most of us have when we actually encounter violent acts. The fictional stories were just playing with the idea. There was no reality behind them, so they had to make up for that with senseless excesses.

That was the day I gave up on my fictional hero. Somewhere in his alternate reality he is free now to go his own way, to choose another profession, one that will not call upon him to become as evil as those he has to pursue. He won't have to go through all those other things I had planned for him in sequels. No hunting for fascists during World War II, no encounters with KKK racists, no agent provocateurs during the McCarthy communist witch hunts.

Maybe he'll sell real estate. That used to be a good business in Miami. He can buy a house himself, settle down, maybe get married and have a kid. He can have a life. And the rest of us can get on with ours.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Voice of the Oracle

Daring to listen to those who are ignored ...

On the first day I passed her at the bus bench in front of the South Miami City Hall: a small, middle-aged woman just beginning to turn elderly, with the usual collection of shopping and garbage bags filled with all her worldly possessions. The sort of person we have all become accustomed to turning away from and ignoring lest they accost us for money.

But she was impossible to ignore, because she was in the middle of a tirade against the world. As I came closer she turned a withering gaze at me, lips curled in a snarl as her teeth bit out these words:

"I never broke the law, and that's more than I can say for you, Jack!"

I acknowledged her with a nod as I went on by, meaning only that I had heard her words and accepted them. She was probably right about never breaking the law. Except that now, having been forced into her current circumstances by who knows what convolutions of fate, economic violence, and lack of social concern, her condition itself has been declared illegal. We live in a country where one is not assured of a home but not allowed to be without one, the ultimate of all Catch-22 paradoxes.

Kurt Vonnegut described it this way in one of his novels (paraphrasing): The way it works is, gravity causes everyone to have to stick to the planet, but some people own all the places there are to stick to, so everyone else has to pay them for the privilege.

So I believed her that she was innocent, and when I reflected on it I knew she was right about me as well. Oh yes, it is true that I have broken the law. No matter now that the infractions were minor, or that I never got caught, or that I'm sorry and would not do it again, or that enough years have passed for the statute of limitations to have expired several times over. Time doesn't change the fact.

On the second day I passed her in the same spot on the same bench, but totally transformed. Now meek as a kitten she came up to me and with sorrowful eyes said simply, "Do you have anything to spare so I could get something to eat?"

"I have something," I said, and gave her most of the change from my left pocket (preserving my dollar coins for the morning commute in the other one because, hey -- I have to look out for myself too).

Guilty? No, not really. I gave, and having given moved on. My drop in the bucket would take her as far as it could, and someone else would have to take over from there. That's how we do it, such as it is. And she's right about one more thing: we owe it to her.

On the third day she was gone.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Creating from the Silence

You can't make this stuff up ...

The idea that human acts of creation are divinely inspired is an ancient one. We only have to consider that the Classical Greeks had a staff of nine muses to preside over the various arts – and this must have been a formulation of a belief that was already ancient two thousand years ago.

Today we tend to admire the creative powers of the artist rather than to consider the source of what he or she creates. Yet where the creative impulse springs from, the source of inspiration, remains mysterious. To attribute it to such modern generalities as “the unconscious” is only to apply a new term for the muse. My suggestion is that we consider it to come from the same source as messages in Quaker meetings, and to think of it as "creating from the silence." For me, as a part-time writer and poet, this not only serves to improve my understanding of the process but to nurture and cultivate it as well.

Interestingly, the dictionary has a lot more to say about “inspiration” than it does about “creation.” The latter is simply the making, the craft of the art; the former speaks to its source. To inspire is "to have an animating effect upon; to cause, guide, communicate or motivate as by divine or supernatural influence.” [Webster's New World.] Specifically in theology, it means “a divine influence upon human beings, as that resulting in the writing of the Scriptures.” If we believe in continuing revelation, then this process must have been at work in other writings as well -- pehaps even most of them.

People who may have no interest in spiritual works may find a comparable resource in all forms of artistic expression, just as most of us find satisfaction in admiring a beautiful sunset or an astounding mountain range. Before composing his famous Choral Symphony using Schiller's “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven penned an earlier work, the Choral Fantasy, in which the “divine spark of the gods” was substituted by “the gifts of high art.” Clearly for Beethoven inspiration came from the realm of the divine, and art was a bridge leading us back to the source.

There is one other connotation of inspiration: “to arouse or produce a thought or feeling; to affect with a specified feeling or thought.” What's of interest here is that, having been so affected, the artist proceeds to arrange words or paint or musical notes in such a way as to affect others the same way. There is certainly an analogy to be drawn with the giving of a message in meeting. I would suggest the message is more fully received in the act of sharing it with others, just as music is better when performed than if it were only heard in the mind of the composer. A similar creative impulse is at work in both cases, and they both improve with communication.

In using poetry as an illustration of this idea, I like to use a piece by Billy Collins, our former Poet Laureate, titled “Introduction to Poetry,” from his collection The Apple That Astonished Paris. (Go ahead and read it, then please come back.)

Besides being wonderfully funny, this poem manages to give several examples of how poetry works its magic – by drawing comparisons between things that do not normally seem to resemble each other – while contrasting it with the kind of plodding, rational analysis that not only misses the point, but extinguishes the life of the poem. 

[There is certainly “art” made in this way, and one of the kinder things said about it is that it is “uninspired.” We only have to consider the torrent of popular novels and soap operas and situation comedies, not to mention the forgettable Broadway musicals, that occupy our time without nourishing our spirits.]

What do a mouse and a light switch have to do with poetry? How is reading a poem like water skiing? These are not the first ideas that would occur to most of us, yet even on a first reading his wonderful analogies stimulate us into a deeper understanding of what poetry is, why we like it, and how to listen to it better. But where did Collins come up with these ideas? How did he decide that this was the best way to say what he wanted to say about poetry? Certainly it was not an entirely rational process done with compass and protractor on a sheet of graph paper. Rather, the images and substance of the poem must have emerged from a place of quiet contemplation, and they may have leapt instantly into being, regardless of how long he later refined them into their final form.

Someone said (I have not been able to locate the source) “When I know what I want to say, I write an essay; when I don't know what I want to say, I write a poem.” In other words, the poetic process is a search for meaning, not a report on one. This process cannot be rushed, and resists direction. Robert Frost said, “Asking a poet to write a poem on a certain subject is like asking a woman, eight months pregnant, to give birth to a red-headed girl.”

Another saying goes, “The problem with being a poet is figuring out what to do with the other 23 hours in the day.” Those hours may be filled with many things, including a search for the quiet place where creation can happen. This may not be the usual hour of sitting in silence in a Friends meeting, just as not all artists are Quakers. Rather, it may be only a momentary sinking into reflection, even in the midst of activity.

Here's another example from my own work:

Star Gazer

Looking at the night sky through glasses
I begin to be bothered by the rim around my vision
so take them off -- there, so much better,
my eyes not so bad after all, a bit fuzzy maybe

but still there’s a rim around my vision:
the sockets of my eyes, the ridge of brow,
both sides of my nose displaced to left and right
in binocular transparent apparition,

so take off my face and it’s better yet,
but still that dark behind where I can’t see
so remove the back of my skull, and
while I’m at it, the eyes.

There. Perfect.

I don't know how many times before I had noticed that I could see parts of my own face -- like the sides of my nose and the sockets of my eyes -- as if I were peering out from the mouth of a cave. Probably the first time was when I was a child, dozens of years before the poem happened. But somehow, in the midst of this particular evening, it suddenly meant something, it “spoke” to me. The ideas that the face could be removed, and that vision is somehow enhanced by the lack of eyes, simply occurred to me, and seemed to express a desire to witness and encompass the whole universe with nothing in the way. And, too, that looking out and looking in are much the same. I didn't go to the beach with anything to say. I didn't go there looking for a poem, but I came back with one.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings saw dew drops on morning leaves. Countless times, people must have noticed that things looked “funny” under the drops, before someone in the Netherlands realized that things were being magnified, and discovered the microscope. 

It must be that all of us are receiving messages and inspirations on a regular basis, though we may be too busy most of the time to notice, or to do anything about it. All we can do is nurture the process, by quieting down and paying attention. Then maybe we can learn to do what feels like taking dictation, and to speak and share those “gifts of high art” as they emerge from the silence.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bird Brains

New respect for small minds ...

Long ago a particular bird impressed the heck out of me. I was sitting by a pond in a local park (Fuchs Park, to be precise) when this small winged creature hopped down to the water's edge to feed.

My friends who are bird fanciers will have to forgive me for not knowing its species. It was shiny and black or dark brown, that's the best I can do. The main thing is, it was not a water bird, one of those long-legged varieties that wade around looking for critters to scoop up in their long pointed or shovel-shaped beaks. No, this was a normal tree-dwelling type of bird, with a short beak built for pecking. I would have expected it to be searching the lawn for insects and worms.

Instead it amazed me by peering into the water, then quickly darting its head under and emerging with an aquatic snail. Placing it down on a rock, it held the shell with one foot while extracting the escargot with its beak. This bird was a gourmet! I marveled over its ingenuity. How had it learned to do this? When did the first of its kind learn that there was food in the water? Was the behavior taught, invented, or instinctual?

Recently far more advanced examples of avian intelligence have been documented. This BBC news item shows a rook smart enough to drop pebbles into a glass tube in order to raise the water level so it could reach the snack inside. (The story is told in one of Aesop's fables, which we now see may have been based on fact instead of fantasy.) I thought this problem-solving ability was impressive when I saw a chimpanzee do it, but a bird? How is it possible to pack so much intelligence into a brain the size of a pea?

Maybe we need to rethink the whole idea of how unique our intellectual capabilities are. True, Aristotle took the bird's accomplishment a step further when, noticing how his body displaced the bath water, he came up with the concept of mass and how to measure it. And building on such insights, look how far we've come.

But seeing these examples of the innate intelligence of some of the smallest creatures, we need to admit to a greater and more widespread intelligence at large in the world, the same one from which we, like the birds, have been born.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Magic Words

When language itself becomes a tool ...

The human belief in magical powers has probably included the power of words dating back to the earliest beginnings of language. It's widely present in mythology and fable, and continues with us today in contemporary myths like the Dungeons and Dragons game and the Harry Potter saga. Who wouldn't like to be able to say "shazam" or "abracadabra" and have things happen?

Language may not have been our first tool, but it quickly became the most powerful of them through its ability to encode knowledge and pass it along to others, even across generations. Each time we enhanced it, the power of language increased dramatically. We invented writing to supplement our power to remember, then printing to increase the availability of written documents, and lately what we might call "indexing" -- the addition of powerful search algorithms to make information radically more accessible.

Information that used to be arcane because it was buried in a single library somewhere is increasingly widespread and publicly available. My first experience of this was back in the early years of the Internet. I was running a digital printing business at the time and wanted information about scanning images -- recommendations for color depth, dots per inch, and how to scale them.

It was one of the first things I ever used a search engine for, and even though there was no Google yet (I was probably using Yahoo or AltaVista) within five minutes I was reading a masters thesis on the subject which had been made available by a distant university. The document answered all my questions and then some, complete with illustrations, charts, and graphs. I was truly impressed.

Such incidents are now so commonplace that we not only expect them but take them for granted. Why shouldn't things be this way? Of course, all we should have to do is know what question to ask, and the answers will be available -- all 2,417,673 of them.

Behind the scenes of this modern miracle is the global network of computers and software that are doing the job for us. And the real secret of their power is the use of language to communicate with them -- both for programming and for getting comprehensible output from them.

This came home to me again recently as I was honing my skills as a website designer. Mostly this involved facility with various computer languages -- HTML/XHTML for page content, CSS for page styles, and both Javascript and PHP for working with special effects, databases, forms, and "dynamic" pages created on the fly in response to user input.

The most satisfying part of this job is that the words you write actually DO something. They are the abracadabras of the computer age. And even though computers are notoriously intolerant of tiny typos like incorrect capitalization or missing semicolons, they are absolutely obedient to correct syntax. (And really, wouldn't it be better if we humans could be relied upon to require clear instructions and then to do exactly what we have agreed to do?)

In the spirit of the new age, this mastery of the machine is not limited to those who can do the programming. Anyone who wants it can access the same search engines. Anyone who wants one can have an email account. The computers are standing by to do our bidding.

So next time you send a message to a bunch of your friends, just say, "Shazam!" and see what happens.

Monday, August 03, 2009

We Shall Overcome

"When I use a word, it means what I want it to mean."
- Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland.

So Pete Seeger is 90. This achievement was celebrated in a big star-studded bash at Madison Square Garden recently, honoring a lifetime of service to the causes of public good. Seems as if he's been an old man for my whole life. The year I turned 15 and discovered folk music Pete was already 43, older than my parents, and that seemed plenty old at the time. Now I'm a grandpa myself and he's still old enough to be looked up to.

My first years in college coincided with Pete's short-lived TV show called "Rainbow Quest." Of his many guests I especially remember the delightful Malvina Reynolds who gave us "Little Boxes" (made of ticky-tacky), and guitar wizard Leo Kottke, who demonstrated how beat up his instrument was by knocking his cigarette ashes into the hole in its scarred top.

By that time Pete was already a veteran of the Depression era, the struggles for unionization, racial equality and nuclear disarmament, and the blacklisting of the McCarthy period. Always a survivor, he somehow managed to emerge from it all unscathed and undaunted -- in the words of Bruce Springsteen, he "outlasted the bastards."

One thing that struck me in Seeger's recent interviews was that he didn't care for the fuss being made over him because, "I don't like big things." How to reconcile that with a lifetime of involvement with big social issues? I found an answer in the footage of him wandering through the crowd at an outdoor concert, his face lighting up with delighted attention to anyone who wanted to speak with him. This has been his magic, to take the personal relationship to the scale of a mass movement, recognizing that all meaningful human contact is always one-to-one. His songs speak to us individually, but appeal to what is universal in us, challenging us to do the same in our relations with one another.

The highest measure of success for song writers is not how many albums they sell but how many other people perform their songs. By now Pete's list of indelible tunes has imprinted itself on our collective consciousness to a degree that insures they will be with us for a long while. And each time the words are taken up by a new voice, the sentiments they embody spring into action once more, reaching new ears and new minds, addressing the age old problems in yet another incarnation.

Take "If I Had a Hammer," for example, which Seeger wrote along with Lee Hays of The Weavers. In the early Sixties, while Seeger himself was still banned from television, the tune was taken to a mass audience by Peter, Paul and Mary, who delivered it into millions of living rooms "live" on the Smothers Brothers show -- and nailed it, I might add. Thus the lyrics spoke on behalf of the one who was not allowed to speak. A message of empowerment spread across the land, encouraging anyone who would listen to pick up that hammer, ring that bell, and take up the chorus of social change.

And who else would have thought that you could clean up a river by building a boat and writing a song? Only Pete could have brought to bear the implacable confidence that if we would only stop filling it with refuse the waters of the Hudson would soon run clear once more. And what a parable that is for the many perils and evils that we still have to overcome.

Did I say "overcome?" Of course that brings us to the most famous song that Pete did not write, the gospel tune which he published back in 1949 and helped to foster into what became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. This song has a long history with many participants, but Pete's biggest contribution, aside from the verses he added, was his revision of a single word from will to shall. He claims this was simply because "it sang better," and that feels like it is so. But I would argue that it served another function as well.

Grammatically, when using the first person we are supposed to use shall normally, and will to indicate a higher degree of intention or determination. The fact that this is opposite to the usage for the second or third person has helped to make it so confusing that shall is falling out of use altogether, especially in the common language of the folk who are theoretically responsible for folk songs. The result, I think, is that in common speech shall, whenever it is used, indicates emphasis, grammatically correct or not. In America, especially, we have the words of Abraham Lincoln lurking in the backs of our minds, promising that this government of the people "shall not perish from the earth," and that is a use of the intentional that has left its impression on us.

[A similar phenomenon happened among Quakers, whose use of "thee" and "thou" dates back to when these commonly used terms were simply the familiar forms of "you." They made a point of using them because they did not want to confer undue respect toward any individual by the use of the formal "you." Well, the language has changed since then. Thee and thou have disappeared from English altogether, with the notable exception of addressing God in scriptures or formal prayers. Thus the formerly familiar terms have come to indicate a respect, not to say awe, for the Deity. Any Quakers who persist in the old usage are considered quaint. And though they could argue that they are only showing proper respect for "that of God in everyone," that was not the original intention. In reality, most contemporary Quakers have adopted the current usage of "you" along with everyone else, because plain speech was the goal of this exercise.]
So my argument is that in current usage Seeger's substitution of the word shall gave an added emphasis of intention, just as it would if addressing a crowd in the third person. In any case the singing of the tune certainly enhanced the intentions of a generation of activists for peace and social justice, and even took root in soil as far afield as Czechoslovakia in the peaceful revolution of 1989.

Since Pete came of age with the arrival of Marshall McCluhan's "global village," it is not unusual that this wandering troubadour has reached far more people than he would have been able to do in the past, no matter how much travelling he might have done. Many who have been touched by his spirit have only done so through a recording or an image on TV. I've only seen him once in person at a concert he gave with Arlo Guthrie in Miami Beach some years ago. But that one close encounter was enough to last a lifetime.

And you know, Miami audiences are not known for their willingness to sing along. But we sang that night, because Pete asked us to, and because he made us feel like singing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tales of Space and Time

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." - Niels Bohr

H.G. Wells, author of The Time Machine, Things to Come, and a number of other imaginative novels, also left us a body of shorter works. Some of these are available in a collection called Tales of Space and Time which you can download from Feedbooks.

The first piece in this collection, "The Crystal Egg," was dramatized in a 2001 British TV series titled, "The Infinite Worlds of H.G. Wells" (available from Netflix). It begins in that staple of English fiction, the old curiosity shop, where the proprietor experiments with the peculiar visionary properties of an item on his shelves. Wells' original version is a good yarn, but I confess I like the twist given to it by the TV writers. (In making a series of it, they cast H.G. himself as the protagonist investigating such things as time travel and mysterious teleportations.)

In "The Star," Wells abandons any pretense of telling a story and simply gives us a compelling account of what it might be like for our solar system to suffer a near encounter with a large, bright, hot, and gravitationally powerful interloper. The material could have been delivered as an essay, but by presenting it as a historical account by an omniscient observer, and by weaving in many glimpses from the point of view of common people, the vision becomes much more powerful.

Wells next visits the distant past and the not so distant future. His tale of the primitive man who invented the first ax foreshadows later works such as The Clan of the Cave Bear and William Golding's The Inheritors, while also harking back to Kipling's The Jungle Book with its talking animals. Even though the science behind it is no longer up to date, Wells' vision of it still rings true, as if he was able to imagine his way back to those earlier times. Oh -- and of course the inventor of the ax lived in primordial England.

The future seems to have caused Wells more trouble, for even though he only ventured ahead by 200 years many of his ideas are still hopelessly antiquated. Single young women, for example, still have chaperons, and hypnotism is the state of the art in mental health care. Women still wear fancy hats attached with hat-pins, and marketers are selling "digestive pills." His vaguely depicted flying machines have huge "sails" on them, with people hanging below in "swinging seats." (And you thought you were afraid to fly in a plane!) He accurately extrapolated the movement of the population into the big cities, but failed to see that the same mobility could result in the sprawl of suburbia.

Despite all this, Wells gets one thing right in an uncanny way. His hero and heroine are star-crossed lovers from different classes (and don't tell me that's an anacronism) who develop an antipathy for the status quo that is eerily reminiscent of the counterculture of the 1960's. They leave the city to try living in an abandoned town in the country (back to the land!), and when that doesn't work out they end up doing manual labor in the underbelly of society where everyone wears "blue canvas" clothing (jeans?). They even have their own ideas about child rearing that sets them at odds with the system of public "creches" where the infants of the future are raised. This foreshadows the darker vision of Huxley's Brave New World, in which the hero also left society to try living in the wilds of South America where it was still possible to be free.

As I've mentioned before (here and here), those who would foretell the future are taking a big risk, and science fiction writers are among the most daring of the lot. As Paul Valery said, "... the future is not what it used to be." Things are changing so rapidly that yesterday's future resembles yesterday more than today, and much more than tomorrow. Just consider some past images of the future on display at Paleofuture.com ("a look into the future that never was").

But we have to give the venerable Wells his due. Like Jule Verne, Jonathan Swift, and others who went before, by boldly imagining what had never been imagined he helped to create the space of possibility in which the future, come what may, is still unfolding.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Long Live Big Brother!

1984 becomes the first unbook, but probably won't be the last ...

What a coincidence -- no sooner was the digital ink dry on my recent blog about the 25th anniversary of 1984 than Orwell's notorious novel made news again by disappearing from Amazon's Kindle readers everywhere. This must mean it's time to reflect once more about the issue of copyright and rights management in the digital era.

Apparently Amazon was notified by the legitimate copyright owners that their digital editions of 1984 and also Animal Farm had been obtained from an illegitimate third party source, so they were obliged to stop distributing them. What makes the story bizarre, and should put consumers on alert, is that Amazon went way beyond what was required of them and decided to use their "Whispernet" back door into all Kindles everywhere to recall (i.e., delete) all the copies that had been downloaded previously.

Customers received refunds, but were not even told that their books were now vanished as if they had never been. They had become "unbooks."

Now, as everyone should remember, Winston Smith, the diligent worker bee of Orwell's imaginary world, toiled away at his desk in the Ministry of Truth carefully excising past references to news that had been revised and people who had been done away with: "unpersons." He did this by pasting brown paper over their pictures in old newspapers, and by redacting the text until it resembled a passage of testimony on the Iran-Contra affair. The operative government slogan was: Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.

But just when we thought we were safe because things have worked out differently, along comes this new digital technique capable of instantly removing all references to any digital content. The battle is not lost yet, because regardless of Amazon's deletions there are still lots of hard copies of Orwell out in the world, and perhaps some legitimate digital copies as well -- maybe even a fugitive one living on a Kindle somewhere, saved only because it is in some remote area of the planet where Whispernet cannot reach. But the example shows what is possible and should give us cause for concern.

With the immanent demise of the print editions of all newspapers, we will soon get used to the idea that our sole source for information is the digital archives of the Internet. And alas, the memory of online sources is brief and subject to loss and revision. Under a regime with the will to do so (let's pick China as an example), the nerve-nexuses of the Internet can be constricted, spying software can be installed on your computer by law, and what you can and cannot access can become very much a matter of centralized control.

And never mind deleting books or articles -- how about just revising them, perhaps while they are still being read? Remember that election last year where our editor lambasted the other party's candidate? Well, as you can see, you are mistaken, because he was clearly backing the winner from the start. Remember the famous photo of the young man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Well, your memory must be playing tricks on you, because you can search all day and you will never again find a copy of that photo.

Our defense against this potential tyranny is still vigilance, as always. The battle of information flow between the top-down central authority model and the bottom-up grass roots model gives hope that there is at least an alternative. But we also need to start choosing our battles while we can still win them. Digital Rights Management, or DRM, is still a winnable debate.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has stripped us of some basic rights that we used to take for granted when we bought a book or record. We need to make up our minds to resist. We can do it economically, by boycotting publishers and distributors who engage in practices we don't approve of, or politically, by demanding legislative change, or in courts, where organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation are standing up on our behalf. (Check out their take on this issue here.)

One commentator on the irony of this fate befalling 1984 observed that it might have been even more ironic if it had happened to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, about a society that had burned all its books. But there is probably small chance of that happening as long as the publishers need to have something to sell us. Rights management is really about having a way to sell us the same thing multiple times, the way we are expected to pay every time we watch a movie.

I'm much more concerned about the possibility that the next time I read it there will be something funny about the ending of 1984. Winston Smith, bright and shiny after graduating from the rehab program in the basement of The Ministry of Love, joins the Anti-Sex league with his pal Julia. They move into a plush new apartment suitable for Inner Party members and live happily ever after. Winston can't imagine what ever got into him to question things the way he did. But that's all in the past now, where it can be safely ... revised.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Death of a Pioneer

Gosh, Grandpa -- what was it like before the Internet?

Way back at the dawn of time, around 1982, I stared at a dark screen with some green text on it and listened to the squawking of the first modem I ever used as it dialed up a connection to a distant host.

I had attached this beast with a fat 25-pin cable, installed a terminal program that came on a 5-inch floppy disk, and followed the instructions for configuring my serial port using settings like "COM1" and "8,N,E," which meant 8 data bits, No stop bit, Even parity. Without this, PC-DOS would have been unable to get the modem to do anything, or the terminal program would have spewed gibberish across my screen.

Breathless seconds passed. Then I was greeted by a "CONNECTED" message and a prompt for my user name and password. I was in! But what was I into, you may ask. Not the Internet, which, under the name of ARPANET, was still in its infancy and had not been allowed out of the nursery of the DOD and a collection of universities and defense contractors. And not the World Wide Web*, which had not been invented yet. No, it was none other than Compuserve, that grand-daddy of online life. And if you want to click that link you'd better do it soon, because this pioneer of cyberspace is about to become history, the victim of the same fast-paced rat-race of innovation that it helped to bring into being.

About all I ever did with Compuserve was to read the news, and that was mostly for the novelty of it. At a speed of 300 baud I could actually read the text faster than it scrolled onto my screen. In modern parlance, by the time I had downloaded it I was already through with it and on to the next story. Sure, it was clunky, but the idea that I could get the news as fast as the Associated Press could send it out was a real novelty and clearly a sign of things to come. This was still the era of the daily newspaper and the weekly news magazine, which we now see are becoming obsolete because they can never report anything but old news, which by definition is not "new."

Compuserve offered email if I wanted it, but I didn't know anyone else who had an email account so I never sent any. And why would anyone want to correspond with someone they didn't know? I had heard about "bulletin board" services but could not see the purpose of one. That was a light bulb that took some time to turn on.

I didn't use Compuserve very often or for very long. At the rate of $6 per hour it didn't take much to rack up a substantial bill. If you wanted higher speed you could pay for the premium 1200 baud service -- 4 times faster. But that cost $12 per hour and required a modem that cost hundreds of dollars extra, so for most of us it was not a realistic option. Later modem speeds increased rapidly from 1200 baud to 2400 ... 4800 ... 9600 ... 14k ... 28k ... finally maxing out at 56k just before DSL technology made them obsolete. (Apologies to those who still rely on them out of choice or lack thereof.)

And of course the rest is history. Within 10 years Sir Tim Berners-Lee had come up with the paradigm of hypertext and server addressing that made web pages and the World Wide Web a reality. I can still remember reviews of some early web sites that complimented them on their use of images to present a nice appearance. Wouldn't Web 2.0 with full video and sound have blown our minds back then? Another 10 years was long enough for the whole dot-com boom and bust to happen. Whoosh.

Lost in the shuffle was poor old Compuserve. Bought out by AOL--which became part of Time-Warner and itself struggles to survive in the face of losing its dialup access revenue--Compuserve ended up in a dwindling niche as just another web portal looking for customers. And now AOL has decided to pull the plug on it.

But like every good ending, it is really only the end of the beginning.

* Note: Though they are now used synonymously, the Internet and the World Wide Web (all those www's) are actually different things. The Internet is the infrastructure that allows servers, client computers, and networks to interconnect around the world, while the WWW is the system of domain names, hypertext documents (web pages) and email that flows across it. We could (and did) have an Internet without the Web as we know it, but the Web could not exist without something to run on.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Musical Roots

Unearthing the song hits of the Ice Age ...

One of my all time favorite Star Trek episodes from the Next Generation period is the one in which they encounter an alien space probe that temporarily kidnaps the mind of Captain Picard. In the course of 24 hours he finds himself living an entire lifetime as a member of the alien species that created the probe as its legacy. Their sun is swelling, their planet drying out and burning up, becoming an uninhabitable desert. It is all they can do to create the technology to launch a first probe into space, signalling that they existed. As one of the aliens, Picard marries, raises a family, and lives out his natural life as their world grows steadily hotter and more dead. He even finds time to learn a musical instrument--a small flute like a penny whistle--and to play a favorite tune on it.

Awakening back on the Enterprise, Picard learns that the lifetime he experienced was the message that the doomed alien race had packed into its probe -- the essence of one life out of its billions, designed to be planted in the first receptive mind that came along, a way of saying "this is what our lives were like" long after those lives had ended.

Also packed into the probe was a small flute which Picard puts to his lips, and from which a familiar poignant tune emerges as the Enterprise sails off into the depths of space. Its frail notes are all that remains of the vanished world.

Back in reality, we learn that our own world's oldest musical instruments have been pieced together from bits of ivory and bone found in a cave in Germany. As the legacy of our vanished ancestors, this certainly compares to Picard's discovery.

Dated to between 35,000 and 40,000 years ago, these flutes, or at least replicas of them, can actually be played, emitting into the modern air tones that have not been heard since humans hunted mammoths in a glaciated Europe. Fascinatingly, they approximate the same pentatonic scale still used tens of thousands of years later in the Orient, and which can be played using only two fingers of each hand.

What melodies they played and how they were used remains a mystery. We can only speculate that the music may have resembled that of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australia, or the Americas, and that singing and dancing may have been done to it. How wonderful it is to see those instinctual activities still alive and thriving in human societies today, and to realize how fundamental they are to our humanity.

The discovery shows that music goes back at least as far as language, and may even have preceded it. A recent PBS documentary titled "The Music Instinct" mentions the idea that Neanderthals (who preceded the flute-making modern humans) may have sung to communicate, even though they never developed a true language. I imagine this being comparable to the way we modulate our grunts to say "uh-huh" (yes) or "uh-uh" (no) -- or even "uh-oh" (whoops) or "mm-MM-mm" (I don't know).

Taking this a bit further, some naturalists look at the "musical" activities of creatures like whales and birds to show that the modulation of sound has a history that likely goes back for many millions of years. Used to attract mates, to warn of danger, or just to stay in touch with other members of a flock or family group, the making of sounds has long held a big survival value, which is how such capabilities evolve.

And when it comes to dance, you have probably already seen the video of the dancing cockatoo that has been making the rounds online and on TV. (If not, just look for it on YouTube. I'm not going to post the one millionth link to the thing.) This bird, like others who have been similarly tested, clearly enjoys bobbing and stepping to a rhythmic beat -- even if it has been created by a different species (us) using technical apparatus.

Which brings us to music as technology...

If language made us human, it also enabled us to improve our tool making ability, and ultimately led to the highly sophisticated machinery of modern life. Among those tools were our earliest musical instruments. And just as language existed for a long time before being written, music existed as a purely oral tradition until relatively recent times. The music of India, for example, is still taught that way even though it is highly evolved, with a rich history that spans many centuries.

It is uncertain how far back musical notation goes, but it appears to be more recent than the written word. Some of the earliest examples appear as markings above the words of a song, much as contemporary guitar chords are sometimes shown between the lines of folk music. (See the photo of a Delphic hymn carved in stone from Greece.) Experts have managed to decipher the notes and durations and to reproduce a few poignant scraps of ancient melody -- all that remains of the musical legacy of vanished civilizations.

Our modern notation evolved along with our scales, tonal system, and theories of harmony. It would be hard to see how things could have developed this far without the ability to write it down and pass it along. Just try to imagine getting an orchestra to play Beethoven with words alone.

But our musical technology has gone far beyond that, leading to the creation of new instruments, and to the recording and reproduction of the sounds we make. Now musicians can learn from not only the written notes left behind by those who have gone before, but by listening to all the nuances of their performances. It amounts to a new kind of oral -- or aural -- tradition laid on top of the traditions of the past.

So how far back does our musical heritage go? According to Brian Green, author of The Elegant Universe, if the String Theory of physics is correct, then the most basic particles that compose the universe can all be thought of as vibrating in a cosmic harmony. Perhaps "in the beginning was the Word," but right after that was Music.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Watching the Watchers

25 years after 1984, Orwell's ghost still haunts us  ...

Way back in 1947, with the scars of World War II surrounding him, George Orwell spent one of the final years of his life laboriously retyping the manuscript of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the archetypal dystopian fantasy of a world gone wrong. This book was prophetic of so much that it no longer matters if its future is now in our past.

It might have been possible for others to imagine the looming Cold War, but how uncanny was Orwell's vision of a three-way balance of terror maintained between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia? One of the telling moments is during a Hate Week speech when the orator is interrupted by the delivery of a small piece of note paper, after which his speech continues as before, but with the names of friend and foe reversed. Just plug in the names of America, Russia, and China, then contemplate how Richard Nixon's peace overtures  to Chairman Mao may have tilted the balance of power to put more pressure on the Soviet Union.

Or consider how the wacky linguistics of Newspeak, an attempt to make it impossible to formulate a critical thought against the government, was magnificently surpassed by the Nixon White House with its "inoperative statements" (lies) and deleted expletives. Or the Bush White House with its "extraordinary rendition" (kidnapping) and "enhanced interrogation techniques" (torture). At least now both of them are unpersons, which has to be doubleplusgood.

Also fascinating is the role played by the media, especially television, in the nightmare world of 1984. At first glance it would seem as if Orwell got it wrong, because Big Brother used video strictly for propaganda and surveillance--the video screen was two-way and the government used it to keep a watchful eye on the citizenry. In reality, Joe McCarthy was able to use TV in the 1950's to further his Communist witch hunt, but we all know the real propaganda was commercial advertisements that sold us the American Dream of consumerism.

Long before 1984, television as an entertainment medium had grown to a scale that dwarfed the ability of governments to put out press releases. And in America at least, with its tradition of a free press, the media seemed to be doing a much better job of keeping an eye on government excesses. Thus Nixon was brought down first by a newspaper, then by televised hearings. And without the TV coverage, would the public really have cared enough to force the President's abdication?

But the implications of long-range and widespread viewing are still playing out. Over the last ten years online video has put the power to broadcast into the hands of anyone with a cell phone or cheap digital camera, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter have provided the means for rapid dissemination of anything that sparks an interest. This past week in Iran these potent new tools were used by an aroused population to bypass the censorship of its government and organize a demonstration just one note shy of open rebellion.

So, does this mean Orwell had it backwards, and that the watchful eyes of the public will be enough to keep our governments in line? As much as I'd like to think so, there are other possibilities to beware of. First of all, social networks are two-edged swords. You can certainly use them for protests and social change, but just by signing up and identifying our friends we have created a perfect database that could be abused in order to shut that protest down. It is far too easy to imagine a national emergency that provoked enough fear that the government could demand access to such information in order to round up "conspirators" and all their associates.

Consider how the Iranians turned those networks into weapons to attack government websites. Any doubt how our own government might react to an attack like that? Under the Patriot Act, which still holds sway over the Land of the Free, all you have to do is raise the specter of terrorism and any defensive measure becomes permissible.

And if you think we are not being watched, think again. Miniaturization and falling costs are making it possible to put cameras anywhere and record anything. Cameras are capturing the license numbers of cars committing traffic violations. Banks, airports, stores, warehouses, workplaces, even public streets are under constant surveillance in the name of public safety. Soon the military will be employing miniature robots the size of flying insects with the ability to see and hear, to literally be a "fly on the wall."

It remains to be seen which way the balance will tip, and if our watching the watchers as they watch us will be enough to keep them under control.

Several film versions of Orwell's 1984 have been made -- most recently in the famous year itself, in the real London, or at least part of it that was scuzzy enough to stand in for the one in the book. John Hurt played Winston Smith, with a benignly malevolent Richard Burton as his government tormentor. Interesting casting. You could easily imagine them with the roles reversed, the way Burton and Peter O'Toole were known to switch parts when they were playing Becket on Broadway. Music was nominally by the Eurythmics, but someone forgot to tell anyone to use their work in the film (except the closing credits), so if you want to hear it you need to get their album of the same name.
My favorite, though, is the 1956 version starring Edmond O'Brien. (It's not on Netflix, but you can buy it from Amazon and other vendors.) The stark noir character of the black-and-white, along with the fevered background of Cold War nuclear hysteria, makes you feel you are really there in that alternate reality. Long Live Big Brother!