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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In The Balance

Time to dig up another time capsule ...


Recently NPR gave some air time to considering a quaint tech gadget that was all the rage ten years ago at the start of the new decade, century, and millennium. What was it? The PDA, of course. The Personal Digital Assistant that was going to replace all our Daytimers with their annual paper refills. (Remember those?) Now we've just upgraded our mobile phones instead, and we're starting to wonder just how many more things they may be able to do for us until they're implanted at birth.

But there was a more pressing issue back at the turn of the millenium -- namely, who was the President going to be? We weren't sure, we were still counting and recounting the votes. Meanwhile the ball dropped in Times Square and the national juggernaut rolled headlong into the future. This is what I was thinking about it at the time:

“Don’t follow leaders ...”
- Bob Dylan


“Where are the people going? I am their leader, and I must follow them.”
-Ghandi


“Freedom of choice is what you’ve got ... freedom from choice is what you want.”
- Devo

November 8, 2000. I don’t have a President today.

This is an unusual situation. I have always had a President, my whole life. It’s a fact I have always taken for granted, like having air to breathe. Now, suddenly, the situation is uncertain. However temporary it may be (and it surely it will have been resolved by the time you read this), the absence of a leader has made me see things in a different light. I feel as if  the nation is running on autopilot. There’s still someone at the helm, but he’s packing his bags to leave and seems less interested than he did when he was first charging into the job with a sense of energy and excitement. This is the time when his successor should be getting ready to take over. He only has about two months to form a whole Executive Branch of bureaucrats from an assortment of friends and hangers-on and people-to-be-appointed-later. It’s barely enough time. But he can’t even get started (whoever he is) because he doesn’t know if he’s really going to be President yet. The election is still hanging in the balance.

This is an uncomfortable situation for us. As a people, we hate ties. We invented extra innings, playoffs and “sudden-death overtime” to eliminate stalemate from our sports. Probably the Founding Fathers thought they were doing the same thing when they invented the Electoral College, placing the decision in the hands of a smaller group of people who were expected to be intelligent and practical enough to come to a clear decision.  And of course they thought of everything, as they always did, spelling out a series of steps to follow in case of a split decision, ending up (if I remember correctly) with the Speaker of the House stepping into the job in a worst-case scenario that would leave all other contenders out in the cold. But of course, they didn’t anticipate that our politics would come to be dominated by two massive and equally matched parties who would grow accustomed to thinking of 52% of the vote as a “clear mandate” from the electorate. They didn’t anticipate how often the vote might be this close.

As far as we can tell with our evidently inaccurate counting methods (more on that anon), one candidate is ahead nationally by fewer than 200,000 votes out of nearly 100 million, or about two-tenths of a percent.  The other candidate is ahead in the last remaining state he needs to win the electoral ballot by fewer than 2,000 votes out of about 6 million, or only three one-hundredths of a percent. If the entire electorate were reduced to only ten thousand voters, this would represent a single one of them -- a wishy-washy individual who was unable to come to a firm decision -- having a change of mood, or perhaps sneezing at the moment of punching the ballot and inadvertantly making the wrong choice.

Think that could never happen? I heard something worse reported on National Public Radio, an example of someone who was deprived of her vote by a combination of confusion and a poorly trained polling-place worker. A young woman voting for the first time was confronted by the confusing ballot. Suspecting that she had made a mistake, she asked the (poorly trained) polling-place worker to tell her who she had voted for. When the worker confirmed she had voted for the wrong candidate, the young woman asked for a new ballot, as she was told she could do by instructions printed right on the ballot itself. But the (poorly trained) election official told her she could not change it once it was punched, took it from her, and put it in the ballot box! Not fair! Everyone knows that they’re supposed to hand it back to you and let you put it in the box with your own hand, or tear it up if you want to -- at least, everyone except this particular (poorly trained) polling-place worker.

Does an isolated incident like this make a difference? Maybe not, by itself. Maybe not, assuming that a number of such errors might tend to be made in different directions, cancelling each other out. But other things are coming to light as the recount proceeds. Twenty-nine thousand votes were nearly lost from a computer disk. Someone was accused of attempting to take a ballot box home with them. A courier showed up a day late with a package of ballots that he forgot to deliver on election day. No doubt as the process continues other such incidents will come to light, variously amusing and appalling. We will begin to ask ourselves how accurate it is possible to be in any undertaking of this size, with so many opportunites for human error, and with the result wavering at four decimal places. If the recount comes up different, will we do it again? If we do it again, will it give us the same result or a still different one?

I suspect we could get a different answer every time, which is why we won’t do it more than once. Such a level of uncertainty would threaten our confidence too much. We depend on ourselves to have opinions and express them. We rely on the idea that the best candidate will win out in a contest. We trust ourselves to support the best, and to make our decisions clearly.  All this fuzziness, this gray area in between, is too disconcerting. It’s as if our mechanistic concept of a quantifiable vote has been replaced by a new quantum theory in which results, like those of the pre-election polls, are qualified by “plus or minus two percent.” Like the location of an electron, which can be predicted only statistically, our votes have become a trend or tendency rather than a firm quantity. Like the photon, sometimes wave and other times particle, some people managed to vote for an indeterminate candidate, or to vote for two candidates at the same time.

It’s easy to imagine how things will turn out. Even though the recount comes up with a new answer, it will still lean in the same direction. However obvious it is by then that the result is within the margin of error of our ability to count the votes, the losing candidate will say, What the heck, and bow to the decision of the people.  Never mind that nationally he received more votes. Never mind that the winning candidate only has a 48% plurality, due to the effect of pesky upstart rival political parties. It may be wrong, but it’s the way the system works. And above all, we want to believe that the system works.

Meanwhile we proceed, full steam ahead, running on inertia and our innate lack of need for leadership.  Blind, rudderless, a juggernaut, the ship of state sails on. While this situation persists, I for one am enjoying the ambiguity. It’s a sense of freedom I haven’t felt for a long time, and may never feel again. An anarchistic moment of hiatus in the political continuum. A time to  explore new possibilities -- bigger chunks of the vote going to other parties, run-off elections, coalitions between minor parties to dominate major ones ... the possibilities are unlimited. Enjoy it while you can.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The "Other" Christmas Music

Celebrating Bach's Magnificat ...


Looking back at previous entries I find that I've written twice about Handel's Messiah, appropriately enough at Christmas time. But how is it possible that I've found nothing to say about my favorite choral music for this or any other season? That distinction goes to J.S. Bach's Magnificat, a brief masterpiece that sails past the listener all too quickly, in contrast to Handel's monumental oratorio.

Maybe the soft spot I have for this work dates back to the way I first discovered it. I was about 15 years old and browsing through the dusty used record bins at a pawn shop with my music buddy. Suddenly there it was -- a rare, 10-inch LP just big enough to fit the approximately 30 minutes that it takes to perform the 12 short movements. I'd never heard of it, but it was by Bach and that was good enough for me. I didn't even particularly care for choral music, but hey, did I say this was by Bach? Not only that, but it cost no more than 50 cents. At that price I woudn't care if it had scratches on it. And it was by Bach!

Suffice to say, the piece has never failed to satisfy. From the first listening I felt I was hearing something like Bach's greatest hits. Each short aria and chorus was perfect and complete, each with its own "hook," as the pop song industry calls it -- that thing that gets it to lodge in your memory and beg to be repeated. I started out with particular favorites, but soon found that they had all grown on me until I had adopted each one and accepted the whole work as an old friend.

It begins with a bang, a big timpani-assisted BUM-bum! not unlike the opening notes of the second movement to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the one that used to open the NBC Nightly News. In the instrumental prelude that ensues, and the chorus after it, Bach manages to weave together an amazing number of contrapuntal melody lines. The feat is even more amazing because many of the voices -- flutes, oboes, violins, and trumpets -- are all playing in the same register, so their lines overlap.

One piece that caught my attention right away was the aria in which an alto voice is supported by a duo of flutes or recorders, which is kind of like adding sugar to the syrup. But since I was learning to play the recorder at the time it was wonderful to discover my instrument being put to such sublime uses.

Another highlight is the soprano aria "Quia respexit," which features a particularly delectable obbligato by the oboe that winds around the voice like a sinewy vine. And then there's the aria for three voices -- both sopranos and an alto -- in which all three twine around one another while the oboe sails long notes overhead like a halo of light.

Something happens in the mind when it is asked to follow three different melodic lines at once. Most of us have a hard time with just two -- apart from Bach, who could apparently handle four, five, and even six with his own two hands. But for ordinary mortals it seems there is just one tune, or two, or many. It's like watching a magician play the shell game. The result is that we get the delightful feeling that no matter how closely we listen there is always something new and unexpected emerging.

As I said, all the other movements are favorites as well. There's not a recitative in the whole thing, nothing but elegant melody from beginning to end. And speaking of the end, that's wonderful too. First comes the "Gloria," with voices rising and building before declaring "Patri" (father) and "Filio" (son), but then descending from on high like the symbolic dove to deliver "Spiritui Sancto" (the holy spirit). Then comes the finale in which the whole ensemble bursts into a reprise of the opening, while singing, "sicut erat in principio ..." As it was in the beginning, is now and always will be. Chills every time!

In my 30's I acquired a new and better recording, then later bought another version that included the "Christmas interpolations" -- four additional movements that were in the original version performed at Christmas Vespers in 1723, but which Bach later removed to make it appropriate for performance at any time of the year. Then I had to buy another copy when CD's came along, and just recently I downloaded yet another version from eMusic.

This latest acquisition is a unique performance by the Ricercar Consort from the Netherlands. They perform the work with a small instrumental ensemble like the one Bach would have employed, and with just one single voice for each part in the choruses as well as the arias. This minimalist approach delivers wonderful clarity, especially in the thickest of the choral passages. I can honestly say that after all the years of listening I heard new things in it that I had never heard before.

Many years passed between my original discovery of the recording and my first opportunity to hear a live performance of the Magnificat. And even then the circumstances were unusual. It was in 1992, just a few weeks after Hurricane Andrew had pasted South Florida like a wrecking ball. The Miami Bach Society had to decide whether to go ahead with their scheduled performance under such difficult conditions. They did it, and even imported a guest virtuoso on the trumpet clarino -- an instrument with a mouthpiece especially suited for the highest register -- to add a finishing touch.

I'm a big fan of our Bach Society, and I have to say they particularly shone on that evening. It was a wonderful and healing experience coming on the heels of natural disaster, and seemed to be greatly appreciated by all. The Magnificat shared the bill that night with abridged highlights from Handel's Messiah. That was all very well, but to my ear the scintillating perfection of Bach's inspired tapestry made Handel sound dull and heavy by comparison.

Maybe it's just me, but let's hear it for the magnificent Magnificat.

[See Wikipedia for the text and its history. It all started with two pregnant moms bumping into one another. Mary supposedly gave this eloquent recitation that was eventually set to music. Years later, all grown up, one of the kids encountered the other one while he was baptizing people in a river. No wonder they recognized each other -- they were cradle mates!]

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cloudier and Cloudier

There's more than weather on the horizon ...

Here are some more examples of what I wrote about recently in Life in the Cloud -- and in a way, the fact that I forgot about them is the best evidence that we're already taking them for granted.

You've Got Mail

Yes, as AOL likes to tell us, we have mail, and most of it is spam. Over 80% of it, in fact, ranging from the annoying and disgusting to the viscious and destructive. In this environment it is unconscionable for any provider to give you an email address without some industrial strength spam filtering. Unfortunately some of the most commonly used services (that means YOU, Hotmail and Yahoo!) are less than stellar in this department.

What makes matters worse is that many of us are still stuck on using a local email client on our desktops. In this traditional model our computers suck down everything that comes through the pipe, then flag some of it as suspected spam. How well that works usually depends on how good a job we do of "training" the software, and even then we get lots of false positives along with things that make it to the inbox anyhow. Since some viruses and worms can spread this way even if you never act on them, the damage is not prevented.

When I started using Gmail my first concern was convenience plus a more pleasing user interface than what Bellsouth/AT&T provides for webmail (which is AWFUL). It was only after I used it for awhile that I began to notice something amazing: an almost total absence of spam! Though it's not highly publicized, Google is doing a better job at this valuable service than all but the best enterprise-class filtering systems. And they're mostly giving it away in the public interest. (Contrast this to the service used by the company I work for which costs about $33.00 per user each year.)

I still have a spam folder in Gmail, and I can look there to see if anything good has got caught in it. But that happened so seldom that I stopped checking long ago. I don't even have to empty the spam folder, because everything in it gets deleted automatically after 30 days. Spam? What spam?

You can use a local mail client with Gmail if you want to, but that's a step backward from the security of just looking at your mail while it lives on Google's servers. Of course, it still can't help you if you look in the spam folder and click on that Britney Spears link; but at least she has not automatically downloaded herself onto your hard drive first!

It's a classic example of a formerly desktop-based service being supplanted by a cloud-based one. It's safer, and offers the convenience of access to the same mail from any web browser on any Internet-capable device. This only makes sense, when you think about it. Email only exists online, and anything we have stored on our local machines is just a copy. Sometimes people express reservations about using a completely online service because it won't be available if they lose their internet connection. True, road warriors who are too far from a wifi connection may not be able to look for something in their mailbox. But now that you can check your mail anywhere from your phone, is that really a problem? And what good is email if you're not online?

In addition, Gmail gives me big file attachments -- up to 10 megabytes -- and storage space that keeps growing faster than I can use it up. For example, a few years ago it said on the bottom of my screen that I was using 200MB or 7% of my 3 gigabytes available. Now it says I'm using 600MB or 8% of my 7.5 gigabytes. At this rate I'll never have to delete an email for the rest of my life. (Though of course I usually delete those with huge attachments.) And when my computer crashes or gets stolen I won't lose anything.

Docs

In that previous installment I mentioned Dropbox, which is a great way to back up your critical files while also making them available wherever you are. (There's also Box.net and others that focus more on sharing files, including really big ones.) Google Docs is a different approach that encourages you not only to store your files online but also to create and edit them there, using software accessed exclusively through the web.

What's good about that? Well, suppose you're at the public library someday and you'd like to look at your budget spreadsheet. With Dropbox you could find the file or even download it, but without Excel or OpenOffice installed on the library computer you can't see what's in it, much less edit it. But upload it into Google Docs and all you need is the web browser -- even the one on your phone will do. Since your docs can be shared, you can also use it as a collaboration tool. Plus, with everyone using the same software on the website there are no version control problems. The light begins to dawn ...

Backups and Operating Systems

Dropbox is one way to back up your critical files, but it's not really designed for automated industrial scale backups. For that you can consider something like Crashplan, which offers moderately priced "unlimited" storage for personal use. But as our need for storage grows and our personal ability to manage and protect it remains limited, the whole model may be about to turn inside out.

A couple of years ago it was rumored that Google was about to launch a service called Gdrive which you would be able to use for all your storage needs. They seem to have backed off from the idea, perhaps because they didn't think the market was ready for it (or that they couldn't make money from it). But during the discussions online it leaked out that one promotional angle was that the online version of your data would be the "real" one while anything on your own computer would be just a local copy.

That may sound nuts at first glance, but when you consider that over time your computers will come and go but your data lives on (hopefully!) then it starts to make sense. Whatever is on your local drive now might only be needed for temporary computational performance reasons -- like editing a big spreadsheet or working with image files.

Gdrive may only have been postponed until it can be linked with Google's forthcoming Chrome operating system. Chrome is intended to move the OS online as well. Your computer will be able to install, load, and run completely from an online source, with the benefit of automated updates. Computer geeks may prefer to keep "rolling their own," but for the vast majority of cases where the computer primarily surfs the web and plays games, this will be all people need. And if that sounds limiting, consider that those online apps will keep growing in usefulness, and even online gaming will soon achieve locally-installed video performance levels.

The cloud is coming, and in the immortal words of the Borg, "resistance is futile."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Fair 2010

It's great even when abbreviated ...


This was year 27 of the Miami Book Fair International, and year 50 of its host, Miami-Dade College. I've been attending ever since year one -- even the year when most events were canceled due to severe weather -- and I'm ashamed to say how close to its beginning I attended Miami-Dade College. (Hint: it was the first year of South Campus when we had to attend classes at my old high school because the classroom buildings weren't finished yet).

I could only make it for the final day of this year's fair, but I appreciated all the more the few events I could attend. I started out with some levity in the Mateo Theater, an intimate space with a semicircular stage only about a dozen feet across. T. Cooper presented his odd little work, The Beaufort Diaries, about a polar bear who goes Hollywood. This graphic novel has spawned a video and might grow up to be a feature someday, especially with the attention it's gotten from David Duchovny and Leo DiCapprio. Here's what he showed us, as projected from his MacBook.

Then Vicky Hendricks, Miami's femme fatale of noir, gave us part of a story that takes place in Key West. Let's just say the place is going to the dogs. But you already knew that. This is from her new collection titled, aptly enough, Florida Gothic Stories, a follow up to her appearance in the collection, Miami Noir.


Finally Preston Allen, my old compadre from the Butterfly Lightning reading series (the website is gone but you can still view it at the Internet archive), read from his latest novel, Jesus Boy, about the steamy relations between bible thumper Elwin Parker and a lady old enough to know better. The book has a serious message that goes down more smoothly with its chuckle-provoking coat of sugar.

Fortified by this trio, I felt ready to face Writing On The Edge, an anthology of articles by fiction writers who were invited to witness the work of Doctors Without Borders. Tom Craig interviewed two of these writers, Damon Galgut from South Africa and Hari Kunzru from Great Britain. All the while they were accompanied by a running slide show of images collected from around the world, wherever the good doctors are involved in providing relief.

As the presentation progressed I began to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. As it happened, the evening before I had attended a fundraiser for an organization called ProNica that assists the poor in Nicaragua. Coming from that narrow focus on a single locale in a single country, it was devastating to see the same scenes repeated in nation after nation. Just to give you an idea, here's a partial list that I jotted down from the captions in the slide show:

Armenia ... Assam ... Burundi ... Cambodia ... Chad ... Congo ... Morocco ... Palestine ... Sierra Leon ... Somalia ... Sudan ... Ukraine ... Uganda ... and as you can see from the gaps in the alphabet there are many more. One of the panelists quoted Harold Pinter, who said simply, "Most people in the world live in hell." What can be done? Well, if you're a doctor you can sign up for a six to nine month stint in hell, and wake up every day knowing that you will save one or more lives. If you're not a doctor, you can send them some money. It's not much, but it's a start.

After this it was comforting to get a longer view of history. Biographer Stacy Schiff's latest project is Cleopatra:A Life -- though, as she said, considering that her subject lived from 69 to 30 BCE, she wasn't sure if it was biography or paleontology. It's one thing when you can read all of Ben Franklin's letters or interview everyone who knew Richard Feynman, but quite another thing when 2,000 years have passed and the person of interest is a feature of ancient history. Schiff reminded us that over the intervening years the language, culture, religion, and calendar have all changed. Even the topography of Egypt is not what it was -- it's flatter -- and the Nile itself has moved over two miles from where it used to flow.

Given this, she appears to have done wonderful work by going back to the available sources -- what the Romans of the day had to say about Cleo -- and cutting through centuries of myth and romanticism. One notable correction is that the notorious queen was not known for her beauty but for her charisma. Hey, Marc Antony, you're going to love her -- she's got a great personality! She also had an unerring knack for who to get pregnant with, and when. Not a bad way to play the game when you're in the business of hereditary rule.

After grabbing a crepe in the food court I wrapped up my day with a duo of poets (Jim Brock, where were you?). Geoffrey Philp read to us from Dub Wise in his mellifluous Jamaican voice, and Nina Romano from her latest collection titled Cooking LessonsDon't let this title fool you, though. This is far from an episode on the Food Channel, and Nina evokes far more of life than the satisfaction of appetites. I was particularly taken with the poem about an encounter with a deer in its death throes on a high and dark mountain road. I still have the chills to prove I was listening.

Until next year ...
Times are hard ... anyone want to buy a paper?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Another Modest Proposal

My very own solution to the health care dilemma ...


One of the most bizarre spectacles I've ever seen in American politics was in the runup to our recent midterm election when crowds of protesters could be seen waving signs demanding "Repeal Healthcare!"

Huh? You mean you don't want any healthcare? No, of course that's not really what they meant. It's just that in our quest for soundbite brevity two words are better than three. What they really meant to say was "Repeal Healthcare Reform."

What? You mean you want healthcare to stay the way it is now? Unaffordable for many, unobtainable for some, easily lost for millions more? You mean insurance companies should continue to drop people as soon as they get sick? You mean people should continue to be required to bankrupt themselves before they can get any public assistance for medical issues?

Well, to be fair, I don't believe that's really what they want either. Mostly what they object to is the idea that they might be required by law to buy health insurance. It doesn't matter that we are already required by law to buy car insurance and required by banks to buy home insurance, and that our employers are required to purchase workers compensation insurance even though medical insurance is optional.

And it doesn't matter that a poll showed that 39% of the voters agreed with the statement, "The government should keep its hands off of Medicare." (True story!) It doesn't even matter that if those voters squinted carefully at their paycheck stubs they would see that they are paying the government for Medicare.

No, all they want is choice. And let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume this is not just a case of deep pocketed lobbyists managing to influence the electorate to vote against its own interests. No, these people are simply independent. They want to be able to buy insurance if they feel like it, and take their chances if they don't. Or, as many people below a certain income level do already, they might simply continue to report to the nearest emergency room whenever they get sick, relying on the public mandate that assures them of getting healthcare delivered in the most expensive way possible, and letting the rest of us pay for them.

My modest proposal is simply to add a provision allowing people to opt out of healthcare altogether. Don't want to buy coverage? Don't want to be taxed for it either? Fine. Just sign a release and you're on your own. But you don't get to change your mind when you get sick. And don't worry -- there won't be any government "death panels" advising euthenasia. That would be an unnecessary expense. There's already a place for you to go away and die. It's called "the street," and has been successfully tested nationwide for many years.

With this provision in place to remove any objections, the rest of us can proceed to join the other nations of the developed world in enjoying the benefits of assured, reliable medical treatment throughout our lives. The emergency rooms will be empty except for, um, emergencies, hospitals will not be overburdened with treating those who can't pay, and doctors will have time to talk to us again.

Here, I'll make it easy for you. Just clip this out and mail it in:




I, the undersigned, wish to exercise my freedom of choice to opt out of the hateful government mandated socialist Obamacare plan. I promise to purchase my medications __online / __ in Canada / __ in Mexico / __ at Walmart (choose one) or to do without them. I will find my own doctor and make my own arrangements to pay, thank you very much. In the choice between death and taxes my mind is made up.

I further waive my right to coverage under any current medical plan for preexisting conditions prior to the signing of this agreement. I'm mad as hell and I'm not taking it any more.


Signature: _____________________________
Effective Date: _____________


Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Day After Veterans Day

It used to be called Armistice Day, and celebrated peace ...


I wanted to post something about my dad again for Veterans Day but didn't get the chance. Now it occurs to me there's something symbolic about celebrating a bit late.


Have a look at this dashing young army officer. Dad posed in front of the League of Nations building in Geneva, Switzerland, where he got to go on leave immediately after the end of World War II. Seems the picture of youthful health doesn't he? But the photo lies. This vacation was purchased at the expense of putting his body in harm's way and having it punctured by a bullet. Not to mention the rest of the horrors he had managed to live through.

His wound was treated, and it healed. The pain went away except that it ached in certain kinds of weather. But there was scar tissue in one of his lungs that made him susceptible to chest colds. Ten years after the war he spent two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia in the middle of a Miami summer. He recovered, but would come down with bronchitis every winter like clockwork. One of the things I knew him by as a child was his cough, so familiar to me that I can still hear it.

He got in the habit of treating himself with penicillin pills that a friend who worked at the VA hospital got for him. It's possible that by doing this he created his very own drug resistant strain of pneumonia. The disease hit him again at the age of 50, and this time it failed to respond to treatment. So you could say that he died from his wound 30 years after it had been inflicted.

This national holiday was originally called Armistice Day to commemorate the end of the First World War, "the war to end all wars." It was to celebrate a peace which was supposed to be kept by the newly formed League of Nations. Sad to say, the League failed largely because the United States did not join. So there we have my father visiting its mortal remains in Geneva, the tomb of a dream of world peace, with the blood and ashes of another war fresh upon him.

In his too short life he saw other wars from the home front -- Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, and a list of other "military interventions" too small to be dignified by being named. Armistice Day has become Veterans Day, and increasingly celebrates not just the sacrifices of soldiers, but the so-called glory of their achievements. The day comes wrapped in flags as well as wreaths and flowers. Misty-eyed we are supposed to march to the drum into the future, endlessly supplying new bodies eager for the grave.

But as our new crop of wounded veterans grows, we should attend to the hurt, and keep that foremost in our minds. We know now that pretty much everyone returns wounded from war, and that the effects last a lifetime. Brain damage, suicides, addictions, and homelessness are as much a result of military service as death in battle, and often harder for families to deal with.

When will there really be a war to end them all? Probably not unless there is a war that puts an end to everything, which was always the threat in the Cold War. But there could be a peace to end all war. And if that should ever happen we will really have an Armistice to commemorate.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Vive Jeanne D'Arc!

Perhaps the greatest heroine in history ...

If you think you're familiar with the story of Joan of Arc, you might want to revisit the history of this remarkable woman. You could read George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan, or do as I did and download a copy of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by none other than Mark Twain.

This may seem an odd subject for the author of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and most of us have never heard of it. But besides being his last novel Twain considered it his finest:

"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none."

Critics have never agreed with him, and even Mr. Clemens himself must have recognized that it was a departure from the bulk of his work since he first published it under a different pseudonym. Even so, it's an eminently readable tale told with his familiar gusto and killing insight into the depths of human nature. Often his lack of reverence for royalty recalls the "Duck" (duke) floating down the Mississippi on that immortal raft.

The book purports to be a translation of a French manuscript by Joan's page and secretary -- and childhood friend -- as he writes his memoirs late in life. This gives him a narrative vantage point from which to describe her history from country youth to unlikely soldier and liberator of her country, and finally to martyrdom.

Twain was accused of being "infatuated" with the subject of this history, and it's true that through his narrator he allows himself to gush with emotion over her. But in the context of fictional memoir this doesn't seem out of place, but rather in character: an emotional old man recalling a tragedy from his youth.

Through the amazement and enthusiasm of the narrator we are led to an understanding of the magnitude of what Joan accomplished. How is it possible that an illiterant country bumpkin, a slip of a girl just seventeen who had never been outside her own village, was able to inspire the confidence of her king and countrymen and to route occupying armies that had been entrenched for decades?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is to make the story believable as it expands from the dreams and visions of a young girl to sweeping military engagements. Step by step, time and again, young Joan's implacable confidence in her "Voices" and faith in the strength of her Creator overcome all obstacles, however improbable it may seem. And whenever we might be threatened to doubt what happened, we are reminded of the meticulous historical record of the facts.

Much of that record, of course, is due to the trials (it took six of them!) that were arranged by the English to convict Joan of heresy. That she was burned at the stake is an historical fact as iconic as any that has ever been recorded. But in many ways what she accomplished in the course of the trials was her most impressive victory.

She was forced to endure endless questioning by as many as 62 judges arrayed before her, while allowed no legal counsel of her own, and living in chains and darkness during the rest of her days. In spite of this, her testimony is a sustained example of speaking truth to power that exceeds the confrontation of Jesus with Pontius Pilate. Day after day, week after week, month after month, she never admitted to any wrongdoing, never repudiated her faith and belief, avoided every legal trap devised by the opposition, dared to call them on every count of deviousness and blatant disregard of their own laws as they tried to convict her by her own admission.

For example, she was asked if she knew she was in God's grace. Answering Yes would have admitted heresy, because Church doctrine stated that no one could know if they were in a state of grace. Answering No would have admitted that she was guilty of her crimes, since she was not in a state of grace. It was the original Catch 22! Joan's reply?

"If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

What makes the story truly tragic is that she was ultimately punished for all the same qualities that made her remarkable, and that her devotion to the simple truth prevented her from making any compromises that might have saved her life. It is a life that was immortalized by being ended so soon. Joan was just nineteen when she was publically incinerated. That was almost 600 years ago, but the flame still burns.

[You can see a contemporary artist's take on Joan 
at Geddes Levenson's "Officially An Artist."]

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blood and Oil

Beware of judging a book by its movie ...

It's always dangerous to see a movie before reading the book it's based on, but in the case of There Will Be Blood I did it anyway, compelled by my admiration for Daniel Day Lewis and the critical acclaim the film had garnered. This is not to say I'm sorry, but it's a case where the film turns out to bear little resemblance to the tale told by the novel.

The dark, brooding portrait of a monomaniacal "oil man" in Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic fantasy is a study in cold calculation. Lewis's restrained anger, which is destined to burst forth into violence, contrasts dramatically with the raving Evangelical foil of a self-declared preacher. The story comes to be a wrestling match between good and evil. The oil man's obsession with the dark fluid under the earth makes him satanic -- particularly so when lit by the flames of his burning well. The character is deepened by his adoption of the orphaned son of one of the oil field workers. This gives him a human side that would have been lacking otherwise, and makes him more complex.

The movie piqued my curiosity about what Upton Sinclair might have had in mind when he published Oil! back in 1926. Unlike some of his other works such as The Jungle and Metropolis, which are available from public domain sources like Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, OIL! was only available in traditional print form, so I ordered one from Amazon and plunged in.

How to catalog all the differences? To begin with, the "adopted" son of the film turns out to be a plot device to eliminate a whole range of characters. In the book, the "oil man" is known as Dad from the beginning, with the story told from the POV of his natural son and heir. Rather than the solitary loner of the film, Dad is replete with an estranged wife, a daughter, a sister, and mother, all of whom relocate with the father and son to be close to the latest oil field.

Early on Dad delivers a sales speech to a group of hopeful property owners on whose land he hopes to drill. The speech is repeated nearly word for word in the film, and sets the tone for the methodical nature of this entrepeneur. He's a man who can level with you while stealing the ground from under your feet, and not think any the worse of himself in the process. Once this quotation is over, however, the plots diverge immensely.

The chief victim in the wholesale character eliminations of the film is Paul, the brother of Eli, the preacher. Both are portrayed by the same actor in the film, and they never appear together, so we are led to believe they are a case of split personality which adds to the maniacal character of the "healer" as he strays predictably from the straight and narrow path. But in the novel Paul becomes one of the principle characters, the very embodiment of the workers struggling for justice.

What? Workers? Justice? Right. You'd never guess it from the film, but Sinclair created his Capitalist anti-hero in order to advocate his destruction. The genius of this is the way he gets you to like and admire him first. He's portrayed as the model self-made man, parlaying his gut feelings and street sense into a growing fortune while enriching his country by developing its natural resources. He's seen through the halo of his son's admiration, and in the beginning he's even a boss who treats his employees with decency and respect.

This sympathetic treatment continues throughout the story. Even as Dad is called upon to participate in ever more dastardly deeds to protect his growing empire, it is continually shown that even he is a victim of the system forced to comply with the demands of big business even when it goes against his grain as a compassionate human being.

The son goes by the nickname of "Bunny," though he is also "Jim Junior," sharing his father's name. As he grows up, the story continually broadens in reflection of his widening horizons. Early on he forms an attachment to Paul, Eli's secular brother, who impresses him as someone of complete honesty and lack of interest in money.

Paul goes to work for Dad, but soon takes the side of the oil workers as they organize themselves into a union. Then when World War I breaks out he joins the army, only to end up as part of a contingent of US soldiers guarding the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia.

Where? The book is an education on this chapter of our history, which has been largely swept under the rug. During the civil war that raged after the Russian revolution, the US and its allies actively took the side of the Whites against the Reds, aiding and abetting anyone who wanted to fight them, occupying territory, and supplying arms and troops. This foreign counterinsurgency effort continued long after the armistice that ended the war in Europe. (Any wonder why the Soviet Union was so paranoid about the West?)

Paul returns from this duty thoroughly radicalized, having seen the lengths to which the established powers would go in order to curtail the threat that their own workers might rebel in the same way. From then on he takes up the cause of American workers in this global struggle for rights and dignity, with Bunny following eagerly in his wake.

The scope of the story has gone from the personal to the community -- with Dad greasing the wheels of local politics to get roads built where he wants them -- then to the state and the nation -- as Dad, now a member of a powerful association, plays kingmaker in the Presidential election -- and finally to the global scale of worldwide economic oppression of the masses.

Through all this Bunny is the pivot point, his sympathies for Paul and the workers always at odds with his loyalty to his father and his own inherited wealth and position. As we know, it is not possible to serve two masters, at least not for long. The tension between the two builds as the characters continue to become ever more symbolic of the struggle they are acting out.

The conclusion will be familiar to any student of recent history. Because when faced with the choice between comfort and freedom, which one do we always choose? Yet still we are left with hope, because Bunny -- Jim Junior, his father's son -- was born with a conscience, and the will to exercise it.

Yes, there will be blood, plenty of it, and there's still oil in it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Life in the Cloud

There is no Cloud, only a silver lining ...

Long ago someone predicted that when computers acheived true commodity status we would no longer speak of "using a computer" any more than we speak of "using an electric motor" while vacuuming the floor.

This is nearly true now, as we use our cell phones, televisions, microwave ovens, and even cars, oblivious to the fact that they all contain microprocessors running operating systems and software. Instead we just call, watch, cook, and drive -- all of these activities enhanced or made possible by the ubiquitous chips within.

A similar development is about to happen to "The Cloud," that overused and constantly hyped buzzword that could easily be dismissed as just the latest in a long series of so-called paradigm shifts or "revolutions" flogged to the public consciousness. Nevertheless, The Cloud is about to achieve commodity status, and the less you hear about it the more certain it is that you'll be using it and relying upon it.

Here are a few cases in point:

Music

CD's may have been the death of LP records, but it took MP3's and the Internet to transform the music industry and its distribution system. The physical package has been replaced by a digital format, no different from anything else that can be turned into packets and sent round the world. But people still buy and collect music. Why? What does it mean to "own" a copy of something so insubstantial?

What we're really buying is a license to listen to it any number of times. But to protect that right we have to carefully store our copies and back them up to protect against loss, because the only way to legally acquire another copy is to buy it again.

But this model is based on the ownership of physical artifacts, and it has nothing to do with listening. How many times can I listen to a favorite song? Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. But thousands? Would have to be a really good tune! And in my own case, with the equivalent of hundreds of CD's and many thousands of tracks (I refuse to call them songs, because most of them aren't), it would take me months of listening 24 hours a day just to hear everything I have just once.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a license to listen to anything that has ever been recorded, whatever I might choose at the moment? If the price was low enough -- and there's no reason for it to be expensive -- I would happily pay a monthly fee, or even by the hour, for the priviledge. This way I wouldn't have to acquire my own copies and worry about their preservation. And I wouldn't have to limit myself to a single set of performances of the Beethoven Symphonies, when others might be equally interesting. This service should also keep track of my favorite composers and performers so I could easily find them again, and find new things for me as they became available.

Remember what Jean Luc Picard could do on the Starship Enterprise? He could request some music ... make it guitar music ... no, not Spanish, classical ... Bach, perhaps ... by Julian Bream ... something slower ... and whatever his whim, the ubiquitous ship's computer would provide. There are nascent services like Rhapsody and Last.fm that are attempting something like this with pop music. It has a long way to go, but don't be surprised if it happens, and seemingly overnight.

Movies

You might think the exact same thing was going to happen to movies -- and certainly the MPAA is afraid that's true. But films are fundamentally different from music in two ways. First, they're much bigger, so storing your own copies presents more of a challenge. But second, and more importantly, there is a much more limited number of times they will be watched. Sure, you might sit through another rerun of Casablanca or Citizen Kane no matter how many times you've seen them before. But let's face it, most films wear thin even the second time around, and most of us will quickly move on from been-there-done-that to something new, even if it's not as good.

The result is that there is more of an impetus to changing the distribution model for movies than there is for music -- meaning that music stores might outlast video rental stores. Within the year there will be multiple choices for internet-based movies and TV from big names like Google and Apple as well as traditional cable and communications companies.

Netflix is pushing to eliminate mailing DVD's back and forth to you. They would rather get you to grab what you want online, even if they have to give much of it away for nothing. The whole idea of seeing what's on the shelf at Blockbuster already seems so quaint that the firm has filed for bankruptcy protection -- despite its own efforts to move online, the firm is bogged down by the weight of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

On the consumer side, permanent storage of the media has been replaced by streaming, which means you don't have to spend hours downloading a DVD but instead can watch it while the data pours in. Temporary storage is available in the form of Tivo-style recorders that let you pause or backup or even play over what you're watching, while recognizing (and incidentally enforcing) the idea that you won't want to see it more than a few times.

The shift to streaming is happening so fast that for many people the upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray will be skipped over -- the first time a physical format has been trumped by a purely digital one before it achieved wide adoption. Even the idea of consulting a schedule to find out when your favorite show is "on" will soon be a thing of the past. TV by appointment is over.

Once we get used to this with visual content, we'll look again at our music collections and wonder why not to do the same thing with them.

Computers

Which brings us back to computers, where we started out. If you live with one or more of these beasts, and most of us do, you have undoubtedly had your share of upgrades, crashes, lost files, and maddening tech support phone calls. Of these, the most insidious is that it is so easy to lose everything we thought we had carefully saved. All those photo albums ... emails ... financial information ... passwords to websites ... music collections (see above) ... cute videos of the kids at Christmas ... all up in smoke, either literally or figuratively, due to the failure of some cheap part on a motherboard, a dead hard drive, a dreaded virus attack, or a catastrophic software failure.

For years I've protected myself against these disasters (and many of us don't even try) by making periodic backup copies to some form of removable disk, or uploading them to a secure place on a server that I had access to.

But recently I began keeping some of my most useful files on Dropbox,* a service that gives you 2 gigabytes of free storage space online, with more available for a low cost. Google offers such space, too, through their Google Docs service -- and for an even lower price. But what makes Dropbox worthwhile is that it gives you a special folder that will automatically replicate everything you put there into your folder on their website. Not only that, but it will also replicate your files onto any other computers that you set up to use with the service. It even keeps the copies in sync and allows recovery of deleted files.

The convenience is eye-opening. What a pleasure to know the files I saved at home are available automatically at my office the next time I log in. The more I've used it, the less reason I see not to put ALL my files there -- at least the ones that don't take up too much space. It would be expensive to back up my vast music library, but not a problem at all to keep all my word documents, spreadsheets, and things I need for working with websites. Once you get used to the idea, you wonder why computers shouldn't just work this way, period.

The answer is, they soon will. Computers (if they're still called that), just like phones and tablets, will become nothing more than platforms to access software, data, and services that will be housed exclusively online. Any local copies you save will be just backups for the real thing. Just as with movies and music, what matters is access, not ownership or physical location.

Right now to save all my files with Dropbox might cost me from $8 to $30 per month (for 50 or 100 gigabytes). That's not cheap, but comparable to what I pay for Internet access. Google will sell you a full terabyte for $20 a month, showing that prices can go much lower. Now imagine that the service is bundled with your Internet package by your provider, just as you get a "free" email account along with it. And naturally your provider will take care of those tedious backups for you. Life is good!

The cloud is upon us, and as soon as it disappears you'll know we're living in it.

*[Like to try Dropbox and get some free extra storage space? Contact me for an invitation.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Who Am I?

For that matter, who are any of us?


Here's something from the past ... a journal that my mother kept for 28 days back in 1975, and which I discovered recently among her papers.

This is also a demo of Scribd.com, which bills itself as a "YouTube for documents." You can upload your material for publication in a variety of forms (I like PDF), make it public or private, set your copyright terms, even sell it if you want to. Scribd provides an easy set of tools for viewing, and you can choose to allow or disallow downloading and printing. There are even multiple ways to view called book, scroll, or slide. You can determine what the default view will be, but users can change it to suit their preference.

To distribute what you've done you can send a link like this one which will take the user to a full page view, or you can embed it in a web page or blog as I've done below. People can also find your publications by searching either on Scribd or the Internet. How cool is that?

My only complaint is that they don't offer enough categories under which to publish. For example, there is no heading for memoir, which seems like a big oversight. However, you can also add tags of your own choosing to make up for that. And presumably other categories will emerge according to demand.

And now ... ladies and gentlemen ... introducing my mom ...
Who Am I? - A Spiritual Journal by Evelyn Donachie

Monday, August 30, 2010

Letting Go

When the weight of the past turns out not to be so heavy ...

One of the few things I wanted to collect from my sister's house after her death was a stone sculpture that had been sitting in the yard for over 30 years. A seated Buddha, it represented an ambition of peace and calm that my mother, who commissioned it, had always aspired to but never achieved.

The artist is also long gone. My friend Richard Sevigny gave it up to heart failure in the back of an emergency vehicle while he was preparing to move from what turned out to be his last home. He was just a few years into his 50's, but had lived hard and with scant regard to his health for most of his life.

He left behind a significant body of work including many drawings and paintings, and a number of other sculptures in wood, marble, and feather rock, but this was his only piece in limestone. The Buddha measured only about 20" tall but weighed a lot. I could still remember grunting as I lifted it out of my car to deliver it into my mom's yard when I was a lot younger and stronger than I am now. I was not looking forward to wrestling with it again, but it was important enough to me that I felt I had to try.

The more I thought about it, the heavier it got. I looked for my back support belt so I could protect my troublesome L4 and L5 vertebrae. I wondered if I should take some long boards so I could try to roll it up into the car if I couldn't lift it. In the end I imagined I wouldn't be able to budge it at all, that it would rest embedded in the earth as if permanently attached.

Then when I got there ... it was gone.

Not just gone as in recently stolen, but long gone. I found where it used to be, but there was not even an impression in the undergrowth to mark the spot. There was nothing to do but let it go. Just like that, the imagined weight was lifted. The only trace of it was a few photographs, as light as feathers.

In its place I brought back a whole trunk full of stuff that weighed just a few pounds: Two paintings by my grandmother, one by my sister, one by my ex-wife, a stack of family photo albums, and a metal file box full of documents.

Among these treasures were the manuscript to my dad's poetry book with his hand-written edits, a lock of my sister's hair from the age of 4, a US flag saved by my great-grandfather from the day he became a citizen, and a long manuscript in my mom's hand (she belonged to the age of beautiful penmanship) dated 1975 and titled "Who Am I?" in which she set down all her thoughts about life, identity, and religion.

Quite a trove. You never know what you'll find when you let go of the weight, real or imagined, of the past.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where They Lived And Died

When you don't know what you want to say, write a poem ...


I've come from the emptied shell of her house,
the one that protrudes from its yard
like a rotting tooth. It was possible once,
when it was full of her possessions,
the accumulated trash of a lifetime,
to believe that something yet pure
lay beneath. But bare, with its puddled
floor and mottled walls, its windows of
fractured glass, it's clear at last
that nothing was ever there.

The town is vacant at 5PM and
every third doorway is up for rent.
All Antiques Half Off (except #112)
but there's a choice of pub and 2 bars,
Tattoos are OPEN and the VFW is having a
Corn Hole Contest and Pancake Breakfast!
-- why must these things hurt so?

The whole place persists like a headache
that just won't go away. At lakeside
I smoke a cigar like Grandpa and wait
for the end of the day. The water is flat.
Gravity has pulled it taut as a sheet
on a final bed. Birds cross the overcast,
a flock of notes come loose from their staff
to wander tuneless on the air.
At one end the sky has been rubbed
by a last scrap of rainbow ... promising?
... promising? while at the other
the sun settles into murk, and dims,
yet will not die.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Future Past

Cookie, shmookie -- there's nothing like old music to evoke old memories ...

Remember Monty Python's "Summarize Proust" sketch? It was a quiz show in which contestants were given 30 seconds to summarize Marcel Proust's monumental Remembrance of Things Past. It went something like this:

"Go!"
"Well, um um, there's this man, um, and he's sitting -- he's sitting in a garden -- Oh! and there's a cookie! Yes yes, the cookie's very important, because, um um --"
BZZT!
"Time's up!"

But seriously ... The flavor of a cookie might have worked for Proust, bringing back the entire flavor of his childhood. But for me there's nothing better than hearing a piece of music I haven't heard for a long time. Recently I unearthed another lost recording that dates back (I'm amazed to say) almost 50 years. If you have any idea of my taste in music, you'll be surprised to hear that this treasured work is a collection of pop orchestrations by Les Baxter, one of those composer/arrangers who used to fill offices and department stores with "easy listening" Muzak.

I always thought that expression was perfect -- "easy" because it was so undemanding on listeners that you could hear it almost without noticing. To Baxter's credit, he was among the most capable practitioners of this style. At his best he approached the interesting orchestral textures of Ferde Grofé in The Grand Canyon Suite, and you could certainly stack him up against Leroy Anderson, whose work gets performed by serious orchestras.

So what's so special about Space Escapade? Well, to begin with, I was young and my musical sophistication had yet to develop. At the time the records in our household ranged from classical to Broadway musicals, but there was no jazz, no folk, and certainly no rock and roll. (Yes, kids, before it was Rock there was a roll at the end of it.) I think the only recordings I owned myself were Alvin and the Chipmunks (the originals) and maybe a Bob Newhart comedy album.

But I was enchanted with science fiction and Outer Space. And my dad had this wild friend who drove a Thunderbird sports car and threw parties. I'm pretty sure Space Escapade was a present from him, because my parents would never have bought such a thing. At any rate I always associated it with a free life style. Probably this was due to the cover, which represented some futuristic singles whooping it up with purple beverages and a misty floor. Things in the future would be more open and free, it implied. Girls would come in colors, like shirts, and there would be more than one of them available per male. (Hey, I never said it was politically correct.) Small wonder that it captured my juvenile fancy.

Looking for more info on Les Baxter I came across the website SpaceAgePop.com, the author of which has identified an entire genre of related music dating from the 1940's through the 1970's. One interesting thing to note is that apparently the "Space Age" is long since over -- it ended with the conclusion of the Space Race with the Soviet Union and the abandonment of the Apollo moon program. But for a few glorious decades the future seemed to hold unlimited promise. It was going to be a Technicolor future, with Americans riding in rockets to the accompaniment of sugary sweet violins ... a Jetsons future in which the nuclear family would consist of mom and dad, two kids, a dog and a robot.

Alas, that future is over too. It ended in the quicksand of Vietnam, the debacle of Watergate, two space shuttle disasters, financial collapse, terrorism, pollution, and the advent of global warming. We have to work quite a bit harder now to imagine a brighter future, and even then it is one that has lost its innocence.

But Space Age Pop is still here to remind us of the future that used to be. It even includes multiple sub-genres such as Exotica, Jet Set Pop, Incredibly Strange Music, and my personal favorite: Bachelor Pad Pop. Actually I learned later that my dad's wild friend was gay, so we really should add an additional genre called Gay Bachelor Pad Pop.

You can listen to samples of Space Escapade and the rest of Baxter's prolific output at Amazon. What's that? You say it sounds dippy? Of course it's dippy! That's the whole point! You just have to strap on your jet pack and go along for the ride. Even the album cover description is camp beyond words:

"Even today, in an era of science and satellites, the mystery of the universe has lost none of its magical appeal. We can close our eyes and dream of the future, wondering whether a starlit planet might soon replace a tropical island, the Riviera, or a distant mountain lodge as the ideal spot for a romantic holiday. Or, with the aid of the music in this album, we can drift into the future's lovemist with Les Baxter and make a spaceliner escapade by earthlight, tongue safely fastened in cheek."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Deltas and Epsilons Among Us

"How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"

-The Tempest

Each day when I disembark at the Brickell Ave metro station I encounter one or more unusual men making their way to work. I group them together for several reasons. For one thing, they obviously know one another and are often traveling together in groups of two or three. They get off at the same stop each day and presumably go to the same destination, so I assume they work together. And then there are the other things they have in common ...

They tend to be large-bottomed, dumpy figures with a tendency to waddle when they walk. They favor pants with elastic waistbands instead of belts. They wear t-shirts with company sponsor logos or event announcements. Their speech is slurred. They have the unselfconsciousness of children. They speak in short sentences, shorter words. Like Benjy in The Sound and the Fury. In fact, they are Benjy.

My fascination with them is not that of a journalist. If it were, I would be concerned to find out where they worked, what sort of "program" was helping them find their place in the world, how it was funded, what their medical maladies were, and what their prospects were. I'd want to know what percentage of the population they represent, and whether their segment is growing, and if so how fast.

Instead, I prefer to wonder what their lives are like, and if in some odd wordless way we are all like them. I can certainly relate to their air of worn out innocence, that of children who have grown old without growing up, who in fact will never grow up. Don't I still sense that kid within me, the same one I used to be and still am? How different am I because I've learned all my skills and can express myself in big paragraphs?

Then, too, I find myself thinking of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, in which people are purposefully bred into graded subspecies to fit them to different niches in society -- from the Alphas and Betas who run everything, through the Gammas who can do skilled labor, down to the Deltas and Epsilons who are suited only for menial tasks like assembly lines and cleaning.

This book used to be science fiction. Now it often seems ever closer to reality. A high-school teacher I know was shocked to find that his students could not see any problem with this dystopian vision, especially its use of the wonder drug called Soma to make everyone placid and cooperative if not downright happy. Now the prospect of memory and learning enhancement chemicals, and computer augmented intelligence, makes it possible we will create a caste of hyperintelligent beings among ourselves, while the mass of third-world humanity is left behind to shift for itself.

Meanwhile, the Deltas and Epsilons are already here, swabbing our floors and emptying the trash. We ask nothing more of them but to keep quiet and out of the way, maybe to watch a little TV, and remain content.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Synesthesia City

"A neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." (Wikipedia)


I can remember "seeing" music for the first time when I was only about seven years old. My parents were listening to a symphony on the radio one Sunday afternoon and I was just dreaming away the time when I became caught up in the sound as waves from the string section alternately broke over the rocks of the percussion with competing waves from the brass and winds. I picked up a knife and fork and began weaving them through the air in imitation of what I perceived the music doing.

Some people say they see colors in music, while others feel only emotion. For me it has always been structures and shapes, three dimensional forms that erupt and soar and collide. Even years later, after I had learned to hear the notes and keys, to understand the formalism of music and to appreciate all its subtlety of tone, I'm still able to hear the shape of it. Perhaps the closest anyone has ever come to showing what I see is the version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as it was visualized in the original film of Fantasia. Those great rolling waves of abstract form, both surreal and tangible, struck me as being just about right.

The experience came to me again the other night while listening to -- and watching -- a recital by pianist Awadagin Pratt. I'd seen him once before and had been impressed enough to leave the performance with two of his CD's clutched in my hands. (We picked up another one this night.) As my wife noted, "He's a Big guy!" Large enough to play on the line in the NFL, Pratt uses his powerful frame to cause the piano to thunder. But of course it's not only a matter of pounding. He can evoke the tinkle of chiming glass in the topmost register, and soar from end to end of the keyboard with perfect grace and control.

This ambitious program began with Beethoven, Bach, and Schumann and concluded with Chopin and Liszt. The long suffering Bösendorfer at his command showed it was equal to the task, and Pratt seemed as full of energy at the conclusion as he was in the beginning. Along the way tens of thousands of notes must have been struck, and all to good effect. The Liszt sonata in particular produced the above mentioned effect of synesthesia most powerfully -- I found it best to close my eyes, the better to see the towering shapes that seemed to emerge from the strings, totter and collapse in pieces, only to rise again, wrenching and twisting at the dual demands of composer and performer.

Mr. Pratt is also an educator, who instructed us in the history of the Schumann variations on a theme of Beethoven. This was a work that never achieved a final definitive form in the composer's lifetime, though different versions of it were published. Pratt took it on himself to arrange the variations in a novel sequence, starting with those most free formed and farthest from the theme, and progressing through those more similar to it, then ending with a statement of the theme itself. He let us listen for it ourselves so we could experience what he called an "aha moment" somewhere in the middle. I'll spoil it for you: the theme is from the second movement of the Seventh Symphony, the funeral march, though there was nothing funereal about what Schumann did with it. It has to be one of the most virtuosic pieces he ever wrote, easily rivaling the calisthenics of Franz Liszt.

And speaking of Liszt, my favorite quote attributed to him is his reply to Georges Sand when she told him he played the piano better than anyone had ever played it. "But," he said, "I want to play it as well as it can be played." Which is something else again. Supposedly late in his life he began revising some of his more difficult compositions, fearing that after his death his music would be forgotten if no one else could play it. He needn't have worried so much. Just turn Awadagin Pratt loose on it and tell him it's impossible to perform.

You can see him in action through his website which has a video from his performance at the White House last year. He's playing what the New York Times called "his herculean transcription" of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. This is the same piece he played for us the other night (though without the addition of "Hail to the Chief" at the end) and demonstrates what Bach might have done if the concert grand piano had been invented in his lifetime.

Like to experience synesthesia yourself? Have a look at this ...




The link to the White House video is no longer on his website, but here it is straight from YouTube --