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 --

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Phone Envy

I'm a victim of inconspicuous consumption ...

If a future historian ever reads this blog the way we read the diary of Samuel Pepys, trying to find out what life was like in the past, one thing that will no doubt prove amusing is the way I can rhapsodize about technologies that will soon become quaint.

This has happened to me before. Way back when I was in college I learned to program on an IBM 360 mainframe computer that ate punch cards, recorded its memories on reels of magnetic tape, and spat out reams of text on multipart green-bar paper. The room-sized beast had a face full of glittering lights and no video screen. It had less computing power than what is contained now in my watch.

Later I worked for a company that used just such a machine to process payroll records. Years afterward I wrote about my experiences there ... the room full of chattering keypunch machines like a nest of machine guns, the "bursting and decollating" room where printed reports were torn apart, the dumpster full of used data cards that were disposed of each night. One comment about this in a writing workshop was, "this might as well be Bartleby, the Scrivener." Just as Melville's quirky clerk, with his job (scrivening?) of copying documents in longhand, has vanished like a covered wagon heading West, so too this "modern" technology quickly passed into history almost while we watched. The next time I saw an IBM 360 it was behind glass in the Computer History Museum in Boston. The curators had recreated a programmer's office, circa 1965, including a scribbled note that said, "Bob - I can get you an hour on the machine between 3 and 4 AM tomorrow."

With all that in mind, let me tell you about my new phone (an HTC Aria running Android). One of the nice things about arriving late to a party like the smart phone revolution is the delightful experience of the "how long has this been going on?" feeling. Of course I've been reading about the developments all along, watching coworkers check their email on their phones, even listen to music and browse the Internet. And my own last two phones have at least had cameras built in and a way to send pictures out into the world. And yes, I even experienced some envy for the first iPhone adopters and their endless fascination with flipping through screens with their bare fingertips.

No more phone envy. My new phone has "apps" (more quaintly known as "applications," a usage of the word that comes from the idea of applying computer power to some task). It doesn't matter to me that the iPhone currently has more of them; there are already more than I can bother to find out about. This number is effectively in the "jillions." And unlike the painful, laborious, and sometimes catastrophic experience of installing software on a desktop computer, apps are designed to plug in like popping a Chiclet in your mouth. I was soon playing with a bubble level, a compass, and a map. The phone knows which way is up, which way is north, and where it is located - which gives it a leg up on many humans.

Naturally it has a camera, both photo and video, now standard equipment on any self respecting phone, as well as the ability to play music, and even a built in FM radio to tie me into NPR. (Hey, Apple - when will you let people play with the deactivated radios in YOUR phones? Oh, never mind - I realize that will not happen until there's a way to make them pay for it.)

But the thing that really brought me up short was pushing the little icon that said "Voice Dialing." A window opened up that said "Listening ..." like the ship computer on Star Trek used to say. I assumed I would have to record the sound of my voice saying a name and then train the phone to identify this with an entry in my address book. But when I said my wife's name a moment later her phone number appeared on screen ready to dial. The phone understood me!

Like I said. The "how long has this been going on" feeling. Last time I paid any attention to voice recognition software it was an expensive application that demanded a desktop computer with plenty of horsepower and didn't work very well even then. Apparently now a phone has all the horsepower needed for this, and it works pretty well. I guess I should have caught on from all the recent conversations I've had with phone answering robots when I call the phone company.

So, for you in the future, to whom Implanted Direct Cerebral Communication (or IDCC) is commonplace, and to whom the very idea of a "phone" is so arcane that it requires explanation, just remember where you came from. And remember too, that even your wonderful toys will someday become laughable.