Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Way of Weiwei

China has given rise to one of the world's great artists ... too bad they don't know what to do with him.

Let's get the building out of the way first. Miami's newest art museum, the Perez, abbreviated PAMM, is housed in a really stunning home designed by Herzog & de Mueron, the architects of the "bird's nest" olympic stadium in Beijing. It's constructed -- I almost want to say "crafted" -- of textured concrete with teak details. Outdoor spaces feature tubular hanging gardens that were still being installed during our first visit today. And it's sited with a view directly down the channel where cruise ships and seaplanes launch themselves toward the Caribbean islands. Not bad at all. You can even get there via the people mover that deposits you right across the street.

I wish everyone could go, at least in the next couple of months, if only to take in the opening exhibit of work by Ai Weiwei (who also served as artistic consultant for that olympic stadium). I went with an open mind, but honestly knew only two things about his life and work: (1) That he was famously arrested and "detained" by Chinese authorities for his outspoken social views. (2) That he deliberately broke a valuable Han Dynasty vase in a work of conceptual art. But I stuck around and soon found I was having an experience that went beyond the aesthetic and penetrated some higher realm.

My first clue that we were in for something different came before we even got inside. The sculpture garden featured twelve tall bronzes featuring all the animals that give names to the Chinese lunar years. This prompted us all to look up a calculator online and find out what animals we were. (Me: boar or pig. I prefer the boar.) This ran so counter to anything I expected that I felt sure more surprises were in store.

Inside, the vase incident was represented in the form of three larger than life photos of Weiwei demonstrating the before, during, and after of the dropping of said artifact and its reduction into fragments. I was struck by the look on his face, impassively straight on into the camera, at once confronting, questioning, daring you to react. Do you react differently knowing the economic value of the object? Its age and history? Exactly why is that? And is not the future continuously destroying the past in the shattering of the present moment?

So you see there is always a subtext to this body of work. It's a text that grows and reflects on itself the more you absorb. It is, in addition to everything else, literary in nature.

Perhaps it's no accident that Weiwei has become known equally through the statements he has published through social media. These were representing in a silent, endlessly repeating montage on a screen in the spacious theater (incorporated brilliantly alongside a majestic flight of stairs leading to the second floor gallery). We quickly found we had to take seats, the better to appreciate the content. One by one, the aphorisms -- sayings? sound bites? tweets? -- built into a rambling monologue about freedom and human dignity, and the impossibility of keeping it forever contained. This is the very stuff that landed him in so much trouble. I got a kick out of what he says they kept asking him in detention: "Weiwei, how did you get like this?" The picture conjures up Winston Smith deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Love, only perhaps this time there is a happy ending. Ai Weiwei is still at liberty, and still at odds with the powers that be in his native land.

I could have sat there for a very long time, but eventually an urge to see the work overcame me. Besides the vase there was a selection of ninety other photos taken during the ten years he spent in New York City in the 1990s. He loved "every inch" he says, and described it as "a monster." Included is a wonderful photo of Ai with Alan Ginsberg, both seated in identical meditative postures. Ginsberg, who did a lot to bring the East to us back in the '50s, had the East come right back at him. He had traveled to China and met Weiwei's father, Ai Qing, who was a noted poet, so the son was returning the visit. "When I got home from New York," Ai says, "I had no degree, no wife, and no money. From the Chinese perspective it was a complete failure."

As for the other pieces, I think they can best be described by sets of directions you would have to follow to recreate them ...

  • You know that Chinese tea that comes pressed into little bricks in the shape of a house? Make a few of them, but 1 meter square, and arrange them on a field of tea leaves.
  • Assemble a dense block of hardwood taken from some old destroyed temples about five feet tall and wide, then carve the outside of it so it assumes the shape of an extruded map of China. For extra credit, add a couple of freestanding columns beside it to represent islands. For even more extra credit, hollow out the center of a twelve foot long log in the same shape.
  • The "pearl of great price" is an archetype for the value placed on something rare and unique. What if you make it a cultured pearl? Ok, how about collecting enough of those to fill a huge bowl about 1 meter across? Then, just to show there's nothing unique about that, put another one beside it.
  • Since that broken vase was so shocking, how about collecting some other ones, then painting the Coca-Cola logo on them? Hey, they're not broken, so what are you complaining about?
  • Since you're so upset about vases, how about taking a bunch of antique three-legged stools, cutting their seats a bit so they sort of melt into one another, and making an arching spherical shape out of them with legs radiating outward in all directions.
  • Think of a surveillance camera. Yes, we all know what they look like. Now make one, actual size --. out of marble. For extra credit, also make a hard hat and a piece of twisted rebar out of marble.
  • Ah yes, the rebar. Lets say you get incensed about something like, say, the collapse of a lot of poorly built schools that claimed the lives of over five thousand children in an earthquake. Besides complaining to the authorities, go and collect tons of twisted rebar from the debris of the schools, then hire a crew to laboriously straighten them out by bending and striking each piece hundreds of times with a hammer, by hand of course. Then carefully sort them by size and arrange them on the floor in a pleasing rectangular pile that seems to evoke the shape of waves. Call it "Straight." For extra credit, display on a wall nearby the names and dates of birth of the five thousand children.

So you get the idea. It goes on, a wonderful imagination at work in a wonderful mind, being put to wonderful uses. Sculptor, photographer, social activist, philosopher -- dare we add poet? I came away with a powerful impression of a truly world-scale talent, equally at home making Chinese double-entendre out of crabs and internet censors as in making allusions to Andy Warhol.

I came away feeling that this guy is the real deal, and in his way might be a harbinger of real change soon to come. Do you remember when we all thought the Soviet Union would be around forever? Then something happened.

Weiwei poses this intriguing question: "What if the system of hate all around you suddenly disappeared one day and it was because of things you did. Would you be excited?" Forget China for a moment, and ask this question about wherever you are.

I leave you with this glimpse inside a forest of bicycles -- all identical, all the same Chinese brand ("Forever"), conjuring up images of those Mao-era streets full of cycling commuters, an era that is passing now as everyone buys cars. They're assembled together geometrically, shaped to tower over you and surround you. You can step within and become lost in the machine. You can almost hear the ball bearings in the spinning wheels. But they're not spinning.

[More of Ai Weiwei's work, including the China map and bowl of pearls, can be seen here.]

Friday, November 22, 2013

And Where Were You?

I wrote this poem some years ago, and offer it now to commemorate the day ...

And Where Were You?

What was I saying? I stood there
at the podium facing students like me,
all lost in their separate inner minds,
the clipping from the morning Herald
folded in my hand. A message for Phillip, perhaps,
whose blond and flat-topped head
would lead him later to enlist,
to work his way from C-average to
Master Sergeant, and who would never
return from Da Nang. Or one for Rob,
who failed to see any connection between
Civil Rights and the Holocaust,
who denied it even happened.

Current Events, it was called, in the class
titled Civics, where at least once a week
we read the papers. I was standing like that
when the damp-eyed girl from the
principal's office whispered the news
to the teacher behind me, who laid the
lightest hand on my shoulder to stop.
She passed the word along like some
secret we shouldn't tell, that the President
was shot, that he was dead.

I remember the touch of that hand, the
perfume she wore, the sound of her tender
regretful voice, the way the roomful of us
fidgeted our way through the silence
that followed, the nervous giggling
of someone in the rear, the sound of tears
from the next room, the shirts we had on,
the plaid skirts of the girls, the socks they wore,
their perfect shoes, the way our books were
heavy as we lugged them from the room --
everything, everything is there, but
what my news was that day.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Moral Lessons of Carpentry

Some lessons are best understood physically ...

Long ago I acquired a simple set of bookshelves. Why? Because back then the only available book formats were "hard" or "soft," not digital, so those of us who read were constantly filling up our living space with hundreds of examples of both, and always running out of space to store them. OK, my house is still like that, but I can see my physical books beginning to follow my music collection into the cloud.

At the time I considered these shelves cheap and nearly disposable. They were plain, unfinished pine boards, carelessly joined together, with a back of thin plywood. But compared to furnishings available now they are a masterpiece of fine cabinetry. Don't talk to me about Ikea. Just try to find something that is actually solid wood, not particle board covered in plastic. And if the backing isn't Masonite it will be even less substantial cardboard -- with a wood-grain paper face. Not wood, but a picture of wood. By contrast these pine shelves were actually joined using grooves cut in the side pieces, not those annoying little metal studs that seem to be universal now.

Moral Lesson No. 1: You don't know what you've got until time has gone by.

I coated the bare wood with a couple of coats of urethane varnish, and made a fateful decision to improve the attachment of the plywood back piece. Why fateful? Read on. I wasn't happy with the way it had been stuck on with staples. It was loose in places and felt flimsy. So I added some carpenters glue and additional nails to make it more solid.

For years the resulting piece served me faithfully, supporting the hefty weight of some portion of my library. The collection grew to occupy several additional bookcases until finally, because it no longer matched the decor, my lowly pine shelves were banished to the pantry and the more menial duty of supporting the bric-a-brac of contemporary kitchens -- chopping and mixing appliances, crock pots, garbage bags and the like.

Also on the shelves were some hurricane supplies, including (until recently) four gallon containers of water. It turns out these cheap polyethylene jugs are not really designed for long term storage. Having survived unneeded through one hurricane season, they were still standing by when one of them sprung a leak. The resulting small flood -- it's remarkable how much larger a gallon looks when spread flat over a large area -- soaked the bottom of the shelves and whatever items had been stored lower down.

Moral Lesson No. 2: Always do disaster planning.

So Saturday found me out back with the empty shelves on a table before me, attempting to remove that thin plywood from the back, the lower portion of which had now de-laminated due to what we might call "excess humidity." In short, I had lived to regret my attempts to attach it more securely. The wood wanted to peel away from itself rather than what it was glued onto, and the nails were harder to remove than the staples. What might have been a simple task became a matter for a hammer and wood chisel, followed by rasps to remove the residue of wood fibers and glue.

As I worked, in the back of my mind I heard a voice that I wished had been there at the beginning. You don't want to attach that so permanently, this experienced old carpenter would have counseled me. Those staples are there so when the day comes you want to remove or replace it, it will just pop right off. But that guy wasn't there when I needed him.

Moral Lesson No. 3: Plan for the future, because that day will come.

Once I had an entirely opposite, more cheerful carpentry experience. It happened when a friend gave me this wonderful old radio from the 1930s. No, it didn't work. Many years ago it had suffered some catastrophic component failure with the result that a transformer inside it had melted all over the chassis. It used vacuum tubes, of course, and most of them were missing, with an extremely low probability of being able to be replaced.

I decided it would make a great speaker cabinet. In spite of the symmetrical cabinet design it had only a single speaker on one side (with a torn cone), but with the innards out of the way there was plenty of room to mount two of them for stereo. I picked up a couple of 5-inch full range car speakers from Radio Shack and prepared to mount them.

The side that already had a speaker was easy. All I had to do was unscrew the old one from the piece of plywood it was attached to, then screw in the new one. But the plywood on the other side was solid because there had never been a speaker there. No big deal, I just had to unscrew the plywood (note that it was not GLUED in place) and cut an opening in it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the other side of the plywood was already marked in pencil for the cutout! We can only assume that it was easier to tell some helper in the factory to mark all the wood pieces, but then to only cut the ones that would have speakers attached. Maybe there was a deluxe model of the same radio that did have speakers on both sides. That would certainly be in line with American patterns of efficiency and consumer marketing. Or maybe the guy in the factory just figured that some hobbyist might want to add another speaker some day, not even imagining such a thing as "stereo" sound.

At any rate I experienced the great joy of applying my coping saw and following the outline that had been drawn on the wood for me by a nameless craftsman over 60 years in the past, someone who really and truly planned ahead. It just doesn't get any better than that.

And by the way, you wouldn't believe the sound that comes out of this simple unsealed enclosure. With the speakers pointing in opposite directions the sound reflects off the walls in a spacious and non-localized way, while the central location acts like a center channel speaker to fill in the gap between left and right. Maybe those guys back in the '30s knew something about acoustics, too.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Great 20th Century Nuclear War

You mean you didn't know about it?

If you are old enough to have lived through some portion of the last century, as I did, you might be saying to yourself, well, at least we never blew ourselves up. Indeed, after the decades-long threat of nuclear Armageddon during the Cold War, it does come as something of a relief to know that the conflict finally ended without ever reaching that final cataclysm. It is commonly said that we only ever fought the Soviet Union "by proxy," when smaller conventional wars were waged in places like Vietnam and Afghanistan.

But conventional wisdom is wrong. A nuclear war did take place in those years, with thousands of nuclear detonations -- enough to have eradicated every major city in the world, along with most of the smaller ones. What's that? You say you didn't notice? Well, that's probably because it happened over such a long period of time. And instead of dropping them on enemy cities we mostly blew them up in our own back yards, or in the neutral territory of the Pacific Ocean where it was supposed that they would be relatively harmless.

I'm speaking of course about the testing programs that were carried out by every country that developed "the Bomb." The appalling scale of these tests (and I can't write the word without hearing in my mind the repetition by the Emergency Broadcast System, "this is only a test") is rendered abundantly clear in this short video by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto. 

On a map of the world, he has animated a time lapse of all the nuclear bombs exploded from 1945 in New Mexico, through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then everywhere else, up to 1998. The image is compelling, as are the statistics. 2,054 explosions conducted by seven countires. Over half of them by the United States, and a huge percentage of those on our own soil. (Hint: you might want to steer clear of Nevada for the next few thousand years.) Russia came in second, of course. Want to guess who's number three? If you said China, bzzt, you're wrong. The correct answer is France.

Be sure to stick with the video to the end. The true cumulative effect does not become clear until the last minute when a recap is done one country at a time and you can sense the scale of what happened. It startled me to note that the Soviet Union appears to have trashed itself from one end to the other.

At some point, treaties reigned in the madness somewhat by dictating that tests had to be done underground in order to contain the radiation and the spread of fallout. As imperfect as that may be (what about groundwater, for example?) it's a far cry from the early 1950s when open air tests were viewed from a distance like spectator sports, and the Today Show and the daily newspaper displayed maps projecting where all the strontium-90 was likely to land. It may have gone boom in the far West, but the cloud carried across the Midwest to New England and beyond, tainting the grass to be eaten by our dairy cows and milk to be fed to our children.

It didn't matter that people like Albert Einstein read statements on TV declaring that an untold number of future deaths and cancers would be the result, visited upon us for decades and perhaps centuries to come. Government spokespeople insisted the radiation levels were "safe" and that the test were necessary for the national defense. Anyone feel safe yet?

I watched the video with my grandson and explained about all that had happened back then. His jaw literally dropped in righteous indignation. And well it might. He's a millennial baby, born after the Great Nuclear War had ended. But that stuff is still in the air and the water and the earth where we grow our food. What were we thinking?

We know now that there is no safe level of exposure to radioactive materials. Even a microscopic speck of plutonium lodged in your lung continues to irradiate the tissue around it, producing a constant threat of genetic damage. Look how concerned we were about the nuclear meltdowns in Chernobyl and Fukashima. Those things pale in comparison with what we deliberately did to our earth and air in the name of security.

And before we go, let's recall that thousands more of these weapons are still sleeping in their silos and submarines, ready to spring into action at a few minutes notice. Wasn't one nuclear war enough? Do we really have to prepare for another one?

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Small vs. Fast

The smaller it gets, the faster it goes ... the faster it goes, the smaller it gets ...

I had a small epiphany recently while watching the apps on my phone download and update themselves. Of course it's not necessary to watch, but I have to. Long years of experience on PCs have accustomed me to the virtues of monitoring this activity for signs of trouble. Plus, there's something satisfying about watching the little progress bars turn blue from end to end while the status line indicates a download icon, then an "installing" message, then "installed", then a security scan, and finally "Application X is safe," indicating that all is well with the world.

Only once in a blue moon does anything go wrong. My wi-fi connection might flake out, interrupting the download, or something is amiss with the package on the server so that it won't install. But even then there is little downside. Simply trying again will insure success, if not today then tomorrow, and in the meantime the existing app will keep plugging merrily along.

Gone are the days of waiting hours for a huge file to trickle down through a dialup connection only to have it error out a few percent before completion, making it necessary to start over. Gone, too, are the frequent disasters that sometimes still plague complex software installations on PCs -- be they Windows, Mac, or (dare I say it?) even Linux. Let's face it, Android and IOS have taken the end user experience to new levels of ease and reliability. People who used to stare dumbfounded at a screen asking them to press CTRL-ALT-DEL can now do whatever they want with the swipe of a finger or even by uttering some verbal commands.

But my epiphany was not about ease of use. Instead I found myself marveling over how small and compact all my apps were, and therefore how efficiently coded they must be. Some were only a megabyte or two, while the largest were not much above 20 megs -- miniscule in comparison with 700 meg CDs or 8 gigabyte DVDs. Then it suddenly hit me. Back when we had to install everything from floppy disks, each disk held barely more than a single megabyte (about 1.4). So those 20 meg files I was downloading in a fraction of a minute represented a dozen or more floppy disks -- exactly the sort of packaging that used to be required by something like Windows 95, Adobe Photoshop, or MS Office. In other words, these baby apps are about the same size as major applications used to be, only speed has made them seem trivially small. And the smaller the hardware gets, the faster it goes.

The same thing happened to Unix. If the PCs of 1985 had been able to run it, there would have been no need for DOS, Netware, and Windows (or the Mac OS) to serve as poor substitutes. But back then you needed a huge mainframe to get the resources of memory and disk space that the full-blown, multiuser, multitasking, network-connected Unix had to offer. Ten years later a Finnish computer student was able to create a Unix-like kernel small enough to run on a 386 PC. With the GNU project added on top it became Linux, which now runs on everything from supercomputers down to TV set-top boxes, and yes, Android phones -- while incidentally powering most of the Internet. (A different Unix clone, FreeBSD, lies beneath the pretty skin of OSX.)

So the next time you're fidgeting with impatience at how slow your updates are happening, reflect on the alternative. You could wait for a package to come in the mail, then start feeding one disk after another into that voracious slot on the front of your PC, listening to the measured thunks as the head moved from one track to the next (80 tracks per diskette -- you could count them), while hoping and praying that there were no bad spots or copying errors that might crash the whole procedure.

Don't you feel better now? I know I do.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Are Humans In Jeopardy?

Is the era of human supremacy coming to an end?

What to do now that computers can beat us at our own game. That game, of course, is "trivia," the ability to access random information on a variety of subjects, which would seem to be a prototypically human strength. Yet the contest on TV's "Jeopardy" was one of the most foregone conclusions ever presented for our viewing pleasure.

Following months of hype, Watson - IBM's supercomputer - faced off against the same two contestants it had already trounced in a trial run. After all the publicity, watching the event itself was kind of like seeing the Packers and Steelers on videotape a week after the Superbowl. But this latest victory is still a milepost in the history of artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence and Chess

It's a victory that has been predicted since the earliest computers were in their infancy. Alan Turing, whose pioneering work with logic and theory laid the foundations for computer design (and helped to break the German Enigma code in World War II), could see no reason why his electronic offspring should not eventually meet and even surpass the capabilities of those who designed them.

That was quite a stretch of the imagination back when computers were little more than rapid calculating machines. Others at the time (the 1950's) believed there were certain types of thinking in which humans would always excel. Oddly enough, chess was often cited as an example. But as we now know, the game of chess is trivial for computers, given enough memory and processing power.

By the 1980's futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted that a computer would be able to defeat the best human chess master by 1998. He was wrong, because it happened in 1997 when IBM's Deep Blue overcame Russian grand master Gary Kasparov. By this time most of us were not even surprised, because in most cases we ourselves could not defeat a toy sold by Radio Shack.

If humans still had any claim to unique capabilities, it may have been in our ability to rapidly synthesize a solution based on hazy and tenuous relationships between apparently unrelated things. Though typified by parlor games like "Trivial Pursuits," the same mental ability gives us creativity, the capacity to invent, write music and literature, to produce art and original scientific theories.

But now we may have to cede this advantage to the next generation of supercomputer. Recently Kurzweil picked Watson as the favorite in the Jeopardy competition, saying that even if it lost it would soon improve enough to come back and win. At the rate they're going, he is convinced that within a few decades they will exceed the memory capacity and thinking ability not just of a single human, but of all humans combined.

Passing the Turing Test

What's next for artifical intelligence? Maybe all that's left is the so called "Turing Test." Alan Turing proposed setting up a pair of teletype machines, one leading to a computer, the other to a human operator. If someone conducting a conversation by teletype could not tell the difference between them, then the computer would pass the test - meaning that it had demonstrated human intelligence.

That sounded far-fetched at the time, but those working in the field of AI have come to believe the Turing Test is actually too easy. In fact, demonstrations have already been done which were good enough to fool a certain percentage of human subjects. But the methods used were not nearly advanced enough to be considered true thought.

So other tests will no doubt be devised, with computers - or whatever they come to be called - rising to the occasion, and passing over one bar after another. IBM's room full of computers will shrink to the size of a chip, as it has done before. And perhaps one day computers will be the ones proposing the tests, asking us to demonstrate what it means to be "human."

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Nano Ethics

Just because it's small doesn't mean we can ignore it ...

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) wants us to get ready for the biggest change to come along since the Industrial Revolution.

If you think that change is already here in the form of computers or the Internet, think again. Those things are so 20th century. CRN (website at crnano.org) is concerned about the impact of "molecular manufacturing" -- the use of nanotechnology to produce not just very small objects, but large scale ones like appliances and even cars.

They foresee a near future in which every home has its own "fab" -- a device between the size of a microwave and a refrigerator that will be able to churn out copies of everything from tableware to cell phones, and at a fraction of the current cost.

Fabs Will Be Fabulous

These machines will even be able to make copies of themselves, so eventually they will be inexpensive as well. And if that sounds fantastic, consider that the first crude generation of such devices is here already in the form of 3D printers that can create complicated physical objects from computer designs. (Check out the many examples at Shapeways.com.)

At first take the whole idea sounds wonderful. But the people at CRN have devoted themselves to seeing the potential dark flip side of this revolution. They pose questions like these:
  • What happens to the world economy when virtually all production jobs are suddenly eliminated?
  • Will manufactured goods become less valuable than raw materials?
  • Will companies that own product designs prosecute those who copy them, the way music companies go after pirates? (Already a problem with 3D printers.)
  • What happens when terrorists gain the ability to replicate thousands of copies of a weapon, or to engineer a deadly virus? (Again, happening already.)

These issues and many more are thoughtfully presented in a series of scenarios they have developed, and
which they have published online. They explore the possible time-line for the advent of molecular manufacturing, who the key players might be, and how the many impacts of violent change could play out, both for good and ill.

About CRN

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is a think tank founded by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. Treder is a biologist who also serves as Managing Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Phoenix studied nanotechnology at Stanford University while obtaining a degree in computer science.

Starting as a series of discussions between the two, they built CRN into a "virtual organization" with a substantial board of directors and an active schedule of presentations made to conferences around the world. Their aim is to influence those in responsible positions so they will be able to seize the opportunities of the new technology while avoiding the pitfalls.

One thing they do not question, however, is that the change will come. Once the possibility is there, someone somewhere will bring it into being. Ready or not, it's only a matter of when, and how.

Friday, May 17, 2013

KOBO - Now More Than Ever

It's not too late to support your local independent book seller ...

Of all the reading platforms for ebooks perhaps the one with the most fortuitous name is not Kindle or Nook but Kobo. (Let's omit the unimaginative Sony Reader Store, the goofy Google Play Store, and the total misnomer iTunes.) So until someone starts selling a Koob or Obko reader, Kobo is the only one to call itself by an anagram of what it's all about: THE BOOK.

But I've become a fan of Kobo for more than just the name. It might be my best chance to defend my rights as a reader and to keep my friendly local bookseller in business.

Some history: In the beginning (1971) a fledgling ecosystem came to life. Project Gutenberg began offering free public domain texts after Michael Hart "invented" the idea of an ebook. By 1998 primitive reading devices came into existence, along with several variants of copy protected text formats, and they all began vying for supremacy, each offering their own limited selection of content, each supporting one or more of the available file types, but none of them dominant. They had dim, low resolution LCD screens, and were less fun to read on than your laptop -- which at the time weighed 6 pounds and heated up your legs like a toaster oven.

The first big breakthrough came with ePaper display technology. This replaced LCD screens with something much more clear, rendering black on off-white text at nearly the resolution of laser printers. Better still, these new screens drew battery power only when the page was turned, resulting in times between charges measured in weeks instead of hours. Now we're getting somewhere!

At this point Amazon exploded over the landscape like a nuclear bomb. Sony and other lesser known vendors came to market with ePaper more or less simultaneously, but Sony is now marginalized and the others are long gone because only Amazon recognized the key ingredient -- it's not the device, it's the ecosystem. Using its might as ubiquitous retailer and its ability to sell devices at or below cost, it was able to foist its own proprietary format on vast numbers of consumers who didn't care how much they were being locked in to a single vendor as long as they could get whatever they wanted from Amazon, instantly.

They key word there was instantly -- and wirelessly. It was Amazon's genius to "give away" cellular data plans with each Kindle so that you could buy your books at the beach instead of taking them with you, reducing the delivery time to zero. Can you spell "impulse buy?"

I confess it took time for this idea to grab me. My own first reading device (2008) was a Sony and it didn't even have Wi-Fi. (I didn't have it in my own home yet either.) No problem. Just download books to my PC, then plug in the USB cable and copy them over. A chore of few minutes followed by weeks of happy reading. It was much later before I experienced the instant gratification of hear-about-it / download it / read it.

I'm not sorry about the delay however. I instinctively shied away from the hermetically sealed world of Amazon with its books that can be read by nothing else. Faced with this juggernaut of competition, most other vendors had rushed to support the ePub standard and Adobe's digital rights management, in principle allowing you to buy content from whoever you wanted and read it any way you wanted. Most other reading devices will also view PDFs and plain text files, but if you want to read those on your Kindle you have to send them to Amazon first to be automatically converted to Amazon's proprietary format. This really rubs me the wrong way. I need permission to read a draft of my own novel? Not only that, they have the gall to charge you 15 cents per megabyte for the privilege.

So I trudged along with my Sony, taking advantage of the wealth of free digital books available from Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks, while still buying most of my new books in paper form. But that fledgling ecosystem was not standing still. Meanwhile the iPhone and iPad happened, then Android phones and tablets. Prices plunged and features exploded. My Sony with all its limitations cost over $300. Suddenly for a hundred bucks less you could get a general purpose tablet with full color display, sound, video, wifi, email, web browser, etc etc etc. And the miracle workers who first brought this to market was not Amazon but ... Barnes and Noble.

The venerable bricks-and-mortar bookstore had jumped on the bandwagon late, but in time to make a splash. The Nook was the first real budget priced Android tablet, subsidized and only slightly limited by having a restricted version of the App Market (now the Play Store) to prevent people from, for example, installing Kindle software and downloading books from Amazon. That's fair, right? Just try installing Nook software on a Kindle.

B&N did a lot of things right. Their hardware came out before the color version of the Kindle, and new models competed well on features as Amazon took a turn playing catchup. B&N followed up with the first back-lit ePaper device. The predictable price war ensued, benefiting the customers of both. But now it's beginning to look like the party could be over.

Faced with slumping sales in spite of its arguably superior product, B&N first began to whimper about getting out of the hardware business, then appeared to play a trump card by releasing a software upgrade that removed all restrictions on their Android tablet. Match that, Amazon!

Why would they do such a thing? Well, for the same reason I bought my Android tablet elsewhere. Namely, Google had got into the market, offering full featured tablets with no software restrictions for not much more than Amazon and B&N were charging for their locked up ones. Given the choice, why would you choose the ones that were needlessly crippled? On a Nexus you can install apps from both of the "other" booksellers and buy from whoever you want -- in addition to Google.

For awhile I was buying books from B&N on my tablet, if only to root for the underdog. But now B&N appears to be considering selling off its entire digital content division. I don't know what they're thinking. Dumping the up and coming thing to devote themselves to selling paper books and magazines? Haven't they learned anything from the experiment? Worst of all, the potential buyer may turn out to be Microsoft, which could mean the death knell for both parts of the company.

Which brings us to Kobo. Remember them? As I reported after hearing their presentation at the Miami Book Fair, Kobo was once going to be the salvation of Borders Books. The partnership was their answer to the Kindle and Nook, and it was Kobo's answer to having a brick-and-mortar anchor in the world. Kobo had great hardware at competitive prices, a commitment to open standards, and their own online book infrastructure. When Borders went under and Kobo became an orphan I was worried about them but maybe I shouldn't have been. They were orphans before the partnership, so they had little to lose while Borders needed them like a life raft.

So Kobo is still around, with newer and prettier devices. They were acquired by Rakuten, said to be "the Amazon of Japan," and have made another savvy move. They replaced Borders with a network of independent booksellers. With a bold stroke, one underdog hooked up with another. Now you can have the best of both worlds, acquiring ebooks while giving your support to your favorite local bookstore. You can create a Kobo account and install their reading app on your tablet or PC even if you don't have a Kobo device. Just be sure to register through your bookstore's website so your account will link to them.

Better do it quick. Today, no Borders. Tomorrow, perhaps no Barnes and Noble? What about the day after that? It's not that I hate Amazon. I buy from them too. I even have a wish list. I just don't ever want them to be the only place I can go.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Singing Praises

What better reason to burst into song?

Of all things, I discovered the singing of hymns at our annual gathering of Quakers in Florida. This might sound unexpected, especially if you know how rare singing is in our kind of silent Quaker meetings. In contrast to some other churches where music and song are big parts of the Sunday service, we can go a whole year without piping up a single note until the annual Christmas season causes us to lift the lid on the piano and dust off those books of carols.

There are exceptions. We have one attender who often gives his spoken messages in the form of impromptu song. And there was the time when our visitor from Haiti, whose sister had been injured in the earthquake there, led us in the spontaneous singing of a hymn whose appropriate refrain was "Alleluiah!"

But at this annual gathering we happened to stumble into a workshop on "chanting." For an hour a group of us were led in singing some simple plainsong that more resembled Gregorian chants than traditional hymns. The tunes were easy to pick up, and the words simple enough to learn after hearing them once or twice. Each was repeated "until it was over," which happened by mutual consent. The substance of the text was basically Christian, but broad enough to appeal to a wider range of kindred spirits. The experience was deeply peaceful and surprisingly emotional. Not to mention auditorially pleasing. Even our untutored voices began to sound good in the small reverberant meditation chapel where it was held.

Encouraged by this experience, I later joined a group clustered around the piano in the dining hall to sing from a hymnal. We even did that same Alleluiah piece that I remembered our visitor leading us in. I had a good time and it was over too soon. But I had one more treat in store. Before our evening business meeting an a capella chorus performed a favorite of a recently departed friend. I haven't yet tracked it down by title, but it contained a "hook" that has stayed with me since, a particular phrase that repeated, "here I am, Lord, can you hear me?" Listening to this, I felt certain the singers were heard. Certainly by me.

Home again I felt led to download an entire collection of hymns. I found one called History of the Hymnal that contains 100 hymns -- count 'em, 100! -- for the bargain basement price of only 9.49. (You can use the link to hear samples courtesy of Amazon.) Not bad for the equivalent of 3 packed CD's. But what really drew me to this particular collection was the sound of the small vocal ensemble. They perfectly capture the flavor of a small congregation with a basic organ, or a group of friends gathered around a piano. Occasionally there is a soloist or duet for variety, but generally one tune leads gracefully to the next, with simple harmonies and a sound clear enough to make the words intelligible. There's no attempt to jazz things up with modern instruments, no gospel wailing, no Mormon Tabernacle Choir, just human voices lifted in songs of praise.

So I've been walking around listening to this collection, not tired of it yet, feeling it sink into me and have an effect. You don't even have to go along with all the theology in the lyrics to get the underlying message of peace, calm, and centeredness. It's written into the effortless phrasing, the solid chord progressions that have been with us for centuries, a liturgy that has grown by accumulation over the years. You can even sing along if you want to. Part of me is still singing.

Friday, April 12, 2013

You Want It WHEN?

We all know the feeling. We've packed everything for the trip, including the right number of socks and underwear, snacks, water bottles, reading material, chargers for the phone and tablet and computer. We even put out the cat and made sure the stove was off, the porch light on, and the neighbor knows to bring in the mail. Satisfied that all is ready, we gas up the car and hit the road. Then about a hundred miles later while merrily singing along with the radio, the moment of realization strikes, the one thing we forgot.

So, recently I found myself several hundred miles from home without two medications that I'm supposed to take every night. What to do? Call the doctor for a temporary prescription? Talk the drug store into selling me enough for a few days? What if instead it were possible to simply cause those two bottles parked on the shelf at home to transport themselves to my current location?

And of course, for some years now, that is exactly what is possible -- and in this case what was the easiest thing to do. All I needed was someone who could get into my house (thank you, you know who you are) and take them to the nearest Fedex shipping point, only a mile away. The following morning while sitting placidly in a meeting room in the rural boondocks I looked out the window to see the Fedex truck pass by, just for me.

Commonplace, I know. But consider that those precious objects had flown from Miami to Orlando -- with a change of planes in Nashville, Tennessee! -- while I slept and ate my breakfast, then managed to hop on the right truck to get to me before lunch. And the fee for this was less than two hours wages. What a wonderful world.

The Post Office used to be known for its intrepid reliability, but for the past dozens of years the crown has surely passed to Federal Express and its imitators -- UPS, DHL, Airborne, et al. A niche market initially patronized by attorneys impatient for documents has grown into a household utility, moving everything from freight down to letters (or pills) that "absolutely, positively, have to get there overnight." In some locations, and for a premium, you can even get it delivered the same day. The project that began as an MBA masters thesis about efficient distribution networks has conquered the world.

Conquered is not too strong a word. Along with ubiquitous low cost transportation and cheap electronic communications, the existence of such revolutionary courier service was a hallmark of the free market countries who faced off against the centrally managed systems of their rivals in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In fact, I remember reading about an experiment that was conducted not long after the USSR collapsed and Western companies were beginning to explore the novel possibility of doing business there.

The test was performed simultaneously in the USA and Russia. In America identical packages were sent by 3 rival services coast to coast to the same address. All three arrived the following morning within 30 minutes of each other. In Russia they tried to send a package from Moscow to the newly renamed St. Petersburg (nee Leningrad). I can't recall how long it took, but it was a l-o-o-n-g time, and its arrival was anything but certain. We're talking weeks, by which time whatever the package contained was no longer urgent.

Forget military applications; how could you even run a country that way in the modern world? The answer is, you couldn't, not successfully, and package delivery was only one more sign of the many failings of a system that was decaying and collapsing of its own weight. The experimenters described the act of taking something to be shipped to a government office during one of its few open hours, standing in long lines, perhaps to be told that the package was not wrapped properly and sent home to find some string. Here you don't even have to wrap it, they will wrap it for you and do a better job of it than you might yourself.

Did you know Fedex can even help you ship backwards in time? What? OK, it's only a rare example, but here's how it works. You know they have a cutoff time each day. It might be 6 pm if they're picking up, or 8 pm if you're taking it to one of their main shipping offices. But a company I used to work for was part of a nationwide chain. When one of our East coast customers needed to overnight some prints after hours, we sent a digital copy to another location in California where they had plenty of time to produce the prints and get them to Fedex before the cutoff there -- which of course was 3 hours later than in the East. One wonders what might be possible in modern day Russia, which spans 9 time zones.

So let's hear it for our overnight shippers, expediters of the modern age, who have made the likes of Amazon possible, and then enabled us all to provide the same service from every mom and pop shop in the land. It may not be sexy, it may not be high tech, but it gets there, absolutely, positively. And hey, I've got my pills.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Ready to POP

I've become a walking hotspot ...

Let's face it, we all hate to pay for stuff, especially when it feels like we're being overcharged. This happens especially in markets where pricing has not settled down yet, such as mobile data access plans. Rates on these things are nuts, obviously dictated by what some marketing department thinks the customer will bear rather than on the intrinsic value of the service.

Consider: I pay AT&T $20 a month for 300MB of data, and I usually use pretty close to that because I'm careful to do all my heavy downloading when I'm on WiFi. That works out to less than 7 cents per meg. But if I run a wee bit over I have to pay another $20 for another chunk of data I might not need. Effectively the price per meg could almost double. Make sense?

How about this: For an extra $10 a month I could get 3 gigabytes of data, or ten times the amount I get now. The price per meg then would be only 1 cent, or 1/7 what I pay for the smaller amount. This is intended to make the $30 plan hard to refuse, but sheesh, couldn't there be something in between? Or couldn't that low end be a bit more generous?

On top of this there is an arbitrary restriction on my service that prevents me from sharing my cellular data with another device through tethering (where the cell phone becomes a mobile hotspot). Now, if they're charging me by how much I consume, and if I'm already using as much as I'm paying for, why should they care if I divided my usage between two or more devices? Obviously, it's just a way to force me to buy a separate data plan for each device, or to upgrade my service.

How much more? Turns out it is a minimum of $40 for a 1 gig shared data plan, PLUS an extra $55 for each additional device. So instead of $20 or $30 per month I'd be paying $95 just for the ability to share access with my tablet. That's 9.5 cents per megabyte, or 35% more than my current plan, and 850% more than an individual 3 gig plan. Any rhyme or reason there?

Alternatively I could buy a separate data plan just for my tablet (assuming it had 4G built in, which it doesn't) for $50 per month for 5 gigs, or a penny per megabyte. But that would be in addition to the data plan for my phone, so I'd still be paying a total of $70 a month. And it might be way more data than I would need or use. Any wonder why it makes me crazy? Any wonder why people jailbreak their phones and install software that bypasses the restrictions? (Not me, of course.)

But hey, this is Capitalism, and market forces are beginning to work. When I heard about FreedomPOP's plan to give out 500 megs per month of free 4G mobile data I jumped all over it. All you do is send them a "refundable deposit" for one of their access devices and agree to pay reasonable overage charges of 1 or 2 cents per megabyte. If you want more you can buy it for amounts that make sense rather than nonsense, and use it with any number of other devices. Now we're talking!

I paid about $100 for a tiny (2.5in/6.5cm square) mobile access point that you can slip in a pocket and which will support up to 8 WiFi connections. I wouldn't expect very good performance with a maximum load, but it works just fine for my phone and tablet. If I use it for a year with no overages I will have paid about $8 per month for my 500 megs, or about 1.7 cents per meg. If I use it for three years the price will fall to less than half a cent per meg, or less than 10 cents per day. At prices like that I will gladly pay overages if only to encourage them to keep up the good work!

Got data leftover? FreedomPOP even lets you share it with friends who have their own FreedomPOP accounts. An inspired piece of viral marketing, but generous nonetheless. Try giving away your unused megabytes on [insert vendor of your choice].

The only drawback to the service is the spotty coverage map in my area, because FreedomPOP uses the Clearwire cellular network, but in the corridor between my home and office I'm gold. Clearwire has now been bought up by Sprint Nextel, so assuming they don't decide to drop FreedomPOP altogether, the coverage is likely to improve.

My only other concern is that the access point is so small it would be easy to lose. I misplaced it once already, forgetting that I had plugged it into my USB port to charge. But on the road it's easy to tuck away into a pocket of my computer bag where it's pretty secure. Now I just have to remember to turn it off when I'm not using it to preserve the battery. I did a dry run the first week, leaving it on during my commute to and from work even if I wasn't using it, and the charge lasted nearly 5 days.

Time will tell if this new "freemium" price model will hold up or will be imitated. It seems to be doing all right for services like Dropbox. And with both Google and the government talking about free super-WiFi over the whole country, I think it's safe to say that eventually the current draconian price structures of the phone companies will go the way of Compuserve dialup rates.

Remember those? It cost $6 per hour for a 300 baud connection, at which speed you could read text as fast as it downloaded across the screen. For $12 an hour you could upgrade to 1200 baud -- 4x the data for 2x the price. Now we get 3MB download speeds for as little as a dollar a day. And what ever happened to Compuserve anyway?

[Yet another price model is offered by Karma using similar hardware. They offer flat pricing per megabyte with no contract and no monthly allotment. Just pay as you go for what you use. The advantage there is that you never leave unused data on the table -- it just rolls over. A good fit if you need lots of time one month and little the next.]
[In the short time since this was posted, FreedomPOP has added a new level of service, possibly in response to the Karma plan. For 3.49 per month you can now get data rollover, accumulating up to 20 gigs from months where you use less than your allotment and using it when you need it. Obviously prices are still in a state of flux.]

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Device Family Tree

How many do YOU own ...?

For a long while now I've had multiple computers in my household, most of them mine. But until recently they were always some form of desktop or laptop connected through a router. Now I find I've accumulated a family of devices, each one smaller than the last, that seem to specialize in the jobs that each does best. They all feed from the same pool of online files and services, but each fills a niche based on the size of images it can display and the level of operating system it runs.

The Dell desktop with its 22" screen is still my platform of choice for web development. I can boot it into LinuxMint or Windows 7, and the ample display size is great for keeping multiple windows open. It has enough horsepower to run Windows XP in a virtual machine with VirtualBox while simultaneously playing music and browsing the Internet. For spreadsheets, document formatting, web pages, graphic design, and games, this is the place to be. It's a year and a half old with "only" a dual core processor, but 8 gigs of RAM keeps it going smooth as silk.

Next up is its little brother, an Acer netbook, which shows how much can be crammed into a much smaller package. This also boots my choice of LinuxMint or Windows 8 (I know, but I had to put it somewhere), and offers a more comfy way to answer email and do writing while ensconced on the couch. The 10" screen is easy to read while still compact, and the whole package weighs in at just 2 pounds, probably less than the power supply on the Dell. It also sports a dual core chip, though its 2 gigs of memory is only adequate, and graphics are just meh -- OK for games as long as they don't require 3D acceleration. Tiny and underpowered as it is, this gadget still outperforms the desktop system I had 10 years ago, and does it on batteries.

The newest size slot belongs to the Nexus 7 tablet, which is doing its best to displace my now archaic Sony as my ebook reader of choice. There is still something comforting about the solid e-paper display of the Sony and a battery that lasts for weeks instead of draining while you watch. But when it comes to magazines and news feeds like Flipboard, not to mention Facebook and Google+ updates, not to mention Youtube and Netflix, it's pretty clear where the future lies. We just have to trust that in the fullness of time Modern Science will deliver a combination of screen and battery technology that will give us the best of both worlds.

And when deciding whether to use the netbook or tablet, it's easy: am I going to be typing or reading? For us inveterate touch typists there is no substitute for real keys. I've tried a bluetooth keyboard with the Nexus and it feels OK, but if I'm going to put the keyboard on my lap where do I put the tablet? The netbook is a typewriter, amplified. And the tablet is a book, electrified. Simple as that.

"But don't forget me!" says my Android phone. (It's an HTC Vivid running 4.0.) After all, the phone started all this by showing me how much could be done in the tiniest of packages. It's my second one, but this is the one with a big enough screen and adequate resources to let me read books and watch movies. True, the 4.5" screen is kind of tight for those things, but I always have it with me in my pocket and it's always ready to whip out and go to work.

Now it seems as if the Nexus tablet is just a grown up version of the phone. It still runs Android with its wealth of apps and beautiful integration with Google's wide world of services, but now with a form factor that feels like a book and performs like a personal TV. Dare we imagine that a desktop version is in our futures? Rumor has it that Google is about to merge Android with its Chrome operating system to put the final desktop nail in the Microsoft coffin. Or if you don't care for that scenario, how about integrating a tablet with your home entertainment system? It can be done even now if you can assemble all the bits and pieces, but it's easy to imagine it becoming a seamless standard.

On the other end of the scale, we're about to see even smaller devices coming online. Pebble and Apple will be selling smart watches that we can expect to take on more and more of the things phones are doing. So instead of pocketing them we'll be wearing them. And then there's Google Glass which is pioneering the kinds of user interface we will need when the devices grow too small for a touchpad. The lower limit, it seems, has yet to be reached. And the upper one, too.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

His Music, His Life

The life and times of Ravi Shankar ...

Here in the West in the late 1960's we began to hear a strange new sound -- a wiry, nasal, twanging sound unlike any instrument we were familiar with. It was of course the Indian sitar, a distant relation of the guitar, and chances are that the person you heard playing it was Ravi Shankar. Not that he was the only practitioner of this instrument -- far from it. But he was the one who single-handedly brought it to us, taught us how to listen to its alien music, and at last integrated it into the new tradition of World Music as we now know it.

It was a tough sell at first. I remember the father of a friend of mine walking through the living room while we were listening to a Ravi Shankar album and saying, "Has he got that thing tuned up yet?" To those reared on our own pop music those characteristic bending notes were simply the sign of someone twisting a tuning peg. The style of slide or bottleneck guitar is somewhat closer to the Indian tradition, and for the same reason: the notes are bent to imitate the expressive qualities of the human singing voice. Indian musicians are universally taught the art of singing before being allowed to tackle their instruments. They even sing the drum parts, with specific syllables assigned to the various ways of striking the head of the tabla.

Things really warmed up when George Harrison and the Beatles brought the sitar into rock. It first appeared, tastefully, in "Norwegian Wood" on the Rubber Soul album, before making its more bizarre statements in "Within You, Without You" on Revolver. It also appears in the movie Help! in a brief scene where some Indian musicians are playing -- what else? -- a rendition of "A Hard Days's Night."

Suddenly everyone wanted that sound, or something equally fresh and exotic. The Rolling Stones countered with an Arab stringed instrument along with a harpsichord on "Lady Jane." In record time an "electric sitar" appeared on the market, which was really just a guitar with a set of sympathetic strings like those on the sitar that lend a silvery overlay to the notes of the scale. If you google them you'll find they are still being produced by a variety of makers. (There was also an electric harpsichord, but those were quickly outmoded by more flexible electric keyboards like the Hohner Clavinet and the Fender Rhodes.)

Shankar hit the peak of his popular fame with the legendary Concert for Bangladesh, where he served as the warm-up act for most of the biggest names in rock at the time -- and, I might add, brought down the house. He acknowledged in a later interview that he knew he could have pursued a career in pop music from then on and earned a billion dollars, but that held no interest for him. He went back to practicing his traditional art, while also exploring new avenues through collaborations with a wide variety of Western musicians.

One of these fruitful collaborations was with violinist Yehudi Menuin, with whom he recorded two albums titled East Meets West and West Meets East. Menuin wanted to learn about Indian music as well as the art of improvisation, which before jazz came along had little or no place in Western music. The album covers show the result, with Menuin wearing an Indian shirt, sitting in lotus position on the floor, and fiddling like mad. Fun! East Meets West Music, the official recording label of the Shankar Foundation, would take its name from this concept. Later, on his album Tana Mana, Shankar playfully titled one cut "West Eats Meat."

Another fan was John Coltrane, the jazz saxophonist who became such a close friend that he named his son Ravi. Alas, Coltrane died before their partnership could mature into the musical collaboration they had in mind. What a recording that might have been!

One of my personal favorites is the album Shankar created with Philip Glass, called Passages. Glass, who has collaborated with his own wide assortment of world artists, and who lists the gamelan music of Indonesia among his early influences, took a unique approach to this partnership. Glass wrote melodic material for Shankar, who arranged and performed it, while Shankar wrote material for Glass, who arranged and performed that. The result clouds the differences between the two while creating a fusion between them that reads like something brand new. Indian music purists have sometimes criticized Shankar for deviating from tradition, but they should get over it. Any music that stops evolving is surely dying.

I'm also fond of several recordings Shankar made with an ensemble called the Festival From India. Besides introducing other Indian instruments such as the sarod (like a fretless guitar), the shenai (a double reed like an oboe) and flute, he includes an expanded percussion section and singers to give the full flavor of the Indian tradition.

In doing this he was really returning to his roots and completing a circle. Way back in the 1930's when Ravi was a small boy he went to Europe and America with his older brother Uday's dance company. Though the impression they made was a fleeting one at the time, it was the first attempt anyone had made to expose Western audiences to Indian music. The dances themselves had been nearly lost during the centuries of British domination, and Uday was one of those who reconstructed the movements by interviewing old practitioners and studying paintings and sculptures from long ago. Now you only have to watch a Bollywood musical to see how far they've come in popularizing the form and giving it new life.

There is a re-issue of the few recordings made of Uday's company, originally on 78 rpm records. It shows that he Westernized his presentation by creating short numbers that wouldn't tax the attention span of audiences unfamiliar with the material. But the flavor and texture is there. The seed was being planted, and all these years later Ravi came along for the harvest.

Just as one more sign of how broad the reach of this man was, I will say that I personally decided to take up the sitar in the early 1970's. I was an aspiring folk singer at the time, also fond of Renaissance recorder music and harpsichords. I found the sitar irresistible, and when I learned that Arnold Grayson, who owned a little music store called The Recorder Workshop in Coconut Grove, was importing them, I begged my parents and received one of the best Christmas presents ever.

But what to do with it, you might well ask. How do you hold it, tune it, what strings do you pick and how? There was only one place to turn: Ravi Shankar's book on the subject. Titled My Music, My Life, this amazing book (now available in an updated edition) is a combination beginners method for the sitar, autobiography, and brief history of Indian music. As something that covers so many bases it stands on its own.The man was impossible to separate from his music, and the history of the music was the story of his life. So besides learning the rudiments of the instrument I learned about the early life of the man, and the basics of a musical tradition markedly different from anything in the history of western music.

I learned how young Ravi, though drawn to the glitter of Hollywood, was challenged instead by the sitar master who was part of Uday's company to take up the instrument and devote the next years of his life to its study. Apparently he took to it rather well, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like Western European music, Indian music had its roots in religion. In Europe, the plainchant songs of medieval monks gradually transformed into harmonies that erupted into the polyphony of the Renaissance and Baroque, which then either progressed or degraded, depending on your point of view, into the emotionalism of the Romantic period and ultimately to the turgid experimentalism of modern music. Underlying it all are the same twelve tones of the scale, divided in such a way that you can compose music in any key -- meaning that any one of those notes can be the dominant one that will dictate which 8 of the 12 will be part of the scale. All the other variations such as major and minor keys, harmonic chords, and rules for modulating from one key into another, are based within this invariable system.

In India, instead of the wandering lines of plainchant there was the steady drone of the OMMMMMM chant, one single bass tone that formed the foundation on which music would be built. Before Ravi begins to play the first thing you hear is the tambura, a simple drone instrument with a few strings tuned to the one tonic note and its harmonic fifth. Against this invariable texture the notes of a scale, or raga, begin to be introduced.

But there is another difference. Instead of selecting 8 of a possible 12 tones, the raga may be a selection of 5 to 8 out of a possible 19 tones. The octave is the same as in the West, dictated by the mathematics of music, but the distance in between is more finely divided, with some of the notes being what we would call quarter tones. They are sharp-sharps or flat-flats of the notes familiar to our ears.

This explains the alien nature of the music, but also its great expressiveness. Our closest analogy is probably the blues with its bent notes, slides, and wailing voices. But in Indian music these techniques have been raised to a high art. Specific ragas are said to evoke specific emotions or ranges of emotion. Legend has it that the original masters could even light fires with their music -- something that is easy to imagine when you hear the way they accelerate to a blazing pitch toward the end of the performance.

There is harmony in this music, but not as we understand it in the Western tradition. A single melody line typically forms a harmony only against the tonic drone, a harmony that changes as the distance between the notes changes, like two magnets getting closer together or farther apart. Any other harmonies, as when another instrument joins in, are more or less accidental.

Shankar broke somewhat with this tradition as he extended his musical talents into new directions. He observed that the sitar has multiple strings and there was no reason it could not play chords. To purists who insisted that it wasn't done, he replied, well why not? So chords sometimes appear in his sitar solos. And he certainly used them in his writing for the Festival ensemble and collaboration with Glass.

He also wrote film scores, notably for the Apu Triilogy of Satyajit Ray, and the 1968 American film, Charly. Ultimately he even tried his hand at a symphony and concerto, both featuring the sitar. They both have been recorded by the London Philharmonic with Ravi's daughter Anoushka sitting in on sitar. Now that the torch has been passed along to her, Ravi may even find the pop career that eluded him, posthumously. Anoushka's own recordings lean very much in the direction of the "new age" atmospheric sound that has become a prevailing background to our 21st century lives.

So how did I do on the sitar? Well, thanks to my personal guru, Ravi, who taught me even though we never met, I had a lot of fun with it. I was able to work it into my folk song act, and it was the biggest reason I once won an amateur night audition at a local bar. At one point I heard that Ravi's friend and collaborator Ali Akbar Khan had opened a school in California, and I considered giving everything up to study there.

But when it came down to it I realized exactly how much more I had to learn, and wasn't willing to do what it would take to master it. I ended up donating the instrument to a local group that was promoting the study of Indian music. I'd like to think that, like Ravi's own music, my old sitar is still out there somewhere singing its songs.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Time Out for Time Out

The legacy of Dave Brubeck ...

We lost two huge musicians recently within days of one another: Dave Brubeck on December 5 and Ravi Shankar on December 11. I've been meditating on their importance to me ever since. Surely one of the best measures of an artist's stature is his or her ability to affect the lives of thousands or millions of people they have never met. These two men were as significant to me, as much a part of my life, as if they had been personal acquaintances or teachers.

I only saw Dave Brubeck in person one time, later in his career. It was a dinner show at the Fountainbleau Hotel in Miami Beach back in the 1980's. He appeared that night with his son Darius playing trombone, and was as energetic and melodically inventive as ever. Missing of course was the iconic Paul Desmond who had passed away in 1977, taking with him one of the smoothest alto sax voices in jazz. Desmond's cool, almost clarinet-like sound paired with Brubeck's thoughtful and classically-trained piano lines defined what may have been the greatest jazz combo ever assembled. Apologies to the likes of Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and many others who are also deserving, but to my ear the Brubeck Quartet in its heyday achieved a perfect balance of cool and hot, introspective and ecstatic, composition and improvisation, that has seldom been matched.

I first came to hear them on LP's in the bedroom lair of my high school jazz buddy. When we wore out the local DJ with phone requests to play something from Time Out we finally had to break down and buy the album. A curious fact about it is that the record company, exhibiting the prevailing lack of instinct that has since made everyone realize how clueless they are, did not like the idea that there were no "standards" on the album. You were supposed to show a list of everyone's favorite titles on the cover (which is why they are known as "covers") and then slip in two or three of your own originals. Time Out was nothing but originals, including two that still loom huge over the landscape of jazz.

"Take Five," written in the unorthodox 5/4 time, shattered decades of 4/4 convention and did it not in a cerebral demonstration but with an infectious melodic romp that was impossible to get out of your head -- and feet. The even more contagious "Blue Rondo ala Turk" was in 9 beats -- not unprecedented in the usual form of 3-3-3, but divided into 2-2-2-3 by an insistent pulse from the drums and piano it became a dynamo of perpetual motion, driven forward by the forever unexpected rush at the end of each phrase. Time Out became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, truly one without which no collection is complete. So much for the wisdom of company executives.

We made other listening discoveries, like the rare recording with only three cuts on it that I wrote about once before, containing the enigmatic "Purple Moon" done by Desmond with his trio. We were pleasantly amazed when we identified it as being based on the opening motif of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (L'Sacre du Printemps). How audacious a choice of material was that? The cut was later re-released under the title "Sacre Bleu," which proved we got it right.

Jazz was also our ticket into the world of Beat literature, Eastern philosophy, and a whole cool hip world that we could hardly wait to grow into. By the time we did, the national sound track had shifted into Rock, but for those of us who cut our teeth on it jazz would always hold a place in our souls. All these years later its rich tradition continues in a new generation of practitioners, like the Marsalis brothers and Eric Alexander, who are here to assure us it's alive and well.

The sad thing about that long ago night at the Fountainbleau is that we stayed for the second show, knowing the later it gets the better the jazz ... only to find it was only half full. The dozing clientele having feasted, they were off to play canasta and go to bed. And this was Dave Brubeck! Ah well, it was their loss. And now we have all lost.

[Next time: Ravi Shankar]