La Grenouille dans le Fauteuil

My thoughts, explorations and opinions about Music, Philosophy, Science, Family life; whatever happens. Shorter items than on my web site. The name of the blog? My two favorite French words. I just love those modulating vowels.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Good Old Days

    I found myself ambushed by nostalgia yesterday. I went to Staples to buy printer paper. Not usually a risky thing to do. But roaming the shelves, seeking temptation, I came upon so many things I used to find really desirable - stack trays, multi-part file folders, metal trays for holding pens, special concertina storage wallets, and incredibly expensive laser-printer file folder labels.

It was like coming upon a scene from childhood, hardly thought about in many years, sparking enthusiasms long dormant. I haven’t actually wanted, or yearned for, new black plastic stack trays in many years, but I used to, and there are still a bunch of them, not shiny any more, in my basement. Experiments and adventures in getting my life organized were part of the heady thrill of framing a life as an independent adult, part of the hedonistic pleasure of self-discovery. I don’t feel that way now; partly because I am older and therefore discovering all the ways I lack power, and partly because my struggle to be organized has permanently failed, I think. But mostly, in spite of my surprisingly emotional response to browsing the shelves and spying old trophies, mostly it’s simply because we don’t need any of these things anymore - they’ve all been rendered superfluous by computers.

That, in itself, is good. A schedule spanning my laptop, desktop, and iPod, matched by DropBox, is so vastly more effective and sensible than carrying a DayTimer in the pocket of a jacket I am not wearing today, that there’s really no contest. I keep meaning to sort my CDs, but mostly they are still in boxes from that last time we moved, 10 years ago. Why would I keep all those documents in sub-folders of a green legal binder, when they are all online and backed up? Apart from anything else, it’s so much easier to change my mind about categories on a computer than by relabeling 400 paper folders in a drawer. I still insist on getting paper bank statements however, because I don’t trust banks. They are too cunning; constantly calculating new ways to squeeze one more drop of blood out of a stone; a major reason I feel getting control of my life to be a lost cause.

I do miss the tactile pleasure of unwrapping a new office gadget though, and I still use fountain pens and nice paper. But I no longer delude myself into thinking that a hoard of fine velum and a shiny new gold nib can guarantee a flow of ideas worth writing down. I miss things. In Staples, checking out with a ream of 24 lb paper, I caught myself unexpectedly sad. I felt like a convalescent, like Rip Van Winkle unexpectedly woken by confrontation with a world that has already slipped away, and which doesn’t have much to recommend it, except that the irrelevance of our memories is always painful.

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Money - part 1

   Money is fictional arithmetic. It has the precision and ruthlessness of arithmetic, which makes it both useful and unforgiving, but is every bit as remote from reality as any other form of fiction. We expect a relationship between money and reality, but the fact that that relationship constantly needs to be stated and specified, (price labels, wage contracts) shows that no such relationship is self-evident. It’s easy, on stepping outside, to tell if it's raining or not. But if the internet is down, there’s no way to know if I have money in my bank account. On coming inside again, it's easy to determine whether or not I have any rice in my larder, but when it comes to establishing the monetary value of that rice, truth is not manifest.

Money would seem to indicate the values of things, but the relationship between money and whatever it is that it signifies is cloudy. Once upon a time, it was honest and transparent, in the days when money was nothing more than a simple count of units of gold, silver, cattle, or whatever. The fictional or arbitrary relationship then lay between the (practically speaking, useless) gold metal and the goods it could buy. But nowadays it is different. There is no ‘dollar’ you can physically touch; there is no intrinsic value in the pieces of paper, the currency. These are merely symbols, easily replaced if burned, so long as it is the right person who does the replacing!

But we don’t even need paper now. Certainly there is no intrinsic value in the ephemeral ghosts of numbers flickering on a computer screen; mere representations of the results of arithmetic. We must not allow ourselves to be deluded, by the constant iteration of a name, into thinking that it refers to something. The “dollar” is no more real than “the will of the American People” or Grover Norquist’s absurd “signed pledge to the people of Oklahoma,” about which people in Oklahoma knew nothing.  To say a car is worth $54,000 sounds as if it means something objective. But the “$” is nothing more than an equalizer, an assertion of parity between any and all financial calculations that invoke that sign, whilst similarly disengaging from calculations that use the “£” sign. The car has a price of 54,000 “somethings” - a pure number, connected, purely as a matter of convention, to all other numbers that use the same financial talisman. Some years ago an equivalent car would have cost 13,000 units. Some day in the future it will be 180,000 things. The ‘dollar’ part is merely a normalizing invocation. The enlisting of an invariant, and an indication of acceptance of the yoke of the past.

The reason why this pure, abstract, and Platonic process of arithmetic has such power over us, is that we all, consciously or otherwise, agree that it shall have that power. We submit. Without our consent it could not work. The emperor really has no clothes, but exchanges that use money are so important to us that we cooperate out of practical necessity, or casual indifference, or perhaps out of enjoyment of the advantages it gives us. We knuckle under, or dive right in, while these simple arithmetical calculations lead people to suicide, to starvation, to ruin, to the enjoyment of tyrannical, crushing and unwarranted power, to effective slavery, to idleness, to death for want of simple medicine, to all manner of injustice, as well as to normal innocuous exchanges, purchases, deals, agreements, and the achievement of genuine freedom.

In early human history money no doubt evolved as a technique for facilitating cooperation between members of a community. By trading one thing for another, or one service for another, or a thing for a service, or vice versa, human communities were able to enhance their capability for survival. Money reified cooperation. Money oiled the wheels of mutual benefit. But like any invention, it had unintended, unforeseen consequences. It is troubling that the objectivity of money becomes self-justifying. The arithmetical purity of the calculations gives them a semblance of truth, inevitability, and reality that they do not warrant. Money becomes unarguable, and thus more important, more accepted as real, than life itself and the preservation of life. This human invention, which arose to aid us all in living together, is also used to crush and to dominate, to legitimize illegitimate inequality, and to facilitate power. When the self-justifying machinations of money are used to declare that we cannot take care of our infirm, and that human society is dependent upon the exponential growth of the wealth of the already rich, then clearly our monetary system is malfunctioning. In such a circumstance we should seek to alter the mechanism, rather than throw vast segments of humankind into poverty, deprivation, and despair. More than any previous generation, we have the ability, the wherewithal, the techniques, the skills and the knowledge, whereby we can protect the infirm, enable the talented, and promote the general welfare of the people. If we choose not do so, and claim that it is because “the nation is broke,” we demonstrate a shameful willingness to protect avarice behind lies and delusions.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

That Elusive Key Structure

When serious minded program-note writers and classical music critics, and writers of serious books about music - when these well-educated folks get into talking about how long pieces of music hang together, how they accomplish their big coups, how they finally achieve a feeling of resounding finality, and how, earlier on, they sustain a sense of incompleteness, - all this long-range discussion of what music plotting mysteriously does, they virtually always bring in the topic of key-structure. You know the stuff, “but the theme returns not in the tonic, but in the tonic major.” or “Tchaikowsky’s genius is that the second subject key is not actually arrived at until the second subject theme is already complete.” or “by this means of never clearly resolving into the keys he so strongly hints at, Wagner manages to sustain restlessness and longing over immense stretches of music.

It is a difficult subject. Not just because it is genuinely technical, which it is, with stuff like “modulation from C# minor through a deceptive V-VI cadence on its dominant into the surprising close A major - the subdominant of its relative major” causing the most adept cognoscenti of harmonic procedure to stop and think a bit, as if confronted by a sophisticated chess move. Not only that, but also because of a strange paradox about this whole key-relationship thing: it is genuinely powerful, so powerful that we all feel its effects in our guts rather than our heads, and because, strictly speaking, it is not audible in itself. Which is why you have never known what people were on about when talking learnedly about key structures. How many of us have been tempted to nod knowingly, assuming that those around us have some clue about what's going on. I think this in itself contributes no small part to the sense of intimidation that people feel about classical music.

What do Key Structure / Key Relationships accomplish? Quite simply, they make large scale structures in music possible - symphonies that last more than 10 minutes, concerti that build up a real head of steam before finally feeling triumphant, fugues that go every which way before finally coming out right in the end. But it all happens behind the scenes.

How does it do this? In essence, it works by having the music change key (the key is both the pitch level and the set of notes that are used by a piece as its main home turf) as it goes along, so that when melodies come back they are usually in a different key (higher or lower) than before, and thus sound somehow different, or somehow not quite right. In order for this to work, obviously the piece does not change key completely, like moving house and now feeling utterly at home in a new place, all memory of the past obliterated; instead it almost changes key, so that things feel normal, but there is that lurking memory of home still haunting us. I am not going to go into details about it in this essay because it really is complex, and it’s the complexities that I am trying to avoid.

My first main point is that the vast majority of people do not have perfect pitch, and don’t listen to music cerebrally, so they are not able to follow things like key changes anyway, apart from the fact that they don’t have a terminology to identify such things. In any case, the literal details about key changes are not interesting, and not the point of what is going on. The power of music over us is undeniable, just as much for those who say they “don’t know anything about music” as for the skilled jazz improvisor who can spot a chord at 500 yards. The punch is visceral and emotional, and some of its tricks are spoiled by being pointed out too clearly.

So point number one is that most people don’t notice key changes happening, and can’t identify them, and wouldn’t have any inclination to. They hear music in a synthetic way, not an analytical fashion. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and identifying the parts really adds very little.

My second point is that, even if a writer such as me, or a lecturer, or a pre-concert talker, wants to demonstrate to people what key changes there are in a piece of music, they cannot, since there is in fact no sound that corresponds to it. The essence of the matter is that the power comes from key-relationships not key-changes. It’s not a matter of sudden juxtaposition, but of relationships subconsciously remembered over time. There are plenty of sudden shifts in music of course,the plunge into the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, the way Elgar’s Nimrod Variation emerges in a different key from the preceding variation. Schubert often makes startling shifts, and with late Wagner you often don’t know where you are.

So if a lecturer, trying to point out the F-major / D-major relationship between the last two movements of Mahler’s 5th were to play a chord of F, followed by a chord of D, what you would get is just that - two chords only trivially different. It is not that chord progression that aids Mahler’s architecture, it is the whole superstructures built upon those different basic home notes. A photograph of your mother at 18, contrasted with one when she is 80, certainly makes a startling contrast, and one with all sorts of irrelevant suggestions about changes in fashion, changes in photographic technique, the inevitability of aging, and so on, but it does not encapsulate the path of her life, the evolution of her character, the way her early life was fulfilled or frustrated in later years.

What key relationships do is to subtly manipulate our appetites. Music is always a matter of expecting something, and then either getting it or not getting it in an interesting way. By bringing back a tune in a new key you generate a complex response; you are pleased to hear the familiar, but it doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Similarly, when the ambiguities are finally resolved, you hear that relief and relaxation with absolute certainty, but you can’t really tell how it was done.

So if you don’t actually hear specific key-relationships in music, (and 99% of people, including me, usually don’t) don’t worry about it. It’s kind of like not hearing your heart beats. They are still working, and contributing a heck of a lot to your conscious experience.

How important is this key-relationship stuff for music? Absolutely fundamental. Bach’s "Well-tempered clavier” his series of 48 preludes and fugues in all the keys, was a didactic work demonstrating that the problem of playing in different keys had been solved (a topic for a wholly different discussion). It was an important statement, because freedom to move amongst the keys at will (slipping under the radar of most of us) was quite simply the new technique that made all the glories of classical music beyond the shorter-term delights of Baroque music, possible. It’s there all the time, in Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Franck, Sibelius. I just can’t show it to you.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Boiled Egg

We've got some fabulous cookbooks at home. They are works of art in themselves with terrific seductive pictures. But the recipes! Have you noticed how even a simple recipe for, say, Cajun Greens, seems to involve 127 ingredients, 93 of which are things that have never been near your kitchen so long as you have owned it. Does anyone ever go out and buy any of these things that you might use once in 48 recipes - and only when you are really doing a recipe from one of these books, which doesn't include the normal quotidian business of eating?

So if you use one of these recipes, you have to fudge it a bit, which serves two purposes. 1) It means it's not really your fault if the dish doesn't come out like it looks in the book, and doesn't taste great either. 2) It preserves the mystique of the transcendent brilliance of the cooks who write these books, which will encourage you to pay huge sums in their restaurants, and buy more of their books.

When you don't do a lot of cooking, or haven't so far, but want to impress someone with your air of casual, nonchalant competence, (say a prospective girl-friend before whom you are trying to display yourself as sensitive yet skilled) the ability to whip something up without needing a preparatory shopping trip to Perigeux and Fortnum and Mason counts for a lot.

So I've thought how nice it would be to have a cookbook that had a rule that no recipe would have more than 3 ingredients. And they should be the sorts of things that you are likely to have, like eggs, bacon, water, rice. Then, instead of lots of mystical swooning about the unique mood engendered by the Tuscan Sun, it would tell you what to do, in two ways. 1) the simple essence of the matter, and 2) tips and warnings - how to get it to work and all the things that might go wrong.

So here is the first attempt at a useful recipe with tips for the inexperienced.


Ingredients: Egg.

The essence: boil an egg in water for 4½ minutes.
Tips and snags:

Have the water boiling before you put the egg in. Best to use a small saucepan or you’ll be waiting all day for the water to boil. But the water must be deep enough to cover the egg completely. No “mostly submerged” like rocks off the coast of San Francisco, or hump-back whales casually passing by. The water must be deep enough, but don’t put the egg in until the water is really boiling. Don't let the water be too deep, else it will spill over when you put the egg into it. Remember Archimedes and "Eureka!"? Then lower the egg in very carefully, using a spoon big enough to hold it steady. If the egg drops into the water even a little bit, it will probably break and quickly look disgusting, like a tiny mammal with a hideous hernia, all of its guts hanging out. Yuck. It’s a bad enough shock being lowered into boiling water; don’t give the poor thing a bump as well.

Have a clock within eyesight. You don’t need an egg timer or a kitchen timer or a stopwatch or anything like that. Just notice what time it is, for heaven’s sake. A clock on the wall is handy, or your watch will do. But a watch is not as good as a clock, because you'll inevitably be using your arm for some other purpose when the time comes, so that you are not able to twist your wrist to see what the time is. A clock on the wall needs to have a second hand that sweeps round, so that you can be accurate to within about 5 seconds or so. It matters.

So, just before you lower the egg into the water, take note of what time it is. Do the math now. Figure out what now plus four and a half minutes is. It might be harder than you think. Then just remember the end time. You'll forget the immersion time anyway. So put the egg into the water, and pay attention or you’ll leave it too long. You can turn down the heat a bit now. You needed it high to get the water to boil before midnight, but the actual boiling process doesn't have to look like Yellowstone, which can happen if an egg did crack a bit. Keep it just at boiling. When exactly four and a half minutes have passed, take the egg out of the water with your spoon. End of cooking.

Incidentally, if you want to boil several eggs at the same time, you don’t need any more time, just more water. All the eggs have to be submerged, the water must be boiling, and it still takes just four and a half minutes. Of course, a problem can arise if you take too long getting all the eggs in. If you rush so that they all cook for the same time, you’ll probably break some. If you are slow and careful, the first ones will cook for longer than the later ones. Yipes! But don’t worry about that. A few seconds here or there isn’t going to be a disaster, but with a lot of eggs don’t go past the four and a half minutes after the last egg goes in, ‘cos the first eggs will have already been in for longer. If you want hard-boiled eggs, make it 6 minutes.

When the eggs are done, don’t forget to turn off the heat under the water, to avoid you or someone else getting scalded. Keep the handle turned to the back to avoid unguided transient elbows. You can’t use the water for anything else either, as it’s all egg-shelly. It may still look like clean water in a saucepan, but it is best to wash the pan well, as there’s loads of eggy minerals in the water now.

How you serve the egg is up to you, but egg cups are a great idea, making the egg sit up proudly to be eaten. I do not recommend the odd habit in America of leaving the egg rolling around on a plate like an overheated rigid football that you have to chase in some way of your own devising. The most sophisticated gourmet is going to look silly chasing an egg with burned fingers. So you need something to hold it still, and stop the innards rolling back onto the bits of shell after you have cracked it open. It's almost as disgusting as two other bizarre American habits. Giving you a cup of tea with nowhere polite to put the teabag, and giving you only one knife and fork, so that you have to smear the table cloth with thousand island dressing and gravy and hollandaise sauce in order to have anything to eat the pork with. Goodness! This is a rich country. There are thousands of plates, lots of glasses, huge portions of food, but even with dishwashers a huge restaurant chain cannot scrape together two forks!? How much less trouble to wash a fork than launder a whole table-cloth. Jeez!

Anyway, a wild unconstrained egg is a bad idea because it is too hot to get hold of. You'll burn your fingers trying, or settle for eating a cold boiled egg. (Loose both sensitivity and competence points for that.) Egg cups are great, or nestle it nicely in a small tea-cup or espresso cup (you do have those don't you? After all, I'm sure you can make a cup of coffee, and espresso cups ensure effortless superiority,) using a paper towel or even a linen napkin. (Extra sensitivity points for the linen.)

Some people like a little salt sprinkled on their egg once the shell is opened. I don’t. It’s fun to dip fingers of toast into the egg to soak up the yolk, but the most important thing is a really small spoon, so that you can scrape the insides out without breaking the shell more than you need to get in there. Yum.

That's it!

Bonus: A bit of science fun for the kiddies.

When the egg comes out of the boiling water it is very hot, obviously. You can handle it with a spoon or with tongs. If you immediately hold it under cold running water, in just a few seconds it will feel fairly cool. Right at that moment ask a child to hold it and tell them it is the magic self-cooking egg that loves to be hot. They will hold the fairly cold egg, and in just a matter of seconds it will be too hot to hold again, as heat moves from the inside to the shell, which is all you really managed to cool down by using water. Awe and astonishment all round.

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I am sure everyone has noticed how angry W sounds all the time. Even when he's being cheery. There's an old bar-room merriment of sticking the words "in bed" on the end of any sentence you like, making it (after a few drinks) hilarious. It works with anything. e.g.

It works with anything in bed.
Even when he's being cheery in bed.
... how angry W sounds all the time in bed.

Well, with W, whenever he is speaking, there seems to be an implied "asshole"on the end. As in:

Free trade is good for this country, asshole!
This is a most important bill, asshole!
I am pround to have him serve in my cabinet, asshole!
These NATO nukes are no threat to Russia, asshole!

What a wonderful rest it will be after November to give our assholes a rest.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Flying Geometrically

The geometry of long-haul air travel is intriguing, giving rise to relativistic thoughts. The other day I flew from Chicago to Hong Kong, taking off a little after mid-day in early December, and arriving just a bit later the next day (local time) but 15 hours later human being time. You think of Chicago to Hong Kong as going all the way across the Pacific. But of course we never went even remotely close to the Pacific. Our route went up over Hudson Bay (that has to be the ugliest-shaped body of water anywhere. What is it about it that looks so disgusting? What is that appendage thing?) Then over north central Canada, a chunk of Arctic Ocean, and back down over Siberia and China.

Nothing very odd about that, but think of it from the sun's perspective. If we were on the sun watching, (unlikely, but if) we would see the plane take off in the middle of the earth and hasten up to the top, going over the horizon into the polar darkness for a little while. Meanwhile the earth would turn around, the visible part moving from left to right. As the earth achieved about a half rotation, now showing its other side to the sun, our little plane would pop down again out of the darkness, finally landing in almost exactly the same place as it had started from, from the sun’s point of view, except that the earth had turned round underneath it. The plane would fly a curve of course, gradually turning 180° counter-clockwise, but in relation to the earth, as seen from the sun, it would appear to just fly up to the top, and then fly down again. In the northern hemisphere summer, it wouldn’t go into the dark, but would just turn around higher up in the light and then come back down.

Makes you think there must be an easier way of doing it; like shooting up in a rocket, hanging around for a while as the earth re-adjusts itself, and then drop down again onto Hong Kong. It would be tough, but has something to recommend itself. First, we weren’t really traveling in relation to the earth’s surface in any case, except as a very desirable side-effect. We were swimming through the air that floats above it. And that air goes around with the earth, so even though we had escaped contact with the ground, we had to swim through all the rotating air to get back to where we started from. But going up in a rocket and hanging around waiting wouldn’t work in a simple way because, in space, there is no such thing as just hanging around. If we were in space, at the point we’d like to hang around, we would immediately be in orbit around the earth anyway, since being in space means being in orbit round things. Einstein showed us that with the warping of space time. There is no fixed space to hang around in. So if we went straight up, we would be in an orbit that would take us straight down again. I suppose if we went up at the right speed and angle, we could indeed get into an orbit that would drop us back onto Hong Kong as it happened to pass by. It would be awfully expensive, and there is the problem of how not to crash too. Still, it is interesting to think that all that flying and all that burning of jet fuel just puts us back where we started.

One last puzzle about that journey. We ended up still in the middle of the day, but one day later. Where were we when the date changed? It all depends on how close to the north pole we went. If we went just to the left of it, (yes, I know, everything is left of the north pole, or west of it, or east of it too, come to that. I mean left of it from the point of view of the Chicago that we started out from, looking north.) If we went just to the left of the north pole, then the date changed when we crossed the international date line, wherever it is up there, because by going west, we were swooshing backwards through local ground time. On the other hand, if we passed just to the right of the north pole, we would not cross the date line at all. So in that case, the date would have shifted when we were flying over a bit of ground where the local time just happened to be midnight as we passed. At that point we overtook the time on the ground, and jumped on into the next day, as it was sweeping westward, irrespective of how long it took us to get there. The paradox is if we go directly over the pole itself. Then I suppose we do a sort of time travel trick, leaping 12 hours into the future at that instant of crossing. So for a tiny moment, the front of the plane would be twelve hours ahead of the tail. Just a thought.
Then today I flew from Hong Kong to Munich. That was even stranger. The route took us up through China and over Khazahkstan, close by Moscow and on down into Germany. So we were flying across the face of the earth. Nowhere near the poles this time. But it had a similar curious geometry. We took off just after midnight, so in the darkness. We flew for a full 12 hours, and landed at 5 in the morning in Munich on the same day. It was still pitch dark, and we never saw a glimmer of daylight at any point. So only 5 hours on the ground under us had passed during our twelve hours. The flight had taken us backwards in time by 7 hours. Let’s think how this one appears from the point of view of the sun, or rather, the anti-sun. Imagine looking at the earth from the moon, for instance, if it happened to be on the other side of the earth from the sun, looking at the dark side. (Like if it was a full moon, which it wasn’t, but never mind, let’s take it as being a putative full moon.) From this fictional moon we would see Hong Kong come into view as the sun set there, and it swung round into the dark side, coming in from the left side of the earth’s disk. (North is up, as is proper for any ex-British colony.) Our plane would be seen to take off and start flying back to the left - towards the sunlight that Hong Kong had just moved out of. So now the disc of the earth would be moving from left to right, but our plane would be flying from right to left. Of course, it wouldn’t be able to fly as fast as the earth’s surface was spinning around, so relative to the moon from which we were watching, the plane would clearly be flying backwards. It would be up in the air, with its snout pointing west, but the ground under it, (and the air all around it through which it was swimming) would be moving to the east quite a bit faster. The plane couldn’t keep up, and it wasn’t using a dodge like getting up to the pole to get out of the way. So the plane, relative to the moon, and therefore the sun, was flying backwards. It was pointing left and going quite fast, so it managed to stay in the dark bit for the full 12 hours, while the land in the dark bit, including Hong Kong, whisked off to the right, and was in fact in the middle of the light side by the time we landed in Munich, which was also now on the dark side, but had been in the previous day’s sunny bit when we took off. So our plane was moving to the right, just like the earth, but facing to the left, and working damned hard not to be swept east. It thus managed to move to the east relative to the moon, but about 500 mph more slowly that the surface of the earth did. So from that point of view, it wasn’t using its engines to move, so much as using them to brake, and resist the turning of the earth. And thus it successfully managed to escape the coming of the light, and remained in night time for the whole journey.

It just all depends upon your point of view, but maybe one day the “shoot up and plop down again when the destination has arrived” method might work. If you could get enough power for lift off, and then glide until braking for touch-down, it might even end up using less energy. My math isn’t good enough to figure that out, especially not after just getting off a 12-hour flight through the darkness of the Russian steppes.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

The Aesthetic Appeal of the Quantum

The goal of science may be knowledge, or truth, or explanation. The matter is much debated but not my concern at the moment. What I want to consider is the appetite of science, the unconscious notion and desire that draws people in as they seek any of the possible goals of science. And I believe that a central appetite is the desire to demonstrate that the entire universe is a tautology. It is the appetite, at each stage, to discover that the zone being probed could not be other than it is. The mathematical simplicity of Newton’s theory, the logical way Einstein’s special theory follows from the constancy of the speed of light, the way the general theory follows from the simplicity of gravitation and acceleration. Simplicity! Yes, I know the suggestion that these matters are simple is absurd, but the underlying concepts are simple.

All such advances in science result when investigators are drawn by the appeal of a great underlying idea embodying simplicity and uniformity, yet giving natural rise to complexity. Reductionism, one might say, but not just that. For, in the other direction, the simplest law can engender, through multiple combinations and permutations, the most elaborate and complex phenomena, endowed with extraordinary powers. The entire physical world of things (as opposed to forms of energy) is, as we know, composed of atoms. For my argument our reduction need go no further than that. We are composed of atoms, and so are racing cars. The things of which we are capable, and of which cars are capable, arise from the combination of the properties of atoms and the organization within which they find themselves. Not quite that simple, of course, but the essence of the matter is that way. The dynamism of structures, the forms and control of energy, the forces of evolution which bring all these structures about; all these need to be considered too, but even they are extensions of the idea of substance + organization = capability.

This gives rise to the aesthetic appeal to the quantum, which I shall explain momentarily.

Obviously aesthetics are not important in science when it comes to determining truth or explanatory power, though aesthetics may be suggestive in hinting which direction to turn in the search for theories. And a preference for aesthetically appealing theories might not be misguided if our minds and thoughts are in fact fairly well attuned to reality. Throughout the course of evolution our minds have been under Darwinian pressure to acquire ever greater felicity in relating to nature, so it seems quite reasonable that aesthetic preferences could be shortcuts guiding us towards productive ways of regarding external reality.

In any case, I am not concerned with the scientific quality of science at the moment, but with the aesthetic or psychological appeal of the whole activity of seeking an ultimate truth which will reveal the unity of everything. I am concerned with the pursuit of the sort of scientific truth which fulfills aesthetic appetites. I pursue this not because I am assume aesthetics to be of any final importance in science, but because aesthetics do, I suggest, exert a great deal of power over the way in which we search for truth (or explanation, or knowledge) while we are groping for that impersonal, self-consciously non-aesthetic, confrontation with reality that is another presumed purpose of science.

Let me add that I am not interested in any individual person’s emotional or subjective experience of science; I am utterly uninterested in subjectivism and relativism. I follow Popper in being interested in the objectivity of science only, and consider objectivity as another of the delicious and conscious goals of science; another member of that rather numerous club of Holy Grails. But whereas Popper seems to be interested in the objective rationality of scientific discoveries only, irrespective of their content, I am also interested in the content of those theories, especially insofar as that reveals what limits there might be on what it is possible for us to hypothesize. Not so much the specific content of specific theories, but rather the characteristics of what it is possible for us to propose, examine, accept, or reject, as being the content of scientific theories. Posed as a hypothetical question, it would be: what sort of theory is it within our power to propose and/or understand as being a scientific theory related to reality? The truth or otherwise of such theories is a different matter.

Science, like all other human activities, is accomplished by human beings. That sounds like a trivial point, but it is not quite trivial. It means that although human beings, in pursuing science, are using their human mentality quite carefully in order to seek objectivity and filter out subjectivity, (like a novice with a pencil working so very hard to produce a truly straight line) and that we are using all the devices described by Bacon, Hume, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, even Feyerabend and others; nonetheless there are limits to what our animal brains can do, and there are aspects of enquiry and of reality that need to be present for our animal brains to become engaged at all. And so there has to be an emotional appeal in what the scientist does to provide the energy to drive the research forward.

Therefore I conjecture that there are certain things, (I shall not attempt to enumerate them here) that attract us in framing hypotheses about reality, not because they are true, but because they are the sorts of things we would like to be true, and hope to be true. Now, at the same time, because we are capable of perceiving objectivity, and because we adhere to the notion of non-contradiction, and because we are able to deduce the consequences of ideas that we are proposing or have already accepted, there arises a sort of tension between what we would like to be true, what would be convenient if it were true, what it would be easier for us to understand should it happen to be true; a tension between all those and what, for logical reasons, is likely to be true. Especially, we always have before us the antinomies of Kant, and similar paradoxes, such that an otherwise likely-seeming theory may obviously be dangerous, because of the awkward consequences it brings with it.

And so at last I come to the aesthetic appeal of quantum theory. After such a long preamble it is in fact quite simple. All investigations of the structure of matter run the danger of infinite regression. Once the atomic structure of matter has been discovered, the structures within structures gradually reveal themselves. Molecules consist of atoms, which consist of subatomic particles such as protons, which consist of quarks, which involve gluons, which may be explained by string theory and so forth. The danger is that of the nested Russian Dolls. If we explain a structure by analyzing it into constituent structures, and then those smaller structures into the items of which they are constructed, and so on, there is the obvious danger of an infinite regress. Perhaps reality is an infinite chain of structures within structures. Certainly our mental tendency to think in terms of lumps and blobs organized would make such a discovery comfortable to think about at each stage of the way. However, it is most unsatisfactory if we are searching for a true structure of everyday substances, for it would explain nothing. It would be no more helpful than the ancient theory that the world rests upon the shell of a turtle, which rests upon the shell of another turtle, and so on forever.

It is also clear that an explanation of matter that arrived at a true ultimate particle would also be unsatisfactory, since that particle would have to have extension, mass, solidity, and existence, and none of those qualities could be accounted for. Therefore, in checking with ourselves to see whether or not the advance of science feels right, there is a great aesthetic appeal in the quantum, since it appears that, the closer we get to the very small structures, substance is neither explained nor ultimate, but rather it just fades away. Each layer of the Russian Doll is less substantial than the larger. The more we get close to the structure of structure, the less structural it seems. The less we know where it is. The less we know what it does. The less it calls for disassembly into components similar but merely smaller. Rather does quantum show us that solidity grows ever more spooky as we analyze it, posing questions ever more complex, but nothing like any sort of infinite regress. More like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

This has no bearing on whether string theory, for instance, or any other theory is true or not, but it is encouraging, since it feels right. I would rather have the mystery of non-locality and the double slit than just another layer of billiard balls telling us that we are really getting nowhere.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April in Vermont

My wife told me decades ago that it had sometimes snowed even as late as her birthday, April 16th, but I had of course, as a rational human being, never believed her. But here we were yesterday, completely blocked in and unable to get out from our house, not just because of the blizzard-like conditions, but also because the furious winds, strong enough to be quite scary, blew down two trees across our driveway. We have a 1/10th of a mile driveway, fully forested, and a medium pine tree fell across it.

Foolish self, I had always hated the boy scouts from an early age, and not enjoyed even the ethos of such heartiness, and consequently I had not followed the wise dictum: be prepared. To be relevant, I had not sharpened the chain on my chain saw, even though I knew that this was a chore that needed to be done. We had to call in a neighbor - a neighbor who whilst legally blind had once steered a sailing boat across the Atlantic using a sextant, to wade through the mud and untimely mire, to trudge over to our foolish abode, and cut through the tree for us so that we could dispatch the limbs, branches, twigs and needles into the ditch, and get out.

Later that day, Sabra, my wife, was driving up and down the driveway to create ruts so that our daughter could get her car out to go to class and contemplate "Wuthering Heights" - surely one of the most utterly bizarre novels ever written; it seems to me to have the strongest claim in literature to being the true source, the fountainhead, the ultimate precursor, of Monty Python's Flying Circus, since it has that same combination of gratuitous cruelty and utterly ludicrous nonsense, while at the same time behaving as if it takes itself completely seriously, which it could not possibly do. Or to de-reify it, and deconstruct it to the artifice of a creating human being that it is, it is impossible to think that a person could be simultaneously focussed and clever enough to write it, but not perceptive enough to roar with laughter at the whole thing. A clever feint. - -

Anyway, no sooner had Sabra passed under a yet-larger tree than KER-THWUNK! A triple trunk Pine fell just feet behind where she had been, mere moments before, located. (Though, it has to be admitted, the relative length of moments compared to all the possible moments when the collapse could have occurred is elastic. We might think it was a narrow escape, but if one were to reconstruct the situation and, equipped with a dummy and disposable car, attempt to bring about a more dramatically percussive outcome, it would have been difficult and unlikely of success.) This one was too big for our friend and so we called in the professionals - the arboricidal foresters who love nothing better than to reduce a giant pine to chips and brush. He told us he would be back later in the week with hot dogs and marshmallows to supervise the burning of the twigs.

Fortunately, this all took too long for Robin to get off our micro-climated reserve and make it to her RomanticLitClass, so she had to join us as we passed through our newly passable driveway (thinking, inevitably, of the Red Sea in Biblical times, even though the forester hardly reminds me of Moses. He is less concerned with engraved commandments than discussing where in the woods people are growing "whacky-tabacky") on the way to our chainsaw- and sextant-wielding neighbor's house, and that of his wife (the self-same place) where we were all able to celebrate Sabra's birthday, as the winds blew, and the snow melted off the roof, and the rain dripped, and the general absence of spring made itself palpable, except for the protection afforded by glass.

Pat, (the sextantic chain sawer) wants me to pop over with recording equipment once the frog-fucking season starts (if you will forgive my Anglo-Saxon) since he has a large pond near his house, and the noise once the frog fornication festivities first fulminate is something else again, he tells me. I had my equipment handy - for recording - but the pond is still frozen and covered with ice and snow, and so the frogs, presumably, are having to dwell in patience and chastity. We drank champagne and blew those things that you blow at birthday parties.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fear not the Truth, O Shrub!

This is about George W. Bush.

From early age we are brought up to respect truth, and to value it, and to understand that it is the sole basis of safety. Separation from the truth comes either from mistakes, which will not work out as we wish and hope, - or from false understandings, which will betray us since they will betray us when we try to live by them, - or deliberate deception, which defeats trust and leads to retaliation, - or delusion, producing a catastrophic life without understanding, foolishness, even evil, being warmly embraced. The body of society has to protect itself against falsehood and deceit, whatever its motivation. There are white lies which, carefully measured, can avoid unnecessary pain without creating intolerable turmoil, but that is a skill that needs constant judgement.

The fact that from an early age we are taught by our parents to revere the truth lest we cause long term disaster, not avoiding it because of short term discomfort, shows that cleaving to the truth does not come naturally. Children at a young age learn to be manipulative through story-telling, and the story told is the one that is most immediately effective. In fact I believe that the main evolutionary purpose of language is as a tool to manipulate people. As an intrinsic feature of language, truth just doesn't enter into it. "Truth" is a much later discovery than language.

"I didn't do it. Billy did!" What a wonderful tool the toddler acquires! Similarly, parents with young children soon discover that doctrinaire adherence to the most comprehensive truth is simply inefficient. "You must go to bed because it is bedtime!" "Eat your carrots or you will get terrible diseases." as opposed to "well, studies show that a lack of hours of sleep leads to a lower level of psychological functioning, and therefore the strong probability that you will get upset and cry if Billy pushes you in the playground tomorrow." I mean, who has the time? What child would care? Which way is effective?

So as language and understanding emerges in the life of childhood, short-term manipulation is the obvious initial advantage. Truth telling doesn't immediately recommend itself; we have to be taught to respect truth. It gets to be built into us by our culture - like potty-training, nonviolence, not screaming in public, (please!!) all these sorts of things.

For most of us, truth swiftly recommends itself; as when an uncomfortable confession leads to clearing the air and a new level of trust; as when exposed dishonesty explains an intractable mystery and leads to reorganization; as when acceptance of unwelcome news avoids a worse future. So we come to respect truth after we learn to fear it. If we stay loyal to the truth, life may be painful, but not as bad as a life based on lies, since truth has teeth, vicious teeth, will not be denied, and has infinite patience. We cannot afford to fear it, else it will take its revenge.


But some people do not seem to learn these lessons, and never get beyond the "truth is really a pest" stage. People like George W. Bush, who never succeeded in any business venture, but was always protected from the consequences of his ineptitude, who didn't even have to show up for his easy options during Vietnam, Dan Rather's career conveniently ending to protect him from that truth, who had national "swift-boat" thugs out there protecting him from any invidious (truthful) comparisons with other people in the public eye, and who lives in a bubble surrounded by Rove and Cheney and Co., protecting him from encountering any form of truth, - just constant "truthiness."

Why should Bush fear the truth? He has not had to deal with it. When it has threatened him, it has been conveniently removed. He has not yet found out the teeth that truth possesses.


Most alarming of all, there is the issue of his alcoholism. He is a recovering alcoholic, there has been no attempt to hide that fact. I do not know the details of his recovery, but his current obsession with faith (as opposed to truth) would suggest that his progress was somewhat like that of the AA 12-step program. You will recall that one of the early steps is to put your trust entirely in a higher being. Or, if you do not believe in God, to put your trust in a higher being such as you conceive it to be. In other words, if you don't believe in God, make one up. Invent a fictitious personal guardian superman and then trust your entire life to this private fantasy. If this works, then your sobriety, your sanity, your life, depends upon unswerving commitment to a fantasy. This in turn requires that truth be blocked out. Truth destroys the fairy world, and shatters the foundations of sobriety. Maybe this works fairly harmlessly for a lot of people, but for the President of the United States in self-selected "I am a Wartime President" mode?

It is very clear that Bush does depend on his private religiose fantasies, not just as the basis of what he believes to be the case, but as the basis of his continued sober existence. He cares not a whit about the history of Iraq, the niceties of who actually attacked us in 2001, the true and real consequences of our presence in Iraq. There is no grasp of reality in refusing to talk to countries like Syria and Iran, and expecting that their response to non-communication and pouting will be to say "Oh, OK! We'll do what you want us to do." I mean, really!!! He seems totally unaware that he does not even know what they would say in negotiations. Language is not just about manipulation. It is also about the unexpected. Every conversation contains surprises. If it doesn't, there's no reason to say anything.

Bush, as a recovering alcoholic of a particular type, is personally dependent upon maintaining his illusory world of denial. He has to keep "God", - his imaginary little friend, - well-sustained, as he has no other basis for action. So our hope and bewildered expectation, as the news on the ground gets ever more grim, that W will sooner or later see sense, see reality, grasp the truth, confess that he cannot evade its teeth; all these hopes are fundamentally wrong. For much more is at stake than 3,000 American lives in Iraq, than the fate of America in the World, than hopes for peace among mankind and the easing of pointless stress between religions. No, something vastly more important than that is at stake - the peace of mind of George W Bush, a narcissist who has never learned a healthy fear of the truth. In weighing his options, real or otherwise, about what to do in Iraq, he has one over-riding goal, which has to prevail. How can he keep his religious delusions intact? That's it. So speaking the truth to Bush is pointless. It's not part of his world-system.

Truth has never helped him in his life, not in business, not in advancement, not in sobriety. Nor, till now, has it hurt him. Delusion has worked just fine so far. He will be loyal his constant companion.

Yet truth has teeth, and infinite patience, and, to use a turn of phrase with no religious intent; God help us all.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Supreme Justice - whatever.

There was a wonderful quote published today from Antonin Scalia in dealing with a Global Warming case in the Supreme Court. Scalia had just wondered whether carbon was really a problem for the stratosphere.

Milkey: "Respectfully, Your Honor, it is not the stratosphere. It's the troposphere,"

"Troposphere, whatever. I told you before I'm not a scientist," Scalia said to laughter. "That's why I don't want to have to deal with global warming, to tell you the truth."

Unfortunately, I don't think the God that authored the laws of physics cares very much whether or not Scalia is a scientist. The laws of physics apply to him even more ruthlessly than the laws of the United States.

If, as Justice Kennedy suggested, the validity of the theory of global warming is germane to the case (since if there is no global warming there is no injury or potential injury connected to the case under consideration), then shouldn’t the justices try to understand the global warming issue? What puzzles me even more than the cavalier attitude the justices show to ideas that they don’t like, (we are used to that) is that Scalia light-heartedly behaves as if no intelligent person, indeed not even a person of such sophisticated and accomplished intellectual stature as Justice Scalia himself, can be expected to understand science if he is not a “scientist.”

He can dismiss the science of the matter to laughter, and indicate he thinks it unimportant, in a way that shows his confidence that everyone else thinks it is unimportant too, and that there is no obligation even to try to understand it. But science is nothing more than finding out things we did not know before.

If scientists are finding out about things that may threaten our very existence, (or possibly not - it depends what unknown things science finds out next, - when science changes its mind, that is the sign of its strength,) then for Scalia to brush it off, or to think he has shown it to be insubstantial simply because nobody can tell him whether the catastrophe will happen at 3:25 next Tuesday afternoon or not, is just being stubborn without reason.

I am sure that Antonin Scalia is perfectly capable of understanding the difference between the Stratosphere and the Troposphere if he were to listen for a moment or two. Scientific jargon is no more impenetrable than legal jargon. An official position of Philistinism isn’t a promising technology. It doesn't help solve practical problems. Not everything we refuse to see goes away.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Breakfast Saga

I had not known before this morning that water can set off a carbon monoxide alarm.

A few months ago, when feeling under the weather, (probably a combination of a cold and boredom) I came to the very firm conclusion that I was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Can't quite remember why, except that my cooking stove wasn't working well, so I dashed off to a clinic and had blood tests done at great expense. Needless to say, I did not have carbon monoxide poisoning, but the tests worked in that they made me feel much better. So, just to be sure, I bought a carbon monoxide alarm - like a smoke alarm. But I didn't want to make holes in my walls, so I just set it on my bedside table and forgot about it. It blinks reassuringly from time to time, and there is no carbon monoxide there.

Well, last night, in the middle of the night, right in the middle of a detailed dream about splicing sound recordings as if they were errant DNA, I got so excited that I turned over, flipping my duvet, and knocked over my trusty glass of water. I started dabbing at it - it was only water after all, and there was nothing water-disastrous, (like metallic sodium, for instance, which would have violently exploded immediately) - nothing water susceptible on my table, just a mundane set of 3 alarm clocks (my paranoia has not abated yet) and a few little things that are still there because I cannot figure out what they are, and therefore do not know where to put them. So I dabbed and got up to find a cloth; when SCREEEEEEEECH! This loud piercing scream started and kept on. I don't know how most people react when things like that happen, but when 98% unconscious, my analytical mind just doesn't seem to work at full capacity. Once, years ago, a piercing screech in the middle of the night got me to leap out of bed, run around my room looking for the source of the pure malevolence, and try to figure out what was capable of making such a noise. I had fitted hi-fi loudspeakers to my wall, so I ripped out and cut all the cables for that system, ruining it, and not fixing the problem. I opened the window to see if it was a general catastrophe afflicting the whole of the Trent Valley (which it wasn't) and then, gradually awakening, discovered that I had left my radio on. Back in England in the 60s, after the broadcasting day was over, the radio would carry a pure sine-tone note A - 440, for just ages. This is an insanity producing sound, and it worked. But as I gained sentience, I calmed down, reached over to my radio, and turned it off, finally able to relax amid the ruins of my hi-fi system.

Well, there is something about those pure notes that makes it impossible to figure out where they are coming from. Simple audiological fact. A crackling sound is easy to locate, a pure-tone siren isn't. That's why the beeping sound that comes from the back of trucks and busses to warn you that they are backing up is the Worst sound that could be chosen. The person has NO way of knowing what to run away from. Same thing, of course, with smoke alarms. And, I am sure you will have guessed, carbon monoxide alarms. Maybe more so, since if you need the warning, you are probably freshly stupefied anyway.

Add to that the fact that this was about 5:45 am, and I was dashing around trying to think what the hell could be going on, as it Absolutely Could Not Possibly Be anything to do with mere water. And since my apartment is in a hotel I feared staff would appear at any moment. And since I could not yet awaken myself sufficiently to figure out where any of my clothes were, I imagined staff bursting in and taking swift, unknown, unanticipateable actions with me flailing around appalling them both by my nakedness AND the slight untidiness of the kitchen. Horrors.

As the first light of rationality dawned, I started going around and listening to things carefully, seeing if I was getting colder or warmer, - as if it were a solo version of an Easter Egg Hunt with encouraging parents hinting at the wisdom of the locations I was checking. It wasn't the TV. It wasn't the smoke alarm. There was no sound from outside the windows. I located a pair of jeans just in case. Surely the staff were about to burst in through the doors. The radio was off. It seemed to be coming from my bedside lamp! Impossible. And the only other thing near that was - - my monoxide alarm. YES!

But it had no off switch. I tried clutching it to my chest to smother it, but I don't have that sort of a chest. I poked my finger in its eye - it's little light. That helped a bit. I poked its eyes and covered its ears (the little grill it tests with.) That helped, but it wasn't a good solution to clutch as tightly as I could to a screaming device that I now realized was also radio-active, since that's how they work. (isn't it?)

Two more degrees of consciousness, and I decided to take out the batteries, after checking the cooker to see if by any chance this was the most amazing coincidence, and it just so happened that I had tipped my water over at the EXACT moment when some inexplicable cloud of carbon monoxide wafted from the kitchen, past my open windows, and lodged beside my bed right next to the spilled water. Unlikely on the whole, I thought. So I proceeded with the battery plan which seemed, on balance, both promising and not too terribly foolhardy.

Off with the battery cover, but the batteries were jammed in tight. No way could I get them out. I stuffed the alarm under the bed covers while I found a screwdriver to pry them out. I was beginning to feel quite confident in my resourcefulness by this time, and that warm, encouraging sense of competence was bringing a little color back to life. Pop! one sprang out. And then, as if by some benign magic, as the awful sound stopped, clarity returned, and I was just in my silly room again.


I suppose these alarms work, but I find it hard to believe anyone would just wake up and do what they are supposed to do when an alarm goes off for a legitimate reason. The only times I can remember such things happening, I have always gone to the most immense lengths to find an alternative explanation for the alarm, prove my new theory, and then disarm the whole thing. When in extremis, always go for denial first.

Anyway, I was clearly up now. So. Breakfast? I had bought a stove-top espresso maker the day before, on the theory that one great cup of difficult-to-make coffee would be better than slowly downing a whole pot of the mediocre stuff and twitching all day long. So, confident that the carbon monoxide coming out of the cooker was now my friend, not my assassin, I got the coffee going, and even cooked up some potatoes and fried an egg.

Now - at last, - we come to today's serendipitous cooking tip:

The coffee was Wonderful, I am about to make more (thus defeating the purpose of buying the gadget) and the potatoes and egg were OK, but a little dry. I did not have any ketchup to put on them to moisten them up a bit, so I used whatever I could find that looked like ketchup, which was Shrimp Seafood Sauce.

I do not recommend this. Shrimp Seafood Sauce on Fried Egg is not good.

This is what I learned this morning.

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Friday, October 13, 2006


Something caught me by surprise on the anniversary, this year, of 9/11. I hesitated to comment on it at the time as it seemed disrespectful and possibly flippant in view of the enormity of the event that was being commemorated. But I found it startling, and it lodged in my mind. I suppose the surprise came from the fact that there should have been nothing surprising about it at all. It was my own reaction that surprised me.

During the ceremony in which people, mainly widows of those killed, read out the names of all the victims of the attacks, there was a long series of name-readers, each with perhaps ten names to read. Usually there were two women, alternating. And almost always the last name each spoke would be the name of the speaker's husband, or boyfriend, or son, or father, who had died.

And there they were: women clearly in the prime of life, physically, mentally, emotionally, not weak people in any way; women of commanding presence and competence and assurance, each expressing, after five years, the deep grief and love they felt for the man they had lost. And this is what struck me: it was there, it was genuine, and there was no explanation whatever given as to why they loved this man, or what he had done to deserve their love. It was just a statement of love, period.

It did startle me. I know it was television I was watching, and just that fact alone spreads the veneer of triviality and unthinking convention over everything, but this was reportage too, in stark contrast to the peppy backdrop of popular culture, of TV-commercial-land in which every man is a pompous fool and every woman is cute and amazingly smart. But even setting aside the clichés of the commercials and the sitcoms, there is a standard respectable way that TV handles tragedies and anniversaries of this type. And therefore, insofar as the TV anchors are in control of the content, there has to be an angle, a reason, a hook to stimulate our vicarious melancholy - to keep us all on board with the appropriate degree of collective grief.

So we see pictures of beautiful young women killed, mothers desperately missed by their equally photogenic children. And we get detailed narratives of the heroism and fate of fire-fighters lost, of police and rescue workers, and other performers of brave compassionate deeds, often at the cost of their lives.

This is why I was reluctant to write about this, because these are all real tragedies, real mothers lost, real heroes destroyed, and I don’t want to draw away from those. But these stories, sadly, are always with us, and so perhaps there is a little room for a more puzzling observation. One that really has nothing at all to do with 9/11, except that the mourning ceremony revealed it to me and, surprisingly, surprised me.

For when the TV anchors were not in charge, and the cameras were simply rolling, then it was not only the firefighters and rescue workers who were mourned. It was also the husbands of this series of widows, men about whom we knew nothing at all except that each one was a man, had a name, and had been very much loved.

I am absolutely not making any comparison here with the mourning for lost women, children, or anybody about whom we know a great deal. But I am a man, and I speak as a man of my reaction to the grief, without further explanation, over these lost men. It truly caught me unprepared, and was like scales falling from my eyes.

We are all to some degree trapped inside the stereotypes of popular culture and unthinking assumptions, especially when filtering the world through television. And in that unfairly simplistic world, just as to be a woman is to be oppressed, so to be a man is to be guilty. Women struggle against their oppression, and men struggle with their guilt. Sometimes it is real and sometimes it is piffle, but it’s a wallpaper background against which we live our lives. And the 9/11 ceremony inadvertently showed me a chink, giving a glimpse of something else. The possibility that it might, after all, be possible to live as a man without having to spend my entire life apologizing. What a benefaction!

I wonder, when you saw my title: “Men”, did you expect the tenor of this essay to turn in a different direction?

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Beethoven's 5th: The Propaganda

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Why the propaganda?

Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is amazingly famous, perhaps taking second place only to his 9th. The reason the 9th is so celebrated is obvious. It has this huge last movement with singers and a chorus, singing in praise of Joy. It also has a great, memorable, tune. But there’s a hint of a problem here already. There are lots of big pieces of choral music that end in glory. There are lots of great tunes. Why make such a fuss about this one? Well, because it is a Symphony, and Symphonies did not normally use voices, let alone choruses. In fact they never had done at all until Beethoven did it in this piece. So Beethoven’s 9th is not only a great piece with a terrific Finale, it is also music of great historical significance, crucial in aesthetic theories about the evolution of the arts, and the essence of Beethoven’s quest.

But hold on a minute. Who cares about that stuff? For a person listening to a concert, hearing the piece of music being played right now, what does it matter how it relates to other pieces by the same composer, or by other composers before or since? If it does matter, does that mean that you cannot enjoy Beethoven’s 9th properly unless you already posses lots of knowledge about “the evolution of the symphony” assuming that there is any such thing? Is our visceral reaction to music dependent upon being able to make formal connections with intellectual notions not contained in the sounds we are hearing? If that is the case, then how can we enjoy the Beatles without a comprehensive knowledge of Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Vera Lynn, Chubby Checker, Ragtime as a secular aspect of the combination of African musicality and plantation christianity which was the only religion available to slaves forcibly separated from the spiritual life of the country they were stolen from because of the need by an agrarian export-economy in the newly colonized territories of the Americas for a compliant and therefore disenfranchised labor force? Where does it end? Perhaps we shall never be able to TRULY appreciate the 1812 Overture until we find out if String Theory is true and have a complete understanding of The Big Bang.

All of this is nonsense, of course, and impossible. In any pursuit of understanding, we can never start at the beginning. We have to jump in. And the Arts, including music, make a point of making their points without explanation, of being a conscious experience right there - experience, not understanding. The understanding part comes later, if you want it to, when you get so enthusiastic that you become a Music Buff. Once you collect a few Beethoven String Quartets, you get to like them, and maybe notice that they are far more different from each other than String Quartets by Mozart or Haydn or Schubert. And so then you get an enthusiasm for the pleasure of knowing about them, which may or may not enhance the real-time pleasure afforded by any one of them, but becomes a pleasure of its own - like the passion of stamp collectors or historians of the First World War, or any other scholarly endeavor. And here’s the clue to the fame of the 9th.

Why do we all go along with the esteem and celebration of Beethoven’s 9th? In part, because the experts tell us that we should. And the experts, in this case, are the people who run orchestras, and the people who hold professorships, and the people who plan festivals and brochures and radio stations. And all those people got there because they are music buffs. They are genuinely and innocently interested in things like “the evolution of the symphony” and tend to believe that it is a real thing. And, naturally, they tend to agree with each other rather a lot, because they are looking for preferment and promotion, tenure, critical respect and a secure income. Writers too, especially art and music critics, are going to be art and music buffs as well, else they would not have managed to get the jobs that they have.

I am not knocking these people. I am one of them. I have been a music buff all my life, and have even memorized most of the Beethoven Symphonies as part of my professional activities. Which does not mean I could conduct them all from memory today, let alone write out the scores. My goodness, what a humiliation the attempt would be! But it does mean I know them fairly well, and have thought about what Beethoven might have thought about while he was writing them, and why he might have tried y in symphony x, after w didn’t work too well in symphony x-1. So, naturally enough, I do personally think that it is jolly interesting that Beethoven decided to use a chorus in his 9th and last symphony. My curiosity is hardly a new reaction!

All music buffs agree that Beethoven’s 9th and its use of vocalists is a very interesting anomaly. It is a fact about that particular symphony which makes it fascinating to us in a wholly legitimate way. But does this mean it is automatically more interesting to the audience, the innocent audience, the audience who cares not a whit about the relative expressive power of words vis-à-vis music, nor the structural dilemmas Beethoven found himself wrestling with? Does it make the 9th automatically more gripping for the person driving home in a car who didn’t even hear the announcement about what this piece of music on the radio is? Does it matter that Beethoven didn’t have people riding home in cars in mind when he wrote it? Does it matter that Eddison did not have a Donald Trump vulgarity in mind when he invented the incandescent lamp?

So our musical life is filtered by the mandarins. The oligarchy that sustains the existence of the music business, and thus creates the possibility that you or I can ever hear any classical music at all, this oligarchy infects its decisions about what to do, and thus what we can hear, with its own esoteric arts-buff stuff.

So I suggest to you that Beethoven’s 9th isn’t necessarily or simply as great as you have been told. It’s good, but it’s not orders of magnitude better than either other symphonies or lots of other pieces that aren’t symphonies. It is famous because it is famous. Like Paris Hilton. Cascade theory, or catastrophe theory. Flip sides of the same coin. Everybody has heard OF Beethoven’s 9th, and name recognition helps to sell tickets, so tickets for Beethoven’s 9th are likely to exist, which means performances will happen, and thus people get the chance to become familiar with it, and they like what they know, so they want to hear it again, and thus the cascade explodes exponentially. But the trigger that started it all is the unbelievably esoteric, (and, at root, not very interesting) fact that this is a piece of music with the word “Symphony” in its title (and classical music is not generally known for its catchy titles - “String Quartet No 9 in C major, Opus 59 number 3” !!) - a piece of music with the word “Symphony” in its title BUT with singers in it, written at a time when that was a very unconventional thing to do. It has the appeal of the odd. And we all tend to focus on the odd rather than the subtle, if only because odd things are easier to draw attention to. Get a group of “Magic: The Gathering” enthusiasts together and often there will be talk about an odd card, a card that has caused lots of problems. A notorious card. Does that mean that that card is the most interesting or the most potent? Not necessarily. It just becomes the one that it is easiest to talk about.

For what it’s worth, there are hundreds of choral symphonies now. One of them, Mahler’s Symphony No 2, Resurrection, is very obviously (to a music buff like me, but no way on a first hearing) a rip-off of Beethoven’s 9th all the way along the line. Lot’s of really direct links to be found. And in my opinion, it is a better piece. Beethoven’s 9th gets a great reception, but people go crazy after a great performance of Mahler’s Resurrection. Gilbert Kaplan has made a second career of conducting just that one work alone. In Beethoven’s output, I would suggest that his 3rd and 7th symphonies are quite as terrific as the 9th. But these are not objective judgments of course. I am just trying to point out that the ascendancy of the 9th as a pinnacle of art, as the source of the European Union’s Anthem, as the piece played as the walls collapsed in Berlin - none of this is based on any objective judgement either. It all got going because the piece is an oddity.

So notoriety is the main reason for the fame of Beethoven’s 9th. I will also concede that it is a very good piece, else it wouldn’t have withstood this barrage of publicity. How long will Paris Hilton’ fame last?


And so I come to Beethoven’s 5th, since even more praise is heaped on this than on the 9th. And consequently it gets played a great deal, and has become, as it were, the axiomatic symphony, the piece that orchestras play to prove that they are serious orchestras. No music lover can have self-respect without having heard it. No conductor can be taken seriously if they cannot make a good showing of Beethoven’s 5th. I even saw Robert Spano, a conductor of fantastic and original talents, bringing musical thrills unheard of to the Atlanta Symphony audiences, receive, in his early days there, a very cautious overall review of his talents, based on the caveat, “but can he do Beethoven’s 5th?”

Who cares!?! Beethoven’s 5th has been done! If necessary, get somebody else to do it. Does every trial lawyer have to re-litigate the O.J. Simpson trial before he can be taken seriously.???
Sorry. Back again.

The point I am leading up to is this: the fame of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and the frequent assumption that it is the greatest of all symphonies, is once more, even more than in the case of the 9th symphony, the result of intellectual conventionality and laziness by the mandarins. Here’s why the Music Buffs think that Beethoven’s 5th is the greatest symphony ever written:

It starts out with the famous “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”, which is very short. Just four notes.
Virtually everything else in the symphony can be derived from that.
That’s it. That’s why it’s famous.
Really, that’s it.

Two question arise: A) is it true? and B) why would that be impressive?

I’ll answer B first. And this will be a "music buff mandarin" answer, but that is to be expected since my point is that the fame of the piece stems from the power of the music buffs.

An ambitious composer wants his piece to be big. That is basic Aristotelian Aesthetics. A really short piece is trivial. A Humungous piece drives people away. So it has to have a certain heft, as Aristotle says about tragedy. An obvious problem that any composer has in trying to write a big piece of music is: how to stop it from being fragmented, how to make it all hang together, but without being unduly repetitious. After all, once you have written one note, or one little tune, you have only two essential options: 1 - do it again, 2 - do something different.

Doing it again soon gets boring, and it is hard to think of enough new things to do all the time, and that would end up with a shapeless mess of things anyway. A lot of Icelandic Sagas, and Indian Epics, are like that. You get a string of events which seem to have little to do with each other, and which eventually just stop. There are many components, but no resulting unity. Music isn’t even about things, so you cannot have a central character, unless you are writing an opera, or a central idea unless you are writing, for instance, an iconoclastic choral symphony. (Hint!)

So what composers would often do would be to hedge their bets and do something that wasn’t exactly the same, nor exactly different, but, as it were, a little bit different. Similar, but not the same. Recognizable, but distinguishable. Intriguing. Variations.

Historical context: The first movements of symphonies were, by convention, written using a procedure called “sonata form”. This is just music-buff jargon for a particular formula for writing music: a cross between a particular ground-plan and a process. All sorts of composers invented all sorts of different plans for music of course, just as architects designed hundreds of ground-plans for buildings, but sonata-form just sort of “took” and proved incredibly fruitful, much as the cruciform ground-plan of a cathedral, or the house-with-enclosed-yard plan for a dwelling proved useful and fruitful in all sorts of circumstances. All of these, for reasons neither fully understood, nor needing to be understood, turned out to be great starting points, and great conventions. Immensely fertile. For my present argument, it is not necessary to go into the details of sonata-form, but simply to point out that one of the sections of the plan is called, again in jargon, the “development section.” This is a part of the design which was originally free. But Haydn had a great idea: how about if, in the “development section” (which is usually about half-way through the piece) we take little bits of the tunes we have already used, and kind of juggle them around? Haydn did this a lot. Mozart thought this was a terrific idea, and did it himself from them on. This “put the tunes in a blender” approach to the development had the exact advantages I hinted at above. It meant that the music was free and improvisational, and could go anywhere, but it was full of bits you recognize from before you put the fish in the bass-o-matic. So it was constantly fresh and new, and yet recognizably the same music that you had already been listening to. It was a great technical leap forward.

Now one thing this method required was this: the themes you started out with had to be the sort of themes that would work well when chopped up into little bits and blended with salsa and cucumbers. It didn’t work with long tunes that had to hold together. So when composers came to use folk-songs as their themes, which happened around 1900, those themes, though lovely, didn’t make for great symphonies. Since the folk-tune wasn’t really recognizable unless you played the whole thing, chopping it up didn’t yield useful sauce. So composers were back to the “do it again or do something different” dilemma. But that is an aside.

Beethoven really ran with this way of making developments, and even added a second development at the end of the standard sonata-form ground plan to give himself even more inventive freedom. He also made a specialty of using tunes which didn’t sound all that promising, but which he knew from experience would be great after going through the bass-o-matic and being turned into a sort of recognizable music paste.

Well, the 5th symphony is the ne plus ultra of this way of working. What could be shorter and less promising than “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”? If you listen carefully, you will hear that the next thing that happens is “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” too. Then “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” - wait - “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM” “Ta-ta-ta-DARM”, etc.

A great deal of the first movement is made out of a sort of mosaic of little fragments that share this rhythmical shape. Chords are built up by piling versions on top of each other. And since the idea is so short (unlike a complete tune like “Danny Boy”) he can build almost anything he wants out of it, like leggo bricks, and still have the identity of the idea completely clear. This IS very impressive. And even most of the third movement is built of the same tiny idea, but with a slightly different feel to it. From the point of view of a music analyst, or a struggling composer, this is awe-inspiring stuff. It demonstrates Beethoven’s utter brilliance as a composer - technically.

Question A was “Is it true”

Well, up to a point. That tiny idea drenches the first movement, and also great swathes of the third movement, (put a recording on, wait through the quiet opening, and see what the loud horns do.) But it isn’t there on the surface in the second movement, nor in the last movement. So it totally dominates a little less than half of the music. Commentators will show ways in which it subconsciously influences all the rest, and they are right, but so what? This principle of “thematic development”, as it is called, is an excellent technical device that has major psychological consequences, because it relates very closely to the way our brains recognize things as belonging together. But there is no moral law involved here. No principle of ethical purity. The thematic unity of the 5th symphony doesn’t in any way imply that Beethoven was a profound philosopher or a morally superior being. He worked very hard at writing music.

So I come back to my first, implied question. Does the technical brilliance of the 5th symphony make it a wonderful and beautiful and moving piece of music? I don’t think so. It think it IS a great piece, though not a perfect one. There is a special sort of energy that comes from the piling on of these tiny little fragments, but this developmental tchnique has little bearing on the second movement, which is problematic in all sorts of interesting ways, mainly concerning ambiguity about how long phrases are. (That is a topic for a wholly different discussion.) And the tiny motif has no real importance for the Finale which, I have argued elsewhere, is a bit like a New Year’s Eve Party: it’s all in the anticipation. The whole of the symphony builds up to that triumphant finale, but, once you get there, it is already triumphant, so the reason for the party is over the moment it starts.

So this is the reason for my bad conscience. We Music Buffs love Beethoven’s 5th because it is great, but also because it is easy to use it to prove how clever Beethoven was. But is it his best symphony? Personally I’d go for 3, 4, and 7 as more enjoyable. I have nothing against the 5th, but its reputation of supremacy is an example of the way we let ourselves be told what we should appreciate by people whose interests are not really those of honest and courageous listeners, fully confident in their aesthetic instincts and judgments, but rather somewhat anxious insecure people, looking for pieces to approve of, that give them a chance logically to prove that they are right. You will see, especially in season brochures, assertions that this is a wonderful, beautiful symphony, possibly the greatest ever written, that will uplift you like no other.

Well, that’s up to you to decide. The appeal to authority is always invalid.

I encourage you: ignore the politically correct canon. Trust your ears. On the other hand, if you want to be a music buff and get into what is going on in this fascinating symphony, then it is a wonderful game venue. The riches inside it are awesome.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Bolero - Not so Dumb

Ravel’s Bolero is, - what? A famous piece. An infamous piece. A notorious piece. All of these and, deceptively, much more. Ravel himself famously said that it contained “no music”, which was a tad on the self-deprecating side. But you can see what he meant - it is tedious, popular, redundant, exciting, infuriating, but it contains no counterpoint, no contrast of mood, no modulation. It is one of those pieces that lives right on the cusp between music and non-music:- like the opposite extreme from Schoenberg’s early atonal works.

But whereas Schoenberg almost fell off the precipice in his groping for ultimate seriousness, Ravel almost became catatonic in his flirtation with banality and empty-headedness.

Bolero is a member of a little clutch of pieces that fed my enthusiasm for classical music as a small child. I had a collection of 12 inch 78 rpm discs of my favorite pieces, culled from my father’s library. Bolero took up two full discs - four sides of music that had to be manually placed on the turntable, flipped, and changed when the time came. Four full sides it took up, but for the life of me I could never really figure out why. As rendered, acoustically, through my lovingly filed fiber needles, all four sides sounded pretty much identical to me, except that Side One seemed a bit tentative, and Side Four was the only one with a proper ending. I suppose stopping for a disc turn hampered the flow quite a bit, but so it did for all pieces. Poor old Beethoven’s Eroica occupied a fairly hefty suitcase, and was effectively dismembered into a chain of sound-bites.

Even so, from the beginning I was aware that there was something about Bolero that was distinctly odd. Hypnotically, inhumanly so.

The piece consists, as everyone knows, of the same tune played over and over again until it eventually stops. That is all that happens. So why is it so famous, notorious, well-known, adored? And since it is so successful, and its construction so simple, why isn’t it merely one amongst a whole crowd of imitations, of me-too pieces, mining the same paralyzing seam? Why does it stand out so? Exasperating as it is, wherein lies it’s undeniable brilliance?

Usually, in music as in other things, it is the smaller details that are most easily grasped, and the big picture that is elusive. For instance, we all know the tune of the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, and can hum along with it easily. But can you describe, succinctly and accurately, the shape and structure of that finale? (And a chronological account of the type found in most program notes: “This happens, then that happens, then, surprisingly, we are suddenly plunged into the other, before all is resolved by that” - this sort of thing won’t do, as it is merely a list, not a grasping of the whole entity.) With most pieces of normal music, it is easy to latch onto the tune, but hard to grasp the overall structure and plot, which probably exploits surprise and deception anyway.

Now in Ravel’s Bolero, exactly the opposite is true. It is unbelievably easy to grasp everything that is to be grasped about the structure and drama on a single hearing. A tune is played over and over again, each time by different instruments, getting louder as it goes along, until it gets very loud, and then stops. That’s it.

But can you actually hum the tune? The tune that you have heard so many times, can you actually recall it accurately? I’ll bet that you can’t. Try putting a recording on and humming along with it and I am sure you will go wrong within seconds. Again it is the reverse of the Beethoven. This melody is completely unmemorable. Instantly recognizable, but impossible to remember correctly. The way Ravel achieves this is simple - it stems from the lack of any relationship between the melody and the accompaniment. The accompaniment is ruthlessly in 3/4 time, with the drum going


over and over without exception. The harmony is static too. But the tune isn’t in 3/4, except by accident sometimes. It isn’t in anything really, as regards being in 2 or 3 or 4, it is just meandering and chaotic. It isn’t in any particular key either. It just wanders around the scale, pretty much without direction, until it eventually makes it to the home note. So even as the work drones on and on and on, it never gets to be as infuriatingly predictable as, say, “twinkle twinkle little star” 30 times over, since at the end of each stage, you still feel you haven’t quite “got it” yet.

There are other irregularities that slip past the censor, too. It isn’t really one tune going around, but two half-tunes, not played alternately, as would make sense, but the first half gets played twice, each time as if it were a complete tune, then the second half is played twice. So although it sounds elusive but repetitious, it takes four verses of the “tune” before the cycle actually comes round again. This also means that whichever part of the tune you are hearing now, part A or part B, there is always a 50/50 chance about which bit you will hear next. Doubt at every turn.

Regarding the crescendo: there isn’t one. Each version of the tune, over time, is louder, bolder, than previous ones, but nothing builds a crescendo. It just goes up in little steps that result inevitably from the changes in orchestration. Nonetheless, by the end it is much louder than it was when it started. Similarly with the climax: again, there isn’t one. When the piece is really near to the end, Ravel just steps aside into a different key for about four measures, so that when he immediately steps back again, it feels like the resolution after a climax that wasn’t ever really there. Just the cigarette, you might say.

We all think it is dumb, redundant, and a bit low class. But it is cunning beyond belief. Think of this piece as empty if you like, but it is far more sophisticated than it sounds. You think you know exactly what is happening, but you really don’t.

©ajm 2006

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