Saturday, June 29, 2013

Remembering the Concert Band

If the second volume of the Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition reminded me of that MIT student who numbered Leroy Anderson among the great composers, I have to say that there is a generous share of Frederick Fennell conducting the Eastman Wind Ensemble. (Fennell was also the conductor on the Anderson CD.) Having played in my high school's concert band, I had a great interest in "serious" wind ensemble music. Fennell gave exposure to a broad repertoire that seemed to be ignored by just about every other label. The significance of the legacy restored by this collection reaches far back into my personal youth.

Friday, June 28, 2013

"Great" Composers

Back in my undergraduate days, one of my fellow students declared that, in the history of music, there were only three great composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Leroy Anderson. I never expected "Holy Ghost" of that trinity to make it into my collection. However, readers of my national site for probably know that I have been working my way through the second volume of the Mercury Living Presence: The Collector’s Edition. This is the first time I have encountered a collection in which all three of those composers are included. Having already found myself in the situation of having to write about an encore by Anderson (twice, as I recall), I now find that he is part of my collection!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Vladimir Putin Ventures into Robert Heinlein Territory

The Magazine Monitor section on the BBC News Web site seems to have taken great delight in yesterday's colloquial remark by Vladimir Putin:
It's like shearing a piglet - too much squealing, too little wool.
While the BBC used this as an excuse to tour other Russian colloquialisms, no mention was made of the "American cousin" of Putin's remark:
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.
This seems to have quite a tradition behind it. It has been attributed to Mark Twain, but I have yet to encounter a printed source for it in the Twain canon. On the other hand, it does appear in print in Robert Heinlein, where it is one of the maxim of Lazarus Long, the protagonist of Time Enough for Love. It is not hard to imagine that Putin might be a Heinlein fan!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hegel's Philosophical View of History and Edward Snowden

Following the adventures of Edward Snowden (apparently secure in the limbo of the transit lounge of Moscow Airport as I write this), my own thoughts turn to The Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel seemed to view the progress of thinking about government as a "spinal cord" for any account of how history defines a path from past to present. One particular passage seized my attention when I first read it and continues to maintain its grip on my attention:
The History of the World is the discipline of the uncontrolled natural will, bringing it into obedience to a Universal principle and conferring subjective freedom. The East knew and to the present day knows only the One is Free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German World knows and All are free. The first political form therefore which we observe in History, is Despotism, the second Democracy and Aristocracy, the third Monarchy.
I suspect that many, like myself, would puzzle over why democracy is assigned to the "some" category, while only under monarchy are "all" free. However, as one reads further, one discovers that Hegel's view of monarchy is basically an idealized form of the conditions of his own day:
Now Monarchy is that kind of constitution which does indeed unite the members of the body politic in the head of the government as in a point; but regards that head neither as the absolute director not the arbitrary rule, but as a power whose will is regulated by the same principle of law as the obedience of the subject.
In other words Hegel's monarch is sort of an optimal synthesis of Plato's philosopher-king and the emerging monarchs in a constitutional monarchy that were Hegel's contemporaries.

Putting aside the question of whether or not all are free under a constitutional monarchy, Hegel definitely has a point about that fact that only some are free under a democracy. Furthermore, the Occupy movement even went so far as to put a number on how many were in that "some." This was the 1% who, in one way or another, control the wealth of the entire world through the financial sector. In other words, democracy can never be anything other than a different kind of aristocracy. The latter is dominated by a "ruling class" for whom authority is a birthright, while the former achieves domination through technical skills in both analyzing and manipulating the global marketplace. Indeed, the only thing that differentiates the "rule of the 1%" from despotism is that authority is not concentrated in a single individual.

As a skilled intelligence analyst, Snowden could easily have been a member of this latter-day "ruling class." Instead, he chose to stake his future on the proposition that what is good for the "some" of the 1% is not good for all. He is now paying for his choice, although it remains to be seen what the ultimate price will be.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jamming with La Monte Young

La Monte Young seemed to hold to the precept that the best way for a composer to get recognized was through provocation. In his early days the Fluxus movement provided him with abundant opportunities to put his theory into practice. However, he really hit his stride when he prepared the electronic score "Two Sounds" Merce Cunningham's "Winterbranch." This was one of those rare instances in which the title described the music completely, expect for say what those sounds were. For many of us, one of them was highly reminiscent of fingernails scratching a blackboard; and both were played as loudly as the sound system could bear.

As he grew older, however, Young shifted his attention to the harmonic possibilities that would arise from performing with a scale tuned according to the rules of just intonation. Such a scale had the potential to introduce intervals far more dissonant than those of an equal-tempered chromatic scale, which is why the latter has become the tuning system of choice. Renaissance composers chose to avoid those intervals. Young was interested in exploiting them.

He did this with a vengeance when he recorded "The Well-Tuned Piano." This was basically a five-hour improvisation, played without any interruption on October 25, 1981, over the course of which he explored many of the possibilities of seeking out the dissonances of just intonation. The four-CD release of this performance is still a treasured object in my collection of recordings.

The obvious question was, "What would he do next?" The answer, ironically, was that he was already doing it. As early as 1960, he realized that the church modes, diatonic scales whose intervals involved even simpler ratios than just intonation, could be used for performing blues. Between 1960 and 1961 he worked up three blues pieces, two based on the dorian scale and one on the aeolian. The "Dorian Blues in G" has, since then, become an ongoing project that he now explores with electronic instruments (keyboards and guitars) tuned according to the just intonation system.

This has allowed him to move away from solos to group work with a group called The Forever Bad Blues Band. I just realized that my collection also has a two-CD album entitled Just Stompin', whose title offers up an elegantly informative play on words. This is a two-hour performance of "Dorian Blues in G" that Young recorded with guitarists Jon and Brad Catler and drummer Jonathan Kane on January 14, 1993.

Two things immediately impress the listener. First, the intervals are definitely a departure from what we usually hear guitars play. (The guitars have no frets to bias equal tempered intonation.) Second, it still sounds like blues; and, while there is a certain rhythmic persistence to it all, all of the performers get to improvise around the framework defined by Young's original (as in 1961) conception. The result is that this is a blues gig that really gets down to the nitty-gritty of the roots of blues practice and it reminds many of us of just how impoverished much of the work now being performed in the name of blues actually is.

As the hyperlinks show, both of these recordings are now out of print. That means that, while they are available through, they now go for "collectors' item" prices. This is too bad. They make for wonderful ear training, regardless of whether ones preferences are for blues, classical, or jazz. I almost with that one of those labels committed to "historically informed performance" would realize how "historically informed" Young is and would take the trouble to reissue gems like these.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Practical Music Therapy

The parade of really dismal news reports (both national and international) has been so incessant recently that I am beginning to feel trampled by what Barbara Tuchman called "the march of folly." Fortunately, I decided to spend this morning auditioning a preview of Chris Thile's new album (which will not be released until August 6), the first volume of his recordings of the solo violin sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach. I can honestly say that I felt better for this listening experience, which I found to be an excellent combination of Bach's inventive ingenuity and Thile's sensitive approach to performing. While this is not conclusive evidence that "music therapy works," I think I could do worse than to make sure that every day provides me with such a listening opportunity!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Running Afoul of a Failure to Understand Governance

The other day one of my skims of RSS headlines turned up the question of whether or not the Internet needs a "bill of rights." At the time I decided that I had too many other things on my plate to open that can of worms again; and, as a result, I lost the link. Unfortunately, the idea stuck with me.

I suppose I tried to avoid the article because it was yet another reminder of how little so many vocal members of the Internet community know about governance. For example, I suspect there is a general failure to address the concept of just what the Bill of Rights was and, for that matter, why it was an amendment to the Constitution rather than part of the original document. Others understand this far better than I do, but my guess is that the framing of the Constitution envisaged a document of government as a system of components with a clear definition of what those components (now known as the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches) did. In other words, it was a document about how government worked that was conceived independent of any thoughts about the citizens of that government.

The authors of the Constitution knew better than to tell citizens what to do. However, they did see a need to identify certain rights that one had, simply by virtue of being a citizen. So it was that the first ten amendments were written as a sort of unified package.

I would like to suggest that such rights can only be postulated within the framework of an existing system of governance. To say that the Internet needs a "bill of rights" amounts to saying "We need to drive this car to Boston" without first checking whether or not the car has an engine. Before we can address matters of rights, we have to identify the framework of government within which those rights may be exercised. Unfortunately, the Internet emerged as an anarchy; and, for quite some time, its "citizens," so to speak, either tolerated or relished its anarchic status. Unfortunately, anarchy is a bit like entropy. If the laws of thermodynamics prohibit a Maxwell's demon that can create order out of chaos, then the laws of social dynamics tend to preclude the possibility that those living with anarchy can establish a system of governance. It may still be possible; but the Internet lacks both the social culture and the intellectual foundations without which those who wrote the Constitution (which, lest we forget, was a "second try") could not have done there job.

It would be nice if those calling for an "Internet bill of rights" knew what they were talking about, but I suspect that is asking too much these days!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Potential Victims of Deficit Hawks

This morning BBC News ran a story based on an independent study by Transportation for America. The bottom line is at over 66,000 of our bridges are "structurally deficient." This comes to around one out of nine bridges currently in use. Part of the problem, of course, is that, thanks to the deficit hawks in our Congress, the money is not there for inspection and/or amelioration of a growing problem, whose consequences can only be measured in terms of loss of life as bridges collapse. These are the ideologues who advocate private enterprise as advocates for the public trust. However, private enterprise is more likely to view loss of life simply as a Darwinian process to "reduce the surplus population" (as Ebeneezer Scrooge put it). After all, look at how successful private enterprise has been in managing health care!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On Being More Aware of Defects

When I used Yahoo! Mail through the Web, I was not always aware of when it was "suffering," whether going through a minor hiccup or just plain crashing. The only thing I came to realize was that, when it got into such a state, it could bring down Safari because its page needed to be reloaded, the only way of letting me know that it needed my login information again. Now OS X Mail tells me whenever Yahoo! is not communicating! Most of these are, indeed, short-lived hiccups; but it means that Yahoo! now does less damage to Safari!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Software Undevelopment

The transition to the new Mail (which is apparently "powered by Yahoo!) did not go smoothly. There are an inordinate number of electronic mail messages saying the same things, which is that it was coming. Since those messages were not particularly specific about when it would come, I decided to use some of my free [sic] time over the weekend to see if it was there.

This turned out to be a colossal mistake. It turned out that there was a hyperlink to the new mail system. Figuring that exploration never hurts, I clicked on it. I was not particularly happy with what I found. Among other things it did not play very nicely with Safari, but I had been waiting for an excuse to switch back to Firefox for some time. Things were clunky but manageable … until I had to send mail with an attachment. At that point everything fell apart (or, more accurately, nothing was working as it claimed it would). Ultimately, the only way I could send the attachment was through the Gmail account that is my receiving site for my mail.

I knew that I could not live with this as a mail system. Unfortunately, there was no way to reverse the effect of the hyperlink. Once one crossed this Styx, there was no return. that was enough to convince me to try firing up the OX X Mail program, figuring that it would sync properly to my mail account. That went far more smoothly, once I figured out that it got its addresses from the Contacts application (which I was able to populate with little difficulty).

This afternoon I figured I would check the site again to see if there were any changes. I got the full-screen message that the new system was "ready." Things looked a bit less clunky, and attachments were now working. My mistake was on clicking a hyperlink that, by all rights, should not have been there (and should not have been a one-way street).

Meanwhile, I shall see if Mail takes better care of me. At least I know that I can return to the Web-based system if or when I have to do so. Nevertheless, this seems to have been a classic case of making things worse in the name of trying to make improvements.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

With Power Comes Divorce?

BBC News has just released the Breaking Story that Rupert Murdoch has filed for divorce from his wife Wendi Deng. While I am not one to embrace Carl Jung's concept of synchronicity, it was less than a week ago that Vladimir Putin went public about his divorce from his wife Lyudmila. At the very least, the question of synchronicity would involve knowing how much time elapsed between the divorce itself and its public announcement. On the other hand, any connection between men with considerable power (and, yes, I am deliberately using the male noun) and divorce may have better causal explanations than synchronicity!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Polling Privacy and Security

Let's begin with the hard data that Lance Whitney presented in his Security & Privacy article for CNET News this morning:
Among 1,005 Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post, 56 percent said they believe that tracking phone records is an "acceptable way" to investigate terrorists. Taking the opposite view, 41 percent consider the practice unacceptable, while 2 percent weren't sure. 
Drilling further, 62 percent believe it's important for the government to track down potential terrorist threats even if that affects personal privacy. On the flip side, 34 percent said the government should not interfere with the privacy of its citizens even if that limits its power to investigate possible threats. 
Finally, 45 percent think the government should be able to "monitor everyone's e-mail and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks," while 52 percent said they were against this practice.
This need not be surprising, but it would have been nice to know a bit about the poll itself. With a sample space as small as 1005, we deserve to know a bit more about its origins. Also, every pollster knows about how to frame questions in order to bias answers.

In other words, at the very least, one cannot really attach very much to these results without a hyperlink that provides a more thorough account of the polling process. The Pew Research Center is an independent think tank, but that tends to mean that their polls are supported by outside funding. It is unclear whether or not The Washington Post provided all of that funding; but, even if they did, it is important to remember that there is never any such thing as a "totally objective" poll. Thus, we have a right to know where subjective bias entered the process in this case.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Living in BART Oblivion

According to a story by Thomas Peele and Daniel J. Willis that appeared on, former BART General Manager, Dorothy Dugger, managed to arrange an ongoing payout of her severance deal that resulted in earning more money ($333,000) in 2012 than her replacement ($316,000). For many this will probably be the substance of the report. However, I suspect that the real story lies in the reactions of James Fong, a BART board member instrumental in Dugger's removal. Apparently, it did not take much effort from Peele and Willis to harvest a few gems from Fong's reaction to their finding, beginning with:
She was still on the payroll? I did not know this. It's startling.
Not realizing that is foot was already in his mouth, Fong then followed up with:
We never think about these very critical and important little things.
I wonder how the rest of the BART board thinks about his use of first person plural there. One possibility is that they will not think about it, allowing Fong to shine with prescient accuracy. At the very least, however, those of us who use BART might be wondering that the Board does think about in the course of doing its job. Enquiring minds want to know!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hollywood and the Future of Work

Mick LaSalle makes some important observations about The Internship. He seems to be one of the few critics to have approach the film as something other than a self-serving advertisement for Google. I am not sure I agree with where he takes his reasoning, but I think his conclusion is worth considering:
If you were to believe "The Internship," all you need to thrive in today's economy is gumption and a willingness to travel across the country to work for free. Just think, with a little luck, you might be one of the 5 percent to get a permanent job from out of the intern pool! As for the other 95 percent, why think about them? They're not exactly going to be part of any happy ending. 
Was a movie like this ever made during any previous bad economy? The Great Depression equivalent might be the story of a pair of unemployed guys competing against hundreds to go work on Henry Ford's assembly line. But no, such a movie was never made - and could not exist - because in no previous America would turning yourself into a cog in somebody else's machine be considered an achievement worthy of celebration. 
And in no previous America would it be considered a victory if 95 percent of your fellows were still left on the street. Rather, the Great Depression cinema made heroes of gangsters, con men and fast-talking individualists - guys who chose survival by not fitting in. 
Still, hardly anyone will look at "The Internship" in such bleak terms. It's meant to be fun, and it almost is. But if you do feel a little queasy when you think about it later, the reason is simple: The movie just assumes, as a matter of course, that people are totally defeated, without energy or hope - and then it asks you to feel OK about that.
My primary point has to do with that "hardly anyone" phrase in the final paragraph. This will ultimately depend on who actually bothers to go see the movie. I suspect it will go down as fun for Google fanboys, both those comfortably ensconced in the Googleplex and those aspiring to get there.

However, I have to wonder if this was really the audience that Vince Vaughan and his production team have in mind. That would be those men and women who find themselves displaced from the world of work within which they had made their plans for the future. These people could care less about whether the economy is "good" or "bad," because they have lost all belief in the myth that improvement in the economy will lead to improved conditions for both finding work and the nature of the workplace that provides it. Those people will look at this movie and realize just how far things have fallen. They will probably also recognize that, in spite of that hopeless descent, that brief flurry of indignation known as the Occupy Movement has now given way to apathy and despair.

This movie can be approached as a cautionary tale about the destruction of the middle class. David Simon told that story previously and in greater detail in The Wire. The Internship delivers the message in a more easily digested message; but, to build on that metaphor, it is also more likely to make anyone in the middle class barf in disgust.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Revisiting Old Friends

The second volume in the Mercury Living Presence: The Collector's Edition just came out at the beginning of this week. When I saw the announcement of the first volume, I decided to give it a pass as a candidate for my writing. There were several items in that first collection that struck me as having been produced for those addicted to "high fidelity" at the time; and my plate was sufficiently full at the time for me to go after adding things to it. However, the contents of the second volume triggered all sorts of memories of my old vinyl collection; so I decided to go for it.

I have to say that I am glad to discover that the second volume is better organized than the first. More attention seems to have gone into grouping the recordings by conductor, which is probably how I shall end up writing my articles (one for each conductor). I suspect I would have made the same decision with the first volume, doing my own sorting; but at least I was saved the trouble this time. I also realize that I am enjoying thinking back on Antal Dorati. Back when these releases first came out, it was too easy to dismiss him, particularly when you had conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Erich Leinsdorf dominating the middlebrow market from the Columbia and RCA labels. Dorati could be written off for being off in remote Minneapolis or, even when conducting in London, spending too much time on ballet recordings.

The only time I saw him was on Ormandy's "turf." He was visiting the Philadelphia Orchestra to conduct the Mahler sixth. He began with a Haydn symphony, which he conducted from behind a harpsichord. A lot of the "local wise men" made fun of him. These days we expect Haydn to be conducted that way. As far as ballet is concerned, he paid attention scores that others neglected, such as the complete score for Béla Bartók's "The Miraculous Mandarin" (which is one of the items that attracted me to the second volume).

Dorati's problem had nothing to do with his talent. He was simply a victim of "Big Five" brainwashing brought on by Time magazine. It was easier to accept a summary judgment than to engage the mind in some serious listening and decide whether or not a conductor was worthy of attention. If, as I previously suggested, age brings the penalty of having only a limited time left in which to allocate one's attention, it also bring the luxury of recognizing that you can think for yourself more often than choosing to fall back on the judgement of others!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Does Combining Two Flawed Technologies Make for a Better One?

Regular readers know that I am no great fan of Safari. I once would have said that it was the weakest link in the chain of Apple software, but the emergence of the Lion operating system put an end to that proposition. This has put me in a rather uncomfortable position with regard to how I use the Web. Safari continues to be flaky, even if these days it seems to freeze up, rather than just crashing and burning. On the other hand downloading images, particularly large files, has been a risk proposition on Firefox; and I do that frequently in the course of my writing for Then, of course, there has been Firefox's persistent dismissal of providing any acceptable support for printing. (I still prefer paper to any screen when it comes to doing any serious reading.)

Recently, however, I discovered that I could get Firefox functionality while still enjoying Safari's ability to download images of any size and the page preview feature through which I can print with the most efficiency. The discovery was accidental and involves the Develop pull-down menu. This menu is hidden by default, but there is a Preferences setting for making it visible. I came across it when trying to figure out how I could see the HTML source for a Web page (which I have had to do from time to time). However, after reading about it in one of Topher Kessler's MacFixIt articles for CNET, I decided to see what else was in the Develop menu. It turns out there is an entry called User Agent, which opens another menu. Through that menu, a Safari used can choose to have a Web page realized by non-Safari software, one option being Firefox.

This quickly fixed the most important annoyance that required my keeping Firefox available. This was the fact that, under Safari, I could not create attachments for Yahoo! Mail messages. Presumably all User Agent options are available as open source. So all Safari has to do is link to alternative software to take care of page rendering. This strikes me as a weird way to solve the problem; but, as they say, it beats working on building your own solution. I wonder how many other software development problems are being handled by this technique, even as I write this!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wasting Time in Old Age

In this increasingly digital age my wife and I share a physical library of books that many would find intimidating. It is the sort of collection that prompts a first-time visitor to ask the inevitable stupid question:
Have you read them all?
I try to dismiss that question without answering it. People who do not take their reading seriously do not realize that a book is a resource that involves more than reading it cover-to-cover.

Nevertheless, one of the side-effects of growing older is the recognition that there are books in that collection that may never received the dignity of even a considered sampling before I die. This has not made more frantic about my pace of reading, but it has led to my being quicker to reject anything that might be a waste of time. I was thus struck by a comment in the poet Charles Simic's latest post to NYRBlog about his old age (which surpasses my own by about a decade):
Still, I can’t deny that in the thirty years since we had these conversations, I’ve grown progressively more exasperated about our species and foresee a day when I will no longer be able to bring myself to read newspapers and watch television out of concern for my mental health. Already I have to ration myself. I give Tom Friedman sixty seconds; George Will thirty.
The truth is that I do not dignify either of those guys with any of my time. In fact, where The New York Times is concerned, I keep my RSS feeds restricted to arts news and very rarely read anything there unless it has a direct impact on my own writing. Apparently that business about "fit to print" is no longer a valid motto at the Times; and there is no reason for me to waste my time on sloppy wordsmithing that ultimately has nothing to say. (By the same count I am very close to deleting my feed to Andrew Ross' The Rest Is Noise blog, since it has been some time since I have encountered any signal there.)

On the other hand there are some rather long books for which I would still like to try to devote time. Getting through all five volumes of H. C. Robbins Landon's Haydn: Chronicle and Works is probably out of the question (although it is a major reference whenever I need to write about Joseph Haydn); but I still think that Thayer's biography of Ludwig van Beethoven deserves a serious cover-to-cover reading. It would seem fair, given the time I put into Robin D. G. Kelley's monumental biography of Thelonious Monk!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Official" Confirmation the Burma as Rejoined the "Global Community"

This morning BBC News reported that Coca-Cola has opening a bottling plant in Burma. This marks their return after a 60-year absence. There are now only two countries whose citizens cannot consume a Coke: Cuba and North Korea.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Putting "Gun Guys" in Perspective

One of the books that David Cole reviews in his article, "Facing the Real Gun Problem," in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books is Gun Guys: A Road Trip by Dan Baum. The portion of his review addressing this book begins with Baum's litany of stereotypes:
Newspaper editorialists called gun owners “a ridiculous minority of airheads,” “a handful of middle-age fat guys with popguns,” and “hicksville cowboys” with “macho” hang-ups. For Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, gun guys were “bumpkins and yeehaws who like to think they are protecting their homes against imagined swarthy marauders desperate to steal their flea-bitten sofas from their rotting front porches.” Mark Morford of SF Gate called female shooters “bored, under-educated, bitter, terrified, badly dressed, pasty, hate-spewin’ suburban white women from lost Midwestern towns with names like Frankenmuth.”
However, this builds up to a punch line which really caught my attention:
It was impossible to imagine getting away with such cruel dismissals of, say, blacks or gays, yet among a certain set, backhanding gun owners was good sport, even righteous.
In other words, Baum felt it necessary to make is clear that those interested in gun control will only negotiate with gun owners once those gun owners feel they are no longer an object of discrimination that may even count for bigotry. Having endured such discrimination as a Jew (a religious upbringing I share with Baum), I appreciate his point, which we can all still observe in the intransigent stance that Israel takes toward efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. I would even go so far as to suggest that the National Rifle Association goes to great lengths to aggravate that sense of discrimination, perhaps even using the same techniques that one could find among extreme Zionists, particularly in the early days of Jewish settlement in Israel.

There is no simple solution to draw from this argument. One can only appreciate the complexity of the situation. That includes the complexity of what it will take for either side to take a first step towards closing this "discrimination gap."