Archive for March, 2014

A sensible answer

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

This week I was attending a lecture by Herbie Hancock (he also treated us to some of his latest improvisations). One of the questions during the Q&A was rather odd. The questioner asked why, with all the wonderful new kinds of technologically advanced musical instruments that musicians like Hancock are exploring these days, do some people still insist on playing old and out of date instruments.

At first Hancock seemed a bit nonplussed by the question. It was clear that he was being asked to join a club that he did not want any part of. But then he thought about it for a bit, and came up with the following reply:

“As you move forward, you don’t have to close the door behind you.”

Then he paused, thinking about it a bit more, and added this:

“Otherwise, you’re just in another box.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more graceful and cogent summation of the relationship between evolving technology and the arts.


Monday, March 10th, 2014

This evening I attended a wonderful event at Boston’s Symphony Hall, a joint lecture/performance demonstration by pianists Bruce Brubaker and Ran Blake that used Beethoven’s improvised piano concerts as a departure point to examine the line between improvisation and formal composition.

One thing we learned was that while improvisation during live performance was the norm in Europe during the early 19th century, the practice died away soon thereafter. Now, as you probably know, improvisation is really no longer part of the “classic music” culture.

So what changed? During the question period my friend Xiao, who attended with me, proposed a theory. Perhaps, she posited, the explosive growth of the middle class through the 19th century created a shift in culture. At the beginning of the century, the relatively small number of extant pianos were predominantly played by experts. And for experts, improvisation is part of what they do.

But the rapid rise in the middle class brought with it a corresponding growth in the number of pianos manufactured and sold. And that created a new and very large market for music to be played in drawing rooms by non-experts. Amateurs who could play piano only by following the sheet music became the new norm.

Brubaker and Blake wholeheartedly agreed with Xiao’s theory, which seemed to be new to them. I was quite pleased that my friend had presented such a brilliant insight.

My own insights for the evening were decidedly less impressive. Maybe the most profound thought I had was the following:

Q: “Why do most people not know who Beethoven’s teacher was?”

A: “Because he was always Haydn.”

Feel free to groan. :-)

Standing up for health

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

I attended a talk the other day by John Ratey. He is, I learned, an expert and best-selling author on the subject of healthy lifestyle. His last book, which came out a year ago, is “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”.

Boiled down to its essence, his message was two-fold: (1) sitting around is really really bad for you, and (2) the best thing you can do to develop your brain is strenuous exercise.

Dr. Ratey filled this message in with lots of facts and figures, user studies, scientific explanations of what goes on in our bodies and our brains when we sit or when we get our heart pumping. It was all fascinating and very informative.

But then I started looking around the room, and I realized that there were about a hundred people all sitting. Including me. Physically, that’s all we were doing — sitting. According to the talk I was hearing, it would actually have been better for our intelligence and our learning capacity to spend that time running, or swimming, or playing tennis, rather than to be sitting in a room just, um, listening.

That’s when it occurred to me that I really should take Dr. Ratey at his word. I left the talk somewhere in the middle and got up to take a vigorous walk.

I hope he would have approved.

The last thing on my mind

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

I was listening to the beautiful Tom Paxton song “The Last Thing on my Mind,” and I realized that in a way the title forms a kind of puzzle. What is the last thing on his mind? The very phrase evokes a sense of mystery.

When you listen to the song, you find out the answer to this question — and there is a definite answer — but it’s not an answer that you would ever guess on your own.

Other songs have a similar structure. For example, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” What happens, exactly, by the time this guy gets to Phoenix? That one turns out to be easy, because the singer gives it away right at the beginning of the song.

But the song “The Hardest Thing” by 98 Degrees makes you wait quite a while before you find out what the hardest thing is.

I wonder how many other songs there are like that?

Shark eye

Friday, March 7th, 2014

I attended a talk yesterday about sharks. At one point the speaker, an expert on shark behavior who seemed to be a genuine fan of the species, explained that sharks use the stereo disparity between their two eyes to judge distance.

I asked whether, if a shark had the use of only one eye, it could judge distance via motion parallax. The speaker said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that such a hypothesis would be difficult to test, since IRB regulations governing ethical research would probably not approve poking out a shark’s eye in the name of science.

This was the point when I realized that the speaker, for all his putative love of sharks, clearly did not think of sharks as individual sentient beings.

After all, if you were going to ask the same research question about a human, it might occur to you to cleverly get around those pesky IRB regulations by covering the human’s eye with an eye patch, rather than, say, removing one of the human’s eye balls. .-)

Coincidentally, that very same evening I visited someone who owns one of Marcel Duchamp’s original Rotoreliefs. These are works of kinetic art consisting of designs on flat cardboard circles spun on a turntable. When the turntable spins, the flat disks appear three-dimensional.

I told my host about the shark story, which suddenly had more resonance because Rotoreliefs work much better if you close one eye. In other words, they are a perfect example of motion parallax in action. In fact, according to Tompkins’ biography of Duchamp, scientists have actually tried using these works of kinetic art to restore depth vision for people who have lost the use of one eye.

How appropriate that Duchamp’s work leads to thoughts about sharks. After all, his concept of the ready-made led the way for such later works as Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, which is essentially a pickled shark.

I strongly suspect, based on this work, that Hirst does not think of sharks as individual sentient beings.

There may be artists out there who do. I haven’t found any yet, but I’ll keep an eye out.

Conversations with a brain

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

I had a freewheeling conversation this evening in which one of the participants did that thing some people do when they don’t know anything specific about a subject:

“It’s not really my field, but I have a friend whose cousin wrote the paper about that physics thing, where there’s a whole, you know, quantum theory about the brain, and how it’s really a simulation.”

These random thoughts ended up making the rest of us work harder. We’d have a little bit of back and forth, and then this person would jump in with the whole “cousin with the theory” thing, and we’d all listen and try to fit those ideas into the rest of the conversation.

In a way it was good, the sheer unpredictability of it. It got the rest of us thinking more creatively, this requirement that we fit this random energy into our discussion.

Maybe every serious conversation should involve a person who has a cousin with a theory. Especially if that theory involves, like, the whole physics thing with the brain, because it’s, you know, really a simulation.

Name check

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

This evening I tagged along while Jaron Lanier accepted a Goldsmith Award for his latest book “Who owns the internet?” It was fun to see Jaron honored for making a thoughtful contribution to an important political conversation. There is far too little thoughtfulness these days in political conversations.

The evening’s keynote speaker was Candy Crowley, who was receiving the Goldsmith career award for excellence in journalism. She’s the CNN reporter who, among other things, famously fact-checked Mitt Romney when she was moderating the third 2012 Presidential debate. Romney had insisted that it had taken the President days to call the Benghazi attacks an “act of terror”. In fact Obama had used that exact phrase at a news conference the day after the attacks.

That kind of forthright candor has made Crowley a hero among journalists. She has a wonderful way of seeing the complexity of people in the public sphere — an ability to not reduce them to cartoons — regardless of their politics or ideology.

At some point the moderator asked her “What do you think about Rand?”

The moderator’s question was about Rand Paul, the rising young libertarian star of the Republican party. But as Crowley started answering his question, there was some debate at our table.

“I thought he meant the other Rand,” somebody said, and I nodded in agreement.

“Ayn Rand” they continued, and suddenly I realized that no, we were not at all in agreement.

“I was assuming,” I said, looking around the table, “that he was talking about the Rand Corporation.”

There was an awkward pause. I think my innocent comment had caused a little intellectual culture shock.

It could have been worse. I could have said I thought the moderator was talking about the C++ random number generator.

Dreaming of ghosts

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Back in 2010 I wrote a post here about donuts. Specifically about a question I once asked my dad when I was around six years old: “When we eat donuts, what happens to the holes?”

My father’s wonderful answer: “The ghosts eat them.”

My father is no longer with us, and this is but one of many happy memories I have of his delightful way of seeing the world. This particular memory came back to me the other night because of a dream.

I don’t know about you, but I often have the experience of hearing a really funny joke in my dreams. Sometimes I remember thinking that I can’t wait until I wake up, so I can repeat this delightful joke for all my friends.

You can probably guess what happens next. On those occasions when I wake up actually remembering the joke, I invariably discover, to my disappointment, that it wasn’t at all funny.

Well, the other night I had a dream in which I heard a joke which seemed really hilarious at the time. I remember thinking that it was too bad this joke would no longer be funny after I awoke.

Then I woke up, and remembered the joke. And it was still funny! At least to me.

Here’s the joke:

“How can you tell if a ghost has been raiding your kitchen?”

“Because there are no holes in the donuts.”

Every time I think about this joke I crack up.

Which may be just the six year old in me finding a way to hang out with my dad one more time.

Applied exolinguistics

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

I had thought, when I started watching the Academy Awards telecast last night, that it would be pure fluff, nothing more than a sometimes enjoyable evening of mindless entertainment.

But I was wrong. In fact, you can learn amazing things from the Oscars.

For example, I learned about a singer I had never heard of, named “Adele Dazeem”. At first I was confused by this. How could a singer become so famous that she is invited to sing an Oscar nominated song at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, and yet nobody has ever heard of her?

Eventually I was able to solve the mystery, by applying the exciting new science of exolinguistics to the problem. It turns out that “Adele Dazeem” is actually “Idina Menzel” in the Psychlo language.

I’ll bet you didn’t know that!

Oscar haiku

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

On my way to an Academy Award party, I was moved to pen the following haiku, in loving tribute:

      The beautiful thing
      About the Oscars is how
      Little they matter