Friday, June 29, 2007

One More Quote for the Road

Toussaint's narrator in "Television" (noted below) on keeping notebooks with him at all times. Poignant and then odd.
I always took a few of these with me when I went out, slipping them into my pocket before leaving my study, gradually filling them with bits or fragments of sentences, thoughts and aphorisms, observations and remarks (the latter being generally only the more accurate expression of the next-to-latter), which as a rule I never made use of in my actual work. No matter how brilliant, an idea really wasn't worth keeping if you couldn't even remember it without writing it down, it seemed to me. Besides, whenever I opened one of those notebooks as I lay on my bed or sat at my desk, paging through it a bit, happily lingering over the few drawings or pencil sketches I'd scratched out here and there, I inevitably found nothing particularly interesting in all those pages I'd methodically filled up day after day; so wonderfully luminous when they first came to me, so feverishly scrawled down, my ideas now seemed sadly faded, their ink dried, their perfume blown away. Viewed with detachment, with neither enthusiasm nor disgust, their effect on me was more or less that of my underpants when I stuffed them into a plastic bag before heading off to the laundry room: only a vague, familiar affection, rooted more in the memory of a brief moment of communion than in any real objective merit.

Almost Done Moving . . .

Two items that I've been enjoying in odd minutes during the last couple of days, when I haven't been packing, or moving my things down the street, or (shortly) cleaning the apartment I'm about to vacate:

Jean-Philippe Toussaint's short novel Television (trans. Jordan Stump) is delightful, and a pleasantly quick read. I pulled it off a bookstore shelf last week on a whim, having never heard of Toussaint. Turns out to have been a felicitous impulse-buy.

Ostensibly the book's about a French academic in Berlin for a summer who decides to quit watching television entirely, but this is more of a jumping-off point and refrain than a plot framework. The story is a series of blithe anecdotes from the unnamed narrator, threaded together by the man's utter inability to get any work accomplished. (His monograph, concerning Titian and the relation of political power to the arts in 16th-century Italy, stands for most of the book at exactly two words long.)

It's all dryly amusing, and the characterization is a great blend of ironic detachment and standard-issue obliviousness. The understated pace and rhythm of the storytelling fits well into the state of drifty laziness. The actual comments about television, though they're few and far between, are well put. Toussaint's character watches TV by flicking aimlessly through channels, in a bit of an echo with how he thinks about the rest of his world just enough to get by.

I never would have heard of the Viennese composer Kurt Schwertsik if my former place of employment hadn't had something rather direct to do with him, since he doesn't seem to have much of a foothold in the US. (Franz Welser-Möst did conduct a short piece of Schwertsik's with the Cleveland Orchestra a couple years back at Carnegie Hall, but nothing has come up since then.) He seems best at orchestra music, and composes with an ear for rich sounds and deft details; often this adds up to a pretty satisfying whole. Certainly often enough that he should be performed more often here.

A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to ordering a copy of this Australian CD of Schwertsik's "Irdische Klänge" cycle of tone poems (in English = Earthly Sounds), which he composed through the 1980s and early 1990s. (The final work represented, "Baumgesänge," isn't part of the cycle, but shares the style and personality of the others.) These are entertaining and sympathetic works, written in an expressive and fairly romantic vein -- Schwertsik uses complex and often thick harmonies, but they're not combatively dissonant and they move and grow with expressive melodic gestures. In places he drops in minimalist textures (pages pretty obviously out of Steve Reich's or John Adams's book, but freshly done) or, more rarely, a cheesy light-jazz sort of melody or riff.

Schwertsik brings a quirky and bemused personality to the table that's pretty rare in current classical music. This brings the Irdische Klänge pieces off as humble human reactions to nature, rather than any great statement on natural beauty. This is most literally the case in the "Fünf Naturstücke," constituting the cycle's second part, which pay homage to old-fashioned stage sound effects (wind machine, thunder sheet, etc.) I like that he lines up wonderment and appreciation of prettiness next to your more poetic emotions; so much recent classical music seems to deny the "lighter" emotions wholesale. They're not fluff; they're part of living.

There's some amount of environmental statement involved, at least in that the nature connection to "Mit den Riesenstiefeln," the last installment of the cycle, seems only to be the idea that we're destroying things. It's a broadly sardonic march that sounds like something from the world's scariest circus, or possibly what would have happened if Gustav Mahler had tried to write the soundtrack to Pee-wee's Big Adventure.

"Baumgesänge" I've found fiendishly catchy since the first time I've heard it, especially its fiery, kinda-minimalist, maybe-apocalyptic conclusion.

Anyway, recommended. (I actually ordered this from Australia, though it looks like you can get it within the US too. Why I only noticed this now while searching for the cover image online, I can't say.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

American Music on German Trains

Even though I am vehemently Anti-ipod, I do on occasion, listen to music with a portable Compact Disc player and headphones, while going from place to place on the wonderful public transportation system here in Berlin. Enough so that I have a specific opinion as to the most suitable CDs, of the 32 that I brought with me to Berlin, were the best for commuting:

Booker Little: Out Front

An absolute masterpiece from the be-bop era of American jazz. Never gets boring, never gets old. Some really good, grindy, chewy progressions, always interesting lines coming from Little's trumpet. Even in this studio recording (and serveal of the tunes sound very composed (in a good way)), Little at least sounds like he's taking risks with his playing (similar, in that way, maybe, to Clifford Brown), and I love that aspect of it. And the bright sounds cut through the train noise very well, through my $7 headphones. Sad that Booker Little died so young - I could definitely use more of his music in my daily life, if it existed.

Ten Grand: This is the Way to Rule

Probably the best thing to come out of the genre of underground rock (punk, I guess, would be the largest-level blanket genre for such music) that decided to play aggressive punk music a little bit slower, with a sense of orchestration between the two guitars, and delay pedals and reverb to add to the expansiveness of the sound. The bands second full length album (I think) - and last - the lead singer died suddenly a couple years ago, 26 years old. The singing may be a bit much for some people's ears, but the music is the high-point for this relatively obscure genre of American music. Especially the songs "I will seriously pay you to shut up" and "now you got what I got."

Sleep: Jerusalem

I can't say that I know a whole lot about Sludge metal, but this nearly hour-long disc is incredible. I heard it at a party about a year ago, and my friend gave me a copy of it. For movie buffs, its the music thats playing in Jim Jarmusch's movie Broken Flowers, when Bill Murray stops a couple guys in a truck in the woods to ask them for help finding one of his ex-girlfriend's house. There are long stretches of about two chords played at an amazing slow tempo, and some great stretches of post-Black Sabbath psychedelic metal guitar solos. Suitably slow for my time in a city that always went to fast (the time went fast, not the city).

At any rate, I think its pretty typical, when one is travelling, and one tends to listen to music on a regular basis, that certain musics gain prominenet standing in the general memory of said travels, and these three discs for me, stand at the top of the list of music I was listening to in non-concert situations in Berlin.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Notes From the Last Mile of a Commute

1. Driving along Washington Boulevard, I see the back of a pedestrian who looks like he's wearing some kind of huge, awesomely iridescent cloak, majestically catching the late afternoon sun. But no, he just has a plastic bag with some dry-cleaned shirts in it slung over his shoulder. Considerably less awesome.

2. One of the many new high-rise condominiums (condominia?) springing up around the Clarendon Metro stop is called "The Phoenix". You can draw your own conclusions about the facility from their website. [Caution: link contains loud, grandiose MIDI 'n' Flash intro.] But all I can think every time I read its sign is "I would take out a huge fire insurance policy if I bought a property with that name."

Monday, June 25, 2007

Novus Ordo Apartmento Seclorum

I never really get tired of getting these maintenance notification cards from the management on my front doorknob. The color of the card stock changes, but the graphic design -- which makes me think of some kind of secret socialist order of home repair personnel -- remains the same. I always feel like if I came home with the side above facing outward I would stumble onto some kind of Stonecutters-type assembly in my living room, perhaps never to be seen again... but alas, the side on display is always the back, which just says "We Were In Your Home Today!" (Emphasis in original.)

On a related note, my oven now lights again, instead of just smelling faintly of gas.

I Want My Personal Pan Pizza

So, my reading in Berlin, especially compared to the clip I was maintaining in Portland, is quite down, but in the spirit of rehashing, I did read a couple of books in English while I am here:

The Armies of the Night: Norman Mailer's masterpiece. Found it at random at the parents' house (neither of them, according to Mother, though, have read it). Decided to take it for the plane ride, since I needed something readable, and had never read any Mailer, and it won both a Pulitzer and the National Book Award, and the seems like, something, you know?

Really is a super book though. Very enjoyable, but also intellectual engaging. It's about the first march on the Pentagon against the Vietnam war in '67, during which Mailer was arrested for crossing a police line at the Pentagon. Contains a whole lot of discussion over the problems with such things, starts to get into a little bit of why the Civil Rights movement was the last even vaguely effective protest movement in the US. Book certainly has provided influence into my own ideas about political impotence, opting out, and intellectual tourism.

: Milan Kundera's novel from 1998 (translated from the French). A friend of mine had it here, it was short, Kundera is notoriously easy to read (he's like the Czech Tom Robbins, or something like that), and I'd only ever read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I thought was rather good. I've also read Kundera's The Art of the Novel, his book of essays about writing novels, which has given me the sense that I've read more of his novels than I actually have.

At any rate, Identity is pretty much terrible. Really bad. Not recommended, except that it only takes a couple hours to read, so it wouldn't really waste that much of your time. No reason to go into details. Find a couple of hours, read it, and then email, explaining why you are in absolute agreement with me about how terrible it is.

Blue of Noon: Georges Bataille's 1935 novel (translated from the French (and, incidentally, I was friends with a guy here at the Institut that was from Italy, and we were talking on occasions about Literature, and the only Italian novel that I could come up with that I've read is Svevo's Zeno's Conscience - is it really as bad as that? Do we really not read any Italian literature in the US, or am I just missing obvious examples?)) starring one of the more vile lead (male (of course male (and I've been having some interesting discussions of late about the problems with the male-dominated world of fiction (and been working with this notion that what we know as fiction in the academy, or the west, or whatever, is a painfully shallow slice of this one genre of existentially angst-ridden male characters, but it seems no way to access the other paralell universes in our vicinty wherein an entirely different wing of the Library of All Possible Books is "all the buzz")))) characters that I've read in quite a while. Actually havenÄt finished this one, not sure that I will or not. Seems like maybe its an important book though? I don't know a whole lot about the context, and George Bataille's wikipedia page is on the other side of the firewall.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Short Notes on a Long Weekend

Three work friends & I conspired last week to each take a personal day on Friday & have a picnic out by the water in Branford, east of the various Havens. The whole weekend was perfect for this sort of thing, in fact, mid to high 80s and sunny; the three-day weekend has stretched out like it was on some kind of temporal hammock.

Saturday evening I took a city bus to the fully lovely Quinnipiac River Park, over in Fair Haven, where the barge-based American Wind Symphony docked to give a low-key kind of concert. (Robert Boudreau, conductor. I'm quite sure we saw this group in Pittsburgh about a decade ago.) They play on a barge designed by Louis Kahn in 1961, and it looks futuristic as of 1961. It was a pleasant but not very interesting happening; laying in the grass during dusk was mostly the high point. Eventually a friend joined me and we chatted through the back half of the concert. But again, it was a perfect weekend to settle into a grassy field around dusk.

If you really want to stretch out a Sunday, then minor league baseball is the thing to do. The independent-league New Haven Cutters play at the appropriately ivy-decorated university baseball field, which held today a pretty tiny crowd (several hundred, I think). The Cutters were schooled pretty badly (9 to 3) by an outfit from Nashua, New Hampshire. If there was one big disappointment, though, it was that they didn't do a seventh-inning stretch, which is just mind-boggling to me. Also their mascot sat in my lap between the first and second innings, though I was able to take that more or less in stride. (Little kids, on the other hand, love mascots, even minor-league mascots. And they're cute with mascots, since they all want hugs or to have their baseballs autographed.)

There was time enough for a couple of nice bike rides this weekend, of course, and a little bit of reading on the deck, too.

Tomorrow: work again! But only a three-day week, due to another personal day on Thursday (gotta use 'em before the end of June) and the company picnic on Friday. Also I really need to start packing in earnest for the apartment switch. Eventually I hope this will be a less annual occurrence. At least right after that comes Narragansett with the family.

No one belongs here more than you.

I highly recommend this collection of stories by Miranda July, who had a piece featured in the summer fiction of the New Yorker a couple of weeks back. July is best known for writing, directing, and starring in a film called Me and You and Everyone We Know a couple of years ago. (I'm not enough of a film buff to have seen this, but I want to now. And not just because the first five plot keywords on IMDB come up as "Neighbor / Stalking / Blow Job / Playground / Person on Fire." Sounds like a dazzling adventure for kids of all ages!)

One of my friends remarked when I mentioned July that she's very "buzzy" right now; I don't know in what crowd or in what sense, but, duly noted.

The stories are marked by a very dry, often absurd wit and a consistent lonely undertow. July's characters are various kinds of tragic misfits, ranging from normal to eccentric to rather goofy. Plot elements are often pretty quiet, not to say unimportant, though many of the stories are extremely short or are fashioned with only a couple of moving parts. The couple of relatively long stories aren't particularly complex, but it's refreshing to grab onto a more involved storyline after some of the shorter bits.

July has a great, snappy way with words, especially when she's tossing off an aside or idea like a quick pencil sketch:
It doesn't really feel like driving when you don't know where you're going. There should be an option on the car for driving in place, like treading water. Or at least a light that shines between the brake lights that you can turn on to indicate that you have no destination. I felt like I was fooling the other drivers and I just wanted to come clean.
Pretty decent, I'd say! Short stories make for good summer reading and fill up time on regional rail systems or in restaurants when you're alone.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Fourteen Things in St. Louis

1. Interesting pieces inhabit the Laumeier sculpture park, notably a cluster of Mark di Suvero constructions (a rusty orange tripodal one my favorite among them), an Alexander Liberman assembly of large red-painted fuel tanks, and a wall-line of spherical metal buoys. Trails lead into leafier parts of the park and more sculptures. It’s quiet and pleasant, similar in feel to Storm King on the Hudson, though on a smaller scale.

2. The City Museum is utterly fantastic, especially if you’re grown up but not that grown up and you want to feel like you’re 10 again. I agree with what Nate said. This place is amazing. On the minus side, I whacked the soft part of my left knee off one of the slides. On the plus side, wow, slides! Also turtles, caverns, etc. Late at night (I think we got there about 10) it’s just a neat and unlikely thing to be out doing.

3. I forget the name of the neighborhood around Delmar Avenue, kind of near Washington U., I think? We drank Schlafly and ate toasted ravioli Friday night at a kinda-retro place called Pin Up Bowl, though we didn’t actually go bowling there. (Not that it was the best kind anyway.) There are Hollywood-style stars on the sidewalks outside for famous St. Louis figures: Charles Lindbergh, Miles Davis, Bob Gibson, Nelly, Harold Ramis, Bob Saget . . .

4. The Chain of Rocks Bridge spans the Mississippi a mile across, somewhat north of the city. It used to convey Route 66 but now it’s a pedestrian bridge, and a fine morning walk. Good old functional architecture.

5. The Gateway Arch looks really fine up close, I think – the design is remarkably fresh considering Saarinen drafted the first designs in the late 1940s. You may ascend the interior of this 630-foot stainless steel catenary construction in one of 16 small pods. The view of St. Louis is not unforgettable, but it is there.

6. St. Louis has, surprisingly, its own style of pizza, propagated first and foremost by a chain called Imo’s (say it EE-mo’s) with a halfway-fast-food vibe. The pizza itself comes across as glorified bar food, with a thin, densely bready crust and a cheese unknown to God and nature called Provel, which is closer to American cheese than any actual variety. A sausage & olive pizza serves as a satisfying midafternoon snack.

7. The Missouri Botanical Garden is gorgeous and impressive, rather like Longwood Gardens outside Philadelphia. The grounds were lush and in early summer flower; there was of course a wedding party there. Tropical flora are housed in a large, glass-ceilinged geodesic dome identified as the Climatron®.

If the course of a Saturday takes you to the top of a 630-foot stainless steel catenary arch and later into a glass-ceilinged geodesic dome, I think you are doing something right.

8. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis is one of the best-regarded English-language opera companies in the country. They perform in a relatively small house with nice clean acoustics out in the suburb of Webster Groves (which is where Tom’s parents live, within walking distance). Vincenzo Bellini’s “I Puritani” (1835) is not the most exciting opera ever – largely it’s a setting for a big soprano role, in which Pamela Armstrong really shined. (I’m starting to appreciate opera singing a bit more recently, as it turns out.) Bellini’s music is docile and over-mannered, like Berlioz but without the wildness; the plot kind of clocks its way along. The main male leads were less gripping than Armstrong was, though a bass by the name of Arthur Woodley tackled a side role gracefully and movingly.

9. Ted Drewes sells frozen custard concretes and has since 1929. A Heath bar concrete hits the spot after three hours of Bellini, that’s for sure. Your concrete comes with a spoon and a straw, the latter for the blissful melty part as you reach the bottom. I do not know why this is called a concrete.

10. Blueberry Hill (back on Delmar) is a music spot, but not during brunch hours on a Sunday. More Schlafly: a hefeweizen, which was very mild, but appropriate for Sunday brunch, by which I mean a hickory burger. Cold beer is ever important, especially since it was essentially 90 degrees and humid the entire weekend.

11. Forest Park is lovely, though it does not turn out to have been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead like I thought I heard. The St. Louis Art Museum is there, and impressively they’ve got completely free admission whenever they’re open. (Same deal for the zoo, also in Forest Park, which we did not see.) We checked out the romantic American paintings, the contemporary collection (points of interest, among others, being a sizeable wall of Gerhard Richter and a couple of typically visceral works by Anselm Kiefer), and kind of on a whim the furniture & tableware section, right before we got chased out for closing time.

12. The Central West End is a yuppified neighborhood, but (from what I saw) not obnoxiously so. A quick browse into Left Bank Books (I picked up a new Jean Thompson story collection that's out) was followed by beers at a sidewalk spot and further conversation. On a Sunday it was a pretty low-key time & place; I’m told it gets a bit more active in the evenings.

13. Back around A.D. 900 to 1200 the St. Louis area was a major cultural seat of the mound-building Mississippian culture, and a city called (or now called?) Cahokia across the river in Illinois thrived for a time as a major capital. (And at population 20,000, the largest city in the present-day U.S. till Philadelphia circa 1800.) The earthen ruins left over are interesting, a quiet testament that’s slowly been melting back into the landscape, though the largest mound (apparently a temple platform) is still 100 feet high or so. There’s a pretty slick educational center there too; otherwise it’s oddly in the middle of an unremarkable stretch of rural roads ’n’ telephone poles kind of contemporary Midwest. Depressingly, the mounds are outmounded a mile to the west, where there’s a larger and much uglier contemporary landfill.

14. Pete will think less of me if I say I went on the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour, but I did, and I liked doing it: it’s pretty neat to see a large industrial facility that’s kept clean and well-maintained (at least in part) for the sake of goggling tourists. They really shuffle you along this thing; it’d be neater to linger places for a bit and watch where the pipes go, but it’s not that kind of place. There’s an enormous scale to everything, of course. Afterwards we sampled the Budweiser Select and Michelob Amber Bock, which were both remarkably free of flavor, body, or texture.

* * * * *

St. Louis experiences that I did not encounter include:
* The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and their excellent conductor David Robertson – though Nate & I saw them at Carnegie Hall back in March (blazing through a red-hot Harmonielehre) so I think that’s checked off my list;

* the St. Louis Cardinals, who were unfortunately out of town – maybe I can track them down on the road later this summer, for closure;

* a days-long power outage brought about by the universally loathed AmerenUE.

And needless to say it was great to spend some time with my onetime college roommate Tom, who I’ve seen a few times since graduation but never for more than a couple hours at a time. As you might be able to guess, he was the one who knew about all this stuff to do in his hometown.

On Sunday my college friend & ’02–’03 Astoria roommate Kathleen (now studying at Wash U.) came along for brunch/museum/conversation; also nice to catch up with her for the first time in a while.

It’s been a decent year for getting into better touch with college friends, in between some of these city hops & the 5-year college reunion a couple of weekends back.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

If It's Funny, It Just Means You're Weird

Nate's possibly too modest to note that Comics Curmudgeon picked up his "Molly Worth" cartoon on Bloomsday, so there you go. (Presumably he emailed the guy.) Comics Curmudgeon has been a clearing house of Mary Worth snark and parody for, what, two years now? Who knew that Nate was anticipating a tidal wave of ironic Mary Worth appreciation?

I'm mostly jazzed that Nate's effort was described (with two other things) as "of interest," and then "of potential interest." This is pretty close to what we're going for! Almost there!

* * * * *

Beyond showing me around to almost everything of note in St. Louis this weekend, my friend Tom clued me in to a BBC series of shorts from 2002 titled Look Around You, which is a brilliantly absurd take on mid-80s educational science programs. If you like deadpan British nerd humor, go for it. If you don't, sleep one hour less each night and check in every day till it's funny.

I haven't watched a lot of these, but most of them seem to be up on the You Tube. I will vouch for Iron and The Brain.

My favorite quote from the latter:
"The brain is basically a wrinkled bag of skin filled with warm water, veins, and thought muscles. Think of it as kind of a modified heart — only with a mind, or brain."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ligeti's first Todestag

This is one post that I missed writing back when I was living on the wrong side of the Berlin Firewall (which, after some consideration, and discussion with a fellow student who works in the IT field, we have decided is undoubtably administered from somewhere in München (as opposed from, I don't know, Moscow) (he had had some trouble himself with our fickle firewall)) which I at the moment feel like typing a bit about (and glad we are all for that).

But yeah, so Gyorgy Ligeti has been dead for just over a year now. I went to a concert on the day itself (June 12th) of all three books of his piano etudes. A very effective concert, regardless of context, mostly, for me, I suppose, because I had never, in fact, heard said etudes performed live. And in fact, the CD I own of them, is the older, Sony label Ligeti edition of Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing them, and is, I believe, also incomplete, missing the last 2 or 3 etudes of the third book.

They certainly are virtuoisic etudes, very impressive to see them happen. There's something very interesting to me in the fact that Ligeti considered them to be etudes - in the academic sense, of being pieces designed to improve technique, in whatever various (and possibly, abstract) ways. I think most listeners in the hall that night (and it was an interesting venue - a small theatre on the fifth floor of a Hof actually right in my neighborhood (the lighting tech was certainly bored though, as she seemed to insist upon raising the house lights on the perimeter of the seating area by a miniscule amount between every etude to approximately zero effect (well a little bit negative effect)) - a decent piano, theatre acoustics) would argue that they hold up as legitimate concert pieces for solo piano - but still, the dialogue must be there.

And one must admit, that the manaical, ever-rising etudes that close out the second book, are probably the most fun, being as they're manaical, and ever rising.

And well, yeah, that was the concert. I had my fingers crossed that the guy playing them would pull a couple of the tunes from Musica Ricercata out of his ass for an encore, but no such luck. What's the first major death year for a composer? Five? Ten? I mostly just want a sudden surge in the amount of Ligeti being played everywhere, and at least three stagings of Le Grand Macabre, damn it.

And last thing, while I'm still on Ligeti - but pullin' it all together here on the blog - I once read an interview of his where he mentioned that he had read Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, right before he started working on his Trio for Violin, Horn, and Piano, and that it had explicit influence on his composition. Amazing.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Zu parsifallen, oder nicht?

So in my daily ruminations as to what to do with my self, here in my last two weeks in Berlin, I have encountered what appears to be a very important German word, although I haven't found it any Worterbuchs. It's a reflexive verb:

sich parsifallen

which translates, approximately to

"to subject oneself to Wagner's Parsifal"

I've got two chances left to mich parsifallt. Its the Staatsoper Berlin, Barenboim as Dirigent.

Dear mildly interested readers, können Sie mir helfen, bitte?

Soll ich mich parsifallen, oder nicht?

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Firewall!

Pete reports that a new IT policy prevents him from blogging from the Goethe-Institut's Windows 98 machines. So he may be less of a presence here than he has been since arriving in Berlin, save for any posts he passes along to any of his siblings to post for him. Or, of course, his apparent medium of choice, the bizarrely modified postcard.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fun Facts about Fast Food

Well, while Jack's generating new satirical content I'm still trying to rehash the old. To that end, I've put a kind of rough version of my Fast Food Nation replacement copy online -- there's an index of the pages here. They're viewable in order, as opposed to by printing out the pages and assembling a copy of the booklet Jack got in exchange for his real copy of Fast Food Nation... Still not ideal, hard to browse, and a little too low-resolution, but at least I finally have the content up in some form.

Fun Facts about St. Louis &/or Missouri

FACT: St. Louis was founded in 1703 by fur trapper Ezekiel St. Louis, who set out to found "a great City of the Kansas Territory" but did not make it far enough west. The city name is pronounced "sa(n) LOO-ee," with highly nasalized French vowels.

FACT: An early newspaper columnist noted Missourans' extreme skepticism, noting that, told anything at all, an unimpressed Missouran was likely to respond only with a curt "Show me!" From that time forward, Missouri has been affectionately known as "the Dickhead State."

FACT: Upon his first visit to St. Louis in 1851, Mark Twain memorably quipped, "I'm not going to say anything cute or funny about St. Louis. This is a shithole and if I had to live here I'd hang myself off a barn rafter."

FACT: Many people associate St. Louis with Charles Lindbergh's celebrated airplane, the "Spirit of St. Louis." The newly built plane was unveiled to a cheering throng on Long Island, NY, on May 20, 1927, and then loaded onto a truck for overnight delivery to Washington, DC, where it was immediately installed for display at the National Air and Space Museum.

FACT: The night after the completion of the St. Louis Arch in 1965, architect Eero Saarinen was standing at the geometric center beneath the structure at 12 midnight when a bolt of lightning struck it. Saarinen disappeared in a blinding cascade of electricity and was not seen again. Incidentally, it is unknown whether Saarinen is related to the "Eero Saarinen" whom city records indicate kept order in St. Louis during frontier days using "much advanced Technology and the apparant [sic] ability to travel through-out time."

FACT: Lowry's Fireworks & Paintball Supply is conveniently located less than 5 minutes from US Route 67 in Wayne County. Shop for army/navy surplus too. All fireworks are on sale through July 4! Stop on by and stock up on explosive summer fun!!!

* * * * *

. . . I'm going to be in St. Louis, MO, this weekend, visiting my friend Tom. Happy weekend to all those outside the Middle West!

. . . I actually have nothing against St. Louis or Missouri, and I'm looking forward to seeing the city for the first time.

. . . Hey, the softball team won a game!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Happy Preemptive Bloomsday!

Bloomsday is right around the corner again -- this Saturday, in fact. I plan to observe the greatest literary crypto-holiday on the calendar as I do every year, by uttering, "Huh, it's Bloomsday" to myself sometime around mid-morning and leaving it at that.

I do try to point out the occasion to my friends and family as well, so that they too can mark the day as they see fit. Last year's mention only provoked a small amount of semi-serious back-and-forth about Ulysses' merits and the nature of copyright law -- no fun -- so this time I want to show off the mailing I made three years ago for the centennial Bloomsday. (Centennial because the action in Ulysses took place on June 16th, 1904.)

As it happened, Ronald Reagan had died around that time in June and the office put us on liberal leave in case we wanted to attend the funeral downtown. I decided I should use my optional holiday to finally put together a Bloomsday card or something that I could mail out, since I enjoy putting unnecessary stuff in the mail and have a soft spot for near-meaningless annual observances (see "Huh, it's Bloomsday" above).

While sketching out a couple of ideas I Googled my way to a couple of then-recent Mary Worth Sunday strips, which after a critical creative spark -- an epiphany, if you will, though I suspect you won't -- I decided would mash up nicely with the "Molly Bloom soliloquy" that ends Joyce's landmark novel. So that's what I did, using a little bit of MS Word, a lot of MS Paint, and the sort of weekday time expenditure only afforded by the death of a major political figure.

After finishing it I enthusiastically printed and mailed out several copies. Responses fell into exactly two categories:
1. "Um, that's neat... Did you make that yourself?"
2. Complete, possibly embarrassed, non-acknowledgment.

That's a sample of it right there. The whole is a little hard to read on a computer screen since I designed it to be borderline illegible when printed on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, but you should be able to download it in PDF or PNG format, at least one of which will hopefully work okay with your web browser or document viewer of choice.

So anyway, many happy returns, preemptively.

Powered Down

Stormy weather here: Maybe a third of the way into photography class the lights go out in the Arlington Career Center. Instantly it becomes very dark in the photography wing, this part of the technical high school not being designed to admit a lot of natural light. It remains so for maybe a minute before the generators and emergency lights come humming on.

There is little to do in a dark room when the lights go out (perhaps a small irony) so most everybody stops working -- for my part I just have a partly-exposed roll of film developed but still rinsing in the sink. One of the students, a German embassy employee, brought cake for his birthday (that being the tradition in Germany, so he says) so the instructor gets paper plates and plastic forks and we share that around. An older gentleman, a friend of the beginning-class instructor, is there to show us his collection of Minox spy cameras -- he was partway through his show and tell when the power cut out -- so instead he tells us some of his life story: he was born in Estonia; his family went into hiding when the Russians invaded prior to WWII, eventually fleeing to Finland by boat in the late 1940s (his father, a fisher and sometime navy man, "just looked at the North Star and kept sailing towards it"); the family moved from there to Sweden, then eventually to Canada where his father had some friends. From there he segues into a description of his 37-year career with Boeing in Philadelphia, and how he began collecting miniature cameras when he ran out of room to store box cameras. We can hear the louder peals of thunder crunching through the walls and ceiling of the classroom. A different texture to the evening than usual.

By the time I'm outside the rain has mostly let up; it's still early enough in the evening that there's light to see by. One or two dramatic bolts of lightning some distance off in the sky. Once I drive back up to US-50 the traffic signals are on once again; a good sign. At home the electricity never stopped.

The Back Patio as Lunchspot, as Marketplace of Ideas

I can't remember why I wasn't eating lunches on the office's back patio last summer. There are always a few coworkers out there, though it's been trending more intern-heavy of late. Besides the conversation, you learn where other people get their food from; I've picked up on a decent sandwich shop, and a sidewalk cart with okay Thai food, and most importantly an excellent falafel/shawerma place, all a brief walk away from the office. Plus the gelato place, of course.

Also I heard that there's a movie coming out later this summer with the kid who played George Michael in Arrested Development, and that the preview looked hilarious to whoever it was on the back patio who'd seen it. For that matter, the movie Knocked Up is supposedly really funny; I heard this from a coworker who's eight months pregnant, so I figure she knows what she's talking about.

* * * * *

Do you work around editors?

downtown farmers'/farmer's/farmers (a case could be made for each, I think) market starts this Wed.
Part of a casual email someone in the dept. sent around last week. There's some light irony to be read into it. The editors are, as I've said before, admirably non-fussy most of the time.

* * * * *

Occasionally it occurs to me that there was a really interesting article about ketchup in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, and I looked this up last week finally and found it again. It's by Malcolm Gladwell, which I'd forgotten. In it you'll learn that ketchup stimulates all five essential taste senses and appears to defy the sort of high-end reinvention that Grey Poupon brought upon the mustard world in the 1980s.

Brief Notes of Nate

Rampant blog related absence these days... Nate House is not the exception...

Scenic Overlook. Ink on sticky note, summer (?) 2006, between 9 AM and 5 PM.

Some quick notes as the East Coast slouches towards the middle of the night, lest anyone think I've fallen off the end of the earth:

* Baby geese are neat. My office building sits next to an artificial lake, which I expect is the main draw for two breeding pairs of Canada geese that have settled nearby for the spring. As you walk through the parking lot you can often see one or both goose-families (parents plus four or five goslings) browsing in the grass or the office's beach volleyball court. The young ones grow at a pretty fast rate, starting out as adorable little things with yellow down and stubby wings and getting noticeably larger from week to week. By now their plumage is darkening, especially along their necks as they begin to develop the characteristic look of the adult Canada goose. Witnessing this process makes me want to narrate my afternoon walk to the car in a David Attenborough-type documentarian voice, saying things like, "This remarkable cycle of growth and development makes it entirely worthwhile that geese are pooping basically everywhere on the property."

* I have a new cell phone with a built-in camera. What I lack is a subscription plan allowing me to freely email those pictures to myself, or the ambition to upload amateur software onto the phone to let me download images over the Bluetooth serial port, at least until the phone's warranty expires. Good times with technology. This would be great, though, for the baby geese, if it were functional, and if I had been taking time-lapse pictures of said baby geese for a few weeks.

* The Pittsburgh Pirates are terrible again. I mean unequivocally terrible. ...I want to say less than I could on this whole matter. I was reading this NY Times piece on the historical travails of the Philadelphia Phillies as that organization approaches 10,000 losses, and mostly just saw parallels with the current Bucs, such as "penurious ownership" or a fan/actor's description of his fandom as being "like someone sticking a nail in your head and hammering it once a day". I propose a new, cross-Pennsylvania rivalry: race you to 20,000.

* I spent a little time this evening Internet-chatting with a customer service rep and/or text recognition program employed by Comcast so I once again have access to my personal web page through that service. I hope to make up for some recent blog absence by posting some older, somewhat ungainly content there, hopefully in time for Bloomsday...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Pushing Brahms Down the Temple Steps

Another Monday, another concert report:

Thursday evening, I went to see the Berliner Philhamoniker perform again, this time under the direction of one Maestro Pierre Boulez, playing 18 Stücke für Orchester (Four from Bartok, Five from Schönberg, Six from Webern, Three from Berg). That concert programming, incidentally, I would argue, is not nearly as contrived as it might seem (its certainly no Mozart Symphonies Nrs. 38 - 41). Actually, of course, the program makes a lot of sense - no different than exhibiting a set of paintings without titkes by artists of the same school (and one artist of a different, but helpfully so, school (a school, really, all of his own)).

An absolute tour de force of orchestral prowess, this concert. Easily launches in the "Top Five" I've ever seen. I knew that the Berliner Philharmoniker is ridiculously good, but their performances of these pieces was just mind-boggling good. So glad to get to see Boulez conduct as well - never have before - his hands carry more information more economical than... well anyone's, I suppose. Never before have I seen a band have so much fun performing either - after the end of the Berg (program was Bartok, Schönberg, Webern, Berg), the orchestra just kind of all slouched a moment, than released, and all looked around at each other, smiling and congratulating one another.

I think its fair to say that, if I never leave the States again, it is well likely that I'll never hear all four of those pieces played again in the rest of my life, unless a similiarly programmed concert is put on somewhere that I can get to (but where... San Fran? St. Louis?). This was a tourist-season concert, but still, its amazing to me to think that Berlin can pack a house with such ease, that its actually still even more of a draw to see a concert like this one. Boulez was brought out for 6 or 7 rounds of applause, including one where the orchestra remained seated and applauded with the audience.

Maybe at another time I'll write more about my impressions of the music...

Friday night, I went to a concert of two piece for chamber strings - Brahms' 2nd Sextet (Opus 36), and the main draw, Georges Enescu's Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, and 2 cellos. I was extremely tried leading up to this concert, and after a last ditch effort to awaken (involving instant coffee, some warm water, and a large spoon), decided that I was going to have to go to the concert tired. I met a friend of mine there, and after we found our seats, leaned over to him and said "I'm too tired, so I'm going to sleep through the Brahms in order to really focus on the Enescu."

Plan executed perfectly. The players sounded quite nice on the Brahms, but I was only awake for about three minutes of it (out of about 45 (a nice nap!)). The Enescu, I was quite well awake for, properly refreshed, an astounding piece. About 50 minutes in length, but felt like about 10. He wrote it when he was startlingly young as well. There certainly are aspects of it that reflect the youth - in terms of the audibility of its harmonic progressions (or maybe thats only a reflection of the concert I'd heard the night before), but even those progressions were really interesting to listen to. I've not had a lot of opportunities to hear Enescu's music in concert, but its well worth it everytime.

With three weeks left in Berlin, it seems like most of my concert-going has now happened - only a few straggling concerts remain to be attended. Note on them as they happen...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Earth Goin' Round the What Now?

Yeah, so it turns out that close to 1 in 5 Americans, at least according to one poll, believe that the sun revolves around the Earth. (skip long first paragraph. picked up from political blogger Matthew Yglesias.)

I hope, I hope that some of that is poll-response sarcasm, but . . . well.

I'd like to see some other astronomical follow-up questions, like whether Earth is a planet, or whether you can see any of the stars from the South Pole, or how many moons we have. I'll bet you could get some pretty interesting responses.

Other Brother

If I may put on my Surrogate Mike Hat for a moment, I'm pleased to report (now that he's finally emailed me back) that the kid brother is in fact having a great summer, having been to New York to watch Spamalot, to Philadelphia to see King Tut, to Six Flags New Jersey to ride the "tallest fastest coaster in the world," and to Ohio to go skydiving ("coolest experience EVER").

I am also happy to report that he's listening to the CDs I got him for his birthday. Always good to exert a cultural influence on one's little brother, even if he's somehow twenty years old now.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Curve Ball

Just back from New Britain, where the hometown double-A Rock Cats were taking on the visiting Altoona Curve. Stu and I went to represent the Pennsylvanian fan base. (The Curve are of particular interest, of course--beyond being named after a regional engineering landmark--since they're the Pirates' double-A affiliate.) So there were a couple people clapping after the visiting team turned double plays and such.

Good times! I like minor league baseball. When we arrived a polka band was playing music behind home plate, which is always a good sign. It was a lovely and cool evening.

[illus. via cellular telephone]

The Curve started the improbably named Wardell Starling, who pitched two thirds of an inning before giving up 7 runs on 5 hits, 3 walks, and a pair of hit batsmen. I'm guessing that he's not going to ride into Pittsburgh on a white horse any time soon.

After that it was a pretty quiet game, with the Curve unable to make much noise against the Rock Cats' equally improbably named starter, Tristan Crawford. Final score: 8 to 2.

Adam Boeve made a really pretty diving catch of a sinking liner to his right out in right field, and Neil Walker had a nice pick on a sharp ground ball at third. Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' main prospect at Altoona, went 0 for 4 (he's hitting just above .220 now) and appeared to be wearing a uniform shirt that was too big.

Minor league ball is just really wholesome, I think.

A pop foul ball landed about three feet to my left and a row down in the 8th inning, then skipped away towards someone else. Softball skills are not coming in handy here.

Ever since season 3 of Arrested Development I've preferred to refer to New Britain as "Wee Britain." I don't know anything else about the town except that they call themselves the Hardware City.

Connecticut has cities called "Berlin" and "East Berlin," though it's pronounced Birr-lin, off I-91. Stu and I wondered if they have a wall.

Piratical Baseball Impressions

Last night I was at the first of the Pirates' three games against the Nationals this week. Some quick notes thereon:

* When explaining my plans to people I found it impossible not to refer to it as "the Pirates game", as opposed to "the Nationals game". This led to some brief moments of minor confusion.

* I got somewhat discounted tickets through the local chapter of the Carnegie Mellon alumni organization, which reserved a modest block of pretty decent upper-deck seats on the third-base side. My friends Marina and Josh came along; oddly, they are both Swarthmore alums. After getting beer and food in the middle of the second inning we abandoned the small group for the almost-empty section adjacent.

* The Pirates won, 7-6, in a game that was kind of flabbily played by both sides. Pittsburgh had a big third inning, capped by a big double by Xavier Nady with the bases loaded. Jack Wilson and Ronny Paulino both hit solo home runs to left, which were fun to see. Shawn Chacon had a so-so start (four runs in sixish innings) but did hit two sharp singles during the game, scoring after one of them. The bullpen (except for Torres and Capps, who pitched sharp eighth and ninth innings respectively) was ominously mediocre, but not much more than the Nats.

* The crowd was pretty small for a decent weekday evening in June (albeit one that was threatening rain, though it only followed through halfheartedly about ten minutes after the game ended) -- in fact it didn't feel that much bigger than the Easter Sunday crowd when Jack and I were there last. Lots of people seemed late to their seats and somewhat disengaged from most of what was going on onfield, not that I can blame them. I was happy that a small and vocal minority of Pirates fans was in attendance. The most popular Pittsburgh jerseys I could see were, roughly in order, Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, and Ben Roethlisberger.

* I told Marina and Josh about Jack's and my discussion about naming the Washington team back when it moved here from Montreal. I wanted them to be called the Washington Generals, after the Harlem Globetrotters' longtime punching bag. Jack suggested Les Expos americain, which I still use.

* RFK Stadium is not the worst cookie-cutter stadium ever built but it is of course one of the last ones functioning. In a lot of ways it is a living fossil of the historic low point of baseball stadium design: big and impersonal scale, seats far back from the field, a Jumbotron not so jumbo by contemporary standards.

* They have made some concessions to baseball modernity -- a side scoreboard showing some a-la-mode pitcher stats (pitch count, ball/ strike breakdown), firing t-shirts from air guns into the crowd during an inning break, etc. They do have one of those affairs where foam mascots (via the scoreboard and in person along the first base line) "race" through the stadium and various local landmarks. In Pittsburgh they use anthropomorphic pierogies; in D.C. they use the four presidents on Mount Rushmore (more of a South Dakota signifier for me, but whatever). Another between-inning entertainment shows a blocky computer-animated Abraham Lincoln running a game of three-card monte. I told Josh that George Washington would be horrified if he could be brought back to witness all this. "Still," Josh offered, "I think he would be impressed by our projection of power into Mesopotamia."

* The "vote for what song you want to hear" thing on the scoreboard after the seventh doesn't even wait for any audience reaction before declaring the winning song right then and there, apparently by fiat. This in the supposed seat of world democracy no less. I believe the Macarena "won" but the sound system echoes so much we could barely make it out.

* Some under-21 kids who had settled into some seats behind us at some point got busted around the seventh inning for buying beer and led away by a big usher/ bouncer guy. I couldn't tell from looking if they were in high school or college; I find I generally can't anymore.

* A little bit of enthusiastic, unsustainable "Let's Go Bucs!" chanting was taken up by some other young guys sitting here and there near me as Matt Capps crisply worked through the bottom of the ninth. Let's go indeed; happy feelings once the Bucs really do close the deal for the first time in a few games.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

When "I" think of your "I" (II)

Another thing that I think deserves mentioning, in terms of this whole soul-sharing concept. It is of course, not a brand new idea that has only come around with Hofstadter (and he himself, in La Ton Beau de Marot, proffers a weaker version of this soul-sharing thesis of Strange Loop). A particularly useful example are two books of poetry by the French mathemetician and writer Jacques Roubaud, Some Thing Black and The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis.

Roubaud develops his theory on the your-soul/mind/self-in-my-soul/mind/self under a very similar circumstance as Hofstadter. Roubaud's much beloved wife also died suddenly, and Some Thing Black, sequeled later by The Plurality of Worlds, were his first published responses (Some Thing Black appearing after, I believe, 3 years where Roubaud did not write). Roubaud spends much of his time in these poems trying to determine what exactly his remembering of his wife is doing, and he arrives at the opposite conclusion as Hofstadter, arriving, finally, in Plurality at (and again, I'm working from memory, so sorry for the inexactness):

Each time I think of you,
you cease to be.

Some Thing Black charts an amazing sorrow, which is amplified by what the reader experiences of what happens to Roubaud's wife as the poems progress one after the next. Slowly, Roubaud takes complete ownership of his wife, through his memory. Despite the all of the crippling grief and continued sorrow over his loss, his wife fades away until she is only the memories that he himself can generate. Where Hofstadter feels that the Carol Hofstadter in his brain is, in fact, Carol, and a distinct loop generated from without, Roubaud experiences the same phenomenon with the Alix Cleo loop in his brain, but finds that is generated from within, bringing him finally to the stark conclusion quoted above.

Again, the Roubaudian vision, while well more cynical, is also easier to buy into. Yeah, of course we remember our loved ones after they're gone, but it doesn't mean that we can claim that they still exist, as such. But again, still, Hofstadter's view is very useful, in that it accounts for the processes of memory better than Roubaud's - to return once more to the couplet above, his conclusion certainly does have a lot of strength, but it is at the same time contradictory - it doesn't have room for a double-existence, whereas Hofstadter, in empowering the loop for the person-representated provides a way to see how a consiousness experiences another by interpreting a self-standing model that is, in the end, inaccesible to the still-living "I."

When "I" think of your "I"

So I'm glad that someone else on the blog has read Strange Loop now, so I feel a bit more entitled to write a bit about it. I read the book back in March, in Portland, and the ideas it generated for me are still relatively fresh, but the fact that I've been mostly just been focusing, mentally, on German grammar for the last month may make this all come out way more mangled than it needs to be...

To spend a moment with the idea of soul-spreading:

I've read all of Hofstadter's other books, and so this idea doesn't seem so outlandish to me as it does for Jack - its definitely an extension of his thinking over consciousness as its progressed since GEB (and, by the way, Jack, I'm pretty sure that the family copy of GEB lives with our parents, so ask Dad to bring it RI). To me, regardless of how realistic a person thinks it is, or practical it is useful for at least the following reasons:

1) Built into this notion of soul-sharing is an evolutionary view for the causes that led towards the selection for apes with larger self-images in the first place. The brain is not a serial calculater - it is a network of many processes going on at once, and the "I" is an emergent property of the interactions between networked processes. So why select in favour of this emergent property? (And, again as an aside, with Strange Loop, I find myself pulled back towards a stronger version of epiphenomalism than I had been working with since reading Dennett's Freedom Evolves.) It has to do with intentionality - in social animals it becomes important to know why your peers are doing what they are doing - the development of self-consciousness arises out of a prior process of figuring out what others are doing (In Consciousness Explained, Dennett uses the example, in a thought experiment, of an animal hearing, and processing its own utterance as the core for the self-narration in the brain.) So in this social network of animals, animals that project their intentionality better are favored for survival, and with that also, simultaneously, the perception is also favored. Working backwards from Hoftstadter's idea about souls being housed in multiple minds, I find that it makes more sense to see that, in fact, brains probably first modeled other selves better than their own, and only later did this "I" come around as a feedback of these monitoring systems processing internal stimuli.

2) I tend to also read Strange Loop in the context of a couple other books published right before it, Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and especially Dawkins' The God Delusion (previously discussed here). These are both books further extending the realm of using evolutionary thinking and methodology to investigate culture, and obviously, specifically, Religion. Many people (people, I think, that are probably like my brother Jack - too moderate for their own (and everyone else's) good) feel like the aetheism of science too be a bit stark (except for this guy) for it to be popularly functional. Dennett argues from a more agnostic stance, but of course, I reckon, in Dawkinsian terminology, he's still an atheist when it comes to most of the World's gods. The argument against religions tends to at least imply (and often explicitly states) a need for Reason to have more influence, but Reason is difficult to reconcile with the notions over Subjectivity on this Postmodern Earth.

What Hofstadter offers in Strange Loop is a worldview that finds the concepts of souls to be useful. He also redefines souls such that for the most part, their abstract, visceral qualities are maintained from their mystical existence, and grounds it in a evolutinarily-informed view of why they exist. What he offers than, for readers of "The New Atheists," is a more hopeful, utopian model of inquiry. There is of course, respect for causality (as slippery as it can be) and intentionality, but also, even more so, and more importantly an enlightened enwondernment at the "high abstractions that emerge from the gloom" (that isn't quite a direct quote but I'm working from memory here) couple with a strong desire to understand these abstractions better.

Monday, June 04, 2007


(1) One of my work friends is in Verona, Italy, this week, and reported on one of the tourist attractions there: Juliet's balcony, the one where Romeo met her. More accurately, it's the Capulet family castle, with a balcony on it, on account of Juliet being fictional.

Tourists there honor their fictional heroine by sticking chewed pieces of gum to the wall. Whimsical, yet appalling.

You can't see the gum in this photo from the Internet, but it seems to capture a certain essence of the place.

(2) The other week Nate emailed a link to this story in Slate about the Helvetica font, which I agree is surprisingly interesting, even if you're not reading it at work.

(3) The movie Waitress looked like it would be oversweet and not very convincing, but I saw it last week and actually it's quite good. I'd recommend it. (Except for Pete. Decidedly not a Pete movie.) Endearing goes a long way: the clunky parts stay sympathetic, and the transcendent parts really shine. This establishes, I think, the chickmost boundary of the kind of movie I can enjoy wholeheartedly.

There's a pretty brutal real-life note to this movie, in that its writer/director (who also plays a touchingly frumpy side character) was murdered in her Manhattan apartment before it was released. Yikes.

(4) I finished my first freelance book-related project recently, an index for a short high-school-level book on the history of New Haven. Seemed to turn out satisfactorily, at least as far as the author's reaction went. Hoping to turn up more of this sort of thing as time goes on.

(5) Five days till college reunion! I'm going to have to write down a cheat-sheet positive-sounding reason I haven't gone to grad school.

In the meantime, walking to work in a significant rain under a huge umbrella, while listening to the middle movements of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on headphones, was a surprisingly strong start to the week.

Had the yearly (or, in my case, first) job evaluation hash-out with the boss this afternoon, and things are fine, fine fine fine. Hopefully some more substantial editing work eventually, like in the fall.

??!?!!???, Therefore I Am

I just moved Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop into the “finished” column of my reading list – this was our Dad’s birthday gift to me this year, and a good one – so I’d better jot something down about it before it melts away from my mind entirely.

I haven’t read any other Hofstadter. (Can anyone out there lend me Gödel, Escher, Bach at Narragansett next month?) I like his style: quirky is good. There was a surprising lot here I didn’t agree with.

My attempted nickel version of Hofstadter’s main idea: what we perceive as our consciousness, “I,” is a “strange loop,” which is maddeningly hard to paraphrase. Essentially it has to do with a self-containing, self-referential pattern. Consciousness develops and grows in a human being as this strange loop feeds back into itself and establishes a stable pattern. This is a high-level phenomenon, found on an abstract pattern level rather than a biological or physical one.

What throws me off is that Hofstadter doesn’t deal with the present-tense nature of consciousness. It seems to me that an “I” isn’t just defined by a sustained pattern, but rather the constant, immediate act of generating that pattern. In fact, it seems to me that calling the “I” a sustained pattern is completely the wrong approach – nothing is sustained over time; you’ve got the Here and Now, plus an extensive mental representation of your past perception of that “I,” but only that Here and Now is the part that counts as consciousness.

And then the feedback isn’t so much from “I” into itself, but rather from this separate mental representation of the “past I” into the “I.” Just as mental representations of the visual field, soundscape, sense of location, and so on feed into the “I.” There must be some degree of “I” (that is, perception of consciousness) feeding into itself, but it’s not clear to me why this would be any more prominent in the “I” than the perception that one is receiving other kinds of information (that is, “I am engaged in seeing or hearing,” as opposed to “I see or hear X”).

One of Hofstadter’s thought exercises involves a science-fiction scenario where someone is teleported simultaneously to two other locations (cloned in the process); where does the “I” reside, then? In both? This only seems tricky if you assume there’s a continuity here; there’s not, I don’t think, and what you would get is two separate, independent Here and Now “I”’s that happen to have identical past mental representations of themselves. (Hofstadter hashes out a position that the “I” is doubled, more or less, though he doesn't stake an emphatic claim.)

Skipping over the biological/physiological level seems like a jump too far, too. In another example, Hofstadter imagines a world made entirely of inseparable twin pairs (not conjoined, just inseparable): if they constantly coexist, collaborating on the same thoughts and actions, do they have two “I”’s or one shared “I”? But there’s a biological reason this doesn’t happen, right? – what a brain has evolved to do certainly includes distinguishing itself from the outside world, and if Twin A’s brain is going to register early on that Twin B’s body has no connection to it. And where that divide is drawn, so is the “I” delimited.

A shade of this idea is one of Hofstadter’s most unusual arguments: that a soul does not in fact exist in only one body, but can spread (at least faintly) into the bodies of those close to it. Hofstadter’s main example, touchingly, is he himself and his wife, who died very suddenly in her 40s; in a tangible sense, he argues, his wife’s soul continues on in the mind-patterns he shared with her (hopes, beliefs, love of pieces of music). I think there’s something meaningful there, but when you get down to it, the Carol Hofstadter patterns inside Douglas Hofstadter have been generated by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s important, but it’s not anyone else’s soul.

I also have a feeling that you can’t treat a brain as a neutral medium for establishing patterns, and then look only at the patterns, as Hofstadter does: we’re defined by what our neurons do, however confusing the scheme is, and they’re set up for some kinds of pattern-making and not for others.

Anyway, it’s a good read (it took over more of the weekend than I intended to give it), and I recommend it. It’s going to make me enjoy Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto more, since Hofstadter devotes some time to describing how touching he finds it, and his wife found it. Also, one of his examples of self-referential sentences still has me laughing out loud every time I think of it:

“If wishes were horses, the antecedent clause in this conditional sentence would be true.”

Yep. Nerd indicator light: lit. Still laughing.


So last night I went to see the Deutsch Oper Berlin play Richard (Dick) Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. It was quite good. Most of the singers were spot on, with only a couple flashes of pitchiness (I think I heard one of the judges one time on American Idol (the one time that I watched American Idol) refer to sloppy pitch as "pitchiness") from one of the female leads. The orchestra, as seems to be the norm for Berlin, was fucking rad. The Deutsch Oper's hall is well bigger than the Staatsoper's (a reminder that there are actually three opera companies/houses in Berlin, all three of which are quite quite good (although I've yet to go see the Komische Oper)) and the akoustik, was a bit whack, but mostly not nearly so intimate as the Staatsoper, which is a little bit too bad.

It's been my oft-stated opinion that most of Strauss' music is a terrible waste of time (the list of good music is as follows (in no particular order): Tod und Verklarung, the 4 last Lieder, and Metamorphosen, and maybe (only maybe) Also sprach Zarathustra (I just happen to have a soft spot for that particular piece)), but I think I'm ready now to reconsider Strauss as a writer of operas. I find that his musical language and symbolism works quite well in the Operatic context. Reasons: 1) When the music is subsurvient to not only a dramatic context, but also a text, Strauss is a bit more reigned-in, focused. z.B. The second act of Rosenkavalier is great - music works really well, and the whole thing is concise, well-paced. 2) Strauss writes very well for voice, especially female voice. The vocal lines are very fun to listen to, often quite moving, and in Rosenkavalier often quite beautiful. z.B. The trio that closes the Third Act. 3) Opera is stupid, and Strauss' music is stupid, so the go wonderfully together. I do not mean that two wrongs make a right, but just that, really, Opera is stupid. And so is much of Strauss' compositional style.

I'm going at the end of this week, to see the Staatsoper do Elektra, so that'll bring me to 3 Strauss operas for the trip, so my changed-man opinion of Strauss as Operist should be well congealed danach. It'll also make 4 Strauss operas in Europe,including Die Frau ohne Schatten back in Wien, back in the day, with Nate.

I think also, with Der Rosenkavalier, I've regained 50-50 status with my opera-going, in terms of how many operas I've fallen asleep during and how many I haven't.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

What We Talk About When We Talk About Softball

Playing in a co-ed softball league: is it good exercise? Is it everything you hoped and dreamed? Do you acquire enough statistics to run them through an awesome sabermetric analysis?

Well, I've been biking to a lot of the practices, which is good exercise. I think my immediately softball-related expectations are met, so that's fine. Besides one Game Played, I only have three statistics, and two of them are zeroes.

I like wearing a baseball glove, and standing in grassy places, so that tracks pretty well with softball.

The field is behind a high school off a commercial road in East Haven; it's surrounded thickly by trees; there are all kinds of mosquitos there. Thursday is game night. I've been hitching a ride to the field with a teammate who also works at the University. There are 10 starters and usually about 4 subs. We wear matching gold t-shirts with our team name and an advertisement for a hardware store.

I've only played in one game since we've only played three games, and in two of them we got mercy ruled before I subbed in. The other one I started as a left-center fielder batting tenth: a classic softballish made-up position and made-up batting spot! 2 for 2! Well, not literally 2 for 2.

The social vibe is OK, though I don't feel any kind of particular friendship coming on with the other players. There are actually other people who show up just to watch these games (the team is under the auspices of this social internet MeetUp group in New Haven) and some of them are fun to chat with. (Though this behavior strikes me as weird. I myself would not drive to East Haven just to watch a softball game, and not just because I don't have a car.) There's drinking afterwards, in New Haven, so I can just hang there till I start wallflowering and then foot it home. Happy almost weekend!

Softball, always and everywhere, would be much, much better if everyone just took it a little less seriously. It is very casual. But you know, a little more casual . . . Our game Thursday night was interrupted after twenty minutes by a heavy rainstorm, thunder and lightning. We played through ten minutes of this, then had two hours' worth of delay-game-delay-game, so that the game could count in the league standings. The other team finally fifteen-runned us in the fourth or fifth or some damn inning. Fortunately I wasn't in the starting lineup, so I stayed pretty dry, underneath some of the fieldside trees, with some of the people-there-to-watch.

This ridiculousness soaks all these people through, again, for the sake of the game counting in the standings. Look: just a little more casual, a little less serious?

We did, ironically, get "rained out" once before, not because it was raining but because the field was in terrible shape from rain the day before. This probably explains the mosquito problem. I'd skipped that game anyway, since Michael Tilson Thomas was conducting Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements at Carnegie Hall the same night with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

I also don't like this fifteen-run Mercy Rule, since it takes twenty people from a state of "playing softball" to "not playing softball even though you could be." This, provided it's nice out, is a waste. There should be a per-inning run rule, to keep things from getting out of control, and then you keep going, dammit.

I had an anxiety dream about catching fly balls last night. I couldn't catch them. I really don't think this merits that much anxiety.

The team is 0 and 3 right now. I expect one of those numbers will keep changing throughout the season.

Thinking about this does make me kind of want to play softball right now, which means it must count for something.