Sunday, September 30, 2007

I'm Not Watching the Steelers Game.

Miami has lived up to its wet season this week. Or, rather, the wet season has lived up to its name this week in Miami. A good week to mooch rides and be lazy about buying a new rear wheel and handlebars for your increasingly-unstable money-pit of a bike-you-had-as-a-teenager. I was awakened early this morning by one of the single loudest-and-longest (and it seems I've traded in parentheses for dashes in today's post!) roars of thunder that I have ever experienced. I think it must have been complicated by the fact that I had been asleep-and-dreaming the moment before and only halfway woke up, left in that dreamspace in the mind wherein a single moment can last for hours, such that the thunder which was room-rattlingly loud really seemed to not stop for quite a while.

Long enough for my half-dreaming brain to try and think up a reasonable explanation for such a loud-and-continuous roar. The answer, of course, was armageddon. I had been woken this early by nothing less than the apocalypse itself. As I reached to grab my phone and call a friend in New York City, to see if the world was ending there as well, that process of phone-grabbing woke me up enough to realize that the thunder had stopped, that it was storming out, and that it was entirely too early in the morning to call anybody just to ask them if the world was ending. So I was able to fall back asleep.

Half a day later, its still raining, with a stiff wind as well that causes the rain to chatter against the glass of my balcony doors. Excuse enough to once again put off watching any sports. The sports bar is only 20 blocks up the road, but entirely too far to walk in torrential rain. Admitting that I'm on the internet, though, it doesn't seem like I'm missing a whole lot this game. That'd suck if the Steelers lost to Phoenix. I mean, really.

Baltimore, Baltimore, Burning Bright

Last night I drove up to Baltimore to see the BSO's first concert program of the 2007-08 season, and it occurred to me when I actually got into Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that I haven't been to a concert there since I've lived in the D.C. area. One summer between college semesters Jack and I went to a performance there so the building was familiar, but still unfamiliar enough that I thought, "You know, I really haven't been in this place for six or seven years". This was followed by mild self-reproach: In four-plus years I haven't identified and attended one worthy concert in a city a mere hour's drive away, just one node northward on the megalopolis?

At any rate I find the Meyerhoff to be a fairly cozy concert space. It's older than I somehow thought it was, opened in 1982 or so, and it has the feel of a large early-eighties library or middle school to me: Essentially round, curving hallways, relatively low and sharply sloped ceilings. Plus the brown brick on the interior walls. The little areas with cafe-style seating where they'll sell you a brownie or a presumably much-needed midconcert bottle of beer seem to be their own semi-separate spaces as opposed to just a countertop and cash register plopped down arbitrarily in a lobby. The hall itself has a nice sound -- not particularly warm, but not distancing either -- with the same sort of curved-line aesthetic. The terrace-level seating along the sides is divided among separate pod-like subsections that each hold twenty or thirty seats or so, making you feel less like you're in a crowd (or maybe less like you're in a drastically underfilled symphony hall, depending on how ticket sales go).

A corollary to being surprisingly unfamiliar with the Meyerhoff is that once they started playing I realized I had no conception of what the Baltimore Symphony sounds like. They have a nice sound, though; confident solo work and a nice richness in the strings. Technically the orchestra sounds sharper than the National Symphony but not as nuanced and precise as the Philadelphia Orchestra. Perhaps this is tied to mile markers on I-95 somehow.

This was Marin Alsop's opening weekend as music director of the BSO and the ensemble was nicely balanced and shaded under her. She chose a bold/ weird program -- John Adams' "Fearful Symmetries" and Gustav Mahler's fifth symphony -- but it had enough logic to hold together as a concert, if not put as many bodies in the audience as you might hope for the second concert of the season.

"Fearful Symmetries" is a propulsive, fun oddball of a piece. At about twenty-five minutes it's at risk of being too long for that sort of thing; Woody Allen's "dead shark" joke from Annie Hall applies to it somehow, in that if it ever loses its forward-moving energy it kind of dies on the stage. Alsop brought out a lot of rhythmic pop in the most overtly bouncy parts and a lovely atmospheric warmth, especially in the strings, in the piece's gentler moments. She maintained an almost transparent sense of balance in the orchestra, too, and did an excellent job of managing and illustrating the various musical currents running simultaneously at skew angles through the piece. Her louds were never particularly loud, which was a problem at the beginning -- for three or four minutes the dynamic level of the piece seemed set at a kind of arbitrary mezzo-mezzo, when the music is at its most exuberant and needs to sell itself to the audience to get them on board for the next twenty minutes. A solid and consistent reading of the piece though. It seemed more defined by its hazy atmosphere than by full-throttle boppiness, like driving through fog.

I'm not a fan of Mahler's fifth symphony; it contains some great music, most of all its beatific Adagietto for strings and harp, but it's too rambling and episodic and long. (Is this the implicit, dangerous theme of Alsop's first program? "Wearing Out Our Welcome Already"?) I was sold on the first movement, the funeral march, though: It moved with a serpentine power and Alsop nicely highlighted its leering, almost obscene quality, making it more obviously a cousin to the perverse funeral-march setting of "Frere Jacques" in Mahler's first symphony. Somewhere around the middle of the second movement the shark more or less died for me, but the phrasing and detail work continued to sound good to me once the overall direction of the symphony seemed to bow under its own weight. The trumpet and horn soloists sounded great -- appropriately proclamatory and sometimes snarly -- and I liked Alsop's touch of minimizing the breaks between movements, especially overlapping the last fading of the Adagietto with the opening horn of the last movement. She capped the finale with a breathless, mercurial flourish, which functioned more or less like an "Applause" sign for the audience and had me entirely on board again at least for the last half minute. The louds here were very particularly loud, blowing the roof off of the upper level she established in "Fearful Symmetries" within about ten seconds or so.

Alsop is an energetic presence on the podium, lots of sweeping gestures from the shoulders and side-to-side motion. Occasionally she would illustrate quick rhythmic figures with a flurry of her hands or, at least in the Adams, let out an odd little foot kick. As with David Robertson or Manfred Honeck (both more or less her age, i.e. relatively young) her music continuously keeps up a similar level of energy, an intensity of form. After "Fearful Symmetries" Adams, who turned out to be in attendance, bounded up onstage and lankily took his bows alongside Alsop; it's hard not to think that the country's professional orchestras belong increasingly to the baby boomers.

Take My Hat, Please

I re-read Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat a couple of weeks ago. (I went on a big late-summer popular nonfiction kick; this, the two Gladwell books, the Gaddis Cold War History, and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. I think I'm full for now.) I think I read this back in college. There are two or three really involving chapters, and then a lot of what's relatively filler.

One of the fascinating chapters is about a man ("Jimmie") with a profound, alcoholically induced amnesia, who can't form new memories and only has access to memories of his life up to the late 1940s, when he was in his early 20s and in the Navy. Nate was bringing up Hofstadter again the other day and it reminded me of this section of Sacks:
One tended to speak of him, instinctively, as a spiritual casualty--a 'lost soul': was it possible that he had really been 'de-souled' by a disease? 'Do you think he has a soul?' I once asked the Sisters. They were outraged by my question, but could see why I asked it. . . .
[later in the chapter]
But humanly, spiritually, he is at times a different man altogether--no longer fluttering, restless, bored, and lost, but deeply attentive to the beauty and soul of the world, rich in all the Kierkegaardian categories--and aesthetic, the moral, the religious, the dramatic. I had wondered, when I first met him, if he was not condemned to a sort of 'Humean' froth, a meaningless fluttering on the surface of life. . . . Empirical science told me there was not--but empirical science, empiricism, takes no account of the soul, no account of what constitutes and determines personal being.
I think this is an interesting convergence with Hofstadter: both reach a viewpoint that people have souls, and that these souls are a matter of feeding your life experience into a stable, continuous, and persistent being. Jimmie doesn't have this, quite. I think it's interesting that Sacks asks "Does Jimmie have a soul" rather than "Do any of us have a soul, in this sense, given what Jimmie's brain is doing." I doubt Jimmie's that different from us: point-to-point he's rather the same, but when his brain draws on stored memories, they're not there, at least since '45. (Sacks is a bit frustrating to read for this reason: he'll find something interesting and pan out to a "big question" kind of perspective, rather than trying to find the shortest line between his observation and an explanation.)

And I think this blows up Hofstadter's conception of the soul, too--this "soul" isn't a self-generating pattern, but something made of different parts (say, a "point-to-point" observation part, and a stored-memory part) that can, rarely, get disconnected. There's no need to insert a hard-to-pin-down, continuous "other thing" there and define that as the soul. Also this is why Hofstadter's tack of eliminating the biological level from his philosophy doesn't really work out.

Hofstadter's (and, as Nate said, Michelangelo's) other idea of the soul, the soul that persists in others, is kind of the opposite condition: no point-to-point observation, but just stored memory. Here again, asking whether this represents a "soul" seems like it adds dead weight to the question.

Anyway, speaking of losing one's soul, I'm about to go try to buy a used TV set. If all goes well, I may never need to read another book again!

Fair Durham

Durham, CT, is home of the state's largest agricultural fair, and one of my coworkers had the idea to go up there last night. So four of us packed into his Volkswagen beetle (the inside of which smells like crayons for no apparent reason), went up 91 a ways, and gradually found our way to one of the free parking lots they were shuttling school buses to and from. It was dark by then, and surprisingly hard to figure out where we should have been going (other than finding ourselves in a 40-minute traffic jam leading up to one of the other free parking lots), so it felt like a blessing to end up in the right place.

(On the way out of the parking lot, later, the only direction back to the highway was a sign that said ALL VEHICLES FOLLOW SIGNS TO ALL ROUTES. I submit this as the least helpful road sign ever.)

You should come to an agricultural fair hungry. I had one of the best barbeque pork sandwiches I'll ever eat (speaking of experiential satisfaction, anyway) before just filling up on kettle corn. It is absolutely impossible to buy kettle corn in a quantity it would be advisable for even four people to eat. We really had to push to make it to the bottom of the bag. We had a long time waiting for the ferris wheel, though, without a lot else to do.

When we left we all felt like there was a lot more food we'd wanted to try. This is probably a better feeling than the feeling you'd have if you actually had tried everything. Gonna have to scratch an apple crisp itch later in the fall though.

If you "detune" yourself enough on one of those round-and-round swing rides, you can dissolve your experience into a fairly incoherent sweep of nighttime colored lights and wind in your face. That's kind of neat. Going on the swing ride at 8:30 or 9 pm, though: freezing cold. We also did one of those abusive carnival rides that treats you more or less how a sadistic kid would treat a hamster in a little cage. I'm not quite sure if it was "fun." "Fun" is usually more fun than that. I'm just glad we only ate through a "small" kettle corn beforehand.

The animal exhibits were surprisingly neat: it's a high-end fair, and they only show le nec plus ultra of, say, the llama set. (Llamas, you'd think, would be kind of ornery, but the descriptions at all the displays made a point of saying how agreeable and pleasant they are to raise. Who knew.) One of the llamas had a ribbon on its pen saying "7th Place, Obstacle Course," and we all agreed that, man, we shouldn't have missed that. There were some old women working with llama wool and yarn, silently, behind a fenced-off area not so different from the llama pens themselves. This was extremely odd.

In another building there were some very attractive, neatly groomed cows; you check right after to see if they're in the "dairy" or "beef" category, to find out how bad you should feel for them. Even the chickens looked extra-fancy, and came in exotic-looking varieties I'd never conceived of. They had the largest, turkey-est looking turkey I've ever seen.

It took a long time to get back onto a bus and into the parking lot. We weren't back in New Haven till 12:30 or so. You wouldn't think a fair would involve so much waiting in line for things, but it does. (I guess that's the price you pay. No one said life would be equitable.) After this, the second annual corn maze excursion is going to seem like a lightning-fast, high-speed adventure. Probably not fueled by kettle corn.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Unfair Trade

Up until yesterday (or, more accurately, up until last Thursday) there was only one good thing about Florida International University's "University Park" campus: the fact that the Einstein Bros Bagels on campus brewed Fair Trade, Organic coffee, and that they sold it for the same price as the rest of their coffee. And, of course, my blogging this means only one thing: the Einstein Bros Bagels on campus is no longer brewing FT, organic coffee. Just another "Fuck You!" from good ol' FIU.

Of course, I really actually saw this coming - last Thursday, in what has become something of a routine this semester (get up, early (like 6:30 AM (actually early (not grad school for Creative Writing early (1:30 PM)))), shower, stupefact in front of balcony doors, bike/walk to campus (chronic tire-popping has prompted some amount of walking (which I wanted to call "pedaling" but that doesn't seem quite right...)), take 8 AM shuttle bus from "Biscayne Bay" campus (1 hour in duration (cost, $2)), buy 1 bagel, plain, un-cut, un-toasted, and one large cup of coffee from Einstein Bros Bagels), I purchased my usual cup of coffee from Einstein Bros Bagels, and filled it from the FT, organic (medium roast) spout, and took it to the library, where I sat on the 6th floor (the lowest possible "quiet study floor" (the other floors being rather obviously not quiet)) to get to my day of online tutoring and class. Once I sat down in the library, however, and took a sip of my now-cool-enough-to-drink (it takes some time to get to the library and up to the 6th floor) coffee, only to find that it was French Vanilla flavored. Clearly not the medium roast, fair trade, organic coffee that was advertised on the tank. I wasn't sure whether to question that the FT, organic coffee ever existed, but it was clearly gone then. And gone now.

So here I am, tired and cranky, having just finished my cup of hypocritical coffee which didn't wake me up enough and made the world a worse place than it already is. No one is signing up for my tutoring hours (thats my TA job) and so this was all for naught.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Your Brain vs. Cable and the Rest of Your Brain

Today at lunch a couple of coworkers and I talked a little bit about how not to watch unnecessary TV. (Unfortunately none of us had ever read a whimsical French novel on the subject.) Two of us talked about how refusing cable and/or TiVo made this considerably easier; another thought that it was more effective to hold yourself to watching less television rather than restricting content that you might have a positive desire or reason to watch.

This reminded the sometimes cable-free coworker of an old blog post by a personal productivity writer named Merlin Mann. That post, jumping off from a New York Times Magazine story about compulsive gamblers self-banning themselves from casinos, talks about what Mann calls "life hacks" and how making high-level decisions to modify your external environment can circumvent (and come into conflict with) your more gut-level decision making.

An interesting post. The coworker emailed it around in the afternoon to confirm that the philosopher cited by the NYT Magazine story was in fact David Hume; my reply follows. The Dennett ideas referenced are in Consciousness Explained and also crop up in at least the two-thirds that I've read of Elbow Room.


Daniel Dennett has written on some really interesting ideas about how the "self" is a sort of center of gravity defined by a number of more or less Hume-style parallel mental processes, which communicate with each other with varying directness. In fact he posits that human-style consciousness developed as an interior version of speaking to ourselves, or more likely (in some pre-linguistic fashion) processing the sounds that we make to communicate information to other individuals. In which case consciousness itself could be thought of as an optimized, iterated version of an earlier "life hack" in which we (1) use one mental subsystem to produce a sound in the exterior world, and (2) use a different mental subsystem to process the information conveyed by that now-external stimulus.

At any rate I think indirect self-control is integral enough to the human mind that (at a sufficiently abstract level) canceling your cable subscription in order to watch less TV isn't a fundamentally different operation than thinking to yourself, "I'm not watching Family Guy anymore because it's lame all the time now". Though unfortunately we as a species haven't had time for that to evolve into an instinctive action.


This was countered with the full lyrics of Monty Python's Philosophers Song. This may have been a gentle admonition against pulling my smarty pants up too high (I even forgot to flag the email with the downward-facing, blue "low priority" arrow). But I reproduce it here, since I think it's a neat topic. This was, perhaps needless to say, not the fastest Tuesday I've ever experienced at the office; personal productivity is more interesting in theory than practice.

Obscure thing it occurred to me to look up today

It turns out that in the 1971 film version of The Andromeda Strain they did not actually kill the rhesus monkey in the scene where the scientists are testing the effects of the space virus. In fact they merely knocked it out by placing it in an atmosphere of CO2 and revived it immediately after shooting. This still seems unethical to me.

A Bit More Retrosheeting

As I started to at least figure out the losing-est month in the Pirates' last 15 seasons (I'm guessing either April or September (with the hot starts, hot finishes unable to balance the abject terrible-ness of the early/late season Pirates over-all), but had this sudden pang of "I should be working on something related to my Graduate studies right now." So before I go get on that, I should like to mention one stat that jumped out at me from the Pirates...

Anyone who had the sense that Craig Wilson was being hit by a lot of pitches during his tenure with the Buccos was correct. In approximately 2120 plate appearances, Wilson was hit by 86 pitches, good for fourth all-time in Pirate's history (behind Jason Kendall (177 HBP/5282 PAs), Honus Wagner (107/10220), and Jake Beckley (100/approx. 4149)). Although I think Kendall was more well-known for being hit by pitches, Wilson was getting hit by pitches about every 25 at-bats, versus Kendall being hit every 30.

I think another source to search for losing-season streak stats his to index the days on which Matt Stairs hit a home run and the Pirates still lost. (He hit a home run in 10 Pirate losses in 2003, so that's at least 1/15, in terms of losses-over-years.) Because, even though there weren't many of them, on those occasions, at least for me, it made everything okay. I'd still buy him a beer, if I ever happen to run into him. Best Canadian to ever play baseball for the Pirates, hands-down.

Happy Shostakovich Day 2K7

Too early fallen asleep here, I'm alive,
though fate says dead. I've moved; my lodging's new.
I'm living in your thoughts. You miss me too.
While love lives on in lovers, I survive.

* * *

Here I'm thought dead. Alive, I comforted
the world by being there. A thousand souls
played in my heart a thousand loving roles.
Now I'm but one soul less. That means I'm dead?

-- Michelangelo Buonarroti, trans. John Frederick Nims

Happy centennial-plus-one-of-Shostakovich's-birth. He set the quatrains above (in an unrelated Russian translation) as the song "Immortality" in his Suite on Sonnets of Michelangelo, op. 145. Note the closeness of the poetic trope to Douglas Hofstadter's concept of soul-sharing as laid out in I Am A Strange Loop (discussed previously).

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Go You Football

Steelers win again. This one wasn't televised in my media market, as the Ravens were playing at the same time (boo) but I listened to the hometown radio broadcast on an AM radio feed online, which happily was available this time around. General cause for celebration. Go you football.

I have the Cowboys/ Bears game on in the background with the sound off -- for whatever reason football makes me more willing to use the TV as just a soothing flashing picture box -- which looks at this point like it's going to get Rex Grossman beat up in the parking lot after the game. I find myself disturbingly non-antipathetic to the Cowboys these days, given their storied history as a Steelers nemesis. I end up rooting for Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, though. Maybe it's just because of the high drama of his season-killing fumble in last year's playoffs; of such operatic tragedy is the pleasure of sports viewership made. Plus the way he hangs his head afterward is priceless. It's like he just accidentally killed every puppy in the world.

Great Moments in Socialist Bureaucracy

How the Berlin Wall opened up, as related by John Lewis Gaddis in The Cold War: A New History:
After returning from Moscow [Egon] Krenz [Chairman of the Council of State] consulted his colleagues, and on November 9th [1989] they decided to try to relieve the mounting tension in East Germany by relaxing -- not eliminating -- the rules restricting travel to the West. The hastily drafted decree was handed to Günter Schabowski, a Politburo member who had not been at the meeting but was about to brief the press. Schabowski glanced at it, also hastily, and then announced that citizens of the G.D.R. were free to leave "through any of the border crossings." The surprised reporters asked when the new rules went into effect. Shuffling through his papers, Schabowski replied: "According to my information, immediately." Were the rules valid for travel to West Berlin? Schabowski frowned, shrugged his shoulders, shuffled some more papers, and then replied: "Permanent exit can take place via all border crossings from the G.D.R. to [West Germany] and West Berlin, respectively." The next question was: "What is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?" Schabowski mumbled an incoherent response, and closed the press conference.
This is, natürlich, up on the You Tube (about a minute into the link); English transcript here (PDF). The video cuts off the last bit of Schabowski's final comments, when he's visibly sinking into his chair:
Question: Mr. Schabowski, what is going to happen to the Berlin Wall now?

Schabowski: It has been brought to my attention that it is 7:00 p.m. That has to
be the last question. Thank you for your understanding.

(um . . .) What will happen to the Berlin Wall? Information has already been provided in connection with travel activities. (um) The issue of travel, (um) the ability to cross the Wall from our side, . . . hasn’t been answered yet and exclusively the question in the sense . . . , so this, I’ll put it this way, fortified state border of the GDR. . . . (um) We have always said that there have to be several other factors (um) taken into consideration. And they deal with the complex of questions that Comrade Krenz, in his talk in the -- addressed in view of the relations between the GDR and the FRG, in ditto light of the (um) necessity of continuing the process of assuring peace with new initiatives.
Good answer! So then you had crowds gathering at the Wall crossing points until the confused guards at one of them took it upon themselves to open the gates.

Gaddis's book, by the way, is one that I recommend -- it's pretty short (~300 pages) and a quick read, and it covers a lot of ground. You'll take a lot away from it if you read it without knowing much about the Cold War. Gaddis puts a lot of emphasis on the competing ideologies, which provides some good narrative cohesion. Whether this goes too far, I don't know enough to question; on the other hand, he seems to write strongly about the starker geopolitical side of things too. And even if he's a little too friendly to Nixon (seeing dirty tricks as less important than his strategic brilliance) and Reagan (taking his '80s rhetoric to have history-heralding clarity) he seems to write fairly, too.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

This Day in Pittsburgh Pirates History

September 22, 2007

Zach Duke, off the disabled list and making his first start since June 28, allowed 5 runs and 3 home runs against the Cubs in Wrigley Field as the Pirates lost 9–5. Their winless streak was extended to 8 games as they continued to battle Florida for the worst record in the National League.

1 Year Ago
September 22, 2006

Former Pirate minor-leaguer Chris Young came within two outs of a no-hitter as the Pirates lost to the Padres in San Diego, 6–2. Joe Randa's 2-run homer in the 9th provided the only Pirates' only runs. Matt Herges, acquired by Dave Littlefield in exchange for Young in December 2002, allowed 2 hits, 2 walks, and 1 run in an inning of relief for the Marlins, who lost to the Phillies 5–2.

3 Years Ago
September 22, 2004

The Pirates mustered 6 singles and 3 walks against Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs in Pittsburgh, losing 1–0 and handing Oliver Perez his 10th loss of the season. Pinch-hitter Humberto Cota struck out to end the game; Ty Wigginton was hit by a pitch.

6 Years Ago
September 22, 2001

Cardinals rookie Bud Smith won his 6th game and St. Louis improved their record in PNC Park to 6–0 as the Pirates lost, 4–1. Todd Ritchie allowed all 4 runs on 10 hits in 7+ innings of work and fell to 11–13. Leadoff hitter Chad Hermansen went 0 for 4.

9 Years Ago
September 22, 1998

Barry Bonds went 3 for 3 with a triple and a home run and drove in 3 runs as the Pirates lost to the Giants in San Francisco, 14–2. In two innings of work Jon Lieber allowed 7 runs, 5 of which were unearned. It was the Pirates' 17th loss out of 22 during September 1998.

12 Years Ago
September 22, 1995

The Cubs' Kevin Foster, on his way to leading the National League in home runs allowed, pitched 8 innings of mostly dominating baseball as the Pirates lost to the Cubs 6–3 at Wrigley Field. Pirates rookie John Ericks fell to 3–9 after allowing 7 hits and 7 walks in 4 innings. Midre Cummings and Jay Bell each singled for the Pirates; Al Martin, Orlando Merced, Jeff King, Dave Clark, Carlos Garcia, and Don Slaught did not.

14 Years Ago
September 22, 1993

Pinch-hitter Dave Clark's 9th-inning 2-run homer tied a back-and-forth game against the New York Mets in Three Rivers Stadium, setting up a dramatic 6–5 loss in 10 innings. Reliever Joel Johnston lost his 4th game of the year, giving up a 2-run home run to the Mets' Charlie O'Brien in the 10th. The Mets also benefitted from a 2-run homer in the top of the 8th inning, hit by rookie right fielder Jeromy Burnitz.

* * * * *

Thanks,! That took somewhat longer than expected. Pretty rich Pittsburgh Pirates history there, I gotta say, for a day chosen completely at random.


At this very moment there is a white stretch Hummer in the parking lot just outside my apartment, along with what looks like a small but enthusiastic wedding party. People smiling, nattily dressed; multiple professional-looking video cameramen; intermittent bursts of clapping along to loud music that I'm guessing is North African in origin and seems to be issuing from the limo. All very neat, and I'm happy for what I assume must be my neighbors, but this strikes me as a slightly disruptive thing to be doing before noon on a Saturday.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hey, the New York Times' Opinion Section Firewall is Gone

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Randy Pausch

Sad news in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today in a story about the farewell lecture by Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, who co-founded the school's Entertainment Technology Center. He has incurable pancreatic cancer at age 46 and has some number of months to live.

I took his Building Virtual Worlds course, an intensive team-based workshop on virtual reality with several dozen students from various disciplines, in the spring of 2002. I didn't work closely with or get to know Dr. Pausch -- though he did make sure to provide lots of individual feedback to groups and individuals, even though his first child had just been born -- but I found his lecturing style and general bearing indelible. Very passionate about the subject matter, self-assured, focused on meaningful constructive criticism and getting things done well. A sense of that comes across in the quotations in the article and more so in the video excerpts provided (I'll search later for video of the whole lecture). Extremely committed to education.

I was definitely not a luminary in that class, maybe even something of a Jonah for the teams I worked with since I tended to badly estimate how much effort I would need to get a workable result and not have viable fallbacks if something went awry. My final project (with three other people) didn't make the cut for the end-of-semester show. My biggest tangible takeaway from the course, which I've managed to apply unevenly since then, was a clear awareness of the very real limit on my ability to brute-force any given task at hand with mere head-down effort and goodwill, which hadn't been seriously tested to that point. "Work smart, not hard," as they say, or more to the point "work hard but smart". The apparent point of the lecture yesterday, which I think was an obvious if implicit component of the Virtual Worlds course -- to find something you're passionate about doing and then work very hard at actually, concretely doing it -- is one that I would also do well to take to heart.

Besides being sad on a personal level, his departure means CMU loses one of its most interesting thinkers on/ doers of a couple of subject areas that the school is particularly renowned for.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On Auto-Generating Rumors

Prior to Jack's post below I was all set, based on earlier email correspondence, to write a post that would pass along a rumor that Jack is now wearing contact lenses. This post would be sourced by linking back to itself. But Jack's general announcement has blown the lid off of those plans.

Anyway, the second point of that would-be post stands, namely that I (bespectacled as I still am) will now be clearly marked as the geekier twin. As if that were not already obvious from my nearly decade-long educational and professional involvement in computer programming and fully geeked-out posts such as this classic.

On Sports-Bar Wallflowering

Sunday I was in NYC so I got to watch the Steelers/Bills game at Scruffy Duffy’s, the excellent Steelers bar on 8th Ave. and 47th. (I keep thinking this is on 9th Ave for some reason. I always end up with a bit of a walk around the block before I get there.) It’s a funny feeling being a quiet person alone in a sports bar, and I’ve found the experience to go different ways on different occasions. This was a fun time, though. On the best days, sports-bar wallflowering lets a crowd of people do all the hooting and cheering for you. Also you’re just supposed to be staring at a screen while holding a beer the whole time, so it’s not like you’re acting out of place. And there’s enough noise that if you want to just sort of shout “Heath Millerrrr” after a reception, it doesn’t seem like anyone notices you, which to me is a good thing.

I do need to get a Steelers t-shirt of some kind. This was noted by a couple of people in the bar during the third quarter, though I don’t really care about their feelings on the matter. So what if I’m wearing a plain beige shirt? If the Bills line up to attempt a 4th and 2, do I not shout “deeeeee”? And if rookie tight end Matt Spaeth makes a nifty diving grab of a short pass to the end zone, do I not put down my beer and clap?

Scruffy Duffy’s is great for your run-of-the-mill Steelers game; in the playoffs (or presumably on Monday nights, etc.) it’s completely nuts. I was there (wallflowering) for the AFC Championship game against the Broncos in January ’06, and I was literally the last person who fit into the place. I don’t think I even managed to get up to the bar. That of course was a good game anyway.

* * * * *

So I’ve been wearing contact lenses for a week now, and for the first time since 1988 I can get around without wearing glasses. Welcome back, peripheral vision! And hello, new hobbies of blinking and repeatedly poking my own eyeballs!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I Like It When They Play Our Tunes

Some good classical performance clips sifted from YouTube today, since I've been in the mood for it:

The opening of Act III of John Adams' Nixon in China (from what looks like the original production), probably the best music Adams has yet written for the stage.

Renee Fleming singing "Ain't it a Pretty Night" from Carlisle Floyd's Susannah.

Evgeny Mravinsky putting the right kind of edge on the final movement of Shostakovich's 5th symphony, and the acerbic first movement of the composer's cello concerto played by the late, very great Mstislav Rostropovich.

The middle movement of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia (in two chunks), one of the best postmodern anythings out there, as directed by Simon Rattle.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Motivation, Don't Go to My Head

Nate's right, this is kind of fun.

At least there's the weekend.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


While I continue to put off responding to Pete's Shostakovich's 4th post, I may as well note that this morning I found a motivational poster generator on the Internet.

What I like is that I located it while googling for a suitable picture of a sailboat that I could use to make a fake motivational poster from scratch, so rather than being some random online time-waster this widget actually saved me an appreciable amount of time. Anyway, the sailboat picture I eventually borrowed is too low-res to be optimal but I was able to very quickly realize my thought:

Add to this that, thanks to iTunes, for the price of a mere dollar I could listen to "Dancing Machine" by the Jackson 5 more times than I actually cared to while putting the above poster together -- without expending much more effort than thinking, "You know what song I felt ambivalent about as a small child and haven't heard for at least ten years? 'Dancing Machine' by the Jackson 5" -- and it becomes clear that I am living in some kind of brave new world of communications technology.

The fact that I actually had to drive to the office at some point averted the full destructive power of this software tool. But, if Jack is still soliciting photos of himself for the Face Book, I totally have something to offer now:

Consider yourself motivated.

(My mind boggles at the sort of debris from my life I've retained instead of a proper copy of my own brother's high school senior photo.)

"Funny" Orchestral News

I don't know whether its hypocritical or not, but occasionally I read to make sure I'm not missing anything really important thats going on in the world (usual online sources (the ones that I have bookmarked) being BBC World and The Guardian Online (although I should really be spending more time reading German online newspapers, not British ones)). And occasionally, on, one comes across ridiculous things. Like this article. It's actually an important issue - what is being lost in classical music when a government decides to put limits on decibel levels?

It's actually something thats been hotly debated for the entire 21st Century - when these EU decibel level controls were first proposed it became a hot topic in all symphonic performance contexts. I recall discussing it, for instance, to great extent in my brass class at CMU. My problem with the article? It's listed as "Funny News"! What the hell is that? Since when did major issues in symphonic music become funny? Who the hell, reading's "Funny News," would be find that with this article, that their need for some oddball news was satisfied?

Seriously. And incidentally, Doug Yeo, the bass trombonist of the BSO, is quoted there at the end of the article, saying "Do you need the nanny state to step in and say, 'No, you cannot play the bass drum fortissimo in the Verdi Requiem?'" If you run over to the BBC Proms webcasts, you can hear the BSO playing Berlioz' Damnation of Faust. If you fast forward to the 2 hour, 27 minute mark of the webcast, you can hear who I assume to be Doug Yeo (& co.) clearly trying to get himself fined for excessive loudness. Awesome!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Let's Actually Go Steelers

Well, that's good news. Stomping the Browns in Cleveland is as satisfying as ever. Next week: can they beat a team that doesn't find it necessary to bench its starting quarterback 25 minutes into the season?

Cleveland's still got the Indians, at least.

I listened to the first two series of the game on the internet radio webstream from 970 AM Pittsburgh, but then they dropped the game for a generic Fox gameday broadcast. I take it this is what they meant to do in the first place, presumably for licensing reasons. That's disappointing, because I definitely listened to the entire Steelers/Saints game last year on that webstream.

After some googling I learned that you can watch bootlegged football broadcasts online. The image quality's low enough that I don't plan to do this again (it's also plainly one of those illegal internet sharing things), but if you're really jonesing for football (say, on opening weekend) and you're not in the mood to hang out in a huge sports bar, now you know how.

I like watching Roethlisberger hit a bunch of different receivers. Brings back happy memories of the '05 playoffs.

Let's Go Steelers!

Part of being a graduate student in creative writing, I’ve found so far, is that any time someone tells a good story, or successfully relates an anecdote it is proper to recommend that said person turn it into a personal essay. “That’d make a great non-fiction piece!” Now, I have enough ego to honestly think that I do tell a pretty good story from time to time (at least the ones that have been more thoroughly canonized into my personal history (my “Life in Anecdotes,” as it were)), but I don’t think that any of my stories would make good non-fiction pieces. I don’t think anybody would want to read a short essay about me crashing my bicycle in Pittsburgh, no matter how many laughs it consistently gets as an anecdote. Nor do I read all that much non-fiction anyway. That piece about ketchup that Jack linked to was fucking boring (well, the part about mustard was okay…).

Which I only bring up because what I find happening now, in social context here, in the MFA program, is that I mostly just want to talk about music. Which is reasonable, I suppose, and I swear its not just me trying to pretend like I’m not trying to be a writer, its just, to avoid having people tell you that you should really try to write down that anecdote, its easy to just talk about something dull and difficult-to-relate-to. To make it more obvious that, really, I shouldn’t be writing this stuff down (the irony of writing this down in blog-form being left untouched (is that irony? Ever since the Hipsters everywhere started drinking Pabst (and in Portland, where they already drank Pabst, started drinking Iron City) I’ve had a harder and harder time remembering what irony really is (is it that drinking Pabst or Iron City doesn’t suddenly make your rich parents any less rich?)).

And when I say that “I want to talk about music,” what I really mean is that I want to blog about the record that I’m listening to right now. Ormandy & Philadelphia – the American Premiere Recording of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. I don’t know anything about the pedigree of this particular recording – I’ve had the LP since Freshman or Sophomore year of college, and never really looked into it or sought out any other recordings – I’m happy with this one. Although, its also probably to the point where I’ve burned the sound of this one into my brain extensively enough that I really should go seek out a bunch of other ones, to get a better sense of what Shostakovich’s 4th actually tastes like.

The Fourth Symphony is really, to me, the only interesting part of the Shostakovich vs. Stalin narrative that has been unjustly spoon-fed to the American classical music audience since Testimony (and as we always mention here, Testimony has been rather thoroughly debunked) was published. And not the part about Shostakovich withdrawing it before performance due to fear of political ramifications, but the fact that he reproduced the score years later, almost entirely from memory. That feat never ceases to amaze me. (In a similar instance, I probably like Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony way more than I would if I didn’t know that he also wrote the thing out in his head before he committed it to the page.)

But also for the actual music – its something I’ve done several times here in Miami already since plugging the stereo in – the opening of Shosty 4 is for me just plain unnerving – I stand in front of the glass doors that lead to my balcony, stare out at the wasteland that is where-I-live, and fully believe that the World is as much of a fucked-up-mess as I think it is. It’s a symphony that never completely settles down, but I do sit down after the first couple minutes, and during the interior movement; no need to stand-and-stare. But then, again, for the final movement, the World is going to end. A movement where I’ve actually been compelled enough to actually write out what I think about the music, more thoroughly than this (but of course, that text will not to be shared due to my continuing moratorium on trying to describe music with words on this blog). But yeah, Nate's really the Shostakovich scholar here, I should probably be leaving that sort of thing to him, anyway.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


I don't feel like I need to go on and on about either book, but Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Blink are both as readable & absorbing as they're reputed to be. His larger points feel a bit artificial, but the details & anecdotes are fascinating. (The connecting theme, broadly, is unintuitive social science observations.) As the friend who lent me The Tipping Point said, it's like a really long, well-written New Yorker article.

(I'm not going to back up "his larger points feel a bit artificial," since I'd have to go on and on a little bit, and it isn't exactly shocking that a popular nonfiction book's title catchphrase isn't robustly worked out from the data. Also I think my laundry should be ready to come out of the dryer.)

See also: ketchup article.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Maybe Pittsburgh'll Finally Go Moneyball

The new managing owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates fired David Littlefield! The initial, still vaguely-optimistic me wants to believe that this will be a good first step towards actually making an attempt to field a competitive team in Pittsburgh. Maybe the Pirates ownership is getting bored with making money from a losing team! Maybe they think they can make more money with a winning team!

Or more likely, firing Littlefield is a good way to get a new excuse to have a team that sucks for another half-decade, while the new GM "rebuilds." And then it'll turn out that the new guy sucks too, and then, after some riots, the Pirates will finally hire a legitimate GM, who, after another 5 years will finally field a winning team, just in time for Total Nuclear Annihilation of the entire planet.

I guess that puts Armageddon only a decade away - faulty math? Only time will tell...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sweet Sweet Free-of-Charge Ivy League Music Geekery

This semester's Tuesday/Thursday lunchtime course audit: twentieth-century music theory. I took this back in the day, but I'm curious how I'll react to music theory after spending a few years out of the loop. One of the side effects of convincing myself that I don't want to be in grad school is that I've developed a healthy disdain for academic musical analysis. I wonder if this feeling might reverse. Mostly, though, I want to get the attentive-listening juices flowing again.

Hearteningly, the professor has included Stravinsky and Shostakovich (and Ligeti, Adams, Reich) on the syllabus, and he started the class with a "drop the needle" CD excerpt of a hard-to-identify neo-Baroque-sounding string orchestra piece (which turned out to be Stravinsky's Apollon Musagete). Good point: twentieth-century music ranges widely, and you can't make assumptions about its sound and style.

Less hearteningly, he approached the first musical example, Bartok's fugal first movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, by embarking on a baffling, undirected foray into identifying pitch classes, then drawing out patterns in them that aren't really there. This is a fascinating movement in terms of structure, and he spoke to that fairly clearly, but for a solid half hour everything he said seemed to lose the class entirely, and for good reason.

(This class, like the others, is composed of undergraduates; there are a surprisingly large number of them, probably because the course is a requirement for the music major. I sent an awed murmur through the crowd during the introductions when I said where I used to work, which I found pretty amusing.)

One of the things I've always appreciated about the music theory courses I took back in college was that the professors were good at making an important point: you analyze to gain an insight into how the music works and what the composer was trying to do. Outside of this, music theory is completely pointless. So I hope the prof here rights his ship.

In any case, I expect to stick with it and to gain more from it than the philosophy course I audited last semester. I ended up quitting that after a few weeks; I think the iconic "cogito ergo sum" class was the last one I attended. Too much reading! I was in the middle of one of the Richard Ford novels at the time, and I wasn't putting that down in favor of Descartes, and that was the end of that. So I still don't know spit from Spinoza. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I don't care.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Do the Puppet Master!

In a development that I can only file under the heading of “Abjectly Unsurprising,” the MC Bat Commander, of the famed Southern California surf-ska band, The Aquabats is now the proud owner of a children’s television program, Yo Gabba Gabba. It premiered back in August, and already had guest appearances by Biz Markie, Tony Hawk, Elijah Wood, and of course, The Aquabats (doing a child-aimed version of their song “Pool Party.” Thanks to youtube, I don’t have to go into any effort to describe the show to you – just search “Yo Gabba Gabba,” and go to town – or until you get bored of seeing Elijah Wood lead 5 life-size monsters (at least one of which is recognizable as one of the old villains from the days when the Aquabats had villains in costume attack them on stage during performances (which I think they still do to some extent (they must))). I got bored after about two minutes, but it’s good to know that faux-psychedelic non-sequitur children’s programming is alive and well, in the good hands of The Aquabats.

For those of you that aren’t aware of The Aquabats – don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. They’re one of those bands whose popularity, it seems to me, is dependent almost entirely on the existence of High School Marching Bands. But I don’t really want to talk about The Aquabats – they’re right on the edge of the group of bands that I used to listen to but still haven't effectively explained away. Except that I was in a HSMB, and let’s face it, those Aquabats did put on some good shows…

Which reminds of the time, in the past, where I tried to be a good older brother, and turn Mike on to a bunch of the good bands that I liked, when he was still in Junior High (but alas, was already a member of an HSMB), so that he wouldn’t fall completely under the sway of the lame-ass classical music that Nate & Jack were always dumping on him. Good bands, like Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Pavement, Man or Astroman?, and unfortunately, I threw The Aquabats into that mix as well. And demographics took over. What music does Mike like the best now (so far as I know, anyway)? The Aquabats, and all that lame-ass classical that Nate & Jack dumped on him (Yes, I’m talking about John Adams, first and foremost there – I stand by my opinion that almost all of his music sucks, and much of it is ideologically distasteful (and any tolerance I had built up to Adams during Jack’s “Boosey Years” faded rapidly this summer when a friend of mine told me about a talk he heard Adams give about his “Transmigration of Souls” (which is fucking wretched and God-damned distasteful, if you ask me) wherein Adams trashed Britten’s War Requiem (in obvious favor of his own new piece of music)).

I think that there are plenty of Aquabats fans out there that weren’t in HSMB, and would take offense at being lumped in with band dorks, so maybe I’m just skewing the perceived demographic because I was in an HSMB. To explore this Marching-Band-ness a bit further, I’ve resorted, once again, to listening to music… now playing on my turntable… The album “Pure Music” by the band “Chase.” (and please, sit through the intro on that you tube clip, to get to the at least the 3 minute mark of the clip, it'll help you understand.) How do these Chase records keep surviving all the about-to-move record culls that have happened over the years? Some masochistic nostalgia? (This music is terrible, really.) Before this post gets overly-long, I’ll also dodge describing Chase to you all out there (relying, again, on youtube), except to say that Bill Chase is a trumpeter of the Maynard Ferguson school of playing, who took whole-heartedly Fozzie the Bear’s behind-the-curtain advice to Kermit the Frog. Louder and funnier. With healthy dosages of misogyny, 70s-era jazz fusion, fuzzy references to Greek mythology, and very high trumpet notes (with the usual funk band array of brass instruments replaced by a chorale consisting of only four trumpets).

The kind of album that exists in one’s collection so long only because it says “This is something that I own,” in its particular loud way (Kind of like, I suppose, those couple years when I wore a chain on my wallet, mostly because it seemed to say, in its particular loud way “I’ve got a chain on my wallet.”). A good conversation record – “Were you in marching band? No? Well, listen to this shit!”. And a record that, although Chase was mostly a Las Vegas phenomenon, apparently, seems to owe most of its existence to the High School Marching Band, both past and present.

And the kids that are watching Yo Gabba Gabba? I bet their parents were in Marching Band back when they were in High School.