A few years ago, I made the prediction that the so-called "Arab Spring" was doomed to fail in Egypt, in light of the fact that the vote had been given to millions of Egyptians with no real grasp of literacy, let alone the rarified Enlightenment concepts upon whose foundations Western liberal democracies had been constructed. I was admonished by at least one commenter back then about my lack of faith in the good sense of the average Egyptian, and indeed, a part of me hoped to be proven wrong by succeeding developments, but that is not quite what happened (to put it mildly).
I've been trying to follow the online reaction to the Elliot Rodger shooting, and one thing that struck me was the haste with which so many despicable websites (all of which I refuse to link to) have rushed to claim that Elliot Rodger was of at least partly Jewish descent, when nothing in his background would suggest such a thing.
Sometimes, when I'm feeling bored and not in the mood to engage in any intellectual heavy-lifting, I like to make my way to an online forum called the misc; I have never participated in the forum, and don't even have an account, but I do check it out every few days, as the misc has a certain amusing sensibility which I suppose appeals to my inner "bro" (yes, I do lift bro - and I don't skip left day either!)
One thing I've learned over the years is that isn't easy to find decent material on Asian art traditions outside the confines of a university or museum, and this is true whether we're talking online or in traditional book form. Try to go beyond facile Wikipedia articles or introductory coffee-table volumes on a topic such as, say, Chinese ink painting or Japanese lacquerware, and you quickly run into nothing but frustration, whereas even individual Western artists like Donatello, Veronese and Fragonard have any number of richly illustrated, scholarly volumes detailing their lives and work. The difference here is not due to anything innately superior in the Western artistic tradition - as anyone who has bothered to learn about Asian arts will attest - but the result of a self-perpetuating legacy of centuries of Eurocentrism, under which the assumption that there is little worth learning about the artistic traditions of other peoples serves as justification for failing to investigate further, the resulting ignorance then being seized upon as "proof" of the initial assumption.
As I've been traveling recently, I decided to make use of some of the dead time that accompanies the process by re-reading the Montcrieff-Kilmartin translation of "Swann's Way", the first volume of Marcel Proust's magnum opus. It's been nearly 2 decades since I first made my way through the work, and yet I am pleased to be able to report finding the experience just as delightful as I did the first time around. It is not just Proust's uncanny insight into the foibles, eccentricities and self-deceptions of humanity that gives pleasure, but also his sheer gift for comedy: contrary to the image many seem to have of "In Search of Lost Time", the books are both easy to read and outright hilarious in many places.
Given Proust's status as "Most Unread Literary Giant" of the 20th century, it is always a pleasant surprise to find that there are others out there who've gone past the intimidation factor to find out for themselves precisely why Proust is as deserving of the acclamation he receives. As it turns out, one such person is Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer, who gives a cogent explanation of how and why he came to love Proust in this NYRB article. It is good to see that the American Supreme Court has some powerful and perceptive minds on it, rather than being populated entirely by mediocrities with chips on their shoulders.
Once upon a time, I used to get into online arguments about genetics with certain self-proclaimed "race realist" types, according to whom the scientific "reality" of racial differences in intelligence, which was supposedly being denied by "politically correct" types, would soon be established incontrovertibly. It is now coming on 9 years since I explained on here at length why I regarded all such claims as pseudo-scientific rubbish, borne of a simple-minded understanding of how genes work, and disregarding entirely wrinkles such as pleiotropy and epistasis. I was ever so sagely informed at the time by a certain commenter that these phenomena were unimportant, and the day of reckoning was upon hand for I and others of my ilk who were too timid to grasp the harsh realities that only the "hbd" [sic] advocates were bold enough to embrace wie es eigentlich gewesen war, so to speak. How, then, have matters transpired over this near-decade? Have the "hbd realists" been proven right, and the "PC police" been put in their place?
Right on the heels of whining about how Brendan Eich's resignation represents the triumph of "bullying" over free speech - as if those who disagreed with him had no right to voice their own disapproval of his actions - comes news that the very same propagators of the "Brendan Eich is the real victim" nonsense are now pushing to boycott Firefox! So boycotting is bad and anti free-speech when it's directed against bigots, but good when carried out in defense of the prejudiced?
The utter lack of even the slightest pretence at consistency is simply astonishing, and I am now more convinced than ever that the real motivation behind all the nonsensical "Brendan Eich was bullied" rhetoric is raw homophobia, or in the case of people like Andrew Sullivan, cheap contrarianism aimed at eliciting attention and page views. In any case, principle has nothing to do with it.
As an addendum, let me add here that the argument that Brendan Eich's political activities didn't matter as long as he was able to do his job effectively is simply stupid. How could he have possibly been able to do his job effectively when knowledge of his bigotry would have alienated not only users of Mozilla software, but also many of the very people the CEO was supposed to be leading? How many people would argue with a straight face that an active Klansman or Holocaust denier should be allowed to lead a major corporation unchallenged? The only real difference in Eich's case is that, again, those defending him don't really believe in the rights of gays to begin with, which is why they can't see any serious harm in Eich's activities.
Nor is it freedom from criticism, as Mark Joseph Stern so eloquently elucidates in this Slate article. It is disheartening to see so many supposedly intelligent people failing to appreciate that it is the very same freedoms which allow Brendan Eich to donate the likes of Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul and the Proposition 8 movement which allows others to express their disgust at his actions.
The idea seems to be that one ought to be free to express whatever prejudices one may harbour without having to worry about any negative feedback whatsoever - an absurdity if ever there was one. Either all of these supposedly reasonable supporters of free speech are more stupid than they appear (which, admittedly, cannot be ruled out), or, more likely, they simply don't believe that Brendan Eich's views are at all abhorrent, as they don't think gays really have any rights worth protecting anyway.
What stirred me from my state of inactivity was not the fact of Eich's resignation, but much of the rhetoric it has given rise to, especially amongst the Hacker News set. To hear some of the commenters on there say it, Brendan Eich is a victim of "bullying", and has somehow been deprived of his "right" to earn a living by an internet "lynch mob": we are supposed to feel pity for him for having had the "audacity" to support a viewpoint which was backed by the majority of California's voters. Such opinions are not only nonsensical, but serve to invert the moral roles of victims and victimizers, which I find particularly appalling.
If Franz Schubert's reputation as a melodist ever needed demonstrating - which it doesn't - one could do worse than point others to his beautiful impromptus, such as this one performed by Krystian Zimerman.
Having railed on here repeatedly about my lack of faith in any supposed "wisdom of the masses", or the alleged merits of ever more participatory and responsive political systems, I'd like to provide some actual social science reseach to back me up.
Having recently made my case at such length for passing over the Nikon D800, I can see how anyone reading my little essay would have been left with the impression that I have no interest whatsoever in the new developments being made possible by the addition of video capability to higher end digital cameras. Such is not the case: while I personally have no interest in being a filmmaker, I'm still able to appreciate the incredible things that can be done with these new tools when in the right hands. Take the video below, for example, shot entirely with Canon's 5D Mark II.
It is now 60 years since Alan Turing - war hero and intellectual father of the theory of computing - was convicted on the charge of "gross indecency", which in 1950s terms simply meant that his sexual orientation was other than what was thought permissible by society at large at the time. As 2012 also marks the centenary of Alan Turing's birth, it seemed a particularly apposite time to make a request for his posthumous pardon, a request the Conservative justice minister has now rejected.
As those of us who follow the rumor blogs have known for several months by now, Nikon was planning to introduce the successor to it's widely used (and much loved) D700: the rumor had it that the new camera was to have been introduced in the autumnn of 2011, but the combination of a tsunami in Japan and the floods in Thailand put paid to said plans, at least for a while. Now, at long last, the rumored D800 is finally here, and my feelings about the new camera are ... ambiguous, to put it mildly.
I've argued on here a few years ago that apologetically insisting "I was born this way" (i.e. "I can't help it!") is no basis for arguing for one's right to live as one pleases, regardless of others' religious hangups, but it's taken the recent statements by Cynthia Nixon to bring the issue to the fore where it belongs. As Frank Bruni points out, no such argument from genetics has ever been required to justify freedom to worship as one pleases, and yet this is a principle which is universally* accepted in the Western world today. Why then should a "born this way" argument be necessary for gay rights?
If you know anything at all about the history of the 20th century, then you've probably read of the famous phrase uttered by Neville Chamberlain, and usually in the context of his being held up as an exemplar of craven cowardice in the face of militaristic aggression. As attractively simple as this portrayal may be, however - particularly to politicians looking to score cheap points - it does little justice to the reality of Chamberlain the man or his political efforts; as a corrective, I strongly suggest listening to all 8 minutes and 27 seconds of the full speech in which these often-quoted words were spoken, and judging for oneself whether the speaker seems at all the cowardly fool he has so often been made out to be.
I share completely Thomas Edison's conviction that religion is bunk, but if there were anything with the power to sway me towards religious belief, it would be the existence of sublime works such as this passion or Monteverdi's "Vespers of 1610"; these are compositions of whose authors, one feels justified in quoting the famous passage from Hamlet:
What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties. In form and moving, how express and admirable. In action how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god.
Indeed, sometimes I find myself wondering how it can be that the greatest composers, painters, writers and scientists, who leave behind works able to astonish, surprise and delight long after their creators are dead, and the dim-witted hordes who love "Twilight", proudly hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls, think Lady Gaga is a rebel and a genius, and follow the fabricated adventures of the Kardashians with rapt attention, can really be said to belong to the same species ...
If proof were needed about the veracity of my assertion that there is a lot more to Westminster-style liberal democracy than the mere holding of elections on a regular basis, recent events in Hungary seem to be conspiring to establish my argument for me.
Having criticized Classic FM earlier in the day for presenting music from the classical tradition in a manner least likely to encourage listeners to gain a deeper appreciation, let me take the time to actually do something constructive along just such lines: if you want an accessible and down-to-earth introduction to what classical music is really all about, I highly recommend this set of video lectures by Yale's Professor Craig Wright. If you want to understand why Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier is held in such high esteem, what Beethoven is really doing in the opening movement of his 5th symphony, how exactly Debussy paved the way for horror movie music (aka atonalism), or why the "Star Wars" and "Superman" themes owe a great debt to Richard Wagner, here's your chance to learn all of this and more. Once one learns how to listen actively, instead of just keeping an ear out for an easily hummable tune and a catchy beat, the world of classical music becomes a lot more comprehensible and inviting.
I will go further: not only do I believe that watching Wright's lectures will give one a deeper understanding of what exactly is going on at a level beyond just "gut" feeling, I'm convinced that the experience will deepen one's understanding of all musical forms, period, even of the most formulaic pop drivel: if nothing else, a little musical knowledge will help one start to appreciate precisely why certain musicians aren't worth taking seriously, media hype notwithstanding ...
Seeing as we are currently in what is considered - in the nominally "Christian" parts of the world at least - a festive season, I think it most appropriate to share with my readers this deliciously detailed tear-down of Classic FM, Britain's most popular classical radio channel.
I am not opposed in principle to efforts at broadening the audience for classical music, nor do I have any ideological objections to attempting to mix commerce with art - my views run, if anything, in the contrary direction - but there are good and bad ways of striving towards even the most positive ends, and reducing a musical tradition with so much sophistication, and so many centuries of tradition behind it, to only the most easily memorized excerpts of a select few "greatest hits" from the same limited selection of usual suspects*, actually does a tremendous disservice to the cause Classic FM is supposedly championing.
Classical music is not pop, and cannot be reduced to a few minutes of catchy tunes sandwiched in between adverts and smarmy banter. Unless audiences are taught to appreciate the importance of musical structure and development, they will never come to understand just why it is that the classical tradition should be worth holding in high regard, other than as just another means of signaling one's social status. To truly appreciate the intellectual and artistic ingenuity of the likes of even such well-known names as Bach and Beethoven, one needs to go beyond the familar strains of "Sheep May Safely Graze" and "Für Elise" to explore works like the Goldberg Variations and the Große Fuge, and that will never happen if one is constantly indulged in the notion that the essence of any musical work can be grasped in just a few minutes.
*Bach, Beethoven, Händel, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Wagner, with a side order of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and Pachelbel's Canon.
It was only a few months that I expounded on the dangers of assuming that where democracy is concerned, "more" necessarily means "better." What I hadn't foreseen at the time was that events in the Middle East would so thoroughly vindicate my skepticism about the supposedly inerrant wisdom of "the people", especially when all segments of a society are given a voice in equal proportion to their numbers, however ignorant, illiterate and subservient to religious superstition each such voter may be.
A few months ago, I had the chance to view the BBC documentary series "Human Planet". As stunning as the cinematography for the series was, what made the most lasting impression on me was the sheer amount of physical exertion required to eke out a living by people residing in pre-agricultural societies: hunter-gatherers routinely engage in sustained bouts of walking and running that would put the most fervent joggers in the Western world to shame, and it isn't as if they consider themselves to be doing anything out of the ordinary in the process.
Upon returning from my month-long trip to Japan last year, I noted that the state of the country as evidenced by what I saw was very far from matching the impression one gathers reading about the Japanese economy from afar. The public facilities were as immaculate as ever, the streets remained utterly safe, people were as well-dressed as I'd ever seen them (i.e., much better dressed than the average Londoner or Berliner), and all of the young people seemed to be carrying the same sorts of technotoys which are popular in Europe and the United States: in short, in the course of my travels from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kobe, Tokushima and Nara, nothing I saw gelled in the least with the incessant stories of Japanese stagnation I'd encountered in the Western press. Issues of space aside, I could not find any evidence to support a belief that the Japanese standard of living was lagging behind that of the average Western European in the slightest - on the contrary, the very opposite seemed to me to be true.
For many years Glenn Gould's performance had been the last word on the piece, but I have to say that Murray Perahia's take has now firmly replaced Gould's in my estimation: it has all of the liveliness of the former standard without the annoying accompaniment provided by Glenn Gould's humming.
Not that Gould has entirely lost his place in my catalogue, however: I still am unaware of any substitute for his "Well-Tempered Clavier" (Andras Schiff's much lauded version sends me to sleep).