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).
It's not exactly surprising to hear me say that I am a great admirer of Japanese culture, especially the artistic and historic aspects, and have spent a great deal of time and effort mastering the Japanese language in order to deepen my understanding. I think that anyone with a sufficiently fine aesthetic sense cannot but fail to be captivated by reading tanka poems, learning about the tea ceremony, contemplating a rock garden or looking at ukiyo-e prints. What is more, as one learns more about Japan, one comes to realize that the aesthetic sensibilities underpinning all of these traditional aspects of the nation's culture survive into the present, and that they permeate life in modern Japan in a great many ways, from the way presents are wrapped in gift shops to the design of electronic goods made for export. Gaining a deeper understanding of Japan's history, language and culture can be a highly rewarding experience.
Unfortunately, as I've discovered, not everyone who claims to be an admirer of Japanese culture turns out to be interested in any but the most childish and facile aspects of said culture: on the contrary, what I've found is that the great majority of western "Japanophiles" happen to be immature idiots obsessed with anime and J-Pop in their least ambitious forms: Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, Morning Musume, AKB48, etc., and it is precisely these sorts of people - aka "weeaboos" - who constitute the targets of the video below.
In the course of the last week, I have learnt of the deaths of two men whose work I greatly admired, first Apple founder Steve Jobs, and today, C and Unix creator Dennis Ritchie. The death of Steve Jobs had a particularly strong effect on me, and in truth I'd spent much of the last week struggling to put together the necessary words to articulate precisely why I should have been so aggrieved by the death of a man who I had never even met, particularly as I have never been a blind admirer of all things Apple, and fully recognize that Jobs was as flawed a human being as any other, and not a particularly likable one at that, at least until his initial ouster in 1985.
I still intend to say a few words about what exactly Steve Jobs meant to me, but in the meantime I'd like to share something by another person who died before his time, and who I considered a personal hero growing up, the man who introduced me to the beauty of science, and the sheer strangeness and magnificence of this universe in which we reside. I am speaking, of course, of Carl Sagan.
I find that Sagan's words here help lend perspective to the deaths of any individuals, however much I might have looked up to them or admired their contributions: the fact of the matter is that any individual life is but an instant in the grand scheme of things, and as much as the passing of particular persons may affect us, this little rock we inhabit will keep on turning for hundreds of millions of years yet, just as it has for the 4.5 billion years it did before we came along. This perhaps may seem like cold comfort to some, but I find it oddly reassuring: from dust we came, and to dust we shall return ...
PS: As an aside, I'd like to mention that I did eventually get to meet Carl Sagan shortly before his untimely death in 1996: he'd happened to come to Dartmouth to give a talk back, and afterwards I went up to ask for his autograph, which he provided on the back of a copy of a paper on the history of group representations which I'd brought with me. I remember Sagan saying making a joking comment about the paper, but what exactly the comment was or why I found it funny I can no longer recall; what struck me most at the time was being surprised at just how tall Carl Sagan was, and how lucky I was to actually be meeting in the flesh the very man whose "Cosmos" ignited my fascination with science as a child. In as far as there are no doubt very many people out there upon whom Carl Sagan had an effect, it simply isn't true that "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones" - at least not in this case.
Commenting at length about the ephemera of popular culture isn't really what I have in mind to write about on here, but on this occasion I must make an exception, as Nathan Heller does such a superb job of explaining what it is I can't stand about Stefani Germanotta's "Lady Gaga" persona. Some choice excerpts:
Here's a funny thing: as much as I enjoy taking photographs, so much so that I don't mind taking on all sorts of inconveniences to get the shots I want, I've never really been able to muster much enthusiasm about actually promoting my work once it's done. Rationally speaking, I understand the absurdity of this - I do want the pictures to be seen as widely as possible, and yet I operate as if I expect the work to promote itself - but what is interesting (from a psychological perspective, at least) is that understanding the irrationality of my behavior does nothing to overcome the inertia which precipitates it.
At any rate, on this occasion I'm not going to let my torpor win out, as I think the pictures I obtained this time around are some of the very best I've ever taken (slideshow here). Hopefully you'll agree.
As you may be aware, the last two days have seen serious bouts of rioting occur in various parts of London. The instigation for the rioting was the shooting to death of a certain Mark Duggan, whose questionable acquaintances in life, and alleged behavior towards the police before being shot, certainly make him seem a less than entirely sympathetic victim. Even if Mark Duggan were the angelic figure that circumstances indicate he was far from being, it is also impossible to accept that the appropriate response to even the most unjustifiable shooting is to engage in large-scale looting, arson, stone-throwing and other acts of mayhem under the guise of expressing one's anger at the police.
The riots of the last two days cannot and should not be excused, and those who participated in them should be held accountable for their actions, but here's the thing: despite the utter wrong-headedness of the rioters' deeds, and the dubious character of the individual in whose name they've gone about their lawlessness, there is in fact a germ of justification for their hostility towards the London Metropolitan Police, a justification which goes well beyond the death in an alleged firefight - and here I stress the word "alleged" - of one man with shady friends. The fact is that the London Metropolitan Police has a history of biased and heavy-handed policing which presumes guilt if you happen to be the wrong skin color, regardless of however much the evidence might be in your favor.
How many words do you know? Take this test and you'll receive an estimate, the value of which will be directly proportional to how honest you're willing to be with yourself about the limits of your knowledge ...
My own results are visible here - not surprising in the least, and certainly a decent indicator that the test isn't entirely without merit. Still, there's a legitimate question as to whether the percentile estimates provided with the test results really are on the mark, as the discussion here makes clear. I imagine most of the survey respondents would actually rank in the top 30% or so of the general population, vocabulary-wise.
Issues of ranking aside, I think that the primary point to take away from this test is just how vital reading - and, to be specific, reading "high literature" - is to vocabulary acquisition. Most of the rarer and more obscure words are of the sort one would never be exposed to in a verbal or everyday literary context, and my experience is that much the same sort of thing is true in other languages, including German and Japanese. To illustrate, although I am able to handle German TV shows and newspaper articles just fine, I find my assumptions of fluency completely undermined by reading Thomas Mann's "Der Zauberberg", whose pages I cannot manage to get through without frequent consultation of a dictionary.
PS: I've actually touched on this language/vocabulary issue before - 5 years ago, in fact ...
As is obvious to everyone by now, much of the Western world suffered from a real-estate bubble over the last decade, and the consequences of the bursting of said bubble are still with us today in the form of low-growth; it isn't out of the question that the malaise of slow-growth which accompanied the bursting of Japan's bubble at the end of the 1980s might also now plague much of the West for a long-time going forward, especially given the need to reduce public debt. Still, for all of the above, the problems in Europe and America seem readily manageable when compared with the scale of the bubble that has arisen in China, as Nourel Roubini explains.
China's real-estate bubble can seem like an abstract problem of economic theory when put across in polite conversation as in the video above, but the following video should bring home just how massive the misallocation of resources has been.
The Chinese government may hold vast quantities of foreign reserves, but given the scale of bad debt which is building up within the country, and the lack of political legitimacy of the government which has allowed it to happen, even $2.5 trillion will likely prove insufficient to staunch the upsurge of discontent which will occur when this bubble bursts - and burst it will, as they always do.
No one who has read this blog over the years can accuse me of having closed my eyes to the problems which have accompanied large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe, but there's a clear divide between taking sensible measures to contain a problem before it gets out of hand and pandering to the rawest prejudice - a line which Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party have marched right past.
Under current law the third generation children of immigrants in Holland are classified as Dutch, in terms of government statistics and entitlements, as long as both their parents were born there.
But the anti-Muslim Freedom Party is concerned that by treating the grandchildren of immigrants as Dutch, 80 per cent of whom are under 10 years old, it will stop being possible to measure their integration.
One of the axioms of modern political journalism is that anything that encourages greater participation in the political process is a good idea by definition, and any measure which permits marginalized voices to be heard with greater force is by necessity a positive thing. Left unchallenged is the assumption that all voices are indeed worth hearing, however stupid, extreme or uninformed, and that allowing the indifferent, the insane and the ignorant to speak will not simply end up with them drowning out the voices of those with more knowledge and better judgment. The thinking seems to be that since history teaches us that outright dictatorship is bad, more participation is always better, and if only we could properly divine the true "will of the people", all problems in political life would quickly melt away.
A year ago, I decided to take a lengthy hiatus from blogging. Several reasons lay behind this decision - e.g. the drudgery of dealing with spammers, the decline in meaningful feedback caused by implementing countermeasures against trolls, etc. - but the primary motivation for taking a break from writing was something else altogether: a desire to re-evaluate what exactly I should be writing, and why I should be writing it.
The year-long break has provided plenty of time to reflect on these matters, and the conclusion I've come to is one I think I'll be able to live with in the long term. Formerly I'd written with one eye on general accessibility, but from now on what I write will be for the satisfaction of one person alone: myself. This has never been a widely-read blog even at its most popular, and I lack the necessary inclination required to try to make it one, so the only way the blog's continued existence can be justified is that I should be able to feel some satisfaction about the quality of what I've written, whether or not it has an audience. I will no longer make any concessions whatsoever to a broader readership, and if that means my obscure vocabulary and abstruse subject matter drive my already minuscule audience to zero, so be it.