Jacqueline du Pré

Jacqueline du PréOn this day in 1945, the great cellist Jacqueline du Pré was born. In her lifetime, she was hugely popular. And as is usual with classical music stars, that also meant that she was just ridiculously good. There is quite a lot of her work online. You could do worse than spend the evening listening to her. From my standpoint, she was rather too interested in the Romantic period. Just the same, her intense style fits the period well.

She had a tragic life. She only performed up the age of 28 — and her last recording was at the age of 26. At that time, she started to lose sensitivity in her fingers. In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She lived another 14 years, but without being able to play. That’s not just publicly; she couldn’t play at all. That strikes me as a kind of hell on earth — to have such an intimate relationship with an instrument and yet be estranged from it. If there is a god, she is evil and certainly not worthy of worship.

Here is du Pré playing Brahms’ Cello Sonata Op 99 with her husband on piano. I had to put it together in a playlist, because there isn’t a single video. But it cuts at the right time. It is very good. You should listen to it:

Happy birthday Jacqueline du Pré!

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On Scheduled Postings and OCD

Tired WorkerIt’s a curious thing. I’ve been away for a couple of days working very hard on a project of theoretical remunerative value to my life. But before I left, I wrote some fourteen articles and scheduled them. And it is strange to see the site work on autopilot in that way. It seems less authentic, somehow. But I figure that must just be from my perspective. It ought to look more or less the same from the outside. The only thing I can think is that I probably pick less interesting subjects when I am doing the writing in clumps. But maybe not.

The reason there were only four posts yesterday is because I had planned to be home by around 5:00 last night. Instead, it was closer to 11:00. And I was far too tired to write anything, having been lost in the world of Android development and the OEM Preinstallation Kit — trust me, you really don’t want to know, although I am planning on writing something about it tomorrow over at the Dirt Cheap Computers blog. It just goes to show, you should always over-cram when going away, because you never know.

There is another reason, however. The truth is that it is kind of upsetting to the blogging rhythm to not do it for a couple of days. When I got home, I immediately broke into panic mode: what am I going to write?! In many ways, doing the computer work was kind of a vacation. It’s like housecleaning: so concrete. You know when you’re done. With blogging, you are never done; you are only temporarily caught up. I could be a year ahead and I’d still worry. And I can’t even image what it would be like to come back to that. It would probably make me just stop. (Feel free to make a comment, but take note of who’s reading whom.)

So I’m not clear whether the writing from the last couple of days isn’t better than the writing of today. For example, the article about the maps on The Nightly Show seemed a little thin to me. Usually, I manage to have a bit more to say about a single idea. Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government seems like an argument I’ve made many times before. And of course, this exhausted article is just a bit of a ramble, interesting only to people who care about my life (now numbering zero if you include me) and maybe some people who are interested in the mechanics of running a blog with a semi-rigid publication schedule when you have absolutely no help.

People tell me that I have OCD. And there is no doubt that I do have some symptoms. My favorite is that I can’t stop thinking about jamming my fingers in the cuisinart or having my fingers slammed in a door. But I think we over-analyze ourselves and I would certainly come down on the light side of OCD (although admittedly, right now I cannot stop picturing my fingers slammed in a door jam). Still, it could be that the publication schedule here is a sign of whatever OCD I have. In my defense, if I had it bad, I would have posted something last night to make the five article quota. But the whole thing does seem more compulsion than commitment.

At this late hour, I do feel like I’m back in the swing of things. The problem is that it looks like I will have to go away tomorrow for a couple more days. So normally, you’d be reading about some film (I have a couple of those in the works), but I’ll schedule them for while I’m away. But I probably won’t have time to cram very much, so I will either have to carve out some time for posts, or just fall down on my commitment. We shall see.

Afterword

You can usually tell what I write in real time: it will have only a one in sixty chance of being posted at five past the hour. If it is schedule, it will have a one in one chance of being posted at five past the hour. Why five past the hour? I don’t know. But until there is a good reason to change it (And why would there be?) it will remain that way.

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How to Approach Death

Umberto EcoRecently a pensive disciple of mine (a certain Criton[1]) asked me: “Master, how can we best approach death?” I replied that the only way to prepare for death is to convince yourself that everyone else is a complete idiot.

Seeing Criton’s amazement, I explained. You see, I told him, how can you approach death, even if you are a believer, if you think that, as you lay dying, desirable young people of both sexes are dancing in discos and having the time of their lives, enlightened scientists are revealing the last secrets of the universe, incorruptible politicians are creating a better society, newspapers and television are bent on giving only important news, responsible business people are ensuring that their products will not damage the environment and doing their utmost to restore a nature in which there are streams with drinkable water, wooded hillside, clear, serene skies protected by a providential ozone layer, and fluffy clouds from which sweet rain falls once more? The thought that you must leave while all these marvelous things are going on would be intolerable.

So try to think, when you sense the time has come for your departure from this vale, that the world (six billion beings) is full of idiots, that the dancers at the disco are all idiots, the scientists who think they have solved the mysteries of the universe are idiots, the politicians who propose panaceas for all our ills are idiots, the journalists who fill page after page with vacuous gossip are idiots, and the manufacturers who are destroying the planet are idiots. In that moment, would you not be happy, relieved, and satisfied to leave this vale of idiots?

And then Criton asked me, “Master, when must I start thinking like this?” I told him that one mustn’t start too soon, because a person of twenty or thirty years of age who thinks that everyone else is an idiot is an idiot himself who will never attain wisdom. We should begin by thinking that all the others are better than us and then shift bit by bit, having our first doubts around forty, revising our opinions between fifty and sixty, and attaining certainty as we aim for one hundred, ready to call it quits just as soon as the telegram containing the summons arrives. Convincing ourselves that everyone around us is an idiot is a subtle, shrewd art, not at the disposal of the first Cebes to come along with a ring in his ear (or nose). It requires study and toil. You mustn’t go at it too quickly. You must get there gradually, just in time to die with serenity. Right up to the day before, you must still think that someone you love and admire is not an idiot. Wisdom consists in recognizing only at the right moment (and not before) that he too is an idiot. Only then can you die.

The great art lies in studying universal thought a bit at a time; scrutinizing changes in customs; monitoring the mass media day by day, the statements of self-assured artists, the apothegms of politicians who shoot their mouths off, the philosophemes of apocalyptic critics, the aphorisms of charismatic heroes; studying theories, propositions, appeals, images, and visions. Only then, in the end, will you experience the insight that everyone is an idiot. And at that point, you are ready for death.

Util the end, you must doggedly insist that some people say sensible things, that a certain book is better than others, that a certain leader really desires the common good. It’s natural, human, and proper to our species to resist the idea that all people are idiots, otherwise why go on living? But at the end, you will understand why it is worth the effort and how it can be a splendid thing to die.

Then Crito said to me: “Master, I wouldn’t like to make hasty decisions, but I suspect that you are an idiot.” See, I replied, you are already on the right track.

—Umberto Eco
Quoted in “On the Disadvantage and Advantage of Death”
In Turning Back the Clock


[1] The two names mentioned — Crito and Cebes — refer to Crito, a dialog where Crito argues for Socrates to let him buy his teacher’s freedom.

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Republicans Are Not for Smaller Government

Joni ErnstThe fact that Joni Ernst is a disingenuous fraud is not news. Many people have reported on her folksy lines in the response to the State of the Union speech. I think Michael Hiltzik dealt with it the best, Senator Joni Ernst Learned to “Live Within Her Means” — on the Taxpayer’s Dime. It’s not just that one speech, however. Her whole political career has been based on the cliche of growing up on a hard working family farm when times were tough. This is nonsense, of course. Ernst was born in 1970 — not 1920. This is a period when farm subsidies were good (as they continue to be). So it is no surprise that from 1995 to 2009 (the only period during which we have data), her extended family received almost a half million dollars of that sweet, sweet government welfare.

In this way, Ernst is entirely typical of her party. It is amazing to me that Republicans manage to get any traction at all by claiming that Democrats are divisive and wage “class war.” The Republican Party is committed to taking money away from the truly needy in the name of teaching them to “live within their means.” But they want to hold firm or even increase handouts for the affluent. And no, this is not just the reverse of the Democrats. The Democratic Party does have its targets, but they are mostly inefficiencies in expensive programs. As I’ve noted many times before, the programs that Republicans want to cut are almost exclusively ones that don’t cost that much money, because we are already fairly stingy when it comes to the poor and it doesn’t cost much to help them to begin with.

This highlights perhaps the most pernicious lie in American politics: conservatives want smaller government and liberals want bigger government. Leave aside the fact that Democrats really don’t care about the size of government — they simply want effective government. Do conservatives really want smaller government? Maybe in theory. They like the idea of getting government off the metaphorical back of Americans. But what they really mean is that they don’t want the government to get in the way of the rich doing anything that they want. If we passed a law saying that anyone who made more a $100,000 a year was immune to all government regulations (including taxes), the Republicans would have no platform except for a smattering of issues designed only to make the lives of the poor worse.

From a practical standpoint, Republicans have been the biggest spendthrifts of them all. That isn’t surprising, for as I noted, the things that the Republicans want to spend more money on are really expensive. This is why the deficit only gets bigger under Republicans (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) and only ever gets smaller under Democrats (Carter, Clinton, Obama). I may be against deficit and debt obsession, but most Americans are not. And Republicans claim to care about debt and deficits, but all they really care about is cutting aid to the poor and middle classes. And as for taxes, check out, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest.

What’s amazing is that people like Joni Ernst are allowed to go around talking about how we have to cut food stamps because the poor need a lesson about how to live within their means. She, and the whole Republican Party, should be widely mocked in the press. But apparently, our media think that “objectivity” requires respectful reporting on whatever delusions the Republicans are currently trafficking. I know if things were reversed and the Democrats were peddling nonsense in the name of helping the poor, the media would not report it respectfully.


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Anarchy on The Nightly Show

Larry WilmoreIs it the intention of Comedy Central to promote anarchy here in the United States? I’m not talking about revolutionary comedy or contrarian views. I’m talking about something important. I’m talking about map madness.

Thursday on The Nightly Show, Larry Wilmore focused on Cuba. As a result, there were two countries that had themselves displayed in map form. I’m not going to say anything. Just see if you notice anything that doesn’t make sense. You need to take the wide view, however.

First is Cuba, of course:

Nightly Show - Cuba

And next is China:

Nightly Show - China

One reason I liked The Nightly Show immediately was the south side up map that Wilmore has behind him. I like maps. I like how they distort reality. So it is nice to be reminded with different projections and different orientations. But if you are going to have a south side up map in back of you, you had damned well better have other maps similarly oriented. Both Cuba and China are presented north side up.

What the show is doing is not reminding us of our geographical delusions. Instead, it is creating anarchy!

Afterword

If the show wanted to present maps in random orientations as if to say, “There is no up,” I would not have a problem with that. There is a difference between introducing chaos because the world is chaotic and maps are liars, and just making stuff up. But mostly, I just think that if you are going to play with people’s perspectives, you should really do it. Not that I’m serious about this. And The Nightly Show continues to show great promise.

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Virginia Woolf

Virginia WoolfOn this day in 1882, the great writer Virginia Woolf was born. Last year, I read her most famous novel, To the Lighthouse. I wrote at the time, “The language is quite beautiful — much of it as exact as poetry.” That’s about the highest praise that I can give to a writer. Of course, I also wrote, “It’s like beneath the words, Woolf is whispering to the reader, ‘Soon you will die and all you will have to show for it is the fun you had along the way. And you aren’t having much fun, are you?’”

It’s surprising that Woolf isn’t more of an icon of literature. There seem to have only been three writers of the 20th century who were especially brilliant when it came to the raw technique of writing: Woolf, Stein, and Joyce. I know a lot of people love Woolf and Stein, but it is only Joyce who is truly a star. The contrast of Woolf and Stein is a good one. They are so different, their marginalization cannot be a coincidence. It’s sexism.

Woolf, of course, struggled with depression her whole life. And her eventual suicide would be romantic if it weren’t so tragic, and if I didn’t have a pretty good idea of just how violent it probably eventually was. As Stevie Smith noted, having suicide as an option is a great blessing because we know that we can end whatever pain we are in. So it isn’t surprising that some people choose the option, and I am not going to second guess them. But it is always sad.

Happy birthday Virginia Woolf!

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Is Homer Simpson Bi-Curious?

Humanity's Achievements

This is a screen capture from a recent episode of The Simpsons, “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner.” It’s a good example of the density of the comedy that the show produces. In the episode, Homer is explaining to aliens on another world the great achievements of humanity. This image is only on the screen for a couple of seconds. And if I hadn’t paused it, I would have missed the best joke in it. The one joke that everyone gets is, “Free Refills” and “Did I mention ‘Free Refills’?” It’s so Homer! And so is the utter laziness of “Pre-mixed Peanut Butter and Jelly.”

I’m not quite sure how to take “Ringo Starr’s All Star Band.” I assume that it is a reference to the fact that Ringo Starr is embarrassingly bad. He really has no talent and never has had any talent. He did, however, star as himself in an episode in the second season, “Brush with Greatness.” But this had to do with a teenage crush of Marge, and nothing to do with Homer.

“Instant Replay in MLB” is very silly. I think it may well kill the game. I’m not a sports fan, but I like the snark on the issue.

What I didn’t notice at all was the fourth item, “Grindr.” I had no idea what it was, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, “Grindr is a geosocial networking application geared towards gay, bisexual, and bi-curious men.” I’m sure the writers just loved that one! It’s so great to throw in the middle of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. And the idea of Homer being bi-curious is funny as hell.

The Simpsons still has an unbelievable amount of vitality even 26 years on. It really is amazing.

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When “Responsibility” Is Irresponsible

Paul KrugmanThe terrible thing is that Europe’s economy was wrecked in the name of responsibility. True, there have been times when being tough meant reducing deficits and resisting the temptation to print money. In a depressed economy, however, a balanced-budget fetish and a hard-money obsession are deeply irresponsible. Not only do they hurt the economy in the short run, they can — and in Europe, have — inflict long-run harm, damaging the economy’s potential and driving it into a deflationary trap that’s very hard to escape.

Nor was this an innocent mistake. The thing that strikes me about Europe’s archons of austerity, its doyens of deflation, is their self-indulgence. They felt comfortable, emotionally and politically, demanding sacrifice (from other people) at a time when the world needed more spending. They were all too eager to ignore the evidence that they were wrong.

And Europe will be paying the price for their self-indulgence for years, perhaps decades, to come.

—Paul Krugman
Much Too Responsible

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A Vague Sentence in Unhitched

Unhitched - Richard SeymourEarlier this month, I published a brief except from Richard Seymour’s Unhitched. It was about how one of Christopher Hitchens’ primary complaints against religion was how it was used to oppress women. But Hitchens himself was a complete sexist who wasn’t keen on women’s rights. It didn’t seem controversial. Hitchens’ sexism and anti-choice beliefs were very well know. As usual, Hitchens was never shy about sharing his views on such objective topics as the lack of funny women. But a couple of days ago, I got an email from someone asking if I had a reference to what Seymour had referenced. And then soon after, I got the another email (emphasis in original):

I found it in a 1989 issue of The Nation and the argument is 100% the opposite of what Mr. Seymour asserts. Perhaps more research should be done before excerpting the works of someone who either has not read the originals, or has and has decided to fabricate an argument out of misused quotes.

Before getting to the meat of the issue here, this is clearly an extremely silly (yet angry) person. Assuming that an error was found, that hardly counters the point at hand. Basically, all Seymour is saying is that Hitchens was a sexist with anti-choice views. this is true. What’s the big deal here? So I dived into the quote and realized that the problem must stem from the following sentence:

He also had a record of opposing certain reproductive rights for women, suggesting that society should “claim a right and an interest” in the fate of the unborn child and therefore might limit abortion access to any woman who “is the victim of rape or incest, or if her mental or physical health is threatened” as part of a “historic compromise” offering in return a health service with free contraception and an adoption service.

My email person clearly misunderstood this sentence. It is an entirely reasonable mistake. I have found Seymour to be a rather unclear writer. So I pointed out that the problem was Seymour’s use of the word “any” when he should have used “only.” With “any,” it is possible to read the sentence as meaning that Hitchens was against a rape/life-of-the-mother exception (which is untrue) or that those were the only exceptions that was in favor of (which is true). With “only,” the sentence is clear and correct.

I pointed this out to my email person, who responded, “Garbage.” I wasn’t expecting anything better. Hitchens, more than anyone in the New Atheist movement other than maybe Sam Harris, has extremely protective fans. It’s actually funny. One sees the same thing with Ayn Rand fans. So these people who don’t believe in God tend to deify these secular heroes. Hitchens can’t be a deeply flawed but brilliant writer. He has to be perfect and thus people like Richard Seymour must be destroyed — regardless of what assumptions they must make about an awkward sentence.

Still, the point of this article is to highlight the interesting ambiguity of the sentence, not the silliness of a true believing subgeniuses. And I do think it is fascinating that a single synonym change can make all the difference in the world in the meaning of a sentence. It is also terrifying. What it means is that we could all use a great editor. And as in the case with my email person, understanding is largely dependent upon the goodwill of the reader.

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John Belushi

John BelushiOn this day in 1949, the great comedic actor John Belushi was born. He was a very subtle performer, even if his characters were not necessarily. He’s probably best known for his character of Bluto in Animal House. There is also his work on Saturday Night Live. Good luck finding that on the internet. The first season was 40 years ago. It is cliched, but still true, to note that society has sped up. A performer or writer can make a fortune in a single day. Yet our copyright system gets slower and slower. Belushi’s SNL material won’t be in the public domain in my lifetime, even though it should have been at least 20 years ago.

It’s not surprising that Belushi died so young. He was out of control, like most people would have been at his age with his fame. It is sad that people focus so much on his death, however. As if that’s what defines his life. I read Bob Woodward’s pathetic biography, Wired. Belushi’s life should not be viewed through the prism of his death. And all his work should now be in the public domain. Just saying.

Well, here’s a video clip:

Happy birthday John Belushi!

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