Flutes and Fashions

Flute: Inline and Offset G KeysWhen I was younger, I played the flute as seriously as I did anything else. I gave up when my flute teacher began pressuring me to (a) buy a $2,000 flute, and (b) start running every day. It was the second of these that was probably the deal breaker. I was very keen on having a better flute. I had been struggling with a student model for years. In particular, my flute did not play very well in tune. It required constant adjustments in my embouchure. I was certain that a better flute would help. At this point, I have no idea if I was right.

As I recall it, there were really two primary differences between a student and a professional flute. The first is that the student flute has an offset G key and the professional has an inline G key. That must mean that the inline G key is better, right? Well, I did a little research recently, and people no longer think this. The offset G key has a couple of advantages. First, it hangs off a separate rod, so the mechanism is stronger. Second, it is in a more normal position for the left third finger. So it is less likely to cause carpal tunnel syndrome.

Flute: Open and Closed HolesThe situation now is that most professional flutes come with offset G keys. So why did every professional flutist have an inline G key when I was playing? Fashion. I’m not sure what the history was. It could have been a very famous flutist liked them. Or it could be that the offset G innovation was first developed by someone making cheap flutes. Regardless, it wasn’t based on anything objective. It was just another example of humans following the herd.

The second difference between a student and a professional flute was that the latter had open holes. Surely the open hole flute was far superior, right? Well… I’ve always considered the open hole flute a kind of villainy of musical pedagogy. If a flute needs to have open holes, why have students learn on flutes with closed holes so they can develop lots of bad habits that they will have to break later? I suppose an argument can be made, but only if open hole flutes really are a whole lot better.

So are they? No. Jennifer Cluff, a flute instructor up in Canada, put together an excellent article on the subject, Open-Hole Flute Versus Closded Hole flute. She explained that open hole flutes don’t sound any better. It isn’t clear that they play any better in tune. And they may encourage carpal tunnel syndrome the same way that the inline G flutes do. But there is one way that open hole flutes are better:

[I]n modern times because open-holes allow more use of extended techniques and special fingerings for specific uses (tuning, harmonics, special effects.) professionals want to be ready, willing, and able to play this music.

So now open hole flutes are necessary because composers have written especially for them. Before, flutists had open hole flutes. Because it was the fashion. Now flutists must have open hole flutes because of this history. Cluff plays an open hole flute, but for normal performance, she plugs all the holes except for the F key. The F key is controlled by the right first finger, and so would be the least taxing open hole to manage.

I’m just fascinated that these aspects of flute design that were just taken to be scientific fact were just fashion all the time. It goes right along with what I talk about a lot: we are not nearly as rational as we think we are.


Jennifer Cluff is a great flutist. And she introduced me to a great Canadian composer, Srul Irving Glick. He studied with Darius Milhaud — a composer I have admired for a long time. Glick is not as charming as Milhaud, but still beautiful. Here is a rehearsal for the first movement of Glick’s “Sonata.” It is lovely. It reminds me in some ways of Poulenc but with more of a Ravel kind of harmonic sense. Give it a listen:

Free Beacon Shows Ignorance Trying for Gotcha

The Washington Free Beacon: Lying for Conservatives Since 2012!

There has been a lot of discussion of vaccines these past few days. For some reason, all the potential 2016 presidential candidates have been asked if they think that measles vaccines cause autism. For the record, they don’t. If vaccines caused autism, someone would have noticed it a very long time ago and there would be no question. But whatever.

The Republicans have not done a good job in responding to these questions. There is Chris Christie who comes off as, I don’t know, a total hypocrite when he says that parents ought to be able to do anything they want, after he quarantined a nurse for clearly political purposes. But even worse was Doctor Rand Paul. He thinks generally that vaccines are a good thing. But parents shouldn’t be forced to give them to there kids because, you know, freedom. Or rather slavery:

I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children; parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom.

The mind boggles. Paul, of course, is very much an anti-choice guy. So apparently, once a child is born, the parents own it. But before birth, the state owns it. Or it is a full citizen that must be protected. But not against measles.

But the smart people at The Washington Free Beacon thought it a good idea to protect their conservative heroes. So they launched a shot across the bow, When Hillary and Obama Gave Credence to Anti-Vaccine Theories. Back in 2008, it seems, both Clinton and Obama equivocated regarding vaccines. During his race for the White House, Obama said, “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.” At the same time, Clinton said the much less provocative, “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.”

And now they are both claiming the opposite. Obama recently said, “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable.” And Clinton tweeted:

And the conservative crowd goes wild!

But wait. There’s something different about these claims. Oh, I know: they are separated by seven years! I wonder if anything happened during those seven years that would move the thinking of a thoughtful person from “suspicious” to “indisputable”? Perhaps science? The suspicion about vaccines came from a 1998 Lancet article that linked autism to the MMR vaccine. In 2004, a major conflict of interest was discovered and most of the co-authors on the paper repudiated it. But it wasn’t until 2010 that the journal itself fully retracted it, calling it “utterly false.”

This is the way that science works. Or at least, it is the way that science is supposed to work. Obama and Clinton were acting responsibly based upon the facts that they knew. That’s not true of Chris Christie and Rand Paul. Science my change but their their opinions never will because their opinions were never based on science in the first place.

But there is something more. Remember Free Beacon quoted Obama as saying, “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it”? Well, that’s a selective quote. Via PolitiFact, here is the full quote:

We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. There are some people who are suspicious that it’s connected to vaccines and triggers, but — this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it’s very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio. And so we can’t afford to junk our vaccine system. We’ve got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we’re seeing we’re never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that’s going to be necessary.

Who would have guessed that Obama would actually have been making a nuanced point like that? It is so unlike him! Clearly, the charlatans at The Washington Free Beacon knew exactly what they were doing. It must be hard to be a conservative. You have to spend all that time apologizing for evil idiots and pretending that your enemies are different than they are.

We Need to Embrace Class

Richard WolffAs Americans, we are not supposed to talk about class. I’m sure you’ve heard feel good nonsense like, “There are no poor Americans — only soon to be rich Americans!” The idea is that anyone can grow up to be rich in America — if only they try. But the truth is that among peer countries, the United States is the most class based. If your father was poor, you’ll be poor. If your father was rich, you’ll be rich. It doesn’t matter that some poor children will become rich. As a statistical matter, people are locked into their classes in America.

Consider Shakespeare. Through his financial wisdom and his abilities as a writer, he was able to move out of the middle class and into the aristocracy. Does that mean that Elizabethan England wasn’t a class based society? According to the modern conventional wisdom in the United States it wasn’t. But that is very clearly wrong. Similarly, Daymond John doesn’t prove that we aren’t a rigidly class based society. George W Bush proves that we are. Because if we actually lived in a meritocracy, Bush wouldn’t have president; he would be living in a halfway house somewhere.

It is important that we Americans put away childish things. And the most childish thing is our delusion that we live in the land of opportunity. We don’t. The last four decades have seen the power elite manipulate how resources are distributed. And like the spoiled the children that they are, the power elite have seen fit not to share anything with the rest of us. Rats are far more humane than our human “betters.” (For the record, I’m very fond of rats.)

In the following lecture by Richard Wolff, he goes over the reasons why we need to embrace class. Basically: we need to do it because it is the only way out of this trap. Accepting the framing that there is no class is exactly what the power elite want. It stops us from even questioning the morality of people having more money than they could ever spend while other people live without sanitation. It also allows the middle class to live their whole lives in fear that they will lose their jobs. It makes for an extremely compliant workforce as well as electorate.

I know the conservative response to this. It involves how the capitalist makes everyone richer and that the capitalist is doing all this important work by moving capital around to where it is most useful. This is all fine. But there are a number of problems. The biggest one is simply what Wolff shows: the capitalists have been making themselves richer over the last four decades, but none of this has gone to the worker. So why should the worker continue on with this system? We still have a democracy, right?

Another issue not brought up in the lecture is the fact that modern institutions and technologies allow the few to benefit in ways that they never could before. For example, without the interstate highway system and container ships, Sam Walton would not have been one-tenth as rich as he was. How is it moral to allow someone to make far more money simply because of other factors that he had no part in creating? Similarly, why should an actor make millions today with movies when the same actor would have made far less in the theater of a century and a half ago, when she would have had to work far more? There is nothing “natural” about this state of things.

The point of all of this is that we need to see the class structure that we have in this country. It doesn’t matter that some people manage to move from one class to another. That doesn’t mean the classes don’t exist. If we can see the classes clearly, we can make explicit decisions about the morality of our class based system. And I believe a close look will show that we’ve long ago abandoned any semblance of morality.

Clyde Tombaugh and the Discovery of Pluto

Clyde TombaughOn this day in 1906, the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh was born. He is known for having discovered Pluto. I saw him lecture when he was in his 80s. He was a very charming guy. And the work he did was absolutely the most difficult and tedious of observational astronomy. Basically, he would take a picture of a certain part of the sky on two separate days — usually roughly a week apart. Then, he would display them overlapped — fading from one to the other. And he would note any tiny differences. That’s how Pluto was discovered.

How hard was it? Here are two photographic plates, separated by six days. The arrows indicate where Pluto is. All I can say for sure is that there is no way that I would have been able to notice this difference. It is ridiculously small:

Pluto Discovery

What’s most interesting about Tombaugh’s discovery is that it was a fluke. In the early part of the 20th century, Percival Lowell proposed that problems with Uranus’ orbit could be resolved with a ninth planet: Planet X. According to Lowell, the planet would have to be out at about 45 AU with a mass seven times that of Earth. Well, Pluto does have more or less that distance — but it is quite a lot closer these days. The bigger problem is that Pluto is really small. The initial estimate was that it was about the size of earth. But that estimate has only gone done over time. We now know it is about two-tenths of one percent the mass of the earth. It is less than 20% the mass of the moon. Eventually, it was found that the problems with Uranus’ orbit were due to an error in the mass of Neptune.

Still, Pluto is a cool bit of space debris. And until quite recently, it was the largest bit of space debris that we knew about. But in 2005, Eris was discovered. It is roughly a third more massive. And it is bizarre. But they are all the sun’s children and we love them all.

Happy birthday Clyde Tombaugh!