Thursday, June 30, 2005

the wolf, the serpent, the dove

I've been brushing up on my Hume. Seems to me he's right and wrong at the same time, about human nature:

There is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent.

Let these generous elements be supposed ever so weak; let them be insufficient to move even a hand or finger of our body; they must still direct the determinations of our mind, and where everything else is equal, produce a cool preference of what is useful and serviceable to mankind, above what is pernicious and dangerous.

Hm. See? His conclusion is a bit too sunny, isn't it? I think I've located the problem in the phrase "where everything else is equal." The problem is, of course, that it never is. There are always mitigating circumstances: Wotan would love to uphold and defend his wife's honor, but he also needs to approve of Siegmund and Sieglinde's love. (It's a testament, by the way, to the power of Wagner's gifts that by the time the twins do fall in love, we're not repelled.) He'd love to send them on their merry way, to bring about the new order, but that nagging thing about honor and oath (and his retaining of his own power thereby) keeps getting in the way.

Pop stars might be moved to record a song to raise money for poverty-stricken Africa; listening, you might be moved to donate. But that money will in fact line the pockets of bureaucrats while millions starve, and the little food it does buy is destined to rot in ships.

But Hume does have it right in some way: when presented with the choice as it appears on paper, we very often do choose right. This was Peter Singer's motive for asking not about the child in the charity newsletter but a child standing right there at your computer as you read this, starving within a minute of death. Surely you'd help, right? Well, that kid in the newsletter is that child.

This is where we come in — not you and I but we. I may not be moving a hand or finger of my body to help the world's poor, but America can, by collecting a few cents more every year. Jeff Sachs, of the UN committee on ending poverty, has shown us that we can in fact bring the one billion people in life-threatening poverty (defined as those trying to survive on less than a dollar a day) out of that poverty by the year 2025. It's actually a modest goal. We're not talking about getting them cellphones or three changes of clothes; we're just talking about taking them out of that life-threatening situation.

He's shown that it has less to do with greedy governments and lazy people than with historical accident and geographical fortune, and how that fortune can be combatted with well-placed medical missions and agricultural aid. Kenya, for instance, could permanently rise from poverty in just a decade with one and a half billion a year.

Paul Allen could accomplish that by himself, and still be a billionaire when it's done. But the world's developed countries could chip in and do it for just a few extra bucks here and there. If it were appropriated by Congress, who would complain? Certainly not conservatives, who, like Bush, would greatly desire to see a fragile democracy like Kenya enter the world market and, enriching, enrich. Certainly not liberals, who keep talking about how bad poverty is but rarely seem to take an action that doesn't help prolong it.

Do the wolf and the serpent have anything to fear from the dove? We shall see.

Monday, June 27, 2005

could there be a connection?

From an article by Michael Specter:

AIDS is not a subject that people talk about much in Russia. Even though the epidemic is spreading here more rapidly than anywhere else in the world, there are virtually no public-service ads on television about it, and the government spends next to nothing on prevention, treatment, education, or care.

Hmmm. That's one for the connect-the-dots department, eh?

Thursday, June 9, 2005

life and living

My friend Mark Cole just wrote a nice mini-bio of Richard Halliburton. Some highlights:

The world is still worth seeing. It was worth seeing in the last century when Halliburton lived, and will be worth seeing next century as well, because nothing, not technology, not urbanization, not the internet, not jet airplanes, can quell the fascinating saga of human beings, of people, of cultures and civilizations, the ongoing conversation of past, present, future.

But the deeper and more universally applicable point is this: life is worth living. Travel may not be your deal. Fair enough. Travel is just one aspect of a life well-lived. The point is for you to determine what you find beautiful, joyous, romantic, inspiring. And then start doing more of that and less of the other stuff.

What turns you on, excites and energizes you? What is it that keeps you from degenerating into a gray mass of nothing? What will stop you from squandering tomorrow? ...

Some day, you are going to die. You can't change that. But before you die, you might as well live.

Thanks, Mark. Those last paragraphs are worthy of Halliburton himself. I'm going to have to go back and drink again from The Royal Road to Romance and The Flying Carpet.

quantifying swing

Why is swing so slippery? Try to quantify the swing beat, and you'll always come up short.

The easiest way to get swing wrong is to treat it as a dotted rhythm. Dump-dee-dump-dee-dump-de-dump. This is easy because the English and Irish and Scottish music relies on the lilt of the dotted rhythm, so that if you're not careful you just end up there, the way that a lot of non-jazz musicians do. Henry Mancini's music did that a lot in the 60s. Or think of the theme from The Odd Couple, with its loping harpsichord and de-dip-de-dip-de-deee melody. Not to say that it wasn't pleasurable. It just didn't swing.

Jazz charts are notated with the swing beat implied. If you didn't know better you'd just play the rhythms with straight eighths, as if it were by JS Bach. But the jazz player knows that although the eighth notes are written straight, the paper is wavy. Think of Duke Ellington's music, with its hard swinging rhythms. How would you notate those? If straight eighths divide a beat 50-50, and a dotted rhythm divides it 66.6666-33.3333, then Ellington's swing is around a 60-40. So is Benny Goodman's. Maybe even more than that. Then you've got Tony Williams, who at 18 was swinging with Miles Davis, but he was swinging at about 55-45 most of the time. Of course, Miles didn't really swing that hard — he was the avatar of "cool jazz" during his most fertile period.

But merely talking about how the beat is divided sort of misses the point, too. Computers make this easy to see. Just key in a solo, played straight, into a music performance software like Vision or Performer or Cakewalk, then use the Quantize feature. Very handy: it shuffles the notes in line to wherever you want them, even if you played sloppily. So, you can either quantize your performance so it sits all straight like a white picket fence (this is what makes electronic music sound so electronic), or you can get into the options menu and tell it to quantize to 66-34 or 60-40 or 55-45. (Michael Jackson's Black or White used this feature on all its electronic instruments, at a swing of 55-45. That's what gives it that refreshing New Jack-ish feel.) Take your solo, quantize it to swing, and see how it comes out.

It will be technically swingy, but it won't swing. In order to get it to swing, you have to swing when you play it to begin with. There's something about the way that the notes are stressed within the measure, and the way that the rhythm hangs, perhaps a bit unevenly, that's really hard to get right if you're trying to explain it. You just have to feel it. The best map I can give you is the one Jorge Luis Borges had in his remarkable empire where cartography was so advanced that maps were exactly the same size as the areas they described.

That is, listen. Listen to all the jazz you can get your hands on, and soon the concept will emerge, whole, in your mind. Of course, by that time, you'll be thinking about other things, like the pungent Davis tone, or Duke Ellington's lavish sound, wide as a 55 Cadillac, or the dry perfection of Wayne Shorter's annus mirabilis, 1964, in which he released three seminal albums one right after the other.

We're lucky, lucky people.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

skin care

Why do I like Clinique products so much? I always find myself going back to them. A few months back I was looking for a good facial cleanser, because the Clinique 3-step system only had bar soap, which I dislike. So I got hold of the Chanel Précision Radiance cleansing gel. It doesn't foam; it just gels around on your face. But it's clean and nice and not too fragrant, and does the job admirably, so I used it along with the Clinique stuff.

There's something different, though, about the Clinique line. Part of it is the fragrance. It's technically unscented, but there's a crisp clean fragrance to it that gives the illusion of blankness. It just smells blank and clean, and that's exactly the texture it leaves on your face — not greasy or lotiony but not dried out, either.

Of course, the men's line has all sorts of amusing workarounds that are nakedly geared toward men's insecurities about using such products. The clear tubes and bottles of pale yellow or white cream, which help to brand Clinique with blankness, are traded in for a manly dark grey. And, although the products are precisely the same stuff, the "clarifying lotion," which is in fact not lotion but an alcoholly chemical exfoliant that you apply with cotton, is renamed "scruffing lotion." Scruffing lotion! I feel so manly using that scruffy Scruffing lotion. They must have figured we men would rather be scruffed than clarified. Honestly, who do they think they're dealing with? The type of men who are going to buy and use Clinique products don't care. To the extent that they care at all, they're a bit put off by this rather insulting stereotype.

It's like when the Robert Altman movie Prêt-à-Porter got released in the U.S. as Ready To Wear. The only people who were going to see the movie anyway were the sort who'd use the real phrase prêt-à-porter. Did they think that, suddenly, Teamsters and Spurs fans who would never see some pansy French-named movie would flock to see Ready To Wear?

At any rate, I'm almost through with the Chanel stuff, which, though usable, is quite expensive, and still not ideal. So I'm glad I recently discovered some other Clinique products that will do quite nicely, though they're not officially part of the 3-step system either: the "comforting" cream cleanser and the rinse-off foaming cleanser. Both have the classic Clinique unsmell and the classic texture, and both leave the face feeling clean rather than cleansed.

If Kiehl's makes your skin feel like the Mauritania, and Chanel makes it feel like the Waldorf-Astoria, then Clinique makes it feel like the old Guggenheim: spare, modern, nothing-but-itself.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

harvard, science, and law

Ever wonder why Harvard produces so many great lawyers and so few great scientists? There's an excellent reason for both.

Saturday, June 4, 2005

all this time

People used to mockingly ask the efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, who did so much to streamline factory and office work in the 20th century, and who is lampooned in the opening scenes of The Pajama Game, "What are we supposed to do with all this 'time' we'll be saving?" He gave a straight answer: "Fishing, woodworking, volunteering at a hospital, sailing — whatever you want to do."

Of course, we now know the real answer. The relentless market insists that what you will be doing is working more and more. We have an incredible array of labor-saving devices, from factory-floor robots to Microsoft Word, and yet instead of working less we work more, so that we can have a lifestyle that would have made our great-grandparents' jaws drop. Your company demands that the extra productivity go to itself. You will be spending that time at the office.

Unless, of course, you guard it with your life. Guard it, with your life.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

the final star wars reviewed

I finally actually saw Star Wars today, no fooling. I was a bit surprised at how many people were fooled when I was fooling. (How could anyone have seriously thought I'd speak so highly of Episode III? Hitchhiker's Guide was a delight from beginning to end, and you must see it, if only for a study in contrasts.)

So, what's the verdict, you ask? Well, you won't be surprised. Its corniest and awfullest moments are right up there with the corniest and awfullest of the series, and its better ones are right up there with the better ones.

The music, of course, is quite competent. But I was hoping for something better, this being, after all, the culmination of all those themes that have been roiling around for 30 years now. Having said that, the final scenes, with theme after theme presented, calling back our memories and our knowledge of what is to come, made me smile with pleasure. The best musical moment is in the credits right after it goes to black, with the most transcendent version of Leia's theme we've heard yet. It's the most searingly beautiful melody in the series, and it sounds just magnificent here. We have Eddie Karam to thank for that. (Karam is Williams' orchestrator. Unlike classical composers, Hollywood composers have specialists who decide how many trumpets to use and how to combine the strings with the percussion and all that.)

It appears that although Lucas no longer seems to know why we go to the movies, Williams still does, and so does Portman. She stands at the window and wells up into a sob, and not even George Lucas, enemy of all emotional truth, can make it look wrong. It's a nice moment. The other nice moments all occur when there's no script to get in the way: a dashing fight scene on a volcanic planet, a jaw-droppingly beautiful space battle in the opening scene, the satisfying dark gleam of Vader's black helmet.

Go see it when you can pay the least and still get it on big screen and big speakers where its few virtues are magnified.