June 28, 2005

The wondrous powers of music   {Comments: 1}

This misguided piece by Miles Hoffman (via ALDaily) makes an impassioned plea for more consonance in contemporary classical music, apparently in the hopes that another Beethoven will suddenly arrive on the scene. But are there any pursuits today that we call art that aren't either progressing (ie modern) or looking ironically backwards (postmodern)? Only a couple paragraphs in he points out that it took 1000 years to get to the major triad, so clearly he understands the idea of innovation and progress in music. Can't he see that all the layering and harmonic ambiguity of the past few hundred years was eventually going lead to a point where the it would be impossible for some (or all) listeners to distinguish the underlying harmonic references -- and that at time the idea of harmonically atonal music would be an appropriate next step?

He brings up the Leonard Bernstein lectures in The Unanswered Question, which I probably should have included here, but which nevertheless contain some bizarre and misguided ideas of their own (in particular the embarassing forays into the then-new Chomskian universal grammar). Bernstein's lectures start off with the physics of sound (eg the harmonic series) and show how these undeniable physical properties line up with our Western system of functional tonality. The problem with this for Hoffman is that eventually the harmonic series includes all 12 tones in our scale and more, and composers were inevitably going to reach into the harmonic stratosphere for these tones and all the harmonic ambiguity that goes with them.

It might be instructive to look at jazz, where harmonically there hasn't been too much of the strictly atonal, despite the fact that much of it is completely tonally disorienting to many listeners and ends up feeling atonal. Maybe Hoffman wouldn't listen to it, but this music can still be understood by listeners because there are more formal properties to music than just harmony (rhythm being perhaps the most obvious) that serve as signposts and create meaning and feeling.

Similarly, in contemporary classical music tonal harmony might be set aside in favor of rhythmic or even textural elements that change in time to create tension and release. Composers even refer to this as a kind of expanded tonality, and in this expanded context you might say that there's really no such thing as atonal music, since music that didn't make use of some element to create tension, feeling, etc wouldn't be music at all. The fact that Hoffman can't hear these effects doesn't mean they don't exist.

For me the central point here is that while there are crucial physical properties of sound that influence us, the way we perceive this sound is largely determined by context and history. If contemporary classical music has failed as a marketable quantity or in the eyes of Miles Hoffman, it's not because the music is atonal, but rather because there hasn't been sufficient preparation in terms of building a contextual framework to help people understand where the musical part of the music is. Of course, this music does still have an audience, so there are people out there who have that framework, and that might well be good enough for composers. To the extent that someone needs to be blamed, I'd blame the popularity of other forms in America (lately the dominant cultural force in the world), institutional problems in classical music, and the critics -- always the critics! (My plea for a more descriptive and less pretentious music criticism is here.)

The reasons why   {Comments: 1}

Interesting that Bush decided to quote Osama bin Laden, whom he usually refrains from mentioning at all. This has the ironic effect of acknowledging that bin Laden is still at large; and of course it demonstrates that the US is responsive to (maybe even respectful of) his actions, decrees, and general strategy, which might be seen by some as a sign of weakness. I think the political reasons for mentioning bin Laden were probably the overriding concern here, though; tying bin Laden into the Iraq war and re-recasting that conflict as part of an overarching War on Terror is clearly the best way to drum up public support (again). And of course it's nothing new -- as usual, Bush is doubling down, and I'm left feeling like we live in a sad dystopian fantasy. I will not be going out to enlist tonight.

June 27, 2005

Riffs   {Comments: 2}

Yesterday Amardeep Singh had made the provocative claim that hip hop is a more determinative musical form than jazz. The context was a discussion of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer's fusion, and the idea that fusion in jazz happens at a different level than fusion in hip hop -- possibly because the latter incorporates alien elements through sampling, rather than more organically. I'm kind of naturally inclined against this idea, and I get the sense that Deep is too, so instead of making an argument I'll just offer a couple observations.

If it is true that jazz is a less determinative art form, shouldn't this be the result of jazz's relative age? Otherwise the two forms are remarkably similar (both are about appropriation and improvisation, both worked early on to subvert dominant forms, both struggled to gain wide acceptance and were derided early on as non-music), but jazz has had the opportunity to pass through stale periods, metamorphosis, and concert hall glorification. Would it have been possible to profoundly incorporate Indian elements into 40s jazz? Surely we could imagine hip hop experiencing the same institutionalization as jazz, and the same concurrent formal expansion -- although I doubt today's artists would welcome that, just as Bird would probably be seriously disturbed by today's jazz-as-museum-piece.

There's this huge irony here too, that we're talking about fusion with two musical forms that are so centrally about appropriation. Is jazz's ability to fuse so comfortably really an indication of its vitality? I can't bring myself to answer no, but I also think jazz has entered a completely new phase of development today -- one that has more in common with classical than with early 20th century jazz.

June 24, 2005

Symmetrical disinformation   {Comments: 36}

From Justice Thomas's dissent (thanks to Will for pulling the quote):

The consequences of today's decision are not difficult to predict, and promise to be harmful. So-called "urban renewal" programs provide some compensation for the properties they take, but no compensation is possible for the subjective value of these lands to the individuals displaced and the indignity inflicted by uprooting them from their homes.
But this is America -- of course compensation is possible. My first inclination is to agree with Mithras and others who see this expansion of the takings doctrine as problematic only because there's a practical problem with computing appropriate compensation. If you're not repelled by the idea of takings in the first place (which I'm certainly not), then you have to see at least some logic in this decision. And the compensation problem, while significant, has to be exactly the same here as it would be if you were building a highway, since individual property owners in that situation are equally able to chaotically misrepresent the value of property to them in order to extort higher compensation.

The problem though, for me at least, is that businesses that stand to gain can bring a lot more political power (ie money) to bear on the situation, because they can spend against a promise of what may be massive future profits, which may end up distorting the public interest involved. In my mind this distortion effect is almost symmetrical with the compensation extortion the property owners can engage in, and the changes after Kelo will seriously disrupt that balance of power.

MORE: Nathan Newman's argument for the Kelo decision strikes me as a little condescending, but at the same time you could probably argue that poorer owners (or even non-owners) have a more difficult collective action problem to overcome because their own interest is relatively smaller. In that case though I think I'd rather see more protections for the poorer owners rather than none all around.

Also, I should have mentioned before that this isn't meant as a legal interpretation at all, since I know nothing about the relevant law; I'm thinking about this purely from a policy persepctive.

MORE: Will has more on the problems with fair market value compensation.

June 22, 2005

Choice of venue   {Comments: 7}

I completely agree with Will Baude that the suggestion in this article that marrying couples apologize to their gay friends for getting married (in the wedding invitation!) is both condescending and grotesque. But I don't see what's silly or trivializing about not wanting to participate in an institution that unfairly excludes others. In fact I'm not sure I agree that going to Massachusetts to get married is a strictly symbolic action -- isn't that Massachusetts marriage qualitatively different from other marriages, even if it's just a matter of being able to respect yourself in the morning? I wouldn't play golf at a country club that excluded women, but the fact that I'm a man shouldn't make that choice somehow less meaningful (in fact, if I were a woman, I wouldn't have a choice to make in the first place). The only difference between these two scenarios is that going to Massachusetts requires positive action, but I don't see that as a compelling argument that one is symbolic while the other isn't.

When I got married last year, I did think pretty carefully about all this -- I never considered actually going to Massachusetts, but I did investigate whether it would be possible for a hetero couple to get a "civil union" under exisiting law, and I remember musing that the most ideologically coherent step would be to forego marriage altogether. Don't tell my wife, though!

Changing the rules   {Comments: 2}

I'm no expert on administrative law, but doesn't a rule change like this one have to go through a public hearing process in the Federal Register before it takes effect? I suppose rule changes and ad hoc policies are different kinds of animals, although sources in the article seem to use the terms interchangeably.

Anyway, even if the policy change is legal, it seems odd that it's only been made public through a FOIA request, especially given SSA's track record of sensitivity on privacy issues. Perhaps I need to revisit this post from a couple weeks back?

June 21, 2005

Show and tell   {Comments: 10}

Paul Musgrave passes on this personal library/reading habits meme. I own somewhere between 1000 and 1200 books, although the number I've read is substantially smaller, and these days I'm trying to acquire books only at about the rate that I read them, which is a difficult discipline. The last two books I bought (both from the Seminary Co-Op, although these days I usually buy from Abebooks) were Slavoj Zizek's On Belief and Harry Mathews's My Life in CIA. The book I just finished was Gregory Maguire's Wicked.

Books that have meant a lot to me? It's a cop-out answer, but the book I've spent by far the most time with in the past year is my Norton Anthology of Poetry. Aside from that, Hamlet and The Tempest, the Odyssey, and Don Quixote are big for me, and I love Ada and Pale Fire. Also The Shock of the New, On the Heights of Despair, The Storyteller, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Miles Davis's autobiography, Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, The Myth of Sisyphus, Jealousy, Cigarettes, and The Anxiety of Influence. Probably the book that's had the most formative influence on my sense of and feeling for language is the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.

Others I'd like to hear from: Lenka, Hugo Zoom, Sudeep, Allison, and Barrett (on cookbooks).

June 20, 2005

Heavenly compulsion   {Comments: 8}

1. Maybe Robert Horry's performance in the fourth quarter and overtime last night will put an end to this kind of criticism.

2. Amber Taylor and others are looking for alternative etymologies of barbecue that would explain why the abbreviation is BBQ rather than BBC. But isn't this taking things a bit far? I don't see why creative abbreviations can't be based on sound rather than the actual letters present. (Also, does the term abbreviation really even apply here? I suppose it does, but BBQ is almost a schematic representation of the word barbecue; its letters arguably stand in for syllables and retain the rhythm and texture of the original word in a way that abbreviations usually don't.)

3. Here's a list of rebuttals (via Metafilter) to common arguments against standardizing English spelling (including the complicating effects for investigating etymologies). Maybe the weakest rebuttal is to what in my view is the strongest argument: that no standardized spelling system could encompass all the regional and dialectic differences in English, and that any attempt to do so would necessarily consecrate some dialects and marginalize others (making it a big political question). This might be easier to deal with if the proposed standardized spellings were phonemic rather thank phonetic, but of course there would still be significant (and apparently unacceptable) variation in how individual letters were pronounced.

4. And Gapers Block publicizes this theatrical piece from the Albany Park Theatrical Project about Noon-O-Kabab, a Persian restaurant on Kedzie. I ate at Noon-O-Kabab for the first time last week with friends, and the food was absolutely wonderful, highly recommended. It was only the second Persian restaurant I'd ever been to; the other one, Paradise, is in Bombay, and was also excellent, despite this iffy review.

June 16, 2005

Art and power   {Comments: 2}

1. After posting some altered pictures of Bush and guns to flickr to protest the Secret Service's reaction to this exhibition, Chicagoan Jeremy Lassen was visited by some Secret Service agents at his place of work. His story is here. [via Gapers Block]

2. Meanwhile, this bar of soap on display at an art fair in Switzerland was made from the liposuctioned fat of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The article claims that most soap is made from pig fat (and maybe it is in some places) but this seems to indicate that today soap is usually made with non-fat-based detergents. [via 3quarksdaily]

June 15, 2005

Analysis paralysis at the point of sale   {Comments: 7}

Radley Balko is contemptuous of this piece on choice (disguised as a piece on toothpaste?); he takes it as a sign of victory for free market capitalism. OK, fine -- but that doesn't make these kinds of paralyzing choices any less of a problem. Hasn't Balko ever heard of transaction costs? Choice paralysis, or even just choice among many options, represents a real drag on efficiency, without even mentioning the depressing psychic effects. This may not be a complete argument against a free market capitalist system, but it's proof positive that this kind of system is imperfect.

Focusing singularly on the context of the movie   {Comments: 4}

1. For all the Roger Ebert haters out there, you should check out "[t]he Chicago Theory of Roger Ebert reviews: a movie's rating is proportional to its proximity to Chicago." Personally, I think he was pretty up front about his love of Chicago in the Batman review... [via Gapers Block]

2. There's plenty this week for basketball fans: here (via Jason Kottke) is Julius Erving's vivid reminiscence of Magic's big game in 1980. Meanwhile Mark Cuban is still complaining about the refs. What's strange is that he's pitching his idea for a ref/commentator to the NBA -- shouldn't he just talk to ABC or TNT? But I guess it's not a serious proposal.

3. And Metafilter is buzzing about Jim Sensenbrenner's proposal to repeal the 22nd Amendment -- the one that limits presidents to two terms. I mention this only because I was arguing just yesterday that this limitation is bizarre and unnecessary if you're a small d democrat: the people should pick whomever they want. So I guess I agree with Sensenbrenner (!) -- but I also wonder what he's thinking -- surely Bill would be a scarier opponent than Hillary in 08.

June 14, 2005

Public access   {Comments: 0}

Mike Krempansky wonders here why nobody seems to be raising privacy concerns with all talk about government-sponsored wi-fi. On the one hand, I think this is way more important than people realize, because many things we haven't even imagined yet will come out of an omnipresent wireless network. Such a network would likely become our primary means of both accessing knowledge and propagating speech -- and since both of these are fundamental political functions, there might be some dangerous conflicts for governments who administer it. This is similar to the idea that the government mustn't control the press.

On the other hand, I don't feel as though I have any privacy now on the internet, from the government or otherwise, and I'd like to see more attempts to codify strong online speech and access rights before a huge step like the Sessions bill is taken. Why quash the experimentation before it even gets started, especially when everything seems to be shaping up locally? Let people decide in the places they live -- let them innovate. The wireless internet isn't everything yet -- we still have time to develop the laws and rights we'll eventually need.

(I should also mention that I'm completely unmoved by Mike's limited-government objections, and whether or not ubiquitous wi-fi works like a public good, I think there's plenty of rationale for having the government subsidize it. But it remains to be seen how these concerns stack up against the formidable speech and access issues raised above.)

Vexed questions   {Comments: 0}

1. "The difference between statistically significant and not statistically significant is not in itself necessarily statistically significant."

2. Tom at BTD is rightly concerned about the LATimes's anouncement that they're going to add a wiki functionality to their editorial page. I wonder though if the scope of this is smaller than he thinks -- it seems unlikely anybody will be changing the actual editorial. Maybe it will work more like an op-ed for folks too lazy to make their own arguments?

3. Chomsky talks about universal language and human rights, but declines to really connect the two. [via 3quarksdaily]

4. And the great symphonies of Beethoven are available here for download in mp3 format, if only for a limited time. Unfortunately I seem to have missed the Eroica. [via Amardeep Singh]

June 13, 2005

An appropriate fear   {Comments: 3}

The Spurs won again last night, overcoming the usual psychological difficulties:

"It gets more difficult after a win to come back and understand how that subconscious sort of complacency can set in," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "You can't allow that to happen. You have to keep an appropriate fear of your opponent so that complacency will dissipate as soon as possible."
This feels right, but I was kind of surprised the article doesn't bother to do some kind of statistical verification of the claim -- surely Marc Stein has this kind of information at their fingertips, and even if he doesn't, it can't be that hard to obtain. (While he's at it, I'd be interested to know whether the closeness of a loss affects the loser's chances of winning the next game, my hunch being that there should be a significant letdown effect after close losses.)

One of the most incredible things about sports journalism is the facility with which it wield these kinds of basic frequency statistics -- even if all it means is that they have a staff of researchers working behind them. Coaching, by contrast, has a certain mystique, one that outwardly stresses the psychological over the scientific, even if real analytical precision is actually required to go out and win championships. Maybe this is why Stein meant for Popovich's words to stand as wisdom rather than as verifiable claim, even though verifying it would be a cinch.

June 12, 2005

Hard labor   {Comments: 0}

I tend to agree with the premise of this Times article, that lifespans are increasing and therefore the retirement age should be a little later (although as I've written before there are big potential problems with making assumptions about life expectancy). One curious thing about the argument is that nobody seems to have any information on whether the quality of life is increasing along with the the life expectancy. From a Social Security standpoint it doesn't do you any good to live longer if you're feeble, inactive, and relegated to assisted living or a nursing home -- ie if you're no more capable of work. Some kind of study on quality of life vis-a-vis life expectancy this would cast a lot of light on the issue.

Also, in my experience working at Social Security, there were many people who ended up "retiring" not because they had planned to retire or reached full retirement age, but because they simply could not find work anymore. Whether this had to do with truly diminishing ability, age discrimination (which is surely rampant), or the recession I couldn't say. But raising the retirement age might have a catastrophic effect for these people.

June 9, 2005

Forming participles   {Comments: 3}

From an article in the Times (my italics):

Manhattan also has an especially practiced antidevelopment movement on its West Side and is already home to Madison Square Garden and countless world-renown cultural institutions.
Google seems to confirm that world-renowned is the more common adjective, and of course it's also dictionary-correct. I suppose this variation has to do with the fact that renown doesn't work as a verb? But it seems like I've seen more and more instances of participles missing the -d or -ed lately -- "close to the public" or "sentence to life in prison." Am I just imagining this, or is it really some kind of gradual shift?
June 8, 2005

Convergence   {Comments: 0}

1. I haven't mentioned this here, but we did manage to sell our condo and we're in the process of buying a house now (still dealing, nervously, with inspections and the resulting renegotaitions, but basically done). But this blog on the housing bubble is full of sobering thoughts and links for the would-be buyer (I can just about feel comfortable reading it now, because of, well, sunk costs...). The link comes by way of Joshua Andrews (yes, that Joshua Andrews) who has a new and entertaining blog.

2. I meant to post a link to this article announcing the death of mechanical engineering before, to juxtapose it with this question about double clutching (which was nicely answered by a couple of commenters). In light of the piece, maybe I won't waste any more time trying to figure out what synchromesh is. Oh -- the link is also meant as a bit of a warning for my brother in law, who just graduated high school and plans to study mechanical engineering. Maybe he could be part of an old guard?

Political miscellany   {Comments: 5}

First I told someone that I was sick of talking and blogging about politics, then this evening I got into a long discussion about whether the Democrats lost in November because they didn't move to the left or because they didn't move to the middle, and now I feel like writing about politics again. My side of the argument, which I can't remember whether I've articulated here, is that the Dems lost by failing to energize the left, which Dean (oft maligned here during the campaign) would have done admirably. Bush of course won with this strategy -- it was turnout among the religious right that really won the election for him, with special thanks to the Massachusetts supremes.

If your view is the opposite -- that the Dems lost by failing to move to the middle (which is a position a lot of people seem to have, despite the fact that the middle was so small in the election -- although I do think there are more complicated ways to game this than just thinking about a continuum and a middle to contest) -- wouldn't Hillary Clinton be your dream candidate? Oddly enough, that wasn't the case for the person I was talking to tonight.

The context, by the way, that led to this whole discussion was Dean's rabid remarks, which have been criticized by many. My thinking on Dean is that the whole point of that job is to serve as the attack dog/cheerleader for the Dems, and to say the big things that others can't say because they might run. This kind of warmongering role seems even more important right now, when the Dems are looking like a minority party, and need to get their attitude straight before the next big fight. Of course, it only makes sense if Dean is not running in 2008, and I know there have been some rumors to the contrary.

June 7, 2005

The numbers game   {Comments: 0}

The Times has a piece about the practice of borrowing Social Security numbers from people who are out of the country. I hadn't encountered this kind of arrangement before (I used to work as a claims rep for SSA), probably either a testament to its success or a good indication that it's a recent development. What I saw much more of was SSNs taken from the dead, who would then appear to be earning income in the database. I don't know if these numbers were simply picked at random, or if the dead were specifically chosen because they'd be less likely to notice, but it's not as if SSA was actively investigating this, as the article notes with a bit of a scandalized cluck.

But there's no question in my mind that Social Security has exactly the right policy as regards these issues. Social Security is probably the premier social service agency in the country, and if millions people are working in the United States illegally, many of those will need social services. An investigative, combative Social Security office would scare people away from seeking those services when they need them -- not just from SSA, which might not be able to help illegal workers in the first place, but also from other social service agencies with broader missions.

June 3, 2005

Picking a wordlist   {Comments: 1}

Will Baude is here and here arguing in favor of all those mind-bending 2 and 3 letter words in Scrabble -- or more precisely, for the more intense competition that memorizing all those little words affords. A couple thoughts about this: First of all, wasn't the scoring in Scrabble originally developed by scanning letter frequencies in the New York Times? This (questionable) methodology aside, if players nowadays frequently use words that don't appear frequently in everyday usage, doesn't that skew the letter values away from their assigned scores? The availablility of words like qat and xu really change the character of the game, and while this doesn't have to be a bad thing, it does seem strange to keep using the old scores with an expanded lexicon.

Because of my grandmother's formidable Scrabble skills, the issue of just how obscure Scrabble words should be comes up a lot in my family, and the solution most commonly/sensibly cited is that Scrabble players should have to state the definition of any word they play -- the claim being that this would return the game to its roots as a game about vocabulary. I have my doubts though that this would solve the problem, first of all because definitions to all these words do exist, and for those who have memorized them it would just involve a little more memorization -- I guess the idea is that knowing all the definitions would somehow be more virtuous? But personally I don't see any virtue in knowing some of these words (tranq, qaid?), at least outside the context of Scrabble (and Boggle).

My own problem with Scrabble and its wordlists has more to do with my distaste for established authorities like dictionaries and their apparent arbitrariness in the face of usage. If Google were a little better at differentiating words from other random strings on the internet (and maybe even in spite of this failing) I would very much want to propose a Google hit standard for Scrabble acceptability. Sure, it would open up all kinds of new problems, eg with common misspellings, but at least it would have some basis in extant linguistic reality (as opposed to the privileged arbitrartion of the standard-setters and position-holders).

MORE: Will responds to my thoughts here, but he completely misunderstands my point on Google and decentralized rulemaking. I don't have a problem with the "arbitrariness" of the decisions about Scrabble's general configuration, which I'm not even sure I see as arbitrary to begin with -- since they're pretty carefully considered for gameplay purposes, either by the person who created the game or obliquely by those who have kept playing it for so many years -- and in any case apply to nothing more harmful than a board game.

No, I was really talking about the broader issue of where standards should come from in language, and in particular how usage should figure in that equation. This is a question of enormous social and political consequence, and it's only because Scrabble incorporates language into its gameplay that it even came up here. I suggested Google as an arbitrating authority not out of some juvenile desire to make up all the rules myself, but rather because the context was a debate over usage (ie should we allow all those 2 and 3 letter words that aren't really words or never get used outside of Scrabble?) and I consider Google to be the best usage authority we have. Will might find fault with that opinion, but surely he can see a qualitative difference between making rules about Scrabble and making rules about language usage.

June 1, 2005

Gearbox query   {Comments: 2}

A driving question: can anybody explain to me the benefit of double clutching when upshifting on a manual transmission car? This page lingers on the difference between double clutching on the upshift and downshift, but doesn't describe any benefit to the former; this page mentions only what seem to be obscure maintenance reasons for doing it. Am I correct in thinking that the only real performance benefits to double-clutching are in smoothing out the downshift?

We lay waste our powers   {Comments: 5}

In re one of my posts on Social Security, a reader writes that

[T]he entire point of Social Security originally wasn't to provide a safety net, but rather to by providing that safety net encourage older people to retire, so that their jobs would be made available to younger people, as younger people tend to spend their income on things that tend to drive the economy.
I don't know if I buy this. It certainly makes some sense from an economic policy perspective to try to put the money in the hands of those who will spend it, but was the money really in the hands of the elderly when Social Security was enacted? My understanding is that a huge percentage of older folks were in poverty up through that time, and that Social Security's single biggest effect has been the dramatic decrease in that statistic. Granted, this effect may not have anything to do with the aims of the architects of Social Security, but it seems strange that a program would be created to push wealth away from one group if that group was already poor.

An interesting counterpoint to this is Clinton's Freedom to Work Act, which allows those over 65 to receive their benefits even if they're still working. I don't know if the goal in that case was to manipulate the labor market, but it wouldn't surprise me. Of course, it was also wildly popular (ie politically) with older Americans, in particular the Wal-Mart greeter set, which is a huge and voting segment of the American population.