Recent Prehistory

Trying to maintain a skeptical stance when talking with religious people is, in the main, pointless. They’re hard-wired not to get it. But while getting nowhere attempting to discuss current events with respect to Judaism and the Middle East, I got curious about the historical roots of the whole mess. That’s more interesting, and less contentious too.

So I ordered a couple of books from Amazon on Bronze Age prehistory in Europe and the Mediterranean basin.

The period from 5000 to 500 B.C. was one of extraordinary changes, I know that much even before the books get here. At the beginning of that period, agriculture had been invented, but the use of bronze for weapons was still far in the future. As far as we know, there was only one “city” (today it would be counted no more than a town) of any size in the world — Eridu. Everything else was mud huts. Actually, Eridu was mud huts too, but there were a lot of them.

Based both on the descriptions in the Bible and on the remains that have been excavated of walled towns, it seems likely that as population increased throughout the region, there was a whole lot of raiding going on. The capture and enslavement of the Hebrews would hardly have been unique at the time. Nor would their tendency to overrun towns like Jericho, when commanded to do so by their priests, have been unique. Pretty much everybody in the region would have been doing the same thing. For thousands of years.

History is written by the winners. The sheer tenacity and strong sense of tribal identity of the Hebrews, both of which were rooted in their unusually fervent religion, probably did a lot to insure that they were among the winners. You don’t have to believe in God to see how effective such a belief system would have been.

At a somewhat later period, the Hebrews got into a head-butting contest with the Romans. The Romans, at this period, had nothing resembling a fervent religion. They had something even better: A great big army. Today’s struggles in the Middle East can be traced directly to the fact that in 70 A.D., the Roman Emperor Titus got peeved with the Jews’ stiff-necked intransigence (which was directly due to their religion), destroyed their capital city, and decreed that they no longer had a homeland.

Rome was the first truly modern multi-cultural, multi-ethnic state. It was extremely successful for a very long time. Its success was rooted in a secular, democratic belief system, which placed a high value on civic duty, on reciprocal social bonds, and on competition for prestige in worldly things.

But that was later. Rome was founded in 753 B.C. The Bronze Age was ending and the Iron Age was beginning. Right now I’d like to know a lot more about the cultures that moved across that area between the founding of Eridu and the founding of Rome.

Practicing Cello

A comment on one of my posts asked whether I have any tips for more efficient practicing. Maybe a few, yeah. I don’t follow my own tips all the time, but here they are:

  1. Warm up before you tackle tough passages. I’m an old guy, so it takes me ten minutes to warm up.
  2. Take breaks. After playing for 30 to 45 minutes (at most), get up and walk around. Good for the brain, good for the muscles.
  3. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Talk to your teacher about any consistent pain you encounter while playing.
  4. Practice difficult passages SLOOOOWWWLY. Because the bow has a finite length, this may mean breaking up long slurs. That’s okay — learn the left hand first, and add the bowing only when the left hand is secure.
  5. Use a metronome.
  6. When learning a piece that’s a full page or longer, there should be days when you start your practice session with the last few phrases and then work backwards. If you don’t do this, you’ll always play the first part better than the last part, because you’ll have played it so much more.
  7. Practice in two modes: Isolating and drilling the trouble spots, and playing from start to finish without stopping. Both are necessary.
  8. Use a full-length mirror to watch your hand and arm movement. Also your torso orientation. Also the angle of your bow and the point at which the bow contacts the string. Video is good too.
  9. When you think you’ve learned a piece, try recording it. A recorder is merciless: It will reveal flaws you never knew were there.
  10. Scales and arpeggios are boring but useful. They’re useful for shifting precision, for bowing precision, for intonation, and so on.
  11. Advanced students should practice thumb position up and down the neck in a given scale each day. For instance, today is A major. Start with the thumb on D on the A string and play an A major scale across three strings. Then move the thumb up to E and play an A major scale. Then move the thumb up to F# and, again, play an A major scale. Continue upward. Then come back down. When you’ve mastered this in all keys, try playing a scale in thirds using the thumb and 2nd finger.
  12. Get the Schroeder books and learn the etudes. The Lee Melodic Studies are good too.

Finally — it’s important to remember that your hand does not know the difference between a right note or phrase and a wrong one. If you repeatedly make the same mistake, your hand will quite cheerfully learn to make that mistake every time you play the piece!

The only way to get rid of a persistent mistake is to practice the phrase over and over perfectly. Playing it correctly once doesn’t count. If you fix the mistake once, congratulate yourself, and move on, the mistake will probably come back the next time you play that passage. My own rule of thumb is, if I can play a passage in a mistake-free manner three times in a row, I’ve probably conquered the mistake. Five times in a row would be better.

Can You Spell “Bee”?

According to a story in this morning’s SF Chronicle, the decline in honeybee populations is continuing. Bees are vulnerable to a number of pests, and the decline has been going on for several years, but two years ago reports started appearing of a new malady, Colony Collapse Disorder. This has some distinctive features, and the cause is unknown.

The loss of bees, if it continues, will turn out to be more important than whether we have unfettered access to cheap petroleum. It will overshadow gay marriage, abortion rights, and the U.S. government’s fascist atrocities at Guantanamo.

Early reports had suggested that CCD might be due to a parasite or virus. But it’s also possible that the massive human footprint on the planet is to blame, directly or indirectly. Specifically, unfettered use of pesticides, urban sprawl leading to loss of wild lands, mono-agriculture, and the stress on the bees caused by trucking them across vast distances for commercial purposes.

Maybe the bees can be saved. (Maybe.) But such problems are going to crop up with increasing frequency. And at some point in the not too distant future, some combination of human-made disasters (dead areas in the ocean, global warming, extinction of land-dwelling species) will lead to a rather sudden worldwide economic collapse.

In this collapse, as many as five billion people will die.

This will give our children a bit of breathing room in which to consider whether to adopt more eco-friendly lifestyles. Sadly, the track record of the human species in the area of long-term planning is not good. Not good at all. If the human race manages to climb back up out of the pit we’ve dug for ourselves, there’s a very high probability that we’ll turn right around and do it again.

What we’re dealing with here is a fairly intelligent species of chimpanzee. It would be a mistake to expect too much.

Like other animals, humans operate almost entirely by instinct. Our instincts evolved in sub-Saharan Africa over the course of several million years. For most of that time, there was no reason for our ancestors to consider the large-scale, long-term consequences of their decisions, because there weren’t any large-scale, long-term consequences. In the one area where long-term consequences were on the table (making babies), our instincts are rock-solid. We make babies. Even when not making babies, we devote massive amounts of energy to the activities that evolution has carefully tailored for the making of babies. That is, your procreative instinct doesn’t care whether any given act of copulation will produce a baby, because your instinct evolved before the invention of condoms. Your instinct only cares about finding a partner who is endowed with something resembling desirable genes and then getting it on.

In all other types of long-term planning, we’re just plain brain-dead. We don’t know how to do it. Or, to speak a little less sweepingly, a few of us have some vague ideas about how to do it, which we may implement with more or less success, but in the long run that won’t matter, because the effective planners are outnumbered 100 to 1 by the bozos.

Bozos make more babies, even though it’s obvious to any thinking person that producing too many babies is the root of the problem.

Bozos use pesticides in their homes, even though it’s obvious that pesticides are going to get into the environment and kill species that you need in order to survive.

Bozos kill wild plants by the side of the highway because they’re unsightly (to whom? not to me!) and a fire hazard. But guess what: It’s the humans that are the fire hazard, not the wild plants. Take away the vehicles and the wild plants will get along just fine.

Bozos eat beef, in spite of the massive environmental damage caused by herds of cattle.

Bozos drive SUVs. Why? Because it’s convenient for them, personally, over the short term. Long-term consequences to the planet as a whole? Don’t give them a moment’s thought.

There is no way to change any of this. Education and debate won’t work. Facts are way less powerful than instinct.

Gee, what a nice train of thought with which to start out the morning.

Passion vs. Getting Wound Up

I’ve been searching, rather haphazardly, for something that I can feel passionate about. I have half a dozen candidates — playing the piano, writing short stories, composing electronic music, and so forth — about all of which I feel rather lukewarm.

A couple of days ago I got into a lengthy email exchange with an acquaintance on the dual subjects of Israel and atheism. I feel pretty strongly about both topics. So naturally I started wondering, do I feel passionate about being an atheist? Is this the thing I’ve been searching for to give my life more meaning?

Something about that idea didn’t feel good. I felt stormy, cloudy, angry, upset. I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s a difference between feeling passionate and feeling wound up. Passion is a positive, life-enhancing thing. Being wound up about something is a dip in the turbulent waters of negativity.

I’d like to be forthright about my views, so that the religious yahoos won’t completely dominate public debate and public policy. But I can do that with a bumper sticker that says, “I’M AN ATHEIST, AND I VOTE.”

I need to remind myself that nothing I might say or do is likely to change the thinking of any religious person. These people are impervious to rational debate. If I try to reason with them, I’ll end up twitching and miserable, but nothing will change.

Knowing that you’re right is one thing; insisting on proving to other people that they’re wrong is a different thing. It’s more difficult, for starters. It makes you unpopular. It could easily lead to ulcers and high blood pressure. And it’s a waste of time. As someone once said to me, “How bad do you want to be right?” Like, how many hours per week would I like to be miserable? This is a choice I have the power to make.

The Human Species — Feh.

Morbid curiosity drove me to spend a few minutes tonight surfing web pages that express opinions about homosexuality (either pro or con) using texts from the Bible and/or the Talmud to support their positions. One site insists that the growing acceptance of homosexuality is a sign of the End Times, specifically prophesied by Christ as preceding his Second Coming. Another asserts that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality at all but inhospitality toward travellers. To the authors of the latter site, who are gay Christians, nothing in Scripture bans homosexuality.

What these two rather disparate camps have in common is that they’re both populated by idiots.

Anybody who thinks their life decisions (or anyone else’s life decisions) should be guided by a bunch of documents written 3,000 years ago by Bronze Age shepherds is an idiot.

How can we help these people? We can’t. They’re beyond help. There’s something horribly wrong with their brains. They scare the crap out of me. Even when they’re being nice, they scare the crap out of me.

Kurt Vonnegut once compared fascism to a clock that had some missing teeth in its gears. (You under-30 types will have to trust me on this: Clocks were once mechanical devices within which were wheels whose edges had regularly spaced teeth.) Such a clock, he observed, might keep perfect time for 7 hours and 3 minutes, and then suddenly jump forward 5 minutes and 21 seconds, keep perfect time for 11 more seconds, then jump backward by 2 hours and 19 minutes, then keep perfect time again for 6 hours and 37 minutes….

It seems to me the brain of a religious person is sort of like that. It may do many things perfectly well — feed the hungry, for instance. But then there are these peculiar gaps, places where the brain of the religious person will suddenly back up or shoot sideways and spit out venom, or gibberish.

And the thing is, I don’t think there’s any help for it. It’s the nature of the religious insanity that it resists outside input. It creates a sort of parallel universe in which bizarre and often quite destructive interpretations are plastered onto visible phenomena. That’s precisely what happens to inputs that the religious person doesn’t want to hear. They get reinterpreted so that they’re part of the crazy parallel universe the person inhabits.

Every one of them is drinking the Kool Aid.

Turf Wars

This afternoon on Marketplace (on NPR) they broadcast one of those industry-generated puff pieces that masquerade as news. This one was about how people are responding to the drought in California by replacing their water-guzzling lawns with artificial turf.

At two or three points, the announcer emphasized how much easier it was to care for artificial turf than for real grass. You don’t have to mow it, the announcer pointed out. And cat and dog droppings don’t burn brown circles.

You can tell it was an industry-generated puff piece because those are obviously lies. I mean, okay, let’s say you’ve got artificial turf in your front yard, and your neighbor’s dog takes a crap on it. Now what do you do? You’ve got artificial turf with a pile of dog crap on it. And maybe it’s a hot day, and you don’t notice it until you get home after work, so the dog crap (which started out wet) has oozed down into the fibers of the artificial turf and then dried.

I wonder if there’s an economic opportunity in marketing wire brushes for cleaning the dog crap out of artificial turf. I mean, hosing it off isn’t going to work, that’s just going to spread it out.

In addition to the inevitable animal problems, there are dead leaves, dead twigs blown out of the trees during storms, dead insects, road grit, and maybe even (if you’re lucky) a dead bird now and again. Oh, yeah, it will be a real time-saver that you don’t have to mow it.

Go for It!

Until the Internet came along, I had never been able to find anyone to play go with. Go is a board game widely played in Japan, China, and Korea (go is the Japanese name). The rules are simple, but it’s as difficult to master as chess. More difficult, for a computer: The best computer programs that play go are just plain lousy.

You can’t play go by correspondence, the way people used to play chess using postcards, because each player needs to make more than 100 moves, on average. A correspondence game would take a year. So until the Internet came along, the only way to play was face to face. And somehow, I could never fit weekly visits to a local go club into my schedule.

But at sites like Dragon Go Server, I can play go against opponents who are at my own (very modest) level of competence, making four or five moves a day. I can keep eight or ten games going at once, which speeds up the learning process immeasurably. It’s a wonderful thing.

Here’s what a game in progress looks like:

This is a dramatic moment. (The most recent move is the stone marked with a circle.) Black is trying to surround the stranded white group in the upper center.

I’m not going to set out the rules of go here. If you’re curious, enter “go game” into your favorite search engine. The game is, at the same time, both rigidly logical and very intuitive — almost musical. Also, it’s about life and death. There’s a real thrill in winning.

I like to win. I’m black in the game shown above, and I’m licking my chops. I may not be able to kill the white group, but I’ll certainly give white some uncomfortable moments.

Don’t Do That!

I love rules that violate themselves. Somewhere on the Internet, I’m sure, you’ll find a long list. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Avoid cliches like the plague.
  • A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.
  • Every sentence a verb.
  • Eschew obfuscation.
  • No more than one exclamation point is needed for emphasis!!!!!

And here are a few that I came up with myself:

  • An affectation unnecessary is word order inverted.
  • It must have an antecedent.
  • Using a mixed metaphor will dump a bucket of cold water on your souffle.
  • A comma-splice is when two independent clauses are connected with the word “and” and a comma-splice is poor usage and you should avoid comma-splices.

It’s All Good

The thing I miss most about not being on the editorial staff at Keyboard (I left in 2002, after 25+ years) is that I no longer get to check out the new CDs. For most of that time, I was the chief record reviewer (which meant LPs, when we started the magazine in 1975). Every month, dozens or hundreds of new releases would arrive in my office, and I got to listen to them.

It was an education and a half. Keyboard always strove (and still does) to be eclectic with respect to style and genre, so I was listening to new jazz, old-style jazz, straight-up classical, avant-garde, hip-hop, prog rock, new age, fusion, hardcore synthesizer techno, and indie releases that were absolutely unclassifiable — you name it, it landed in the big tub. When I started, I knew very little about jazz. I learned!

In the early years, we kept a good record library, which contained both new releases and older material we had picked up for research. But by the late 1980s, the library was becoming unwieldy. Also, the company had gone through a few management changes, and the new bosses were less interested in … well, let’s be honest. They were less interested in music than the old bosses had been.

At some point (by now the chronology is hazy) they decided to liquidate the library. So I got to cherry-pick the stuff I wanted in my personal collection. After that, I kept right on cherry-picking. Every month, the CDs I liked best wound up on my shelves.

I was thinking about this today because I’ve been clearing out a storage locker in which a bunch of stuff has been gathering dust since I was laid off. I gave a couple of hundred CDs to the local Friends Of The Library (great organization!), mostly the techno, which I can’t imagine ever wanting to listen to again. What I have left is an amazing collection — the best of the best — everything from Bach to Meat Beat Manifesto.

Not only keyboard music, either: Sometimes the silly record companies would send us everything they released, whether or not it was suitable for review in Keyboard. I’ve got box sets of Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, for instance. But lots of amazing keyboard CDs, too — Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, you name it. Plus a ton of classical CDs, some of which I picked up when I was a member of one of those CD clubs (Columbia, I think).

It’s a supremely disorganized collection; there’s one Weather Report album, for instance, not a complete history of the band. But there’s enough great music here that I’ll never be able to listen to it all.

Even so, I’m a slut. I wish I was still at Keyboard, specifically so I could keep on scooping up the great new releases.

Livin’ in the City

Our back neighbor wants us to trim our trees. Actually, he’d like us to cut the trees down, but he’ll settle for having them trimmed back to the property line. He’s a nice enough young guy — he made no trouble about splitting the cost of a new fence. But he’s got a bee in his bonnet about the trees.

They were there three or four years ago, when he bought the house. And … well, we’re liberals. We like trees. The bigger and bushier the better. So how do we mediate this budding dispute?

I checked with the city government. I was told there are no ordinances that cover this situation. “It’s a civil matter,” they told me. Translation: If he thinks the trees are a nuisance and we decline to do what he would like us to do to abate the alleged nuisance, he can take us to civil court, and a judge will decide what should be done.

The guy has a swimming pool in his back yard. The pool was there when he bought the house. This is his first house, and I think he just didn’t have a clear idea of what’s involved in having a swimming pool. Like, cleaning it. Tree junk falls in it, and he doesn’t like that. Of course, some of the junk is from a tree on his side of the fence, and I don’t see him rushing to cut it down.

The real issue, it seems to me, is that life comes bundled with annoyances. In particular, living in a neighborhood means that the lives and preferences of the people around you will sometimes impinge on yours. Let’s see, there’s the insane yapping dog in the house next door to this neighbor’s (fortunately it isn’t heard from often). There are the roving cats who think our back yard is their private sandbox. People walk their dogs down the sidewalk, and the dogs occasionally have the same concept about the front lawn, which is intensely irritating. The guy across the street has two cars parked at the curb that are, as far as I can tell, non-operational — the cars haven’t moved in at least a year, they’re kind of junky-looking, and they make it more difficult for me to back out of the driveway. Once in a while, a couple of kids use our street for a private raceway, roaring up and down on motor-powered skateboards with no mufflers.

I’m sure most people could make up a similar list. The point is, if you want to live on a private five-acre country estate, go ahead. I’m not stopping you. If you can’t afford to do that, then you’re going to have to deal with the rest of us. You don’t get to have it all your own way.