The Delicate Aura of Mayhem

P. D. James is depressing. She’s a fine writer; this is not a criticism of her talent or technique. At least, not directly. It’s the materials she chooses for her stories that cast long, gloomy shadows.

Right now I’m reading The Murder Room. She takes her time with the build-up. We’re more than a quarter of the way through the book before the first murder takes place. We get a chance to meet five or six major characters — all of whom will become suspects. And there’s not a ray of sunshine to be seen anywhere.

The weather itself is bad: It’s the end of October, and rain is falling. We meet a man who has terminal cancer. Another character is clearing out his desk at the end of an undistinguished career, and reflects on his own lack of emotions. When he reaches home, we learn in passing that his wife has been having affairs for years. This man’s younger brother is a psychiatrist who Read more

Thrilling Climax

It is a convention of the mystery genre that in the climactic scene, the hero must directly confront the villain, one on one, toe to toe, with no outside aid of any kind and preferably with no weapon. The hero must then defeat the villain single-handed.

The lengths to which authors go to bring about this confrontation are considerable, varied, and often quite silly. The cop’s radio might malfunction, for instance, forcing him to go in to rescue the kidnap victim without calling for backup.

Last night I was up until 1 A.M. reading Under Orders by Dick Francis. It’s a typical Francis yarn — not profound in any way, but he keeps you turning the pages. At the end, predictably, private eye Sid Halley opens the door of his apartment expecting that a friend has arrived, only to be confronted by the pistol-waving murderer.

While holding Halley at gunpoint, the murderer proceeds to explain, at some length, how his crime spree was motivated by his father’s Read more

Tune Me Up

For microtonality freaks only — I gathered the information below for an article in Electronic Musician. It’s still available on their website, or was the last time I looked. But just to spread it around a little, I thought I’d include it here.

Scala is a terrific software resource for designing and analyzing any sort of microtonal scale you might dream up. But as a hybrid command line/GUI program, it’s a little twisty to use. Scala’s native file format has the .scl extension, but software synthesizers prefer to see microtonal scale files in .tun format. Scala can save a tuning in .tun format, but you have to know how to do it. Here’s how:

First, create a directory called tun in your Scala directory in which to store the new files. Load an .scl file or create a new tuning of your own using Scala’s features. Then, in the Scala command line, type the following commands:

cd tun
set synth 112
set map_freq 440.0 69
set middle 60
send/file filename.tun

The first line changes Scala’s output directory to the tun folder you’ve created. The 112 in the second line is a Scala code that sets it to output in the .tun file format, and the third line specifies the frequency in Hertz of a MIDI key (in this case, 440.0 Hz for MIDI note number 69, which is key A3); this key will be used as the reference or center of the tuning.

The fourth line sets the starting point for the range of frequencies defined in the .scl file. In this case, we’re telling Scala that we want 1/1 (the reference pitch of the scale) to be MIDI note 60, which is Middle C. In the last line, substitute whatever file name you like.

After the .tun file is saved, you can load it into your soft synth using whatever menu command the synth provides for that purpose.

Footnote: If you’re using Windows 7 and you’ve allowed the Scala installer to install the program in the default location (which is Program Files (x86)), you may not be able to save files to a directory within the Scala directory. For this reason, you may want to install Scala to the root of your C: drive.

Choose Your Poison

It’s very clear that free market capitalism produces a certain type of abuses — human suffering, in other words. If you doubt this, you might want to read up on the history of the industrial revolution. Read about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, for instance. In 1911, more than 140 women died in a fire because the managers of the sweatshop where they worked had locked them in. Abuses of this sort were extremely common in the late 19th century. The worse excesses were eliminated not because factory owners were kind, caring human beings (they’re not) but because of the rise of the labor unions, most of which were organized by committed socialists.

I’m pretty sure socialism produces its own evils. High taxation levels and central planning, for instance, can stifle innovation. I’m not as familiar with the defects of socialism; perhaps someone who has lived in Sweden can provide a list. Note, however, that there are varieties of socialism. Russian-style communism is not the only possibility, so the evils that arose in the Soviet Union, while instructive, are not conclusive. Democratic socialism, as practiced in Sweden and elsewhere, seems not to have produced Russian-style ill effects.

In choosing one economic system or another, we need to weigh all of these factors, the characteristic abuses generated by either system along with its benefits. It would be simple-minded Read more

Noble Truths

When asked if I have a religious affiliation, I usually say I’m a crypto-Buddhist. By this I mean that I don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism, but what I know seems fairly sensible.

Buddhism isn’t really a religion; it’s a form of practical psychology. It has been transformed into a religion, I think, because human beings have an instinctive need for religion. But that’s a tale for another time.

While reading a book recently that makes use of Buddhist teachings, I began to have doubts. Specifically, I’m not sure about the first two of the Four Noble Truths. What the Buddha actually taught has, of course, been translated, elaborated, simplified, and reinterpreted. So maybe what I’m fussing over are the current views of these teachings.

The First Noble Truth is often rendered in English as “Life is suffering.” But if we get closer to the original teaching, we find Read more

Would You Like Oxygen with That?

I’ve never moved anyone into assisted living before. I talked to people, asked questions, looked at various facilities, and selected the one that seemed best for Mom. Mom is now on oxygen. When the head of the medical staff of Rosewood Gardens visited us, Mom was sitting there with oxygen tubes up her nose, so there would have been no question that they knew about it before she was admitted. However, I can’t swear that the medical person didn’t say, “She’ll have to manage her own oxygen, because we don’t do that.” Maybe she said it, maybe not. I had a lot on my mind.

Also, I didn’t know yet that the portable oxygen system that uses the small tanks is more complex than the portable system that uses the big tanks. Mom was using a big tank when she came home from the hospital. Nobody told me that the small tanks were refillable, or that the valve they used was more complex, or that the refilling unit sits on top of the oxygen concentrator that’s the fixed, in-home system, thus making a hardware unit that’s more complex and requires some additional steps to learn.

Mom’s eyes aren’t good enough to read the little dials. She doesn’t suffer from dementia, but she has no background in technology, she’s 88 years old, and it’s probably harder Read more

Cutting Meat

I’m not entirely convinced that economists know enough to tie their own shoes. Friedrich Hayek won the Nobel prize for his work in economics, but after dipping into The Constitution of Liberty, an influential book he wrote in the late 1950s, it seems pretty clear that I’m smarter than he was.

Rather than read the whole book through from the beginning (I hope to get to it later), I jumped forward to the chapter on labor unions. Hayek was no friend of unions. Though he claimed to see some value in unions as fraternal organizations, he ardently opposed strikes, picketing, boycotts, and collective bargaining. His objections to union activity were both philosophical and practical. To understand why he was wrong, we need to separate the two.

Philosophically, he opposed collective bargaining and the closed union shop on the grounds that an agreement between a union and an employer, to the effect that the employer would only hire union workers, was a restraint of free trade. That is, every potential employee should be free to negotiate individually with an employer, without being required Read more

Traveling Light

Last week we moved Mom into an assisted living facility. Of necessity, she’s traveling light: She could take only a few treasured things and a few familiar items of furniture to make it feel more like home.

I now have the opposite problem. I need to clear out Mom’s house so that it can be rented. She lived in that house for 45 years, accumulating stuff. Some of the stuff goes back even further, to the 1940s and beyond. My unenviable task is to go through everything, deciding item by item what to keep and what to dispose of. Whatever I keep, I have to find space for in my own home.

The family Bible, for instance. It’s a huge leather-bound tome that, according to the inscription on the first page, was acquired by C. M. Aikin in 1872, at a cost of $20. That was a lot of money in those days! I have no kids and no personal interest in the Bible as a book … but this is not the sort of thing you can put in a garage sale.

I already have plenty of my own paraphernalia — art work on the walls, hundreds of books, treasured bits of this and that. As I go through Mom’s house, I’ll be acquiring more. The heaviness of it all is almost unbearable. I embrace it, and wish I didn’t. I would like to lighten the load sooner rather than later, but I doubt I will do so.

The reason we keep things — photos, souvenirs, antiques, books, old shoes — is because they give our lives meaning. In a sense, our possessions anchor our identities. I am a person who owns books by Cervantes, Dickens, and James Thurber. That figurine was carved by my high-school English teacher; he passed away some years ago. These LPs? Oh, yes — I saw Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore West in 1970.

Most of this stuff will end up in a landfill someday. But maybe with a few of the things, when I’m gone, someone will buy it in the estate sale, take it home, and say, “Look what I found!” It will become part of their collection of meaningful stuff.

The wheel turns.

Once More, With Feeling

Went to a concert last night. Anonymous 4, an amazing a cappella vocal group. Four women singing mostly Medieval liturgical music for an hour and a half. Pure, exquisite tones and intonation in an authentic early music style.

My friend Ernie is married to one of the women in the group, so I had dinner with Ernie and then got in on a free ticket. I don’t think I would have gone otherwise.

I’m glad I heard them. It was a memorable performance. And yet, afterward I found myself reflecting that there was not a trace of Read more

The Hayek Perplex

I had never heard of Friedrich Hayek until somebody on Facebook dragged his name into one of those off-the-cuff discussions of political ills that seem to be a popular online pastime. By googling him, I learned that he was a Nobel-prize-winning economist, that he was admired by England’s arch-conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and that he was not fond of socialism. I am fond of socialism, at least by my own definition of that term, but I also try to remain open to learning new things. So I decided to read some Hayek. Either he would change my thinking for the better, or I would gain the pleasant feeling that I’m smarter than a Nobel-prize-winning economist. Either way, I could hardly lose. What follows are some notes I took while reading Hayek. I expect to have more notes next week, so don’t touch that dial!

Hayek’s first important book, The Road to Serfdom, was published in 1944. At the time, England and the United States were striving desperately to defeat Nazi Germany, and Hayek loses no time in equating the evils of socialism (as he imagines them — the beginning of the book is vague on that point) with the evils of the Nazi Party. Today it’s almost embarrassingly trite to equate people or ideas that you dislike with Hitler and the Nazis, but in 1944 it would have been a fresh approach, and a more urgently appealing analogy as well, whatever its (doubtful) merits.

He goes on in this vein for a number of pages, never pausing to define his terms. On page 16, however, he trots out a provocative assertion: that the scientific progress so much in evidence in Europe in the nineteenth century was caused Read more