Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Little Boxes

Posted by midiguru on August 15, 2015

Q: Why aren’t kids taught how to make their own music?

A: Because adults don’t know how to teach them. Most adults don’t make their own music, and they don’t think making your own music is important. Of the few who do think it’s important (or fun), most are sure it’s much too complicated a skill for kids.

I’m a great fan of music software. You don’t need an orchestra to produce magnificent sonorities, dazzling melodies, sophisticated harmonies, and propulsive rhythms. But you have to learn to use software, and that can be quite a challenge in itself. You also have to learn a certain amount of music theory before what the software is doing will make a lick of sense.

Kids can make their own music perfectly well with song flutes and xylophones. No training is required. Oh, and they can sing!

I’m sure rhythm sticks are still used in a few kindergarten classes. I’m sure kindergarten teachers are still teaching kids songs by singing a line and then having the kids sing it back to them. That’s how music-making began, and it’s how our ancestors did it for untold thousands of years.

Once you graduate from kindergarten, though, music becomes a singularly joyless, highly regimented enterprise. To start with, you’re expected to learn to read and understand pages full of dots and squiggles. That’s a useful skill. You really do need to know about the dots and squiggles, in the same way that an aspiring storyteller needs to learn to read, so she can read stories told by others. But once you start learning the dots and squiggles, it is expected — nay, demanded — of you that you ONLY play the dots and squiggles.

At this point, you’re being trained to be not a musician but a corporate zombie.

I think I want to do something about this. Not sure what yet.

Posted in music, teaching | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Bubble Boy

Posted by midiguru on August 14, 2015

Lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in a bubble, or on a stage set — as if my life isn’t quite real. For a while I was thinking this is because I have no family. But while that may be a contributing cause, as an analysis of the situation I think it misses the mark.

I’m a musician. I enjoy playing music. Yet I feel almost entirely disconnected in an emotional sense from the music-making in my community. I don’t share the attitudes and expectations of either the audiences or the other musicians.

Our community orchestra has a new conductor. She’s working hard to build up the orchestra, and that’s a wonderful thing. In the past I’ve served as principal cellist in this orchestra, a post that gave me the opportunity to try to help the cello section sound better. My efforts may or may not have been effective, but at least I felt that I had some input in or involvement with the process. Playing orchestral music is not creative in any sense, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers activity, but I was able to go beyond that in certain (very limited) ways.

This year we have a new principal cellist. He’s certainly a better player than I am. (He’s also a friend of mine.) I’m very happy to have him take the post, because I want the orchestra to improve! But he has some very definite ideas about how he would like to interact with the cello section. As a result, I need to get out of the way. There is now little or no room for me to make a contribution to the orchestra (though there was little enough before). All I’ll be doing is showing up and wiggling my fingers so as to execute the dots on the page in whatever manner I’m directed to by the conductor and the section leader.

This is not music-making, not really. It’s a zombie activity.

A few years back, I was playing electric cello in a local band. We played original music and we improvised our solos. This was real music-making! We were playing occasional gigs — Saturday afternoon at a local winery, that type of thing. I suggested to the guys that we could work at really polishing the material and then stage our own concert.

They weren’t interested. Playing winery gigs was fine with them.

Eventually I quit the band. There were other issues — namely, drinking wine at band practice, which seemed flagrantly counter-productive to me. But here again, the underlying issue was the guys’ lack of interest in or commitment to excellence. What they were doing was good enough that they could enjoy doing it, and that was the extent of their ambition.

They’re still doing the same stuff today. Their regular gig is at a local wine bar. They’re a very decent band, and I think they may have accurately gauged their audience’s interest in music listening. Music is, for these audiences, a sort of mildly stimulating social backdrop. The wine audiences don’t really give a damn about music one way or the other, nor do they have the cognitive skills that they would need in order to interact with music in a more meaningful way.

What interests me about my own music-making is explorations of form, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Whether I’m good at it or whether I’m a dreadful hack is a different question, and not one that I’m qualified to answer. The point is, when I launch my music app (which happens to be Reason, usually) and start working on a new piece, that’s what I’m involved with. That’s what I care about. And I’m quite sure there are no local audiences who would be equipped to discuss or even perceive the processes I’m exploring. What I’m actually doing musically would be entirely opaque to them. If they were to encounter the music (perhaps on a Friday evening at a local coffee house), they would experience it as a mildly stimulating social backdrop — disposable, ignorable, perhaps momentarily enjoyable based on certain surface characteristics (a strong beat, big chords, whatever), but not something to be actively engaged with.

Some people are actively engaged when listening to classical music. Certainly my friend the new principal cellist is actively engaged — not in a creative way, but he does care about interpretation and is very knowledgeable about the repertoire. And he’s not the only fine classical musician in town.

That’s the picture, though: The folks who care about excellence are not doing original music, they’re just painting by numbers. And the folks who are doing original music don’t care about excellence, only about being good enough to play for (and be ignored by) people who are getting drunk.

This is the local and personal manifestation of a larger social process. In a consumer culture, music is a consumable. It’s something that you market, and its success in the market is presumed to dictate its worth. The idea that a musical ensemble would challenge an audience to engage in active, thoughtful listening is pretty much unmentionable.

Part of the blame for this may lie in the excesses of academic classical music during the 20th century. Challenging the audience (by writing 12-tone music or whatever) was pretty much the only thing composers aspired to do. Those who, like Aaron Copland, wrote more accessible music have withstood the test of time far better than have Schoenberg and Berg.

These days, highly abstract music still exists, in the form of experimental improvisation, but now there’s no underlying form or conceptualization that audiences could aspire to grapple with. Experimental improvisation operates pretty much the way pop music operates at a winery gig — you can have an immediate sensory response to it, or your mind may wander for a minute, but if your mind wanders that’s okay, because there’s nothing going on that you could engage with intellectually.

In this month’s Harper’s there’s an article about how colleges are ceasing (or have ceased) to teach the value of thinking. There’s more to the article (“The Neoliberal Arts”) than that. It’s worth reading. But as it relates to my experiences in community, music-making, it shines a spotlight on the fact that neither musicians nor audiences dare engage in the process of developing their own musical values through a careful process of introspection and dialog. People just accept whatever musical values are prevalent in their neighborhood. Nobody questions. If they strive at all, they strive within a narrowly conceived framework that has been set out for them.

We’ll be playing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in the December concert. Not a bad piece. The narrator will be a former mayor of the town. I have no idea whether he’ll be a fine narrator or a stumbling, stammering mistake. But I was at the meeting where the repertoire was being discussed and the topic of asking the mayor to narrate the piece was brought up. Nobody said, “Gee, maybe there’s a fine local actor who could bring the narration to life in a wonderful dramatic way, with gestures and vocal inflections.” Nobody said anything like that. Innovation and excellence were not on the agenda. Bringing in an audience by having the mayor, a (very minor) local celebrity, narrate — that was the whole point.


Posted in cello, music | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Paint Me a Picture

Posted by midiguru on August 1, 2015

I have a number of friends who are amateur classical musicians. Some of them are quite accomplished — but it always astonishes me that they can’t improvise. I mean, how can you not improvise?

It doesn’t really astonish me, though. Improvising is a separate skill, and they never learned it. Nobody taught them how.

Music education, at least as it’s structured in American public schools, is quite different from art education. Remember “paint by numbers,” where you’re given a canvas or a sheet of paper with numbered areas and you’re supposed to fill in each area with the correspondingly numbered paint color? Even in primary school, your art teacher didn’t teach paint by numbers, did she? No, you were given a blank sheet of paper and some paints, or possibly crayons, and you were encouraged to paint a house, or a cat, or a rainbow, or whatever.

Music is taught almost entirely in the form of paint-by-numbers. Here are the dots. You learn what the dots mean, and how to produce on your instrument the sounds that correspond to the dots. If you do a tidy job of it, you’re a talented young musician!

In every art class in school, students produce original work. But with possibly a handful of exceptions here and there, no students are taught to produce original music until they get to college. This is a damn shame.

The first reason for the difference may be neurological. Any six-year-old can look at a picture of a cat and use his or her visual memory to compare the picture to the appearance of an actual cat. The proportions and the parts (ears, tail, paws, whiskers) are all a matter of immediate experience. Music, in contrast, is entirely abstract. There’s no way to tell whether your melody and harmony are well formed without going through a fairly laborious process of learning music theory.

The second reason is practical. Dots on a page make no sound. Unless the student happens to be a pianist, he or she has (historically, at least) no practical way to hear an original piece of music. And nobody else can hear it either. You don’t accomplish anything interesting by putting a bunch of dots on a piece of score paper. If we imagine a ten-year-old showing her mom a picture she drew of a cat, and then imagine her showing her mom a page full of notated music, the difference will be glaringly obvious.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Today it’s eminently practical for any student, from the age of eight or nine up, to create original music that other people can hear. All you need are a computer, a pair of decent speakers, a MIDI keyboard, and some suitable software.

“Mom, come hear the music I just did!” It’s a different picture now, isn’t it?

The reasons why this isn’t happening yet, except in a few isolated schools, are to do with administration. Some schools don’t have the budget for a computer music classroom. If they have the budget, their computer staff may be completely untrained in music software, and may have no idea how to install or maintain it. And of course most school music teachers would have no clue how to teach creative music-making. They grew up playing the dots, and that’s all they know how to teach.

Last year I volunteered to judge the music side of a student art contest. (By now I’ve forgotten who sponsored it.) What struck me as I listened to the entries was the amazing ineptitude of the student compositions. The kids were trying to compose original music, but quite obviously nobody was helping them learn to do it.

Maybe I ought to buy a dozen music computer installations and teach it myself. If I had a great big room to do it in, I’d be tempted. Trying to work within the bureaucracy of the local school district, though — even thinking about that makes me a little crazy. Anyway, they couldn’t hire me. I don’t have a teaching credential, or even a B.A. I’m a dropout. But damn, somebody ought to do something. I purely hate to see the next generation of kids suffering through paint-by-numbers and never knowing that they could actually make their own music.

Posted in music | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Shrill and Over the Hill

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2015

Okay, here’s a considered response to the Paglia interview in Salon.

I agree with her assessment of Bernie Sanders, which is tucked away at the end of the piece. Other than that, it’s pretty much a farrago of nonsense by an over-the-hill media figure who is trying to get back in the spotlight by stirring up some shit.

First paragraph: She goes out of her way to insult her fellow atheists, based not on any specific things they have said, but because she has a deep respect for “the great world religions.” Does that strike anyone as even slightly self-contradictory?

It’s certainly the case, as she then points out, that cultural values have changed over the past century. It’s true that “the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles … no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of Western civilization.” Apparently her objection to Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris is that they show insufficient respect for religion as a central part of “the heritage of Western civilization.” The difficulty with this line of attack is that their criticism of religion has nothing whatever to do with its importance as part of the heritage of Western civilization. Their criticism of religion is on other grounds entirely. They’re concerned with the negative impact that religion can and often does have on ordinary people’s lives. Culture doesn’t enter into it.

In essence, she’s criticizing them for failing to do what she would have done; yet she fails to address in any way what they are doing. The fact that they have spent years chronicling and railing against the dire abuses of religion is not even on her radar.

She waxes nostalgic about the Sixties, and indeed she’s right that there was a lot more attention being paid (at least in the media) to Eastern religions in the Sixties than there is today. Two observations need to be made about this. First, interest in Eastern religions is still very much with us today — it’s just that she isn’t aware of it, because it’s not in the media the way the Beatles were when they visited the Maharishi. Contrary to her assertion, sitars were not “everywhere in rock music.” There were a maybe three or four hit records that had sitar. Hinduism and Indian influences were a fad, that’s all. And second, who was it that derailed what she calls “this great period of religious syncretism” that was supposedly in the offing? It was the conservatives. She would rather blame pop culture, of course. And hip-hop is not blameless. But who controls pop culture, after all? Multinational corporations, which are the bastion of conservatism.

“There are no truly major stars left,” she complains. Could this possibly be the nostalgic lament of a woman who is getting old, who doesn’t understand what young people are up to these days? Is it possible that pop culture has moved past the need for major stars, or that young people are savvy enough not to trust major stars? Hmm.

She doesn’t like snark. Okay, it’s part of pop culture, and she feels alienated by pop culture, but let’s give her that. She then dismisses God Is Not Great as snark. “He appears to have done very little scholarly study,” she cries. And that’s true enough — but it’s entirely beside the point. Hitchens did not set out to do a scholarly study. His book is frankly a polemic. It was written for the purpose of stating his opinions in a way that would force people to consider them. But Paglia has no interest in actually entering into a dialog with Hitchens’s opinions. She only wants to complain because he didn’t write the scholarly book she would have written.

Paglia claims to be a scholar of pre-Christian religions. Let’s accept that description at face value, though not without noting that her best known book was published 25 years ago, and was as much a polemic as a work of scholarship. It should also be noted that some of the quotes on goodreads.com that are attributed to Paglia seem less scholarly than polemical in the manner of Christopher Hitchens. “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.” One might be forgiven for wondering whether she actually interviewed any prostitutes before writing this. And this: “Gay men are guardians of the masculine impulse. To have anonymous sex in a dark alleyway is to pay homage to the dream of male freedom. The unknown stranger is a wandering pagan god. The altar, as in pre-history, is anywhere you kneel.” This is a shocking stereotype — not at all the sort of thing one would associate with a scholar.

In congratulating herself on her scholarly tendency to do “the necessary research into religion,” she says this: “In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view.” This is a bit odd on two levels. First, it’s not possible to study culture as it existed at the close of the Ice Age. There are no written records of the culture. All we can study are the artifacts that were accidentally left behind. We can make guesses about the culture based on the artifacts, but any reputable scholar will tell you how error-prone such a procedure is. How reliably could an archeologist reconstruct the culture of the Sixties (of which Paglia has such fond memories) based on a hash pipe, a bowling trophy, the chassis of a Dodge Dart, and the rabbit ears from a TV? Second, it’s very much open to question whether modern Native American women really know what their own cultural traditions were in the pre-Columbian period, much less ten thousand years ago. Are “a few letters” from unnamed sources whose views may have been contaminated by Anglo writers in the Sixties a reliable indicator that Paglia’s scholarship is solid?

She then turns to Jon Stewart. Okay, she doesn’t like his snarky style of comedy. She thinks he compares unfavorably with Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Joan Rivers. We might be forgiven for asking whether Paglia’s scholarly research into pre-Columbian Native American culture has made her an expert on modern comedy … but let’s not go there. Let’s look instead at this. Jon Stewart, she says, “has debased political discourse…. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.”

Let’s deconstruct that startling assertion a bit. What she’s saying is that if Stewart weren’t criticizing Dick Cheney, Mike Huckabee, and other conservatives (or were criticizing them more in the manner that Mort Sahl would have done) there would be less polarization in our political discourse. It’s not what they’re actually doing that matters, ordering up trillion-dollar wars and all. It’s Jon Stewart’s tone that is to blame. Or possibly the fact that he has the temerity to bring these issues to our attention at all.

She tells us explicitly that she doesn’t “demonize Fox News.” No matter how consistently they lie, no matter how vociferously they skew the political discourse, they’re not demons in her book. No, it’s Jon Stewart who is to be blamed.

And then this: “Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal [media] discourse.” Liberals had a stranglehold on the media until Limbaugh came along? Really? That must have been why Ronald Reagan’s candidacy was so decisively trounced in 1980 and again in 1984.

The essence of her rant, and the main reason a few folks have been commenting on it on Facebook, is this passage: “Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers. It’s so simplistic!”

Let’s dissect this a little. First we have to ask, what liberals is she talking about? All liberals, or only some of them? Implicitly, she’s talking about all liberals, since she doesn’t bother to qualify her accusation. This is hardly a scholarly analysis, is it? Second, it can hardly be said that Occupy protesters or Black Lives Matter protesters are “barricaded in their comfortable little cells.” She’s not talking about political activist liberals at all — she’s talking about the supposedly liberal professors at universities whom she has encountered. Earlier in the interview, she put it this way: “[I]n the 1990s, I was saying that the academic leftists were such frauds — sitting around applying Foucault to texts and thinking that was leftism! No it wasn’t! It was a snippy, prim, smug bourgeois armchair leftism.” There may be a lot of truth in that; I wasn’t there at the time. But that’s her experience of liberals, in a nutshell, and that seems to be all she knows about liberals.

Given the diversity of opinion in liberal circles, it’s a bit hard to take seriously the idea that she’s talking about “comfortable little cells” in a doctrinal sense. I have liberal friends who love Occupy Democrats. I have liberal friends who despise Occupy Democrats. What “knee-jerk ideology” is she referring to, exactly? We’re not given a clue. She’s not discussing ideas at all; she’s just slinging insults. She has no interest in specifics, or in reasoned discourse. She’s a troll.

She brings up the recent Planned Parenthood video, and slams “liberal thought in the media” for not giving it a big play in the news. She calls this “censorship.” And she complains about this even though she claims to support Planned Parenthood. Does she mention that the video has since proven to have been deceptively edited, or that the practice described in the video is entirely legal and goes to covering their operating costs? It wasn’t news at all, it was a Swift Boat attack. No, she doesn’t bother to mention that. Her real agenda is to slam the supposedly liberal mainstream media for ignoring yet another pointless Benghazi hoo-hah.

The supposedly liberal mainstream media has, meanwhile, given Donald Trump an enormous amount of undeserved coverage. She says, “So far this year, I’m happy with what Trump has done, because he’s totally blown up the media!” She has just contradicted her own view of the media — and now she’s praising Trump (whom she correctly characterizes as “a carnival barker”). She thinks he’s “more of a comedian than Jon Stewart is.” Never mind how dangerous the emotions may be that Trump stirs up among right-wing voters. She doesn’t mind that. It’s not even on her radar.

In sum, Camille Paglia is very, very dishonest intellectually. She’s happy to attack people she doesn’t like without bothering to examine or even mention the content of their ideas. Also, she’s living in the past.

Posted in politics | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Summer Squash

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.

Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.

The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.

When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.

The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.

The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.

It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.

The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?

The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.

The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.

I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.

Posted in fiction, writing | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Cognitive Defects

Posted by midiguru on July 4, 2015

In yet another of those annoying, pointless Facebook wrangles, I found myself stating that conservatives don’t know how to think. This concept requires a bit more explication than Facebook’s slim user interface can conveniently handle, so here we are.

I don’t mean to suggest that conservatives never think. The brighter ones often do. The problem is that their thought processes don’t work correctly. Kurt Vonnegut once compared fascism to a clock. The clock, he said, keeps time perfectly for 5 hours and 32 minutes — and then the hands spin wildly as it backs up to 2 hours and 6 minutes earlier. It then runs perfectly for 27 seconds and then jumps ahead by an hour and 41 minutes, after which it runs perfectly for another 3 hours and 14 minutes…. You get the idea. The problem lies in those strange lapses, those moments when the mechanism (of thought or social organization) breaks down.

I see a couple of reasons why this happens.

First, conservatives conspicuously lack compassion. It is a cardinal rule of conservative thought that if you’re suffering, it’s your own fault, and that if you don’t pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, no one else has any obligation to offer you a hand. Conservatives will sometimes have great compassion for others in their peer group, while actively demonizing those who are not part of their group. It’s not an accident that most racists are conservative: Racist thinking is much like conservative thinking. It’s a deliberate failure to acknowledge the suffering of other people, and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions in causing or perpetuating that suffering.

It’s lack of compassion that causes conservatives to love war. The enemy isn’t seen as human. If the enemy isn’t human, the normal strictures of morality don’t apply.

Conservatives are addicted to winning. They will do whatever it takes to win. If that means keeping the content of an important piece of legislation secret, or shutting up witnesses at a hearing, they have no problem with that.

Just as important as the lack of compassion is that conservatism is ideologically based rather than evidence-based. Conservatives typically ignore evidence that’s right in front of them, because to acknowledge the evidence would force them to re-examine their ideology. The economic policies of Republican lawmakers in the United States are a fine example of this. When their policies tank the economy, the solution they propose is generally more of the same.

Those who are in the grip of ideology have Holy Texts, whose content is not to be questioned. The Holy Text could be the Bible, or it could be the novels of Ayn Rand (who was certainly not a fan of the Bible). It doesn’t matter what the text is; what matters is that when anxiety arises over reality’s failure to adhere to your fond expectations, you can take refuge in the Holy Text, which must be right.

In chemical dependency, refusal to confront the evidence is called denial. Projection is a related mental strategy. In projection, you accuse the other person of engaging in the precise behavior that you’re engaging in yourself. I don’t know whether this is a modern manifestation of conservatism, or whether it’s of long standing, but it’s certainly prominent today. If you mention racial injustice or even suggest that some particular injustice might be racially based, you’re accused of being a racist. If you mention that rich people oppress and cheat poor people, you’re the one who is engaged in “class warfare.” If you’re a Christian of a certain stripe, you claim the right to demand that everybody else should adhere to the rules for personal comportment that are espoused by your church — and if they say they’d rather not, you’re the one who is being persecuted.

I don’t think this is always a conscious ploy. I think many conservative Christians really do feel that they’re being persecuted when they’re denied the privilege of persecuting others. Liberals, in contrast, generally understand that we’re living in a pluralistic society, and that we all need to respect one another’s diverse needs and desires, as long as they don’t cause problems for other people.

And of course, if you point out the defects in conservative thinking, you’re the one who is intolerant of opinions different from your own. The conservative position is that if you don’t smile and nod at whatever egregious nonsense they’re peddling, you’re exhibiting intolerance and bias. The widespread and preposterous attempt to paint mainstream media as having a liberal bias is a good example. If a news organization doesn’t toe the most hidebound conservative party line 100%, that’s a liberal bias.

A corollary of the tendency to cling to ideology is that when presented with a rational argument that debunks their ideology, conservatives will change the subject rather than changing their minds. I saw a good example of this a couple of years ago, while discussing gay marriage with a conservative friend. My friend is no dummy — he has a Ph.D. in a technical field. He was also raised Catholic, which may or may not be relevant. For whatever reason, he just couldn’t see the point of legalizing gay marriage.

I asked him why. The purpose of marriage is procreation, he said. Gay couples can’t have babies, so there’s no reason why they should be able to marry.

I pointed out that our laws allow women who are past menopause and men who have had vasectomies to marry. By his logic, that shouldn’t be allowed.

Well, that wasn’t the point, he said. The point was that children should have a mother and a father as role models. I asked him whether that meant that the children of single mothers and single fathers should therefore be taken away from their parents and put up for adoption, so they could grow up in a household with two parents of opposite sexes.

Well, no, that wasn’t what he meant either. What he meant was that marriage had always, traditionally, been defined as between a man and a woman, and there was no reason to change that.

I pointed out to him, first, that traditional marriage in many parts of the world included polygamy, and that in the European tradition until rather recently, divorce was impossible. Traditions, patently, can and do change.

But why do they need to call it marriage, he asked. Aren’t domestic partnerships the same thing? Well, no, I explained. Not in a legal sense. There are many reasons why gay couples may need the legal benefits of marriage — the right to family hospital visits, inheritance law, the right not to testify against a spouse in court, and so on.

Well, all that was beside the point, my friend said. The point of a marriage was to raise a family, and gay couples can’t have kids.

But many gay people do have children, I pointed out. Well, adopted children, he said. No, I said — not just adopted children. Many gay people have already had biological children before coming out as gay. Isn’t it better that those children should be raised in a stable two-parent household?

At this point my friend switched back to one of his earlier talking points. We had gone around in a circle. I had convinced him of nothing. The reason I had failed was that he had already made up his mind (for reasons that were, I’m sure, mostly unconscious) before the discussion started. My demolishing his talking points one by one had no effect at all, because he wasn’t interested in having a rational discussion. He was only attempting to demonstrate his rationality in order to preserve his own good opinion of himself.

So I yelled at him. I called him a fuckin’ bigot and stomped out.

We’re still friends. And he’s probably still a bigot. He probably still doesn’t get it — and he probably still thinks his position is rational. That’s what I mean when I say conservatives don’t know how to think.

Posted in politics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Modulation Done Right

Posted by midiguru on June 18, 2015

In implementation, thinking through the details of how your users will want to use a feature can make a huge difference.

Today’s details will be of interest to nobody but musicians who use Propellerhead Reason. One of Propellerhead’s optional add-on synths is PX7, a 98% faithful recreation of the hallowed and groundbreaking Yamaha DX7 (which first appeared in 1983). Six-operator FM synthesis — a distinctive and versatile sound.

Yamaha later went on to release several other FM synths, including the lower-cost rackmount TX81Z, which was very popular. This week, a small company called Primal Audio has released the FM4. Like PX7, it’s a Rack Extension for Reason. And it’s a (slightly less faithful, but still good) recreation of the TX81Z, which had one or two distinctive features of its own, notably a choice of eight basic waveforms, as opposed to the DX7’s straight sine waves.

FM4 has CV input jacks on its rear panel for control of the pitch and amplitude of each of the four oscillators. PX7 only has inputs for amplitude of its six oscillators. Ah, but if you put PX7 in a Combinator, you gain access to all of its parameters, including oscillator pitch, via the Combinator’s programmer page. Right? Well, sort of. Actually, “wrong” would be a better description.

Like the DX7, PX7 gives you coarse and fine tune parameters for each oscillator. These are in the form of numbers. Fine tune can be set from .00 up through .99. This is perfectly sensible if you’re programming a sound and can set the tuning ahead of time, before you start playing. If you need a pitch that’s slightly flat, you just dial the coarse tune down to the next lower value and then crank the fine tune up to .98 or .99.

But if you want to apply real-time modulation — from an external LFO, let’s say — to the fine-tune parameter, this implementation is quickly revealed as a disastrous mistake. The LFO, which is being routed through the Combinator, can only move the pitch of the oscillator up, because .00, which is the “in-tune” pitch setting, is not in the middle of the parameter’s travel; it’s at the bottom. The LFO can’t impose a bi-directional pitch wobble, which is what you would typically want — it can only drive the fine-tune upward from .00.

In fact, the problem is worse than that. When modulation is applied to PX7’s fine-tune, it is assumed by the PX7 to be bidirectional from the midpoint of the parameter’s travel. The fine-tune will instantly reset itself to .50 (the midpoint — or to .75 if the coarse pitch is 0.5) so that it can go up or down from there. This completely fucks up the patch.

The FM4 gets pitch modulation right. Guess I’ll have to keep it in my rack after all.

Posted in music, technology | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Call Me a Snob If You Like, but…

Posted by midiguru on June 13, 2015

Should I return to college as an English major? Maybe not.

Yesterday I took a look at the courses English majors are required to take at UC Berkeley. Reading lists are provided with the course listings. One of the courses (English 45B, which covers the 18th and early 19th centuries) puts Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at the very top of the list. Possibly because it’s an alphabetical list, though a few items are out of order. So I thought, hey, I’ve never read it. I’ll give it a try. This will give me some good information about whether I would enjoy being an English major.

Pride and Prejudice is amazingly, mind-numbingly boring. It is an absolute crock. I’ve only read about a quarter of it, but no inducement on Earth would persuade me to go on. The novel concerns itself entirely with the marriage prospects of idle rich girls. Everyone in the book is rich. They have servants. There is, from time to time, a passing mention of a cook or footman, but the servants have neither faces nor names.

What’s worse, the characters in the novel have no interests whatever, other than gossiping, idle chitchat, and dissecting one another’s manners. Were world events unfolding in the years around 1810? Certainly. (The novel was published in 1813.) In 1810 Napoleon married Marie Louise, his second wife. Napoleon was the self-declared emperor of France, a nation quite near England. Also in 1810, he annexed Holland. In 1812, of course, the British army soundly defeated the upstart United States and burnt the capital of the U.S. to the ground.

Ah, but Elizabeth is concerned only with Mr. Darcy. The fact that the cook’s husband is ill, or that Napoleon has annexed Holland — these things concern her not for a moment. In Austen’s austere world view, nothing exists but rich people and their social encounters.

When the English department at UC replaces Jane Austen with Terry Pratchett, call me. I mean this quite seriously. Pratchett was a humorist, but his novels have far more meat on their bones than Pride and Prejudice. They have poor people. They have people taking huge risks and nearly getting killed (or more than nearly). They have recognizable literary themes. They have insight into human nature.

Or maybe Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Yeah, call me when you add that course to the syllabus.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Those Who Can’t (or Don’t) Teach

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2015

As a retired single guy who dropped out of college in 1969, I have a recurring fantasy of going back to get a degree or two. Not strictly for my own satisfaction or to fill the idle hours (though those are considerations) but because, degree in hand, I could teach electronic music at one or two nearby colleges.

It wouldn’t have to be a music degree; pretty much any accredited degree would do. There’s clearly a crying need for instruction in music technology, a need that I could easily fill if only I had that piece of paper saying I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.

My impression is that UC Berkeley pretty much has to let me in as a returning undergraduate, since I left in good standing. Their music department is a good one, but I’m dissuaded from the idea of majoring in music by the performance requirement. Their symphony rehearses on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 7:30 to 10:00 (after which I would have to drive home to Livermore), but I already have a Tuesday evening commitment to the local community orchestra. Oh, and orchestra is a 1-unit class. Five hours a week, to say nothing of the woodshedding, and they give you one lousy unit for it? Excuse me.

In any event, I hardly need experience performing. At the age of 25 I was gigging five nights a week.

Last night’s brainstorm was, why major in music at all? Why not major in English? After all, I’m a professional writer and an avid (though not very selective) reader. So this morning I had a look at the UC Berkeley English department.

The courses look very good indeed. I mean, it’s not my life’s ambition to read Moby Dick, but I’m sure I’d learn a lot.

What I found a bit discouraging, or at least disconcerting, is that almost none of the instructors in the English department is a novelist. Among those who list the novel as their specialty, not a single one lists a novel among his or her published books. Lots of scholarly criticism, but no actual (cough-cough) novels. Among the 12 instructors who list creative writing as their specialty, there are, by my count, three novelists. Mostly it’s poetry, poetry, and more poetry.

You’d think an English department would have a few novelists on staff. Or at least, I’d think that.

Here’s an evil thought. Though I wrote some poetry in my callow youth (a youth so long ago I’d have to look up the word “callow” to learn what it means), I long ago desisted. The only poetry I write now is, quite literally, refrigerator magnet poetry. On my refrigerator are a couple of hundred substantives (nouns, adjectives, and verbs) and a bunch of connecting elements (suffixes, pronouns, conjunctions, and prepositions). From time to time I assemble a wickedly surrealist poem in free verse. I jot them all down in a notebook that sits atop the microwave. So now I’m wondering … if I whipped out a dozen of those refrigerator magnet poems and edited or expanded them so that they appear to have some semblance of actual meaning, and then submitted them as original work in a creative writing class, could I fool a UC Berkeley poetry professor into thinking I was a real poet?

It’s almost worth enrolling at UC just to find out.

Posted in fiction | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Smut Smiters

Posted by midiguru on June 11, 2015

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 121 other followers