BBC News ran a story yesterday summarizing the initial critical reception of Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, upon the 50th anniversary of its publication. Although FOTR did receive some positive reviews (notably including a rave from Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis), many of the book's first critics were unable to take the novel seriously because of the genre. Even if they admired other aspects of the work, they dismissed it as children's literature.
I was a child of 11 when I first read The Lord of the Rings. It was love-at-first-chapter for me then, but I think I get even more enjoyment from it as an adult. There are layers of subtlety in the portrayals of the main characters that were lost on me as a child and teenager. Also, the central themes of the sacrifice of comfort for the greater good, how heroism is possible for anyone, and the bittersweetness of inexorable progress resonate much more now that I'm older. These themes weren't especially original even in the fifties, but Tolkien's presentation of them is both so compelling and so entertaining that their impact is greatly intensified.
So happy birthday to the beginning of one of the greatest stories ever told. Like the works of Beethoven, Mahler, and so many others, Tolkien's trilogy is proof that initial reception tells us very little about the historical and artistic value of a work of art.
I'm really late to the party on this one, but it's too good not to say a few words: here, here, and here are brief articles detailing what libraries have received as part of the CD pricing settlement. (You know, the one that provided you with a check for $13.86 if you bothered to sign up?) Looks like the record companies took the opportunity to dump lots of excess stock: libraries report receiving dozens if not hundreds of copies of such in-demand titles as Whitney Houston's single of the national anthem, Martha Stewart's Scary Halloween Sounds, and the Christina Aguilera Christmas album. Everybody wins!
Many libraries plan to sell off the excess copies and use the proceeds to buy recordings they really want. I have to wonder, though, how many people there could possibly be who are dying to own Three Mo' Tenors and haven't already bought it. Perhaps a number of these CDs will end up being donated to second- and third-word libraries, the ones who are always eager to accept American libraries' castoff books. Ahh. It warms my heart to think of small African children finally having the opportunity to experience such treasures of American culture as Will Smith's Willenium. What a wonderful world.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published this op-ed piece last Thursday on the topic of whether and how universities function as economic drivers in their states. The writer's shocking conclusions are that yes, universities do contribute to the economic health of their states/regions, and yes, their new initiatives toward more direct economic production are a good thing.
Still, although "university-as-economic-engine" is an excellent argument in favor of states providing reasonable financial support for their public universities, the liberal-arts proponent in me wants to fret a little bit about the ultimate result of devoting resources in the directions described in the article. Especially in this day and age, higher ed funding appears to be such a zero-sum game that it's hard to see how whatever is considered less essential (read: arts, literature, music, even history) won't suffer. Unless, of course, new university-sponsored economic initiatives are actually revenue-producing and end up helping to solve the higher ed financing crisis. There's a pleasant thought.
But I remain skeptical, not least because of the op-ed writer's spot-on (if cynical) description of the modern university: "a football team with a trade school attached." Gives me the willies, but in some cases, not so far from the direction we seem to be going.
Rolling Stone documents yet another injustice perpetrated on gays and lesbians by discriminatory marriage laws. Apparently, U.S. copyright law does not allow artists, writers, composers, etc., to leave the rights to their creations to the person of their choice. As the article puts it, "No matter what an artist's intention, spouses, children and grandchildren, in that order, are the first in line to recapture the copyrights, followed by next of kin, executors and administrators." There is essentially no way for copyright owners to reliably pass along those rights with the remainder of their estates. The situation is such that some couples are resorting to adopting one another to ensure that copyrights end up with the person the artist intends.
This angers me from the perspective of basic rights and freedoms, but also because it's yet another demonstration of how wretched, contorted, and generally screwed up U.S. copyright law is. I despair of seeing it fixed in my lifetime, for all of the usual reasons: powerful interests have a lot at stake in keeping things the way they are, and Congress can't be bothered to grapple with the complexities of copyright in the digital environment.
As if trying to change copyright law weren't a daunting enough task, a law professor quoted in the article believes that fixing this would also require amending the Defense of Marriage Act. I can just see Congresscritters lining up to avoid that one! What a mess--time for a few more "activist judges," I guess.
Sounds cool, no? Or at least worth checking into? Well, pPod is actually a guide to London's public toilets, using music, text, and spoken word to provide directions, reviews, and trivia--not to mention musical accompaniment (the example given is, natch, Handel's Water Music).
Consider the endless possibilities: Debussy's La Mer? Hammerstein and Kern's Ol' Man River? TLC's Waterfalls? How about Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax? Okay, maybe not.
As basically silly as pPod is, it is a pretty neat demonstration of the uses to which an iPod can be put. I'd love to have downloadable, interactive, iPod-based guides to any number of cities, museums, and attractions. Who knows? Maybe the sewers of New York will be next!
Why does any marriage make men healthier, but only happy marriages make women healthier? This article from WebMD examines the question (the study and the article were published nearly a year ago -- I'm a little bit behind).
It makes intuitive sense that a happy marriage (or close partnership of any kind) would benefit the health of both parties. But men's health improves even in unhappy marriages, while such marriages have a negative impact on women's health. A Boston University psychologist speculates that marriage's effect on men and women differs because a) men are less sensitive to trouble in a marriage and b) women are generally more supportive partners, at least in part because women learn from birth that one of their major roles is to be supportive of friends, children, and spouse.
Is it just me, or does that not paint a very attractive portrait of the average man? Anecdotally, I have no sense for how true those suppositions might be. I don't see either a lack of sensitivity or supportiveness in any of my male friends. On the other hand, I've certainly heard a lot of second- and third-hand accounts from friends that tell the same old story of male ill behavior. I wonder if anyone has studied perceived levels of sensitivity/supportivness relative to the health of married people.
I also wonder what the health impact is in marriages/partnerships between men. My sense (I'm totally making this up, so beware) is that one partner or the other is likely to assume what would normally be thought of as the "wife" role. Does that mean that the health of the "wife" partner in a gay marriage suffers if the marriage is unhappy? Or do the observed benefits to men happen regardless of how happy the relationship is, just as in heterosexual marriages?
Finally, I'm curious as to what exactly it takes for a single person, male or female, to receive the same benefits to health as the happily married get. The article suggests that single women with a strong support network and a lot of close friends might benefit in the same ways as happily married women do. Corollary to that is the explanation for why single men are more unhealthy than single women: because they are less likely to have formed extensive support and friendship networks. Lots of food for thought here.
The City of Minneapolis passed a smoking ban for bars and restaurants. The ban will be effective next April, and completely bans smoking in all bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, and billiard halls.
This is very exciting news for me personally, as I often avoid going out to bars solely because I can't handle the smoke. The smoking ban will give me a new freedom to go where I want to, when I want to go there. I won't have to feel like I must leave after a single drink in order to spare my lungs further damage. I won't have to immediately chuck whatever clothing I wore out into the washing machine because it stinks of cigarette smoke. John and I won't have to avoid dining at The Chatterbox during prime time anymore because we can't stand choking smoke even though we love the tasty sandwiches and beer.
But I understand that neighborhood bar owners are deeply concerned about the impact this will have on their business. And that makes me wonder...has someone done a study that proves that people buy more drinks if they're allowed to smoke in bars? Or is it that smokers simply won't go out if they can't smoke while they're enjoying their adult beverage of choice? But there must be a multitude of other people like John and me, who would like to go out more but have avoided doing so because of smoke. Are we the only ones likely to spend more time in bars because they're smoke-free? I don't get it, but then, I've never so much as touched a cigarette to my lips. Your insights on this topic are welcome.
Film composer Jerry Goldsmith has died. While Goldsmith has not been one of my favorite film composers, I do admire many of his scores, especially Planet of the Apes, which uses experimental performance techniques and percussion to great effect, and L.A. Confidential, where the understated piano and percussion motives set the perfect tone for the dark, sophisticated crime drama and then build perfectly, along with the dramatic tension, to a devastating conclusion. And unlike many of his peers, Goldsmith never succumbed to the temptation to repeat a single successful style ad infinitum, ad nauseam in all of his film scores.
Let's all raise a virtual glass to the composer of the immortal Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. Farewell, Mr. Goldsmith. Boldly go!
This little tidbit from Reuters by way of Yahoo describes a new invention called "Flower Speaker Amplifiers." This little gadget is hidden in a potted plant and broadcasts sound at a frequency that causes the plant's stems and leaves to function as amplifiers. In other words, this thing can make your houseplants talk and sing to you.
I can't quite decide if this is cool or just too bizarre to contemplate. Just think of the possibilities. If you had a room full of plants, you could tune them all to different radio stations and drive unsuspecting guests batty. (Scott and Danielle, I'm envisioning this for your entryway!) You could line a hallway or outdoor walkway with talking plants that all calmly whisper threats of mayhem. You could torture your pets by making your plants speak with your voice. The possibilities are endless, if a little bit creepy.
Oh, and did I mention the invention is Japanese? I bet you're not surprised.
The question is, is there any value in this beyond the cool factor? In the press release, a couple of faculty suggest potential uses for the iPods. And, yeah, I can see how they'd be useful for language instruction, in music courses (duh), and for PDA-like functions. But really, isn't this just a marketing gimmick? "Come to Duke! Only 40 grand a year, plus a free iPod!" Not to mention, it's a great way for Apple to cultivate more Pod People.
Don't get me wrong -- I love my iPod to death. You can have it only if you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. Maybe I'm just not able to think outside the box (the pod?) on this one. But to me, this looks like adopting technology for technology's sake, not because anyone has a brilliant plan for how to use it effectively. Well, I'm sure I'm being too hard on them. They do say the whole project is an experiment.
On a side note, the press release says that Duke will create a web site modeled on the iTunes site, "where students can download faculty-provided course content, including language lessons, music, recorded lectures and audio books." Oh, and incidentally, "they also will be able to purchase music through the site." I wonder if Duke's libraries are involved with that. It seems like a golden opportunity to raise the profile of the library, as well as to make sure the library is known as the major provider of scholarly and academic content within the institution.
Here's something neat. Musicplasma gives you a graphic representation of where your favorite bands/artists fall in the grand scheme of things. The idea is that you'll like the performers that lie on the map in close proximity to your known favorites. It's a fun toy (and very pretty), though, as always, recommendations based on god-only-knows what criteria are more than a little suspect. The site doesn't tell you the source of the information used to generate the map, so there's really no way to evaluate its trustworthiness. (By the way, if any of my geek friends are reading this -- Andy, that means you -- how the heck does this thing work?)
My initial results are not completely off base, especially with regard to more recent stuff. Older things are a little harder for musicplasma to peg. For example, in the orbit around Radiohead are the Thrills, the White Stripes, the Strokes, and the Kings of Leon. Okay, that's reasonable. But Coldplay and Travis, who are one more ring out from Radiohead, are more similar to Radiohead than several of the bands in the first ring. And in Abba's first ring, musicplasma places Bob Seger and the Doobie Brothers. Hmmm. Maybe I'm dense, but I'm just not seeing the stylistic similarities. Of course, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban, Andrea Bocelli, and Charlotte Church are only a little farther removed, and I grudgingly have to admit that they're fairly close to Abba in some ways.
I searched Charlie Parker as well, to see how musicplasma would do outside the realm of pop. Closest to Parker on the map are Dizzy Gillespie, Monk, Coltrane, and Bill Evans. I can't argue with that, but those aren't exactly earth-shaking recommendations, either. But (unsurprisingly?) musicplasma fails miserably with classical music: a search for Mozart gave me a portion of the map that showed (get this) Ellipsis Arts Lullabies, Baby Einstein, Brahms, and Music for Little People. Uh...yeah.
Anyway, enough about that. Go waste some time over there, or something.
I'm not usually one for cheap shots at politicians, even ones as richly deserving of them as George W. Bush, but this is too good to pass up. The title quotation seemed appropriate -- it's good to learn that Shrub does have a concept of what his job is all about, after all. Like Slate's regular Bushisms, this gives me the pleasure of seeing someone impaled on his own words whose existence in a position of power depresses me to no end.
Another item from the Star Trek department: Wil Wheaton has just published a memoir/autobiography/collection of essays titled Just a Geek. Amazon.com's description makes it sound pretty gag-inducing: "...Wil shares his deeply personal and difficult journey to find himself. You'll understand the rigors, and joys, of Wil's rediscovering of himself, as he comes to terms with what it means to be famous, or, ironically, famous for once having been famous. Writing with honesty and disarming humanity, Wil touches on the frustrations associated with his acting career, his inability to distance himself from Ensign Crusher in the public's eyes, the launch of his incredibly successful web site, wilwheaton.net, and the joy he's found in writing. Through all of this, Wil shares the ups and downs he encountered along the journey, along with the support and love he discovered from his friends and family. " Ugh. And thus begins my titanic struggle to keep my lunch down.
But...at least one semi-trusted Internet source (the Librarian In Black) says that it's a worthwhile read. I'm reluctant to run right out and buy it (mostly because I think doing so would say something really kinda sad about me), but I have to admit I'm curious. Wheaton has certainly strayed far (but successfully) from the typical child star's path to adulthood. Maybe reading what he's written wouldn't be a complete waste of time. I'll have to see what Dr. Dregs thinks.
In just under the wire for Monday...ran across this item from Reuters via CNN.com. Apparently, Linda Ronstadt (singer who had a lot of big hits in the 70s: think "Blue Bayou" and "You're No Good") dedicated a performance of the song "Desperado" to Michael Moore during a performance at the Aladdin casino in Las Vegas. She was greeted with a near-riot by some of the audience members, a quarter of whom left the concert, apparently demanding their money back. Following the show, she was escorted from the premises with the message that she would "not be welcomed back."
This reminds me of last year's Dixie Chicks incident on a smaller scale. I can see why the Aladdin wouldn't want their performers alienating paying customers with political screeds, but a song dedication hardly qualifies as deeply offensive. Really, why shouldn't musicians (actors, writers, whatever) use their bully pulpits to slip in a political message now and then? If music is essentially a means of self-expression, why is anyone surprised and/or offended when musicians tell us what they really think? I say, get over it. I don't see how Linda Ronstadt's politics have anything to do with her singing. I mean, she isn't the Indigo Girls. It's not like she decided to spend the whole show giving political speeches instead of singing -- she just dedicated one song to a controversial figure. The extreme reaction of the audience says something pretty appalling about the level of maturity and sophistication in our political discourse.
What is a sport and what isn't? Jordan Ellenberg, a math professor at Princeton, tries to answer this question in Slate. Unsurprisingly, he spends a lot of time discussing competitive math, but he hits several other interesting points as well.
This resonates with me partly because of two things. First, we recently saw Dodgeball (which, by the way, if you haven't seen it, is much funnier that you'd expect), with its spot-on sendup of the coverage of niche sports ("ESPN8: The Ocho!"). Second, while flipping channels late at night sometime last week, John and I caught ESPN2's (the true "Ocho") rebroadcast of Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, in which Takeru Kobayashi, a tiny Japanese guy, somehow managed to eat 54 hot dogs in 12 minutes to set a world record and win the contest. The broadcast came complete with all of the lame commentary you'd expect from any sporting event, and the actual contest was followed by interviews with the "athletes" who participated. There was lots of talk about the trials and tribulations of the competitive eating circuit, the rigors of training for competitive eating, and which contestants were the holders of records for various foods. All in all, it was the kind of spectacle you can't believe you're watching, yet you can't tear yourself away.
So maybe that's part of how we define what is a sport and what isn't: whether or not there's a spectacle involved, and how much entertainment value there is in watching the activity. Watching people solve math problems is pretty boring, no matter how impressive the mental feat -- you can't see the thought processes, so there's no overt drama. Chess and bridge have a little more going for them in this regard, but still, a viewer has to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the game in order to become really absorbed by the proceedings.
Getting back to the article that put me on this train of thought, I do have to take issue with one of Ellenberg's throwaway lines: "It is a fact that basketball is a sport, and it is a fact that sauteing zucchini isn't." I don't know about that. Hasn't he ever seen Iron Chef? Here are people with astonishing physical and mental skills engaged in a physically draining, timed competition that is numerically scored. Admittedly, the scoring is subjective, but how is that any different from figure skating or gymnastics? (On a side note, at least chess and bridge have objectively quantifiable results!)
I don't really have a larger point here. It's just that it's pretty fascinating what kinds of things humans will build elaborate competition rules around. And how a simple word like "sport" that everyone is assumed to understand is actually really, really hard to define with any precision.
Thanks to Ethan Bunke for pointing out today's Barbara Ehrenreich column in the New York Times: an examination of groupthink, its dangers, and its increasing prevalence in American society and politics, which also manages to throw in a few nice anti-war sentiments on the side.
On the one hand, I think Ehrenreich is right to be alarmed. On the other hand, my sketchy knowledge of history tells me that deviation and speaking out have always been unpopular choices (often resulting in punishment) when a nation perceives itself as under attack. I'm thinking especially of the McCarthy era, during which even suggesting that the USSR and/or communism might have a teeny tiny bit of merit could get a person blacklisted. And am I just too young to remember a time when politicians weren't regularly accused by their opponents of being out of step with the attitudes and opinions of their constituents? I'd like to think that no matter how splintered and niche-heavy the views of the electorate might be now, there never was a time when everyone really agreed on all of the issues of the day.
So maybe we just need to wait for the pendulum to swing back the other way. Still, though -- don't we like to think of ourselves as having "grown up" enough as a society not to punish dissenters purely because they dissent? Maybe the deeper point lurking in Ehrenreich's piece is that contemporary groupthink is even more insidious because the punishments meted out to its deviants are met with such weak protest. We say nothing not so much because we're afraid of retaliation, but because we're too apathetic, too anesthetized by the details of our daily lives, and too convinced of our inability to change things to object. It's a pretty chilling thought.
An opinion piece in the Indianapolis Star makes the claim that the skyrocketing cost of higher education is largely the result of falling productivity on the part of higher ed employees. The argument comes from Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, a new book by Ohio University economist Richard Vedder.
I will have to add this to my reading list, but if summaries and reviews are accurate, Vedder believes that the total privatization of higher education is the route to lower tuition. Sounds crazy, no? Vedder appears to take a pretty radical position of faith in the free market: he thinks colleges and universities spend so profligately and operate so inefficiently because they are too much protected from competitive forces. If public institutions were forced to operate more like for-profit businesses, they would have no choice but to slash everything that wasn't necessary, so that they could keep tuition at a competitive level.
Hmmm. I'll have to report back after I've had a chance to read the book.
Big blogging day today, I guess. But I just have to comment on this, an article delineating Fox's plan for a 24/7 reality show cable channel. Not that this is surprising, coming from Fox -- what's more upsetting is the bit of information tucked in at the end of the article that there's another all-reality all-the-time cable channel in the works: Reality Central.
What bothers me is not so much the prospect of perpetual opportunities to watch and re-watch shows that make me want to remove my eyeballs with a dull butter knife(like Big Brother and The Mole), but the fact that a significant portion of these networks' programming will be devoted to -- get this -- analysis and commentary. Analysis and commentary?!? Do they mean serious analysis and commentary? Because I think my head will explode if I'm exposed to people who are actually paid good money to provide their deep insights into the latest American Idol rejection.
Not that there isn't a place for snarky, irreverent commentary on reality shows. And here it is: Television Without Pity. I say, give their writers a cable channel and let them go for it. Now that would be must-see-TV!
Happy 31st Birthday (yesterday) to my little brother Jeff, the talented and esteemed city manager of Dell Rapids, South Dakota. Okay, so I just mentioned that to get the link in there. But he doesn't have a personal web site (maybe after the baby comes, hint, hint), so City of Dell Rapids it must be.
Hope it was a good one, Jeffo!
Here's an entertaining diversion from Slate, a quiz that purports to determine your personal level of "red" or "blue"-ness. We're not really talking politics here, but culture.
It's an amusing little quiz. I came out in the middle, which I attribute to an awareness of the geography of the Upper Midwest (questions on Door County, the UP, and the Quad Cities -- incidentally, all of these are "blue state" places, at least according to the results of the 2000 "election"), as well as just knowing stuff. I mean, are there really people out there who can't identify Lee Greenwood, Jed Bartlet, Jon Stewart, and Laura Schlesinger? People living in America who have been vaguely sentient during the last decade? I refuse to believe it.
Anyway, I suppose it is Midwestern-ness that puts me in the middle (literally as well as figuratively. Ha!) The quiz does have another regional bias, though: I can identify several New York/East Coast questions, but I don't see any California/West Coast questions. Since knowing the answers to the New York questions places one toward the blue side of the spectrum, are Californians and Pacific Northwesterners (definitely culturally "blue" places by the quiz's methodology, I'd guess) at a disadvantage? A burning question if ever there was one.
The Strib reports that Target's corporate headquarters are moving away from their business-casual dress code to one that will basically require suits for both men and women. Employees are predictably upset, foreseeing major wardrobe investments in their immediate futures. The timing couldn't be worse, since Target just sold Marshall Fields, and employees will soon lose their discount at the department store.
Is this a sign of a trend toward more formal workplaces? The Strib article thinks not, citing General Mills and American Express as two large local employers that are sticking with a business casual dress code. Best Buy, however, has always had a fairly formal and restrictive dress code, both for employees in the retail stores and at headquarters.
The article points out that very specific dress codes can help protect a company against lawsuits. The whole thing reminds me a little bit of the trend toward uniforms in schools. Both seem to say that people (no matter their ages) can't be trusted to dress themselves appropriately without strict guidance. I'd like to think better of rational adults, but casual observation forces me to conclude that corporations and schools are right about this. It's the classic scenario where given the freedom to choose, people insist on choosing the worst possible options, and so must have their choice taken away. Overall, it's a pretty sad commentary on society.
These things turn up in the oddest places. According to this AP story, a British man vacationing in Australia bought a suitcase at a flea market which turns out to be full of Beatles memorabilia, including a four-and-a-half hour reel-to-reel tape of Lennon and McCartney. Apparently, this might be the "Mal Evans Archive," a bunch of stuff lost in the investigation of Evans's death in 1976. How it wound up in an Australian flea market is anybody's guess. It will be interesting to see if it's authentic...any bets?
I don't quite know what to make of this (from the Chronicle of Higher Education -- only available to non-subscribers for five days, so beware). Indiana University Press, publishers of a new collection on composer Rebecca Clarke, withdrew and recalled the book because of alleged copyright violations. The editor of the collection, Liane Curtis, claims that Christopher Johnson, the holder of the copyright of Clarke's unpublished writings and works, has a personal vendetta against her, which resulted in his attorney sending IUP a friendly letter asking them to withdraw the book.
It's pretty sad when what might amount to nothing more than a personal squabble ends with the suppression of scholarship. And Curtis might well be correct in her argument that everything in the book constitutes a fair use of Clarke's unpublished works under the law. But there must be more to this than meets the eye. Curtis, at least, seems to have no interest in taking the high road. Could it be that hell hath no fury like a scholar scorned? Maybe she's justified -- after all, I'm sure she's dedicated loads of time and effort to this project.
The Chronicle article makes the point that perhaps the more important larger issue here is the powerlessness of the university press. They can't afford to take this thing to court and test Curtis's theory that this really is fair use. Do we live in a brave new world where all it takes to suppress ideas -- even in academia -- is the threat of legal action under copyright law? There's a scary thought.
A couple of disclaimers/warnings: 1) I'm treading on Dr. Dregs's territory here, so I hope he can forgive me, and 2) I'm not really a Trekkie -- just a casual fan, and therefore not really qualified to comment on anything Trek-related. But I can't resist. Slashdot led me to this little nugget from TrekToday. Apparently, Enterprise won't be dealing with the Romulan Wars, since Rick Berman is plotting the next Star Trek movie around them -- and he says it won't intersect at all with Enterprise.
I have mixed feelings about this. The last couple of Trek movies have been pretty depressing experiences overall, despite the fact that I more or less enjoyed them and will certainly watch them again (and yes, I can already feel the many pathetically to-be-wasted hours of my life ticking away in that sentence). So I've been half hoping that Paramount et al. would be ready to throw in the towel on Trek films, since the last couple of installments have been critical and box office disappointments. On the other hand, hope springs eternal -- maybe, just maybe, freed from the constraints of pre-established characters, time periods, technology, etc., the Trek Powers That Be can come up with something really interesting and original -- even (dare I suggest it?) good.
I'm just trying not to remember that I hoped for the same thing before Enterprise began. What a disappointment. I didn't even make it all the way through the first season (Dr. Dregs, however, remains rather sweetly if hopelessly loyal to it, so I do catch a few minutes of it here and there). Maybe Berman and company can pull this off, but I'm not optimistic. We'll have to see.
(Self-reflection kicks in) But ... uh, wait, does it say something about me that I get burned over and over again but still go back to Star Trek? (End self-reflection) Don't say it -- I told you, I'm not a Trekkie!
Every month, I make a playlist of 10-20 favorite songs of the moment on my iPod. Songs included could be old or new, cheesy or sublime, and might fall into any genre I'm willing to listen to. Here is my July playlist, with annotations:
More of this next month. And hey, let me know if you have any songs, albums, or artists to recommend. I'm always looking for good new (to me) stuff.
As if we didn't already know this, a study by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that reading among Americans is in serious decline. But it's worse than you think. According to the study, 89.9 million adults did not read a book in 2002. 89.9 million people! did NOT read! even ONE book! Astounding.
Of course, both the NEA and the book industry think this is a national crisis, a tragedy. I tend to agree, but the AP story doesn't really say why the decline of reading is such a problem: because the amount of reading you do is directly proportional to how well you communicate, especially in writing. Because reading helps you learn critical thinking, which helps you function in the world. And those are just a couple of the reasons that instantly occur to me.
But ... here's my question. Are people reading good writing, but just not in books? Are people satisfying their hunger for the written word on the Internet? Sure, the Internet is full of really awful writing. But there's also plenty of mediocre-to-great stuff out there, especially with the explosion of blogging. I'm curious as to whether the study addresses this at all.
Guess I should track it down and read it.
Mote argues that the existing "personal benefit model" of attitudes toward higher ed is increasingly unsustainable, especially in light of the alarmingly large increases in tuition necessitated by the reductions in public higher ed funding across the country. Graduates assume so much debt to get through school that they are unable to repay it. Additionally, fewer and fewer graduates have the option to choose careers in service of any kind (teaching, scholarship, government) -- a circumstance which is already causing the beginnings of a crisis that Mote argues will only get worse.
At current funding levels, there is no way to provide the level of access to higher education that citizens want along with the level of quality they have come to expect. I wonder how many people understand the connection between the crown jewel that is the American higher education system and our high level of innovation, huge wealth, and high standard of living. I agree completely with Mote's statement of the problem. I just wish he (or someone else) could propose a better solution than "work to raise awareness."
Caught about half of the 10 am hour of MPR's Midmorning. Today's interviewees are a couple of rock critics flogging a book to which they contributed essays: Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Critics Reconsider the Classics. The "classics" of the title include the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Pink Floyd -- and even some more recent stuff like Radiohead and Wilco. I'm a sucker because, yes, I'm going to run right out and buy this book.
I'm skeptical, though, I have to say. Interested, but skeptical. Is this just more of Gen-X/Gen-Y taking aim at the cultural touchstones of the Baby Boomers? (Not that the idols of the Boomers don't really, really need to be taken down a notch or two!) Even so, I suspect it will be a good read. As John pointed out, Roger Ebert's I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie is so amusing because bad reviews are a lot more fun to read than good reviews.
I'm doubtful, however, that this book (along with pretty much all criticism) has any real or lasting cultural value except as a document for social historians. Taste is subjective, and I'm convinced there's no meaningful way to answer the question of what's empirically good versus what's empirically bad when it comes to art (or anything purporting to be art). Still, although my pop music tastes are no doubt hopelessly pedestrian by the standards of rock critics (I don't have nearly enough of the obscure), I can't help but feel sometimes like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity: you are what you like.
An article in last week's Star Tribune discusses the trend among many higher ed institutions to drop "college" from their names in favor of "university." Ack! I hate this trend.
I understand that the higher ed marketplace is one of cutthroat competition these days, especially for second- and third-tier institutions and adult education programs. But does "Flipflop University" really sound that much more prestigious than "Flipflop College"? And even if it does, so what? How many students (of all ages and levels) choose a school based on the name? That's just silly -- not to mention, potentially very foolish and a big waste of bucks.
A lot of institutions justify the change with the argument that since they offer graduate and professional programs, they should properly be called universities. "College," the reasoning goes, signifies an institution that concentrates on undergraduates. But I wonder if that distinction is really a clear one in the conventional wisdom about higher ed. Have I just been on the inside of academia too long to have any perspective?
Of course, the real irony is that with the number of schools changing their names from college to university, the prestige factor of "college" ought to increase. As the article points out, top-quality liberal arts colleges like Carleton, Macalester, and St. Olaf (not to mention Oberlin, my beloved alma mater) are not about to change their names. These places are colleges, and they're proud of it. So the smaller the number of institutions that call themselves "college," the more meaningful and prestigious that name will be, right? Maybe this isn't such a bad trend after all...
This guy wants to change the key of The Star-Spangled Banner from Bb to G. The major advantage is that the highest phrases of the melody would fall into a reasonable, singable range for most people (personally, I like Bb -- but then, my singing voice is a high soprano, so I have no trouble reaching the highest notes).
It's not a terrible idea, but I wonder if Mr. Siegel (who says he is not a trained musician) has considered the impact this would have on high school and community bands across the country. These groups love Bb. They'd play everything in Bb if they could. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but unless things have changed a lot since I was a beginning clarinetist, kids learning band instruments learn the Bb major scale before any others. For some, it's probably the only scale they ever learn. Many casual players of band instruments are puzzled if not stymied by other keys (particularly sharp keys). As things stand, almost any band in America can learn to play The Star-Spangled Banner passably well -- because it's in Bb.
Of course, the key change wouldn't cause any problems for pro or near-pro groups like military bands. And G is certainly an easier key for a full orchestra. But there's something quintessentially American about an amateur wind band's rendition of the national anthem. I don't think we should make it any harder for them.
A couple of other observations: perfect-pitch boy John no doubt has a more informed opinion about this, but I think that The Star-Spangled Banner melody in Bb offers a necessary brightness or brilliance that G lacks. And as long as we're talking about changing the national anthem, how about adopting America the Beautiful instead? A majestic, attractive, singable melody coupled with a lovely, optimistic, stirring poetic text -- this is our ideal national anthem.
John and I rode the Hiawatha Line again today, and we had a very agreeable journey down to Fort Snelling. We walked to the 38th street station this time, which as it turns out is a pleasant 15 minutes away on foot. Granted, the walk will not be so pleasant in January (except for those of you who may enjoy the loss of sensation in various extremities, possibly resulting in the loss of actual extremities). But for three out of four seasons, the trek will be tolerable to lovely.
As we waited on the platform, we noticed some of the art at the station. Most clever are the miniature houses suspended from the station roof. According to this pdf (which includes pictures of each station), "the roof reflects nearby neighborhoods where bungalow homes are predominant. Sears catalog bungalows are cast in bronze and suspended from the roof to create a sense of discovery." That whole "sense of discovery" thing is a turn of phrase I would most certainly have found mockworthy before today, but damned if we didn't experience a sense of discovery when we noticed the little bungalows over our heads. This is some neat stuff.
So it was serendipity that I happened upon an article in today's Strib outlining some of the issues there have been with many of the public art installations commissioned for the Hiawatha Line. I'm sure these issues arise with almost any public art installation, but the variety of circumstances causing delay provides a neat summary of both the complexity and the ambitions of the whole Hiawatha Line project. We're trying to do something really cool here, people!
Still not convinced? Just wait until Janet Zweig's "Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting" is finally installed: at 11 of the 12 stations, passenger-activated LCD screens "will feature audio and video shorts by Minnesota filmmakers, singers and storytellers." Rock on! This kind of thing reminds me why I'm still proud to live in Minnesota.
Andrew Leonard writes in Salon.com exactly what I've argued since I first warily clicked through to the iTunes Music Store a year ago April: that reasonably priced, legal access to downloadable music makes me a better music consumer -- and that the megacorporations controlling the content should be happy about that. Instead, they keep looking for ways to screw up the best thing that's happened to them in a good long while.
As I posted to the MGROE list a few months back: "I don't know exactly how much money I've spent on iTunes over the past year. Maybe $50 or $60, if that much. But I can tell you this: that's $50 or $60 of my money that Big RecordCo would never have seen otherwise. And I can think of at least half a dozen albums that I've bought (or will probably buy) that I never would have considered without being able to "sample" by buying a 99 cent iTunes song. That's a few more bucks that won't go the recording industry's way. I'm sure I'm not alone..."
This article, from Nature of all things, discusses the findings of a researcher who has concluded that tonal music (you know, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms -- everything written before the early twentieth century) is more comprehensible than atonal music because tonal music displays a characteristic common to language: Zipf's law. Zipf's law (applied to language) essentially says that once a word has been used in a text, it is more likely to appear again, which aids comprehension. The researcher plotted various tonal and atonal pieces for frequency of individual notes, and found that Zipf's law held true for the tonal pieces, but not as much for the atonal pieces. So he concludes that tonal works are more comprehensible because the listener has a better idea of what to expect as the work progresses.
In many ways, this seems intuitively obvious. Tonality, especially as it was practiced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fundamentally privileges certain notes of the scale over others (i.e., the tonic and the dominant). Naturally, those appear more frequently. They also appear in more prominent contexts. Whether listeners know any music theory or not, they have enough "practice" listening to tonal music to know more or less what to expect. And Schoenberg, whom the article uses as an example of an atonal composer, did move toward twelve-tone composition in order to escape this particular stricture of tonality: in simple terms, his goal was to devise a system in which no pitch was more important than others.
This really only scratches the surface, though. The context of a tonal work is produced not only (or not even primarily?) through pitch privilege and frequency, but also through harmony and form. These elements both contribute greatly to listener comprehension, and in many cases, are pretty much completely dependent on one another. I'd like to see research that accounts for all of these factors.
I'm also curious about the choice of Debussy as one of the composers whose music was analyzed. I don't normally think of Debussy as a tonal composer, though I don't think of him as an atonal composer either. Debussy remained grounded in tonality on some levels, but definitely stretched its boundaries pretty far. I wonder how his music stacked up against the pieces of Mozart and Bach also included in this study.
Finally, I still struggle with the whole concept of comprehension as it relates to music. How do we define musical comprehension? How do we know if anyone really understands a musical work? Although the article (and the research?) relies on the frequently-drawn parallel to language, I've always found that troubling, simply because we can't "think" in music, and we can't really pin down in language what any given piece of music is trying to communicate. It's not that I think attempting to understand isn't worthwhile. It's just on some level, I'm not convinced that these questions can ever be satisfactorily answered.
I tried the Hiawatha Line yesterday afternoon for the first time. I took the train from the 38th Street Station to the Metrodome, and then caught a 16 bus to the West Bank. John and Phil dropped me off at the station, where I waited about 5 minutes for a northbound train. The train seemed to be about half full, not bad for 1:30 on a weekday afternoon. The ride was smooth and fast. It took less than 10 minutes for the rail portion of the trip, which included an unscheduled stop at the yards to switch drivers. I stepped off the train at the Metrodome, walked over to the bus stop, waited for a minute or so, and a 16 pulled up. 3 minutes later, I was on the West Bank.
I have no idea whether the Hiawatha Line will succeed, but I know I will take it again, probably to evening events downtown (for example, seeing a movie at Block E). Of course, by the time John and I both pay our train fare, it won't be cheaper than Block E's validated parking, but I think it will be worth it to spare the hassle of driving downtown. I also look forward to taking the train to the Mall of America on those weekends when convenience or family obligation forces us to go there, as well as the airport, once the remainder of the line opens in December.
One disappointment: unlike the Disney World monorail, there is no disembodied voice kindly advising you to "please stand clear of the doors" in English and Spanish. Instead, there's a loud, shrilly dissonant electronic beep that sounds before the doors open and close. But it's a minor complaint. On the whole, riding the Hiawatha Line was pleasant and convenient. I just hope a lot of other people feel the same way.