Saturday, December 15, 2012


As smarter men than me have suggested, easy access to guns is the difference between a killing and a killing spree.   If that guy only had a knife--or even a hunting rifle--it seems unlikely he'd have been able to take 30 other people out along with the one he actively hated.  And if you're down to advocating armed kindergarten teachers as the thin line between order and chaos, then you might want to step back and reconsider your notions of "freedom."

Gun controls?  I don't know if that fixes very much, really.  Even if they seem to be effective elsewhere, we've got our own brand of advocacy here in America, and we have different local stresses, and neither of those will ever be what's addressed.  If there's a solution to this, I am pretty sure that all of the hero fantasies I keep reading in response, all those revenge fantasies, all those delusions of steely competence, those things are closer to the problem.

[Appended: I keep going back and forth about posting my feelings to my "friends" on the various social media that I am reacting to.  Part of my growing disgust is all that unsolicited sanctimony, and unfortunately, what I have to say can only be included in that category.  At least anyone reading my shitty blog is here because they want to read what dumb things that are on my mind.]

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I Just Want to Bang on the Drum All Day

The devil's in the details, they say, and god is in the gaps. We organize the world into thoughts, clauses and words, even though the real conversation happens in the transitions and in the spaces in between them. True meaning requires context and nuance, and true dialogue requires some understanding beyond what the words are saying, some faith of intent, some invisible working models of yourself and your partner (and of reality itself) which are always the hidden participants in any exchange, interacting above the robotic flow of data. Inflection matters. What's not said matters. It's why we go nuts over irony. Or poetry. Or fiction. It's why online conversations can be difficult sometimes. And it's what, in music, gives life to what is otherwise a bunch of notes.

Music is just one more thing that we humans--or maybe the universe itself--has made an annoying effort to discretize. And I'm not just talking about rhythm here. In many ways, pitch, to be arranged artfully into music, has to get stacked in set intervals in frequency space. The urge to do this may well be biological. The pleasure of hearing harmonics--frequencies that are integer (or simple integer fraction) multiples of each other--may well be a necessary artifact of being blood-and-guts machines. Deep in our inner ears, the actual business of sound detection occurs via arrays of tiny electromechanical resonators, and while the transduction of sound into nerve signals is complex and interesting, the vibrations themselves still must be supported on a bunch of actual, physical things, in order to get the sensation funneled into our brain. The fact that we have, fundamental to our hearing, all these bunches of guitar-string cells, each tuned to different notes, means that the same receptors will be sensitive to harmonics, and when we register "consonance," we're thrumming groups of hair cells that naturally buzz together, massaging them in a similar way, in somewhat different proportions, and it can't help but feel good, like scratching each other's itch.

To step it back for the non-nerds, we can envision sound harmonics as waves on a string. When the string is plucked, it will want to vibrate back and forth, keeping the ends anchored. It can move in lots of ways under these conditions, but after a very short time, only a few stable vibrations (standing wave modes--the picture shows a few of them, taking a few snapshots in time) will emerge, corresponding to how many wavelengths can fit neatly on the string's length. The second mode has half the wavelength, and, as though a string was fretted at that node point, it will move back and forth twice as fast as the first mode, and so on. Likewise, when a string encounters an external source of motion that pushes it at one of its natural frequencies, then it will start to buzz there on its own (what it means when a mode is "excited"). Some wiseass is going to say, "Hey Keith, sound waves are longitudinal, man, those vibrations breathe in and out instead of bend up and down," but the modal analysis is the same--a solid sustaining a vibration at some frequency (possibly in a complex way) will radiate longitudinal sound waves into the air. Maybe less obviously, the modes are evenly spaced here only because we're imagining the string as a one-dimensional system, where the disturbance at points along the straight line is the only one that matters. That's a fine approximation when it comes to your hair cells, which are rod-shaped, and for almost all musical instruments, which excite strings like in the picture or the air inside a pipe. (I think the brass family is the only group of instruments that is designed to excite higher order modes when it's played, however. Usually, you just change the length of the cavity. Imagine how fast you'd have to blow across a flute to get the n=2 stuff out! You can do it on a stringed instrument, if you hit it just right, tap it halfway down its length, but there's not a whole lot of point to that.)

You might argue that once you choose a frequency to tune the band on, you're pretty well stuck with the corresponding set of modes. And it's true! There are entire volumes of musical conversation that are ruled out once you define your key. But fortunately, not all is lost. We can add in a lot of obscure modes to give a given instrument a unique timbre, and there are an important class of instruments that don't work this way (and more on this later). Even all the ones that do, they allow varying access to this space, letting the skilled player suggest all the drama that lies just off resonance. Also, we are given to work with the fact that Western tuning is inherently fucked.

Personally, I find the intersection of musicianship and acoustics to be vexing. It's irritating to me that a "third" interval has nothing to do with the third harmonic up there, that a "fifth" is a half, and so on. (The problem is really the English language: the ordinal number and the fractional number should never have been the same word.) In the usual convention, we break up every doubling of the frequency (every octave) into twelve equal divisions. (Equal on a logarithmic scale, that is. It's twelve even ratios, really, and, well, people seem to have a biological imperative to divide things by twelve too.) But let's note that in terms of harmonics, this makes sense only going from the fundamental to the second one. Let's also note that any in-between harmonics that might please our ears--however many 1/3s and 1/2s it'd take to add together to sound consonant to our ears (as though we were hearing the double and triple of some lower frequency)--don't get represented very well in this scaling.

It's a lot easier to see that when it's written out. I put some notes and frequencies in a table here, starting with the reference A at 440 Hz and proceeded up the "equal temperament" chromatic scale. It gets pretty close to true with the fourth (1/3) and the fifth (1/2) which is presumably the primary point of it. The fact that our music hammers so hard on the IV and the V chord no doubt has a lot to do with tuning, but these are important harmonic intervals, and we probably would have stressed them anyway. The major and minor thirds (1/4 and 1/5, grrrrr...) carry a lot of musical weight too, and now we're getting a little degraded. Every other step is struggling to get any real harmonic significance, and I swear they're there only to make more use of the frequency space, to give some means for the musician to move on and off of the scaffold imposed by the more basic harmonics.

[I mean, okay, the point of equal temperament is to universalize twelve keys too. I understand that they used modulation before they began to tune instruments this way, but did standardizing the space make it easier to wing chord progressions around? I don't really know, but that is my suspicion. Because for anything with fixed frets or pipes, tuning with a just (as in, "just the harmonics, ma'am") temperament is going to be pretty damn limiting. The question of tuning is an old one though. When you got instruments that could efficiently hit multiple strings, the wizards of the day quickly realized that tuning could be easily designed to support some harmonics or other ones, as well as more universal temperaments that fudged them. I know even less about music history than I do about music, and I realize that the tuning argument had been circulating for a couple hundred before his time, but from this angle, I'm convinced that the only reason J. S. Bach didn't solve every remaining technical question in the field was because no one had invented the pianoforte yet. I almost wish he ended up on team leftbrain instead.]

I understand a lot of the musical conversation as dissonance that resolves to a more pleasing consonance. (I don't mean to suggest that I can carry on such a conversation, mind you--which ones are the blue notes again?-- but you don't necessarily need to be able to build a house to have a feeling for how a hammer works.) And the scale notes are in there to lead us toward or away from the (more) harmonic chords or intervals, which is great and all, but it's still holding us back. We're better off when we can weave in and out of consonance on a smaller level. You goddamn well need to have slurs and slides and hammer-ons, vibratos and bends. Honestly, it's what makes playing with feeling worth a damn. A minority of instruments are really flexible in this regard, either by using a fretless fingerboard, or else they have a sensitive enough action that you can change the pitch continuously within some range. On a fiddle or an electric guitar--or with the human voice--we can pinpoint the harmonics precisely (choirs often do it by sheer instinct), or we can wheel nauseatingly away from them, and do it all on purpose. I imagine that this is about 2/3 of the reason violins came to rule the orchestra, and why Les Paul came to rule the rock band. [Why not the trombone, slide whistle, dobro, or theremin? Because those instruments just aren't as cool. Sorry.] Man, when you're playing them right, nothing sounds more lugubrious than a violin or an electric guitar. And that's because they can avoid or accept the tyranny of harmonics at will.

I mentioned timbre. Even though instruments are producing the same pitch, or almost the same pitch, they all have different sounds. Any given instrument is going to have enough subtleties in its structure or action so that a number of minor vibrations can get through into the output as well. The one-dimensional assumption is great, but it only goes so far. Shaped cavities and resonators are the usual way to do change the voice, increasing or decreasing the quality factor (a measure of how "wide" in frequency the modes are, how much impure sound can sneak in at the edges) to soften or strengthen the tone, or which can set the instrument's modes just off even so as to avoid producing the overtones. Materials of construction can be more or less lossy, and even odds and ends such as handles and bolts might resonate at some unexpected frequencies and contribute to the sound as well. The nature of the input matters too. A vibrating reed is going to produce a different spectrum of frequencies at the front end, which may or may not be supported in the tube, than buzzing lips or a bowed string will (and when you strike things, the input is really different). If you took an oscilloscope and measured the waveform, you'd see it was periodic at the expected frequency, which is where the primary pitch comes from, but the shape of the pressure wave would be pretty funny-looking, with a bunch of little spikes and blobs in it. It's as if a whole bunch of clean sine waves that might have "fit" in that frequency were added to the primary one. Which would be exactly how to think of it mathematically.

The math would suggest that any periodic function can be correctly represented as combination of a lot of simpler periodic functions. That the physics suggests that it really does contain smaller waves is something I have occasionally found a little spooky, but it's not really any different than breaking things out in terms of other orthogonal components, just like on a rectangular grid. The idea is that any periodic function can be represented exactly by a sufficient number of sines and cosines. When you have a wave that can be imagined to persist for so many cycles that it doesn't matter where it begins or ends, then adding simple waves together is easy to imagine, but it really does get a little more mystical when you mix it in with the time domain. A quick pulse is fundamentally different than a blown or a bowed note.

If you think of the latter as a wave extending, for all practical purposes, infinitely, then that's what a sine function looks like. A pulse, although it has a discernible duration, is different because it disappears at the ends. Maybe you get something close to this from a really stiff drum, just one big and more or less uniform burst of pressure coming out its ass end. For a moment, let's ignore what happens far from the ends and just imagine a square pulse--on suddenly, and then off suddenly--as if it's inside one period.  (For math purposes, we have to think for now that it repeats after this period.)  One big bubble of a wave is obviously what you need to get the basic size of it right, and from there on, you can keep adding waves of different integer frequencies, each with smaller and smaller contributions (which you can calculate), to make the ends and the top get flat. That's Fourier analysis, and it's cool stuff. To make an exact square wave, you'd need an infinite many small sine waves. But even here, you could rightly argue that we're still using lots of little harmonics to finally address the non-harmonic space. Well, we did have to assume that the pulse repeated...

To describe just one pulse, you need to imagine frequency as a continuous thing, and the contribution of frequencies as a smooth curve too. (This is the Fourier transform now, and not just the coefficients of an added-up Fourier series.) It's got a straightforward formula, that we can at last apply it a single pulse, which is what has been done in the right side of the figure below. The wavy curve represents how much any given frequency contributes to the simple beat. (If we were, by contrast, to take the Fourier transform of a continuous sine wave, it would only have one value, and not be curvy. A sine wave is only defined by just one frequency.) This has some interesting implications. First, a pulse has an infinite number of frequencies associated with it, even though they get really small far away from the center line. If the pulse is shorter, the frequency curve will widen, and the strongest frequency component will be higher-pitched. If the pulse is stronger, then the Fourier transform of it has higher amplitude too, and the fading end bumps are more likely to be noticed.

There is only one part of the band that produces pulses of sound, and I had never quite managed to cross the line and think of drums as musical instruments before. But last week, talking to my friend switters, I had an epiphany, and music hasn't looked the same since. (I'm going to steal a little from that conversation here.)

Here is the only access we have, in tuned music, to all of the dark and lonely corners of sound spectrum. At last. Rhythm is powerful all of itself, don't get me wrong, but good lord, it's the sound of the drums that is used evoke deep spirits and eldritch horrors, the primitive hordes, all the powerful forces that are unseen. (Hell, we "drum them up," don't we?) It's accord and discord rolled together all at once. Here is why, in the movies, a sonar ping sounds so heavy and ominous. We don't march to drums just to keep time, we do it because the sound of them compels hidden forces within us. Strings and horns will stroke our ears and minds, but drumbeats slug us right in the guts. A drum corps will move us in a way that a wind ensemble never will. In a way that it can't.

[Plucked strings might count as a middle ground, although most of the time you let them ring, so that the secret frequencies fall right out. Redneck bands use the mandolin for rhythm usually, and there you try to "chop" it, arguably working it like a drum--whack the strings and then immediately deaden them. Done right, it gives a pop that only suggests the chord. Good rhythm players will have a little conversation of their own, opening the chops and closing them back up.]

Do drums really produce a pure pulse? Well, a taut drumhead does have a set of vibrational modes of its own (2-dimensional now, so hitting the surface in different locations can excite different ones, and the modes are no longer consonant), and there is a very short resonator section. And you can, to an extent, control the duration of the strike (expand that envelope of frequencies or narrow it) by softening the head or the mallets or by hitting it harder. So obviously, different drums and drummers have different voices. Some orchestral ones are built to sound more tuned (evidently for depth), and that's great, but I'll take a deader head to fuzz out the harmonics, hit hard, with a deep primal voice. Get some of that big voodoo to come out the other end.

I think that the primal sound is difficult to get with a single drummer, and that modern popular music too often fails to get all that it can from the shadowy acoustical depths. (Although I believe that this is exactly why the standard rock drum break is a couple of quick hard-pounded phrases down along the heavier toms. Whacka whacka, thudda thudda, boom.) Two ways you can try and get it with the one-man kit, either with an overwhelming quantity of accurately placed and voiced notes (color, as switters calls it) or to just beat the living fuck out of the things in order to get a denser (not just louder) piece of sound to come out. On the drum kit, for normal human beings, this seems like it must involve a serious tradeoff. If you hit the skins hard, it's going to be more difficult to hit them with speed and precision. I suspect that a bomber type needs a very good time sense (but what drummer doesn't?) if he's going to get by with fewer whacks.

We can all name some of the bombers--Keith Moon, Jon Bonham and Lars Ulrich immediately came up. I'm going to add this clip though, because for me, the itch started here. I never much thought of Bad Religion until I got this CD, and the difference is entirely this young guy with the sticks. This track might make an especially good example, because the lyrics are pretty sub-par for these guys (a shitty pun, a cheerleader chant, and no rhyming big words) and the musical flavor is pretty damn unsubtle (talk about hammering on that fifth interval) without much contribution from of the usual vocal harmonies. I'd call it a phoned-in effort, but sweet holy fuck, those drums. They fill the lower register with ominous power. If you have to hear it first on this youtube clip, at least make sure you put on some headphones to get any of the effect. When that phrase at about 2:13 comes in, you can feel from the first roll that the whole thing is going to explode in a couple of bars. Well, too bad the rest of the song wasn't better.

I've had that BR itch for a year or two now. But of all places, the revelation came while watching and discussing the Battlestar Galactica remake, which has a surprisingly excellent score. And while I have never considered myself a real audiophile, I have come to absolutely love this home theater setup I sprung for; it gets a lot of the primal sound fidelity that I never knew I was missing. To go with the clever orchestration, the show incorporates some serious drum rhythms (more than one player, I think, judging by all the darkness they're getting out of them) fit in with some complexity and nuance, pulling you every which way, and for a drama that slugs you in the guts so much, it's just a brilliant touch.

That conversation went to a lot of interesting places, and at this point I have a lot of things I need to be off listening to. That's all for now!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Only Human

I realize that this is not a very timely post, but I've been thinking off and on about one of our local running news stories, of Annie Dookhan, the forensic chemist arrested last month for falsifying data. If you missed it, she had worked in one of the state's drug labs, and managed to deliver an unbelievable amount of throughput, with an astounding number of positives to a starved organization. Massachusetts is now re-investigating hundreds of drug cases, and has already overturned a few dozen convictions. They're calling it a scandal, but having worked in at least one place like that, and being married to someone who's been working in an equivalent medical industry position for a few years, the whole situation seems tragic, but it doesn't seem terribly shocking. Not so much a scandal, as an inevitable artifact of institutional mandates, in this case on behalf of the ever-awful War on Drugs. I'd call all the re-investigation unfortunate, but frankly, I'm happy that these people can get this overturned.

Character is part of her story, although all I can really do is speculate about Dookhan herself. By all reports, she was a studious sort, a person who had a habit of quietly applying herself. She did well on tests, didn't miss a homework assignment, but didn't draw a lot of attention. She'd apparently been going through some personal issues, but even before that, she already had a reputation for churning out a much higher level of test output than her colleagues. One of them called her "Superwoman." My thought is that she was mostly doing what she saw as her job, and wasn't a creative enough (or empathetic enough) thinker to work through the consequences.  I also suspect that her supervisors and coworkers had some idea that something was amiss, but had little incentive to call her on it.

Workaday analytical chemistry doesn't normally require many serious judgement calls. The method is to turn around as many tests in as short a time, and with as much accuracy, as possible. Someone can be smart in terms of manipulating complex machines and in terms of processing numerical test data to efficiently generate results, but it doesn't necessarily require much wisdom of interpretation. Absent any kind of habitual check or cultural pressure for accuracy, then someone like Dookhan can flourish in an analytical environment by just appearing to be conscientious. And when there's a backlog, or when the lab isn't sufficiently staffed (or sufficiently equipped) to meet test demand, then second thoughts don't thrive. Anyone who calls attention to flaws or otherwise slows down the system had better do so only with damn good reason.

The medical labs don't seem so bad, if you were worried. Even if sloppy work ever gets done on suspect machines, confirming trials are routine, and there's not any particular pressure to produce one result over another. That doesn't say that everyone working in there is thinking in an abstract way about what getting things right will mean to the patients (although my wife is one of those people)--they're often just focused on the task level--but there are some safeguards for medical testing. Other industries or companies are not the same.  When there is pressure to go one way, and when there's little or no consequences to getting it wrong, then things can easily go much differently. I worked one college summer in a QC lab for a small chemical retailer (which I won't name; evidently they are still somehow in business). Our job in that environment was, explicitly, to provide an "inspected" label so that customers could be reassured they weren't receiving a pile of degraded shit. Which they often enough were. Our analyses were cursory (and if no physical data were available, then we'd call down lab manager "Elsa" to tell us "oh, yeah, that's okay," and that's what would go into our notebook), and would only get rejected if it was real obvious garbage, and in that case one of the more senior chemists would recrystallize or distill it and sell it anyway. There, the pressure was to get stuff out the door, regardless of quality, and that is what we did. In the drug lab, I doubt that falsifying tests was encouraged, but on the other hand, turning out positives is simply what they were paid to do.

It's good to remember what are the actual interests of the employers when it comes to judging scandal. Often enough, people working in the trenches have no encouragement whatsoever to redirect the organization. It was a common theme on The Wire (gather so many arrests); it's sometimes used as a sharp criticism of politics and journalism, and of advertiser-funded media; this is one of the best-articulated examples of employers interest in recent memory. It's a common refrain: be aware of who is paying these people, and what are their goals.

Also, it gets me all skeptical of science education as a route to real impartial science philosophy (thanks, Arch).  Yes, I absolutely think that we're better off when we value training in the natural sciences over training in less empirical fields, and I've said so often enough. But that's not to say it's a panacea. It doesn't necessarily lead to critical thinking. Or to better understanding of each other.  Technical education gets us Annie Dookhans too.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weave Out The Fiction...

Clockwork Angels (The Novel), by Kevin J. Anderson
Clockwork Angels (The Album), by Rush

I am not not much the fanboy type, but there are any number of things I've come to like enough where you'd call me a fan. I have a few buy-on-sight authors, online and offline haunts, and if the running soundtrack to my life is (as every listener likes to pretend) somewhat open-minded, it actually ends up a little insular in practice, because I have always developed music tastes slowly, and because it's hard to break through and warp my mind to the state of fandom. But it happens, even to a special little flower like me. My theory is that it starts with a song that's good enough to listen to more than twice. To get me, there's something in there which rewards those extra listens, something I get itchy to explain maybe (it is often a question of why it fits a particular mood so well, and so much of favorite my theme music contains a very specific association, which can make it hard to ever talk about with anyone else), or to figure out how it's getting what it's getting right, maybe I can uncover more of the underlying trick, or, since my music appreciation skills are so minimal, find myself forever puzzling over the same parts. Enough of this kind of investment, and it gets comfortable enough to reside pleasingly at some appointed spot in my life, and the next CD gets an automatic listen too. That's when I become a fan.

So. Rush. They made it to soundtrack level back when I was a college kid, and if I've shifted away from heavy fandom, I can't deny it's brought me pleasure over the years, and I can't wait to see them in a couple weeks. In my freshman year, I distinctly remember a constant duel down the corridors of Crockett Hall between one kid who blasted his Rush CDs, and another who cranked back slightly more eclectic stuff--Nine Inch Nails, The Black Crowes, Living Colour--from the other end. I'd heard exactly none of it before, but it was the first guy that was my friend at the time, and before long I knew a bunch of other kids who were fans of the band too, and that's what got me through those off-putting vocals* into second- and third-listen territory. I liked the interplay between the instruments, how the bass carried a lot of melody, how the guitar-playing was amorphous and textural, but still filled in all the space it needed to (like nougat!), and how the beats were hard to follow but still got my feet tapping. I liked some of the themes.** I've painted the picture a handful of times by now, and my group of nerds was no more like the creepy little Objectivist retards of popular imagination than we were like the Cool Kids (who in 1990, let's point out, often enough had that chucklehead from two posts down featured on their mix tapes). And it is funny to see the band rise to sudden mainstream acclaim, pretty much just this year--garnering kind words from dozens of younger and now-established artists and writers, who act as though they're coming out, and they've even been nominated to the pointless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--after almost four decades of critical unlove from the establishment that turned their fans into fanboys, and makes me, even now, itch to asterisk the living fuck out of this blog post.***

This is a book review, by the way, and all the buildup really does has a point. Clockwork Angels is a novelization of the album of the same name. The music itself is good: very riff-heavy, with a lot of precisely picked notes (maybe a departure from their older styles), heavy blocks of sound, simple verse-and-chorus structure (but don't ask me about the progressions, which to this tin ear seem random sometimes), and plenty of room for instrumental breaks. The songs which are more fully composed sound a lot better, and they do a nice job with their more thoughtful tracks. (I like The Wreckers as the best all-around song. Seven Cities of Gold is very rock-ish, and it drives.) You get bits and pieces of sounds that would fit into their last several albums, but the whole things sounds less Rush-like than usual. They claim to have been inspired to tell a story in a steampunk setting, and there is, as mentioned, a lot of precise timing going through it, although I'm surprised that Neil didn't get a lot more tickity-tock sounds in the drumming, even if they did sometimes gather up some worthwhile huffs and wheezes to fill up the background space.

If you read the footnotes, you may gather that Neil Peart is happy to read all manner of literary books, and he's not terribly shy about peddling their influences. This can be a good thing or not, depending on the original material and what he gets from it. Xanadu, for an old example, is an decent atmospheric song, but it's pretty embarrassing to stack up those lyrics against the Coleridge poem that inspired it, which is famous for a reason. The arc of Clockwork Angels roughly channels Candide, and it works well so long as the young optimist is treated as an archetype, venturing naively or discovering the real-world price for it, but it suffers when the comparison gets too specific. The Garden is a lovely song, but it has the same problem that Xanadu does, that it overexplains and overextends a line that was originally great for its subtlety and nuance.

When my kids were younger, we had a pile of these terrible Disney-licensed books that they always wanted me to read, short "chapter books" versions of the cartoon movies. Really painful stuff.  I always imagined that they were written by underpaid temps who stopped self-editing as soon as they hit the word count. They were crappy knockoffs of the original films, which were in turn, more often than not, uneven**** knockoffs of famous literature.

You can probably see where I'm going with this.

Clockwork Angels the novel... there just isn't a whole lot there for me to review. It's as though Kevin Anderson tacked together the points of the songs with just enough verbage to cobble up the continuity necessary for a plot and setting, and not more than that. There's very little added depth--not enough character, and not enough world--not much more than stretched over the skeleton. It could have been an entertaining fantasy in the escapist tradition (and maybe it doesn't help that I just read a brilliantly written fantasy about an optimistic young kid who grew up in a weird clockwork society, that had parallel universes and everything), and given that it's fluffed up with a bunch of the compelling album artwork, it could have inspired a real kickass graphic novel, and it's a damn shame that they didn't go this way instead, because the scope would have much better fit. Maybe it was written to a younger audience, but I have to think people who'd be buying the book are well into their forties by now. Probably it was nothing more than a vanity project.  I will say, positively, that Anderson and Peart did seem to enjoy the idea of writing this thing, and that does come through a little bit in the text. The most entertaining reading experience was uncovering a bunch of Rush lyrics that got slipped in here and there (and if Anderson is quoting less-impressive songs like Countdown, then he's doing okay by me on the nerd spectrum).

Well, I suppose I didn't have high expectations, and I've been off my reading game lately anyway, so it was a good time to pick this one up. No more books cowritten by rock stars for me though.

*Yes, it's true that poor Geddy Lee sounded like he was shrieking through an autotuner a full quarter-century before the technology was even invented. I will argue that he's perfectly pleasant-sounding when he controls himself a little more, and even the wailing works fine when there's an appropriate spot in the song for it. And hey, if we weren't supposed to laugh at Robert Plant's emasculated moaning all those years--and that was basically Lee's starting point--then I don't see how we get to pick on this guy.

**The first two tracks of Signals were the ones blasted down the hall, and I picked up the albums Moving Pictures, A Farewell to Kings, and, when it came out, Roll the Bones over the next year. The themes from those selections, the ones that moved me, can be summarized as, "life is complicated but beautiful," "freedom is awesome when you're a kid," "compassion and understanding are important," and "authority is easily abused," which are by far the most common ones for the rest of their work too.

I bring this up because I already know what you're thinking. Yeah, "the genius of Ayn Rand" did get written into the liner notes of 2112, embarrassingly. Songwriter Neil Peart got rather impressed with the novella Anthem when he was 20 years old, but in his defense, (a) unlike all too many people who came across that dreck in their formative years, he by all evidence outgrew it before very long, and says as much when asked, (b) he gets caught up in left-wing literature (i.e., the entire rest of it) just as easily, and he pretty much comes to the same places with it, which (c) in the case of Rand, the parts of her "philosophy" that actually got into his lyrics, even back then, were much more an expression of individualism than the smug fuck-you-I-got-mine selfishness that the desiccated and sadly unforgotten hag foisted on the world. 

A reader or two may remember this happening, but getting into an argument with an Objectivist retard who did fit the fanboy stereotype was pretty much what convinced me it was time to walk away from the Slate Fray for good.  I spent two weeks (that I'll never get back) refuting his free market wackjobbery entirely using quotes from Rush. 

Peart is not completely forgiven--he projects a certain kind of humorless and instrospective self-regard that seems to require the other two guys to break up--but there's plenty enough good in there to enjoy, and I happened to stick around long enough to learn how to acquire the taste. The title of this post, in fact, comes from one of my all-time favorite lines in rock music, that he wrote. And I should say too, that for such successful people, and keeping in mind that I don't actually know them, all three band members seem like utterly decent human beings.  Those damn Canadians.


****Oh come on, we all hate The Mouse, but they do have their moments, and I was forced for a few years to become a connossieur of these things. I think the Mad Hatter scene in the Alice movie was brilliant, for one example.


UPDATE!  They played Boston on Wednesday, and it was badass.  They just jammed it out, lots of solos and long intros.  Before they got into the new material, they played a lot of tunes from the mid-eighties--maybe not their best period--but even least-favorite songs like Territories sounded pretty impressive live.  They still played the synth parts, but those songs sounded more guitar-heavy, which helped a great deal.  They noted that The Analog Kid (one of my all-time favorite songs) isn't remotely a kid anymore.

I bought two tickets, thinking I could drag a friend along, but I ended up going with my 15-year-old daughter instead.  Her comments: "those guys look pretty old, but oh my god, they're really playing the living crap out of the guitar and the drums."  She also opined that the vocals were getting a little Steve Tyler-ish by the end, and I think Geddy was pushing it by then too, but he did just fine for the first three quarters of the show. 

As for me, the live show was great.  They worked out the songs from Clockwork Angels a good deal better than they had on the album.  Neil's third solo used electronic percussion to generate those steampunk sounds I thought were wanting, and I think he's improvising these days too.  The videos and shorts were well enough done to support the "graphic novel" theory (instead of a blowoff novelization that sucked), and a shame, it was.  They had a string section for the second set, maybe ten cellists and fiddlers, and unlike any other time I've seen that with rock music, (a) it wasn't gimmicky, (b) they were really into it, and got visibly tired out well before the 60-year-old headline band did, and (c) it worked very well to smooth out the sound, and make the whole thing seem more intended.  If the progressions hadn't always lead me around where I thought made sense, the strings filled in those gaps, and one thing I've gathered from bluegrass is that long, drawn notes are often a good counterpoint to those fast finger-twisters.  It felt like the sharp edges were filed off.

Good times.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Great Argument! Uh, Except For That One Thing...

The Self-Destruction of the 1% by Chrystia Freeland, NYT Magazine

Oh, she has the right thesis.  Categorizing states as more or less extractive is a logical framework, and it's almost obvious to say that those which are less so, countries which have more opportunities for wealth, are more egalitarian and will have more dynamic economies, whereas those in which only a small group is allowed to get paid, those will do worse. Freeland calls out America's plutocracy as (a) extant, thanks to the concentration of power that goes with the concentration of wealth (i.e., they get to advocate for their benefit much more effectively) and (b) not especially good for the rest of the country (our social mobility is worse than socialist Europe's), and it's good to see something like this break through into mainstream reading. About time, in fact.  But it's a very frustrating article, and it cops out on arguing some of the major points. I wonder if she knows Tom Friedman.

1. In the light of population pressures, land overuse, climate change, and approaching resource pressures, I don't think "growth" is the success metric that the human race needs going forward. And I am highly ambivalent about growth when it comes to the economy of scale vs. the barbarity of scale. (I dunno, maybe you've read my blog?)

Clearly what Freeland is trying to do is present an impartial argument--that cornering wealth goes against the ultimate self-interest of the wealthy--and okay, it's true, kinda sorta, when taking a generalized view of the wealthy.  For individual families, maybe their behavior is not so irrational as all that: even if a more egalitarian economy did create more expansion, the future wealthy might very well be other people.  I am sure that it's fun to believe that you perch at the top of the pyramid by virtue of your sheer awesomeness, but who really wants to put it to the test? 

It's a subjective argument that's trying to masquerade as an analytical one. (And isn't this always the case with economics?) But if you made a straight-up moral case for a better distribution of opportunity, then you're accused of being hopelessly naive or something.

2a. I can't speak to her history of Venice, but I'm given pause, remembering my Machiavelli, that there were no doubt corroborating factors that contributed to its decline among the other Italian city-states. They did fight each other pretty much constantly for a couple hundred years, and supported a variety of governmental models.  The publication of the Golden Book was certainly repulsive (a moral case!), but did the Serrata lead to the relative decline of Venice (instead of just being evil on its own merits)? Maybe, but I do recall that ascending Florence was explicitly run by a banking cartel.

2b. I can speak a little bit more to American history, and this article has a gigantic flaming you-must-be-shitting-me moment at the very core of its argument.

In the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. “We have no paupers,” Thomas Jefferson boasted in an 1814 letter. “The great mass of our population is of laborers; our rich, who can live without labor, either manual or professional, being few, and of moderate wealth. Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”
For Jefferson, this equality was at the heart of American exceptionalism: “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?”
Is she fucking serious? I mean, we understand that Mr. Jefferson was a man of his times, and we tend to excuse a great deal of his business life out of respect for the rational principles he argued in other spheres. But this is a bad time to go here.

It's true that the laboring class in 18th century Virginia were not paupers. They were in even worse shape. Jefferson, sadly, had a difficult time seeing them as part of "our" population.

2c. Freeland follows with "[t]that all changed with industrialization." Well, that and a bloody civil war.

By the time we get from the 1860s to Roosevelt's 1932, we not only had an industrial revolution, but also a new population, this one of immigrants, getting ground into the gears to serve it. FDR may have warned in 1932 against the robber barons (which Freeland says "America may have needed"), but like the world of the Medicis, I don't think there's a simple argument that they stoppered growth. The building of the railroads, for example, was not precisely competitive and entrepreneurial. I agree that epic inequality made the expansion rockier and nastier, and may have limited it eventually, with too much investment money trying to capitalize on not enough demand.

More to the point, between 1865 and 1932, the labor force was getting agitated about being so expendable. It fills up the literature of the day, and it led to revolutions worldwide. Ongoing labor unrest at a time when the costs of inequality were salient: that fire lit under FDR's ass went far toward getting the benefits and the opportunities spread around.

3. Also, it's not always good to entertain an opposing "reasonable" viewpoint just for the sake of doing so.
In his recent book on the white working class, the libertarian writer Charles Murray blames the hollowed-out middle for straying from the traditional family values and old-fashioned work ethic that he says prevail among the rich (whom he castigates, but only for allowing cultural relativism to prevail). There is some truth in [that argument].
Old-fashioned work ethic and family values? Yeah, that must have been what kept the laboring class from getting ahead in Jefferson's time.

[Charles Murray is not a go-to person to cite as a thoughtful opponent.  He's the creep who wrote The Bell Curve, that faux-intellectual justification for racism, which should be enough to remove the obligation to entertain any of his demographic arguments ever.]


It's too bad, because Freeland comes, I think, to the right conclusion. Inequality is wrong, and the current economic and political climate is making it worse. But she takes a full libertoonian account of history to get to that point. Even with my comic-book level of understanding, I'm kind of embarrassed to read this stuff.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Word To Your Mother

Posited: Paul Ryan is to serious political thought as Vanilla Ice is to serious music.

Stop.  Collaborate and listen....

And no, I don't really support the tactic of making fun of people for looking silly in pictures, but man, it's different when you pose, and Paul Ryan is a tremendous poseur.  Here is a man who chose to release this image because he thought he looked badass, with his hat on backwards like that, and those buff calves.  Deadly, no doubt, when he hears that dope melody.  If there was a problem, yo he'll solve it.  Kick it.

I am embarrassed for my generation.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Public vs. Private

Megan McArdle has again written a post, which is not remarkable in itself, other than the fact that I happened to read it days before I came across the deconstruction her writing always begs for.  McArdle is the sort of glib believer who's impervious to being called on her own bullshit, and it makes for an entertaining regular feature on various liberal blogs. Here's Susan of Texas really doing a marvelous job taking this latest one apart. The original piece is a criticism of the president's lack of private-sector work experience (which Megan claims isn't even important, but then tells you in the subsequent 2500 words why she thinks it is).

There's conflation and obfuscation abounding everywhere in Meg's piece, but what really got me about it--and I don't know how I managed to be surprised--is her insular definition of "working," what she thinks people in the private sector actually do, even what small business holders or hopeful entrepreneurs do.  In her view, the working world is entirely composed of management, networking, and office drama--it's "business" as a labor category that she's constantly returning to. We understand that this is the employment exposure that she's had and all, but still, businesses can be in the business of making things, developing things, and performing tasks, and those vital parts of enterprise don't enter a whit into her understanding of practical work experience. No labor theory of value for her.

It's a small universe for Jane Galt. The alternative she sees to corporate work is consulting. The opposite of business work that she understands is government. But man, the color of my collar's only a little off-white, but even from here, it's pretty damn hard to spot much of a gap between a career manager and a career bureaucrat. (People who have actually worked for a living tend to be at least occasionally aware that a lifetime of wearing a necktie can choke off the brain if you're not careful.) When comparing jobs at the same level (which, as Susan notes, Megan doesn't), the tasks are really similar, with a related emphasis on relationships, favors, paperwork, organization, and the necessity of looking at humans as resources. That's the actual argument for why a job in management is in any way relevant to one in politics, and you'd think that even a dink like McArdle would have put one that together by now.

Not that aren't differences between the public and private sectors, it just doesn't lie so much in the skill set. The real difference between corporate and government bureaucrats, of course, is what those various organizations they serve are trying to actually accomplish, and how they are treated publicly. When I think of the "increasingly mandarin elite, hygenically removed" from the little people,* my mind doesn't race straight to the hallowed academic halls, but more toward favored and fat sectors of the economy: finance, for starters.

If you're a private sector manager, certain lies can be afforded with a fair bit less contradiction from your industry or objection from the media. And if you're in the big game, you can more or less vote to give yourself a much nicer slice of the pie. I'm not a big believer in the claims of authority, corporate or otherwise, and I've been asking myself for years if the stories we tell really matter in the face of what people actually do, but for god's sake, explicitly tasking the powers that be with administering public welfare on our behalf has got to be a better narrative for the species than explicitly praising them for taking as much loot as they can say with a straight face that they deserve.

I know, I know, it's Megan McArdle, and what do you expect. Honesty about the comparison dispels the illusion that corporate types are doing something magically superior to anyone else who wears a suit, and that would be way less lucrative for her (and for them). It must be what they teach you in MBA school.

*Though to be fair, banks of sufficient size, insurers, and military contractors do in fact grub constantly for customers, which is how she went and finished that statement. It just involves more lobbying and coersion. I think I have her pegged on her context however.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The Forest, by Edward Rutherfurd

If nothing else, I want this to be a testament that I do, in fact, every once in a while, remember things and eventually get around to them. The Forest was a reading recommendation back four or five years ago, in a context I've forgotten, from one of the (unintentionally neglected) quiet friends, and it's one of those which has been hanging onto the back end of the list since that time. I do so appreciate reading suggestions, and a belated thanks for it.

England's New Forest is a patch of woods and towns on the southern shore of the island opposite the Isle of Wight, a boggy and largely open woodland falling off the southeastern edge of the Salisbury plain to the sea. The people living there today, picking up on Rutherfurd's subtext, exist in a kind of cheerful state of anachronism, protective of the natural beauty and remaining medieval spirit of the area, and just maybe laying it on a little extra for the tourists. In the novel, Rutherfurd traces that old spirit forward in a series of set stories, placed every couple hundred years starting shortly after the Norman invasion, following generations of a handful of families, and weaving their lives into historical events that took place in the area.

The New Forest itself was surprisingly hard for me to wrap my mind around. It's small for one thing, about 15 miles across it's longest diagonal, hardly a nip out of north central Massachusetts where I live, which has a similar density of people and trees, and smaller than the couple of national forests you'll find in New England. And Rutherfurd, really oddly to my mind, doesn't describe it as very forest-like. It's strange to me that he focuses most of his descriptive energy on the open spaces in the woods--the heaths and plains--sometimes on individual trees, sometimes on houses and towns and shores, but for a novel that's titled The Forest, I hardly ever get the feeling of being in the woods. I kind of expected the setting to be pulled up to the level a ubiquitous extra character, and I expected to encounter some lyricism in the description. As a dork who's devoured some quantity of fantasy, I've read a pretty good number of writers who really try to evoke this kind of primeval magic (it's exactly what they ever do well), and it's as if Rutherfurd doesn't know he's competing against them (aaand iiiit's... Tolkien! with yards to spare).

Instead it's character and plot that tend to sustain the thing. Family characteristics are preserved, but varied, across the years, and the substories are novella-length almost entirely self-contained. They are not especially deep and thoughtful stories, but he has a good ear for the sometimes everyday drama of human affairs--love, death, friendship, family--which, when they are put up against the bigger historical drama (the killing of William Rufus (son of the Conqueror), and especially the trial of Alice Lisle at the time of the Restoration) adds compelling dimension to these events. There are a couple of tokens that pass through the storylines, but it's not extensive, and it's unfortunately not subtle. (In fact, Rutherfurd has a way of occasionally stepping without warning from a contemporary point of view into a sort of modern narrator voiceover, which doesn't officially stray into anachronism, but is nonetheless a little jarring until you get used to it. And I didn't need him, for example, to put his hand on my back and explicitly remind me who carved that letter A. It was his more touching plot, not so long back. I remembered it.) With the small plots and subplots, the repeating character types, it all comes off strangely like a well-written TV miniseries, and although it's 750 pages long, it reads quite fast.

There is theme of permanence in the novel. The families' status and success drifts over the centuries, but we are following, basically, archetypal gentry, commoners, functionaries, and other sorts, all of fairly ancient origins. A considerable amount of text is given over to how the administration of the forest operates, relatively autonomously, as a system of inherited and variously bargained resource rights. It seems a very English notion of environmental preservation, the way in which roles and rights are designated by class, and accepted by them, where each is of equal worth, but clearly different status. If there's a little breeding and occasional friction between castes, we are still unable to imagine the barely domesticated Puckles, the lowest commoners, doing the kind of job the Albions do. They're every one of them slaves to their heredity, and I personally find the idea pretty damn unsavory. If America is hindered by the tatters of its 17th century vestments too, questions of heredity and class form the running argument of our own imported culture, an embattled rebuke to the English style, but one which, like the notions of rebellious children, doesn't actually stray as far from that set of ideas. We clearly abandoned the attendant notions of land sustainability though, and maybe it takes centuries of habit to find a stable equilibrium between culture and environment.  Harder to come by when both the trees and the old families on these lands get razed to the ground every once in a while.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Maybe it's just because I've paid attention to a few of them by now, but it seems that each presidential campaign ushers in levels of intellectual dissociation unimaginable even in the last unholy go-round.  I don't expect the truth exactly, but I suppose there's a piece of me that anticipates something like honest rationalizations.  Or if I'm being scammed, then I expect at least enough effort on their part to willingly suspend disbelief and let me participate in the process.  Veracity is a tall order, in other words, but for god's sake, verisimilitude doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Some brands of doublespeak we're used to.  I mean, it's not as if the war machine has slowed down under Barack Obama's tenure, and if it's horrifying that we're all so inured to the serial bombing approach to foreign policy that the president can riff comfortable Newspeak ("riffing Newspeak" is an oxymoron, of course, but in 1984, Orwell didn't really predict the American style of saying nothing) before the Nobel Peace committee.  And anyway, it's not as though the trust was founded by the Swedish defense contractor who invented dynamite or anything--wait, it was?--well at least we can claim that there's a consistent equilibrium of irony when it comes to matters of death and war. 

I'm not intending to be centrist here.  There's a political party in this country that habitually speaks within the allowed contradictions (which is the definition of "conservative," but surprise, it's the other party), and then there are the sick fucks who want to take it all up--actually, take it back--to a more impoverished (intellectually and otherwise) level.  The former can be caught rationalizing for good intentions and consistency, but the other spews nothing but bullshit--the difference, as has been noted, is that with bullshit, the truth simply doesn't matter.  Nothing is believed by these guys.  You can pull apart the Romney campaign and try and piece together what the dude's convictions are, but, once you get past "wealth is good," the rest is merely expedient.  And even that is something he can't quite hold onto.  I mean, I don't fucking like politics, and yet some things crystallize with such bizarre bipolar clarity, it's impossible not to appreciate the absurd perfection of it.

I saw on the morning news the other day a regrettably earnest analysis of the claims made by a new group called Swiftboat Veterans for Truth  Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund Inc., accusing president Obama of not killing Public Enemy Number One all by himself, as he would totally prefer you to believe.  Here's a news source, but all I only saw clips of the video itself, which I won't link to.  It had an (alleged) Navy SEAL growling (with Batman-like menace), "the work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not."   "You did not kill Osama bin Laden.  America did."  I mean yeah, we can spot the hypocrisy of this by imagining how Deadeye George would have handled things if it happened on his watch, and lots of bloggers have done that by now, but even that falls short of the contradictory perfection of the charge.

Mr. Smith, folks, is championing the Labor Theory of Value.  It (a) proposes that the "producers" are the people who actually do the work, supposing that the worth of any object or service correlates directly to the amount and quality of labor, the efforts of the people that had their hands on the hammers, and (b) explicitly downplays (or at least coughs up apologies for) the role of deciders and funders in that estimation.  It struggles to justify, you know, capitalists--Karl Marx was all over this--and it undermines hiearchies, such as the military (not that history's commies had a tough time with that particular contradiction, however).  This video, meanwhile, features soldiers who are disowning their commander in chief, and supporting a presidential campaign that is headed by one guy who's an Ayn-Rand-loving capitalist true-believer, and another guy who's Mitt friggin' Romney.  You have to admire the churchbell-sized opppositeness of it all. 

I mean yeah, Mitt, let's run with this.  You didn't create all that wealth, it was the workers who did.  Maybe you should have paid them instead.  Holy fuck, do they have any idea what they're inciting?

One thing I like to observe from time to time is that even if you're sold on various market theories as accurate descriptions of economic dynamics, people still use social measurements to estimate the success of one strategy or another.  The selling point of unregulated capitalism is that it's supposed to make people live longer and happier lives, permit societies to reach greater heights of achievement, use resources most efficiently, and so forth.  These are the kinds of things that the military's alleged to protect as well.  And of course, by 2012, the body of evidence for the American model is a tad inconvenient for those beliefs, and it's down at this point to the integrity of the brand itself, the consistency of the argument.  That the modern Republican party of the last 30 or 40 years could embrace some form of populism was always a shade ironic, but outright pulling for labor over management is a new feat of disingenuousness.  Despite myself, I'm impressed.

UPDATE:  I guess there have been some problems with the captcha thingie in the comments.  I obviously have no control over how it works, and I've just turned it off for the time being.  It's kind of fortunate, because it gave me a chance to soften my crimes against scholarship and the English language in the above post!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vegetable Innuendo

Yeah, I know sparse blogging, etc., but man, the world's a depressing place lately, and I gotta leave the horrors of war, climate, corporate governance and Mitt Romney to people of better wit and stronger stomach than me. Instead, let me take you to a place that's really more my wheelhouse: gluttony, amusingly-shaped food, and sausage jokes. I have admitted that I love those gristly meat wands beyond their value as a perpetual straight line, and while I feel no shame in massaging that vein, I constantly find myself wishing I had a place to actually put some.  Hey, if it's impossible to leave all the girthy double entendres out of the discussion, then I say ram 'em in wherever they're allowed.

Zucchini is almost as funny as sausage, but it's not remotely as tasty. It maybe has a little more of the herbal and a little less of the soapy flavor of yellow summer squash, but that hardly makes up for its general blandness and, as I find, the very slightly gag-inducing quality it possesses, which gets even worse when you let it grow big and knobby. I really do like the stuff, but if you could concentrate whatever that essence is, it'd make a fine emetic. Unfortunately, at this time of year, zucchini moderation is not much of an option, as I manage to always find myself overrun with the stuff. Perhaps you, like me, want an easier way to choke it down. I am here to help.

And okay, I actually hate to be offering up a casserole on general principles, but this one is, at least, an exercise on how young garden vegetables are just plain better than the supermarket garbage you're stuck with for the rest of the year. I make this one on rare occasions in the winter, and it amounts to little more than the uninspired American cuisine we all regret growing up with. But we had some awesome little fennel bulbs from the CSA recently and more baby zucchinis than I could carry out on my back, and loading it up with quality veggies pretty well transformed this thing. Hell, maybe next time I'll just do it up as a ragout and serve it over some obscure starch so as to preserve what's left of my culinary dignity. Given the whole running theme here, it should clearly be ladled on top of gently simmered wheatberries. Maybe I can somehow find blue ones.

So anyway, my zucchini and sausage casserole. My favorite wine to have with this is an inexpensive New Zealand Savignon Blanc called Vavasour, and not just because of the giant cock on the bottle. (It was a delightful find on the discount rack a few years ago, and I'm giving away a guarded family secret by telling you about it.) No, this stuff has an aroma and slight flavor of pepperoncini peppers, which maybe isn't something you want every day, but it's perfect for this dish, so go out and pick up a couple of magnums already. Here's the recipe:

1 box of bowties (or your favorite casserole pasta)
olive oil
1 lb. turkey sausage (or else, you know, good sausage)
1-2 large onions, chopped
2 smallish fennel bulbs, cored and chopped
maybe 1.5 teaspoons salt
maybe a little red pepper (if you have turkey sausage, it might need even more help)
about 4 cloves garlic, minced
2-4 cups chopped zucchini
1-2 tablespoons flour
1/2 - 1 c. chicken stock (you really just want a little sauce to coat the pasta here)
about 1 c. crumbled feta cheese
about 3/4 c. sliced pepperoncinis
freshly ground black pepper
1 c. grated cheddar cheese.

Preheat the oven to 400 °F. Cook the pasta in boiling water and drain.

Heat some oil in a large skillet or pot. Remove the sausages from their casings (if that's what you got), and add them to the skillet with the onion and fennel and some salt, crumbling them as they brown. As the vegetables get soft and the meat gets cooked, add the garlic and cook for another minute, then add the zucchini and saute until it's as soft as you prefer. Mix in the flour, adding a little more oil if necessary. (The zucchini will evolve a lot of water, and I try to let it mostly evaporate off, but I can't say I've ever had a problem mixing in the flour at this point.) Whisk in the broth and simmer a minute to thicken. Then toss in pasta, feta, and pepperoncini.

Add it all to a large baking dish and top with the cheddar cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes.

What, you say you still have a monster ton of summer squash left over? Well, pickles are pretty funny too (especially gherkins!), a natural, zesty enterprise if you will, and so let's go with that.

Here's a recipe for pickled squash, I think based on a magazine article at some point or other, and it originally had green beans in there too, so add that if it floats your boat. I find it's good for about a once-a-year thing, and you can make a few pint jars and leave it in your refrigerator for awhile, serve them alongside some grilled shrimp or something, and drink heavily with whatever's on hand. Or better yet, pass them off on your friends, who will be delighted to add to their own reluctant stockpile of squash (but these aren't preserved pickles, and must be stored cold, so don't kill anyone). I think this recipe makes about 2 pint jars.

2 c. rice vinegar
2/3 c. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Several green or yellow squash, cut into spears
1-2 thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
black peppercorns
small handful of cilantro sprigs
about 1/2 in. ginger root, julienned

Stuff the squash spears, shallots, and whole herbs and spices passionately into a couple pint jars. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and heat until the solids dissolve. Pour the hot, wet vinegar into the jars and cover. Refrigerate for 8 hours, turning (on) occasionally.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn

To say that the novel Eifelheim rolls together a handful of science fiction mainstays doesn't really do the book justice. Yes, there are a few going on in there: the bulk of the story is both an alien first-contact tale and a culture clash with moderns and medievals, and that, in turn, is conducted within a present-day Big Discovery sort of frame story, as two modern researchers try to piece together a best guess as to just what happened to disappear the village of Eifelheim back in 1348. But even if the pieces are recognizable, it's better than a patchwork of conventions, and this book comes together as something impressive and original, excellent both as an idea novel and as a character experiment.

The background is researched to a degree of sincerity that's impressive, but which, unfortunately, is most unwieldy at the very beginning. In chapter 2, we're introduced to a an academic couple who unwittingly find themselves working different angles of the same project. Tom is a "cliologist," a man who uses mathematical tools to study history, and while he seems like a sharp guy, he's even more bizarrely confident in his highly processed conclusions than is the average econometrician. (The doubt quotes, however, are because I can't tell if this field actually exists outside of fiction. I clearly don't possess Michael Flynn's commitment to background research.) His girlfriend Sharon is a theoretical physicist working out some implications of a higher-dimensional universe, and I can't really say how valid her conjectures are either, but that's because Flynn's physics kludges are at a pretty high level for sf, and he makes it easy to suspend my disbelief and pique curiosity about the underlying ideas. The problem with the frame story is that neither Tom nor Sharon start out as very compelling characters, and giving a gusty voice to the contemporary narrator (one of Tom's colleagues; the other sections are told in the usual third person omniscient--the author's own voice, which is better) only weighs them down more. Flynn tries to capture these two in a smart-person's lover's dialogue, but it's a bad vehicle for getting us up to speed--if there are people who talk about the high-level intellectual grounding of their work this much when they're off the clock, then I don't really want to spend any time with them. Their manner becomes more credible as they sink into their mutual obsessions, but they start off as just plain bores. It's the sort of thing that might carry the distance of certain kind of sf short (one of those purer "idea stories"), and that is in fact what the book grew from, but in a longer novel, it's not the best opening move.

And the novel is NOT a bore, not by any means. It's really engaging, and I'd rather convince you to keep reading it. Most of the story takes place in the middle ages, and with just a little faith, we're diving right into the heart of the Black Forest, with that earnestness now helping to paint things very sympathetically. Over the years, I've read a couple other novels set in a similar milieu, and I think that Flynn, at last, gets us down to the fact that we're dealing with people who are intelligent and capable on their own terms. I think more than most writers, he's really curious about their worldview more than about how they lived, going as far to claim the time of William of Ockham as a rare triumph of reason among the epochs, before better minds reverted to the romantic mysticism (as one character labels it) of the Renaissance. And while I doubt he has the accredited scholarship of Umberto Eco (and there's also no smokin' cool labyrinth, etc.), the comparison with the The Name of the Rose is too tempting. Flynn plays a very similar trick that Eco does (distilling Roger Bacon, Ockham, Buridan et al. to get a modern-style rational protagonist) with similar intentions (to dissect the middle age intellectual universe), but the author does not (as Eco so irritatingly did) treat the medievals with gigantic heaps of modern smugness. He admittedly cheats a lot with the main character, Pastor Dietrich, letting him correctly derive a lot of advanced concepts (right down to the etymology, and even though that's really a game he plays with the reader--do we usually think much about where words like "electronic" or "protein" or "microphone" come from?--it was a little too much for me) with the tools he has at hand, but Flynn has a great deal of respect for those tools, up to and including the theological ones, and the discussions of Christian morality (revealed truth to Dietrich and his flock, but one they are constantly working with as part of both their moral and natural philosophy) are as interesting as the technological ones. It ends up creating an interesting connection between their understanding and ours, and he lets Dietrich be persistently wrong about some things too, and at times lets his misunderstanding lead to profundity.

I think it works because Flynn takes two groups that are well-known strangers to the reader, common science fiction objects of scrutiny, and lets them investigate each other from mutual disadvantage. The aliens--big grasshopper-like creatures--are technologically advanced (only a couple breakthroughs past 2012 level) but seriously impaired, stranded with a broken vehicle in an unknown and possibly hostile or unsupportive environment, and with a deterioriating group dynamic. The villagers meanwhile, are as smart and inquisitive, and as charitable and suspcious, as any cross-section of human society, but when it comes to unforeseen problems like demonic visitors, even though they're in the midst of a scientific revolution of their own, are obviously inhibited by it being such an early one. They're also in sniffing distance of the Black Death, to which the reader is cued from the beginning, and slaves to a couple other known, if minor, historical events.

There are those interesting scientific and theological discussions between Dietrich and the visitors, but there's a satisfying cultural interaction to decode as well, and Flynn has a lot of space to get into both worlds. He adds some richness to medieval life (the local priest keeps a lot of contacts, and for just a little more scope, he's got an interesting backstory of his own too), and gives the aliens enough problems to get into their sometimes confusing society too. They're not quite human in the way they interact with each other, but they're fucked up in ways we can appreciate. With varying success, and with no shortage of ambiguity and difficulties, the groups interact and learn from each other (or fail to), get closer despite themselves, all for what may ultimately be no purpose at all. Their respective problems are left open. If there's a point to them meeting, it's maybe to be found hundreds of years later. It's a positive and fanciful story, well-informed, hopeful, and yet tethered to the complications of life. What more can you ask for?

Friday, June 29, 2012

Lies, Damn Lies, And Now Statistics

We've been at the game at least since Democritus, and god knows I've made it a pet subject on the blog over the years. At what point, we wonder, does a pile of stuff instead become collection of tiny things? When is it appropriate to break something up and consider it in terms of little constituent parts, and when are the small-parts contributions better thought of as a collective whole? Once you get past the philosophical wankery (and let's face it, I'm unlikely to), then I suppose there are really only two practical answers to that: when you can't avoid the quantized nature of things, and when the math is easier. I think it's a little bit funny that a few centuries of science based on analog mathematics (with continuous, nicely differentiable functions) finally coughed up everything digital (breaking it up into approximate chunks), and I have often found it fascinating how the same systems can be usefully described as discrete, continuous, and then discrete again, depending on what scale you dial in at, or what you're trying to prove. Electronics, for example: you start with quanta (electrons), which average out to make analog structures (semiconductor devices, let's say), and then put those together to make a logic network that'll do it all bitwise, allowing only ones or zeroes (I'm using one to write). And sometimes your semiconductor theory gives you localized states to deal with; sometimes the analog nature of a transistor or diode is important. I think one reason that things like macroeconomics and evolution appeal to me is they're large-scale ensemble effects that are logical extensions of (well, evolution is anyway), but seemingly independent phenomena from, the things that make them up, which in those cases are our very lives.

Maybe you'll forgive me for dipping into this well yet again. I had to sit through a weeklong industrial statistics class earlier this month, and this is the sort of thing that I was daydreaming about (well, once I got tired of thinking up wiseass comments and imagining people naked). It was an effort to fuzz over the whole mind-crushing boredom of it all.

Most people loathe stats for the terminally dull math it throws at you, and that's a reputation that's probably deserved, but at least digging through the justifications and proofs has a way of adding a kind of legitimacy of knowledge. Getting through it makes you feel like a smart person. That's not the class I took the other week. There we were training with a computer program to run through all the equations behind the scenes--elegantly enough if you stick to the problems it was designed for (but what kind of engineer would I be if I did that?)--and the practical application got taught without drumming up even the mathematical gravitas you'd need to count back change. It's a well-oiled teaching method that got across how to use a mathematical tool without an underlying idea of how the math might work, and okay, knowing how to use it is the take-home you'd want even if you did take the time to watch the gears turning, and he did a good job of getting across what he tried to. But it's a special kind of tedium to spend a 40 hour week absorbing the knowledgable huckster routine from someone you're pretty sure isn't as smart as you. Christ, it reminded me of those long ago nights of sitting through driver's ed.

(Full disclosure: I had a stats class back in college that taught nothing of perceivable relevance whatsoever. It taught some math, but I didn't learn any of that either, or at least none of it stuck in my head beyond the final. I didn't feel the least bit smart, but still got an A. Not sure how that happened.)

Anyway, the dorky daydreams. It struck me that when you hit that border between chunky and creamy, where you can't really decide whether to count things up or do clean math on some variable, then that is exactly where you have "statistics." Implying a distribution function is exactly the point when you know damn well the data consists of tallied events but you're going to call it a smooth curve anyway, and statistical analysis is supposed to be what tells you if that's worth doing and how legal it really is, when things go one way or the other. In the manufacturing world, one primary concern is sampling and measurement: it's an important question whether you can compare results from measurements that will vary, that is, whether the data are really telling you anything. We're all used to thinking like this, but most scientists I've known aren't terribly rigorous about considering error in the experimentation and data-gathering, although then again, we are usually more about understanding relationships that come from somewhere.  More curve fitting, fewer t-tests.

Statistical understanding gets buried under a lot of science and engineering anyway, without always thinking about it as such.  One advantage of spending a decade and a half as a technical whore is that I got exposed to a variety of interesting fields and thinking (a disadvantage is that I got to be a whole lot better at bullshitting my way around ideas than studying and implementing them).  The very basis of band theory, which is used liberally to design solid state devices, is a smooth approximation of entities that are known to be discrete, assigning effective properties, imagining a continuous density of electrical states, generating a smooth probability function to populate them.  When you can't quite get away things so easily, when you have to admit you're counting electrons or photons, or doing signal processing in general, then you have to fall back to the statistics.  It's interesting to consider how shot noise will plague you in low-signal collection (when just a few electrons are passing through, they are less likely to be representative), or derivations of signal to noise on a larger scale, and any kind of diagnostics will also require a statistically-derived decision based on the quantity of signal.  I spent a few inadequate efforts in past years thinking about the implications of size distributions of small particles, and I'm getting lately into something like that again.  It's a case when it's not just the size of the the little guys govern properties, but the shape of the distribution will affect what you measure too, and if spread out, it'll behave much differently than if they're all the same size.  You might call this a property of your sample, or you might call it the properties of differently-behaving individuals.

But it's important to remember that science and statistics aren't really the same thing. One remarkable part of that course (and, I think this is the hollow heart of certain fields which rely on statistics, some of which happen to control the world), is that you can sometimes get to feel you are evaluating things astutely, while knowing fuck-all about what's going on down there. I think that makes certain kinds of people feel very smart indeed, but it scares the shit out of me. When you can study something in detail while remaining relatively ignorant of it, you have a good opportunity to lie to yourself and others.

I'll leave the economist-bashing aside today and note that as researchers, if we're chasing something like the scientific method, then we have some working assumptions and models going in. We have some prior experience, sometimes whole fields of it, of how things tend to relate, might relate, or fucking well better relate. One of the most annoying things that got pushed in the class, and I know is used in industrial research, is the development of "models" though statistical design of experiments.  The idea of that is to throws a bunch of ingredients together in a way to best infer dependencies, which is a neat scientific tool, and sometimes exactly the right one, but the problem is that it also offers no real understanding.  It is meant to address the what, but utterly leaves off the why.  [I feel better about things like evolutionary algorithms, where a solution is chased down through randomly mutated generations, and maybe you don't know the intimate details inside there either, but it's a really clever approach at that higher level of granularity]  If it's formulation work you're doing, then you end up doing chemistry with a completely optional understanding of, well, chemistry, and this just annoys me on some level. You really should have some fundamental understanding of how materials are known to interact. The instructor called these sorts of insights, a little dismissively, as "local knowledge," but if it's science, the local knowledge is what you are getting at.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Not long ago, I found an old letter to the editor that I wrote, and (thank god) never sent, from back in my college days, defending that redoubt of callousness and misogyny, the greek fraternity. The argument wasn't that godawful--amounting to "it's different for a bunch of socially inept nerds in engineering school, we need to drink irresponsibly, waah!"--but I know the style, the sort of precocious, self-affirming, fake-earnest crap that I'd later associate with bullshit-reasoned libertoonian writing, and I'm embarrassed that it ever came out of me. I have strong thoughts about going back and burning it, but on the other hand, it's my moral duty to belittle this kind of thing, maybe even more so now that I've gone and caught myself doing it, twenty years ago. In my limited defense, my conscience was making noises even in that one about people who might live beyond a bubble of other straight middle-class white dudes, and, generally speaking, I tried to talk to people sometimes at that age, cultivate some empathy, read freely, and accept that I might be wrong, and some would say that I generally grew the fuck up over time. Also in my defense, even if the fraternity system in general can be a hiding spot for a whole lot of college-guy nastiness, I think it was much better in my microcosm, and these sorts of things make a more easily assailable target than, say, college sports. The basic thing is that if you get a collection of pigs in one place, then they'll act like a bunch of pigs. A bunch of drunken geeks like we were? Some were better people than others, but I mostly spent those days sitting around with my friends making sarcastic jokes at their expense and mine. Good times.

People have made a lot of assumptions about this over the years, and one that's galled (because it's true), is that an organization like this is pretty inauthentic at its core. The design of a fraternity isn't really to accomplish anything other than pulling in students before it knows them especially well, and jam them into a sort of friend-making boot camp. I can't come down on whether this is fundamentally a bad thing or not. Some of them became real friends and some didn't, and if an opportunity comes your way to get to know people you have a good chance of getting along with, then why not take it? Especially if you're a dork in engineering school. (And there's the 2012 version of the argument.)

The trick to indoctrinate new guys is to build experiences together, make them hang out with each other and also with the people in the group. That was most of the hazing we gave, and the purpose of all of it, and if I had to show up and fetch beers for a month, or if I got encouraged to try and get away with things that were funny and harmless, then hell, it was nice when it was my turn to drink and laugh. It's pretty obviously a knockoff of military initiation, or gangs, or the clergy, or high school, or any group that makes a case for its bureaucratic existence rather than just its members. And the format of the rite is similar. Set a group of people apart from the rest, push them into a shared experience that's hard to understand in any other context, and let them join fully when they start to bond. It's team-building, in the horrible corporate sense. If my fraternity had conducted this with anything but mock-seriousness, then I'd have been deeply offended, but when it comes to human organizations, mockery is the exactly appropriate response to an abundance of seriousness. (And this may be how they got to me, the sneaky bastards.)

It's an adage that as empires crumble, life tends to go on for most of us--meet the new boss and all that. I hate to take that one too far: it's terrifying how much they can take down with them (and have taken down), but there's truth too that the failure of power structures most seriously threatens the empowered. [It's a thought that often pops up with me whenever the "ready flow of credit" is allegedly held at gunpoint by the financial establishment, but of course it applies generally to straight middle-class white dudes too.] I don't want to beat on Debt much more than I already have, but I find the historical contention interesting that when externally imposed institutions or governments lost their local grip, as he says they did for much of the middle ages in much of the world, then civilization tended to replace them with persistent hierarchical arrangements, where people were guided by tradition into castes, instead of by institutions. The roles in that arrangment are passed on by collective habit, and over time become difficult to confront. Inequality is assumed instead of coerced, and you learn it at birth. I'm not convinced this makes a better world, and in fact, it unnerves me that this is the only alternative that's much panned out on a civilizational scale, but the argument was that it was somewhat less violent.

You can't really escape it, and it's a topic that I periodically wander back to, maybe moreso than your typical engineering nerd. We are initiated into the game before we even get a chance to question it. The fact that we share non-genetic information from one generation to another, one group to another, that we pass it on, is the very essence of what makes us human. We're pulled into existing conversations before we even know how to talk. To really re-think things, you'd need to make a clean and thorough break from ten thousand years of evidence of other people existing, and who'd get to be the architect of that experiment anyway? In the real world, if there is a better and more fair way to organize humanity, it will be because a tradition of such practice emerges slowly, and we will still have to initiate people to get up to speed with that improved starter packet of information. Even if the guiding idea is a rejection of system, you still have to initiate people into the tradition of challenging it. You have to be conditioned to reject authority. Is it any wonder this species is so fundamentally confused?