The Quiet Coup - The Atlantic, May 2009In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson
30 March 2009
27 March 2009
Secretary: What are you doing for Thanksgiving?
Nurse: My husband and I are going to North Carolina to visit his family. Why? What are you doing? Do you want to come with us?
Secretary: No. I can't. I don't have a passport.
--NYU Cancer Center
Overheard by: Destiny Traphofner
via Overheard in New York, Mar 27, 2009
Hat tip: Tarus
26 March 2009
While it's a specialist
Check out this cross-section of a local hot-house tomato:
That's a "detail" from the deconstructed tomato below:
It does, indeed, cut pretty close.
Finished simple salad:
Anthropology prof: Amish youth in Pennsylvania have the opportunity to go out and experience mainstream society for a period of time before deciding whether or not to leave Amish society. An overwhelming amount decide to return to Amish society. That really tells you something about the cohesiveness of this religious sect! (pause) Then again, maybe it's just because Philadelphia is the city they all go out into.via Overheard in New York
--Classroom, Fordham University
Year one in New York City: Your humble scribe is not wholly convinced that he has the chops to "make it there/anywhere" but plugs along, gritting his teeth through significant portions of it.
Years 2-5: The center of the known universe is at the corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. If you stand there at a quiet moment, such as three in the morning, you can actually discern everything orbiting around you, but quiet moments are so rare that this kind of thing almost never happens.
Years 6-12: New York City is a fine and unique place to live and work, but it's not all that.
The "Philadelphia" crack, above, is the sort of thing one used to hear all the time, as a joke, from a certain class of New Yorker.
I *won't* miss that about NYC.
25 March 2009
John Hope Franklin, the revered historian who chronicled the South and gave definition to the African-American experience, died this morning at age of 94.
Franklin, the James B. Duke professor of history emeritus at Duke University, died this morning at Duke Hospital, said Ddavid Jarmul, a spokesman for Duke University.
Franklin was considered one of the most influential historians of the 20th century. His book "From Slavery to Freedom," first published in 1947, was a seminal work on African-American history and has sold 3.5 million copies.
He was at the forefront of some of the biggest turning points in the nation's civil rights history. In 1953, he helped NAACP lawyers with research for the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case. In 1965, he joined a group of historians who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery. Five decades after his masterpiece was published, he was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997 to lead a national intiative on race.
"I hardly needed to seek a way to confront American racial injustice," he wrote in his 2005 memoir "Mirror to America." "My ambition was sufficient to guarantee that confrontation."
I had the privilege of attending some public talks that Dr. Franklin gave in the Triangle area in the 1980s. He came to Duke in 1983, when I was in high school just up the road, and throughout my college years at Chapel Hill he was active as a college professor and public intellectual, even though he took "emeritus" status not long after he arrived at Duke.
He was an inspiring, erudite speaker, a deep and interesting thinker, and he seems to have lived his entire life with the courage of his convictions intact.
We should all be able to say that about ourselves.
See also: John Hope Franklin article at Wikipedia and his faculty bio at Duke University.
If you run a single small Windows instance 24 x 7 for a month, it'll cost you about $90.
Hour to hour, it's 12.5 cents per hour. ;-)
And if you've ever bought anything at Amazon and have an account there, you're already an established customer - you just have to switch this on.
24 March 2009
"The Big Takeover," Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 19 March 2009People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they're not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d'état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.The crisis was the coup de grâce: Given virtually free rein over the economy, these same insiders first wrecked the financial world, then cunningly granted themselves nearly unlimited emergency powers to clean up their own mess. And so the gambling-addict leaders of companies like AIG end up not penniless and in jail, but with an Alien-style death grip on the Treasury and the Federal Reserve — "our partners in the government," as Liddy put it with a shockingly casual matter-of-factness after the most recent bailout.
The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.
23 March 2009
John Smithers of Raleigh had spent more than six decades looking for clues about the father who abandoned him, his sister and their mother when he was just a baby. The barrel-chested, brash-talking Smithers had something he wanted to give his old man: a fist in the nose.At 82, he had about given up on ever learning what happened to James William Smithers. He had long suspected his father got in trouble with the law and fled abroad. Decades ago, it was easy enough to disappear, and Smithers' father had seemingly vanished into thin air.
On the other side of the world, Lucinda Gray had always wondered what her father's life was like before he moved mysteriously from the United States to Australia. She had spent years just trying to find out his real name.
In mid-December, Smithers and Gray learned their elusive fathers were one and the same.
22 March 2009
Coco, like most American cats, ate fish. And a great deal of them — more in a year than the average African human, according to Jason Clay at the World Wildlife Fund. And unlike the chicken or beef Coco also gobbled up, all those fish were wild animals, scooped out of the sea and flown thousands of carbon-belching miles to reach his little blue bowl.Cat got your fish? (Paul Greenberg, New York Times, 22 March 2009)
As for pets like Coco, alternatives already exist. Several companies now make vegan cat food, though owners of vegan cats find they must supplement their pets’ diets with Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, niacin and other nutrients. But those who feel a vegan cat goes against nature (so says the A.S.P.C.A.) might rethink a pet’s potential footprint before acquiring one.
A carnivore, be it a cat, a dog or a salmon, is a heavy burden for the environment and should not be brought under human care lightly. In my family, this has become a topic of debate as we consider our next animal. Coco was an interesting and unique creature, and I argue that he cannot be replaced. To me, a vegetarian substitute is seeming more and more appealing. Lately, I’ve had my eye on a guinea pig.
Getting a pet is absolutely a decision that should not be taken lightly.
While Mister Gato may have just retired as a working rodent-catcher, though, I'm pretty comfortable with his net environmental burden. ;-)
And anyone who tries to maintain an obligate carnivore on a vegan diet should be slowly and systematically starved themselves.
The real feline footprint problem
Lincoln Highway (Wikipedia)According to the Association's 1916 Official Road Guide a trip from the Atlantic to the Pacific on the Lincoln Highway was "something of a sporting proposition" and might take 20 to 30 days. To make it in 30 days the motorist would need to average 18 miles (29 km) an hour for 6 hours per day, and driving was only done during daylight hours. The trip was thought to cost no more than $5 a day per person, including food, gas, oil, and even "five or six meals in hotels." Car repairs would, of course, increase the cost.Since gasoline stations were still rare in many parts of the country, motorists were urged to top off their gasoline at every opportunity, even if they had done so recently. Motorists should wade through water before driving through to verify the depth. The list of recommended equipment included chains, a shovel, axe, jacks, tire casings and inner tubes, tools, and (of course) a pair of Lincoln Highway pennants. And, the guide offered this sage advice: "Don't wear new shoes."
Firearms were not necessary, but west of Omaha full camping equipment was recommended, and the guide warned against drinking alkali water that could cause serious cramps. In certain areas, advice was offered on getting help, for example near Fish Springs, Utah, "If trouble is experienced, build a sagebrush fire. Mr. Thomas will come with a team. He can see you 20 miles off." Later editions omitted Mr. Thomas, but westbound travelers were advised to stop at the Orr's Ranch for advice, and eastbound motorists were to check with Mr. K.C. Davis of Gold Hill, Nevada.
See also: National automobile trails
It probably caught the attention of every local person watching 60 Minutes on Sunday night -- as well as anyone who has ever driven by the South of the Border billboards along Interstate 95.Bernanke once had job at South of the Border (Fayetteville Observer, 19 March 2009)
Quiet, dignified and powerful, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said that he once worked at the kitschy tourist mecca that straddles the border of North and South Carolina.
He waited tables, and he wore a poncho, just like the Pedro mascot.
It was a summer job while Bernanke was a student at Harvard. His hometown is Dillon, S.C., and he needed money to pay his way through school.
21 March 2009
The packing/loading/driving/unloading process - all of which was compressed into a roughly 36-hour timeframe from 8:30 AM Monday morning (movers arrive at old place and start packing) to 4:30 PM Tuesday afternoon (movers depart new place having offloaded all packed boxes) kicked my ass worse than anything in recent memory, and was similar for Carrie, I think.
Side yard view
But: We have the kitchen, bedroom, and office set up. We've turned the second bedroom (which will eventually be the guest room) into a Den of Sin where we retreat in the evenings to listen to the radio, surf the Net on our laptops and drink beer (there's only so much unpacking you can cope with in a day.)
The great room is still neck deep in boxes and will be for a while until we figure out our bookshelf situation, and our "kitchen table" is a card table and folding chairs yanked from Mom's house, but yeah, this already feels like home.
Gato was pretty freaked on Day 2 of the process but by Day 3 (Wednesday) was strutting around like he owned the place. Chow Bella, sweet as ever, just follows us from room to room and plops down in the doorway to guard... she wore herself out protecting us from the Weird Men Who Had All Our Furniture And Stuff on Tuesday, but still takes guard duty seriously.
The house is situated on five acres on what used to be the outskirts of town, in a region that features McMansions, middle class homes (the nabe right behind us) and trailer parks all cheek-by-jowl, in the way that only a Southern town of about 40,000 people could pull off. The local supermarket boasts two aisles of food designed to appeal to homesick Mexican folks and two aisles of yuppie/organic (organic dark chocolate, etc.) in addition to all the regular grocery-type stuff you'd look for.... it's like that. I shop in all the aisles happily. The noodle soups designed to appeal to the Mexican market, for instance, are pretty awesome (beef ginger pot noodles = massive win).
The Carrboro Farmer's Market is the bee's knees. After breakfast at Elmo's Diner (perfectly nice, inexpensive) we headed to the town square, and bought local hothouse tomatoes, half a lemon poundcake, goat cheese, homemade relish...
Carrie bought locally produced and spun yarn. I predict Farmer's Market blogging from her soonest.
There's more unpacking to cope with, but we've prioritized well.
The new crock pot is slowly simmering a cut-up chicken and veggies, and we'll be eating that in six hours or so with warm flour tortillas.
Life is good, full stop.
20 March 2009
19 March 2009
Tasked with identifying and purchasing a crock pot for our roomy new kitchen, my wife brings back a 7-quart programmable model.
I was already on the Web looking for the API manual (how do I control this little sucker from the Mac?) when she explained that "programmable" basically meant you could set the start time and temp in advance and for different cooking cycles of the same dish...
Old joke. Guy goes into a bar, orders a stiff drink. The bartender says, what's eating you, pal? Guy says, my wife understands me.
17 March 2009
when english majors marry
Originally uploaded by enrevanche.
When English majors marry: a cautionary tale.
Foreground: Some (but by no means all) of the books from our NYC apartment, stacked up by the front door of our new home in North Carolina.
Carrie, Mister Gato, Chow Bella and I were on the road to North Carolina around 3PM, pulling into the driveway at the new place around 12:30 this morning. We drove through a torrential rainstorm for over half the trip, making I-95 even more disagreeable than it usually is, but we all made it in one piece. :-)
Gato, who was not as wigged out by the road trip as we feared, has in fact been pretty comprehensively discombooberated by the actual move. He is currently hiding out in the laundry room, which must feel like a safe place to him (cats hate change, and moving a cat to a new place, if memory serves, usually involves a lengthy adjustment period.)
He is coming out periodically to love on us and munch a little cat food; he'll figure out that this is his new place soon enough.
Meanwhile, the Chow seems to have figured out that she owns a yard now. :-) Lots and lots of grinning and wagging.
We're drinking coffee and shaking off the stiffness of the road. Slept on air mattresses and sleeping bags last night (and slept *well*, once I got to sleep... Carrie can sleep under any circumstances, bless her heart; I am almost sick with envy in situations like this.)
In another three hours or so, the guys will be pulling up with the entire contents of our one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which we'll be distributing across roughly three times the square footage we used to have.
Life is (provisionally) good.
15 March 2009
Newspapers are dying but journalism is evolving, an acclaimed science writer told a gathering of the techno-hip at South By South West Interactive Festival on Friday.
Steven Johnson equated newspapers to old growth forests, saying that under the canopy of that aged ecosystem blogging, citizen journalism, Twittering and other Internet-age information sharing is taking root.
"I'm bullish on the future of news," Johnson said.
"I am not bullish on what is happening in the newspaper industry; it is ugly and it is going to get uglier. Great journalists are going to lose their jobs and cities are going to lose their newspapers."
The shift was foreseeable but ignored, resulting in changes that should have happened gradually over a decade being crammed into a year or two with some pressure from the global economic meltdown, according to Johnson.
"There is panic that newspapers are going to disappear as businesses," Johnson said.
"Then there is panic that crucial information is going to disappear along with them. We spend so much time figuring out how to keep the old model on life support that we don't figure out how to build the new one."
News organizations should stop wasting resources on information freely available online, he added. And, they should stop killing trees.
"The business model sure seems easier to support if the printing goes away," Johnson said. "They don't have the print costs."
Following the A.I.G. Money (editorial, New York Times)In the manic years of this decade, credit default swaps took off as a way to bet on the likelihood of default by a firm or an investment portfolio, without having to own any financial interest in the firm or portfolio. That is definitely not insurance, it is gambling. The reason it is not illegal gambling is that, in 2000, Congress specifically exempted credit default swaps from state gaming laws.
The result? Eric Dinallo, the insurance superintendent for New York State, has said that some 80 percent of the estimated $62 trillion in credit default swaps outstanding in 2008 were speculative.
This is a very interesting point that I haven't seen raised elsewhere... the specific exemption from regulation as illegal gambling.
** Like April Fool's Day, Purim is a holiday where telling whoppers in an attempt to hoodwink someone has evolved into an art form.
The Elders of Zion, the venerable and shadowy Jewish organization that controls the international banking industry, news media and Hollywood, has announced that it is disbanding so that members can retire to Florida and live out their golden years on the golf course.
“We had a good run,” said one senior Elder, reminiscing over old photographs of world leaders in his musty, wood-paneled office at an undisclosed location. “Maybe we ran the world for just a little too long. Anyway, now it’s Obama’s problem.”
After a humiliating year left most of its financial holdings, as well as the entire civilized world, on the verge of collapse, the organization has re-defined its mission in terms of bridge games and making it to restaurants for the Early Bird Special.
Hat tip: Carrie, via Facebook
14 March 2009
13 March 2009
And though I'll be back often, I know there are things I will miss.
Like this -
Carrie had been packing stuff all day, and I'd been on the job since 7 AM and had just capped off a twelve-hour day.
We didn't feel like cooking.
In about twenty minutes, a deliveryman from the neighborhood diner is going to show up with french onion soup, a pastrami Reuben sporting extra kraut, a tuna melt and an order of well-done fries with ketchup on the side, from which Carrie and I will assemble a tasting menu.
It's all going to be really good, and it's no more expensive (delivered, tip included) than two people eating comparable fare at Applebee's in suburbia.
I have had epic meals at fine restaurants in New York City. I will remember the 2004 summer tasting menu at Babbo when I am sucking my gums in front of the fireplace (I hope!)...
...but what I'll really miss are the neighborhood places.
11 March 2009
I Did Not Know This:
In 1941 the British Secret Service had John Waddington Ltd., the licensed manufacturer of [Monopoly] outside the U.S., create a special edition for World War II prisoners of war held by the Nazis. Hidden inside these games were maps, compasses, real money, and other objects useful for escaping. They were distributed to prisoners by the International Red Cross.Cool. And so smart.
(cited in Alexander Lobrano's fantastic recent series of NYT blog posts on dining out in New York and Paris)
Few people realize that New York Times journalist David Rhodes was kidnapped in Afghanistan back in November. There were a few scattered stories early on, but big reporting apparently has been squashed. In December, during a trip with Secretary Gates, I asked a New York Times reporter if she knew the status of the situation. The story had been kept so quiet that she didn’t actually know the kidnapping had occurred.
Michael Yon: Kidnapped
10 March 2009
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.Michael Spencer, writing in The Christian Science Monitor (10 Mar 2009)Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
Related: Internet Monk, Michael Spencer's blog, where one can find the posts that the CSM adapted in longer form:
1. The Philadelphia Daily NewsThe 10 Major Newspapers That Will Either Fold Or Go Digital Next (Time via Yahoo! News)
2. The Minneapolis Star Tribune
3. The Miami Herald
4. The Detroit News
5. The Boston Globe
6. The San Francisco Chronicle
7. The Chicago Sun Times
8. NY Daily News
9. The Fort Worth Star Telegram
10. The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Related: How To Save Your Newspaper (Time cover story, Walter Isaacson)
09 March 2009
Nell Minow, interviewed in BusinessWeekQ: How has executive pay ratcheted up to such a level?
A: In part, the answer is that the last time the government tried to fix [outsized executive compensation], there was no limit on stock options. At the time you didn't have to expense stock options, and they just mushroomed. So we want to have some humility going forward about efforts to correct this problem we helped to create the last time we tried to correct it. And there was a cultural element that led to this as well. I always say that investment bankers are the geishas of the financial world because they sit next to the CEO and laugh at his jokes and talk about what a big strong man he is and wouldn't it be fun to buy something together. And so CEOs looked at the investment bankers and said to themselves, "This guy's making more than I am. I am a titan. I'm the CEO of a great big company. I'm responsible for all these employees and customers, and all this guy does is move numbers around. I should be paid as much as he is." And then we have what we call the virus directors—directors who move from company to company and bring bad pay plans with them. So you have people like [Home Depot (HD) founder] Ken Langone, and you find him on the compensation committees of GE (GE), approving Jack Welch's retirement plan, Dick Grasso's at the NYSE (NYX), and [Bob] Nardelli's at Home Depot (HD). He personally was involved in three of these outrageous plans.
A patron of a kaiten-zushi restaurant in Japan (in which the sushi dishes on offer slowly cruise by each dining position on a conveyor belt... imagine an airport luggage carousel in miniature, loaded down with raw fish) puts her video camera on said belt, pointing at the diners.
Hat tip: Wehr in the World
08 March 2009
This does not mean that if you bring in more than $372,951, every single dollar in your entire pile of money is taxed at 35%. Only Dollar #372,952 (plus whatever additional money you may earn) is taxed at that rate. Dollar #372,950 is taxed at 33%. Meanwhile, Dollar #1 is taxed at 10%. Hence the term "marginal": In a progressive tax system, there are margins (i.e., boundary lines) at which the government increases the tax rate on any additional incoming dollar.UPDATED 12:57 PM 8 Mar 2009
So I concluded a little infoviz might help clear up the misunderstanding.
Here's a graphic depiction:
And here's how that single person's tax prospects compare to those of married people filing jointly, married people filing separately and heads of household:
Victor Keegan, writing in The Guardian (UK):
Can we build a world with open source? (Victor Keegan, The Guardian)
Vinay Gupta is a Scottish-Indian engineer who designs low-cost homes for poor parts of the world or disaster zones, and then makes them freely available on the internet so others can do the building. His flagship is the Hexayurt shelter system, which costs around $200 (£142). It uses common building materials, including insulation boards - which, he claims, are a third of the cost of a tent. The business plan is to cut the price of essential goods and services to the point where the poor can afford them. Gupta is just one example of a global movement that offers an alternative to the scandalous tales of banking avarice that have saturated the world's media.
We are often told that the best things in life are free, but few have ever tried to build it into a business model. Yet it is curious that while financial capitalism is in global meltdown, a completely different kind of entrepreneurial activity - call it commune-ism - is rising, from an admittedly low base. This is the act of doing things for the common good, for nothing - either from altruistic motives or because you expect to get compensated by using the product of someone else's free endeavours. Until recently, this kind of activity - known generically as "open source" - has been confined to software through such brilliant communal projects as Wikipedia, the Firefox browser (which now has 21.5% of the global market) or the Linux operating system. Interestingly, such products don't appear in the figures for gross domestic product (GDP) - at least, not until they are used in something that can be bought, such as a low-cost Linux computer. It is unrecorded wealth and if the movement grows we will have to look afresh at how we measure the wealth of nations.
06 March 2009
7. True anarchy sucks... forget those tie-dyed, dreadlocked white kids in the university towns who advocate hemp and “anarchy” - if the real thing ever happens here, those assholes will be on the bottom of the food chain....Bruce Haley's Tao of War Photography
16. The Serbs will shell a hotel that they know is occupied only by journalists... this is proof that the Serbs have done at least one thing that the rest of the world can understand...
29. Afghan horses have absolutely no feeling in their mouths; reins and bits are for decorative purposes only.... most of the U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles were used to get these creatures to stop.......
32. Drug lords throw amazing parties - somewhere there exists a jungle videotape of me and one of Khun Sa’s top aides (on a stage and backed by a fully electrified band) attempting to entertain 500 Maung Tai Army soldiers with an extremely drunken rendition of “Hotel California”
57. (Also: if the soldiers you are accompanying believe that to die a martyr’s death admits them instantly to Paradise, while you believe that to die a war photographer’s death probably just hurts a lot, these irreconcilable differences should give you pause for reflection).......
Hat tip: Kottke
...I do know something about the role of contrarians in organizational life. I have hired such people, have worked alongside them, have often been annoyed at them, but ultimately have viewed them as indispensable. Sometimes the annoying people, who will occasionally say "irresponsible" things, are the only ones who will point out problems that everyone else is trying to ignore. A president needs as many such inconvenient boat-rockers as he can find -- as long as they're not in the main operational jobs. Seriously: anyone who has worked in an organization knows how hard it is, but how vital, to find intelligent people who genuinely are willing to say inconvenient things even when everyone around them is getting impatient or annoyed. The truth is, you don't like them when they do that. You may not like them much at all. But without them, you're cooked.
via Overheard in New York, Mar 5, 2009Young teenage boy to friend: Man, I fuckin' hate this job. I'd make more money bein' a drug dealer or somethin'.Hobo: I used to think the same way as you.Young teenage boy's friend: So you became a drug dealer and ruined your life?Hobo: No, I fuckin' went to college and ruined my life.--1 Train
04 March 2009
"One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I've been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training," said US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. "And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."
03 March 2009
Welcome address to [the parents of the] freshman class at Boston Conservatory given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at Boston Conservatory [September 2008]
One of my parents' deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn't be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother's remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school-she said, "You're WASTING your SAT scores." On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren't really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the "arts and entertainment" section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it's the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.
The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.
One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.
He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.
Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture-why would anyone bother with music? And yet-from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn't just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, "I am alive, and my life has meaning."
On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn't this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.
And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.
At least in my neighborhood, we didn't shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn't play cards to pass the time, we didn't watch TV, we didn't shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around firehouses, people sang "We Shall Overcome". Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.
From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of "arts and entertainment" as the newspaper section would have us believe. It's not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can't with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber's heartwrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don't know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn't know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what's really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.
I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings-people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there's some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn't good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can't talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn't happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship between invisible internal objects.
I'll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.
I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland's Sonata, which was written during World War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland's, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.
Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier-even in his 70's, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn't the first time I've heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.
When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in the front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself. What he told us was this: "During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team's planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn't understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?
Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.
What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year's freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:
"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.
You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I'm not an entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.
Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."
Taking the conservative project as a whole—limited government, fiscal prudence, equality under law, personal liberty, patriotism, realism abroad—has talk radio helped or hurt? All those good things are plainly off the table for the next four years at least, a prospect that conservatives can only view with anguish. Did the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Savages, and Ingrahams lead us to this sorry state of affairs?
They surely did. At the very least, by yoking themselves to the clueless George W. Bush and his free-spending administration, they helped create the great debt bubble that has now burst so spectacularly. The big names, too, were all uncritical of the decade-long (at least) efforts to “build democracy” in no-account nations with politically primitive populations. Sean Hannity called the Iraq War a “massive success,” and in January 2008 deemed the U.S. economy “phenomenal.”
Much as their blind loyalty discredited the Right, perhaps the worst effect of Limbaugh et al. has been their draining away of political energy from what might have been a much more worthwhile project: the fostering of a middlebrow conservatism. There is nothing wrong with lowbrow conservatism. It’s energizing and fun. What’s wrong is the impression fixed in the minds of too many Americans that conservatism is always lowbrow, an impression our enemies gleefully reinforce when the opportunity arises. Thus a liberal like E.J. Dionne can write, “The cause of Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss, Robert Nisbet and William F. Buckley Jr. is now in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity. … Reason has been overwhelmed by propaganda, ideas by slogans.” Talk radio has contributed mightily to this development.
It does so by routinely descending into the ad hominem—Feminazis instead of feminism—and catering to reflex rather than thought. Where once conservatism had been about individualism, talk radio now rallies the mob. “Revolt against the masses?” asked Jeffrey Hart. “Limbaugh is the masses.”
In place of the permanent things, we get Happy Meal conservatism: cheap, childish, familiar. Gone are the internal tensions, the thought-provoking paradoxes, the ideological uneasiness that marked the early Right. But however much this dumbing down has damaged the conservative brand, it appeals to millions of Americans. McDonald’s profits rose 80 percent last year.
How radio wrecks the Right (John Derbyshire, The American Conservative, 23 Feb 2009)