April 30, 2010 at 12:25 am (By Randy)

I love this candid photo currently appearing on The Times website, taken during tonight’s third and final debate between the three leaders of the parties contesting the British elections next week. That’s David Cameron of the Conservative Party on the left, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats in the middle, and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the Labour Party on the right.

For those who may not be following this story:

This year marked the first series of televised debates between potential prime ministers in British history. One of the unanticipated results has been the meteoric rise in support for the hitherto perpetual third-place Liberal Democrats. Odds are now good that they will come in a strong second (up to twice their pre-debate support) and Labour will garner it’s lowest vote percentage (perhaps only 25%)  in over 80 years. Despite this, Labour will probably end up with at least two times as many seats in the new Parliament as the Lib Dems. Prior to the debates, it was widely assumed that the Conservatives would win an absolute majority, but that is far from assured now.

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Poverty is Like Gravity.

April 28, 2010 at 11:50 pm (By Amba)

After the CNAs (certified nurse assistants) from hospice bathe and dress J and get him up, I like to hang out with them and have coffee before they go on to the next patient or (since we’re often their last stop) to their family caregiving duties at home.  Most of them are black (in all the multifarious shades of golden, freckled, ruddy and brown that word so flatly fails to suggest), and single motherhood is the norm in their community; the men have long since left or been kicked out, and those who’ve stayed are often described as not much help or not worth the trouble.  (By contrast, the South American woman who stays with J when I go away is married, and her husband helps with their three boys — all of whom were born with congenital vision problems and/or cleft palate, possibly because of occupational chemical exposure of one or both parents.  To paint these trends as monolithic would be stereotypical, but to say they are representative is, sadly, just statistical.)  On the plus side, mothers/grandmothers are always there to be relied on and to take care of babies and little children while daughter-mothers go to work and to school, struggling doggedly for education and certification and advancement.  In return, they take care of their aging mothers who struggle with arthritis, diabetes, heart failure.  It’s a hard life and takes a heavy toll on health.

Talk about the working class, these women work harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in the most palpable sense of “work.”  They are extremely conscientious.  They need physical strength and endurance, bottomless patience, basic medical knowledge, a strong stomach, a sense of humor, and a kind heart to do what they do.  And they get paid, and sometimes treated, very poorly.  Home health agencies charge the client $20 an hour and pay the woman or man who does all the work $9.  Hospice, I hope, pays more than that, but probably not a lot more.  Hospice patients, they say, are mostly grateful and respectful, but home health patients — those just out of the hospital convalescing from something acute and temporary — often treat them high-handedly like servants, expecting them, for instance, to clean house.

As I was thinking about what they’ve achieved against the odds and what it takes out of them, it struck me that poverty is like gravity.  The lower in economic altitude you start, the stronger a force you must overcome to rise.  Against that down-dragging force, to get an education, to have a career, to raise children and get them into college, you must ignite a solid rocket booster of will and determination over and over again.

It always takes effort and perseverance to achieve anything.  Inertia and dissipation are universal drags on our dreams.  But those of us who were launched into orbit by the circumstances of our birth — that is, by the struggles of our ancestors — will never know what it takes, and takes out of you, just to get off the ground.

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Afghan War Made Easy (?)

April 28, 2010 at 3:19 pm (By Randy)

‘When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war,’ General Stanley McChrystal, the US and NATO force commander, remarked wryly when confronted by the sprawling spaghetti diagram in a briefing.

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Music for these Times

April 28, 2010 at 1:26 am (By Miles Lascaux)

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Colors in Cultures

April 27, 2010 at 4:18 pm (By Ron)

A cool graph of what different colors (sorry, American spelling!) mean to various cultures.  It takes a bit of deciphering, but it fascinated me…

from the equally cool blog Information is Beautiful, where you can get a big poster of this.

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Ash Cloud, My Ash??

April 26, 2010 at 10:50 pm (By Amba)

The UK’s Mail reports something AbFlab (no!  not flabby abs — absolutely flabbergasting):

Britain’s airspace was closed under false pretences, with satellite images revealing there was no doomsday volcanic ash cloud over the entire country. […]

The satellite images will be used by airlines in their battle to win tens of millions of pounds in compensation from governments for their losses.

If you’re thinking this is Climate Change Redux, I’m seeing it a bit differently.  The key passage for me is the one that comes next:

The National Air Traffic Control Service decision to ban flights was based on Met Office computer models [emphasis added] which painted a picture of a cloud of ash being blown south from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

These models should have been tested by the Met Office’s main research plane, a BAE 146 jet, but it was in a hangar to be repainted and could not be sent up until last Tuesday  –  the last day of the ban.

Evidence has emerged that the maximum density of the ash was only about one 20th of the limit that scientists, the Government, and aircraft and engine manufacturers have now decided is safe.

Based on computer models. Huh!

Have you ever noticed how the very same trends play themselves out in miniature in our personal lives and writ large on a national and even global scale?

Debt, for instance:  household debt and national debt mushroomed in tandem, manifesting the exact same Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about it tomorrow” mindset individually and collectively.

When I think of a whole country’s airline system shut down on the basis of computer models, what I see is all of us hunched over, faces pallidly lit, scrying our computer screens instead of looking out the window . . . or walking out the door.

(Thanks to reader_iam for the tip.)

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Facebook is Square.

April 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm (By Amba)

They wouldn’t upload this:

— which I clipped from a larger family picture as proof that me and my bro True Ancestor go back a long way.  “Too tall or too skinny,” Facebook said.  (The picture.  Not its subjects.)


[The date is March 1961, and yes, that’s a mouthful of braces.]

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Cats and/or Furniture?

April 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm (By Amba)

I maintain you can’t have both — magnificent, intact feline predators and magnificent, intact furniture.  A declawed cat is not a cat, and a clawed Chippendale is . . . well, you get the picture.

Today, though, Dito (short for Bandito), seen here sleeping off his accomplishment [b&w], gave the lie to that assertion.

We had a table that was really very inappropriate for a house with cats (and would have been an extreme hazard in a house with children).  It was a heavy disk of glass, 3.5 or 4 feet in diameter, resting unsecured except by its own weight on top of a sturdy openwork base.  Nathan, our karate teacher friend, had bought it and four really beautiful matching bentwood safari chairs at a flea market.  He and his former wife weren’t using them, and gave them to us when we first moved here.

It’s amazing it lasted this long, what with the disk tending to edge unnoticed off-center under the tablecloth, and cats jumping on and off it.  (Table-trained, these guys?  To stay off it, I mean?  Are you kidding?)  There have been a few close calls, including one in which Buzzy landed on the near edge and flipped the disk into my arms. Pause for a visual of Buzzy:

But the mountain of book boxes that’s still piled against the dining-alcove wall six months after the fire was the last straw.  I made the mistake of calling Dito down from the mountain in a let’s-play voice, and he dived melodramatically off the boxes onto the rear arc of the glass top.  It flipped backwards, crashed to the floor, and shattered into a million pieces, ranging in size from guillotine blade to razor blade to sliver to dust.  Cats, of course, are long gone before whatever it is hits the floor.

I called Dito every name in the book (even though it was not his fault, it was my fault for trying to have both cats and temperamental furniture) as I plucked and swept glass into cardboard boxes that I will probably have to drive to the town dump, and then vacuumed, vacuumed, vacuumed.  Nathan and his girlfriend were coming to dinner, and Nathan had e-mailed me to ask what they could bring.  I said, “A table.”

I was kidding, of course.  What I really meant was, “Don’t come to dinner, I am in no mood to cook.”  But Nathan anticipating being fed is an unstoppable force, so he said, “Okay!”  And within a couple of hours showed up with this.

(That would be an Althousian photo, with the laptop and all, if it weren’t blurry.)  This very solid pedestal table, with only minor dings (which for all I know we put on it getting it through the front door), has a leaf and is expandable.  The mechanism for opening it up to insert the leaf is a thing of beauty, with little flat gears that turn as you slide the halves apart:

The table is the same size as the old one — J’s knees and feet even fit under it — but much more solid and cat-friendly.  Nathan got it at the Habitat for Humanity store for $75.  It has all the earmarks of a conspiracy; he and Dito have been in cahoots for a long time.

See, you can have both cats and furniture — as long as you let the cats pick the furniture.

Dito got a kiss and an apology.  Nathan’s getting dinner.

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Hungary Post-Elections: Our Fun-House Mirror?

April 23, 2010 at 8:49 am (By Amba) (, , )

Hungary could not be more different from the United States, yet the push and pull among corrupt Socialists, populists, and the Right feels eerily familiar.

What the Socialists did was catastrophic. For eight years they governed they steered the country on a zigzag course. All their attempts at reform failed, the budget in Hungary was so poorly managed that Hungary was hit extremely hard by the global economic downturn. But you could not really call them a socialist party. They no longer uphold socialist values. Behind the mask of socialist slogans lies an authoritarian pattern. This is the legacy of the Kadar regime: a caring state which tolerates no opposition. And again, it was riddled with corruption which inculpates the socialists in power.

*   *   *

The party political struggle became nothing but a front for the battle for cash.

*   *   *

[Y]ou shouldn’t be surprised at [far-right populist party] Jobbik’s popularity when desperate family men are constantly being laid off only to be rehired under worse conditions. The Europeans should not just look for the easy way out now by simply distancing themselves from these genuinely abhorrent neo-fascists. These people were not born that way.

*   *   *

The country is heavily in debt and in need of radical reform – in education, health, pensions. The bureaucracy is absurdly inflated. A third of the population lives off the state.

Hmmm.  My friend Casselman the Prairie Editor sees omens and lessons for America in the upcoming British elections.  Yesterday on NPR while driving the van I heard Bolivian president Evo Morales kick off the alternative climate summit at Cochabamba by saying, “Capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies.  Capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives.”  These shifting winds are blowing around the globe.

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How to Pluck from the Memory a Rooted Sorrow

April 23, 2010 at 12:55 am (By Theo Boehm) ()

Cross-posted from A Quiet Evening.

* * * * *

I’ve been thinking of putting up more videos of Christina Pluhar and her ensemble, “l’Arpeggiata” to illustrate topics about both instruments and musical forms.  Her group does a lot of early 17th century music on well-played period instruments, often accompanying very good singers. She’s one of my favorite performers and looms large in my YouTube favorites. I’m in the middle of buying everything I can find that she’s recorded, she’s that good.

The first half of the 17th century is a fascinating time. Along with nearly everything else in Europe during those strange, violent and dramatic years, music underwent enormous changes. Because styles, techniques and instruments were in a state of flux, it has been difficult to convincingly reconstruct the music for modern ears. Unlike playing 18th century music on period instruments, which any motivated and competent modern player could do, the 17th century requires deeper scholarship, insight, and musical flexibility.

Ms. Pluhar frequently plays the theorbo, a favorite instrument of the time, and I was looking for something to illustrate it, when I came across the following video. It’s by Regina Albanez, a Brazilian musician living in Holland. She demonstrates the Baroque lute—which I’ve blogged about here, and here—the theorbo, and, her obvious favorite, the Baroque guitar. She speaks a charming Flemish-accented Dutch, so she’s easy to understand even without the subtitles:

So far, so good—a perfect example of the serendipity of the web. But Ms. Albanez actually gave me tears of joy with the following video. She plays the well-known “Canarios” by Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) on a Baroque guitar of the sort known to Sanz. It has 10 strings in 5 courses, tied-on frets, wooden tuning pegs, and is smaller and more lightly-built than later guitars. The piece is from Instrucción de música sobre la Guitarra Española, published as a complete edition in 1697.

She’s a fine guitarist. Her technique is excellent, and her phrasing and dynamics near perfection. But what impresses me, and helped pluck out some of my own rooted sorrows, is the quiet modesty and focused joy of her playing. There is nothing that distracts from the music. For a few minutes, she’s one of those players who becomes the music, which I suppose is all you can ask of any musician.

And then she ends with a little smile.

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