On the road to….

January 28, 2013 at 12:35 am (By Ron)

I just thought I’d put a post to thank you to all the people who’ve been supportive to me through a really, really rough time of my life, starting with our bloggeress.  I’m going to try and keep connected as best I can until I get settled in a semi permanent way, where, like MacArthur,  I will return.

Never forget how grateful and appreciative I am to you all, and some of you, even more intensely.


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A Coming Anniversary

January 27, 2013 at 11:59 pm (By Tim)

Several things, musical and otherwise, have lately reminded me of the city of Dresden. I know it’s early, but it is getting close enough to the 68th anniversary of the firebombing of that city on 13-15 February, 1945. So, I thought I’d cheer the blog a bit with these observations.

The bombing remains a hugely controversial event. I was reminded of that by mentioning it on the Althouse blog a few years ago, which got me into a flame war of my own. At the time, I commented it was a shame “lovely, Baroque Dresden” had been wrecked in The War (as us Boomers learned to refer to it: The War). I don’t know what led me to write something like that, except pure obliviousness. The words, “lovely, Baroque” set off a nutcase commenter, who, not having been anywhere near the military himself, never met a bomb he didn’t like. Things quickly turned ugly. What did I expect?

The world remains divided between those who think bombing Dresden was a War Crime, essentially because Anglo-Saxon Capitalists did it, and those who think it was totally justified, again, because brave, Anglo-Saxon Warriors did it, serving those awful Huns right for the Blitz. Mix Soviet Marxist-Lenninism and German nationalism in the caldron, and you have a witches’ brew that has poisoned any hint of dispassion on the subject since it happened. Some say 250,000 perished, others, a mere 25,000. For my own part, I am extremely sad the Silbermann organ in the Frauenkirche was destroyed (along with the rest of that edifice). I could go on and on about the burnt symbols of Christian Civilization, and what they mean, yada, yada. Others might be more upset about the poor circus horses, fresh off a performance with flaming costumes on their backs, running terrified through the exploding streets. Burn the damn place down in 45 minutes during a random evening in February, and it does make for gripping stories.

And then there are the more exotic appreciations of the event, such as that of the habitual Althouse commenter who, as an artist, seems to have viewed it with a Brutalist sensibility. The drone of the bombers, the burning Zwinger, the collapsing Frauenkirche, the scream of people trying to escape the flames in “lovely Baroque” fountains while boiling to death, the terrified horses and the exploding circus, why, all this was a Gesamtkunstwerk beyond imagining, and the greatest thing the Anglo-American Air Forces ever did. At least that’s the logical conclusion I drew from his remarks. We all know the internet is full of such people.

I also should mention Kurt Vonnegut, another artist, albeit a much better literary one. You ought to read him. He really put this event in front of Americans. But I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to think, as I am not selling any particular normative take on this (or hardly anything else), nor do I want to be a literary critic. Vonnegut did unhinge Dresden from time in the course of Slaughterhouse Five, but that was a device dreamt up after the fact for the story. It was a made-up, literary unhinging. The picture that’s the subject of this post is made-up as well, but it was made-up well before the event, and so qualifies as that rare and deeper thing than literature: genuine prophecy. Prophecy, by definition, disjoints time—strikingly, if it’s good enough. I think this is damn good.

So, here’s the painting, done in a kind of German Expressionist style by Hans Grundig, a Communist hack, who had a long career creating otherwise drab art appropriate to celebrate Stalin’s social handiwork. I believe every person with a creative spark, no matter how pedestrian otherwise, has the possibility of genius. This is Hans Grundig’s one inspired work. To give it its proper Socialist label, it’s really in a New Objectivist style, but who’s picking art-historical nits?

The picture shows the destruction of Dresden from simultaneous multiple perspectives. The bent cross atop the dome of the Frauenkirche and the cupola of the Zwinger Palace are visible among the flames and smashed buildings. Waves of bombers are overhead in the lurid night pierced by searchlights, while the population is literally “buried” in the wrecked city, some with gas masks as useless protection against what proved to be an effective mix of incendiary and high-explosive bombs.

Yes, a striking picture of the events of February, 1945.

Odd thing, it was painted in 1936

Go figure.


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January 24, 2013 at 2:15 am (Icepick)

Washing dishes tonight I started wondering about Batman/Bruce Wayne. Specifically, is Batman the only superhero whose real-life identity is better than his secret identity?

For example, you’ve got Peter Parker/Spiderman. Being Spiderman is just SO much better than being Peter Parker. It’s a wonder Peter doesn’t abandon his old identity to just be Spiderman.

Or think about Clark Kent/Superman. If you could choose to be mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent or Superman, which would you choose? I’m choosing Supes every single time! Note that we actually have three identities tugging at this guy: Clark Kent, midwestern farm boy; Superman, fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way (and the chicks dig him); or Kal-El, last son of Krypton. But I’d rather be Superman than Kal-El. For one thing, Superman is Superman, and he can do all kinds of cool stuff. (Do I really need to mention that he can fly?) Kal-El is the last (sorta, kinda) member not just of his species, but of his entire bio-sphere – heavy, man! And if Krypton hadn’t met an unfortunate doom, then he’d just be another mopey Kryptonian teenager worried about pimples and who to ask to prom.

Plus, as Kal-El he would have another problem, namely that his dad is Marlon Brando. MARLON BRANDO IS HIS DAD! How could you ever live up to that? How could you ever live it down? Just imagine if that knowledge became public – he’d never hear the end of it! Every where he went people would be asking for his Dad’s autograph. Every time Supes tussled with Mister Mxyzptlk he’d have to watch the imp do the “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody!” shtick. Brainiac would do the “Stella!” yell till we were all sick of it. Bruno Mannheim and Lex Luthor would start gang wars over who got to do the Vito Corleone stuff from “The Godfather”. I’m tellin’ ya, being Kal-El would be no picnic!

Would you rather be the tormented Bruce Banner, or The Incredible Hulk? Hulk smash! Noooo contest.

But think about Batman/Bruce Wayne. One is a superhero who has no superpowers, and has to rely on smarts, training, gadgets and luck to not get killed every time he leaves his cave. The other is a billionaire playboy, the most eligible bachelor in town. Now one can say that Wayne is a tortured soul, but he will be that in either incarnation. One can claim that as the Batman, Wayne can do good. But being a billionaire allows one to have all kinds of control over events. Frankly, if I’m Bruce Wayne, I never even think about going to the cave. What about the car? I’m a BILLIONAIRE, baby, with a capital “B” –  I’ll just spend a few million and buy myself a cool hot rod!

Can anyone else think of any superhero types where the real identity trumps the secret identity? (Characters whose backgrounds are known to the public don’t count.)

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Ah, but we used to be able to deal with it….

January 16, 2013 at 12:21 am (By Ron)

I had sent this to Amba earlier, but I was thinking that America didn’t always behave as badly as we do now.  We knew how to persevere through hard times, make fun of our plight and ourselves, and not suffer pompous fools gladly.  We need to make more fun (in a vicious way!) of our moribund, arrogant elites.

From a biography of Thornton Wilder:

As Wilder worked on (OUR TOWN), he went for a second time to see Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers in SWING TIME. He found inspiration in the movies to feed his
creative work — not only his choice of an American subject but his concerns
over what he saw as the impending decline of Europe. (…) He wrote to
(friend) Mabel (Dodge Luhan)… “Watch the audience. Spell-bound at something,
terribly uneuropean — all that technical effortless precision; all that radiant
youth bursting with sex but not sex-hunting, sex-collecting; and all that
allusion to money, but money as fun, the American love of conspicuous waste, not
money-to-sit-on, not money to frighten with. And finally when the pair really
leap into one of those radiant waltzes the Europeans know in their bones that
their day is over.”

Even in its seeming frivolity, Wilder suggested, this American film was a
cultural harbinger of a shift in world influence from Europe to the United

Hoofers for Democracy!  That’s Fred and Ginger, of course.  They give us a Depression era song to get us going….still applicable!

And if there’s a song, you know there has to be dancing….

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again… Advice KngFish (and America?) should be taking to heart.

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The problem with America today, concisely stated.

January 13, 2013 at 12:14 am (Icepick)

Too few Harlequins, too many Ticktockmen.

Related: I first broached the topic on Althouse, which led to this. Althouse quotes from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which quote starts the Ellison story that inspired my statement. Here’s the Thoreau:

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purposes as well. Such command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs. Yet such as these even are commonly esteemed good citizens. Others as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.

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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

January 11, 2013 at 9:14 am (By Amba)

There’s something wrong with this Internet life. I can’t put my finger on it.  That’s the problem.

Living in fantasy instead of reality is our biggest problem already, why do we need to make it bigger? Now you can argue (and I’d be forced to agree with you) that there’s no such thing as reality. We each construct a subjective universe and the world is made up of these overlapping, but not interpenetrating, interpretations, perceptions . . . fantasies. So what am I talking about?

Matter is a corrective. Matter exerts a resistance, a counterforce, like wood to a carving knife or water to a ship’s keel or air under an airplane’s wings, that paradoxically enables us to get somewhere by making it more difficult. The Internet is a sensory deprivation tank.  It somehow has the exact specific gravity of a human brain, so that it cancels out the heavy, reminding tug of our bodies.  It deceives us that whatever we can imagine is not only possible, but already sufficiently existent without the salutary work and frustration that is matter’s accursed blessing.  Our minds are crumbling like the bones of astronauts who have lived too long in weightlessness.

Many people have had, and many more will have, unpleasant awakenings from this dream.


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Comments left on Althouse about Democratic Party Presidential Nominee Ages

January 10, 2013 at 3:10 am (Icepick)

Comments made on the

“”Clinton will take a long, much-deserved vacation, then assume a low-key schedule of advocacy work and lucrative speaking engagements.””

 post from January 9, 2013.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Overlong Speculation on a Weird Little Piece for Epiphany

January 7, 2013 at 12:18 am (By Tim)

Christmas is done, the tree is down, and I’m still vacuuming up the needles. I’ve finally put together a post that is like taking a moment to look at the old, treasured angel from the top of the tree before putting her back in her box for another year.

Despite the pronounciation of his surname, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, was NOT a mop-haired hearthrob. Instead, in the mid-17th century, he was arguably the best violinist in Europe, a prolific composer, a devout Catholic, and Mozart’s predecessor, by 100 years, at the Archepiscopal court of Salzburg. But Heinrich Ignaz Franz DID have long, bushy hair, or at least an amazingly large wig, if his portrait does him justice.


Biber composed music not just for violin, but in all genres of his time, both sacred and secular. He even wrote an opera or two. He is probably best-known today for his so-called “Mystery Sonatas,” a collection of 15 sonatas for violin and basso continuo, each a musical meditation on a different Mystery of the Rosary. The violin is tuned differently than normal for 14 of the sonatas, giving each a distinct and symbolic sonic character. This is different than merely playing the music in a different key.

Here is another of Biber’s works I’ve found that seems to incorporate acoustic symbolism, although more hidden and implicit than the Mystery Sonatas. At the end of a collection of instrumental ensemble pieces entitled, Sonatæ, Tam Aris, quam Aulis servientes, published in 1676, there are twelve short fanfares for two trumpets. The fourth one here is striking and, I think, meaningful for Epiphany. It’s played here on two “natural” or “Baroque” trumpets, which are essentialy folded brass tubes about 8 feet long, fitted with bells and mouthpieces.

The notes that these instruments can play are given by the overtone or harmonic series, the basic acoustic material of all music. The lower notes are the same as bugle notes. But things get interesting when you get to the top of the bugle range. An entire octave (and more) of something like a major scale, with a few sharps and flats, is possible via the higher harmonics on these clever and subtle instruments. But the harmonics that produce a useable scale lie in a very high range, hence the brilliant, high notes in so many Baroque compositions that include trumpet. 17th and 18th century players had a scale to work with if they screeched high enough. The only problem is, the “scale” has some out-of-tune patches compared to an ordinary tempered scale. These may have been used to make a point, as here, or avoided, if possible and apprppriate.


Biber’s piece consists of three repeated sections, each of six bars. The first two sections begin with variants of a “happy” or celebratory  dotted figure, played mostly in thirds, as befits a fanfare. The first of these “happy” few bars consist of an ascending figure, the second has similar music descending. These initial two sections then each conclude with the same slow three bars that I think are symbolic of the Cross: The two parts are intertwined in a 4-3 suspension, representing the crossbeam, and a descent of the lower trumpet to G, ending on an open G-D fifth, symbolic of the upright.

(An aside about pitch: Music for natural brass instruments is notated as if in C major, irrespective of the actual key of the music. The sounding key depends on the length and therefore the pitch of the trumpet or horn. The pitch of the trumpets used here seems to be C at about A=440 Hz, or more likely, D at A=392 Hz, a more plausable historical pitch. Most trumpets in the 17th and 18th centuries were pitched in the key of D, but pitch standards were generally flatter than today’s, at least in the last half of the 17th century through the 18th century. A trumpet pitched in D at A=392 Hz, close to the lowest pitch used at the time, would be the same as an instrument in C at our modern pitch of A=440 Hz. This should be confusing enough.)

The last section, fast again, begins with a three-note figure, rising to the third degree of the scale. It also incorporates written F#’s for the fourth degree. This note is the lynchpin. On a natural (valveless) brass instrument, the written F is the 11th harmonic, and is noticeably out-of-tune. It is  somewhere between the F and F# of a tempered scale. It is unclear how much it was possible to correct this and other tuning discrepencies on natural trumpets of the past.  There is some scant evidence of small holes (much used today) cut into the tube, that the player could open and close to improve intonation. There is also evidence of clever mouthpiece and bell design, thin and thick sections of brass tubing to be squeezed by the player to correct certain notes, etc. Also, a strong player with good intonation can go a long way personally to play the intstrument tolerably in-tune to a conventional scale. So, the question remains, how much, in fact, did Baroque trumpeters “let it all hang out,” and how much did they, and could they, correct their intonation? Did they even want to?

I think the answer varied a lot, and that may help explain Biber’s ambiguous use of F and F#. In any event, the players here don’t make much of an effort. They’re content to play the notes God intended, which I think is the point. The strange, “neutral” third and momentary out-of-tune fourth are jarring, but they’re manifestations of God’s Creation, construed in Nature by the simple tube of a trumpet. Man’s art is revealed in turning Nature to his ends through an instrument of such noble simplicity.

This “cross-like” musical gesture is a pale, artistic reminder of the actual cross, and the real, grisly, bloody death Jesus suffered. But because its notes are intrinsic, real, out-of-tune, and created by God (if played by Man), it is a reminder that suffering (or at least unpleasantness) is also intrinsic to existence. Unpleasantness here can be an artistic stand-in for suffering. A deeper question is why we find certain musical notes pleasant or unpleasant, and what does that mean about our relationship with other pleasant and unpleasant sensations? This is an obvious nexus of Buddhist and Christian thought, but I’m writing a little musicological bagatelle here, and leave that question to more profound philosophers.

So, the last section of our piece concludes with the ringing, haunting harmonies of the untrammeled overtone series. A perceptive YouTube commenter says it is “simultaneously so brilliant and so somber. Right inside you and yet far away.”  I  think it symbolizes man’s reconciliation with God. There is no obvious dissonance, as in the earlier “Cross” figure, but it is strange and brilliant, made only of the unaltered sounds in God’s Creation—the Holy Spirit made manifest, but by Man’s imperfect means—right inside you and yet so far away.

The Cross was never far from Christmas in traditional Christian art. The Cross is the pre-ordained fate of the Babe in the Manger. A Cross is often tucked into corners of Renaissance and Baroque Nativity scenes, and Bach used the well-known Easter chorale, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as the concluding piece of his Christmas Oratorio. I’ve read this Biber piece may have been intended for Christmas, and so it was half-celebratory and half-reminiscent of the Cross.

I may be getting far afield with the next bit of speculation, but there are 159 notes total in the piece. The number 318—significant from Genesis 14:14 as the number of Abram’s servants in pursuit of his captive brother—was interpreted By St. Clement of Alexandria, among others, as a foreshadowing of the Cross (T, tau, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18). 159 is half of 318, and it could be that, because this piece is only half about the Cross, and half about the Nativity of our Lord, such a number was chosen. My son says this sounds like a conspiracy theory. When I was a student, a pianist friend used to call these kinds of musicological notions “wiggy.”  But if you’ve ever delved into the numerological coding in J.S. Bach, for example—a torture commonly inflicted on musicology students—you will appreciate how such wiggy ideas were common currency in the days of those musical gentlemen with too much hair, fake or real as it may have been.

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FUN! Featuring the World’s Best Pickpocket!

January 5, 2013 at 6:17 pm (Icepick)

You can read the whole thing here, but first a sample to whet the appetite:

A few years ago, at a Las Vegas convention for magicians, Penn Jillette, of the act Penn and Teller, was introduced to a soft-spoken young man named Apollo Robbins, who has a reputation as a pickpocket of almost supernatural ability. Jillette, who ranks pickpockets, he says, “a few notches below hypnotists on the show-biz totem pole,” was holding court at a table of colleagues, and he asked Robbins for a demonstration, ready to be unimpressed. Robbins demurred, claiming that he felt uncomfortable working in front of other magicians. He pointed out that, since Jillette was wearing only shorts and a sports shirt, he wouldn’t have much to work with.

“Come on,” Jillette said. “Steal something from me.”

Again, Robbins begged off, but he offered to do a trick instead. He instructed Jillette to place a ring that he was wearing on a piece of paper and trace its outline with a pen. By now, a small crowd had gathered. Jillette removed his ring, put it down on the paper, unclipped a pen from his shirt, and leaned forward, preparing to draw. After a moment, he froze and looked up. His face was pale.

“Fuck. You,” he said, and slumped into a chair.

Robbins held up a thin, cylindrical object: the cartridge from Jillette’s pen.

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A brief thought about Lance Armstrong

January 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm (Icepick) (, , )

Part of Lance Armstrong’s cancer treatment was chemotherapy. Is it any wonder he became convinced of the truth of better living through chemicals?

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