Sunday, December 4, 2005

First Improvisation


I've decided to do something unusual for today's posting. As some of you know, I love to play the piano. I can't say that I'm very good at it, but there are few things I enjoy more. In particular, one of my favorite activities is just to sit at the piano for a few hours and improvise. It's just something I've done for years now, and I find it a very useful way for me to relax after a long day. It's rare that anyone actually gets to hear these improvisations, and most people probably don't even know I have this habit, since I usually end up improvising when I happen to find myself alone in a room with a piano.

But, recently a couple of new developments have occurred. For one thing, thanks to my friend Patrick, I now have an electric piano in my apartment. I've always wanted a keyboard in my apartment, and a while back I was seriously investigating buying a clavichord, since I figured that it would be small enough to fit in my apartment, and perhaps quiet enough for me to play without disturbing the neighbors too much. But an electric piano is even better. Now I can play at 3 AM with headphones on, and my neighbors don't hear a thing. This is a particular boon since I really do like playing late at night, and it has been very rare that I've been able to do so, since the baby grand piano in the apartment I grew up in was far too loud to play even after 8 PM. Further, though, now with a midi connector I can actually hook the electric piano up to my computer and record things using the Garageband software. And then it is really easy to convert the file into something that could be played in itunes. This has been a very interesting development, because my improvisations are usually one-off things, and no two improvisations are even remotely the same, so I never get to hear what I've done afterwards, and if there are good moments, they disappear almost instantly. I'm hoping now that I can hear the compositions multiple times, I'll be able to improve their quality. Right now, they are just sort of experiments with harmony, dissonance and rhythm, but I'd like to eventually be able to produce things that sound really good. I mean, the things I play now have moments of clarity, but it is still rare that I'll sit down and play an entire piece that sounds like something worth recording. Nonetheless, I think that my improvisations do express the moods I'm in rather accurately, and hence they are a good way of recording the way that I feel.

So, in an effort to enhance my blog, I've decided to occasionally post improvisations here in AAC format. They are reasonably sizeable files (5 MB or so for a five minute file), but since I have a limited amount of space on, I probably won't post more than a few at a time. So this is what I'm going to do. Anyway, just to reiterate, I don't claim that these are particularly good. I'm still quite an amateur, and I realize I need to diversify my harmonies, and produce more interesting rhythmic features, and the developments can be greatly improved. They are really experiments, and nothing more. But if you happen to be interested in listening to an experiment every now and then, you'll find some here. Perhaps you'll even find a few moments that you like. The other night I was in a C minor sort of mood, so here is an Improvisation in C minor. (If for some reason you can't play the preceding link, as some have mentioned, here is an MP3 Version of the Improvisation in C minor. (I may stick to MP3 in the future.)

P.S. The little photo in the corner is a stylized version of a photo I took at one of my favorite lakes in Vermont when I was in a particularly C minor sort of mood a couple of years ago.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Astrology, Myers-Briggs, the Sibuxiang, and You

Sibuxiang Today, I want to have a short conversation about astrology and its kin. First, I should say that I think that it is possible to do very good astrology. Perhaps this sounds surprising to those of you who know my views on the subject, but let me tell you what I think constitutes good astrology. If you ever pick up a copy of the Chicago Weekly News, chances are you'll find horoscopes by Rob Brezsny. Here are some examples I e-mailed a friend one night:

Gemini: Since your life has more than a slight resemblance to a chess match these days, I'm calling upon grandmaster Victor Korchnoi to talk a little strategy. "I like to coax my opponents into attacking," he says, "to let them taste the joy of the initiative, so that they may get carried away, become careless, and sacrifice material." Please meditate on how you might adopt this approach to use in your next gambit, Gemini. It's time, in my astrological opinion, for some smart mischief."

Pisces: Imagine that your life is a detective story. The goal is not to solve the crime, but to solve the mystery of why you're here on earth so you can carry out the special mission you've come to accomplish. Sometimes you go for months without even looking for clues. You sleepwalk through the world, reacting blindly to the tricks that the gods use to try to wake you up. Then there are those phases when hot leads and fresh evidence pop up all over the place, convincing you beyond a doubt that magic is one of the fundamental properties of reality. This is one of those times, Pisces.

Capricorn: I'm guessing that your imagination is both excited and perplexed; that your senses are heightened yet on the verge of being overwhelmed. According to my analysis of the astrological omens, you're going through a phase that at its best might be called a medley and at its most challenging a hodgepodge. It has resemblances to the sibuxiang, a mythic Chinese animal with the head of a dragon, antlers of a deer, tail of a lion, hooves of an ox and body covered with fishy scales. So is there anything you can do to ensure that you use this time to stir innovative solutions to long-standing problems? Here's one suggestion: Once a day for five minutes close your eyes and visualize yourself pulling off rodeo tricks while riding an exuberant sibuxiang.

What I like about these horoscopes are how creative they are, and how they juxtapose very different ideas. When someone reads such horoscopes, they learn things like the fact that Victor Korchnoi was a chess player. Further when advice is given, it is open-ended and capable of many different interpretations, but nonetheless it provides a framework to think through issues that might arise. For instance, perhaps a Pisces will learn to see the world in a slightly different way as a result of reading the horoscope above. That in itself might make reading the horoscope worthwhile.

“But what about the actual astrology?,” you might ask. “Don't you have to bring in the stars?” I suppose Rob might in fact look to the stars for his horoscopes. But I hardly think you need to bring in the stars. I'm analytically-minded enough to be highly skeptical that it is ever possible for a star thousands of light years away to influence most of the lives of people on earth in any significant fashion. That just seems sort of obvious to me. I mean, the mere fact that so few astrologers pursue astronomy degrees certainly counts against the validity of the field. But I suppose an astrologer thinks about things more indirectly, e.g. that some force coordinates both the stars and our lives, and that by looking at one we learn something about the other. But, of course, one would want to see the evidence that this relationship actually holds.

But the evidence is everywhere, might be the reply. See, it works: you're a Gemini, and you are SO a Gemini! But here we get into a whole mess of other issues. The fact of the matter is that human beings are incredibly complicated creatures. There are so many sides to our personalities that come out in particular circumstances, and so many ways of interpreting the very same action in the same circumstances, that I bet if I were a Sagittarius, you'd be telling me I'm such a Sagittarius. Further there is the added distortion that people who actually believe in horoscopes/fortunes/astrology often only look/remember horoscopes when they apparently seem to work. If I open a fortune cookie, and it says, "You will discover a great fortune," I might laugh it off, add the mandatory "in bed" clause, and then forget about it. But man, if I came home that night to find a large fortune on my doorstep, I may well suspect a coordinated project, and I'll certainly never forget that horoscope for the rest of my life. I take this to be actually a manifestation of a more general phenomenon. Human beings are notoriously bad at producing reliable statistical inferences from small sets of evidence, at least when measured against the canons of probability theory. This reminds me of Tversky and Kahneman's psychological experiments in the early 70s, and Nisbett and Ross's experiments in the early 80s. In both cases people were asked to make judgments based on statistical data, and in both cases people in the non-control group seemed to consistently draw conclusions that were not warranted by the data. This was taken to show that human beings are naturally prone to error. Of course, the unique feature about these studies was that the statistical data that people were generalizing from was particularly abstract, and perhaps not the best indicators of covariation, as Hilary Kornblith points out in his book, Inductive Reasoning and Its Natural Ground. The fact is that we are actually pretty good at generalizing about the natural world, what we are not good about is generalizing data in strange and unusual contexts that share little prima facie resemblance with the world that we evolved in tandem with.

I think it is this very feature that is exploited by people who believe in astrology and try to convince others to do the same. For, the fact is that astrology is an incredibly out-of-the-ordinary context, since the detachment of the data from any known causal properties means that we have very little ground for detecting covariation, and the sort of faith-based acceptance just flies in the face of most of the logical apparatus we usually think with. So, almost by definition astrology is an area in which we would be prone to errors in grouping kinds. Thus by reliabilist considerations alone we should consider dismissing astrology.

But why am I talking about astrology at all tonight? Well, it's connected to online dating actually. One of the online dating services I have used from time to time now incorporates personality assessment features based on Myers-Briggs categories. People who want to look for a suitable mate log on, answer about twenty questions, and then get a listing of the people that they are compatible with. Naturally enough I'm quite skeptical about these sorts of tests, not only because it is difficult to believe that a twenty question test is sufficiently extensive to determine a Myers-Briggs distribution, but also since, like astrology, I seriously question the existence of natural kinds corresponding to the types that are identified. I mean, don't get me wrong, I do think that there are people who take a Myers-Briggs test and record such extreme scores that the test probably does indicate a lot about their personalities. I actually have gone on dates with people who swore by Myers-Briggs, and may have well made their decision to date me based on the results from their tests! But, in my own experience, I find the tests that determine Myers-Briggs categories – especially the trivial online ones - to be very inconsistent. I remember the first time that I took such a Myers-Briggs test in high school, I had it narrowed down to two questions, and I couldn't decide which way to go on either, since the phrasing of the question seemed ambiguous. So I decided I'd score myself twice and see what the results were. The scores were radically different, and depending on how I chose, I would either be an extrovert or an introvert. Of course, the test didn't have an in-between category, and it presumably wouldn't produce such decisive outcomes if it did. And even when it does produce decisive outcomes the parameters seem quite suspect to me - for instance the thinking/feeling distinction, which seems to presume that the concept of feeling and the concept of thought could be easily differentiated. Intuiting/sensing? Well, maybe all of these have technically definable meanings, but most people don’t think of their results in this way.

Maybe I need to learn a little more about the test. I admit that I've been too skeptical about the idea of personality tests in general to even do much exploration on the subject. But, as I say I do now use a dating service that incorporates mandatory personality screenings. The problem with these tests is I always come out with a different sort of personality. I've taken about ten tests in recent years (both on-line and on paper), and here are some of the results that I’ve recorded (really!):


(There may be more, but the rest escape me.)

Looking over this list it seems I have been diagnosed with opposite characteristics in all four of the categories! I have been assured by some believers in this test that this weird outcome is the result of having so moderate responses to the test, and that I need to take more extreme positions to really pin down, "What I am." But that seems viciously circular: the test is not working for you, since you are not working for the test. But I suppose there may well be a difficulty based on self-assessment, and that certain aspects of my personality may not be apparent to me, although they would be apparent to other people. I'll concede that, although I refuse to admit that this "me" that other people see is more of a "me" than the "me" I see. I am an anti-reductionist after all, and I find the concept of some "real me" that I don't have access to, to be deeply problematic. Anyway, one could look at these results and assume that I'm coming closer to the ideal me. So let's generalize over the tests. I/E seem about evenly divided, and so does J/P. The only results that seem to side strongly one way or the other is the intuition vs. sensing, and thought vs. feeling. Apparently, I am a feeling/intuiting sort of guy. But even this strikes me as deeply problematic. I mean, I'm so invested in analytical arguments that I teach logic at the graduate student level, and when I’m teaching I can be relentlessly analytical. It’s true on a number of important subjects I'm more likely to follow my feelings than my thought, but on other subjects I'm strongly in the thought category. (Don’t worry, I realize the irony in my use of these concepts! – I should add that at least I’m not seeking to determine categories empirically, but only using normal everyday concepts.) Perhaps this is the ultimate problem I have with these tests: they just generalize too much. Hmm, I'm reminded of a passage in Plato's Philebus that I translated today. The argument is a little abstract, but the basic idea is that people are too quick to move to single concepts, and they don't pay adequate attention to the differences that these concepts subsume. As some of my previous posts suggest, I think this holds in a lot of areas of human thought, and personality tests don’t seem to be an exception. I’m guessing the error is often missed, because of our tendency to make erroneous generalizations from limited sets of evidence. Thus, someone will say that they are a T because a test has told them they are a T, and then will come to believe it even if they might well be defined as an F in most areas, because they just assume it must be right.

There is a further rather deep philosophical point here to. When one gets results for Myers-Briggs, what one is determining is the average response to a set of questions. That is many particular decisions are made by the test-taker, and all of these are reduced to a single parameter. But a lot is lost in the reduction. For instance, I know someone who would be the paradigm of an extrovert personality, in the sense that this particular person loves being around lots of people, telling everyone exactly how she feels, and can at times find it difficult to be quiet or alone. But this is her personality around her friends. You throw her into a situation with lots of people she doesn’t know, and a crowd with particular characteristics, and she’ll be as quiet as a church mouse. That is her “personality” can be brought out in different ways with different people. This is a very common phenomenon. A person can be an introvert with some people, and all you need to add is one person with a slightly different personality, and you’ll see the person happily and immediately become an extrovert. All of this variation, this “landscape” of the psyche if you will, gets lost when you reduce such a person to an E or an I, even with indexes of variation. I take this to be a deep point, because most people, although aware of these facts, tend to like clear categories to put people in and ignore these complications. But it seems to me that it is these complications that most clearly bring out our individualities as human beings. Like the sibuxiang, individual people are not just E's or I's but veritable alphabets of different types.

Anyway, perhaps it is a bit antagonistic for me to subsume astrology and Myers-Briggs tests under the same category. But as the discussion above shows, I think that many of the same problems exist with both. This was even made apparent to me tonight from the language employed in the results of tests. On one site, a particular characteristic "rules" the other three as one's astrological sign might be "ruled over" by a particular planet (Admittedly, it was a very Jungian site). Or, a picturesque name is given to one of the divisions, and then it is used as the subject of sentences like a Chinese zodiacal name: "The growth teacher is equally skilled . . . " Or, when people talk about the Myers-Briggs test they say things like, "You are SO a P." But despite the fact that I think that there are a lot of similarities here, and that people who get too into online personality profiles are probably guilty of the same sort of irrationality as people who are too into horoscopes, I should say that I don't think they're exactly on par. In fact, even with my skeptical leanings I've recently found a purpose for Myer-Briggs personalities. Although one can easily get personalities wrong, I suppose it is worthwhile for someone to note that at least 16 different types of personalities do exist. This is something that one can easily lose sight of, and just assume that everyone’s thoughts and motivations operate like one’s own, or at least in one unified sort of way in contrast to one’s own personality. Hence, knowing the different types may make it easier to understand why someone is particularly offended when their partner is late for an event, or perhaps one can find a way of dealing with a communication problem with a coworker by just exploring the other places that person might be starting from, so to speak. I suppose it could even help one understand what has gone wrong in a dating relationship, and what steps can be taken to overcome the difficulties.

But, this brings me to the second sort of problem I have with the personality tests on this dating service. The entire reason this particular online dating service uses a variant on the Myers-Briggs assessment is that it can be used to pair "compatible" personalities. And once you get diagnosed as having one particular personality trait, the test tells you what personality-types you are compatible with, and what personality-types you should avoid. So, with my INFP result I went down the list and sort of guessed the personalities of people I have dated, and then looked at the compatibility story. Suddenly, there in front of me was the story of a recent break-up! Every part of the problem that it described was just what happened. For a moment I was suddenly convinced, maybe I am an INFP after all! But not leaving this to chance I went back and adopted my ENFJ personality (e.g. answered a few questions I waffled about in a different way), and then I had a similar experience, a few more checks with other personality types and I realized that basically I'd have this experience regardless of what my initial personality type was. The fact was, like horoscopes, the accounts were so general, and my guesses were so vague, that it was possible to get the same feeling of affirmation from whatever personality type I started with.

Not to stay entirely on the negative, I also looked at the types of personalities I am supposed to be compatible with, and found the results very disappointing. For instance, as an INFP, I'm supposed to be compatible with someone who is all about balance, and staying indoors, and not going partying at night, and staying at home reading a book. Although I admit that I'm not entirely adverse to people like this, I couldn’t help reading the profile without thinking it was a description of BO-RING. I mean, I suppose I’m the sort of personality that likes to have things a little out of balance, a little challenging. For instance, I decided not to be an architect at one phase of my life in part because it was too comfortable. I was good at it - I had unusual abilities at the age of six, something that my teachers recognized and tried to get me to enroll in vocational school drafting courses as a consequence, and after working on it the next decade or so, I can say with very little ego that I was really good at it. I think of it as my true talent, actually. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it . . . anyway, I decided to do something completely different because it just wasn’t challenging. I mean, I suppose that if I was in some great firm somewhere like Renzo Piano's, testing all sorts of new materials and the like, I would find the challenge I was looking for. But that seemed so far from the little country town I lived in. Well, I suppose I shouldn't stress this point too much since there were other reasons why I changed professions. The important general point is that I would probably intentionally try to subvert the compatibility suggestions this dating service recommends, because “easiest” is not a synonym for “best.”

But I suppose that the problem in all of this is that, as with most things in life, you have to take what you hear with a grain of salt, so to speak. If you don't take a person's status on the Myers-Briggs scale as a definitive result, if you're willing to be flexible in your assessments, and view the world not through a single personality lens, but to see a person as composed of many different aspects – overlapping and interconnecting lenses, if you will - and to see people through all of them, the Myers-Briggs test may end up being a useful way for a person to come to understand the world in a deeper way.

But maybe this is just my P personality shining through. In the meantime, I'm still waiting for results that will tell me about famous chess players, or imaginary Chinese animals!

P.S. As an aside, in some cultures and religions astrology plays a deep and significant role within the overall framework. In these cases there may be a significant point to the activity, even though it doesn’t stand on any scientifically verifiable facts about the world, so I don’t mean to trivialize these traditions in what I said above. Further, I admit I particularly like the astrological story that is associated with my Sanskrit name, and being the sort of guy who likes to read ancient texts and to spend hours identifying stars in the night sky, I am not completely adverse to studying astrology. And I suppose there is a place for a mild bit of superstition. Many completely rational people will suddenly find themselves holding their breaths or crossing their fingers during a baseball game. Or I find that love relationships often get that little extra something from unusual coincidences that bring people together. But now a piece of the F aspect of my personality might be coming through! And this also goes the other way too: Myers-Briggs tests, accurately administered, and for the right purposes may very well be worthwhile. It is just these trivial appropriations that annoy me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Best Espresso in Chicago?

I think it is about time that someone compares the quality of the espresso at Chicago establishments, and since no one as of yet seems to have stepped up to the plate, I figured I might as well post my current evaluations. All my evaluations are based on tastings performed completely in secret.

But, before getting into these observations, I might as well make some preliminary remarks. By espresso I mean a drink that is perhaps the purest expression of coffee on the planet. Why? Well, it is a small cup of a highly concentrated liquid that has no sugar, cream, or syrup to disguise its flavor. Further, unlike the normal cup of joe, espresso is always served absolutely fresh, and preferably at precisely the moment when the coffee extraction process has finished. Furthermore, unlike Turkish or Greek coffee (which I enjoy tremendously), it is the product of a highly mechanical process that enables a skilled barista to achieve a high degree of consistency over time.

And making good coffee does require skill. Since it is so pure it is a very demanding medium. And there are a number of requirements that need to be met. First, let's dispense with the first faux pas of espresso service: espresso can never be served in a paper or plastic cup, and should only be tasted from a cup that can retain heat, and that is preferably warmed ahead of time. An espresso must be served hot, and it should be served absolutely immediately, since the flavor changes over the first 120 seconds after it is made, and a patron should be able to experience the subtle changes from an initial bitterness to a more mellow and full-bodied flavor. Second, you have to have decent crema. The crema, or foam, on the top surface of the coffee has to be thick (at least 1/8th of an inch) with very small bubbles, covering the entire surface of the cup (although there can be breaks in the center), and perhaps with small curving lines or dots of discoloration throughout, as a side effect of the extraction process. Thirdly, as with all cups of coffee, it's far better for a cup of espresso to be overly strong than it is for it to be weak. A weak or watery espresso is not a cup of espresso at all. Fourthly, the coffee has to be ground finer than regular coffee, and it should be roasted somewhat darker than regular coffee, although I personally often prefer a medium roast, such as the one made by Illy. Fifthly, it should receive a proper tamping: the barista should firmly press down on the coffee before inserting it into the machine (some machines do this automatically). This is important because, unlike with a regular filter cup of coffee, the espresso is being forced through the grounds at a high pressure, and thus the water will not be in contact with the coffee long enough if it is not properly tamped. Finally, and most importantly, the coffee itself must have real flavor. I tend to like an espresso that has a rich and full flavor, with heavy accents of chocolate, caramel and butter, but with the aroma of jasmine, nuts, tea or cocoa.

Oftentimes espresso is served with accompanying items. A coffee shop that really cares about espresso will be willing to serve it with a glass of water, and with the options of sugar, cream, or a thin strip of lemon peel.

Although espresso is a highly mechanical process, this doesn't mean that there's no room for mistakes. Here are a few common mistakes that one could make in the preparation of espresso:

• The coffee quality was poor.
• The coffee was not roasted properly.
• The length of time between roasting and serving was too long.
• The coffee was stored improperly, or allowed to age too much, or was too exposed to the air.
• The coffee grinder did not grind the coffee evenly.
• The coffee grinder did not grind the coffee to the right size.
• The ground coffee was exposed to moisture.
• The espresso machine was dirty, or not regularly cleaned.
• The machine is not delimed often enough.
• The coffee was not tamped properly.
• Too much or too little coffee was added to the machine.
• Too much or too little water was allowed to pass through the coffee.
• The machine was not at the right temperature or pressure.
• The espresso was not dispensed directly into a cup.
• The cup did not retain enough heat.
• It took the wait staff too long to bring the coffee out.

Many people only think of espresso as a "strong" form of coffee, and since they associate strength with caffeine quantity, they assume that they are getting more caffeine from a cup of espresso than a regular cup of coffee. While it is true that the caffeine is more concentrated in espresso, surprisingly enough, a cup of espresso often contains much less caffeine than a strong cup of tea or drip coffee.

Anyway, this pretty much describes what I look for a in a cup of espresso. In the course of my time in Chicago I have had the opportunity to taste many cups of espresso. The good news is that I have had some really great cups of espresso in Chicago, the bad news is I've also had some of the worse cups of espresso I have ever had from a regular espresso machine. In the course of time I've developed a rather subjective scale for ranking cups of espresso. I basically use a 1-100 scale, with 100 being the highest. I suppose, however, I can add a little content to my scores.

• 95-100: A perfect cup of espresso. It is precisely what it needs to be, and I wouldn't want to alter it at all.
• 90-95: a damn good cup of espresso, and it is only differentiated from the highest category in that something in it wasn't perfect. I admit that it is entirely possible that I'll rate a coffee in this category rather than in the highest category for purely circumstantial reasons, so any coffee that gets above a 90 should be seen as a work of art.
• 87-89: similar to a higher-ranking cup, except that it might be somewhat nonstandard. There might be a touch of an unusual flavor, or aroma that is nonetheless pleasant, or the crema might be a little unusual. Since variety is a good thing, oftentimes one might seek out a coffee in this category even in preference to some of the coffees in higher categories.
• 83-86: is a relatively standard cup of espresso. Nothing has necessarily been done wrong, but the flavor or the aroma is just not enticing or exciting.
• 80-83: something has probably gone wrong, but it is nonetheless drinkable.
• 70-80: something has definitely gone wrong, but the cup is nonetheless drinkable.
• 60-70: a rather lousy cup of espresso. Ask for some sugar and cream.
• 50-60: hardly worth drinking except for instrumental values (you need caffeine and there is no decent cup of joe, you are about to close a business deal, and don't want to suggest that it hasn't been a perfect evening). If you don't have an instrumental value, demand that the waitress makes you another cup, or deducts it from the bill.
• Below 50: leave now, don't even bother asking for a refund, it's not worth it!

I should add that just because a particular restaurant, café or coffee house has scored excellent or poor doesn't mean that the espresso in the establishment or café will always have that score. Maybe it was an off night, a new barista on the machine, they didn't realize the coffee was not stored properly, etc.

So here's the places ranked so far from best to worst (I'll update it periodically, and consequently adjust the scores):

1. Intelligentsia, Belmont Ave --92-95
2. Istria Café, 57th Street, Hyde Park --90-95
3. Julius Meinl, Southport Ave --89-91
4. Argo Tea, 16 W Randolph --91
5. Intelligentsia, Monadnock Building --89
6. Gourmand, Printer's Row --87-88
7. Third World Café, 53rd street, Hyde Park, --86
8. Artists Cafe -- 69
9. Brasserie Jo --63

Let me also add a few more qualitative notes on these establishments:

1. Intelligentsia, Belmont Avenue: the best tasting espresso I've had in Chicago came from this establishment, the flavor was rich, deep and consistent with strong nutty and chocolate tones. And although the coffee wasn't quite as good the second time I went there, it was still what it should be. It has been a pleasure drinking coffee here. The coffee I've had at the company's Monadnock location wasn't nearly as good.

2. Istria Café, 57th street: a new establishment. This may very well be the best cup of espresso in Chicago, it certainly is in league with the Intelligentsia on Belmont. The staff seems to take espresso very seriously, and will go out of their way to tell you about their machine, and the different steps it takes to make espresso. I'm quite happy that such a place has opened up in my neighborhood. The coffee has a nice rich flavor and it develops rather nicely over the course of the first two minutes. The only drawback so far is that it is a less than ideal environment in which to drink your espresso; the train tracks are directly overhead, the set up is like a cafeteria with very small tables and plastic chairs, and it is quite small. But this is a small price to pay for espresso, and the space is at least open, well lighted, and very orange - in this case a good thing, I think. Matches the orange motorscooter that is often parked outside.

3. Julius Meinl, Southport Ave. For a long time this has been my favorite place to get a standard cup of espresso. The coffee I have had there may not be quite as good as the Intelligentsia on Belmont, but the coffee is served with much greater reverence and respect. If one orders a cup of espresso, one gets to have the coffee served on a silver metallic tray, along with a biscuit, a chocolate, real cream, a sugar tube, and a glass of water with a spoon balanced on the top. In my opinion no one serves a single cup of espresso in a better fashion in Chicago. It is the anti-Starbucks. An added bonus is the violinists and keyboardists who come in weekend nights. Very civilized.

4. Argo Tea, Randolph --91: A recent discovery. I was quite surprised by the quality of their espresso when I first tasted it. I suppose it is due in part to the fact they serve Illy coffee, which is the best large-scale commercial producer of coffee suitable for espresso production production. But the coffee also was made very well.

5. Intelligentsia, Monadnock Building: See the Intelligentsia listing above. I was sort of disappointed by my cup of coffee here, it was good, and professionally prepared to be sure, but it also seemed to be lacking the rich flavor I found in the more northerly establishment. The room the coffee is served in, while very nice, has a heavy amount of traffic due to the many local offices that get coffee there, so, it is not the most relaxing place to drink an espresso. But it is a pleasure to be in the Monadnock Building, and perhaps I'll find the coffee is better the next few times I pass through.

6. Gourmand, Printers Row: The coffee here was good, but not very flavorful. It was weak in the nutty and chocolate flavors. A sort of eclectic little coffee shop, with a lot of space, it can be a good place to sit back with a book, and light up a cigarette. But if you don't smoke, you may find the air a little stale or unpleasant due to all the people who do.

7. Third World Café, 53rd Street: This coffee shop is relatively close to my house, so I've ended up coming here often. The espresso does seem to be usually prepared decently, fairly good crema. Nonetheless, the flavor of the espresso is not as rich as I would like. Free wireless on weekdays is a plus, although it is quite unfortunate that the coffee house closes at 7:30 rather than 10 PM like it used to. There are very few places to get good coffee on the Southside at that time of night, and it is sad to lose one. I should note that the drip coffee at this establishment is unusually good, provided that you get a medium or larger sized coffee in a ceramic mug.

8. Artists Cafe, Michigan Ave: I have a lot of sympathy for this establishment. There are few places in the loop where one can get espressos after 9 PM, and the outdoor seating in the summer is definitely a plus. Unfortunately, the espresso was weak and had that thin quality that one associates with bad cups of regular coffee. Maybe I went there too late at night.

9. Brasserie Jo: An off night? I don't know, but this is one of the worst espressos I have had in Chicago, it was weak, almost watered down, and the coffee had a flavor that was barely distinguishable from the bad cups of coffee that were served to others at the table. One almost never expects an American restaurant to serve espresso that is as good as a coffee shop's but this cup of coffee brings that level down to a whole new level, and so it seemed worthy of note.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Bach Aria, and Some Recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier

Let me preface this post with what I take to be a wonderful coincidence. As some of you know, a new Bach aria was recently discovered. If you click on this link, you can go to the NPR story on it, and even listen to it. The aria is the first discovery of a vocal composition of Bach in over 70 years, and it was performed by National Public Radio 292 years after the year of its first performance. The story of its discovery is interesting with some amusing twists. But what I think is the best thing about this discovery is the fact that the announcement was basically made on my birthday. It's a rather nice birthday present, and it gave me an added incentive to write these brief notes on recordings of the Well-Tempered Clavier

* * * *

Recently, I've been comparing recordings of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier in an effort to figure out who has the best recording of the work. Of course, in order to determine what's the best recording one has to develop some sort of criteria. This is actually rather difficult to do. A number of different factors influences one's reception of a recording. There is obviously the skill of the pianist, but there is also the quality of the recording, the quality of the mixing, whether the microphones have been placed properly, the hall, how well the recording was remastered, the question of whether or not a historically accurate recording is better than a modern variant. Also there are considerations about the stereo that you choose to play the recording. As I discovered listening to a number of different recordings, some sound far better on particular sorts of stereos. There are further complications with Bach. Unlike more contemporary composers, Bach gave very few instructions as to how his pieces should be played. Tempos are a matter of conjecture, and the same pieces can be played at vastly different speeds. Further, how should one play a piece that might have been written for a clavichord on a modern piano?

Before I say what recording I like best, let me take you through the recordings I listened to.

B0000028nj01_pe9_scmzzzzzzz_ First, there was no doubt that I had to include what many people take to be the standard recording of the WTC: Glenn Gould's recording from the 1960s. I love these recordings, as do many other listeners. They are very well-engineered, and they sound very good on most stereos. Further, there is no doubt that Gould was one of the greatest performers of Bach the past century has given us. But, I think that Gould's recordings have become so popular, that many people now fail to recognize what's distinctive about Gould's recordings. Some people have just come to think of Gould's sound as Bach's sound; they assume that when they listen to Bach they are having transparent access to the way Bach wanted his pieces to sound, or if they are more agnostic when it comes to historical accuracy, they think that Gould somehow reveals to us the heart and core of baroque music in a way no one else can. But I think that it is important to realize that what made Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1955 such a revolution is the fact that Gould played Bach in a new way that is often quite idiosyncratic. I like to think of Gould's performances as a modernist reaction to his predecessors. I think that the best contrast is seen against a lesser-known player like Walter Rummel. Walter Rummel plays Bach much in the way that one would expect a Romantic pianist to play Bach: he uses lots of peddle to create dissonance or to smooth out lines, and incorporates dramatic changes in emotion and intensity. I don't know much about Gould's early education, but I could imagine that his style is a reaction to this sort of Romantic excess. By usually adopting a peculiar almost staccato style of playing - which apparently was produced by the unusual way Gould held his wrists below his fingers - and by eliminating peddles, and what's more, by eliminating much of the emotional contours to individual melodic lines, he presented a very pure style of playing that showed a tremendous amount of respect for counterpoint. His style of playing created a revolution.

Like most revolutionaries, I happen to think that Gould ended up producing a product that went a bit too far in the opposite extreme from his contemporaries and predecessors. For one thing, I don't think that Gould shows sufficient respect for the phrasing of the melodic lines in the pieces that he plays. Bach was obviously concerned with this, since Bach's own introduction to the Inventions says that one should most of all try to develop a cantabile style of playing ("am allermeisten aber eine cantable Art in Spielen zu erlangern"). Gould's particular style of playing is perhaps one of the reasons why Gould famously thought that the preludes in the WTC were not particularly interesting, and instead concentrated on the fugues. A fugue seems a very natural composition for Gould to play. His style of playing means that none of the lines in the fugue dominate the others, and that it is possible to clearly hear every note as it is played. But the preludes require a different sort of playing. Here we don't have the complex counterpoint of the fugues, and instead we often find a more unified phrasing structure, such as that required by a particular dance form. And I think Gould is at his weakest with this sort of phrasing structure. Sometimes he just races through a prelude in order to make them a little more challenging, at other times he omits repeats to get to the fugue a little faster. (Of course, I generalize a bit too broadly. For instance, Gould takes the prelude to the B-flat minor prelude of WTC slower than just about anyone else I've listened to, and he occasionally can bring out a melody in a wonderful way, I am obviously speaking here of general impressions.) And what's more, so far as Bach's compositions are an exploration of the particular qualities of each of the keys in the Well-Tempered scale of the 18th Century, I don't think Gould does a great job of bringing these qualities out. This probably has to do with the way his peculiar style of playing de-emphasizes the phrasing of the melodic line, and the harmonic connections between notes along the "horizontal" lines of the piece. But there is no question that Gould's recordings should be on the shelves of anyone who truly appreciates Bach's WTC. And sometimes his modernist interpretation of Bach can sound just as refreshing as it did with his monumental 1955 recording. After listening to twenty minutes of B minor fugue recordings, when Gould's begins it seems a gust of fresh air has entered the room, and one just is called to attention. Perhaps it was this quality that led NASA to include a recording of Gould playing the Well-Tempered Clavier on each of the Voyager Space missions. Since in general variety is something to be praised, one has to praise Gould inventiveness. Nonetheless, Gould is not my favorite recording of these pieces.

Wtc1kirkpatrick Another set of recordings that I've been listening to are those of Ralph Kirkpatrick in his recording of the first book of the WTC. The unique thing about Kirkpatrick is that he plays the piece on a clavichord. Since the clavichord was THE instrument for secular keyboard playing in 18th Century Germany (In contrast to the harpsichord, which was more popular in France and Italy), these recordings have special historical interest. Bach himself may have played these pieces on a clavichord.

It is worth making a few observations about clavichords. I have only had the opportunity to play one once (I hope to play one again at some point), so most of my knowledge of the instrument comes from hearing it on these recordings. Unlike the harpsichord, the mechanism by which a clavichord makes the sound allows for an added degree of expressiveness in terms of the sound quality of the note and the dynamic range. For instance, it is possible to produce a slight tremolo effect by wiggling the key a little when one hits a note, and it is also possible to produce louder tones by striking the keys harder. The sound of a clavichord is also closer to that of a guitar. But clavichords have a number of weaknesses. For one thing they cannot project sound very well, and thus need to be played in smaller spaces than the piano. (Harpsichords also are better adapted to smaller places: much of the beauty of a harpsichord's sound is lost in even a moderately-sized concert hall. In a larger space a harpsichord often sounds very percussive, and the beauty of the rich resonance of the instrument is lost. If you want to hear a recording of what a truly beautiful harpsichord sounds like, I would suggest Pierre Hantai's Opus111 recording (The cover to my copy is different, but I think the preceding link goes to the right album.) of Bach's Goldberg variations: a recording that I think may well be my favorite recording of the piece - I should note that unfortunately Hantai's Re-recording of the same piece is not nearly as good, get the Opus111 if you can.) To get back to the clavichord, it also has the misfortune that the mechanism itself can be distracting. This is something that one notes with Kirkpatrick's performance. The recording is full of clicking sounds and squeaks produced by the instrument itself.

But Kirkpatrick's recording is quite good. He plays difficult pieces with hardly a hitch - see the further notes on this below - and plus one gets to hear all the extra resonances that a clavichord can provide. Minor keys sound darker and richer, and major keys can have an unusual brightness at times. In listening to this recording, one really gets a sense of why Bach chose to explore the different keys in the way that he did. Although Kirkpatrick is not my favorite recording, I think that it could also arguably have a place on most listeners’ shelves, if only for the shear joy of hearing Bach performed on the clavichord.

B000026ohn01_scmzzzzzzz_I also had the opportunity to listen to Sviatoslav Richter's recording of the entirety of the WTC. Richter is without a doubt one of the greatest pianists of the 20th Century, and therefore any recording that he makes of a piece of music deserves a hearing. Richter's recording of the WTC is also very good in itself. Although Richter does play Bach in a more Romantic style than any of the other recordings I listened to, it is not an excessive Romanticism - more like a Prokofiev than a Rachmaninoff - and represents a nicely balanced midpoint between the recordings of Gould and those of Rummel. Unlike Gould, he can bring out melodic lines with remarkable effectiveness, and even in a complicated fugue he can manage to make each of the voices sing clearly and independently. And although he allows himself some freedom when it comes to tempos, and dynamics, his rhythms are often nearly perfect. So, although his version of the C# minor fugue from Book I shows some signs of his Romantic piano training, it still manages to be a masterpiece of clarity and precision. What's more, the engineering on his recording may well be the best of the recordings I've listened to - certainly on a par with the engineering on Gould's recording - on a good stereo the sound is truly divine. And Richter is also the only one of the recordings I've listened to that is performed on a Bösendorfer. I don't know how many people have had the opportunity to play this brand of piano, but it does have a very distinctive sound. It's hard to describe. The piano body is often more square than that of a Steinway - a little closer to the shape of a harpsichord - and because of the shape I've often described a Bösendorfer as having a sort of "square sound," although I've never been able to quite explain what I mean. I suppose it is a fantastic way of saying that the notes are quite sharply delimited and clear. This sound brings an interesting perspective to a performance of the WTC.

When it comes to tempo, Richter is closer to Tureck than Gould, and he seems to relish playing the repeats, and in what I'd like to call the "construction" of a sound canvas: the different voices in a fugue are like different colors in an abstract painting, and Richter seems to enjoy arranging them in the way an abstract painter might arrange color on a canvas. We hear one line being played smoothly with the notes connected, and another line of the fugue is played with a sharp and loud staccato, and when a third lines enter, the preceding lines change to accommodate their new arrival. I think this does obscure the voices in fugues a bit, but the effect can be quite appealing - particularly, late at night.

So Richter's is also a recording worth adding to a collection. In particular, people with very good stereos might want to own this recording if only so they can relish in the beautifully pure sound of the Bösendorfer and the level of professionalism that the engineers bring to bear on the recording. But I don't think Richter is my favorite recording of these pieces. For one thing, the rich canvases of sound he paints often dilute the strength of the rhythmic lines, and therefore detracts from the forward momentum of the pieces he plays. This is not always the case, but more often than not I think it is. Nevertheless, his recordings are masterpieces, and worth listening to.

B00006l3hc01_scmzzzzzzz_Yes, I've been saving the recording I think is best for last. As far as I am concerned no one can bring out the beauty of the WTC better than Rosalyn Tureck. It is worth making a few comments about Tureck (See the Tureck Bach Institute website for additional info about her). On the one hand she is a skilled textual scholar who often consults original manuscripts of the pieces that she plays, and she has almost perfect control of the more technical aspects of Baroque keyboard works: she has a remarkably contolled pace and momentum, and can play perfect cantabile phrasing. Her trills are also very precise, and two simultaneous trills often interlock perfectly. Although Tureck is a scholar and remarkable technician when it comes to baroque keyboard music, she doesn't sound as if she is confined by these traditions, and one really feels that the music itself is what dictates her style of playing. Of all the recordings I discuss here discuss here, I find that Tureck's recording is the one that really reveals the quality of the key and the individuality of each of the pieces. Many times another performer will emphasize the same things that Tureck does, but they are just brought out more distinctly and clearly in Tureck's recording.

Perhaps her greatest masterpiece is her performance of the F minor prelude and fugue from the second book of the WTC. She takes these pieces incredibly slow. For a comparison, Glenn Gould plays the prelude in just over a minute and a half: 1 minute and 45 seconds. Tureck however takes over 7 minutes to play the same piece: 7 minutes and 18 seconds! And one doesn't feel like it is too slow - something I occasionally feel when Gould or Richter takes a piece very slowly. It is true there are places where I don't think her slow tempos sound appealing to a modern listener - her recording of the Goldberg Variations, for instance. But for the WTC and for the Partitas, no recording seems better.

If you want to hear more about Tureck's philosophy of playing, the best place to look is her educational piece: An Introduction to the Performance of Bach. Among the unusual things that she explains there is her use of the pedal. Tureck uses the pedal to bring out some aspects of the piece, but she uses it in a way that conforms with the musical structure of baroque music: not to blend notes together, or to emphasize dissonance, but to emphasize a cantabile style of playing, and to bring out a particular quality of a note. Unlike a Romantic pianist who might hit the pedal before or during the execution of a note, Tureck steps on the pedal AFTER she plays the note, in order to catch the trailing resonance of the note. In this way, the initial articulation of a note is sharp and precise, but one still appreciates the way it's sound can blend with other notes that are played concurrently. I really don't know how often Tureck does this, but sometimes you can hear it. I think far more usually her cantabile phrasing is sufficient on its own to achieve this effect. Anyway, this is an interesting technique that is faithful to baroque musical structure, but nonetheless makes use of the full sonority of the piano.

Almost every piece Rosalyn plays seems nearly perfect. Her performance of the C# minor fugue from book I was initially an exception to this for me, and perhaps brings out a weakness of her recording: the engineering on the album isn't very good. I first heard it on a very good stereo, and was surprised how jarring the sound quality was. If you have a $5,000 dollar stereo and you are just looking for a recording to show off what your stereo is capable of, you may want to skip the Tureck. Her recording really needs to be tweaked with an equalizer on really good components. And it occasionally can sound disastrous on some cheaper stereos. You should really try her album on a few different stereos before making a judgment. These facts are really surprising when one considers Tureck was recorded in the 70s - you think they could have done much much better. Anyway, the best sound I've got so far from this recording has been from my old Nakamichi RE-10 receiver with an MB-8 compact disc player and Acoustic Energy One speakers - a good sort of beginner's level high-fidelity system (although my CD player has serious problems - far too many skips for my taste). But, another thing that made me initially not like Tureck's recording of the C# minor fugue, is a note at the climax of the piece that can sould like a clear mistake. This occurs in the very difficult five-part fugue at measures 100-101 of the fugue. At this point all five voices of the fugue are in play, and there is a complicated combination of half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes that seems to demand some accent since it is the most intricate part of the fugue. In a five-part fugue one wants to bring out each of the voices, but one only has so many fingers! Here Tureck's playing seems to stutter slightly. I've been trying to figure out what is going on there, and I'm guessing she plays the first chord in measure 101 with one note ahead of the others. Certainly, none of the other recordings I talk about do this. Gould plays the piece fast enough and staccato enough that he doesn't get caught in this thicket. Richter gets through it by playing a simple and solid chord, and thereby de-emphasizes the difficulty of the individual melodic lines. Surprisingly enough, the best recording of these bars seems to be Kirkpatrick. He shows no hesitation, and doesn't overly emphasize anything, but runs through the measures without a hitch. Although, there are elements of the recording to obscure this: unfortunately with five voices going at once there is a lot of squeaking and clicking coming from the clavichord keyboard - one can't play Kirkpatrick very loudly on a stereo here! Anyway, I am uncertain at the moment whether to say Tureck makes a clear mistake in these measures - perhaps someone who is more familiar with this piece can tell me whether she was merely trying to bring out a rhythmic feature that I am unaware of? Anyway, I do wish that she managed to come closer to the smoothness of Kirkpatrick, or Richter here. Her faithfulness to the melodic lines gets her into a bit of a thicket. But the rest of the piece is so good this detail really doesn't matter. It is perhaps a testimony to the quality of these recordings that I am forced to limit my complaints to single notes!

So, I think that no one performs these pieces as well as Tureck, and that she has been legitimately hailed as the "high priestess of Bach" (New York Times). But there is something to be said for not limiting oneself to her recordings. As Tureck herself says, she thinks of Bach's music as fundamentally abstract. What Bach does is give us a template of well-composed pieces, and leaves performers a great deal of freedom in how to bring these pieces to life. I think that there is a parallel with Shakespeare. I have been in a number of different productions of Shakespeare, but I always marvel at the freedom that is left to a director and to the actors of a production. This perhaps is an accidental feature of the way the texts have been transmitted to us: history has withheld many details about performance, thereby leaving many important decisions completely in the hands of the director and the actors. Bach's music gives us a similar freedom: there are no designated tempos, there are very few phrasing marks, and no phrasing remarks. Performers are called upon to make these pieces their own. And each of the recordings that I've listened to manage to convey a lot about the performers. It is very easy to distinguish each of these keyboard player's recordings - even disregarding things like Gould's occasional vocal accompaniments, or the fact that Kirkpatrick is on a clavichord. So, there is an advantage to listening to more than one recording of the WTC, because the pieces are as much defined by their differences as their similarities.

As an aside, I remember being in a piano master class in high school at Carnegie Mellon. I wasn't a particularly good pianist at the time, and was probably the worst pianist in the room, now that I think about it. I certainly wasn't playing anything difficult at the time, being mainly a composition student. Anyway, in one of our discussions in the master class the professor asked us what we thought about Bach's music. Much to my surprise, everyone thought that Bach was no fun to play. His music was described by a number of students as "mere technical exercises" or as not particularly interesting, unexpressive. Everyone was much more in favor of Rachmaninoff and Chopin. I think I well may have been the only exception to this other than the professor himself, who reprimanded the class for undervaluing some of the greatest keyboard music ever written. I don't know why students thought of Bach as mere technical exercises. I would guess that it was a combination of how they were introduced to Bach through piano lessons (almost everyone starts with Bach), and some prevailing prejudices about what baroque music should sound like. For me, however, no music is as expressive or emotionally powerful as Bach, mainly because it is so abstract: the abstractness leaves space for emotional expression of the widest variety. Often - perhaps under the influence of Gould and some comments he has made - people think of baroque keyboard music as unemotional and technical. It is true that a fugue doesn't leave the composer as much room for variation as other less demanding forms provide. But, it is important to recognize that Bach could attain great emotional depth in his compositions: his cantatas and choral works in particular emphasize this. There are the glorious dark tones of "Aus der Tiefe," which Brahms made so much of, or there are the bright happy tones in the setting of "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" in St. Matthew's passion. Furthermore, Bach's instrument par excellence was an instrument capable of enormous depth and power: the organ. With an organ one can produce sounds so powerful that they can shake a cathedral. It is difficult to believe that Bach could do all this, but would revert to a confined, technical, and unemotional playing style when it came to the clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano. Hence, I personally would encourage performers to appreciate the expressive ability of Bach's music, although it is true that some restraint is actually necessary: one doesn't want a pianist to mangle the rhythmic or harmonic structure of a work. But then it is often true that tieing something down to a structure can be a vehicle for emotional expression. And, there is a wide range of possibilities in the performance of Bach, possibilities that enable performers to make their recordings deeply personal. And perhaps ultimately it is who we are ourselves, as subjective listeners, that determines what the "best" recording is, for just as performers bring themselves to the performances, so we bring ourselves as listeners.

Let me end this posting by mentioning a few games that can be played with the WTC. If you load your albums onto itunes, it is possible to make a playlist that enables you to listen to each of the prelude and fugue combinations by each performer in a series. So, for instance, you can play Kirkpatrick, Richter, Gould and Tureck all playing the C major prelude and fugue. You can then listen to the corresponding A minor prelude and fugue, then perhaps listen to the A major fugue. This seems like an excellent way to come to know the sound of each of the different keys. One has to remember that in addition to being a great pianist and composer, Bach was also a great teacher. How many young pianists start out playing a piece from the Anna Magdalena Büchlein or the Applicatio in C major from the Wilhelm Friedemann Clavierbüchlein? I think that Bach's foremost role may well have been that of an educator. This is perhaps the reason why Bach's music often seems so transparent: in addition to performing melodies Bach always seems to be trying to teach his audience something. For instance, when you hear something in F minor, it feels like it could never be written in any other key, and that Bach is trying to teach us something about the different keys as he composes for them. I suppose this has been one of my two main criteria in evaluating these performances. The other one is just the shear musicality of the performances. In both these categories I don't think anyone is as good as Rosalyn Tureck. But there are many more recordings out there for me to listen to. I suppose Landowska and Schiff are next, but I also would like to listen to Keith Jarrett and Hantai's versions more closely.

Monday, July 11, 2005

To bundle, or not to bundle; that is the question.


Today I would like to both register a complaint and introduce a new concept. As you will see both of these things are closely related.

First, I would like to complain about partisan politics in the United States. Now don't get me wrong, when a political election is underway, you can bet that I'll be online researching positions, arguing with people at dinner parties, and doing everything else that is expected of me as a citizen in a political state. And although I am a Vermonter with a fierce strain of independence - In the late 80s and early 90s I can remember voting for a Democratic senator, a Republican senator, and a Socialist representative all on the same ballot - you'll probably realize after a short discussion that most of my beliefs conform to one particular party. So, I am all about partisan politics during an election. The thing I would like to complain about is the partisan politics that happen when elections are years away. And unfortunately, the United States seems to be more and more indulgent in this sort of thing as time goes on.

Part of the reason we are indulgent in partisan politics is President Bush. Although he was elected as a uniter and not a divider, I think it would be foolish for anyone - Republican or Democrat or whatever other party one is affiliated with - to hold that belief now. Whatever you think about Bush, the fact is that he was elected by two of the closest elections in history in terms of popular vote, and that he has become the figurehead for the polarization of American society - a role that Karl Rove has gone out of his way to nurture. The fact is that the United States is currently more polarized than it has ever been - a fact that has been further underscored by a number of articles in the NYTimes, including "One Nation Divisible" in the June 23rd edition. It seems that the causes of this division include the rise of permanent campaign, the rise of partisan news media, and differences in Congressional redistricting. Some signs of this increased polarization: most people now buy books only from authors they already agree with, more people are likely to only listen to news sources that are run by partisan organizations, if you go to online dating services you'll see people writing things like "Republicans need not apply," and I even have friends who can hardly manage to talk to a person once they discover they belong to the opposite political party.

Things like this have always been going on, but it definitely seems to be becoming far more common now. The latest controversy at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in which it was discovered that the chairman, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, secretly hired someone to monitor the political leaning of programs that the corporation produced in order to eliminate "liberal bias," is just one of the more dramatic instances of this. Actually, the thing I find most disturbing about the CPB controversy, is the way that the debate has been constructed. That is, it is a discussion about products. It is presumed that the way to evaluate the neutrality of the corporation is to have an equal number of pro-conservative, and pro-liberal views, and that we can even generalize this to individual programs: a particular program produced by the CPB should not side with either side in the dispute, as Bill Moyer's "Now" is accused of doing. It is almost as if the facts in a dispute don't matter at all anymore. People assume a sort of neo-Humean perspective: there are facts, and there are political passions, and any instance of practical reasoning is more likely to happen on account of the passions than the facts. So, if you start with a conservative and a liberal position, it would seem that there is little reason either side should concede anything, since the ultimate root of decisions are the passions and not the facts. This is also the narrative structure that underlies programs like Crossfire: you have a clearly defined conservative and liberal position, you watch the two positions engage, and at the end of the day you don't expect anyone to be convinced to change their positions in any way - after all these positions are decided before the debate. It is true that one side might be seen to "win" the debate (although I've never watched a Crossfire debate in which I felt this had actually happened!), but even so it is never decisive. Such a narrative structure promises to be entertaining, and to reaffirm the audiences' own political leanings, but it offers no possibility of learning from the other side, and little possibility of personal intellectual development either from the audience or from the speakers.

It is in light of this lack of development, these exercises in the reaffirmation of partisan politics that I'd like to introduce a new concept: the concept of bundling. There is nothing especially novel about this concept, but nevertheless I think it is worth bringing it out explicitly. What do I mean by bundling? Well, let me give you an example from a non-political domain. Say you want to break the lease on your apartment, and you have a prospective tenant all lined up. Everything is fine, until you realize that you have to deal with that darn sofa. Man, that would be a real pain to move, and it's a piece of crap. So what do you do? You tell the new tenant that the sofa comes with the place, and if the tenant doesn't want the sofa, then by golly he won't get the apartment. Bundling is just a way of packaging two elements together so that it works out to your advantage. Software companies do this all the time.

Partisan politics depends on these sorts of bundles too. For instance, it is important for the Republican party to project the perspective that it is the pro-life party, that it will promise less government, less restrictions on the accumulation of wealth, a strong military, and that it is the only party for Christian fundamentalists. It is important for the Democratic party to project the perspective that it is the pro-choice party, that it will promise government assistance to the poor and the needy, that it will be the party that is willing to engage in peaceful negotiations with foreign countries rather than resort to violence, and that it is the only party for people who value basic American rights like the freedom of speech. But when either party endorses these perspectives, they are doing a bit of bundling, and to adopt the metaphor, are really trying to sell some folks some really bad sofas. Let's say that you're a pro-life individual who places great stock in the First Amendment. If you really want to place a vote that will have an influence in a particular election in our two-party system you have to decide whether to support the Republican or the Democratic candidate. If you support the Republican candidate, chances are that you will have to vote for someone who will vote against your own beliefs with regard to the First Amendment. If you vote for the Democratic candidate, chances are you will be endorsing pro-choice values. Either way, you will be electing a government that at least in part does not represent your political beliefs. I think that this is a lesson many people do not heed: a democracy can fail to accurately represent its people. Elizabeth Anscombe has a famous essay in which she shows that it is logically possible for every person's will to be thwarted in an election: to elect a government that no one agrees with, without any misrepresentation going on. Elections in reality may fall short of this absolute extreme, but it is still a possibility.

One of the most egregious attempts at bundling occurred in this past election, an election in which many religious leaders, most notably in the Catholic Church, decided to condemn any member of their congregation who voted for a pro-choice candidate in the elections. Some leaders refused to give the sacrament to anyone who espoused pro-choice views. I suppose this is even more striking given the fact that abortion is not even on the political radar of countries like Britain and Canada. It is true that in these countries many people may be staunchly against abortion, but most don't feel the need to force the law to conform to their individual beliefs. Why is this such an important question in the United States, so much so that some clergy members are willing to sacrifice everything else their church stands for in order to protect it? I speculate that part of the reason is that to a large extent, the issue doesn't really matter. In saying this I don't mean to trivialize people's beliefs on the issue. But the fact of the matter is that if you don't want to have an abortion, you don't have to have one. And the number of people who choose abortion is incredibly small in proportion to the population of the country. So, the fact is that a law against abortion would only directly effect a very small constituency. (I admit that indirectly this constituency is much larger, and that my whole indirect/direct distinction may well be specious.) Furthermore, abortion as it is defined in the United States is an eminently bundleable concept. You can connect it to almost any political or religious belief. You can be pro-choice and pro-business, you can be pro-life and pro-First Amendment, you can be pro-life and pro-war, you can be pro-choice and pro-religion. You can even be a Catholic and pro-choice, since it is possible to be pro-life but not think that the law is the best place to argue for such a moral position. Finally, abortion is an incredibly polarizing force, since people tend to argue vehemently for their beliefs. This means that you can get rid of almost any sofa that you want. You want to get an unorthodox judge with a horrible record into office? Well, if you are in a pro-life district, and the other side puts up a pro-choice candidate, you can basically sit back and relax, all the judge's problems will probably be ignored. I only hope that our new Pope understands this and doesn't pressure Catholics to only vote for Pro-Life candidates, as some priests in the United States have been encouraging him to do. The perhaps unfortunate expression of "throwing out the baby out with the bathwater" might apply here. And, no, the bath water doesn't stand for the fetus, it stands for a legal precept that half of a country will disagree with.

But I suppose I've been going off on a tangent here. To get back to the bundling concept, I think it is very important to recognize the fact that partisan politics does force a lot of people to vote against their own beliefs, and that a lot of what makes one candidate successful is just the result of successful bundling techniques. I only wish there were more self-reflection of the bundling that's going on. But, I suppose in a way bundling is inevitable. There is almost a tautology going on here. I mean, any issue that is agreed upon by both parties is probably no longer a political issue: it will probably become law. To a large extent political issues are only those issues that political parties disagree about. And since there are mainly two parties in the United States, the issue would almost have to be divided between them to be a political issue. But the problem is that there are irrational elements afoot here: a need to group people in ways that don't accurately reflect their beliefs. And it is bundling that gives minority groups like the Christian Right such sway in American Politics today.

A few paragraphs ago I said that there was something almost neo-Humean about what I take to be the default position on political reasoning in the United States. This is a little inexact, since presumably Humean passions are far more basic than any drives we might have towards one party of the other. But both the Humean perspective, and what I take to be the default position have a lot of parallels. And the discussion of bundling above, seems to help in part explain why this might be the case. If it is the case that people often have to vote against their rational beliefs, there is something quite irrational about political decisions in the U.S. And this irrationality seems compounded by a number of additional features of the political landscape. One would be party affiliation. Some people decide what party they will support, not on the basis of their own reflective positions of political issues, but by their family traditions. They vote Republican, because their family has always voted Republican. Or, they became involved in a political party when its platform was quite different, and feel obliged to stick with their party even when the platform changes. (James Jeffords recent move from the Republican Party to an Independent political position is the exception that proves the rule here - he changed parties when his party changed, and was considered a traitor for doing so.) And even deeper, I wonder if the United States' Protestant roots somehow further exacerbate the irrational element in politics. After all, in the Christian church there is often a great deal of emphasis on faith. Although there are many positive outcomes of the doctrine of faith, it does sometimes encourage a sort of irrational decision-making process. That is, you might think that it is good to believe in doctrine A - it agrees with most of your beliefs, and is a logical corollary of them - but your church says you should believe in doctrine B, and since you accept the church as an authority in your life, you decide to support B as a matter of faith. Yes, I'm simplifying here, but faith-based reasoning in this way does move us closer to the neo-Humean facts-don't-matter sort of stance. I tend to have an aversion to this since, I do think facts matter.

To return to the CPB, given the irrational elements in American politics, why should we expect a news organization to end up siding equally with the Republican and the Democrat parties on political issues? Why should we presume that this is somehow the "natural division" of the issues? Really, if it is bias that we are out to stop, the place to fix this bias is in the process by which television shows are produced, not in the content of the actual shows. If it were the case that whenever the CPB received applications to produce two programs, each promising equal quality of research, each with equally coherent argumentative structures, the CPB always chose the one that agrees with Democratic Party beliefs, and failed to produce the other, we'd have grounds for the charge of bias. Although perhaps even this wouldn't be definitive evidence. Given the the Republican Party is the G.O.P. I would even expect public radio and television to side more often against the Republican Party. Why? Well, I'm a firm believer that part of the role of the media is to challenge the beliefs that are held by society, to wake society up from its complacency. If this is part of the purpose, then it would make far more sense for the media to challenge the dominant political party - the one that has control of the House, the Senate, the Executive branch, and that picked 7 out of the 9 Supreme Court justices in the U.S. - than a minority party. I hope the same would happen if the Democratic Party had similar power.

But here I'm bundling.

Well, my apologies if I've gone on a bit long here, and if in the end of the day perhaps my complaint can't be solved, and my new concept may seem useless. But I'd be very happy if there was a greater consciousness of the way that bundling works in the U.S., and that it could somehow be introduced more explicitly into the political dialogue here. In contrast to my last post, in which I argued that sometimes it is possible to be too philosophical, in contexts such as the structure of political decision-making in the United States, I really wish people endeavored to be a little more philosophical from time to time.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Not a philosopher?

"I am a philosopher." How pretentious does that sound? As far as believable careers go, that is about as far out in left field as one could imagine. I mean even a statement like, "I'm the king of France," seems a little more tangible: we know what France is, we know what kings are, and we can fit the whole enterprise into Jungian archetypes, or a Nietzschean will-to-power, and the whole thing seems plausible, but to say that someone is a philosopher requires a whole different degree of credibility. That's why people in my profession often have to find a way of specifying the thought so as to seem more humble and reasonable: I am a professor of philosophy, I'm a student of philosophy, I teach, I study Hegel, I study ethics. Whew! Back to reality, back to a certain degree of normalcy. Heaven forbid that someone who's going to be a professor of philosophy and a Philosophae Doctor should profess to be a philosopher. No, we do whatever any other academic does, we analyze things, we publish papers, we stand in front of lecture rooms and talk about texts. I suppose there's also a further risk in the title. If one were looking for a good person to run a business, or a good person to have a romantic relationship with, or to sit back with a couple of beers and watch a game of football, very few people think to themselves, "Yes, of course, that's just the situation that I'd want to have a philosopher around!" Philosophers, especially those of us with an analytical bent, have a notorious reputation for taking things apart, and this is not always a flattering trait. And the whole profession is built around it: we take apart the works of Plato, take apart General Relativity, take apart the concept of truth, take apart the process of taking apart the truth - you name it, and a philosopher somewhere has taken it apart. Sure, we try to put all these things together, but then they seem to be just taped back up in some awkward fashion, and all you have to do is sneeze and all the pieces are on the floor again. Here's a typical scenario: first you take some ethical principle, you break it down to its many individual principles, and soon you begin to doubt what the ethical principle was there to begin with, so you need to come up with a support. So a philosopher will say things like, "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” and sigh, a relief! Finally, clarity! But really, is that any better than "Don't steal," and, "Don't kill an innocent person"? Frankly, I would be much more afraid of the person following the universal maxim.

I suppose all this is rooted in just a too superficial understanding of the world. I think human beings just lack a certain ability to grasp complexity. It’s odd that the people one would most expect to recognize this fact, people who “never stop questioning,” the “philosophers” are often the worst at grasping this. I mean, I think if a human being could actually grasp all the things that go into a sound ethical decision, even Kant's wonderful project would seem like the blabbering of a two year old. I mean, I'm ranting a little, but really. I mean, take the movie I just watched, Closer. Think of all the interactions that happen in the course of that two hour movie. Fit them into an ethical maxim. You'd have to bring into account the desire to tell the truth, those strange plateaus one could get in a love relationship, the experience of having things not work out, what "compromise" means coming from someone who can act like a jerk. And this is not even beginning to touch things like looks and hand gestures, and the thousands of different ways that two people can embrace, or the way "I can't take my eyes off you" can resonate with one’s own life, or the look on Natalie Portman's character's face as she walks through the crowd of people who admire her for her beauty, for being a beautiful thing, regardless as to what is behind the photo. Of course, what I'm doing now - no matter how I try to hide it within this catalog, or to disguise it in variety - is a sort of analysis. Even recognizing complexity and the multifarious nature of the world around us is breaking it down, making reality a little easier to swallow, a little less real. I suppose there is a human need in doing this, and it's not like any of us can avoid it.

But sometimes it is just worthwhile to throw up one's hands and stop. To say that something is beautiful without actually being able to say why, to enjoy the sunlight glittering on a window just because it is sunlight glittering on a window, or to say something completely shallow, just because it’s completely shallow. There’s a certain humbleness in adopting such a perspective, and I suppose that ultimately it is this humbleness that makes many students of philosophy, including myself, hesitate to say that they are philosophers. So, in the spirit of this thought, I refuse to think about why I liked the movie, or even why I decided to watch it tonight at 1 AM, and instead I’m going to just go to bed.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Reflections on the Battle of Algiers

I recently watched Gillo Pontecorvo's movie Battleofalgiers La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1965). I've had a few weeks to reflect on it, and it really is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century film. A violent and disturbing film, it was banned in France, and it apparently gave such a detailed and accurate view of how terrorism works that it was shown to a special audience at the Pentagon to help military personnel understand what they'd be up against in Iraq (NYTimes, September 7, 2003). The most striking thing about the film, however, is it's neutrality. Although it was made partly under the auspices of the Algerian government, within a few years of the events it portrayed, the film was shot in a strikingly non-partisan manner. The film is often thought to side with the Algerian revolutionaries, but I think this is effectively undercut by other aspects of the film, and although audiences may rejoice at the Algerian victory at the conclusion of the film, I can't imagine that any neutral audience member would describe the ending as unambiguously pro-Algerian (See comments on the class I was a part of below). It is true that steps were taken in order to make the methods employed by the French seem shocking. After all, the film has the character of Colonel Mathieu give a defense of the use of torture, and some of the montage effects are intended to paint the French in a less than appealing light. For instance, in one sequence the film cuts abruptly from a late night dinner party in a casual and pleasant tropical setting, to a scene in which members of the same party plant enough explosives in the Turkish section to bring down a house - as if both events were equally casual. This surely emphasizes a certain callousness. But all these effects are effectively counterbalanced with shots that make the FLN seem equally in the wrong. For instance, when the FLN decides to send four women into the French section of the town with bombs to blow up popular nightspots, Pontecorvo spends a significant amount of footage showing the pleasant and carefree atmosphere in the clubs before the bombing, thereby emphasizing the cruelty.

Pontecorvo's casting is also remarkable. Instead of hiring a cast of professional actors, Pontecorvo apparently hired a number of normal people in Algeria for the shooting, as well as the revolutionary leader Yacef Saadi, who basically plays a modified version of himself. Brahim Haggiag makes an amazing Ali La Pointe. A lot of information can be conveyed by an appropriately chosen lead character. His face in the movie is shown scarred by the lifestyle he leads before the revolution, and the hauntingly wild looks that he gives at times - looks that Pontecorvo chooses to dwell on for long periods of time with very close camera shots - emphasizes Ali La Pointe's motivations. Further, Ali's facial expressions contrast sharply with the facial expressions of Yacef Saadi's character, and gives the viewer an instant appreciation for their different outlooks on the revolution, an appreciation that is further emphasized by the different outcomes for each in the course of the film.

Another striking thing about the movie is the black and white photography. As an aside, it is interesting the effects that black and white photography can produce on contemporary audiences. When one is not distracted by color and the many visual effects that can be achieved through color film, characters' emotions and views are somehow expressed more vividly and clearly. This certainly seems to be the case in another one of my favorite movies, Der Himmel über Berlin . The film's use of black and white photography to portray the world view of the angels seems to capitalize on the effect - suggesting perhaps that an angel would somehow see through to the core of one's personality. The effect in The Battle of Algiers is similar, although it has more of the feel of a documentary, since the film enhances the feel of objectivity through its neutrality, and through occasional hand-held camera techniques. But the film does not intend to be a documentary, and Pontecorvo uses the camera work to great artistic effect. For instance, the black and white film also emphasizes the shapes of the buildings, an effect that makes the Turkish section of the town seem even more labyrinthine. Actually, this labyrinthine effect seemed to make the ending of the film that much more powerful; what we see at the end of the film are enormous crowds unconfined by walls and barriers, perhaps suggesting that the success of the Algerian revolution was the result of the coordination of the masses, rather than the focused approach of the FLN.

I thought the use of Bach (The Matthäus-Passion, I believe) in the opening was a little out of place at first, although it seemed a more reasonable choice when I rewatched that scene. The use of heavy drum beats to emphasize the building tension . . . especially in the bombing sequence were quite effective.

I saw this film with a class in which I was a course assistant. I was actually surprised at some students' reactions. Some who saw the movie thought that it gave a pretty good argument for the use of torture to obtain information. I found this a bit frightening, especially given recent activities of the Bush Administration, and found myself arguing against a number of students in the class, although my job was not to influence the content of the course. C'est la vie. Anyway, it is a disturbing movie, and certainly not something to watch if you're looking for an unambiguous pick-me-up.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


On the brick wall,

a shadow rises up to the windowpane,

and meeting the glass,

it spreads like paint on a slippery canvas,

rushing to the edges,

twisting in the light,

before once again becoming darkness

against the brickwork.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Beginning

Here it is. My very first post on my new blog. I suppose I reveal a certain naiveté at drawing attention to this fact, but hey, firsts are important, and so far as naiveté indicates a certain lack of experience with blogs, I suppose it's true. What's this blog for? Well, it'll hopefully be a way of letting my friends and family, who are now spread out all over the world, see what's up with me whenever they want to. They'll be photos, tales of trips, etc. I also think that it might be a good way of putting up some useful information. I'm constantly doing research, and I'll probably let people know about some of my most recent recipes, where to drink the best espresso, and where to go to get good Greek poetry. I suppose I also have slightly higher ambitions as well. It occurs to me that this might prove a valuable way of expressing a certain style of thinking that is more often expressed in my travel journals or in one-on-one conversations. Really, the more I study philosophy, the more I realize that deep conversation, really deep conversation, probably only happens between one or two people. One, you might ask? How can one person have a conversation? I suppose that conceptually there is a difficulty here, but what is this blog but a conversation between one? I mean, I might have someone in mind as I type, I might even have you in mind, but no matter how much I use my imagination to bring you to this room late on this Thursday night, the fact of the matter is right now it's just me and the keyboard. Do I have ambitions to occasionally have a very deep conversation with you? Probably, after all things get awfully boring without a serious thought every now and then, but of course I'm not making any guarantees. And life is too important to be taken too seriously. As for deep conversations with larger groups of people, I suppose threesomes sometimes work, and on chance occasions a whole room will feel capable of simultaneous communication, but I usually find at these moments that there is a bit too much interference. I mean, everyone comes to the table with slightly different viewpoints, and even if everyone leaves in agreement, there will be all sorts of connotations and innuendoes that are missed. This is a fine thing in ordinary conversation, but missing the finer points of communication spells havoc if someone wants to consider a thought or idea seriously. And having a slightly philosophical temperament, I do like to take ideas seriously.

But this will hopefully come in time.