Monday, September 03, 2007

On revolution

A nice correspondence that occurred to me while rereading Havana Dreams:
  • Dentro de la revolución, todo; contra la revolución, nada. - Fidel Castro, 1961. After the Communists took power, citizens were required to believe and act by this maxim, for fear of reprisal or death.
  • Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Outside the [Catholic] Church, there is no salvation) - a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, pronounced as early as the 6th century AD by Saint Gregory the Great [sic] and reinforced about once per century since the 13th century in papal bulls and encyclicals.
  • If you're not with us, you're against us. - George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (who since resigned in disgrace), 2003. Post 9/11, this statement came from the following brilliant logic: Bin Laden and Al-Qaida have challenged the US. Bin Laden and Al-Qaida are terrorists. Ergo, anyone who challenges the US is a terrorist. This wedge has been used to slowly erode basic civil liberties by casting the Iraq war in "armageddon" terms that appeal to the religious fundamentalists who got this administration elected. (In 2003, there was an 80% approval rating for going to war among white evangelical Protestants - ironically, the same ones who aren't going to be saved due to extra ecclesiam nulla salus.)
I'm waiting to see what similar line Hugo Chavez comes up with. They're all of a piece, these guys, and the people who allow themselves to be led astray by this kind of rhetoric are pitiable indeed.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Quotes of the minute

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one." - George Bernard Shaw

Imagine a world without religion; that is, imagine a world in which the Twin Towers were still standing, where the "troubles" of Northern Ireland would have to confront their true roots, where the Inquisitors of Spain, the "missionaries" who "evangelized" the New World natives, and so many others besides, no longer had the putative authority of a deity behind which to hide while committing despicable deeds.

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca the Younger

"Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

"Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." - Bertrand Russell

...yeah, I'm kind of on a roll today...

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Spring Awakening - rude awakening

Ok, so maybe not so harsh. But I'm not sure this was a Tony-worthy show. The premise is interesting. Take an interesting piece of material - a turn-of-the-century provincial German town where a bunch of teenagers are discovering their hormones and sexuality, surrounded by a prudish, hypocritical bunch of adults (Catholic school, etc.) that shames them and hides information from them, leaving them to explore on their own...with results that range from comic to touching to tragic. Then combine that material, with all its period dialogue and costumes, with indie rock music - a score that could've been written by Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, the Gin Blossoms, Coldplay, .... OK, the list is probably dated and showing my age, but you get the idea. There's a lot of potential in the material. But ultimately I think the composers' craft wasn't quite up to the job of doing it justice. Besides the fact that they chose a medium (the indie rock song, with its deliberately simplistic lyrics) that makes it difficult to elevate the songs to the level of craft required to match the material, the lyrics often venture into the territory of insipid. There's also a weird juxtaposition of the very real characters of the teenagers vs. the caricatures of the adults that is more incongruous than effective. Most of the characters bring out handheld mics during the songs, clearly an affectation given today's technical sophistication, and a few of the Act 2 songs are sung "American Idol style", with a character grabbing a mic stand, dragging it stage center, emoting the song spastically with their arms while keeping feet rooted to the floor. Highly ineffective, and made me think the director just ran out of time to stage those scenes: "Just grab a mic stand and pretend you're on Idol." Clearly this show puts itself in the same genre-bending category as Rent. But Rent succeeds because its level of craftsmanship is higher, and because it rewrote the book to bring it up to date. Such a timeless story that would fit perfectly into our times, but the period placement makes for a distraction. Structurally, the show raises the question whether the musical form can work with an indie-rock score. Based on this one data point I think the answer is "maybe, but this show doesn't do it." Nonetheless, it's important to keep pushing the form. In that sense, Spring Awakenings is an important show, and I'm glad I saw it. But I don't think it should have gotten the Tony.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Today I ate a burrito in the morning

...because it's the closest I can come (at this time) to actually being in Cancún, which I am desperately looking forward to.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Vandals should be punished in kind

Today on BART I noticed that someone had smeared used chewing gum onto one of the fabric seats. The perpetrator, if caught, should have various wads of used chewing gum mashed thoroughly into his or her hair. What is it about vandalism? Don't even ask me what I would do to an apprehended graffiti "artist".

Another day, another carrot

Wow, just finished reading Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, probably the most eloquent expression of why I am hostile to organized religion. Short and packs a punch. there is also, it turns out, a free podcast of a discussion between the author and Reza Aslan, who takes a different point of view, which was hosted at the Taper Forum at the LA Public Library; open iTunes Store, search for "Sam Harris", and look for "KCET Podcast: ALOUD at the Central Library" (hint: sort by price, since the podcast is free). the material is not necessarily for everybody, but it's an important read that takes less than an hour. (feel free to forward this to anyone who might appreciate it.) if i had to summarize the principal argument he formulates, it would be this: - either the Bible (or Koran, or Torah, or whatever) is the product of more-than-human authorship, and therefore to be taken as the moral compass, or it is not. - if it is not, then the fundamental dogmatic premise of [pick your favorite organized religions] is simply false. (for this discussion, "dogma" can be defined as "belief without evidence" or "belief despite conflicting evidence". among the religious, this is called "faith", but operationally amounts to the same thing.) - if it is, then slavery is OK, it is appropriate to treat wives as property, stoning adulterers is OK, and it is obligatory to kill those who you perceive to be straying from the faith. all these things are mentioned not once but mulitple times. - BUT you cannot have it both ways. you cannot decide, e.g., that the Bible's teachings on "love thy neighbor", the Beatitudes, etc. are to be followed as a supreme moral compass, while those on slavery etc. are to be discounted because of the "cultural context" in which the Bible arose. to do this kind of "cherry picking" is to make *your own* (human-directed) moral judgment about what parts of the text are morally binding and what parts are not. but if you're doing that, then you have demonstrated, a fortiori, that the Bible does not serve any necessary moral purpose, since you have not only reached a moral conclusion on your own, but have done so in a way that sometimes *contradicts* a legitimate reading of the Bible. (indeed, the Inquisition is permissible under a theologically defensible reading of the bible, yet even the catholic church has - as of a few years ago - officially apologized for it.) - similarly, you cannot on the one hand claim that "the earth was created in six days" (or " begat so-and-so...") is simply a metaphor, while on the other hand claiming that other specific material is correct as reported. once again, in so doing, you are making your own judgment about the validity of the book's contents. if the book is the product of human authorship, this is fine, and makes the premise of the book necesarily false. if the book is the product of divine authorship, then by definition it is not appropriate for anyone non-divine to be making judgments about what is accurate and what is not. the book is not simple religion-bashing; it's about all of the legitimate, real world problems that are caused by our inability to admit the above honestly to ourselves, even among moderate liberals who take a conciliatory "i'm OK, you're OK" attitude towards the very religious. it's great stuff. be warned, though, that the conclusion doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room if you want to stay on the rational side of the argument: you can either commit to what amounts to a fundamentalist/literal reading of scriptural text (acknowledging that it's divine and wields a higher moral authority), or commit to a purely literary reading (acknowleding that it's written by humans and therefore on balance is no better or worse than other books that espouse a worldview), but anything in between is intellectually dishonest.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Wow! RIAA forces YouTube to remove videos of free guitar lessons

In their infinite wisdom, the RIAA has forced YouTube to remove free guitar-lesson videos, because the guy who posted them strums some chords from a copyrighted song as one of his examples. Is this even legal? What happened to fair use? Clearly a free guitar tutorial video is an "educational" application of copyrighted material? How can a new musician even learn unless they have audible feedback that what they're playing sounds like a song they know? I can just see the logical conclusion of this line of argument. And it's relevant to me, as I have been planning to publish some free resources on how to become a better Music Director for live theater.

Dear Dr. Fox: It's come to our attention that your published document, The Music Director's Survival Guide and Cheat Sheet, makes references to the chord "G11(+5)" and to the melodic device of "passing tones". That chord and that melodic device appear in a number of copyrighted works. You must withdraw your work to avoid infringing on that copyright.

It's stuff like this that makes me hope people will steal as much music as possible. Does the RIAA not realize that it is betting the warped, antiquated vision of its leadership and the abiltiies of its lawyers against a succession of generations of tens of millions of people who are not only consumers of entertainment, but producers of it as well? If Emma Goldman were alive today, she'd be preaching anarchy against the RIAA. And if I ever have an opportunity to criticize the RIAA in public, or contribute even a tiny bit toward its permanent demise and the public flagellation of those who are steadfastly standing in the way of cultural progress in the name of scraping extra pennies from the artists while they hold them down and rape them with curare-tipped barbed wire, I will embrace it eagerly. Disgusting.

Friday, June 29, 2007

social networking sites are the new class structure argues Danah Boyd in this interesting essay comparing the socioeconomic, educational, etc. status of Facebook vs. MySpace. Not lost on me is the connection to why the US military has restricted soldier access to MySpace but not to Fakebook. Weird to read this as such an outsider since I don't use either one....I'm so old... What I'm reading these days: Alvin Toffler's Future Shock. I like reading period pieces, and the analysis part of this one is reasonably well informed and strikingly prescient, though his prescriptive advice is a little too far out in left field in some cases. Also I got this book out of the "Free stuff" box at Bird & Beckett, which I love. Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Disbelief. Has some important points to make but the structure of the argument is kind of sloppy, especially towards the end. His arguments about why the "worldviews" of religion and science are so different and why the worldview of religion fills a fundamental human need are good arguments. His arguments about their coexistence are less convincing, though, and suffer from what appear to be some category misconceptions about those worldviews.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Today I am a birder.

I got up on Sunday at 7am to spend the whole day watching birds. Usually I only get up early on weekends to go skiing, so this is a big deal for me. Tonia somehow got me interested enough in birdwatching over the last couple of years that not only did I get up, but I was the one who actually discovered this trip and signed us up for it. We went out to the Sac. River delta - specifically, to the Isenberg Crane Reserve and Cosumnes River Wildlife Reserve, about a 90-minute drive from SF. A group of about 25 was guided by knowledgeable and friendly guide, Harry, who does this for fun. You wouldn't think it would be entertaining to walk around and look at birds through binoculars--in fact I used to think it would be boring--but it's actually pretty interesting. As Tonia points out, they are interesting to look at, often cute, don't ask anything in return, and have remarkably modest resource needs--even a bush in a park often yields an interesting bird or two. And the financial barrier to entry is surprisingly low--there's all kinds of volunteer groups, Yahoo groups, etc. about local birding, and even city dwellers tend to live fairly close to interesting birding areas--making a pair of binoculars and a The Sibley Guide to Birds a good Christmas present for a curious person. The amazing thing is that not only did I find it fun, I've actually learned to identify some birds on my own, and not just pigeons. A partial list (from memory!) of what we saw, with italics meaning I identified it, include sandhill crane, snipe, red-tailed hawk, marsh hawk, peregrine falcon, common yellowthroat, ruby-crowned kinglet, short-billed dowitcher, black-necked stilt, Canada goose, white-fronted goose, moorhen, coot, cinnamon teal, bufflehead, northern shoveler, western meadowlark, marsh wren, wigeon, golden-crowned sparrow, American kestrel, and some kind of plover which I don't remember. Today's lesson: be willing to try anything once. I had a surprisingly good time even though it was an all-day (9am-3pm) outing. And I'd go again.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

I'm getting a new piano today!

2007 non-resolutions: blog more, code more, do a great job as an Altarena Playhouse board member, do great research in the Berkeley RAD Lab. Yep, I'm upgrading from a really good piano (Steinway Model M) to an insanely great one (Steinway Model A). How can I justify the added cost? I can't. It's a luxury. But hey, people spend more money than this on cars, and this will last longer, get used more, and bring us a lot more joy. The big lesson from this experience is how hard it is to let go of an instrument. As much as I'm looking forward to the superior tone and action of the Model A (hey, it better be, for the trade-up price!), Tonia and I were both surprised at how attached we've become to our little M. It's hard to dissociate the physical instrument from the memories that surround it - we've celebrated three Christmases with friends singing around it, had impromptu concerts and jams, rehearsed musicals, and I've certainly poured out my sorrows to it over the occasional bourbon. I even wrote a Paddington-bear-style "Please take care of this piano" letter to accompany it to the Walnut Creek Sherman Clay store, where it'll be touched up and sold as a previously-owned piano. I think it wouldn't be quite the same with a smaller/portable/solo instrument - the piano is necessarily stationary, so the action comes to it. It becomes part of the scenery, part of the house, part of the furniture. And as much of a Steinway fan as I am, I have no doubt, knowing what i know now, that it would've been the same with any brand that was at least reasonably good. You'd think after playing piano for almost 35 years, I would have known to expect that level of emotional attachment to a particular instrument. You learn something new every day.