Whining and Lament

Day 100: Wednesday

Good Morning Zak,

So I really enjoyed your post about the top 1%.  To answer your question, I think I may be in the top 1% of devil’s advocates… or maybe pedants.

I think I’d prefer the title, devil’s advocate.  “Pedant” sounds a little too severe; it makes me think of the surprise concert lectures some artistic directors feel compelled to throw in after pieces of an otherwise perfectly pleasant evening.

Nothing against lectures in general, but giving them for an audience that’s expecting music is like giving eggplant to someone who thought they were getting chocolate cake.

Anyway, the point is, I’d like to take a minute to play devil’s advocate to your concept of the top 1 %

From your post: “being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it”

Now, Zak, I think you’ll agree that when we talk about being in the top 1%, we’re talking about something objective.  For there to be a top 1%, there needs to be a definitive ‘good’ and a definitive ‘bad’ that appertains directly to the object in question.

Today’s Sames and Opposites: what’s the difference between morality and mortality?

Most people have the intuition that morality is an object that works like that.  There are good moral choices and there are bad moral choices.  (Whether we can discern between the two is, of course, an entirely separate question.)

Naturally, it’s the letter t.  Let’s pause a moment to appreciate the combination hashtags on this post: #mortality, #funny

But when it comes to things like music or the arts in general… there our intuition is generally less clear.  It doesn’t seem impossible that the labels of good and bad art might derive less from the object than from the subject who perceives it.

All this is just my eggplanty way of saying that it’s not obvious whether there really is a top 1% for aesthetic decisions.

On the other hand, not all decisions that an artist makes are so subjective…  What’s the difference between poetic lamentation and plain and simple whining?

Beatrice hath betaken herself to heaven,
on high in that dominion where God’s angels
are at peace, and you, O ladies, are left
bereft of her.

-Dante, Vita Nova XXXI

That’s one way to elegize.  Here’s another:

Alas, with what deaf ears
Death hears my wretched cries
and savagely refuses
to close my weeping eyes!

–Boethius, Cons. Phi. I.m I

Now, I won’t pass judgment on someone in pain; I know that only makes things worse. I wouldn’t judge an artist for writing a lament one way or another… However, that doesn’t change the objective fact that whining is like fecal matter where you’re expecting eggplant.

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Remains from Pompeii Volcano

To be fair to Boethius, I must point out that the author himself includes a sober palinode shortly after the passage cited above (I.m II).

What I’m trying to say is that even in the arts we don’t really have time for this kind of nonsense.  There’s very little time.  As each of us slowly parishes from the Earth, we get to decide what kind of expression to make along the way.  We can whine or we can make a sound of thankfulness, but we can’t delay the inevitable end.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

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Name that sound challenge

Day 99: Monday

Morning, Tim!

I have missed you. I suspect you are holding off writing in order to get the 100th post. While normally I’d be stubborn, I’ll let you have this one I suppose.

Hoping to entice you back, I have a challenge for you.

Name this sound:

Now, to clarify, I don’t mean give it a name. I know your kind.

I mean identify this sound.

Happy to provide hints in the comments for you, so just ask 🙂

Until tomorrow,

Zak

The top 1%

Day 98: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I went to a beautiful concert last night. The program was truly beautiful:

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Beethoven Overture to Egmont
Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 (Reformation)

I was also well rested and, thankfully, had less stress from work and school. I was able to truly appreciate the music.

One thing I observed during the break was how good these musicians were, and how difficult it would be to ‘make it’. In school, being in the top 1% (99th percentile) on standardized tests would be remarkable. In a room of 100, that means you’re the best. Which is very impressive. Yet despite that, being in the top 1% in the world in musical ability won’t cut it — after all, with a world population of 7.5 billion people, being of 1 in 75 million may not work. In fact, according to some quick google searches (look at the rigor I put into that!), total professional musicians may well be under 1 million people worldwide.

Yet this got me thinking. Everyone has to be in the top 1% at something — be it music composition, photography, juggling, baking, banking …or even facts. In fact, many top 1%s might be on facts — related to their job, sports interests, family — or even random things, such as facts about trains, planes, cranes, or the ever-present aches and pains.

What things are you in the top 1%? Knowledge, skills, etc.

Looking forward to comments and learning more!

Until tomorrow,

Zak

A Child Could Have Drawn it

Day 97: Friday

Good Morning Zak,

So it’s no secret that lots of people find contemporary art disillusioning. When most people think of modern art they probably think of scribbles and random shapes and lines. It’s become almost a cliche; these proported masterpieces look like they could have been painted by a child.

Well that’s exactly the premise of the project I’ve begun with my students at the elementary school: if a child could draw it, then why not ask one to go ahead and do so?

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My example of the project

We’ve been studying Kandinsky. You know, the random-shapes guy.

Today’s “Sames and Opposites:”

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“Area for dogs”

Humans are different from dogs; there are no areas for humans.

Seriously, none!  The dogs have absolutely no reservations about following us even into church…

But back to Kandinksy.  As the poster-boy of the so-called Expressionist movement, Kandinsky is one of those figures that shows up in every textbook.

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Composition VIII, Kandinsky

So how random are these shapes, actually?

Well, in music, we tend to associate the Expressionism with the so-called Second Viennese School, a movement that probably represented the acme of structural rigor in Western Music history.  Like, these guys were intense.  You wouldn’t wanna sit down to tea and cookies with one of them.

So anyway, it’s basically the exact opposite of random.  The music of Weber, Berg, and Schoenberg is about as far from random as you can possibly get.

BTW I know it might seem reckless to just haphazardly mush all different art forms together under the same umbrella term of ‘Expressionism’, but… well… it probably is reckless.  The main reason we do it is because of Schoenberg’s several famous encounters with Kandinsky, who was a synesthete.

Synesthesia is the phenomenon in which one type of sensory stimulus (such as Schoenberg’s music) causes a person a second type of sensory experience (imagining colors, for example).  No cure for this has yet been found… fortunately.

The funny thing about Expressionism and the Second Viennese School is that when people say the music sounds random, well, frankly, they’re right. When Schoenberg told his student, John Cage, that he had no sense of harmonic structure, Cage—in his typical chillness—just did away with structure all together.

What surprised some people was that the new music of Cage and the American school ended up sounding basically the same, despite being—quite literally—completely random. Now days people flip coins, roll die, and use other aleatoric processes to choose pitches.

You heard me, aleatoric.  It’s a more pretentious version of the word “random.”

Frankly the only thing wrong with the phrase, “a child could have made that” is the connotation.  The negativity is insulting to children.  As far as the art itself goes, though, the observation is entirely accurate.  Contemporary sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic are united by a prevailing interest in child-like wonder over narrative positivity.

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Sames and Opposites

Day 96: Tuesday

Morning, Tim!

I disagree with you. The United States has lots of colors, at least as many as Italy. But you’ve got some other great points. Like Python is great. I enjoy it. Jumping in:

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.

I laughed heartily at work. Outloud. Couldn’t control it. I love this kind of observation. It reminds of me Demetri Martin, who does a bit on sames and opposites. An example

A musical is the same as a burlap sack
I would not want to be in either

Lots of things can be related. Isn’t that a joy?

  • Yarn is the same as headphones. I untangle more than use them.
  • Bed room and a bedroom are not the same. Direct opposites in dimensions, in fact.
  • Blenders are the same as toasters. Both had lazy namers.

Look forward to your observations of sames and opposites around you!

Until tomorrow,

Zak

p.s., the bed room / bedroom was a stretch, but I wanted to weave that joke in somehow 😉

What are words, even?

Day 96: Monday

Good morning Zak,

So here’s one for you: What did the Python-programmer say after computing this expression?

list = [[2, 3], [5, 9], [2.359, 3.0], [92.1, 2], [3.0, 2.592]]

sum([anum[i] for anum in list for i in range(2)])

Stay tuned to find out.

I’ve spent the last couple days mostly just programming in Python, so if this post doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

If you ever want definitive proof that the Humanities and the Sciences are fundamentally incompatible, try writing a poem after a long computer-programming spree.  I just realized that the last three strophes I’ve written all inexplicably begin with the same word, ‘class’; the first line of each ends with a colon instead of a comma.

But seriously, computer science does take a lot of mental processing power, even if I shouldn’t be telling a U Chicago health-care professional that science and humanities are incompatible… I guess that’s not a very liberal-artsy thing of me to say.

But, Zak, I have a question: what’s so liberal about the liberal arts?  How do they have anything to do with politics?  And even if they do, why are they more blue than red?

For that matter, why is there such a thing as ‘light blue’ but not ‘light red’?  Is pink so distinctly feminine that it needs its own separate name?  What’s feminine about pink anyway?

On my side of the pond things are different.  Here in Italy there’s no such thing a ‘light blue’.  That’s called azzurro.  I’m teaching my English students the names of the colors.  They all insist on distinguishing between ‘blue’ and ‘light blue’ in English…  What I’m trying to tell you is that there are literally more colors in this country than in the US.

It’s a strange world.

Zak, I’m willing to concede that the way each culture partitions these various categories may be more or less arbitrary.  There may be nothing absolute about the divisions between red, pink, science, blue, humanity, liberalism, or Donald Trump…  But which came first, the chicken, or the word we use to distinguish said young-domestic-fowl-raised-for-meat-and-dairy-products from the so-called “egg”?

In your last entry:

“Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.”

I’m pretty sure drink-calories work just the opposite of colors.  There are more of those in the US.  Actually, between you me and the wall, I suspect that soda-pop may be one of the primary sources of the whole obesity problem in America…

Secondary sources may disagree…

That last sentence was just for the humanists, but the Python joke is dumb enough for all of us:

“That’s some sum.”

Until tomorrow,

Tim

Drinks have WHAT?!

Day 95: Friday

Morning, Tim!

I’m in a class on the US Healthcare system with students from numerous academic areas — business, law, public policy, social services, and medical. It’s a remarkable experience to have each of those perspectives represented in a dialogue.

We recently had a delightful conversation about social determinants of health, particularly within a rural setting. Social determinants are all of the things outside of your actual health that impact the person — their ability to retain housing, get transportation as needed, obtain food, clothing, etc. Coming from the business side of things, I’m always pleased when I hear others so passionate about others — thinking about how to set up society for human flourishing on a macro level while making a significant difference on particular individuals on a micro level.

Our dialogue around social determinants quickly turned to responsibility (and for good measure, genomics was brought in to make sure we had clinical determinants!). Questions ranged from personal responsibility — how much should the individual be held accountable for their own health — to that of a society, which naturally had substantive dependencies on the answer to personal responsibility.

Responsibility is fascinating. We each want to believe we have so much control, and act accordingly. We take credit for our actions (at least when good!) and blame others for theirs. We hand out awards for success, perhaps even a shiny medal. Yet, at the same time, we recognize that this responsibility might be overstated. When pushed, we recognize that there are myriad factors that impact each of us, shaping how we act, shaping who we become.

One of those factors for me was my childhood spent in a rural setting. I learned a lot there. I learned about simplicity, about living within means and not in abundance. I learned about working with your hands, about hard work. I learned about taking care of others in the community, because that’s what neighbors do.

There were also things I didn’t learn. Like that drinks had calories.

Tim, I didn’t learn drinks could have calories until I went to college.

Yes, we are shaped by much around us. And for some, that impact is particularly negative, and something we should strive to recognize and address. Yet the story doesn’t end there — for others, there are opportunities to be uniquely positioned to make an impact.

I’m feeling a weight to think more about rural healthcare. There’s got to be a way to bring health and vitality to rural communities.

Or at least let them know that drinks have calories…

Until Monday,

Zak