Wednesday, March 30, 2016

There I Said It

We're living in the Age of Big Data. And I don't like it.

But if you think about it, it isn't even that big. There is more information encoded into a forest via millions of years of evolution than in all of the Cloud.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

I'm a None

A friend sent me a link to an NPR story about the steady rise of "Nones" in the American populace, i.e., citizens who are either atheist, agnostic, or "spiritual but not religious." I've always been a none of the latter type, I guess, ever since I decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of my Christian upbringing many decades ago. These categories are trying to get at something, but it's still out of reach. Nevertheless, here's how I fit with each.

1. I'm not an atheist, because why should I be? I believe it's entirely possible that there is an amalgam of consciousness that is so awesome as to be nearly "god-like" in its relation to us. But it doesn't make sense to think about it as the Boss of Us. And there isn't a man up there with a white beard, unless that's how you want to imagine it.

2. I guess I'm agnostic, though I spend no time at all wondering if God is or isn't. Again, I do suspect there might be something more than we know to life. I would say that this hunch provides an undertone to my life, resonating and radiating up, helping me to not take a tiny or overly-selfish perspective. But I'm not going to do something and then said God wanted me to do it.

3. Spiritual not religious. I've studied all the world religions, and don't think they are simply a matter of superstition. Something happened, something broke through, time and again, to open our eyes and to propose new ways of living. I told my friend that I spend a lot of time with Buddhists, and that in terms of Christianity, I like the Beatitudes. I believe in our interconnection, and our inherent Buddha nature. And I suspect that the "last will be first, and the first will be last." And it's good to act with the humility inherent to that notion. I don't mean that one shouldn't be forceful or ambitious. Just don't think you're better than other people because of your success.

UPDATE: 3-25-16

4. Later yesterday I thought, No, this isn't right, is it. Just another instance of Eliot's "raid on the inarticulate." But I guess I'm more comfortable with such things being less-than-perfectly articulated than over-dictated by religious texts or authority figures.

5. It doesn't usually help to think about such things in terms of God. It's more helpful to wonder about such things as dreams, hallucinations, the mystery of art, the placebo effect, and even channeling, which produces material that ranges from the absurd to the profound. Why, Jung himself produced channeled writings, in which he acted as the medium for another consciousness, perhaps his own, but nevertheless not the consciousness of everyday business.

UPDATE 4-2-16

6. God is a reflection of yourself. Which is not to say there is no God.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Paul Huxley: Abstract As Distillation

Torus, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 50 inches

The British artist Paul Huxley, now in his late 70s, creates large abstracts that strike me as a distillation of someone like the early modernist Stuart Davis. I like how the work above reads as "flat" and receding in equal measure. The color palette is a little unusual, too, creating unique harmonies, and the tones are at once mellow and assertive.

I once had the idea that it would be cool to create a globe or model of the Earth that was a cube instead of a sphere. Below, Huxley takes a form that is rounded and rough, Chinese calligraphy, and makes it rectilinear, distilling it into a different mode of abstraction; asking, what would calligraphy look like in mid-century Manhattan? There's power in this transference, this transposition.

Geng, 2004, acrylic on canvas, 68 x 68 inches

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Flying Is Weird

San Francisco International Airport, March 12, 2016

I spent 16 hours at airports and on planes last week, and I'm here to tell you that flying is weird. I mean, sleeping in the presence of strangers is really weird, but we all do it when we fly. It's also very weird to sit one or two inches from a complete stranger for several hours, even touching sometimes. It's one thing to do that on a rush hour subway for 10 minutes, but for hours? More than weird, it's undignified. Yes, I know flying is a miracle and what was once magic is now science, etc. But still.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

McCartney on Martin

Thoughts from Paul McCartney on the death of his friend and mentor George Martin at the age of 90:
I’m so sad to hear the news of the passing of dear George Martin. I have so many wonderful memories of this great man that will be with me forever. He was a true gentleman and like a second father to me. He guided the career of The Beatles with such skill and good humour that he became a true friend to me and my family. If anyone earned the title of the fifth Beatle it was George. From the day that he gave The Beatles our first recording contract, to the last time I saw him, he was the most generous, intelligent and musical person I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
It’s hard to choose favourite memories of my time with George, there are so many but one that comes to mind was the time I brought the song 'Yesterday’ to a recording session and the guys in the band suggested that I sang it solo and accompany myself on guitar. After I had done this George Martin said to me, "Paul I have an idea of putting a string quartet on the record". I said, “Oh no George, we are a rock and roll band and I don’t think it’s a good idea”. With the gentle bedside manner of a great producer he said to me, "Let us try it and if it doesn’t work we won’t use it and we’ll go with your solo version". I agreed to this and went round to his house the next day to work on the arrangement.

He took my chords that I showed him and spread the notes out across the piano, putting the cello in the low octave and the first violin in a high octave and gave me my first lesson in how strings were voiced for a quartet. When we recorded the string quartet at Abbey Road, it was so thrilling to know his idea was so correct that I went round telling people about it for weeks. His idea obviously worked because the song subsequently became one of the most recorded songs ever with versions by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and thousands more.

This is just one of the many memories I have of George who went on to help me with arrangements on 'Eleanor Rigby', 'Live and Let Die' and many other songs of mine.

I am proud to have known such a fine gentleman with such a keen sense of humour, who had the ability to poke fun at himself. Even when he was Knighted by the Queen there was never the slightest trace of snobbery about him.

My family and I, to whom he was a dear friend, will miss him greatly and send our love to his wife Judy and their kids Giles and Lucy, and the grandkids.

The world has lost a truly great man who left an indelible mark on my soul and the history of British music.

God bless you George and all who sail in you!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Who Knew? Dylan, Calvinism, and the Power of the Web

UPDATE: An extended and deepened version of the Dylan piece will be posted to the fantastic On Being website on April 17, 2016.

A few weeks ago I did a post on Bob Dylan's song "Every Grain of Sand." I called it "Dylan's Beautiful Calvinism." It turned out to be one my most viewed posts of all time. And not because of the song, which is a masterpiece, but because there is a website called Contemporary Calvinism, which linked over to the piece. I was really pleased about that, not least because I'm not a Calvinist, which means my observations were informed enough to pass muster with the actual practitioners and adherents. This exchange demonstrates the positive dimension of the web, respectfully connecting people who would have never anticipated they had anything in common.  If you had told me I would have ever been read by any Calvinists I wouldn't have believed it. Certainly the readers of that site are more open-minded and curious than I might have imagined, demonstrating the problem with untested preconceptions. All those techno-Utopians back in the 90s didn't foresee that the word most often associated with the World Wide Web would be cesspool. But their hopes that people could be brought together in unexpected ways weren't unfounded.

I went back to listen to the song again. These must be among Dylan's most accomplished lyrics, which is saying something. Check it out.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Burkhardt Still Lifes

Burkhardt actually collaborated with the great Joseph Cornell on some films, which makes sense, since they share a sense of funky elegance and left-field gravitas. The image on top is so cool. There is something in that gouge in the wall, but I can't tell what. The scattered matches demonstrate the distance we've come from fruit and flowers arranged just so. The vertical arrangement of rope steals the show, though. Here's an article about Burkhardt by John Yau at the Hyperallergic website

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Inimitable Bud Collins

They should put Bud Collins' photo next to the word inimitable in the American Heritage dictionary. You try wearing pants like that with a bow tie and tell me how it goes. Or try writing a weekly column where you take a single metaphor and flog it through 80 percent of the piece and see how editors and readers react. You can't write like that! Bud did.

For us Boomers, Bud was the face and voice of tennis, and that's that, no quibbling. When Bud died yesterday tributes came quickly from the likes of Billie Jean King, Rod Laver, and Chris Evert (right), people who know a bit about the sport. When I watched a tribute to Bud last night on the local PBS station (he was a Bostonian), I was struck how he made the world a better place through the power of love -- for the sport, for the people in the sport, and for life itself. To be clear: To love a sport isn't a trivial thing. It's one way of celebrating humanity. He also did work that was more obviously charitable, for example, starting a tennis program for urban kids in Boston.

Farewell, Bud. Wherever you are at now, I'm sure you are still one of a kind. Here's a nice tribute written by Dan Shaughnessy, a colleague of Bud's in the Boston Globe Sports department. The title of the piece also uses the word inimitable. Hey, if the pants fit.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Not Passing the Laugh Test and Other Thoughts

Epic Laugh Test fail: Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and the Republican party "elders" are shocked and dismayed that Trump has brought bigotry into their party of "high ideals," and mystified that anyone could associate the "Party of Lincoln" with intolerance. Now let's try the Duck Test. Let's see: It looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck. It's a duck.

That said, the xenophobia and bigotry are only part of Trump's appeal. He also appeals (rightly or wrongly) to people who are tired of getting shafted by the the economic system and who think it's pathological, for example, to deny that Bush and Cheney lied us into Iraq. You've got to admit that it took real stones for Trump to point that out at the South Carolina debate. That kind of nerve is what many people like in Trump.

In my view, Trump at least has a chance to get things right sometimes, so I see him as less of a threat to our nation than Cruz or Rubio, who are ideologues of the highest order.