Thursday, June 23, 2016

Oblique Iris


The Birth of the Drum Set

For the drums are not one instrument, but many. The drum set is a hybrid of instruments from around the world, from cultures that were assembling in port cities like New Orleans. The snare and bass drum were once slung over shoulders in European militaries, the drum heads pulled tight by ropes, and that tradition carried over to American armies. Chinese immigrants came to the United States because they were hired or forced into labor, and they brought with them their own centuries-old theater traditions, highlighted by colorfully-painted tom-toms that made a beautiful full sound, distinct from snares or bass drums. Cymbals evolved from bronze cisterns made in places like Turkey and China; they were later pounded into flatter shapes and supplied to countries around Europe for operas and military music, becoming so popular in the United States that Zildjian, the original Turkish cymbal company, eventually moved to Massachusetts.
The Dee Dee Chandler and the groove:
The drum set was coalescing at the same time jazz was, and they helped to push each other along. The distillation of the different rhythmic instruments into one set to be played by one person meant that the rhythmic interpretation was now codified in one human body. For centuries, percussion instruments in classical music were played by different people, and, perhaps partly for that reason, “groove” and feel were never paramount. For the first time in history, one human body was able to create the pulse, the back beat, the syncopation, and the texture of a percussion part all by itself. The possibilities for more forward, propulsive, linear grooves turned the musical world upside down for decades to come.

Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler was a drummer living in New Orleans at the turn of the century. He played music in two worlds: the down and dirty shows in the brothels of Storyville and the high-society gigs at places like the Grunwald Hotel off of Canal Street. He was of mixed race and could roughly pass for white, but when Plessy v. Ferguson was handed down, it included rules limiting the freedom of anyone with even a drop of mixed-race blood from going to places like the Grunwald.

But again, from limitation comes innovation. Other people had done such a thing before, but Dee Dee Chandler was perhaps one of the first drummers to use a makeshift pedal to play the bass drum with his foot while playing snare with his hands. Before that you would have to have a different musician play each instrument or use a style called “double drumming,” which involved playing bass drum and snare drum simultaneously with both hands and no feet, limiting the kind of rhythms you could express on the snare. The weird contraption that allowed Chandler to play the bass drum with his foot was not smooth like today’s pedals and must have been a challenge to play. But it was a point on the evolution of the drum set as a more dynamic instrument that, in just a few decades, would become the lynchpin of jazz ensembles, whose rhythmic playfulness created some of the best music of the century. And it was the music created in those poorer places, with audiences innovating new dance steps like swing, that made jazz music so alive.
In a comment on the article Samm Bennett links to his page of vintage drum kits from the 1920s and 1930s.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Heavy lifter floats down the Hudson


Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer and the continuing apocalypse, now

LOS ANGELES — Viet Thanh Nguyen has been wrestling with “Apocalypse Now” for most of his life — as a boy, a college student, a scholar, a writer of fiction. The movie was initially a source of pain, then a puzzle to be understood, and finally an inspiration for his novel about a Vietnamese spy, “The Sympathizer.”

Even now, after a rapturous reception for the novel, his first, that included the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Mr. Nguyen’s feelings about Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war epic are still somewhat raw.
I was struck by this paragraph:
“People just like me were being slaughtered,” Mr. Nguyen said. “I felt violated.” A decade later, as a student at Berkeley, he talked about the scene for a film class. He began rationally, he remembered, and then realized his voice was full of rage. “It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans,” he said. “The Vietnamese were silent and erased.”
Apocalypse Now was loosely based on Heart of Darkness. China Achebe said much the same thing about Heart of Darkness in his essay, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" (Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977):
Students of Heart of Darkness will often tell you that Conrad is concerned not so much with Africa as with the deterioration of one European mind caused by solitude and sickness. They will point out to you that Conrad is, if anything, less charitable to the Europeans in the story than he is to the natives, that the point of the story is to ridicule Europe's civilizing mission in Africa. A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz.

Which is partly the point. Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

What O.J. Meant

James Poniewozik (NYTimes) reviews two programs about O.J. Simpson, one a documentary and the other a TV drama. About the documentary he observes:
“Made in America” takes a long breath and says: O.K., first, here’s what O. J. meant.

Here was what it meant for white America, after the turmoil of the ’60s, to embrace a charming black athlete, not just as an athlete but a celebrity, an actor, the face of major corporations. (This was the period of attempted racial détente in pop culture that brought forth the original “Roots” mini-series — in which Mr. Simpson had a bit part.)

And, it adds: Here’s how hard that was. Here’s how radical those innocuous-looking Hertz commercials were. A strong black man, running through an airport. Would white viewers be scared? Would he look like speed personified — or like a criminal?

And here’s how you fixed that problem, in America in 1975, by making sure every other delighted face we saw, cheering, “Go, O. J., go!,” was white; they “endorsed” the endorser. (It worked. Part of the dissonance, when news of the murders broke in 1994, was the contrast with the innocuous O. J. from TV.)
That is so. I remember those commercials. The rest of this post is more personal, what O.J. meant to me.

The Day “The Juice” Died

“The Juice,” of course, is OJ Simpson, running back extraordinaire. And – I know – he’s not dead.

He’s currently doing 33 years in a Nevada prison on various felony charges. But, as you may recall, he was acquitted in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in a long extensively televised proceeding known as “The Trial of the Century.”

But, as I explain below, for me he died on June 19, 1994, two days after the much-televised chase in a white Ford Bronco. Why’d they have to pre-empt my Friday night TV to televise THAT? Where they expecting, maybe, a dramatic crash, or a shoot-out?

I originally wrote this piece, one of seven, for a special issue of Meanderings. This was back in the early days of the web when you couldn’t tell the little guys, like us, from the big guys, like Vibe magazine. And Vibe was happy to team up with us for special coverage of the OJ trial. This is one of the pieces I wrote for that special issue, Meanderings 2.05, Squeezin’ the OJ Hype!

For what it’s worth, while I spent far more time watching Bill Cosby than I did OJ Simpson, his arrest hit me harder than anything we've learned about Bill Cosby.

Breakfast at Manory’s: Sunday Morning June 19, 1994

I have a fairly standard Sunday-morning routine: awake between 6 AM and 7 AM, out of bed a half-hour or so later. Then I shower, perhaps shave, dress, and it’s out the door for the short walk to Manory’s Restaurant–in Troy, NY, where I was living at the time. Once there I pick up a New York Times, checking to make sure all of the sections are there—the people who assemble the paper mess it up so often that checking is essential. I don’t mind if the travel section is missing, for I don’t have the money you need to travel to those places and my dreams generally run in other directions. Other sections of the paper are more important. Once I’ve gotten my paper I sit down and start reading, generally with the “Book Review”. When the waitress arrives I make my standard order: coffee, large orange juice, Belgian waffles, and bacon—not exactly a state-of-the-art breakfast, but then I’ve always taken better care of my mind than of my body. I continue reading the paper during breakfast, sometimes making it to the magazine after finishing with the book reviews. Then it’s time to head back to my apartment where I spend the rest of the morning reading the paper, moving from the magazine, to the arts, to business, to the “Week in Review” and then perhaps the society pages and the want ads.

Motion Blur


Limitations of the Google Books Corpus for Drawing Inferences about Cultural and Linguistic Evolution

Pechenick EA, Danforth CM, Dodds PS (2015) Characterizing the Google Books Corpus: Strong Limits to Inferences of Socio-Cultural and Linguistic Evolution. PLoS ONE 10(10): e0137041. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137041

Abstract: It is tempting to treat frequency trends from the Google Books data sets as indicators of the “true” popularity of various words and phrases. Doing so allows us to draw quantitatively strong conclusions about the evolution of cultural perception of a given topic, such as time or gender. However, the Google Books corpus suffers from a number of limitations which make it an obscure mask of cultural popularity. A primary issue is that the corpus is in effect a library, containing one of each book. A single, prolific author is thereby able to noticeably insert new phrases into the Google Books lexicon, whether the author is widely read or not. With this understood, the Google Books corpus remains an important data set to be considered more lexicon-like than text-like. Here, we show that a distinct problematic feature arises from the inclusion of scientific texts, which have become an increasingly substantive portion of the corpus throughout the 1900s. The result is a surge of phrases typical to academic articles but less common in general, such as references to time in the form of citations. We use information theoretic methods to highlight these dynamics by examining and comparing major contributions via a divergence measure of English data sets between decades in the period 1800–2000. We find that only the English Fiction data set from the second version of the corpus is not heavily affected by professional texts. Overall, our findings call into question the vast majority of existing claims drawn from the Google Books corpus, and point to the need to fully characterize the dynamics of the corpus before using these data sets to draw broad conclusions about cultural and linguistic evolution.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sex? What's the Difference? It's not binary; it's complex.

Claire Ainsworth in Nature, from February 15, 2016:
Sex can be much more complicated than it at first seems. According to the simple scenario, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome is what counts: with it, you are male, and without it, you are female. But doctors have long known that some people straddle the boundary — their sex chromosomes say one thing, but their gonads (ovaries or testes) or sexual anatomy say another. Parents of children with these kinds of conditions — known as intersex conditions, or differences or disorders of sex development (DSDs) — often face difficult decisions about whether to bring up their child as a boy or a girl. Some researchers now say that as many as 1 person in 100 has some form of DSD2.

When genetics is taken into consideration, the boundary between the sexes becomes even blurrier. Scientists have identified many of the genes involved in the main forms of DSD, and have uncovered variations in these genes that have subtle effects on a person's anatomical or physiological sex. What's more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. “I think there's much greater diversity within male or female, and there is certainly an area of overlap where some people can't easily define themselves within the binary structure,” says John Achermann, who studies sex development and endocrinology at University College London's Institute of Child Health.

These discoveries do not sit well in a world in which sex is still defined in binary terms. Few legal systems allow for any ambiguity in biological sex, and a person's legal rights and social status can be heavily influenced by whether their birth certificate says male or female.
The final two paragraphs:
Yet if biologists continue to show that sex is a spectrum, then society and state will have to grapple with the consequences, and work out where and how to draw the line. Many transgender and intersex activists dream of a world where a person's sex or gender is irrelevant. Although some governments are moving in this direction, Greenberg is pessimistic about the prospects of realizing this dream — in the United States, at least. “I think to get rid of gender markers altogether or to allow a third, indeterminate marker, is going to be difficult.”

So if the law requires that a person is male or female, should that sex be assigned by anatomy, hormones, cells or chromosomes, and what should be done if they clash? “My feeling is that since there is not one biological parameter that takes over every other parameter, at the end of the day, gender identity seems to be the most reasonable parameter,” says Vilain. In other words, if you want to know whether someone is male or female, it may be best just to ask.

Trump conquers Japan, and then the world

The strangest Trump video ever, in which Trump is elected world president, and if you suspect that it may not be shooting straight, you'd be correct:

It's by Mike Diva, "an American video director, special effects artist, musician and YouTube personality." Wikipedia says:
Diva's intent was to "seem obnoxiously pro-Trump" while doing the opposite, with the production quality so good that viewers would ask: "Why would a Japanese ad agency make this?" Indeed, many early online comments mistook the video for a genuine ad, despite Trump's being (briefly) depicted as giving a Nazi salute amid swastikas and ultimately transforming into an earth-destroying robot. The video was shot over a month and a half with virtually no budget and stars the cosplayer and wig stylist known as Sushi Monster.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Jerry Seinfeld & the Craft of Comedy

Another working paper. URL at

Abstract: Stand-up comedy is tightly constructed despite appearing to be casual and improvised. In one section this working paper examines a comedy bit about donut holes and finds in it a metaphysical dimension that is, in fact, typical of Seinfeld’s comedy. Another section shows how a conversation with President Barack Obama hinges on the distinction between a social role and the person playing that role. A final piece looks at the wide range of ephemeral phenomena around which Seinfeld crafts his comedy.


Introduction: A Comedian’s Mind 1
Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama Have a Meeting of the Minds 3
Seinfeld Through the Donut Hole 11
Single Shots: Seinfeld’s Ongoing Anatomy of Life and Comedy 15
Introduction: A Comedian’s Mind

Jerry Seinfeld started out as and remains a stand-up comedian. I’ve never seen one of his live shows. I didn’t really become aware of him until I started watching Seinfeld, and that’s when I learned that he did stand-up. Stand-up, of course, is live performance, something I’m familiar with as a musician. And that’s where I connect with him, the rigors of live performance and preparing for it.

One of the pieces I’ve collected here, “Seinfeld Through the Donut Hole,” is specifically about that. It’s a light analysis of a specific comic bit, one about donut holes and fat people. The point about donut holes is that there’s nothing there. The point about fat people is that eating donut holes is not a viable weight reduction strategy. Just how Seinfeld connects these two, that’s the art and craft of comedy.

The first piece, “Jerry Seinfeld and Barack Obama Have a Meeting of the Minds,” is a bit different. It centers on an episode from Seinfeld’s current web-based series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. As you may know, the premise is simple: Seinfeld, who loves and collects cars, meets a comedian in a car specifically selected for them. The two go off, Seinfeld driving, and get coffee–and, more often than not, breakfast or lunch as well. They’re chatting all the time.

The conversation is “real” in the simple sense that it is not scripted. But the show we see is nonetheless meticulously crafted. Upwards of three hours of whatever (it’s not film and it’s not videotape; it’s digital bits stored in what? flash memory?) is edited down to 15 or 20 minutes of program. That makes it watchable, entertaining, and even enlightening, whereas the raw footage, if you can call it that, would be a snooze fest.

Barack Obama, of course, is not a comedian. But he’s got a sense of humor. That, and the fact that he’s President of the United States, is why Seinfeld did an episode with him. Just who approached whom about doing this, Seinfeld to Obama, Obama to Seinfeld, I don’t know.

The conversation is real in the same sense that all these CCGC conversations are real; it’s not scripted. Most of the conversation is casual chit chat. But there’s a moment where it turns real in a deeper sense, and that’s what my piece is about. The deeper revelation starts when Seinfeld asks: “How many world leaders do you think are just completely out of their mind?” It pierces the veil when Seinfeld tells Obama “the work was joyful. And interesting, and that was my focus.” That’s what makes Jerry Seinfeld tick, and, we are to infer, Barack Obama too.

The third and last piece, “Single Shots: Seinfeld’s Ongoing Anatomy of Life and Comedy,” is a bit different. “Single Shot” is a figure of speech: a single shot of cream in your coffee; different versions of a single bit, motif, or incident from different episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Think of it as compressed commentary on Seinfeld. The show came to be known as a show about nothing, but it really isn’t. That is, it isn’t about nothing. It’s about the metaphysical (yes, I said “metaphysical”) oddities of everyday life, the oddities through which stand-up comedians drive their tightly constructed comedic contraptions. Each single shot focuses on one oddity, thereby bringing it into metaphysical relief.

Metaphysical? There’s that word again.

Don’t ask, don’t tell.


On a Waterfront


Thursday, June 16, 2016

MIckey Mouse in Shanghai, but only for 43%

Think of it what you will, but Disney is a cultural formation that has traveled around the world, first in cartoons and associated merchandise, then live action films, and then theme parks. The latest and largest theme park has just opened in Shanghai (NYTimes):
The park — Disney’s first on the Chinese mainland — was held up as nothing less than a historic symbol of United States-China relations. Mr. Iger read aloud a letter sent by President Obama that heralded the resort as capturing “the promise of our bilateral relationship.” In a letter of his own, China’s president, Xi Jinping, called the project, which took nearly two years of bruising negotiations to realize, a sign of China’s “commitment to cross-cultural cooperation and our innovation mentality in the new era.”

On a lighter note, Wang Yang, one of China’s vice premiers, stood onstage in front of the park’s lavish storybook castle and joked that the rain was a sign of good luck — the “rain of U.S. dollars and RMB,” he said, referring to China’s currency, the renminbi. Disney owns 43 percent of the resort, with the majority stake held by a Chinese state-controlled consortium.
Robert Iger, Disney's CEO, took a special interest in planning the park:
On his tour, Mr. Iger walked through a 15-acre garden in the center of the park designed for older visitors. In part because of China’s longtime one-child policy, Shanghai Disneyland must have strong intergenerational appeal. As “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from “Mary Poppins” played on the Fantasia Carousel sound system, Mr. Iger pointed toward a grove of cherry trees where 12 mosaics depicted Disney characters in Chinese zodiac style.

“We think this will be a very popular photo op,” he said. Disney learned at Hong Kong Disneyland, which opened in 2005, that the Chinese love to take pictures of themselves in front of whimsical facades. (Mr. Iger’s zodiac symbol — he was born in 1951 — is a rabbit, represented on the wall by Thumper from “Bambi.”)

Emily, of Emily and the Ideals


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Louis CK on Hillary, Bernie, and The Donald (& a bonus on performing)

Sometimes I think the system is so deeply fucked up that somebody as disruptive as Bernie — maybe he doesn’t even do a good job as president but he jars something loose in our system and something exciting happens. I mean, Hillary is better at this than any of these people. The American government is a very volatile, dangerous mechanism, and Hillary has the most experience with it. It’s like if you were on a plane and you wanted to choose a pilot. You have one person, Hillary, who says, “Here’s my license. Here’s all the thousands of flights that I’ve flown. Here’s planes I’ve flown in really difficult situations. I’ve had some good flights and some bad flights, but I’ve been flying for a very long time, and I know exactly how this plane works.” Then you’ve got Bernie, who says, “Everyone should get a ride right to their house with this plane.” “Well, how are you going to do that?” “I just think we should. It’s only fair that everyone gets to use the plane equally.” And then Trump says, “I’m going to fly so well. You’re not going to believe how good I’m going to fly this plane, and by the way, Hillary never flew a plane in her life.” “She did, and we have pictures.” “No, she never did it.” It’s insane.
On performing stand-up:
I think I’m a better comedian overall than I was back then, but back then I was better at performing. When you’re that greased up onstage, you just have a higher comedy IQ. It’s the ability to go on any stage in the country and be perfectly present and able to maneuver the set and have great timing. Some of it is being in physical shape. When you’re under pressure or strain, you get dumb, you know? It’s why I started working out in boxing gyms, because you watch a guy who’s fighting, he’s in a terribly arduous moment and he’s making intelligent choices. So to me that’s when you’re 55 minutes deep into your sixth show of the week, in your fifth city of the week. You have to be able to be great right in that moment. You have to be, “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to do next.” The audience is tired, and you have to have more energy than anyone in the room. You have to be able to control the pace. At my show last night, I was talking to myself a little bit while my mouth was moving delivering material. I was thinking, You’re going too fast. Cool it. You have plenty of time and loads of shit to say.

Trump and Fear as an Instrument in American Politics

From the NYTimes:
Exploitation of fear has been part of the American political playbook since colonial pamphleteers whipped their neighbors into a frenzy over British misrule. It took on new potency in the nuclear age with Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad against Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Jimmy Carter’s warnings about Ronald Reagan’s finger on the button in 1980.

But Mr. Trump — who drew harsh condemnation from President Obama on Tuesday — has intensified the power of fear in presidential politics by demonizing an entire religious group. And he has expanded the use of that power by stirring up fear in the aftermath of national traumas, like the San Bernardino, Calif., attack and now the Orlando shooting, that traditionally elicited measured and soothing responses from political leaders.
In the wake of the Orlando attack:
Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton, said Mr. Trump was using the attack as an I-told-you-so moment. “He would see this as a confirmation of all the things he has been saying about the threat the United States faces and the need to be more aggressive,” he said.

Professor Zelizer cast Mr. Trump as part of a political strain dating at least from the 1950s. “When the United States is faced with national security threats or national security crises, you play to fear, you play to the anger of the electorate and you offer promises of military might as the solution,” he said.

In the jittery aftermath of a terrorist attack, people find themselves leaning on “emotional reasoning, as opposed to thinking through these kinds of issues rationally,” said Samuel Justin Sinclair, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a co-author of “The Psychology of Terrorism Fears.”

“It’s dangerous to think about making major policy decisions reactively and from a position of fear,” Dr. Sinclair said.

He added: “Whether you agree with his politics or not, I think Mr. Trump’s more aggressive tactics may be one attempt at trying to assert some level of control in a situation where people feel scared and a loss of control — as a means of helping them to feel safer. The dilemma then becomes whether supporting these more extreme policies justifies the ends — particularly in terms of how it changes us as a society.”