From the monthly archives:

August 2009

No, I don’t mean Marshall McLuhan.

I’m doing some research on Glenn Gould at the moment, and was floored at the prescience of this passage:

“Electronic transmission has already inspired a new concept of multiple-authorship responsibility in which the specific functions of the composer, the performer, and, indeed, the consumer overlap. We need only think for a moment of the manner in which the formerly separate roles of composer and performer are now automatically combined in electronic tape construction or, to give an example more topical than potential, the way in which the home listener is now able to exercise limited technical and, for that matter, critical judgments, courtesy of the modestly resourceful controls of his hi-fi. It will not, it seems to me, be very much longer before a more self-assertive streak is detected in the listener’s participation, before, to give but one example, “do-it-yourself” tape editing is the prerogative of every reasonably conscientious consumer of recorded music (the Hausmusik activity of the future, perhaps!). And I would be most surprised if the consumer involvement were to terminate at that level. In fact, implicit in electronic culture is the acceptance of the idea of multilevel participation in the creative process.”

– From “Strauss and the Electronic Future” which appeared in the Saturday Review on May 30, 1964

I wonder what he’d make of GarageBand, MySpace and YouTube?

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Where's the focus on this thing?

The focus needs some work...

No, that’s not a pinhole-camera photo of someone with a plutonium throat lozenge in their mouth.

Researchers at IBM have created the first image of a single molecule using a “crazy powerful microscope” — with an exposure time of 20 hours.

And for those of you wincing at my second science post in one week, here’s a little excerpt of Lucretius, translated by Rolfe Humphries:

Never suppose the atoms had a plan,
Nor with a wise intelligence imposed
An order on themselves, nor in some pact
Agreed what movements each should generate.
No, it was all fortuitous; for years,
For centuries, for eons, all those motes
In infinite varieties of ways
Have always moved, since infinite time began,
Are driven by collisions, are borne on
By their own weight, in every kind of way
Meet and combine, try every possible,
Every conceivable pattern, till at length
Experiment culminates in that array
Which makes great things begin: the earth, the sky,
The ocean, and the race of living creatures.

Living creatures that can now capture images of those motes. Even if they are fuzzy.

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Perhaps
  - Reply to the Loneliness of a Poet

	Perhaps our hearts
		will have no reader
	Perhaps we took the wrong road
		and so we end up lost

	Perhaps we light one lantern after another
		storms blow them out one by one
	Perhaps we burn our life candle against the dark
		but no fire warms the body

	Perhaps once we're out of tears
		the land will be fertilized
	Perhaps while we praise the sun
		we are also sung by the sun

	Perhaps the heavier the monkey on our shoulders
		the more we believe
	Perhaps we can only protest others' suffering
		silent to our own misfortune
	Perhaps
		because this call is irresistible
			we have no other choice

– Shu Ting (Translated by Tony Barnstone and Newton Liu)

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That’s how long it took the Hubble Space Telescope — pointed towards “absolutely nothing” — to capture the 10,000 galaxies visible in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image:

via gizmodo

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Writing about music is difficult. How many times have you read a well-written review of a concert or recording, and then still had no idea at all what to expect when hearing the music?

That’s why I find this excerpt from a Tang Dynasty poem so remarkable:

“The thick strings splattered like a rain shower,
the thin strings whispered privately like lovers,
splattering and whispering back and forth,
big pearls and small pearls dropping into a jade plate.
Smooth, the notes were skylarks chirping under flowers.
Uneven, the sound flowed like a spring under ice,
the spring water cold and strained, the strings congealing silence,
freezing to silence, till the sounds couldn’t pass, and were momentarily at rest.
Now some other hidden sorrow and dark regret arose
and at this moment silence was better than sound.
Suddenly a silver vase exploded and the water splashed out,
iron horse galloped through and swords and spears clashed.
When the tune stopped, she struck the heart of the instrument,
all four strings together, like a piece of silk tearing.
Silence then in the east boat and the west.
All I could see in the river’s heart was the autumn moon, so pale.”

From “Song of the Lute” by Bai Juyi (772-846)
Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

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The BBC goes behind the scenes of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings project as it was projected on the surface of the Sydney Opera House:

There is also a profile of the project, with some technical details about how it was put together, on Apple’s website:

“77 Million Paintings” continues to evolve. “We’ve been discussing the idea of using natural selection in the next project,” says Taylor. “When users see a combination of images they like, they’ll be able to hit a button and the computer will remember it. Likewise, the user will be able to kill certain combinations. At the end of a very long period of time, you’ll have a handful of images that have survived the selection process. Then the program will stop. Everyone’s choices will be different.”

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TED and Reddit recently ran an online poll to select questions for an interview with Ken Robinson. Here are a few snippets of his responses, with my own emphases in bold, for enhanced skimming:

“The basis of my argument is: creativity isn’t a specific activity; it’s a quality of things we do.

“The idea is you have to make the idea of creativity clear and operational. Like we have done with literacy.

On well-roundedness versus specialization:

“Schools and universities are built upon different forms of knowledge, and the way we most commonly think about them is as subjects.

And I think subjects is a poor idea, really, for the kind of work I’m interested to promote, because it suggests that the world is definable into entirely different sorts of content or subject matter.”

“I want, really, to get away from the idea of subjects and I think disciplines is a much better idea. A discipline suggests something which is a kind of an amalgam, a mixture of concepts, of practical skills, of techniques, of ideas, of data. I mean, mathematics isn’t really a subject. It’s a whole series of different sorts of disciplines. And I think that’s true of music. Music isn’t really a subject, but practicing music involves extraordinary levels — different levels — of ideas, of practical skills, of sensibility.”

On the process-view of education:

“The larger argument about this is that when I say public education arose in response to industrialism, it also developed in the image of industrialism. If you look at public education systems in their general shape, they are manufacturing processes. And a lot of it happens — we separate people by age, it’s a very linear process, very focused on certain types of outcome. And standardized testing is, in a way, the grand example of the industrial method of education. It’s not there to identify what individuals can do. It’s there to look at things to which they conform.”

“I don’t think there’s a kid in America, or anywhere in the world, who gets out of bed in the morning wondering what they can do to raise their state’s reading standards. They get out of bed, if they’re motivated, by their own interests and their own development. So I think we should be doing the opposite. I think we should be personalizing everything in schools. We should be looking at ways of making education relevant to each individual child. And there’s no other way of improving standards. Actually, there’s no other way of doing it on the grand scale.”

Doing, not just thinking:

“…in our culture, doing practical things is disparaged in education. It’s all about getting into a university and doing theoretical things. But the world turns on people being able to do things, not just think about doing things. And practical skills, like music and design, are intensely demanding.”

On providing feedback:

“So one thing she has to do is to make a dress. Well, it sounds easy, but try doing it. It’s extremely taxing to do it. But what was interesting was that the assessment that came back was very detailed. It referred to very specific things that she was doing about seams and cloth and pockets and buttonholes and the lay of the nap in the cloth. It was broken down into probably 30 very specific comments on the details of what she’d done. And it was a really helpful process of assessment. But if she’s had the thing and then just got a B for it, you’d think, “Well now, what do I do with that information?”

So, if assessment is textured and finely-grained, and is supportive and diagnostic, I’m all for it. If it’s coarse and simplistic and judgmental and uninformative, then it seems to me always to be negative and have the wrong sort of effects in education.”

Protecting personalization from creeping standardization:

“The things I’m talking about are not, it seems to me, eccentric or new. It’s not whimsy and its not a fad. From the beginning of public education, there have been people looking for alternative ways of doing things, better ways of thinking about organizing our institutions. More responsible ways of engaging children in their own learning. Kids are not widgets. Students are living, breathing people who will only learn if they are engaged properly. We have a responsibility to the development of all the students in the system. It’s important for them, the health of our communities and the strength of our economies.”

On engaging curiosity:

“Professional mathematicians have such a cornucopia of fascinating puzzles, questions, proposals and conundrums. A great math teacher really has endless opportunities to stimulate kids minds and get them engaged with things they’d probably never thought about before. Rather than just giving them techniques.

It’s like what’s too often done with music lessons; kids spend too much time learning scales rather than doing anything interesting. But if you get them right away learning the joy of making music, they’ll want to learn how to do it properly after that.”

Idea generation — and the development of taste and discernment:

“…an equally important part for every creative process is to act critically on the ideas you’re coming up with. To evaluate them. That’s why I define creativity, in the TEDTalk, as the process of having original ideas that have value. You have to figure out which ideas are good and bad. Which work and which don’t. Which are worthwhile and which ones are not. Then, of course, it raises the old question of whose criteria you’re using and whose values you’re operating, and that’s a part of the conversation. Being creative isn’t just about blowing off new ideas. It’s about critical judgment, as well.”

Collaboration:

“An awful lot of creative work doesn’t happen individually. It happens with people interacting with other people. The most powerful engines of creative thinking are groups. And the reason that’s true is because a great group models the human mind: it’s diverse, it’s dynamic, it’s distinctive. So, knowing how to form groups, how to get groups to work, how long to leave them doing it is a core skill of good teachers.”

Experimentation and contemplation:

“The second is to look outwardly. To try things you may not have tried for a long time, or have never tried but wanted to. Put yourself in the way of things. If you’ve never been to a science museum, go to one. If you’ve never been to an opera, go to one. If you’ve never read certain kinds of books, try them. If you always drive a certain way to work, try another way. If there’s some place you haven’t been yet, go there. Expose yourself to possibilities. See what begins to chime with you. My point about being in the element is some people make a living doing it, and others don’t. Some don’t want to. But it’s about finding your own personal element. And the more people are able to do that, the more enriched their lives become, and the more enriched the lives are of those people who are in contact with them.

It’s something that we all should do, and something that we all can do.”

There’s a should I can get behind!

Read the entire interview here.

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It's in stone, so it must be true...

It's in stone, so it must be true...

It’s a little hard to read, so here’s the transcription:

There ain’t any answer,
there ain’t going to be any answer,
there never has been any answer,
that’s the answer.

– Gertrude Stein, 1946

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As if this free preview of their new album isn’t enough, Jónsi & Alex also offer a raw food cookbook for download. (I never thought of biting the lemon to get every last drop of juice out…)

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Eggplant from the Portland Farmers' Market

Eggplant from the Portland Farmers' Market

I hope it delights the palate as much as the eyes…

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“Staring into the blaze had been a tonic for me, confirming tendencies that I had always had but never cultivated. Gradually some of them were becoming comprehensible to me.

Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language. Long gnarled tree roots, colored veins in rocks, patches of oil floating on water, light-refracting flaws in glass — all these things had held great magic for me at one time: water and fire particularly, smoke, clouds, and dust, but most of all the swirling specks of color that swam before my eyes the minute I closed them.

To the few experiences which helped me along the way toward my life’s true goal I added this new one: the observation of such configurations. The surrender to Nature’s irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena. We soon fall prey to the temptation of thinking of them as being our own moods, our own creations, and see the boundaries separating us from Nature begin to quiver and dissolve. We become acquainted with that state of mind in which we are unable to decide whether the images on our retina are the results of impressions from without or from within.”

– from Demian by Hermann Hesse

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Charles Blow’s column yesterday featured this extraordinarily effective visualization of the diminution of the music business, as it has shifted from medium to medium:

Getting smaller over time...

Dwindling...

And in the text of the article, this:

A study last year conducted by members of PRS for Music, a nonprofit royalty collection agency, found that of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs. That’s less than one percent of the songs.

When Chris Anderson introduced the idea of the Long Tail, his enthusiasm was focused on all the new ways once obscure idea-makers might find audiences, however small. Looking at the above statistics, what’s remarkable is how much of what we consider mainstream culture is actually in the tail — and the tail isn’t making much money.

Of course, such a study doesn’t measure all music sales, and it certainly doesn’t capture the experience of discovering music, sharing our discoveries, live performances, making music, or any of the other ways that music impacts our lives.

And it reminds me of a Claude Debussy quote I recently read, via Ray Kurzweil:

“At a time like ours, in which mechanical skill has attained unsuspected perfection, the most famous works may be heard as easily as one may drink a glass of beer, and it only costs ten centimes, like the automatical weighing machines. Should we not fear this domestication of sound, this magic that anyone can bring from a disk at will? Will it not bring to waste the mysterious force of an art which one might have thought indestructible?”

Given the resiliency of thought and self-expression — musical and otherwise — I’ll venture a “No” vote to that question.

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