June 2006 Archives

Not Such Good Things

I learned this afternoon that girl punk rock band Sleater-Kinney has broken up. Well, gone on "indefinite hiatus" with no plans for future tours and recordings, which, to my understanding, is a distinction without a difference. They're planning to finish out the remainder of their scheduled concerts this summer, so if you'd like to see them you'd best get on it. Their show in Manhattan on August 2nd is already sold out. It looks like their last performance ever will be August 3rd in Chicago at Lollapalooza.

I blame myself for this. I'm not allowed to like bands that are still together/relevant. If I start liking a band, they will either become irrelevant, break up, or possibly explode.

Ain't No Rag

America has once again narrowly avoided a serious embarrassment; the vote was close, but the flag-burning amendment has again been defeated in the Senate. The Flag-Burning Amendment has become an annual American tradition. Each year just before the Fourth of July it's reintroduced so that congresscreatures can go home to their constituents and brag about how they've once again voted to protect the flag, mom, and apple pie from the desecration of those godless communist hippies. Fortunately for proponents of the Amendment, they've never quite mustered enough votes to actually pass it. If they did, they'd lose one of their favorite bloody shirts to wave in their various opponents' faces.

It should be pointed out that it failed this time by the narrowest of narrow margins: 66 votes for to 34 against. It's already passed the House, and would almost certainly get through the 3/4 of state legislatures required to be added to the Constitution (since, gladhandling though our national representatives are, state and local representatives are even more tied to their localities, and are thus more susceptible to quick and easy patriotic drivel like this). Particular brickbats are due to Senator Mark Dayton of Minnesota, who is retiring from politics this year and thus voted for this amendment without any compelling reason, and Dianne Feinstein of California, who voted for the amendment despite representing a state that will never, ever replace her and probably doesn't even support the thing. Kudos to Senator Bennet, Republican from Utah, for bucking his party and voting against the amendment, though.

This whole nonsense goes back to the Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, in which a man was prosecuted under a Texas statute that banned flag-burning. The court ruled, 5-4, that content-based restrictions on free expression, including restrictions on what you may do with a flag, are unconstitutional. The dissenters were Chief Justice Rhenquist, Byron White, Sandra Day O'Connor, and John Paul Stevens (somewhat surprisingly). Rhenquist, White, and O'Connor were principally interested in the history and prevalence of flag desecration laws, so if we've been doing it all along, why not keep doing it now? Stevens has an odd separate dissent where he claims that he's opposed to all content-based restrictions on expression, except in this case. He then gets very misty-eyed about the flag and says that Congress can never ban speech based on content unless it's to protect Old Glory.

You'll note, in this, that Justice Scalia was among the majority who ruled that flag desecration laws were unconstitutional. My general rule of Supreme Court jurisprudence is that when Justice Scalia says you've gone too far to the right, you've gone too far to the right. I believe subsequent cases have been more lop-sided against flag desecration laws, on the grounds that it's already a decided matter.

The anti-Judiciary twist is a new one to this round of the Flag Burning Amendment debates:

In the debate, proponents sought to make a case of high principle: recapturing for Congress a power taken away by the Supreme Court in a 1989 decision.
That decision, in a Texas case, said flag burning was an expression of free speech and invalidated the flag desecration laws in 48 states.
Senator Hatch said the amendment would "restore the constitution to what it was before unelected jurists changed it five to four." He went on to say, "Five lawyers decided 48 states were wrong."

He conveniently glosses over exactly which five lawyers decided the 48 states were wrong. Also, the fact that the five lawyers happened to be a majority of the special officials appointed by the Constitution with the explicit task of deciding when the states/congress are, in fact, wrong and acting beyond the scope of their powers.

This whole arglebargle is actually somewhat nostalgic for me. The flag burning amendment was actually the first big political issue that I ever cared about. It makes me pine for the happy days when the biggest threat to the country was a lot of morons deciding that 250 years of democracy couldn't withstand certain forms of symbolic protest.

I'll wrap up by pointing to one of the better practical arguments against the flag burning amendment, made by John Scalzi during last year's debate. Scalzi, incidentally, wrote the Hugo-nominated Old Man's War, which I just finished and which is a delightful read that I will review here just as soon as I collect my thoughts on it.


Just a quick post to announce that my cousing Tiffany just gave birth to a daughter yesterday, Abigail. Congratulations, Tiffany! And congratulations to Uncle Bill and Aunt Janice, now grandparents!

Sprechen Sie Deutsch?


I just picked up a 2CD set of Johann Strauss waltzes from the library. The neat thing about Strauss's waltzes is that he gave them interesting titles, not unlike modern pop music, as opposed to things like "Concerto in D Minor for Clarinet and Oboe, Opus 376." I mean, there are good arguments for mechanically named pieces; the idea a lot of the time was that giving your music a bland numerical name would ensure that the music would speak for itself. When you call a piece "Romeo and Juliet Suite," people come in expecting the music to behave in a certain way and will box their interpretation of it within the context of the title. If you call the same piece "Symphony no. 7," the music can be whatever the listener wants it to be.

Still, it's nice to come upon songs with interesting names. As it happens, Strauss's waltz titles are all in German, which gives me a chance to exercise my neglected High School German knowledge. I was surprised at how many I was able to translate reading the track list. Here's what I came up with, without consulting Babelfish or a German-English dictionary or anything:

Disc 1

1. An der Schönen blauen Donau (On the Beautiful Blue Danube)
2. Frühlingsstimmen (Joyful-something)
3. Sphären-Klänge (No idea)
4. Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald (Stories of the Vienna Forest)
5. Du und Du (You and You)
6. Wein, Weib und Gesang (Wine, Women, and Song)
7. Tausend und eine Nacht (Thousand and One Nights)
8. Wo die Zitronen blühn (Where the Lemon Flower Blooms)
9. Liebeslieder (Love Song)

Disc 2

1. Wiener Blut (Viennese Blood (?))
2. Wiener Bonbons (Viennese Chocolates)
3. Künstlerleben (The Merchant's Life)
4. Morgenblätter (Morning Leaves)
5. Dorfschwalben aus Österreich (Something of Austria)
6. Rosen aus dem Süden (Roses of the South)
7. Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Walz)
8. Accellerationen (Acceleration)

Oh! Now I Get It!!!

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There's a neat work, Apophenia, that means seeing connections where you didn't before. That is, you may have known Fact A and Fact B separately, but you have an apophenic moment when you suddenly realize that A causes B, or some such.

I had such a moment tonight, regarding Sergei Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky Cantata. Alexander Nevsky has long been a favorite piece of music, but I never put together the context in which it was produced until tonight. So anyhow, the facts that got connected:

Sergei Prokofiev was a composer who lived from 1891 to 1953. Born in Russia, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, but moved back and forth between Russia and the US throughout the 20s and early 30s before eventually deciding to remain in Russia in 1936.

Alexander Nevsky was a legendary Russian hero of the middle ages. The story goes that in 1240 or so he rallied the Russian people to expel the occupying Teutonic Knights, who were there to spread Catholicism to Russia. He might have been made a Czar as a result. It's also possible that the Romanovs subsequently insinuated him into their lineage in order to give their rulership more credibility. In either case, Prokofiev's piece was a musical retelling of his life.

Soviet art and music was always heavily state-controlled, but particularly during the reign of Josef Stalin. Stalin felt art should have a purpose; art for art's sake is a luxury of the bourgeoisie, true proletarian art must be useful and functional. Therefore: A piece of music should have a message that advances socialist ideals. It should be easily understandable by the common man, and require no special training or sophistication to appreciate.

But what are socialist ideals? An interesting question, and the answer that you gave could determine whether you lived or died if you lived in Russia in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The correct answer, of course, is that socialist ideals were what Stalin said socialists ideals were at that moment. Throughout the 20s, socialist ideals were mostly internationalist and cosmopolitan. The world revolution was coming soon, and Russia happened to be at the vanguard. Soon there would be no need for states, so petty nationalism was gauche, a sign of bourgeois sympathies. Russian artists should focus on creating a new, universal proletarian style.

But the world revolution didn't come, and the new party line became Socialism in One Country. Russia would build its own socialist paradise and soon the rest of the world would fall in line. Suddenly it became very important to show how great Russia was. The Socialist Universalists were exposed for the utopian naifs that they were, and many found themselves in labor camps in Siberia. The true Socialist Art was art that exemplified the glories of the Russian people. The old Russian folk heroes who had been discarded with the revolution were rehabilitated, their histories re-written to reflect the true proletarian spirit with which they obviously acted before their stories were hijacked by the old aristocracy. Art that glorified the Russian People was the true Socialist Art, at least in the late-30s and early-40s.

And, of course, the big story in Russia in the early 40s was the Great Patriotic War (the Russian name for World War II).

All of this information had been floating around in my head until tonight, when suddenly it all came together and caused a revelation: Prokofiev wrote Alexander Nevsky when he was in Russia. He would have written it under the supervision of Stalin and his art commissars. And: Alexander Nevsky's legend is all about a great folk hero inspiring the Russian people to rise up and expell an invading German force. So I looked it up and confirmed: Alexander Nevsky was written in 1939, when tensions with Germany were at their peak before the German invasion of Russia. And it was written to serve a useful purpose, per Stalin's guidelines. It's not just a piece of music that happens to evoke an interesting story from history; it has a second layer as a piece of propaganda art, an inspirational work designed to say "We beat the Germans before, now let's rise up and beat them again."

It's interesting; before I'd always listened to Nevsky in a historical vacuum. I'd heard it as a piece of music that tells a folk story, but the music was divorced from the context of its production. Now I won't be able to listen to Nevsky without thinking about Leningrad and Stalingrad and the Great Patriotic War. The interesting question is whether knowing more about the piece will cause me to appreciate it more, or whether knowing that it was designed to serve a simple utilitarian purpose will make me think less of it.

And, for the heck of it, here's the fourth movement of Alexander Nevsky, Arise, Ye Russian People. It's a recording by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado. It's available on a nicely priced album from Deutsche Grammophon that includes the Lieutenant Kije Suite and the Scythian Suite, also by Prokofiev.

Il Cavaliere della Rosa


Nothing new or interesting to report, just thought I'd post the strikingly fun image from the cover of the Deutsche Grammophon recording of the orchestra music from Richard Strauss's cross-dressing comic opera, Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose).

Music Appreciation


Tangentially inspired by a conversation with a friend, I've decided to somewhat expand my knowledge or classical/orchestral music. I mean, I've heard a lot of it, I enjoy it, I own quite a few CDs, but I feel like I don't really have very much range or depth of knowledge. So I've bought a couple of books, Classical Music 101 and Opera 101, both by Fred Plotkin, former performance manager for the Metropolitan Opera.

They both come highly recommended and focus on giving a broad introduction to listening and enjoying the music. The classical music one features a huge list of performances to get and listen to in order to follow along with the book, which is sort of good and bad. On the one hand, following along and buying the music will give me a nice set of good recordings of a wide variety of works. On the other hand, even buying hunting around and buying these CDs used/on the internet it'll probably cost over $1000 to get everything he recommends. The trick is that he wants you to buy specific recordings so that he can make reference to interpretations and arrangements exhibited. So it's not enough to buy Beethoven's 7th Symphony, you have to buy the recording of Beethoven's 7th Symphony made by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and available only from EMI Classics in a deluxe boxed set of all of Beethoven's symphonies. Which is nice, insofar as it meanst you wind up with all of Beethoven's symphonies, but less nice insofar as it's a lot more expensive than the $6 Naxos recording of Beethoven's 7th.

The Opera version is somewhat cheaper, insofar as he covers fewer works, though of course operas tend to be more expensive to purchase than other classical CDs, given that they tend to come with more CDs plus a libretto.

But of course, if anyone were interested in exploring the classics along with me and sharing music purchases, it could be a lot cheaper. Is anyone interested?

Tonight's Menu


Grilled Vegetable Kabobs, courtesy of Fresh Direct:


Also: About a cup out applesauce, eaten with a spoon straight out of the jar, and a handful of raisins. Putting away food is hungry work!

In other grocery news: I think I must have been seriously in need of sweet last night; today's shipment included raisins, peaches, strawberries, bananas, applesauce, a quart of Chocolate Soy Shake, Six Jell-O Instant Pudding packages (three chocolate, three vanilla), a pint of coconut sorbet, and two quarts of Chocolate Peanut Butter Soy Ice Cream.

Girls and Gaming

Just thought I'd point out this article, which does an excellent job of skewering every "Girls and Gaming" article you'll find on the internet and in video gaming publications.

Stories of Your Life


I can't believe I've been blogging nearly a year and haven't yet talked about Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is my absolute favorite science fiction short story author. He's won three Nebulas, a Hugo, and has been nominated (though he turned the nomination down) for a second Hugo. This is pretty amazing when you consider that he's written a grand total of nine stories. He may have the best works-to-awards ratio of any author in science fiction.

A lot of his work deals with the mind and neuroscience. Predestination, Free Will, Perception, and Faith are major recurring themes. I've shown his book to a Berkeley neuroscience professor who enjoys science fiction, and the science is both plausible and at the cutting edge of current understanding. At the same time, Chiang writes in a very understandable way, such that, even without a science background, you feel yourself informed about the subjects without being lectured. Chiang does an excellent job of explaining the science, where it's going (or has gone, by the time of the story) and then moving to the human implications of these changes.

Nearly all of Chiang's short stories are collected in a single volume, Stories of Your Life and Others. The one that isn't in that volume can be found here. Chiang is not, to say the least, prolific, having produced nine stories since he was first published in the early 90s. What he's produced is all good, though; while not everyone loves all of Chiang's stories, I know at least one person who loves each of them. And the advantage of such a sparse library of stories is that you can read one volume and say that you've read his entire body of work.

I would particularly recommend, incidentally, the stories "Understand," "Hell is the Absence of God," and "Liking What You See: a Documentary." The last one is my favorite Chiang story; it's organized as a documentary and explores the implications for college students at a Berkeley-esque school in the near future of a technology that allows you to turn off the part of your brain that tells you whether people are attractive or not. You still recognize how people look, and, on some intellectual level, you can piece things together to determine who's attractive and who isn't, but it won't be a gut instinct. For you, the concept of attractive and unattractive will no longer have meaning. The story is rich with ideas and explores all sides of the argument for and against the procedure. It raises interesting questions that it never answers and leaves to the reader to puzzle through on their own. When I finished reading it the first time, I set the book down and was temporarily dazed as I swam in ideas about perception and the mind and society. It took hours for me to return to the real world, and that, I think, is the sign of a good science fiction story.

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