Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The music goes round and round

I am not really a music guy. I like music, but as with probably everyone, I like what I like. Unlike a lot of people though, I don't have some kind of rational explanation for it. I’ve never been into quality sound systems – a normal car radio is good enough for me - and I don’t go crazy exploring different kinds of music. Actually, at this point, I don't explore any music.  So, your answer to the following question may be very different than mine. When is the last time you got excited about an album? Not a song, but an album. I cannot remember when it was for me, but it was decades ago. It could be nearly 40 years. The last two I consciously remember were Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder), which I loved, and Chicago X, which I looked forward to but disliked.  Maybe the way music is distributed has changed so much that there is less reason to get excited now than in the past about a whole album as opposed to a piece. Or maybe it is because I pay such little attention to music I feel this way.  I only listen on my ipod to stuff I downloaded because I already like it. But, just by being in the world, I do hear new music from time to time and I rarely like anything – maybe three or four songs a year and almost always mainstream pop hits. And, admittedly, it may all be about me becoming fossilized in what I like as I seem to be with fiction. I’m not complaining. I like what I like.

In any event, I decided to do yet another series of top ten lists, but instead, at least the top three when I could and more when could not help myself. My tastes are, if nothing else, eclectic, but at the same fairly run of the mill.  I doubt my answers would be much different than most other people in my age group who like a certain type of music (or in the case of disco and rap, the few I like).  I’m not going to rank my choice, but try to display them alphabetically. If I screw that up, who cares? All of the selections I have personally listened to or owned. Some of them are performances and some their compositions (we don’t have recordings, e.g., of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven). Some are categories rather than people and the number of choices doesn’t indicate the quality of the performer or composer – it just means they are my clear favorites. Enough talk.

So . . .


Bach is by far my favorite classical composer (though, from what I understand, technically “baroque,” rather than “classical.”  But most people would say he is a classical composer). Prelude No. 1 in C major from the Well-tempered Clavier (which is the basis of the Ave Maria Charles Gounod created almost a century and a half later and which is not the same as Schubert’s Ave Maria around the same time. They are both beautiful, but definitely different. Worth listening to one then the other).

Brandenburg Concertos

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Sinfonia from Toccata 29


Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Symphony no. 21

Symphony no. 40

The Marriage of Figaro, overture


Fifth Symphony, First Movement

Fur Elise (probably really entitled Fur Therese, not Elise, as was discovered much later. This eerie piece is played in movies and tv all the time, but never played in public during Beethoven’s life).

Ninth Symphony (Eroica), Third Movement, Ode to Joy


The 1812 Overture

Romeo and Juliet

Violin Concerto in D major


Night on Bald Mountain

Pictures at an Exhibition

Romeo and Juliet

Violin Concertos

Mendelssohn’s concerto is among my absolute favorite pieces, but I loved all 4 of these back when I listened to classical music a lot.

No. 1, Op. 6 - Paganini

Violin Concerto in D Major – Beethoven

Violin Concerto in E Minor – Mendelssohn

Violin Concerto in D Major – Tchaikovsky


The first listed here is the least well known, but is in my opinion the best of the three, and that is saying something. Other than using the most familiar refrain from it to introduce someone on stage, it is rarely heard these days. But it is really spectacular and worth downloading or however you get music these days. Unfortunately, Carl Orff was a Nazi sympathizer, which makes it hard to have sympathy with him.

Carmina Burana - Orff

Messiah - Handel

Ninth symphony, third movement - Ode to Joy – Beethoven

Louis Armstrong

You could probably say this about all my selections, but I found it very hard to limit myself with him. I picked seven. And I’m sure this would start riots in some circles. And you will have to forgive me for not including Hello, Dolly, Cabaret or Sunnyside of the Street. They just didn’t make the cut. And while I love Zat you Santa Claus as a Christmas song, it also does not make the cut.

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

I’m Beginning to See the Light

It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got that Swing

La Vie en Rose

Mack the Knife

What a Wonderful World

When the Saints Go Marchin’ In

Duke Ellington

A little overlap with Armstrong because some of my favorite Armstrong pieces are Ellington compositions.

Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

I’m Beginning to See the Light

Take the “A” Train

Count Basie

Every Tub

Jumpin’ at the Woodside

One O’Clock Jump

Louis Prima

If you didn’t know it from past posts, Prima is my all-time favorite performer and Sing, Sing, Sing, the greatest Jazz piece ever composed. Yet I manage to keep it to four.

Buena Sera

I Want to be Just Like You

Sing, Sing, Sing (with a swing) 

Just a Gigolo

Jazz works other than by someone named Louis

In the Mood – Glenn Miller

‘Round Midnight – Thelonius Monk

Take 5 – Dave Brubeck

Frank Sinatra

High Hopes

My Way

New York, New York

The Way You Look Tonight


You Make Me Feel So Young

Chuck Berry

Johnny B Goode

Rock and Roll Music

Roll Over Beethoven

Elvis Presley

Burning Love

Can’t Help Falling in Love

Jailhouse Rock

Viva Las Vegas

The Beatles

Across the Universe

Back in the U.S.S.R.

Here Comes the Sun

Hey, Jude



Ain’t No Mountain High Enough - Ross

Dancing in the Streets – Martha and the Vandellas

Fingertips Parts I and II - Wonder

Let’s Get it On - Gaye

Rolling Stones

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Jumping Jack Flash

Sympathy for the Devil

Waiting for a Friend

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

The Who

Baba O’Reilly

I Can See For Miles

Love Reign O’er Me

Won’t Get Fooled Again

The Beach Boys

Good Vibrations

Sloop John B.


She’s Real Fine My 409

Simon & Garfunkle

A Hazy Shade of Winter

Bridge Over Troubled Water

Mrs. Robinson

The Boxer

The Sound of Silence

Elton John

A Cat Named Hercules


Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding

Gray Seal


Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Dancing in the Dark

Thunder Road

Santa Claus is Coming To Town

She’s the One

Emerson, Lake & Palmer

My favorite group growing up.

Karn Evil 9

Fanfare for the Common Man (an Aaron Copland composition)


Pictures at an Exhibition

Stevie Wonder


I Just Called to Say I Love You (I know, it’s sappy and made into a tv commercial, but it was a great song)

My Cherie Amour

Sir Duke


You are the Sunshine of My Life


Last Dance (Donna Summers)

McArthur Park (Donna Summers)

TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) (MFSB with The Three Degrees)

When Will I See You Again (The Three Degrees)

You’re My First, My Last, My Everything (Barry White)

Hip Hop

Gangsta’s Paradise (Coolio)

Mama Said Knock You Out (LL Cool J)

My Name Is (Eminem)

Friday, August 21, 2015

What I'm reading this summer II

Lots of good stuff.  For one thing, I read Alexander Dumas’ The Jester Chicot. Dumas is, of course, most famous for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. But, he was an incredibly prolific writer and I doubt I will ever get to the end of his books.  There are actually five volumes in The Three Musketeers series, of which I’ve read two others – two left and all great works. Dumas was by far the most modern of 19th century novelists that I’ve read. A few years back I started a new series known as The Valois or The Last Valois series, stories surrounding a certain family of kings in the 16th century, but it is historical fiction, not history, and it’s lively and fun. The first book in the series was The Queen Margot, which I read one summer in the mornings a few years back when I lived in Virginia. Though I wrote my own review on Amazon, it was a quickie, and I’d rather give you part of a review from 2013 by someone who calls her or himself CatLover:

Margot is the new bride of Henry, King of Navarre, and also the sister of his competitor for the throne, Charles IX. Henry was a protestant king at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. They become allies but not lovers, theirs being the usual royal marriage of convenience.  Throw in the venomous Catherine d' Medici, murder, slapstick affairs (the serious ones I usually find boring), secret rendezvous, family and palace plottings, poisoning, hunting, sword fighting. Sign me up.

The Jester Chicot leaps a few years into the near future from Margot, with many of the same characters, but focusing on the adventures of two exceptional new ones. One of course is Chicot, who you already knew was a jester, but an unusual one, being a swashbuckling gentleman himself, and the idiot king’s favorite, who handles a plot against the king in his own fashion while satisfying his own need for revenge. The other is Bussy D’Amboise, the closest thing to one of the musketeers in Dumas’ works. The most noble and able man in France, he is helplessly in love with a beautiful married woman, but also beholden to the king’s evil brother who loves her too. And, of course, she is married. Well, sort of.  Bussy never runs from a fight, no matter the odds and he basically cuts his way through less noble and daring opposition. The plot doesn’t go where you think it will, nor does it come out where you expect – it’s not like reading a modern action novel.

I’m in the middle of the last in the series, The 45 Guardsmen, which many reviewers like better than Chicot.  It took a few chapters to grab me, but especially with the reappearance of Chicot, has now taken off.  The one thing that people don't know about Dumas is that he was really funny, much more so than any writer of his time who comes to mind.

I’m also in the midst of two Steven Pinker books. Pinker is an ivy league professor who writes sophisticated, detailed, entertaining, highly explanatory and fun books on the human mind and logic. His The Language Instinct, which I read a few years ago explains how we “grow” language, explains Noam Chomsky (who, whatever you think of his politics, completely revolutionized language theory, but was incredibly dense so as to be virtually opaque to the laymen). Right now, I’m re-reading Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which makes the case that we are as much a product of our genes as our experiences in our lives and that our minds are not complete blank slates to be filled at birth. If you’ve never given thought to it, you might even be a little stunned to discover so much of what we do was not because we saw our parents do it.  If you think that is obvious, he will enlighten you as to how much and how virulently the idea has been fought by scientists, students and others. The other one is How the Mind Works, and you can probably guess what it is about. But, it’s a broad topic and he will take you places you will not expect to go. All through his books he weaves his own social commentary based on where he thinks science takes us, much of which, to my surprise, I find I agree. Of course, his reasons are a little more well crafted than mind.

And, just this weekend I picked up yet a third Pinker book I hope to get to this summer – Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, which deals with whether language is based on rules that the brain is programmed to follow (although the rules for each language differ) or based on a series of connections – aka, connectionism. I am warned in Amazon reviews that it is for serious language hobbyists only, unlike his other books which were aimed at a more diverse crowd. I am a language hobbyist – whether I am a serious one or just an admirer, I guess I will find out when I get to it. I’m always prepared to be disappointed, but I am really excited to read a book about verb use.

Speaking of language, I am also almost done with John McWhorter’s The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, my night table book, and which I guess has a pretty obvious topic too. McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English is in my pantheon of great language books. If you read my recent post on race in America, The Policing Thing, you will see that I also wish he was recognized as a leader for “the black community” rather than some of the more famous ones. Like Pinker, McWhorter strives to make his books interesting and persuasive, using all kinds of examples so unlike those that I remember from school, which seem just designed to bore you to tears.

I was wandering in a Barnes and Noble with Bear in Maryland and mentioned that I wanted to read The Cave and The Light, which contrasts the influence of Plato and Aristotle on thinkers throughout history. So, he bought me one for my birthday. Great book.  If you aren’t interested in Greek history, everything we are today is not just influenced, but still almost dominated by their scientists, artists and philosophers, and predominantly from just a couple of centuries in one City-State, Athens. Even the alphabet we all write in is relatively close variation on theirs. Plato and Aristotle are probably the most influential of all of them, but in different ways. Arthur Herman, the author, far from providing us with just the rote history by year and battle or discovery, is a comparative historian, whose most famous work, How the Scots Invented the Modern World, is a great introduction to the Scottish Enlightenment. Its sub-title How Europe’s Poorest Nation Created our World and Everything in It, is a bit of an overstatement, but he shows how powerful an influence their 18th and 19th century philosophers had on us today. Hume being one of my favorite philosophers, I’m not fighting him too hard. In any event, Herman tends to see history through the development of liberty, always a special attraction for me. Even if all of his subjects are fairly well covered in history books I’ve already read, it is the comparative method that makes it new and engaging. It’s like a meal – it’s not so much the ingredients as the recipe.  

Along with The Cave and the Light, I picked up single volume copy of Aristotle’s works – The Basic Works of Aristotle. A lot of it is kind of dry, and I intend to peruse it over a long period of time, but when you are reading him, you can’t help wondering if he thought and wrote about everything? Of course, like any ancient scientist or philosopher, he’s going to be wrong about more things than he is right about. Doesn’t matter. Whatever your field, you will likely find he was there before your idols.

I wrote about Cerf and Navasky’s The Expert’s Speak, earlier this month in my post on Iran so I won’t go into detail. But, it is just a long list of topics and examples of things experts or so-called experts, got wrong. I love it. It's a reference book and I pick it up when I feel like it, or if I'm drifting off to sleep in my easy chair.

I also recently read two texts I got from the library. The first was William of Ockham’s A Short Discourse on Tyrannical Government (it didn’t start with the Declaration of Independence, you know). I didn’t want to buy it because I suspected that though the topic was a winner for me, an 800 year old theologian is probably not going to rivet me , and I would find a few tidbits in it that would enlighten me, or at least make me happy. It is in essence a battle over the authority of the Pope, but, it is by analogy, part of the long tale of liberty against kings and even our own democracy. The other book was by Michael Polyani (a chemist who was influential in the quest for the atomic bomb) whose explanation of the scientific method is the best I’ve ever read. Personal Knowledge: towards a post-critical philosophy is his epistemology – that is, how we know what we know, another subject that fascinates me. I found that my note taking was taking too long for a library book and I bought it on Amazon to get to after I finish the other books on my pile. Admittedly, it’s a lot harder. But, his views on the subjective nature of knowledge is meant to and will make a good pairing with Popper, who I spent years reading, and who argues for an objective view. I know me pretty well. When I’ve understood Polyani – or if I do – I will think likely think they are both somewhat right, somewhat wrong and also a little off the deep end. 

I also just picked up and am racing through Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics, the topic of which you can guess. I got it after reading a review of it, and it lives up to the hype, explaining basic statistics (which I tried not to sleep through in college) through fun examples rather than the bone dry ones college professors seem to love. I love statistics, particularly probability. I just hate to be bored.

I’m hoping to stop buying books or taking them out of the library for a while, until I finish these – but it’s just so hard. There's always something new that I just can't live without. And then there are the long term projects, most of which I finish (sometimes after years). There going to have to bury me with my unfinished ones.

Comment with your own summer reading, if you like.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The first debate - here we go again!

Here we go with the first most ridiculous show in town. Where quips, fumbles, distractions or making a face at the wrong time influences peoples' votes. The real questions we want answered will never be asked. Would Jeb Bush really fight someone who didn't think his father was the world's greatest man? What other celebrities did Trump date? Can Carly Fiorina just list all the world leaders she's met and be done with it? Just how tall is George Pataki? I guess I'm rooting for John Kasich in group A at 7 p.m. and Carly Fiorina in group B (5 p.m.) which shall start in a few minutes, but, I can't say I have a real favorite in this race at all so far. Although I have made some early predictions in my time, I am not making a prediction on this pack until the Republican field thins a bit and we see if Biden gets in on the Democrat nomination. We all know you can't really predict anything, but, I'm going to do a crazy early prediction that I refuse to count on my official record (kept in a vault in heaven) - Kasich for the Republican nomination Joe Biden for the Democrats. Kasich is Jeb Bush without the baggage and eventually the powers that be might recognize that. Trump I still think will self-destruct or come to earth at some point. As far as Biden, in 2008 he couldn't even do well in his own state. This time it's different, partly because his son died - the tragedy has helped his legacy, though he'd trade it all in a second, of course, and the last few years has helped make him look less like a clown. Anyway, enjoy the debates. I might post-script this later.

Post script 1 - So, I watched the first debate. Well, sort of. Okay, I fell asleep for most of it. This stuff is just ponderous. But, from what I saw my one of my two I was rooting for, did well. That was the overwhelming consensus of commentators and viewers (82% in a lightning poll) on Fox, the station putting on the debate. My problem with her is that she is as negative as any of them, and that has been irritating me. Though she usually goes after just Hillary Clinton. However, she poked the bear tonight, teasing the Donald, and that seems scary for most of them. Points for courage. Oh, almost forgot. The booing of the muscular gay soldier by the audience. That's why they may lose again. Even though people are looking for something new, they aren't looking for a bully or muttonhead either. I thought Bobby Jindal did well for him - he is not overflowing with charisma in pressure situations. Graham was really serious, almost painfully so, but I liked it better than his grandfatherly sense of humor, which sounds better in his head than it does to me. Rick Perry and probably all of them were just trying to hard. That may be true in part two. One reason Trump is doing well is that he is himself and the rest of them are being, to one degree or another, phonies. If I were them, I would encourage Donald, because ego is his weakness. Whether his stunning ego and pride will overcome the pleasure people get in having someone be sincere with them, is the question. I wrote a little speech just now for Trump if he gets jumped on. He should not fire back in his usual petulant fashion. He should say something like - "Can you believe these guys. Same stuff that failed for us last time. Everybody go after the front runner. Don't you remember how that hurt Romney in the general election. Let's let the Democrats do that. We should be talking about what matters to Americans. And you know why I'm the front runner? It's because they can hear that I am telling them the truth and not being a phony and they like that. And they can tell that I'm on our side - their side - and they like that too. So, go ahead fellows - and Carly - spitballs at a battleship. I'm not that good with quotes, but what was that Churchill said - You do your worst and we'll do our best."

Post Script 2 - Okay, Trump didn't need my speech, although the hosts went after him right away because he would not pledge not to run as an independent. I don't find him believable. When asked about his evidence about the border, of course he just made up stuff (my opinion, but . . . ). I think he may have hurt himself by being a little too petty and by being himself (which is what got him there). Not that any of them were that substantive, but he doesn't even approach presidential. Of course, who hasn't been wrong about him before? They all did well. Paul was the most aggressive. He went after Trump and he went after Christie. I thought if I had to pick a loser, it would be Paul. He certainly had his fans, but I thought he lost each altercation. I don't know who won. I was rooting for Kasich and I thought he did great. It didn't hurt that Ohio is his home stage. He's running on resume and without being overly religious, with an anti-poverty, pro-minority stance. But, Trump fended off all of the attacks with his usual bluster. Christie came off better than I thought though he was pretty aggressive too. Cruz seemed to get the least time to speak. Carson was treated, after the first tough question about his experience, with kid gloves. Huckabee, Walker, Bush, Rubio . . . everyone did pretty well, but I'm not sure that anyone made any advances. I still say the worst problem that they will have is the religious jargon and the anti-gay rhetoric. But, they haven't listened to me before, so . . . . Here's my ranking of them 1. Christie 2. Kasich 3. Walker 4. Huckabee 5. Rubio 6. Bush 7. Carson 8. Cruz 9. Trump 10. Paul Comparatively, Carly Fiorina did better than any of them. I expect that she will be in the next debate, but not sure who she will replace. My guess at the moment is Cruz or Paul. Trump will sink, but will still have a lot of support. That's all, folks. Post script 3 Wow. I woke up this morning and popped on Drudge to see the instant poll results. It reminded me that I am surprised every primary debate when the partisan viewers weigh in. Drudge had Trump winning the main debate with about 51%, the next one was Cruz at about 12% and everybody else a tiny fraction. It was close to the opposite of my rankings, which, of course are through my relatively moderate eyes. I tend to like the guys (and gal) in the middle and not those throwing red meat bombs. Of course, that is Drudge and a conservative audience. The Drudge results were nothing like the Frank Luntz focus group on Fox the night before where Trump fared very poorly. Trump blasted Luntz overnight, mocking him looking for work in his office. Then, watching MSNBC, they had very different views again. What probably matters most is how they fare in the polls the next few days. And the results will be slanted depending on whether Republicans are being polled, conservatives, or the general population. Everyone expects Fiorina to pop, as almost everyone who commented has said good things about her, but it is not clear at whose expense. And likely, I'll do one more post script after that. I bet you can't wait. Okay, going to watch Trump on Morning Joe. This was fun.

Post Script 3 - Last post script (or is it postscript? Note to self - look that up). So, there was an overnight poll a few days after the debate by NBC and Survey Monkey, which is a website that lets you create your own polls. Arguably, they are limited in importance because the subjects are people looking to answer polls. But, still, they have a reasonable track records. It turns out I was completely right and completely wrong about who won the debate. I was right that Trump and Paul lost because that's the way the poll turned out. And I was wrong that Trump lost because he improved his position better than anyone but a few who gained name recognition (Fiorina, Carson, Cruz and he tied with Huckabee) although he only improved a little in the polls. It is clear what happened. People who like him, liked him more or the same, regardless of how badly the rest of us thought he was doing.

Trump keeps surprising because it is only now being understood by many what he represents. People who are as mad as hell and just can't take it anymore. They don't care if he is an egotistical blowhard who debates by calling them names. They don't care that he doesn't seem to know much about the policies. They care that he seems unafraid, is in people's faces and they think he will pull for them.

I still don't think Trump will be president or even the nominee. I still believe there is a line, not for his followers, where too many others just realize he is a disaster in the making. They might say - even if he runs independent, we can't let him represent us.

However, the notion that he made reference to Meghan Kelly menstruating was just ridiculous. Listen to what he said. You can stretch and torture it to mean that if you want, but that's on you. He is right, political correctness is killing this country.

And there was a very good example yesterday. A group of black youngsters took over a Bernie Sanders rally, grabbed the microphone and forced the crowd to have a moment of silence for a thug, Michael Brown, whose death may be a tragedy, because he never had a chance for redemption and to become a decent human being, but was brought on by himself. The Black Lives Matter movement is out of control. Between the attack on police and riots in Ferguson and the invasion of the Sanders' stage, there is nothing that can be salvaged from it, even if there are some points I might agree with them on. It seems that their model is Michael Brown and it is succeeding in intimidating the left based upon the fact that the candidates are afraid to buck it, so that they do not lose their base.  Sanders didn't have them arrested. The organizers just ended his rally. They seem to believe that they are victims and if they are stopped from any misbehavior it is because why white supremacists are victimizing them. But, Democrats, as intimidated by them as the right are by evangelists, are afraid to lose their base. So, they are doing nothing about it. At least the evangelists aren't invading the Republican stages. if this keeps up, of course, it will end in violence, and that is what they want. So that they can claim they are victims all the more. Of course I hope they are arrested just as I wanted the Pink Ladies arrested when they interrupted congressional hearings during the Bush administration. This is, no doubt, a problem with the left, perhaps because their ardent supporters are younger.

So, these are our choices, Republicans intimidated by Trump on one side (he at least does not seem afraid of anyone) and evangelists on the other, and Democrats intimidated by young bullies spewing racial hate. And that sounds too much like Nazis to me. What a choice we have.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Rembrandt's little brother

Probably few people know that I am a world renowned artist. I keep it a secret to avoid having to hire bodyguards. And, you know, modesty.  Actually, I have little to no artistic skill, just as I cannot seem to learn a musical instrument (failed  at least 3 times, and that isn’t including grade school). With a lot of practice in law school, and desperation born out of boredom, I learned to draw Garfield the Cat with some proficiency.  When I would go to the school on weekends, I’d visit the blackboard where they would post jobs and erase the out of date posts so that I could draw Garfield cartoons and say what I hoped were funny things about law school. The only one I remember was Garfield sitting in front of a fire burning his law books and saying (the usual balloon over his head) “I knew I’d find a purpose for these things” or something like that. For about a year the artist was a mystery, which mystified me as so many people were aware of my obsessive Garfield cartooning in lieu of taking notes. I felt like Superman must have when he put on glasses and instantly acquired a secret identity. One day, someone pointed out that I draw Garfield a lot. So, reasoning mightily, it must be me.  D’uh. And they were all going to be lawyers.

The picture above is probably the best design I ever made. I’m not capable of drawing anything realistically - that is, as it appears to our eye. I took a class once and have tried practicing a few time, likely a lot more than most adults, but, I just suck at it, to state it as accurately as possible. So, I’m stuck with abstract doodling like the above. That one I had always thought I called Creation Myth which was the impression I was going for. Then I thought it was better as Spirits of the Underworld or Odysseus in the Underworld, something like that.  I can re-name them. as much as I want. After all, Michaelangelo’s David was first called Il Gigante when it was mostly just a big block of stone, although King David was always the intended project. And there is a connection between Michaelangelo and I. When I was taking the art class I mentioned above I once heard him spinning in his grave. Might have been my imagination.

As a total side note, David is the greatest piece of art I ever saw, of course, in my humble opinion. Photographs do not do it justice. The copy in the Piazza della Signoria does not do it justice either. You have to go to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see it. From what I saw and others have reported to me, even people who don’t like or know much about art go away with a feeling of awe.  I assure you, this is not only my opinion.  As Jodie Foster’s character said in Contact when she was given a view of the cosmos only available to us in animation – “No words. No words. They should have sent a poet.”  It is possibly the first time in my life I felt I came in close contact with what I would call genius.  It is probably not that well known that the sculpture was started by another artist before Michaelangelo was even born and even another sculpture took a whack at it after that.

Back to my portfolio, when preparing this post I looked for it on my computer and realized that that I simply and prosaically named my black and blue work - “Black and Blue,” and so it shall remain for eternity. So much for creative titles.

The picture below shows off my lack of any talent more clearly. I called it “Falling star over tropical island.” It may seem pointless to name them, but you have to give the computer file a name, so why not?  I do like the picture, but Michaelangelo is preparing to spin again. I know it would be smarter to tell people that this was an impression, but that would be living a lie. That yellow splotch on the perfectly round island (like in real life, right?) is supposed to be a beach, if you are confused.

The next two are companion pieces, both entitled “Me roasting in hell.” For some reason I found that funny, although I imagine it would hurt quite a bit in real life. It's the same picture in different colors.  Of course, not that I believe in hell, but if there is one, I doubt that there is anything to do about it now as I've been an atheist for most of my life. The really important thing is that before go we should have something cool to say as our last words, hopefully not something like “Ohhhh, sh. . . .” (which is what my dad told me he was thinking when he fell off a ladder once) or “Does that sound like a plane in a dive? “

“Too infinity and beyond” is already taken,” which is a shame, because that would have been a very memorable note to leave on. I have always been partial to a line from a dying associate of the hero in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom "I've followed you on many adventures...but into the great unknown mystery, I go first, Indy!” But, who would I say that to?

I do have my own catch phrase, which I try not to say anymore, but  it still slips out of my mouth all the time. “See you folks in church,” or “see you in church.” I didn’t make it up. I saw it said by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm's (Shirley Temple) evil uncle as a sarcastic exit line (just before he stepped on a loose board on the porch and got whacked in the face). I just liked it. Maybe I started off saying it deliberately – that was probably 25 years ago when my daughter was little and loved Shirley Temple movies, and I just can’t remember anymore. But, very quickly, it became a reflex when I'd say good-bye. After a few years, people started saying it to me. Anyway, it would be really cool if just before I made the big leap I could have the strength to say “See you folks in church.” But, then I’d really better die, because I would just look pretty stupid if I didn’t. Yes, I digressed again.

If I remember correctly, the inspiration for me in hell came from my daughter's friend, who I was driving back from a Christian summer camp at which they had spent a week or two. She blithely remarked that if you did not accept Jesus as your personal savior, you have to burn in hell for eternity. Now, I really didn't care what she thought and for all I know she is an atheist now as an adult, but at the time I asked her if that wasn't a little peevish of God. After all, probably a few seconds of roasting in hell and I'd be a believer and apologizing all over the place - why was eternity necessary? She explained, in the most traditional religious fashion, that this was just the way it was and she was sorry.

Christmas in Iceland is the name of the exuberant light show below. I think the squiggly reddish lines are supposed to be Christmas trees. I don't even know if that type of tree grows in Iceland. If they do, I imagine they are green like other such trees, but, it’s art, so I did what I wanted, just like Bob Ross told me I could. And, to be frank, I'm not sure why it has to be Iceland. There's really nothing in the picture to indicate that.

Speaking of Bob Ross, I did take a shot at oil painting with his paint kit about a quarter century ago. I enjoyed his show, but I couldn’t keep up with his speed and just winged it. I literally didn’t understand how to get the paint on a brush when I first tried. I can actually date this experiment to 1990, because I remember the woman I was dating. She painted, and I called her to ask her how to go about it. She was a little surprised but told me. In retrospect, it might seem impossible that I did not know how to do this –  even as I write this I'm thinking how could I not know that? I guess I kind of did, but I was sure the paint would just fall off and needed reassurance.  When I was done painting I tried to clean the brushes for what seemed like forever. After a while I called her back and she told me, no, you don’t have to get every last drop of paint off the brush. Thank God. I was exhausted.

I still have the Bob Ross paintings I did somewhere (I think), but I looked in the attic and couldn’t find them. You will not be surprised that they were not very good. The first one was of a mountain range at a distance. All the mountains looked pretty much exactly the same – again, just like in real life, right? The last of the four paintings I remember doing was a river running through the woods in autumn. As they were real pictures, and not computer files, I never named them, but River running through the woods in autumn would likely be the name of that one. When I showed it to the office one day, every one said some version of “Oh, a road, running through the woods.” Now, a smarter man would have said, “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what it is.” But, I insisted that it was a river, not a road – “See, look at the rocks underneath the transparent water. See. See.” They saw what they saw, and wisely, I lay down my brush for the last time. I don't need to be hit in the face with a loose board to see the light.

And so I remain undiscovered by the art world, perhaps like Rembrandt and Van Gogh, to be discovered later on, when future generations are discovering Bill and Ted’s revolutionary music too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The agreement with Iran

This is an “I don’t know” post. I don’t know.

Unlike a lot of people, I have no crystal ball and don’t know if Iran has a program to make a nuclear bomb. I know they have a nuclear program and that it is believed by us and our partners in negotiating with Iran that they have a bomb breakout time of a few months. Personally, I don’t believe any of us know what they have and, as we learned during the Iraqi war, neither we nor Saddam knew what he had or didn’t have, could or could not do. And though I do not want Iran to have a bomb (and they profess they do not want to have one) I do believe they want us to believe they are planning on it because it makes it easier to negotiate with us.

It’s not that I’m unsure of absolutely everything in world affairs. Generally speaking there are those countries and groups I consider bad guys and others good guys. We are good guys, though occasionally we do bad things like most every country at one time or another. So are most of Western Europe, Japan, Taiwan, much of the former British Commonwealth like Australia and Canada, Israel and a few others.  Russia, China are countries we work with and trade with, but they are bad guys in many regards as is of course Iran, North Korea, ISIS,  al Qaeda, etc. You know them without me saying who for the most part. Some it is hard to tell and sometimes it depends what the issue is, as with Pakistan and Turkey.

I read a lot of history, politics, laymen’s science and the like. It hasn’t helped me be decisive, that’s for sure. Quite the opposite. If anything, though I enjoy predicting as much or more than the next guy, I actually feel as if it is very difficult to have a reasonable guess as to what might happen with anything. Not surprisingly, I am delighted when I’m right and am sure that it is because of some analysis (except for this year’s Kentucky Derby when I just picked the only three good horses in the race). Not just history, but science and almost every field of study shows us that not only are we pretty hopeless at guessing what is going to happen, but we never seem to learn our lesson. Two books came out in the last few years, written by mutual admirers, the first Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan, and the second Daniel Kahnemann Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. The Black Swan tries by various methods (some of which are just dumb), that you can’t predict the future by what happened in the past, at least for a whole range of topics. Kahnemann’s book, using psychological studies, explains how we have an intuitive side that operates really fast making broad and often irrational judgments and a contemplative side which operates more slowly using reason. I have some criticisms of both books, more so The Black Swan, which acknowledges there are many things we can predict but I think understates just how much that is (pretty much everything in our day to day lives – we wouldn’t even go to sleep or get out of bed if we didn’t rely heavily on experience that everything will be fine when we do).

But, my big problem with the two books is neither authors’ fault. It’s that we all should know that stuff without resort to a book, because most of it is just human nature. Of course you can’t predict the future from the past, at least with complicated stuff. And of course, we both have intuition and reason, and one is more useful than the other. Still, as with Steven Pinker’s older book, The Blank Slate, in which he felt the need to show that we are not a blank slate but programmed to act in certain ways, apparently we need reminding.

But, there are parts of the two books I love, if only because they make some arguments out for me that I am constantly harping on (at least here on this blog – in real life, no one wants to hear my philosophies of life – that’s why I have the blog).

Here’s one of them. Experts very often suck. Not just those who predict the weather either. And I don’t mean that you shouldn’t go to a doctor when you are sick, but in a whole host of things, so called experts are as bad as we are (financial advisors who tell you anything but diversify, make a lot of money in your job, and buy low sell high as much as you can should be liable for their fraud. Taleb points out how often experts are wrong because they seem to be immune to the common understanding that just because something happened before doesn’t mean it will happen again and Kahnemann shows through studies (which I wish he’d summarize better) that experts rush to judgment, avoid simple statistical facts (I’m not going to explain reversion to the mean, but it explains so many studies and facts that are attributed to all kinds of other things, that it would be funny if it wasn’t so counter-intuitive and also boring to think about). But, the best part is that they – experts - do this even when they have made the same mistake over and over again and even when acutely conscious of what they are doing. Hence – experts suck. At least many frequently do.

And, of course, we all do this to some degree, because no matter how many times we pick the wrong stock, think it’s going to rain when it doesn’t, bet on the wrong team and so on, we still apply the same useless rationales over and over again as to why we will be right the next time. And we believe “experts” when they tell us they know what they are talking about, even though we should know they don’t.

I have a bit of an anti-expert fetish and at least a few of my posts have had something to do with this. But, I was really excited last week when I came upon called The Experts Speak by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky.  The Experts Speak has one quote after another by experts on important things in which they were entirely wrong. I had spent some time arguing online and with other people face to face about the Iran deal. My main point is that based on my reading of history, treaties and pacts between countries have little to do with whether they go to war. Also, the predictions of our foreign policy experts are also useless. The countries that don’t want to go to war probably don’t need an agreement and those that do, don’t care if they are in one. It’s not that it’s not a worthy goal to work for peace – of course it is. But, in the end, who the leaders are and how they think about things, and sometimes dumb luck, are often far more important than any past agreement. For example, any number of treaties were entered into between and among Germany, Russia, France, Italy and Britain between the two wars. Those agreements didn’t mean anything.

Anyway, I quickly ordered The Experts Speak, hoping it would have a WWII section, and it did. Mostly I was happy because it saved me from having to do a lot of research to write this post, and I’m hoping their quotes are accurate. I won’t copy all of them here, but some examples in this section are worth repeating. Keep in mind, it doesn’t seem to matter who the experts are, from what country they come, how close to the event they were in time or place, or how certain they were. They just thought they knew:

Here’s a former chancellor of Germany and vice chancellor under Hitler, von Papen, who was also largely responsible for bringing Hitler into government in 1933. It’s not that he was a Nazi. It’s that he was sure there was –

No danger at all. We’ve hired him for our act. . . . Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in the corner that he’ll squeak.”

That same year, FDR’s Secretary of State, Cordell Hull –

Mistreatment of Jews in Germany may be considered virtually eliminated.

Same year from one of the most respected political journalists ever, Walter Lippman, and certainly no fascist –

[T]he outer world will do well to accept the evidence of German goodwill and seek by all possible means to meet it and to justify it.”

Same year, this one from Britain’s Prime Minister, James Ramsay Macdonald –

I do not doubt Germany’s motives. I have never doubted them, and I hope that I will never be hasty enough to doubt them.”

Another former British Prime minister during WWI, David Lloyd George, and so of course many would think he knew best, stated in an 1933 interview –

Believe me, Germany is unable to wage war”

and in another interview the same year -

“Germany has no desire to attack any country in Europe . . . .”

This from another WWI hero, France’s Pétain in 1934 (and depending on your point of view, a savior or traitor to France in WWII; he was Prime Minister of Vichy France after Germany defeated her; he returned to France for trial after the war, was condemned to death and served a life sentence instead). The bottom line, is that this military expert from WWI was just plain wrong when it came to WWII, though you’d think his experience would have given him some valuable insight –

On leaving Monmédy, we come to the Ardennes forests. If certain preparations are made, these are impenetrable. . . . This sector is not dangerous.”

Of course, Prime Minister Chamberlain is famous for being spectacularly wrong about Hitler in signing the Munich Agreement just the year before the actual war, 1938–

For the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time. . . . Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”


In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that there was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word.”

Don’t think our own heroes of the war necessarily knew better. When the Munich agreement was signed, FDR telegrammed Chamberlain -

 Good man.”

Jan Smuts, a South African Prime Minister, wrote - “He risked all and I trust he has won all.

France’s Prime Minister, Daladier, who also signed the agreement, was as badly wrong as Chamberlain and everyone else –

I am . . . . certain today that, thanks to the desire to make mutual concessions, and thanks to the spirit of collaboration which has animated the action of the four Great Powers of the West, peace is saved.”

It’s not just politicians of course who were constantly wrong. This from Time Magazine in June, 1939, just a little before Germany Blitzed Poland –

The modern German theory of victory by Blitzkrieg (lightning war) is untried and, in the opinion of many experts, unsound.”

And then this gem –

The French army is still the strongest all-around fighting machine in Europe.”

Charles Lindbergh is now vilified in modern times as an anti-Semite, but at the time he was a heroic figure, and someone people looked to for what to believe about war and air power in general. He said about Britain in 1938 –

This country has neither the spirit nor the ability needed for a modern war.”

 Before we entered the war in 1941, he said in a speech –

It is not only our right but it is our obligation as American citizens to look at this war objectively and to weigh our chances for success if we should enter it. I have attempted to do this, especially form the standpoint of aviation; and I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England, regardless of how much assistance we extend.”

After France was defeated in 1940, a famous French military figure, Maxime Weygand (also considered a collaborator with Germany by many) famously said -

In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken” which led to Churchill’s famous comeback after Germany’s invasion failed – “Some chicken - Some neck.”

Our Ambassador to Britain, Joseph Kennedy was just as wrong - 

I have Yet to talk to any military or naval expert of any nationality who thinks. . . that England has a Chinaman’s chance.” (I actually looked up “Chinaman’s Chance”. The saying, now obviously considered racist, was “a Chinaman’s chance in hell.” There are a couple of suggestions about how it originated, but possibly from their railroad work in the 1800s when they used nitroglycerin to make tunnels or from the Gold Rush when they got the bad land claims and weren’t thought to have a lot of chance to make a killing). Of course, he also predicted his son could not win the presidential election.

Here’s another from FDR. Maybe he was lying. It’s nicer to think he was just wrong –

And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Don’t think Hitler knew any better. He was, after some initial victories, won through intimidation and surprise, almost always wrong. But, this one was my favorite remarks of his in 1940 –

The United States will not be a threat to us for decades—not in 1945 but at the earliest in 1970 or 1980.”

Up there for the funniest comment is General Douglas MacArthur, who said the night before it was announced that Japan had joined the Axis -

Japan will never join the Axis.”

Even the legendary William Shirer author about Germany, wrote soon after that country turned on The USSR -

It is hardly too much to say that the campaign against Russia has been won in fourteen days.”

Of course, what about Churchill? Well, it turned out he was right about Germany, and seemed like a prophet before the war. Of course, it is important to point out – his voice was virtually ignored and at those years for him are best known as The Wilderness Years, because he was not in government. But, when they started listening, he was also wrong about a lot of things. Most famous is his WWI decision to invade Turkey in the Dardenelles which resulted in a slaughter for his side and his loss of his position (he quite bravely and unnecessarily went to fight at the front lines). A book review of Tuvia Ben-Moshe’s Churchill: Strategy and History states:

“Ben-Moshe . . . says Churchill’s strategy was consistent. It was also consistently wrong. Whether in the First World War, when he urged a landing on the island of Borkum in the mouth of the Ems on the Dutch-German border, or in the Second, when he planned the invasions of Norway, Greece, and Italy, he was always trying to evade the only place where the main German forces could be defeated. So he dragged America into his Mediterranean campaign and did all he could to scupper plans for the invasion of France. He failed to appreciate that the best way to destroy the German army was to bring the enormous weight of American industrial production to bear upon it. Obsessed by the string of British military failures in the Middle East and Far East, he lost faith in his generals and in the courage of their soldiers, and in so doing underestimated the fighting spirit that American troops had already displayed in the Philippines and at Guadalcanal.

Unlike Clausewitz, Ben-Moshe argues, Churchill forgot that war is related to politics. He became so engrossed in military operations that he neglected the Soviet threat to postwar Europe. When at last Churchill became alarmed by the Soviets, he wanted Allied forces deployed to take Vienna, an operation quite beyond their power. He later blamed America for allowing the extension of communism over eastern Europe, although he himself had agreed to it at Yalta. And had he not decided to back Tito in Yugoslavia? Churchill’s history of the Second World War is a long study in self-exculpation. The best that can be said of him is that he knew how to avoid defeat: but not how to win.”

And so on. He was also spectacularly wrong about Gandhi and Empire too.

I’m talking history here, but I could point out that after his so-called miracle year, Einstein was pretty much proved right in a significant physics matter only once more a few years later but was wrong about almost everything for most of his life. Most physicists feel he lost the long debate with Bohr and his followers over quantum physics and what underlies reality (still undecided, of course – and they are experts too, so, what do they know?) and he was even wrong about the impossibility of the atomic bomb until Szilard explained it to him. To be fair, Einstein was dealing with some of the most difficult questions known to man and was a great genius. In any event, we could make the same argument in every single field. What makes progress is constant correction after failure (if not dumb luck) which became a great deal easier after mankind’s greatest historical invention, writing.
To get back to Iran and the controversial or historical or bad agreement, depending on your point of view, I have not yet made up my mind. I find laughable the objection from the right that 24 days notice to inspect military sites is too long because Iran will hide everything (one candidate said even a child would know better than to agree to this). I do believe the IAEF and our Department of Energy, which say it is not remotely enough time to hide from the technology  which will easily show if there have been nuclear sites present far longer than 24 days. Admittedly, I am relying on experts in my belief, and they may be completely wrong.  

Moreover, we have constant surveillance of manufacturing and processing sites (or you could say, those ones we know about). And I also find laughable the right’s argument that the only reasonable agreement is the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities completely, because Iran is a member of the International nuclear non-proliferation treaty which gives them the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
And, on the left, I sneer at John Kerry’s insistence that they raised Iran’s hostages at every meeting because obviously Iran didn’t feel the need to care and that means a major goal of ours went unfulfilled, whereas Iran seems to have gotten precisely what it claims it wanted. Nor do I understand if we were bothering to have this long a negotiation anyway, why other topics weren’t on the table, like Iran’s support of terrorism, but, the truth is, Iran is forbidden from doing a number of things already by the international community that it does anyway. It is going to support Shiite causes, whether Hizbollah, the Houthi or the Syrian government and we actually do want them to combat ISIS (without getting any benefits from it, of course).

In all, from what I know so far, it looks like the issues were fairly closely split as to which side got what they wanted, unless, of course, Iran has a secret program we don’t know about, in which case, none of this was worth it. I disagree with those who say that there are other possibilities between war and an agreement, that is, a better agreement. We have to keep in mind that Iran has stayed the course over crippling sanctions all these years. They hurt, but they were not just giving in. Nor would China or Russia likely support a war against Iran, and they are part of the negotiating teams. More likely they would supply it with weapons. In fact, I doubt very much the U.N., war weary itself, and with many countries much more afraid of ISIS, would support war either.
Of course, we would likely win an air war and cripple Iran’s navy (or so the experts think). That would be fun and satisfying. But, we are just not invading that huge country, particularly with Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan ongoing. It is possible that we could beat Iran into submission with a sustained war of six months. What damage they could do to their neighbors (and probably some to us) in the meantime is not calculable. Eventually, like Serbia I believe they would have to fold. But, at what cost? These things almost immediately become unpredictable. Whatever it is, the cost is likely not one we or Israel is willing to pay. And, in the meantime, it would seem likely that Iran would go all out for a bomb and perhaps achieve it.

In the end, my complaint against the agreement is not that which many people have. As far as I can tell so far, and I read most of it, is only with our failure to get our citizens back. However, I do not think it inconceivable that that goal was made a part of a secret agreement or that with a wink and a nod, our team knows it is going to happen suddenly without apparent negotiation. This may be completely wishful thinking on my part.
And, of course, there is also intelligence. It’s not something any country wants to do without, but, it is always highly flawed. After all, they are just one more type of expert and faced with incalculable variables.  We know that with Iraq in 2003, all of the intelligence services who gave an opinion were as wrong as we were about WMDs. That doesn’t mean they always will be, but the history of success is very spotty. Perhaps the most respected of military writers, John Keegan, has written in Intelligence in War that intelligence in time of war is highly ineffective and probably irrelevant much of the time, even when it is right. I had trouble agreeing with him (he is, after all, an expert). But, he challenged any scholar who disagreed to show him he was wrong, and to my knowledge, no one has come forward.

As I said at the beginning, I can’t guess whether this will work out or lead to war or just decades more of hostility. Others can and will make those prediction. Those who by chance, and it is likely that, turn out right, will have bragging rights. Those who were wrong, but also by chance, will be defeated and have it raised against them in the future.

When you are a cynic and skeptic, when you tend to not believe experts (though I, of course, rely on many too), you also tend to end up with your blog posts saying something like – I just don’t know.  Feel free to mock me, but you don’t know what is going to happen with Iran either. Nor do any of the experts we all rely on.  I just don't understand why so many people think they do know against so much evidence.

About Me

My Photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .