Monday, December 31, 2007

Political update for December, 2008

Political Update for December, 2007


Has anything happened since I last blogged on this? A little bit. Huckabee has made big strides in Iowa, a state with a population equal to about 1% of the country’s, but for flukish reasons, is given a supersized amount of attention in the presidential race.

I don’t mind Iowa’s caucus (what degree do you need to understand the difference between caucus and primary?) being first in the country. But with less than 3 million people in the entire state (less than the cities of L.A. and N.Y. and only a little bigger than its neighboring city, Chicago), the media way over covers it.

Iowa’s status as first caucus in the nation goes, of course, back to the beginning of the nation’s history. NOT! That’s the silly thing. Iowa’s unique position has existed only since 1972. That’s it. Only something like 125,000 Iowans participated last time.

Despite the media’s intense focus (and consequently, the candidates focus), it’s difficult to say that winning Iowa has a significant impact on a nomination. Of the nine Democratic races since 1972, eight have been opposed, that is, had more than one candidate (it was only Clinton in ’96). Of those eight, the winner of Iowa has been the Democratic nominee only four, i.e., half of the time. That’s not too impressive.

Of the eight Republican caucuses, five have been unopposed and out of those Iowa was right on the nominee three times, or just a little more than half the time.

So, between the two parties, Iowa’s record isn’t too impressive. I guess it means something, but certainly not that much. Losing there didn’t stop a lot of successful nominees and some candidates even skip it or don’t bother to campaign hard there. Both Giuliani, the national front runner, and McCain are not really making much of an effort in Iowa this time around. New Hampshire, home of the first primary has a little better record in its selections since 1952, when it began directly nominating candidates.

Still, no matter what I think, the candidates know they have to work Iowa, if for no other reason, because the media will give them time for doing so. But it hardly seems right to give it such coverage.

The first . . . .

If . . . .

Hillary wins -- she will be the first woman president.
Barak wins -- the first black, the first mixed race, and the first one with a non-Eurpean name
Richardson wins -- the first Hispanic.
McCain wins . . . the third prisoner of war (George Washington was the first in the . . French-Indian War; Andrew Jackson was second).
Giuliani wins -- the first Italian, and the second Catholic (Kennedy). He would also be the first mayor who had not later had a higher office.
Huckabee wins -- the first minister and the second Arkansas governor.
Thompson wins -- the tallest president ever; three inches taller than Lincoln.
Kucinich wins -- the shortest president ever. Just kidding. He’s five seven. Madison was five five. Kucinic just looks incredibly short next to his trophy wife. But he would be the first mayor since 1924.
Romney wins -- the first Mormon and the first born in Michigan.
Edwards wins -- the first one to get only one electoral vote in a previous election (which he got from a “faithless” elector in 2004; Aaron Burr almost pulled it off in 1800 in a different electoral system).
Dodd wins -- the second in a row born in Connecticut (which wouldn’t be as strange as him winning it in the first place – why is he running again?).
Biden wins -- the first born in Delaware and, like Giuliani, the first Catholic.

How bad do you need to lose?

Question. Chris Dodd polled just 11 % in his home state in his very best month, and only 5% last month. In Duncan Hunter’s best month he polled 3.5 % in his home state and only 3% this month. In Biden’s home state, he actually pulled off 19% in October, but that’s less than half of what Hillary polled there. Ron Paul polled only 5% last month in his home state, Texas. Need I go on Mr. Kucinich and Alan Keyes. I want to say it one more time – their home states.

Why are these guys bothering? Perhaps name recognition for the next time around. Good luck guys. Get off the stage, whisper that you are available for the vp slot and let the debates mean at least a little more.


While acknowledging that I was too early for it to mean much, I made my predictions last year. Let’s see how I’m doing (you can check out my December 13, 2006 post for the full article).

For the Republican nomination I picked John McCain, who I rated THE BEST CHANCE TO WIN THE REPUBLICAN NOMINATION DESPITE GIULIANI'S GENERAL POPULARITY and I’ve stuck with my pick despite the fact that he has been trounced handily in most polls. However, it shouldn’t escape notice that in the match up polls, he has a better chance of beating Hillary than the poll leader, Giuliani, or anyone else. If Republicans want to have the next president, and not just vote for their personal favorites, they will pay attention to that (probably won’t).

I rated Giuliani THE BEST CHANCE OUT OF ANY REPUBLICAN EXCEPT MCCAIN and Romney a DON’T RULE HIM OUT. Huckabee I actually gave a long shot too if McCain and Giuliani self destructed (with a little self praise, that was well before he was doing so well in Iowa).

There is no telling who will be picked as a VP candidate this early, but I suggested that Huckabee, who has surged to the lead in Iowa, and, Duncan Hunter both have the conservative credentials to make a good choice. I also suggested that Michael Steele of Maryland (who lost a senate race last time) would be an excellent choice. We won’t know this until the convention.

Among the Democrats I picked Hillary and gave Obama the best chance to beat her. I didn’t believe anyone else had a real chance, but thought Bill Richardson might get the nod as VP.

So what do the candidates have to do to make me look even a little prophetic. Well, frankly, if Hillary wins, it won’t be that impressive as she has a wide lead throughout the country’s polls despite an effort by right wing media to suggest she is spiraling down. But a McCain win would be out of the blue right now. He is not going to do well in Iowa. But if he surprises in New Hampshire he has an excellent shot. Even a second place finish there will give him some momentum. I can’t brag about my VP selections really, unless Michael Steele is picked, as the rest of my suggestions (Huckabee, Hunter and Richardson) have been widely promoted as possibilities.

February 5th is the real date. 20 states, including New York and California have their primaries. We don’t know yet how this will play out and I can’t say I have a strong feeling one way or the other. We might have one or more candidates selected at the beginning of the election year. But it is also possible we will see one or more convention fights too. Frankly, I hope so. I have predicted that Edwards will drop out after the 2/5 super-primary, and I stick with that as well. I expect the Republican field will also greatly thin out, if not after New Hampshire.

To vote or not too vote – that is the question

Leaving aside predictions, I wonder if I will vote for president at all. It is not a stretch to imagine Giuliani or Romney against Clinton or Obama. That would leave me with little desire to go to the polls.

Is it wrong not to vote? No, not really; not when our two party system gives us a system where the candidates are so beholden to their base and the campaign funding they desperately need. I am still smarting over my last two votes, the first in which I reluctantly chose Gore and the second in which I reluctantly chose Bush over Kerry. No matter what I did, there was no good ending. It was lose-lose. Do we really need to do that?

What would keep me from voting for a Republican (other than McCain, who has already disappointed me somewhat)? The thought that they will have an opportunity to swing the Supreme Court bench even further right and that they will keep us stuck in Iraq to the last dollar of our treasury. What would keep me from voting for a Democrat? The thought that they will willy nilly remove our troops from Iraq without thought to the safety of our troops and the Iraqi population and that they will together with the Democratic congress embark on a socialistic and possibly financially ruinous program.

Like I said – there are no good choices.

End Notes

Has anyone else noticed that Michelle Obama is the best speaker on the stump today including all of the presidential candidates? If not for the fact that she is praising her own husband, she makes you want to vote for him. I heard her speak to a group in Iowa, and she held my attention for roughly a half hour. I can’t think of one candidate who can do the same. Unfortunately, I heard her husband speak last week, and do not want to vote for him, although I have even heard conservatives say they like him (but maybe because they think they can beat them). I also heard Bill Clinton speak and there are few better than him. She was.

Ron Paul has to be the most popular candidate ever who can’t get near 10%. Every call in show I listen to has callers who are going to, or, wish they could vote for him. It will not matter, but he might surprise everyone in Iowa with his strong finish. Still, without a strong organization, which he has little interest in, he cannot win.

What is the attraction? Many of those who like him do not know the degree to which he takes his strict construction approach to the constitution. It is his purity, sincerity and genuine humbleness that makes him so attractive.

Has anyone solved the mystery of how Alan Keyes got into the last Republican debate? I am betting he doesn’t get on the stage again. I know he’s a true believer, but there is a deep end out there somewhere waiting for him to fall in.

One legal note. I was troubled by a recent court of appeals case which held it okay for the government to do unscheduled complete searches of the homes of welfare recipients. While it is not unusual for courts to give greater leeway to administrative searches (e.g., a fire marshall seeking to find the cause of a fire can at least do any unimpeded first search) but this is ridiculous. Once they can use receipt of entitlements to justify going through your underwear draw, they are a step away from using your driver's license to go through your car.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Did you know II

Feel like a vacation from blogging until the New Year, but, I had so much fun with the original Do You Know -- that this one pretty much wrote itself.

So, did you know --

That the voice of the pet Raven on the Munsters was none other than cartoon voice master, Mel Blanc?

That Herman’s boss was, seen only in two episodes, was played by John Carradine?

That the Lily and Herman were the second couple on television ever to share a bed, and you never heard of the first (some comedy from the ‘40s – I forget)?

That Pat Priest was not the original Marilyn, but only started in the 14th episode. I must have seen, but cannot recall, the original “unattractive” Munster (played by Beverley Owen)?

That the Munsters lasted only two years? Hard to believe. So many great Munster memories. For some reason, my favorite Munster moment is when Herman goes to the marriage counselor, who takes one look at him and says something like "My god, man, why didn't you defend yourself?"

That in the pilot for the Munsters, Yvonne Decarlo’s (Lily’s) character was named Phoebe Munster, not Lily? Yvonne’s real name was Margaret Yvonne Middleton, De Carlo being her mom’s maiden name. It is frequently reported that she was named “the most beautiful girl in the world” in the ‘40s, but apparently, this was just the opinion of a producer who was signing her up. She was beautiful though. She actually names over 20 lovers in her autobiography, including Howard Hughes and a number of actors (e.g., Burt Lancaster, Robert Stack, etc.).

That Lily's tv competition, Morticia Addams, played by another beauty, Carolyn Jones, was nominated for an Oscar in 1958 for her supporting role in The Bachelor Party? Her tv husband, John Astin, took a shot at playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings, but couldn't make the cut. However, in 1968 he was nominated for an Oscar too for a short subject he produced and directed called Prelude. What are the odds that someone reading this blog would have seen it? John's adopted son, Sean (Patty Duke's biological son), of course, played Sam in The Lord of the Rings, and in my mind, may have been the best actor in that whole wonderful ten plus hour movie.

That unlike Yvonne De Carlo, another great beauty, Grace Kelly, did not kiss and tell? Unfortunately for her, her friends and biographers did after she died. She apparently went "through" (wink, wink) almost all her leading men, including Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper plus the Shah of Iran, Oleg Cassini, Hal Holden, not to mention, while she was married (according to a new biographer) Frank Sinatra and I think one of her own bridesmaids (whoa!). I have to admit, I wish this information was available for all movie stars on some website. Let’s face it, if this wasn’t what we really wanted to know, all those gossip mags wouldn’t be doing so well.

That like so many others, Bert Gervis, Jr. also took his mother’s maiden name for the screen and became Burt Ward a/k/a Robin, Batman’s sidekick? A child prodigy, he was a professional skater in his parents’ ice show at age 2, a high school chess champion, speed reader and athlete before he donned the tights. He grew to hate Adam West on the set of Batman the way many of the Star Trek ensemble grew to hate William Shatner. His frank biography (just read it) is loaded with great stories, like the time he trapped Adam West stark naked in a hotel hallway. Burt appeared at Harvard for a speech with the very valuable Robin costume from the show. One student stood up and, Riddler like, asked, “When is a costume not a costume? When it’s stolen”. Poof, they stole his costume, valued at a half mill. The students were only enjoying themselves and returned it. The reputed ringleader was then editor of the Harvard Lampoon, Conan O’Brien. My apocryphal story radar is up on this last one.

Speaking of Batman, that Madge Blake aka Aunt Harriet, was also offered the role of Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show, but turned it down because of her contract with Leave it to Beaver at the time? She recommended her friend, Frances Bavier, who got the job. They are the same person in my untrained eyes.

That the Skipper, the professor and Mary Ann all had full names on the Gilligan’s Island – Skipper Jonas Grumby, Professor Roy Hinkley, Jr., and Mary Ann Summers. By the way, the answer to Mary Ann or Ginger? has always been Mary Ann for me. According to all reports, including the Professor (Russell Johnson)'s fun autobiography, Tina Louise was most difficult to work with.

That Chief Roaring Chicken from F-Troop, Edward Everett Horton, was also the narrator for Fractured Fairy Tales, a short segment on the Bullwinkle Show (you must remember these)? Deep voiced actor William Conrad, aka Matt Dillon (the original), Cannon, Nero Wolfe and the Fat Man (as in Jake and . . .), was the narrator for the main part of the show.

That Ray Walston (Uncle Martin in My Favorite Martian) later appeared on co-star, Bill Bixby’s show, The Hulk, in an episode entitled My Favorite Magician.

That Oscar winning actor, Ben Kingsley had his first role in the sixties on a BBC show called Orlando, where he sometimes played one of a group of teens who helped out the hero, who was sort of an early British version of MacGuyver? Maybe we never heard of it, but Orlando, and his amphicar (part car, part boat) was a big hit in the land of Shakespeare.

Speaking of Britain, that Hugh Laurie, the star of House, actually has a very thick British accent, and his raspy American accent is just great acting? He was born in Oxford, England, and educated at Cambridge where he was a rowing champ (his father was an Olympic gold medalist in the sport). I first noticed him playing a lowly henchman in the live action version of 101 Dalmatians and liked him enough to remember his name when I saw it on the cover of a book, The Gun Seller, which I bought. It’s a funny and fairly original book which I’ve given to a few people as presents. Try it. I think its coming out as a movie soon, too.

That Burt Reynolds turned down the lead roles in Terms of Endearment (pretty dumb), Die Hard (you idiot!) and Hans Solo (why haven’t you killed yourself)?

That Sally Struthers was the voice of Pebbles on the Flinstones’ shows in the 70s?

That Miyoshi Umeki was already a famous singer in Japan (where, ironically, she was known as Nancy), an Oscar winner for best supporting actress in 1957 (Sayanara) and a Tony nominee in 1958 (Flower Drum Song) before playing the wise and humble Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father? Strangely, after the show ended in 1972 she never acted again before dying this past summer at age 78. Wonder why.

That Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors were not really married (nor even had a marriage ceremony)? It was just a joke by some legendary party throwers on an invitation that went awry. It destroyed their friendship, as they could no longer be seen together. Hudson’s sexual preference was still a secret at the time. Nabors has denied being gay in the past, but has remained silent in recent years about it (for god sakes, he’s in 70s; leave him alone).

That Will Ferrell became the highest paid Saturday Night Live member ever in 2001, the year before he left for the movie world? Before he became a film star in his own right, he had an almost overlooked turn in the Austin Powers movies as Mustafa, a luckless henchman who seems to die remarkably slowly (“I’m alive, only very badly burned” and has to tell the truth if asked a question 3 times). Sounds dumb, but he was hysterical.

That Robert Deniro was not a fledgling actor in Godfather II (1974), however much it boosted his career? Among a few other not-so-forgettable movies before that he played one of Ma Barker’s (Shelley Winters’) sons in Bloody Mama (1970) and a thug in 1973’s Mean Streets. I actually saw both of these when I was a kid and thought they were pretty good, although back then, he was just another actor to me.

Bloody Mama is not to be confused with Big Bad Mama (1974), starring a reasonably young Angie Dickinson (topless, woo hoo) and William Shatner. For some reason I link these two movies in my mind (maybe the word “Mama” in the title?)

To the contrary, that DeNiro’s competition for greatest actor of his generation, Al Pacino, was pretty much invented by the Godfather (I), as he was only in a few nothing productions before that? Within a decade though, he had starred in Serpico, Godfather II, Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All, and Author, Author, cementing his legend. My personal favorite, though, was his role as Big Boy, in Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.

Proving that our civilization is at an end, DeNiro and Pacino are in negotiations to make the 1995 movie, Heat, in which they co-starred, into a video game. A video game! Oh, come on, guys. How much for your dignity?

That Val Kilmer, the third star of Heat, had a signature move in his early movies where he moves a coin or similar object over the back of his knuckles, including in Tombstone, where he played Dr. Holiday with such perfection, they should go back and give him a special Oscar for it?

Tombstone is a wonderful picture, worshipped by a country full of middle aged men. It probably deserves its own post. It was the vision of the original director/writer, Kevin Jarre. There is some interesting Did You Know stuff in it. Jarre, who wrote a very long epic screenplay, reasonably close to the historical record of the gunfight at the OK Corrall, was soon fired and Kurt Russell (who played Wyatt Earp) ended up being the de facto but unnamed director, even after an official new director was brought on lot. Jarre may have been a little nuts, as he made them all wear wool suits in the insane Arizona heat.

Robert Mitchum, was supposed to play the old man Clanton but hurt himself falling off a horse. So, they cut out his role and gave him the narration instead. Believe it or not (especially if you’ve seen this film) Richard Gere was originally slated to play Wyatt Earp and William Dafoe, Doc Holiday. No offense, guys, but no, no, no. Former western star Henry Ford was supposed to have a role, but had to back out too. But, two old timers hung in there. Harry Carey, Jr., who started his career in the 1940s, played the sheriff gunned down by Curley Bill, and Charlton Heston, who played rancher, Henry Hooker. The role of young, sensitive Billy Claiborne was played by an actual distant relative of Earp, who otherwise had almost no acting career. His real name – Wyatt Earp. He actually did a very good job in a small, but interesting part. You get the feeling there was more to his character’s story which was cut from Jarre’s much longer version. Just a guess.

A movie named Tombstone is a great place to end any blog.

Next week, back with some predictions for the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Like most of the candidates for the nominations, I intend to go down in flames.

Monday, December 17, 2007

2007 Christmas Spectacular

It’s time for my second annual Christmas Spectacular.

Unfortunately, I note that as I start this post, I have no ideas for it other than to write something -- so I’m going to have to wing it. Looking at last year’s categories for reference, they included best holiday movies, best holiday books, best holiday images, best holiday songs and best posts for 2006.

So, thinking quickly, I’ve come up with a few new categories, including, my new favorite -- best comments on

Best’s best posts of the year (it so embarrassing to have to give myself awards, but let’s face it, no one is giving this blog a Pulitzer):

10. The Great Paavo Nurmi (4/11/07)
9. The new and improved Miss Malaprop (4/26/07)
8. The Amazing Richard Burton (but not the one you are thinking of)(3/15/07)
7. Leo Szilard: Father of the Bomb (1/9/07)
6. How the Left Blew the Partial Birth Abortion Case (4/19/07)
5. The Nazi Invasion of Long Island (1/24/07)
4. The Manhattan Project for Education (10/15/07)
3. Will the real Tom Bombadil please stand up (7/17/07)
2. Would you have Father Abraham for your Father (5/22/07)
1. Toughness Personified: George Chuvalo (9/10/07)

Best personal annual holiday experiences (usually, anyway):

5. Egg nog.
4. All those lit up houses (actually, this year was awful around here).
3. Annual viewings of my favorite Xmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. I tear up three times. First,when Kris speaks to the little Dutch orphan; second, when Doris writes on the bottom of Susan’s letter to Kris “I believe in you too”; and, third, when Fred and Doris see Kris’ cane in the house. Doesn’t matter how often I’ve seen it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about watch the damn movie, but, for the millionth time,ONLY the 1947 version.
2. Annual visit to Rockefeller Centre.
1. Christmas dinner.

Best comments on (don’t blame me for their spelling errors – I make enough of my own):

5. “I feel pretty was from West Side Story, not My Fair Lady.” (by Don – 3/7/07). Well, got me there, but I try not to think about my mistakes. It’s a blog. I just fix them.

4. “Oh lord, would you guys get a life. Who cares? Stick to the important topics in life: good cigars, professional wrestling, American history, natural science, sports, cars, and broads. Abortion rights!?! Please. As George Carlin famously said, “ever notice that the woman the pro-life rallies are too ugly to f—k.” (by Bear – 4/19/07) Perhaps I should add Bear’s home address.

3. Tie:

(a) “You have earned a seat in the conservative wing of the Republican party, old boy. Congratulations. You are almost a fascist. Surprised you are not a bigger fan of McCain and Giuliani, as you certainly support the heart of their political views.” (by Bear -- July 4, 2007)

(b) “Hey, What is this Soviet history. Libby NEVER was accused of, or did reveal anything about Plame. Richard Armitage did. Nor is it wrong to mention that which is known generally in the public domain (that someone drving into Langley everyday works for the CIA. Which he also did not do. This was a witch hunt in which a supposed crime was invented after the prosecutor knew that the crime which he was commissioned to investigate never took place.” (by Don -- 7/2/07).

2. “You are too liberal you pinko commie. John Paul Stevens [&] Ruth Bader Ginsburg” (also by, I have on good authority, the marauding Montanan, Don 11/5/07)

1. Tie:
(a) “De rigeur? Did he say “De Rigeur”? He did. He did say “De rigeur”! Well, a fine de rigeur to you as well. Hello, have a nice de rigeur. And a nice de rigeur right back atcha’. Snnnnxxxxkxxxx, ZZZzzzzzzz, Snxxxx, ZZZzzzzzz.”(Bear 11/05/07) Actually, Bear, we both spelled it wrong. I got to fix mine. Nyah, nyah.

(b) “re. lazy kids. Look whos talking person who has time to write child abuse articles. . . lil Max (p.s. u no who i am). like the grammar, blame the schools.” This 10/15/07 comment was apparently written by an insane maniac who goes by the name of “lil max” [excuse me while I lock my door].

Folks, we need some new comments. These guys are just brutal.

Best movies of the year:

5. Dan in Real Life
4. American Gangster
3. Grindhouse
2. Knocked Up
1. No Country for Old Men

Biggest movie disappointments:

3. Spider-Man III
2. Pirates of the Caribbean III
1. Everything else with III on the end.

Movie I’m happiest I didn’t see:

Evan Almighty

Movie I wish I saw:

3:10 to Yuma

New series I’m glad I watch on tv:

The Office (it’s new to me).

TV shows I’m glad I don’t have time too watch:

Virtually everything else.

Best Books of 2007:

2. Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. This is not Bryson’s best book. I think Mother Tongue (also his first) was. But he is always fun and the pages fly. This one is a short but interesting synopsis of the one and only Shakespeare (despite what anyone tells you). Although, there are longer and more detailed biographies, he manages to summarize everything in perfect proportion to my interests.

1. The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy – 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson. This is much better than his also excellent An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa (2003). He figured out what worked best in the first volume and went with it.

Prediction for second worst anticipated feeling for 2008:

Finding out who won the two major party nominations.

Prediction for worst anticipated feeling for 2008:

You guessed it. Finding out who actually won the presidential election.

Most ridiculous holiday news story:

Santa's in training in Australia were asked not to say "ho, ho, ho" because it might offend women and frighten children. Frankly, if women in Australia are actually so dumb that they can't tell the difference between being called a "ho" and Santa laughing "ho, ho, ho," I'm going there now. It might be my only hope.

New Years resolution:

To do a beter job profreeding this bolg.

Happy Holidays, folks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sing, Sing, Sing

A few years ago I attended a high school musical performance my daughter was in which included the Jazz hit “Sing, Sing, Sing.” I looked at the pamphlet they handed out and gritted my teeth. It was attributed to the great swing clarinetist, Benny Goodman. I like Goodman, but -- come on.

I was disappointed and had a difficult time concentrating on the concert. My neighbors did not seem to recognize the offense. I had discovered Sing, Sing, Sing as a kid on my father's jazz album, long before I learned its real composer just happened to be my all time favorite musician. S, S, S isn’t just any jazz piece. If you have not heard it, it is (here’s where I display my comprehensive lack of knowledge about music) a festival of rhythm and brass unlike anything else ever played, and not just in my evahumble opinion, as you will see. It's like (here's where I display my comprehensive lack of poetic ability) that perfect summer day when even the air smells good and you feel exhilarated.

But it wasn’t written by Benny Goodman, dammit -- no matter how often you see it attributed to him.

S, S, S is not only one of the greatest jazz songs ever written (in my and others subjective opinions -- the greatest), but oddly, I actually - just like in the climatic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street - have some strange legal authority to support this position? No less a court than the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals (usually deemed the second or third most important court in the country) opined in a 1999 copyright infringement case like so:

“At the heart of the litigation before us on this appeal is a jazz tune popularized by the well-known swing clarinetist Benny Goodman. The song entitled "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" is one of the most recognizable from the height of the swing era in the 1930s. A 1999 poll of National Public Radio listeners named it one of the 100 most important musical works of the 20th century. . . For those familiar with the Benny Goodman version of it with its upbeat syncopation and counterpoint, "Sing, Sing, Sing" is as distinctive and recognizable as the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony are to a classical music lover. . . . This song, a Louis Prima composition, was popularized by Benny Goodman and turned out to be one of his most famous and enduring. See Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman 161 (1993). A recording of it was hailed as one of the best known records of the big band era. . . . EMI has earned over $4.7 million mostly from films and commercials during the 63 years it has licensed those rights.”

Of course, you will note the repeated use of Benny Goodman’s name and the one measly mention of Prima’s. But, the association of Louis Prima’s song with Benny Goodman is understandable. Prima wrote it in 1936. Goodman started playing it right away, possibly hearing it at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Although written reports sometimes give the impression that it was a one time sensation in a 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, that isn’t true. By then the song had been in four movies. Two years – FOUR movies! That’s insane. In 1937 Goodman had already made a popular recording of it, unusual for its great length -- almost three times the usual tune, and combining with it another piece known as Christopher Columbus (by Leon “Chu” Berry, a saxophonist who usually played with Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson’s bands). Nor was it arranged by Goodman, although he almost always get credit. That was the work of Jimmy Mundy, an arranger (originally Earl Hines’ saxophonist) who also worked for Count Basie, Harry James, Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Mundy was Black and Goodman was the Beatles of his time for young white audiences. Such is life. However, for some reason Prima almost always gets ignored or plays second fiddle.

The studio recording set the table for the ‘38 Carnegie Hall performance with much of the same all star band, including drumming sensation Gene Krupa, Harry James and Ziggy Elman on trumpet and Red Ballard on trombone, among a lot of other then jazz stars whose names are less familiar today. It may be the most famous single performance of a piece in musical history, and you have to give a large part of the credit to the music itself. From then on, it was as if it was Goodman’s song. Even the NPR top 100 list that the court of appeals referred to mentions that the song as written by Prima but performed by Goodman.

Prima, of course, made his own recording and played it at his own concerts. In fact, his own version sounds pretty much like Goodman’s greatest performance. I would bet most people wouldn’t know one from the other, although they are not by any means identical. Prima also has an outstanding version with lyrics, done in his own inimitable style , which you can find on his incredible Capitol Records collection.

But as one court opinion and a subjective top 100 list isn’t enough to appreciate just how special S, S, S is, consider this:

Aside from Goodman and Prima, the great composition has been covered by a multitude of musical artists, including, The Andrew Sisters, Anita O’Day, The Boston Pops, Buddy Rich & Max Roach, Chicago and the Gipsy Kings, Clark Terry, Gene Krupa (his own band) and Henry Mancini, just to name the ones with which I’m familiar. The actual list is a much longer. EMI list 80 versions for it. Although that's a lot, it's not even close to the record, but it is pretty amazing for a piece which many (most?) people have heard, but wouldn't necessarily recognize by its title.

Ironically, although celebrated by musicians and music lovers, it is in the visual media where it has had its greatest success. Sing, Sing, Sing has been featured in four, count ‘em, four Broadway hits: 1978’s Dancin’, 1999’s Fosse and also Swing, and 2000’s Contact. I am not sure how impressive that seems to you, so I will ask anyone who actually knows anything about Broadway to tell me if any other 20th or 21st century songs or instrumentals have been featured in that many shows? I don’t know any, but if so, it has to be a rarity.

But Broadway is just the entree. S, S, S’s frequent usage on television may also be unique. Even a long running Russian game show, which is actually played all over the world wherever there are Russians (“Что? Где? Когда,” if you want to check it out) has been playing it since the 1970s. It’s also the theme song for a Peruvian show, Cinescape, and also played on a Swedish tv show, Livshunger.

That’s just Europe. In America, its repeated use up to date, over 70 years after it was written and made famous, is probably unparalleled. Just in recent years it has been played on Everybody Loves Raymond, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle, Doctors (2007), Baseball (the Ken Burns documentary), 3rd Rock from the Sun and Carnivale. It was also used in a Chips Ahoy commercial and a tv movie, Tower of Terror. Again, maybe there are other pieces that have made it onto the small screen this often, but I don’t know what they are. Feel free to chip in.

But it is film makers that have really exploited S, S, S. This should blow your mind. If it doesn’t convince you of the imposing staying power of Prima’s greatest work, perhaps nothing will. It has been featured in the following movies:

Sing Banditry (as a violin piece) (’36)
After the Thin Man (’36)
Torture Money (’37)
Hollywood Hotel (’37)
The Benny Goodman Story (of course) (’55)
Jovenes y rebeldes (Mexican and under the name Canta, Canta, Canta - ‘61)
All that Jazz (‘79)
American Pop (‘81)
Star 80 (‘83)
Power (’86)
Big Business (’88)
New York Stories (’89)
Awakenings (’90)
The Butcher’s Wife (’91)
Swing Kids (’93)
Manhattan Murder Mystery (’93)
Casino (’95)
Deconstructing Harry (’97)
Dance With Me (’98)
The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (’98)
Fille sur la pont, la (’99)
Pollock (’00)
The Majestic (’01)
Hyper (’02)
Below (’02)
Gangs of New York (’02)
Bright Young Things (’03)
Swing Girls (Japanese – ’03)
and even a 2003 documentary, Hollywood’s Magical Island: Catalina. Since its birth, the only decade in which Hollywood ignored it was the forties. Then, again, after four movies in the thirties, how soon could it be used again?

Astonishing? Absolutely. Let’s take what I would say is S, S, S’s top competitor for the greatest instrumental piece of the last century – In the Mood, a piece that has been played at a zillion catered affairs, and which really gets people on the floor. So as not to be inconsistent – it was written by Joe Garland, not Glenn Miller, as many think. Despite its immense popularity, I could find only four movies and ten television shows which featured it. That’s outstanding, but it doesn’t compare to S, S, S. How about a more modern song like Rock Around the Clock? That’s a song that really sets the mood for the fifties and you’d think would be in many movies. It is - seven films that I could find. No comparison.

Let’s get out of the century and country and compare it with the opening strains of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, to which the court of appeals compared it - possibly the most recognizable music ever written. That actually is used in a lot of movies, almost as many as S, S, S, but half of them were in the 1930s and 1940s (lots of WWII flicks), and not at all between few 1946 and 1991, a huge gap. There may be other classical works, mostly by Beethoven, in that league. Even if there is (using the term “classical” loosely) and I don’t know that to be true, S, S, S seems to be the most frequently piece of the last century in film. I can’t check every song (actually the above is the extent of my checking) but I double dog dare you to find another 20th or 21st century song or instrumental that has been used more often by film or television. If there is, I’d like to know. Prima deserves a special Oscar.

I’ve tried here to explain the merit of a work of music to you, and, of course, this can’t be complete without you hearing it yourself. Unless you just hate any swing music (there’s always somebody), but don’t know this quintessential swing piece, go to itunes or wherever you get your music and download it. If you can’t be bothered, then just check out and you can listen to Prima's version with lyrics. Or to watch a part of Goodman's Carnegie Hall Performance you can go to

Stay tuned, hep cats. More on the incomparable and under appreciated Louis Prima coming in the future.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Online Diary - The Home Sale, Part IV

So, it looks like my house is going into contract (but remember, this is me, so anything could go wrong). But that's not the funny part.

The buyers had an inspector come today to check out the house. It is a little disconcerting to see someone walking around your house taking notes when you can't figure out what he is even looking at.

I knew he would want to check out the downstairs bathroom, so I turned the water back on in there. We haven't used it in maybe a few years.

So, he flushes the toilet and . . . . . . . . . . . boom! It pretty much explodes sewage all over the bathroom. And, of course, when that happened, it caused a flood in the basement. Not too pretty and still cleaning.

This is analgous to running a red light on your road test, or, on a first date --forgetting where you parked your car or your date's name, or to bring money, or to wear two shoes that are actually the same color, or absent mindedly telling your date that you hate the color purple when everything she is wearing is purple (yes, this genius has actually done all of those, and I could go on).

The timing was, for me, nothing new, if fact, the story of my life. You can't make this stuff up.

Fortunately, to my shock, there was nothing else wrong with the house, so . . . stay tuned.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The real or imagined messiah

Well, it’s almost Christmas, so let me say, Jesus Christ!

Efforts to “find” a historical Jesus began to interest me about 15-20 years ago. John P. Meier, a Catholic Priest teaching at Catholic University in D.C., and the author of the three volumes “A Marginal Jew” makes two related suggestions as to why it was important to study this issue. He first proposed that it is because “the life unexamined is not worth living” (quoting Plato). Maybe, maybe not. As Woody Allen has illustrated in film, examining one’s life can be quite painful and ignorance much more blissful. I can think of some people I know who would be clueless at the idea of examining their lives, but whom are among the happiest people I know, and visa versa.

Meier also argues that no religious person can claim themselves educated without investigating the historical Jesus. Poppycock. That’s just the sort of illogical drivel he spends the bulk of his book knocking down. It’s hard to believe after these first two paragraphs that I’m actually very impressed with his work, but in my opinion he has written the most readable, thoroughly researched and comprehensive effort of recent Jesus scholarship. Still, there were many conclusions he made which I felt he couldn’t support, or which supported other theories. But I’m not here to examine his work, but to review some of the possibilities of an historical Jesus and state my humble opinion. I do this because of the many educated people I’ve met, who believe that it is well documented that there was an historical Jesus (who is usually reckoned to have been born around 6-4 B.C. and died around 29-33 A.D., give or take) and those who argue that there is no proof he existed. I have big problems with both perspectives.

My personal reason for looking at this is just because it interests me, as reading on the JFK assassination interests me too (I haven’t read the most recent mammoth work, but I already feel fairly convinced that Oswald acted alone). With Jesus, as with so many other figures, you have to first readily acknowledge that we will never know for sure, and it doesn't really matter in anyone's day to day lives. If a group of universally esteemed religious figures, historians and anthropologists from the Pope to Indiana Jones, suddenly found verifiable and confirming evidence that Jesus Christ was the one and only messiah, it wouldn’t matter anymore than it would if they found proof that the resurrection was a hoax, and the evangelists were just angry at Judas, who owed them a lot of shekels. Those who believe in Jesus will wave a dismissive hand and continue to believe, and those who don’t will smirk and say “Told you so”. But the overwhelming idea of Jesus, real or not, has been with us for nearly 2,000 years and cannot be extricated from our culture very easily.

As proof of this, crypts purportedly bearing the names Mary, Jesus (son of Joseph), Mary Magdalene and Jesus and the latter two's purported sons were discovered over a quarter century ago, but were revealed to the public only recently. The excitement of it lasted a mere news cycle, and despite the attempts of famous film maker, James Cameron, to publicize it, has not put a dent in the appreciation for Jesus among Christians, whether they are true believers or not. Why would it? We cannot know if it is a later hoax, or if the names were similar enough to come up by chance (unlikely in my view), etc. My analysis below doesn't consider the crypts because I believe it is still too early to weigh their significance, if any.

Lack of firm proof about an ancient figures' existence is not a strange circumstance, even going back a few hundred years. In fact, as far as I know, there is no literature concerning Buddha of which we have any record until at least a half millennium after his supposed life and death. Proof of the major figures in the Old Testament is similarly problematic. However Moses and Buddha, should they have existed, lived many hundreds of years before Jesus. The closer we get to now, the more likely there will be more evidence.

What evidence do we have of Jesus’ existence? Let’s break it up into smaller categories. First, evidence from people during the time Jesus was supposed to have lived; second, evidence from after his death by people who would have known him; third, evidence from people who would have some probability of knowing Jesus’ companions; and, fourth, evidence from people who were alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but did not likely know them.

Evidence from Jesus’ lifetime: This first category is easiest – there is none. Not the gospels (canonical or otherwise) or any other part of the New Testament appears to have been written during the life of Jesus. It would be strange if it had. Jesus, presuming he existed (and I do, by the way) was certainly not that well known, and his death and reported resurrection was the most important part of his claim to fame. There would have been little reason to write about him before that. Although there is certainly evidence of people existing who were in the gospel (e.g., Herod, Pilate), that is not proof of Jesus’ existence anymore than if I now write a fictional story about a 21st century messiah which includes George Bush and Howard Stern as characters.

Evidence after Jesus’ death from those who knew him during his life: The natural guess would be from the apostles, the dozen plus (one replaced Judas) who were in the inner circle. There are those who advocate, including the Catholic Church, that, at least the evangelists Matthew and John were the apostles of the same name. I don’t believe the likely evidence bears this out, as discussed below, so I tend to believe this category must also be empty, although by no means impossible. I should point out that most of the scholars I have read on this topic are religious people themselves, often Catholic, who separate history from their faith. I have no problem with a perspective that is based on faith provided it is also based on some attempt at evidence and not just “thou shalt believe”.

The third category, evidence from after his death but by people who knew Jesus’ companions is a little more helpful, although, at the same time, much more complicated. Because the four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John (no coverage of the apocryphal gospels here, which almost certainly all came later) come before Paul’s letters in the Bible, many people believe that they were written first. Most of the credible evidence seems to point to the contrary, although, as with everything in the Bible, there is always a different opinion, usually many. One of the most compelling considerations is that it would seem difficult to believe that Paul himself would not have mentioned the evangelists’ accounts in some fashion were they already written.

Paul, or St. Paul, certainly did not know Jesus. He supposedly had his epiphany while on the road to Damascus in order to persecute the late Jesus’ followers, the yet unnamed Christians, when he was temporarily struck blind by Jesus’ spirit (he literally saw the light), got a very stereotypical Jewish sounding guilt trip from his spirit (Oh, Paul, why do you persecute me?), and became a believer. Leaving aside the fact that some of Paul’s letters contained in the Bible are no longer deemed by some scholars to be his own work, he was, according to well authenticated letters (by convention), acquainted with at least James and Simon (aka Peter, the Rock) of Jesus' companions.

Some information about Paul derived from his own letters differs enough from information about the Paul of Acts of the Apostles such that more than one scholar (including one of my favorite classicists, Michael Grant) has concluded that the Paul (originally Saul) of Acts of the Apostles, was not the same person as the Paul who wrote what are now called Ephesians, Romans, etc. Even seeking evidence of Jesus from the earliest commentators we are confounded by riddles within riddles. It is not for nothing that history has been called “argument without end” by historian Pieter Geyl.

Since this is a blog, not a book, let’s presume for arguments sake that it’s the same Paul, which is the convention, in any event. His life was certainly chaotic; he was chased out of towns, stoned and jailed among other things and appears to have shied away from no argument, including with so esteemed a Christian as Simon Peter. It was possibly first from Paul (again, ignoring the order in the New Testament) that a larger audience of converts, and ultimately, we, learned of the Last Supper, the crucification, the resurrection and Jesus’ supposed descent from King David (which only one of the evangelists held to be the case). No doubt, Paul would have learned of these things from Jesus’ followers, as it seems unlikely that the Romans were talking about it amongst themselves. Thus, unless Paul was involved in some bizarre conspiracy to create a Jesus myth out of whole cloth or was the victim of such a conspiracy, both which seem incredible, and of which there is no evidence, his non-eyewitness testimony is among the best evidence we have for Jesus’ existence.

Paul died in the mid-60’s A.D., conventionally either 64 or 67 A.D., several years before the appearance, as many scholars believe, of the earliest of the four canonical gospels.

The order the gospels were written in is especially controversial. According to one theory cleaved to by some scholars (but far from all) Mark was the first of the three synoptic (or similar) evangelists -- Mark, Matthew and John. It cannot be known whether he is the same Mark who was a companion of Peter’s (after Jesus’ death), a companion of Paul’s, or both. The same can be said for Luke, who is believed to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, both of which were dedicated to Theophilos (meaning friend/lover of God and possibly a metaphor) and who also may also have been Paul’s companion. The single name only shtick in the Bible makes it tough on historians.

As for Matthew, who other scholars believe to be the first evangelist, he may have been, in fact, the same Matthew the tax collector called by Jesus and made an apostle. I cannot subscribe to this opinion, as I believe that if it were true, his gospel would have been written and known before Paul’s letter’s, would have been given greater prominence among the gospels as being written by an actual witness, and would have given his work such credibility, that it would have made no sense for the other gospels, particularly Mark and Luke, to have differed from him in personal details about Jesus’ life. Given that, and my own review of the scholarship which tries to ascertain who borrowed from whom (all interesting, but highly speculative), I would hold with scholars who believe that Mark proceeded both Matthew and Luke, and, if the author of Matthew lived at the same time as Jesus, he was not an eyewitness to the events. Admittedly, my own opinion is heavily biased by writers who seem to me to be the most objective.

In any event, there is probably a rough consensus among modern scholars that Mark, Matthew and Luke were written between 70 and 90 A.D. (although I cannot hedge enough). It must also be noticed that many scholars do not presume that the evangelists knew Jesus’ companions at all, but only that there was a tradition or traditions about Jesus that they utilized. Sometimes, a source or group of traditions which underlie Matthew and Luke are referred to as Q, which is not meant to mean a specific person. No documentary proof of Q exists, however, and I have grave doubts about it.

The fourth category is those who may have been alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but did not know them. Among them, I would include John, whose gospel is not one of the synoptic (or fairly similar) gospels and was probably written somewhere between 90-110 A.D. ( again, a rough modern consensus), although there are arguments for as early as 50 A.D., which I personally doubt. People who hold for the earlier date believe it was written or at least taken from the testimony of the Apostle John, and the earliest of the four. This gospel stands out from the other three authors in that John deems Jesus as more than just the Messiah, but one with God, and, in some authors’ opinion, is the most Christian (some also say most anti-Semitic) of the four gospels.

I can’t see putting John in a category where the author would have likely known those who were Jesus’ companions or eyewitness, both because its late date and its many differences from the other three evangelists’ works, from which John takes little except the broadest information. The earliest papyrus fragment existing containing John's gospel is usually dated about 125 A.D., although this is, of course, problematic too. John 21, sometimes called the “appendix” to John, refers to the death of Peter (like Paul, likely also in the late 60’s A.D.), which leads to the more likely conclusion that, if written at the same time as the rest of John, it probably was not written before the other gospels. Then again, it is called the appendix for a reason, and may have been written later than the rest of John (the so-called “appendix” to the “appendix” also lists the evangelist’s death).

Certainly in the last category of those being alive at the same time as Jesus’ companions, but without knowing them, is Josephus, who wrote about the Jews under the Romans somewhere around 100 A.D. There are perhaps three references in Josephus’ two books to Jesus, however, the one sometimes said to be in The Jewish Wars appears almost beyond doubt to be a later addition by a Christian as it speaks of Jesus as one with God in glorious, religious, terms, very much differently from the first occurrence, and, more importantly, occurs only in a much later Russian version, not any of the original ones.

In Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, however, another reference is made to Jesus in passing while discussing the stoning of James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” At the least, this is evidence that this Jewish, but at the time he wrote, pro-Roman historian, seemingly without a dog in the fight, and who was writing within a long lifetime after the events of the passion would have occurred, believed Jesus to be an historical figure. The third reference, also in Antiquities is also of extremely doubtful authenticity. Of course, some scholars even believe that the shortest reference to Jesus was a later interpolation as well. I disagree.

Interestingly, Josephus writes in much greater depth about John the Baptist, which would seem to lead to the conclusion that he considered him to have been a far more important religious figure than Jesus. Both John and Jesus, presuming they were ever alive, were certainly dead years before Josephus was born around 37 A.D. Although it is possible that he knew some of Jesus’ companions, there is no mention of them, other than the one reference to Jesus’ brother, and that does not contain any eyewitness information. Josephus wrote at roughly the same time as the earliest gospels.

Some mention must be given to Tacitus as well. His Annals, a history of the Roman Empire during part of the first century A.D., were written near the end of his life, thus in the first part of the second century. He also mentions Jesus in passing (referring to Christians being persecuted by the Roman Emperor Nero, who reigned from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D.) as being executed by Pontius Pilate, but shows no sign of having even any second degree information. Born around 56 A.D., Tacitus may have known early Christians, but his opinion of them was so low (he described their religion as an “evil”) that it seems highly unlikely. It appears to me he is merely an historian (although one of the most important) as opposed to say, even a second degree source. Unfortunately, there are many lost books of the Annals, including one which would have very likely covered the time period of Jesus’ ministry and trial (probably around 29 A.D. – 31 A.D.). You never know what may turn up in an excavation someday, so there may be more from this source at a later date.

In all, there is far more evidence than is necessary for me to believe that Jesus was an historical person and that he was initially important to at least a small group of followers. There is no reason to doubt that the gospels and other biblical material such as Paul’s letters do not contain at least secondary historical information just because they also have religious import. Frankly, if we know absolutely nothing of Jesus except from that one phrase by Josephus concerning his brother, James, we would almost certainly assume it was history, not fiction.

Not believing Jesus to have been historical also leaves a pretty big problem. Where did his Christian followers come from and why would they create this story and religion at such great risk to their lives and well being?

Once again, let me give a great big, who knows? Certainly not me, but I do like to read about this stuff, and am always impressed by the level of scholarship in a very gray area. Next week’s -- Marvin the Martian: Historical Fact or Warner Bros.’ hoax?

Abidih, abideh . . . that’s all folks.

Postscript: While writing this blog I began to wonder if I might be the only one to find it interesting. I shouldn't have given it any thought. Just prior to hitting publish for this post, I went online to double check a documentary fact and was surprised to see any number of blogs covering it. Apparently, lots of people are interested. Good. I can only hope that my recitation is more objective than the few I perused.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Science v. Faith?

Having just written on the problem of "first cause", I am surprised to find myself drawn right back into it by Paul Davies' op-ed in this past Saturday's New York Times. But having informally debated some number of people who told me that science and religion were both faith based endeavors, I was disappointed to read an article by a well known science guru seeming to argue the same point in the New York Times op-ed page.

Maybe I didn’t understand his article. I think I did. The link for the full Davies' article is: But, to make it easier, here’s my summary:

Religion rests on faith, but the scientific presumption that nature is rationally ordered is also based on faith, although so far, a justified one.

Scientists have to have faith in unchanging, absolute universal mathematical law and don’t seem to care where they come from. This is deeply irrational, even absurd.

Scientists are now coming to accept that laws may not be universal or absolute but that there may be a patch work of universes with their own natural by-laws.

Thus, both science and religion are faith based, one believing in an unexplained god, the other in unexplained laws. Both fail to come up with a “complete account of physical existence”. This is not a surprise as the idea of absolute and immutable laws is a doctrine that Newton borrowed from Christianity.

We will never explain the universe as it is unless we come up with “an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency.” Specifics will come from future research. “But, until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.”

Davies is an interesting science writer. I've read one book of his, The Matter Myth, where he tries to make physics understandable for us idiots. He concentrates on fundamental scientific ideas, physics and the relationship of God to the universe. He has the SETI (search for extraterrestrial life in the universe) chair at the Int’l Academy of Astronautics. I am sure he knows far more about science than I do (I’ve read him; he doesn’t read me). However, the approach he takes in this article, which is also a fair summary of his life’s work, is flawed in a number of ways, and common sense tells us so.

First, where are all these pigheaded scientists that he and many others seem to find who are so rigid in their beliefs? Because I never seem to read anything that remotely sounds like it came from one of these scientists. I’d like to see him present one of them who is as dogmatic as he claims. Although I do not mean to associate Mr. Davies with the conservative movement or assign him specific religious beliefs (I have no idea what his political or religious beliefs are), his article reminds me of the chapter on evolution in Ann Coulter’s liberal bashing Godless . It wasn’t her points about evolution that bothered me (she's absolutey correct that evolution is a theory, not a fact). It was her fashioning of a straw dog (liberal_ scientific community, forged from a few examples, which brooks no opposition, doesn’t understand what “theory” means, and thinks once an authority figure (e.g., Darwin) speaks, it becomes a matter of "faith" and there is no arguing with it.

I have no idea if Coulter knows anything about science, but Davies, a scientist and explainer of science, should know better, and not make the quantum leap from a few informal conversations he's had with other scientists, who possibly never gave a thought to the larger problems Davies cares about and may have given off-the-cuff answers, to a conclusion that there is some monolithic scientific community that cares not at all where natural laws come from.

Of course, Mr. Davies, science is based on assumptions, including that there is an order to the universe that can be uncovered. Each experiment or series of experiments cannot recreate the world. Without assumptions, there would be no way to propose theorems which scientists might then try to disprove with experimentation. Even basic geometry requires certain assumptions. Besides, if scientists were forced to only work on the mega-issues, like theories of everything, we would not have them working on the specific problems, usually highly defined and limited, from which slowly grows our body of knowledge.

On the other hand, the accomplishments of modern physics in a century and a half (in my subjective view starting with the Faraday/Kelvin/Maxwell era) have been extremely rapid, going from Faraday's field theories (1861) to an atomic bomb in just over 80 years (1945), and a rocket to the moon in a little over a hundred (1969). That's because the scientific method works.

While Davies' is certainly correct that science is based upon a presumption that there is a rational and ordered universe, this is not the same thing as beliefs as a matter of faith, such as “I believe that there is one God and Jesus or Jehovah or Allah is his name”. Presumptions underlying science need to be based on common sense and experience and must be reasonable. If they are not, the theory will fall apart and will not stand up to experimentation. Religious faith may have, but clearly does not require, those same elements. Many theologians and religious figures accept that, and even reject a rationale approach to theology or faith. To quote one of my favorite movie lines -- "Faith means believing when common sense tells you not to" (Miracle on 34th Street).

That’s why religious beliefs can inspire, but not build a space ship, or a television set, or an electronic grid, or find a polio prevention, and science can. It’s why oil companies use geologists and other scientists to locate oil fields and not ministers. It’s why weather forecasters and builders do the same. Because it is based, however imperfectly, on experimentation, reason and evidence, not religious belief. If we ever do understand how the universe was created, it will not be because we learn it from a religious tract.

As fellow blogger Bear commented upon my recent post(Turtles and other Puzzles – 11/13/07) there is no reason you can’t believe in science and God. I fully agree, even though I personally don’t believe in God. By "believe in science", I mean, and I think Bear means, believe that the scientific method is effective. My quarrel comes when religion is suggested as an equal method to obtain knowledge about the universe (for that matter, I feel the same way about political beliefs). Religion obviously has had and will continue to have a place in this world, but teaching us about the universe is not it.

It is also certainly true that the scientific method has not even begun to move towards an explanation of first cause or an explanation of where nature’s laws come from. It may be beyond the human mind to comprehend it (or not; we'll see). If we ever do approach such knowledge, it will likely be untestable and therefore, not scientific, in a certain sense of the world. It will be endlessly subject to attack as mere theory.

However, Davies article seems to go further, and “tends,” for lack of a perfect word, to indicate that religion and science are on the same playing field when it comes to obtaining knowledge of the universe - with both flawed - religion, because it looks to God to set the rules, and science, because it looks to external forces to do the same. If he doesn’t believe that, he should make it clearer, because once he says that they are faith based and nothing more, that conclusion will certainly be read into this article.

My thoughts on Coulter’s Godless was essentially this – she is both an educated and religious person who seems defensive that her many of her core beliefs are not based on evidence and wants to reduce science to the same level. Although Davies is definitively not advocating a religious solution, quite the contrary, his putting religion on the same level with science as a method to understand the universe is unrealistic.

Equally unrealistic, and almost unbelievable for a science writer, is his notion that there is an end game out there, where we will know everything, or substantially everything, if scientists only realized that knowing why the laws are the way they are is important too. That’s not happening. The more we learn about the universe through science the more we might realize what Socrates figured out without any science -- the only thing we can know for certain is that we know nothing. That might be an exaggeration of the truth, but certainly, we are on the bottom of a very tall barrel looking up.

We could go back only a couple hundred years to quote a guy who was no scientist or philosopher, but knew a thing or two. John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson late in their lives (after a discussion of the physics of the day as he understood it and human limitations in understanding the universe): “Oh delightful Ignorance! When I arrive at a certainty that I am Ignorant, and that I always must be ignorant, while I live I am happy, for I know I can no longer be responsible.”

One day scientists will find that one last elusive elemental particle (the Higgs boson), figure out how all four forces (weak-strong-electromagnetic-gravity) are related and square quantum physics with relativity. They might even stumble into this black matter and energy they talk about (and which I admit, purely from an intuitive perspective, I have trouble believing in). Of course, having accomplished all that, when all this is accomplished, we will all act surprised that they have opened up more doors than they closed. It doesn’t mean that much knowledge will not have been gained in doing so, just that we will be no closer to an “end”.

Allow me one of my favorite Woody Allen quotes here to illustrate the point: “Man can fly to the moon, but put a cocktail waitress in a room with an 80 year old man and nothing happens, because the real problems never change”.

If I wanted to be snarky, and I might, I’d suggest that Mr. Davies read (because I’m guessing he has) the eccentric scientific genius, Richard Feyman’s famous lectures, where he deals with these issues straight away. He, along with Socrates, John Adams, Woody Allen and many other thinking people, knew that we are never getting to the bottom of it. To tell the truth, I’m pretty sure Mr. Davies knows this too. But you can’t tell from his article, and I'm hoping he would have made this plain had he added a paragraph or so. To make sure that I do not unfairly make an unrealistic monolith of "people of faith" as I think Davies has of scientists, I'll add that I believe many (but far from all) people of faith would agree with most of my points here.

I’m pretty sure we will never really know anything for certain, but we can know things well enough to rely upon things that may have seemed impossible a few years ago (like flying safely in airplanes, or living surrounded by huge amounts of electricity). To continue to do so we must rely on rationale beliefs based on reasonable presumptions, and leave faith to its proper purposes, which are cultural and personal. Call that a presumption, if you will. It’s reasonable.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Return to Desert Island

Our last visit to the desert island concerned what books we would like with us if stranded there forever (which makes this whole “return” premise a little inconsistent, but its not really the point). This time, we are going to decorate our hut with our favorite works of art.

Like last time, the rules are flexible, but there are some. We are only dealing with paintings. It also has to be something that would fit on a wall, so the Sistine Chapel ceiling is out of the question. However, I would not quibble if you want to take some individual panels from there. The list is is limited, as usual, to ten works, and no more than one work per artist.

In reverse order, here are my choices.

No. 10: The Kiss. I attended a Gustav Klimt show at the Neue Gallerie in New York recently. Although there was a fair representation of his work, I was surprised that there was not a single representation or mention of his quintessential painting – The Kiss. Artistic interpretation without some readily identifiable symbolism usually leaves me cold. It is more a creative exercise for the critics than reality based. I prefer art appreciation and history to art criticism anyway, although it is often hard to separate them. But people do debate what this striking idealized painting of this amorous couple means and I have my perspective.

Intuitively, I stand with those who see it as representing a couple completely comfortable with each other and either in love or lust, take your pick. Some apparently think the woman is indifferent or uncomfortable, which would make it a very atypical Klimt painting, who focused on women, not couples. I can’t recall many other men in Klimt’s portfolio, and this one does not have a face, or much form or flesh except for his hands. With her you see nothing but her hands and face. The rest is an all enveloping, almost shapeless, highly stylized golden robe. Its part of what makes the painting a little bit mysterious and fun. Above all, Klimt is about decoration, and The Kiss, a swirling design swimming in gold and tiny symbols, is as decorous as it gets.

To see this particular Klimt before I get it, you need to go to Vienna. I already loved it when I was there, but frankly, I can’t remember if I saw the original or not. Probably did, I just can't remember.

No. 9: I can’t quite go with Sister Wendy in suggesting that Diego Velazquez’ Juan Parera was possibly the greatest painting in the greatest museum in the world – New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art - but there is something special about it.

The subject is supposedly of North African descent, which might seem natural to a 17th century Spanish court painter amdist all those Moorish palaces and descendants.

There is nothing extraordinary about the subject himself in looks or clothing, certainly nothing that dazzles. Which makes it hard to explain why Sister Wendy and I are so taken by it. My adjective for it: arresting. I have spent more time staring at it than I have much more famous works. Those among you who have seen the Seinfeld episode where an elderly couple falls in love with a raffish portrait of Kramer, can readily identify my feelings when looking at it.
Sister Wendy might say it is “sacred,” her highest compliment. I don’t know what it is – but I have to have it for the island. You often can’t explain art. Sometimes you just have to appreciate it.

No. 8: Andrea Mantegna is not well known today outside of renaissance art buffs. His technical abilities were outstanding. He often painted in a style that appeared to be a bas relief, and looking at them, you feel that there might actually be depth to it.

Dead Christ is not unique for him in either topic or mood, but there is something in it that I relish, perhaps the subdued choice of colors and the celestial feeling the dim lighting brings it. Jesus’ lower ribcage and abdomen are typically Mantegnesqe (don’t look that word up – I just coined it). The solemnity of the picture is obvious, but I would call it sublime. Sister Wendy, whose PBS showcases I enjoyed immensely and recommend highly to anyone who wants an introduction to this world, might ask if it crossed into the sacred. It certainly transcends the feeling I get when looking at many other paintings of Christ, dead or not.

Also called Lamentation over the Dead Christ, it is found in the Pinocoteca di Brera, Milan, where, unfortunately, I had to see it while cramming all of Milan’s art (except The Last Supper) into a two hour window at a trot. I lingered the best I could but knew it had made "the list".

A 15th century Italian master, Mantegna has the distinction here of being related to another artist on my list, even if only by marriage. He was the brother-in-law of Giovanni Bellini.

No. 7: Giovanni’s Bellini, was the greatest of his famous family, in my humble and not very scholarly opinion. I have seen St. Francis in Ecstasy several times at the great Frick House, my favorite small museum, right down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the spectacular collection found there, Bellini’s St. Francis is a true highlight. The pale green color and geometric shape of the rocks, the skull and book (Bible?) occupying the standing desk, the mule and peacock, the sparse and scraggly plant life breaking through the ground, the castle on the terraced hill in the background, and the pious St. Francis standing there in ecstasy just speak to me, man.

Even the great Caravaggio’s (see below) treatment of the same subject pales in comparison to Bellini’s effort. If there is ever a second home on this tiny desert island, Giovanni’s brother, Gentile’s, Procession in St. Mark’s Square might also make it into paradise.

No. 6: El Greco. His name itself conjures up imagery. He was a Cretan (from the Greek island; not an idiot) by the name of Domenikos Theotokopolous, who first spent time working in Italy and the settled in Spain. No one has ever painted like him unless they were copying him. Few try. He painted at a time that many of my favorite painters did – the middle of the 16th century to the early 17th. His typical subjects are religious, either Christ or saints, although he painted the usual portraits too. Although he could paint like a camera when he chose, he preferred weirdly elongated figures surrounded by what I can only think of as spiritual ectoplasm. Happily would I populate an entire building with his works. I need not bother, of course. I could just go back to Toledo, Spain, where there's a whole city filled with them. New York has more than a few between the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including perhaps his most famous painting View of Toledo), the Frick House and the often overlooked Hispanic Society of America.

Which to choose though? St. Jerome as Cardinal, and Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple are favorites. If I didn’t become religious after seeing his St. Francis paintings I’m not going to. But most treasured, and the largest painting I will own, is the Burial of Count Orgaz, now resting on the wall of Santo Tome, Toledo, from whence I must somehow free it from its shackles and bring it safely to the island. It’s one of his busier pictures between the many mourners and the heavenly figures above. You can even see El Greco staring blankly out at you amongst the mourners.

No. 5: Caravaggio (his real name was probably Michaelangelo Merisi; it’s not completely clear) is just enjoying a renewed appreciation these days, but there can be little doubt that he revolutionized painting by painting from live models with an astonishing eye for detail. His subjects were filled with wrinkles and dirt and expression in a way which earlier, and most later painters, could and can not conceive. Living in Italy roughly around the same time as El Greco painted in Spain (and Shakespeare was writing in England), he was violent, a killer (and possibly killed himself), moody, creative and a technical phenomena.

When you put his work next to the Michaelangelo (perhaps The Greatest artist), his predecessor’s humans look like cartoon characters. Decades before Rembrandt, Caravaggio perfected the use of light as a tool in capturing a moment (as did others)to such a degree that I have never understood why Rembrandt should get any credit. Such is evident in the chosen piece, The Denial of Peter. Peter's lit face is worth a hundred of other great paintings.

I could have as easily chosen his Calling of St. Matthew, my other favorite Caravaggio. That said, The Taking of Christ and The Crucifixion of St. Peter would look great in my desert island bedroom too. In fact, Caravaggio is one of three artists that I would happily display all throughout my home, desert island or not.

Art historians say that he was not truly appreciated until the last century, but that leaves no explanation for his many imitators throughout Europe in the coming centuries. Even now, until he becomes a household name, he's not famous enough.

No. 4: This is a personal favorite. Although much admired, Giovanni Pannini’s View of Ancient Rome is not considered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. A framed print hangs in my living room (well, the print does – the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and more than one person has asked me for it. Pannini is an 18th century man, much more modern than his subjects. The gallery in the painting contains his exacting reproductions of great works including the exquisite Laocoon and The Farnese Hercules, on opposite front ends. He matched the work with his Gallery of Views of Modern Rome.

No. 3: I admit to not appreciating Van Gogh until a few years ago, and then bammo – I got it. Few nineteenth century painters interest me much – a smattering of impressionists, and Van Gogh’s friend, some pre-Raphaelites and Gauguin. Fewer twentieth century painters do. But Van Gogh, pretty much unrecognized and unloved in his lifetime, churned out (though he would choose a different verb) an impressive number of canvases which are original in style, I would say unique, and contain a very earthly yet strange beauty. Even a painting of a chair set in a bare room from his brush comes out familiar but sensational at the same time. If you get it, of course.

Choosing one was hard. Sunflowers does not do it for me, though it may still be the highest priced painting in the world. With much effort and joy (I own two volumes containing everyone of the paintings he made) I have narrowed it down to the quite famous Starry Night and to the much less well known but brilliant Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (he was better at painting than naming). Since I can only have one on the island, I will go with Starry Night, because it is not only unique and mesmorizing, but is immediately recognizable. I may also change my mind when I actually have to bring it on the island.

No. 2: This one is a strange choice by me. It is painted by an abstract artist who I admit I don’t get at all (and that goes for pretty much all abstract artists). Although the figure in this painting is idealized, I don't consider it abstract. It is the only work by him I like, yet, it is also the first print I ever bought. It is nothing like the renaissance, mannerist or baroque paintings that mean the most to me. I find it opens a door on my medieval and mythological fantasies. I speak of Pablo Picasso’s Don Quixote.

I present it here with a twist - this picture shows it behind a very similarly shaped object. The figure in front of it is a little metal nuts and bolts figurine that appeared as a popular novelty in Europe before Picasso painted his masterpiece (see Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America [12.1 1992] for more information and a more charitable viewpoint). You can’t look at the two works and not believe that Picasso was “heavily influenced” by the earlier work.

Art critics do not like to accuse Picasso of plagiarism. He’s just too famous and creative. He is reknowned for taking
his inspiration from all kinds of things. Still, I can’t look at the figurine and the painting without saying "Oh, come on. It’s almost the same thing". At some point inspiration goes beyond adopting a style or working with the same materials or in the same genre – and some credit needs to be given. Even were credit given, there should be some significant time lapse between works of art before the term “inspired by” doesn’t just mean, at best, a “tribute to” and at worst, plagiarism. Of course, Picasso himself purportedly said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”.

Then again, I have no interest in having the metal figurine in my desert island home, and Picasso’s work made no. 2. So, he did improve it. I can only think of one painting I want more for my little hut.

No. 1: That one painting would be Pieter Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow, one of a quartet of great paintings showcasing the seasons that rings every bell in the art appreciation center of my brain. I look at it and I see a 15th century village, with friendly, hardworking hunters on their way home, where they will soon be ripping off pieces of a just killed and cooked fowl while they sit before the smoky fire place; one hand holding a leg or breast and the other preparing to down a tankard of ale; a glow on everyone’s face, and the hound dogs sleeping on some scraps of fur by the fire. Comfortable. I have already framed a print I bought, but will exchange it for the original.

Breugel (also Breughel) prefigured the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and so forth in the next century, not to mention his own son, a great landscape artist in his own right. I see more of him in Hals than the others (not surprisingly, I like Hals the best of the group, and he almost made the island). Breugel may have inspired the artist who draws Where’s Waldo, which you will understand if you take a look at some of Breugel's busier works.

Hunters may not mean as much to you. You can see it in the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna with a bunch of Bruegel’s best and judge for yourself -- until I take it.

The availability of prints of these and other grreat works are wonderful, but seeing art in person makes a difference. I’ve been fortunate enough to see 7 of the 10 selections myself and maybe hope to see the others. The value of seeing the original first came to me in the 80s when I stood before Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. I realized my jaw dropped. Looking around, I wasn't the only one.

There is nothing more subjective than art and any list is just begging to be attacked for what it included and left out. It hurts to leave off Hieronymus Bosch’s Judgment Day, Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, Michaelangelo's Sacred Family, and all those Caravaggio's, El Greco’s and Breugel's that didn't make the cut.

Having made the list myself, I am somehow surprised to find Van Gogh, Klimt and Picasso taking up nearly a third of it, as I would estimate that a list of 100 paintings would include few other post 18th century artists, if any, and very few post 17th century artists for that matter.

I have no problem leaving off the three most famous paintings in the world --Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and any part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- although I believe Da Vinci and Michaelangelo may be the greatest Western artists ever to wield a brush. Naturally, you should feel free to bring these pieces to your island.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Turtles and other puzzles

There are some things I will never understand.

For one thing, quantum mechanics. I have read about it a bit and think about it a lot. I really only understand it a little when I’m in the act of reading about it and only if the author is more of a writer than a scientist and goes easy on the math. Still, even when focusing on an excellent treatment of the subject, I find it baffling. Who doesn't?

In a nutshell (a really, really small nutshell), quantum mechanics is about how really, really small things work, like atomic particles. It is almost impossible to understand in terms of the physics we experience day to day, because the quantum particles behave in a way that makes physicists say things like – if you understand it, you probably don’t understand it. I made that one up, but they say things like that all the time. Even Einstein, on my short list of the twentieth century’s greatest people, was baffled by it, and intellectually stymied in trying to disprove some of the odder bits of it.

For years Einstein continued an ongoing friendly debate at scientific conferences with one of the other great scientists of the century, Niels Bohr of Copenhagen, who gave us the classical model of the atom -- electrons rotating around a nucleus. These discussions were not recorded, and it’s a shame, because they probably would rank with the Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858 as the greatest debates in history.

Bohr insisted that all that underlay matter was uncertainty and randomness, which Einstein rejected. Some say that Einstein was, in spite of his thought provoking scientific breakthroughs, a materialist at heart (in the scientific sense), who could not fathom the idea that there was no order underlying reality. "Copenhagen School" scientists like Bohr had no problem with it, and, in fact, insisted upon it. His famous expression, which he delivered in different ways (so I’ll paraphrase) was “God does not play dice with the universe”. Of course, he also at least once said “Maybe God does play dice with the universe," but whose counting?

One of the weirdest things about quantum theory is the now scientifically proven (so they say) fact that quantum particles can affect each other instantaneously at any distance. This is called by various names like "quantum strangeness" or "quantum entanglement". For the observations to be correct, and experiment after experiment seems to prove it is, that means that two objects, if you can call a nuclear particle a thing, are communicating faster, maybe much faster, than the speed of light. If true, it would disprove one of the basic tenets of Einstein’s theories – that nothing can travel faster than light.

In fact, one group of scientists claims that they have made observations in an experiment where particles were caused to move faster than light. They claim that they can make a particle in a specially constructed environment go through a tube before it started. You don’t have to read that again. It makes no sense to us, and I have trouble believing it is not an experimental error or misreading of the data. But, the more you read about quantum physics, the easier it is to believe these things (or, the contrary, that these physicists have no clue themselves).

This all sounds very Star Trekish, although the current theory also holds that this faster than light or instantaneous transmission cannot work with classically sized objects or information, like a human body or an email, so no teleportation as tv shows would describe them would ever work.

However, these odd quantum characteristics may lead to something called quantum computers, which, though mostly in the theoretical stage, are being worked on by scientists around the world. When perfected, they will, arguably, be more far more powerful than conventional computers in the same proportion that a Stealth Fighter is more powerful than a paper airplane. I don’t understand how this would work either (no one does) but I would trade all my books for the name of the company which can produce the first working models at affordable prices.

How would we mortals understand this incomprehensible computor at the bottom of which there is supposedly no order? I'm not worried. Eventually, it will become user friendly. How many of us really understand how tv sets, airplanes and regular computers work? We can say things like, well, rays shoot through the air and make things happen, but you know, really . . . .

So, if you see me staring out in space, I am sometimes actually thinking about things like time, matter, energy and other things I don’t understand. I really do try and solve the puzzles of the universe on the back of envelopes with some neat little circles overlapping each other, even if its silly. I don’t think about gravity a lot, because in my personal quantum universe gravity is really just misunderstood . . . um . . . something else. Don’t stay up late waiting for the book. I’ll post my discoveries right here along with my theories about Christmas and other matters of national importance.

I never really understood the whole first cause thing either. First cause means explaining how there is something in the universe instead of nothing and, often, suggesting that there has to be something which always existed before everything else. Many people solve the problem by simply claiming that God caused the first thing (notice I use the capital G so as not to be too controversial). That naturally reminds me of the turtle story, which I’m hoping at least one person reading this hasn’t heard of yet.

It doesn’t seem like anyone can figure out where this story came from but there are often references to ancient India in the many versions, so possibly it started there and made its way around the world. This is my version.

A seeker of knowledge climbs Mount Everest to find the wisest man in the world. When he reaches the top the great one is sitting there in the lotus position. The seeker immediately asks him what the earth rests upon?

The wise one responds “The earth rest on the back of a turtle.”

“Okay” said the seeker of truth, “but what is that turtle standing on?”

“Another turtle.”

“And that turtle? What’s he supposed to be standing on?”

“Well, obviously, it is turtles all the way down.”

People interpret that joke in various ways too, but it usually means something like -- we can never know anything for certain, or however much you know, there’s always another question, and so forth.

Now, sometimes you may have had or overheard discussions with folks who advocate the God theory as the explanation for first cause. In fact, God would be synonymous with first cause. When asked, “If God created the universe, who created God?” the response is often “No one. He was always there”. That’s meant seriously, of course, and if you think you don’t know anyone who believes it, ask around. It’s really the same thing as the turtle story.

My answer to the puzzle of first cause? Hell if I know. This post is about things I don’t understand, although, I’ve always been romantically attached to the Indian philosophy that all existence is an illusion. Of course, then we get to the problem of who is having the illusion? Whatever the answer is, it must be some version of -- turtles all the way down.

A British philosopher by the name of George Berkeley had, as the center of his 18th century philosophy, the modern notion that we can’t experience reality directly; all we can know is what we perceive. Thus, we cannot know what underlies existence. Possibly the writers of the Matrix films read up upon him, because their almost incomprehensible plot has Berkeley’s theories at heart.

Berkely’s logic is actually hard to refute. But it was attempted by Dr. Samuel Johnson of dictionary fame, who simply kicked a rock and said “I refute it thus”. Of course, if seriously questioned about his knowledge of the object he was kicking, he would probably have to admit that he could only know what he perceived -- the sight and feeling of his foot kicking a rock. No matter how anyone can concoct an experiment to circumstantially or indirectly consider this problem, they seemingly cannot escape this paradox. You see, its turtles all the way down.

Last topic – rap and other “modern substitutes for music” (I stole that phrase from a legal newsletter, of all places). I just don’t get it, but in a different way than quantum physics or first cause.

Lots of old folks like me are unhappy with modern music, just as our parents were unhappy with ours. I am perfectly content with the concept that good, bad, worst, best are mostly all a matter of taste. And generally speaking, we are all probably attracted to music that we grew up with and less attracted to music the next generation grew up with (and there prediliction for ending sentences with prepositions). But there’s an exception for everything.

Here’s where I go out on a limb. I am willing to say, however foolishly, that the music of my generation (‘60s-‘80s) is simply better than the stuff on MTV right now. That’s right, I said better, and I mean by a conventional standard of why something is better than something else -- longevity. For that matter, the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky (just wanted to prove I could spell it), Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, and my personal favorite, Louis Prima, is better too.

My proof is anecdotal, of course. When I have asked young people, sometimes in groups, to name some of the older songs of the groups they like, many of them just stare blankly, and can only name songs from the last album that came out. Sometimes they can’t name any – any of the songs on the next to last album. Ask somebody my age to name songs of their favorite performers from thirty years ago, when they were growing up and see the difference.

In fact, if you think about really modern “music,” how long do they play these songs on the air? Not real long. And I don’t just mean rap or hip hop. We still playing Bach and Beethoven, Louis Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen everywhere you can imagine. When is the next time you think you are likely to hear a Spice Girls song? With newer music, it is only the “newness” that seems to matter.

I’m sure this sounds very provincial. Okay, I’ll accept that it might be. I'm just an arrogant old man who likes what he likes. That doesn’t mean there is not some truth to it. I'll take the heat on this and say out loud what we are thinking. I'm happy to admit that there are a few rap songs I really like, that there are apt students of new music who know everything ever recorded, and that there are a lot of classical, jazz and rock pieces that I hate, even some by Bach, Presley, Armstrong, etc. Still, keeping an open mind doesn’t mean we can’t demand a melody or decent lyrics, which is really the whole difference. Say it with me.

Believe it or not, I have actually had some kids tell me that I’m right about this (not many) but that new music is not about being good or memorable, but about expressing despair and other emotions, style, as well as being in a format most kids can participate in (rapping is easier than carrying a tune). I don’t know how that would apply to Britney Spears music, but, if so, hurrah for them and nobody should try and stop it other than by closing their ears to it.

I heard Louis Armstrong, a god, say that there are but two types of music. Good music and bad music. I'm betting he's with me on this one. Take it, Louis.

About Me

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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 . . . .