The difference between "highest quality" and "what I like"

Sarah and I enjoyed the heck out of NBC's show The Sing-Off this year and last year. As a current rock singer, and former a cappella singer, I like to think that I have a better than average level of discernment with regard to the quality of what I'm hearing.

This year all of the contestants were quite good - I remember last year there were a couple of dud groups eliminated early on, but my general impression was that the overall quality was much higher this year. I admit to a bit of schadenfreude watching the group from Berklee college of music eliminated in the first round (after talking up how they were going to show everyone how it was done), and a little extra in that one of the groups who beat them was in high school (!)

So the two finalists were Committed and Streetcorner Symphony, and both were very, very good. Sarah reported to me that lots of folks with whom she chats believe that SS should have won in the place of Committed. I disagree.

SS is at its core a rock group who happen to perform a cappella music. They have a clear lead vocalist (who definitely has "rock star" charisma and talent), and they do relatively straightforward arrangements of appealing music. I think their version of "Down on the Corner" is gold - I insisted that Sarah and I buy a copy, and I hope that they do in fact record a CD, because I'd be quite likely to buy it.

Committed, on the other hand, is at its core a choral group. They do *not* have a clear lead vocalist - in fact their version of "Let's Stay Together" saw the lead pass between five of them without dropping a note. They use very complex harmonies typically found in Soul and R&B music, and display a quite uncommon talent in vocal arpeggiation. I'm not terribly likely to buy their CD, for the same reason that I don't own any Marvin Gaye or Boys II Men albums - it's great stuff but I rarely find myself in the mood to listen to it.

The proof of the pudding, to me, is in the level of difficulty presented in arrangement of the song chosen to highlight each group: "Down on the Corner" is mostly unison or simple harmony, and is foot-stompingly awesome. However, nothing in the arrangement comes anywhere near the level of difficulty presented by stepping between harmonic and melodic voices in "Let's Stay Together." That Committed was able to do this at all means that they are a shockingly talented vocal group; that they did it effortlessly means that they have a level of accomplishment and virtuosity which is very rare indeed. I'm not sure I have ever met any singers who are that good.

I think the right group won the competition, but I would guess that Streetcorner Symphony has a greater chance of making an album that I want to buy.
  • Current Music
    Stevie Ray Vaughn, "Voodoo Chile (slight return)"
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Brought to my attention

I didn't become a street pizza today!

I did learn a few things from David's big adventure -

  • In Herndon, sidewalks start and end randomly, and connect with each other (and curb cuts) at right angles, and worse, they make narrow bridges with pedestrian walkways on the side without the sidewalk D'oh!
  • I apparently have plenty of muscles in my legs that I didn't know about, but I know about them now.
  • Rosslyn is an uncomfortable place to bike as a vehicle, but the sidewalks work fine there.
  • georgetowner's bike is not in the basement of the Alamo
  • Earmuffs are a *necessity* when biking in the cold
  • I had a really neat closer-up view of the frozen Potomac river - I don't remember it freezing before last year, but this makes two in a row.

So all in all, I'd call this a success. Yay!
  • Current Music
    Led Zeppelin, "Stairway to Heaven (live)"
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Hadash tahat hashemesh

My lack of physical coordination is legendary: I've permanently disfigured myself playing kickball (which typical 4-year-olds can play without incident); I've sliced up my hands and limped to the emergency room multiple times on shabbat - mostly from washing dishes; I've hollered expletives in the direction of a coworker with whom I was lifting weights (mostly in the "which one of your ancestors did I insult to make you hurt me this badly?" vein); I've busted my glasses via a foul tip in softball.

I joke with a couple of coworkers who have moderately insane workout schedules that "my strategy of five minutes every month is working so far" and generally have viewed physical activity as merely a means to accomplish some action which I want done (like, lift this from here to there).

So I've been making an effort to take public transit to work more often - I've been doing twice per week, going bus-to-rail-to-bus from Georgetown to Herndon, and it's been working pretty well so far, except for the day that it miserably windy and the book I had with me sucked. But anyway, it's a bit pricy to do this: it's over $4 each way, and it's something like 1.25 hours commute, when it's .75 hours driving there, and about the same coming home. I like living my ideology, and I can live with spending money to do it, but the walks to and from the metro stops were getting kind of miserable.

So I've been wondering whether there was a better way.

I found out last week that if I start from Rosslyn, I can do bus-bus and end up in the same spot for $1.50 each way, and so I'm now embarking on an experiment. georgetowner loaned me his bike for a few days, and I'm going to try riding to Rosslyn and see whether this will actually work.

So tonight, I picked up the bike, and he showed me how derailleurs work, and for the first time since my age was measured in double digits, I tried riding a bike.

Apparently, you don't actually forget how to do it.

You do, on the other hand, forget your gloves, which meant that my hands were pretty much blocks of ice by the time I got home, so that sucked a bit.

The scary moment was turning onto Wisconsin ave northbound and realizing that I was going to have to turn across traffic to get onto Volta, but a car helpfully flashed its lights and let me by. Yay!

And once I was home, it took probably 25 minutes for my heart rate to return to normal - I had thought I was in shape, but apparently "amoeba" is a shape, so that's a bit of a lesson.

This is all a grand experiment to determine whether it's worth it for me to go buy a bike of my own, and hopefully I'll be able to determine it this week.

Or maybe I'll have an accident spectacular enough to make the front page of the metro section. Time will tell!
  • Current Music
    Everclear, "I will buy you a new life"
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For art's sake

I've been watching a controversy brew over the past few weeks regarding the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition called Hide/Seek which I'm told is about hidden expressions of homosexual attraction during the latter half of last century. I know very little about this exhibit - it definitely falls into the "not for me" category (along with mime and smooth fusion jazz).

The controversy about the exhibit comes from a video piece by a deceased artist which included a segment in which ants were shown crawling on a crucifix which was laying on the ground. Apparently, some folks saw this, were offended, and proceeded to raise a ruckus with their congresspeople. The representatives, including Rep. Cantor, made some vaguely threatening noises about removing funding from the Smithsonian unless the piece was removed. The Smithsonian removed that piece, leaving the rest of the exhibition, and has gotten a humongous amount of flack for this from pretty much everyone who's anyone in the art world. This morning, I saw an article saying that the Warhol foundation (one of the private donors) is questioning whether they should continue funding the Smithsonian over this.

I find this latest development amusing.

Of course, the Smithsonian is completely blindsided by all of this - who would have thought that accepting money from either the government or private institutions would come with strings attached? Who would have thought that donors would be more or less motivated to keep giving based on the works they saw, or on the actions of the recipients?

I think that accepting money means accepting strings - that conditions are always attached to funding, whether they are explicit or not - and the artistic community's willful blindness to this fact is somewhere between childish and dreadfully harmful.

Consider the great works of art created after the middle ages: most of these were made by individual artists who worked for a patron, whose ego and taste they had to flatter, and yet a non-trivial number of these are inspirational hundreds of years later. Our modern conceit is that we are "beyond" such contrivances, and that an artist should be able to follow his/her "pure" artistic intentions without regard to such banal concerns as the sensibilities of those who have money.

And yet - it's hard to say with a straight face that the art world is producing masterpieces which will be inspiring people in 200 years. The modern artists are just as trend-obsessed as they ever were (consider the timeline between Serrano's Piss Christ and the work included in Hide/Seek, and you see my point) - they are just even further divorced from the cold commercial realities of life.

But isn't it the reality of life which the best art reflects, reconsiders, or ennobles? Isn't the best art something which is grounded in real emotion - something which an ordinary person, knowing nothing about the artist, would walk up to and be breath-taken?

Even worse, the modern trend is to treat the art and artist as inseparable - that you can't appreciate the art without knowing the internal struggle of the artist. Of course, this fails the "classic" test - I can appreciate Haydn or Ellington without knowing anything about their lives, and I need to know absolutely nothing about Magritte or Van Gogh to appreciate the questions their images bring to mind.

So what we have now is a degraded art world, fighting over scraps of government funding, believing that it is brave and shocking and that something truly new is being done. Sadly, if this is what art has to offer, then we should treat "There is nothing new under the sun" as a dirge, and sink our shoulders as we slouch toward oblivion.

But there is another way.

I have come to the belief that the only way for their art to be truly free, artists should eschew all government funding entirely. Doubtless, this means that some will have to get day jobs to support their art habit - but others will be motivated to create works of enduring grandeur such that people will be willing to spend hard-earned money for them, and the world will be better for it.

Good art is something which makes the world a better place, and allows a conversation between the generations, classes, and cultures. I'd like to see more of that.
  • Current Music
    none (!)
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Down with the sickness

I woke up this morning, and realized something was dreadfully wrong when I couldn't get myself to eat a bowl of cereal even though (a) I like it, and (b) I was crazy hungry.

Some barfing later, and about 4 hours more sleep later, I've now kept down some toast. Yay! I'm still weak as a kitten (the plate was REALLY heavy), but maybe that'll get better on its own...

Now if I can just forestall the caffeine-withdrawl-triggered migraine, then I'll be on the mend.

Official Va'ad statement regarding this illness: "not recommended."
  • Current Music
    Visqueen, "Blue"
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Book report

Mindstar Rising, by Peter Hamilton, is proof that good authors sometimes write bad books. About 20 pages in, I started hoping for a catastrophe which would kill all of the characters and end the book suddenly. About 15 pages further, I gave up entirely. If you want good science fiction, read something else.

Another aborted attempt was J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country - Sarah recommended this to me on the strength of the author's lyrical prose. Yes, the writing is lovely, but I was trying to figure out where the story was: halfway through I asked Sarah whether anything actually, you know, happens in the book - and the answer was a resounding "no." I prefer my plotless works to be nonfiction, thanks - so back to the library it goes.

And then there were a bunch of graphic novels that I knew about but had never actually read:

Kick-Ass: interestingly, this is not as good as the movie (!) The changes brought by the screen increased the sympathy I could feel for the characters, and I think were entirely for the good.

V for Vendetta: I was surprised to learn that some of the disjointed nature that I had ascribed to the Wachowski brothers was actually present in the original. And all in all, while this is entertaining, the underpinnings of the argument fall apart at the slightest touch: V is a truly despicable individual, and lends no nobility to the cause of freedom-fighting. I found myself wondering "can't they all lose?"

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow - this was not as depressing as I had expected. The deaths of Lana and Jimmy, while heartbreaking, were in fact necessary for the denouement. This holds up well thirty years later.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep pt1 - I'm a fan of Dick's oeuvre, but I hadn't ever read his most famous novel. I had not realized how different from Blade Runner it was. I'm looking forward to the rest of the volumes to be released.

And then there's Ego and Hubris: the Michael Malice Story - it's hard to pin down my feelings about this, because I'm torn between sympathy and contempt for Malice: he's quite clearly a raging asshole who takes Rorshach's attitude of "no compromise, even in the face of armageddon" to heart. He has a hell of a sense of entitlement, and thinks he's a lot smarter than everyone else around him - but it doesn't sound like he's learned that there is more to life than raw intellect, and he certainly seems unacquainted with the limits of rationalism as a tool for understanding. However, he's strangely fascinating, and the book itself is excellent (as would be expected from the late, great Harvey Pekar).

Some tidbits

First, I have recently been turned on to a really neat site: Chart Porn - imagine a low-rent Tufte-style analysis of whatever charts come to the blogger's attention. Definitely worth a few looks (or add to RSS).

Second, the embedded video below (h/t Coyote Blog) is one of the neater data visualizations I've seen in a long time. I think this brings a useful perspective when considering the existence of precedent.

Third, Dr. Lindzen's testimony to the US Congress regarding the nature of the science underlying the global warming discussions is very much worth reading. Lindzen does a pretty thorough job of laying out why alarmism is not warranted, and in the process shows how little the emperor is currently wearing.
The frustrating part of reading his testimony is plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: the alarmist tendancies have always been with us, and always will be - but it used to be that a good scientific education would include approaches to critical thinking which placed experimental result over theory (i.e. if the theory and experiment diverge, the theory is more likely to be wrong than the experiment).


Pragmatism (Philosophical Classics)Pragmatism by William James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William James shows why people are reading his philosophy a century after he delivered the lectures that make up the bulk of this work. His writing style is highly readable, and yet he does not shy away from untranslated Greek or German phrases and concepts. In a too-short summary, his idea of pragmatism could be described as assigning utility to an argument based on the outcomes that the argument can yield - if the resolution to an argument does not lead to a tangible difference in observable reality, then the argument is deemed unfruitful and discarded.

This insight cuts the Gordian knot of resolving debates between members of differing faiths - and I include Atheism in my list of faiths for this purpose. Consider the Hitchens/Dawkins atheistic positions of recent vintage: their disputes with believers can be far better answered via pragmatic approaches. Is there a difference in day-to-day existence regarding whether God created fossils pre-buried in the rock or whether the Earth is older than the Biblical literalists claim? (Interestingly, nearly all of the literalists rely on reading the Bible in translation - in Hebrew there is a lot more nuance than may be presupposed). To answer the rhetorical question, the differences in day-to-day existence are few, thus rendering that debate of relatively meager significance.

A passage I particularly liked comes near the end of his last lecture, in discussing the impact of pragmatic approaches to religion:
In the end it is our faith and not our logic that decides such questions, and I deny the right of any pretended logic to veto my own faith. I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play.' I am willing to think that the prodigal-son attitude, open to us as it is in many vicissitudes, is not the right and final attitude towards the whole of life. I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

  • Current Music
    Peter Gabriel, "The Book of Love"
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Contemporary Orthodox Judaism Strikes Back

Why We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish PrayerWhy We Pray What We Pray: The Remarkable History of Jewish Prayer by Barry Freundel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rabbi Dr. Freundel's new book, Why we pray what we pray is good. Disclaimer: I am a congregant of his, and I liked his previous book Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity quite a bit, so I knew I was going to want to read this before I knew what was between the covers. Disclaimer aside, the two works are dramatically different - the earlier book was a popular book geared to a mass audience, and it attempted to put a stake in the ground with regard to Orthodox approaches to several issues of relevance in the modern world. This book is in a scholarly style, and it focuses on the historical development of six significant prayers in modern Jewish liturgy with a focus on Second Temple-era mystical teachings.

That is definitely not a mass-market topic. Freundel's scholarship and expertise in the area of prayer development shines through: the book is lavishly footnoted, and he is unafraid to describe in said notes other sources who have divergent opinions from his. This, to me, is the mark of the intellectually honest scholar: to hold an opinion strongly, arguing forcefully for its rightness, but all the while admitting that there are others who would vehemently disagree. Freundel does not take the easy, sloppy road which is common in much Jewish scholarship nowadays - that is, to craft a faux-harmonization of radically divergent opinions: he instead lays out the case for why he believes his narrative is the correct one.

It is fitting that a book about prayer not be expedient - none of the great ongoing liturgical arguments are resolved via this book - but any participant in those debates would be well served by arming him or herself with the information contained therein.

I did notice an area where editing choices led to an abrupt shift in tone - Freundel's speaking style is to go through the points of an idea, and then sum them up at the end so that the congregation learns the salient information via repetition. The chapters appear to do the same thing, but there is no subheading calling out where the summary begins and the original idea formulation ends. This may be something which could be added in future editions. In the meantime, it's a minor nit, and the tone shifts do not detract from the quality of the information and the scholarship, both of which are excellent.

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