Light for these Slate-Gray Days

Nice feature by the Times on art around New York that brings some vibrancy to these gray mid-winter days. Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 11.18.31 AM

Check out the surreal Magritte-like Hopper at the Yale Art Museum.

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Unreasonable Bedfellows: CES, Higher Ed, and the Adult Entertainment Expo

The big enchilada of tech shows, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), bows in Vegas next week. It is a strange event–Jim and I went once, spurred by my naive belief that it would be fascinating and accessible to people who worked in educational media and online learning. But it’s really–or seemed to us–a biz to biz show, with the most innovative and mind-blowing things not typically on the exhibit floor, and the star presentations completely inaccessible to the punters.

It’s also exhaustingly enormous–and has outgrown the Vegas convention center, one of the biggest in the world. Now that so much of life seems to take place in front of, with, or otherwise connected to electronic rectangles, what isn’t Consumer Electronics? The year we were there (a decade ago) RFID was big, as were prototype Wii-type consoles, smart fridges and other appliances, and weird eerie glowing tube amps, each in their own booth in a dark hotel room, and costing more than my annual salary.

Also, in force was the crowd from the Adult Entertainment Expo. Not a part of CES, but held around the same time, tacit acknowledgment of the commonplace that the adult entertainment industry has been a major driver of innovation in consumer electronics. (Eighteen years ago, John Tierney noted “In the history of communications technology, sex seems to be the most enduring killer app.” He also makes the point that since pornographers are excluded from mainstream communications channels, they are at the fringes of networks, where technological innovation is more likely to happen.)

Now, a group at the center, not the fringe of society has joined the CES party, and they may be more welcome, although they probably tip worse than the pornographers. The HigherEd Tech Summit will take place, bringing the blandishments of Larry Summers and Joel Klein (who do not exactly lack for venues) to the teeming masses of gearheads. The marketing copy for the HigherEd Tech Summit is breathless:

With a trillion dollars in expenditures and millions invested in new tech ventures, education is a high-stakes industry. Start-ups, publishers, institutions, government, foundations and investors are all betting on new digital strategies to effect a turnaround in K-20 education.

From mobile devices to MOOCS, personalized instruction to global universities, e-texts to on-demand learning, a new generation of education services, tools, and institutions is emerging. Are you keeping up with the digital revolution?

Join us at HigherEdTECH, where you meet the leaders, see the latest innovations and explore opportunities and challenges — in the midst of CES, an unsurpassed display of technology innovation.

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“Is this where George Steiner is launching his MOOC on metaphysics of the 19th century French novel? Or where Jenna Jameson is launching her instructional ebook series, “Limber up!”? Both! Yay!”

Colleges and Universities….they are a changin’

Wiring the Ivory Tower
Adaptive learning, e-books, smart phones, tablet, 3D and other digital innovations are changing traditional notions of what it means to go to college & offering exciting possibilities for reinventing higher education.

Taking Tech to College
Today’s young people are avid users of digital technology and don’t leave their devices at the college gate. Over 18 million students in U.S. colleges and universities are driving the use of technology for everything from taking classes, to accessing textbooks, to communicating with instructors and taking exams.

Disrupting Higher Education
As traditional institutions come under increasing pressure to do more and better with less — expand access, ensure quality, increase relevancy and raise graduation rates — technology is moving from the fringe of the campus to the quad.

Dizzy About Digital
Promising digital innovations are emerging at an extraordinary pace. Educators are finding it difficult to keep up and are looking for new sources of credible information and guidance.

Collaboration Breeds Innovation
High-tech companies, foundations, publishers and government are collaborating with colleges & universities to develop and deploy technology to solve today’s educational challenges.

Is there anything new here, beyond, not to put too fine a word on it, greed? (Perhaps that’s enough?) I am all for innovation, and am a tech lover–god knows I’m staring at my fave electronic rectangle at this very moment and will be for the rest of the day, as well as a bona fide education nerd. And I can admit that perhaps a few aspects of this casino/win the lottery moment in ed tech might land a winner. But talking about a revolution seems an oversell to me (and perhaps at least a decade or century out of date: early thoughts about the telephone were that it would be a great distance ed tool so people could listen to lectures). If anything, the current moment in education looks a lot like a basic cable remake of the tech bubble of 2000-1. Slow, mothra-like, and ravenous, the tech bubble glides into the university to feed. Cue dark ominous music. Final scene, tech bubble chokes on education morsel that had looked so tasty, spitting up nasty hairball of academic governance and faculty intransigence. (Oh, and IP rights. Details, details.) Roll credits as venture capital returns to doing their revolutionary good works for the financial sector. Students and teachers go back to “we’ll muddle through” approaches, and their long standing skepticism about institutional anything. Higher ed returns to its one absolute, abiding strength: the ability to resist reform, no matter how loud the world’s chatter about it gets.

Reasonable Words: Blogs I love

A critic at heart (I wrote my first movie and music reviews at 16, arch, snobby, and badly spelled), it occurs to me to that there’s no real “review of blogs” available, or at least that I have happened on. (Perhaps it’s because blogging is already so navel-gazingly self-referential that that’s just too meta?)  But fear not, I’m going to try to write up a blog of the week (or the fortnight, month, moon phase, or which ever capricious and totally arbitrary chronological interval fits.)

To start, one of my favorites: Spitalfields’ Life, a daily blog of photographs, local history, stories, people, and idle chatter from East London.
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Instead of an “About This Site,” it has this promise from the gentle author:

Over the coming days, weeks, months and years, I am going to write every single day and tell you about life here in Spitalfields at the heart of London. How can I ever describe the exuberant richness and multiplicity of culture in this place to you? This is both my task and my delight.

Let me disclose to you the hare-brained ambition I am pursuing, which is to write at least ten thousand stories about Spitalfields life. At the rate of one a day, this will take approximately twenty-seven years and four months. Who knows what kind of life we shall be living in 2037 when I write my ten thousandth post?

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He has kept the promise, stylishly and with charm. (Successfully too, a book has come out, perhaps the ultimate feather in the cap for a blogger). I’m perhaps unfairly biased, as 1) I love London 2) I love quirky local history, and 3) I love people’s stories. There’s also something appealing about using blogs for the kind of content that might have been in the pages of a small-town daily paper a 100 years ago, or perhaps on a broadsheet 200 years ago. A sign that the web’s ability to eliminate distance doesn’t mean it has to extinguish a sense of place.

Toodle-oo to the worst Congress in half a century

Ezra Klein has some pointed remarks in a piece for Bloomberg:

The 1Screen Shot 2013-01-03 at 11.35.51 AM12th found legislating so difficult that lawmakers repeatedly created artificial deadlines for consequences and catastrophes intended to spur them to act. But like Wile E. Coyote with his endless supply of Acme products, when the 112th set a trap, the only sure bet was that it would explode in its collective face, forcing leaders to construct yet another hair- trigger legislative contraption.

Poetic Words: Alfred Corn Channels Dana

Nice “found” poem by Alfred Corn today on Poetry Daily.

Poem Found in Two Years Before the Mast

Yes, whales. The first time that I heard them breathing,
We had the watch from twelve to four, and coming
Upon deck, found the little brig quite still,
Surrounded by thick fog, and the sea smooth
As though anointed with fine oil. Yet now
And then a long, low swell would rise and roll
Under the surface, slightly lifting the vessel
But without breaking the water’s glassy skin.
We were surrounded far and near by shoals
Of sluggish whales and grampuses, though fog
Prevented us from seeing them rise slowly
To the surface, perhaps lying out at length,
And heaving those peculiar lazy, deep,
Long-drawn breathings, which must ever leave
An impression of supine, majestic strength.
Some of the watch were sleeping, and the others
Perfectly still, so that there could be nothing
To break the wild illusion, and I stood
Leaning over the bulwarks, listening
To the slow breathings of the mighty creatures—
Now one breaking the water just alongside,
Whose sable body I almost fancied I
Could see despite the fog; and again another,
Just audible in the distance—until the low,
Regular swell seemed like the heaving of
The ocean’s mighty bosom to the sound
Of its sublime and long-drawn respirations….

Alfred Corn

Two_Years_Before_the_MastDoes anybody still read Two Years Before the Mast? I remember it mostly as a used-book store classic…there always seemed to be copies of it gathering dust next to out-of-date Whole Earth Catalogs, and cracked spine and crackled cover paperback editions of the lesser Dreiser.

But perhaps it is worth a read…particular with my new found, midlife fascination with 19th century stories of the sea and whaling (gathering points of reference for Moby Dick, which I guess one could look at as a singularly insane take on the genre Mast belongs to.)

Herewith the first lines of Mast:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim, on her voyage from Boston, round Cape Horn, to the Western coast of North America. As she was to get under way early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books, with a plenty of hard work, plain food, and open air, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my studies, and which no medical aid seemed likely to remedy.

Nice 19th century pile up of clauses. You feel like you know him (whether you want to spend two years and 528 pages with him is another matter).

Words on Writing: Vonnegut & Didion

Tips from pros:

Vonnegut: “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”

Didion: “I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm.”

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Writing was so much easier in the old days. Your editor lived right in your typewriter!

Beautiful Music: The Steffani Code?

At the risk of making this blog into a recurrent series of “obscure 18th century composer days” (actually my life is a kind of an ongoing ‘obscure [x] day’), here’s a new discovery to parallel my earlier gushing over Baldassare Galuppi. (Even if you didn’t go listen to the magical clip of his piano music I posted, savor the name at least. Donna Leon couldn’t make up something as wonderful for her Italian mystery series.)

Today’s find is Agostino Steffani, born 1654, a generation and a half before Galuppi, and, like him, overshadowed by big names (Mozart and Gluck in G’s case, Handel in Steffani’s). He did it all as a musician: music director, composer, performer, impresario (not an unusual mash-up in those days, the “profession” of composer wasn’t really cooked yet). Somehow he also found time to be a high-level diplomat, a priest, and then a bishop who ended up advising the pope. And not to go all Dan-Brown-y on Agostino, you can pretty easily imagine him as a spy too. Certainly the Decca publicists do!)

Now he has been taken up by the Italian opera star Cecilia Bartoli, who has, of late, brought the “concept” recording to the world of opera. Bartoli is a controversial character: fervid followers are matched by sharp-tonged critics. (Sample comments from a YouTube video of an Amsterdam concert of hers, “voice of an angel” “belongs in a circus”). I’ll stay out of it…except to say that I worked in opera and circus is not a completely inapplicable term.

A “trailer” for CB’s latest project.

Bartoli has championed little-known composers and unusual programs, now taking up Steffani in a multi-platform recording—really a media blitz—called “Mission.” There’s the recording, a book, a DVD, oh yes, a Donna Leon tie-in, and even an iPad game (for all those baroque-opera-loving tablet users? Really? me and who else?)

Lindsey Kemp of Gramophone (the authoritative and staid magazine on classical music) started his review with, “Oh my word what have we here?” sniffing suspiciously at all the tie-ins. But he found the music-making (both the program and performances) superb. Sample line, “her dazzling virtuoso and urgently expressive performances betoken nothing less than total commitment” (Yeah, a little trite, but behind that I get what he is after. A sometime music critic myself, I have the same recurrent plea, “please don’t bore me, make me believe in this music as much as you do.”)

Mission accomplished, Cecilia.

There’s also a pleasantly goofy promo video.
More sober reflections after I’ve really absorbed the album a bit more (and maybe unlocked the “Vatican” level of the iPad game.) I will not be buying any cookbook, though. Just saying.

New Year’s Words: Haiku

A poetic welcome to 2013.

“After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa
By Robert Hass

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Sunrise at Susaki on New Year’s Day. (Greeting the first sunrise of the new year is a Japanese tradition.)

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.

This moth saw brightness
in a woman’s chamber—
burned to a crisp.

Asked how old he was
the boy in the new kimono
stretched out all five fingers.

Blossoms at night,
like people
moved by music

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

Fiftieth birthday:

From now on,
It’s all clear profit,
every sky.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem
Japanese.

Hell:

Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.

To see Hass reading some of these, check out Poetry Everywhere.

And one more for good measure,

New Year’s Day:
The desk and bits of paper,-
Just as last year.

— Matsuo