September Songs

It’s a spectacularly beautiful day in D.C.; feels more like the height of summer than the first day of fall, but I’m ready for my fall music.

First, listening a lot to to BR-Klassik these days, and recently they did an hour on the Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, a somewhat overlooked singer of the 80s and 90s.  This cut of her singing Adriane’s glowing, if gloomy, aria “Es gibt ein Reich” from Strauss’ Adriane auf Naxos caught my ear.  Not fall music perhaps on the face of it, but so much of what Strauss wrote seems steeped in shadow. Check out the harmonic modulation at the end and how she glides through it effortlessly.


26_September_Song_thumbNext, Lotte Lenya singing Weill’s “September Song.” Weill was lucky with his collaborators (although I guess he loathed Brecht with the force of a thousand suns). Here the graceful lyrics are by the playwright Maxwell Anderson, and the song comes from a mostly forgotten musical called Knickerbocker Holiday. Lenya’s dusky voice is the opposite of Tomowa-Sintow’s gleam, but at the same, her singing makes you think she’s sitting right across from you in a Berlin cafe, beguiling you through the cigarette smoke.


And now, just because it caught my interest on the Gramophone music site. Decca has just released “The Lost Songs of St. Kilda” an effort to preserve songs from a tiny island off Scotland, uninhabited since the 1930s, and 3 hours from Skye (that’s a ways out there!). They made a video of a trip to the island to bring the music back, complete with composer James MacMillan and his piano. Both composer and instrument survived the trip.

Gorgeous video and moving project.

More info at

Happy fall!

Ordinary Lives

A couple of Commonplace Book Entries that resonate with one another across a century and a culture. Bertolt Brecht on the anonymous workers who drive history (but are forgotten) and George Eliot on ordinary lives.

Questions from A Worker Who Reads
Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” in a translation by Michael Hamburger

From an interview with Prof. Simon Reader (could there be any better name for an Eliot scholar?) at the New York Public Library blog.

Q: The subtitle of Middlemarch—“A Study of Provincial Life”—seems to be a direct description of her project and her method: an almost scientific examination the everyday. Was this approach to fiction avant garde at the time?

A: Certainly. Eliot was one of the first major English novelists to be concerned with representing reality as it was, in a kind of documentary fashion, as unadorned as possible. English Realism had already existed earlier in the century with Jane Austen, as well as Thackeray, although he’s dubiously realistic, and Dickens—again, kind of realistic, kind of not. Eliot really held herself back from introducing any kind of overly romantic, or sensational, or supernatural elements into her fiction.  At the end of Middlemarch, she gives what could be construed as a thesis statement, saying “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” She’s trying to elevate everyday life, to elevate the life of the common person in all of their hidden obscurity, to magnify the value of small, ordinary actions.

And last, ordinary lives in painting (was looking for Millet’s “The Gleaners” but found Jules Breton’s “The Weeders”  at the Met’s site.)  Similar theme and style.


Jules Breton, The Weeders, 1868



Commonplace Book: Daniel Klein

everytime_coverEnjoying a little book of quotes and reflections by Daniel Klein, comedy writer and student of philosophy (a man after my own heart).  A few bits from his “Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It.”

112px-William_James_b1842c“If you believe that feeling bad or worrying long enough will change a past or future event, then you are residing on another planet with a different reality system.” — William James

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never 133px-Michel_de_Montaigne_1happened.” — Michel de Montaigne



109px-Maimonides-2The levels of Tzedakah (charity) as explained by Maimonides

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-sufficient

Commonplace Book: The Indirect Way

Enjoying economist John Kay’s Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, from which comes this tidbit.

obIn business, in politics, and in our personal lives, we do not often solve problems directly. The objectives we manage are multiple, incommensurable and partly incompatible. The consequences of what we do depend on responses, both natural and human, that we cannot predict. The systems we try to manage are too complex for us to fully understand. We never have the information about the problem, or the future we face that we might wish for

Satisfactory responses in these situations are the result of action, but not the execution of design. These outcomes, achieved obliquely, are the result of iteration and adaptation, experiment and discovery. “Reengineering”–“tossing aside all systems and starting over”–is called for only when systems are seriously dysfunctional. And in almost all cases, the best means of reengineering is not “going back to the beginning and inventing a better way of doing work” but trying models that have been successfully tested elsewhere. This is equally true of our personal lives, our corporate organizations and our social and economic structures.

A random walk: as John Kay might say, the best kind.

Commonplace Book: In Praise of, well, books

A couple of quotes about books I’ve encountered recently and wanted to keep track of:

Rare E.A. Poe juvenilia, and much sought by book thieves.

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon… The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes.” –Umberto Eco

Tipped by a nice post by Adrian Shaughnessy’s post “Books. Still not dead.” on Design Observer

And from Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row

“The university I attended, and still attend, is every approachable bookshelf within my knowledge.” Charles Romm, (alas a notorious book thief himself).

Commonplace Book: Igor Stravinsky

Some choice bits from Chapter 3, “The Composition of Music” from his Poetics of Music in the form of six lessons, which befuddled me in college but now makes sense.

stravinskyAll creation presupposes at its origin a sort of appetite that is brought on by the foretaste of discovery. This foretaste of the creative act accompanies the intuitive grasp of an unknown entity already possessed but not yet intelligible, an entity that will not take definite shape except by the action of a constantly vigilant technique.

This appetite that is aroused in me at the mere thought of putting in order musical elements that have attracted my attention is not at all a fortuitous thing like inspiration, but as habitual and periodic, if not as constant, as a natural need.

The premonition of an obligation, this foretaste of a pleasure, this conditioned reflex, as a modern physiologist would say, shows clearly that the idea of discovery and hard work is what attracts me.

The very act of putting my work on paper, of, as we say kneading the dough, is for me inseparable from the pleasure of creation. So far as I am concerned, I cannot separate the spiritual effort from the psychological and physical effort; they confront me on the same level and do not present a hierarchy. The word artist which, as it is most generally understood today, bestows on its bearer the highest intellectual prestige, the privilege of being accepted as a pure mind–this pretentious term is in my view entirely incompatible with the role of homo faber.


We have a duty toward music, namely to invent it. I recall once during the war when I was crossing the French border, a gendarme asked me what my profession was. I told him quite naturally that I was an inventor of music. The gendarme, then verifying my passport, asked me why I was listed as a composer. I told him that the expression “inventor of music” seems to fit my profession more exactly than the term applied to me in the documents authorizing me to cross borders.

Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on a concrete form and may remain in the state of virtuality, whereas invention is not conceivable apart from actual working out…

Commonplace Book

A few tidbits gleaned from recent reading:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”–Antoine de Saint-Exupery

An inspirational preamble in a book on math pedagogy (subject of my current work project).

In the summer of 1943 I was eight, and my father and mother and small brother and I were at Peterson Field in Colorado Springs. A hot wind blew through that summer, blew until it seemed that before August broke, all the dust in Kansas would be in Colorado, would have drifted over the tar-paper barracks and the temporary strip and stopped only when it hit Pikes Peak. There was not much to do, a summer like that: there was the day they brought in the first B-29, an event to remember but scarcely a vacation program. There was an Officers’ Club, but no swimming pool; all the Officers Club’ had of interest was artificial blue rain behind the bar. The rain interested me a good deal, but I could not spend the summer watching it, so we went, my brother and I, to the movies.

We went three or four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”

As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear.

 An unforgettable narrative voice. The opening of Joan Didion’s essay, “John Wayne: A Love Story”

“The faint aroma of gum and calico that hangs about a library is as the fragrance of incense to me. I think the most beautiful sight is the gilt-edged backs of a row of books on a shelf. The alley between two well-stocked shelves in a hall fills me with the same delight as passing through a silent avenue of trees. The colour of a binding-cloth and its smooth texture gives me the same pleasure as touching a flower on its stalk. A good library hall has an atmosphere which elates. I have seen one or two University Libraries that have the same atmosphere as a chapel, with large windows, great trees outside, and glass doors sliding on noiseless hinges.”

— R.K. Narayan on a feeling I too have had in many libraries.

And to match elegance in prose, a page from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ Kelmscott Chaucer. Saw a copy in person at the Fogg last week; wow.


Commonplace Book: Wise Words, Lanchester on Bullshit vs. Nonsense

Screen Shot 2015-10-23 at 9.04.24 AMReading Lanchester’s How to Speak Money, a great read: droll, useful, and angry (in a flippant British way). Here’s his entry on the difference between “bullshit” and “nonsense” as a taster. The whole book well worth dipping into.

bullshit versus nonsense
In Kingsley Amis’s novel The Old Devils there is a brief but very thought-provoking speech by Peter Thomas, one of the book’s main characters. His friend has just given a talk about how the poet Brydan, based on
Dylan Thomas, didn’t speak a word of Welsh but how the presence of Welsh was nonetheless very important as a subliminal presence in his work. In the pub afterwards, Peter picks him up on what he’s said.

“I want to get this over to you while I remember and before I have too many drinks. When somebody tells you in Welsh that the cat sat on the mat you won’t be able to make out what he saying unless you know the Welsh for cat and sat and mat. Well, he can draw you a picture. Otherwise it’s just gibberish.”

The friend objects, but Peter presses on with his point:

“The point is it’s unnecessary. They’ll be just as pleased to hear how Brydan wrote English with the fire and passion and the spirit of this, that and the bloody other only possible to a true or real or whatever-you-please Welshman, which if it means anything is debatable to say the least, but whatever it is it’s only bullshit, not nonsense. Stick to bullshit and were all in the clear.

And that, for all the lightness of the context, is a very important distinction. Bullshit and nonsense are different. Bullshit is all around us; the term implies exaggeration, rhetoric, and a mild kind of untoxic falsity. It suggests something is false but not malign. Every time someone tries to sell somebody something, a degree of bullshit is usually involved. Some words are more or less guaranteed to be bullshit: “executive,” for instance, is, used as an adjective, pure bullshit– executive chef, executive apartments, executive decision. “Exclusive” is bullshit, not least because it is used mostly about places that are open to the public, like restaurants and hotels. But the damage done by bullshit is usually fairly mild, and it can even be, if not exactly benign, then so much part of the normal process of selling that it is all just part of the dance. There’s a Big Issue seller near where I live who holds out a copy with the line “last one”; when he sells it, he waits for the customer to walk away, then reaches into his bag and pulls out another “last one.” That is bullshit, and relatively harmless–I say “relatively” rather than “wholly” because once you fallen for the line, and then seen through it, it tends to diminish your trust in Big Issue sellers. The “hype cycle” around new inventions involves in a near-ritualized early period of puffing, boosterism, and bullshit: as John Perry Barlow, song writer for the Grateful Dead, once brilliantly put it, “bullshit is the grease for the skids on which we ride into the future.” (I like that line because it is both an example of bullshit and a great explanation of it.) There is an enormous amount of bullshit in the world of money.

Nonsense is different. It’s worse. It consists of things that are actively false, and at its worst of things that are not just not true but can’t possibly be true. It is rarer than bullshit but much more toxic, and it is the difference between someone exaggerating a bit because he’s trying to sell you something and someone who is consciously lying to you, or is so far out of touch with reality that he doesn’t know he’s lying. In the world of money, the most recent and glaring example of nonsense was in the run-up to the credit crunch, in which broad sectors of banks and investors convinced themselves that they had invented a new category of financial instrument that guaranteed high rates of return with no risk. Since it is a fundamental axiom of investment that risk is correlated with return–that you can’t make higher rates of return without taking on higher levels of risk–this is like claiming to have invented an antigravity device, or a perpetual motion machine. As the British investor John Templeton once said, “The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘this time it’s different.’” In everything to do with money, and in many other areas too, it’s important to keep an eye out for those moments that are not just (relatively) harmless bullshit but the much more actively dangerous nonsense.

Tidbits from Around the Web: Memento Mori Edition

Happened on a fascinating data animation by Nathan Yau,
Years You Have Left to Live, Probably.


In addition to being cool to play with, it’s a great example of mathematical representation, as the data it uses comes from this table.


Same content, different form and experience. (A lot of projects I have worked on as an educational media producer have focused on helping teachers figure out how to get kids comfortable moving among mathematical representations, from a table, to a graph, say, or from a function, to words. Grasping the power inherent in the idea that one phenomenon can be represented in these varied ways. How neat would it be if kids today are adding animation to that list: a calculus text book with examples that show accelerations as animations that, um, accelerate!).

But back to planet morbid: After fooling with this for a while, I remembered The Death Clock, which terms itself “The Internet’s friendly reminder that time is slipping away.”


I assume this uses more detailed actuarial data, and gives a specific day rather than a probability, and a helpful count of the number of seconds until you shuffle off either to Buffalo or “this moral coil” depending on your religion. My appointment with “dust to dust” is 2050.

Finally, a poem by W.S. Merwin on this theme. An angle that many have considered, I’d bet.

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Funny Words: Peter Godfrey-Smith

Boston Review has a perceptive, and droll, review of a new philosophy title, Retrieving Realism by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor. There are lots of interesting takes in it and John Dewey and Martin Heidegger figure prominently. (So of course I was interested, as Dewey is a fascinating figure to me.)

The full review will likely be of interest mainly to philosophy nerds like myself, but one passage was too good to pass up quoting. Just after untangling a number of moves and distinctions presented in the book, Godfrey-Smith writes,

I don’t want to suggest, through this assertion of Dewey’s place in the story, that he had all the answers. Far from it, and I will look in a moment at an area he handled quite badly. In explaining his larger neglect in this part of philosophy, I am also mindful of other deficiencies. Dewey’s writing has an exhausting earnestness, which contrasts with the dark edginess, the anything-can-happen feel of Heidegger’s. If someone sees you reading Heidegger on a train, they might think you would be an interesting person to have sex with. If they see you reading Dewey, there is a risk they will think you would be an excellent person to serve on a committee.

deweyPersonally, seeing somebody peruse Sein und Zeit on the Red Line wouldn’t exactly flick my switch, but I can vouch for the fact that Dewey evokes committee service: perhaps because it reads a bit like it was written by a committee, and ‘exhaustingly earnest’ is definitely apt as well.