Friday, October 28, 2005

Sensitivity training for Muslims

Cheer yourself up a bit.

The vast ship of hypocrisy, double standards, euphemism, and pseudo-understanding that has sailed under the false flag of multi-culturalism in recent decades is springing a leak or two. Even — are you ready for this? — in Europe.

Wesley Pruden, whose biting humor can sometimes go a round or two with Mark Steyn's, notes in his Washington Times column:
… Europeans, usually regarded here as made up in equal parts of mush, cotton, hay and rag, in recent months have stood up to defend the customs that make the West the West. Burqas have been banned in Italy, reluctant German schoolboys are required to attend coed swimming classes and male applicants for Irish citizenship are now required to renounce polygamy. When a visiting Iranian government delegation demanded that a Belgian minister drink no wine at his luncheon for them, the minister promptly canceled the lunch and told them: "You can't force the authorities of Belgium to drink water." …
The international relations minister for Quebec says immigrants who respect neither women nor the rights in the Canadian civil code are not welcome. The prime minister of New South Wales says immigrants who don't want to become Australians first should stay out. Australia's education minister told prospective Islamic immigrants that if they can't commit to Australian rule of law "they can basically clear off."
Some of these politicians may only be doing what they do best: talking in ways calculated to gain approval in whatever residue of popular sovereignty remains in the EU's government by bureaucracy or under Canada's de facto one-party rule. And no doubt, the few vertebrates who are willing to defy the multi-culti establishment are well overmatched by the sort of dopes who recently tried to abolish piggy banks in Britain so as not to upset Muslims who consider pigs to be no better than Jews.

Still, even five years ago, a minister would have been signing his political death warrant by suggesting publicly that immigrants should accept the traditions and laws of their host country instead of demanding that the host country eradicate its own culture to please the immigrants. Even in Britain, where every institution demonstrates its bona fides daily by Great Cultural Revolution–like confessions of institutional racism, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia, and classism, not to mention once having ruled the waves, there are rumblings of change.
David Cameron, a rising Tory star in Britain, summons the courage to define "Britishness," and says it begins with "freedom under the rule of law," and this "explains almost everything you need to know about our country, our institutions, our history, our culture -- even our economy."
Mr. Cameron rises to bluntness: "The driving force behind today's terrorist threat is Islamist fundamentalism. The struggle we are engaged in is, at root, ideological. Islamist thinking has developed which, like other totalitarianisms, such as Nazi-ism and communism, offers its followers a form of redemption through violence."
Mr. Cameron's idea of Britishness is, I am afraid, a thing of the past.

And, just possibly, of the future.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


As one who takes seriously certain topics the modern world generally can't be bothered with — mediumship, post-mortem survival, God, etc. — I feel a responsibility to subject such beliefs as I have to a periodic acid wash. If I am in a minority, maybe a small minority, could it be that the world has voted with its collective wisdom, my candidates have lost, and I should get over it? So I spend as much time as I can afford reading and listening to smart people who think my interests are twaddle and are pleased to tell me why.

Matthew Stevens, writing on The Secular Web, doesn't know if God exists or not, but is sure God is limited (so, therefore, not what most people mean by God). He says:
The traditional view of God holds that he is both omniscient and omnipotent, that God created the universe and has taken a keen interest ever since. But how can we actually know this for sure? How can we, with science--civilisation's finest intellectual achievement--test and probe, and so establish that God is both? In short, we can't. Physics describes the universe. God, by definition, exists somehow "outside" the universe. Therefore physics, and science more-broadly, cannot describe God. The existence of God is a matter of faith, and faith is the antithesis of science, which is characterised by enquiry and testable theories. (Put simply, science is knowledge through evidence. Faith is belief in the absence of evidence.) We can never prove or disprove the existence of God.
There is a good deal more, which you are invited to read via the link, and some of it has to do with aspects of physics that I understand no more than my cat does. But the paragraph above probably summarizes Stevens's essential thesis, as well as those of many scientific-minded skeptics and agnostics.

I would in no wise try to deny Stevens his right to his conclusions, nor do I think there is usually much point in debating questions relating to anything spiritual. But it is worthwhile to point out from time to time, in connection with articles like Stevens's, that however rational they are (and I have no particular quarrel with his reasoning), they are still based on assumptions. And those assumptions can be questioned: not by me (who cares?), but by the experience of the human race.

"How can we, with science--civilisation's finest intellectual achievement--test and probe, and so establish that God is both?" he asks. "In short, we can't." Well, it depends on what kind of instrument you use for your probe. Every scientific instrument Stevens reckons with is designed to measure matter or energy (which we are told are the same thing in different states), even if the matter consists of subatomic particles that behave very strangely indeed. He presumes that God must be some kind of matter or energy, he looks around and sees no matter or energy that corresponds with his concept of God, and declares God a no-show.

But what if God is not matter or energy in any mechanistic sense? (I think most people who believe in some kind of God would agree that he/it is not, although of course Stevens is not obliged to agree.) And what if God is not "outside" the universe, but exists within it but in a non-material form that doesn't register on science's instruments?

That God is both within the universe and within each individual is a prime teaching of Vedanta (roughly: the core of Hinduism without its culture-specific attributes), which seems to me the most profound spiritual psychology ever devised by the mind of man. It is full of enquiries and testable theories.

Even some Christian thologians have tried to find a way to express this mystery of a God who is in the world but not of it — for instance, Paul Tillich's phrase, "Ground of Being."

The obvious retort is, if we can't see or measure this God within or Ground of Being, aren't we back where we started, with an unknowable that is no more than a faith?

But there are different instruments for different purposes.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are as pragmatic as can be, an instruction manual for spiritual development. Do this, this, and this (many things, almost all of them taking immense effort and moral self-reconstruction), he says, and you'll know God. The sages of Vedanta (and in their very different terms, Buddhism) assure you that when you know God you will have your proof.

For perceiving God, the instruments are the heart and the mind. Not the heart of sticky sentiment, but of fierce yearning to find perfection. Not the mind of engineering or physics, but the mind that is capable (with enough time and discipline, or with that gift known as Grace) of letting go of sense data and intellectual categories, and shifting its consciousness to perceive other realms — realms that we can only describe, in the impoverished language of everyday life, as "higher" or "spiritual."

Faith is not to be understood rightly in the childish sense Stevens uses — "belief in the absence of evidence." St. Paul expressed it in words that can seem paradoxical, because he was expressing a truth that is paradoxical in ordinary intellectual terms, when he called it "the evidence of things not seen." There is an evidence of consciousness: things not seen but experienced.

Update (October 28): Someone who knows much more about Biblical scholarship than I do tells me that St. Paul's Letter to the Hebrews, from which the quotation is taken, is not considered by modern scholars to have actually been written by Paul. Rather it's thought to be by one of his followers, probably someone familiar with the actual Pauline letters. My interpretation remains, however.

Monday, October 24, 2005

No more 9/11s: The Jihadists will win without them

There are people who imagine we are somehow winning the so-called War on Terrorism because there have been no catastrophic attacks, or they've been stopped by counter-terrorism forces, since that day in 2001.

Hugh Fitzgerald explains, in Dhimmi Watch, why such attacks are increasingly irrelevant: Muslim totalitarians have the D Bomb -- demographics.
If demography is destiny, and if nothing is done to halt Muslim in-migration, and Muslim overbreeding that astounds -- in France the non-Muslims increase by .5% a year, while Muslims increase by 5% per year -- 10 times the rate. In Italy (with a negative birth-rate), in Spain, in England, in Germany, the same kind of results. Anyone can do the simple calculation. It can already be seen that Western politicians, having no sense of their own civilizations or what needs to be retained at all costs, more and more willingly appease Muslim voters.

A few years ago a prominent leader of the Socialist Party sent out word to his underlings that they should forget entirely about "the Jews" and Israel, and concentrate entirely on winning the Muslim vote, which can only be won by adopting Muslim demands in foreign policy and meeting Muslim demands for changes in the laws, customs, and manners to be observed within the Infidel land in which they happen to have settled.

Much the same kind of cravenness by politicians can be observed in Great Britain, where in local elections, and not only in London with Ken Livingstone, the politicians vie in their desire to appease and please Muslim voters. Those who would like to register their fear and dismay, and their desire to make their country less welcoming to Muslims who do not wish the resident Infidels well, have only the beyond-the-pale (as many of them see it) BNP in England or Le Pen in France. Thus they are without an articulate, respectable figure to lead, to warn, to instruct, and to help rescue those who did nothing to deserve this except to be insufficiently attentive -- for they trusted their own leaders -- to the immutable nature, and menace, of Islam and its adherents, both those who are clearly "immoderate" and those who claim, and for the moment may be, that slippery thing, a "moderate" Muslim.
Read the whole thing.

You either don't need me to explain why Fitzgerald's article is urgently important, or you're wasting your time at my blog.

Stare cases

Most people say they have sensed when they were being stared at, and most people also say they have made others turn around by looking at them. The sense of being stared at is taken for granted by most surveillance professionals, security officers, soldiers, celebrity photographers, martial arts practitioners and hunters. The ability to detect makes biological and evolutionary sense. It may be deeply rooted in our animal nature, and widespread in the animal kingdom.
So writes Dr. Rupert Sheldrake in a special issue, dedicated to this phenomenon, of the June 2005 issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

A lot us us, I suspect, tried the experiment when we were schoolchildren. We'd stare at the back of the head of a kid sitting several rows in front of us in class. Before long, he'd start to fidget even more than kids in class normally do. Eventually he'd look around, finally turning all the way around to look back at us.

Most people classify it as a youthful prank of no significance, but Sheldrake has run a boatload of experiments, which he believes follow strict scientific protocols, and which suggest that "the sense of being stared at" is a fact. He's written a book on the subject and referred to it in some of his other books.

Even if (some?) people are able to feel being stared at in the absence of any sensory clue, what's the big deal?

Anyone who is not familiar with Sheldrake's work and theories might answer that it seems to be an example of telepathy. That in itself, of course, is enough to send steam out of the ears of many scientists, particularly those in the so-called "hard sciences" as well as experimental psychologists.

But to Sheldrake, it ties in with his two even more "outrageous" concepts that have made him an Untouchable in the eyes of orthodox science but celebrated by many investigating the paranormal. (Like most psychical researchers, he maintains that his hypotheses imply no violation of natural laws, and instead exemplify natural laws of consciousness and of non-material reality, which can't be understood by assumptions and measurements based on the material world.)

Those concepts, guaranteed to set the cat among the pigeons, are morphic fields and morphic resonance. Follow the link to his own explanation, better than me trying to explain them.

The idea that consciousness (not only of people but of all creatures) is maxed out in a universal field rather than limited to a neural network in the brain, is startling to many people although a shopworn platitude to psychical researchers and metaphysicians. (Sheldrake understandably prefers to dissociate himself from the latter.) But considering the morphic (also called morphogenetic) field as a kind of mind-field or ultra-fine material substrate of the physical body is similar to the subtle body of Vedantic theory and the astral double described in Theosophy, "the etherial counterpart of the gross body of man" in the words of Annie Besant.

Somewhat in the same vein, a Yale University professor of anatomy, Harold Saxton Burr, Ph.D., came to believe that what he called a "life-field" or "electro-dynamic fields," although "invisible and intangible," underlie physical life as a kind of blueprint of living forms.

But morphic resonance is still more shocking in its implication that the morphic field has its own kind of memory, or "habits" as Sheldrake says, that can transmit learned behavior from one organism to another of the same type. To academic biologists this is as disturbing as the discredited theories of the politicized Soviet scientist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, who argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Congratulations are due to the editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Anthony Freeman, for publishing Sheldrake's papers and peer reviewers' responses, although he candidly acknowledges that under the normal peer-review process Sheldrake's articles would never have been accepted for publication. But, he says, "Sheldrake’s work interests many of our readers and it reflects our commitment to open debate."

You can read Sheldrake's papers here. Neither he nor the journal, as far as I can make out, link to the reviewers' comments. Sheldrake only publishes his own replies to the reviewers, which hardly seems to be in the spirit of an open debate. I'm sure Susan Blackmore could be counted on for an attempted demolition job, and would provide interesting reading. Anyway, if you want the Big Bertha howitzers from the anti-Sheldrake persuasion, you can always visit The Skeptical Inquirer.

Friday, October 21, 2005

This scepter'd, sinking isle

Britain's population is growing faster than Her Majesty's government ever dreamed, or at least ever dreamed of admitting to the public. Most of the increase is down to immigration. (Hat tip: Fjordman.)

The Telegraph reports:
Britain's population is projected to rise by more than seven million in the next 25 years - a far greater increase than official forecasts have previously predicted. More than half the extra population will be the direct result of immigration, according to figures published yesterday by the Office for National Statistics.

Total numbers are expected to rise from just under 60 million today to 67 million by 2031 and 70 million by the 2060s. Combined with the two million increase since 1990, this means that within a lifetime, the population of the country will have increased by a fifth, the most rapid expansion since the early years of the 20th century.
Last year's net migration to the U.K. was the highest on record, 223,000 according to the official record, which probably vastly undercounts illegals -- or maybe Cool Britannia no longer bothers to make any distinction. "Much of the population increase will be in England, and especially in the South-East," says The Telegraph. That is, in London and its surrounding counties, which already suffer from motorways that resemble parking lots, a shortage of housing, and multi-cultural tribalism.

Either the government belived that discussing the origin of the immigrants was too delicate, or The Telegraph feared being prosecuted for a thought crime if it brought the subject up. Inside sources told me, however, that most of this year's expected 255,000 (only counting legal?) immigrants will not be Yanks, Aussies, or Irish.

But there is something of a counter-current: more British than ever are jacking it in.
The number of British citizens leaving to live elsewhere increased to 208,000 - the highest annual outflow on record.
If present trends continue -- and there is little evidence that either of the U.K.'s main political parties intends to lower itself to mere principle and call for an immigration moratorium -- in 20 years Britain will experience bail-outs like today's South Africa. Practically every Brit who is unfashionably pale, non-Muslim, and prosperous enough will leave the country with whatever of value they are permitted to take with them.

Maybe it no longer matters. Britain is a shadow of its former self, not economically but morally and culturally: a country that no longer cares anything about its history and traditions, believes it owes the Third World subservience, has lost the civility that used to be the first thing visitors noticed, and whose media are in thrall to celebrities.

I have a soft spot for Britain, particularly England (the only part of it I've been to), and nothing would please me more than to see the country sort itself out. One can hope. And urge.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Turkey Chute

How did I know, without even reading the bio note, that the author of this piece would turn out to be from Comet Academe, whose orbit intersects with the Earth's about once every century? (The last time was, oh, maybe in the 1950s.)

Taso G. Lagos, "who received his Ph.D. in political communication" (what new perversion of scholarship is that?), "lecturer in the Department of Communication and the Honors Program at UW" [University of Washington, that is, Seattle on the Left Coast] -- a junior functionary in a degree factory -- wants us to know that Europe is too hard on those nice Muslims.

The European Union finally has agreed to start ascension talks for Turkey's full membership into the European community. This is a welcome stand after recent attempts to slow Turkey's membership drive.

French and German leaders loudly resisted the change in status, claiming that adding a nation of 70 million Muslims is political suicide for Christian Europe.
Christian Europe? Can he really be that ignorant? Europe today is about as Christian as, well, Turkey (which conveniently, like other Muslim countries, religiously follows the rule, "No shoes, no shirt, no Islam -- no services"). I suspect Lecturer Lagos knows better, but can think of no worse description than "Christian" to suggest that any opposition to giving 70 million Turks the run of the EU is mere bigotry.

Let me supply him a generous helping of more rope:
Recent events in the Netherlands — a once-tolerant nation to immigrants, now less willing to extend a hand to the non-Dutch on grounds that newcomers, particularly Muslims, don't assimilate into Dutch culture — seem to further justify this fear. When an extremist Muslim murdered a popular Dutch filmmaker last year, Europeans saw this as proof that tolerance does not work.
Yes, Lecturer and dhimmi dummy Lagos, at least a few Europeans who were smarter and more honest than average saw that, because it was true. Many Muslims are decent people in their way, but they passionately believe that there is only one spiritual source, Mohammed as recorded in the Koran, and only one legitimate religion, theirs -- and "tolerance" is not part of their mental equipment: ask Theo van Gogh. Well, no, you can't.

Question the teachings of the Prophet, imply that something might be amiss with a religion that respects women as fully equal to dogs, and it's only a few Muslims who'll be happy to cut your throat for you. The rest will merely nod wisely to one another.
Let them into the EU, so they can settle anywhere in Europe in any numbers, and all these little misunderstandings will be a thing of the past. Once all Europe is under the Crescent.

Having been educated, if such a word may be used, at one of our country's many all-leftist all-the-time seats of learning, Lecturer Lagos has probably never heard of taqqiya. (The Muslim doctrine of taqqiya, "concealment," allows Muslims to lie to unbelievers, especially when living among infidels. For example, you can publicly shun terrorism while sending secret contributions to Al Qaeda.)

When even France and Germany, who cheerfully imported intractable social problems along with their millions of Muslim workers, and whose commitment to Western civilization can be imprinted on a spymaster's microdot with room left over for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, acknowledge that there might be a wee problem in inviting Turkey into the club . . . maybe there's something involved that even a Lecturer in the Department of Communication might think twice about. Or rather, think for the first time.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Mediums and the Message

The A&E Channel's program Mediums: We See Dead People left me rather dispirited. (Pun intended.) It wasn't, on the whole, inaccurate; with one possible exception, the people with extrasensory powers who populated it rang true. But the style was all too typical of TV shows like this. (What to call them? No producer would describe this as a documentry, and neither would I.)

You certainly couldn't accuse Mediums of disrespecting its subjects. As they were taped going about their work, the narration explained in factual terms what they were up to. They were allowed to speak for themselves, with none of that counterpoint that used to characterize investigative TV, where Speaker A speaks, cut to Speaker B who contradicts Speaker A, etc. Interviews with sympathetic parapsychologists supported the validity of the phenomena.

I am fully convinced of the reality of many kinds of paranormal abilities such as telepathy, psychokinesis, and clairvoyance; reasonably convinced of the survival of consciousness after the death of the body. After watching Mediums for a while, though, I began perversely to wish for a little -- dreaded word -- balance. There is no shortage of skeptics out there; surely a couple of them could have been found to question the nature of what we were witnessing on screen. Instead, the smug acceptance felt like a tipoff that the program wasn't interested in controversy or probing, merely in display.

The one serious note of intellectual slovenliness in the program was that most of the people classed as mediums were no such thing; they were what are called clairvoyants or "sensitives." (A medium communicates with what are said to be discarnate entities, including those who have passed out of earthly life. A clairvoyant can be described as receiving strong visual and emotional impressions, often from the environment or objects, of information not available to the senses.) Even if, on the evidence, Mediums wasn't aiming very high, it should have made that distinction, which is elementary in psychical research.*

It was quite absorbing to see these mediums counseling the grieved, helping the police solve missing-persons and criminal cases, and demonstrating knowledge of things they would have no ordinary way of knowing about. My own intuition, such as it is, registered genuineness except the one time my meter twitched in the "Not Sure" zone.

That exception was James van Praagh, best-selling author and, I suppose, holder of the title of the world's most famous medium. I watched him with an admitted prejudice, having read his book Talking to Heaven and found it foolish: saccharine -- pure sweetness-and-light with no complexities -- and boastful. To hear him tell it, he is never wrong, never mis-dials the Other Side. Everyone who comes to him to chat up their departed loved ones leaves with a message of love from them, alive and well in the hereafter. The cynic in me wonders whether those in spirit never continue in the hard feelings and grievances that they bore while in the body -- as, in fact, some do according to many other mediums.

Anyway, as I watched Van Praagh working the crowd, I felt once again an element of manipulation. That isn't to say that the man is a fake. For all I know, he is a very talented medium. But there is something too smooth, too easily comforting there. The afterworld isn't necessarily Heaven, and Heaven isn't Disneyland.

It was, as I mentioned, the style adopted by the director of Mediums that set my teeth on edge. Visual tricks of lens and computer were liberally made use of. Melodramatic, "spooky" music was keyed to most shots. Scenes of past events were re-enacted without labeling them as such. The concept of mediumship was illustrated with excerpts from movies like Ghost and a popular TV series.

Above all, the director had the contempt for mere words that most of them have these days: nothing could be just said, everything had to be illustrated. Fear of Talking Heads was rampant. The felt need for cutting to visuals to demonstrate spoken phrases, egregious throughout, plunged into a true pit of silliness when the narrator, describing the harsh childhood of one of the mediums, said that he came from "a family troubled by his father's drinking." Cue close-up of glass and thirsty mouth.

Someone doesn't think much of the viewing public when a television program figures that the survival of death is such a boring subject that it has to be jazzed up.

It's some kind of progress when a program like Mediums takes survival seriously and basically treats it fair-mindedly. But, to appropriate a line from the great essayist and critic Dwight Macdonald, my response to those responsible for it would be, "I agree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death to keep you from saying it in that way."

*However, to avoid the tedium of continually tagging the word with "so-called" or putting quotes around "mediums" I'll refer to all of them here as mediums.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Rock and a hard place

Theodore Dalrymple (wonderful nom de plume for Dr. Anthony Daniels) had a shocking experience recently: he dropped into a pub that had no music erupting from speakers, and customers were talking in an ordinary conversational tone.

Dalrymple, essayist and diagnostician of social dysfunction, particularly in his native England, suggests that the dosage of music we are all forced to swim through daily, willing or not, is messing with our heads.
It is like a poisonous gas that a malign authority pumps into our atmosphere, whose doleful effect, and probably purpose, is to destroy our capacity to converse, to concentrate, to reflect. It agitates us, keeps us constantly on the move, makes us impulsive and lacking in judgement.
Rock music is especially unkind to the nerves and rousing to aggressive impulses, he says. It is making the modern world a harder place than it should be.
There is good reason to believe that rock music exerts a brutalising effect, and if it is not the sole cause of many of the unpleasantness of modern life, it aggravates them.

In the days when, as part of my medical duties, I had to visit police cells to examine the recently arrested, I went to a police station in which the custody sergeant used to play chamber works by Brahms (not always the most serene of composers, perhaps) to those whom I suppose in these consumerist days I must call his customers. He had found by trial and error, he said, that Brahms calmed criminals down while rock music made them more agitated and aggressive than they were already inclined to be.
It isn't just in bars or places of entertainment that we are force-fed rock music. A grocery store that I shop at plays it — not at its most abrasive and at reasonably low volume, but still — there it is. In southern California I encountered a gasoline pump/jukebox that unloaded pop music in my ears while I was filling the tank. And in restaurants … don't get me started.

Like Dalrymple, I have a feeling that the ubiquity of rock music is making the contemporary world a little meaner, people a little less connected. There's a notion about, mostly unconscious but still influential, that you can't have a good time unless there's lots of noise.

But … I often enjoy rock music. I don't listen to it as often as I used to, and not as often as classical, jazz, world, electronica and whatnot, but there are times when it hits the spot. And not just polite, warm, folkish rock either. Loud rock with screaming guitars. Even punk, circa 1979.

Kind of contradictory, what? Maybe even hypocritical? Here I am bashing rock as low-grade brain poisoning, yet I'm wont to revel in it when the mood is upon me. Maybe there's even a touch of elitist condescension? Yes, I can handle it because I'm emotionally mature and keep it in perspective, but bruising music needs to be stored inside a lock-lid container out of reach of children and potential yobs.

This paradox — that I'm capable of being thrilled to bits by a form of stimulation I think is contributing to anti-social behavior — has bothered me a long time. If there's any way of reconciling my appetite with my belief, it probably has to do with making some distinctions that Dalrymple omits.

First, although it's hard for those of us who came of age in the '60s to understand, most of today's popular music isn't rock. It's hip-hop and variants, all of which are dance music for clubs. For my taste — and that's all I'm saying — hip-hop, house, contemporary disco, and all that are numbingly repetitious, unmelodious and inhuman.

I realize that there are some, even older and more conservative than I, who think those terms apply to all rock, but I feel differently. Rock from the '60s and early '70s — and of course there was a lot of garbage back then, too — was created at a time when the songs of earlier eras were still in the cultural bloodstream. Rockers may have rejected the previous styles, but they still thought in terms of songs, not (as now) just extended rhythm tracks with slightly varying textures.

A good song is a good song, whether written by Gershwin, Dylan, or anybody. Which is a way of saying, I guess, something rather banal: that there's good and bad in any kind of music, including rock. As for punk, it is impossible to justify, a lot of it is unlistenable, but, but … okay, I'm twisted.

Second, there's the basic issue of context. I can dig on loud rock in a concert setting or a club, or coming out of my car's speakers during the commute, but usually detest it in restaurants, from neighbors' houses or backyards, or practically anywhere that it's forced on me. We need to acknowledge that amplification gives rock music an intensity that makes it suitable only for specific situations. It's not a stimulus that can be ignored.

One of the qualities that defines civilization is a recognition that many things that are good in their proper time and place have to be used with self-restraint. I have a right to indulge my own pleasures, even if someone else disapproves of them, but I don't have a right to inflict them on captives. As the booze ads say, "Enjoy our product responsibly." Every CD and sound system should carry the same message.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Tomb it may concern

Are you ready for this?

The tomb of Odysseus has been found! And, as a fringe benefit, the real location of his home, ancient Ithaka!

You read it here second. The story has been laid before a gasping world by the Madera (California) Tribune. [Hat tip: Across the Atlantic.]

According to the columnist, Thomas Elias, for the Tribune:
POROS, Island of Kefalonia, Greece - The tomb of Odysseus has been found, and the location of his legendary capital city of Ithaca discovered here on this large island across a one-mile channel from the bone-dry islet that modern maps call Ithaca.

This could be the most important archeological discovery of the last 40 years, a find that may eventually equal the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th Century dig at Troy.
Yes, well.
The discovery of what is almost certainly his tomb reveals that crafty Odysseus, known as Ulysses in many English renditions of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” was no mere myth, but a real person. Plus, passages in the “Odyssey” itself suggest that modern Ithaca and its main town of Vathi probably were not the city and island of which Homer wrote.

Rather, this small village of Poros on the southeast coast of Kefalonia now occupies part of a site that most likely was the much larger city which served as capital of the multi-island kingdom ruled by Odysseus and his father Laertes.
The evidence?
In 1991, a tomb of the type used to bury ancient Greek royalty was found near the hamlet of Tzannata in the hills outside Poros. It is the largest such tomb in northeastern Greece, with remains of at least 72 persons found in its stone niches.

One find there is particularly telling. In Book XIX of the “Odyssey,” the just-returned and still disguised Odysseus tells his wife (who may or may not realize who she’s talking to; Homer is deliberately ambivalent) that he encountered Odysseus many years earlier on the island of Crete. He describes in detail a gold brooch the king wore on that occasion.

A gold brooch meeting that precise description lies now in the archeological museum at Argostoli, the main city on Kefalonia, 30 miles across the island from Poros. Other gold jewelry and seals carved in precious stones excavated from the tomb offer further proof the grave outside Poros was used to bury kings.
Has any scholar or archaeologist done a tap dance over this extraordinary site? No, the writer's source was -- are you ready for this?
The most active promoter of the Poros area as Homeric Ithaca is the current mayor, who at one time was governor of the prefecture (county or small state) including both Ithaca and Kefalonia.
Now, look. I'd be as happy as you like if it could be determined with any seriousness that Odysseus was a real person and not an artistic creation, that his tomb was found, and that artifacts from the tomb saw the daylight again after 2,300 years in Hades.

But anybody who knows of the ever-controversial Heinrich Schliemann will realize that we've been down this road before.

If Elias had consulted any archeologist, pro- or anti-Schliemann, he would surely have been told the famous story of how Schliemann proclaimed at the site of Mycenae, "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon!" after finding a gold mask in the tombs there. He telegraphed the King of Greece, "With great joy I announce to Your Majesty that I have discovered the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos."

Only thing, the so-called Mask of Agamemnon turned out to be from about 300 years earlier than the presumed date of the Trojan War. Some modern archeologists think the mask is a fake. (I must admit, that handlebar mustache -- so typical of the late 19th century, the period of Schliemann's discovery -- always struck me as slightly dodgy.)

I've read Elias's article several times, looking for a tipoff that it was written tongue-in-cheek, for a wink between the lines. If it's there, it's too subtle for me. He adds, without apparent irony:
If Poros is Ithaca, who would ever go to the barren island now using the name? And if tiny Poros ever gets a huge tourist and cruise ship influx, what happens to Argostoli, now the center for those trades on Kefalonia?

As a result, the entire find has never been reported in the non-Greek press. And so far, major world media show little or no interest in the tale. But for lovers of Homer’s sagas, there’s now no place more appealing than Kefalonia.
Wouldn't the mayor of Poros like to catch some of that tourist trade? Think of it, Nikos -- right there on the main drag, the Odysscotheque! The Penelope Weaving Outlet! Telemachos Wireless!

As several bloggers have noticed, the standards of the mainstream print media have been in freefall in recent years. And, it would seem, not only when their political funnybone is struck.

Twenty or 30 years ago, a howler like Elias's piece would have been spiked by an editor even on an off-brand small-town paper.

This is indeed a Poros story. Full of holes.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Varieties of Scientific Experience

I must take issue with a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, who is, according to his bio note, "generally considered the world's foremost authority in the fields of affective forecasting and the fundamental attribution error."

Writing in the web site The Edge, Professor Daniel Gilbert argues in an article titled "The Vagaries of Religious Experience" that belief in God is an attribution error: people attribute to God experiences that cannot be shown to have anything other than a natural -- or, if you like, chance -- cause.

Gilbert notes that "people don't believe in God simply because they are told to by their elders, but because they are compelled to by their own experience. William James understood that religious belief grows out of human exprience, and he urged scientists to investigate the experiences that spawned it ... ."

Gilbert thinks science would be investigating a phantom, though.

The most fundamental principle of science is that beliefs must be predicated on empirical evidence — things that everyone can see, touch, taste, and measure — and in more than two thousand years of recorded history, no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God.
Gilbert wants to debunk the currently highly controversial idea of intelligent design. The basic concept of intelligent design, he says, is the "watchmaker analogy" first proposed by the naturalist William Paley in 1802. If we happened to find a watch lying on the ground, Paley said, "the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use."

Tosh, says Gilbert.
... [T]here are at least two problems with this explanation. First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, "Can I get ahead of you?" the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words "because I need to make some copies," the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word "because" and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn't already know was oddly irrelevant.
The second problem with Paley's argument, Gilbert says, is that "highly ordered phenomena can and do emerge from random processes."
If we toss a coin for long enough, we eventually observe some highly ordered strings such as "head, head, head, head, head, head" or "head, tail, head, tail, head, tail." Statisticians have sophisticated techniques that can help determine whether a particular pattern of coin flips is so unlikely that it (like Paley's watch) can only be explained by a non-random process. But research in psychology has shown that people have rather poor intuitions in this regard, and that they tend to mistake the products of random processes for the products of non-random processes but not the other way around.
He offers other examples of the mind's tendency to "seek explanations where none are needed." I recommend reading the whole article. He concludes: "But [science] cannot tell us whether there is a force or entity or idea beyond our ken that deserves to be known as God. What we can say is that the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins."

Within its own terms, Gilbert's conclusion is sound enough. The fantastical complexity of the phenomenal world, although it may fill us with wonder and awe, cannot prove that it was created by intelligence. But I question whether Gilbert is really discussing God at all in this article. In assuming that God is "a force or entity or idea" he is unconsciously stamping his materialistic scientific world view on a different order of being, the spiritual order.

Although Gilbert quotes William James (and his title is a play on James's Varieties of Religious Experience), he doesn't seem to understand what James was on about. The kinds of experiences James urged science to investigate were not just different from ordinary exprience: they were a different kind of experience. Certainly they far transcended notions of an ultra-large, ultra-smart inventor of a designer universe.

There is a science of spirit.

Rudolf Steiner put it this way:
If we get no further than natural science we arrive at the judgment or belief that a stringent science is only possible within the sense world, that it cannot rise to the eternal. If we take up the science of spirit, we know why the natural scientist has to say this if he does not get beyond the position of natural science.

But by developing our normal consciousness, by laying bare the spiritual forces slumbering in the soul, we recognize that man can penetrate into the eternal of his own being, into what is really immortal in himself, for this immortal part of him, in fact, makes its own existence known itself. The red color of the rose does not have to be proved. The spirit in us that goes through birth and death also testifies to its own existence when we are able to observe it.
Notice the quite scientific language: " ... when we are able to observe it." He is not speaking of interpretating the results of coin tossing on however sophisticated a plane. Steiner means spirit as an experience, and the implication is that spiritual states -- and ultimately God -- can be known directly, although not with our everyday senses.

Steiner's system of transforming consciousness so that it can apprehend spiritual reality is of course only one of many devised throughout human history, not to mention those instances of apparently spontaneous transformation known in the Christian tradition as "grace." When Gilbert says that "
in more than two thousand years of recorded history, no one has yet produced a shred of empirical evidence for the existence of God," he has a very limited idea of what constitutes empirical evidence.

The core teachings of the Hindu system are a highly scientific method for lifting the mind out of its ordinary consciousness into a state where it can experience spiritual truth as directly -- more directly, actually -- as the senses perceive matter. That system, as expressed in the Upanishads and even more directly in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, is no philosophical speculation.* Patanjali in particular is utterly empirical: do this, and this, and this, he says, and you will experience Brahman (God).

The Christian tradition has its own system of contemplation, which reached its peak in the Middle Ages; it was designed to lead aspirants to mystical union with God. Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism describes the process and the resulting experiences in great (sometimes tiresome) detail. Every religion has at least a niche for self-transformation leading to knowledge of God; even currently benighted Islam has a place for the Sufi order, which seeks to unite man and Allah in a loving ecstasy.

So, with respect to Professor Gilbert, who is no doubt a fine experimental psychologist as that is understood in the academic world, he has placed empiricism in a vessel too small to contain it. When he says that "
the universe is a complex place, that events within it often seem to turn out for the best, and that neither of these facts requires an explanation beyond our own skins," it is only a concept of God he finds surplus to requirements -- not the direct experience of God that can be attained, at least in some degree, through certain replicable scientific "experiments" that countless people have performed down the ages. Perhaps this comes under the heading of an attribution error.

* In the 1940s, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Swami Prabhavananda, Gerald Heard, and others tried to take the essence of Hindu spiritual science and re-cast it for Westerners under the heading of Vedanta. Unfortunately, in my view, the movement never got much traction; also, in my view, Huxley over-interpreted Indian teachings in terms of his own biases, turning them into a rather dualistic and Puritanical doctrine. Still, there is quite a bit that is worthwhile in the Vedanta canon.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Diana Krall on DVD

You already have a DVD player, of course, for watching movies at home. But I suspect that there are some music enthusiasts who don't realize that the advent of DVD has taken music reproduction to a new level that opens up thrilling possibilities for enjoyment.

If you've concluded that video "in concert" recordings don't add much value to CDs, you're not alone. Most concert videos, as seen on conventional TV and on VHS tapes, promise more than they deliver. Sure, it's interesting to see the performers, but unless they have strong dramatic delivery (which few musicians, other than lead singers, do) the novelty wears off after about 10 minutes. Likewise, the switching of shots from full-stage to close-ups to left to right and back through the cycle wears thin pretty quickly. And the cutaway shots of the audience — gah! Who cares about seeing a bunch of goofs clapping in time (or not in time) with the beat?

But if you want to know what can be done using the full resources of the DVD medium, check out Diana Krall: Live in Paris. It's a recording made in 2001 at the Olympia in Paris. The disc's production values — not to mention the musicianship on display — are so thumping good as to make believers of skeptics.

Let's start with the sound. Depending on what playback equipment you have, you can listen in Dolby Digital stereo, Dolby Digital multichannel or DTS multichannel. If your receiver can handle DTS, go for that option, but I'm sure the Dolby sounds great too, and I imagine the basic stereo mixdown is fine. The high sampling rate for all these formats, and what was apparently shrewd microphone choice and placement, has resulted in a recording with brilliant "you-are-there" punch, transparency and smoothness.

I listened to the DTS layer through five channels (no subwoofer), and thought the sound engineering was exceptionally fine. Full use is made of the front and center channels, with just a deft touch of rear channel ambience. No gimmicks like surrounding you with instruments; you are, in recording terms, seated near the stage but not on it stretched across the piano or lashed to the drummer's kit.

The visuals are top grade. There's a lot of fast cutting, which can seem intrusive in many productions, but the editor here was clearly in tune with the performance. The camera angles and frames mean something. You see the musicians take genuine delight in one another's solos. A close-up of drummer Jeff Hamilton's hands as he reverses the brushes he's been using on the drum skin to their straight ends for tapping the cymbals gently. Diana's spike-heeled shoes as she nudges the piano pedals.

And what an amazing variety of viewpoints: tight close-ups of musicans as they play their instruments; close-ups of faces; medium shots of two or three players; full stage; even overhead angles from a balcony or crane. In fact, the panoply of camerawork you see in a feature film is used here (except tracking shots — no movement of the "actors" to track).

A recording can't replace being at a live concert. But this DVD does give you a kind of experience you couldn't get even at the concert hall, through its kaleidoscopic shifting of perspectives.

The lighting, which I expect the camera crew had a hand in as well as the stage manager and lighting director, brings out deep, rich colors. (My system includes a progressive-scan DVD player and HDTV, and this is a fine disc to demonstrate the virtues of both.)

I won't try to describe the performance. There are those who can bring music to life in words, but I'm not one of them. I'll simply say that this is sparkling mainstream jazz. The arrangements for most numbers include a fairly large orchestra (perhaps a concession to French audiences — they dote on that sort of thing). I'm not a fan of black-tie jazz arrangements, or black-tie anything. But while the orchestra doesn't add much, its backing and fills are tasteful and very professionally played.

And there's Diana Krall.

You know the voice, which a writer for The Wall Street Journal (Terry Teachout? Nat Hentoff?) compared to honey with a slug of Scotch. You also probably know she's a keyboard ace. But unless you've seen her in concert or on a DVD like this, you might find it hard to appreciate how she pulls it all together and adds personal magnetism into the bargain.

Another thing. Diana could surely have made a career for herself just sliding by on her innate talent, her Nordic beauty and a few crowd-pleasing stylistic tricks. But she's taken the steeper route, developing her talent to the point where she is accepted in the rarefied world of serious jazz musicians. It speaks well of her that she has chosen to surround herself, not with mediocrities against whom she could easily shine, but with first-class sidemen, both on her CDs and in this concert. (Here, notably, it's guitarist Anthony Williams, bassist John Clayton, and Jeff Hamilton, but all the group members mesh beautifully and contribute to the whole).

I salute Diana Krall: first, for her musicanship; second, for her character.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

New whine in an old battle

Charles Shaw, writing in something called Newtopia Magazine ("A Journal of the New Counterculture"), tells us how a stretch in prison turned his head around. (The home page notifies us that the magazine/web site is closing down, so by the time you read this, link rot may have set in.) In his piece titled "A Less Fashionable War," he says:
… As the rare upper-middle class educated White American in prison, I found myself in a truly alien, self-perpetuating world of crushing poverty and ignorance, violent dehumanization, institutionalized racism, and an entire sub-culture of recidivists, some of whom had done nine and ten stints, many dating back to the Seventies. Most used prison as a form of criminal networking knowing full well they would be left to fend for themselves when released. We were told on many occasions that an inmate was worth more inside prison than back in society. Considering it costs an average of $37,000 a year to incarcerate offenders, and the average income for Black Americans is $24,000, and only $8,000-12,000 for poor Blacks, one can easily see their point.
Well, no, not that easily. The cost of incarcerating offenders is borne by society, in principle, as the cost of keeping someone deemed to be dangerous in a place where he is no longer a threat to people outside it, or as a deterrent against others endangering the public. The average income for "Black Americans" (I thought "African Americans" was now the politically correct term), if the figure is correct, is the average price at which the market values the labor of individuals in this group. The numbers are measuring different things, so the comparison is meaningless — it's like comparing the cost of upkeep for a car with the value of a plot of land.

Notice, too, the fast shuffle involved in that "and only $8,000-$12,000 for poor Blacks." How did he obtain these numbers? Presumably by discovering that some blacks have an income in that range, and quite reasonably describing them as poor. But so what? Is a white person whose income is $8,000–$12,000 less poor?

Shaw continues:
The Chicago Tribune reported this year that about two-thirds of the more than 600,000 ex-convicts released in 2005 will be re-arrested within three years, and about half will return to prison for a new crime or violation of parole. Despite having “paid their debt to society”, once released their punishment is not nearly over. These days there is little to no hope of any real reform, as within the various Departments of Corrections, “correction” is a painfully misleading euphemism for the warehousing of offenders. There are few, if any, re-entry programs for ex-offenders and virtually no jobs or social services to help keep them afloat in an increasingly difficult and unforgiving society. Thus, most ex-offenders have no choice but to return to their old crime infested neighborhoods, destitute and desperate to survive any way they can.
I can sympathize. As an office professional, I too will have no useful re-entry programs, jobs services or social services to turn to if my employer should one day invite me to take a permanent holiday. I too fear that an increasingly difficult and unforgiving society will not be there for me. Therefore, no prospect is in view other than a life of crime. I'm looking for a good course in Advanced Mugging Technique.
A significant majority of the new crimes or parole violations are drug related, often nothing more than testing positive on a monthly drug screen.
Agreeing to stay off drugs seems to me a rather mild penalty for being released on parole. If a former inmate doesn't keep his end of the bargain, even knowing that he'll be drug tested, why shouldn't he be banged up again if conditions for parole are going to mean anything at all?
I cannot begin to recount all the men I met, particularly those with prior records or those on parole, who were re-incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Gasps! Not possible! Lies! Propaganda! Our system is just! True it is, for those who can afford justice in the form of a bond and a private lawyer, or for those whom the system is not already unduly prejudiced. But in a system with corrupt cops eager for arrests, zealous State’s Attorneys eager for convictions, jaded and overwhelmed Public Defenders eager for quick pleas, and rigid bond judges eager to set bail far beyond what anyone in their socio-economic class could reasonably afford, there is little opportunity for a fair trial.
I am lucky to have done small socializing with the criminal class, but others acquainted with the milieu have told me about it, and I believe I am on safe ground pointing out to Shaw that those who get caught are virtually always, in their minds, innocent — stitched up by the System, just happened to be in the wrong place (like at the handle end of a gun) when the bust went down.

Still, there is something in what he says. Prosecutors get ahead in their careers by racking up convictions, and one way to do that is by not having any convictions about who is really guilty and who isn't, but only whether a good case can be made or not. And court-appointed defense lawyers don't give themselves to the job as they would for a client forking over $300 an hour — that's wrong, but human nature is what it is — and perhaps honestly feel that getting a decent plea bargain is the best service they can do for their client.
Thirty years ago Gore Vidal noted that “roughly 80% of police work in the United States has to do with the regulation of our private morals…controlling what we drink, eat, smoke, put into our veins…with whom and how we have sex or gamble.” Then there were roughly 250,000 prisoners in the nation. Today there is more than 2 million, with another million in county jails awaiting trial or sentencing, and another roughly 3 million under “correctional supervision” on probation or parole. The total national cost of incarceration then was $4 billion annually; today it’s $64 billion, with another $20 billion in federal money and $22-24 billion in money from state governments earmarked for waging the so-called “War on Drugs.” Nationally, around 60% or more of these prisoners are drug criminals. Yet, throughout all this time and expense there has not been the slightest decrease in either drug use or supply. …

No matter how much money the government pours into the War on Drugs, it doesn’t appear to make a dent in drug use or drug-related crime. The body count in this “war” still rises. Dead and corrupted cops, dead gang youth, dead traffickers and couriers, dead innocent bystanders—the urban “collateral damage”—devastated families, addiction, disease, overdoses from unregulated, poor quality drugs, exploding prisons, crushing costs, corrupt officials, craven politicians, sensationalist media, and a limitless harvest of offenders. Where does the madness end?
Too right. Gore Vidal's 80 percent figure was, and is, almost surely much exaggerated; but it's hard to doubt that, if it were possible to win a "war on drugs," the peace treaty would be in a glass case in a museum by now. And sending kids to jail with hardened criminals for possession, or even sale, of minusucle amounts of marijuana is just plain inhumane, not to mention counter-productive.

Unfortunately, Shaw can't resist turning the problem into a racial issue:
And amidst all the talk of race as a factor in the Katrina disaster let us not forget a bigger disaster: One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison compared to 1 in 180 White men. Despite African Americans comprising only 12% of the total population, in five states, including Illinois, the ratio of Black to White prisoners is 13 to 1. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that Blacks comprise 56.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons while Whites comprise only 23.3% (in my Illinois prison—one of 28 in the State—of the 1,076 inmates, 689 were Black, 251 were White, and 123 were Latino). Based upon these numbers, a full 30% of African-Americans will see time in prison during their life, compared with only 5% of White Americans, even though White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin.
The implication is that courts are not equal-opportunity jailers and punish blacks more than whites. But the percentages he offers are, again, meaningless as evidence for the point he wants to make. The ratio could logically be cited simply to show that a higher percentage of blacks commit crimes than whites. True, the statistics don't prove that either, but they certainly don't prove the opposite.

And where did he come up with the statement that "White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin"? Once again, even if that could somehow be shown to be correct, he is mixing up two disparate classes of data — numbers and percentages. Since there are quite a few more whites than blacks in this country, it is conceivable that white drug users outnumber black users (although the five-times-more figure seems absurd), but that says nothing at all about which group has a larger percentage of users, much less whether there is disproportionate sentencing. Shaw just appears to inhabit that leftist world where oppression of minority ethnic groups is a given.

It's too bad, really, because despite all that ideological baggage he is reminding us of an unpleasant truth about the drug war dementia. I am no longer as convinced as I used to be that legalizing hard drugs ("under medical supervision" or whatever) is an easy alternative — Britain tried that, and has backed off; and I'm told that Amsterdam is full of pathetic junkies.

But there are too damn many people in American jails for nonviolent crimes committed against, if anyone, themselves.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Musing on Museums

Donald Pittenger at 2 Blowhards writes about strategies for museum visits. He and the commenters have that field pretty well covered, so I won't take it up here; but it did set me thinking about the extraneous factors that can add to, or detract from, the value and enjoyment of a museum.

Here is a scorecard of both positive and negative factors that, aside from the exhibits, affect the quality of the experience.


Crowd control. The single most important variable is how many people you have to share the space with. Have you ever been to one of those "blockbuster" exhibitions where it's like being in Times Square on New Year's Eve? It's not just that you have to squeeze your way through hordes to get near the objects you want to look at, and listen to the yakking of everyone around you; besides that, once you do get into viewing position, you feel a sort of guilt for occupying the space and a self-administered compulsion to move along before you've even had time to connect with what you're looking at.

For very popular exhibitions or museums, there seems no alternative to timed admissions and exiting. And the number of admissions for each slice of the clock should be reasonable, not all that the traffic will bear, or there's no point. It's frustrating if this allows less time than you might ideally want, but by keeping the head count to a manageable number, you can at least look at the exhibits in an ambience that lends itself to appreciation.

Two museums in Rome illustrate the difference in policy. The Vatican Museums pack 'em in disgracefully — it's like trying to look at art in a football crowd. The Galleria Borghese sells tickets for particular times (you can even buy them on the Internet) and its rooms are, as a result, moderately populated and lend themselves to reasonably quiet contemplation. For efficent crowd control, add 10 points.

Dining and refreshments.
It's essential to be able to call a halt and pull yourself together during a visit to a big museum. When I am looking at high-quality art, I become subject to the delusion of being a solid citizen, and want to have a serious restaurant available within the precincts. (The French, naturally, are very good at this.) It's equally important for there to be a cafe for light refreshments and a bar, so you can tune up your art-appreciation cranial circuits through a mild indulgence in Omar Khayyam's favorite pastime. For good dining and drinking opportunities, add 5 points.

Museum Foot Syndrome can strike at any time. First aid, in the form of posterior support, must be ready to, er, hand. There should be a comfortable bench in the center of every room. (Bench, not a seat with a back, so that you can sit facing any direction.) For good seating, add 5 points.

Guide map. Sure, every museum gives you a leaflet with a floor plan. But the upmarket version does more than tell you, "Room XVII, European sculpture and furnishings, 1500–1800," etc. It should list the artists and a selection of the works to be found in that space. The Getty in Los Angeles has a guide map that is a model of its kind. It offers a 3D-like view of the various buildings and of the grounds, with callouts from the plan of each floor of each building to a description of the contents as well as photographs of selected artworks. For a good guide map, add 3 points.

Descriptive labels. Purists decry any labeling of art objects other than the name of the artist, the title of the piece and the date. This is still the procedure in most art museums in Europe, I think. American museums tend to add descriptions. The anti-description argument is that you should experience the work directly, unfiltered through someone else's concepts. I sympathize with that position, but can't fully agree. It depends on the quality of the description. Descriptive labels should be short — there's rarely any need for more than three paragraphs — and primarily concerned with the item's aesthetic aspects. If the artist is little known, a brief bio can be useful. Sometimes it's worthwhile to include a few words of cultural background, but that should not be an opportunity for the curator to interpret the piece in the light of his or her political and social leanings. For good descriptive labels, add 3 points.


Defacing the exterior. It's become de rigueur to drape the facade of art museums with huge banners touting temporary exhibits. The banners can, admittedly, be colorful and attractive, but they can also detract from the architecture — for better or worse, depending on the architecture. A dignified classical building or an ornate, Beaux Arts front should not be tarted up with what amounts to advertising.

Banners are as nothing, though, compared with the barbarian deconstruction of a stately old building by plopping in front of it a hideous raw-concrete or rusty-wire "sculptural" atrocity of the sort that was all the rage in the 1960s, or some smart-ass, pop-art magnified vacuum cleaner or paper clip in the Claes Oldenburg vein. For ruining an attractive exterior, subtract 5 points.

Defacing the lobby.
Hanging a Calder mobile to dominate the lobby is a sure sign of condescending, pseudo-hip pandering to the lowest common denominator. It's there because everybody will recognize it and feel oh-so-clever. If this sounds like a dig at the East Building of Washington's National Gallery, well, if the shoe fits … . For a Calder mobile in the lobby, deduct 25 points.

Calder is now such a standard-issue bore that some enterprising institutions have had to come up with a newer, please-all-comers substitute. Thank goodness for Dale Chihuly! Safe, recognizable, contemporary — whoo-ee! The middlebrow's Thomas Kinkade. For a Chihuly sculpture in the lobby, deduct 10 points.

Free admission for children. Children below a certain age — say, 10 — simply don't belong in certain museums, particularly art galleries. The Frick in New York is the only museum I know of that has a policy of excluding them, or used to (I expect they've been under savage pressure to relent). If so-called art lovers can't bear to be separated from their little darlings for a few hours or are too cheap to hire a baby sitter, sod them. I have spoken. For encouraging young children to attend exhibitions meant for grown-ups, deduct 10 points.

Placing a store at the entrance to the museum.
There's nothing wrong with museums having stores and gift shops if it helps with the budget, and some of them are nice places to shop. But please — let's keep things in proportion! A store shouldn't be the first thing you see in a museum. Museums ought to uphold the principle that some things come before commerce. Good on the British Museum, which used to have its gift shop right inside the main doors but moved it to a more suitable location in the recent renovation and re-design. For over-emphasizing retail, deduct 5 points.


I'm not much bothered one way or the other about the portable tape-recorded guided tours playing through headphones that are now ubiquitous in art museums. I don't use them because somebody banging on in my ears about what I'm seeing doesn't appeal to me, and they cost money, which doesn't appeal to me either. But some perfectly intelligent people use these devices and like them. A matter of taste.

If you have additional criteria to add to the scorecard, or want to dissent from some of mine, that's what the comment feature is there for.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Shall we trance?

Now that AM/FM radio stations have refined commercial vacuity to undreamed of depths, there's a widespread hunger for alternative sources of broadcast music that refresh the parts that other stations cannot reach. Hence the fast growth of satellite radio (XM and Sirius), which I've never heard; but just in case you were unaware of it, there's an alternative alternative that I suspect is becoming more exhilarating than satellite radio. It's Internet broadcasting.

Aside from enabling you to listen to radio stations from all over the world (which sometimes only produces the sinking feeling that, like so much else in the commercial sphere, there's a Burger King and Starbuck's for every human activity), independent -- at least for the moment -- music outlets enable you to check out stuff you definitely won't hear over the airwaves.

I recently ran across a good example: OEM Radio, which bills itself as original electronic music radio. The station says, "The music content is wide ranging in terms of genre: you will hear ambient, IDM, downtempo, breakbeat, dub, psychedelic chill, and many other not-so-easily categorized sounds. OEM Radio plays listening music and not dance music. OEM Radio seeks to bring original electronic music and recording artists that are underexposed to a wider audience."

Did you get that -- listening music and not dance music? Glory!

Although I'm dead keen on quite a bit of what goes under the name of trance music (when the psychedelic aspect is prominent and the bass beats don't kneecap you), I have to plead ignorance of the meaning of IDM and don't think I care for breakbeat and dub. But so far I've found the OEM listening experience rewarding and unusual.

Another bonus is that the station, or maybe a network it's part of, uses the iTunes player, which I've never encountered before. Not only is sound quality remarkably good for what I assume are MP3 condensed files, but the player has a visualizer mode that produces outstanding constant-change patterns. (Yes, I know Microsoft's player does visuals too, but this blows Mr. Softee's product away.) From the OEM home page, click Tune In, then OK in the dialogue box that follows, and it downloads the player or opens it if you already have it.

Turn on the visualizer using the menu at the top left or the button with an icon that looks like a flower at the lower right. Even if this type of music isn't your spot of tea, you'll likely be entranced by the "light show." Enjoy!

[Note: OEM says they put out a 128K bitstream that requires a broadband connection like DSL or cable, but they've got eyes to add a lower-bandwidth version that will work with any connection.]