Base Fiddle

 

Occasionally you learn something astonishing. The other day I was in the midst of Mathematics for the Nonmathemetician* and read this:

There are people who campaign for the adoption of base twelve, because it offers special advantages.

I mean, this is America. There’s a lot you can say about the place, but it does not lack for heterogeneity of the mind. Yet I have never heard – or even heard of – anyone saying “You know what? We need to get rid of our base ten numerical system and replace it with base twelve.”

 

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Turns out I’ve led a sheltered life.

Dozenalists aren’t cranks or crotchety anti-metric grouches. We just find the dozenal system easier, more efficient, and otherwise better than the decimal. This is a reasonable opinion well founded in the facts.

Don Goodman, The Dozenal Society of America

 

 

*I could use more books like this, e.g. Conversation for the Nonconversationalist, Patience for the Nonpatient, etc.

 

I Can’t Explain

 

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Because this record did not actually promise any sales, there was little incentive for any corporate entity, particularly a recording company, to accelerate the approval process. I asked Jon Lomberg if there was anything missing from the Voyager record for this kind of reason. “The Beatles,” he responded instantly. All four members of the band wanted “Here Comes the Sun” included – but their publisher wouldn’t grant the rights.

-Jim Bell, The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission

 

I watched some of the Ken Burns Vietnam documentary and what’s been indelible is the Marine saying, regarding a most unhappy matter, that he did not know how to explain it so that it made sense.

That sentiment less unhappily came to mind reading the above excerpt. Imagine trying to explain to the heptapods (or etc) such a situation. On the bright side, said situation does illuminate various aspects of human ingenuity.

Personally, my incomprehension regards the quadrofabs. I’d have been all “Uh, guys… You know you have a song called ‘Across the Universe,’ right?”

 

PS “Across the Universe” eventually did go interstellar.

 

Triomph

 

There is so much crap in this world, and then, suddenly, there is honesty and humanity.

-Ryszard Kapuściński, The Soccer War

 

If you were to recommend a band to me, and describe them as a Thai funk/surf soul trio, my central nervous system would probably execute some sort of armadillo maneuver.

And if you were to utter the dread words “jam band,” it would then summon the officer with the football.

 

Mercifully Professor Missionjmk used none of the above to recommend Khruangbin. I attended their show Saturday night and holy moly they were good. Easily the best Thai funk/surf soul jam band trio I’ve seen from Houston.

 

 

Seriously, they are the real deal, and they are on tour now.

 

 

Pettifoggery

 

If we do not speak ill of the dead, who will?

-Harold Bloom

 

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Of all the horrors of late, not least is Tom Petty songs everywhere. It had been bad enough to hear them only occasionally.

Into the bargain words like “genius” are being used to describe him. Gentle Reader, we need some unpleasant fact-face interface: Tom Petty’s music is not good.

(And that’s just the music. His lyrics are mere text. Bloom wept.)

E.g. “Learning to Fly” is gemlike insipidity. “I Won’t Back Down” is an artless slog. “Running Down a Dream” seems the work of the Anti-Euphony League.

Etc.

It mystifies me how he hung out with Bob Dylan and Randy Newman yet remained, at least compositionally speaking, unimproved.

Do I have nothing nice to say about him?

Oh, alright. He declined to sue the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which does indicate a generosity of spirit, one that I would certainly lack where the Red Hot Chili Peppers are concerned.

 

 

What Happened?

 

Factually, if you had told any of us who worked with President Clinton as he prepared for his first summit with Boris Yeltsin in 1993 where the Russian economy, Russia’s government, and Russian relations with the United States were going to be in 2017, we would have been appalled.

Larry Summers

 

I had my students write about the most fun thing they did over the summer. One, from South Korea, wrote about playing video games, and mentioned the slowness of the Internet here. This struck me because the night before I’d watched a PBS documentary on the Battle of Chosin. Imagine the bewilderment of those Marines if you’d told them that in a couple of generations South Korea would have a superior technological infrastructure to America’s.

 

Kigali City Tower (credit: Adam Cohn)

 

Twenty-one years ago I was in Rwanda. Had you told me that today there’d be a national fiber optic network and universal health care, I’d have told you to lay off the waragi.

 

 

 

The Brink’s Job

 

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The Greeks of the sixth century and earlier were intellectual pioneers. It was the first time that they or anybody else began, as one historian has put it, “to think of space, time, man, and the state in any clear and coherent manner.”

David Fromkin, The Way of the World

 

I was at a party last night talking to a couple who mentioned some concerts they’d seen at a local arena. The man added that they’d also seen the Lipizzaner Stallions.

“Now that’s a name for a band,” I said, but they explained it was actually the horse show.

Anyway, when I got home, I picked up the New Yorker and started reading “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Based on last night’s sleep, I probably should have read about dancing horses instead:

Brinkmanship, according to Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who pioneered the theory of nuclear deterrence, is the art of “manipulating the shared risk of war.” In 1966, he envisaged a nuclear standoff as a pair of mountain climbers, tied together, fighting at the edge of a cliff. Each will move ever closer to the edge, so that the other begins to fear that he might slip and take both of them down. It is a matter of creating the right amount of fear without losing control. Schelling wrote, “However rational the adversaries, they may compete to appear the more irrational, impetuous, and stubborn.” But what if the adversaries are irrational, impetuous, and stubborn?

 

Modest though my contribution may be, I owe it to the ancients to think about space, time, man, and the state in a clear and coherent manner. And so I ask:

How come you always hear about brinksmanship, but never a brinksman? Seems like The Brinksman should be a cool spy novel or a series about a Victorian rake or something. I could read it before bed.

 

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(Google informs me that, alas, The Brinksmen has been taken for a band name.)

 

Talent Agencies

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1. Frank Sinatra Has a Grievance

The situation was not helped by the attitude of the American Federation of Musicians, the US equivalent of the MU [Musicians Union], who sought to block any application for a foreign band to tour the US. It was a tactic that proved remarkably successful. In the 1920s, over fifty American bands toured the UK, yet not a single British band worked in America during the same period.

I saw a documentary on Frank Sinatra and there was something about how his first show in London was delayed because of objections from the Musicians Union. I remember thinking “Well, that’s the British and their unions for you.” But I just read the above in Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers, and now apparently must revise my history.

 

2. Stupefied Stupefied Stupefied

One of the unexpected events of this summer was Black Grape releasing, after two decades, their third album. I haven’t listened to it yet, probably because I’m still in shock. Let’s just say, it had been some time since I’d wondered what they were up to. I did see them in 1995. Kermit was absent, so it was a bit like seeing Hall instead of Hall and Oates, but it was still pretty good.

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 3. Keep, Ancient Lands, Your Storied Pop

A foreign artist seeking authorization to perform in the United States must navigate a system that involves a pair of government departments. Homeland Security, created in 2003, evaluates the initial application and then, if approval is granted, the State Department, assuming it is satisfied with the results of an in-person interview with the performer, issues a visa at an embassy abroad.

U.S. Visa Rules Deprive Stages of Performers,” The New York Times, April 11, 2012

Kermit did not make it stateside at all, if I recall correctly, for he was denied a visa due to his criminal record. Regrettable, yes, but understandable, given America’s pride in the scrupulous behavior of its musicians.

Getting a visa is indeed no joke. I was unaware of the travails of UK musicians who look to our fair shores. (Apparently solo artists have to prove that they are “extraordinarily talented,” whereas groups just have to be “exceptionally talented.”)

As someone who’s seen a lot of British bands in America, I have new respect for their dedication (and expense) in making it here. So I won’t name any names. But – at risk of ingratuity – I must record that not each seemed distinguished by exceptional talent. The fault, dear Britain, is not in our fifty stars…

 

 

School Daze

 

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That penultimate sentence is my new favorite.

I had just spent five years in graduate school, a statement that may mean nothing to people who never served such a stretch; it is the explanation, nonetheless. I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has. Millions of Americans now go to graduate schools, but just say the phrase—”graduate school”—and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur. Half the people I knew in graduate school were going to write a novel about it. I thought about it myself. No one ever wrote such a book, as far as I know. Everyone used to sniff the air. How morbid! How poisonous! Nothing else like it in the world! But the subject always defeated them. It defied literary exploitation. Such a novel would be a study of frustration, but a form of frustration so exquisite, so ineffable, nobody could describe it. Try to imagine the worst part of the worst Antonioni movie you ever saw, or reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet at one sitting, or just reading it, or being locked inside a Seaboard Railroad roomette, sixteen miles from Gainesville, Florida, heading north on the Miami-to-New York run, with no water and the radiator turning red in an amok psychotic over boil, and George McGovern sitting beside you telling you his philosophy of government. That will give you the general atmosphere.

-Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism

 

 

Stultiloquies

 

1. I Am (Not) the Cosmos

The United States basked in the glory of a total eclipse on Monday, as the moon’s shadow swept from the rocky beaches of Oregon to the marshes of South Carolina.

The New York Times, August 21, 2017

The eclipse occurred while Twins 1&2 were in my care. I’d considered taking them out to see it, but – for, you see, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail – had neglected to obtain the necessary equipment. (I did briefly think about just telling them not to look up at the sun, but even I could sense this was exceptional stupidity.)

At the last moment, though, I thought “Good heavens, Peter, you teach science, and this is a marvel you and your children should witness,” so I piled them in the car and drove to meet a colleague who’d kindly issued an invitation and had extra eyewear.

I’m real glad I don’t have to – at least in this lifetime – look Carl Sagan in the eye and explain this next bit, but, through a sequence of events, instead of the eclipse we three watched the The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature.

This was the ladies’ first visit to a cinema. Twin 2 was enchanted, and her joyful laughter cheered me muchly. I’m biased and all, but it’s worthy of the Voyager records (her laugh, not the movie).

 

2. I May Not Mean To, But I Do

A friend and I were discussing things that are broadly overrated. I nominated peanut butter, New Order, and social engagements that fall before cocktail hour.

This is a subject for another post – indeed, it shall consume an entire chapter of my manifesto – but you know what else is way overrated?

Communication.

 

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