Sunday, December 19, 2010

Science in trouble?

Because I like to throw around the latest trends in social science, I read this awesome article in last week's New Yorker with great interest and more than a bit of dismay. Lots of scientific experiments report significant effects that turn out later to be kinda bullshit. What could be more damaging to my worldview?

That was my first line of thinking, at least. The magnitude and pervasiveness of the "decline effect," by which certain "proven" trends decline precipitously over time, is troubling for those of us who put a lot of philosophical stock in the scientific method and see it as the basic, and most trustworthy, gateway to truth.

After thinking back to my own forays into the world of scientific research, I realized that the decline effect isn't terribly shocking after all. What people often fail to realize about science is the pervasive biases that could exist in most experiments--even the well designed ones--without ever showing up in the final draft of the scientific paper. Because the popular press, and even scientific papers, never report every detail of their experiments, these biases are easily lost on the reader, and only reveal themselves years later.

I saw the messy details of experimentation at work in three front-line research areas in college: a comparative cognition (monkey) lab, an unconscious cognition lab, and in my own senior research project in theoretical astrophysics.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

emily howell, cont'd: essentialism

Okay then! Before I start rambling on about essentialism, let me just say that I've now listened to a bunch of music composed by David Cope's programs. Most of it is terrible (the older stuff, where EMI is trying to imitate composers of the past). But the newer CD is intriguing to say the least, and certainly worth listening to if you have any interest in the future of music. To argue that the Emily Howell project and artificially composed music isn't at least a worthwhile venture, or that it doesn't have the potential for making beautiful and powerful music, is absurd.

Anyhoo, I've recently made the claim that humans' natural inclination toward essentialism distorts our perception of art, and indeed, lots of stuff.

Essentialism, roughly defined, is the idea that things have intrinsic properties that go beyond their more obvious external, analyzable properties, and that these intrinsic properties are in some sense or another irreducible and essential to the things themselves. The classic example is a species like a tiger: there is some essential "tiger-ness" to every tiger that has nothing to do with the way any individual tiger looks or behaves. Rather, "tiger-ness" is an invisible but necessary property that all tigers share, and that all non-tigers lack.

Psychologists have shown how people--cross-culturally, and from very early in life--believe this idea of species essentialism despite the fact that it is, strictly speaking, false.

Friday, December 10, 2010

DADT repeal: am I missing something here?

I just emailed a bunch of senators urging them to repeal DADT. Did you???

The Senate's failure, earlier today, to repeal the military's DADT policy is the latest and worst case of "Oh my God if they can't pass that then what can they do?" type legislation that has met its recent death in the Senate.

What's most frustrating is that DADT is not only cruel, discriminatory, and harmful to the military and our national security, it's also opposed by an overwhelming majority of the public and the military.

What's strange, moreover, is the shocking and inexplicable lack of political calculation by Republicans holding up the vote.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

what is music? a debate sparked by emily howell

Over the past year or so a performer-turned-scholar musician friend and I have debated on and off about our various philosophies regarding what we call "art music" or "classical music." I think I've written a little bit about the matter at hand a few times before, but given his conversion to scholar, I can no longer shrug off his ideas. Here is my initial attempt to organize my own thoughts thoughts, with the ultimate goal of perhaps putting them in some more tangible form, as a rebuttal to my friend's crackpot theories (don't worry, the mutual respect runs deep).

Emily Howell, for those who don't know, is a computer program created by computer scientist and composer David Cope. David Cope's previous program, Emi, analyzed music in a given style and was then able to compose music in the same style. Emily, however, purports to write music in her own style.

The reason Emily Howell is such a controversial figure--well, at least in the world of art music--is that she (it?) makes us question what music is, why it's important, and ultimately, why we value it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

An unforgettable game!

If you are a soccer fan--but especially if you aren't--do yourself a favor and watch the Barcelona-Madrid game from earlier today. I just finished watching it. It was outrageous. Don't just watch the highlights! You'll miss the best parts.

Simply put, Barca played soccer at its awe-inspiring best. In the beautiful game, a scoreline isn't always indicative of how the match played out on the field. But 5-0 is a perfect reflection of Barca's dominance--maybe even flattering to Madrid. Barca have ripped teams to shreds before. But to do it with such conviction, such assurance, and such swagger, against one of the best teams in the world! Remarkable. Madrid, after all, had not lost a game all season. Rarely do you see a team put 20 consecutive passes together in a game. Barca did that at least half a dozen times, including in the run-up to the second goal. And all the while they were enjoying themselves, expressing themselves, and putting on a show for the Camp Nou fans, who ate it right up. It wasn't just the sheer number of passes or quantity of possession that did it; it was all the heel flicks, one-touch passes, and nutmegs that Barca inflicted on hapless Madrid defenders. The crowd was already ole-ing passes within the opening 20 minutes. And I haven't even said anything about the goals.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

advantage rule and diving, again

On the eve of an important soccer event in my own life, to soccer we turn again. Right now I can't resist but make an argument I've already made, only more emphatically and with renewed conviction: that diving in soccer is largely a product of the inadequate advantage rule.

I probably should have talked more about this during the World Cup, because diving seems to be Americans' preferred reason for disliking the beautiful game and dismissing out of hand. I could hardly read anything last summer about soccer in the US without coming across some disdainful comment about how diving makes soccer un-watchable. And that now infamous challenge by Carles Puyol on Arjen Robben in the final would have been a perfect way to explain the real deal with diving.

In addition the issue comes come up so often in my own playing, with my being consistently the most fouled player on the field, and what can I say... it makes me extremely angry.

So first, let's think about that Arjen Robben play again. Robben is through on goal in the second half of the World Cup Final, and feels contact, which he knows is illegal, from Carles Puyol. Because he knows the current advantage rule is in force, he knows he has two choices: go down, take the foul, earn Puyol a probable red card and himself a free kick well outside the area, or go on and try to score. To Robben's credit, he chose the latter course, figuring his chances of scoring were still rather high, despite having been fouled by Puyol. Unfortunately for him (but thank God for soccer) he failed to score. It was probably the only moment in which I sympathized for him in the entire game.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Meter, ct'd

A friend of mine wrote me this long email discussing the philosophy of music. I wrote back, telling him the discussion was arcane, and sent him the link to my meter post, below. He accused me of irrelevance.

I remembered this piece I heard last year. My friend plays in a wind quintet. They played this piece, "Aires Tropicales." I heard it twice, once in a masterclass scenario, and then in their concert. Now listen to the beginning of the second movement. Where's the downbeat? Now when I first heard this movement, in the class, I heard it, as I'm sure you did, as the first image shown above. It's the only way anyone would ever hear it! After the bassoon goes on for a while, the other instruments join, but if you'll listen through to the youtube video, the rhythm just doesn't sound right for the entire movement. Then, in the masterclass, they projected the score on screen, and it all made sense. The bassoon ostinato is actually written as the second image above. But once you get it in your head the first way, it's impossible to get rid of it. Every time I heard it, for the rest of the class and then again in the concert, I tried really hard to hear it the right way, in this case not just because it was right, but because the whole piece sounds so much better the right way. But I couldn't do it.

(Apparently, neither can the clarinetist in that youtube video, who keeps tapping his foot on the faux-beats.)

Anyway, the point is, the metrical tension should be one of the most important aspects of this music, but it's completely lost when it's impossible to hear it the right way.

My suggestion: the basoonist should stomp at the start of the second movement to signal the downbeat, or at least breathe to the downbeat. I don't know if that would solve the problem, but it couldn't hurt. I mean, he's got to do something, right??

Point is: this happens all over the place. It's far from irrelevant!

Monday, November 1, 2010


Something's been bothering me for a while, and that something is meter. Meter is a fundamental attribute of most music, something so basic we're usually completely unaware of our effortless perception of it. But I get it wrong all the time. Is it just me, or are you all in the same boat? Quick survey: How do you hear the following excerpts? At 0:29 here, is the strong beat on a) the triplet, or b) after? What about 7:20 here (strong beat with a) the winds or b) before) or 2:13 here [beats on a) the first of the three note motif or b) the second]? (This kinda thing happens all over the place in Brahms...please also note the ridiculous-looking, yet absurdly effective conducting in the first link). But it also happens in Bach (are the 8th notes here grouped in a) 3's or b) 2's?) What about this one? Go to the end of Variation 25 (maybe 5:10 on)....where are the downbeats? Or where's the beat in this one [with a) the bass notes or b) just after? Don't peek at the score, not that it will really matter!]. Just a few examples of the thousands available!

So did you botch the listening quiz like I did? (answer b is correct for all the questions). How much did it matter if you've played/seen the scores to the pieces in question? For me, the Brahms excerpts go in and out, often depending on how actively and engagedly I'm listening (see below). But I can't hear Hilary Hahn's Bach "correctly" no matter how hard I try (though I can play the correct auditory image afterward in my head). Ditto with the Schumann.

So maybe the composer's really botched it? Or the performers? Or is it us listeners?

Or is it just me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Political Rant, ct'd

Okay, in case you haven't seen this, please watch it and be horrified. Hopefully the Sarah-Palin-2008-effect hasn't completely habituated us to the outrageous ignorance of aspiring politicians forever, because everyone should be shocked and appalled.

There are, of course, several ways to interpret her remarks and how they reflect on her and the Tea Party movement in general. Maybe she's just an ignorant fool and her ascendency to a Republican Senate nomination is a fluke. Maybe she knows the Constitution decently well, and just got her numbers mixed up. Naturally I suspect that her problem, and the Tea Party's problems, with Constitutional interpretation, are far more substantial.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Guest Post: World's Worst Monopoly

It's not Microsoft in the 90s, Standard Oil in the 1890s, or the Dark Greens by Boardwalk and Park Place. It's Crown Street Towing. Sure it "competes" with several towing companies in the greater New Haven area, and with thousands across the country. Yet Crown St. has all of the worst elements of a true monopoly: a protected revenue model that's completely insulated from customer choice or recourse.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New facebook groups? Who cares!

Facebook is all the rage recently! What with the new movie (interesting commentary here and here), the New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, and my witty status updates, it's really all anyone can talk about. And then to top it all off, apparently there's some new feature being unveiled this week that's supposed to go a long way toward solving facebook's awkward privacy problem, (or the NEB--Not Everybody's Business--problem).

The feature is a new version of facebook groups, the difference from the old lame groups being that other people can tag you in groups, and you can control which of your information is shared with which groups. In other words, you could end up in groups with your high school friends, your college hall-mates, and your nerdy "set" club-mates and share information privately within each group, all without doing any work to assemble or join any of the groups because other people have already tagged you in them (ya know, the same people who already uploaded and tagged hundreds of photos of you since you don't even own a camera).

Though the new groups feature may seem ideal for restricting who sees that photo of you rolfing off the balcony, I predict it won't change people's facebook behavior much at all.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Gouldberg Variations?

When I first brought to my teacher the idea of playing GBV, he embraced the idea...with caution. His warning: beware of Gould! The piece is so closely identified with Glenn Gould that it's impossible to escape (ultimately unflattering) comparisons whenever one plays it. People who know the piece very well potentially hear everything you do, and everything you don't do, through the lens of Gould's own playing. What a terrifying thought.

There are four complete, as well as three excerpted GBV recordings Gould made (that I know of, at least). The complete versions: 1955 studio recording, 1959 Salzburg recital performance, the 1981 audio recording and the 1981 video (all on youtube--the video and the audio recording are composed mostly of different takes). Everyone's favorite Glenn Gould question: which is the best Goldberg recording??

Friday, October 1, 2010

goldberg variations, ct'd: cheating

So aside from the fact that I'm obviously really gung-ho about cheating in general at the piano, what does it have to do, specifically, with Goldberg Variations? As I talked about here and here, Goldberg Variations is unusual in that it was written specifically for a two-manual harpsichord. Indeed the piece is unusual, almost anomalous, for Bach's writing, in other respects: the multiple-of-three-minus-one numbered variations are virtuosic show-pieces with lots of hand-crossings. These hand-crossings often take the form of voice-crossings of the second type described here, and they present a unique challenge to the pianist playing on a single keyboard: when to respect Bach's part-writing, keeping a continuity of voicing with each voice in the "correct" hand, and when to "cheat" and switch voices to make the execution simpler? What makes GBV unusual is the added "visual element" of the performance. I am not referring to the mere spectacle of seeing someone play it, which is pretty awesome, but rather how the brain integrates visual information along with aural input in separating counterpoint into its different parts.

piano-playing and CHEATING

Cheating: it sullies the world of sport, ruins reputations, tears families apart, and can get you a lot of student loan money, but what does it have to do with playing the piano?

Well, a lot actually!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A quick political rant

Okay, by now, plenty of writers out there have already come to the entirely reasonable, possibly unavoidable conclusion that Tea Partiers, and Americans in general, are a bunch of selfish unrealistic hypocrites. They hate big government but blame the government for everything that goes wrong, and expect it to help them, specifically. And they definitely don't want to pay for any of the help they get. Maybe election advertisements aren't the best place to look for anything sensical in politics, but every Republican or Tea Party-type ad I've heard or seen has promised two things above all others: that the candidate will dramatically reduce government spending, and also help create a shitload of jobs for everyone.... through magic (or something)! I heard a story on NPR the other day where they interviewed all these people who were thinking of voting Tea Party because they weren't seeing enough jobs created. Ya know, by the government. But god forbid the government should create jobs by hiring people and paying them money to perform societally beneficial work. That would be economic stimulus.

Other than craziness, though, what's behind this crazy logic, and where does it lead us, besides into a future of maddeningly inane political advertising?

And just like that....

A new blog is born with a little help from friend, colleague, and competent writer Alissa. Motto: "because there's more to life than soccer, science, politics, and the, New Yorker cartoon captioning."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

goldberg variation rankings, ct'd

When I decided to take my sister's advice and rank each of the Goldberg variations 1-30, I didn't really stop to think how difficult it would be after 29 and 30. They're all brilliant to start with, but from here on out they're, like, really brilliant. So we'll see how long I can keep up this farce.

28: Variation 19
27: Variation 8

Variation 19 (8:40) is a nostalgic break in the action from the charming, echoic canon on the sixth and the bustling, energetic variation 20. Two distinct motives are shared between the three voices throughout: a six-note sixteenths figure, and a syncopated eighth-note/quarter note figure. The genius here is in the tied notes that are suspended over the bar lines; these held notes give the variation its unique rhythmic and harmonic character. Beautiful indeed!

Variation 8, like variation 19, has two main ideas which are repeated measure by measure and passed between two voices. In the first four measures, the top voice plays rising arpeggiated sixteenths (with one sixteenth note "missing" at the end of each bar), while the bass plays four falling eighth notes, followed by three falling sixteenths. In the second phraselet (bars 5-8), both parts are inverted, or turned upside down. This is a common technique Bach uses, especially in GBV, to change things up within a variation while maintaining its rhythmic character and give the listener something to latch onto (it happens to a greater or lesser extent in variations 1, 5, 11-17, 20-21, 23, and 26-28 aka all over the place). Variation 8 is a doozy for pianists; look what GG has to do in the last measure (0:50)! Gah!

Atheism; or, why does everyone think I'm so amoral??

As is my tradition, I now take a break from something I (profess to) have authority over to make room for a new topic altogether. Hey, if Richard Dawkins can do it, then why can't I? My writing may not be quite on the same level, but I can surely be less of a dick. Before getting into the treacherous philosophical/political side of the whole thing, a simpler question: what's it like for me, being an atheist/agnostic in this religious society we call America?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

goldberg variations, ct'd

Okay, enough "Handel-lambasting" (as Brett accused me of in his last comment). Let's do some Bach-lambasting instead.

Wha??? But I thought GBV was, like, the greatest? Well, it is....but Bach does some nasty things in there that just make it really hard to pull off, on harpsichord or piano. Especially on piano....but especially on harpsichord. One of the difficulties in performing, listening to, or understanding GBV is voice-crossing.

When two separates lines of music "cross" pitch paths, we call it a voice-crossing; one starts out above the other in pitch, but ends up below. If one person started singing a scale up from below, and another person down from above, there would be a voice-crossing somewhere in the middle.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

goldberg variations, part 2

While I'm still on the theme of proof by contrast, those who know ol' Golby should listen to this Handel chaconne. Despite obvious differences from the Goldberg Variations, most notably length and, well, quality, comparison is just too easy given the superficial similarities. A chaconne is like a continuous theme and variations light, and Handel treats theme and variation as most composers do: the harmonic progression stays the same more or less throughout, but the melodic rhythm increases steadily, with more and more "flourish" as the piece unfolds. There's also, as is customary, a couple of variations in minor. It's just unfortunate for Handel that he had to write the piece in G (the same key as Goldbergs) and make the opening progression identical to the opening progression in the Goldbergs. Because although the piece is lovely and all, it's a perfect illustration, by contrast, of Bach's genius. This piece, by another giant of the Baroque era, is so vastly inferior to the Goldberg variations in every possible respect, it's astounding. No one could listen to it without feeling the repetition; the variations are different, but only incidentally and ornamentally; there's little fundamental difference of melody, counterpoint, and overall character. In contrast, each variation in the Goldbergs has its own identity, and could stand on its own if it had to (even variations 11 and 18).

Friday, September 3, 2010

vacation PLUS goldberg variations, part 1

Coming off the high of a long vacation isn't easy. For those who don't now, I recently spent a whole week "off the grid," by which I mean, "off the grid by virtue of sheer determination to avoid friends' smart-phones," in Utah, Idaho, and Montana. We were camping, hiking, driving, getting speeding tickets, taking precautions against bear attacks (by speeding), and eating lots of dried foods. Since every time I try to describe how amazing it was I use the word "amazing" a half dozen times per sentence, I will instead complain about various aspects of returning home, and you can infer how, um, amazing the trip was in contrast. Grievance #1: the lack of mountain scenery in Evanston, Il. Also, humidity. Yuck.

Okay, now that that's over with! Among the more comforting privileges of my so-called real life is that of playing the Goldberg Variations, which, if you didn't know, is the greatest piece of music ever. Well, at least it's up there! I generally divide music up into four categories: great, good, bad, and incomprehensible. More and more, I believe that all great music is more or less created equal, that it just takes someone to give it life and realize its potential. (Thus, why my favorite pieces used to so predictably follow my favorite recordings...and maybe still do a little). Bach's music, however, has always stood out above the rest. So while 11 of my favorite 12 composers are always jostling for position, based on what I've listened to in the last day, the top spot's pretty much a done deal.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

music, form, and perception, cont'd

Well, this post certainly generated a conversation! Okay, admittedly, one of the comments is mine and one is a repetition, but still. I feel delightedly compelled to address them.

Sarah says:
"ALSO, if there's one thing med school has taught me, it's that one study does not a phenomenon make. (also: spinal cord pathways)."

There's actually a surprising number of studies, all of which have their issues, but converge on the same basic conclusion. The one thing these studies seem to lack is repetition, mostly for understandable logistical reasons. At the bottom here I included a bunch of references I used in the paper I wrote about this last year. The studies can all be found on web of science with an academic subscription.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

living with pain

Time for a brief foray into something completely new—medicine!—well, sort of, at least. Really what I want to talk about is our society's approach to pain, suffering, and disease.

Whoa, that's a hefty topic! Well, there's a personal experience behind it, one that's affected me significantly over the last few years. Hopefully I can convince you that my story is relevant more generally.

Friday, July 30, 2010

shameless self-promotion, balanced by shame-filled self-criticism

A little more summer reflection, this time, in the form of self-evaluation of some of my performances from last spring. After a few months, I feel prepared to listen to them with open ears and resist the urge to instinctively cringe. Instead I cringe now as a real response to what I'm hearing! Just kidding...mostly...

Anyway, I start with what was I think my biggest over-achievement of the whole year: the Chopin Scherzo that closed the program of my recital.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

how do people really listen to music?

In my post-World-Cup attempt to find some other meaningful aspect of life, I'm going back tomy one tried-and-true blogging topic: soccer....wait, I mean, music! Life has indeed been hard the last few weeks, but it's time to move on and explore some new things musical and otherwise...For today, a quick reflection on some stuff I learned about music this year...

Going to school for performing "classical" music is rough, because it turns out most people don't really like classical music, at least not enough to pay me to play it for them. As a result, I spend a lot of my time wondering and trying to find out why people don't more closely share my taste--especially in an effort to understand my future audiences, but especially to see if their taste could be re-classified as some sort of medical disorder.

In all seriousness though, I discovered something this year that is at once completely startling, but also one of those things I kinda knew all along: people in general don't listen to, and are incapable of comprehending, form in music at anything but the smallest scale. In general, people listen to music moment-by-moment or minute-by-minute without making meaningful cognitive connections between larger segments.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

world cup final, part 2

Thoughts on the refereeing: it wasn't good, but it could have been worse. Howard Webb probably didn't help himself by unnecessarily booking van Persie and Ramos early on, but a lot of the critics are a little harsh to suggest he should have stayed out of the game. Yes, we'd all like to watch games where we don't notice the referee, but it's hard for the referee to avoid attention when players make challenges like this. That's a red card if I've ever seen one, and was one of Webb's mistakes. Other crucial ones: Puyol should have been booked for his challenge on Robben in the second half...Webb played the advantage, but it's one of those where the foul should have been called after Robben lost the ball, or at least the booking should have been given to Puyol after the play.

The world cup final: "Don't you love this game in the most hateful sort of way?"

That's what I texted my sister right after Andres Iniesta FINALLY gave Spain the winner in today's game, and it sums up my thoughts pretty well.

As I said earlier in the tournament Spain are a difficult side to support, and watching today's game was 115 minutes of torture followed by a moment of bliss. It would have all seemed like such a waste of a tournament if it had gone to penalties, and especially if Holland had won. Why spend so much time agonizing over a sport when the winning team kicks and fouls its way to victory in the ugliest manner possible? Iniesta, like he did against Chelsea, saved the day again. In the inevitable and everlasting battle between between artists and kick-boxers, between style and ruthlessness, the right side won. A victory for soccer!!

Friday, July 9, 2010

the final is coming!!

The final is coming!!

Spain were brilliant against Germany, and should have had more goals to show for it. Germany, on the other hand, didn't play a great game for a few reasons. The first was the unfortunate absence of Muller, who was dubiously suspended for a second yellow card against Argentina. Trochowski, his replacement, doesn't have the same quality. The next reason was the rather poor play of Oezil, who had been, I think, Germany's best player so far in the tournament. He looked quite nervous from the start of the game, and never really settled. With his frequently botched touches and poor passes, Germany couldn't get much going forward.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

more on Suarez handball, and why it matters for the rules, the integrity of the game, etc.

This Suarez controversy may be more complicated than I my original reaction implied, and it's definitely useful as a thought-provoker about what has quickly become a theme on this blog: the economics and psychology of soccer.

A reader commented on my last post about Suarez:

"Can someone please explain to me how this handball was fundamentally different from other fouls in soccer? (Personally, I don't think that it was)...You say: "The whole point of having punishments for breaking the rules is to deter players from breaking the rules." This is definitely not true in soccer. For example, if two players are fighting for the ball in midfield and one of them is holding the other's shirt because he is about to lose the ball and a foul is called, it will not deter the player from doing it again."

Sunday, July 4, 2010

world cup thoughts of the day, part 2: the other quarterfinals and my final predictions

Told you so about Germany-Argentina! The team I've been touting since their first game against Australia came through again, though even I didn't expect them to destroy Maradona's side so comprehensively. Do you know when the last time was that a team scored 4 goals in a row in two straight games in the World Cup? It was Brazil, in its two final first round games against Scotland and New Zealand, way back in 1982. This was Germany, in two straight knockout phase matches, against two of the pre-tournament favorites. England had only given up one goal prior to facing Germany, and, let's be honest, it wasn't much of a goal. Argentina paid dearly, I think, for sticking with Higuain in attack over Milito. He was decent, and even created one good chance for himself, but in the end I just don't think he's nearly as good technically. Messi was brilliant as usual, but even he couldn't win the game by himself.

Spain again didn't live up to their quality, but did enough to beat Paraguay. They really started to play sometime after that bizarre sequence of play with the two missed penalties, and after Torres was replaced with Fabregas, who was excellent after coming on. The big question for Spain will be who starts in attack against Germany. Will del Bosque stick with Torres, who has yet to do much in this tournament except give the ball away, or go with Fabregas in a 4-5-1? Based on what I've seen, I'd have to go with Fabregas.

world cup thoughts of the day: end penalty shoot-outs!

Possibly the worst part about the World Cup is the fact that penalty shoot-outs are still used to decide the winners of knockout-phase matches.

Like their problems in the run of play, the first problem with using penalties in a shoot-out is that they're too damn easy to score (about 80% success rate). Any professional player should make his penalty, and thus, a penalty shoot-out inevitably produces villains, and rarely produces heroes (except for, occasionally, a goalkeeper). More often though players miss the target or hit mediocre penalties and have to live with it for four years.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Suarez handball, continued

Apparently FIFA is considering extending Suarez's ban. The more I think about it, the more I think it would be absurdly stupid to leave the suspension at just one game.

The whole point of having punishments for breaking the rules is to deter players from breaking the rules. What punishment would be adequate to deter Suarez, or another player in his place, from doing the same thing in the last five minutes of the semifinal, or god forbird, the world cup final? Certainly a one match suspension isn't gonna do it. I'm thinking five at least, and probably more like 10-15 international matches. (In these instances, a ban that extends beyond the World Cup would mean the player would miss his country's following competitive this case those games wouldn't be nearly as important as the World Cup games, but a large enough suspension would keep most players from pulling a stunt like Suarez). If FIFA leaves the suspension at just one game, then I suspect we could see some other teams start playing with 11 goalkeepers instead of one toward the ends of their World Cup knockout matches.

world cup thoughts of the day, part 1: Ghana-Uruguay

As I lay awake last night, unable to sleep, I was thankful for the fact that I didn't see the Ghana game live, and thankful that, prior to hearing about the game, I didn't really care about the result. Even as a disinterested neutral, watching the replays was almost too much to bear.

For those who don't know yet, Suarez was recently handed a one-match suspension for his handball in the final minute of extra-time.

It is another horrendous decision, this time made by the FIFA board almost a day after the match was completed. Watching the replay, it's obvious that Suarez is guilty of blatant cheating, and should play no further part in the World Cup.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

world cup sidetrack: what the hell makes a good attacking team anyway?

You'll notice if you watch much soccer or read much about it that everyone likes to talk about creativity in attacking play without ever explaining with any sort of precision what that means (a sin I've been guilty of too). In reality, it's quite a complicated matter, which is why it's so hard for teams to be good and score goals. Pure technique is a huge factor in good attacking play (that is, the ability of individual players to make the ball go exactly where they intend it to go with individual touches and passes). But aside from technical ability there is large variation in the degree and the quality of movement that separates teams as well. I know of nobody who systematically and comprehensively thinks about what constitutes good "movement off the ball," even though it's a critical factor in scoring goals.

One of the most important aspects of movement is the ability to deceive defenders and get them to "lose track" of one's path.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

penalties penalties penalties

If ever there was a reason to change the rules for penalties, we just saw it in the 5th minute of the Spain-Portugal match. Torres was clearly fouled and anywhere else on the pitch it would have been given. Come on!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

world cup thoughts of the day

1. Overall the play has improved a lot since the first set of games, and the matches have been much more exciting. A lot of the teams that sat back and played for draws in their opening matches are out, and I suspect, rueing their engative tactics (eg France, Ivory Coast, Serbia, etc.). The second round matches have so far been pretty awesome (despite today's refereeing). We'll see if things continue this way, or revert to 2006 low-scoring, defensive-style games. It's great to see teams attacking, but I still think the format of the tournament could be tweaked, and the rules modified to make the game that much better.

US-Ghana thoughts: Why, Bob Bradley, why???

Another good game, between two evenly matched teams, and in the end, I think we were unlucky to lose. It was a tale of two halves once again: in the first half we were woeful and could hardly find a pass; in the second, especially leading to the goal, we looked really dangerous. But we decisively lost the tactical and psychological battle that the match became. For some reason, this US team just can't seem to motivate themselves to attack with real commitment except when they're behind or chasing the game. And it would have helped to have the right players on the field from the start!!

Friday, June 25, 2010


The internet is abuzz with the possibility that the US team could make the semifinals of the World Cup. It's certainly the best chance we've ever had! (Well, since 1930 that is, but that one hardly counts). The bookies have us as favorites to win the game at 2.7/1, with Ghana at 3/1 and a draw after 90 at 3.5/1. I'll take it! What's slightly puzzling is that every match preview I've read puts Onyewu, Clark, and/or Findley back in the US starting lineup. Are you kidding me??? I assume this is a result of poor observation skills, and not some actual hint from Bob Bradley that any of those players will be back in the team. Bradley does seem to fancy Findley, who may have missed out on the Algeria game only because of suspension, but our other attacking options are far superior. Here's my starting XI:
Cherundolo, Demerit, Bocanegra, Bornstein
Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Feilhaber (or Dempsey)
Dempsey (or Buddle), Altidore

Once again, if Onyewu starts, I'll be disappointed and terrified. Bradley doesn't seem to like Feilhaber, so I don't really expect to see him until the second half, but it's no coincidence that our midfield play in the Slovenia and Algeria games improved when he came on.

Should be another good game!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Since all I can do right now is think about soccer anyway....

In honor of today's inspiring goal from Donovan, a look back at ten goals that, by a combination of quality, timing, chance, and of course, being for the right team, are forever etched in my memory.


My prayers were answered with Onyewu being left out of the side, and my god did it pay off despite the early jitters from Demerit and Cherundolo. Bornstein came in at left back and played the best game I've ever seen him play for the national team, and thus our defending was finally solid, if not perfect, especially as we had to push forward for that winner. Gomez started and was dangerous in attack, but when Feilhaber came in he was again excellent in the second half. Altidore ever-present and dangerous, using his strength to turn and run at the Algerian defense. Every time he received the ball at his feet our attacks looked promising. But the real heroes today were Donovan and Michael Bradley. Bradley worked tirelessly from end-to-end, was always a threat with smart runs going forward, and always there to cover in defense. Donovan, well... I'd still be crying in a corner if it weren't for his finish.


I've watched this goal a few dozen times now, and it gets better every time. About a year ago I witnessed what I thought would forever be the most remarkable, exhilarating moment in the history of sport when Barcelona scored against Chelsea in the 93rd minute of the Champions League semifinal. I could barely focus on anything for days. But Landon Donovan and the USA have topped it. The timing of the goal, its importance for the team and for US soccer, and the extra save by the keeper on Dempsey's shot just before it (thinking to myself, AGAIN??) all contributed to the ecstasy of the moment. But more than anything, it was the frustration, the anxiety, the sheer injustice of being held scoreless for the whole game, and the creeping sense of despair. For so long I resisted the belief that we had blown it with our terrible finishing, the referees with their awful calls, and Algeria with its stubborn defending; but I was finally trying to come to terms with defeat. And then when it finally seemed too late, that final chance came our way.

There's really nothing in sports comparable to that last-gasp goal in soccer. After playing for so long, doing everything except scoring, the swing in emotions is indescribable. And for it to happen to the US team, in a decisive World Cup game! Even if they didn't play the best soccer, team USA treated us to the two most dramatic examples of soccer matches in the last two games: a two-goal comeback, and a last-minute game-winner. We're all lucky to have witnessed it.

I'm sure my own suffering is far from over at this World Cup; after all, Spain have at least one match to play, and watching them play so well without scoring is just painful. The soccer gods are fickle, and may not give us justice again for some time. But today was the best reminder of why we suffer through countless games, and why we suffered today for 91 excruciating minutes. For now, it all seems worth it.

more thoughts to follow

us-algeria pre-game thoughts

First, a starting XI:
Spector, Demerit, Bocanegra, Cherundolo
Donovan, Edu, Bradley, Feilhaber
Dempsey, Altidore

If Onyewu plays, I don't think we can keep a clean sheet and thus we probably won't be able to win the game. I've never been so worried about a player singlehandedly destroying a team's ability to defend.

The temptation for Bob Bradley, and for the team, will be to come out and play a very cautious first half hour, considering the blunders committed against England and Slovenia and the early goals conceded. This would be another colossal mistake. There were early blunders in the last two games, but the biggest one was coming out and playing like we were scared to take risks. Tomorrow morning we should come out and attack, attack, attack right from the start and take control of the game. When we play without inhibition is when we've played decently, after England scored their goal, and in the second half of the Slovenia game. Playing with caution has only gotten this team into trouble.

[Praying Bob Bradley doesn't muck this up....]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, the irony: Keita and Kaka's red card

Ya know, from everything that I've seen and read about the incident today, no one has pointed out the most ridiculously absurd part of it, which is that Keita's writhing in agony will surely turn out to hurt, rather than help, his team. Maybe he was hoping that, with a man advantage, Ivory Coast could manage a second goal in the final three-odd minutes against Brazil. But he evidently didn't stop to think during his dramatic fall to the ground that he needs Brazil to defeat Portugal in the final group game, and that Kaka is--despite his current form--one of Brazil's best attacking players. So not only is Keita a jackass for feigning a blow to the head, he's an idiot too! He should be fined and suspended by FIFA for diving, and by his own team for hurting their chances of advancing.

I'll feel awfully sorry for the rest of the Ivory Coast team if Brazil tie Portugal and Ivory Coast beat North Korea, but I won't feel bad for Keita.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

world cup thoughts of the day

The refs keep getting worse! Okay, well, they couldn't be worse than they were Friday, but they continue to be poor after a good start. Did everyone see Fabiano's blatant double handball on Brazil's second goal? The first one wasn't too obvious, but how could both referees miss the second one? Kaka's second yellow card was extremely harsh, and the same player who embellished that bit of contact could have been sent off for his earlier tackle on Elano, which left him in a stretcher. If FIFA want to seriously crack down on simulation or diving, Keita should be their first retroactive target, and he should be suspended from the third game for trying to deceive the referees into thinking that Kaka had struck him in the face.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

rule changes for soccer, part 6: free kick placement

Soccer needs a new and better rule for where to place the ball on a restart after a foul has occurred. Once again the real reason has to do with perverse incentives for defending teams: because a free kick is always taken from the spot of the foul, it's often in a defending team's favor to foul. But a priori the whole point of having laws of the game and awarding free kicks is to provide incentives not to foul.

This problem has a few levels, and so a couple of revisions to the laws are in order.

Friday, June 18, 2010

US-Slovenia: an instant classic

Wow. Just when I was absolutely fed up with the World Cup, it lures me back with the most dramatic, exciting, agonizingly heart-wrenching game I've ever seen. I think my friend put it best: what are we supposed to feel right now? Elation? Disappointment? Extreme, unadulterated anger? I certainly feel all three. Over the course of 90 minutes, we felt it all: disappointment at another slow start, disgust at the poor display of the first 30 minutes, hope as we started to get into the game, despair at Slovenia's second goal. And then the comeback began, and what a comeback it was. Donovan's goal was magnificent. Bradley's run before meeting the header from Altidore was genius. Altidore was the man-of-the-match, continuously terrorizing the Slovenian defenders with his strength and power. And if it weren't for the stunningly incompetent Koman Coulibaly, who, according to wikipedia "hates the United States with the burning passion of a white hot sun," we would have completed the first ever comeback win from 2-0 down at half time in World Cup history.

The foul call on the 3rd goal is one of the most inexplicable decisions I've ever seen in a soccer match. Watching the replay, what's remarkable is the lack of normal jostling by US players for position. Meanwhile, at least two clear fouls are being committed by Slovenian players (most notably the player bear-hugging Michael Bradley). What gives? Apparently the ref called the foul on Bocanegra, who in addition to being nowhere near the flight of the ball, was clearly in a six-of-one-half-dozen-of-the-other struggle with his marker. It was the worst decision of the World Cup, seconded by the yellow card given to Findley in the first half, when the ball, catching him completely unawares, struck him squarely in the face.

Luckily, Findley has been pretty invisible in the minutes he has played, and shouldn't be missed much in the Algeria game. Hopefully, Bradley will make some other adjustments to the team that started today. Most importantly, he should keep Onyewu as far from the pitch as possible, as his play has been disastrous. He's been culpable on all three goals conceded, and is absolutely incapable of playing cohesively with Demerit. Over and over, he gets caught drifting too far back, too far forward, out of line with the other three defenders. He leaves huge gaps in the middle and doesn't cover well for Demerit. He is far too slow to step up and pressure the ball when it is finally played into his area, and to recover when it leaves his area. His passing is atrocious. Goodson or Spector should start in his place, pushing Bocanegra to center-back if necessary. Feilhaber should also start in place of Torres, who took no risks at all going forward.

Algeria looked decent against England, and the last game will be a serious challenge. Recent history is not encouraging: we've lost the last group game in every World Cup we've played with a group phase. In the last 5 world cups, we've lost to Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, and Ghana respectively. We'll have to do better on Wednesday! A win guarantees that we advance. A draw will be enough if England and Slovenia draw and as long as we have more goals than England (right now, winning that count 3-1). Can't wait.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

before I never mention that Spain game ever again

Okay, they obviously deserved better than 0 points given the sheer number of chances they created, but at the same time, I sure hope del Bosque had a word with the team about Jesus Navas' play after the game. For such a good player, who actually played decently, he somehow managed to kill the game for Spain. Every time he got the ball, that was it for any creative movement: they just stood in the penalty area, hoping he could get to the by-line and put in a decent cross, which he did a few times. But were they really looking to beat Switzerland in the air? They really should have left the game in the hands of Xavi and Iniesta, who played fabulously, except for their weak finishing. But they were certainly getting the ball to David Villa and Torres once he came on.

Let's hope we see Fabregas next time instead of Navas!!!!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

world cup part 5, "and then it really started to suck"

My first post about this World Cup, as well as my post right after the draw, were both reactions to what I saw as basically the decline of international soccer as we know it. The problem is this: the World Cup is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet, but the play never lives up to the spectacle. People who watch the European leagues year-round will realize soon, if they haven't already, that World Cup soccer just isn't as good or as fun to watch as European club soccer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

world cup thoughts, part 4

One bright spot so far: the refereeing. With the exception of Tim Cahill's ejection from the Germany-Australia match (for a clear yellow card tackle), it has been excellent. Nothing would have made me more annoyed than to see the very best plays of the tournament so far, that is, Germany's delightful through passes against Australia, called back erroneously for offside. These were the type of plays that look offside at first glance because the attacker is sprinting past the last line of defense, but are actually perfectly timed. These calls, are, unfortunately, incredibly difficult to get right (in fact impossible based on the limits of visual attention), and so it's inevitable that there will be errors. The important thing for me is that these errors not be systematically biased toward the defending team, which is too often the case. Only time will tell if this aspect of good fortune holds up.

And of course the one offside call that the commentators were all moaning about, calling back a Mexico goal against South Africa, was actually correct: there need to be two defenders between an attacker and the goal line; one of them is usually the goalkeeper, but in this case, he had stepped out ahead of the attacker.

world cup thoughts, part 3: US-England

Let's face it, neither of these teams should end up going very far in the tournament. England may yet turn things around, but too many of their star players were virtually anonymous in the opening game, and in the first half they could hardly complete a pass. Given some regrettable defending by the USA, I expected much more pressure from players like Rooney, Lampard and Ashley Cole, in particular. Gerrard was okay, but only Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson were threatening throughout the game.

world cup thoughts, part 2

The new ball: It's pretty obvious after watching several games that players are struggling a bit with the ball, which raises an obvious question: why introduce a new ball for every World Cup? The canonical answer is always that the new ball travels more unpredictably through the air, and will result in more spectacular goals from distance. But the actual result is that the players aren't used to the ball, and that goes for goalkeepers and attacking players. In this World Cup, the new ball seems to bounce unnaturally high, and travel a lot farther than any player predicts. I don't think I've seen a single free kick on target yet. A new ball takes getting used to, and even if players have been training with a new type of ball for a month, they'll still be working with implicit memories they've built up through years and years of playing. They train day after day for years to perfect their technique with a standard type of ball (with small variations). Introducing something new just before a massive tournament is a recipe for throwing them off.

world cup thoughts, part 1

The World Cup is well underway. Some initial thoughts to follow:

1. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: World Cup soccer is too defensive, and always disappointing. Watching the first few games just convinces me more and more that something has to change in the rules of soccer or the structure of the tournament to encourage more attacking play. Through nine games so far, even after many of the best teams and best players in the world have already played, only one team has actually attacked with much flair and confidence, and that was, somewhat surprisingly, Germany. I hate to say it, but so far, the opening matches look too much like soccer straight out of that Simpsons episode: fast-kicking perhaps, low-scoring for sure, and ties, you bet!

With games like this, you too often have teams losing games, instead of winning them. For instance, Robert Green lost for England (goalkeeper blunder), Algeria's goalkeeper for them (another blunder), Kozmanovich for Serbia (stupidly conceded penalty), and Poulsen for Denmark (own goal). I want to see more players, like Oezil and Podolski for Germany, actually earning their teams' victories.

Apologists will say that it's opening game jitters, that teams are especially cautious in opening games, that the best attacking teams have yet to play, and that players are struggling with the new ball (see below for more on that). Though those all may be true, shouldn't we hope for attacking play throughout the tournament? If this really is supposed to soccer's greatest exhibition, is it too much to ask that more than a handful of teams actually come out and try to score goals and win games? If teams are really that cautious in the opening games, then shouldn't we change the group phase somehow so that a third of the group games don't suck?

Monday, May 24, 2010

piano sound, part....5?

A little research has pretty much definitively answered the question from my last post: in terms of the vibration of the string, the only thing a pianist has any control over is the speed with which the hammer hits the string (and the pedal...). It turns out, this was a simple physical problem, solved by learning about piano action. The relevant fact is this: after you push down a piano key, but before the hammer actually hits the string, it loses all contact with the rest of the action, so that the only force on the hammer for some duration of time before it hits the string is gravity. Then the only forces on the hammer during contact are gravity and the force of the string itself; nothing with the piano action is involved anymore at all. Therefore, if the hammer strikes the same string twice with the same velocity, it will produce the same sound spectrum.

Okay, but there's still more to it, because there's also, surprisingly, a lot of white noise that goes into piano playing. This includes not only finger to key white noise, but more importantly, the noise all the stuff bouncing around inside the piano, which resonates on the soundboard just as the string vibrations do.

Without getting into that too much for now, let me re-state an important question: Who cares? Well, okay, here's something that will never apply to most people, but applies to me: should pianists play chamber music with the lid of the piano raised, or not?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

piano sound, ctd

Expanding on my earlier posts on this topic (as it keeps me up at night more and more often):

After doing some basic research, it seems that there is a fair amount of scholarly work on physical modeling of the piano, attempting to figure out exactly what physical parameters affect the production of sound. Most of this work has to do with the physics of damped string oscillations and the acoustics of the soundboard, etc. etc., i.e., what is common to all piano tones. This is all very interesting, but comes at the issue from an altogether different perspective from what is, practically speaking, most useful to pianists and musicians.

The big question for me remains: how much do variations in "touch," or the pianist's physical approach, affect variation in the sound spectra of individual notes? In particular, after glossing through some articles, one specific question seems particularly urgent and no one seems to be close to answering it: In affecting the timbre of a sustained note, can a pianist vary anything other than the velocity of the hammer just before it hits the string?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

rule changes for soccer, part 5 or so....diving and the advantage rule

Naturally, Barcelona's champion's league loss from last week has renewed my annoyance with soccer's faults. One of these faults that's been crying out for revision recently and that most people grossly misunderstand, is the problem of diving.

Diving is what we generally call a player's attempts to deceive the referee into calling a foul when none has been committed, either by falling down or gesticulating in more dramatic manner. Here's the first problem: players don't fall down just to deceive the referee into calling a foul; in fact, more often they fall down to indicate to the referee that a foul has occurred, merely to make it easier for him to call it.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

soccer, and the mysteries thereof

I had a startling realization today while watching the second leg of the Barcelona-Inter Milan champions league semi-final: Watching soccer is torture.

Okay, I don't mean that literally. Maybe I'm just depressed right now about Barca losing the tie and bouncing out of the Champions League. The game was a microcosm of everything that's wrong with soccer. One team was playing soccer, while the other was engaged in an exercising of time wasting. The refereeing was awful for both sides. Offside calls were missed all over the place. In the end I can't help wonder why I'll repeatedly subject myself to games that are so horribly unpleasant, the results of which have no bearing whatsoever on my day-to-day life.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Redesigning the piano for the 21st century

[warning: ego boost. Sam: skip to paragraph 2]. Sam had his first Northwestern recital last night, a fantastic, virtuosic performance. Hopefully you'll hear more about this from Sam (recordings, even?), but my two cents: the Chopin pieces, particularly the F# major and C minor Nocturnes, were the best I've heard him play Chopin-- exhilarating and tender. The Lieberman was also great fun, and surprisingly beautiful. For some reason, I expected those impromptus to be egocentric, obnoxious, and droopy. But enough about Sam. This is my guest post.

The 400 person (estimated) space was packed to the brim. Well, there were only ~60 of us, but we completely saturated that narrow band of optimal piano-performance enjoyment: the left side of the center aisle, where you can see the performers hands & face without the subpar acoustics & feng shui of the left aisle. I explained this predicament to another of Sam's Yale guests, Adam, a music muggle. "Why don't they just rotate the piano?" he asked. I hopped right up on my high horse, and explained that the cover projects outward and rotating the piano would defeat the entire purpose. But Adam's idea got me thinking and I arrived at an elegant solution (perhaps it was Adam's epiphany, but my post, my story): just angle the keyboard!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

performance practice, contd

The article I mentioned in my last post, which I still can't find online, accuses a lot of serious musicians and music critics of condescending snobbery in their distaste for artists like Tchaikovsky and Horowitz. Richard Taruskin makes many points, (not all well-connected): first, that people dislike Horowitz for his idiosyncratic interpretations that deviate from composers' notations. Second, they dislike Horowitz because his approach was overly audience-oriented, or geared toward "the performance," rather than the music itself, or the composer who wrote the music. Third, that these people are pretentious for putting themselves above their audiences, for claiming not to even care what their listeners think of their interpretations, even while depending on those very same people for their own livelihood.

Monday, April 5, 2010

more on performance practice

So, my recital's really soon! That's really my only excuse for abandoning my efforts to post on this site more often. Here's to redoubling those efforts!

I'm taking an awesome class this quarter (taught by my awesome piano teacher) about performance practice and piano playing. His basic thesis is that modern pianists, at least the most famous ones, as good as they are, don't have distinct playing styles the way pianists did in the early 20th century and before.

For me, this idea rings true, and as my multitudes of loyal readers already know, judging from this post and this one, the idea of distinctive performance is something that I think about a lot. You might even say it keeps me up at night. If true, what are the reasons for this modern lack of individuality, or style?

The first explanation is the modern idea, previously mentioned, that the performer's responsibility is more to a composer, or to a score, than to the music itself, or the audience. How did this idea become so pervasive, and why?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

notes on key

In talking about music, it's common for people not just to remark on the general character of a piece, but to relate said character to the particular key the piece is in. This is, I'm convinced, one of those conceited things that trained musicians do to try to say something consequential about the music they're playing when they can't think of anything more substantial.

Friday, March 12, 2010

As ridiculous as South Dakota?

Check out this article from today's NYTimes. Okay, probably not as ridiculous as claiming that astrological factors affect the climate. But obviously it's not enough for conservatives to deny evolution anymore. They're taking aim at every subject! The scariest example here is Christianist revision of US history. Students in TX will now be instructed that America's founders weren't committed to a secular government, but a Christian one. In case you didn't read to the end, the amendments to the curriculum "cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century." Thomas fuckin' Jefferson!

This reminds me of Tim Pawlenty's speech recently at CPAC. Pawlenty, formerly a moderate Republican, had this to say about secularism and the Constitution:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

recital musings

In putting off the two or three assignments I have due tomorrow, I've been instead going over ideas for my upcoming recital (April 10th at Northwestern!). A theme in this blog's short life, if you haven't noticed, is dissatisfaction with the current state of performance practice in the world of "art music." I recently wrote an article all about this for my friend's supposed magazine (ALISSA ARE YOU READING THIS?), but I have no idea if she'll ever publish it. I might have to just post it here eventually.

Anyway, for now, watch this video instead, which was helpfully pointed out to me by my mother. It's a TED talk by conductor Benjamin Zander, who as you'll see, is a charming guy who really likes to listen to himself tell stories. However, to his credit they're pretty good stories. He also believes, as do I, that most people's aversion to "classical" music is more a cultural, societal, or "meta-musical" phenomenon than anything. He takes this idea a bit too far, but his basic point is right: 95% of people (give or take) who grow up in Western culture unconsciously acquire the necessary pitch categories and hierarchies to "understand" (on a basic level) the majority of Western music written between 1700 and 1900, because they naturally acquire the necessary pitch hierarchies from exposure to popular music.

the "al qaeda seven"

In case you haven't been following this story, an organization called "Keep America Safe," headed by such worthy statesmen as Liz Cheney and William Kristol, recently released this gem of an ad insinuating that former attorneys of terror suspects share the values of terrorists. Even for most defenders of the criminal Bush regime the ad goes too far, but then again that might just be because multiple high-ranking members of the Bush administration, including Michael Mukasey and Michael Chertoff, former Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security respectively, fall into the same category as the alleged "al qaeda seven."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

wow, this is ridiculous

In case you missed this, it recently passed the South Dakota House of Representatives. Notice point 2 toward the bottom.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

sad news on torture

For a while now, I've been gearing up to write something about torture and the legacy of the Bush administration, but honestly I don't know where to start. This issue terrifies me for two reasons: I think torturing someone is just about the worst thing you can ever do to him or her, and at the same time torturing people seems to be gaining an enormous amount of political momentum.

Monday, March 8, 2010

back to it

So I realized one of the problems with having a blog is that the more time I go without posting, the more I feel like whatever I post has to be really informative or useful. This was obviously not the point when I set out to do this. For those who missed my first post, it was meant to be entirely self-indulgent from the start. So I'm gonna try to get back to that. As an experiment, I'm going to start posting something every day. We'll see how long this lasts.

Apologies for the busy weeks. I'm not apologizing to you, of course, but to myself. It was really busy, as evidenced by the absurd back-log of reading to do in my google reader...I haven't even finished last week's New Yorker, and another one is probably coming tomorrow! Luckily, it didn't turn out all for nought...[shameless self-promotion alert]....I was preparing for a couple of concerts, and as a result that preparation, or more likely, luck, I'm playing on the radio sometime soon! Here's the link to the station website, which streams through itunes or quicktime or windows media player, etc. etc. I think I'll be playing two nocturnes and the first Scherzo by Chopin.

Unlike classical radio where I hail from (DC), this station doesn't suck (it's non-suckiness is so pronounced that I actually gave them money), so I'm pretty psyched to be playing on it. Shameless promotion aside, if you're actually a music person you should download the itunes link and stream it more often than that one time I'll be on it, as they have lots of interesting stuff. Perhaps I'm tainted by my experience growing up in DC, where classical music on the radio regularly consisted of only three things: Vivaldi, second-class Mozart imitations, and Beethoven's fifth. At the very least, everything fit into those three general categories: "easy-listening," bad, generic music by someone you've heard of, bad music by someone you've never heard of, and pieces you've heard a thousand times.

On WFMT, I regularly hear music that I've never heard, by composers I've never heard of, that is enjoyable on first hearing, and motivates further listening. For instance, a week ago I heard a clarinet quartet. I usually fancy myself at guessing the composer when I hear a good piece of music from the late 18th/early 19th century, but I was flummoxed. It sounded astonishingly Mozartean for a piece I knew wasn't by Mozart. Turns out it was by some Finnish composer named Bernhard Crusell, and I felt really dumb for never having heard of him. Now I know all about him! He's mostly known for clarinet music, but I reckon he should be a bit more famous. I may be ignorant, but if I'd never heard of him, I'm guessing a lot of musicians are in the same boat.

'Til tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

call a convention cont'd

Or we'll end up like Greece.

Also, while we're on the subject of our depressing future, described in otherwise awesome Atlantic articles, what's a twenty-something to do?

call a convention?

If you've been reading the news lately, you know that talk of America's decline is all the rage. Jacob Weisberg at Slate thinks we the people are mostly to blame. He makes a good point. On most important issues, poll results display the shocking failure of Americans to recognize trade-offs and generally stay even minimally informed. Can you blame politicians when voters send them such mixed and incoherent messages?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

piano sound, part 2

A friend complained to me the other day that my original post on this topic sort of built up to something, but never quite arrived. He was surely right; but let's be honest, it was getting a little long. You probably didn't even read the whole thing. Anyway, so what's the big deal? Why does it matter if I or anyone can recognize the sound of certain pianists?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

random not-watching-the-super-bowl super bowl memory

For some reason I just remembered this rendition of the national anthem from the super bowl a few years ago. For a really great tune it's butchered way too often. This is definitely the best I've ever heard live at a sporting event, and an interesting arrangement to boot. Maybe I could have done without a 4-3 suspension on every phrase ending, but what're ya gonna do.

Anyone know a better one?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

music in the modern era

First, support my friend in his innovative project.

Recently, I've been thinking about performance practice and public attitudes toward "art music" more generally. A couple of specific things have influenced me, that I'll talk more about, but I wanted to mention them quickly. One is Emily Howell, a computer program developed by UCSC professor David Cope. (JFGI and read all about it).

The other is improvisation, especially by Gabriela Montero, of whom I was just made aware three days ago, and have not stopped watching obsessively since. My favorites here and here. I've never seen anything like it. The most shocking part for me is that I had never heard of her before! This kind of thing just isn't really encouraged much in the conservatory world that I inhabit, which is a real shame.

More generally, though my friend and I have our disagreements about what music is all about, I think we agree that something is off about the modern concert hall experience. More to follow soon!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Rule changes for soccer, part 4: enforcement of offsides

The offside rule is one of soccer's finest. But it has a major problem: it is quite literally impossible for one person to enforce accurately, because it requires simultaneous visual attention at two different locations. With the simple pressing of a button, though, the offside rule can be salvaged.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Piano sound

Well, then, back to something about which I can claim to have a modicum of authority! It's common, when one hears a musician of any stripe, to comment on the overall quality of his or her "sound," and this is no different for pianists. In fact, some pianists have such distinctive ways of playing that they each have a characteristic and recognizable sound that separates their playing from other pianists. With enough listening, one acquires the impression that each note a certain pianist plays could belong only to that pianist.

But in fact, the impression that different pianists have a distinctive sound in this way is an illusion. On other instruments, a musician can create a characteristic timbre with his or her own playing. Timbre refers to the spectrum of overtones above a fundamental frequency and the variations in the amplitude of these overtones through time. Different spacings of overtones are what give each instrument and each voice its characteristic tone, as well as different members of the same instrument, and different musicians on the same instrument. Different string players vibrate differently; everyone's voice resonates in a body that is slightly different.

Unlike on a string or wind instrument, or voice, though, there's not much a pianist can do with any one note to make it unique in the same way.

The twisted economics of finance

I was reading this article the other day in the New Yorker about the aftermath of the financial meltdown last year. Since it's actually only available for subscribers, a quick summary might be: lots of "Chicago-school" economists have radically changed their thinking about the economy since the crash, and those who haven't are crazy. These economists were the dominant intellectual force behind the successful laissez-faire, pro-market, anti-regulation economic policy crusades of the 80s onward.

In the article, author John Cassidy talks about "rational expectations" theories of economics, which, simply put, hypothesize that people have a "true" model of the economy in their little heads and factor in all the variables of this model (whatever the hell it may actually be) when they make economic decisions. One of the economists in the story, Eugene Fama, claims that in the stockmarket, people's behavior, both in the run-up to and aftermath of the financial crisis, was largely rational. This claim is insane for a few reasons, but it reminded me specifically of an argument my father and I had with my mother some ten years ago about stocks (my mother, by the way, is a real life economist, but not a crazy one).

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prop 8 lawsuit

Today was the first day of a federal trial challenging the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8. Here's a passionate defense of the lawsuit by conservative challenger Ted Olson. Andrew Sullivan (one of my favorite political commentators, a homosexual himself) also comments about it here, and generally keeps up-to-date with interesting stuff on his blog.

Most people, liberal and conservative alike, expect the amendment's challengers to lose and the amendment to stand. The case is most interesting for me fro showing--and I say this with some apprehension--that the Constitution will always be no more progressive than the people reading it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

vacation over: a rude welcome back to the real world

So my long vacation comes to an end. I was going to write about music on Monday night; however, that was before I was hit by a car while biking home. Don't worry, I'm totally fine, which makes me really lucky! In addition, now I get to write about how awesome my hospital experience was!