On things that weren’t made to last

One of the things that I absolutely hate doing is getting new electronic devices. On the other hand there is a sense in which we are invariably forced to doing so as electronics are designed to have a limited lifespan and there is the other factor of predetermined obscolescence.

I had to get a new computer recently,well, I ‘needed’ it a year ago but was only in a position to get it recently. I was looking at specs of computers and remembering when I used to read PC magazines about 18 months ago and what were ‘hot’ features and what comes as standard these days. I found a desktop on ebay (used stuff eases my conscience) which had specifications that seemed absurd to me. 16GB ram (where the standard ‘high’ spec is 8) and a processor with 6 cores. It is a clear comparison that this machine was like an American Muscle car.

There’s a lot of talk about the latest Apple announcement. The Cult of Apple’s press conferences seem to get more attention and interest than when the Pope makes a statement on a social justice issue. Plus Bono is linked to both institutions. I was thinking about the notion of a smartwatch lately and I felt unconvinced.

The reasons are as follows: firstly, until the need has been ‘invented’, like my ‘need’ for a tablet computer that can check email anywhere at home. I currently work in an arrangement where responding to emails quickly gets me money and so my lifestyle has been oriented around the effiency of being contactable on email.

The other issue is that I already have a watch. I liked the idea of a tablet because it added to my life in a way that genuinely made things easier. It did have a cost of course, of having to charge it all the time and the one time where I actually went back to work on a weekend to find my lost computer (never again, never again).

As a man, a watch is one of those pieces of fancy bling that are socially acceptable and sanctioned without attracting too much attention. Such as wearing a chain might be considered gaudy or most jewellery in general seems gender subversive, but that’s a whole other issue. Watches have become for men signifiers of status and class, sometimes signifiers of what kind of person you are. I have to admit that one of the things I was socialised into was the cult of watch-fascination. I think it started from the fancy laser watch that Bond played by Pierce Brosnan had in Goldeneye. I’ve always wanted a laser watch and when that is invented and on a commercial market I will have a need invented for myself.

The other aspect of the ‘cult of watches’ is the durability of a watch. I love automatic watches or watches that don’t need battery replacements. I’m attracted to the longevity of watches and in an age where everything is supposedly replaceable and designed to break, there’s the notion that getting something that can last is a statement against it.

The idea of a watch that everyone else might recognise and have is contrary to the signifiers of watches as status-symbols. The iPhone has ceased to be a status signifier insofar as most everybody has one. Indeed it is true that watches can be prohibitively expensive signifiers and hardly the sort of thing that expresses a revolutionary temperament.

I do like that my watch has been repaired a few times over the years. I do like that I can keep my watch if it is repaired and its functionality remains. I would really wish that we could own things that we could repair easily and upgrade with ease. Of course, that seemingly doesn’t make money for these brand leaders nor is it in their interests to make something that lasts.

I remember hearing somewhere (probably from a comedian) that ‘it’s possible to make a toaster that lasts 20 years but nobody will make it’ because of the sudden loss of a market once everyone has it. There seems to me this fundamental tension, of having things that have amazing utility but in order to live in that economic zeitgeist, we must support the production chain of its production by buying it. I would wish there was an alternative to having to re-buy things every 3 years. I am bemoaning of a situation that I am very much contributing to and consciously so. I have so much electronic waste.

Schliesser on the Use of Earlymoderntexts.org

Originally posted on The Mod Squad:

Eric Schliesser has some remarks about the role of Jonathan Bennett’s translations at Earlymoderntexts.org in scholarship:

[...]

First, all translation is an interpretation. Translating complex philosophical texts is much, much harder than figuring out ‘gavagai.’ This is so, even if you have written the text yourself and are fluent in both languages. You should try translating some time; even if you are not a meaning holist, you’ll discover that a lot of philosophical jargon is not stable and uniform across cultural and temporal contexts. (Surprisingly enough, this is even  true of works in the history of physics.) So, leaving aside honest mistakes, all translations involve non-trivial judgments and trade-offs with a complex interplay among style, content, jargon, sentence structure, and even argumentative structure (this list is not exhaustive).

In earlymoderntexts.org, Jonathan Bennett, who is one of the greatest historians of philosophy of his generation and who should be praised for…

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Philosopher-Celebrity Lookalikes

Originally posted on Daily Nous:

Brian Talbot (Washington University in St. Louis) has been pairing up well-known philosophers with the celebrities who look like them. He kindly agreed to let me share the idea with you. Here’s my favorite so far:

HumeLovitz

That’s David Hume and Jon Lovitz.

This match, owed to Julia Staffel, is also quite good:

Descartes Sambora

Descartes and Richie Sambora, of course.

Your additions welcome in the comments, but let’s try to not insult any living philosophers.

UPDATE: It turns out that it may be rather difficult, and perhaps impossible, for some people to add images in the comments as the site is currently configured. So if you mention the links to the images in the comments, I will add them to this post below the fold.

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In praise of John Coltrane

For the past 6 months I’ve been trying to organise my music listening through some kind of ordered fashion. Sometimes I explore things through genres or sometimes I explore the complete corpus of a musician or composer’s work. This often requires said musician to be dead usually, and the hope that no new works or recordings are found.

 

Early on in the year I began to listen to the early Jazz musicians. At points Jelly Roll Morton is indistinguishable to Ragtime, not dissimilar to how the likes of the Rolling Stones were very much in the feet of Rhythm and Blues (as opposed to Rock), or Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath could easily be seen as a Blues song.

 

I recently discovered John Coltrane and reading bits about him and I thought I would listen to contemporaries. Coltrane’s work has often been associated with Bebop or hard bop. I decided to check out the wikipedia page and find who were his contemporaries. I listened to the likes of Al Haig, Lee Konitz and Walter Davis Jnr and the only similarity they have to the eminence of Coltrane is that they happened to live at the same time as he.

 

Are they stylistically similar? There is an extent to which they are. But Al Haig and Walter Davis’s recordings are exceptionally pedestrian compared to the freedom and rule-breaking of John Coltrane’s tenor sax work.

 

Coltrane’s playing classifies as genius. I can hear how the saxophonist simultaneously invents new forms of expression, exploring modalities and at the same time smashing the new forms of jazz tonalities that he has invented, through the dissonances and tangentially related melodies to the background harmonies.

 

Coltrane elevated the potential for Jazz to heights that the contemporaneous classical art music would wish to aspire to at the time. With the mid-century movement of neo-classicism and the more simplistic forms such as minimalism, it could hardly be said that some classical music aimed to be daring or avant garde. Coltrane stands as the example, to me, of an eminent form of expression that a critical perspective on culture should acknowledge. If Adorno followed his own principled objections to mass culture consistently I would have thought that he was correct about the blandness of much of Jazz — except when the bright stars such as Coltrane appear.

 

Coltrane moves beyond the standard boredom of chord progressions and the formulaic character of Jazz that makes everything so samey. The experimental nature of using modes and improvising in what appears to be atonal is evocative of Schoenberg. But I have been insisted upon by many commentators that Coltrane’s style emerged independently from any influence from the second Viennese school.

 

In the hopelessness of Adorno’s cultural picture of the world, I would contend that Coltrane, and figures like him, provide cultural, and moral hope.

 

‘Musical’ as an adjective

I remember when I did the ABRSM exams, and when reading an assessment of an old school friend (who is now a professional Clarinettist), one word that described a performance seemed exceptionally odd. That word is: musical. Sometimes musical performances are said to be ‘musical’. When I was younger that confused me. I would think to myself: surely all performances are musical, isn’t that a trivial description?

 

In more recent times I am starting to get an understanding of it, is a term of distinction. I’m reminded of people like WH Dray or RG Collingwood, who had the view that having an historical understanding meant really immersing yourself in the period of something. Perhaps people love period dramas because of the way that a certain zeitgeist or je ne sais quoi (literally ‘I don’t know what’), captures a period of history or culture. I laugh for example when I hear ragtime music being played in cowboy movies. Ragtime came about 15-30 years later from the old west periods that are usually the mid-late 19th Century. It’s like playing dubstep in a period drama set in the Thatcher Years.

 

A musical performance can have an appreciation of its period. Although not necessarily. My late piano teacher used to teach me that a piece of music should be treated as an internal unity, with its own spirit. You look at a piece of music and you see it as a living being, what you express is how you perceive that living being, and naturally people will have their own interpretations. I would often conflict with him about this, saying that period sensitivity and context were the crucial factor to interpretation, and not some inward-looking insight. What is the answer to this? Well that’s constantly an ongoing question when it comes to interpreting certain pieces of music.

 

Glenn Gould is often said to be an exemplar of one and both of these views to musical interpretation. Gould often spake of the importance of period and is said to be a fine interpreter of Baroque period pieces and the selected 20th century composers such as the Second Viennese camp, Paul Hindemith or Richard Strauss. On the other hand, many of his choices when performing pieces are not of the musical text. I have a bad habit of stealing a few of Glenn Gould’s quirks when sight reading the Well-Tempered Clavier, slightly adjusting speeds. In a recording of Mozart’s C-Minor Piano Sonata (No. 14 k. 467), Gould’s playing is notoriously off piste (perhaps the best way of describing bad performing for a pianist who is vastly superior to me), and perhaps an unhelpful guide for learning that piece. There are little quirks of Gould’s from the second movement that I sometimes adopt.

 

Sometimes reading a piece of music away from its literal text can be insightful. Sometimes I use sight-reading and going ‘off the tracks’ as a form of improvisation. I often among friends create a form of humour out of music this way. ‘Insert a Chopin reference here’ (C minor cadenza) my friend might request, or ‘how would Mozart have interpreted this?’ (alberti bass), or ‘give this a classical ending’ (V-I-I-I-I-I….I cadence). Communicating humour is one way of expressing musical sensitivity. I would think that a composer like Haydn would hate his music seen as ‘serious’. On the other hand, I think Joplin might consider the his rags played a Steinway as great respect to his music in an era where he did not get the respect he deserved.

 

A musical performance is one that has conviction. Some people I know that will remain nameless are sometimes a little bit more technical in their playing than I am capable of yet cannot carry conviction. This can be due to many reasons: playing-music-by-numbers; not having an appreciation of the musical text; failing to understand the construction of the music; following conventions of playing set by others.

 

To call a performance musical is the highest esteem. A musician takes the performance not as a text, but an organic unity. A musician takes the musical performance as an artist: this can mean a reaction to a piece of music in its context of performance, its cultural-historic location or some other factor which makes the actual physical performing of it irreducible to its mere sum of breathwork or body movements.

 

I think one of the problems I had in a music education is failing to understand the musical. Sure, one could learn chord progressions, fancy italian names for how to pluck a string or memorise key signatures, but where’s the musicality?

 

I take this question to be primitive and foundational. At the same time, it forms as a constituent in the background of more critical questions, such as the discussion whether to be sensitive to a musical text, or to take liberties at interpretation. Or whether to consider the appropriateness of use of instrument and acoustics for a venue in performance. Or specificities in the use of technique from embouchure to fingerings.

Which individual do they remember?

Hitchens, in an address of the notion of death, appeals to Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’ notion. Throughout our life, we have transitions to different kinds of people. The person we were as a child may be unrecognisable to our selves of today. We are always going through different phases of life, and as one new phase begins, another dies. In that sense, many people have died many times over before our ultimate demise. Why is the physical death so ultimate and conclusive when we have died many times before? So the thought goes…

We have a habit of immortalising a single kind of person when an individual dies. Although we acknowledge their growth and change, we alays remember them in some singular, unitary kind of way. Michael Jackson escaped his negative press by his death, and became remembered for his career highs. Some, by contrast, will always be remembered for their death. This year, the actor David Carradine had died, few people remember him for his circumstances of his death (autoerotic asphyxiation), but more toward whatever production they remember him most fondly. Kill Bill, for example, or Kung Fu.

Sometimes people can be remembered as their youthful selves, perhaps those to whom it would benefit seeing them as the eternal young. Others, by contrast, may be seen in a moer sagely light as the elder. I recall a discussion about which picture of Brahms one should remember. While Brahms is most often remembered as the mature, bearded man; his career the highlights of his career span throughout his younger years as well. When we consider David Hume, we imagine his empiricist philosophy, and the man sporting a turban. It was a twenty-three year old Hume, however, who had written his Magnum Opus, the Treatise on Human Nature. Why should we not remember Hume in his glorious youth and at his most intellectually fierce.

The person we remember may tell us something of when we may talk of the ‘peak’ of their career. For many composers, we remember them for great works of music but ignore the horrid circumstances of their twilight years. Stephen Foster, composer of great American Folk tunes like Beautiful Dreamer died penilless. It may be seen as an appeal to remember those who had died young, considering how much more they could have done in their lives. The likes of Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin may have been saved of a life of mediocrity. There are many who age well, some who died agelessly young, and those who, by manner of their own poor dispositions, age terribly. Ironically, it is those who try to hark back to a past self.

Michael

Education Today

I’ve been pondering about making some posts about the recent changes in UK education, but I think I shall give pass that over for the time being. There seems to be a change in the landscape regarding education.

Let us go into the current situation to set out the ideologue:

1. The standards of post-16 qualification, AGCE’s (‘A’ levels), are being undermined by the increased numbers of pupils getting A grades.
2. The standards of ‘A’ levels are being undermined by the percieved lowered standards, and the teaching methods that undermine independence in favour of memorising a syllabus and learning to answer exams in the fashion that they know it will be asked. In other words, there is less surprise, or test of skill and creativity in exams and more strategy involved.
3. Universities have for a long time been concerned with funding deficits: this is due to a whole variety of factors, some are general  and some are specific to the university and their research culture.
4. For the past few decades, many have pointed out the ‘professionalisation’ of academia; this includes the many buzzwords like ‘business model’, ‘schoolification’, interdisciplinary network initiatives, public engagement, ‘research’ and so on. While some aspects of the contemporary academy are positive (increased contact with the public; commissions for documentaries and television series and other wider media), there are some aspects in which academia has lost something of a better past.

i. The ‘lone-scholar’ archetype: academia, particularly the arts and humanities, used to be less ‘research’ based and less interdisciplinary, but engaged with more hard hitting and in-depth systematic studies, this is not to say that this kind of study does not occur, but is becoming more epheemeral in departments and less the norm.

ii. The ‘old’ notion of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity is inherently a weak idea; it is like, how, I consider the concept of someone calling themselves eclectic: Jack of all trades, master of none. There used to be a time when people were masters of many things. Physicists like Descartes and Newton have particular resonances to many fields beyond physics because of the way in which their philosophical thinking engaged and melded with their mathematics and natural philosophy.

Few physicists from the mid-20th Century really know much about philosophy beyond basic philosophy of science (or skeptics 101, if one were to be American about the whole thing). A similar thing should be said of philosophers today; many, excepting those few on the real cutting edge of philosophy of psychology and mathematics, are not themselves scientists or mathematicians. Interdisciplinarity is a response in a way, to the death of the polymath, and the increasingly ‘professsional’ status of academia. In a sense, a certain kind of concession should be made to the ‘dryness’ objection of the continental philosopher to analytic philosophy today.

I’ve a bit of time before I can elicit some more responses in terms of the underlying political responses. For now I shall just sketch out the landscape

Sinistre