Monday, March 30, 2009

Moving On

['2001' - the Dawn of Man]

After all the fear and loathing on 25th Street in Oakland, I had the guy bring the subwoofer here. We hooked it up and it worked and seemed to sound OK so I bought it.

It is a featureless black two foot cube, evilly squatting on the floor like a mini-me of the monolith in '2001'

Later I thought it sounded awful and that I had been had. Then I listened to a CD from Telarc which is supposed to make the technically best CD's. The bass viol, bass drum, and tympani were are all detailed and distinct and excellent. So maybe some of the other CD's are not recorded so well.

Which is pretty weird if true. Having a stereo better than the CD's one plays on it is like writing a check and having the bank bounce. Which is not so far-fetched these days.

Anyway, I am as happy as a lottery winner with this Craigslist-and-my-attic stereo.

Soon I can move on to obsessing on something else. But for now my world is full of music.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Friday, March 27, 2009

Civilization and Its Discontents

[Is this too much to ask?]
As I mentioned, I have gone through something of an epiphany with my new-old (like the Altneushcul in Prague, the Altneuland b'erertz Yisroel) magneplanar speakers. According to legend, I now must go in search of a subwoofer. Presumably flat membrane speakers do not woof as well as cone speakers.

An epiphany being one of those things more important than money, one takes it off-budget, like congress and wars, I have been shopping for a good subwoofer. "Good" is not an empty phrase here. To get lots of loud sloppy bass output, one designs and sells speakers with ports, bass reflex subwoofers. They are just what on needs for rock and rap music. They are apparently cheap to make and sold to mass audiences. In spite of my sneering, they make perfect sense. For head-banger music the loudness and bassiness are legitmately what is wanted. Ported /bass reflex speakers are also far more efficient speakers than sealed/acoustic suspension speakers. Which is code for "they are louder for a given amount of receiver power'. Again, if one wants loud they are exactly what one wants. Also they can be used with a less-expensive stereo.

On the other hand if one wants to be able to hear each mallet blow on the tympani head rather than just a smeared rumble of low-frequency noise, one wants an acoustic suspension speaker. The trade-off for accurately reproduced low-frequency sounds is that they won't play as loud for a given amount of power. One solution is to make them with G_dawful amounts of power to compensate and have it both ways. It is not uncommon for these things to come with 1000 watt or 1500 watt amplifiers built in. (typical home stereo has 75 to 100 watts).

It goes without saying doesn't it, that sealed box /acoustic suspension subwoofers are far more expensive than ported / bass reflex ones.

Back on Craigslist, I find the perfect thing. Modestly powered, sealed enclosure, respected audiophile brand, reasonable price. I arrange to see the thing. The address was in Oakland.

As I drove through Oakland the neighborhood was getting grimmer. I am supposed to pretend here that I didn't notice that every single person I saw was black. There were groups of people hanging in front of liquor stores on a Thursday. None of them looked presidential. 25th Street itself was a row of old houses, every single one with an armored door.

There were two problems. If I got out of the car I was all but certain to get robbed of the cash in my pocket and be glad nothing worse had happened. Or I might get robbed and something worse also happen.

The other problem was that it isn't bloody likely that anyone on 25th Street acquires audiophile gear in a manner that involves a receipt. So I decided the speakers I currently have woof just fine and went home.

So to hear tympani, I have to nerd-ify my way through the commercial hype of the sellers and their pimp reviewers, sort out the technology, and contrive to find the money in an economy that has stopped rewarding elderly people who produce nothing but still want to consume. And now it also seems that I have to solve, or at least recognize, social problems and avoid them. For me, a social problem is either avoiding making a fool of myself in company, or somebody else's problem.

Along the same lines, I have had to repeatedly resist good prices for new goods. If they are new, what are they doing in somebody's apartment? As they saying is, if it looks too good to be true, it is. I assume these 'bargains' are either stolen or refurbished.

I just want to get subwoofed. Why does this have to be so hard?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Consumerism Raises Its Ugly Head

[Magnepan IIB's]


Because I am more and more often confined to living in the little apartment on the side of my house, I have taken it into my head to make it more habitable. Because of the arrival of a second sofa given me by my sister Gail, I had moved the fat square Pioneer speakers from the front room, where there was no longer room for them, to the apartment where there was at least some. I began to shop for small, or at least tall narrow, speakers that might fit in the front room on each side of the television.

In the course of shopping I discovered that I have long disliked the fat square Pioneer speakers I bought in a thrift store many years ago. It occurred to me to wonder if that is why I so seldom listen to music. I was astonished to discover that I could get quite decent, even excellent, speakers from long ago for not much money on Craigslist. So I did.

I bought a pair of a long-since-superseded model (IIB) of Magnepan magneplanar speakers for not a whole lot of money. They are six feet tall, two feet wide, and two inches thick. They tower over the little apartment but I don't care.

They are accurate, clear, detailed, and present a large airy realistic sonic image. Suddenly music is good. Instead of hearing a smear of 'music' I now hear individual instruments and the timbre of individual voices. Music is enjoyable, fun, exciting again. Rich, even moving. Before I heard music as through a glass darkly. Now it is face to face. I feel like the scales have fallen from my ears and I can hear again.

Though there is plenty of bass in these puppies, the legend that there isn't is so well seated that I now have to shop for a subwoofer. Which I am now obsessing on.

The theory is that if one gets a good (read 'sealed enclosure' / 'acoustic suspension') subwoofer instead of a crappy (read
'ported' / 'bass reflex') subwoofer one hears each mallet blow on the tympani head instead of a rumble of smeared low frequency sound. Curiously, the good subwoofers cost from two or three to twenty or thirty times as much as the crappy ones. Though it is inconceivable they could cost a dime more to manufacture. Sigh.

Not only am I pleased with my new old speakers, I am pleased with myself as well. Instead of thinking of how else I might use the old Pioneer speakers, instead of keeping them because they are too good to toss away, I manfully drove them to the local thrift store and handed them over. They are gone from my sight and from my house. Out with the old and crappy, in with the old and not-yet-crappy.

Because of my exile from my house until tomorrow when the bride, now the young wife, and her family will depart, I can not yet paw through my dusty collection of CD's for forgotten treasures. But tomorrow.

In retrospect I am angrier than ever that those little Irish pricks stole so many of my best CD's last summer. A curse on their little Fenian asses. May the road rise up before them that they bash their stupid little snub noses on it.

[Correction: The little Irish pricks committed a considerable list of vandalisms, mostly from complete indifference to, and lack of respect for, other people or their property. (See comments.) But they did NOT steal any of my CD's.

As for Damien, it goes without saying that he did not take any of my books. What would he have used them for? :o) ]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Progress and What It Feels Like


Perhaps from a need for closure I don't like to toss something away until I have exploited all of its possibilities. How can one get a better one of anything when one hasn't fully learned to use the one you've got? In the mid-1980's the Navy gave me an XT computer. Actually they gave it to our office but no one else wanted it. They thought it was a terminal to the mainframe. Which technically it was. Among other things. It had an 8086 processor, 256 kilobytes of RAM, and the first hard disks on mass-produced computers, 10 megabytes. Within a few months I learned everything it and the software that came with it (Lotus 1-2-3, Dbase III+, Wordstar, DOS 2.11) could do. And I used almost every feature.

I felt put upon when we were given 80286 machines. With color screens no less. It meant that I had to learn a whole new machine and suite of applications. With one thing and another, I never felt that I ever completely mastered all the possibilities of the 286 before the 386 machines came out. That was when I came to regard the march of progress as having passed me by. From then on I was just hanging on, doing the best I could. But not in charge. Now I have come to accept that one merely uses the new machines, one does not master them.

It is not just computers. One used to repair and adjust automobiles. One summer I helped Harvey completely overhaul a Volkswagen beetle. We knew everything that was in it and how every bit of it worked. Now cars have black box electronic components like aircraft do. One checks that a component is working using an electronic analyzer. If it isn't, one replaces it. One does not 'fix' or adjust anything.

It is the same with the camera. It is beyond imagining that I could ever know how it works. But it is possible to master the user's manual and how to use its features. It is amazingly complex and the user's manual runs to 200 pages of misleadingly written prose. Learning all about how to use it is far from trivial. And this is an advanced amateur camera. Imagine what the cameras for professionals are like - aside from huge, heavy, and amazingly expensive.

Four Rules of Photography

[Josef Fritzl after sentencing in Austrian rape-incest-enslavement-homicide case]

There are four men in the picture but you only notice one.  Why?  

The photographer has used a lens with a wide aperture (which corresponds to a small f/ stop number, like f/2, or f/1.8, even f/1.4) and set it at the smallest number, that is, wide open.   F/ stop numbers are the ratio between the width of the aperture (the hole the light comes in through) and the focal length of the lens (the distance from the digital sensor to the lens).  The lower the f/ stop number, the shallower the depth of field that will be in focus.  With the lens wide open, as here, the depth of field is shallow.  

The policeman closest to the camera is in front of the field of focus, and the prison bars behind the taller policeman are beyond it.  It is the nature of human eyesight that we really notice only that which is in focus, that which is clear to us.  So though we can see the out-of-focus policeman pretty well; well enough to see his moustache, his expression, and his approximate age; we still don't notice him.

The second reason we notice Josef Fritzl more than we notice the two policemen who are in focus, is that he is looking at us.  We are socially called to meet his gaze. 

Another reason we notice Josef Fritzl more than we notice either of the two policemen who are in focus is that he is in the center of the picture.  Absent a reason to look elsewhere, we will generally start looking at the center of a picture.

The fourth reason we notice Fritzl is that the two policemen are looking either at him or toward him.  It is natural for us to follow the gaze of others.  Indeed it is a hoary practical joke in places with tall buildings to stare fixedly upward at something just to see how many people one can get to stare at the same place to find out what we are staring at.

Notice how vague these 'rules' are.  "It is natural for us to....", "It is the nature of human eyesight..." "We are socially called...",  "we will generally start...".  None of these should persuade anyone of any proposition, yet we find that they work pretty well and that there is little disagreement about most of them.  

There is no end of disagreement and differences of taste about how one feels about them though. And about how one uses them.  For example, Ansel Adams and the f/64 school insisted that everything had to be in focus, no exceptions, because that is what we think the world looks like.  Immogene Cunningham wanted the cala lily in soft focus and the rest of the world could go to hell.

From which one might correctly deduce that I am trying to teach myself how to take pictures.  I bought my camera when the model first came out and am now getting around to learning how to use it, well after it has become obsolete because a new and improved model has come out. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I See the Light in St. Gervais

[Eglise St. Gervais]
A few days ago I had a religious experience in St. Gervais, a church in Paris.

It was night. The church was huge and dark, with only a small area around the altar lit. Which made it grand and mysterious and beautiful. There is a small monastery behind the church and most of the mass celebrants were monks and monkesses.

At one point the priest held up a round matzah. Everybody bowed to it. At first that seemed bizarre. Then I remembered the doctrine of transubstantiation. For them the matzah had literally become the flesh of G_d. So they bowed to it. The accusation that Catholics are idol worshippers because of their statues is nonsense because they understand full well that the statues are just stone and plaster not Mary and Jesus. However revering the host actually is idolatry - the belief that G_d is contained in an inanimate object.

They sang hymns which were ethereally beautiful because St. Gervais has glorious acoustics. Then, still singing, and wearing long white capes, they marched in procession to a chapel at the back of the church, or the head of the nave, if you will. There was a big, softly lit, marble statue of the Virgin by some almost-famous Italian Renaissance sculptor. They knelt in front of it and meditated in the dark. After a while, as they finished their devotions, one by one they rose and left.

Almost the last to leave was a tiny nun, who not only knelt but also prostrated herself. From where I sat in the pews just outside the chapel, she was silhouetted in the soft light from the statue of the Virgin.

I was strongly tempted to take what could have been a dramatic and beautiful photograph. But I remembered my religious commitment to 'The Decalogue for Idiots', a variant of Hillel's 'Torah While Standing On One Foot', which is "Don't be a schmuck". So I didn't.

The little nun has her religion. I have mine.

The AIG bonuses

In additional to the generally despicable act of the AIG executives paying themselves bonuses for their success in running their company into bankruptcy, there is the issue of insult.

The reason repeatedly offered for why executives should get enormous bonuses is that it is necessary to get and to keep the best talent. Aside from being arrogant, this is insulting because ridiculous.

NASA, a government agency, is able to hire and retain people who are literally rocket scientists without paying any of them millions of dollars. Similarly, universities are able to hire and retain the very best economists without paying them millions of dollars. Governments and universities are able to hire and retain able administrators without paying them millions of dollars. States and federal governments are able to hire and maintain able and experienced lawyers as prosecutors and judges at every level without paying them millions of dollars. Even doctors and surgeons, though well-paid indeed, are not paid millions of dollars. And so on for scientists, novelists, artists, experts and professionals of every kind. Most particularly, generals of the army, air force, and marine corps, and admirals of the navy are hired and retained without paying them millions of dollars.

This latter example is particularly cogent. War-fighting is competitive in the extreme. The stakes are higher than in any other business. The Defense Department is the largest institution in the country in terms of the number of people directed, assets managed, and budget. It is also arguably the most technically sophisticated organization in the country. Its responsibilities as an institution are immense.

The generals and admirals who manage it are limited by law to getting paid $177,000 a year, plus whatever perks in houses, cars, officers' messes, golf courses, uniforms, medical care, and so on they can wring out of the system. But it isn't millions.

Yet there is no shortage of generals, no shortage of surgeons, no shortage of judges, no shortage of university presidents, no shortage of rocket scientists, nor of physicists, nor of novelists, nor of artists. Without paying them millions.

Generals who consistently screw up are drummed out of the service. Doctors who kill their patients are eventually barred from practice. Incompetent lawyers are eventually disbarred. Professors who do not publish, perish. Novelists whom no one reads languish and become self-pitying alcoholics.

Only corporate executives are rewarded with millions for bankrupting their employers. They are rewarded even for failure because they control the boards of directors which are supposed to control them. The reason they get millions is that they set their own salaries. They loot their employers with impunity because they control the boards of directors, rather than the other way around.

Control of boards of directors has to be wrested away from corporate executives and returned to a combination of stockholders and government regulators.

It is time to undo the legacy of Ronald Reagan.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Morals of the French

Justin Godart (1871-1956)

I have long thought of France and the French as morally hollow. They seemed empty shirts full of couture and history, eating the best food, wearing the best clothes, creating the best art, living in the most beautiful cities. But I have thought that if you scratched them hard enough one would find the Vichy-ite antisemitic pig underneath.

I must always have known that characterizing a whole nation in such a one-dimensional way was un-historical and wrong. But the super-imposition of two things kept bringing me back to it.

One is the plaque on the front of every elementary school in Paris. It commemorates that the Jewish children of that school were handed over to the Nazis for deportation to the death camps by the French state. It very specifically mentions the French state to force the reader to accept French complicity in the murders. These plaques are dated 2003 or 2004. What is distinctive about those dates is that they are sixty years after the fact. Which is just about the minimum amount of time necessary to ensure that no one at all could be held responsible. Instead of accountability one has plaques.

At the same time there has been the implacable anti-Israel posture of a generation of French governments. Whenever Arafat came here he was welcomed as a hero. The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, literally kissed him whenever he came to France. France consistently voted with the Arabs in the UN. De Gaulle made public anti-semitic remarks.

But history is long. During the Fourth Republic France was Israel's strongest ally. In 1967 Israel won the Six Day War not with American planes but with French Mirage fighters.

There was a level of cooperation that was almost comic at times. There was an episode when Israel had commissioned the construction of two frigates by a French government shipyard. Under Arab pressure, even though Israel had already paid for the ships, the French government refused to release them when they were completed. The Israeli government simply took the two ships from the shipyard and sailed them to Israel. In fact the public story of Israeli chutzpah was a fabrication. Had the French navy been ordered to stop the two frigates they could easily have done so. The affair was a ruse to mollify the Arabs.

All of which is by way of preamble. Let it never be said that Jack L. Kessler did not put the 'amble' in preamble.

The rest is that the French have been on every side of every issue that has ever been except for a few, like baguettes, cheese, wine, and ooh-la-la.

These have not been empty gestures covering a secret Vichy heart. My characterizing all of France and French history through the lenses of Vichy, Chirac, and DeGaulle is as one-dimensional and false as Europeans seeing the United States only through the lenses of slavery and our destruction of the Indians.

We have those things in our history. They really happened. We really did them. But more men gave their lives to end slavery than to defend it.

Even during Vichy and the occupation there were those who resisted. On many buildings along the Seine are plaques commemorating where resistance fighters died fighting the Germans during the unsuccessful uprising of 19 and 20 August 1944.

A whole section of the right bank of the Seine near the Pont des Arts is the Place Justin Godart, "Maire de Lyon, resistant, juste parmi les pays". 'Juste parmi les pays' translates to 'righteous among the nations'. Being mayor of a major city was a sure ticket to being safe and prosperous together with one's family during the war. And meant that one was particularly visible to the Nazis. So this was a man with both conscience and courage.

I have already noted the courage and principle of Emile Zola and Georges Clemenceau in defending Alfred Dreyfus. They were only two among many.

France and the French are for real. So I take it all back. Or most of it anyway. The plaques commemorating the resistance fighters did not take 60 years to put up.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


[13 January 1898]
I walked across Montmartre and down to the Seine today. And it struck me again how much I love this city. It is sooo beautiful.

I went past the former offices of the the Aurora, once a Paris evening newspaper. In 1898 Emile Zola offered a letter to the editor there, proving the innocence of Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a Jewish army officer who had been falsely convicted of espionage for Germany. Zola's letter to the editor became known as "J'Accuse". The resulting Dreyfus Affair tore France apart and led to among other things, the founding of Zionism.

The editor who published the letter, Georges Clemenceau, 19 years later became president of France.

Just something one sees walking down a street here.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Some things I learned today

[Sandis Rainis, national poet and playwright of Latvia]

I knew from Lonely Planet that during the Soviet era lots of Russians came to Latvia for the jobs. And forgot to leave when Latvia became independent in 1989. They are 45% of the population and more than half of the million-or-so population of Riga.

What wasn't in Lonely Planet was that about ten thousand of the "Russians" are Jews. The pre-war Jews of Latvia were murdered to a man, woman, and child. But today, the Jews of modern Latvia are renovating their synagogue. It is like, all of Latvia, being restored. It has a beautiful jazzy Pharoah-onic Egypt theme, appropriate for its reopening for Pesach.

There is even a kosher restaurant here.

It is true as I expected that the German and Russian armies and artilleries and bombers destroyed the country during two world wars. What I did not expect is that the country was not rebuilt in an ugly and tedious Soviet style, but was more or less restored to resemble prewar Latvia. This seems an unusual forbearance on the part of Stalin, usually not noted for respecting anybody or anything.

So the Old Town of Riga looks like its Swedish early 18th century self and much of the rest of the city is in 19th century Russian provincial, a not-unpleasing style.

(Writing this in youth bar in Old Town with a wi-fi connection. Learned several things here. One is that it apparently works, at least for one Italian, to claim to be a doctor. Another is that my talent for attracting head cases remains unabated. Fortunately she has left, at least for now.)

If I get out of here soon enough I am off to Jelgava tomorrow.

If not, another day in Riga. Now that I have found out that Zemgale, where my grandfather lived, is in Latvia not Lithuania as I previously thought, I have allocated too much time here.